The land of fire and ice!

The land of fire and ice!

Flying into Reykjavik was so exciting. It was 10pm, but it was still light out. A beautiful formation of clouds blanketed the city, and drops of rain began to fall. We didn’t get in to our Airbnb until late around 12:30am, but it was still light out. What a trick on the body clock that is! By the next day, the sun had come out! It was still a little cold though. The weather reminded me of fall in the Pacific Northwest. We walked to a nearby bakery and had some of the best croissants we’ve ever had! Then we walked to a park that had a botanical garden AND an ice skating rink in it! I couldn’t wait to skate, even if it meant wearing rental skates. We walked up to the rink, but, wait a sec, it’s closed. Nooooo!!!!! It was completely shut down for another month for maintenance. I was absolutely crushed. 

I released my disappointment while wandering through the botanical garden. It was gorgeously landscaped and shared a wide variety of perennials, wildflowers, evergreens, wild roses, streams, ponds, ducks, etc. Andre and I enjoyed the diverse and delightful array of blooming plants and flowers.

DSC_8205.jpg

Then we made our way to a bus stop to head into downtown Reykjavik. There’s a famous church called Hallgrimskirkja. It was a stunning structure with an impressive organ inside to complete the experience. After spending a little time in there our tummies started rumbling. There’s one thing you should know about Iceland, it’s very expensive. A hamburger typically runs anywhere from $20-30. Our budget didn’t have much slack in it, so finding affordable restaurants was a challenge. Thanks to Trip Advisor, (again) we found a quirky little cafe nearby called Cafe Babalu. It was decorated with money from all over the world, silk Gerbera daises in vases, bright colors, and a Star Wars themed bathroom complete with the soundtrack playing as you pee. I ordered the veggie chili, Andre ordered tomato soup and a grilled cheese. It was all deliciously homemade, and hit the spot hard!

DSC_8237.jpg
IMG_9639.JPG
IMG_9614.JPG

Next we walked down to the Harpa Concert Hall - one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever seen. The window panes on the outside resembled fish scales, some of them glowing with a rainbow iridescence. If only we had had the time to catch a concert here. We walked along the water stopping at an iconic sculpture called the Sun Voyager. A favorite among tourists and locals.

FullSizeRender copy.jpg
IMG_9646.JPG

It was soon dinner time and we went back on the hunt for some “cheap eats.” We found an affordable place with good reviews, but it was kind of far, so we decided to wander back through downtown, read menus, and settle on something close by. Most dinner mains were at least $30-40 each. Ouch! We went back to the drawing board and chose to just suck up the long walk and go to the original place we had chosen. 

What a delightful decision! The walk initially took us through a neighborhood where local kitty cats were wandering around. They were friendly, affectionate and soft, and filled up my lacking kitty lovings account. Then the walk took us through the University campus which was as exquisitely landscaped and beautiful as the botanical gardens! Fountains, geese, flowering trees, and bronze statues graced the campus. Andre and I daydreamed about moving there. Turned out that this restaurant we discovered online was in the college. It was a called Studentakjallarin which translates to “student basement.” The food was awesome and our plates only ran about $16 each.

Our last stop of the day was a grocery store to stock up on food for the road because the next day we’d be embarking on a 9 day road trip around the perimeter of Iceland, commonly known as “The Ring Road.”

In the morning we got picked up, along with a lovely family from Toronto, by Happy Campers, our camper van company. We’d heard from friends that renting a camper van was the best way to travel the ring road. It’s a rental car, place to stay, and eat, all in one. We arrived at the branch about 40 minutes outside the city, near the airport, to pick up our van, but Andre accidentally left his driver’s license back at our Airbnb in the city. It was a whole big drama. We were trying to figure out if we could use my license, but the van was a stick shift and I’m not adept with a stick. Our options were bleak and we were facing an extra charge of $50 to add me as a driver. Ingenuity and luck prevailed though, as we were able to get our Airbnb host to locate Andre’s license, take a photo of it, and send it to us. Woohoo! Crisis averted! 

On a side note, Andre has T-Mobile, and I, Verizon. He has had free service and data in every country we’ve visited so far, and my phone has been in airplane mode the entire time. We are so grateful for T-Mobile’s international coverage. It has saved us in so many pinches! 

The manager accepted the photo of Andre’s license and we were finally getting on our way! We drove back to our Airbnb, picked up our things and hopped on the road. 

The big question facing us in the beginning was whether to go clockwise or counter-clockwise around the island. Our original plan was to start with “The Golden Circle” and drive counter-clockwise, hitting all the southern hot spots first before making our way around. The Golden Circle consists of 3 major attractions, Thingvellir, the old parliament grounds and the line where the North Atlantic and European tectonic plates meet which have formed a giant crevasse in the earth; Geysir, an area full of active and dormant geothermal geysers bubbling and exploding out of the ground; and then Gulfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls because of it’s massive size and power.

IMG_2284.jpg

The weather all day was gray, cold, and rainy. When we checked the island’s forecast, it said sun in the Northwest, and rain in the South - which is where we were heading. At around midnight after a day of exploring the Golden Circle, we pondered the idea of reversing course and driving the ring road clockwise. We decided to just go for it! So we backtracked about 2 hours and pulled into a little town to sleep for the night. Within minutes the back of our van converted into a bed, we closed the curtains, and knocked out.

The next morning greeted us with bright rays of sun! Yes! We definitely made the right decision. After finding a place to cook some breakfast, we took a detour off the ring road and drove around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It was gorgeous! Every few miles, we said to one another, “Ooo look at that waterfall!” “Look at that mountain!” “Look at those horses!” “Look at that! Look at this!” Basically our whole trip was just constant views of marvel! The star of the peninsula was Kirkjufellsfoss. Foss means waterfall, so anytime you see “foss” in a name, that’s what it is. We spent over an hour taking photos and taking in the immense beauty that surrounded us.

DSC_9048.jpg
DSC_9058 copy.jpg

Each and every day on the road gifted us with the most epic of views left and right. There is literally too much to describe, and if I haven’t sold it by now, then keep reading.

Whale watching is a popular attraction and activity to do here in Iceland. Sadly, whaling is also a thing. People are definitely divided on this archaic tradition. We’d been told that if you’re going to push your personal anti-whaling views on the locals, be prepared to argue. Well since we’re on the celebrate the whales side, we decided to treat ourselves to an all electric eco-friendly whale watching tour. Husavik is one of the best areas to see the whales and is also one of the areas they’ve banned whaling, yay! Being out on the water in the Northern Atlantic was a thrill. The tour didn’t seem to last very long. We saw about 7 Humpback surfacings, but unfortunately no breaches. Actually, whale watching off the coast of Malibu in California was better, but we can overlook that because we’re still in ICELAND and that’s AWESOME!

DSC_9261.jpg

The scenery along the drive was ever changing. One minute we’d feel like we were on a deserted volcanic planet, the next we were surrounded by lush valleys and hills. The mountains were leaking with massive, gushing waterfalls just about everywhere. The best part about the camper van experience was the freedom to go where we want, when we want, and stop wherever just to pull over and take some photos or fly the drone, which received his official name in Iceland, Stormur.

