The Magic of the Maras Salt Mines

The Magic of  the Maras Salt Mines

Travel, Science, History, Culture, and Cultivation all in one stop!

The Maras Salt Mines are one of the most unique ruins sites in all of Peru. They are not about the fancy palaces of past lords, tragedy of war, or anything of the like. Although they DO come from the times of the Inca Rule…possibly even before!

My favorite part of this attraction is one teeny, tiny detail that I find absolutely astounding: they are still in use!! The plan and structure of this salt cultivation method is so great that it has been sustainable for more than 500 years.

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The Gift of the Huacachina Dunes

The Gift of the Huacachina Dunes

In vast, open spaces the wind hums across the sand, singing to the heavens above. The grains leap into the air and swirl around his toes, fingers, cheeks, and finally the curls of his hair.

His face sparkles with tiny reflections as the glittering sand grasps the last hints of daylight. I strain my ears to capture the tiny, whispers that drift from his lips.

“My favorite part of Christmas is this. The sun, the sand, the outdoors.”

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Chasing the Pumapaqcha Waterfalls in the Croplands of Peru

Chasing Waterfalls Through the Croplands of Peru

My husband had his eyes set on this waterfall. He was determined to find it. I was doubtful, but from the drive, I just should have kept my mouth shut. But, I couldn’t help it. What was this Pumapaqcha Waterfall?

As, we thumped through tiny villages and muddy roads…I gave him a side glance and said “Babe, there is no way there is a waterfall here. Do you see any mountains or cliffs? These are just farm lands. There can’t be a waterfall here. Maybe you got some wrong information.”

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Playing HideNSeek in the Inca Palace Ruins of Peru

I thought history wasn’t for kids. I thought it wasn’t for me either. Even my husband will say how much he loathed history classes in school.The Inca Palace ruins in Peru teach us something different.  History is more than a faded photograph, or a story in a book.  History is alive. It is all around us and it is beautiful. History is tangible and touchable, and dare I say lovable. History is a lot like art. It is about perspectives and interpretations, even imagination and creativity.

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Family Eco Travel in Paracas, Peru

Adventures in Paracas, Peru

Our adventure family recently enjoyed a week in Paracas, Peru. Paracas is a desert beach town on the central coast.

We are a family that loves all sorts of travel. In fact, we are pretty undefined and unable to fit into any of those square boxes.  We are vanlifers, But, not 100% of the time. We love to camp. But, not every night. We love hostels and lodges, and even hotels as well.

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When a Peru Beach Weekend Turns into an Ocean Rescue

Paracas, Peru Beach Weekend

On friday, we discovered the diverse and dazzling shorelines hidden within the Paracas National Reserve. What appears as a vast desert eco system quite suddenly melts into the most spectacular Peru beach we have seen yet.
Red, white, yellow, and black beaches hugging clear, turquoise waters that reflect breathtaking cliffs and dunes. These are local’s secrets if we have ever seen them. We had no idea our arrival would ultimately result in an ocean rescue.

Playa Yumaque

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Border Crossing: Ecuador to Peru

Border Crossing: Ecuador to Peru

Paperwork Problems

A lump sat heavy in my stomach, all the way from Vilcabamba to La Balsa. The day had finally come  for our border crossing from Ecuador to Peru.

My imagination was running wild as I invented the least ideal outcomes of our predicament. Was I going to be forced into an uncomfortable interrogation?Have my papers ripped to shreds before my eyes? Be shipped off in handcuffs and dumped into a remote jungle or desert?

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Amazon Rainforest in Photos

Our family recently spent about two weeks exploring the Amazon Rainforest of Ecuador. We had a spectacular time exploring the regions of the Rainforest in the Pastaza and Napo provinces.

We stayed with an indigenous family in a bamboo hut, at a lodge with monkeys on our private balcony, and at a bed n breakfast in one of the bigger cities of the Amazon outskirts. The experiences were diverse, complete, and spectacular! Continue reading Amazon Rainforest in Photos

The Shadows of the Amazon Rainforest

The Shadows of the Amazon Rainforest

We walk through the valleys of the shadows of….the Amazon Rainforest! Standing beneath the trees, ankles pressed together, and hands interlocked, we take our first steps into the Rainforest. We are exhilarated and terrified, curious and intimidated. We have been warned at least twenty times, not to touch anything!

