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.

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

Stormy weather

Rain falling on a juniper branch

I love storms.

After my previous post about hurricanes and earthquakes, you might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at that statement, but I grew up with storms, and I’ve always enjoyed both the drama and the feeling of being safely tucked inside my house.

As I write this post, there’s a fabulous summer thunderstorm raging around our community. The skies are dark, the rain is sheeting across the streets, and thunder is rattling the windows of our house.

Tornado warnings have been posted for parts of Ontario, and even though there isn’t one where I live, our area is prone to them and I have my Red Cross Alerts app updated to my current location.

The week that I’m writing this has been brutally hot and humid. I don’t do well under those conditions, and even though I’ve been hiding inside with the air conditioning, watching the televised drama of the Open Golf Championship, I’ve had a pounding migraine for three days. Today has been the worst – although my medications have blanketed the pain for now, I can feel it lurking like a monster waiting to pounce.

Since the storm hit, though, the pain has eased and the nausea has dissipated, which is often the case for migraine people – see, another reason to love storms!

Thunderstorms give me an excuse to light candles – just in case the power should go out, you understand. I’m sipping some light Keemun tea while I eat a few crackers with goat cheese and tomato slices to keep my stomach settled.

(On a side note, did you know that acidic or tart food is one of the best things to combat nausea? I learned this in Egypt from one of the staff in our hotel in Cairo, and while I wouldn’t recommend eating one of their very bitter lemons as I was told to do at the time, whenever I fly I always have a glass of tomato juice to ward off airplane sickness.)

We actually have a transformer on our street, and it has blown impressively a few times, plunging our entire neighbourhood into darkness until the city crews can fix it, so I do have reasonable cause to take lighting precautions.

My early childhood took place in Windsor, Ontario, which at the time had some deep (for a child) storm gutters, and after a good rain my mother would let me take my shoes off and wade in them. I could spend hours splashing about happily – cheap entertainment, and my mom had only to look out the door from time to time to see that I was okay.

When I was five we moved to northern Ontario, where the weather is extreme and spectacular. I can recall my dad having to pull the truck over to the side of the road many times when either fog blanketed the car or rain was falling so heavily that we quite literally couldn’t see anything beyond the front bumper. Our farm included a hill where the passing gravel road curved up and around, and the road surface could turn into a river of muck in minutes – we would see truckers try to make it up that hill, lose traction and slide backward to the flat part. My parents would invite them in for some hot coffee while they waited out the storm.

Winters meant several feet of snow on the ground consistently from November to March or April. Plows would come by from time to time, but all that snow had to be pushed aside somewhere, usually into ten-foot high drifts at the end of our long driveway. Temperatures could plummet far below zero – I remember a record-setting -42oF on one day, when no one went outside if at all possible (fortunately we didn’t have any farm animals to be concerned about, but I’m not sure what friends of ours did with their cows, horses and chickens).

Spring thaw was a relief, but it could be treacherous as all of that deep snow melted. A trip to town to buy groceries could be fine on the way in but impassable a couple of hours later if one of the small lakes along the roadside flooded over. I remember our parents taking my brother and me out into the bush for maple sugaring one weekend. The path through the woods crossed a fresh, cold rivulet of water on our way to the site. We spent several hours there watching the trees being tapped and the sap being boiled down in huge vats. By the time we decided to call it a day, though, the rivulet had turned into a rushing stream and my dad had to carry me safely to the other side.

By the time we moved back to southern Ontario the year I turned eight, my love of dramatic weather had become ingrained, which has turned out to be a good thing in light of the strange relationship my hubby and I have with it.

We almost got hit by lightning on a golf course once while we were still dating – we were being careful, waiting for the stormy weather to recede by the time we set out on the back nine. Thunder was rumbling faintly far in the distance when a lightning flash out of nowhere speared the stand of trees on the fringe of the hole we were playing. We instantly flattened ourselves on the ground for at least a minute and then grabbed our carts and fled back to the clubhouse as fast as we could.

Our first dating anniversary was celebrated during an unexpected blizzard. We’d just been seated at the restaurant when the power went out. A bottle of champagne held the fort while the management fired up an old wood-burning stove to cook everyone’s meals. Probably the most entertaining parts were visiting the bathrooms by the light of kerosene lamps as all that champagne got metabolized. The power came back on two hours later just as we were finishing our meal.

The list of our weather events is long and distinguished, so perhaps the universe is giving me treats from time to time.

lit candles on a fireplace mantle

The storm has ended. It’s still comfortably overcast outside, though – glaring sun and a migraine don’t go well together – and the heat has let up a little, with a nice breeze riffling through the trees. My headache is gone, at least for the time being, and I’m enjoying the respite however long it lasts.

I think I might go and make some dinner. Meanwhile, the candles are still flickering away in their holders around the house, because, well, you just never know…

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.

