Salt Flats, Desert, Volcanoes, Lagoons…

…all in one little country! After being in Peru, worried almost constantly about the food and water and feeling like it was dirty no matter where we went, I did not have high expectations for Bolivia and was just looking to “get through it” and move on. I knew there was no way that we could (or should) skip it but I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it.

I wrote this blog post back in March, which feels like a lifetime ago now. We were in Bolivia Feb 29 – Mar 3 and I’m only now getting around to posting this to the blog. We have a little catching up to do, which we will try to get to over the next few weeks.

We started with just one day in La Paz upon arriving in Bolivia. La Paz is an interesting place and Robin and I both wish we had taken another day or 2 to more fully explore. I would have loved to have more time to ride around on the cable cars and even complete the whole circuit of all 10 lines. It’s amazing to me that the Teleferico is both an amazing tourist attraction but also just regular public transit for Bolivians living in La Paz! This was #50 on top 100 List of Activities. After riding the Teleferico up the mountain to the top and back down again (on the yellow line), we walked down to the neighbourhood of Sopocachi to find a spot to have some dinner. We didn’t have a plan and I was still pretty anxious about eating and drinking but as we stood in the central plaza looking around, we noticed a little cafe that appeared to have a magical theme…We walked over to El Caldero Chorreante to discover that it is indeed a Harry Potter themed cafe!!! It was so much fun and the food was good, the boys enjoyed Butter Beers and Robin and I shared a cauldron of some concoction that we had to “brew” ourselves and serve up with a ladle. With our bellies full we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel to rest for the night before catching an early flight in the morning to Uyuni.

NB: If you are visiting Bolivia and have not just come from another high altitude city (like Cusco), you will need to spend more than a day in La Paz to acclimatize to the altitude before moving on.

From Uyuni we planned to find a 3-day tour of the salt flats, hoping to leave the same afternoon so that we did not have to stay a night in Uyuni (there’s not much to do there). Being the last weekend of Carnaval, many of the tour operators were closed and not running tours! While I sat with the boys and all our luggage, Robin tried tour company after tour company, discovering that all were either full or closed. He was given a recommendation to try Tupiza Tours and landed on a winner. I did some quick google searching to find that they had largely very good reviews and from the sounds of what they were offering, it was comparable to all the other operators. The other big advantage was that there was only one other person signed up for this tour so we would be 5 people, instead of the standard 6. Kate from Montreal joined us on our 3 day adventure and she was a lovely young lady, traveling on her own, who seemed to not mind being stuffed in a car us, including 2 very chatty boys. Along with our tour guide Oscar and our driver Wilmer, we set out on an adventure of a lifetime.

Our first stop was to a train grave yard – this is more interesting historically than anything else but the boys enjoyed climbing around on the abandoned trains and taking pictures.

From there we had some administrative errands to accomplish – buying tourist tickets, picking up food for the next 3 days, etc. Once all of that was out of the way we paid a quick visit to a little town that has a bunch of vendor stalls where you can buy…just about anything. I picked up a little pair of alpaca wool socks and I was very glad later to have them! Right after the little town, we headed out to the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, located amidst the Andes in southwest Bolivia. It is a desert-like landscape of bright white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands that cover nearly 20,000 square kilometers and is #7 on our list of Top 100 Sights. We entered the salt flat and got our first look at the vast expanse of salt, with many parts covered at this time of year with a layer of shallow water, creating a mirror-like illusion. I wondered how we could possibly spend a whole day exploring a giant field of salt…but it’s possible. And super fun!

We stopped at what was once the original salt hotel, but is now a museum of sorts, for lunch where we ate the food that was prepared in advance for us at a table made of salt, sitting on stools made of salt. But you can’t eat that salt (seems obvious but some of us inquired if it was possible). After lunch we carried on across the salt flat, driving for 30-45 minutes towards a group of mountains that appeared to be both very close and very far away at the same time. The sensation was unnerving and lead to much discussion among the youngest minds in the car about perspective. We arrived in an area of the salt flat away from everyone else to take some fun pictures that would capture the perspective (or lack thereof) we were experiencing. There were lots of other trucks with other groups of tourists around but our driver and guide managed to find a spot where we couldn’t see another soul. Armed with sunblock, hats and sunglasses (“white” and “bright” just do not adequately convey the effect of the sun reflecting off the salt) we spent the next hour or so playing around with our cameras to capture some photos that will help us cherish the memory of this spectacular experience for many years.

We were still scheduled to stop and visit a spot where the water covered the salt flat to allow us to capture some of the incredible reflection pictures you sometimes see from people who have visited during the rainy season. It had not rained in 2 weeks so it took some time to find a good spot, but eventually Oscar and Wilmer found it and we got some great shots of the mountains reflected in the water, some neat pictures of us, and finally, the most amazing sunset – times two 😉

We stayed that night in a salt hotel. Do not underestimate the definition of “salt hotel” (like I did). The walls were made of salt bricks, the tables and stools were all made of salt, the mattresses rested on salt slabs beside salt bedside tables and the floors were covered in, yep, salt (the toilet, thankfully, was standard porcelain). It was weird. And fun and probably the most unique hotel experience we will ever have.

