My Favorite Places In The World

A lot of times I get asked what my favorite place in the world is. And the answer I give is pretty ambiguous, because it’s hard to choose just one! There are several places I can think of that were especially memorable and favorable, all for different reasons. If I had to narrow it down to a top 10, these would be the ones (in no particular order):

1. New Zealand
Emerald Lakes | Tongariro
Might be a bit biased since I lived there for nearly a year, but New Zealand is one of those places that always seems to be on everyone’s top lists! And for a good reason too, there is so much packed into this little country–towering volcanoes, lush rain forests, beautiful beaches, charming rolling hills, fjordlands, gorgeous mountain ranges. It’s a stunningly beautiful country everywhere you look. As an outdoorsy, nature-loving kind of guy this is the perfect country for me and I love that fact that there’s so many things to do here to get your adrenaline rush fix. Besides that, Kiwis are some of the nicest and friendliest people I’ve met! The Maori culture here is strong and very interesting to learn about.

Highlights: Doing the Tongariro Crossing; heli-hiking on the Franz Josef glacier; black-water rafting Waitomo glowworm caves

2. Australia
Golgum Pool
Even as a kid, I always wanted to go to Australia so having the opportunity to live there for a year was a dream come true! Australia has become my second home and I’m considering moving back here again one day. I’ve fallen in love with the laid-back, easy going lifestyle that defines Aussie culture. The work/life balance here is something I admire. I’m also a lover of the sun, so a sunny warm climate is also pretty ideal for me. Two of my favorite places in the world are here, one being Sydney. I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but Sydney is one I’d live in. The other being the Margaret River region of Western Australia, where I lived and worked for 6 months. Some of the best beaches I’ve seen to date are there and it’s also one of the country’s premiere wine regions. It’s a beautiful place to live. I really hope to make it back to Australia again one day!

Highlights: Living in Dunsborough, WA; road tripping up the East Coast and across the Outback; exploring Kakadu National Park by 4WD

3. France
Birds Eye View of Paris
I’ve spent quite a bit of time in France now, more than any other European country, and I’ve grown quite fond of it! Most of the time I’ve spent there has been in Paris (one of my favorite cities in the world), but in this most recent trip I also got to see a bit more of the countryside in the Alsace Region as well as the city of Lyon. The thing I love about France is despite it’s relatively small size (well compared to the US at least) is how diverse it is. It’s got beautiful farmlands and rolling hills, wine regions, rugged coastlines, high mountains, a warm Mediterranean climate in the south. Plus I have an affinity for French language and culture, making this one of my favorite places!

Highlights: Walking the streets of Paris at night; wandering around the Christmas markets in L’Alsace

4. United States
Daydream
Even though this one is obviously biased as it’s my home country, nothing beats the diversity of the United States. From the polar regions in Alaska, to tropical jungles in Hawaii, to the stunning deserts in Utah and Arizona, there is such a huge range of places to see in the US. As a nation made up of immigrants, there is also such a huge pool of diversity in the people as well and you can find pretty much any kind of food from around the world that you can think of if you look in the right places. Despite living there most of my life, there’s still so much I have to see!

Highlights: Washington State in general, my home state (and the best state!); road tripping around Utah and Arizona; summer days with family on the New Jersey shore

5. Ireland
Stormy Skies Over Connemara
I’m currently backpacking through Ireland at the moment so I might still be caught up with the initial awe and excitement of being here, but I’ve loved every bit of it so far! Ireland is an absolutely beautiful country, especially out west and to the north along the rugged, weathered coast. While the weather might not be so nice all the time (where else is it sunny, then rain sideways, and hails all within a 10 minute time span?), it’s breathtaking when the sun is out. Irish people also have to be the among the most charming and friendly people I’ve met so far. I love Irish accents and find some of the expressions and things they say very amusing! Everyone is so chatty and welcoming that it’s super easy to make friends with the locals here!

Highlights: Driving around Slea’s Head; Killarney National Park; hanging out with locals in pubs

6. Portugal
Lonely Beach | Lagos, Portugal
Portugal is another place I’ve visited recently and absolutely fell in love with. I had no expectations coming here and ended up finding a place with picturesque cities, warm and welcoming people, amazing food and wine (port wine is out of this world), a nice warm climate most of the year, and beautiful landscapes. I was very surprised to find that many people here speak very good English, making it a lot easier to talk to people! It’s also a great destination to go to if you’re on a budget, as everything is cheap here compared to the rest of Europe. I’m still getting over the buzz of being in Portugal and really want to go back again sometime!

Highlights: Drinking port wine in Porto; exploring castles in Sintra; kayaking along the Algarve Coast in Lagos

7. Vietnam
Hmong Family
Vietnam is one of those countries visitors either love or hate, and fortunately I fall in the love category. From the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh which are buzzing day and night with the noise of endless waves of motorbikes, to walking with the ethnic Hmong people in the quite rice terraces in the north around Sapa, this is a country rich with history, cultural diversity, and one of the most distinguished cuisines in the world. The food alone is a major reason to love Vietnam. The variety in different dishes they have is astounding. There is quite a defined backpacker/tourist trail that runs the length of the country, but there are so many relatively undiscovered places to explore if you go off the beaten path.

Highlights: Boat trip on the river in Trang An, through stunning karst formations; Hoi An; canyoning in Dalat; trekking and doing a home stay with Hmong people in Sapa

8. Peru
The Locals of Machu Picchu
Peru is a special country to me, because it was the first place where I began traveling solo! I spent a week there in the area around Cusco and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, which is still one of my most memorable trips to date. While I would have liked to have stayed longer to see more of the country, what I did see and experience there was inspiring and made me want to travel independently as much as I could from that point on. I remember feeling so nervous and awkward when I arrived at the airport and I had to bargain with some dodgy cab drivers to get to my hostel. I stayed in a hostel by myself for the first time and forced myself to talk to strangers to make new friends. I Wandered around and got lost in the streets of Cusco and tried new foods in the local market. On the day of the trek our group had breakfast with a Peruvian family on their farm. It was exhilarating Walking through the Andes and being surrounded by stunning scenery everywhere, being in awe as I walked through the ruins of Machu Picchu. I would love to go back here again and see more of South America in general!

Highlights: Cuy (guinea pig) breakfast on a farm in the countryside; trekking on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; climbing Huayna Picchu

9. Hong Kong
Hong Kong Lights
I love Hong Kong. It’s the kind of city that’s always buzzing with life and there’s always something interesting happening around the corner. It’s blessed with a beautiful harbor and surrounded by jungle-covered mountains. The contrast between nature and cosmopolitan city life here is amazing. One minute you can be on a bustling street surrounded by enormous sky scrapers, the next you can find yourself on a quite path going up into the mountains. And the food here is to die for! I loved exploring all the exotic fruits in the street markets (rambutans and mangosteens are my Asian favs). Chinese food in general is addicting, and the experience of being the only westerner in a family-owned noodle restaurant is memorable. I’ll never be able to look at Chinese food anywhere else in the world the same way again, the real stuff is so good!

