Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!

IMG_3177

The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.

IMG_3188

Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

28 Signs You’ve Been to South America

Llamas in Chile are like cows in the US

Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.

If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.

I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!

You know you’ve been to South America when…

  • You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.

    Arepa con huevo, a Colombian delicacy
    Arepa con huevo, egg arepa, from Cartagena, Colombia
  • you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
  • muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
  • you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
photo credit- Blake Matich
photo credit- Blake Matich
  • you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
  • you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.

    Only costs a few soles to hold a baby alpaca in Peru
    Holding a baby alpaca in Cusco, Peru.
Alpaca hair makes a warm material for clothing in Peru.
Rocking my warm alpaca sweater from Peru.
IMG_2321
posing with a llama in Chile
Alpaca dinner
Alpaca dinner
  • you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
  • you’ve never been so sunburnt.

    Intense sunburn from an Ecuadorean sun.
    Nearly a year later, and I still have those tan lines.
  • you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
  • you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
  • you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
IMG_1937
Chilean money
  • you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
mmmmmm
mmmmmm
  • coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
  • you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
  • you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
IMG_0404
not as bad as the people who look like they’ve had a herpes outbreak on their calves, but still
  • you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
  • if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
  • you were seriously impressed by the street produce.

    Large avocados found in Medellin, Colombia
    AVOCADOS THE SIZE OF YOUR HEAD
  • the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
  • you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
  • you don’t fear insects anymore.
  • you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
  • you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
  • someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
IMG_4190
kill me
  • you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
  • your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
  • ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
IMG_4212
being a weirdo with matching ponchos
  • you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
Found a dog to play with in Salento, Colombia
Made good friends with this good boy in Salento, Colombia
Randall, the house pup of HI Arica
Posing with Randall, whom I met in Chile.

IMG_2951

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

Eureka for Arica

Arica, Chile is a chill beach town on the border of Peru.

Enjoy perfectly sunny days by the salty Pacific.

The small beach town of Arica, known as the city of eternal spring, was the perfect place to recuperate after a month of jungle, high altitude, and constant learning about Inca culture. I couldn’t wait to see the ocean again, work on my tan, and rub salt water from my eyes.

Laura and I took the night bus from Puno to Tacna, a small desert town near the border of Chile, and then took a cramped colectivo (Colectivos change from city to city. This one was a 4-door that fit 5 passengers) across the border into Chile. After a few immigration procedures (Note to self: If you ever go back to Peru, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, lose the customs form you get when you enter the country. You will have to pay a fine upon leaving.) that were oddly strict about bringing in fruit from the other side, I was again sandwiched between the driver and Laura in the front seat of the taxi. Three pushy Peruvian women with bags of groceries and God knows what else hogged the back seat.

IMG_1935

The air in Chile was already different than the air in Peru. Maybe it was me, maybe it was the oxygen levels, maybe it was our proximity to endless ocean, but it felt simply more pleasant. I would soon learn that the people were, in my opinion, kinder and more patient than many people I dealt with in Peru. The sun was bright as it rose over the desert we were driving through at record speed. The driver began to point out a blue fog to our right, claiming it was the sea. I got butterflies. You could see a city and a tall, sandy cliff forming through the mist. Arica. Where flat square buildings painted bright orange, yellow, and pink studded the streets before the impossibly calm, light blue ocean and old ladies swept the sand from their tiled front porches. I couldn’t wait to strip off my many layers and slip into a pair of flip flops and a bikini.

We booked at Hostelling International Dona Ines, due to the good reviews about the staff and breakfast on Hostelworld. While the hostel is a little outside the main part of town, we chose this hostel over one closer to town due to the importance of having wifi in bed.

The main mode of transport in Arica is via colectivo, albeit slightly different from the colectivo that took us across the border and the one that took us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. These shared taxis are more organized than desperate Peruvian colectivos. Each passenger pays 600 pesos (about $1) to ride in the assigned route of the shared taxi. (PS- Yeah, spending thousands of pesos each day took a lot of math and a lot of getting used to, especially when we’re talking big numbers in another language.) The colectivos that we’d get to know so well were the A and the 4, which passed through the town center, the bus station, and took us more or less directly to our hostel at the corner of Chapiquiuna and Blest Gana.

IMG_1937

IMG_1938

A door in the middle of a cool mural opened to reveal an outdoor space filled with colorful art, a Christmas light covered tree, and a pool table. The walls were covered by notes to the hostel and funny jokes or insightful quotes, to which we naturally added. We were greeted by an old brown pitbull named Randolf and a long haired, sleepy-eyed Chilean named Brian. I dumped my multiple bags on the nearest table, removed my poncho, and sat on the floor to pet the good boy.

IMG_1940

IMG_1948

IMG_1947

 

IMG_1974

We checked in quickly to a three-bed dorm with a hungover, sleeping Frenchman, a mini-kitchen and a private bathroom, raced into our swimsuits, and walked a half an hour in the sun to the beach, getting honked and whistled at the whole way. Normally, the raging feminist in me would have gotten mad at the audacity of these pigs forcing unwanted attention on me. But, I was in a good mood that day, so I smiled and waved at passing cars, feeling like an utter celebrity when they stopped to let Laura and me walk across the street rather than almost run us over like the drivers in Peru.

IMG_1944
our room

IMG_1943

 

walking over to the beach
walking over to the beach

The beach in Arica was windy and the water was cold, but Laura and I convinced ourselves that our blood could handle it. We were Northerners, after all, used to braving the nearly arctic Atlantic waters of New York and Ireland. Well, this water can’t have been much colder than what we were used to, but the wind chill made the 70 degree air feel like 60 degree air, and here we were without a towel or change of clothes. We air-dried as we walked the length of the beach and into town, stopping every ten minutes or so to apply baby powder to our chub rubs whenever we were in areas free of leering Chileans. (To be clear, I was never creeped out by the Chilean men, and never felt threatened. They only looked and said hello. Everyone here seemed too nice to cause harm or to offend.)