The next day we left the salt flats and headed into the desert. I didn’t really know anything about this part of the tour in advance and don’t those usually turn out to be the most fulfilling experiences in life? The ones you didn’t have any expectations for? When I go see a movie that I don’t know anything about, it almost always turns out to be the best movie I’ve seen in a while. This day was like that. No expectations, huge reward. The Altiplano region in Bolivia and the Atacama desert are incredible. We stopped at lagoons – so many lagoons! First a black lagoon, then a lagoon that was filled with hundreds of flamingos, a red lagoon, a white lagoon and a green lagoon. There were so, so many flamingos. There’s not a lot of wildlife in these areas but we saw enough flamingos for a lifetime and I had no idea there were so many types of flamingos!! There were lots of llamas and vicunas too. It was on this portion of the tour that Robin was able to console himself over missing out on #97 from our Top 100 Sights list…we (or rather he and Kieran) had planned to visit Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, in Cusco but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, they had to abandon their plans. Little did we know that we would have the opportunity to see so many rainbow mountains in Bolivia! And they are spectacular. As much as we were in and out of the truck all day and bouncing around on dirt “roads” in the desert for 10 straight hours we were continually beguiled by the ever changing and surprising landscape as we marveled at Wilmer’s ability to navigate, what seemed to us, a vast maze of dirt tracks in the desert. We arrived at our hostel for the night tired and hungry and very, very happy.

We popped outside after dinner in search of quinoa beer (yes, it’s a thing and gluten free!). We found no quinoa beer but did find a great view of the milky way in the night sky! Robin and Caleb also did an astronomical tour in the Atacama desert in San Pedro but his camera was not cooperating so you’re going to have to trust us on experiencing #48 from our Top 100 Activities list: Capture the Milky Way through the Clearest Sky on Earth, Atacama Desert, Chile. I did manage to capture a picture from outside our hostel in Bolivia using Night Sight on my Pixel 4. 

On the morning of the third day of our tour we had to wake up shortly after 4:00 to be ready to depart at 5:00. We headed in the dark back into the desert where I really wondered how on earth our driver knew where to turn left or right or go straight and we arrived at the geysers in time for sunrise. We had a few stops to make and lots of desert to cover before arriving at the Bolivia-Chile border to catch our bus at 9:00 am. It was very cold at 5000 m above sea level in the desert before the sun came up to warm the air a little and we were reminded of a very brisk fall morning at home. In a way. The border crossing was a little weird and they charged us a fee illegally to leave Bolivia, but there’s nothing you can do except smile and say thank you as you hand over your 15 BS per person. We boarded the bus that would take us across the border and into Chile and said goodbye to what has probably been our favourite South American country so far.

Peru Wrap Up

The trip is on hold, but the blog catch up goes on…

We left you last in the heartland of Peru. Caleb wrote about the amazing time we had volunteering in the Amazon Rainforest and Kieran wrote about our day in Machu Picchu.

Our final week in Peru was spent between Cusco and the Sacred Valley (similar to the week Wendy and Kieran spent while Caleb and I were in the Amazon). We had experiences on both ends of the spectrum here.

Our days in Cusco were among the most challenging on the trip – I got sick (parasite infection!) for a couple of days which kept me from being able to do much and we ended up in some accommodation that was difficult. Wendy has written a little more about this experience, but suffice it to say that between these two issues we had our first significant period of travelling stress.

After Cusco, however, we headed to a cabin in the Sacred Valley (near Calca) and this turned out to be a really terrific few days. The accomodation was extremely comfortable (really the best we stayed it at any point on the trip) and allowed for a few days of very pleasant relaxation. The valley itself is also very beautiful and steeped in history.

We did a little bit of touring around Cusco during our time there, including some impressive Incan sites in the city, but the highlight was definitely the day spent enjoying Carnaval. Carnaval is a week long celebration enjoyed all over South America, a final blowout before Lent comes around. Participating in this was one of our Top 100 Activities.

Given the more conservative culture and cooler weather of Cusco (due to the high altitude) the celebrations are not nearly as flamboyant as the pictures you will have seen from Rio – but it was nonetheless an impressive sight. The most visible part of the celebrations were the long parade of marchers in traditional Andean costumes and the children of Cusco who engaged in a huge, all day water/foam fight that played out all over the city.

No one, local or visitor, was safe from the foam – we got sprayed at on the streets from cars, from passers-by and at some point the kids bought some spray cans (being sold on the streets everywhere) and joined right in the middle of the fun. Wendy was not impressed at getting foam in her hair, but the boys had a blast. We posted some of the resulting pictures earlier on Instagram.