DSC_0227.jpg

That night we found a campground to park in, and decided to catch the sunrise at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. Our alarm was set for 3:15. Andre popped up and drove us to the Detifoss parking lot while I’ll stayed horizontal in the back of the van. The sky was just starting to glow peach and purple on the edges of brilliant cloud patterns across the sky. It was a little hike from the parking lot to the waterfall, but once you see this powerful expression of nature, as Andre put it, you’re forever changed. Since it was so early, we had this magnificent place all to ourselves. We sat in silence as we took in the power and beauty. We had a ceremony for Kiki here and sprinkled some of her ashes into the falls. As we waited for the sun to make it’s daily debut, clouds rolled in and won the battle. After a couple hours of sitting in the cold outside, we decided to head back to the van and sleep for a bit, and see if the weather changes. We woke back up around 8am, but the weather was even worse and there was no sun to be seen.

DSC_9501 copy.jpg

That afternoon, we ended up offering a ride to two girls who were hitchhiking. Sveta and Sveta were friends visiting from Belarus. They had just completed a 12 day trek through the middle of Iceland across the glacial fields; land virtually untouchable by car. #hardcore They joined us all the way to Hofn which was about a 5 or 6 hour journey, but also one of the most lush and picturesque stretches we’d seen so far. The weather was quite grey, rainy, and windy for most all of the drive, but just before arriving in Hofn, as we crossed up and over a foggy hill, we came out the other side greeted by one of the most spectacular, colorful sunsets ever! We spotted a couple of horses hanging out near the road, so we pulled over to feed them some carrots and photograph them against the magical colors in the sky. Sveta and Sveta joined us and we all had a blast befriending and photographing these beauties. The day finally came to a close and we bid farewell to our new friends around 10pm at the Hofn campsite. What a day!

DSC_9784.jpg

The next day would prove to be our favorite day in the journey. We drove for quite a distance passing by blue colored glacier tongues oozing in between massive rock cliffs. Finally we landed at Jokusarlon Glacier Lagoon. This lagoon has formed only within the past 10 years. Just a decade ago, this part of the Vatnajokull glacier was totally intact right up to the coast. However, global warming has caused it’s recession creating a giant lagoon. I read someone’s description of it as the place “where glaciers go to die.” 

DJI_0337.jpg

The calved chunks of ice float into the lagoon. As weather shapes and molds the ice, it takes form into unique sculptures. They continue to melt slowly, diminishing little by little with each sun rotation. Eventually they float on out to sea where the lapping waves polish the ice against a black sand beach, appropriately named Diamond Beach. The sculpted and polished pieces of ice resemble diamonds sprinkled about down the length of the beach. It’s so fun, so magical, we ended up doing a photoshoot modeling my friend’s yoga clothing line, Paper Rani.

DSC_0611.jpg
DSC_0531 copy.jpg
DSC_0522.JPG

After the photoshoot, we quickly ran back over across the street to the glacier lagoon to catch the sunset. Wow. It was phenomenal. Like Mother Nature just painted the most exquisite watercolor. 

FullSizeRender 2.jpg

Once the sun was down, which was around 11pm, we went back over to Diamond Beach. I made dinner in the van, like all nights. Dinner was typically around 11pm thanks to the endless daylight. After dinner Andre said, “I have a crazy idea.”

I said, “You want to go back down to the beach?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Me too!” So we bundled up and went back out there. Not a soul was in sight. The large crashing waves from the day had turned into tiny little laps on the shore at night. There was still enough ambient light to see the chunks of ice and photograph them. Andre had the idea to put a light behind the pieces of ice. We experimented with that and took a photo. It was captivating. We continued to play around with the lights and came up with another idea involving lights and ice, but it’s kind of a secret surprise that we’ll release when the time is right.

DSC_0781.jpg
DSC_0774.JPG

Perhaps, or not, you’re wondering how we showered on the road. Well Iceland is quite known for their hot springs and public pools. We only got to go to a real natural hot spring once, but we went to the public pools a few times. The public pools have complete shower facilities, they’re ultra clean, geothermally heated, and usually have multiple pools and hot tubs to choose from. One pool we went to even had a couple multi-story high waterslides, and a cold water plunging bath! Icelanders love their pools.

One of the wildest things that happened to us in Iceland was not only witnessing incredible natural phenomena, but we also ran into a friend of mine from Los Angeles! Ines, a florist I occasionally freelance for was visiting Iceland with her mom. We happened to be in the same area one evening and she invited us over to her cabin for some drinks. It was such a fun happenstance to see a familiar face in Iceland of all places!

The following day we made the rounds on some of the most popular sights like Reynisfjara famous for it’s basalt columns; Dyrholaey known for the nesting puffins and a stunning arched rock formation. We had a picnic lunch here overlooking the sea. At one point Andre turned to me and said, “That woman looks like Ines.” I said, “That is Ines!” We had run into each other again in an entirely different part of the island. Greater forces were definitely at work here. We said hello, and then goodbye, again. We were rounding out the tail end of our trip, and she and her mom were heading to Germany next.

DSC_1480.jpg
DSC_1505.jpg
DSC_1592.jpg
IMG_9941.JPG

Our last stop of the day was at Solheimasandur Beach where a U.S. Navy DC-3 plane crashed and has remained ever since. Luckily, everyone survived the crash. It was a good 45 minute walk to get to the plane, but well worth the hike. I advise getting there around 8pm (in summer) as that’s when the crowds really die down. We hung around for 2 hours waiting to get a photograph of the site without any people in sight. Oy.

DJI_0718.jpg
DJI_0696.jpg

The rest of our trip was more sight seeing and hiking to beautiful waterfalls, rivers, canyons, cliffs, and more. Over the course of our time there, I watched as a new side of Andre’s spirit came alive. There was a youthfulness and vibrance that emerged from his being, and mine too! I meditated on the fact that it must have something to do with the energy of Iceland. This place is full of extremely powerful nature - living volcanos, massive glaciers, active geysers, gushing waterfalls, ancient canyons. It’s bursting with energy that’s millennia old. I dubbed Iceland ‘the fountain of youth’ because that’s exactly how it made us feel; like kids in the playground of Great Spirit. 

DSC_1160.jpg
DSC_1515.jpg
DSC_2000.jpg
DJI_0800.jpg

After spending 9 days on the road completely immersed in Mother Nature’s glory, driving back into the city was a real shock to the senses. It felt foreign to be around these massive buildings and complexes. To see this sudden monstrous evidence of man after so much vast wildlife hurt my spirit. The energy shift was quite noticeable and it reaffirmed how deeply important it is for us to protect Mother Nature. Shifting back to city life happened rather quickly, but the impression that Iceland left on us is something we will never forget, nor take for granted. 

We wandered around Reykjavik for a day, this time with new eyes. Eyes missing the divine sights, eyes filled with new perspective and appreciations

DSC_1280.jpg

Crossing the Atlantic - Peru to España

Crossing the Atlantic - Peru to España

After our week long medicinal plant retreat near Iquitos, we had a stop in Lima where we spent one night at an Airbnb. Our hosts were a lovely couple, she offers Peruvian cooking classes and he’s a doctor who started a company called Seleno Health making organic maca root powder products that directly support and benefit the maca farmers in Peru. We learned all about Maca from him. Not just the incredible health benefits, but also about the farming practices, and sadly, the exploitation of the maca farmers in Peru. Part of the beauty of travel is getting the opportunity to learn about things from the local perspective, and connecting with people. I believe we meet one another for a reason, and when someone I meet is doing something good for the world, I want to do whatever I can to assist their mission. So I'd like to share their responsibly sourced organic maca with you! For the purest, family farmed maca powder, that also supports a good cause, please visit www.selenohealth.com/maca/ 

Our first day in Lima we traveled around looking for a replacement camera for the one that was stolen in Cusco. Everything we found was too expensive, way more than American prices, so we decided to take our chances with finding one elsewhere. A film composer I met at a film festival back in Los Angeles, hit me up on Facebook when he saw that I was in Peru. He offered to meet up with us for dinner in Lima. I love this small world! He took us to a great seafood restaurant called Punto Azul where we caught up with each other and reveled in the joy of connecting with friends abroad.