Highlights: Eating amazing Chinese food; seeing Victoria Harbour at night; exploring the markets; cable car ride up to the Giant Buddha statue

10. Nepal
Swayambhunath | Kathmandu
As a lover of hiking and mountains, Nepal was always on my list of places to visit. Now I can say I finally have and it’s just as brilliant as I thought it would be! Despite going in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake, the country is very much open for tourism. The country is one of the best places in the world for trekking, the opportunities are endless. I did the Everest trek and although I did have a bout of food poisoning and altitude sickness (not a great combo), it was a very memorable experience. Aside from the stunning beauty of the Himalayas, Nepal is also very rich in culture and diversity. There are over 40 different ethnic groups and tribes living here and the beauty of the Himalaya is stunning.

Highlights: Trekking up the EBC trail and seeing Mount Everest up close.

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail
Day 1 – June 29, 2010 (10 km | 6.2 miles)
My journey to Machu Picchu began early in the morning. Around 5 o’clock, the van from Wayki Trek pulled up in front of the hostel to pick me up and off we went. Rather than going straight to the trail head, the plan was to take a detour to a remote village to pick up the rest of the group who had had spent the night there. We drove for a ways down the highway into the dark Peruvian countryside. We eventually turned off the paved highway and began bouncing across a lonely gravel road for about 30 minutes. As the first rays of sunlight began to penetrate the eastern sky, I began to see the landscape more clearly. We were driving through wide open fields of golden grass and what appeared to be freshly harvested corn. In the distance, snow capped peaks glowed in the light of the rising sun. It was beautiful. If only my camera wasn’t buried in my backpack at the back of the van, I would of had some photos to share.

We eventually came to a small community and pulled up in front of one the mud brick houses. It was one of two single room buildings on a farm, with livestock and other farm animals milling around. It was freezing cold outside, and with all the freshly harvested crops scattered around in heaps it felt more like a crisp fall morning. I followed my guide into one of the buildings, where we reunited with the Canadian couple we had met the day before to have breakfast. Despite the cold temps, the room was actually pretty cozy. The walls were black from the smoke that came from the small fire in the corner of the room, where an elderly Peruvian woman prepared our meal. I took a seat on some alpaca wool that was draped over a small stone wall on the far side of the table and right away felt something scurry across my feet. It was a guinea pig! As my eyes adjusted to the semi-dark room, I noticed there was probably close to a hundred of them scurrying across the floor. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones, round ones, long ones…they were cute little critters but they were pretty noisy. Anyway, breakfast consisted of some sort of lima bean tea, potatoes, bread, and of course guinea pig (which I was I glad to have never had one for a pet). Despite the fact that they were running about under the table, I managed to push my guilt aside and tried guinea pig for the second time. I wasn’t as tough this time and tasted less gamey. I actually enjoyed it better the second time around. We then thanked the woman and her family for breakfast and proceeded onward on our journey. About thirty minutes later the road descended into a big canyon, known as the Sacred Valley. We took a pit stop in Ollantaytambo (one of the towns located in the valley) for a bathroom break and to get some snacks for the trek. At this point, the sun was already rising higher in the sky and it was getting much warmer out–quite a contrast from the freezing cold we experienced earlier. The trail head was just a little further down the road from there and in no time at all were were all checked in and ready to begin the four day hike to Machu Picchu!

Day one was pretty easy. It got us warmed up for all the uphill hiking we would do on the next day–the hardest day. For the most part, day one on the trail was spent walking parallel to the Urubamba River. It eventually leaves the river and turns west, gradually ascending into the mountains. We took breaks from time to time and Edgar was give us some insight on the nearby plants and fauna. There were a lot of desert-like shrubs growing along this part of the trail, including cactus and agave. But as we went higher up, the vegetation became more dense and more tropical-looking. Locals still use this section of trail for transportation and we passed a few small communities along the way. We walked for about four hours before arriving at Camp 1 in Huayllabamba (with a one hour lunch stop along the way). After getting settled in at camp, I went to explore some of the nearby Inca Ruins with my fellow trek-mate, James. As the sun went down, the temperature dropped quite a bit and it became fairly cold. Not unusual really, when you’re high in the mountains. We returned to camp where we had a great dinner and headed off to bed. Day one–complete!

Driving through the Sacred Valley early in the morning enroute to KM 82–aka the trail head!

More views of the Sacred Valley from the road.

The ruins of an old Inca fortress overlook the town of Ollantaytambo.

The Inca Trail! This was the first check-in point and the start of the trek.

The Urubamba River flows past Machu Picchu to the Amazon and finally the Atlantic Ocean. That would be one heck of a rafting trip!

Most people get to Machu Picchu by train. We took this on the return trip back to Cusco after we finished the trek.

Mount Veronica (18,635 ft) could be seen throughout most of the trek.

Patallacta…this settlement was believed to be the agricultural center of this region of the Incan Empire. All the terraces you see at these sites were used to grow crops.

Locals still use this segment of the trail on a daily basis for transportation.

We ate lunch at this spot on the first day of the hike.

Huayllabamba…these ruins were located about 5 minutes walk from our campsite. Pretty cool!

Inside of my tent at Camp 1 after a day’s worth of walking!

Day 2 – June 30, 2010 (12 km | 7.5 miles)
We all woke up around 6:30 AM to pack up, eat breakfast, and prepare for the hardest day of the trek. The reason why day two is considered the most difficult is not because of the distance, but because it is mostly all uphill hiking. Many people aren’t aren’t conditioned working out in a high-altitude environment, where the oxygen levels are relatively lower than at lower elevations. 

After breakfast, I sipped up a cup of coca tea and started walking uphill. This part of the trail, which is essentially a giant staircase, started out in a subtropical cloud forest (one of the highest in the world). On this day, groups often temporarily split up as people are encouraged to walk at their own pace. Being a naturally fast walker, I was soon separated from my group and spent most of the day interacting with different people from other groups. People from all over the world kept me company as we made our way up the mountainside.  At one point, a herd of llamas came running up the trail behind us. It was a tempting thought to capture one to ride up the mountain with!

Eventually the forest gave away to open terrain and we could see the summit looming far ahead. Thankfully, the weather was mostly clear so we had great views the whole way up. After two hours of huffing and puffing up the mountainside, I finally made it to the summit of Warmiwañuska (Dead Woman’s Pass). At an elevation of 13,830 feet, we were high above the clouds that I could see out in the distance on the other side. Despite the thin air, it wasn’t hard to breathe and I didn’t experience altitude sickness like I did in Quito. I sat down to enjoy the view and had a snack for about 30 minutes before heading down the other side of the pass to Camp 2.

Huayllabamba (Camp 1) from our campsite. Looks like it’s gonna be another great day!

