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.

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.

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 On Top – Jungle Adventure Part 3

 

The many-layered canopy layer of the Amazon jungle - photo by E. Jurus
The many-layered canopy layer of the Amazon jungle – photo by E. Jurus

Wet jungles are fascinating places, and possibly none more so than the Amazon rainforest. Nothing about it was what we expected. Tropical rainforests are layer upon layer of life scrambling to exist. You can’t really get a feel for one until you walk through it.

If you were to just look at an aerial picture, you’d see the thick canopy layer spreading its myriad of leaf shapes to get as much sun as possible, but underneath the jungle teems with some of the highest biodiversity on our planet.

The massive trees are the support structure of the jungle, but they pay the price, playing host to epiphytic plants and getting choked to death by thick strangler vines.

A parasitic vine slowly throttles a supporting tree - photo by E. Jurus
A parasitic vine slowly throttles a supporting tree – photo by E. Jurus

Their fruits are eaten by birds and monkeys of all kinds, who excrete the precious seeds to tumble down to the forest floor and germinate a new generation of trees.

Brown capuchin monkeys hide in the branches - photo by E. Jurus
Brown capuchin monkeys hide in the branches – photo by E. Jurus

In the middle the medium-growth plants all jostle for the tiny bits of sunlight that make it past the canopy. You might see wild limes and papayas, plants with long spiky leaves next to those with big glossy leaves like elephant ears.

Lichens and fungus live down near the darker and moister bottom layer of the jungle, sprouting all manner of shapes and colours. Insects climb, buzz, flit and perch wherever they can.

Fungus on a fallen log - photo by E. Jurus
Fungus on a fallen log – photo by E. Jurus

Dead plant life that litters the jungle floor decays to provide nutrients for the germinating fruit seeds that the monkeys and birds have dropped. The soil of a rainforest is poor in quality — it depends on everything that falls from above to feed the life it supports. Once a patch of jungle is clear-cut, it never recovers, dead for all time.

Our guide, Marco, who grew up in the very same jungle he took us through, showed us many wonders: tiny edible fruits, medicinal vines, tarantula holes in the ground, how to send a signal with the thick reverberating roots of the ‘telephone tree’…

This Tuesday, April 22 was Earth Day, a day dedicated to honouring and protecting what’s left of the precious resources on our planet. The Amazon Jungle is one of the most precious. Go and see it while you can, and do all you can to help preserve it, for every single species on our Earth, humans included, needs it to survive.

An insect we spotted in the jungle - even our guide didn't know what it was - photo by E. Jurus
An insect we spotted in the jungle – even our guide didn’t know what it was – photo by E. Jurus

Cee’s Which Way Photo Challenge – Jungle Adventure Part 1

 

Funky shop sign in Puerto Maldonado - photo by E. Jurus
Funky shop sign in Puerto Maldonado – photo by E. Jurus

Apparently Elvis sells shoes in the Amazon, if you believe he’s still alive and kicking somewhere.

You can find just about anything in the muddy jungle frontier city of Puerto Maldonado, located at the confluence of the Tambopata and Madre de Dios rivers.

Puerto Maldonado is the gateway to many nature reserves in the Amazon jungle. Most people fly into Puerto Maldonado from Cuzco or Lima, and you can feel the steamy tropical heat as soon as you step off the plane.

Typical street in Puerto Maldonado - photo by E. Jurus
Typical street in Puerto Maldonado – photo by E. Jurus

 

The airport is a big warehouse-type building where your luggage is off-loaded through an opening in the wall. You pile onto a colourful bus hung with lots of national-team dingle-dangles from the rearview mirror for the short drive into the main part of the small city, where you can grab any last-minute supplies (rain poncho, bag of fresh brazil nuts or a sack of potatoes, anyone?) for your jungle adventure.

Foodstuffs in the market at Puerto Maldonado - photo by E. Jurus
Foodstuffs in the market at Puerto Maldonado – photo by E. Jurus

 

Finally there’s an even shorter ride down to the edge of the Madre de Dios River for your 1-2 hour excursion up the murky river waters by motorized canoe to your jungle lodge.

Platform to board motorized canoes on the Madre de Dios River - photo by E. Jurus
Platform to board motorized canoes on the Madre de Dios River – photo by E. Jurus

 

I love all forms of transportation! Our tour of Peru and Bolivia featured many different kinds, and this excursion was one of my favourites.

Along the river you see shore birds, people who live in the jungle going into the city or returning home by small canoe, tiny huts snugged into the thick greenery, the odd abandoned canoe (leaky, one presumes), gold miners dredging in small barges, and a wall of vegetation all around you. No monkeys swinging from the trees, or humanoid creatures lurking in the waters (for all fans of old sci-fi B movies), unfortunately, but the trip is fascinating nonetheless.

The Amazon rainforest frames the river - photo by E. Jurus
The Amazon rainforest frames the river – photo by E. Jurus

 

Finally you arrive at your lodge, set into the lush jungle vegetation. You get off at a tiny pier and climb up steps to a raised walkway designed to accommodate the annual flooding in the Amazon Basin. This is your introduction to your home for the next part of your jungle adventure…but more on that in another post!