Archive for October, 2010

Getting Out of the Big City

One of our favorite days of the trip so far was a Saturday outing to Cieneguilla with Ryan, Anglela and the fam. Cieneguilla is not far outside the city limits of Lima and feels a world away. Less than and hour drive from Ryan and Angela’s home, it is a popular spot for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Where Lima is normally smoggy and overcast, in Cieneguilla you can breathe clean air and see the blue sky. We went to cool spot called La Mesa de Piedra that is part restaurant, part park, part entertainment. We played around outside – swinging, playing lacrosse, soccer, and frisbee, rock climbing, and trying to catch minnows – and built up an appetite before sitting down for lunch.  There is only outdoor seating and the place was huge!  There were dozens of other families doing the exact same thing, and there was a lively band playing along with traditional dancers throughout several of the numbers.  It was quite an experience and very entertaining!

For our lunch, Ryan and Angela ordered us a traditional Peruvian dish that combines several different types of meat (chicken, pork, beef) with a variety of vegetables (corn, beans, potatoes) in a big clay pot where it is then cooked underground.  It comes out about a half-hour later and is enough to feed a pretty big group!  It felt like we ate for hours and when we finally checked our watches, it was indeed late into the afternoon.

When we got back to Lima, we had some down time before the kiddies went to bed.  Ryan and Angela arranged for a babysitter to come over just after the kid’s bedtime and then the adults went out to dinner!  Peru is currently experiencing a food revolution and there is no shortage of amazing restaurants throughout the city.  Ryan and Angela picked a seafood spot that had come highly recommended to them but that they hadn’t yet visited.  We were spoiled rotten by the deliciousness of the meal and had a great time hanging out with Ryan and Angela.

Though Ted and I would have happily over-stayed our welcome, we recognized that we needed to give Ryan and Angela their house back and carry on with our journey.  Our hope is that we live in a cool place someday that the Smedes would like to visit so that we can return the generosity and hospitality!

Family Fun Time

Our next adventure took us to Lima, Peru. Lima is a giant, sprawling city with over 9 million people. And though we had not heard the most fantastic reviews of the place, we were actually looking forward to our visit. Ted’s cousin, Ryan, lives in Lima with his beautiful wife Angela and their three kids Gabe (8), Toby (5) and Eliana (4). Ryan is the Country Director of an international non-profit organization, Food for the Hungry, and he and his family have lived overseas for a majority of the last ten years. Their other posts include La Paz, Bolivia (where Gabe was born) and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (where Toby was born). The kids go to an international school, and Ted and I got a kick out of their impressive, beautifully-accented Spanish (as well as when they corrected the grammer and accents of the adults!).

Ryan fought the notoriously horrendous Lima traffic to pick us up at the airport and take us to their home. Though Lima is most certainly a big city, Ryan and Angela have found themselves a great spot that is an oasis from the noise and traffic.

It was such a treat to have the opportunity to visit with family. Ted’s dad and Ryan’s mom are brother and sister, and Ted and I hadn’t seen Ryan and Angela since our wedding in May 2006. It was blast to have the youngsters around to entertain us with their stories, share their colored pencils with us, paint our fingernails, jump on the trampoline with us, correct our inadequate Spanish, and teach us a few dance moves.

A huge thank you to all the Smedes!


This guy was part of the in-route entertainment on the train from Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) back towards Cusco.  We were so tired from the early start and amazing experiences of the day, we didn´t fully realize how strange this was until seeing the photos later (Sarah actually slept through this!).

Machu Picchu

A lot of people asked us what we were most looking forward to doing on our trip and Machu Picchu was certainly on my short list. Like many, I have always been fascinated with the place (it must be the anthropology-major in me!) and wonderfully, we were not disappointed.

Machu Picchu opens its doors at 6:00 am and we were there in line when that happened. Our guide walked us to the “postcard viewpoint” and just let us take it all in. The morning at Machu Picchu is surprisingly serene as the majority of the Inca Trail hikers haven’t arrived and all the day-trippers from Cusco are still hours away. Our MLP guide also provided our tour of Machu Picchu and we happily followed him around for 2.5 hours as he pointed out and explained all of the fascinating aspects of the incredible history we were experiencing.  Amazingly, the architects of this world wonder only lived here for ~100 years before the Spanish arrived and the site was abandoned.  The Incas barely got to enjoy the fruits of their labor before they up and left! Truly an incredible place, with its remote location being one of the many impressive things about it (and the reason for its existence – fortunately, the Spanish never found this gem).