Going up!

Llamas! Sorry for the blurriness, it was kind of dark in the forest. I walked with them for nearly 20 minutes.

Made it up to the summit in two hours. What a view!

The summit marker at 4,200 m (13,830 feet).

Mount Huayanay…one of the many glaciated peaks we saw from the trail.

Looking back down the mountain toward Camp 1. 

The walk downhill to Pacaymayu (Camp 2) only took an hour and fifteen minutes, but it was a lot steeper and there were more stairs. I waited outside of the campground for a little while until one of our porters came along and showed me the way to our campsite. A little while later, the rest of the group arrived and we all had lunch. I spent most of my time at Camp 2 in my tent, watching the clouds coming and going through the campsite. It was pretty neat–one moment the sun would be out and the next we would be shrouded in fog so thick that we could only see a few feet in front of us.

Heading downhill from Dead Woman’s Pass.

Porters setting up Camp 2. Those guys are troopers–they carry packs much heavier than what we carry and normally run the trail to get ahead of the group to set up camp…and some of them do it in sandals!

Watching the clouds come and go from my tent.

At dinner, our guide told us that the Inca Trail is the first big hike for many people. He said the average travel time between Camp 1 and Camp 2 is about five hours (four hours if you’re really fast). I made it in 3 hours 45 minutes, which made me appreciate all the “practice” I get from hiking so much back home in the Pacific Northwest. Although day two was pretty short, the uphill climb tired me out pretty good so I ended up falling asleep in my tent around 7PM. Overall, I got a total of 14 hours of sleep! It was magical.

Day 3 – July 1, 2010 (16 km | 9.9 miles)
On day three of the trek, I woke up around 6:30 AM to a hot cup of coca tea served by one of the porters (nice people they are!) and crawled out of my sleeping bag. Pacaymayu (Camp 2) is at an elevation of 11,800 feet, unsurprisingly, the morning was freezing cold. Unlike the previous days, where we enjoyed sunny mornings, it was cloudy and overcast.

Coca Tea…the plant is illegal in the U.S. but is grown Peru to help alleviate with altitude sickness. Some say it tastes like dandelions. I thought it tasted a bit like green tea.

Since we were supposed to explore some Inca ruins along the way, we all hiked as a group again. The third day consisted of hiking up two more mountain passes. The second mountain pass was a fairly short distance away from Camp 2, but it was a steep hike. On the way up we took a break at a semi-circle shaped Inca structure which had some nice views of Camp 2. As we climbed higher, the fog slowly began to dissipate to clear skies. At the summit of the second pass (elev. 12,960 feet), we found ourselves just breaking the surface of a sea of clouds with snowy peaks visible in the distance. We spent about 15 minutes up top enjoying the views and taking pictures.

Looking down at Camp 2 from some nearby Inca ruins.

View from the top of the second pass. Sacsarayoc (~19,400 feet) towers over a mass of clouds.

Me near the top of the second pass.

From the second pass we headed downhill for about an hour to Sayac Marca, the ruins of a small Inca town. After spending some time there we continued down the trail to our lunch spot for the day.

Ruins of Sayac Marca

View from our lunch spot.

Once lunch was finished, we set out to hike up to the third and last pass of the trek. The trail up to the pass was gradual and not very steep so the walk was pretty easy. Along the way we got some peek-a-boo views of Salkantay, the highest peak visible from the Inca Trail at 20,574 feet. We also encountered a tunnel that was once a cave but the Incas further carved it out so the trail could pass through. Pretty cool stuff! Once we made it up to the third pass, it was pretty much all downhill from there to Camp 3.

Inca tunnel! There was actually two parts to it–one part was a somewhat lit staircase while the second dark and flat.

Salkantay, the highest peak visible from the Inca Trail at over 20,000 feet.

Me at the summit of the third pass with Mount Veronica in the background.

Stair-building seriously must have been the great Inca pastime. Over 70% of the Inca Trail is made up of stone stairs.

After the third pass, we descended into the lush green Peruvian cloud forest. We were walking in the jungle, but we could clearly see glaciated peaks just a few miles away. What a contrast! And absolutely gorgeous.

For most of the day we had been walking among the clouds. But once we got to this point in the trail, the sun came out for good and we were blessed with awesome weather for the rest of the trip!

Camp 3 is situated at 2,700 meters (8,858 feet), which is considerably lower than any other point on the trek. This region is considered to be in the outer reaches of the Amazon rain forest, so the vegetation there was green and lush. We saw many different kinds of plants and flowers growing there (lots of orchids), some of which are only found in this particular area. I wasn’t sure how warm it was, but it was much warmer than the first and second camps and more humid. After we settled into camp, I joined my group in a 10 minute walk to the nearby ruins called Wiñay Wayna. Other than Machu Picchu, it was the largest settlement we encountered on the trek. We were fortunate to find that no other groups had arrived yet so we had the whole place to ourselves.

Wiñay Wayna…in English it means “Forever Young”.

Jagged peaks of the Andes…Mount Veronica is hiding behind the clouds on the upper right.

Inca houses…a temple sits on top of the hill in the background.

Just as we were leaving, a ton of other groups began to show up.

After exploring the ruins, we headed back for some dinner and pretty much just chilled for a while. The stars were out and I could clearly see the Southern Cross. The stars in the Southern Hemisphere are so much more vivid and brilliant than they are back home. For one, there is a lot less pollution. Two, there were no city lights interfering since we were virtually out in the middle of nowhere. We eventually all headed off to bed, dozing off to the sounds of the jungle medley (frogs and crickets).

Day 4 – July 2, 2010 (9 km | 5.6 miles)
Day four was our last day of the trek. We woke up around 3:30AM to pack up and have breakfast before heading down the trail to get in line for the last checkpoint. The gates opened two hours later at 5:30 and it was another 1 1/2 hours walk to Machu Picchu. Although there were hundreds of other people on the trail throughout the entirety of the trek, it never felt crowded until today. Everyone gets in line early to make it to Machu Picchu by sunrise and we were maybe the 5th group in line. Once we made it through the checkpoint, nearly everyone rushed down the trail at a brisk pace. We actually pretty much jogged along the trail in the dark to Intipunku–the Sun Gate. The path was pretty flat, hugging the mountainside, until just before we arrived at the Sun Gate, where we climbed up a very steep flight of stairs. At the top, we were rewarded with our first view of Machu Picchu.

My first view of Machu Picchu!