IMG_1962

IMG_1967

 

IMG_1966

IMG_1968

The walk along the pavement was filled with bright colored street art and buildings to contrast the hazy, light brown sand. The city center was pretty chilled out. We found the main streets where one can dine or buy things one doesn’t need, both of which we did. Calle 21 de Mayo is a long, white-tiled pedestrian street. Restaurants, bars and stores line the sides while the pathway comes alive with shoppers, skaters, locals, tourists, and people selling handmade jewelry or bouncy balls or homemade sandwiches. The cliff, known simply as El Morro, which I hear offers a beautiful view of the city and sea, greets you near the bottom of the downhill commercial center, towering high and tan.

IMG_1985

These sites were enough to keep us entertained for our first day, so we set off back to the hostel, stopping first at the supermarket to pick up some ingredients for dinner.

Brian is a good DJ, and the chill waves of indie electro were already bumping when we returned. The over-excited, very friendly host Robert, who refers to every female as his “future ex-wife,” explained to us that we were going to party that night. So, after dinner, Laura and I put on makeup for the first time in a month and a half. I wore a dress that I hadn’t worn before or since. It felt nice looking like a real person instead of a hairy-legged, baggy-eyed, harem pants-clad traveler. Oh, did I mention that this was also the first time I bothered to engage in leg hair removal on this trip?

The four or five other guests all began to filter into the courtyard, along with a few older friends of Robert’s. One very large man I recall roared an awful lot. Rib-flavored Lays potato chips and airy cheese puffs were passed around as bottles of vodka, rum and whiskey were slowly emptied. When I wasn’t sitting quietly and happily, munching on free chips and listening to the conversations around me, I made my rounds, having engaging discussions with guests and visitors alike. I spoke to a Bolivian guest about threats to the rainforest, argued with an Aussie about who the best characters are from A Song of Ice and Fire, dabbled with the idea of letting Brian tattoo a wave on my back, and learned about the specifics of paragliding from one of Robert’s pilot friends. My hosts were gracious and generous, and wonderfully 420 friendly, and I slept peacefully after a night of good food and good company.

The next few days, Laura and I really took it easy. We went back to the beach and rented boogie boards from Punto Surf. The waves were too small to ride and we were soon too cold and freaked out by the giant jellyfish to continue playing. We checked out a smaller beach past the cliff, walked with our feet in the clear water, and enjoyed the feel of the sun on our skin. When we got hungry, we found a restaurant called Cafe del Mar on 21 de Mayo, which we returned to the next day because the food was so delicious. I highly recommend any of the crepes and the Churrasco, a steak sandwich that is very popular in Chile.

IMG_1994

IMG_2003

IMG_2007

IMG_2023

churrasco sandwich
churrasco sandwich
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes
cheesey chicken mushroom crepes

For us, Arica was a chance to chill out. When you’re traveling and constantly moving, it’s nice to afford yourself some time to be lazy, walk along the beach, and take advantage of strong wifi. Our next adventure would come in a few days with our trek to the beautiful desert of San Pedro de Atacama. Stay tuned!

 

Below you will find our additions to our dorm room wall:

IMG_1988

IMG_1987

IMG_1989

IMG_1990

 

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Cusco: The Breathless City

Home of the Incas and high in the sky, Cusco will leave you breathless.

From shopping for Inca trends to enjoying world-class Peruvian cuisine to engaging in cheap extreme sports, you won’t run out of things to do in Cusco.

Altitude lethargy is different from jungle lethargy. Rather than melting into and with your sweat among the palm trees, the thin mountain air of Cusco makes it feel as if your veins, from your heart to your fingertips, are lighter than the air they’re missing. Like if you stood up too quick, without inhaling as you ascend, you’ll float away. The only solution is to take it slow, drink water, and enjoy the healing and energizing effects of the bitter coca tea leaves like the natives have done for centuries.

Cusco, shaped like the sacred puma, sits 3,339 meters (11,152 feet) high in the sky, nestled near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountains. Qusqu, in Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the capital of the powerful Inca Empire until Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores swaggered in like White, horse-mounted gods and destroyed Inca temples in favor of Catholic churches. Inca stone bases and small even steps blend seamlessly with Spanish balconies and smooth cobblestone streets, an aesthetically pleasing and constant reminder of the muddling of the two cultures.

While Cusco is often overlooked as a stopping point before the famous Machu Picchu, I find that I’m having a hard time leaving, despite the effects the dry air is having on my skin. Maybe it’s just the hostel I’m staying at or maybe it’s the way every time you turn your head, you seem to rest your eyes on an image from a postcard, but the picturesque city seems like it provides endless opportunities for activities and sights.

Where To Stay:

I am staying at EcoPackers hostel on Santa Teresa, 375, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While some people may opt to stay at Pariwana, the party hostel chain with a roof bar, I find EcoPackers the perfect mix of cozy and trendy. When you walk in to the hostel, rated Top 3 in South America by TripAdvisor in 2013, you are greeted by an open Spanish-style courtyard with lawn chairs and hammocks. Around the lounging guests are other rooms to relax in after a long day of traveling or exploring, including a dining room with a beautiful Machu Picchu mural, a fully stocked bar, and a living room with leather couches, bean bag chairs, a fireplace and movies playing on the big screen. The staff is friendly and professional, the wifi is decent, and the place is simply convenient, offering laundry services for 5 soles, locks for 3 soles, towels for rent, an ATM, a tour agency on site, a proper bar, an affordable restaurant, breakfast and coffee included, coca tea leaves, candy and drinks for sale, a book exchange and hot showers. The dorms and bathrooms alike are clean, comfortable and warm. Rates range from around $11 for a bed in an 18-bed dorm to $18 for a 4-bed dorm to $56 for a suite with a private bathroom. I paid $12.50 for a bed in a 10-bed dorm where I met plenty of kind, interesting people from all over the world. The hostel also offers promotions of four nights for the price of three in February and March.

image
courtyard from the second floor
image
living room with fireplace and TV
image
one of the many dining areas
image
the bar

image

Where To Eat:

Nuna Raymi– Located just outside the Plaza de Armas, this warm restaurant caters to tourists with a menu in English while still remaining authentic and affordable. Most main dishes cost anywhere from 31-33 soles, or $12-$13. I tried an alpaca dish covered in a plum and chincha (purple corn) sauce, served with a creamy rosemary spaghetti and a quinoa-crusted trout filet covered in a citrus-ginger sauce and served with vegetables. Did I mention that if you show your EcoPackers bracelet, you receive 15% off your bill?

image

image
Laura eating one of her salads
image
alpaca with chincha sauce and rosemary pasta
image
quinoa crusted trout

image

PachaMama– Named after the Inca goddess mother nature, this small restaurant is like so many others calling out to you near the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, I found their Aji de Gallina, a very traditional Peruvian dish of chicken and potatoes in a slightly spicy yellow sauce, to be divine. I was doubly pleased by the offering of a salad bar with my meal and the kitchen’s willingness to substitute my rice for vegetables, all for 25 soles.

