I write stories of travel near and far so I don’t forget what I felt when I was in that space…the sheer bliss, discomfort, awkward moments, language barriers, smells, sounds, the beauty in every earthly creature and experience…but most of all, the interactions with the people. I write so their story can be shared. 

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Okay, so it’s about time I sit down and write about our long-awaited, much-anticipated journey to Peru. It’s been a little over four years since Tom and I exchanged our top 5 travel destinations. As the story goes, Machu Picchu was one of our mutual top 5. In fact, we were pretty much on the same page with all of our travel to-dos. But it was Peru that we were particularly enthralled about exploring. The rich history, the ultra-powerful and incredibly intellectual/resourceful Incas, the stunning and vibrant landscape, the warm culture…we found all of these things about Peru, and more, captivating. I had really pushed to go to Peru post-super wedding, but Tom secured his first marriage victory in persuading me to redirect my mind and energy to focus on the future for an adventure once things had settled down a bit.

Now, to the normal person, this made absolute sense, seeing as though we had undergone an international relocation, a rough case of reverse culture shock, living life outside of a few suitcases on a gracious friend’s couch, a self-planned wedding adventure, a PhD proposal, an opening of a hostel/hotel and the planning/execution of two very large opening parties (for Mosaic House), a new job, getting used to life in the same country…and under one roof, and more. But I kept thinking, Tom and I are far from normal. Needless to say, the Peruvian adventure was best saved for a moment in the distant future. So we waited. And God knows I’m not one to wait. But I did. I do feel like God is constantly throwing these challenges my way for a reason. And through it, I learned a little bit more about patience. And it was so completely worth it. So here we go…1.5 years later: The Delayed Peruvian H-Moon Extravaganza chronicled in seven (my favorite number) short stories. Sit back, relax, grab some coffee or some coca tea (I have plenty left in my travel bag - shhh) and dive in…

Knowmad Adventures - where it all began.

After months of scouring the web for travel planning resources and  finding everything yet nothing worth any value, I reached out to my network to get tips around travel in South America (this is what I prefer anyway, rather than reading a guide book, as we are very different travelers). Problem is, not a ton of my friends had traveled to South America, let alone Peru. This process was not for nothing, though, as I came up with some good business ideas for the future in the midst of it all. The web is a wealth of knowledge, but there is also just a lot of crap out there. To distill that crap was something I didn’t have the patience or time for, and I knew most of the planning would fall into my (very capable, but discouraged at this point) hands, as Tom would be working on his thesis. One day, out of the blue, Tom casually mentioned he went to high school with a couple (Tara and Jordan Harvey) who had started their own small outfitter called Knowmad Adventures, based out of Minneapolis, who specialized in the organization of authentic, sustainable travel adventures in South America. Whoa. My jaw dropped, as I looked at Tom in disbelief…how had I not known about these guys the last 4 months as I was looking for info?! I knew we wanted to go with a small outfitter rather than a big-box outfitter, we wanted personal attention, we wanted reliability, we wanted to ensure the outfitter compensated their staff fairly and they worked under the best possible conditions, and - most of all - we wanted an adventure crafted especially for us full of authenticity and just the right balance of grit and comfort. I was hesitant at first, as either of us had ever done organized travel, and weren’t completely jazzed about it because we like to do our own thing/travel off-the-beaten-path, though I knew this trip would be a different kind of trip. I truly believe things happen for a reason, and I was thrilled to have had the lead about Knowmad from Tom. From the first interaction I had with Knowmad in reading about them on their website, I felt like it was the perfect fit…and my initial conversation with Jordan only solidified that sentiment. He listened, gave me frank suggestions based on our wants/needs, understood…and I walked away from that conversation feeling like we were in great hands. The closer we got to our travel date, the more excited we got. Tom was blissfully ignorant about our travel plans, which was mostly fine with me, as it meant he’d be surprised with each adventure in which we embarked. 

