This ancient Inca site has centuries-old secrets trapped in its walls— and more recent ones that we spill here.
Except that it wasn’t really lost. It was abandoned, to prevent the Spanish conquistadores from destroying it. While it went off the radar to much of the world until Hiram Bingham “discovered” it in 1911 (he was actually looking for a different city - Vilcabamba), locals had long known the site, and it was a young local boy who showed Bingham the way.
Because the Spanish never found Machu Picchu, the site has remained nearly intact. In person it is even more impressive and much larger than I had imagined it.
We took the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu town, where you get the bus up to the famous site. The train ride was beautiful, winding through the mountains and along the Urubamba River.
We spent two days at Machu Picchu, taking a guided tour the first day, and leaving the second to hike up to the Sun Gate and have some time to wander and appreciate this incredible piece of history. We got lucky with the weather. It was a clear, sunny day the first day, allowing us to see the vastness of the site and surrounding mountains.
Our guide took us through the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, showed us how to differentiate the houses of the nobility from the houses of the laborers and lower class, showed us the food warehouses, and the agricultural terraces, the amphitheater and the astrological observatories.
The accuracy with which the Incas understood the land was incredible, as was the engineering of the site - the way the stones were cut and built, together with the sturdy underground foundation, have kept the ancient city nearly intact for centuries, despite earthquakes, heavy rain and mudslides, vegetation overgrowth, and now a high volume of tourists. They also had a well-organized irrigation system to keep the area from flooding, and to provide water for the crops and the community.
Even more impressive, the whole site was built without the aid of animals or vehicles. It is believed that men carried up thousands of stones from the quarry to be used for building materials. They were hard workers as well as smart workers.
The famous postcard picture.
The llamas just casually wandering around the ruins made the experience even more fun.
A chinchilla chilling in the stones.
The second day at Machu Picchu was rainy and dark, with clouds filling in around the mountains. I was glad to have seen the ruins cloud-free the day before, but the weather the second day made the whole thing feel even more spiritual and sacred.
Hiking up to the Sun Gate.
After our hike, we ran into a friend we had met on the bus ride up the day before. He was a young backpacker from Germany, and traveling solo. We ended up spending the rest of the day together, and as the sun started to come out, we found a grassy spot away from the crowds and just sat for the next few hours, taking in the scenery, amazed at what we were looking at.
I find it exciting that there is still so much to uncover, so much to learn about Michu Picchu. While there are plenty of theories as to its use by the Incas, no one knows for sure whether the site was an estate, an agricultural experimentation center, a religious site, an observatory, or maybe a bit of everything.
It is located in a cloud forest, meaning lots of rain and dense vegetation. The rapid pace at which the vegetation grows makes it difficult to uncover more of the area, but it is likely that there are more ruins left to be found.
Day two in the Sacred Valley was just as amazing as the first. We started out at the archaeological site of Moray, where the Inca experimented with growing crops at different micro-climates through a system of terraces built into a circular depression in the earth. (I’m telling you, the Inca were agricultural geniuses, figuring out how to design and build their terraced gardens without any of our modern technology).
The temperature difference between the lowest and highest terrace can be up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning they could grow and adapt a wide variety of crops.
Mom at the bottom terrace.
Me standing at the top of a circle of terraces.
Next we saw the Maras salt mines, pools of salt water that flow from an underground stream. They have been used since before the Inca, and provide an unending amount of salt to be extracted and used in various products.
The pools sit on the side of the mountain, and there are thousands of them. Anyone native to Maras has the right to a free pool, as long as they take care of it. Supposedly the salt is even healthier than sea salt, and is used in a multitude of products, which you could buy at the entrance. We left with soap, lip balm, and cooking spices all made there.
The Maras salt pools.
We ended the day with a second community visit, this time with the Chichubamba community.
We had learned while driving through the Sacred Valley that when someone is selling Chicha drink (a fermented maize drink), they put a yellow flag outside their home or shop. If they’re selling Chicha and food, they put a yellow and red flag out. And, as rumor has it, if they’re offering Chicha, food, and have someone to marry off, they put out a three-colored flag. Today we would be learning to make Chicha, and the process is fairly complex.
Different types of maize that result in different flavors of Chicha.