FullSizeRender copy.jpg

From Peru to España. It was a 26.5 hour journey to get from the South American Pacific city of Lima to the Mediterranean city of Barcelona. Good thing we had just spent 2 months in Spanish speaking countries. I was finally getting the hang of using some helpful phrases and asking questions with confidence. Disculpé, dondé esta el baño? 

Initially, Barcelona, and Europe for that matter, wasn’t on our list of destinations. When we were planning our around the world route, we were trying to fly from Peru to South Africa. Flights were crazy expensive, around $2300 per person! So Andre, the master researcher, did some digging and found a combination of flights going from Peru to Barcelona, Barcelona to South Africa for $1200 per person. Given that this was a much more affordable route, and the fact that it included a stop in a city we heard only great things about, we decided to jump on the opportunity, extend our layover, and enjoy the coastal city of Barcelona for a few days. 

After arriving at the BCN airport, we took the train into the city. For a small tip, a musical trio serenaded the passengers. It was a lovely welcome to this new venue. 

We stayed at Hostal Orleans in the El Born neighborhood. A wonderful area walking distance to a beautiful park, nice shops, restaurants, even fairly close to the marina.

After a long day+ of traveling, it was time to eat some dinner. We had just finished our Ayahuasca dieta, so the first thing we did was find a local Spanish tapas restaurant. We discovered Bastaix on TripAdvisor. It was close by and sounded worth a try. Walking through the little back streets in between centuries-old buildings felt like a dream. The weather was perfecto as we floated down the neighborhood absorbing the vibrant, romantic sparkle of Barcelona. Everything on the menu at Bastaix sounded amazing - one of each please! We settled on a few different small plates and a glass of cava (sparkling wine) each to celebrate our arrival.

IMG_9567.JPG
FullSizeRender 7.jpg

After dinner we continued on walking around, eventually ending up at one of the highest rated gelato shops on TripAdvisor, Gelaaati Di Marco. Mmmmmm it was heaven in a cup, or cone. 

FullSizeRender 4.jpg

Barcelona had me in all smiles from the moment we arrived. The architecture, the fashion, the history, the food; the joy of living was everywhere. It was a refreshing feeling that whispered life lessons to me as we relaxed in plaza sipping sangria. 

FullSizeRender 3.jpg
IMG_9568.JPG

Finding a replacement camera was still on our list of things to accomplish. We found a camera store online and went to see what they had. Unfortunately, just like in Peru, prices of Nikons were considerably greater than in the US. We didn’t have much of a choice though. We’re on this trip filming a travel series, we need a second camera. I was already starting to feel inadequate without a camera in my hands. With the help of my parents, we bit the bullet and purchased a new DSLR, though a slightly older model than the one we had before.

Barcelona is famous for the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudí. We found a company called Runner Bean that offers free walking tours through the city, so we signed up for their tour de Gaudí. The next day we met our group in a plaza and were lead around by Raquel, a passionate and knowledgable guide. The tour didn’t include entrance to his buildings, but we still learned a lot and were able to appreciate Gaudí’s iconic work while simultaneously getting to see different areas of the city. 

Palau Güell - a house designed for Gaudí's artistic benefactor Eusebi Güell.

Palau Güell - a house designed for Gaudí's artistic benefactor Eusebi Güell.

Casa Batlló, considered one of his masterpieces.

Casa Batlló, considered one of his masterpieces.

Sagrada Família from a distance.

Sagrada Família from a distance.

We had heard about this highly rated local bar/tapas place called Can Paixano, a Catalan style tapas cava bar that’s standing room only. I’ll be honest, after a full day of walking around the city, the last thing I felt like doing was eat dinner standing up, but we went to check it out anyway. We squeezed on through the crowd and found a small opening at the bar to saddle up to. The first thing we knew to do was order a bottle of cava, but which one? A woman next to us let me taste her’s but it was a little too sweet for my palate. We decided to order the “dry” one. Then it was time to order some tapas. Everything was in Catalan so we really had no idea what we were getting, however the more cava we drank, the less we cared what showed up in front of us. I ate things I would never eat! Like blood sausage, what?! But…when in Barcelona, right? It was all delicious, certainly not the healthiest, but it was so much fun. We befriended a couple of girls next to us who were visiting from Amsterdam. One of the girls looked a lot like a friend I grew up with. We were already two bottles in and the girls wanted to share another round on them. We couldn’t refuse the offer so we cheers’d and laughed as we toasted to meeting new people from around the world. It was one of the most fun evenings of all time.

FullSizeRender 8 copy.jpg
DSC_8022 copy.jpg

Our last day in Barcelona we rented bikes and rode along the coastline up and down the beaches for a few hours. All the beaches were “toptional” (that’s my own made-up term) tops-optional. I’ve never been to a beach like this before so it was quite interesting. Did I join in the joie de vivre? Only Andre knows, but I made sure to take a dip in the Mediterranean before heading off to the land of fire and ice! We completed our beach day with lunch at a local farm-to-table restaurant where we had to dine on some paella. After this lovely sunny beach day, we went back to our hotel to change and pack up our things to catch our next plane to Reykjavik. 

DSC_8088.jpg
FullSizeRender 5.jpg

I’m saving the blog on Iceland for a separate posting so check back in for that! Once we returned to Barcelona, we only had about 2.5 days. We spent the first day doing a tour of Gaudi’s most celebrated creation, Sagrada Familia. Definitely book your tickets in advance if you can. We also highly recommend the self-guided audio tour. It’s well worth it! The Sagrada Familia will conjure mixed feelings I’m sure, but I was most inspired by the interior. The brilliance and the significance of every little detail is mind blowing. I just stood in awe with my mouth gaped open as I thought about the mind it took to dream something like this up. Gaudi spent 43 years of his life working on Sagrada Familia! His life was cut short quite tragically in a hit and run accident, and the completion was never achieved. Other architects have since stepped in and designed various facades and additions. The church is still expanding as we speak and has a full completion goal date of 2026. All of Barcelona is praying for that.

DSC_2079-Pano.jpg

That same evening, we got to catch the summer finale of Sala Montjuïc. A film festival series plays atop Montjuïc at an old castle with a dark past. The finale was a surprise show and opened with a concert. We packed ourselves a delicious picnic, rode the bus to the top of the mountain, and joined in the local scene. It was so much fun! Get there early to grab some complementary chairs! 

IMG_2501.JPG

The next day was our last day in Spain. We went for a walk in Parc de la Ciutadella. It was a beautiful park with many different attractions like paddle boats, sculptures, fountains, people performing, dancing, making bubbles. It was a great place to send our farewells to Barcelona.

Getting to the airport from our Airbnb proved to be a very complicated and frustrating journey. We had had no problem navigating the subway systems during our time there, however this time that wasn’t the case. We rode 4 or 5 different trains, had to walk what felt like miles trying to find the right platforms, and even ended up asking locals where to go 3 separate times. All the round about made us a late getting to the airport. Once we got to the correct terminal, I was confused as to why there were so many people waiting in line. Literally hundreds of people we waiting to check in, waiting to go through security. It didn’t look good. As we approached our check in counter I felt relieved that no one was in line, but once we got there and told the agent where we were headed, she responded in a sharp and unfriendly tone, “You’re late!” She told us we probably wouldn’t make our flight, and also ignored me when I said some nice things to her. We stood there stunned at how rude she was to us.

