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Peru Snapshot

I am long overdue for a snapshot post about our Peru trip! Better late than never, and I’m always happy to look back on the memories and relive the adventure a little through these highlights (and lowlights) posts. I suspect because I had so many posts lined up about Peru that maybe I Peru-ed myself out a bit, hence the delayed snapshot. But I love writing these entries, and even more, I love looking back on them years later.

Trip Details

Chris and I traveled to Lima, Cusco, and the Sacred Valley region of Peru. We flew round-trip from IAD to LIM, and round-trip domestic from LIM to CUZ (on LATAM). Our two-week itinerary from July 1-15 included two days in Lima, two days in Cusco to acclimate, a week with Mountain Lodges of Peru on their Lares Adventure trek, two nights in Cusco after the trek, and two more nights after we returned to Lima.

Best Moment

I mean, I don’t know if one can go to Machu Picchu and not name that as the best moment of the whole trip. I’ll admit that I didn’t have the overwhelming feeling of a magical connection like some visitors are said to have experienced, but I definitely understood the significance of where I was, and I was in awe.

Worst Moment

Even taking into consideration the situation with the protests in Cusco and nearly missing our opportunity to see Machu Picchu, I’m still going to say the worst moment was my stomach issue on Day 2 of our Lares Adventure. Thankfully I recovered quickly and in time to continue on without missing much.

Funniest Moment

If I had a dollar for every time we were solicited to purchase a llama keychain in Cusco I think we could have paid for our entire trip. I generally don’t mind the solicitations and in fact, I’m impressed by the hustle of tireless street vendors, but the llama keychain pressure was intense and overly frequent! Every time we left our hotel to explore the streets of Cusco, we were offered street art, sunglasses, hats, and most of all, llama keychains. And I’m all for supporting local artists, but I’m selective and purposeful about purchasing something that will have a purpose or a prominent place in our home. I’m not a big fan of buying stuff just for the sake of buying stuff. I’m not a tchotchke collecting kind of person.

Days later in the peaceful calm and quiet of the Sacred Valley, Chris and I received the key to our accommodations at the K’uychi Rumi Lodges. We dissolved into giggles to see lo and behold the key was attached to…a llama keychain, of course. I actually do kind of wish I had purchased one after all.

Best Meal

We ate so many great things on this trip and I ended up dedicating a whole post to good eats in Lima. It was indeed in Lima where we ate our best meal. ámaZ in Miraflores came recommended to us from a friend, and we ended up there on our last night in Peru for a huge Amazonian-Peruvian feast. Wild boar empanadas, a charcuterie board, lomo saltado, fried rice, and pork-stuffed plantains – I’ve never been so full in my life. I didn’t even have room for dessert! And that’s saying something.

Something We Learned

All the Inca (or Inka) history! I thoroughly enjoyed having such knowledgeable guides for the duration of our time in the Sacred Valley. Eddie and Admil educated us on the region’s ancient origins, the agriculture, architecture, religion, lifestyle, and beyond.

I also learned the difference between a llama and an alpaca. Llamas are bigger, and have long faces with banana-shaped ears, while alpacas are smaller with smaller faces, and they have short ears. Alpaca fleece produces a soft fiber used for fine wool garments. These are alpacas pictured below. (And maybe a few of them are llamas?! Even knowing the differences, it’s still hard to tell!)

We’re Thankful We Packed

Good hiking shoes!

We Didn’t Need To Bring

Rain jackets or ponchos. We brought both, but lucked out with amazing weather and didn’t use them once (although I would always recommend having proper rain gear on hand).

Trip Regrets

I initially wanted to tack on some time in the Amazon or maybe even a week in the Galapagos Islands, but we just couldn’t make it work logistically. We ended up being happy with our itinerary and I think it would have been too much if we tried to squeeze anything else in, especially in hindsight with the protests and transportation issues. It would have been nice though to consolidate some of the things we know we want to see in South America. We will hopefully get to do those other bits soon!

Reasons To Go Back

I really really wanted the postcard shot of Machu Picchu which I did get, but I also really wanted a photo of a llama with the ruins in the background, which I didn’t get. I was completely overwhelmed at the Inca citadel, and I actually didn’t end up taking as many photos as you might think. I soaked much of it up through my mind’s own lens, so hopefully those images in my memory will last. But I’d love to go back someday to take some additional photos, and to hike Huayna Picchu, which we didn’t have time for on this trip.