Group photo! Me on the left, the two Canadians in the middle, and our guide on the right. Our group was smaller compared to some of the others, but they were good people to hike with 🙂

We didn’t stay very long at the Sun Gate. The sun had not yet come up so we proceeded to hike down to Machu Picchu to see the sun rise. And let me tell you, it was glorious! The pictures don’t do justice when it comes to capturing how awesome it was to watch the sun rise at one of the Seven Wonders of the New World. Once the ruins were fully bathed in sunlight, our guide took us on a tour of the entire compound. After the tour was finished, our guide headed back to Aguas Calientes while I joined the Canadians to explore the ruins on our own. It turned out to be a pretty hot day, so we headed up to the guard tower that overlooks the ancient city–it was cooler up there with the breeze. Machu Picchu is the home of several llamas that normally spend most of their time grazing among the ruins, but they were all up at the guard house to seek shelter from the sun. We got lucky and had an incredible photo opportunity. 🙂

Sunrise on Machu Picchu…one of my most memorable experiences!

Our guide told us that over 1,000 people lived here–on top of a mountain.

The Temple of the Sun…there are two windows in this structure, both of which were measured to align exactly with the sun on the summer and winter solstices.

Some of the local wildlife…these little lizards were everywhere!

Beautiful scenery. I’ve never seen a landscape quite like it before. The Urubamba River, which we had crossed the first day of the trek, meanders its way through the mountains on its journey to the Amazon Basin and finally to the Atlantic Ocean.

There were some places that dropped off straight down into the valley thousands of feet below. It’s amazing how they managed to build a whole settlement on a mountain like that!

No one is really fully sure, but Machu Picchu might have still been under construction when the Incas abandoned it. It’s believed that it was occupied for only 100 years before the Incas fled in fear that they would be discovered by the Spanish conquistadors who had conquered other settlements in the region. The Spanish never found the ruins and the Incas never returned. Machu Picchu became forgotten for nearly 500 years.

Chinchilla! We saw quite a few of these chinchillin’ on the rocks around the ruins.

Probably my favorite photo from the trip.

Around noon we left the ruins and caught a bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes. We met up with our guide at a restaurant and had lunch together for one last time. After saying farewell to the group, I walked across the small town to check in to my hostel. While everyone else took the train back to Cusco that afternoon, I decided to spend an extra day in the area.

After settling in to my room and cleaning up from four days worth of sweat and dirt, I headed out to explore the town for a bit. The town itself is very small. The rail line that connects to Cusco runs through the middle of town and is really the only way in and out–there are no roads. I walked through some of the markets and found that the local economy seemed to be entirely dependent on tourism. Aside from a few houses, the settlement mostly consists of a train station, hostels, hotels, restaurants, pubs, and souvenir vendors. I thought about picking up some souvenirs, but everything was pretty pricey. I decided to save my soles to do some shopping when I returned to Cusco where it was cheaper. As there wasn’t much to see in town, I took a walk along the river down the road to find a trail that I planned on taking the following day on my return trip to Aguas Calientes (instead of taking the bus back down).

The main plaza in Aguas Calientes.

The Urubamba River

Aguas Calientes

The road to Machu Picchu.

It was getting dark by the time I got back and I headed back to my room. It was maybe only 7 o’clock when I got ready for bed and turned on the TV. I fell asleep watching The Hulk in Spanish.

Day 5 – July 3, 2010
I woke up at around 4:00 AM and headed downstairs. Before I made it out the door, the girl working the night shift offered to make me breakfast. She made scrambled eggs and toast, which was really nice of her. I thanked her when I was done and walked down the street to the bus station to catch a ride to Machu Picchu. It was only 4:30, but there was already a good-sized line forming. By the time the buses finally began operating at 5:30 the line was huge, extending few blocks down the street. I made it on the fourth bus up the mountain. The bus ride really is an adventure in itself–driving up the steep mountainside, careening around several sharp corners in the dark, praying that the buses returning downhill don’t collide into you. Luckily, I made it to the park in time to be one of the few people to get a pass to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain behind the ruins). Due to the sensitivity of the trail and the fact that there isn’t much room on top of the mountain, they only allow 400 people a day to go up. I was #120, in the first group (the other 200 go later in the day).

While waiting for the park to open, I talked to a family next to me in line who were also scheduled to climb the mountain in the first group. It turns out they were from Seattle! At this point I didn’t think the world could get any smaller, but it did…one of them was also a current student at the UW! What are the chances? I’m not really sure, but it was pretty cool. I talked them for a while until we entered the park, where we eventually parted ways. I still had an hour to kill before I was scheduled to climb up Huayna Picchu so I just wandered the ruins and took some more photos. Unlike the previous day, the weather was overcast and cloudy. I actually think I prefer it in this setting. The clouds and mist wisping through the ruins and dense jungle definitely add to the aura of mystique that Machu Picchu is so well known for. 

An overcast day over Machu Picchu.

I think this structure was some kind of observatory–a place were astronomical ceremonies took place.

Once the time came, I headed over to the far side of the ruins and got in line. It was cloudy for most of the morning, but at this time the sun had come up and the clouds began to break away to another sunny day–perfect weather for hiking! The trail to the summit starts out with a short descent before heading up a steep narrow trail with a ton of stairs. The trip itself didn’t take too long, maybe only 25 minutes. Near the top is a cave that I had to crawl though. It was a pretty tight squeeze as my backpack scraped along the rock. The summit is a short scramble away from the cave exit and I found a most a rewarding view, totally worth the effort it took to get there.

Waiting in line at the gate of Huayna Picchu.

Huayna Picchu! The path to the top is very steep and narrow. From the picture, it looks nearly impossible to get to the top without proper gear.

Almost there! I ran into the Seattle family again at this point as we all made the final push to the summit.

Machu Picchu from the summit of Huayna Picchu. Note the switchbacks on the left–that’s the road we took earlier in the morning.

The crowded summit.

Taking it all in…I would recommend climbing the peak to anyone else who visits Machu Picchu.

Watch that first step–it’s a doozie!

After a while it got a little crowded up at the top so I started heading down the back side of the mountain towards a place called the Temple of the Moon. Along the way I found a geocache hidden just below the summit–my first in Peru! As I was putting it back, three young women came down the trail who were also going to the temple so I joined them. I think the trail going down this side of the mountain was much steeper than going up, taking us 45 minutes to get to the bottom. The Temple of the Moon was kind of a lonely place–there weren’t too many people around when we got there.

The Temple of the Moon…mummies were discovered here.

After taking a break and exploring a bit, the girls headed back up to the top of Huayna Picchu while I finished the loop and went back to Machu Picchu. I still had a lot of free time left before I needed to head back to Cusco, so I found another geocache hidden among the ruins and hung out at the guard house for an hour or so just enjoying the view. When the time finally came, I took one last look of the ancient city and proceeded down the trail back to Aguas Calientes.

Me on the bridge at the bottom of the mountain over the Urubamba River.

So long Peru! Until next time…

It only took an hour to get back to Aguas Calientes. I tried the Inca method of running down the big steps and it actually worked pretty well! After arriving back in town I grabbed my stuff and checked out of the hostel. I had a ticket to take the train back to Cusco, so I headed down the street to the train station. A crowd was watching the World Cup on TV in the station, which kept me occupied for an hour and a half until the train finally arrived. The ride back was fun–I sat with two Peruvian women and another guy about my age from Iowa. It was nice talking with them as I got a chance to practice my Spanish.

