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.

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: 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

Cee’s Which Way Challenge: A hair-raising ride up Machu Picchu mountain

The switchback road up Machu Picchu mountain - photo by E. Jurus
The switchback road up Machu Picchu mountain – photo by E. Jurus

If you’re not up to spending 4 days hiking the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu citadel in Peru, one of your other options is to take one of the many buses that careen up and down the mountain all day long. But don’t think you’re getting off too easy: it’s quite a ride up the tight switchbacks of the road, with a steep drop-off on the outside edge.

The view is amazing but disconcerting: it feels like you’re suspended in mid-air at some points, at others like you’re floating straight up the side of the mountain.

Approaching one of the switchbacks on the road to Machu Picchu - photo by E. Jurus
Approaching one of the switchbacks on the road to Machu Picchu – photo by E. Jurus

Looking out from the Machu Picchu switchback road - photo by E. Jurus
Looking out from the Machu Picchu switchback road – photo by E. Jurus

The drive becomes really interesting when two buses have to pass each other!  It’s all worth it though — seeing Machu Picchu in real life is an incredible experience. But that’s a tale for another Challenge entry 🙂

Passing another bus on the Machu Picchu mountain road - photo by E. Jurus
Passing another bus on the Machu Picchu mountain road – photo by E. Jurus

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Challenges and a glass half-full

View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru - photo by E. Jurus 2012
View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru – photo by E. Jurus 2012

Back from a short hiatus! I’m just getting over a flare-up of my fibromyalgia. I’ve had it for about 8 years, and usually I manage pretty well, but when I push myself too hard for an extended period of time, I pay for it afterwards — this time for a couple of weeks.

For anyone who’s not very familiar with this condition, it’s what’s often referred to as an ‘invisible disability’: you can’t tell just by looking at someone that there’s something the matter with them. When it’s at its worst, every muscle in my body hurts, from head to toe, and I feel like I’ve come down with a bad virus. Most days, I just get tired by the end of the day, but the biggest challenge for me is to try and keep fit. If I don’t exercise, my muscles lose all their tone very quickly, but if I exercise too much (where even an extra five minutes could push me over the edge) I end up feeling so achy later that I can’t do anything other than huddle on the couch with a cup of tea.

For some reason I can be much more active on a trip, but the most frightening thing that ever happened to me as a result of my condition also happened while travelling. Several years ago we spent a few days on the island of Mauritius at a very nice beach resort called Legends, on the northern shore of the island. The beach had quite a steep drop a few yards from shore, which I knew, but what I didn’t realize was that the drop curved inward instead of running in a straight line. I’ve never been a really strong swimmer, but strong enough to pass swimming tests when I was a kid, so I never worried particularly about drowning. This time, though, I was bobbing along through the water parallel to the shore when I suddenly found myself in water way over my head. I tried to return just a yard or so to where my feet could touch the sand, and it was a struggle — my muscles just weren’t giving me much movement, to the point where I had to fight not to panic. After what seemed like an eternity I was finally able to reach solid ground, but that short journey had been touch-and-go. I stayed well close to shore after that, having been made terrifyingly aware of how much strength I’d lost because of this strange ailment.

And yet, I’m very lucky. If I take good care of myself I can live a fairly normal life. I can still do many of the things I love — travelling, dancing, golf (okay, that’s really a love-hate relationship, depending on the day). I look at someone in a wheelchair and think, ‘There, but for the grace of God…’

Last fall I was able to hike around the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu for three hours and enjoy every minute of it. I wasn’t in the running to do the strenuous 4-day hike up the Inca Trail, but that was okay because we thoroughly enjoyed the atmospheric train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes through the Urubamba Valley, winding along the same route that Hiram Bingham hiked just over 100 years ago when he became the official ‘discoverer’ of the Lost City of the Incas. As our train snaked along the river bank, through lush cloud forest, we watched the clouds come in over the towering mountain peaks on either side in the darkening sky.

The next morning, from Aguas Calientes we took a death-defying bus ride (well, not really death-defying, but not for the faint-of-heart) along a narrow dirt road that climbed up to the citadel in tight dusty switchbacks clinging to the edge of the steep mountainside. At the top, in the crystal-clear morning air, we hiked through more cloud forest until we rounded a piece of the mountain and saw the entire city laid out before us, rising and falling across the mountain peak. Machu Picchu is fascinating, but what’s even more awe-inspiring is the setting. You stand on a dirt path amid the stone houses and look down several thousand feet to the Urubamba River undulating far below, with nary a fence to keep an unwary walker from falling over, but all around you there are deep blue-green mountains that swim among the clouds, and ancient sacred animals like the puma and the condor imprisoned in the towering stones.

The view looking out from Machu Picchu
The view looking out from Machu Picchu

Life throws us a lot of curves, so it’s important to celebrate what we can do and live life to the fullest as long as we’re able.

I’d love to hike to Everest Base Camp, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to. Nevertheless, I’ve stood among the clouds in South America. I’ve had a spider monkey sit on my head, I’ve looked at wild orchids so small you need a magnifying glass to see them clearly, I’ve ridden on a reed boat at the roof of the world. There’s still plenty to enjoy.

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