Trek along carefully in the Rainforest, look all you like, but please don’t touch!

This is a tough enough feat for Carlos and Me, who are naturally curious about everything. Not to mention the littles, they are just 3 and 5 years old! And the dog, Dante, don’t even get me started. I still haven’t figured out if he listens to commands in English or Spanish, or neither, and he is seven years old.

The most beautiful plants, berries, and bugs are sometimes the most dangerous. Don’t Touch!

It is something like walking through a china shop. Stepping delicately, elbows tucked the sides, eyes darting to and fro for any quick movements. Only we are not afraid of breaking the stuff on the shelves, but rather of the delicacies breaking us.

In the first five minutes I can’t look more than 12 inches past my feet and shoulders. In that time, our guide has already pointed out poisonous delicious looking berries, a spectacular pink flower, and a suspiciously beautiful spider. All of them capable of devastating an adult, and likely lethal for a child.

After a good half hour into the woods, I relax a little, realizing there is no way in tarnation that our kids are touching anything. They jump ten feet into the air if a branch brushes against their skin. We have already successfully scared the living hockey sticks out of them.

Parts of the Amazon Rainforest hike were quite steep and difficult, a real challenge with the heat and humidity. It would a lie to say the kids hiked the whole trail without help!

The trail we are walking is narrow and thin, covered in leaves and natural debris. The forest is silent except for the trickle of sound as big, finished leaves make their way to the ground. The movements encourage me to look away from the safety zone and up towards the sky. I scan the treetops looking for the blue that is hiding somewhere up there. But, all I can see are fragments of light that sparkle as they pass through the web of canopy leaves.

The sun is waaayyy up there somewhere!

Then suddenly a silent commotion from beyond the trail and I dare to look beyond the maze of trees that are out of my reach. I squint to focus in on the wide, blue swirls drifting through the forest. More grace than a bird but greater breadth than a butterfly. Fairies grabbing onto the vines and leaping from tree to tree in an elegant dance. Teasing my eyes as they float in and out of the mid-morning shadows.

But, they are butterflies! Too quick to dream of catching on film, I quickly retract my camera and just enjoy the scene with my family. The Blue Morpho Butterfly is like the keeper of the trees, soothing our nerves and luring out our curiosity. We stand still in those moments and realize that we are safe in the forest.

Not the Blue Morpho Butterfly, but its cousin the equally famous Owl Eyes Moth.

And then we start searching and seeking, exploring and discovering. Birds, bugs, and plants in more abundance than is imaginable. Trees and vines, strange and mostly unnamable. I find myself trying to identify a single species. There is no knowledge of this, so instead I focus on trying to translate the Spanish and Kickwa identifications offered by our guide.

In a place so vast and full of un-nameable things, I find myself engulfed by a strange sense of familiarity. Here, in the Amazon Rainforest, a continent away, I feel the presence of my father walking next to me just as he did when I was my daughter’s age. I can’t wait to tell him about it. I realize that the Amazon is nothing more than a massive, overgrown forest. A super-sized version of the forests I have explored in Iowa. Maybe it was just a coping strategy, but little by little, nature wrapped her arms around me and coaxed me out of my fears and anxieties.

It loooks like an ordinary spruce bush, but in the indigenous community uses this plant to cure toddlers who haven’t take their first steps by the age of 2. The children are soaked in a bath with the herb and are miraculously cured of their mysterious ailment.

We came across an impressive tree with a straight, thick vine dangling straight from the clouds. Its tail-end curiously twisting and beckoning to us right smack in the middle of the trail. As a smile stretched across my face, I saw the same expression reflected in our children. There was no doubt about it what was coming next.

