Archive | July, 2012

Exploring South America – Machu Picchu

29 Jul

My group’s 8-day Choquequirao Trek ended in the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. The last few hours of the trek involved walking around the mountain that Machu Picchu was on, and I couldn’t stop looking up at it. It was hard to believe I was finally so close to this epic place that I’d read so much about.

Machu Picchu from the railroad tracks

Walking to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu looms on our right.

Needless to say, I was really excited to finally get up there. We got up early the next morning to walk to the bus stop to catch the bus that would take us up to the ruins. Little did we know, we were visiting on one of the busiest days of the year, the winter solstice, and even at 5:30 am, there were crazy lines for the buses.

Eventually we got on a bus and headed up the to the ruins. I have to hand it to the bus drivers. They drive on an insanely curvy road and manage to pass each other with almost no clearance, all while appearing to do this with no effort. It was quite an adventure looking out the front window.

After many twists and turns we were dropped off at the entrance to the site, and after getting our tickets scanned, we headed into the ruins. You sort of do this little down and around walk before you enter an old stone building, then come around the corner and all of Machu Picchu is laid out before you. It is as incredible as you imagine: immense, yet compact, intricately detailed, and jaw-droppingly situated amongst mountain peaks. I alternated between gaping and compulsively taking pictures.

amy at machu picchu

Me thinking “holy crap, we’re here.”

We were there early enough that we got to watch the sun rise over the surrounding mountain peaks and slowly light up the ruins. Unbelievably, everything just got more awesome with full sun on it.

sun coming up

The sun starts to hit the site: breathtaking.

sun on the site

The sun on Wayna Picchu and the ruins.

We explored the site from the Temple of the Condor to the Temple of the Sun.

temple of the condor

The Temple of the Condor: wings are the natural stones that are upright, head is the carved stone on the floor

Temple of the sun

The Temple of the Sun

Temple of the sun

The Temple of the Sun from above

We wandered amongst old school rooms, fountains, storerooms, agricultural terraces and houses.

ag terraces

Some of the many agricultural terraces


Part of a series of 16 fountains at the site

Solar observatory

Solar observatory and temples


Plaza and surrounding buildings

We climbed stairs that were hundreds of years old and saw stonework so intricate that it stands, against earthquakes and other perils of nature, without mortar.

Who needs mortar?

Who needs mortar?


Another example of impressive stonework: Temple of the Three Windows

We saw llamas wandering around, oblivious to the awesomeness around them.


This llama has got it made.

And then we climbed. The big peak in the background of all of the standard pictures of Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu (alternately spelled Huayna Picchu, means “little peak” in Quechua. Machu Picchu means “old peak”), has ruins and incredible views from its peak. We managed to get one of the 400 tickets a day to make the climb, which involves a large number of stone stairs. After our 8-day trek, it didn’t seem so bad.

annette on stairs

Annette says, “Stairs? No problem.”


We all decided that climbing DOWN the stairs was actually the challenging part.

The views from the top were stunning, and they really helped convey the true size and layout of the site.

Site from the top

The view of the site from the top

crew up top

Annette, Marnie and Chris take in the views

me at the top

Me at the top of Wayna Picchu

main site

A view of the main part of the ruins, from Wayna Picchu

We then descended back to the main site to make a final climb up the agricultural terraces for the standard Machu Picchu picture.

Standard view

One of the standard postcard views of the site

Machu Picchu

The site with Wayna Picchu in the background. I climbed that!

Being amidst such striking natural beauty, fascinating history, and impressive architecture made for a wondrous day. See all the photos from the site on Flickr.


I bid a fond farewell to Machu Picchu


Exploring South America – Choquequirao Trek

22 Jul

My awesome friend Annette and I had the difficult task of deciding where in South America we wanted to meet up for our annual hiking adventure. After much deliberation, we decided that we had to see Machu Picchu. We got really excited about doing the Inca Trail, a four-day trek to the famous ruins that culminates with a fantastic sunrise view. Then we read that they allow 500 people per day on the trail, and that group sizes get very large when you count all the support team. Our excitement level began to wane as we pictured hiking and camping with large groups of people.

Thus, we found ourselves looking into alternative treks to Machu Picchu. While researching I stumbled upon the Choquequirao trek, an 8-day, 70+ mile hike that ends in Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. The trek features a stop at the Choquequirao ruins, a stunning site located amidst mountains and rivers in the Apurimac Valley. Due to the difficultly level of the hike (2 mountain passes, as well as some killer inclines and declines on other days) this trail is still relatively undeveloped and not very busy. We were sold. We booked the trek along with 5 other friends and ended up having an amazing time.