An unexpected welcome, rich knowledge and vibrant colors + guinea pig in our tummies | Andean Amaru Village - Pisac District

We arrived in Lima, greeted by Samuel (from ExplorAndes, the on-ground crew who works with Knowmad) late the night of 26 April and stayed at an airport hotel, seeing as though we’d be leaving early the next morning for Cusco. We arrived to Cusco and were again greeted by amazing staff - one being Rene, our driver (now friend) for the duration of the trip while in the Cusco/Sacred Valley, and were taken directly to the lovely La Casona de Yucay where we’d stay for the next two nights. When I imagine what heaven could look like, Yucay is one of those places that very closely resembles the visual in my mind. Just stunning. On day 1 we enjoyed getting acquainted with the food (eating Alpaca - yum), coca tea, village and surroundings, altitude and more…and we were excited for day 2, which we knew would entail a trip to the Pisac district and perhaps to the market, as well as meeting our guide for the Inca Trail. We didn’t really anticipate the adventure that was in store for us, though, which entailed a memorable trip to a remote village in the Andean mountains, to visit the Amaru people. 

In the morning we enthusiastically met our guide, Juancarlos, with whom we instantly felt a connection. Rene, our driver, was there too - and he had already become a friend, despite a slight language barrier. From there, we traveled to the Amaru village to spend time with a community leader and his family. What a day! I couldn’t have assembled a more perfect day. Prior to the trip I had built a relationship with some guys who had started a bag company called Ethnotek that sustainably sources their bag designs - printed, woven and embroidered textiles - (see picture above with me and my Ghana 6 Ethnotek pack) from villages they partner with around the world, and were looking for some leads on Quechua textiles. Again, things happen for a reason. We quickly learned that we’d be spending the day with Gregorio, the village leader, learning about medicinal plants and their properties as well as their entire textile process from dying to weaving. As we approached the village, we received a ceremonial welcome by the villagers, who sang and danced and placed necklaces stranded with the Peruvian national flower (the Cantuta) around our necks, sprinkled white flowers from a basket over our heads, and adorned us in the traditional clothing representing their village. It was the warmest welcome we had ever received. These people did not know us, but welcomed us into their home as family. A poignant lesson for us westerners on the value of time and sharing. We played with village children, ate cuy (guinea pig) for lunch, learned to drop-spin and dye alpaca and sheep skin and watched the weavers in awe, and danced with the villagers…but the most memorable part for me was when Gregorio and his wife (see picture above) took three coca tea leaves in their hand, blessed them and gave them as an offering to Pachamama (mother earth).

The symbolism of the three coca tea leaves coincides with the Chakana (or Inca Cross), which is the three-stepped cross equivalent symbolic of what is known in other mythologies as the Tree of Life, World Tree and so on. Through a central axis a shaman journeyed in trance to the Underworld and the higher levels inhabited by the superior gods to enquire into the causes of misfortune on the Earth plane. The snake (underworld), puma (earthly creature), and condor (heavenly creature) are totemic representatives of the three levels. I learned quite a bit about the Inca people that day, including their focus on duality and the associated power that was represented by a strong husband/wife combination. The day we were there six villages had come together to share weaving techniques, patterns and etc as a way to sustain, preserve and educate the local community - working very much in cooperation rather than competition. Communal labor is based on the golden rule of the Andes: reciprocity. I was in awe of this. On top of all of this, I was deeply touched by the children and their joy in this simple, yet imaginative and resourceful life up in the remote village.  We left feeling connected to this culture in a deeper, more meaningful way. Blessed. 

The Trek to Machu Picchu + other notables, like fingerstache-wearing and bonding with ‘los jefes’ (our larger-than-life porters) | Inca Trail

I get it…this is already getting quite long, so why don’t you take a break and go grab a coffee, or bloody mary (preferably the latter)?!  Ready, break!

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Ahhh, Victrola coffee in hand…I already feel restored. Hope you do too, because this is where the story really starts to get good: The Inca Trail.

We packed up for our expedition and met Rene and Juancarlos the next morning. Equipped with my new toy, a GoPro, our packs and sleeping bags and smiles - we headed to the start of the trail, where we met our team. We had the pleasant surprise of getting a private tour, as no one else had booked for those days with Knowmad - how cool is that for us?! We were also surprised when we met our team of six. That’s right, six! Five porters and a chef, whose names were Augustin (head porter - aka ‘el jefe’), Lorenzo (porter), Andres (porter), Florentino (porter), Mario (porter), and Santos (chef). We had a hard time feeing comfortable with the fact that we’d be served by six individuals and a guide for the next four days, but we were excited that it was just us and we’d be able to get to know our team in a more meaningful way than most trekkers. And get to know them we did…by the end of the four-day trek we were all wearing fingerstaches and laughing together. Meaningful connections. It’s what we live for. 

