The meaning of Pura Vida in Costa Rica

Traveling is more for me than just seeking out fun.  Sometimes the feelings are great – the awesomeness of a new mountain range, the beauty of a new city, trying new cuisine – these all make us feel happy and excited.  The best part, though, is that it makes me feel alive.  It makes me feel connected to the world.

My Costa Rica trip achieved that for me in ways I think I was looking for, yet didn’t anticipate or realize it ahead of time.  Of course, it was beautiful, and I had a blast.  Trees, flowers, jungle, animals, unspoiled beaches, and small coastal towns were just a few of the things I experienced.  But it wasn’t aesthetic beauty or the novelty of the things I saw, heard, and did (even though being as close as you can get to two groups of howler monkeys may have been the coolest auditory experience of my life) that made this trip feel so satisfying.  It was the genuine nature of the trip and the people, from day 1.  Yes, there are touristy areas and resorts in Costa Rica.  But outside of those, the country is very authentic.  It doesn’t wrap itself in fancy paper and a big bow.  Costa Rica says “welcome, pura vida, we are who we are, and you are our family” as soon as you arrive.

I started the trip by finding Enterprise and renting a car to drive to the Arenal Volcano area.  I was immediately put at ease by someone who helped me find the Enterprise van, the driver himself, and the workers at the car place.  They were friendly and welcoming in a way that you don’t find in our culture most of the time.

The 3-hour drive north was more mountainous than I expected – which was silly of me, because Costa Rica is a land of constantly changing elevation.  I got to my hotel, which was my splurge for the trip, and it was gorgeous.  I was lucky enough on to get a room with a private hot tub, with natural hot springs water, the back of my room.


View from the back of my room


Just one of the many beautiful flowers

This was an area with many activities.  I went on a tour in the rainforest, went ziplining (which I LOVED),  hiked to views of the volcano, and went to some other natural hot springs.  I met up with a friend from Couchsurfing, Daniel, and enjoyed some of this with him.  I also met four women in the room next to me at the hotel, and had the chance to talk with them some.  They were great, and it was just the beginning of how easy I would find it to make friends throughout this trip.  Daniel quickly helped me learn truly was Pura Vida was all about: relax, stop worrying.  Life is good if you look around you, and it’s short, so just enjoy it.


Guy at the hiking trail found him sleeping!


Closest I could get to the volcano on existing trails

After Arenal, I took a tiny plane down to a town called Puerto Jimenez which is on the Osa Peninsula, in the southwest corner of the country.  I had gotten a lot of recommendations on TripAdvisor to go to this part of the country for its lush, remote rainforest and to get away from touristy spots.

I found my way around Puerto Jimenez, dragging my suitcase on gravel roads, as there is maybe one paved road in this tiny town.  My goal for this day was to go to a chocolate farm, Finca Kobo, that I read great things about.  I was spoiled in Arenal because Daniel translated and because everyone at the activities and accommodations spoke English.  This was my first day figuring it out on my own!

I had to ask around to find the bus station, and use my extraordinarily poor and sparse Spanish skills to find out if the bus would take me there.  I still had my suitcase.  I got dropped off, walked to the chocolate farm and it was CLOSED.  There still should have been one more tour that day.  I should have booked in advance.

There is literally one road going out of Puerto Jimenez on which I was dropped off, so luckily, all I had to do was wait for the bus going back.  My plan after was to get a taxi to my next destination, Bolita Hostel.  I didn’t know how long until the next bus, had no cell service to call a taxi, and was alone on a main road on Costa Rica.

The bus came.  There was a girl who came to the stop wearing a Boston Red Sox hat.  Turns out she was from Greenfield MA, about 45 minutes from where I am from.  She was studying abroad and staying at the accommodations at Finca Kobo.  I went from alone on the side of a road in a foreign country, to talking to someone from my backyard.  Life is interesting.

I got food for the next couple days and took a taxi to the hostel.  Going to stay and hike there was another recommendation from someone online, and it sounded too interesting to pass up.  I met up with the owner, locked up my suitcase and started the 30 minute hike up to the hostel itself.  He calls it a “walk” but it’s one of the steepest parts of the trail network.

I chose to stay there because it’s set just off this TINY – and I’m talking TINY – town of Dos Brazos and it’s in very remote rainforest with lots of hiking trails around it.  The owner actually designed the trail network around the hostel himself.  He was a fascinating guy, from Canada, who just happened to fall in love with Costa Rica and decided to make this his life for a while.  He even said himself he is not sure how much longer he will do it, maybe he will make something else happen.  I’d imagine he was in his mid to late 40s.

When I got there around 4pm or so, some of the other hostelers were there hanging out.  People from Germany, US, Spain, Australia, and Canada.  Once everyone was in for the night, some people cooked dinner and we all sat around a table family-style.  Talking, sharing travel stories and experiences, and just getting to know each other.  There was very little, if any, talk of work that night.  It was one of the most genuine and authentic travel experiences I’ve ever had.  I couldn’t care less where my phone was.  It felt fantastic.

The guy from the US was also traveling alone and we decided to get up early (4:30am) for the sunrise the next morning.  We hiked to the lookout and then down a river.  It was quite an adventure hike; it was a heavy flowing river that got deep at times.  It was long, a 7 hour day, but we loved it.


Rio Tigre



That evening my initial plan was to head back to Puerto Jimenez and stay 2 nights. After hiking, I hung out with my new friends and was not only tired but was enjoying their company so much that I stayed an extra night at Bolita.  We hiked down the next morning to get the van back to Puerto Jimenez.  My German friends got dropped off  on the main road to hitchhike to Panama!!  I still miss them.  I hope to visit them in Europe some day.