We ran to get into the security line which was an absolute nightmare! Agents were telling us to go through lines that were completely senseless. We really were going to miss our flight if we didn’t take matters into our own hands. We pleaded with people asking if we could go ahead of them in order to catch our “now boarding” flight. Everyone was so nice and graciously let us by. We got up to the X-ray belt where TSA seemed to be completely apathetic, and allowed the lines to pile up as they chit-chatted with each other. A woman next to us told us that the airport employees were on a strike. They had been on strike for a couple days and were planning a week of it. For hours at a time, they all just stopped working causing thousands of people to miss their flights. Unbelievable. I understand that they wanted to make a statement, but I bet there were people flying to see a dying relative that didn’t make it on time because TSA decided to walk out. It was a huge deal that put Barcelona in the world news. Followed up a week later by the terrorist attack in Las Ramblas. What a shame. A city that brought us so much joy and filled us with love had these catastrophes. I guess that’s the yin and yang of life. Great good gets balanced by great evil - lightness with darkness. We choose to be the light in the world and we continue to spread love everywhere we go in hopes of lighting up those dark places. 

Iceland wasn’t even on our radar back when we were planning this trip, but so many friends kept telling us how amazing Iceland is, so we did some research and kind of became obsessed before even getting there. Since Barcelona was this new added destination, we figured heck with it, let’s go to Iceland! See you there!

 

"La Medicina" - Mistakes, Monkeys & Medicine (Part 2)

"La Medicina" - Mistakes, Monkeys & Medicine (Part 2)

Choosing a healing center. 

Iquitos is a hub for plant medicine with seemingly endless options for healing centers and shamans to choose from. However, not all shamans are created equally and that’s why it’s extremely important to do your research before choosing a retreat center. Ayahuasca is a very powerful plant medicine that should be brewed properly. As well, the shaman that conducts the ceremony is going to be your intimate spiritual guide and protector on the journey, so choosing a shaman is something to be done with the utmost intention and care.

Back in the states, Andre and I had narrowed down our choices to about 4 different retreats. Our decisions were based primarily on gut feelings, price, schedule, shaman bios, and retreat information. In the past I’ve listened to some podcasts about Ayahuasca by this incredible woman Lola Medicine Keeper from ‘The Wild Playground.’ I decided to contact her and get her recommendation for a good retreat. She raved about one that happened to be one of the 4 centers we narrowed our choices down to, The Rainforest Healing Center, aka Chakra Alegria de Amor. They had dates that worked with our schedule, so we decided to trust the synchronicities and book with them.

My experience with Ayahuasca in Peru.

Back in Iquitos, on a Sunday morning, we checked out of our hotel and walked a few blocks to a restaurant that was our meeting place. One by one we started meeting our soon to be family for the next week. People from all over the world were coming together for a week of healing in the jungle; a family from Switzerland, a woman from Dubai, a woman from London, 2 women from South Carolina, and 3 of us from California. After a hearty breakfast, we loaded up the vanand made our way out of the city. It was interesting driving through other parts of the area. Small villages would just appear after miles of vegetation. People walking to and from end to end. A couple times we drove past some cemeteries. They were the most lavish buildings and landscaped creations in the whole area. I found it ironic that here where the people lived in extreme poverty, dirty conditions, working hard from 8 to 80 years old, only once they die do they go to “rest” in a beautiful place. It bewildered me.

We pulled up to the start of our healing adventure, a small hut at the end of a dirt road. Waiting for us were the crew that would help carry our bags to the center which was a 3km trek through the jungle. Everyone slipped into rubber boots, while Andre and I laced up our hiking boots. We were warned that it gets really muddy, hence the rubber bootage, but Andre couldn’t find any in his size, and all of the places we’d been where we were told we needed rubber boots, in retrospect we could have gotten away without them so we thought we’d be ok in our hiking boots. At first the trek was pretty easy, slightly up and down along a dirt road. Then the mud showed up. Everyone was playing follow the leader, but without rubber boots, we had to make our own path. Thick mud covered and caked our boots. This time I was regretting not having the rubber boots. The 3km hike took an hour and a half with the sun and humidity having us sweating profusely. We just couldn’t wait to be there already. 

Finally, we arrived. We were greeted at the entrance to the healing center by our shaman Juan. He was waiting there to smudge us so that we’d be cleansed of negative energy before entering this high vibration land. The entrance was a small bridge adorned with braided leaves, ginger flowers, and proteas. It was stunning and I was very impressed with the attention to detail made! The true beauty of it though was that this floral adornment wasn’t for our sake, I believe it was made as an offering to the sacredness of the land we were about to enter. We were told to ring a bell 3 times and ask the land permission to enter. Once granted, we crossed the bridge leaving all negativity and egos behind. There really was a palpable change in vibration once inside this land. A beautiful blue butterfly swooshed by leading us forward along the path; a symbol of the transformation awaiting us all. I could feel the frequency of harmony in this place, and it felt like pure magic. 

Appreciating a 500 year old Almond tree. It still produces edible jungle almonds that taste curiously a lot like coconut!

Appreciating a 500 year old Almond tree. It still produces edible jungle almonds that taste curiously a lot like coconut!

We arrived at the kitchen house where we gathered to meet our facilitators, learn the ropes for the coming week, and make our way to our tambos. Our tambos were the huts that we’d be staying in. Andre and I just assumed that we’d be together, but they actually separated us. We weren’t expecting this, so they sat down and talked to us about why they feel couples do better work at the center when they’re separated. We agreed to it, and I was paired up with a female roommate, and Andre has his own special tambo. The way the healing center is laid out is a really special design. From the kitchen house, it’s about a 7 minute walk uphill through the jungle on round slabs of reclaimed wood leading to the Maloca - the structure where each ceremony is held. 

The path from my tambo to the maloca.

The path from my tambo to the maloca.

Inside Andre's tambo.

Inside Andre's tambo.

The Maloca is this stunning custom designed round building that’s been created to provide the most beneficial healing experience possible. From the Maloca extend 5 more paths leading to the different tambos. The tambo I stayed in was named “Paradise.” It was a two story tambo, so two girls were in the bottom and then I had the top with my roommate. My roomie was Payal, an Indian woman living in Dubai. Each tambo had its own unique bathing area connected to the stream that runs through the land. Showers consisted of filling a bucket with water from the stream and pouring it over your body. It was the most refreshing thing, and I looked forward to it each day! The land is home to over 150 medicinal plants, so the water we bathed in was infused with the medicinal properties of all these plants! I could feel it and taste it!

The amazing maloca.

The amazing maloca.

The front door of the maloca.

The front door of the maloca.

Our schedule for the week included 3 Ayahuasca ceremonies with a day off in between. There were three delicious and nutritious home cooked meals per day; breakfast at 8, lunch at 12, and dinner at 6 (or 18 if you prefer), except no dinner on ceremony nights. With our free time we were encouraged to be selfish with ourselves and just do whatever we felt we needed - read, journal, meditate, chant, shower, hang out in the jungle, swing in a hammock. Most of the time everyone kept to themselves, however at meals we were social and got to know each other more. By the end of the week we had really bonded as a family, not only with one another, but also with our facilitators, and our shaman.