My guess is you’re wondering about the trek, though…so I’ll break it down day by day, in a series of words that attempts to describe just how stunning the trail was. Not sure I can give justice to what my eyes saw through words, but I will sure try to do my best. 

Day 1: Once we packed up and were ready to set off, we said our goodbyes to Rene and went on our way. The first day was characterized by primarily flat terrain on the way to our first camp site at Llactapata. One of the great things about going with Knowmad was that it meant our journey would look slightly different than everyone else’s…reason being is that the first day we were on an alternate path than the rest of the individuals who start the trek. The first day finds trekkers on a trail that isn’t the original Inca Trail - it is a dirt path (not rocky like the original Inca Trail) and rather than following the rest of the gang, we were on the opposite side of the Urubamba River (a partially navigable headwater of the Amazon River) and the only individuals we encountered were members of our team.

A rather relaxing day, and we were making pretty good time, feeling pretty good. At lunch we were blown away by Santos’ cooking - it was luxury, with mashed potatoes, chicken and veggies. They set up the toilet tent, which was also a great concept to me, and meant that we didn’t have to rely on the bathrooms along the trail but could have some privacy in our own tent. Tom and Juancarlos quickly determined they had other plans, as both of them wanted to hold off as long as they could. Freaks. We arrived to our campsite at a decent time in the early afternoon and were taken aback by the scenery. In the distance we saw Incan ruins emerging from the base of the mountain, on the other side of the river. The lighting was heavenly.  As Tom read and tended to his dollar coin-sized blisters on the back of each heal (ouch! A reminder to break in your trekking shoes before the hike!), I did some CrossFit and then met a local child named Karolina, who lived in a home not far from our campsite. We giggled, communicated with each other as best we could, did somersaults and cartwheels and I realized how fun it must be for her to see trekkers come through every once in a while. What a lovely, simple life she lived on this farm in this very sacred place…where chickens roamed freely and cows stopped by to say ‘hi’. I felt the energy in this valley and knew I was beyond blessed to be able to tackle this trek. As we ate another gorgeous dinner from Santos, we learned from Juancarlos that the ruins we saw in the distance (Llaqtapata archeological site) were as far as the Spanish conquerers had gotten on the Inca Trail. We drank plenty of water to hydrate for day 2 of the trek, which would be leaps and bounds more challenging, both physically and mentally, than day 1. Then we hit the hay.

Time: estimated 5-6 hours (it took us only a few hours)
Distance: 11km

Day 2: Awakened by the sound of roosters bright and early, and the sound of our porters outside of our tent saying, ‘Coca Tea?!’ (this is a wake-up call we quickly grew to love), we were ready to tackle the ascent to our Day 2 campsite Llulluchapampa. And ascent it was, as we’d be climbing the entire time, from 2650 meters to at Llaqtapata to 3840 meters at Llulluchapampa. So, day 2 involved climbing ~1300 meters (~4300 feet) and setting up camp 400 meters (1400 feet) short of Warmiwanusqa (‘Dead Woman’s Pass). As we trekked up through the valley, we quickly began to notice the change in flora and fauna, as well as the change in the path with steep stone steps, as we were now trekking on the original Inca Trail. Reaching the community of Huayllabamba, the last village on the trail (and also the point at which they no longer allow pack animals on the trail), we stopped to rest. From Huayllabamba the trail ascends steeply to a large Pampa below the first camp.

As we ascended the mountain, we started to note the change in our surroundings, entering the cloud forest that houses the Quena tree (Polilepis), the highest altitude tree in the world, found in the Andes. On our way we encountered a waterfall, loads of both gorgeous and relentless insects (Mosquitos being the latter…they ate our legs to bits and the itch doesn’t die down for days - I seriously loathed those little guys with a passion and my legs still look disgusting because of ‘em. Ah well. Battle wounds, right?!.), a very steep path, and the most picturesque views of the snow-capped Mt. Huayanay in the distance. At this point in the trail we also encountered the first trekkers to share the trail on our journey - a group of Scandinavians who were obviously seasoned hikers. This group would be pretty much the only group we’d encounter on the trail for the entire four days (we saw other trekkers at some of the campsites, but their path was drastically different than ours - yet another reason to go with Knowmad).