I really liked the next hotel too – La Chosa del Manglar.  I had a tiny closet-sized room with a toilet and sink but shared shower in the building.  I didn’t mind it one bit especially for the price, and the property was gorgeous.  The owner was another guy from Canada.  After I got settled I walked around, found the tour company I was looking for and booked a kayak tour in the Mangroves.

The kayak tour was so peaceful, and it was me along with a German woman named Sabine in addition to the tour guide.  We walked back to town together and got to know each other a bit, and enjoyed it enough so that we decided to meet for dinner.  She was volunteering at a butterfly farm in the northern part of Costa Rica for a few months after her last job ended, and was really enjoying her time in CR.  We talked about life, dating, work, passions.  It was so wonderful to meet her – and just like all the previous people I’d met, so effortless.  We still keep in touch.

The next morning I took a public bus to the town of La Palma, where another bus connected and traveled every day to the remote coastal town of Drake Bay.  When I reached La Palma to make my transfer, I had a few rocky but successful interactions in Spanish, one of which was to find out where the bus would be from some super nice older guys hanging out on the street.  The “bus” was a dilapidated, old, dusty, and kind of gross passenger van.  Luckily the driver, Diego, saw me standing on the corner with my bags and came up to me to ask if I was going to Drake.  Just another example of how the people look out for others.

It was an interesting drive that crossed several rivers, a few of which were not just puddle-deep, and had to go up a muddy hill.  I could see now why this place was so difficult to get to.

I got him to drive me to my next hotel, Vista Drake, where I had a fantastic, spacious room with 2 beds and teeny geckos on the walls for $35 a night (booked on hotels dot com).  The owner, Emilio, made me feel at home right away.  He had built most of the place himself and lives there with his family.  The woodwork was beautiful.

It was starting to get really hot in this part of the country.  There was no AC, just windows and fans.  As I was getting situated, I saw these guys outside my bedroom window.  I was so happy!  Finally!!


At this point, it was reaching afternoon time and I was exhausted.  The trip up to this point was SO busy, I had packed so much in.  But, I was there, and of course, exploring until I dropped was required.

Costa Rica is hilly and Drake is no exception.  Again, it is all dirt roads.  To get to the beach I walked down a steep hill, and there are other hotels and restaurants scattered around.  There’s a trail that goes partially along the ocean and partially a little inland, starting at that town beach.  It passes by a lot of very expensive and fancy resorts, and many sections of ocean front including some beaches.  I only went a part of the way.  During this walk, the scenery of the ocean didn’t make my jaw drop or my eyes go wide, but that was okay.  I am not sure if I would have been more awe-stricken if I was fresh and hadn’t adventured so hard the first few days.  I still enjoyed it, of course, and in a way can appreciate it more now looking at these photos.  It was true, unspoiled Costa Rican scenery.


That evening I walked (uphill this time) to get some food for the next couple days.  I was just making tuna and avocado sandwiches, but I was THRILLED to get an avocado.  That speaks to the lack of variety of the food in general.

The next couple of days were tours I had been so excited about: rainforest tour in Corcovado National Park and snorkeling tour.  Corcovado is known for having some of the best wildlife around because it is very remote and protected.  The tour was fun; the scenery was the same as I had already seen, but the point was the wildlife.  We saw some amazing birds, more monkeys and some super cool land mammals too.


Tapir, cooling herself off.

There were some interesting people on this tour as well – from France, Canada, and Belgium.  As a result of that they all spoke French, so were conversing in that to be comfortable, but some spoke very good English.  Most notably I met two girls from Paris.  They made sure to speak to me in English so that I didn’t feel left out and we got to know each other.  I went to the beach with them later that afternoon, had dinner with them that night, and also had dinner with them the following night after my snorkeling tour.

See what I mean about not being able to stop meeting people?  I still keep in touch with one of the Parisian girls as well.

The snorkeling tour was great – swam near a big school of fish for a while and a sea turtle almost swam into me!

During my Corcovado tour, there was a pile of trash bags in one spot that was somewhat close to the ocean.  I was told it was garbage coming in from the sea, and they collect it and take it out by boat.  It was the first time that pollution in our oceans was made real to me – and that was literally a drop in the bucket.  After seeing those magnificent turtles and land life, it was a slap in the face to see our garbage in their habitat.  And – AND – Costa Rica is amazing at recycling.  So much better than the US.

After 3 nights in Drake it was time to make my way up to Manuel Antonio for the wedding.  It was VERY touristy; worlds different from the places I had just been.  They did have beautiful beaches, and the monkeys were abundant and curious.  Also, it was HOT.  The wedding was fun, resort was gorgeous, it was the best food I had all trip, and I made more friends.

My last day, I took the bus back to San Jose and met up with another couchsurfer Maria.  She and her boyfriend picked me up from the station, and while her boyfriend worked she took me around that day.  I was beyond exhausted at this point and I could barely do anything.  She didn’t even blink an eye.  She graciously took me around and we killed time until her boyfriend was ready to have dinner with us.  She made me feel at home in her spare room, and they woke up before 5am the next day to take me to the airport.  I have met some amazing people, but there have not been many times in my life I have come across that level of kindness and hospitality.  I hope I can see you again Maria and Jose!!


Maria and I at the big Alajuela sign!  (the town she lives in, where the airport is)

Clearly, Costa Rica is a beautiful country with a lot to offer for any traveler.  The food was the only thing that was lacking.  Minimal variety and way too much fried food.  However, the people and the culture, both with the travelers and locals I met, were unparalleled.  For a trip that I undertook mostly on my own, I felt more of a sense of community and belonging than I feel in my daily life at home.  The US could learn a lot from Costa Rica; mostly, I don’t feel that we take care of each other enough here.  We are very self-absorbed and constantly just looking out for ourselves.  As a result, I feel a lot of people are very lonely, including myself.  When everyone you talk to wants to help you and make you feel welcomed and loved, life is automatically good.