Two hours later, the train stopped in Ollantaytambo and we all had to get out. Back in February, the region experienced major flooding that wiped out a section of the tracks between Cusco and Ollantaytambo (which consequently closed Machu Picchu to the public for several months). Since the tracks were still being reconstructed, the remainder of the trip back to Cusco was done by bus so we all packed into several buses that PeruRail  had provided. The ride seemed to take forever (I got on the last one) but we eventually made it to Cusco a few hours later.  I checked back into the same hostel I stayed at before and got settled into my room. Surprisingly, I wasn’t very tired so I went to the living room and watched a movie with two other people staying at the hostel (an American and a Canadian). By the time the movie was over, the exhaustion I should have experienced earlier from the past few days finally hit me so I headed back to my room and crashed.

Cusco
Day 6 – July 4, 2010 (Last Day)
Happy Birthday America! This was my last day in Peru and I celebrated the 4th mostly waiting in airports. In Cusco, I wanted to get a few things before heading off the airport in the afternoon, so I went to the market and browsed around for a while. I got some more flat bread (so good!) to snack on later in the day as well as some wool hats for friends and family back home. After I was done exploring the market one last time, I headed back to the hostel. I still had some free time after packing up, so I watched another movie with some Canadians (lots of traveling Canadians in Peru it seems). When the time came, I headed out the door and caught a taxi to the airport.

I arrived in Lima (the capital of Peru) around 3:00 PM and my flight to New York City didn’t leave until 12:30 AM…lovely. During the long layover, I had a “BBQ” consisting of a hot dog, some chips, and M&M’s that I got from one of the food stands. Other than that, there’s really not much to say about sitting around for several hours…although I did see someone I met at the hostel in Cusco right before they got on their flight to Chile. When the time finally came, I boarded the plane and got settled in for the eight hour flight. Once the plane took off, I watched the Bourne Identity (finally!) and Date Night before finally falling asleep.

Notes on Peru:

  • Machu Picchu is a must. They say the best time to go is toward the end of May or early June, since that’s when the rainy season ends and there aren’t many tourists. At the time I went (end of June/early July) the ruins were packed during the day. At least the weather was awesome!
  • In my opinion, the best way to experience Machu Picchu is by taking the Inca Trail (or any other trail to MP). Sure the train ride was pretty cool, but the trek through the mountains and having the opportunity to watch the sunrise on the ancient city was unforgettable. And honestly, it was probably the most luxurious camping trip I’ve ever been on. I carried all of my own personal gear (clothes, sleeping bag/pad, camera, etc), but the porters carried everything else (tents, food, etc). And the food they cooked for us was amazing! I would say the meals we had probably made up 25% of the awesomeness of the trip :).
  • Inca Kola! Enough said :).
  • I noticed a few times while converting currencies that the banks won’t exchange any bills that are damaged. I had a $10 bill with the tiniest tear and they wouldn’t accept it. So make sure to take good care of your money.

That’s all that I have for Peru. Now on to New Jersey back in the good old US of A!

I’m in Cusco, Peru!

July 27-28 (Cusco)
After spending two weeks volunteering and sightseeing in Ecuador, I hopped on a plane and headed further south to Peru. From this point on during my South American excursion, I traveled on my own. My destination: Cusco–the former capital of the Inca Empire. Like Quito, Cusco is settled in a valley high up in the Andes toward the southern end of the country. In fact, it’s situated at a higher elevation than Quito, just around 11,000 feet.

The steel bird that took me there!

Peru is Ecuador’s southern next-door-neighbor and it didn’t take very long to get to there; maybe only three hours flying time. I had a short layover in the capital city, Lima, which was on the coast and under heavy fog. For most of the trip however, the skies were clear and I had a splendid view of the mountains all the way to Cusco.

As I exited the aircraft, I already had a good feeling that I was going to really like Peru. It was a gorgeous day out with temps in the 70s and I was surrounded by mountains (kind of like home on a nice summer afternoon!). It was beautiful. Thankfully, I was already acclimated to the high altitude after spending a few days in Quito and felt pretty good. After grabbing my bag and exchanging my US dollars for Peruvian soles, I hailed a cab and headed off to my hostel. Cusco is much smaller than Quito, but still holds a population of over 300,000 people. From what I saw from the taxi, the roads were pretty well-maintained and most of the city looked fairly clean. I suppose they keep it that way to make it appealing to tourists, since this is a very touristy town. The ride was short and I soon checked in to my hostel. By the time I had everything settled in, it was probably around 4:00 pm–late in the afternoon in Peruvian time. Since it was winter in the southern hemisphere and with Cusco’s close proximity to the equator, the sun normally goes down between 5:30 and 6:00. With two hours of daylight left, I decided to take the 10 minute walk to the main plaza (La Plaza de Armas) to take some photos.

Temple of the Sun...I kind of took the long way to the main plaza and stumbled upon this former Inca religious site.

One of the two big cathedrals at the Plaza de Armas.

The other large cathedral located at the main plaza.

Cusco Alleyway...normally narrow and steep. There are a lot of these in this part of town.

After wandering the streets for a bit, I decided to hit up one of the nearby restaurants to try a famous local dish–cuy del horno. Translated to English: baked guinea pig. Unlike the U.S., where the furry rodents are kept as pets, Peruvians (especially those who live in the mountains) raise them for lunch. 🙂 I actually tried cuy twice while I was in Peru. It has a very gamey taste to it (I would imagine it’s similar to rabbit or squirrel). The meat–tough, greasy, and fatty. It took quite a bit of work to get a descent meal out of it. Most of my time was spent picking out all the small bones from the meat while the severed head stared blankly back at me (which I didn’t have the stomach to try). An interesting experience, but I don’t think I would eat it at a restaurant again.

Guinea pig...the other red meat.

It was dark out (6:30ish) by the time I finished dinner and I stopped by a small shop to buy some Inca Kola to wash it all down with on my way back to the hostel. Although it was dark and the streets looked somewhat sketchy, I don’t ever remember a moment in Cusco (or anywhere else in Peru for that matter) where I didn’t feel unsafe. Even at night, there are usually plenty of tourists out and about. Besides, like the people of Ecuador, Peruvians are very friendly (albeit a tad quieter). Once I got back to my room, I hit the sack pretty early and went to bed.

I slept in the next morning (felt so good!) and kind of took it easy for most of the morning. When I was ready, I set out to go to an orientation with the trekking company I would be hiking the Inca Trail with the following day. I went with Wayki Trek, one of the few local companies among the multitude of foreign-operated travel businesses that are based in Cusco. I met my guide, Edgar, and a couple from Vancouver, BC who were also coming along on the trek. Small world! I was surprised to see that only three people had signed up in our group on these dates. Typically, tour companies will only provide service when at least six people reserve dates to make the trek. Since it was end of June, I was expecting a larger group as it was the nicer time of year weather-wise with the tourist season in full swing. However, despite our small group, the trip was still good to go. Taking only three people has its costs and I thought it was very generous of Wayki to basically give us a private tour for the regular group price. Talk about customer service. 🙂 Over the course of the meeting, we introduced another and discussed the logistics of the trek over a cup of coca tea.

