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.

Weekly Photo Challenge – a rare spring flower

The lovely and fleeting bloom of the Walking Iris, Peruvian cloud forest - photo by E. Jurus
The lovely and fleeting bloom of the Walking Iris, Peruvian cloud forest – photo by E. Jurus

Sometimes in life you plan for one thing and get extraordinarily lucky with something else.

Spring for me is a time of flowers. I’m fortunate to live in an area with orchards, and every May is blossom time. This year, though, after a long cold winter, the blossoms are late, so I’ll post a special blossom from a past adventure.

We visited Peru in its spring season – specifically November, which is orchid season in the Andean cloud forest. We stayed at a wonderful ecohotel in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu, and were able to do a guided walk to explore the 300-odd varieties of orchids that grow wild around the grounds of the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. The orchids were amazing, but as we explored them our naturalist also pointed out a whitish flower that was on the verge of blooming. He told us that it was an iris that only blooms for one day a year, and that if we were lucky we might see it.

The next day I was up early for a bird walk, and checked eagerly around the grounds for signs of blooms. Finally, about mid-morning, the magic happened! The beautiful Neomarica northiana, known as the Walking Iris for the rhizomes it sends out to propagate, had graced us with her brief but spectacular debut. No one else was with me, so I savoured it quietly alone. Taking a photo of the iris was challenging, as it appears to like the shade/low lighting, and a light breeze kept moving it around so much that the camera had a hard time focusing on the delicate petals. I managed to get a couple of decent shots as a record of this small miracle that Mother Nature gifted me with, and which I was duly grateful for.

Many things in life are ephemeral; it’s up to us to make the most of their fleeting gifts.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes – Peruvian cloudforest hides wonders

Thousands of people visit the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru every year, but few take the time to explore the surrounding cloud forest, an amazing ecosystem in the Andes Mountains. Instead of rushing up and down the mountain in one day, we went up by train and stayed for two nights at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel on the outskirts of the town of Aguas Calientes, which is the base from which most people visit the ruins. The Inkaterra hotel, an award-winning eco-sensitive property, is spread through 12 lush acres of the cloud forest along the Urubamba River and makes the most of its jungle setting. You stay in cozy white-painted adobe casitas with Andean blankets on the beds and toiletries made from plants on the hotel property.

Casitas at the Inkaterra hotel - photo by E. Jurus
Casitas at the Inkaterra hotel – photo by E. Jurus

You can book a variety of activities, some complimentary when as part of your stay, others at an additional cost. We paid for a privately-guided morning tour of Machu Picchu that included transportation and admission to the site, but the complimentary activities available included tea-making at the hotel’s small tea plantation, bird walks, ancient ceremonies, and, since we were there in November — orchid season — an orchid walk. Our guide was an expert at finding the tiniest orchids hiding amidst the lush vegetation, and even helped us take close-up photos of these amazing plants. It was a not-to-be-missed experience!

Booking a package is easy: just contact the hotel through its website: http://www.inkaterra.com/inkaterra/inkaterra-machu-picchu-pueblo-hotel/. The staff are very friendly and welcoming. A full hot and cold buffet breakfast and dinner at one of the two restaurants are usually included, and the food is terrific. One note of warning: the pizco sours are deadly here, so drink one slowly!

A special feature of the hotel is a sanctuary for Andean Spectacled Bears. The project, in conjunction with the Peruvian government, rescues the bears (the only bear native to S. America) from the brutal pet trade and rehabilitates them for reintroduction into the wild. There were three bears in residence when we were there, and they were adorable as they clambered around the various props designed to reteach them forest survival skills.

Spectacled Bears love avocados! - photo by E. Jurus
Spectacled Bears love avocados! – photo by E. Jurus

There’s also a terrific spa where I had one of the best massages of my life, using oils made from the unique jungle plants.

The town of Aguas Calientes is just across a small bridge from the hotel, so it’s easy to walk into town to explore the great craft market and perhaps have some Peruvian food in one of the restaurants.

All in all, a wonderful place to spend some time, so I highly recommend including a couple of extra days to fit this into your schedule when you visit Peru. If you’d like more information, drop me a line!

paw2014

Machu Picchu a little differently

The setting of Machu Picchu is spectacular
The setting of Machu Picchu is spectacular

If you’re not up for the strenuous hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, you’ll likely end up taking one of the trains along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes, where you can catch a bus up to the top of the mountain to see one of the world’s most famous ancient citadels.

If you do it as a day trip, you’ll arrive at Machu Picchu amidst hordes of other tourists, spend a few hours at the citadel in the peak of the midday heat, and zip back to Cusco on the train without having had a chance to absorb the cloud forest in which Machu Picchu is set. There’s a better way.