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Hotel Love: El Mercado

Following all of the recommendations to acclimate to the higher altitude in Cusco before moving on to our seven-day adventure to Machu Picchu, Chris and I decided to book two pre-trekking nights in the Inca Empire capital as well as two additional nights post-trip. Situated in the heart of Cusco, but just right outside of the main hustle and bustle, the El Mercado sounded like the perfect location for a little acclimating.

Chris and I arrived to the El Mercado feeling slightly woozy from the altitude change and a lack of breakfast or lunch, but we were instantly soothed by genuinely warm hospitality, beautiful surroundings, and cups of coca leaf hot tea. The hotel courtyard hosted a huge collection of plants that would have impressed my garden-loving mom, as well as cozy benches equipped with wool blankets surrounding a fire pit. Not pictured: my delicious super late-afternoon lunch at their restaurant La Taberna that I ate way too quickly to photograph.

After filling out some guest forms, we were escorted to our rooms on the top floor and I instantly fell in love with our home for the next two nights. This is one of those hotels you’ll want to stay in as long as possible. The cleanliness, comfort, service, and amenities were all top-notch. Not to mention, look how cute that room is! The unbelievably comfortable bed did make it somewhat difficult to get up for our early morning departures so perhaps that’s one downside, but it was heavenly for the days we were able to sleep in a bit.

Luckily I had the foresight to book the El Mercado for our post-trek stay in Cusco as well, so we could look forward to returning. And on that note, the hotel staff graciously held onto our extra luggage during the week of our trek and kept our belongings safe so that we didn’t have to lug extra items around the Sacred Valley.

The large bathroom was perfectly appointed with fluffy towels and upscale toiletries as well as plenty of bottled drinking water which was replenished the next day. And something I truly appreciate in the bathroom but don’t always have: so much counter space!

This was the view from our window! We could spot the Plaza de Armas a few blocks away, but the area surrounding the hotel was blissfully quiet.

We especially enjoyed making use of the courtyard in the evenings when the fire pit was ablaze and the happy hour menu was open for orders. We loved the street food snacks, pisco sours, and a Peruvian treat similar to a donut called picarones. Chris and I curled up with alpaca wool blankets and relaxed to the sounds of local musicians performing for the happy hour crowd. And just in case you’re wondering if you’ll get a quiet night’s sleep here – the fiesta ended at 7pm each night.

I missed snapping a photo of the entire breakfast spread, but El Mercado had every breakfast option imaginable in their El Desayunador breakfast lounge including a long list of made-to-order crepes, as well as something we couldn’t have imagined: the Emoliente drink! Feeling adventurous, we tried this therapeutic herbal cocktail (non-alcoholic) one morning. It’s said to have medicinal properties good for liver support, digestion, and general health, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. It reminded me of warm beet juice, even though I don’t think it had beets in it. Or maybe it did? There were a lot of natural ingredients! I can report that while it wasn’t my most favorite drink ever (it’s probably one of those flavors that has to grow on you), I did feel a good boost of healthy energy. Try it and let me know how you like it!

We loved everything about El Mercado and would highly recommend it as the perfect spot to begin or end your Inca adventure around the Sacred Valley. We easily walked to all of the Cusco sights and restaurants mentioned in this post. I love that next time we’re in Cusco, we definitely already know exactly where to stay!

Note:  This post is not sponsored by El Mercado and I did not receive anything in exchange for this post. We just loved our stay with them!

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A Very Musical Weekend in NYC

Every time I travel to Europe I feel a little pang of jealousy over how easy it is for Europeans to cross over into a new country with simply a short flight, train ride, or even an easy road trip. But then I remember we have a similar ability here in the U.S. with traveling to different states and we really don’t take advantage of it enough! So when I was fiiiiiinally able to get tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, Chris and I decided we would make a New York City weekend of it. We took the train up on Saturday of Columbus Day weekend and stayed until Monday afternoon. Here’s what we did with our 48 hours in the Big Apple.

The Hotel

Because we were only planning to stay for two days/nights and planned to see two shows, we wanted to consolidate our time as much as possible and stay in midtown near the theatres. We found that citizenM, a quirky and stylish boutique hotel right in the middle of the Theatre District, fit the bill perfectly. I highly recommend it as the perfect place to stay for a theatre weekend, with a caveat…

…the rooms are some of the smallest you’ll ever stay in! We knew this going in though, and we didn’t plan on spending much time in the room anyway, so we liked the value of citizenM for the location. The smart design made the room feel bigger than we expected, and we had exactly enough space. I recommend the hotel for either solo travelers or for staying with someone you don’t mind sharing close quarters with and if you’re both okay having a little less privacy than usual. For example, this hotel room wouldn’t work for those couples on House Hunters who vehemently require double sinks.