Pura Vida!


Winter in Kingfield and Sugarloaf, Maine. Feb 23-26, 2018

I love New England.  It has so much character and charm.  You can usually be at the ocean or the mountains within two hours, or rivers and lakes if you prefer.  The architecture is amazing, especially if houses have been cared for over the years.  People are, for the most part, unapologetically themselves.  The aesthetics and the culture give New England a “this is me, take it or leave it” vibe.  I grew up this way, so being around that vibe feels like home to me.  It’s very different from where I am now, in Greenville, SC.

Recently I visited to go on a ski trip.  I flew into Windsor Locks, CT, spent the day with my family, then headed up to Maine with one of my closest friends and ski buddies from home.  The destination was Sugarloaf Mountain, which was on our bucket list.  Also, the snow and weather had been terrible for most of this winter, and way up near the Canadian border was the only place that had a decent weather forecast.  We stayed in Kingfield, Maine at a bed & breakfast called Mountain Village Farm B&B.

Kingfield, set in the Carrabassett Valley along the Carrabassett River, is a quintessential small New England town.  It was absolutely adorable and I LOVED it.  It was exactly what I wanted this trip to be like.

We arrived late Friday night and were greeted by one of the B&B owner’s handsome, friendly kitties before going to bed.  The house, like many in this town, was an old farmhouse and looked beautiful at night.


From the breakfast cafe, looking at the kitchen.


The B&B during the day.

The next morning we headed to Sugarloaf, about a 20 minute drive.  We knew we were taking a chance with the snow conditions, but we didn’t have much of a choice, because I had needed to plan the trip ahead of time due to work and getting plane tickets.  You can get your money back if you quit skiing by 10:30am.  We took one run, and the conditions were loose groomed granular with some icy patches.   I loved every second; I grew up skiing in those conditions so I was in my comfort zone as I zoomed down the mountain.  However we knew it would only get icier and made the decision to leave.

We found trails to hike instead.  They were snowed over but are maintained by NAMBA – a mountain biking group.  So the snow is groomed flat for hiking and fat tire biking.  How cool is that?

We had a blast, just walking and playing in the snow like little kids.  The river was a broken glacier on a teeny scale.  The river froze, then warmed, and blocks of ice separated, dispersed all over by the flowing water.


Broken up ice.  If I’m going to photo blog, I think I need to learn how to take better pictures.



Pete and I crossing the river


Sunday we skied, but it was rough.  Windy, icy, snowy, and frigid.  We left early and walked on the property.  More playing in the snow.  I felt like a silly little kid and loved every second.


Trees on the B&B property.

The rest of the time we had was spent exploring the town, eating, and getting coffee.  Interestingly, there is a local coffee roaster – Carrabassett Coffee Company.  Every restaurant and coffee shop in the area, including at Sugarloaf, serves their coffee and it is fantastic.

Places of note were Inn on Winters Hill – excellent food in a beautiful setting which felt luxurious yet still full of old New England classic charm.  It was in another old barn slash house that has been redone.  The second place I loved was The Orange Cat Cafe, which was colorful and delightful.  Apparently the orange cat used to live there.


The Inn on Winters Hill.


Orange Cat Cafe


Random, beautiful house

I can’t recommend Kingfield enough.  It was a cozy, convenient place to park for a ski weekend at Sugarloaf with plenty to see.  I would go there again, hopefully in good weather, to explore the mountain more.

…. and if all else fails, you can curl up with wine and fall asleep in front of the fire at the bed & breakfast.



Traveling Peru: The Inca Trail. Oct 12-15, 2017

The anticipated Inca Trail.  Like most people who enjoy traveling, going to Machu Picchu has been on my wish list for a long time.  At a younger age I never thought I would be able to handle the Inca Trail.  However, maybe 10 or so years ago I started hiking more and more, and gradually fell in love with it.  The more I hiked, the more it became my main hobby and workout.  I have had a few hikes where I have truly hated every second, tons of hikes where I could not wait to be done, and many, many others where I was just apathetic.  On the flip side some of the greatest feelings of joy in my life have been hiking – such as reaching Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin in Maine (see slide 2 in the link), reaching the top of Looking Glass Rock on the first vacation I had ever taken alone, and and climbing the ridge of Angel’s Landing on Zion National Park.  I’m always chasing those feelings now.


At the top of Baxter Peak, Mt Katahdin, Maine.  Knife’s Edge ridgeline hike is in the background… I did not do it …. still on my bucket list!

I’m disappointed to write that I did not enjoy most of my time on the Inca Trail.  To say I’m sad about that doesn’t quite explain how it feels.  To have had such a lack of joy during one of the most amazing treks in the world, despite the scenery, gigantic peaks, deep valleys, and historical archaeological sites you can’t see anywhere else in the world, is a feeling I can’t come up with a word for.

I just want to say up front that this is my own personal account.  There are countless blogs and tons of information out there about traveling and about this trek, and mostly it’s all about the amazingness.  Travel writing is good at just showing the positives.  (Here’s an example…. but this blog also gives a lot of great information about the trail as well.)  My point here is to give my honest, very personal story and account for how I felt at various points of the trip, while also showcasing what it’s like along the way.

Everyone is different.  Different hikers, different expectations, different attitudes, different hopes and most importantly, different reactions to the altitude.  I think that every person who wants to do this, should do it.  I actually want to do it again in a lot of ways (even though I told myself I would never do it again).  I also was firmly convinced I wanted a break from hiking when I got home, and I was back on the trails two weeks after I got back home.