Sunset from a hammock on the deck.

Sunset from a hammock on the deck.

A wild jungle flower that smelled like a lily and tuberose!

A wild jungle flower that smelled like a lily and tuberose!

Inspiring reads.

Inspiring reads.

Upon arrival we all discovered that we’d get to experience the honor of helping make our own Ayahuasca brew! The rule at the center is though, if you cook, you plant. So that meant that our group would also be responsible for planting and thus replenishing the land with this sacred vine. The brew is made with two different plants, the Chacruna leaves and the Ayahuasca vine. Monday morning, the day of our first ceremony, we gathered at the Chacruna forest to collect our leaves. We were told to approach a Chacruna bush, talk to it, thank it for it’s healing, and then before we plucked a leaf, send our intention into each leaf. Together we collected over 5 kilos of leaves. Then we made our way up to the maloca to prepare the Aya vine. The vines were already cut so our task was to hammer the bark off and beat the vine until the inside was exposed. This was quite a workout. Both Andre and I had blisters on our fingers afterward. The shaman Juan and his helper finished the job, and started the long and arduous brewing process. The vines and the leaves are boiled and steeped for about 12 hours. It’s a very labor intensive process and requires constant supervision.

Andre hammering the Ayahuasca vine.

Andre hammering the Ayahuasca vine.

At 5pm we were all instructed to bathe with a bucket shower including a special bath of Ajo Sacha - a pungent garlic scented plant with clearing benefits. We were then instructed to dress in our white clothes which symbolically acts as light for Mother Aya, and wait for the sound of a conch shell which meant it was time to meet at the maloca for ceremony.

Freshly bathed in Ajo Sacha.

Freshly bathed in Ajo Sacha.

One of the attributes about The Rainforest Healing Center I appreciate most is the fact that the facilitators meet with you one on one before each ceremony to help you set your intention, and then the day after each ceremony to help you process and understand whatever experience you had.

I had a great intention setting session with the facilitators before my first ceremony. I first shared with them the things I wanted to heal and work on; we talked about my life, and they helped me narrow down my primary intention. My intention going into the first ceremony was, “Please Mother Aya, help to show me forgiveness for everything harmful I put my body through. Help me accept and heal with unconditional love.” They also encouraged me to write a letter of forgiveness to myself, burn it, and spend some ‘me’ time in the jungle. So I went back to my tambo and wrote a letter to myself forgiving myself for everything that made me feel shameful, sad, angry, judgmental, embarrassed, hurt, everything I could think of! I took this letter up to the maloca where Juan was brewing the Ayahuasca over a fire, read the letter back to myself, and threw it in the flames. It was rather amusing watching this piece of paper that was laden with ultra heavy emotional energy and memories practically evaporate, and poof! Instantly turn to ash. I did feel better, and lighter. Then I wandered around looking for a place to sit alone and undisturbed. I found a spot, sat down, hugged myself, and spent the next 30 minutes just loving myself. It was wonderful. I spent the rest of the day writing and chanting, sending Andre huge amounts of love, and just being. I felt so ready for ceremony, and ready to work.

The brew bubbling over the fire.

The brew bubbling over the fire.

The conch shell blew at around 7:30pm. It was already dark by now and the sounds of the jungle were alive. We all emerged like spirits out of the jungle and gathered outside the maloca where one by one Juan smudged us before entering. We were guided to our seats and waited for the ceremony to begin. Above each of our heads hung a large slab of Selenite used for protection and clarity.

To initiate the ceremony, a bucket of Palo Santo (a fragrant wood used for grounding and purification) was lit ablaze, then put out producing a wonderfully aromatic billow of smoke. We were shown how to properly smudge ourselves in the smoke and took turns going around the circle. Each of us was given a stick of Palo Santo that we offered to the bucket, then meditated on our intention, and bathed ourselves in the cleansing smoke. Once this process was complete, the maloca was smudged inside and out, as well as the bathrooms. 

Juan sat at the altar, the head of the circle. Starting at his right we were each invited up to the altar where he decided through intuition how much medicine to pour for each one of us. It was my turn. I approached the altar and humbly sat before Juan while he looked through me and carefully poured the brew into a small wooden cup and handed it to me. I took the cup in both hands asking Mother Aya for her help and meditated on my intention. Then in one gulp, I drank the potion. It’s not something that goes down all that easily. It’s very thick, earthy, bitter, and can produce a bit of a gag reflex. Perhaps though, some people like it.  

I returned to my seat and waited for everyone to receive their dose of medicine. We all sat quietly in the dark, in meditation for about an hour. As if Juan could sense when Aya arrived, he began singing to her and filling the maloca with beautiful hymns. 

For privacy sake, I will happily and openly share my full experiences with anyone by discretional personal request only. However, there are a couple things I feel comfortable being candid and frank about. In ceremony, one of the things I thought about and brought into my awareness was my cat Kiki who passed away in February. I mentally thanked her for being my companion for so many years, and I sent her spirit so much love and gratitude. I asked Aya what my karmic relationship with Kiki was, and what I received was that we were sisters in a past life. This made so much sense to me, filled me with even more gratitude for her, and again I broke out into the deepest of tears. thought about karmic relationships, and felt like I could see how these bonds we have with family, they’re truly eternal. They last forever. But I also feel like we need to choose that, or if it’s our karma, that we need to learn some kind of lesson(s) from these karmic relationships, and fulfill contracts in each lifetime. Kiki and I fulfilled a contract with each other. This lead me to the idea that we actually, in some way, have a choice as to what we want to come back or reincarnate as. That it’s not like once you incarnate as a human, then every life you’re always a human. Unless of course, that’s your karma ;-) but I feel like depending on your karma, why not be allowed to come back as an eagle, or a whale, or a cat? I’ve always believed animals are the enlightened ones anyway. The difference is however, that the decision to reincarnate as a human is an enormous task. It requires the greatest responsibility, and the hardest work, but it’s truly the most honorable because it’s the way to make the most difference in the world. Our role as human beings is to protect this planet, to stand up for what’s right, to take responsibility, and take actions toward peace and harmony.

My next emotional release and healing came when I thought about my figure skating career. I looked back on all the hard work I put into it, the pain I suffered and pushed through, the sacrifices and decisions I made, and more. The realization that came was - that the ability to skate effortlessly and gracefully across the ice, that’s the reward. Not the medals or the titles. Just the capability alone is the true gift, a gift that I gave myself. The chance to float across the ice, experience the feeling of cold wind rush over my face, the skillfulness to dance on a blade of steel, these are the real rewards. I felt like my decision to be a figure skater was something I made in a past life, and I fulfilled that dream in this life. I skated and skated across my imagination, I cried and cried as I felt a release of energy leave my body. The night eventually came to a close.

Day of 2nd ceremony (Wednesday).

I’m a huge fan of Animal Medicine. Animal Medicine is a Native American tradition that believes in the unique healing and message that each animal has to offer and teach us. There is a deck of cards called “Medicine Cards” that you can purchase to deepen your connection with animal medicine. My mom gifted me this deck at a very young age and it’s been guiding me for years. I discovered that the center had a deck of Medicine Cards! I pulled a card while meditating for my second ceremony….Butterfly - contrary (which means I pulled the card upside down). Butterfly medicine, like I mentioned earlier is about transformation. I’ve been calling Butterfly into my life since I had surgery on my ankle a year and a half ago; (see Butterfly’ for my expression of that). When reading about the contrary position, I wasn’t quite sure how that fit me, but after my intention took form, and my ceremony manifested, it all came together. An excerpt from Butterfly in the contrary position reads as follows: “…Why does Butterfly represent courage? Because there is a totally different world outside the cocoon, where the known realities of the chrysalis are no longer applicable. This new world demands that you use your newfound wings — and fly!”