Three of us from our trekking group wanted to climb Machu Picchu’s most famous peak, Wayna Picchu (the mountain in the background above).  Due to the hike’s popularity, park officials limit access to only 400 per day.  To get one of those prized Wayna Picchu entry stamps, you have to get up SUPER early – we had to be in line at ~4:30am (and our guide was already there saving a spot for us!).  Having arrived in Aguas Calientes fairly late the night before, it was a short sleep.  BUT, well worthwhile.  The hike up Wayna Picchu is a steep climb. It is a hard climb. But luckily it is a short climb (45-60 minutes), and the views at the top make it worth it (photo to the right)

There are other things you can do when visiting Machu Picchu that we didn’t quite get to – such as climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, visiting the Sun Gate, or hiking to the Inca Bridge. I guess we’ll have to go back again sometime!

Mixing Work with Play

Before I even knew I wanted to work in the tourism industry, Sarah and I were planning this round-the-world journey.  It just so happens that over these past 5 years, I have immersed myself in the world of eco and sustainable tourism as a career, and conveniently, our big trip is now doubling as a professional development endeavor (can I write this trip off?!?).  Don’t worry, I’m not working too hard.

Among a few different hats that I’m wearing on the road (representative of STI, trip research for AWR, etc), I am contributing bi-monthly to the Responsible Travel Blog of World Nomads, a travel information and insurance provider.

You can find my first contribution, Trashing Ecuador, at this link, or copied below.

Dealing with waste (trash, recycling, composting) is one of the biggest issues that cities and destinations have to deal with in their pursuit of sustainable tourism. Generally speaking, it’s rare to find recycling and composting infrastructure outside of the western world. Imagine my surprise when I saw this image (Otavalo Waste Sorting Photo) walking down the streets of Otavalo, the famous market town north of Quito. Otavalo has composting?!?! Boulder, Colorado – the hyper-enviro-conscious- hippie-haven doesn’t even have city composting pick up – how can these Ecuadorians have a more progressive program than my home town? Well, they do, and it’s not just the businesses. Across town, there are separate garbage cans are labeled “Organico” and “Inorganico”, and city workers follow this dump truck help to sort any misplaced trash.

I mentioned my enthusiasm for the program to a friend who lives in the neighboring community of Cotacachi, and he quickly corrected my misconceptions. “Oh, all that organic waste just goes to the landfill. They separate it, but it gets re-mixed at the dump site.” Really?!? Why go through the trouble (and costs) of separating organic waste if it’s just going to end up in the same place? Apparently, Otavalo used to compost their organic waste. But that was under the old Mayor. The new Mayor doesn’t see the need to pay for a composting program, and so he discontinued it. The sorting infrastructure was kept in place to continue to educate the public, because at some point down the road, they might start composting again (when funds become available).

While the cities are pulling a fast one by their citizens and visitors, there are some inspiring examples of waste management in the Ecuadorian tourism industry. I just finished a short stint at the Black Sheep Inn, an eco-focused accommodation in the Quilotoa region. BSI is famous for their toilets…seriously. There hasn’t been a toilet flushed on the property since they opened their doors in 1996 – they are all composting toilets. It helps that the views from these waterless waste disposals overlooks gorgeous Andean mountains and valleys (View from the toilet). But that’s just the start of their waste management strategy.

BSI is nearly a zero-waste operation – everything consumed on the property is either recycled or reused. Guests are asked to separate their trash into plastics, metals, and paper. All food waste is either fed to the on-site animals (of course there are some black sheep) or composted for the gardens that grow food for the restaurant. Glass bottles are re-used for artwork. Grey (dirty) water is used for irrigation. BSI, in their efforts to benefit the local residents, also funded and built a community recycling center, as well as a recycling pick-up. Andres, co-owner of BSI, is known to the locals as “The King of Trash”.

Otavalo and the Black Sheep Inn have one thing in common when it comes to trash – they are both trying to educate people about the importance of proper waste management. As a responsible traveler, you have the obligation to the destinations you visit to properly deal with the trash you produce. Think about what resources you use during your travels, what you can do to minimize them, and how to properly dispose of the trash you create. Avoid excess water bottles when traveling (bring your own refillable bottle!). When you do drink out of glass or plastic, try to find recycling options, even if that means packing the empty bottle in your pack for the afternoon. Refuse unnecessary plastic bags. Seek out accommodations like BSI who are dealing with your waste responsibly. You get the idea – the less trash you create, the more the destination benefits.

Written by Ted Martens

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Ted’s journey into the travel and tourism industry started the summer after a two-month backpacking trip throughout Europe ignited a life-long passion for international travel.  With a master’s degree in Tourism Development, Ted has focused his efforts on helping non-profit Sustainable Travel International promote responsible tourism across the globe as their Director of Outreach & Development. After working too hard for the past 5 years, he is on the road again, escaping the office for some field research… is the responsible travel movement taking seed across the globe, or not?