After the meeting, I wandered around town a bit more and eventually found myself at the main market. This one was much smaller than the Otavalo market in Ecuador, but was still a pretty descent size. In fact, I think I enjoyed this one a lot more–most of the merchandise seemed pretty authentic and there were still some pretty good deals all around. I picked up some things for the hike, including an awesome Peruvian wool hat for S/6.00 (a little over $2) and six pieces of flat bread for S/1.00 (which were super good!). I wish I took some pictures of the market to post on here, but I was honestly too preoccupied with browsing to pull the camera out. Afterwards, I wandered around the streets some more and took photos.

Some of the roads in Cusco were so narrow that you literally had to stop walking on the sidewalk and lean back against the walls.

On the way to the market...cathedrals and brick-tiled streets are everywhere in Cusco.

A lot of the women dressed in this type of attire. It seems to be pretty popular in this region of Peru.

Message on one of the slopes of one of the nearby hills. The Peruvian version of the Hollywood sign in LA 🙂

A pretty cool alleyway that I took every time I walked between my hostel and the main plaza.

Some of the buildings in Cusco are built over the old Inca stone foundations.

The stones were made to fit perfectly with another. The Incas didn't need to use mortar for this type of design, which helped in making them more earthquake resistant. Pretty amazing if you ask me!

It seemed like a lot of the doors and windows in Cusco were painted blue.

La Cathedral de San Domingo

La Plaza de Armas

Before it got dark, I made my way back to the hostel to pack and get ready for the trek the next day. One of the people I met while staying there recommended a place to eat at the main plaza so I went there for dinner. The place was called Norton’s Pub and at 7:30 in the evening it was still pretty empty (I would imagine the larger crowd comes later in the evening). I felt kind of silly going into a bar and not getting any beer, but alcohol and altitude don’t go together very well so I opted for water and a hamburger. While I ate, I sat outside on the balcony which had a great view of the Plaza de Armas.

Norton's Pub on the corner of La Plaza de Armas

I got bored while waiting for my meal so I took some pictures 🙂

After dinner, I headed back to the hostel and got ready for bed. I talked with my roommate for a little while. He was a college student from Chicago doing a research project on the local language spoken in this part of Peru (Quechua). We talked about linguistics, family and various other things–turns out his family lives in Snohomish, Washington just an hour away from my hometown. The world just keeps getting smaller!

We chatted for a while, then went to bed early. The group I was going trekking with was coming to pick me up around 5 AM the next morning and I wanted to make sure I was all rested up for the journey to Machu Picchu! Which I will write about in another post, so stay tuned!

Volunteering in Ecuador (And Other Travel Adventures)

Well, I’ve finally made it home after my month long excursion abroad and as promised, I’m updating my blog to share my stories and photos with you all! Enjoy!

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June 13-23 (The Coast)
My main reason for traveling to Ecuador was to participate in a global service project with Circle K International, where nine other people and myself visited several schools in the province of Manabi to teach English, paint, and hand out school/dental supplies. Most of the schools we went to were located in Manta–a mid-sized coastal city famous for its large tuna industry, making it one of Ecuador’s most important economic centers.

It takes only 30 minutes to fly from Quito to Manta, but the contrast in the landscape between the two cities is dramatic. In this region of Ecuador, the climate is warm (not hot) and dry. We were there during their winter, so it was the cooler time of year with temps hanging around the 70s during the day with slight humidity–much different from the sweltering heat that I was expecting. Overall, it was comfortable enough to walk around in a t-shirt and shorts both day and night.

Streets of Manta

Downtown

The landscape in this part of Ecuador is dry and arid, with typical desert shrubs and plants, such as cacti. Also dotting the landscape are ceibo trees, which almost look as if someone dug them up and replanted them upside with roots exposed.

Group photo at a community dining hall that we painted.

We taught English and other subjects to various schools in the area. This classroom was located outside.

Me and some of the local kids. They loved getting their pictures taken!

I even got them to do a jumping picture with me! 😀

We also visited a school in Montecristi, which is a few miles further inland from Manta and was also the location of our homestay. Montecristi is a nice little town with a lot of history and attractions that are often overlooked by most people who visit Ecuador. The people there are super friendly and they love Americans!

A few people from our group stayed in Montecristi one day to paint a mural for a school while the rest went to teach. It's not complete in this picture, but when it was it added a lot of color and character to what was once a pretty dull street corner!

This was the backyard of the house we stayed in. It was awesome, full of different plants that grow in the area. That's a papaya tree there on the right. Papaya is kind of like blackberry bushes in Washington, in the fact that it grows EVERYWHERE around here.

This was one of the views of Cerro de Montecristi (Montecristi Hill) from the terrace on top of the house.

Random herd of goats that wandered around the neighborhood every day.

There were a lot of stray dogs wandering the streets and this was one of two that befriended us. We called her Itchy because she was always scratching herself. She was always there at the gate to greet us 🙂

Goofing around with some of the neighborhood kids 🙂

Streets of Montecristi...it was actually a fairly clean city (compared to some other locations we visited) and I would say it was pretty tourist friendly.

This is the main square at the city center, with the big Catholic church at the far end of the plaza. It's a great place to go people watching.

Inside of the church...it was a fairly decent size with lots of statues and old paintings decorating the interior.

Overlooking the main plaza from the church.

Montecristi from the scenic viewpoint at the nearby museum.

Some of the lovely ladies in our group aboard a train the museum had on display. You can't see it in this picture, but the passenger car has railing on the roof for those who are brave enough to go "train surfing" by riding up top. Something I'd like to do next time I visit!

Me at Elroy Alfaro's tomb. He is one of the most famous historical figures in Ecuador, serving as a former president who reunited the country at a time of civil unrest.

Inca Kola! One of my new favourite drinks. It's like liquid bubblegum...I'm normally not a big fan of bubblegum flavored foods/drinks but this was so good!

A few of the Kiwanians threw a big party in honor of their granddaughter's baptism. I learned how to salsa dance and there was lots of free food. Fun times!

During our stay on the coast, we also went to the beach during one of our free days. Of course, it was the rainiest and coldest day of the trip :P. Regardless, it was nice getting to see a bit of the countryside. We had a great lunch dining on some fresh seafood in Puerto Lopez and some of us even went swimming in the Pacific despite the wind and rain. Unfortunately, one of the girls got a nasty sting from a Portuguese Man-of-War (a kind of jellyfish) and that kind of ended the day at the beach. Still, it was nice getting out of the city for the day and Nikisa (the girl who got stung) recovered from the sting after a few hours.