A king-size bed touches wall-to-wall-to-wall and takes up about half of the square footage. Thankfully it’s a great quality bed and quite comfy. We liked the cozy feeling of the bed nook with a flat-screen TV on the wall. I was also super impressed with the maximized storage capabilities in such a compact space. We each had a small closet for our clothes, plus a giant drawer under the bed. The vanity had lots of shelves for toiletries and such.

The bathroom is comprised of a pod with a shower that somehow felt way more spacious than some tub showers (you know the one with the annoying curtain that always sticks to you?) plus a toilet, and then the sink is on a slim vanity outside of the pod.

An iPad controls everything in the room including the TV, the thermostat, and the lights, with options for mood lighting. The room was really clean and surprisingly quiet considering our location. We had everything we needed, and as a bonus we got a good chuckle out of reading all the funny sayings on the various signs and amenities throughout the hotel. These pillows and this hairdryer, for example:

Most importantly, the hotel was situated steps from all of the theatres, some great restaurants, and the 50th Street subway station for easy access to other neighborhoods. We loved it, and we’ll definitely stay there again!

The Shows

Chris and I might be the only people who had never listened to the Hamilton soundtrack before this past weekend. I specifically held off because I wanted to be completely surprised at the show. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m obsessed and I haven’t stopped listening to the soundtrack! I’m even listening to it right now as I’m writing this post. I’m in awe of Alexander Hamilton’s story, but also of the creator’s story. Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by reading a biography of the founding father while on vacation, and turned that inspiration into an award-winning Broadway musical phenomenon. I need to start bringing more substantial books with me on travel.

We saw Hamilton on Saturday night, and we originally planned to spend most of Sunday exploring some of Manhattan including Central Park, but the weather had other plans. Waking up to a soggy forecast that day prompted us to figure out indoor plans, and I presented my case to Chris in favor of seeing another another show. He agreed to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with me, based on one of my all-time favorite children’s books.

We were treated to seeing the original Broadway cast, and while I’ve read some fairly critical reviews of this production, I have a biased soft-spot for the beloved story from my childhood and it was all good fun for me. Plus I was happy to be out of the rain.

Also from the change-of-plans files, we had originally purchased tickets for the new Groundhog Day musical, but we were notified in August that the show was cancelled. I already had my heart on seeing two shows (before I knew we’d end up seeing three), so we decided to see School of Rock instead and I’m so glad we did. I was blown away! The cast includes a dozen or so kids who actually play instruments live on stage. The show is incredibly fun with a brilliant score and we thoroughly enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of the movie, definitely don’t miss the musical.

The Food

Before leaving for New York I found this article with a recommendation for Danji in Hell’s Kitchen, which happened to be only a few minutes’ walk from the citizenM. We made reservations here for our Hamilton evening and took dish recommendations straight from the article along with our own selections from the cocktail menu, and we loved every single bite (understatement). Bulgogi beef sliders, Korean fried chicken wings, and the bacon wet fried rice – I swooned over all three dishes. I desperately wish this restaurant would open a D.C. location.

We had a seat in the back away from good window lighting and I was way too excited about eating to take my time at all with composition, so I hope you’ll pardon my lazy food photography.

As for sweets, we decided to try Schmackery’s (also in Hell’s Kitchen) and once I saw the line out the door I knew we were in for something good. We went with a Halloween candy-covered cookie as well as a Funfetti one. We inhaled one of the giant soft and gooey cookies before the show and saved the second for a delicious intermission snack during Hamilton. This is another New York gem that I’d like to transplant to D.C., please.

On our second night we simply walked out of our hotel and crossed the street to Toloache. This spot satisfied our Mexican food craving before we saw School of Rock, which was also just one block away. You really can’t beat the proximity factor, and we especially loved having plenty of time to indulge in several courses and multiple pre-show margaritas.

Speaking of multiple margaritas, I completely forgot to take a photo of our enchiladas main dish, owing to that buzzed factor that makes you devour whatever is put in front of you…you know the feeling, right? We dug into the dish before I remembered to document it. But I did manage to grab my iPhone for snaps of our queso fundido con chorizo (oh gosh, I could just cry thinking about how good that was and that I might not get to eat it again for a long while), carne asada tacos, and churros for dessert.