As a rain-storm started to roll in, we happily reached our campsite at Llulluchapampa to admire the views and knock out some pistol squats before the rain poured down on us. The state of Tom’s massive blisters was worsening, and this also slowed him down a bit on the trail. Neither of us had any issues with stomach viruses or altitude sickness thus far, though, so we considered ourselves lucky for the most part. We filled our stomachs with my favorite meal of the trek, Lomo Saltado (a Pervian dish with Asian influences, ‘chifa,’ featuring strips of sirloin marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and spices, then stir fried with onions, parsley, tomatoes and served with fries), and then went to sleep relatively early as we knew that we’d likely have trouble sleeping well at this altitude, and that the ascent to Warmiwaynusqa the next morning would prove to be a bitch (excuse my language).

Time: 6 hours (it took us around 5)
Distance: 9 Km 

Day 3: ‘Coca Tea?!’ Augustin said as they delivered hot water with Coca Tea leaves and water for our feat/faces. Words cannot begin to convey how good that warm water feels when you’ve been trekking for 2 days with little sleep, and sore muscles. I had a hard time sleeping on day 2 and welcomed the hearty breakfast of eggs, meat and toast…as well as the coffee. I’m not sure if it’s because we hadn’t warmed up to trekking yet or not, but the ascent to Warmiwanusqa (Dead Woman’s Pass) was a lot more taxing than I had thought it would be. Plus, we were starting to feel the affect of the previous day’s constant incline on our bodies. They call it ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ because, from a distance, the mountain appears to be in the shape of a woman lying on her back. We reached the highest point of the trek at 4,200m and enjoyed some passion fruit (my fav) before descending to the Pacaymayo River, and then ascending again to the ruins of Runkuraqay and the second pass at 4,050m. As we trekked, we passed Lago Verde (‘Green Lake’), a vibrantly-colored algae-filled lake near Pacaymayo (3350 meters or ~11000 feet) and in the valley between Warmiwanusqa and Runkurakay (mountain passes). As we trekked to Sayacmarca at 3850m, we took a short break and marveled at the scenery, and the first signs of the cloud forest - my favorite part of the trek. Day 3 found us on an undulating, original Inca Trail path through the insanely beautiful cloud forest.

While I stopped every 30 minutes to relieve my bladder, it was on day 3 that we reached a key milestone of our trek: Tom and Juancarlos finally broke down and used the toilet during the descent. Thank God. 

Moving on (again, thank God)…the weather started to change and we experienced the first rain while actually trekking on the trail. At this point I realized how blessed we had been with the weather we had encountered. I also realized how tired my body started to become, despite the fact that I had been doing CrossFit and running consistently prior to the trek. Day 3 was probably the first time during the four-day trek that my mental state was seemingly bruised and I had the realization that the trek was actually a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. And then, as I moved over to allow the quick and nimble porters pass (who had been passing us throughout the trek and were carrying a far heavier load than myself), I stopped and thought about how amazing these individuals are. They’re trekking with 50lbs of gear and many of them were trekking in sandals made of rubber from tires. Here I was, kitted out in the best-of-the-best camping gear, deflated and tired. I thought about how resourceful, intelligent and resilient the Incan people were to have trekked this trail and to have created such a strong, expansive, fast-growing empire. And my mindset changed. Because I knew I was doing something special. I felt the energy of the space. As we pushed on, we were happy to arrive at the final campsite at Phuyupatamarca (3650 meters or ~12000 feet, known as the ‘village on the edge of the clouds’) with an absolutely breathtaking view of Mt. Salkantay and Mt. Pumasillo. We also viewed the backside of Machu Picchu from our campsite. On most expeditions, trekkers will camp very close to Intipunku (The Sun Gate) in order to arrive to Machu Picchu at sunrise. Knomad’s philosophy on this is that at sunrise there is often fog cover over the ruins, and it is very crowded in the morning, so in the spirit of the off-the-beaten-path mindset, this totally jived with us and we were fortunate to have a much more beautiful campsite than most experience on the alternate path. 