Stop and smell the lilacs

We could learn a lot from animals. Whenever we took our dogs out for a walk, Ramses, the male, loved to find a shrub with branches just at the height of the top of his head. He would then spend several minutes moving his head under a branch, letting the foliage tickle his fur. His face was a picture of bliss while we watched bemused and the female, Isis, pranced around impatiently.

I’m sure you’ve seen many videos of animals enjoying themselves – romping in the snow, rolling around in the grass, grinning happily as they share a surfboard. Animals have a wonderful capacity to suspend all concerns and immerse themselves in something fun, and an equally remarkable capacity to soldier along through adversity while still finding joy in their lives.

We need to do the same: take the time to enjoy even small things as often as we can, perhaps even dedicate an entire day to it. One pastime that most people can enjoy is called a Savouring Walk. The idea on these walks is to appreciate all the positive things you see – a pretty flower, a fresh breeze, perhaps the sun as it slowly sets in rich colours.

It turns out that appreciating the things that lift up our souls is great for our mental wellness in so many ways: relaxing us and easing stress, balancing out some of the negativity in our lives, connecting us to the world around us, and ultimately making us more resilient.

I’m fortunate to live near a beautiful botanical garden, the Royal Botanical Gardens in southern Ontario, and it’s lilac time! This past weekend a friend and I drove over to enjoy some much-needed floral bounty amid the barely-spring weather we’ve been enduring. I’ve always wanted to see the famous Lilac Dell in bloom, and we lucked out with a decent afternoon for our excursion.

The RBG is the largest botanical garden in Canada, and a national historical site. With the poor weather, not everything was blossoming yet, but the prevailing atmosphere of peaceful nature was still very relaxing. We visited the Rock Garden first, where there were a number of photographers out focusing on the colourful masses of tulips, and Hendrie Park, where hopefully soon the roses will be back in all their glory. We saved the Lilac Dell for last to let it dry out after a morning of rain, and people were gently clambering up and down the hillside delicately sniffing the fragrant blooms. I’m very happy to report the absence of any selfie-obsessed idiots destroying things.

It was a lovely, rejuvenating afternoon. I recommend finding any similar setting for a quick recharge, but for anyone not able to get to one, I’m happy to share some of the photos so that you can enjoy a little virtual beauty.

DSC01422Some of the wonderful lilacs in the Dell

DSC01370A bounty of tulips drew numerous photographers

DSC01397Plants tumble in profusion down the sides of the Rock Garden

DSC01342A maiden delicately cradles a bird in one of the Rock Garden water features

DSC01373Sunshine in petal-form

DSC01368We spotted a brilliant green Tiger Beetle out for some afternoon warmth

DSC01321Anyone for a funky-looking seat?

DSC01351Exploring some of the enchanting paths in the Rock Garden

DSC01374  Beauty in bloom

Bucket List – Forgiveness

Forgiveness can bring peace - photo by E. Jurus
Forgiveness can bring peace – photo by E. Jurus

What baggage do we carry around with us in our lives? Sometimes the emotional baggage, residue from episodes of anger, hurt, disappointment or betrayal, can weigh us down enormously. Forgiving someone, while sometimes a seemingly impossible task, can do us a world of good. Even if we only make it as far as letting go of the emotions, that’s a substantial step in the right direction.

When I was in my twenties, an arsonist set fire to my parents’ home. They were lucky to make it out alive. The insurance company rebuilt their house, but it couldn’t rebuild their lives.

The police never caught the perpetrator, although we had our suspicions about a miserable neighbor and some union involvement.

The ripples from that event lasted for the next decade and a half. My dad’s health went downhill, and my mom started drinking again. I cursed the arsonist for years for all the pain he/she caused to all of us.

It was only after my parents had both passed away and were free from the event’s clutches that I was able to let it go myself and move on. I haven’t forgiven the arsonist for what he/she did, but I don’t really think about it any longer, and there’s no longer bitterness associated with the memory. The Mayo Clinic website has the following thoughts on the process:

” Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you might always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”

So by that definition, I’ve found forgiveness.

It’s been far less easy to forgive myself for hurts I’ve caused others. There’s a subconscious sense I have, right or wrong, that I need to pay for those hurts by my continued pain at having inflicted them.

forgiveness-is-a-giftOn May 4th, the Global Forgiveness Challenge begins. It was created by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, who live in a country where there are decades of grievous hurt and stored resentment. The goal of the challenge is to encourage you to let go of your emotional baggage and begin the healing process. Once you sign up for the challenge, you’ll receive a daily inspirational message by email from Tutu and his daughter, daily exercises to practice, articles to read and the support of an entire community of fellow sufferers.

I’ve signed up for the challenge. Perhaps with their help I might even be able to forgive myself.

You’ll find more information about the Forgiveness Challenge here.Let me know if you’ve joined the challenge, and perhaps we can all help each other.