Best Trek Ever

Through Ted and I mostly have an open itinerary, we do have a few planned trips thanks to our good friends at Adventures Within Reach (AWR). AWR is a Boulder-based tour operator that we are working with while on our journey. It’s a pretty amazing “job” actually – AWR needs detailed information about different treks, hotels, and operators in some of the areas we are visiting, and we are happy to test, research, and report on them as it allows us access to some amazing adventures that would normally be out of our price range.  If you’re thinking about a trip to S. America, Africa, or Nepal, you should check out their website.  We’ve really been impressed, as you’ll see below.

Our first such trip arranged with AWR’s assistance was the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu with Mountain Lodges of Peru (MLP). The most popular trek to Machu Picchu is the famous “Inca Trail”, but due to its immense popularity, limits have been imposed on daily access (500 people per day – needless to say, the trail is crowded).  In reality, there are many Inca trails in the region, and some of these alternative treks provide equally stunning scenery, and a much more private atmosphere. The Salkantay is one of these treks.

We knew ahead of time that the MLP trip would be fancy, but we really had no idea what we were in for. The 8-day trip was the most fantastic that either Ted or I have ever been on. We emailed our parents that we felt like we were on our second honeymoon! Anyone who is considering a trek to Machu Picchu that wants a “comfortable” experience should seriously consider the MLP trip. Hands-down amazing!

As I mentioned above, there are many different hikes that get you to Machu Picchu and most of these involve rather long days of hiking and then camping each night. The other companies usually make the trip in 3-4 days. The MLP trip is different, not only because they spread out the 24 miles of hiking over 6 days, but you get to spend each night in incredible lodges (with hot tubs!), eating beautifully-presented, wonderfully-delicious meals. In addition, the staff and guides provide over-the-top service and think of every last detail to spoil you rotten (why yes, I would love a cool towel and a glass of fresh fruit juice after my long day of hiking).

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves but a few of the many highlights included:

-Our first view of the Humantay Glacier. There we were walking along on our first day of the trek and then we rounded the corner to see the most beautiful glacier-covered mountain peak.

-The view from the hot tub at the first lodge (with the Salkantay Glacier and Humantay Glacier in the distance).

-The highest we’ve ever been! The pass on our third day of hiking took us over 15,000 feet! Ted and I have done a few 14ers (14,000 foot peaks) in Colorado, but this was certainly our first 15er.

-Wayra Lodge – the second lodge we stayed in our trek. It has to be situated in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  And, it’s only accessible by foot – no roads!

-The food. Peruvian food has been impressive nation-wide, but food we had on this trip was truly gourmet. We’ve never taken so many pictures of food in our lives. They were absolutely works of art.

-Our great group. We got to meet fun, unique people that are also in the travel industry. We were also lucky to have amazing guides and be accompanied by two cool MLP office staff members. You spend a LOT of time with your group, and we are certain that they were part of the reason we had so much fun.

-Oh, and by the way, did I mention it culminates at Machu Picchu, the most amazing historic site on the planet!  More on this soon!

So if you can’t tell, we absolutely loved the trip and would do it again tomorrow. It was literally the first thing we did upon arriving in Peru and it certainly set the stage for the amazing time we were going to have in this country.

More pictures?  Check out the full MLP album here.

Ecuador – Bagged it!

As I write this, Ted and I are sitting in an internet cafe on our last day in Ecuador (it’s taken us a while to post it though!). We leave in several hours to head to the airport and onto Peru. Ecuador has been very good to us and has been a very enjoyable first stop on our world travels. We´ve loved a lot of things, didn´t like a few, and learned quite a bit along the way. Below are some of our Top Moment Lists in attempt to summarize Ecuador in a nutshell!