Our starting crew

The Peru Crew: Annette, me, Betsy, Steve, Marnie, Adrienne and Chris

The trek starts in the town of Cachora, which is one of the most beautifully-situated towns I’ve ever been in.


Main plaza of Cachora: where you sign the paperwork excusing Peru of any liability if you die or are seriously injured on the trek (mildly intimidating). Also: beautiful.

The first day is a relatively easy 16 km along the Apurimac valley, complete with some lovely mountain scenery, and views down to the river below.

trail day 1

Steve and Adrienne on the trail

Amy day 1

Me, happy to be around mountains again!

sunset day 1

We came into camp just as the sun was setting.

We went with a trekking company, Apus Peru, which did all the heavy lifting for us. We had a guide, Arturo, who kept us informed and motivated, 2 cooks to cook all of our meals, and 3 muleteers/horsemen (and their awesome mules) to lug all of the communal gear (i.e. cooking supplies, tents and sleeping bags).


Hi. I’m an awesome mule who will work hard so you don’t have to. Also, I’m cute.

All of the members of our group have done our own backpacking trips before, so it was sort of surreal to get to the campsite for the night and have 1) all the tents set up and 2) an insanely beautiful and delicious dinner waiting for us.

dinner first night

Dinner our first night exceed expectations in every way.

I love backpacking, but boy, was I glad to have paid to go with a company (especially on some of the harder days when I couldn’t imagine setting up, let alone carrying, my own tent and gear).

We woke up on day two (and subsequent days) to the call of “Coca tea, amigas.” That’s right, they brought freaking tea (a special local tea that supposedly helps prevent altitude sickness, and is plain good) to us in our tent. I think this was secretly a ploy to make sure we actually got up every morning, but, it was sort of wonderful, and forced me to get out of my sleeping bag.

On day two we walked down to the Apurimac River and got the thrill of crossing in a oroya, a small cable car that they use to cross rivers in the Andes. Previously, the crossing was done via a bridge, but that was destroyed in a landslide a few months before our trek.

Chris oroya

Chris volunteered to be the first to cross in the oroya

annette in oroya

Annette and Marnie in the oroya

After crossing the river, we had to ascend about 5000 feet to our campsite beneath the Choquequirao ruins.


Our red tents at the Choquequirao campsite

During the hike we got our first real views of the site and the impressive agricultural terraces below the city.

ag terraces

Our first view of the agricultural terraces at Choquequirao

Zoom ag terraces

A close up on one of the terraces

We also ran into the only other hikers we would encounter on the whole rest of the Choquequirao trek, a group of 4 Floridians. Needless to say, this hike delivered on solitude.

The next day we ascended to the ruins to explore for the morning. The site is situated on various levels of a mountain. It is actually pre-Incan, but was eventually occupied by Incans and was one of the last bastions of the Incan king Manco Inca as he fled the Spanish. The ruins were “discovered” by the archeologist Hiram Bingham (“discoverer of Machu Picchu”) in 1909, but they didn’t receive any real attention until excavations and restoration work began to uncover and develop the site over the past 15 years. Only an estimated 30 percent of the site is currently uncovered. The ruins are located in a cloud forest, which quickly envelopes anything in its path that isn’t regularly maintained.


An overview of the Choquequirao site

We only visited a few of the sections of the ruins, as we only had the morning to explore.

Chris and Amy Choquequirao

Peace Corps pals: Chris and me above the main ruins at Choquequirao

We entered the site through the imperial garden terraces, then visited the main level. This level has the main square and plaza, the royal residences, a temple, as well as workshops, and access to the ceremonial platform.

main level

The main square (left) and imperial garden terraces (right).

royal houses

A look at the ceremonial platform (top left) and royal residences (right)

royal house

The residences for the Incan king and queen

resting in plaza

The group rests under a tree in the main plaza

One of the buildings surrounding the main plaza

We then visited the llama terraces, amazing terraces decorated with inlaid stones in the shapes of llamas.

llama terraces

A view of all the llama terraces


Close up view of a few of the llamas, including a mama and baby llama on the bottom terrace

Amy with llama

Me, for scale, with one of the llamas

Annette with snow mountains

Annette on the snow mountain terrace, at the top of the llama terraces and crazy Incan staircase

After this section we headed up to the upper plaza.

climbing to upper plaza

Betsy, Adrienne and Annette climb to the upper plaza.

upper plaza

The upper plaza at Choquequirao

Choquequirao ruins

A view from on top of the Choquequirao ruins

We then hiked up out of the main site and then down to Rio Blanco, stopping along the way to visit some other agricultural terraces.

ag terraces

Slightly overgrown terraces on the way down to the river. Our guide said these are less well-maintained due to low visitor numbers.

sky stairs

I demonstrate the “sky stairs” (floating steps) that you can climb between levels in the terraces.

terrace ruins

Ruins on the terraces

View into the valley from the terraces


On the killer, slippery hike down to the river, this sunbeam shining on the river made me less miserable.

