Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

A little mystery is good for us

Shadowy haunted bridge outside Gettysburg, PA

In 1937 Amelia Earhart disappeared off the face of the earth in what was purportedly the first attempt to fly all the way around the world.

Earhart was a glamorous 1930s personality. She became an icon of intrepid explorers, and vanguard of women who chose to pursue a different path than mother/homemaker. Around 22,000 miles into the flight, somewhere past the Nukumanu Islands near Papua New Guinea, confusing messages by Earhart came across the radio…and then nothing.

No substantiated clues have ever been found of either her body, that of her navigator’s, or the plane they were flying. Rumours that the flight was in actuality a government mission have added to the mystique.

For the past 82 years people have been searching for clues as to what happened to Earhart, and now famous explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic wreck in its deep watery grave, has made it his own mission to find her plane. It will be fascinating to see what he comes up with.

We humans are fascinated by mysteries, and are driven to try and solve them, although there’s a certain romanticism in not knowing, in leaving the truth to our imaginations.

Along with legions of people, I’ve always been fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic – the tragedy, the mystery surrounding what should have been a stellar maiden voyage of a great ship, the Edwardian glamour of the ship itself. I even delivered a special two-hour evening presentation about the event for our local public library to honour the 100th anniversary. This fall my husband and I are traveling to Ireland, and I’m very much looking forward to visiting the Titanic museum in Belfast and seeing the original dry-dock site.

We love mystery so much that it became a literary genre in the 1800s when Edgar Allan Poe introduced a detective in his story Murders in the Rue Morgue. The first time my hubby and I visited England we made a beeline for the Sherlock Holmes plaque at 221b Baker Street, enjoyed the Holmes silhouette on the wall of the Baker Street tube (subway) station. We also had lunch at the atmospheric Sherlock Holmes pub in Charing Cross, where there’s also an upstairs dining room full of memorabilia. Great Britain is so associated with mystery, crime and spy novels that, to be honest, we both wore trench coats during our entire trip!

Fans of Conan Doyle’s stories were so devoted that when the author had tired of his detective hero and decided to kill him off, the public outcry was so great that Conan Doyle had to miraculously revive the character. (BBC online has a great retrospective about the influence of one of our greatest fictional detectives.)

My hubby and I are devoted to several good mystery series. We’ve watched every iteration of Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed all the wonderful Hercule Poirot with David Suchet and many others on PBS Mystery. A couple of years ago we got into the excellent Canadian The Murdoch Mysteries, as well as Miss Fisher from Australia, the Brokenwood Mysteries from New Zealand, and Death in Paradise.

We have, of course, watched almost every Agatha Christie story ever produced. I was really tickled when an episode of Dr. Who revolved around the real-life mystery of Agatha Christie’s own ten-day disappearance in 1926.

The entertaining 1978 movie version of Death on the Nile, with one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen and amazing cinematography, inspired me to fulfill a lifelong dream to go to Egypt, and is still one of my all-time favourite movies.

I have the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in print, which I love for their period atmosphere, and for the same reason my absolute favourite mystery series is the Lord Peter Wimsey stories by Dorothy Sayers, set in the 1930s.

Why do we love mysteries so much? It’s not just humans who relish them, either – dogs, for example, are universally curious about everything. When our two dogs were still alive, our male’s favourite game was to play hide-and-seek with me: I would hide myself somewhere in the house and call his name in a particular tone of voice, and he would delightedly spend the next few minutes trying to find me. It’s one of the things I miss the most since our dogs got old and moved on to their well-deserved doggie heaven.

There’s a great article on the Psychologies website about why we all love mystery, and why it’s important in our lives. It shares the story of an artist, John Newling, who went so far as to ask British insurance company Lloyd’s of London in 2006 to insure him against ‘loss of mystery’. His comment was “Mystery is a predisposition to search, enjoy, play and wonder”. I think that’s a great summation of the appeal of mystery in our lives, and I can empathize with his feelings that mystery is disappearing is our increasingly structured world.