The old way of grinding the maize.
And the new way, using a machine.
The ground maize sits in the sun to dry.
After, the maize is mixed with water and sugar and boiled.
Finally, the boiled mixture is strained and kept in a pot for 1-3 days to be fermented. (Traditionally, it is fermented by women’s saliva, but this one wasn’t).
Trying the finished product. A large class of Chicha like this is usually around $1 and comes with some food to munch on at the bar or house.
Most people play this game while enjoying their Chicha. It’s a bit like hacky sack. You throw coins and try to get them in the holes or in the frog’s mouth to win points. The most points wins.
While visiting the Chichubamba community, we also learned to make ceramics and chocolate from cocoa beans, all done right in the people’s homes.
Picking out the best cocoa beans.
Of course, we had to buy some chocolate on the way out!
After an incredible few weeks traveling around Ecuador with my parents, my mom and I spent some time in Peru. And let me tell you, Peru certainly worked its magic on us. To avoid altitude sickness we started at low elevation in the Sacred Valley. We stayed in Urubamba, and spent four days exploring the nearby ruins and visiting indigenous communities.
We began day one seeing the Pisac market - a famous market where the locals sell everything from sweaters, backpacks and other textiles, to jewelry, cookware, knick-knacks, and alpaca goods. It’s hard not to be tempted to buy something here, you’re surrounded by beautiful colors and artistry.
After the market we made our way to the Pisac ruins, where we saw the large agricultural terraces designed by the Incas. I was amazed at the strategic crop organization and use of the natural landscape. The Incas were always respectful of the earth (Pachamama), never altering the natural formation of the land, and instead using the mountains to their advantage - by planting crops at different levels along the mountainside they could grow a variety of plants that required different temperatures to thrive.
We also saw the impressive stone structures where they lived, which have survived the test of time. The smoother, more accurately positioned stones are evidence of leader’s homes. Life in an Incan community functioned with a hierarchy - and the nobility were thought to be descendants of the sun god, Inti.
Mom and I at the Pisac ruins.
That afternoon we visited the Amaru community, an indigenous community that runs a Tourism Association Center. They greeted us with flower necklaces, flute music, and big smiles. They dressed us in their traditional dress, with big, flowing skirts and a hat. They prepared the famous almuerzo (the traditional lunch) for us, which included herbal tea using leaves from their land, soup, rice, and a vegetarian omelette of sorts. It was delicious. We spent lunch attempting to make small talk, translating between Quechua, the official language of the Incas, Spanish, and English.
Outside the house, with some of the Amaru community.
After lunch Mom and I were taken outside to take part in a ritual honoring Pachamama (Mother Earth). We sat in a circle on the ground, and listened while the woman who appeared to have a central role in the family and community recited a prayer of thanks to Pachamama, and asked for her continued nourishment. She buried a small pile of coca leaves in the ground, a symbol of gratitude for the blessings provided by Mother Earth. Then we each were given three coca leaves to chew. Aside from its spiritual significance, the coca plant is said to take away hunger and fatigue, allowing farmers to work all day on their land without stopping to eat or rest. We took a moment of silence to appreciate the earth and show our respect.Then we followed our guides to learn about and collect medicinal plants, which we stored in our skirts tied up to serve as a bag.
When we returned to the house, it was time to learn about the process of making textiles - shearing sheep, spinning wool, making natural dyes, and weaving. They typically divide the day in two parts - farming in the morning and making textiles after lunch. It’s a tedious and detailed process, taking days to make even a small purse or scarf. Children start learning to weave when they are adolescents, about 10-12 years old, and when a girl can do every part of the process on her own she is considered ready for marriage.
Learning to weave. It’s harder than it looks. (Suffice it to say, I am not ready for marriage. haha!)
Since they live in relative isolation, apart from the cities and relying solely on the community for their daily needs, children don’t attend school, and instead education is passed down from generation to generation, teaching them how to live off the land and provide for themselves within the community.
Learning about their way of life, the simplicity of it all, their strong connection to the earth and the spirituality they find through nature was inspiring and put a lot into perspective for me. They knew little about the world outside their village, but they lived with a profound sense of peace. They were happy. They were free of the stresses of much of modern life- societal expectations of success, the dangers of technology, oppressive violence and other woes. They had what they needed and they took no more. As someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety for years, and who has seen people I love struggle with the same, it was an intriguing lifestyle and a breath of fresh air. I have never felt such inner calm and peace as I did in Peru.