My 2nd ceremony was the most powerful, incredible, and healing experience ever. Again, this information will be shared by request only. The ceremony was full of healing, love, gratitude, more tears, more realizations, and a lot of joy.

Part of my intention for this ceremony was, “Dear Mother Aya, help me to accept myself, forgive myself, and love myself unconditionally.” In ceremony, this intention transformed into a vow. Aya made me vow to accept myself, forgive myself, and love myself unconditionally. It was like she felt that way about me, so in order to heal, I needed to vow, for the rest of my life, to feel that way about myself. I exploded into tears and had a huge emotional cleanse. It was so powerful…and I did, I made that vow to Aya and myself. As I filled myself with acceptance, forgiveness, and unconditional love, I thought about how incredible Aya’s spirit is, and that here’s this vine growing in nature that houses this all encompassing, loving, dazzling, forgiving spirit. It made me think about how magical nature is, how contained within this vine is a whole universe. I thought about planet Earth and how magnificent it truly is, and how heart breaking it is that we’re destroying her. We’re eating at her, all in the pursuit and name of money. It’s disgusting. The Earth is unlimited abundance manifested. We just have to recognize that. My heart ached and I shed painful tears for her.

Not an Ayahuasca vine, but just the sun hitting a tree in a way that captured my attention.

Not an Ayahuasca vine, but just the sun hitting a tree in a way that captured my attention.

I barely slept a wink that night, but the whole next day I felt like I was floating. As I walked from breakfast back to my tambo, I was stopped on the trail by a cute, fuzzy caterpillar crawling up its silk thread. I sat there watching it work away, and also protecting it so it didn’t get torn down by anything or anyone. I received a message from this little guy - I thought about how I pulled Butterfly medicine before ceremony and how I had this phenomenal experience, but I felt like the caterpillar was teaching me that the process or cycle starts all over again. I took flight as a butterfly, but I have to become the caterpillar again before the next transformation. Nature is our wisest teacher.

I wanted to try and capture the essence of the amount of gratitude and love that was I was feeling in that moment.

I wanted to try and capture the essence of the amount of gratitude and love that was I was feeling in that moment.

The little caterpillar messenger. 

The little caterpillar messenger. 

Our last and final day at the center was bittersweet. I didn’t want to leave this oasis. We had bonded with our new family, and I was hesitant to return to the city. On our way out, we planted new Ayahuasca vines around the property. Then as a group we took a van to a little town about 40 minutes away where we got on a boat and cruised down the Amazon looking for pink river dolphins! We spotted them! They were kind of pink and grey spotted. They have a much smaller dorsal fin than ocean dolphins, and their nose is shorter and rounder. We jumped in the scary, brown water, but it felt so refreshing! Fish kept swimming into us and tickling us. We ate delicious watermelon on the boat and had a blast! Eventually it was time to say our goodbyes. Four of us left, and four stayed for a longer retreat. 

Us with our shaman Juan after planting the Ayahuasca vines.

Us with our shaman Juan after planting the Ayahuasca vines.

My new Aya sisters Payal, my roommate from Dubai, and Nasima from London.

My new Aya sisters Payal, my roommate from Dubai, and Nasima from London.

I am beyond grateful to Lola for her recommendation, and to The Rainforest Healing Center for an unforgettable experience. Our week there honestly felt like one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. The solitude, the self care and love, the jungle vibrations, the healthy food, the cool, healing bucket showers, the beautiful hearts and souls to share it with, it was all divine. Thank you for reading this blog with an open heart. It’s very deep and personal to me. My heart and soul is an open book that I’m happy to share, though things have been edited. Thanks for your understanding.

Mistakes, Monkeys & Medicine (part one)

Mistakes, Monkeys & Medicine (part one)

Cusco captured my heart. It was a vibrant city pulsing with new and old. Saying goodbye was truly bittersweet and we sensed that we would miss this special place. Our last day in Cusco we treated ourselves, via my parent’s gift, to an incredible healing massage at Holistic Healing Paramatma. It was the perfect way to relax and unwind after our rigorous trek. We also randomly walked right into our friends from the trek, Suellen, Tiama, and Frances. If you ever doubt that the world really is a small place, travel! We picked up 10 kilos of clean laundry, and made our way back to our B&B to finish packing. An Uber picked us up outside and drove us to the airport. Looking out the window I took in every last bit of Cusco I could and stored it in my memory bank. Once we were at the airport and standing in the long checkin line, Andre asked me a question that seriously altered the rest of our entire trip… “Where’s the camera?” My heart literally stopped and my stomach sank as I realized I left it in the backseat of the Uber. I dropped everything and ran outside toward the exit, but the driver was long gone. We did everything we could to try and retrieve the camera. We used the Uber app to contact the driver, but our cell service in Cusco was so bad that each time the phone tried to connect us, the call would drop. Andre even found the driver on Facebook and sent him a message, but because of Facebook’s settings, if you aren’t friends with someone, your message is sent to an “other” folder where it’s almost never seen. Though despair and shock filled my being, I continued to hold out hope that there was a chance we could get it back as the checkin line inched forward. 

Amidst the gloom, Andre approached me, held me tenderly and said, “I forgive you.” I couldn’t even forgive myself, but his words were like medicine to my soul. My faith dwindled as we reached the front of the line, checked our bags, and walked toward the gate. Not only did we lose the camera, but we lost an important interview too. I felt absolutely devastated and like I was stuck in a nightmare that was actually reality. How could I be so irresponsible?! Why didn’t I have the camera around my neck?! Why didn’t I look back to double check that we grabbed everything?! So many questions and regrets came up and all I wanted to do was turn back time. Andre was my true champion and gave me the encouragement I needed to move on. The camera was gone, there was nothing else we could do but focus on the positive, and not let it bring us down.

The next step in our adventure was flying to Iquitos, Peru with a layover in Lima. Oy, back in the Lima airport. We finally heard back from the Uber driver, and unfortunately the camera was nowhere to be found and had been stolen out of the backseat. FML. Our flight to Iquitos was delayed, so not only were we already bummed out from losing the camera, but we had to sit in the Lima airport until 10:45pm while screaming children ran amuck around us. It was a long day. 

Iquitos is the largest city in the world not accessible by car, only by boat or plane. The city is LOUD and buzzes nonstop with the sound of mototaxis, their version of a tuk tuk. Our poor airbnb host had to wait up until our arrival at around 1:30 in the morning. The next day we arranged to meet the owner of the Monkey sanctuary at his office around 11am. We were warmly greeted by Gilberto and his dog Nysha, one of his rescue animals. Nysha was a beautiful, though unidentifiable mix who was certain she was a lap dog despite her size. Gilberto was a happy, friendly man who’s love for monkeys has grown into a passion to protect and care for monkeys, and really any animal in need of love and care. While we were sitting in his office, some people came by with a stunned Kingfisher that had flown into a storefront. Gilberto is quite known in the area because of his sanctuary, and now receives many different types of injured animals. He was kind enough to walk us around Iquitos in search of rubber boots and also show us where we’d be catching a boat the next day to “La Isla de Los Monos.” 

Mototaxis carry everything from people to bananas.

Mototaxis carry everything from people to bananas.