I’m also a sucker for street food. Things worth trying are “choclo con queso,” (big corn with melted cheese), ANY street meat, guinea pig (like the Quechua Jesus ate), and empanadas, sweet and savory.

Where to Drink:

Mama Africa in the Plaza de Armas, next to Mushrooms, is a great club to get drunk and dance with locals and tourists alike to a good variety of music from salsa to techno to hip hop. They also offer salsa lessons!

KM 0 in the stylish San Blas barrio plays live music every night in a smoky atmosphere. Sip on a chilcano and puff on a hookah while you listen to local artists.

What To Do: As a tourist town, Cusco offers a wide variety of activities to partake in while enjoying the sights. Here are a few that I tried:

Free Walking Tour:

imageimage

First of all, I’d like to say that I love free walking tours. I’ve joined them all over the world, from Krakow to Barcelona to Quito, and the guides are always incredibly informative about the history and architecture of their city. Of course, the tours are not completely free as the guides work for tips, but they more than earn it with their positive energy and helpful tips, and by pointing out the highlights of the city that you might not have seen on your own.

I believe EcoPackers usually offers one that meets at 11:40, but for whatever reason their tour was canceled on the day my companion and I went, so we met up with a different group, called Free Walking Cusco, in the Plaza around 12:15 for a two hour tour.

As our guide walked us towards the beautiful Compania Church, he began to explain how the Inca and Catholic cultures combine. While we weren’t able to enter the church without paying a fee, he described the famous Last Supper painting inside, with Jesus and his apostles dining on a big Peruvian style loaf of bread, a guinea pig, and beer, Peter’s cheek apparently full of coca leaves. On our walk, our guide spoke about Cusco as a region very strongly connected to the cosmos. The northernmost part of Cusco, called Saqsaywaman, he said is the best location to see the movements of the stars and to find portals to other dimensions. This Inca spirituality has been repressed by the Catholic religion, but it is prevalent that the locals still take this way of thinking to heart.

La Plaza de Armas
La Plaza de Armas
image
bird’s eye view of Plaza

 

monument to Tupac Amaru and other martyred Inca fighters against Spanish crown
monument to Tupac Amaru and other martyred Inca fighters against Spanish crown
cute old couple, cruisng on the plaza at night
cute old couple, cruisng on the plaza at night

 

 

 

image

image

Our guide led us through the winding streets, up steep stairs, making all of us pant from the exertion made difficult by the altitude, to the bohemian neighborhood called San Blas. The neighborhood was styled like Granada, Spain, as can be identified by the signature Andalucian balconies, but is also influenced by the early Middle Eastern residents, painted clean white and blue to ward off the evil eye. I was pleased to see original arches over the doors, one claiming to have been built on September 9, 1660.

image

image

image

While in the now-artsy neighborhood, we went into a music shop to sample some of the local tunes. An artisan who makes these curious small guitars (the Spanish wouldn’t let the natives play their guitars so the Incans created their own, small enough to fit under a poncho) called charangos, among other Peruvian instruments, played for us the most amazing music on 16 strings. You could almost hear the history of the Andes mountain region coming from under his fingertips, sorrow making way into joy as he applied more or less pressure to the acoustics.

image

At the end of our tour, we were treated to delicious pisco sours, a classic Peruvian cocktail.

Mercado de San Pedro: 

image

image

Every city has its own lively market. The San Pedro market is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and groceries, tchotchkes and tripe, hot soup and cold juices, Chakana necklaces and harem pants, ceramics and cat food. My friend Laura and I spent about three hours there yesterday, haggling over prices of hand-made hats and alpaca blankets to be sent home to friends and family.

Handcrafts Market: 

image

Not far from the San Pedro Market, this smaller and calmer market is filled with hand-woven, Inca-inspired, old as dirt, cut from stone, tediously beaded, beautifully painted goodies. Go to the San Pedro Market first to see what the best price of items is, because this market tends to try to charge a bit more for their wares.

Horseback Riding near Saqsaywaman:

image

image

Saqsaywaman (signifying Satisfied Falcon in Quechua) is a walled fortress of even higher altitude than central Cusco in the north part of town. This smooth-stone blocked complex, built in 1100, is said to have a strong spiritual presence. Legend has it that when the Spanish followed the Incas there from Cusco during the wars, the outgunned and outnumbered Peruvian warriors would tackle the conquistadores over the cliffs, killing themselves as well as the Spanish, rather than die at their hands.

The historical park costs 70 soles to enter, but we found a way around that while still including another activity. Try taking a cab to Cristo Blanco, a place where red-cheeked children play soccer in fields next to mountains and alpacas, and asking about the horses, caballos. Our cabbie’s family just so happened to own horses for hire, and a ten-year-old boy named Raul tailed behind our horses on a tour among infinite, dry mountains and plateaus to the backside of Saqsaywaman, some really cool caves, a pretty lagoon, and la Templa de la Luna. The horse ride cost 30 soles, but I tipped little Raul an extra 5 for being such an informative and equestrian-skilled guide.