Albatross and Frigate Birds

The "tunnel of trees" we went through on the way to Puerto Lopez.

Lunch in Puerto Lopez

La Playa (the Beach!)

Fishing boats out the harbor...the reason why all the seafood here is so fresh!

I love Ecuador!

On our last day in Montecristi, we all thanked the Kiwanians for hosting us and said our goodbyes. All of us brought some gifts for them that were related to the Pacific Northwest (i.e. smoked salmon & coffee). They’re a wonderful group of people and our time in Manta definitely wouldn’t have been as awesome as it was without them.

We like to take jumping pictures...this was during our last night with the Kiwanians in Manta/Montecristi.

CKI group photo with the Kiwanians of Manta & Montecristi

June 23-27 (Quito & The Sierra)
The following morning, a few of the Kiwanians took us to the transit station in Manta where we caught a bus to Quito, the capital and second largest city in Ecuador.

On the bus, enjoying the views of the Ecuadorean countryside.

The typical scenery we saw along the way.

The culture in Ecuador is much slower and more relaxed than it is in the U.S., which was pretty evident when travelling within the country. The bus ride was long and slow, taking about 10 hours to complete the 200 mile trip. Thankfully, I was occupied for most of the trip with my eyes glued to the window taking in the scenery. Plus it was only $10 for a nice charter bus–can’t complain about that! Shortly after we left the desert-like landscape of Manta, we entered a land that was much more lush and green. The road we took gradually meandered its way up into the jungle-covered foothills, past numerous rural villages and towns. As it got dark, the highway became steeper as it went up the steep slopes of the Andes. We all arrived in the city late in the evening and met up with some of the Kiwanians of Quito who took us all to their house to spend the night.

The following morning we all woke up bright and early to get ready for the day’s activities. All of us caught one of the city buses and headed north to El Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the Earth…aka the Equator). It was a beautiful sunny day and along the way we admired the mountains and volcanoes that surround the city. Quito is located in the middle of the Andes mountains, nestled on the slopes of an active volcano. Settled nearly smack on the equator and at over 9,000 feet in elevation (making it the second highest capital city in the world following La Paz, Bolivia), the climate here is warm during the day with intense sunshine and cold at night. The city also gets it’s fair share of rainfall during certain times of the year and the surrounding hills are covered in green pastures…in a way, it’s springtime year-around. Anyway, our bus eventually stops outside of a complex and in the middle of it stands a big monument with a globe tilted on it’s side on top–we’ve made it to the equator! The monument is located in a big complex full of museums and other attractions, but we just spent our time there straddling the equator and taking photos.

Straddling the equator! Another item crossed off the bucket list 🙂

This monument is actually not quite on the equator. The French estimated this location to be on the equator back in the day before they had GPS. Using a GPS, we determined the real equator to be a few hundred feet north of here, which we crossed later in the day.

After exploring the equator, our group took a short tour up the road (in the Northern Hemisphere) to the Pululahua crater. At the museum, you can hire a guide and a van for just $2! Before coming to Quito, I had researched a few places to visit and had never heard of this place…but it was very impressive and I’m glad we took the time to go up there. A must do for anyone visiting the equator. The caldera is massive, stretching 5 km (3.1 miles) across and there is a small village on the floor of the the crater.

Pululahua Crater is a dormant volcano located just north of Quito. The lava dome can be seen rising above the crater floor.

Group photo from the crater rim. We were accompanied by two of the Kiwanians from Quito.

These kids have to hike nearly 2 hours from the crater floor, up to the rim and back down again to get to school in Quito everyday. Remember how some of our grandparents claim to have walked uphill both ways to and from school? Now I know it's possible!

We had lunch back at El Mitad del Mundo after our tour of the crater, then caught a bus heading back to downtown. Quito is actually divided into two sections–the New Town and the Old Town. The Old Town is where all the colonial and historic buildings are located whereas the New Town hosts the business district and architecture is more modern. We were supposed to attend a Kiwanis meeting in the New Town, but it got canceled (we found that out after all the time we took getting there). With a few more hours of daylight remaining, we all decided to check out Telerifiqo–a cable car that ascends up the steep slopes of the Pinchacha Volcano adjacent to the the city. For about $8, we took the 30 minute ride up the mountain high above Quito to 13,000 feet. At this elevation we could all feel the affects of being at high altitude. I could definitely tell that the air was thinner there than at sea level, but it wasn’t hard to breathe really. I did get a bit nauseated and had a headache that night and throughout most of the following day. Anyway, a few of us decided to hike around through the hills and we found a few geocaches along the way!

Avenue of the Volcanoes

High above Quito...this city is huge!

Hiking through the hills.

We were up there just in time to see a glorious sunset. Cotopaxi, claimed to be the world's highest active volcano, can be seen peeking through the clouds in the distance. Notice how the Andes serve as a barrier to the clouds coming in from the ocean.

Telerifiqo!

The views from up there are amazing–on a clear day, it is possible to see several of Ecuador’s glaciated volcanoes. From this vantage point, we were also able to see how massive Quito is, which I think surprised us all. The city stretches for over 20 miles, north and south. We were blessed with some fairly clear skies and witnessed an awesome sunset. As it got dark on the way down, it appeared as if we were descending into a glimmering golden ocean of light as the city lights turned on. It was beautiful.

Once we made it back to solid ground, my friend Alison and I headed over to the Old Town to check in to our hostel before meeting up with the rest of the gang for one last group dinner. I was still feeling a bit light-headed from being exposed to the altitude earlier in the day, but an oreo milkshake seemed to soothe the headache for a little bit :). After saying farewell to half the group (Tea, Nikisa, Erin, Stina, and Ashley), Alison and I joined the peeps from Idaho (Amy, Jeffery, and Cassie) to hang out at their hotel for a little bit before heading back to our hostel to get some sleep.

The next morning I woke up and went upstairs to get some breakfast. The hostel we stayed at was called the Secret Garden, and up on the top floor there is a restaurant with some great views of the Old Town. Here’s a few shots from the terrace and the street level that I took:

View from my table!

Facing south...overlooking part of the Old Town towards the Panecillo (Statue of Mary).

Our hostel...my bed was next to the window there up on the top right.

View of the street from our hostel.

When Alison woke up, we both headed down the street to visit La Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic church in the Western Hemisphere. We explored the church for a while and took a few photos before heading back to the hostel to meet up with the rest of the group from Idaho.

La Basilica del Voto Nacional

The main Sanctuary.

Llama Gargoyles

We found out later that you can actually climb to the top of the two towers...bummer!

Once we got back together with the last remaining half of our CKI group, we all walked out to the Old Town to grab some lunch. The architecture of the buildings in this part of Quito really surprised me–it felt more like Europe than South America! After lunch we hailed a taxi and took a ride up to the top of the Panecillo, which is a big hill towards the southern end of town where a statue of Mary overlooks the city.