That’s not to say they lead a life free of problems. Of course not. We all have our struggles, and our ways of coping with them, and these people were no exception. But what a sweet release it was to be in nature, to get back to basics, to forget about all of the trivial stresses we find so important when our heads are clouded by outward demands and pressure.
I absolutely loved visiting this community. It opened my eyes not only to their way of life, but to my own. How refreshing it is to gain some perspective and realize there is far more than one way to lead a happy life.
Despite our best efforts to stay healthy while traveling, sometimes we get sick, injured, have an unfortunate lapse of food poisoning, or just feel tired. Traveling exposes us to a variety of
I’ve used at least half of these remedies while traveling. You are almost guaranteed to get sick at some point, especially if traveling for a longer period of time, so don’t go anywhere without these!
Last stop in Ecuador: Otavalo, in the northern highlands.
I took my parents to my favorite hostel, Hosteria Rose Cottage, where I’ve stayed twice before. The surrounding mountain views are unbeatable and offer such a peaceful atmosphere to relax and reconnect. My parents loved our little house, which my dad called our dollhouse.
Outside our dollhouse!
Day 1: Parque Condor & a fancy dinner by Lago San Pablo
Our first afternoon in Otavalo we spent at Parque Condor, a bird sanctuary and rehabilitation center. The Andean Condor is a symbol for South America, a giant bird (one of the biggest flying birds in the world) in the vulture family with a wingspan of up to 10.5 feet! They are now endangered, and Parque Condor is trying to protect them, as well as other birds such as owls, eagles, hawks, and smaller birds.
We walked around the sanctuary reading about all of the birds before seeing a flight exhibition in the sanctuary amphitheatre. It was amazing to see the birds fly free, all the while returning to Parque Condor. We all got the chance to hold one of the birds, too!
Beautiful views walking through the park.
After the Condor Park, we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at Puerto Lago Inn, right on the banks of San Pablo lake. We sat by the window, overlooking the water with a perfect view of Volcan Imbabura, the largest volcano in Otavalo.
Day 2: hiking around Rose Cottage to the waterfall
On our second day in Otavalo we spent the morning hiking the hills behind the property with beautiful, panoramic views. From Rose Cottage, you can see four different volcanoes in the province.
After about 3 hours of hiking, we were pretty tired, and spent some time relaxing at Rose Cottage, laying in the hammocks, hanging out with the dogs (who followed us everywhere! a new part of the family haha), reading, and taking in the views.
Mom enjoying the mountainside view.
Dad exhausted after our hike.
Our new friend.
Day 3: The famous Otavalo market & horseback riding in Peguche
Saturday morning we got an early start, and went to the market by 8am for some shopping. The Saturday market is HUGE, with vendors sprawling out into every side street. It can be overwhelming, but if you’re patient, you can find some great deals on anything from alpaca blankets and sweaters, to jewelry, to art, to backpacks and purses, to different textiles.
After a few hours of shopping, we made our way to Peguche, one town away, for horseback riding with Juan and his son, Sebastian. It turned out to be a wonderful experience riding to the Peguche waterfall and through the countryside, up to a tree called el Lechero, which is said to have healing properties. Though we only signed up for one hour, Juan took us out on the horses for 3 hours, showing us different plants and sights along the way, and telling us the legends of the surrounding countryside. Sebastian, who is about 9 years old, had a ball with his horse, riding backwards and sideways and spinning around, eagerly taking our picture and telling us stories.
El corazón (the heart) in the side of the mountain. According to legend, a giant stepped on the volcano, making this shape.
El Lechero, the healing tree, with our guide, Juan.
Hugging the tree sends you some of its healing magic.
After a few beautiful days in Otavalo, we spent Sunday resting at Rose Cottage for the morning, until it was time to move closer to the airport. We were sad to see Dad go home and back to work, but happy to have made these amazing memories. As for Mom and I, it was almost time for the next adventure in Peru!
After an amazing 5 days in the Galapagos, it was time to go back to the Andes for more exploring.