The main problem was the altitude kicked my rear end.  I did not get sick in any way, but I had to go very slow.  The hiking itself was all stuff I could handle no problem, even though I’d never done four days of hiking before.  However the altitude made my heart race if I pushed myself, and it was not an option to go at my normal pace.  The whole four days took every single ounce of my energy just to get through it.  In addition to the above difficulties, the slower digestion, the cold nights, the fact that I felt isolated from my group, and the strict schedule we were on drained me.  When you’re this drained, it’s hard to be excited about anything.  The pleasure chemicals in my brain that dance and sing when I hike somewhere amazing were too tired to go to work.

Quick History

The trail is part of the Inca civilization which dates back over 500 years.  Cusco was the Inca people’s main city, and the archaeological sites all had purposes.  It seemed most of them served in part as residences.  The sites had all sorts of other purposes such as storage, agriculture and worship.  The Incas saw their leader as a living God, and the people also worshiped nature – the sun, stars, moon.  The trail was a religious pilgrimage leading to this city, purposely difficult for people to get to.  Some of the sites along the way also require climbing some very steep stairs and are on the edges of cliffs.

Day 1

The night before the trail, we had an orientation.  (David, my Peruvian travel companion couldn’t come along on the Inca Trail.)  I got my duffel bag that I would pack for the porters to carry, containing sleeping bag, clothes, and everything I knew I wouldn’t need in a day pack.  (The porters do all of the work – carrying, cooking, setting up tents.  For our small group of 6, there was 1 guide.)  We learned how the trek would go.  Included are water, tents and three meals a day while actually on the trail.  I woke up in Cusco around 3:30am, got ready and walked to one of the city squares to catch our bus.  The bus stops in Ollantaytambo for an overpriced and sorry looking buffet breakfast, which I did not partake in.  I would recommend bringing breakfast this first day if you do the trail.  We chit chatted a little bit, and the bus continued to the start of the Inca Trail.

Some companies do things differently in terms of how far to go each day.  Our first day was 10 miles of relatively flat terrain, with some incline towards the end.  Day 1 was not bad for me at all, though at the end I got a taste of what the incline was doing to me.  We happened upon our first ruins and saw beautiful scenery.


The porters getting ready; they hike separately from us, and have to go through a checkpoint where it’s ensured that the total weight limit is adhered to.



Early in the first day



The site called Patallacta (or Llactapata).  It was used for storage and growing food.


Wild horses – at the same spot where the ruins in the previous picture are visible.


My own plate for lunch to accommodate for my dietary restrictions

Now would probably be a good time to talk about the FOOD!  The food was absolutely insane.  Ridiculous.  Delicious, and came in very large quantities, buffet style mostly.  As grateful I was for it, it was actually too much.  Partly due to slowed digestion and partly because of the constant activity level, I wasn’t that hungry at meals after the first day.  And I didn’t want to look at a carrot or a piece of broccoli…. I just wanted carbohydrates.  I think most tour companies would have great food like this, and I’m sure in your research you would find out.

Every day we had a great setup like this for all three meals.  They had boiled water and gave us warm buckets of water to wash our hands before every meal.  They also met us with some sort of juice or water.  In the mornings they had small snacks for us to carry. After each day was complete and we arrived at the campsite, the porters were there and had set up everything.  Cook tent, sleep tents, everything.   After dinner, we went to bed around 7pm.  This was average, with 10 hours of sleep.

Day 2

The second day is known to be the hardest.  This was when we would climb two huge peaks and go over the famous Dead Woman’s Pass – the highest point on the trek, apparently named because once you cross and look back up, the terrain looks like a woman lying on her back.  The cover photo from my blog is the approach to this pass.  I’ve read different elevations, but our tour company said 13,779′.

During this part of the trek you’re basically walking on the side of a mountain, with a valley below you and mountains on the other side.  The mountains are a V-shape, and you’re on a trail that was carved into the side of one of them.


The bottom of the V up above is Dead Woman’s Pass.  If you follow the trail on the left with your eyes, you can see where the green trees stop on the mountain and if you look SUPER close you can see a yellow speck.  That is a porter from another company on the trail.


Looking backwards during the climb to Dead Woman’s Pass


The classic photo at the top of Dead Woman’s pass, with the background being where we came from

Some quick side notes.  To clarify how the guided hike worked, some of the time the guide would be leading us. He would make periodic stops, explaining things.  The rest of the time, he would let us all go at our own pace and hang back behind for a while.  On the end of the first day, I started to get behind my group when the uphill sections started.  The second day, it seemed to be that while I was behind, everyone assumed I was fine and didn’t need anyone to hike with.

I don’t have a memory of a moment where this started to bother me, but it did.  I thoroughly enjoy hiking alone; I do it ALL the time.  In this case though, I was relying on a group.  I didn’t have a plan, a map, a way to control the situation or my own transportation at the end of the day.  I was left behind, isolated.  In the middle of the Andes Mountains in Peru, I would never have let anyone hike alone if they didn’t want to – I would at least ask them if they wanted a companion.  This was not a consideration given to me by any of my group members.  I did not want someone to make small talk with or to take care of me, I just wanted to feel like I existed as part of a team.  This was the norm for the whole entire rest of the hike.  While it was only a piece of the puzzle, I absolutely would have enjoyed the experience much more if I had a friend or a cohesive group.

(I also want to clarify, that I could have asked my guide to be with me if I needed it.  The above scenario was NOT his fault.  A couple of times he did catch up and hike with me.  Otherwise, I chose not to wait for him or ask him to hike with me.  He was a bit chatty which I didn’t want to be around, and there were probably other factors going on such as feeling spiteful for being left behind.)

The second half of the second day came the rain.  It was a likely occurrence, given that it’s the mountains, and given that it was the end of their winter and the rainy season would start soon.  It started slow but the rain gained strength.  We had to all stop hiking to put our rain gear on.  Stupidly, I did not have a pack cover; I had never even seen one before (how??).  So we got wet, and a lot of the things in my day pack were wet or damp.  At day’s end we were able to get changed and dry before it got too cold, but some things were wet until days after the trek was over.