The centrepiece of our four days in the Sacred Valley was our day in Machu Picchu. The boys and I also got to visit the very impressive Inkariy museum which Wendy had seen the previous week and I got to enjoy the massive Incan ruins at Pisac. Outside of these cultural sites, we mostly enjoyed just a few quiet days before heading off to Bolivia.

 

A Few Thoughts on Food and Cooking

There were three entries on our Top 100 Foods list that we enjoyed during our 3 weeks in Peru. Peru does have a grape-growing region (where we visited Ica and Nazca) but they don’t produce well-known wines. Much of the grape harvest goes instead to producing Pisco, a clear, brandy like liqueur. While we enjoyed a few very tasty glasses of straight up Pisco it’s most famous use is the foundation of the Pisco Sour cocktail (#57 on our list) – together with egg-white, lemon juice and simple syrup – and we tried them in many spots and the best we tasted came from the Sacred Valley.

For the boys, our beverage of choice in Peru was Inka Kola (#18 on our list). Inka Kola is a bright yellow (or gold coloured – for the Incans) pop, that tastes like bubblegum. The boys drank A LOT of Inka Kola over the three weeks we were there, so much so that I think they’ve lost their taste for it now – too much of a good thing.

The last of our targeted foods for Peru was Cuy (#47). Guinea Pig, served in a variety of ways, can be found on the menu in both Ecuador and Peru – and it is a celebrated dish. The small town of Lamay, not far from where we stayed in the Sacred Valley is famous for its Cuy Al Palo (Roasted Guinea Pig on a Stick). I was the only one brave/interested enough to enjoy this delicacy – and I am happy to report it was quite nice, rich like roasted pig and not at all gamey.

There were other dishes we enjoyed in Peru and some of which we tried our hand at preparing at home. Lomo Saltado (stir-fried beef with tomatoes and onions, served with potato fries) and Aji de Galina (similar to a chicken curry) stand out as the best of these – Wendy makes a mean Aji de Galina.

Peru Highlights

Peru was our most challenging destination so far, the altitude, the level of sanitation and the living conditions in the cities mostly kept us from feeling fully comfortable a lot of the time.

Working through these challenges, however, gave us an opportunity to enjoy a significant number of amazing sights and experiences. The rich cultural history of Peru, most prominently from the Incan period, are on gorgeous display in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Machu Picchu lives up to its billing as a Wonder of the World. Having the chance to contribute to a conservation project in the mighty Amazon Jungle was a great opportunity. And the list goes on (Nazca lines, Sandboarding, Carnaval)…

These kinds of challenging experiences with great rewards are among the things I find most satisfying about long term travel. I hope the kids especially will remember the ups and downs of the time we spent here – there’s no doubt it’s been an adventure.

 

 

Until next time….

(Wendy's) Perspective on Peru

I did not entirely enjoy our time in Peru. For the most part, I found it dirty and smelly in the most offensive way possible and having to worry constantly about the quality of food and drink really stressed me out. People are somewhat friendly but mostly because they are trying to sell food or a tour or souvenirs, with noted exceptions of course. I found myself particularly uncomfortable in Cusco. The second place we stayed, where all 4 of us were together, was particularly offensive. It was in a neighbourhood about a 15 minute walk away (in the wrong direction) from the Plaza des Armes in a small, traditional quinta. From the dirty street that stank overwhelmingly of dog feces and urine, we entered a nondescript door that lead to a series of little alleys with doors, all leading to stairwells and apartments. Our apartment was in the back (past even more more dog crap and who knows what else) and had absolutely no ventilation to the outside, smelled horribly and had quite a bit of mould, especially on the ceiling and walls in the main bedroom. It was noisy at night because of the rain on the roof and we could hear everything from our upstairs neighbours, who were thankfully pretty quiet.

We do most of our own cooking, but I’ve worried constantly about the quality of the food that’s available and even more so on the occasions when we’ve needed or chosen to eat out. You can’t do anything with the water from the tap here and boiling the water isn’t sufficient because of the high altitude. I don’t do very well with illness, especially gastro related illness, so having this concern in the back of my head constantly was really stressful for me.

In the end, on the last night in Cusco I was feeling so stressed and uncomfortable that I booked a hotel in the San Blas neighborhood and Caleb and I left. Robin opted to stay in our original accommodations with Kieran as he wasn’t feeling well and felt that staying put would be easier than packing everything up and moving. It was such a relief to take a nice, hot shower in a clean bathroom and sleep in a clean room with nice beds. The morning found both Caleb and I in much better moods, after enjoying the breakfast that was included with our room. I’m not a high maintenance traveler and don’t mind a bit of discomfort but when I’ve reached my limit, I put my foot down. I’m grateful for Robin’s understanding and accommodating me when this happens. It’s comforting knowing that when enough is enough, I will be able to do what I need to do to keep going. It’s pretty normal for me when we are traveling to get uncomfortable at some point and we were chatting about this in hindsight yesterday (it happened a few days ago now) and Robin pointed out that so far in a month and a half of travel, I haven’t freaked out on him or had a meltdown. In the past, when I get uncomfortable or stressed I have tended to freak out and pick a fight, rather than actually talking about what’s bothering me and problem solving. This has been a big area of personal growth for me on this trip!