Lap dog Nysha

Lap dog Nysha

Since we were a week away from our Ayahuasca retreat, we had to stick to a strict diet that included the following restrictions: no salt, no sugar, no oil, no red meat, no pork, no dairy, no spinach, no spices, just to name a few. It’s really the no salt that is the biggest challenge. Food without salt is so bland and it sure takes the experience out of eating. The main reason for this strict diet is to avoid eating anything contraindicated with the medicine, but also part of it is like an offering that you make to Aya to show your respect and sincerity toward your healing. Fortunately, since Iquitos is practically a plant medicine hub, most restaurants cater to this special diet and include an “Aya friendly menu.” 

Dawn On The Amazon restaurant Iquitos, Peru.

Dawn On The Amazon restaurant Iquitos, Peru.

Personally, we weren’t that big of fans of Iquitos. It’s a rather dirty city where people sadly throw their trash out in the river and on the streets. We also heard about a floating market called Belen market, but we decided not to go because there’s a dark side to Belen. It’s known for not being all that safe due to pickpockets and corrupt police, and half of the market is a black market where they sell illegal goods, especially animals and their “parts.” Things like turtles, jaguars, monkeys, crocodiles, pythons, and even endangered river fish are some of the victims of this black market. Not a place we choose to support.

The main boat port in Iquitos.

The main boat port in Iquitos.

The following day we got up early to catch our boat to the La Isla de Los Monos, or as I like to dub it, LIDLM. At first we were told we were their only volunteers for the week, but shortly thereafter we received news that we’d be having 3 more volunteers joining us. We got to the dock and approached the boat we’d be taking down the Amazon. It was about 20’ long, loaded with crates and bags of food, full of people, in short it looked like it could possibly sink, and Andre said, “I don’t have a very good feeling about this.” There wasn’t much of a choice though, so we cautiously stepped on board. The boat ride was actually quite refreshing. It felt cool and invigorating to have the wind in our faces coasting across the water. The Amazon is impressively wide and a milky brown color which makes it impossible to see what’s in there.

Our first boat ride on the Amazon River.

Our first boat ride on the Amazon River.

An Amazon sunset.

An Amazon sunset.

The river is life for the people and they rely on it for nearly everything. Unfortunately though, it’s treated like a dumping ground, and a lack of education and awareness has lead to its decline. After 40 minutes or so, we arrived at a dock in a town called Mazan. As we got off the boat I was stunned to see heaps of chickens and ducks all tied together in a pile on the dock, and there at the edge of the pile was a turtle upside down, locked within his own shell by a wooden rod and string. I have a deep fondness for turtles (well all animals) and seeing this just crushed me. As we waited for our ride to the monkey island, I cried thinking about the eminent fate of this beautiful creature. Then it occurred to me, “Cuánto cuesta?” How much for the turtle? The “owner” was a woman waiting on one of the boats. She wanted $20 for the turtle. I was able to bargain down to about $15 and took the turtle into my own hands. At least 3 men on the dock all worked together to remove the wooden rod wedged in the turtle’s shell. After about 10 minutes of yanking, hitting, pulling, and pushing, the rod came free.

Three men working to remove the wooden rod out of the turtle's shell.

Three men working to remove the wooden rod out of the turtle's shell.

Our next boat arrived and we climbed aboard with the turtle safely in my arms. Unfortunately, this situation, though it felt like the absolute right thing to do at that time, is a double edged sword. Purchasing wildlife from the illegal animal trade is a vicious circle. It fuels the industry and desire to capture the animals in the first place. But I knew that either I buy this turtle and let it live, or it becomes turtle soup and a decorative bowl. I’m sure that in most scenarios it’s case to case, use your best judgment, but I recommend staying away from places that exploit animals, or sell animal products for profit. We saw so much jewelry made of jaguar teeth, claws, snake skin, monkey teeth and bones. A general good rule of thumb while traveling, if it’s made out of something that was once living, it probably wasn’t acquired ethically.

Nelson

Nelson

25 minutes later, we stepped ashore at LIDLM and were immediately greeted by the family that lives there. They seemed happy to hear that I rescued the turtle and told me to just leave him in the yard. The monkeys gathered round with curiosity at the turtle and the new humans, us. It didn’t take long before we had monkeys crawling on us and cuddled up within our arms. I decided to name the turtle Nelson, and after about 5 minutes on the safe grass, Nelson came out of his shell, free as can be. Eventually he wandered off, never to be seen again. I hope he’s safe and happy, where ever he is.

Greetings at La Isla De Los Monos

The other volunteers arrived a little later. It happened to be a couple, she from England and he from New Zealand that had spent a few months the previous year volunteering on the island, and his mum. We were so fortunate to have them there at the same time as us. Not only did they speak quite a bit more Spanish than us, but they also new everything about the monkeys at the sanctuary and were able to quickly teach us the ropes. It made for a much easier and more company filled time to have them there with us. 

Life on LIDLM is very rustic; up with the sun, down with the sun, no electricity so all food is prepared over an open flame, and phones and things can only be charged if they’d turn the generator on for a short period of time during the day. We’d typically get our day started around 6am sweeping everything and cleaning the monkey poops off the deck - usually with a baby monkey clinging to our heads at the same time. 8am was breakfast which was prepared by Gilberto’s sister. We usually had 1-2 eggs, bread, tea, and either bananas or mandarins. There were a couple other accoutrements, but due to our strict diet, our options were limited. Gilberto’s sister was so kind to prepare all our meals without salt. After breakfast, our role was pretty much just to hang out and play with the monkeys and wait until tourists arrived so we could show them around the area. The sanctuary houses about 18 monkeys in total. Most of them Wooly monkeys, about 5 Spider monkeys, 1 baby Howler, 1 Titi, 1 Saki, and 1 Tamarin. There are approximately 250 monkeys on the 450 hectare island that have been released by the sanctuary or have even self released themselves when their ready. Occasionally we would have groups of wild Tamarins come down to enjoy some fruit, or wild Titis hooting nearby.

A Spider monkey.

A Spider monkey.

Wild Tamarins coming out of the jungle for some banana.

Wild Tamarins coming out of the jungle for some banana.

At first, learning all the monkey’s names and trying to identify them seemed near impossible, but quite the contrary. You begin to pick up on physical subtleties and personality differences rather quickly. A majority of the monkeys are babies ranging from approximately 5 months old up to a 9 year old adult Wooly. Baby Wooly monkeys will usually spend the first 2 years of their life attached to their mom. Sadly, the killing of monkeys is still legal within the indigenous communities, and when a mother monkey is shot from the trees, it falls with a baby still clinging to it’s back. This baby, if it survives the fall, is then usually put in a cage and sold on the black market for 30-40 soles, or about $10-12. People will buy them as pets, but most often the monkeys are not given the proper food and care they need. Some have been found and rescued wearing harnesses and leashes that have left permanent scars. When you volunteer here, you become a surrogate mother. The very young babies will cling to you like they would a mother, and will take comfort in your warm embrace falling asleep in your arms.

Pepito

Pepito

Sleeping babies, Martin & Antonio

Sleeping babies, Martin & Antonio

The Titi monkey was Andre’s favorite. His name was Adrian. Titi monkeys are extremely cute, great leapers, and will mate for life. Since Adrian doesn’t have his mate yet, he would bond with us by showing signs of affection like howling with us, grooming our hair, and smacking his lips - meaning he likes you. It occurred to me one day when Adrian was grooming Andre that I bet he would like to be groomed too, so I started pretend grooming him back. He loved it! He’d become almost catatonic and even started purring. After a while, he’d roll on his back exposing his rust-orange tummy for belly rubs. Such a ham!