It was sometime this day that I started fantasizing about sitting in the Museo del Cafe in Cusco, looking at my pictures, reviewing the trip, and just relaxing in a warm inviting place with endless amounts of coffee.  (I am not an every day coffee drinker, but I do love it, especially while traveling.  I had been going very light on coffee and alcohol since I arrived in Peru in order to stay hydrated at the altitude.)

I have to say, though – look at those pictures.  Just, wow.  That was the most beautiful part of the trek.

Day 3: Cloud Forest

Day three is probably the most blurry in my mind.  We had actually entered the jungle – the cloud forest – the day before.  The plants were different, and it was very interesting.  It was completely foggy for most of the day in the mountains (not so much on the trails themselves) so scenery was non-existent.  It was a shorter day for us, and the first day that I remember feeling soreness in my legs.  My memory of this day consists of stairs.  Stairs, stairs, and more STAIRS.  We went through a site called Phuyupatamarca, and then descended what was estimated to be about 3,000 stairs.  Some of this was very steep.  I went slow and utilized my hiking poles.  I had moments on this section of sadness and isolation.  It was a bit of a rough day.  Coffee was calling my name.



Llamas along the trail on day 3. You can see how the vegetation has changed.


The site called Intipata seen on the third day.


Gives an idea of what we were dealing with in terms of being able to see the sites that day.

We went to another site called Intipata, went to camp for lunch (we were done hiking for the day), and then went to a great site called Winay Wayna.  I was having some moments of clarity and really enjoyed this site.  It was super steep and made for some great pictures.


The stairs we had to come down through Intipata. After already climbing down 3000 stairs that day. 🙂


This was one of the coolest sites we saw.


Winay Wayna


Fog cleared up a bit for some scenery.

Day 4: Machu Picchu

We went to bed fairly early as usual and the next morning was the (relatively) short hike to Machu Picchu.  We had to get up at 3:30am, and camp was very close to a waiting area.  At this point of the hike, there is another checkpoint for tickets, and they don’t open that gate until about 5:30am.  There was a bench and a small covering; we got there early and were the second or third group.  So we sat and waited.  It started lightly raining at this point.

By the time we were good to go, the rain was pretty steady.  It was a single file line of lots of people on a rocky, relatively flat path.  This first part of the hike was about an hour, and the sun started coming up.  Because of the rain and wetness, it was mostly people concentrating on their feet and focusing on the walking.

This part of the hike takes you to the Sun Gate.  This is a famous landmark of the Inca Trail, where you can see Machu Picchu in the distance if you have a clear day.  Needless to say we saw nothing but fog.  It was disappointing in a heart wrenching way.  Not only because of no view here, but because this meant visibility down at MP would be similar.  I had worked SO hard for this, waited for so long, and spent too much money on it, and this is what I got.

We continued another 45 minutes or so down to Machu Picchu.  We saw some people along this path who were going up from Machu Picchu to the Sun Gate and they looked WAY too happy and optimistic.  We were all soaked by this time.  My boots didn’t stand a chance and rain gear only got us so far.  We didn’t get dry until about 2 or 3 that afternoon.

This is the culmination of the hike; this is the main reason why you have just spent three days and a miserable wet morning on this journey.  In other circumstances I may have felt overwhelmed with awe, happiness and an adrenaline rush when I arrived at MP.  This day, it was a bit anti-climactic.

Okay, Machu Picchu was still super cool.  I’m glad to say I truly enjoyed being there, exploring and learning despite the circumstances.  All we could see was the site; almost no mountains or peaks in the background.  It was a little hard to care at that point, I was just happy to be there.



The best, clearest pic that was snapped of me in the classic photo spot.


At this part of the site, the earth is shifting and part of it is sinking, accounting for the slanted rock on the left side.


The lonely little peak



I love the construction of the walls with the different sized rocks.


Another example of the amazing and beautiful craftsmanship of the Incas.


The round building at the top is the Torreon – a famous landmark in MP.  It is the Sun Temple.  They aligned the windows directly with the sun on the solstice, and our guide explained that it was a way of keeping track of the months. 

The Incas were found to be brilliant at engineering and other skills.  They had tools to make the stone constructions like what you see above, they figured out how to have runners go from place to place in order to communicate across huge distances (some of the small sites you see early in the trek were for refueling and resting), and they even figured out how to take crops and get them accustomed to different elevations so they could grow agriculture where they needed to.  Every website I read, the tour guide, and the book Turn Right at Machu Picchu all give different sets of information from different perspectives on history and significance of this region.  It’s a bit hard to sort out.

I managed to stay with my group as we explored on our own, after our tour was over.  We had to wait a long time for the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the bottom of the mountains.  It’s cute but a tourist trap.  We had an overpriced bland meal in that town, got our stuff, and made our way to the train to Ollantaytambo.  From there the tour company picked us up and brought us back to Cusco.  I said quick, thoughtless goodbyes to my group members.

A lady on the train to Ollantaytambo accidentally grabbed my duffel back that I had packed for the porters to carry, because we were with the same company, just different days.  I tracked her down after the train ride, when everyone was making the walk to find their bus company.  She was so apologetic, we switched bags, we chatted.  Her and her husband were lovely.  It turned out they started the Inca Trail one day earlier, and just stayed overnight in Aguas Calientes after the trail instead of going straight to Cusco.  They had perfect weather on MP day (I also heard this from more people I met on Lake Titicaca), and this was the date I originally wanted.  I was just too late to book that date.  Sometimes the universe works in strange ways.