Statue of David Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

I would have loved to be an explorer in the 1800s to early 1900s, when most of the world was still a mystery. The search for Amelia Earhart reminds me of one of the greatest searches ever undertaken, to find out whether the great explorer and missionary David Livingstone was still alive. He had travelled to Africa in 1865 to search for the source of the Nile, one of the greatest geographical questions in history, and hadn’t been heard from in several years when the New York Herald newspaper sent Henry Morton Stanley off to try and find him.

The sense of mystery and not knowing what might lie around the next corner is a critical part of adventure travel. Even though most of the world has been charted by now, for all of us modern adventurers there’s still our own personal exploration of something yet to be seen.

True adventure travel is never planned to be perfect or completely structured – there should always be a certain amount of uncertainty, and some opportunity for off-the-cuff exploration.

The adventure is in the mystery of what you’ll discover about a new place, a new culture, and about yourself in the process.

Some of the best experiences my hubby and I have had have occurred when a journey has derailed a bit, or something not on the original itinerary came up and we ran with it.

Botswana traffic jam: we had front-row seats for watching a group effort to get a truck unstuck from a flooded road

We had a hilarious camel ride through the Sahara in Egypt, as well as a visit to an authentic camel market where our group’s arrival stopped everything in its tracks. Once the local traders had recovered, however, one man eyed me for a bit and then offered my hubby 1,000 camels for me, which at about $1500 per camel amounted to a considerable sum of money. My hubby joked that if he thought the fellow actually had that much, I might have remained in Egypt. Like Queen Victoria, I was not amused.

If you’re interested in being a true modern adventurer, follow this blog for ongoing information and inspiration, and for news about my upcoming Adventure Travel 101 online course, currently in development.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what your favourite mysteries are, whether novels, television/movies, or real-life!

An Ounce of Humour is Worth a Pound of Aggravation

photo of guanaco with its ears back as I try to make friends with it
A sense of humour with animals is essential — this guanaco at the Awana Cancha textile cooperative in Peru clearly wanted nothing to do with me

A friend and I were discussing the importance of having a healthy sense of humour the other day. She was having a stressful day, so I regaled her with one of the absurd stories from my travels with hubby. It made her double over with laughter and broke that cycle of escalating frustration that happens to us on rough days.

When something annoying happens, we can choose to either work ourselves into a lather, or find the funny side of it. My hubby and I are currently renovating our main bathroom, so we’re in that major-disruption zone of life at the moment; thank goodness we both share the same sense of ridiculousness.

It has served us well over the years – mostly when we travel, for two big reasons:

  1. When you’re on a journey, you’re away from the safe and familiar, and (at least in our lives) things don’t always go according to plan
  2. Hubby and I have some kind of weird vibe which means that strange things happen whenever we go anywhere.

While the list of those events is far too long to share in a single blog post, I can tell you about the series of incidents that made my friend laugh so hard.

They took place in Florida, of all places – land of sunshine, beaches and the Happiest Place on Earth. Hubby Mike and I had just moved into our first house shortly before we took his uncle up on his offer to use his condo in Clearwater for a couple of weeks.

Mike’s uncle suggested that we avoid the higher prices of normal car rental by finding one of the many ‘Rent-a-Wreck’ places in the area. He assured us that the cars were older but fine, and much cheaper. Well, the nearest Wreck place we visited lived up to its name – the cars weren’t really fit to drive. Friends who had joined us at the condo had picked up a car at the airport (we decided on separate cars before departure), so they drove us to a regular car rental service.

An hour or so later, Mike and I were driving a good car – or so we thought.

The next day was cloudy and drizzly. I don’t recall what our friends decided to do, but Mike and I thought we’d check out a linen outlet store to buy some towels for our new home. Things began to go south when we encountered the invisible train.

The outlet store was, for some reason, 30 minutes out into the countryside. About halfway along, we were approaching a railroad crossing, also in the middle of nowhere, when the lights began flashing and the crossing barriers came down. We waited for the train to come along. Five minutes went by and we were still waiting. We could see for miles in all directions and there was no train anywhere in the vicinity. A few minutes later the lights stopped  and the barriers raised. We looked in both directions, shrugged our shoulders, and continued on our quest.