Next stop: Cuenca, in the southern highlands.
We stayed in an old mansion-turned-hotel called Casa de Aguila, and the antiques and old-style architecture was beautiful.
Breakfast in the hotel.
Resting with some tea out on the balcony.
We spent our first day in Cuenca exploring the city, shopping at the market in Plaza San Francisco, walking the streets, the river, and the park, and enjoying some quiet after a busy week in the Galapagos.
Walking by the river.
Day 2: Visiting Ingapirca, one of the few remaining Incan ruins in Ecuador.
We learned how to identify the style of rocks used and built by the Inca. They were near-perfect, and have stood the test of time. The Inca were experts at using the land and connecting to Mother Earth, with an intricate system for farming and water filtration. We saw an Inca home, the farming terraces, the houses where virgins were kept before being sacrificed, and walked the path to see an Incan face on the side of the rock. Before we left, my dad tried canelazo, a local hot alcoholic drink made from aguardiente, sugar, and cinnamon.
Day 3: Cajas National Park
Our last day in Cuenca we decided to do some hiking at the nearby Cajas National Park. We took a bus about an hour to the park, and bundled up for the cold, but beautiful walk around the lake.
Despite the cold and drizzling rain, the walk was wonderful, taking about 2 hours through the mountains. We ended at the refuge, and sat by the fire to warm up and eat some lunch before catching a bus back to the city.
Our last night in Cuenca we took a walk through the park after a delicious dinner of pizza and wine, and were greeted with a parade and fireworks on the way home, in celebration of a religious holiday in the city. It was the perfect end to our stay in Cuenca!
Next stop: the Galapagos!
(photos courtesy of my mom - can’t complain about all her picture-taking this time!)
I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the Galapagos this year, as it can get expensive having to fly out to these famous islands. Luckily, my parents decided to include it in our trip, and I’m so thankful I was able to share that experience with them!
We flew into Baltra, a small island with just the airport and a military base. We were all surprised at how dry and desert-like the island was. I had pictured a lush, almost tropical environment. But, while the wildlife is incredible, the islands themselves are still young to have much vegetation. From the airport we took a bus to the other side of the island, where we saw some wild tortoises and explored a cave formed by lava!
After lunch, we took a boat to Santa Cruz, where we took another bus to the harbor, where we took a little water taxi to our hotel. This is how transportation was for the week- boat, bus, boat, bus. It was cool to get to so many places only by water!
Waiting for the water taxi to our hotel, Finch Bay!
We stayed on land, in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz in a wonderful hotel, and took day trips out on the boat to three different islands: Santa Fe, Plaza Sur, and Bartolome.
My parents in front of the harbor on Santa Cruz.
Santa Fe island
Our first day we traveled to Santa Fe island. There we saw sea lions, land iguanas (they never go in the water, and instead wait for their food to drop from the tops of tall cacti. They are very patient, and also very territorial), a rare Galapagos hawk, blue footed boobies, pelicans, and crabs.
It was amazing how close you can get to the animals. One of our guides told us the animals don’t see humans as a threat, because they have never been hunted on the islands, and have always been protected. Because of this, they come right up to you! We were instructed not to touch the sea lions, despite their friendliness, because sea lions recognize each other by smell. If a human touches a baby sea lion, for example, its mother will not recognize it and the baby will be abandoned. So, we were very careful to keep a respectful distance, while at the same time enjoying the playful and extroverted sea lions.
A photo from the water taxi.
On the boat on the way to Santa Fe island.
The famous blue footed boobie!
A land iguana.
Sea lions like to pose for pictures.
The hard-to-find Galapagos hawk.
The sea lions may look lazy - but they rest in between long swims between the islands, and are actually very active creatures!
After a few hours on the island for our tour, we went back to the boat for lunch and snorkeling! The snorkeling was by far our favorite activity each day. Off the coast of Santa Fe, we swam with the sea lions, who come right up close to you before playfully darting away, and I swear, they smile while doing it!
Happy, sleepy, and sun-kissed, we came back to the hotel each day to relax by the pool and clean up before a gourmet dinner. Our waiter, Carlos, was especially kind, and made the experience that much better.