Laura pretending to be Golem in the caves.
Laura pretending to be Golem in the caves.

image

Templa de la Luna
Templa de la Luna

image

image
ruins of temple of the moon

 

 

 

image
walkway near Saqsaywaman

image

image

The tour dropped us off in a rather secluded spot, but Raul told us how to get into Saqsaywaman. We snuck in among the tall eucalyptus trees and admired the beauty of nature and the scattering of an occasional ruin. Laura and I each took a minute to sit and meditate on the ground, and something about the energy of the place and the vibrations of the earth beneath me and the whistling of the wind around me made me feel rooted to the world, and very much a part of it, however small. All I could think was, I am grateful.

image

image

image

image

Bungee Jumping: Right near our hostel is the office for Action Valley Cusco Adventure Park. As Laura and I were walking by, we decided to see what it would cost for our first bungee experience. An hour and $95 later, we were on our way to the outskirts of Cusco to free fall among the watching mountain people. When we got to the venue, which also offers paintballing, a climbing wall, and a slingshot, we were instructed to jog and stretch to warm up. I went first, listening intently to the instructions in Spanish as I was strapped in by my legs, waist, chest and neck. Up the steel-caged cherry picker 122 meters, a few deep breaths, and a gentle push from my guide and I was falling, falling and then something happened that I can only truly describe with a noise like “hhuuuuunnnfff.” I felt the tightness of the harness where there was just only air, bounced a few times, and finally settled, feeling the weight of my upper body as the blood rushed from my feet to my head and I watched the tall, thin trees spin around me. I heard the guys working the bungee yell, “Abrazos, Rebecca! Abrazos!” What? Hugs? I looked up, or was it down?, and saw the white landing circle quickly getting larger as it came up to greet me, and saw the men who had yelled at me for hugs with their arms outstretched, and opened mine up just in time for them to catch me and settle me down on a mat. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I finally did with a smile on my face. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but it was well worth it.

image

image

image

image

image

Get a Tattoo: On another whim, Laura and I decided to get tattoos to symbolize our journeys. Tattoo Willka in the Plaza offered us the low price of 90 soles each for our small, separate mountain-inspired tattoos. The shop was clean and well decorated, the artist was skilled, and it cost about $70 less than it would have in Boston or New York.

image

image

image

image

 

image
Laura’s tat
My mountain inspired tattoo
My mountain inspired tattoo

 

Get a Massage: I totally would have done this if I weren’t terrified of anyone touching my muscles after the shock of bungee jumping. Women on the street offer massages to passerby for as cheap as 20 soles an hour. That’s like $6, people. I can’t attest to whether or not they’re any good, but it’s still an option for weary travelers.

Choco Museo: This free museum of chocolate hooks you in by offering free samples of chocolate on the street. Learn all about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate. You can even take a chocolate workshop and learn how its made from bean to bar.

More Walking!: Cusco is not too big of a city, and if the weather is nice, every street seems to offer a beautiful sight. Cruise the Avenida del Sol after the Plaza de Armas, looking in at shops as you pass by the Qoricancha, a revered Inca temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Pay a braided haired lady in traditional mountain garb to take a picture with her and a baby alpaca. Check out the churches and cathedrals if you’re into that sort of thing. Take in the mountains around you, rising like gods above the tiled roofs. The city is just gorgeous. Enjoy it.

image

image

image

image

image
Qoricancha

 

by Rebecca Bellan

A Goodbye to la Selva

Enjoying a tour in the jungle outside of Puerto Maldonado, Peru with Yakari Eco Lodge.

Ziplining, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and Monkey’s Island.

I spent my last day in Puerto Maldonado enjoying a jungle tour with Yakari Eco Lodge. For 95 soles, I partook in ziplining, a canopy walk, a log walk, kayaking on the Madre de Dios River, and playing with monkeys on la Isla de Monos. Not much to say. It was a visual day. See it through my eyes…

IMG_1127
canopy walk in the trees

IMG_1130

IMG_1145

IMG_1125

IMG_1118

IMG_1123
Go on, look down.
IMG_1116
Now, look up.

IMG_1114

a house uplifted by the most recent storm
a house uplifted by the most recent storm

IMG_1156

kayaking
kayaking
rain on the river like bullets
rain on the river like bullets
petting a pig named Lucy
petting a pig named Lucy
our guide Raul
our guide Raul
La Isla de Monos
La Isla de Monos

https://instagram.com/p/vAKT0JAKjZ/?taken-by=womanwanders

IMG_1241
Feeding monkeys. NBD

IMG_1222

IMG_1230

 

by Rebecca Bellan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu

How I tackled the famous Inca site, Machu Picchu.

Traveling from Cusco in the middle of the night to exhaust ourselves climbing Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, a truly incredible experience.

There are a number of ways to see Machu Picchu. You can book a tour of the Inca Trail, or other such extended, slightly expensive treks for the experience of walking through the Sacred Valley all the way up to village atop the green, round mountain. You can stay the night in the town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and arise with the sun for an early morning, two hour hike up to the city and surrounding mountains. Or you can do what Laura and I did, which has its pros and cons.

Some other travelers assured me as I bought my ticket for Machu Picchu online and a week in advance (good idea to do this because Machu Picchu and her sister/his brother? Huayna Picchu only allow a certain amount of tourists per day to walk their even steps and stones. Something about preserving the site….) that Machu Picchu takes all day, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a train back to Cusco that night, and should plan to sleep in Aguas. So we decided, like so many others, to leave Cusco very early in the morning and arrive in Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning to begin our ascension then.

Rather than take the train straight from Cusco to Aguas, which would have cost around $75 each way, we booked a couple of round trip tickets from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The red-lipsticked PeruRail associate suggested that it would be cheaper to take a $3 colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which leave regularly beginning at 2 am, and take the train from there, all together around $55. So we saved like $40. Woop!

Our alarm clocks went off around 3 am, and we gathered our things silently in the dark, already dressed in what we’d wear for the next 20 hours. We booked a 5:20 train out of “Olla-whatever,” as I had been calling it, so we knew we’d need to be on a collective mini van by 4 am to make the hour long journey.

After a short cab ride to the colectivo meeting point, we were immediately accosted at our taxi window by at least ten men and one woman, all beseeching us to join their van. I picked the guy with the most honest face, and struggled to follow him to his van, the woman blocking my path in a sad attempt to change my mind. Unfortunately, we were the first two in this particular mini van, and we watched, mostly horrified, slightly amused, and incredibly impatient, as our driver sprinted with the herd to other new taxis pulling up to stake their claim into the latest tourist.