There are a variety of hotels in and around Aguas Calientes where you can spend a couple of days enjoying the ambience and exploring not only Machu Picchu itself, but also the cloud forest that cloaks the mountains in which this amazing ancient wonder is located — the same cloud forest through which Hiram Bingham and his guide hacked their way in 1911 to find what has become the most famous ancient ruin in South America.

Peru is a patchwork of widely differing habitats: vast stretches of desert along the coast, the craggy Andes mountains down the spine, the cold and desolate Altiplano high up in the Andes, the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin on the eastern side of the Andes, and the marvelous cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu, which many people don’t take the trouble to visit.

The hotel we stayed at, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, just across a short bridge from the main part of Aguas Calientes, has won numerous awards and this year was named one of the top 5 resorts and lodges in Central and South America by Travel & Leisure magazine.  It’s more affordable than you might think, though, and makes a wonderful base for a few nights.

Bungalows at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel
Bungalows at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel

You’ll stay in your own bungalow set amid the gardens, where thick woolen blankets ward off the night-time chill, toiletries are made from botanicals right on the property, and you’ll eat some of the finest food in Peru.

The ambience is very relaxing, so you can choose to just chill out a bit after the challenges of the altitude in Cuzco (about 4,300′ higher than Aguas Calientes), although you’ll still get a bit breathless walking up and down the stone paths at the hotel, but there’s plenty to do if you feel like exploring.

The first thing you’ll probably want to do is visit Machu Picchu, which you can arrange through the hotel, who’ll provide a private guide and the entry passes – the site is now restricted to only 500 people a day. You’ll get up for an early breakfast and take the bus up the mountain (a hair-raising ride in itself) at dawn to be among the earliest to arrive, and you’ll spend several hours exploring the massive site, stopping to rest for a light snack as well.

Some things to know beforehand: the morning air heats up very quickly to an intense blaze, so wear a good sunblock, a wide-brimmed hat and an overshirt with sleeves that you can roll down when you start to broil. There are no washrooms inside the citadel, so make sure you visit the ones outside the entrance gate. The site is very steep, and the ancient staircases are worn and slippery, with little in the way of handholds or barriers, so be very careful and take walking poles if you’re not steady on your feet. On the way out, don’t forget to have your passport stamped — Machu Picchu has its own stamp that you can add to your collection.

Aguas Calientes is easily explored on your own, and is just steps away from the Inkaterra hotel
Aguas Calientes is easily explored on your own, and is just steps away from the Inkaterra hotel

After your visit to Machu Picchu, you can have lunch in the charming and picturesque town of Aguas Calientes, which has plenty of decent restaurants to try authentic Andean food and a thriving craft market, or you can return to the hotel. Make sure you try the passion fruit cheesecake at least once either in town or at the hotel.

The hotel is set in its own private 12 acres of cloud forest, so if you feel like exploring after lunch, you can do so on your own or in the company of a naturalist, just viewing the forest ecosystem or doing some bird-watching.

Our orchid guide, Joseph, explains the physiology of these beautiful plants
Our orchid guide, Joseph, explains the physiology of these beautiful plants

The cloud forest is also home to over 300 species of wild orchids, and if you visit in the November orchid season as we did, you’ll be treated to an amazing variety of the flowers in all shapes and sizes. I’d recommend booking the orchid tour with one of the naturalists, though — many of the plants are quite tough to spot without an expert eye.

Spectacle bears are sweet and gentle herbivores; they love avocados
Spectacle bears are sweet and gentle herbivores; they love avocados

The Inkaterra has also partnered with the Peruvian government to rescue and rehabilitate the native Spectacled Bear, the only bear in South America. The bears are gentle arboreal creatures who are often captured illegally to either sold as pets or killed for their body parts, for which there is an appalling trade in Asia. There were 3 bears on hand when we visited, and they were delightful to watch.

The Inkaterra also grows its own herbs for the kitchen, and has its own small tea plantation, where you can learn all about tea production and make your own bag of tea to try out.

Most of these activities are included at no extra cost in your stay at the Inkaterra, but if you like there are a nice selection of activities with a range of prices as well: you can book a spa treatment — I had a fantastic massage with fragrant botanical oils — or have a native Andean purification ceremony, see a musical performance, etc.

Breakfasts and dinners are included, and the food is terrific. The breakfast buffet alone is worth getting up early for!
Breakfasts and dinners are included, and the food is terrific. The breakfast buffet alone is worth getting up early for!

At the end of the day, you can snuggle up in your comfortable bungalow and listen to some of the night sounds of the forest all around you. It’s a great way to see a bit more of Machu Picchu than most people bother to experience. The people at the Inkaterra were great to deal with, and very enthusiastic about their hotel and Machu Picchu. If you’d like to do Machu Picchu a little off the beaten path, you can’t go wrong with this choice!

The extremely comfortable bedrooms at the Inkaterra
The extremely comfortable bedrooms at the Inkaterra