Oh, how they squealed as they soared through the air, little booted feet dangling high above my head. Mabelle with sheer delight and wonder, with her ponytail flipping through the leaves in the trees. And then, Nico. Knuckles white and eyebrows raised, a crooked smile from that nauseating mix of fear and fun. Pure pleasure with himself for not chickening out. Then my husband, as nimble as if he were my third child, hopped onto the vine and flew through the air like Tarzan.

I stood below them, our dog Dante panting at my feet, so engaged with their adventure I nearly forgot it was my turn. There is nothing more freeing of the spirit, than to allow yourself to let go. To live in the moment, forget anyone is watching, and to just claim these spectacular experiences as something of your own. And for a couple of memorable swings through the forest, I was just me and nothing else. Just me, exhilarated by a swinging rope in the Amazon Rainforest.

We continued our walk, chatting and pointing, not even trying to be silent as we ought to be. Just enjoying, absorbing, and living in the moment. Mostly lots of butterflies and bugs, interesting flowers and fascinating leaves, glowing mushrooms and vibrant everything. It was just a walk in the forest, an extra special forest of course.

Until we came to understand the majesty that is the Sable tree. From over two steep hills, and sloshy, slippery decents, we landed ourselves on top of the biggest tree I have ever seen. From the cliff above, we stood about one third of its height. Our son asked me if what we were looking at was real or if somebody had built it. Our daughter asked me if fairies and elves live within it.

We climbed down the embankment, clinging onto roots like railings, with trouble focusing on our feet. The tree was so alive that we could not peel our eyes away from it. It was as if we were waiting for her to raise a branch and wave hello, or for a face to appear in her trunk. But, even if that didn’t happen, it was still like she was whispering to us.

Carlos decided to climb, but not me, I was still worried about snakes and tarantulas. Yet, he didn’t climb the tree, he climbed the roots! He got about ten feet above his own head before he reached the top of them. From there, there was nowhere to go! How do you wrap your arms around a tree as big as a house?!

We spent a long time beneath this Queen of the forest. The kids climbed through the puzzling caves of her roots, pulling her vines like long, dangling braids, and standing gaping at the sky in awe. We listened to stories of her life and imagined that there is much more than we know. She is estimated to be 200 years old, and is a favorite place for the shamans to bring the disabled, crazy, and ill.  Oh, the secrets she must hold!

On the final stretch of our hike, I giggled at the red streaked faces of the kids. Apparently, the native markings they had painted on their face, had suffered a fate worse than hunting. Our guide had delighted them with a pre-hike activity that included these face paintings from achiote seeds. But, they were worn and smeared, destructed by little hands and forest fun.

Even though we were tired, we all stalled a little bit, taking one last look to find special bugs and butterflies. But, unlike other hikes, we finished our trek through the rainforest reserve with excitement and stamina. We had just taken a walk through the Amazon Rainforest!

In the final moments, we were lucky enough to catch a butterfly!

The Best of Ecuador

The Best of Ecuador

Waves of purple grass ripple across the mountain tops, raising their flowering strands in praise to the heavens above. In the breeze, the trees take a bow and shake free of their full, ripe fruits like ornaments dropping to the soil. Below the cliffs flow the music of nature’s harp, the steady release of fresh, cool water that stimulates the lands. This is the Valley of Longevity. This is Vilcabamba. Like a valiant soldier, filled with loyal honor, I raise my flag to proclaim this place as my favorite in all of Ecuador!

After six full months of travel in the country we can reflect on grand places and fabulous people. We have not been everywhere, but it feels like we have. And without further ado, we present all of our favorite places in Ecuador, South America.

Our Favorite Villages in Ecuador:

For our family, villages are where it’s at. Small, sprawled out towns with bustling, humble centers. Great food, sweet people, and plenty of nature in the borders. Void of the smothering modern existence, yet not so stripped of it that life is difficult and uncomfortable. If you’d like to know where to go in Ecuador, many of these might be places you’ve never considered!

#1. Vilcabamba

 

Tucked into the scenic countryside of the Loja province, this mountain village is cute and charming. The city center is reminiscent of the best town squares in the Midwest, USA. A brilliant, colorful church rises above green park benches and brick paved streets. Small, country stores and cafes framing the park are filled with everything you could ever need.