The road through the Sacred Valley was bumpy and winding and filled with the most annoying, loud, upbeat Peruvian music it has ever been my displeasure to listen to for an extended period of time. Not even my earplugs combined with light humming to myself could drown it out. We got to the picturesque town of Olla-whatever, that most tourists (including us) overlook, just in time to make our train. We spent another two hours rocking steadily along the Urubamba River and under earthy, brown mountains that appeared wise and judgmental as the full clouds hugged them. The PeruRail trains are covered in skylights (that would prove to be my undoing on the way back due to a migraine and an odd musical fashion show), and the rising sun shone through beautifully while we were served muffins and coca tea and a recording of a perky white woman happily informed us passengers that, “Families living in the community grow corn, potatoes and various vegetables.” It felt like a ride at Epcot.

IMG_1430

IMG_1425
Urubamba River

image

 

We arrived at the lovely tourist town of Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning and walked uphill along a river to our hostel, SuperTramp, which I wouldn’t recommend (slow wifi, dirty bathrooms, no hot water, no kitchen, bitchy cook). By the time we got settled and caffeinated, it was 9:30, and we didn’t want to waste time climbing the mountain up to Machu, which would have taken two hours. Also, lezzbehonest, we were pretty pooped from waking up at 3 am. The bus up cost about $10 and took 30 minutes, and soon we were being accosted by more Peruvians, this time tour guides exclaiming that it would be impossible to visit the site without a guide. I very much doubted this because I had read a book on Machu Picchu prior, but my friend Laura was keen to learn, and I agreed to translate the tour for her, an offer I regretted five minutes in, my tired mind struggling to grasp Spanish so early.

image
Aguas Calientes

 

Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes

Our guide, a small, flat woman with nice skin, explained that when people today talk about Inca culture, they don’t know that they are technically referring to the fourteen trend setting kings who are the only true Incas, the most well known being Tupac Amaru, the last Inca who died fighting for independence from the Spanish conquistadores, and Pachacutec, the ninth Inca king who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into an empire and was the architect for Machu Picchu. Apparently, the village in the clouds was the only part of the Inca Empire that escaped destruction by the Spanish conquistadores, who tried to follow the Inca soldiers who fled up the mountains from Cusco by following the Urubamba River, and therefore missed Machu Picchu, which was abandoned only 100 years after its creation.

As many people know, American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu and published his findings in 1911, and now the city is an UNESCO world heritage site.

While on our tour, we also learned about things like the length of the Inca Empire (1438-1533 when the Spanish invaded) and how those who lived in the city created even step-like spaces in the mountain so they could domesticate potatoes, plantains, and chocolate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

the Sacred Rock- inspiration for my tattoo
the Sacred Rock- inspiration for my tattoo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Three Windows

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I mostly just wandered and took pictures and wished I didn’t bother spending 20 soles to translate things I already knew, but alas, the sun was shining and the views were spectacular.

After the tour, we snacked on some nuts and warm cheese sandwiches that we made the night before and hustled over to Huayna Picchu (Waynu Picchu? one is Quechua and one is Spanish….IDK), innocently unaware of the challenge that awaited us. Once Laura caught wind of other exhausted tourists just ending their climb up the mountain, she gave me a look like, “Fuck off.” I knew then that I needed to be the wind beneath her wings, although I’m sure a big part of her wanted me to tell her to wait it out at the bottom.

Huayna Picchu
Huayna Picchu/ Wayna Picchu…however you spell it

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The hardest part of the ascent, in my opinion, was the stairs. The hour and 15 minute climb seemed much longer with every steep step. We zigzagged up the mountain, stopping at every corner for a breather and a sip of water, which we ran out of halfway up. Climbers on their descent squeezed by us on the narrow trails, trying not to tumble while they assured us that it was worth the trouble once we made it to the top. I believed them, especially after climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which was more difficult because the altitude was much higher. This just felt like a perpetual stair master.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding green mountains, and the glittering Urubamba River below were absolutely breathtaking. I was happy for the challenge of the climb, especially when the payoff was so magnificent.

https://instagram.com/p/vHMHJcgKvz/?taken-by=womanwanders

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
from the top, with the Urubamba below

IMG_1442

IMG_1460

IMG_1453

IMG_1449

IMG_1465

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The way down was possibly more exhausting than the way up. We were out of water, the sun was high in the sky, and our legs felt like jello. Parts of the climb were so steep that we had to actually sit on the steps and “bum-shuffle,” as Laura called it, down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By the time we made it to the bottom, we were so depleted and dehydrated, the only thing that could rouse us from sitting breaks was a constant reminder to each other that we needed water. A breeze felt like the sweetest kiss.

image

“I feel like any children I bear will feel the effects of that,” said Laura. We laughed spastically, our diaphragms unable to support the oxygen intake for a proper giggle.

After chugging the most expensive water I’ve ever bought in my life, we decided to rest our weary legs and take the bus back into town rather than climb down Machu. Some people may call us lazy for not climbing the mountain up or down. They would be right.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Mother of God

Awesome tour of the Madre de Dios region in Peru, Lake Sandoval and the Tambopata National Reserve.

Hiking and canoeing through the reserve to spectate the gorgeous nature and wildlife.

 

image

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ellen, Robin and I told ourselves that it was a good day to go further into the jungle on a tour of Lake Sandoval, despite the torrential downpour. Better a cool, rainy day than a hot, sunny one. Besides, we reasoned, the trees would surely create a canopy over our heads and block most of the rain. Nevertheless, by the time we made it down the Madre de Dios river, which joins with the Tambopata River and also runs all the way to Cuzco, I was very grateful to the tour agency for supplying me with rubber rain boots. For an hour and a half, our guide, Dagger, a Manu National Park native, led us through the muddy trail of the Tambopata National Reserve to get to Maloka Lodge. In front of me was a blanket of green trees and a thick, brown path, with the occasional scatter of bright color. A blue butterfly here, a red parrot’s beak flower there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

thank goodness for these galoshes
thank goodness for these galoshes

You could hear life all around you, the sounds of crickets and cicadas and bird calls filling your peripherals, yet everything seemed quite still. A rustling palm frond made us all look up. It took a while for me to spot it, but I saw a monkey! A real, live, wild monkey. It was a squirrel monkey, I was told, and it looked a mixture between a human and cat. Soon I was watching for more moving leaves and branches, for more monkeys, climbing the palm trees to get to the dates at the top. Some of them had little baby monkeys on their backs. It was freaking adorable. Dagger hurried to guide my steps and catch me when I stumbled as I clumsily tried to follow them off the trail and snap pictures, not looking where I was stepping. I stopped short of walking through a spider web, thank god. We continued our walk in the sucking mud, steadily getting more and more wet even as the rain let up. Our guide spoke in a quiet voice and was able to identify every animal sound, smell, track and dropping.