Thankfully moving back to the Sacred Valley has been great and we are staying in an awesome cottage in Calca on the Urubamba river. I’m glad that I’ll be able to comfortably enjoy the last few days of our visit to Peru and that the discomfort of our time in Cusco hasn’t tainted the entire experience for me.

I think the things I’ve learned through this experience are to research the area where we are planning to stay more thoroughly and be sure that it’s the kind of place we’ll be comfortable – a safe neighbourhood, relatively close to the things we want to see and do and probably an area that attracts other tourists. For other travelers visiting Cusco, I don’t there’s any reason to be deterred from visiting but if I were doing it again, I would book a hotel or hostel rather than an Airbnb and I would book at least one tour that would give an overview of all the highlights in Cusco. Then I’d go back and visit any that we were really interested in more thoroughly. The way it worked out, I ended up feeling like we missed some things that would have been interesting and wasted time on other things that we could have easily skipped.

I know that not all of us are going to love every place that we visit and that’s natural given that we’re going to 46 countries! There are so many things that have influenced my experience in Peru and I truly believe that under different circumstances, I may have loved it as much as others do and have. Perhaps one day we will return with open minds and hearts and I will find a different perspective.

Journey Interrupted…

Friends, family and followers:

The coronavirus story has been playing out in the background of our trip for several weeks now. For the vast majority of that time it existed as a consideration for our plans to travel in China and Asia next year, then it became a challenge to our Europe plans for the spring and summer.

Suddenly, over the last 4 or 5 days it’s become a very real issue for our immediate plans. By the end of last week, we knew we wouldn’t be able to go to Europe on Sunday April 1st as planned. At the beginning of the weekend it became clear that we would not be able to keep moving to any new destinations and we began to consider how we might hunker down here in Argentina for a few weeks (where there is better weather and fewer cases of COVID-19 than at home).

By the time Monday rolled around, things had escalated to the point where staying in Argentina was no longer an option either. For perfectly understandable reasons we are no longer confident that we can secure adequate accommodation here, or be welcomed at grocery stores and restaurants to keep supplied while we wait for restrictions to ease.

Faced with the prospect of these difficulties and the risks of our travel insurance or commercial flight options being compromised it’s clear that we need to come back to Canada notwithstanding the risks associated with spending time at international airports right now. We arranged flights for mid next-week and then re-arranged them to late this week and should be back in the Great White North very soon. We’ve secured some temporary accomodation where we plan first to self-quarantine and then put our plans on pause until we see whether things will improve soon enough to allow us to continue this adventure later.

Thanks to all for your messages of concern and support and all of the offers of assistance once we return home. We’re still processing how rapidly things are changing and impacting everyone so profoundly, regardless of situation, but are feeling grateful for having the opportunity of the last three months and getting to enjoy many of the highlights of Latin America. For now, our family journey continues in an unexpected direction – like everyone else, we’ll be watching and waiting to see what the future brings.

Until next time.

Image credit to Jared Downing at Frontier Myanmar

An Incan Experience

Two weeks ago my family and I went on a trip to Machu Picchu (#14 on our list of Top 100 Sights), it was a blast! The car ride to Ollantaytambo was one hour long, the train to Aguas Calientes was one hour and a half, and the bus ride to Machu Picchu was 30 minutes. At Aguas Calientes we found a guide, his name was Franco, and went on the bus to Machu Picchu.

First we walked up a big set of stairs then we went to see some llamas. After that we went to see the ruins and houses of Machu Picchu and other historic stones and rooms. My favorite part was the Temple of the Condor.

The whole experience took about six hours but it was fun. Now I am going to explain everything in the next paragraph. But first, I will explain where we were staying. When we went to Machu Picchu we were staying in Calca, Cusco, Peru.

First we got in a taxi to Ollantaytambo, then we got on a train to Aguas Calientes, then we got on a bus to Machu Picchu along with our guide. We walked up a big staircase and then we got to the top of Machu Picchu. Our guide explained about llamas and other things while we took pictures.

After we saw the llamas we went down to the bigger part of Machu Picchu where we learned about things that show different patterns when the sun is shining on it. And then my favorite part!

List of favorite things. Wendy: the train ride; Caleb: the water mirrors; Robin: the view from the top; Kieran: the temple of the Condor

 

Into the Amazon

Hi from the amazon rainforest. We are spending a week here at the volunteer centre somewhere in the middle of the rainforest. How we got here you ask? Well it started with a 5 hour bus ride from Ica to Lima which soon became a plane to Puerto Maldonado and then a car into the forest. I know it seems like a lot but it went by really fast. We are volunteering for the Wasai conservation project which runs a large a reserve on the Madre de Dios river which it a tributary to the Amazon river. This was one of our top hundred activities that I was really looking forward to.