Inca Trail Travel Tips

A few things you truly must do if you’re planning to do the trail:

  • Use sunscreen and don’t scrimp on it.
  • Bring rain gear, wet wipes, hat, gloves, scarf, clothing to be hot and cold, two pairs of shoes/boots, and whatever else they may recommend.  I was able to rent rain-proof pants from a gear shop in Cusco.
  • I use a water bladder for hiking and this was very helpful – absolutely stay hydrated.
  • I brought electrolyte tablets; electrolytes are useful for feeling well in altitude.
  • Something to keep your passport and money/valuable dry, I just put all that in a plastic bag.
  • Cash to tip the porters and guide – you don’t have to, but I was very, very happy to by the end.

A few words about the porters – I loved these guys.  I respect the hell out of them.  Not one of them was as tall as me, and they were all locals from the Andean highlands.  They carry 50 pounds on their back, hike super fast, and treated us so great.  The youngest was 20 and the oldest was 60!!!  (I do wonder how much they were making fun of us in Spanish and/or Quechua.)  It was recommended they be tipped at the end, and I was very happy to do so.  David was confused about this, because he said that Peru is not a tipping culture.  I never asked or found out why this was different in that way.

Last Bits

I was hoping that writing an introspective piece about the trail would provide some clarity on my experience.  I am grappling with the experience and probably will for a long time.  I can absolutely see why people do the trails and go to MP multiple times.  It’s a lot of history and a lot to understand, and doing the trail a second time would be worlds different.  I want to see as much of the world as I can, but I would not be surprised if MP or perhaps even the Inca Trail ended up in my travel plans again someday.

Happy Trails,

Traveling Peru: Cusco Part I – City

The word I used most to describe Cusco:  Fascinating.

With its beautiful city center, charming historical neighborhoods, narrow cobblestone streets, stores on every corner with endlessly colorful clothing and accessories, markets, churches, cafes, and restaurants, I was constantly fascinated.

We arrived late morning on October 8, 2017.  The taxi to the hostel was somewhere between 10-20 Peruvian soles (divide soles by 3, and you more or less get the cost in USD).  Arrivals tip, learned thanks to David: Cusco airport is small, and at every airport in Peru, the taxi drivers will aggressively accost you asking if you need one.  Ignore them or say no gracias and walk outside the airport and down the street a little bit.  Then, get a taxi.  Cheaper.

I had booked a simple private room in a nice hostel for less than $25 a night in a neighborhood called San Blas (which turned out to be one of the most interesting and beautiful historical neighborhoods I have ever seen, in any country or city).  Upon getting there it started to rain, and it was naptime.  When resting, I could feel the effects of the altitude more for some reason, in that my heart was beating very strongly.  The plan was to take it easy that day anyway due to the altitude.

A quick note about the altitude is merited here.  Cusco is at 11,000 feet of elevation.  I live at 900 feet in South Carolina.  It’s good, and quite frankly important, to give yourself time to relax and take it easy in Cusco, particularly when you first arrive.  Everyone reacts to altitude differently; I was winded, but had no real problems.  Even so, giving yourself time and not forcing yourself to do too much is the best plan going into your trip there.  Then if you feel great, you can do more than you may have expected!  I could have spent weeks in Cusco easily.

That night we had time to walk around, see the city center and have dinner.

IMG_3806City Center at dusk.

We were in Cusco from Oct 8-12, then most of the day on 10/16/17 after I got back from the Inca Trail (which will be a post all on its own!).  Some of that time was in the city and we also had some excursions outside the city.  I will also detail those in their own post.  Our time in the city was spent walking around exploring, sightseeing, running a few errands some of which were related to in Inca Trail trek, browsing the markets, finding food, and shopping.  You can get to most places you need to get walking.  If you’re tired or going from one end of town to another (in the historic area where you would spend the majority of your time), taxis were usually pretty cheap – around 4-10 soles.


David next to an interesting building.


A narrow street in the wonderful neighborhood of San Blas.


Lots of storefronts located on this narrow street in San Blas neighborhood.


City Center


Native woman doing her handicrafts in the city center.


A bakery in a hostel. Um, haha, what?


The obligatory Cathedral in the city center.


Native woman walking an alpaca around; they look for people who will pay to take pictures. I asked one how much and they said “you choose!” I was advised that they will proceed to keep asking you for more than whatever you choose to give…


A door on the extremely narrow street our hostel was on, was opened. I peeked in, and saw this.


Heladeria = ice cream shop, La Esquina = the corner.  To the right down the street was our hostel.  Had breakfast here once.


View from the top of a hill in San Blas.


Local artist setting up outside of Casa Andina hotel in San Blas neighborhood.


Fountain in the city center.

These Cusco streets were also filled with representatives from tourist companies, massage places, artists and, alongside the storefronts, restaurant workers, coming up to us and trying to get our business.  It was aggressive and quite honestly, extremely annoying.  David wanted me to say “no gracias” to all of them, but I grew tired of that very quickly and just wanted to ignore them.

Slight side note, though…. after the trip was over, the thing I regretted the most was not buying more artwork.  There were some absolutely beautiful paintings, simple watercolors on paper for example that I missed out on in Cusco because it just wasn’t on my mind, and they were SO cheap.

So…. FOOD!  It was just awesome.  My favorite dish of the whole trip was on the first night in Cusco, called sopa criolla.  David took me to a tiny little restaurant I was not likely to have found without a Peruvian to show me around.  I had this soup, and then my second favorite dish: Lomo saltado.


Sopa Criolla. Made with angel hair pasta, minced beef, other spices and flavors, and a teeny bit of egg. It usually comes with a little milk added, which I asked to not be added.  This soup was heaven in a shallow square-ish bowl.


Lomo saltado. In this restaurant, they mixed the beef and vegetables with the fried potatoes in its flavorful sauce (one of their secrets for this dish and some others is lime, which is not very common in the US). Other restaurants do not mix in the potatoes, and to me this was key.