Finally, we arrived at a dock, a row of wide canoes bobbing gently under the canopy of jungle, and we climbed aboard one and made our way through the swamp and trees. The scene before me called to mind pictures I had seen of riverboat cruises in New Orleans.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eventually, the narrow canal opened up to a vast body of water, Lake Sandoval. It felt like the rain stopped just for us, like the universe wanted us to take in the wide expanse of the lake without precipitation. Tall white palm trees stood like sentries around the perimeter, guarding the jungle beyond. Ours was the only boat on the still, metallic water, rich silt skimming the surface. We were gliding peacefully in a concert arena for the sounds of the jungle. Birds whistled and cawed and squawked, some even sounded like pigs. Water clunked along the side of the boat, cicadas hissed, bees buzzed, squirrel monkeys made whistling sounds and howler monkeys made throaty sounds that made it seem like the jungle’s stomach was rumbling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mine was rumbling, too, and I was relieved when we docked the boat and walked to the lodge for lunch. The meal that awaited us on a nicely dressed table in the elegant hut of a dining room was a sort of rice and chicken tamale cooked in banana leaves. It was delicious, and I ate too much.

Maloka Lodge
Maloka Lodge

After lunch and a nap, we set off again to the lake to watch the sun set and wait for black cayman, people-eating rainforest alligators. We rode around looking at the trees, using Dagger’s binoculars to spot howler monkeys or herons soaring through the air. We watched as yet more monkeys began rustling the branches and leaves. There was a horde of maybe 50 squirrel monkeys, soaring from one branch to another, making their way to a resting place to sleep for the night.

image

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At dusk, a cayman appeared next to our boat while we were looking out at the water. It just floated there and soon a few more popped up in the distance, coming from nowhere and doing mostly nothing. Bats were flying around our head in the limited gray light, adding to the start of jungle nightlife. Dagger took out a high-powered flashlight and instructed me to scan the lake slowly with it, looking out for flashes of red eyes belonging to a cayman on the dark water. Whenever we spotted one, we slowly rowed over to get a look at the carnivorous predator, floating there staring at us, and occasionally making moves to get behind our boat and take us by surprise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When it was time for dinner, we docked our boat as another group was beginning their search of the caymans. While we walked back from the boat, Dagger spoke in that quiet, monotone voice of his, rattling off a list of the jungle pharmacy’s roots and barks and medicinal plants used for ailments from asthma to Parkinson’s to ring worm. I marveled at the knowledge growing up in Manu, the conserved biosphere on the Madre de Dios river, had bestowed upon him. What did I know about my land? Maybe that’s why I can’t stay in one place for too long; my ties aren’t strong enough. I am not a part of the land I came from and it isn’t a part of me, at least not in the way that Dagger and his land are one. I realized that he probably spoke so softly because he was used to respecting the quiet wildlife in the jungle. Yet he always made himself heard, drawing our attention magnetically to where he was pointing, spotting parrots or snakes or monkeys, a tree or a plant with some significance.

After a dinner of chicken, rice and potatoes, Dagger told us that we’d be meeting back at the dining room at 4:30. “In the morning?” I asked, uncomprehending. He nodded his assent. I nearly laughed in his face. “So, what, are we going to watch a sunrise or something?” I asked, remembering the time I had to wake up that early to climb the Masada in Israel and watch the sun rise. He told me that we’d be going to a place called the Clay Lick to watch the macaws feed. Birds? Is he serious? I had already seen my monkeys and alligators, and I’m supposed to be excited about getting up at some ungodly hour to watch birds lick clay out of a tree from a distance? Looking at the New Zealanders’ eager faces, I shut my mouth and resigned myself to my fate, making sure to ask if there would be coffee that early in the morning. There would be. Fine.

So at 4:20, I got up and dressed quickly in the dark; the lodge had turned off the power at around 9 last night and I’m sure wouldn’t turn it on until later that afternoon. Frugal Peruvians. We drank shitty black instant coffee in the dining hall, also in the dark, and set off back to our boat onto the lake. It was worth waking up to see the change the early morning light makes on the water and the trees. So far I had seen the lake at midday, at sunset and at night. Now I was seeing it in the light of dawn, gray and still, almost as if the lake were covered in dew, the sun slowly rising behind the palms, turning the sky pink and the water to honey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the familiar muddy trail back into the national park and then down a small side trail to find the macaws. It was light by then, and we stood at a distance of 75 meters or so away from a dead palm tree with around 20 red-bellied macaws latched on, picking apart the bark to get at the minerals inside the heart of the tree. We watched for about ten minutes. I was over it in about thirty seconds, leaning against a tree and going through my camera to delete poorly taken photographs until Dagger, thankfully, told us we could go. I was too tired to feel cranky that I had been woken up for this, too tired to hate the carpenter bee with a personal vendetta against me, buzzing circles around my head like a halo on the boat ride back across Lake Sandoval to the lodge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
thrilling stuff

After breakfast and some time to rest, we trekked back out for our last excursion of the day, to look at the giant, sturdy Capirona Trees, which Dagger referred to as “Save a Tree,” due to their threat of extinction by illegal loggers who covet the thick, durable wood for profit. The bark of the tree has also served natives as an anti-fungal and wound-healer. It seems that whenever the jungle produces an ailment, it also produces a cure.