Tom’s blisters were now completely open and he had to perform a mini-surgery on them in the tent upon arrival. They were incredibly painful, but he was a trooper and thank goodness he had assembled an award-winning first aid kit for the trek…because it definitely came in handy. It was an early night that night, as we’d be waking up quite early the next morning for our tipping ceremony with the porters, and to pack up. 

Time: 7-8 hours (we arrived in about 5-6)
Distance: 14km 

Day 4: Rather than awaking to the sound of ‘Coca Tea?!’, I awoke to the sound of the extremely large Japanese group who was camping at the campsite below us. I walked out of the tent and stretched, then looked to my right to see our porters watching the Japanese tourists with wonder/amazement. These Quechuan men from small Andean villages were marveling at this group’s gear, their animation and their laughter. It really made me stop and realize how untouched these porters are - they grow up in small, sometimes very remote villages in the area and aren’t used to seeing things like this. On the entire trek, we joked with them, laughed with them and interacted with them - which is probably something they don’t often see from trekkers…and they opened up over the four days and became our friends.

Allow me to digress for a few minutes and tell you a little more about the porters. One of my favorite porters in the group was named Lorenzo. On the second morning of the trek we went around and each told our story - where we were from, what we did, what our family looked like, etc. - Lorenzo had already left the campsite at that point, but I was told he was 24 years old. The youngest porter in the group. With a shy disposition, Lorenzo was one of those strong, yet silent types. Like my grandpa. He carried a pack that was fashioned from a large rice bag, a shawl that acted as the straps, secured by rope. It looked ungodly uncomfortable, but it was what Lorenzo was used to  using. Similarly, even though the porters were equipped with gear (including shoes, clothing, etc), Lorenzo chose to wear his rubber sandals, and his feet looked like they were in extreme pain - swollen, with bug bites and wounds - Tom had commented on them early on in the first day. His feet were weathered. He had taken this trek so many time. As Lorenzo warmed up to us, we started calling him “Jefecito” (little boss), which made him crack a smile for the first time. In turn, he started calling Tom “Papi”. We all laughed. A lot. 

That morning, we packed up and I took some time to do some sun salutations towards Machu Picchu, before we prepared for our tipping ceremony with the porters. The night before, as Tom was joking with Juancarlos and sharing episodes of Curb Your Ethusiasm on his iPad with him, I was thinking about what we should do to thank the porters for their hard work. We landed on doing a raffle to give away my sleeping bag, as well as to tip each of them. You should know that with the increased regulations now, outfitters are required to ensure their porters and guides make fair wages, are equipped with adequate gear, and don’t lift more than 50 lbs (the lead porter weighs all of the packs prior to leaving the campsite in order to ensure they meet the guidelines). Some outfitters treat their porters better than others, of course, and this is another reason we went with Knowmad Adventures/ExplorAndes. Tom and I wrote down funny sayings in Spanish on pieces of paper and threw them in a hat. Tom went around and said a ‘thank you’ to the group, giving the tips to each of the porters as I grabbed the scene on my GoPro. Then, we did the raffle and Florentino (the porter responsible for carrying the toilet) was the “Ganador”. They loved it. But we weren’t done yet. My most favorite part of the ceremony was the fingerstache (yes, it does have its own wikipedia page) ceremony, courtesy of yours truly. Yes, that’s right - I carried the fingerstaches with me to Peru and on the trek to fulfill one mission: for everyone on our team to be gifted a fingerstache and for us all to don them for a team photograph. They probably thought we were crazy, but they loved it. Each of the porters laughed and were totally into it and we all took both solo shots as well as a group shot together. Highlight. At this point, though, we had spent too much time at our site having fun and everyone from neighboring sites had departed camp already. And so we grabbed our packs and started our descent from Phuyupatamarca (at 3650m) to Machu Picchu (2450m), where the trail winds deeply down into the cloud forest to the ruins of Wiñay Wayna. We stopped for a little while here, taking a break and chatting with Juancarlos about everything from our careers to Incan history and beyond. We absolutely felt that we Juancarlos was the perfect fit for us - we couldn’t have been happier with him and we gelled so well. 