And I don’t know if it’s a cliché or a New York must-do, but Chris and I figured either way we probably needed to eat bagels and pizza while we were in the city. Bring on any excuse/reason to eat bread and cheese, please. I had a few options picked out depending on our schedule, but the dreary rainy weather and lack of rain jackets or umbrellas prompted us to stumble out onto 50th Street and go with whatever was closest. We ate breakfast at Pick-a-Bagel on 8th, and for lunch we grabbed a slice at Gotham Pizza. New York City classics…check and check!

Last but not at all least, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to bring home some cupcakes home from Magnolia Bakery. The first time we tried the famous baked treats was actually in Dubai earlier this year, but I figured we should go back to the original location for the sake of research. Conclusion: yum overseas, yum stateside. (Although…I have to admit, I loved Miss Cupcakes in Lima, Peru more.)

The Sights

The rain only seemed to happen during the daytime, so we were able to explore a bit at night after the shows. On our first night we popped over to Times Square along with a few thousand other night owls, and I got to see the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child billboards.

And then on Sunday we wandered around Radio City Music Hall and went up to the Top of the Rock for a view of the city twinkling in the night sky.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I got a little cranky on the Observation Deck. We had to wait in line for quite a while and it was more crowded at the top and waaay hotter outside than I expected it to be at 11pm in October. Hot + tired and in crowded places isn’t a great combination for me. Luckily I wasn’t also hungry – that’s my trifecta of crankiness.

So I’ll recommend to you, dear readers, that you purchase your Top of the Rock tickets online in advance if possible (we just weren’t sure when we’d go) so you can at least avoid the annoyance of standing in a long line, which is apparently long even fairly late in the evening. I’m happy we went though – I love nighttime photography.

Monday morning we slept in (another rainy day didn’t inspire us to hustle much), packed our things, and returned to Penn Station for an afternoon train ride back home. I probably don’t need to point out that we only scratched the very surface of the City That Never Sleeps. There are countless iconic landmarks to see so I’m not even sure how many days it would take to feel like we thoroughly experienced New York, but I suppose that’s the case with most places.

I loved our weekend of musicals and good eats though, and I’m looking forward to the next time we take advantage of our proximity to one of the greatest cities in the world!

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Moving Pictures: Peru

If a picture is worth a thousand words a video must be worth millions, so here is a three-and-a-half minute collection of clips I shot of our time in the Sacred Valley of Peru!

I had fun trying out a new handheld gimbal for my GoPro. It was fairly easy to get the hang of it and the gimbal helped me keep my footage steady and way smoother than without it, especially while walking. It even did a great job of steadying the footage while on a very bumpy bus ride up to Machu Picchu. I’m still learning some of the features, and if you make it to the end of the video you’ll see what I mean. 😉 In all fairness, I only skimmed the user manual shortly before our trip and I should know better!

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of my links, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you!

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Lares Adventure – Day 7: Machu Picchu!

Like many travelers who make plans for Peru, my ultimate goal was to see the magnificence of Machu Picchu, and our trip would not have felt complete without a visit to the ancient citadel. And for most of the morning and afternoon on Day Six, we thought we would miss out on seeing it. But late that day, we made it to Aguas Calientes, and on Day Seven of our Lares Adventure we did see Machu Picchu! And it was indeed magnificent.

But let me go back to the start of our time in Aguas Calientes. We arrived by train around 7pm and walked from the station to our lodging for the night, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel. The hotel grounds are breathtaking, but after having sort of a stressful day I just didn’t have it in me to take many photos. Plus by the time we ate dinner and arrived to our rooms, it was dark. And we left first thing the next morning to try to beat the crowds to Machu Picchu. All of this is to say I did not end up taking photos of the beautiful hotel.

But we did have some time after our tour of Machu Picchu to do a little bird watching – the Inkaterra is home to dozens of hummingbirds!

Despite getting to the line for the bus by 8:15am, there was quite a queue already formed. But the line moved fast, and I think we only waited for maybe twenty minutes. And I was too excited to care! We were going to see Machu Picchu!

Our bus ride up the long and winding Hiram Bingham Highway took us right to the entrance of Machu Picchu and we were the only ones there! Just kidding. Everyone else in the world was there, too. But still…Machu Picchu!

After waiting in that line and getting our tickets scanned…

…we walked up a path and turned the corner to see this!