So, back on the boat and onto Lake Sandoval.

image

We docked the boat across the lake at the beginning of a trail and set to walking, the rubber boots more of a hindrance on this sunny, hot day, threatening to give my calves a heat rash. We took a three hour loop through the hiking trail, Dagger dubiously pointing out things along the way, like walking trees that grow new legs that look like teepees to move on the rainforest floor, or a termite hill that size of a bush, or a hole that he coaxed a tarantula out of, making bile rise in my throat due to my illogical arachnophobia.

image
sick walking tree
image
gross

At one point the air was filled with a sweet smell, and Dagger identified it as the smell of dates and looked up to search for dining monkeys. He whistled a low whistle, once, twice, three times, and soon monkeys, capuchin and squirrel, were jumping from branch to low branch right over our heads. We stood in awe. I giggled like a maniac at the proximity to these amazing creatures who looked and moved so much like us. I watched, amused, as one capuchin monkey, and then a few more, slammed coconuts against trees to get to the juice inside, and I wondered if humans only knew how to get inside fruit by watching monkeys and other animals do it first.

We passed a few of the gargantuan Capirona trees, each one seeming bigger and more twisted than the last. When we reached one that was particulary large, we stuck around and listened to Dagger tell us that hunters pay tribute to these trees that he called the King of the Forest before a hunt, and that people would bury their loved ones under them, or else use them for shelter. I could see why. I stood in its monstrous shadow, pressing my palm flat against the straight, smooth bark of the tree. This particular tree had been alive for 420 years, Dagger said. I took it as a good omen and began to climb its sturdy trunk, imagining a world where I could build a house around the tree and live in it and under it and with it. I asked why the bark was so smooth, and Dagger replied in his hushed tones that it sheds its bark once or twice a year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While we were walking back to the boat, distracted by this plant or that butterfly, Dagger suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, listened, and then took off at nearly a run, urging us to follow quickly. We reached the spot where we had docked our boat, and he motioned for us to be quiet and look in the direction he was pointing. About three river otters were feeding and playing right near us. We observed them quietly, amazed at our good timing; they only fed about once a day. Dagger told us that he heard the sound of a baby otter cry and knew that they were feeding, and that this was our chance to spot them. I could see my look of childish glee reflected on Ellen and Robin’s faces, which only doubled when the otters came right up to our boat to check us out and huff air loudly at us. They swam away from us playfully, one diving under the water just as another broke the surface.

image

It was a beautiful way to end our tour, and I slept peacefully on the motorboat down the Madre de Dios river back to the Tambopata.

 

A quick talley of animals seen in just 2 days: squirrel monkeys, brown capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, tayra, giant otter, tarantula, parrots, macaws, snake, black caymans, herons, 100 species of butterflies, dragonflies, so many flies, so many insects, lizards, frogs, toads, fire ants, termites, bats….I think that’s everything.

Go to Lake Sandoval!

PS- I loved this gift from my mom and little sister! Kept my electronics nice and dry, and looped around my wrist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Packing Update Thus Far

Here is an update to my previous packing guide for South America.

There are the things I brought, and the things I wish I brought…

 

Almost two weeks into my trip, and I’m already wishing I could make edits to my backpack contents, something I wrote about in a previous post. Below you’ll find my fantasy packing list.

Clothes:

  • 4-5 tank tops
  • 4 t-shirts (some printed/fashion to wear socially)
  • 3 long sleeved shirts
  • 2 sweatshirts, 1 cardigan
  • 1 thin rain jacket
  • 3 pairs leggings (why did I pack so many?? Did I think I would be doing yoga the whole time?)
  • AT LEAST ONE PAIR OF JEANS (one backpacker blog insisted that jeans were useless cargo to have in South America, and I took him at his word. But I wished I had a pair when going out at night in cities like Quito, where the temperature drops when the sun does.)
  • 1 pair comfy cotton pants (instead of flannel pajamas)- wishing I brought my fashionable cotton harem pants to lounge around in.
  • 1 pair transformer cargo pants
  • 3-4 pairs shorts (2 comfy and able to get wet, 2 jeans)
  • 2 swimsuits
  • 1 skirt, 1 sundress (happy with these)
  • 3 sports bras, 1 good VS sports bra
  • 10 pairs underwear (moisture wicking, fast dry, etc)
  • 2 pairs flip flops; perhaps even 1 flip flop and 1 comfy gladiator sandals
  • 1 pair hiking boots (wore these everyday in Quito- not fashionable, but other backpackers know you mean business)

I’m pretty pleased with my essentials. I haven’t gotten around to using everything in the list, such as the sink plug (because most hostels offer laundry services) and my first aid kit (because I haven’t gotten too cut up yet), but I have faith that I will get around to all of my supplies. So far, I am most thankful for my hand sanitzer, my water filtration system, and my ibuprofen.

I briefly wished that I had brought some antibiotics after catching a case of strep throat that is running rampant at the hostel I am working at now, but if you’re good at self diagnosing, it is fairly easy to acquire antibiotics at the pharmacy without a prescription.

Hope this helps any potential travelers! As my trip expands, I’ll make sure to update this list some more.

 

by Rebecca Bellan

My Intro to Quito

First day on my South America trip.

Quito, Ecuador had me thoroughly impressed and excited for the start of my journey.

The sun was making a mockery of my SPF 50 as I walked from my hostel, Minka Hostel, to a nearby hostel, Community Hostel, for a free walking tour. I squinted up at the buildings and mountains, alternating between taking photos on my digital camera (whose beautiful pictures you won’t see for some time because for some reason my ipad isn’t supporting my camera connection kit) and awkwardly studying my map, looking like the utter tourist that I am. I was wearing my hiking boots, some leggings and a black cami, wishing I had packed more appropriate city attire.The natives seemed not to notice or care, for which I was grateful.

When I reached Community Hostel’s reception, I instantly wished I had booked there. The hostel has two beautiful kitchens, two welcoming, if slightly unimaginative in decor, common rooms, and a calendar on the wall boasting community activities such as Oktoberfest, a food tour and “Twerking 101.” Most of the people in the walking tour group stayed at Community Hostel, and the guests and staff alike made me feel more than welcome.