As the trek continued, and we progressed through the cloud forest, I grew more and more tired and started to feel quite dizzy. It was a gorgeous, hot day and as we descended we were exposed to the sun for a large duration of the trek, which ended up affecting me more than I thought it  would (especially considering my water intake was much lower the third night and fourth day). This trek could be quite humbling, actually, as I - who thought I was in great shape - had to sit down for about 15 minutes after I felt nauseated and dizzy. Tom took my pack from me and encouraged me to get hydrated and relax before we started the trek again. 

Juancarlos informed us that we still had a couple of hours before we arrived at Intipunku, The Sun Gate. To be quite frank, I thought to myself ‘Eff, there’s more?!’ On top of that, he informed us that there would be a portion of the trek leading to Intipunku that South Americans affectionately call ‘The Gringo Killer’. When we arrived to The Sun Gate it was around 3 in the afternoon, which I loved. I was so thankful we decided to go on the trek with Knowmad Adventures, as arriving at sunset when crowds were beginning to die down a bit more was ideal. We walked through Intipunku and maneuvered around the tourists who had taken the easier route and at that moment I laid eyes on the vast ruins of Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Incas. Oh my. Speechless. Really. I mean, I can’t dream up enough adjectives to describe the beauty before me. I never thought I’d be rendered speechless at a sight, but I was just floored. Maybe it was the long day I had, maybe it was the fact that I felt like I had accomplished so much more than the tourists surrounding me wearing mom jeans and smelling fresh…but most of all, I think it was because we entered Intipunku to the the ancient city the way that the Incas used to come. Awe-inspiring.

Okay, before we venture to a heaven in hotel form, let’s take another coffee break. This is one epic novel, huh?! Okay, that’s a stretch, but you know what I mean.

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And, we’re back! We spent an hour or so walking around the ruins and dodging llamas on the trail before we got on the bus and ventured down to Aguas Calientes to El Mapi, our hotel for the night. 

Heaven in shower form, Wayna Picchu vertical and a true sanctuary unlike any other | Aguas Calientes

I’ll try to make the tail-end of this story a bit less verbose, as long-winded is an understatement with this beaut. I will tell you that the shower we had at El Mapi felt like the best thing that had ever happened to us. We were absolutely beat. El Mapi is a boutique hotel owned by the same company as the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, known as Inkaterra. It was Jordan’s suggestion to opt for a stay at Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel rather than The Sanctuary, and for that I was so grateful. Not only did it save us money, but it was the best advice I got from Jordan on that first phone call we had, and his honesty around that was the reason we ended up deciding to go on this journey with them. We fell asleep early that night. Feeling clean and full of good food and a renewed energy. 

The next morning we awoke, and though Tom was hesitant to undertake the very vertical climb of Wayna Picchu due to his painful blisters that were still open wounds, he was a trooper and bandaged them up, and we grabbed the bus to Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) once again to climb Wayna Picchu (Young Mountain), which is about a 1,000 ft ascent. I took one look around me as we waited in line and thought if these people (again, mom jeans) could make the ascent, I could. It was difficult, but it was worth it for the incredible view at the summit. And I’d say the climb down was almost as daunting as the way up. 

That afternoon, we grabbed our stuff from El Mapi and Juancarlos walked us to the beyond-belief-stunning Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. One word: WHOA. Y’all MUST stay here. I will not stay at a more freaking spectacular hotel than this in my life. Inkaterra owns more than 5 hectares of land and it is a nature preserve acting as home to numerous bird species, flora and fauna, including the most varieties of orchids in the world. It is gorgeous. The food is delicious. The service is awesome. The thermal baths to-die-for. And the spa…ahhh…we took advantage of the spa (and the Andean sauna)…twice. It was literally heaven on earth. A true sanctuary. Tom and I had been lucky enough to ward off any stomach viruses on the trek (thank the good Lord), but we both started to experience some not-so-fun stomach issues post-trek, so our stay here was all about lying low and relaxing. We did make our way into town and were able to experience remnants of La Fiesta de Velación de la Cruz (the festival of the cross), in which individuals dressed in ornate costumes, drank heavily and danced happily. There’s much more to it than that, of course, but my fingers are growing weary and my brain is nearing exhaustion, so I’m going to breeze through the next few days. To put it quite succinctly, we adored Inkaterra.

