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.

Summer doldrums

Summer is not my favourite season — I often find it enervating. I’m really an autumn person.

Sometimes I just hide inside our house, but the outdoors always beckons. According to a recent article in the NY Times, scientists have quantified how much time spent in nature is optimal for our health (trust scientists to nail an actual figure, I say with amusement because I have a degree in Biology), and it’s 2 hours a week.

I generally manage that much just going out for my weekly round of golf, but a few days ago, on a really hot day with my head aching, I dragged hubby out to Lake Ontario to try to capture photos of a storm over the lake.

The storm never really materialized, but the outdoors still worked its magic. Here are a few shots I did capture. Sometimes summer has its moments.

The startling split sky when we left the house
Monarch butterfly on a milkweed pod along the shore
A cormorant perched on the masting of a wrecked boat
Pair of darners on the water
Summer colours in the harbour
This gorgeous German shepherd pooch was having a great time exploring the dock
Driftwood log having a frolic in the waves
A gull and I share a peaceful moment as the sun begins to set

A few of my favourite things about…Canada

Like citizens of most countries, we Canadians like to gripe about our home turf, but the more we travel the more we realize how fortunate we are — a stable government, a great health-care system, many freedoms, and so much more. In honour of our national holiday coming up in a few days, here is a pictorial look at a few of the things I love about Canada:

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I love these beautiful, majestic birds, despite how much they poop — they are a gift!

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Fenwick Berry Farm displays some of the lush produce we are truly fortunate to be able to grow and buy

Supper Markets
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These delicious outings have become popular in recent years

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An amazing piece of engineering that has been lowering ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie for over 150 years, and that continues to fascinate visitors from all over the world

The Great Lakes
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These lakes are so large that friends who visited from Australia asked if they were lakes or oceans!

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They shelter us, provide maple syrup, and turn vivid colours in the fall

Autumn Colours
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Autumn is our most spectacular and enchanting season, IMHO

A rich Indigenous heritage and culture
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The Indigenous Garden at Niagara College, Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus, showing the  harmony and respect for nature that permeates Indigenous life

An abundance of bees
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I’m always happy to see bees in our ecologically troubled times

Halloween
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Halloween is my personal ‘happy place’, and I’m even happier that this wonderfully wacky holiday is celebrated so widely

A love of Breakfast
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We can enjoy this most basic comfort meal at a wide number of restaurants

Gorgeous winter scenery
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Even while we curse at winter storms, we can’t help but admire the scenery, as well as…

Mother Nature’s ice sculptures
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Poetry brought to life

Music
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Outdoor concerts are everywhere, and are a great way to enjoy a nice summer evening

Craft beverages
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Artisanal wineries, breweries and distillers are livening up our food and beverage landscape

Miles of open road
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Thousands of miles of good roads to explore, like the Trans-Canada Highway

…There are far too many things to list here — these are just a few that I happen to have photos of. I invite you to share your own personal favourites with me in honour of Canada Day!

Candles in the wind

This week’s post is a short one and is dedicated to the families of two friends who died much too soon — last week our long-time dog sitter, only 47, from a heart attack, and three months ago one of my husband’s coworkers who died very unexpectedly on vacation abroad. My hubby spent the past two days clearing out his coworker’s locker and returning personal items to the family, a task that was hard for him because they’d been friends as well as workmates, but which he undertook willingly to help the family achieve a little bit of closure during such a difficult time. We’ve lost too many friends far too soon, and if we’ve learned anything over the years it’s that life is often much too short, and that we need to appreciate every moment, even the less-than-stellar ones, because the fact that we’re still here to have them is a profound gift.

The importance of blue

I’ve always loved being near water. I grew up along the banks of the Detroit River; before it got built up, I have fond memories of playing in the waterside parks, of my parents taking my brother and me to the water to watch fireworks on holidays.

My very first trip by airplane brought me to California, and I was so excited to see my first palm trees, and my first view of an ocean.

My travels have often taken me across oceans, to oceans, onto oceans. These glistening bodies of water are so important to our planet. As we celebrated World Oceans Day this past weekend and continue to enjoy the benefits of the sources of 91 percent of our water, we need to acknowledge the damage that we’re inflicting on one of our most precious resources.

Our oceans give us…

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…beauty

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…safe harbour

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…delicious food

P_B1 874-001…remarkable vistas

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…homes for a myriad of creatures above and below the surface

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…serenity.

Help save our oceans. Learn more about World Ocean Day; donate to organizations like World Animal Protection, which is running a donation-matching program until June 30 to support our oceans’ creatures; find out 10 Things You Can Do to Save the Ocean. We humans are killing the oceans, so it’s up to us to fix it!