Archive for November, 2010

Isla Suasi

Through a connection that we made on the Mountain Lodges of Peru trip to Machu Picchu, Ted was able to arrange a fabulous 3 day/2 night stay on the private island of Isla Suasi.

Isla Suasi is an incredibly small, yet spectacularly beautiful island on the northeast end of Lake Titicaca. The hotel is the only building on the island besides the island owner’s private residence. It is exclusive, it is luxurious, and it was a treat!

Upon arriving by boat, we were served an amazing Andean barbeque lunch overlooking the beautiful blue water. That afternoon, and in fact throughout the stay, you could do as much or as little as you wanted. Activities options included: walking to the highest point of the island to watch the sunset, visiting the eucalyptus steam room, drinking wine and reading a book, kayaking around the island, taking a tour of the island’s owner’s home/museum, star-gazing, etc.

Ted and I took the opportunity to kayak around the island and we had such a great time doing it that we decided to do it again the next day! In general we relaxed, enjoyed the incredibly delicious food and the wonderfully helpful staff, and slept well in a our fantastic room.

The contrast between our homestay on the island of Amantani(where Ted had to show me how to “flush” a toilet with a bucket of water), and the five-star treatment and facilities that we experienced on Isla Suasi was certainly striking. However, as both types experiences are exceptions to our normal way of traveling, it reminds us to be thankful for what we normally may take for granted as well as to appreciate good fortune when we have the opportunity!


People in the Andes hate to break big bills (or even medium sized bills, for that matter). Never in my life have I been in such constant pursuit of small bills and change. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most ATMs don’t dispense small bills. Every purchase must be considered – can this person break a 50 Sole note? Can this restaurant accept a $20 bill? If there is even a small chance that a retailer might take a larger bill, you must try! Even though you may have decent change in your pocket right now, likely that won’t last for long.

And what happens when you don’t have smaller bills? You don’t get to buy what you want to buy. That’s right, on multiple occasions, I have been told that a store owner would rather not sell me a product than give me the change required for the bills I am presenting. A small example – along the Ecuadorian coast, I was thirsty for a Coke. I walked in to a small store where a 500ml (20oz) bottle of coke was for sale for US$0.50 (Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar). I had no change and no single bills, so I handed her a US$5 (not a $50, or a $20, or even a $10, but a $5!). Nope, no change, no Coke for me. This is not uncommon.

And the kicker…THEY HAVE THE CHANGE (most of the time) – they just don’t want to jeopardize their ability to make change in the future! Well, two can play at this game. It’s most fun to force the change out of your service providers. This works best when you have already consumed the products they are selling. I’ve had hotels tell me they don’t have change for my bigger bills, but since I’ve already stayed at their property, miraculously, change for my 100 Soles appears from the drawer after denying its existence just minutes prior. I’ve also gotten quite good at denying my ability to make change, even when I have it. Often time a store will request small change on top of your bill so they can give you a bigger bill back. For instance, if my lunch costs 56 Bolivianos, and I pay with a 100, they’ll ask for 6 Bs so they can give me a 50 back. Little do they know that I have 56 Bs exactly, but I am using a 100 so I can hold on to that precious 6 in change (and to make more change to be used later). AND, since I already ate their food, they somehow or other find a way to break that 100 after all.

Who would have thought that a $1 could be more valuable than a $10 bill, when you need the change?

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca (like Timbuktu and Kathmandu) is one of those names you hear in your life but are never quite sure if it is an actual place. We were pleasantly pleased to confirm that it is and we enjoyed spending nearly 10 days in and around the lake both on the Peruvian and Bolivian side.

The access city to the lake from Peru is called Puno. Puno is an intense and busy place for its smaller size, but we quite liked the buzz and as it is a popular tourist town, there were many great restaurants (our favorite being Machu Pizza!) and affordable hostels.

The most popular thing to do out of Puno is visit a few of the nearby islands, either on a day-trip or by doing an overnight homestay. We opted for the 2 day/1 night option which allowed us to stay on one of the islands with a family.