The community is big on ecotourism and agrotourism. The heart of the town is filled with healthy, hippie types from the world over. The outskirts are caked with the best Eco Farms in the country. The weekend farmers market is simply to die for!

Where to Stay: Eco Farm (Neverland Farm), Izhcayluma Hotel

#2. Mompiche

Way up North, the beaches are green and serene! Like a remote, tropical beach, Mompiche is the place to get away and soak up the sun. Quaint and quiet, this little cove in the Esmeraldes province is Ecuador’s secret gem. The sandy lanes are full of decadent street food, seaside cafes, and sandy floor pizzerias! Traveling artists are in abundance here and you can be sure to delight in hand crafted jewelry, soulful music, and any array of street entertainment.

Authentic bamboo huts hug black sand beaches with luminescent tides and cliff dwelling reefs. Lazy afternoons melts into rhythmic evenings, where life is slow and simple. This daily existence is all about laying in the hammock, roaming the beach in barefeet, and sipping pina coladas.

Where to Stay: Beachfront Bungalows & Camping

#3. Otavalo

Carefully balanced in the picturesque sierras, Otavalo is a scenic indigenous village nestled in the Imbabura Province. Famous for its local market, this is the place worth spending your hard-earned cash. Otavalo is rich in customs and crafts, festivals and carnivals. It is the perfect blend of modern and indigenous life.

More tiendas than one can imagine, this pedestrian paradise is ideal for window shopping and taste testing. Some of the best foods in Ecuador hail from this region! This is the opportune locale to try out cuy, hornado, fritada, espumillas, and helado de paila.

The surrounding area is full of serene volcanic beauty, and with a fabulous and cheap bus system, it is easy to visit an abundance of nearby lakes, volcanoes, and waterfalls.

Where to Stay: Nearby Hostel (El Tio), Otavalo Hotels

 

The Best Lesser Known Destinations in Ecuador:

Kicking the dirt along skinny, forgotten trails we have wound our way through storybook forests and fairytale landscapes. We have sunk our aching bones into unimaginable volcano-top thermal pools and soaked our toes into the looking glass of a babbling, mountain spring. We have tossed open our camp on desolate, shell scattered beaches beneath sparkling, cobalt skies. We have dared to go where other tourists do not and we have been rewarded with spectacular experiences in lesser known destinations.

These are our favorite off-the-beaten-track destinations:

#1. Illinizas Ecological Reserve

There are many, many famous volcanoes in Ecuador, but the Illinizas…or the twin volcanoes are probably not at the top of the list. Especially with its close proximity to the most famous peak in Ecuador, the Illinizas are often over shadowed by the Cotopaxi Volcano.

By pure luck, we came across a guide who has recently opened an amazing, rural, hacienda-style hostel near the base of these volcanoes. With his companionship, we had the once in a life time experience of hiking to a matching orange waterfall and volcano top thermal pool. It was hands-down the most beautiful and unique excursion of our entire trip around Ecuador.

Read all about the stunning day trip here.

Where to Stay: Sacharuna

#2. Las Penas Beach

The coast of Ecuador is blanketed in hundreds of tiny, fishing villages that many travelers would never know about unless they discovered them by chance. Many of these beaches are remote and completely void of any tourism. They offer a unique perspective on humble villages and the remarkable lifestyles of fisherman the country over.

Depending on where you explore, many of these beaches offer glimpses of stunning, unique sea life species that hail to the Pacific coast from the nearby Galapagos Islands.

Rumor has it that the far northern section of the Ecuadorian coastline is dangerous and should be avoided. We found nothing to be farther from the truth. In fact, we found the tiny, picturesque village of Las Penas in the Esmeraldes province to be quite the opposite. Not only was the beach one of the cleanest and quietest villages, it was also home to the friendliest people we have met in all of Ecuador.

We camped for FREE, right on the sand, in front of one of the beachfront restaurants. All we had to do was ask!

#3. Dos Mangas Forest

This stunning, remote forest is located up the road from Manglaralto, just south of Montanita. It was our very first stop on our ultimate road trip through Ecuador. While we would never recommend Montanita to anyone, and would in fact suggest skipping it altogether…Manglaralto and Dos Mangas are an appropriate reprieve.

