With the faint whisper of travel on our horizons again, I find my mind wandering back to one of my last overseas adventures. So many of us are dreaming of the days when we can fly away again, but for now, here's a touch of inspiration for the next trip you may take....
South America has been one of those elusive places that my boyfriend and I dreamed of travelling to since we first met. As is often the case however, the ebb and flow of life unfolding can mean years go by before certain dreams are turned into a reality. But it was a destination that was always lingering in our minds when we would plan a new adventure, and in the summer of 2019, we decided to make it happen.
Every country in South America has something unique to offer and the more we read, the more we found ourselves swept up in the incredible spirit of each place. We knew that trekking to Machu Picchu would be so special and a once in a lifetime adventure so after pouring over travel books, blogs and asking everyone we knew who had travelled there, we decided on Brazil and Peru.
It turned out to be one of the best times of our lives….
We flew directly from London to Rio and had one night at the Sofitel in Ipanema. We actually didn’t choose to stay here, but after a mix up with the hotel we did book, we found ourselves here for one night only. Our preference would always be more intimate hotels or Airbnb’s than larger places but it ended up being a great way to see the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. The best part about Sofitel was that it was located directly across from the beach so the view from our room was pretty special.
On our first morning we set off for a wander around Ipanema and then borrowed bikes from the hotel to ride along the coast. If you’re searching for secluded beaches, you definitely won’t find them here, but the area is vibrant and filled with locals, tourists and vendors selling everything from bikinis to freshly baked empanadas. After a day of sunshine, we had dinner at Masa + Ella which was a really lovely little Italian restaurant in Leblon - an area of Rio close to Ipanema that’s known for it’s restaurants and bars.
The next day we made our way to the hotel that we had booked in Santa Teresa, Hotel Santa Teresa which is around a 20 minute drive from the beaches and is sat high up in the hills. It’s a really cool area where alot of artists live and rent studios so the steep, cobbled streets are lined with independent boutiques selling homewares, ceramics and clothing. Around every corner you can also see street art worthy of galleries and it has a relaxed, friendly vibe. It was our favourite area in Rio and we will definitely stay here again when we visit next.
When we head to a new city, we’re not always up for visiting tourist sites and prefer to just wander around, get lost and pretend we’re locals. It’s always felt like a more authentic way of getting to know somewhere. But we felt like we couldn’t miss Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain as they’re both such renowned sites. I’m so glad we did as they were both incredible and exceeded our expectations. The views from Christ the Redeemer are out of this world and we were lucky enough to have a clear day meaning the visibility of the city stretched for miles. The statue itself is also pretty awe inspiring as it’s so unbelievably huge. Visiting Sugarloaf Mountain was just as lovely. We arrived at golden hour by cable car and dappled light shone across the city and onto the water below. The views are stunning and as it sits lower down than Christ the Redeemer, the details of the city are a little clearer from here. We would recommend both and they can easily be experienced in the same day without feeling rushed.
While in Rio we also visited Parque Lage, a public park that was formerly the residence of industrialist Enrique Lage and Gabriella Besanzonithe, the Botanical Gardens located in the Jardim Botânico district and Parque das Ruinas which is located in Santa Teresa and is the beautifully eerie ruins of a mansion that has been turned into an art gallery.
The food in Rio is also great and everywhere we went was delicious. The restaurant at Hotel Santa Teresa was incredible and so perfect if you fancy a special night out. We also tried Mama Shelter, Da Roberta which is essentially a street food van in Leblon - the location isn’t the best but the brisket and cheese sandwiches are so, so tasty, Talho Capixaba which is an amazing deli and the perfect place to pick up bits and pieces for a picnic or Brigadeiro which is a very sweet Brazilian fudge. We also loved Aprazível which is located in Santa Teresa and has pretty views over the city.
After five days in Rio, we took a very early morning flight to Lima in Peru where we had a 6 hour stop over. We didn’t have much time but headed into Miraflores and ate lunch at Cafe De Lima. The cafe uses local produce and the avocados were as creamy as butter - well worth the trip so as not to eat at the airport (even with the crazy traffic!)
We then flew into Cusco where we spent the next couple of days taking it easy and getting use to the high altitude ahead of our trek. We stayed at Hotel Antigua Casona San Blas which is a beautiful, colonial style boutique hotel located in a sweet, cobbled street. It also has a pretty outdoor area with lounges around fire pits and live Peruvian music. As most tourists in Cusco are preparing for a trek, this gave the hotel a real community vibe which we loved. You’re spoilt for choice with the restaurants in this area, especially if you’re vegan. We would have loved more time to try places but Morena was our favourite and the restaurant at Antigua Casona San Blas was also delicious.