Upon departing Puno, nearly all the tourist boats first stop at the Uros floating islands. These islands are both fascinating and sad. Fascinating because they are literally floating through a combination of reeds and reed beds and sad because they are sustained only through mass tourism at this point. In the 1500s, people built and moved to these islands to avoid hostel neighbors and the Spanish invasion that was occurring throughout the region. At one point, these were living and breathing cultures that supported themselves by fishing and trading. However, now the society is a shadow of its former self, with only a small percentage of “islanders” actually living on the islands in huts made of reeds. Their only source of income is through the tourists that are dropped off each day for 30 minutes, and pressure to purchase their handicrafts or take a ride in one of their traditional boats is overt, and somewhat uncomfortable.

After Uros, the boat continued for another couple hours to the island of Amantani. Upon arriving, Ted and I were assigned to a family (based on a community-organized rotation system). Families look forward to hosting tourists for homestays because it is a significant source of income for small amount of work. Our family was quite lovely, however, our host mother was noticeably offended that Ted and I didn’t wish to purchase any of her homemade hats or scarves that she showed us over lunch. Though I understand that her hope is to sell her items on the few occasions a month that she has the opportunity to host visitors, Ted and I couldn’t help but notice how her attitude towards us after that point changed for the worse. Kinda a bummer.

We managed to entertain ourselves by exploring the small island by foot and visiting the highest sections of the island and capturing some amazing views and the sunset.

The next day we traveled to the island of Taquile which is quite close to Amantani. The people of Taquile are known nationwide for their incredible weavings – everything from hats and belts to bracelets and vests. They have a community-organized coop that pools all the work from various artists around the island and the whole island benefits from the tourism and the purchases. Quite impressive indeed!

After a half-day on Taquile, we headed back to dry land for another night in Puno. Though the islands are just a couple hours away by boat, the contrast between the modernity of Puno and the traditional agricultural and artisanal economies of Amantani and Taquile make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Industry Bloggin’

The next installment of my posts for World Nomads.  Original can be found here, or copied below.

Community Tourism – Worth the Dirt?

WORLDWIDE | Monday, 20 September 2010 | Views [342]

Community-based tourism, a now popular buzzword among backpackers and eco-travelers, touts a more “authentic” experience, placing you in lives of local people in rural communities.  In theory, it sounds great – eat, learn, interact, play, work, and live with the people indigenous to the areas you’re exploring (a rare opportunity along the beaten path).  AND, know that your visit is benefiting these communities, often in dire straits for some form of sustainable economic opportunities.  For the intrepid, adventurous, and tolerant traveler, this can all be true.  But for many backpackers, community tourism is dirty, difficult, and down-right uncomfortable.  Sound like something you´d like to try?  Consider the following factors:

  • Not all community tourism is the same.  Some communities simply clear out a bedroom for your visit, add another portion to their food preparation, and treat you as one of the family.  Others have built separate living quarters, complete with Westerner amenities like hot water, enclosed roofs, and private bathrooms (often times, these hosts have been instructed on Western culture, norms, and expectations).  Before you dive into a community visit, determine what type of facilities are made available, and ensure that you’re comfortable with what’s being offered.
  • Did you like going to summer camp when you were younger?  Community tourism is nothing like summer camp, but if you still dislike the thought of bunk beds in a rustic, dirty, buggy cabin, then you likely won´t enjoy your digs with the host family.  Remember, most of these families live in rural, poor areas, existing on less that US$2/day.  Homes can be very basic, and often living in close contact with nature.  If being dirty still sounds like fun, then keep reading.
  • How are your non-verbal communication skills?  Likely, English is not spoken by anyone in these rural areas.  So, unless you speak the local language, you´re going to be signing your way through your request for more chicken or less rice.  For many, this is a welcome challenge – it´s amazing how much can be communicated by pointing and a smile.
  • Are you ready to immerse yourself in someone else’s lives?  There are many challenges involved – eating unfamiliar foods, adjusting to the local schedule, living among the chickens and roosters (who, by the way, cock-a-doodle-doo WAY before dawn), walking miles for basic necessities, etc.  However, the rewards can be rich, educational, and inspiring – it’s extremely rare to have such a first-hand view of the lives of people so different than you, culturally, economically, and personally.  My hosts have been among the most generous, hard-working, and genuine people I’ve ever met.

If you dig the idea of connecting closely with local cultures, enjoy placing yourself in challenging situations, and are willing to look past the lack of western-style amenities, I urge you to give it a try.