In no particular order…

Top 10 Things We Loved
1. Ecuadorian Spanish – The Spanish here is spoken relatively slowly and people seem to enunciate very well. It was great for those of us who were very beginners (Sarah) and for those that were trying to brush up as well (Ted).
2. Overall value – From great accommodations for $20/night to delicious lunches for $5 and cheap, cheap bus rides anywhere you need to go – Ecuador is a steal of a deal.
3. Our time in Pucará - We loved getting off the beaten track, having the opportunity to live with a family and take Spanish lessons. A big thank you to our friend Peter for making it possible.
4. The evening of our homestay in Pijal – The community warmly welcomed us – teaching us how to make their rolls for dinner, sharing sips of sugarcane alcohol with us, and dancing and playing music until it was time to go to bed.
5. Our guide Jose – Jose was very good to us over the 3 days we spent with him – from hiking around lakes that only foreigners like to walk around (his joke), to arranging a mid-hike snack (popcorn and juice) at his mother-in-law´s house in a nearby village, to helping us with our Spanish. Jose was a treat.
6. The Black Sheep Inn – The whole experience. I loved our warm hosts, our amazing accommodations, the friends we met there, the delicious vegetarian meals, the beautiful hike, and the list goes on.
7. Pailón Del Diablo Waterfall (the Devil’s Cauldron) – This amazingly powerful and gigantic waterfall was a 10-12 mile cruisy downhill bike ride from the tourist town of Baños. We didn´t know what to expect but it entirely exceeded our expectations and blew us away.
8. Montañita - Courtney and Jed were warm and welcoming hosts and we got to play on the beach, go surfing and eat a lot of seafood. Si, perfecto!
9. Whale watching – I´m a water girl and I could barely contain myself from jumping in and swimming with the beasts. I couldn´t believe how many we saw and how close we got to them. It was incredible.
10. All the spectacular volcanoes – We knew Quito was at altitude (around 10,000 ft.), but we didn´t know that it was surrounded by so many gigantic volcanoes. We lucked out and finally got to see them on a clear day – some over 20,000 feet!

Top 5 Things That We Didn´t
1. Getting our stuff stolen – Hands down, this was the biggest bummer of our time in Ecuador.
2. Upset stomachs – We each had a bout with it and it isn´t fun. Obviously.
3. A bus ride that Lonely Planet quoted as 8 hours (ugh), taking closer to 10 (double ugh).
4. Wine costs the same as it does at home and beer comes only in the pilsner variety.
5. Adorable puppies. Normally puppies are not a bad thing but when they are roaming the streets and most likely homeless and potentially rabid, you shouldn’t be petting them, and that is just torture.

Top 5 Favorite Foods and Drinks
1. Jugos and batidos! Name an exciting tropical fruit flavor – they´ve got it!
2. Intag coffee – Straight from the source, a community-driven economic success story and delicious.
3. Set-menu almuerzos – Hole-in-the-wall shops serving a multi-course meal for a total of $1.50 to $2.50 per person. It usually came with a delicious soup and the main consisted of some meat (either beef or chicken) with rice and salad. Muy bien!
4. Popcorn – I know this isn´t that exciting but I love popcorn and they serve it everywhere, and it is delicious.
5. Fresh seafood – We ate the majority of our seafood when we were on the coast in Montañita and loved it loved it.

Top 5 Things We Learned/Found Interesting/Found Entertaining
1. There were significantly less tourists around and particularly American tourists than we had thought there would be. No matter what “touristy” things we did (hot springs!, waterfall hikes!, gondola rides to the tops of mountains!), we were always pleased to see significant numbers of Ecuadorians there with their families doing these things along with a couple Germans and maybe some Brits thrown in.
2. Outside of the big cities (and quite a lot IN the big cities as well), nearly every structure – home, shop, school, etc.- is made from cinder blocks. Sometimes they´d get plastered over and/or painted to make them look nicer, but for the most part not-so-much.
3. How prolific and useful knee-high rubber boots can be – from hiking in the rainforest, to working at a minga, to getting the mail.
4. Ecuadors biggest exports are: oil, bananas, flowers and shrimp. In fact, 1/3 of the roses purchased in the U.S. for Valentine´s Day are from Ecuador.
5. It´s perfectly normal for a woman speaking Kichwa (the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the region), clothed in her traditional dress with a baby strapped to her back to be walking down the street on her cell phone.

After 4 weeks of exploring our first South American country, we are officially hooked.  While we’re pleased with the amount of ground we were able to cover, as always when you’re traveling, we discovered more that needs to be done.  We’ll be back for sure – the Galapagos and the Amazon are calling our names.

For a few more highlights of our time here, check out our ‘Best of Ecuador’ photos.

The Ecuadorian from Vermont

Ok, he´s not officially an Ecuadorian citizen yet, but that´s where his heart is. Meet Peter Shear, non-profit founder, father to two beautiful Ecuadorian girls, University of Michigan alumnus, and one of the most generous, genuine, and kind people I have ever met. Originally from Vermont, Peter has spent the better part of the past 14 years living in northern Ecuador, raising his family, and helping rural communities through his non-profit, the Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability, and Action (CASA).

I first met Peter in Colorado in spring, 2008. Among his many different hats, Peter is the in-country director for a volunteer tour operator in Boulder, which brings him through town once a year. After hearing about the community development and tourism projects he´s been orchestrating in rural Ecuador, I knew a visit would be part of our RTW itinerary. It turned out to be way more than just a stop along the way.