Quiet and rural, the road that leads to the forest is full of EcoHostels that cater to the travelers exploring the vast forest. My only regret is that we did spend more time exploring the trails and waterfalls in the area. We stayed with a friend that lives within the forest, and truly enjoyed the spectacular bugs, birds, and critters that call the forest home.

View our favorite photos from this stop here .

Top Tourist Attractions in Ecaudor:

Standing high above an emerald green lake, crouching far below a freshly dusted volcano, and shielding our faces from the roaring mist of a massive waterfall…don’t be too surprised that we have seen some of Ecuador’s biggest tourist attractions. AND, we have loved them! It is easy to say that we don’t want to go where others go, or tread the trails that have been trodden a million times over. But, the truth is, it would be a shame to miss these spectacular locations based on those shallow reasons.

Tourists traps are clenchers for a reason, they have something beautiful to showcase that most people want to see! There are few tricks that we implement when we want to see these places but not the masses that go with them. First, we never go on a weekend. In fact, we usually go on a Tuesday or Wednesday when the crowds are still far from sight. Second, we arrive at dawn or as close to it as possible and try to be out by noon.

These rank as the tourist hubs most worth seeing:

#1 Cotopaxi National Park

If you want to see volcanoes and wild life, this is one stop you must make on your trip in Ecuador. Any type of traveler can enjoy this destination, by car, trekking, biking or even via bus route.

Depending on the status of the active volcano, you can even camp in designated areas. Many people love the challenge of hiking to the refuge area. Even expert mountain hikers come this area to get credit for this famous summit.

But, if roughing it is not for you, there are also hostels and high-end lodges in the area. Or you can visit the park just for the day or with multiple day trips.
With plenty of endemic plants and animals in the park, wild life spotters and birding enthusiasts could easily spend several days soaking up the incredible atmosphere. The massive rocks splayed all around and the dried of mud flows are just as interesting as the volcano itself.

Read more about our time in Cotopaxi here.

Where to Stay: Camp in the Park, Cabinas de Volcan

#2 Banos

This tourist hotspot is not a place that we expected to love. But, we couldn’t help but be drawn in by the abundance of outdoor recreation and adventure sports. There is something here for everyone, whether young or old, adventurous or relaxed, Banos is a great place to get “trapped” for a few days or more.

Take your pick from historic, volcanic, thermal baths that catch the healing waters as they flow from the mountain tops. Or enjoy a remarkable hike to the Pailon del Diablo, over hanging bridges and through forested walkways that end beneath the misty stone towers that hug the gushing falls.

This is the perfect town for meandering through quaint taffy shops, glorious old churches, and perfectly manicured parks. But, if adventure is what you are seeking, you can find that, too! Soar over the Andes on the ‘Swing at the End of the World’, go zip-lining, mountain climbing, or river rafting just to name a few!

Where to Stay: Outside of Town/Abby’s Hideaway, Hotel in Town

#3 Quilotoa

Dreaming of something awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and travel-astounding? Quilotoa is the caldera lake that will leave you believing in the impossible! The incredible beauty and solitude of this remarkable green lake are enough to quiet the wanderlust in even the most proficient of traveler’s spirits.

Situated way up high and cradled in a crown of volcanic peaks, this place is just as beautiful as every picture you have ever seen! The trail begins from the top and winds its way down to the reflective lakeside coves. For novice and advanced hikers alike, the incline and altitude can prove this to be a difficult hike.

Luckily, the view can be relished from above with little or no exertion. A wide, wood deck dangling above the canyon offers the perfect picnic retreat. And the village is perfect for perusing local goods and sipping on hot cocoa or the famed coco tea!

Read more about our stay in Quilotoa!

Where to Stay: Overlanders can stay the night in the parking lot free of charge, Hostel

Interested in traveling to Ecuador? Read more about the country’s National Parks and Ecological Reserves in my Skyscanner article!

 

Tales of a Nomadic Family ***Currently in PERU***