I recently had the opportunity to visit a variety community tourism projects in northern Ecuador, each unique in its level of comfort, hospitality, and approach to hosting travelers.  In some places, I felt more welcome and appreciated.  In others, I felt like yet another gringo sitting at the dinner table.  In some, I was clean and comfortable, but felt the scenario was a bit staged and not-so-authentic. In others, I was dirty, uncomfortable, but basking in the connections I made with the locals.  A few tips from what I learned from these community based homestays:

  • Authenticity is at odds with luxury.  Not that any of the communities was luxurious, but the more amenities and comfort were available, the less of a connection I was able to make with the locals.  Make your choice of community tourism visits based on what’s most important to you.
  • Connections don’t happen just because you show up.  At first, locals may be hesitant to talk to you, as they are unfamiliar with your intentions and puzzled by your presence in their community.  Often, it takes a number of days before people are comfortable approaching you.  It’s up to you to initiate conversation.
  • Trust is built quicker when you participate in their lives.  You may not be visiting a community to volunteer your time (or perhaps you are), but nothing builds a bridge like helping with the daily work.  Whether that means helping with meals, working in the fields, or teaching English to kids, do what you can to participate in the lives of the people you’re visiting.  That’s why you’re there, isn’t it?
  • Ask lots of questions, but be ready to tell stories.  You may be visiting to learn about the lives and cultures of the host community, but they are just as interested in learning about life from your home country.  Show photos, tell stories, and share customs!

Interested in visiting or volunteering at a community tourism project in Ecuador?  Contact Peter Shear and CASA Interamericana at

About the Author: Ted Martens

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?

Colca Canyon

One of the most popular side-trips to do out of Arequipa, Peru is a hike in the Colca Canyon. Many tour operators run 2 or 3 day trips to the area and we did a bit of detective work to determine what we wanted to do and if we wanted to do it ourselves or go with a group. We opted to do it independently and decided upon a 3 day/2 night excursion.

Though we would normally take a local bus to our starting off point, a national election had made bus travel super busy as many people had to return to their home towns to vote locally. So wonderfully, Ted was able to bum us a ride to our starting point with a tour operator that was leaving on a guided trip.

After a fairly sleepy first day in a very small access town, Cabanaconde, we headed down into the canyon. Colca Canyon is advertised as being twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon and though it is certainly the case, the canyon itself is actual not nearly as grand. The canyon is beautiful but it rather than wide, it is long and skinny. As you would imagine, the first day of walking was all downhill. There are a handful of little towns at the bottom so when we reached the river around lunchtime, we were happy to be met by a young boy that was hoping we’d be customers for lunch at his home. We happily agreed and were treated to quite a delicious midday meal in a tiny little place that also provided overnight accomodation for weary hikers.

After lunch we hiked some rolling hills and just when the heat of the day and the miles of hiking were starting to tire us out, we caught a glimpse of our final destination: the Oasis. We had heard a lot about the Oasis but nothing quite prepares you for the shock of green vegetation and the sparking blue swimming pools seen from above that contrast with the brown hills and desert cactus that we’d been hiking through all day. From above, the oasis is just that. A beautiful, welcoming respite that marks the end of a long day and place to relax and cool off. I couldn’t get there fast enough!

The accomodations were basic to say the least, but we got to take a dip in a pool and were fed a big heaping plate of pasta so no one was complaining.

The hike out the next day started early to avoid the direct sunlight on the pretty demanding hike up. However, after quite a few hikes under our belt already we made it up and out of there without too much trouble. Little did we know that it would be the bumpy, long bus ride back to Arequipa that would prove to be an equally challenging experience for our sore muscles!

Picture of the Week

After 3 months of 24/7 time together, sometimes this is how we feel!

Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia.   Crazy landscape


The Andean countries of South America (Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia on our itinerary) offer a brilliant lunch concept. Almuerzos, or simply “lunch” in English, are set menu meals, where patrons simply order the meal of the day. It nearly always starts with a huge bowl of sopa (soup), followed by a segundo (second plate) of meat or fish, and finished off with a desert. Best part – these large meals cost anywhere from US$1-3!