Our first two weeks in Ecuador were spent under Peter´s wing, getting the behind-the-scenes stories about the successes and challenges of organizing a wide variety of community-driven economic projects. I was quite literally blown away by all he has accomplished. Have a look:

The Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability, and Action is committed to helping rural communities realize sustainable economic development opportunities (or in non-jargon, helping poor people earn decent livings in ways that are good for their communities and regions). While CASA’s projects span a wide range of economic development initiatives, a core component is community-based and volunteer tourism.  For over 7 years, CASA has been bringing groups of student and young-adult volunteers to the area, working side by side with the locals to build community projects and infrastructure that benefit the residents and the environment.  Volunteers participate in “mingas”, organized project days where residents come together to work on a particular construction, farming, conservation, or other community-benefiting initiative.  Funding for minga projects comes from local sources, as well as money raised by volunteers prior to their trips.  To date, CASA volunteer tourism projects in a single community, Pucara, have included:

  • Building homes for residents in need (recipients of the homes were chosen by a community housing board that accepted applications and prioritized based on economic and social factors).

  • Construction of a community center for meetings, events, celebrations, weddings, etc.  The center is the largest of its kind in all of the region, and has turned into a source of revenue for Pucara, as neighboring communities have begun renting it out.  Proceeds from this program now pay for transportation for Pucara students to attend high school in the neighboring community of Apuela (prior to this program, most kids in Pucara did not attend high school due to the prohibitive transportation costs).

  • Purchase of land and construction of community organic gardens.

  • Purchase of land and construction of community farms.  Some of the poorest residents in town have no land, and were in need of space for subsistence farming.

  • Construction of solar hot water showers for community use.

  • Construction of soccer field facilities.

  • Conservation through land purchasing, reforestation, and preservation.

  • Education through organic and agro-ecological farming instruction and testing.

This impressive list of projects, while organized and guided by Peter and CASA, was driven primarily by community initiation, participation, and democratic decision making.  The result is a community with a much richer set of resources and infrastructure for creating new economic opportunities for local residents.

One of the most lucrative opportunities that has arisen from CASA’s work in Pucara is a well organized community-based tourism infrastructure, which we had the pleasure of participating in. While initially developed primarily for the volunteers, Pucara is now well equipped and actively receiving independent travelers interested in an authentic experience interacting with rural Ecuadorian families and communities.  A rotating homestay program with 20 participating local families allows travelers the chance to live, eat, sleep, and participate in lives of the residents of Pucara for US$10 dollars per night (which includes 3 meals).  The rotating nature of the program ensures an equal distribution to families throughout the community.  The CASA-established Spanish school, the first of its kind in the region, allows travelers to hone their language skills while supporting local women teachers, all of which are government-certified. Of course, there are always volunteer opportunities available, independently or through community mingas.

Impressive, right? What’s more impressive is that Pucara is only one of 5 communities across the northern Andes that Peter is working with, and each has its own set of projects, resources, accomplishments, challenges, and approach to community tourism (we were able to visit 4 of these communities with Peter).

Peter is very humble about the achievements of CASA, and while he´s pleased with the progress of the communities, in his mind they´ve just begun.  The list of potential projects grows weekly, and there are always bumps in the road to smooth out.  But Peter is excited about what the future holds.  The grand vision is to connect his work in each community through a multi-day community-to-community trek (think of Peru’s Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu, only instead of camping near ruins, trekkers will stay with families in CASA communities along the route). Starting atop a glaciated volcano near the community of La Chimba, the 12 day trek will lead visitors through native forests, along active volcanoes and around alpine lakes, through the famous market town of Otavalo, and then descend into the cloud forest before culminating at a set of hot springs near Pucara. The Inti Chakinan Trail (or Sun Trail, in the local Kichwa language), as they’ve named it, will be hosting its first through-hiking guests this January. Want to go? I do.

It’s now been well over a month since our time with Peter in northern Ecuador, and one of the most significant lasting impressions is the motivation behind his dedication – the well-being of the people of the CASA communities. Peter’s work is selfless, genuine, and fully engaged with the people in these pueblos. Peter is no longer an outsider, a gringo, to the people of Pucara, Morochos, Peribuela, Pijal and La Chimba. He is an accepted, trusted, and appreciated member of their community. And when you’re visiting rural communities in a foreign culture, there’s nothing like a local to show you around.

Picture of the Week

You’ve all seen photos of it before, and it really is that spectacular in person.  Actually, it’s better.  Sunrise at Machu Picchu!

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