On day four we climbed 6000 feet to Maizal to camp and rest before taking on Victoria Pass the next day.

Maizal view

View from Maizal campsite

The campsite was the house of one of the muleteers. We were able to buy beer from him and enjoy a leisurely afternoon together.


Enjoying a beer after a long climb


Relaxing with The Hobbit on my Kindle

tent view

View out of the tent: I could get used to this

On day five we climbed to Abra Victoria pass (13,546 feet) for some jaw-dropping views.

Chris at victoria pass

Chris, always the first one to the destination, takes in the view.


Mountains at Victoria Pass

crew at victoria pass

The group at the pass

watching mountains

I check out the glaciers


In honor of Molly, Chris and I tried to bring the jowl to Peru, with mixed results.

We then descended to the charming village of Yanama, where I cracked open an Inca Kola.


Stone fences in the town of Yanama


View of flowers in the Yanama valley

Inca Kola

Nothing refreshes after a long day of hiking like piss yellow, bubble gum flavored soda.

On day six we had a challenging trek up a second mountain pass (15,908 feet).


The scenery leaving Yanama

We saw beautiful mountains all day long and were again amazed at the view from the pass.

Chris on top

Chris is superhuman and has been sitting here for at least 30 minutes while I trudged up the pass. Plus he looks like he’s straight out of an outdoor gear catalog.

view from the pass

The view from the pass, complete with cairns

Annette and Amy at the pass

Obligatory roomie/trip planner photo: Annette and me at the top of the pass.

Another view from the pass

The pass was the highest any of us had every been (almost 16,000 feet!), so we were all pretty psyched to reach the top (plus we managed it without the assistance of the emergency horse).

emergency horse

Bored horseman and emergency horse: yeah that’s right, we so didn’t need these two. Go team!

After the pass we descended to Totora, where we met up with the Salkantay trail (which meant we started seeing people again). It was bittersweet to end the solitude of our trek, but reaching the Salkantay trail meant we were getting very close to our end destination, Machu Picchu!


That giant blob of tents (middle right) are Salkantay trekkers. This confirmed to us that Choquequirao was the right trek for our group.

On day seven, we hiked a section of the Salkantay trail from Colpapampa to La Playa. This was an easy day at only 16 km, and almost all of it was downhill.

The trail followed this river for the whole day.


We passed a bunch of waterfalls along the trail.


This was a really pretty section of trail with great views down the river valley.

We ended up passing a bunch of groups who were doing the Salkantay trek (seven days in, we were all feeling like total rock stars).

Chris on the trail

Chris and I were hauling out front all day, passing everyone in our path. Salkantay is for suckers.

We camped in the town of La Playa, along a beautiful river.

La playa

The town of La Playa from our campsite

This was our last night of camping, so we made the most of it by enjoying a relaxing afternoon at the campsite. I watched hummingbirds, read, played games (set!) with the crew, and enjoyed good food and good beer.


A hummingbird at our campsite


Our last fancy snack time, with bonus guacamole thanks to an on-the-trail purchase by Steve.

Day eight we opted to punish/reward ourselves with the 24 km trek to Aguas Calientes by way of the Llactapacta ruins. It helped that we were fueled by breakfast birthday cake, which somehow our cooks whipped up for Betsy’s 35th birthday.


Our cooks make this awesome orange-y birthday cake at some point during the night and served it with breakfast in honor of Betsy’s birthday.

We were the first trekking group out, which made for a person-free, and wonderful morning. The trek up to the Llactapacta ruins was pretty killer, but it was a great introduction to Machu Picchu.

Hike to llactapaca

The view on the way up to Llactapacta

ariving at llactapacta

The group arriving at Llactapacta

Llactapacta is situated on a hill across from the famous Machu Picchu ruins. It was really thrilling to see them at long last!

first view of machu picchu

The group looking at Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

My first view of Machu Picchu: the set of peaks in the middle of the photo.

Machu Picchu

Wayna Picchu mountain, and the main part of the Machu Picchu ruins from Llactapacta

After lingering to gape at Machu Picchu for a while, we descended to the river, past a crazy hydroelectric waterfall, and along the train tracks for a few hours, to the town of Aguas Calientes: the gateway to Machu Picchu.

Chris on bridge

Chris on a fun suspension bridge


A man-made waterfall, resulting from a hydroelectric damming project

train bridge

We crossed this bridge on our walk along the railroad tracks into Aguas Calientes.