As we got nearer to our destination the rain began to fall steadily. Mike turned on the windshield wipers, which managed a couple of swipes and then flew off the car. One disappeared off into the firmament, while the other fell straight back down and jammed the entire wiper mechanism.

Since we could see the store in the distance, we carefully proceeded there and made our purchases, then carefully drove back to the car rental place.

The nice man behind the rental desk looked as surprised as we’d been. He riffled through his list of available cars in the same price range and asked, “Do you mind using the air conditioning all the time?”

Mike and I looked at each other and said, “No problem, it’s hot out. Is there a reason why, though?”

“Well,” the man said somewhat sheepishly, “I only have one car available at this moment, and it has a little quirk.”

“What’s that?” we asked.

“If you roll down the driver’s window, the door opens. As long as you don’t open the window, though, you’ll be fine.”

Hmm. We gave it some thought and decided we could live with that. We took the car. We’d forgotten about the road tolls. Every time we came to a toll booth (ubiquitous in those days), we had to either roll down the window just a couple of inches and fling coins into the mesh toll basket from a distance, or open the door entirely and get out.

Ultimately we found it amusing, and went about our vacation. That night, though, when we returned to the condo after dinner, there was a rather frantic-sounding handwritten note on the condo door which said “Please bring your rental car back to the office as soon as possible”.

The next morning we duly returned to the rental agency for the third day in row. The only staff person on hand was the regional manager, who apparently hadn’t been left any notes about our situation. He dragged his fingers through his hair, checked the office logs, and said, “Well, how’d you like to go in style for the rest of your vacation?” Sure, we replied. The only car on the lot that day was one of their premium rentals, a Chrysler Le Baron, which he gave to us at no additional cost.

As we parked it in the condo parking lot, we remarked that if any of the neighbours had been watching, they’d have seen us show up in three different cars in as many days. We spent the next 10 days enjoying all the features of our high-end car and waiting for someone to comment.

Two weeks after we returned home, a Ziggy cartoon showed up in our local paper that involved the windshield wipers flying off Ziggy’s car. I whispered to my hubby, “Jeez, is somebody watching us?!”

Whether in our travels together, or just in daily life, my hubby and I have found that humour is really the best medicine. We try to laugh as often as possible!

Seeking mellow

I believe that spas are one of the best things ever invented.

If we have time on a journey, I love to check out a spa in a different location. The best massage therapist I’ve ever had works out all my kinks and knots at a great spa within 15 minutes of my house, but there’s something so relaxing about checking out of life for a few hours in a location far, far away. It feels extra-removed from all the minute little cares and irritations back home.

While all my travelling spa experiences have all been great, visiting a spa in a foreign location can be an eye-opener.

My first travelling spa adventure took place at the Boulders golf resort in Arizona. Our long-weekend package included one activity per day for each of us. My hubby elected to play golf each day, while I alternated between rounds of golf and either sleeping in and having fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes delivered to my casita, or having a spa treatment — so much more relaxing! At the time the treatments were based on Ayurvedic principles, and I lay blissfully on the massage table while warm herbal oil was drizzled onto my skin and infused into my pores during a 20-minute wrap.

I wanted to have try out the spa at our beach resort in Bali, but we underestimated how strong the sun was just two degrees south of the equator and got burned out body-surfing, even with sun screen. Instead of a massage I spent most of the evening in a wicker chair under the ceiling fan trying to bring some coolness to my fiery shoulders.

The most unique, and strangest spa experience I’ve ever had was on the island of Mauritius. Our resort package included a complimentary spa combo of a coffee scrub, using coffee beans grown right on the island, followed by a massage.

Let me start out by mentioning that Mauritius spent 95 years of its history under French rule, and it still retains a strong French influence.

