Tag: Andes

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!

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!

Puente-ing (aka Bridge-ing) in Baños

No mom, this is not us.  But it is happening all around us in Ecuador’s adventure capital, Banos.  Sort of a Queenstown, NZ vibe, but without the lake and with a little aggressive Latin American charm.  There are more tour operators here per square meter than i’ve ever seen in my life, and they all have more staff on the street encouraging you in their shop than people working within.  Banos is arguably more of an Ecuadorian tourist town than one aimed towards foreigners, popular with families and individuals from both the sierra and the coast.  Once you get past the heckling, Banos is a fun town with great activities and a beautiful setting.

Ok, back to the bridge jumping.  Baneros like to claim that they’ve invented a new adventure sport – puente-ing (or bridge-ing in English).  Kind of a mix between a bungee jump and a canyon swing – a bridge swing.  You jump off one side of the bridge, your rope is connected to the other side, and after a short freefall, you swing around to the other side.  Fun.  Not sure how safe.

After soaking in the thermal springs the town was named after, we rented some mountain bikes and cruised down a mix of trail and road leading towards the Amazon town of Puyo along a tour of spectacular waterfalls.  The largest, known as the Devils’ Cauldron, allowed for a behind-the-falls view of it’s powerful descent.

A short hike up the trail leaving town provided some awesome views of Banos as well as the 16,456 ft Tungurahua Volcano, which threatened serious eruption in 1999, evacuating residents and closing the town for months.  Banos is definitely worth a visit if you’re into medium-sized adventure sport-focused towns surrounded by mountains.  Obviously, we fit right in.

Picture of the Week

Salkantay Glacier -20,574 ft

Hiking Fools

We’ve managed to get in quite a few amazing hikes so far on our trip. They can conveniently be divided into two different types – hikes that require a machete and rubber boots (aka hiking in a cloud forest), and hikes that do not require a machete and rubber boots (aka hiking along the rims of volcanic crater lakes).

Our cloud forest hikes occured while we were living with a family and going to Spanish school in Pucara. The family lived in a beautiful area surrounded by a dramatic landscape of steep cliffs and flat mesas. They were also blessed with spectacular cloud forests (where they hadn’t already been chopped down or burned for farming).

Our friend Peter took us on our first hike down the side of one of the cliffs to the river on the valley floor. He also arranged for us to go on our second hike with a guide named Milton (seen to the right here) who is intimately involved in protecting and reforesting a nearby cloud forest reserve. Milton was a great guide and you could tell that he was passionate about his work with the preserve. After our first two hikes, I was under the impression that all hikes were led by guides wearing knee-high rubber boots and carrying machetes, as both Peter and Milton sported that uniform. It is quite entertaining to hike behind machete-wielding trailblazers, but much needed as the cloud forests are quite dense and the plants grow quickly covering the trails.

Our third hike was lead by Peter’s friend and best guide, Jose (seen left here).  Jose was with us for 3 days as we visited different communities so we had a chance to get to know him well and also to learn that his English is better than he’d led us to believe!

Jose took us on a spectacular hike around Lake Cuicocha. It was a lake that formed after the Cotacachi Volcano exploded 3100 years ago. Though it’s not a particularly big lake (only 2 miles across), it’s extremely deep – nearly 650 ft. Because of it’s high sulfur content and the continued volcanic activity below, there is little to no life in the lake. We hiked around the nearly the whole thing (~7 miles) and had the place almost to ourselves – only passing one other group along the way. Jose teased us that only foreigners like to walk around the whole thing so that probably explains it!

Our second crater lake walk was around Lake Quilotoa at the top of the Quilotoa Volcano. The locals claim that this lake is bottomless (though geologists say that it is actually about 900 feet deep). We hired a truck with 3 other Americans that we met while staying at the Black Sheep Inn. The five of us and a guide rode in the back of the truck for an hour up to the top of the volcano. We were quite high in elevation at that point (12,800+ ft.) and it was extremely cold and windy up there – but the incredible view was well worth it. We then walked around a ¼ of the lake before descending down the edge and walking back to the Inn through beautiful Andean scenery and small towns.

Picture of the Week

This shot, captured at Lake Quilotoa, was taken by our new friend, Matt.  We were hiking along the rim of this volcanic crater lake, when a herd of sheep, a few donkeys, dogs, and indigenous women came cruising by.  More photos from this hike coming up soon.

The Black Sheep Inn

I love this place! Owned by an American couple that has been living here and running the Inn since, 1996, this special place is way-off the beaten track but they certainly reward you once you get here. After 8 hours on two different buses, we were happily walking up the driveway and were warmly welcomed by Andres and his partner Michelle.

Ted was aware of this place because of his work with Sustainable Travel International. The Black Sheep Inn is one of their members and they have also been honored repeatedly in the travel industry for their commitment to the environment and the local community. I’ll let Ted write more about their initiatives and accomplishments in another post, but know that they’ve gone over the top (in a good way) with everything from composting toilets to solar-powered water pumps.

On the property there are:

  • Accommodations for up to 35 people – including a dormitory-style bunkhouse, private doubles with shared baths as well private rooms with private baths.
  • A beautiful guest house where we eat delicious vegetarian, family-style meals and where you can check your email, read a book and/or get a (free!) cup of tea or organic coffee at any time (from the Intag coffee cooperative, no less!)
  • An incredible yoga room with everything you may need (Suz and Jay, you HAVE to come here!)
  • A “weight room” with cleverly hand-made weights and equipment
  • A sauna and hot pool. The heat emitted from the sauna heats the water in the pool. It’s not a proper jacuzzi, but it made our day and kept us warm enough!
  • As well as many fun extras like a volleyball court, darts, a zip line, a water slide and a frisbee golf course!

We’ve also had the pleasure to meet other travelers from around the world. Last night we had dinner with an Ecuadorian woman and her young daughter; a couple from the Czech republic; an American ex-pat and his girlfriend who is originally from Taiwan but has been living in Ecuador for 20+ years; a American guy from San Diego traveling alone and two women from San Francisco. What a treat! Today we went hiking with the guy from San Diego and the women from San Francisco – amazing pictures and details from that hike to come!

Andres and Michelle have thought of everything and know how to cater to a Western tourists needs and desires – as they are gringos themselves! Though we loved our community homestay experiences these past couple weeks, it’s a welcomed treat to have a few over-the-top extras in our life these next few days. In fact, we just changed our two-night reservation to 3 nights. Needless to say, I’m thrilled.

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