Machu Picchu

The whole walk along the tracks, Machu Picchu is up and to your right. I couldn’t stop looking at it, which meant I was frequently tripping over things.

The first thing we all did upon arriving to our hotel in town was to enjoy a hot shower. We then explored the town before heading out for a celebratory dinner in honor of completing our 70+ mile trek.

arrival in aguas calientes

We’ve arrived! 70+ miles completed, the crew arrives at our hotel in Aguas Calientes. This is pre-showers, so I’m guessing we don’t smell so good.

goat cheese

First course of celebratory dinner: mojito and goat cheese salad-y goodness.

It was an incredible trek, full of jaw-dropping scenery and amazing history. I cannot recommend this trek enough to anyone looking for a less busy, and very challenging hike to Machu Picchu.

great crew

My amazing trekking group! BA and VA

See all the photos of my trek and visit to the Choquequirao ruins on Flickr.

Reading & Culture Camp

21 Jul

During the second week of winter break I taught two sections of Reading and Culture camp here in Santa Rosa. Mornings I spent with the kids at the local soup kitchen with a large group of kids of all ages. Afternoons I went to the Cultural Center & Library to do a session for 25 third to fifth graders.

Juan Carlos with projects

Juan Carlos shows off all his art projects from the week-long camp

Each day we read a book that featured a particular culture. We then did art projects and played games from the countries featured in the books.

Matilda with art

Matilda drew a picture of all the art projects we’ve made so far this week. She is officially the cutest kid ever.

On day one we read two books about native peoples in Tanzania and the United States and made cardboard tube animals (Tanzania) and paper plate dreamcatchers (United States).

pequena masai

First book of the week, Pequeña Masai, and first craft, cardboard tube African animals

working on animals

Morning kids at work on their cardboard tube animals

josias with lion

Josias shows off his lion

afternoon animals

Some of the afternoon kids show off their animals

pequeno sioux

Second book of day 1, Pequeño Sioux, and dreamcatcher craft

Valeria dreamcatcher

Valeria shows off her completed dreamcatcher and giraffe

On day two we read one of my favorite books, Zen Shorts, and did origami (Japan).

Zen shorts and origami

Day two: Cuentos Zen and origami dog, penguin, fortune teller and crane

Origami cranes

Girls show off their paper cranes

On day three we read the Seven Chinese Brothers and made Chinese lanterns and handprint dragons.

Lanterns from the afternoon group

Afternoon group shows off their lanterns

Morning group works on their handprint dragons

Juan Carlos and his dragon

Juan Carlos colors his dragon

Finished China art

Showing off the finished dragon and lantern

Kids that finished early then got to try their hand at tangrams, a popular Chinese game.

Matilda rockin’ it on tangrams

afternoon tangrams

Afternoon kids play tangrams

Day four was focused on Mexico. We read Our Lady of Guadalupe, another childhood favorite of mine, and made cut paper decorations and god’s eyes.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Day four: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, cut paper and god’s eyes

Matilda god's eye

Matilda making a god’s eye

God's eyes

Showing off their new eyes

cutting paper

Working on cut paper decorations

cut paper

Finished cut paper

Day five at the soup kitchen featured Do you love me Mom? (Inuits) and paper plate arctic animal crafts.

Me quieres mama

Day 5 morning: Me quieres, mamá? and arctic paper plate animals


Kids working on their arctic animals

At the Cultural Center & Library we read This is how we go to school and each kid made a poster about a country featured in the book. We used this as an opportunity to learn about the library and how to use the reference books for research.

go to the school

Day 5 afternoon: Así vamos a la escuela and country posters

country poster

Kids working with reference books to do their posters

Juan Carlos county poster

Juan Carlos with his country poster

It was, most of the time, a super fun week, and, some of the time, a super frustrating week (I just don’t deal with non-awesome kids so well, and unfortunately, there will always be some non-awesome kids). Overall though, I had a great time and it definitely seemed like the kids did too. A few of them even brought me presents!


Me with present from Juan Carlos


My present from Juan Carlos

Matilda drawing

Present from Matilda

I’ll be using the camp to launch a weekly reading club at the library.

Thanks Linda Morning

Morning group says “Gracias Linda”

I want to thank my friend Linda back in the States for helping to fund all the supplies for the camp this week. I used a donation she gave to me before I left to buy all manner of materials (markers, crayons, colored pencils, paper, popsicle sticks, plates, yarn, cardboard, tissue paper, scissors, erasers, pencil sharpeners, glue, photocopies) to make all the great crafts we did this week. Thanks also to my mom for sending me some special supplies, like real origami paper.

Thanks Linda Afternoon

Afternoon group says “Gracias Linda”

I’m excited to offer some additional camps next summer. Check out all the photos from this week’s camps on Flickr.