First stop on the walking tour was the Mercado Central between Esmeraldas and Manabi. The two floor open market is home to traditional and inexpensive Ecuadorean cuisine, produce and flowers. Small ladies in hairnets waved at us tourists, inviting us to spend our money on their juice or tortillas or whatever they were selling. At our tour guide, Ovi’s, behest, we spent $1 on some of the tastiest fresh juice smoothie I have ever had. My favorites were jugo de mora (blackberry), naranjilla (no real English translation), and coconut. Ovi also described to us a delicious breakfast meal that I went back for that consists of a fried plantain tortilla mixture with scallions, two eggs and a cup of too-sweet coffee all for the unbelievable price of $1. I was falling in love with Quito already. The way to my heart is most definitely through my adventurous stomach.

After the market, which half of us promised to return to for lunch, we walked around the historical sites and churches. What stuck out most to me was the colorful colonial architecture. As I stood in the Plaza de la Independencia, or the Plaza Grande, listening to Ovi talk proudly about the heroes of the First Cry of Indepedence from Spanish monarchy on August 10, 1809, I marveled at the buildings whose very existence must represent Spanish oppression but which blend seamlessly with the culture in Quito regardless. Among the buildings in the square were the municipality building, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Hotel Plaza Grande, the presidential palace and the cathedral of Quito. During the day, the square is filled with old men sitting and enjoying the day, kids in school uniforms acting rowdy, and vendors sellings hats and coca tea leaves (I bought a hat for $2). At night, it is empty but for the strategic lights that illuminate the buildings, turning them from imposing to soft.

Other sites of the tour included the Sucre Theater and the surrounding square of vendors and street performers. We also went to the Church of the Society of Jesus, which stands out on the small side street, the outside decorated in the baroque style with an amazing attention to detail and an inside whose pillars and alters are covered with so much gold that it is said if they melted it down it would solve the country’s debt problem. We stopped at a “candy” shop, smelling of sugar coated and roasted nuts, fried plantains and other sweets. I bought plantains and a warm corn nut, pork rind, scallion mix. The final stop was a small shop where a man tediously hammers out beautifully sculpted metal items in the beautiful historic neighborhood of La Ronda.

La Ronda is said to be one of the oldest streets/barrios in Quito. Identical to many streets in Spain, La Ronda is long and narrow, flanked on both sides by colonial buildings, each brightly colored with flowers on almost every balcony. The area is home to bohemian and artsy culture, as it has been for centuries. Ovi said that poets and musicians used the balconies for serenades and people would come to watch, turning it into an even more happening spot. It was rather empty when we were there as a group, but Ovi promised us that it transforms on weekends, and I could see the potential. He then left us to our own devices, after thanking us graciously for tipping him. I left with a group of about seven others to head back to the market and eat a traditional meal called Corvina.

Whether you are in the mood for more jugo or want Ecuadorean tortillas (potatoes mashed and flattened slightly as they cook on the griddle) or feel like trying corvina, the market offers more than one stand of each type of cuisine to choose from. The natives spotted us instantly from behind their respective stoves, excitedly inviting us to dine with them. I went to a corvina stand that Ovi had said is famous, ordered and paid $4.50 for my meal in a confused state, not even sure what I’d be eating but excited by the prospect of something new, and was instructed to sit down and someone would bring me a tray. The second I sat down, I was almost accosted by women trying to sell me juice. I had gathered by that time that it is more common to drink juice with meals than water because the tap water is not safe in Ecuador (thank god I bought that filtration system). I sipped on jugo de coco as I watched someone (I didn’t have time to look up and see who) put a full tray in front of me, far too much for one person. Nevertheless I tucked in to what I realized was fried white fish, potatoes, yellow rice, salad and a side of soupy shrimp and mussel ceviche. It was my first real meal in Ecuador. Nothing could have made me happier in that moment.

**Check out the tripadvisor for the free walking tour

 

by Rebecca Bellan

Some things to think about before you travel

A few tips for new travelers or backpackers.

Keep these things in mind before you set off on your journey.

 

So you’ve figured out the obvious things before your trip. You packed your bag, you bought your tickets, you have a place to stay. Here are a few things to think about before you go that may not be as obvious or convenient:

  • Get travel insurance. World Nomads offers a comprehensive way to buy the travel insurance that’s right for you, in addition to other useful information.
  • Buy travel medical insurance. For this trip, I only purchased the World Nomads travel insurance, which covers emergency room visits. If I feel the need to buy a specific medical insurance, I’ll look here for suggestions of private companies.
  • Get your vaccinations! If you’re going to Europe, don’t worry about it. But much of Asia, Africa and South America require vaccinations, so keep your vaccination information book with your passport. For a more specific list of what vaccinations you might need, check the CDC’s website. http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel
  • Check the travel advisories for the country you want to visit. Nothing cute about trying to be a tourist in a warring country. The US Department of State’s website gives somewhat up-to-date info, but don’t let that scare you off too much.
  •  However, a fellow traveling friend of mine says that he reads the local papers online before he goes to see what’s up.
  • While we’re doing research, it wouldn’t hurt to read up a little on the weather, history, government and economic situation of the country you are going to. Usually wiki has the answers, but guidebooks from roughguides.com and lonelyplanet.com are also cheap and can be downloaded directly to your *insert technological device here.*
  • Figure out how the public transportation works, or if you’ll be renting a car, and what currency the country uses.
  • As a server/bartender during my less glamorous months of the year, I have to say that it is important to understand the tipping procedures in every country you travel to.
  • Make copies of your passport, driver’s license, and credit cards.
  • Let your bank know of your travel plans so they don’t shut your cards down.
  • Find out which ATMs coincide with your bank and may not charge you an arm and a leg for withdrawals.
  • Decide whether or not you want to pay for an international phone plan. I intend to use my iPhone as more of a computer, accessing it only when I have wifi or need to take a picture.
  • If you have an iPad or iPhone, make sure you sync it with someone’s Find My iPhone so your mom or whoever knows where you are.
  • A Tip: If you’re traveling alone (like I am) and if you’re a woman (like I am), maybe don’t embark on your travels with a party mindset. What I mean to say is, don’t be one of those stories. Keep your guard up and a clear head, especially at night. We all know that foreigners stick out. If you’re traveling with friends, try not to be so obnoxiously foreign so you don’t attract unwanted attention.

 

by Rebecca Bellan