Of course, there are some variations. Some restaurants offer a choice between 2 or 3 different segundos (perhaps chicken vs beef vs pasta), others will include a small additional entrada (appetizer) and a glass of juice. Sometimes the restaurant will also offer a la carte items as well, but these are never as cheap as the set menu. But some restaurants are open only for lunch, and only offer one option. There is something delicious to be said for buying in bulk, preparing a massive amount of one meal, and offering a smokin deal.

The White City

Following our time with family in Lima, Ted and I made our way to Arequipa, Peru. Arequipa is known as the “white city” as the main plaza and many of the buildings in the city center are built with a spectacular white brick made of volcanic rock (the city is surrounded by amazing volcanoes). The city is quite beautiful and walkable and we enjoyed our time there immensely just wandering around, eating at delicious restaurants and watching the sunset from the rooftop deck of our hostel. Upon arriving, we couldn’t help but feel like Arequipa, Peru was the equivalent of Cuenca, Ecuador. Both cities have beautiful architecture, proud local residents and are clean and beautiful.

When we were in Arequipa, it was several days before a nationwide election. Though the President was not up for re-election, the mayorial equivalent in all the regions was and as it is MANDATORY to vote in Peru, the political parties go all out to get votes. We were told that Arequipa is a particularly politically-active city and we couldn’t help but agree.

While there we were treated to quite an elaborate parade that stopped traffic for blocks and blocks. There were fancy dancers in both traditional and far from traditional dress; there were local school bands playing and marching; there were cars decorated and thumping music; there were people dressed up in animal costumes; there were old and young, dancing and walking, smiling and laughing. All of this was randomly interspersed with fireworks (beginning at 6 am outside of our hostel window!!!) and announcements from a megaphone. It was entertaining and overwhelming and impossible to ignore. All the staff from the shops and restaurants along the streets came out to the curb to watch both because they were interested (I assume) and because it was impossible to continue to working with the amount of the noise this parade produced. Ted and I were staying in a hostel on the street and these photos were taken from our window.

Another thing we found interesting about the election is that alcohol sales are banned for roughly 36 hours before the voting. In this case, the election was on a Sunday and as of Friday evening, the grocery stores and restaurants were required to stop selling booze. Though we were unable to buy wine from the grocery store, we were sold a beer at a restaurant as it was obvious to the owners that we were not Peruvian nor would we be voting on Sunday!

After all the build up and fanfare, we happened to be in the middle of the wilderness on the actual voting day so we can only assume that the election went off without a hitch. When we returned back to Arequipa after our trip, it appeared the election was a thing of the past and everything was back to normal.

Technology Can Be Brilliant

Our technology got ripped off in Ecuador during the first month of our trip. Bummer.  Bringing e-connectivity on a trip like this is exactly what I intended to escape, so perhaps it was rather good to be forced offline.  But, because I am continuing to work in certain capacities, and because the backpacking world is now miraculously full of wireless signals, it’s been quite convenient to have a computer with us. So, when ours got stolen, I was fairly quick to look to replacing it. Due to a fortunate set of circumstances, and a few good friends, getting us back online and up to speed didn’t take long at all. A special thanks to Mark Lewis and the ladies at Adventures Within Reach for purchasing and transporting the new machine down to us in Peru! You saved us a good couple hundred dollars!

What I was most bummed about after the theft was not the computer itself, but rather the data on it. I had spent a good bit of time transferring files, music, and photos to our brand new netbook, and we also had a good bit of non-backed up info from our first 3 weeks. Anticipating that our computer might disappear along the way at some point, I had signed up for Carbonite, an online auto-backup platform. Unfortunately, the internet connectivity in Ecuador, while widely available, is not very fast, and I found during the trial period that it would take me two months to back up 2 days worth of photos. So, I scrapped that, and hadn’t determined a proper backup plan when the computer disappeared.

So now we’ve got this new computer, but no music or files available. Everything music and work-related is backed up on an external drive at home, but what good does that do me here? Enter my new favorite online program – Shear brilliance (and convenience)! I had my dad plug my external hard drive into his constantly-connected computer, download a bit of software and voila!, I was able to log onto his computer, and simply drag and drop my files from my external drive to my new netbook in Peru. I’m blown away at how well it works. Sure, big files take a while to transfer, but the access is there, and at my convenience. And, I can now back things up from my computer here to my drive back at home. Brilliant.

Here’s to hoping our new technology lasts us through the rest of the trip!

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