When we got to the lodge in Puerto Maldonado we were greeted by the head scientist and also our guide for the week. Her name is Adriana and she is very nice and always there to help. She leads the Wasai conservation project (basically the entire thing) which has 3 main projects. They are biological monitoring, reforestation, and agriculture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This is Marcos (the other volunteer that was there with us), me and Adriana

When we got to the volunteer station we got a tour of the place. It is very nice with the basic needs and even more like showers and a lake to cool off in. The weather here is HOOOOOT and humid and MOSQUITOES so many MOSQUITOES. (P.s if you ever come here don’t forget to bring bug spray lots and lots of bug spray)

On the first day we got to help with the agriculture by planting mango trees so the grass below dies and the acai trees can grow and be harvested. On the second day we got to help with the monitoring by looking for animals in clay licks (where animals eat clay for salt ) and on the trails. After the walk we watched some videos from the camera trap and that helped us collect important information about mammals and frogs (we also did this almost every day and night walks at night). The most interesting animals we have seen on the camera are probably the tapir and the sajnos. While we are on the on the walks the things we are looking for are footprints, sounds, and the animals themselves. While looking we have seen some pretty cool stuff like the panther foot prints or the capuchin monkeys we have also heard some cool sounds like the dink frog or the macaws.

On the 3rd day we got transported to a lodge for tourists and also where we would be staying for the rest of the time. At the lodge we got a tour; there is a sitting room, a bar, an observation tower, and multiple rooms. We are staying in room 3 and our guide Adriana is staying in room 4. At the lodge we get served the most delicious food ever like chicken, rice, and copoasu deserts. The things here definitely met our needs and even more like the restaurant and the bar.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the fifth day we got to help again with the agriculture by moving more acai trees to be planted so they can be harvested for fruit. We do this because because the government demands that they use a small space of land for agriculture so they can still export stuff to different countries. In the afternoon we got to pick some fruit for the agriculture as well and also plant some cedra trees for reforestation.

On the last day it rained all day long and nearly washed away the volunteer station so we did not really do much. To sum it up the week was awesome it was full of adventure and fun so if you ever go to Puerto Maldonado I recommend you go here.

While being here in the jungle we have gotten to see some pretty amazing things like the animals and plants. Here is a list of the top 10 things we have seen.

1. Jaguars (only on video)

2. Caterpillar with poison hairs

3. Poison dart frogs

4. Wandering banana spider

5. Tarantulas

6. Tapir (video)

7. Gigantic ant eater (video)

8. Agouti

9. Paca (video)

10. Rata de Bambu

💎💸💵💳CALEB🎮⚔️💰⚜️NOBLE💻⛰🏝🌅STEWART📱🖥🔊🕹

Cusco y El Valle Sagrado

As most of you probably noticed via social media, Kieran and I spent about a week longer in Cucsco and the Sacred Valley than Robin and Caleb. Back in Costa Rica, I was suffering from the heat and starting to feel really nervous about the time we had planned in Puerto Maldonado, volunteering in the rainforest (too hot, too wet and humid, way too many bugs). I kept it to myself for a couple days, thinking that I just need to find a way to suck it up, until I realized how much it was affecting my mood and how I was feeling about the trip and I talked to Robin about it. We made an easy decision to explore the possibility of splitting up for this week and giving the boys the option to choose what they would like to do. It turned out to be an easy decision for them too. Caleb was very keen to go ahead with the volunteer work and Kieran was as reluctant about it as I was and relieved to be presented with another option. I’m really happy that we can be flexible about our plans and adjust as needed and also that we are comfortable spending time apart when it means that we can all find a way to enjoy what we’re doing without being obligated to participated in every activity.

Kieran and I spent the first 4 nights of our time apart in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, staying with a couple in their home. I wanted to find a unique place to stay that would allow us to spend some time with locals, learn a bit more about Peru and the Sacred Valley and to immerse Kieran in real life where we were staying, rather than just hanging out in an apartment by ourselves. It turned out to be a wonderful experience! Our hosts, Juan and Dew, were so nice and welcoming. We felt like friends from the moment we arrived at their home. The room we stayed in was really large and had a lovely balcony and we had the perfect mix of privacy and the opportunity to connect and spend time with our hosts. They prepared all our meals for us, helped arrange a few little trips for us and welcomed us to spend time watching movies with them, chatting and playing with their dog (Kintu) and cat (Wichi). Kieran wasn’t feeling keen on doing a lot of things while we were there so we mostly hung out in the house.