A breathtaking (no seriously, at 11K+ feet, I could barely breath) Capital of the Incan Empire, and stomach misadventures | Cusco

We found ourselves back in Cusco, which I was eager to explore as I’d heard so many great things. Cusco blew us away. We fell in love with the vibe of the city, the coffee, the alpaca (both the tender meat in our tummies as well as the textiles), the people, the food, the shisha (seriously, we found a shisha place, of course), and the views (whoa - sunrise/sunset). Tom continued to suffer from some not-so-fun stomach problems, so I found myself hanging alone the first day we were there, but we explored the city together the next day, and met Juancarlos and his lady for dinner for our final night in Cusco. I found Cusco to be a relatively safe city and even though our hotel was down a fairly dark alley, I felt okay walking alone (even though they caution tourists). I kept telling Tom not to worry, as individuals thought I was a boy…and then I laughed when someone, seriously, called me ‘senor’. HA. Cusco is just lovely. Everyone should experience it.

Sea kayaking, homestay with Alejandro, an invite for the future and remote villages | Lake Titicaca

From Cusco, we traveled to Puno via a 10-hour bus ride that we almost missed because Tom was busy conversing with an Indian doctor at the hotel about the modern-day marvel known as the pancreas. Just as we were nearing Puno (which is the city at the shores of Lake Titicaca), we drove through a very sad city called Juliaca. As we drove through the city on the main, paved road, my eyes traveled to the mass of unfinished homes (apparently they build the structure of their houses but add on as time/money permits) and piles of dirt in the side streets that hardly looked navigable. Children were riding on rickshaws with their parents, inhaling dust and dirty air. I thought about all of the villages we had seen and, though these villages had no material possessions, they were far better off than these ‘city’ people who lived a life rife with violence, pollution and hardships galore. The villagers were well fed, had plentiful resources and were happy. What a vast difference…and what a larger story it brought to mind, outside of South America. The story of our materialistic culture. Individuals who have everything they could ever want, yet were so completely unhappy…and individuals in these villages who had nothing (by our standards) but lived lives rich with love, community and land. And I thought to myself, ‘This, right here, is the reason I travel. I travel to open my eyes. To share stories of faraway cultures. To share stories of the people.’ Gregorio was happy. His family was happy. The porters were happy. And, we’d soon meet a Alejandro (pictured above) and his family…who would further cement these thoughts into my mind. 

We arrived in Puno and met our guide, Roger. He spoke Spanish, but he what was special about Roger was that he also spoke Aymara and Quechua. Aymara is a pre-Incan language, and Quechua is the language of the Incans. In this region, where many villagers still spoke Aymara as their native language, we felt like we were in good hands with Roger.

Early the next morning we set off for Lake Titicaca, over the Llachon Peninsula where we’d enter our kayaks and begin our sea-kayaking adventure to Taquile Island. Aside from a name that makes many adults giggle, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, at 12,500ft. of elevation. The water is a rich, beautiful blue, and is oh-so-clean glacier run-off from surrounding Peruvian and Bolivian mountain ranges. The trip itself takes most groups an average of three hours, but it took us a little under two. We were anxiously awaiting this homestay adventure with Alejandro, a distinguished village leader in this community of around 2,500-3,000ppl. Alejandro’s family was incredible, and their home was gorgeous - we were blown away by the view and the hospitality. We soon found out that Alejandro was one of 25 village ‘authorities’ (and has held the governor post and is up for reelection) who met weekly to discuss the state of the Island, the people, their weaving and textiles business, etc. I was smitten with the way this island worked - everyone looked out for each other and it was very much a community. A strong one. When textiles were sold in the markets, all of the money went into a pot and when the authorities met they ensured the family responsible for making the art received their earnings. Alejandro and his wife have been married for 60 years. Wow. On nightfall of day one we hiked up to the top of the island, at 13,500ft to the ruins and enjoyed peaceful moments at sunset, feeling like we were on the top of the world.