Most of the buildings in this part of town have a lot of European influenced architecture.

People from Quito claim that this 134-foot monument is the only winged statue of Mary in the world. A plaque near the base says it represents the "Woman of the Apocalypse" as described in Revelation 12.

La Plaza de San Francisco...looks a lot like Spain!

Another view of La Plaza de San Francisco

This old Jesuit church is claimed to be the most beautiful in the Americas, with gold plated walls. We didn't go inside since there was an entrance fee...kind of silly to charge people since they obviously had the money to decorate the inside with gold 😛

Heading back to the hostel.

Once we arrived back at the Secret Garden, we said farewell to the rest of the group as they headed off to the airport. Alison and I planned to catch a bus to Otavalo, a city two hours north of Quito, the following morning so we just chilled at the hostel for the rest of the day and relaxed. The Secret Garden was a pretty decent place with lots of character and interesting people to meet and talk to. I met a British woman from Manchester who had been travelling the world for over a year. There was also Canadian who had been riding his road bike for the past 10 months. His goal was to ride from Calgary all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, the southern tip of South America. What a champ! I didn’t meet any Aussies or Kiwis though, unfortunately :/.

A spectacular sunset from the terrace atop the Secret Garden.

The next day was a Saturday (June 26th). Alison and I woke up early (yet again) to catch a city bus to the main bus terminal, where we would transfer to another bus that would take us to Otavalo. It turns out we got on the wrong bus, which eventually took us back to where we got on. Instead of waiting for another bus, we took a cab to the bus station and caught the next bus leaving for Ecuador’s largest marketplace.

Otavalo is famous for it’s national marketplace and indigenous population. Here, people (especially the women) still dress in traditional attire. On Saturdays, pretty much the entire city shuts down as the streets are full of vendors selling everything from live animals, produce, artisan crafts like wool hats and sweaters, jewelry, kitchen products, souvenirs, and many other items. The market was actually a bit overwhelming and made Pike’s Place look like a 7-11. Things were a tad bit expensive compared to other markets we had visited in Ecuador so I didn’t buy anything, other than a big loaf of bread for lunch at one of the local bakeries (and it was one of the best loafs of bread I ever had…just for $1!). Alison got a few items though and we explored the market for about two hours.

A lot of the locals here dress in traditional attire.

The streets, plazas, and alleyways of Otavalo are transformed into this huge market every Saturday.

Afterwards, we walked north out of town along an old railroad grade for about 45 minutes toward Peguche Falls. The locals were kind and pointed out the way for us as we went. The falls flow from Lago San Pablo (a lake east of Otavalo) and flows through a lush eucalyptus forest. The park has several paths that took us to different vantage points around the falls, offering some great views and photo opportunities!

Path through the eucalyptus forest.

Peguche Falls...pretty spectacular!

At the top of the falls, the water runs through a cave. I went in to explore it--it goes back about 200 feet or so and there is another set of falls that comes in from the lake.

Drying off after wading through the river, enjoying the view.

After the falls we walked back to Otavalo (frolicking through fields along the way!) to catch our bus back to Quito. When we got back to the hostel, we went to grab dinner at a nice pizzeria down the street–my last meal in Ecuador. We pretty much just chilled around the hostel and talked to Amanda (the British woman I mentioned earlier) for a while before going to bed. The next morning I said farewell to Alison (who stayed in Quito for an extra day) and headed off to the airport to catch my flight to Peru, thus ending my visit to Ecuador.

Notes on Ecuador:
Overall, I LOVED Ecuador and would totally come back again. I kind of wish I stayed a little longer because there is so much to do and see here…but I guess that just gives me more reasons to return :). Some things I’d like to do if I ever make it back there again:

  • Cotopaxi…either take a tour and go mountain biking on the slopes of one of the world’s highest volcanoes or make the trek up to the summit.
  • Cuenca, Baños, & Mindo…three places that I heard were worth visiting.
  • Playa de Los Frailes…said to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. It’s located in a national park that is home to some of the wildlife that can be found on the Galapagos Islands. We drove by the park entrance the day we went to the beach, but never got a chance to see it.
  • Train surfing in Riobamba…I mentioned before that people are allowed to sit on the roofs of the passenger cars while riding the trains in Ecuador. Sounds like fun!
  • Lago Cuicocha…the Crater Lake of Ecuador, west of Otavalo. We thought about going there while we were at the market, but we weren’t sure if we had enough time to go.
  • The Amazon…Ecuador is divided into three parts–the coast, the sierra, and the Oriente which is pretty flat and is where the real jungle is. We never made it far enough east to the rain forest on this visit, but I would love to go there next time.

I also wrote down a bunch of notes for reference and for anyone who plans on visiting Ecuador in the future:

  • Ecuadoreans are very friendly and are easy to talk to if you are just learning Spanish. From my own observations, I thought they were more articulate and didn’t speak as rapidly as people in other Spanish-speaking countries I’ve been to.
  • No one really says “adios” for “good-bye”. They all say “ciao”.
  • Public bathrooms were seemingly hard to find, even in Quito. Also, buy or bring some toilet paper because many bathrooms don’t have any. You usually have to pay a small fee (I paid $0.10 for one) if the bathrooms are stocked with some.
  • Which reminds me of the Ecuadorean TP rule (which I didn’t know about until we almost left Manta). The plumbing in pretty much all South American countries can’t handle flushed TP. All bathrooms have a small trash bin for disposal–use it!
  • Ecuador “dollarized” their currency to the USD in 1999, so everyone uses American money (they do mint their own coins, however). Remember those golden $1 Sacajawea coins that were once popular in the U.S.? It looks like they all went to Ecuador–everyone uses them.
  • You can buy things here much cheaper than in the U.S. For example, a big plate of food (rice, beans, vegetables, banana chips, and meat/fish) normally costs around $3 to $4.
  • Carry lots of small bills and change. This is an important thing to remember, because it’s hard finding places that can break big bills. Some places we went to couldn’t/wouldn’t break even a $5 bill. So having small denominations is good to have.
  • Knowing basic Spanish is essential in all of South America since not many people know English. It’s always respectful to at least make some attempts at speaking the local language. The people really appreciate it and are happy to hear when you simply try.
  • Drink lots of water when in the Sierra. It makes acclimatizing easier since your body dehydrates faster at altitude.
  • Transportation in Quito…taking the bus/trolley is much cheaper than taxis and they can pretty much get you anywhere in town (if you can figure out which bus goes where). It’s fairly safe to ride during the day, we had no problems. Just make sure you keep a close eye on your bags.
  • Take the time to look up at the sky at night if it’s clear! The stars in the Southern Hemisphere are much more vivid and brilliant than up north since there’s less pollution down there (and I did see the southern cross!).

That’s pretty much it for my trip to Ecuador. If you want to see more photos, check them out on Facebook. Stay tuned for my next blog on my travels in Peru!