We took a trip to Pisac to visit the market on Sunday (despite Kieran’s protests that he wanted to stay home). The market was busy and filled with vendors, locals and tourists. There were people in traditional Peruvian dress with alpacas who were looking for tourists to stop and hold or pet their alpacas and take pictures with, for a tip of course. One girl saw Kieran and before he could protest, shoved her baby alpaca into his arms and posed for a picture. He wasn’t very happy about it, but I obliged and took his picture and gave her a small tip. On the way back to Urubamba we made a stop the Museo Inkariy – a great little museum where I was able to learn more about the the groups of people that came before the Incas – Caral, Chavin, Paracas, Mochica, Nazca, Wari, Chimu Lambayeque, and finally, the Incas. It was fascinating and far more information than I’ve ever seen before about the history of the Incas. Kieran opted out and stayed in the car the whole time – I let him.

The following day I convinced Kieran to go out for a walk for a few hours to explore Urubamba and visit the Plaza des Armes. We got ice cream, which always makes him happy, and walked around a while, taking in the local scene. Being the rainy season, there aren’t too many tourists around the Sacred Valley right now but the Plaza des Armes is busy enough that you can kind of blend in to the hustle and bustle.

On the second to last day, our hosts arranged for us to visit Ollantaytambo. It was a shorter drive than the one to Pisac, so Kieran was less reluctant. We went there with the intention of visiting the ruins for a while and then stopping at the chocolate museum for a tour and demonstration. We went first to the ruins and we were both so taken with them that we hired a guide and spent an hour and a half exploring and learning all about the temple site. It was well worth hiring the guide and I feel now that when we visit Machu Picchu later next week with Robin and Caleb, it will provide some valuable context and contrast. In the end, we didn’t have time for the chocolate museum but we did stop for a nice lunch at a local restaurant.

On our way to Ollantaytambo, our driver pointed out a hotel on the side of the mountain. She stopped the car so that we could crane our necks to look waaaaay up (and at the people scaling the side of the mountain to get to it!!!) and take a picture. I’m all for interesting accommodations but ya, that’s a hard no from me.

We left behind our cozy house and new friends in Urubamba and headed for Cusco a few days ago. It has been very uneventful since arriving and we’ve spent almost all our time in our hostel. It’s a fun little rooftop room + living space + bathroom + kitchen and we have it all to ourselves. We only need to go down to the main kitchen to get breakfast in the morning, which has suited us fine. On our first afternoon is Cusco we explored around a little, stopped by the Correo Central (post office) to pick up Robin’s yellow fever vaccination card (thank you Tina!!!), visit the Plaza des Armes and get some food. Kieran took a little turn for the worse overnight and neither of us got much sleep so we spent the whole next day hanging out, watching movies, reading, and cuddling. He’s feeling better today but it’s pouring rain and only 11 degrees so we’re huddled up again – neither of us is complaining though. We are looking forward to seeing Robin and Caleb tomorrow, to some better weather and getting back to adventuring and exploring. I’m grateful for our adaptability, willingness to compromise for each other and most of all, for the time we are getting to spend together whether we’re making memories or just enjoying each other’s love and company.

Top row (left to right): a boy and his cupcake; Cusco Plaza des Armes (in the sun!). Bottom row (left to right): sunny, daytime view from our rooftop room; nighttime view; rooftop living space; me all bundled up from the rain and cold.

Ica, Peru

Getting to Peru from Ecuador can be expensive if you fly and for that reason, Robin had planned for us to take a bus from Guayaquil to Peru. Initially he had us scheduled to take a 24+ hour bus ride all the way to Lima. This was one of the first trip planning vetoes that I exercised. My kids don’t do all that well on the 5 hour trip from Toronto to Ottawa – I couldn’t even begin to imagine spending more than 24 hours on a bus with them. I was sure it would end it a flight straight back to Toronto. Finally I conceded that taking an overnight bus from Guayaquil to Piura, Peru was warranted in order to save the much higher cost of flying over the border. It turned out to be not nearly as horrific as I had imagined. The bus left Guayaquil at 9pm and after only about an hour of playing on their computers and getting settled, we were able to convince the boys to try to sleep. It helped that everyone else on the bus was also sleeping. Around 1:00 in the morning, the bus stopped at the border between Ecuador and Peru. We waited in line for an hour at border control and then another hour to get back on the bus, remove the passengers that were denied access (!!!!) and get back on our way. Sleep came easily again after that and we all rested fairly well, right until about 7:30 when we got close to our destination. We still had a long haul ahead of us – a 4 hour wait in the airport in Piura, then our flight to Lima, arriving in the late afternoon. All in all I was impressed by the boys’ patience and resilience throughout the 30+ hours of travel and I suppose, having survived it, I would probably be more open to a long bus ride in the future.

We stayed only one night in Lima and didn’t venture out much. Robin and Caleb went into downtown to buy bus tickets to Ica and get some food for dinner but Kieran and I camped out in our Airbnb apartment as he was in need of recovery (and a shower) from the long trip. From what we saw, Lima is a big city and probably could be interesting to visit. I heard later from our host in Urubamba, who is from Lima, that it has a lot of offer as a traveler. Perhaps on another trip we will visit again.