Entrance to the spa at Legends Resort, Mauritius
The Source Thalaspa entrance at the Legends Resort in Mauritius

I happily trotted over to the spa one afternoon. The serene entrance had intrigued me from our first day checking out the grounds. The spa was small but lovely. I was given a locker and a fluffy white robe — nothing unusual there. Then I was led to my treatment room and introduced to my therapist, a lovely woman who gave me a pair of tiny paper panties to put on and told me to lie down on the table face-up.

Beg pardon? Where was my cover sheet to hide my no-longer-20-year-old body?? I hesitated, but this seemed to be standard practice, so I did as asked, trying to appear nonchalant when the therapist returned. She then proceeded to scrub all of my exposed skin from the neck down with what seemed to be coffee grounds in a light oil. I looked and smelled like a giant coffee bean by the end of it, and cringed internally when she told me to put my pristine white robe on and return to the change room to rinse off. Well, I thought, it’s their laundry budget, so off I went back through the gardens to the change room.

When I arrived there, the two shower stalls were in use, so one of the attendants suggested that I could use the shower in the courtyard instead of waiting around. Having seen men wandering through the courtyard earlier, I asked “Is it a private shower?” Well, no, she replied. I refrained from saying “Are you nuts?”, because that would have been extremely impolite, and merely replied that I didn’t mind waiting.

After I rinsed and returned to my treatment room, I was given a short but very good massage with nothing more surprising than some different positioning of my arms as the therapist attacked all the knots in my back. The coffee scent faded quickly, and my skin was incredibly smooth for days afterward.

The spa at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in the Andean cloud forest was arguably my favourite spa experience. We didn’t hike the Inca Trail — not physically feasible for either of us — and instead we took the train to Aguas Calientes, the small town along the Urubamba River that serves as the base for most people visiting the compelling ruins at the top of Machu Picchu mountain.

If you ever have the chance to stay at this hotel, set into the cloud forest that surrounds Machu Picchu, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately since we visited the hotel has become a National Geographic Stay of Distinction and the rates have gone up considerably, but it is a wonderful place.

After several strenuous days adjusting to the high altitudes in Peru, I thought a relaxing massage was in order. The hotel makes all of its own botanical products from plants right on the property, and I’d already tried out some of the soaps and lotions in our casita.

Soaps and oils at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Peru
Toiletries in our casita bathroom at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes, Peru

The spa was located in its own white-walled casita surrounded by the lush cloud forest. I took a few photos of the treatment room, softly lit with candles, with the floor covered in a springy rush matting, so that every step was like walking on a rush-strewn cloud.

Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes
Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes

My massage therapist then proceeded to work her magic — for a petite lady she had lots of strength to knead my tight muscles into mush, working those scented oils into every pore amid the soothing sounds of the jungle.

While I haven’t been able to manage a spa visit on every adventure, the explorations have been as fascinating as they were therapeutic. The spas all seemed to run on similar rules; if you need to bone up on spa etiquette, read this handy article by Trip Savvy — but go with an open mind and be prepared for some interesting surprises the further you get from home.

Luray Caverns – Mother Nature Wins!

Hi folks — feeling a bit under the weather today, so this week’s post is a celebration of Mother Nature, who IMHO always wins the contest for artwork. Case in point: Luray Caverns in Virginia. The Caverns were discovered in 1878 and became an overnight success (after millions of years of formation, of course). Although not the largest cave system in North America, Luray is very walkable and superbly lit for visitors to enjoy the many spectacular formations.  I hope these photos inspire you to visit!

DSC00295-001The caverns range from small to massive

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Formations, some dry, some still wet and forming, come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This one is called The Fish, for its resemblance to a string of caught fish at a market.

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This odd formation is called The Eggs.

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There were so many fascinating formations we couldn’t recall the names of all of them.

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Many formations are still dripping, and have formed large pools below. They form stunningly perfect reflections in the still waters — so perfect that you have to look really closely to understand that the bottom part of what you’re seeing is a mirror image.

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One of the really cool things is a cave organ. It plays a slow and soft electronic tune which resonates through the chamber by…DSC00322-001

…small armatures that gently strike some of the stalactites. Visitors have to be very still to enjoy the soft music.

Visit the website for more information about this wonderful adventure.