We finally had the chance to meet Alejandro the next day, and learned that he had traveled the world with his craft of both Quena-playing (a flute made of reed) and weaving (Rock on to the men who weave in this culture - love it!). We talked about Tom’s aspirations to become a surgeon, and it was at this point that Alejandro grew very excited and invited us to come and live with his family and help with healthcare initiatives in some way (we talked specifically about cleft lips/palettes). At that moment I fell in love with these people. This culture. Deeply. Madly. I’m serious. He just invited us to live with his family. Amazing. And we certainly are thinking about it someday. Before we departed for the Uros Floating Islands, they shared their craft of weaving and textiles with us, I held the baby (which to them meant adorning me in the village textiles and shawl, and placing the baby in it), and we gave them all great big hugs and said ‘goodbye for now’. I even told them about Ethnotek and the possibility of arranging a relationship with them in the future. They were hopeful. 

The Uros Floating Islands are a sight to be seen. These individuals have lived on these islands, fashioned from tortora reed, for hundreds of years. We toured the islands, learned about the evolution of the homes, played with local children, and learned about their craft. Wow. 

What a trip this had been so far. And it just kept on getting better. 

Surfing in a coastal capital city and Tom’s awkward on-shore paddling | Lima

The next day we departed from the one-gated Juliaca airport (side note: we randomly met some family friends from Woodstock, Ill here - a happy accident; what a small world) back to Lima for the final leg of our adventure. Upon arrival, we met our friend Samuel again, and were taken to our hotel. We were quite pleasantly surprised by Lima. The architecture is, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by the Spanish culture, so we enjoyed walking around the Plaza Mayor and taking in the scenery. Plus, it’s the only coastal capital in South America. That night we went out to the beautiful Ayahuasca Bar in the (highly-recommended) Barranco neighborhood. What an awesome bar. Very cool, converted casona, and the perfect mix of old and new architecture. We also dined at Astrid y Gaston (named one of 2012’s 50 best restaurants) which was an incredible dining experience. 

The next day we set off for our final adventure of the trip: surfing in lima. I had read online that there were some concerns around the unexplained mass deaths of dolphins,  porpoises, and pelicans north of Lima and although I was somewhat alarmed, I didn’t say a peep to Tom as I knew if I had it would be a deal-breaker. I thought #1 my immune system was strong and #2 if there were that many surfers still in the water, it couldn’t be that bad, right?! Besides, Tom had already spent far too much time researching the prevalence of shark life near the shores of Lima (for the record, the beaches are shark-free, so you can rest assured). 

I’ve always wanted to be a surfer-chick when I grow up. A dream of mine (‘pipe dream’ if you will - pun intended). So I was super-excited for this new challenge. As we met our rockstar surf guide (who was a rep for Team Nike surf and had many athletes on the circuit) and started on-ground practice, I had to burst out laughing at Tom’s paddling simulation on shore. I mean, the dude’s arms are huge. Needless to say, paddling looked a little different for him than it did for our guide (who was coaching Tom through the movement) and my guide (who didn’t speak one word of English - oh boy, language barrier galore). Tom and I both got up on our first try, and though it was much more tiring (paddling = another humbling experience) than I thought it would be, I was hooked. Tom and I already started to dream up a Hawaiian vacation in the future. 

Guys. I could go on, and on, and on and share so many more meaningful stories of connection and beautiful places and faces…but I’ve reached a very essential stopping point here. Thank you for joining us on our journey. We are so incredibly blessed. Blessed to have had family and friends who graciously contributed to this journey as part of our wedding gift, blessed to have seen these things and met these people, blessed to be surrounded by love and to share the love that we have back in the States. 

We will go back, in some capacity, sooner rather than later. It’s my hope that we’re able to organize a medical project for 6mos-1yr sometime in the not-too-distant future to head down there and get reacquainted with Alejandro and his family on Taquile Island.

Muchas gracias, 

Megan 

(please) NOTE: If you have any travel questions or would like more detail, just shout. I’m happy to make more meaningful connections. Always. And forever. Amen.

*All images taken by my awesome hubby. Images are raw - no filter applied, so you can see just how vibrant the landscape is.  For the sake of formality, copyright © 2012 by Thomas M. Suszynski. All rights reserved.