By the way – soup is huge in Peru.  It’s served with most meals normally.  Peruvians eat a lot.

One of my other favorite things were the fresh juices.  There were juice bars in the markets, and juices in many restaurants.  They consist of just the fruit blended up with your choice usually of water or orange juice, and with water they ask if you want azucar (sugar).  They were healthy and delectable.


Breakfast with fresh juice at La Esquina Cafe.


Local market

I will likely repeat myself within this blog talking about food – but I LOVED the freshness of the food in Peru.  Everything is grown there, raised there, cooked there, baked there.  It all tasted so amazing, even the simplest sandwich.  There is no such thing as organic or local, because it ALL IS ALREADY.  This is one thing they do right, and I’m sad to say I believe the US is a complete failure in comparison.

On Tuesday October 10th, there was a huge soccer match between Peru and Columbia.  It was important regarding qualifications for the World Cup, and everybody in the country was probably watching.  We watched half of it on a big screen in the city center and the second half in a bar.  It was really fun to be a part of it, and to see the excitement and energy.


City center with the big screen in the background.


The crowd in the city center park.

The night I got back from the Inca Trail, I got a room at Casa San Blas Boutique.  I knew I was going to need a nice comfortable place to stay that was better than a hostel, and it was one of the best things I did for myself during the trip.  I found an excellent deal for just over $70 online.  The shower was hot and powerful, the room was gorgeous, and the hospitality was excellent.

The next day, I left my suitcase at the hotel while relaxing at the Museo del Cafe.  We had scoped it out previously and it has a great, small exhibit on coffee growing and cultivating in South America and Peru.  It was a beautiful cafe to relax, unwind, use wifi, and decide how/when to get to the next destination of Puno to do my Lake Titicaca tour.  (I had a sandwich with Alpaca meat there for lunch.  I was slightly sad about that, but it was delicious.  Muy rico!)

Cusco took a lot of energy out of me personally by just being there.  There was so much to take in, all the time, all at once.  Then you have the altitude and chilly nighttime temps as well.  Locals are mostly apathetic towards tourists.  Some were very nice and spoke English; the hotel and hostel owners were fantastic, the waiter at Museo del Cafe was lovely as well, but most restaurant workers do not speak English.  Even then, those that did speak English were not interested in conversing at length even though they were relatively friendly.  Therefore, the language barrier was more difficult than I had anticipated.  If I hadn’t had David to travel with, I would have needed to actively seek out other people to travel with, as it would have been too lonely otherwise.  This statement is coming from a girl who enjoys traveling alone, too – I love experiencing things through my own lens.  But this was a different scenario for me.  It would not have been the same level of enjoyment if I hadn’t had someone to share it all with.

One of the upsides of the apathetic nature of Peruvians: It was one of the safest places I have ever traveled.  Hands down.

Cusco travel tips I learned:

  • Give yourself time in Cusco, if you can.  If you do anything strenuous like one of the treks, take the recommendations seriously and give yourself the 4 days to acclimate, you will read and hear this all over.  Drink fluids and coca tea.  It’s an awesome city, spend time there!
  • It’s cold at night and sometimes chilly during the day if the sun isn’t out.  Some rooms have little heaters, but they won’t do much.  They have lots of heavy woven blankets, but dress warm.
  • I went in October, the shoulder season after summer and before rainy season.  For the most part it was very nice in Cusco.  (I wasn’t so lucky on the Inca Trail.)
  • Make it a point to eat in small, local places.  A lot of those places have an option of 1 or a few set menus at a set price, and oftentimes, those are excellent deals.
  • If you don’t have the luxury of a translator like I did (or even if you do), learn basic Spanish that you will need to order food and get transportation.  Learn numbers, and learn them well (they’re not hard).  Download google translate on your phone, or bring a little dictionary.
  • Some of the menus are very difficult to understand or translate.  If you end up in a restaurant like that, and can’t translate, it can be frustrating and a bit unnerving.  You may need to just be OK with anything you end up ordering unless you want to go to a different restaurant.  For me, it would have been helpful to have a list of dishes I was likely to find on a menu with descriptions, especially if I didn’t have my friend with me.
  • Leave room in your suitcase for souvenirs!  During my trip I bought a sweater, scarf, t-shirt, several magnets, a painting, and a few other trinkets.  You can get awesome stuff for super cheap.
  • The wifi is not very good no matter where you are.
  • There are tons of bus companies going to various places, and can be found in the bus station.  Even though you can just show up at the station and wait for a bus, I very highly recommend scoping out the station, looking at times, and also looking at bus company reviews online in order to plan any bus trips.

I really loved Cusco, and I hope to be back someday.  I want more time in the gorgeous historic neighborhoods, I want more time for museums, and I want to buy more art and some jewelry.  Don’t miss or shortchange your time in this fabulous city during your Peru journeys!

Adios for now,

Traveling Peru: Lima. Oct 7th, 21st, 22nd, 2017

I haven’t been overseas in about 10 years, and I’ve never been to South America.  It’s been on my mental bucket list for a long time, especially due to Machu Picchu.  Luckily, during most of this trip, I was traveling with a local Peruvian friend from Lima.  It was extremely helpful in terms of translating, learning where the good places to go were, transportation, food, etc.  Plus having the company!

I arrived at 11:30 at night on Friday, so Saturday was the first full day.  We went to the center of town and local market in my friend’s district, Magdalena del Mar.  I quickly found it interesting how bustling the town square area was.  The weather this time of year is spring, and on a nicer day you can wear a t-shirt.  Some days especially without sun you need more.  Also it was chilly at night.  Take note…. there is no heating or air conditioning in Peru.  For real.  It doesn’t exist in buildings.

Peru, as I found out, is full of local markets.  They are kind of like our farmer’s markets, but indoors, much bigger, and permanent.