We spent two days in Cusco wandering around the markets and the historical town before beginning our trek. There’s quite a few treks & tour agents to choose from but we did the Lares and Short Inca Trail which was 4 days and 3 nights with SAS Travel and it was perfect. Our guide Andy was lovely, the crew of porters and chefs were so sweet and the food was phenomenal. Tours really vary with how many other people will do the trek with you but ours was very small with just one other couple (who we got very lucky with as they were so lovely!).
On the first day we drove from Cusco through the Sacred Valley stopping in the town of Urubamba for a breakfast of fruit, eggs and bread at a local house. We then took a short drive to Pumahuanca Valley where we met our porters, chefs and mules that were with us for the duration of the trek. We started our hike through the beautiful polylepis qeuñas Valley in the Andes with an ascent from 3,000 Mt to 4,200 Mt. The views of the mountains are stunning and we stopped at Inca–Kancha for lunch. This was the first time we tried the food made by the chefs we were travelling with and we were blown away. Fresh ceviche, creamy avocado, local corn, quinoa and mountains of fresh vegetables and salads.
After lunch we hiked until the sun started to set behind the mountains and everything was bathed in golden light. By the time we reached this point the temperature had dropped significantly and the high altitude made us feel more out of breath than we normally would. As soon as we arrived at our first campsite, we were given bowls of hot water to dip our hands into - such a simple, thoughtful act that was pure bliss. The porters had also set up a table for us in the tent where they were cooking which was so incredibly cosy. Mugs of hot chocolate and delicious soup warmed our bones and was the perfect end to our first day. We camped that night and the temperature dropped to -10 degrees which is the coldest weather I’ve ever been in. But the feeling of accomplishment from that first day, the epic stars and the amazing company made it all worth it.
The next morning we awoke to freezing temperatures but unzipping the tent and seeing the morning view of mountains and waterfalls was a moment I’ll never forget. We left that morning after a delicious breakfast of pancakes, porridge and fruit and recommenced our trek with scenic views of Chicon, San Juan and Veronica mountains. We spotted llamas and alpacas as we hiked through the Moray, Maras and Salinerasagains which were all breath taking. This was one of the most physically demanding days of the trek as we hiked to 4,900 Mt, so finishing the day soaking in the Lares village hot springs was heaven.
After camping that night near the hot springs, we left Lares and took a bus to Ollantaytambo then a train to Vilcanota River for the next part of our trek. The terrain really changed from rocky and mountainous into a rain forest which was beautiful and the temperature started to rise again to around 30 degrees. We arrived at Winaywayna for lunch and then trekked further to reach Inti Punku (or the sun gate as it’s more commonly known) and the first glimpse of Machu Picchu. No photo that you have ever seen will prepare you for how utterly impressive it is. Due to the trek we choose we also didn’t see many other tours which was incredible. As you’re completely immersed in nature and it all feels so peaceful, I imagine if you chose a busier trek it could really change the overall experience.
On the final day we woke early to head to Machu Picchu again in time for the sunrise. We were then also able to have a tour and learn more about this magnificent site. When we initially booked our trip we organised a further hike up Machu Picchu Mountain for the final day. After four days of trekking we knew this additional hike would be strenuous as we had no idea how physically demanding the overall trek would be. But we gathered our strength and started the ascent up the mountain. It takes around two hours to walk up and for anyone who is afraid of heights or suffers from vertigo, this probably isn’t for you. The hike is incredibly steep (which makes coming down almost as challenging as going up), the path is very narrow (and is shared by people going both up and down) and the drop is pretty crazy with no barriers. But reaching the top was epic as you’re high above the clouds, Machu Picchu becomes tiny and we felt such a sense of calm.
After four days of living completely off grid, we then caught the train back to our hotel in Cusco. Needless to say, the shower and sleep that we had there was pretty amazing!
The following afternoon, feeling so relaxed and accomplished, we flew back to Rio and hired a car to drive along the coast to the sweet village of Paraty. Paraty is around four hours from Rio and is a small, laid back town with cobbled street, shops selling hand made wooden knick knacks and delicious seafood restaurants. It was the perfect place to spend five days and recover from our trek. We stayed at Pousada Literária de Paraty and it turned out to be one of our favourite places. This beautiful hotel is the official host for the renowned Literary Festival of Paraty (FLIP) so it has an extensive library, beautiful bar and restaurant and gorgeous pool with tropical grounds and a wonderful spa.
After sweet, slow days spent swimming every morning, reading by the pool, wandering the cobbled streets, sipping cocktails at sunset and eating delicious food, we made our way back to Rio stopping to gaze over the water to the islands in the distance.
It was a holiday we will definitely never forget and we’re already looking forward to exploring other parts of South America…..