Plaza Sur (South Plaza) island
Our second excursion to Plaza Sur started, again, on land and then brought even more amazing snorkeling. We saw turtles, a variety of beautifully-colored fish, and sharks! I was having so much fun in the water that I didn’t even notice the group get back on the boat, and when I finally looked up, alone in the water, everyone was calling me back. I wish I had brought an under-water camera to capture some of the amazing snorkeling, but I guess you’ll just have to go see for yourself!
Fun in the water.
Sea lions basking in the sun.
The most adorable baby bird, safe from the wind under a rock.
On the land tour of Plaza Sur.
Relaxing poolside at the end of the day.
Bartolome was the most barren of the islands we saw, with no vegetation. You can see the indentations in the volcano from lava flow. We climbed up the hundreds of steps to see amazing views of the surrounding water and volcanic cones.
After the tour of the island, we took the small motor boat around the rocks to see penguins. They were much smaller than I had imagined, but nevertheless impressive to see. At first glance, these islands don’t look like they would support much life, but the variety of animals, mammals, and birds living in the Galapagos is truly incredible.
Despite the barren volcanic rock, some plants, such as this cactus, do manage to grow here.
The pelican landed just as we raised the camera for a picture. They just love the spotlight!
On the boat!
Special dinner set up by Carlos, our waiter, on our last night. We sat between the pool and the ocean.
Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island
Our final day in the Galapagos we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, and learned about how they are preserving and protecting the giant tortoises that are famous around the islands. So that the babies are not eaten, they live at the Station until they are about 5 years old, at which point they are ready to be released into the wild. The tortoises can live over a hundred years! Though it is impossible for researchers to know the exact age of a tortoise, the size, color, and smoothness of the shell tells them approximately how old they are. Despite their impressive size, tortoises have small brains and are very simplistic. They have no need for socialization, and rarely interact with the other tortoises. They spend their lives moving slowly around the islands, staying near fresh water for bathing, and eating the grass.
Scientists believe the tortoises were once on the mainland before being moved to the islands, and a tour of Incan ruins we saw near Cuenca shows that the natives knew about the tortoises.
I realize these posts are now going to be out of order, as I have been so busy traveling and spending time with friends that I have some catching up to do. I want to write these posts with a fresh memory, so here is the most recent travels!
I spent the last three weeks traveling with my parents in Ecuador and Peru. I can´t describe how good it felt to see them again after so many months apart, and seeing them discover this beauitful place for the first time.
We traveled to Quito, Mindo, the Galapagos, Cuenca, and Otavalo before my dad had to return to work, and my mom and I set off for a mother daughter trip to Peru.
My parents tried some local Ecuadorian food our first few days in Quito, and of course they loved the fresh juices as much as I do. We spent day 1 exploring Old Town, or el Centro Histórico, with my friend Hugo, visiting the Panecillo, the big angel statue overlooking the city, the churches, the president´s palace, the museums, taking pictures with the big Quito sign, and walking around la Ronda.
First breakfast in Quito at one of my favorite fruit stands!
Having some fun at the Quito sign.
My dad loved encebollado, a typical hot fish stew, and he and Hugo drank some Ecuadorian beer, Pilsener and Club. After a teary goodbye, Hugo went back to Riobamba and my parents and I walked around Parque Carolina and went back to our hotel to rest.
Day 2 we took the Teleferico up Volcan Pichincha, and took in some amazing views of Quito. The city had always felt so small to me, since I was always in the same neighborhoods, but seeing it from the top of the mountain it sprawled for miles and miles along the valley.
At the top of Pichincha after taking the Teleferico.
Our third and final day we decided to take a daytrip to Mindo, in the cloudforest. On the way, our guide stopped at a crater, where a whole community is now living.
My parents wanted to try ziplining after hearing about my experience in Costa Rica, so we hired a guide and drove 2 hours north. My parents loved ziplining, and even tried superman position! We spent about 90 minutes and did 10 cables through the beautiful cloudforest mountains.
After ziplining, our guide took us hiking to see some waterfalls. I hadn´t seen this area of Mindo, so it was a new experience for the three of us. We hiked for a couple of hours, soaking in the sun and humidity that was absent in Quito, and ended the trip with lunch and a stop at the chocolate factory to try their famous brownies!