From Lima we took the bus the next morning to Ica where we stayed for 3 nights and 4 days. Ica is a fairly small place but here you can visit Huacachina (an oasis in the desert), see the Nazca Lines, and it is also the origin of Pisco and home to many wineries. Our taxi driver from the bus terminal to our Airbnb extended an offer to arrange our trips to Huacachina and Nazca and fortunately, having done research in advance, Robin recognized that his offer was a pretty good deal. The thing I was most amazed by about this was that Bryan, the taxi driver/tour operator, did not speak a word of English. Instead, he spoke Spanish very slowly and clearly and we were able to understand everything and communicate back to him (thank you Duolingo!).

The next afternoon we were picked up by a taxi (the wrong taxi due to some misunderstanding and a missed message) to go to Huacachina. Visiting this real life Oasis and trying out sandboarding was one of the items on our Top 100 Activities List. We were able to hang out and enjoy some of the desert oasis for a couple hours while we waited for the main event. The boys went out on the lagoon in a paddle boat and we stopped for afternoon snacks and drinks. Then at 4:00 we headed out for our dune buggy ride and sand-boarding. This turned out to be way more fun than any of us anticipated – definitely a highlight of the trip so far. Despite some mechanical malfunction that ended in a face full of engine coolant for Robin, it was a super fun time. We sand-boarded down 3 big hills and bounced around in the dune buggy until dusk when we stopped to watch the sun set over the dunes.

It’s worth it to watch this video with the sound on to hear the commentary and screaming from the boys…followed by my signature “thrill ride cackle” that only those of you who have been on a roller coaster with me will recognize 😉
Robin taking on the first hill
Caleb’s turn
“I did it” – listen for it at the end 🙂

The next day we were picked up again, this time in the right taxi, to go to Nazca. The whole purpose of this trip was to go up in a little plane to view the Nazca Lines from the air (really the only way to appreciate them). The Nazca Lines are #84 on our list of top 100 activities. “Created some 2000 years ago, the Nazca lines are a set of some 300 figures covering 50 square km, the largest of which is more than 1.1 km in length. The mystery is both how and why these figures, which can only truly be appreciated from the air, were constructed.” I have to say, it was truly worth enduring the long car ride and the bumpy, nausea inducing flight to see this from the air. When you look at pictures of the Nazca Lines, it’s difficult to have an appreciation for how large and stunning the figures really are. The mysteriousness around their origin and creation are brought into focus when you see them with your own eyes.

We didn’t have enough time to visit a winery in Ica, but Kieran and I took a short trip to the Plaza des Armes where there was a little bodega that let me sample some of the local pisco and we stayed to have some ice cream (Kieran) and pisco sour (me). It was a nice little ending to our short stay in Ica.

A pleasant ending to our short stay in Ica

Ecuador wrap up…

One more post to recap our final days in Ecuador.

Wendy has already done a great recap of our time on San Cristobal and Isabella Islands. As she mentioned, there were a few activities that I enjoyed on my own or with Caleb. The first was a kayaking and snorkelling tour in Las Tintoreras (with Caleb), the second was visit to the very moving Wall of Tears and the third was a hike up to the crater of the largest volcano in the Galapagos, Volcan Sierra Negra.

Las Tintoreras offered Caleb and I the chance to see many of the same wonders that Wendy wrote about during her Las Tuneles tour (minus the tunnels!) by kayak. We saw penguins and blue footed boobies up close and snorkelled with sharks, rays and sea turtles – all very cool. Kayaking is definitely one of my favourite ways to immerse yourself in nature.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Penguins and Boobies from our snorkelling trip

While Wendy and Kieran did their snorkelling tour, Caleb and I rented bikes for a ride to visit the famous Wall of Tears. Built over a 14 year period period in the mid-20th century, the Wall of Tears is a monument to a less flattering aspect of Galapagos history.

The rugged environment and relative isolation of the Galapagos has led to a number of attempts at populating them. Many of these attempts were unfortunately led by unscrupulous leaders and on more than one occasion drew heavily on taking convicts from mainland Ecuador either to facilitate their punishment or provide cheap labour to support whatever enterprise said leaders had in mind. The prisoners brought to Isabela in the 1940s and 50s were tasked, as punishment, with chiseling volcanic rock from a quarry on the shore and carrying the rock several kilometres into the jungle to build a completely pointless wall.

The hot and fatiguing bike ride Caleb and I completed to get there gave us little doubt as to why many of these prisoners died in the creation of this cruel enterprise (reportedly resulting in thousands of deaths during it’s construction). Caleb and I were both very moved both by rugged beauty we passed through to get there and the horror the site represented. Another aspect of what made our time on Isabela Island so memorable.