Group photo with one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, check! We went on to tour the grounds and the various structures, and we learned about the religious, ceremonial, and agricultural aspects of each area. I’m especially fascinated by the astronomical features of the Inca sites. The Incas worshiped the sun, and they aligned their structures to tie into the sun’s movement on significant ceremonial dates. Eddie pointed out several features of Machu Picchu that illustrate how the Incas honored the sun.

Oh, and there were also llamas!

Shortly before Chris and I left for Peru, we heard the news about changes to the rules for tourists at Machu Picchu which became effective just a few days before we were set to arrive. Basically instead of allowing visitors to roam freely around the site, a specific set of paths has been set, and entrance must be accompanied by a guide. Not knowing in advance how the rules would work, I worried that the new restrictions would keep me from getting the one photo I wanted – the postcard view from the top near Watchman’s Hut.

Our tour did stick to a specific path, only in one direction, and guards were posted throughout to keep tourists from straying off that route. We had to exit Machu Picchu and re-enter in order to climb up to Watchman’s Hut and we did so without Eddie, but for some reason that was allowed with no issues. If I remember correctly, you are allowed to re-enter Machu Picchu two times as long as it was within your ticketed timeslot, but I’m not exactly sure why we didn’t need a guide to go up to the hut.

We ended up having to choose between this and the Huayna Picchu hike though, because we only had time to do one or the other. I’m a slow hiker as it is, and I think I would have taken even longer on HP with the steepness. I also really (really really) wanted to see the Watchman’s Hut view. So Huayna Picchu is on the list for next time! I’m glad we chose to climb up to Watchman’s Hut because the view is spectacular and I did get the shot I wanted (even if the lighting wasn’t quite perfect), plus some fun pictures of us.

Side note: I should be mention that I failed to wear bug spray at Machu Picchu even though I knew it was recommended and I even brought it with me. I’m all smiles in the photos from that day, but what I didn’t know at the time was that I would end up with a dozen of the reddest, itchiest bites I’ve ever endured, and that even as I’m writing this blog post two months later, I still have marks on my legs! I implore you to wear bug spray!

I feel like this would be a fine place to end our story in Peru, but transportation woes continued to be an issue for us as we attempted to make our way back to Cusco. The trains were shut down during our day in Aguas Calientes since the tracks were still being dismantled by the protesters. At least this time we were able to linger over a delicious lunch in the Inkaterra hotel instead of at the train station. We enjoyed the comforts (and WiFi) of the lobby while we awaited our train.

We waited all afternoon with no news until all of a sudden our window of opportunity arose and we rushed to the train station. This was another time on our trip that I was incredibly thankful to have a guide. If Chris and I had visited Machu Picchu on our own, we might not have even reached Aguas Calientes, or if we had, we could have gotten stranded there. Eddie managed to arrange our train transfer back to Ollantaytambo, and I suspect he had to work some magic to expedite things for us. We breezed by throngs of weary travelers who seemed surprised and perhaps a little disgruntled that we were on the next train out. Again, I don’t know what went on behind the scenes to make that happen and I was happy Eddie expertly handled it for us. We breathed a sigh of relief when we were seated on the train and it actually departed.

Upon arriving at Ollantaytambo, trying to exit the train station was somewhat of a mob scene (see blurry iPhone snap below). Hundreds of people were pressed against the fences yelling and shouting, trying to get in, possibly after having been delayed all day or maybe even from the day before. Our group had to wedge ourselves out of the gate and through the crowds, trying to keep a close eye on each other. Cars and vans lined every inch of the roads with drivers attempting to locate their passengers amidst the confusion. They, too, had waited all day for clients or family/friends who were unable to reach the station on time if at all.

We located our van in the chaos and piled in for the long ride back to Cusco in which our driver expertly navigated the back roads to avoid potential protester road blocks. We reached Cusco late in the evening and deposited each of the trekkers at their respective hotels. Chris and I said goodbyes to our newfound friends, with whom we formed bonds over adventure, new experiences, and the wonders of Inca history, and retired to our room for the night. (Actually we ended up going to grab Subway sandwiches at about 10:30pm, and then we hit the hay.)

Even with the drama we encountered with getting to and from the citadel, Machu Picchu certainly did make for a superb grand finale to our week. Mountain Lodges of Peru calls this trek a “seven-day journey through the rich history, living culture and magnificent landscape of Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas,” and I can’t think of a better way to spend a week in Peru. I loved every minute of it…minus the bug bites.

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