COFFEE!!!  Peruvian beans (duh).  You have to order an Americano (espresso with water) to get the closest possible to drip coffee. I was super confused as to why they do not just brew coffee like we do.  And, I was informed that Peruvians aren’t big into coffee like we are.  Tea was a part of many of the meals I experienced.


Just one of the many eateries at the market, with the sweet potatoes already cooked and ready.


This was only a sampling of the colorful produce, with many fruits you can’t find in the US.

WP_20171007_13_21_34_ProIn the middle is cancha – Peruvian popcorn, which is extremely popular.

WP_20171007_14_44_03_ProUndoubtedly all caught this morning.

I instantly loved the market.  The variety of colorful produce catches your eye fast.  There are different sections for produce, cheeses, meats, baked goods, and lots of other types of products.  Most of these types of markets also have sections with textiles, arts and crafts, and souvenirs.  My friend said also some of them are for “magic.”  For magic tricks?  For rituals?  Witchcraft?  Not quite sure I figured that one out.  But one vendor did have dead, dried llama carcasses hanging up for sale…..


We sat and had ceviche at the market.  It was fabulous!  The pic below is just with my soup and the ingredients are in front of me.  Need I say more?
After the market, we went to Lima’s actual city center.  We walked around to more shops, saw beautiful architecture, went to a coffee shop for tea and a snack, and found some free pisco tastings (more on pisco later).


I also got a taste of the American culture that is prevalent in Peru.  A Queen video also played on the TV in a bar in Arequipa towards the end of my trip.  Oh, and a taxi driver in Cusco put a video on his phone of an American 80s song (I knew the words and for the life of me cannot remember what song it was).  I think Peruvians know more about 80s music culture in America than we do.

The next morning we boarded the flight to Cusco, which I will detail in a different post.  So I’ll continue here with the last two days of the trip in Lima.

We arrived back to Lima on Saturday, 10/21.  Getting settled took some time and we only had the evening.  We went to the district of Barranco.  From what I have read, this is the place that a lot of tourists miss, which is disappointing because it was great!  Sadly I have no good pictures of the area.  It was busy and bustling with lots of restaurants and bars, street entertainment in the main square area, has a nice lookout spot to the ocean, and is just pleasant to be in with good energy.  Since I don’t have any good pictures, click here.  The first place I want to go back to when (not if, I hope!) I go back to Lima is the Mario Testino museum.

After dinner we went to a bar called Ayahuasca and it was just beautiful.  My camera would not have done this place justice.  It was basically a mansion made into a bar.  It had what felt like endless rooms, different colors, bars, furniture, ambiance.  I also had one of the best, most fresh tasting drinks I have ever had with a fruit flavored pisco sour.

Let’s talk about pisco for a minute.  Pisco is the national alcohol of Peru.  You’re not even allowed to bring liquids into the country that is labeled with the brand name “pisco” in any way, shape or form.  Seriously.

The classic drink is a pisco sour – made by mixing it with simple syrup, an egg white for foaminess and creaminess, bitters, and whatever juices your drink of choice comes made with.  My friend told me it would be very strong, and that despite the drunkenness (I had another one earlier at dinner), I would feel fine the next day.  It hit me in a way I have never been hit by alcohol before.  I was increasingly out of it, kind of drunk, but mostly just very sleepy.  I was passing out in the cab on the way home.  But man – that was GOOD.  (And he was right – the next day I was perfectly fine.)

(The below pics are NOT mine – they are referenced underneath.)

Sunday the 22nd was a bit of an anomaly.  It was the national census, which happens every ten years.  Peruvians were ordered by the government to stay home from 8am-5pm, and volunteer interviewers were going door to door to take census information.  The rules of all this seemed very unclear, and I found lots of conflicting information online.  Tourists were allowed to roam free, and personnel such as transportation and museum workers were allowed to get registered early to not stop tourism.  I decided to ride my friend’s bike to the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia del Perú.  It was very quiet on the bike ride there – some locals out, very few cars, and only three other people in the museum.  I was a little bit leary that I would get stopped by police asking for my passport – but nothing happened.

My friend loves this museum; I was relatively unimpressed but I did learn a few things.  It has only a few exhibits in English, and some were closed.  I am not a person who is into looking at tons of artifacts when I go to a museum, I more enjoy the historical and science aspects of these learning experiences.  I think a lot of people would enjoy, but it wasn’t my thing.  The building was pretty and it was very interesting to ride around a neighborhood of Lima, Peru that was very local and not at all touristy.

The city came to life again after 5pm, and that evening we went out to Miraflores.  This is the area you usually hear about as a tourist, and even though my friend had told me many times it is not very interesting, I was in Lima, and I wanted to see it.  A part of it consists of a string of parks alongside the ocean, which are very pretty, but you basically just walk and look.  Since I don’t have any good pictures you can see some of that here, and below is what most of the oceanside looks like.  You can’t actually access the ocean from here because it’s all on cliffs.

Next we went to Parque Kennedy.  It is a park with cats everywhere.  Super cute, but I was reading that due to the fact that this exists now and the cats are fairly safe, people tend to abandon their unwanted cats there.  I saw a sign that there are some efforts going on to get them adopted.  As a cat lover, though, I was kind of in love with the sight of cute lovable kitties in a beautiful park with flowers everywhere.
The rest of that area of Miraflores was just a normal city.  It was fine but nothing overly special.  This was my last hurrah in Peru, as I had to be at the airport around 10:30pm that night for an overnight flight back to Atlanta.Like I said earlier, I would definitely go back to Lima.  I really hope to some day.  Maybe it’s changing, but I don’t understand the reputation it has as a place that you don’t want to spend much time in.  I could spend a week there easily.  There is much more to see than I did, more places to eat, more museums to go to, and more pisco to drink!!