The volcano hike I did on my own (no one else was up for the 16km and rainy hike for some reason 🙂 ). I was really glad to have spent our last day on Isabela appreciating this wonder, however. Volcan Sierra Negra was one of the largest and most active volcanic craters on earth, having erupted 8 times in the last 100 years (including a modest eruption in 2018). The 11km wide caldera at the top of the mountain was very impressive, even more so were the lava fields from the most recent eruption where you can walk around and see clear demonstration of the layered lava from different eruption events and the sulphur deposits that come out of the mountain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Lava Fields at Volcan Sierra Negra, the black lava here is from the most recent (2018) eruption, the red shown behind from a previous event. You can see the 11km wide caldera in the video below (You can see a little steam coming out on the far side)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
This is the center of the most recent eruption a side tube of the volcano referred to as Volcan Chico

Wendy has also written about our less than enjoyable departure from Isabela. I’ll pick up the story after we reached our third Galapagos Island – Santa Cruz. While Isabela was the winner for most amazing wildlife experiences the few nights we spent on Santa Cruz were probably the most relaxing and enjoyable.

We stayed in a beautiful cottage nestled in fantastic gardens, just a couple of hundred metres off the “main drag” of Puerto Ayora, the population centre on Santa Cruz (and largest town in Galapagos). The more private and comfortable accommodations gave us some great opportunities for relaxation after a pretty busy schedule on Isabela and San Cristobal.

Isla Santa Cruz is home to a truly stunning and mostly empty white sand beach (Tortuga Bay), as well as some other unique environment for swimming and snorkeling. We got a chance here when we weren’t relaxing to swim with (small) sharks, hang out with a lot more Marine Iguanas and enjoy a number of nice hikes. Santa Cruz also gave Wendy and Caleb another opportunity for Scuba Diving (at nearby Seymour Island) and Caleb and I a chance to see more amazing Galapagos Giant Tortoises in the wild and explore some long lava tunnels in the Island’s highland interior.

 

A Few Thoughts on Food and Cooking:

None of our Top 100 Food and Drink items were from Ecuador, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t get up to some good eating. There were a lot of rice dishes on the menu and a lot of seafood, especially in the Galapagos. We posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about some of the fantastic seafood we enjoyed on the street in Santa Cruz. The boys are also slowly starting to become more adventurous with local food, which is great.

Two other highlights: the delicious Canelazo cocktails (Sugar Cane alcohol with Lemon and Cinnamon) we enjoyed to warm up a cool night wandering the streets of Quito and Ecuadorian Locro de Papa (potato) soup, another cool weather treat. Wendy has become quite adept at whipping this up for us as we travel and it is a recipe I expect will will bring home to Canada for regular use.

Ecuador Highlights:

The primary reason we put Ecuador on the itinerary was for the Galápagos Islands, a bucket list destination for both Wendy and I. Encounters with the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and Galapagos Penguins both made our Top 100 Activities list. Our experiences there, as I hope our previous posts have communicated, did not disappoint. The unique and unspoiled ecosystems found on the Islands are amazing to behold, the proximity we had to the wildlife was really neat, the diving was unique and they were really nice places to hang out as a family. We’d recommend them to anyone looking for a unique travel opportunity, especially with kids.

Most visitors to the islands visit by private boat cruise which can make for a very expensive trip. We found visiting them independently and staying land based (apart from day trips) to be very effective for our plans and made the experience significantly more affordable. Occasional rough seas and the brutal at times equatorial sun were the only things that got in the way of our enjoyment (the kids would probably add lack of useful wifi to that list).

In addition to the Islands, the cooler climate cities here were also very pleasant. We enjoyed the days we spent poking around both Quito and Guayaquil, which I think many travellers pass over (unwisely) in favour of the going straight to the Islands. Ecuador as a whole seems a relatively clean, relatively safe place to visit, I hope we will have a chance to return some day.

On to Peru!!!

Ecuador/Galapagos Islands

Quito

In Quito we didn’t do much because we were only there for four days but at least we did something. We went on a walk to see different things that helped Ecuador claim Independence. On the second day we went on an adventure up to the top of a mountain and went to a museum on the Equator, I thought that was cool. On the third and pretty much final day we went to the park: we went paddle boating, walking and taking pictures. I enjoyed our stay in Quito I recommend it to travelers looking for somewhere to go.

Me, on the Equator

San Cristobal

In San Cristobal we walked around, went to a museum and walked to a beach to swim and watch the sunset. On day two we went snorkeling at Kicker Rock. That was pretty much it. Did you know that the Galapagos Islands were made from volcanoes?

Playing with the Sea Lions on San Cristobal

Isabela

On the first day on Isabela we went to a five star restaurant (or at least that’s what the sign out front said!). The next day we split up and me and my mom went to Los Tuneles and Caleb and my Dad went to Tintoreras. All of us went to the wetlands to see the flamingos, but not all together at the same time. I thought that Isabela was the best island. My favourite part was seeing penguins.

Getting to see penguins was the best!

Santa Cruz

On the first day we did nothing at all but on day two we bought ice cream and went to Tortuga Bay. On the third day mom and Caleb went diving. On the last two days we did nothing. My favourite part was doing nothing.

I ate a local lunch with my mom and I actually liked it!