Adrian

Adrian

One of my favorite monkeys, I feel bad choosing favorites because they’re all adorable, was Pioho, a Saki monkey. Pioho was more of an independent gal and wasn’t all that social. She arrived at the sanctuary a year prior with horrible burns on her hands and feet. It was unknown how she got so burned. She was unable to walk or feed herself, and during her rehabilitation spent most of her time in hiding. About a year later, she’s out hanging and playing with the other monkeys, and on the rare but treasured occasion she’d let me pet her. She was a gorgeous creature, though somewhat awkward agility wise, but it just added to her cuteness. Variations of Saki monkeys are critically endangered. Since Saki monkeys feed on toxic nuts and berries, their meat is toxic, and instead they suffer the threat of being killed simply for their tails which are used as dusters believe it or not.

Pioho, a Saki monkey.

Pioho, a Saki monkey.

The only downfall of this place was the mosquitos; clouds of them. My first day there, I took off my pants at night to reveal at least 200 bites all over my legs! I should have taken a picture. Something in my blood really attracts the mosquitos. Over the course of the week I came to the theory that they can sense where you’ve already been bitten, and so they bite you everywhere else. The mosquitos even bite the monkeys, so they’re constantly scratching themselves too.

Toward the end of the week, 2 more volunteers arrived. They were a couple that we had run into at Karma Cafe back in Iquitos. I actually recognized them from the Salkantay trek! They were in a different group, but I saw them along the way. We said hi to them back in Iquitos and told them about the sanctuary. They ended up rearranging their plans and decided to come volunteer for a few days. This was Love Set Run in action! Our goal is to inspire others to give back, and here was actual proof of that working. It was also a coincidence that this couple used to live in Barcelona which happens to be the next stop in our journey…cue It's a Small World theme song…

It wasn’t until our last day volunteering on Friday when we actually had some serious work to do. How the sanctuary gets it’s water and power is from a well that pumps water from the river into a tank that’s 4 stories high, which then get’s filtered into another tank, that’s then pumped via a generator to the faucets. During our week there we ran out of water at least twice. On Friday, something snapped in the generator which meant that we all had to take turns filling up buckets of water from the river, carry it to the water tower, climb up 4 floors via wooden ladders, and pour the buckets into the tank. It took about 7 of us making approximately 10-15 trips back and forth each to fill the 1,100 liter tank. Andre did his part all with a monkey on his head. This of course coincided with tourists visiting and deliveries arriving. 

The next day, Saturday, was our farewell to LIDLM. Again another bittersweet moment. We’d grown close not just with the other volunteers, but also with the family living there, and now all these monkey friends too! We hopped on a boat, pulled away, and already began missing Adrian and the cuddly monkeys. As we approached Mazan, the town where we rescued the turtle, a cloud in the shape of a turtle appeared overhead. I took it as a good omen from the turtle spirits.

Sanctuary sunrise, photo by Andre Mercier.

Sanctuary sunrise, photo by Andre Mercier.

Our Monkey Sanctuary family.

Our Monkey Sanctuary family.

Turtle spirit omen in the clouds.

Turtle spirit omen in the clouds.

The sanctuary is completely funded by donations, volunteers, and daily visitors. If you're interested in donating to the sanctuary or would like to "adopt a monkey" please visit the website: www.laisladelosmonos.org

Our next adventure would take us an hour and a half outside of noisy Iquitos to the Rainforest Healing Center: Chakra Alegria de Amor, for our week long Ayahuasca retreat. This to come in Part 2.

 

The Salkantay Trek

The Salkantay Trek

Where do I even begin?

The last five days were so many things, it’s hard to put it into words. Challenging, beautiful, intense, unforgiving, incredible, painful, rewarding, and so much more. 

Our first morning started after less than three hours of sleep. I had trouble falling asleep after we finally finished packing for the trip at 11:30pm, and woke up at 2:20am unable to fall back asleep. Our alarm went off at 3:30am, and thirty minutes later we were the first ones on the van. Over the course of the next 45 minutes we would pick up three other couples and a mom and her two daughters. All in all there were 11 of us, and our leader Roy gave us some blankets so we could sleep a little more on the two hour drive out of Cusco.

We arrived at Mollepata, a tiny town up in the hills of the Andes to stop for breakfast. It was here that we started to get to know the rest of our group. The other couples were Joseph and Andrea from Colorado, Avinash and Victoria from New Jersey, and Jeroen and Kristal from the Netherlands. The mom, Suellen was from Massachusetts, and her two daughters Tiama and Frances live in California. After an overpriced and mediocre breakfast, we continued the last hour or so of our van ride to the drop-off point where our bags were loaded up on horses and we hit the trail! 

We started at around 11,500’ and began working our way up switchbacks almost instantly. Being at Cusco elevation for the last four days, it wasn’t too much of a challenge fortunately. Roy lead the front of the line and Erik held the back. The skies were clear and we were presented with an incredible view of the massive Humantay Mountain in the distance at 17,655’. We took occasional breaks when Roy would tell us about certain plants, or the mountains, or about Incan beliefs. It was exercise and a history lesson all in one! Roy is very proud of his Andean ancestry, and his native language of Quechua - that of the Incan people. 

The switchbacks leveled off after about an hour, when we found ourselves trekking alongside the Inca canal - a manmade canal used by the Inca to divert water from the Humantay glacier down to the valley below. The rest of the trek until lunch was relatively flat, only gaining several hundred feet or so before we arrived at our first campsite, Soraypampa at 12,800’. We were nestled in between two valleys with perfect views of both Humantay and Salkantay Mountains. Here we were greeted with our accommodations for the night, the sky huts! These are geodesic domes composed of stone and glass, igloo shaped with a glass roof for admiring the starry skies at night. We had a nice leisurely lunch, and a little while to relax before heading off to our second trek of the day - Humantay lake. 

This was not only a hike to a beautiful blue-green glacial lake, but also meant to serve as a training hike to get us used to higher elevation, and preparing us for what our second day would bring in terms of steepness and difficulty. The trek took about an hour and took us up to a little over 14,000’. The sun was just setting over Humantay mountain, but we still had plenty of light left to explore the lake after Roy shared more of the Andean history and beliefs with us. 

We arrived back at camp after sunset, with a pale glow still in the sky. Sierra began to exhibit some early signs of altitude sickness, feeling a little nauseous and dizzy, and a complete lack of appetite. We hoped that it was just setting in a little late from our earlier jaunt up the mountain and that with this return to lower elevation, the effects would subside shortly. We had tea time with some snacks before dinner, and a big family style dinner with the group. Sierra could barely eat at this point, and when we informed Roy he told us that she had to do everything she could to put some food down, and get as much rest as possible. He told us that 90% of people who suffer altitude sickness on the first day end up being even worse on day two, so he informed us of an option to take a horse from the campsite up to the pass in the morning if her symptoms were really bad. 

There were several other groups with Salkantay Trekking sharing the same dining area, so it was a lively dining scene. Roy gave us the details on tomorrow’s trek up to the Salkantay Pass, telling us of the 3 1/2 hour uphill we would have, proceeded by a 2 hour downhill, lunch, and 3 more hours of downhill for a total of about 16 miles. I took some long exposure shots of the Milky Way before bed because the sky was lit up like a Christmas tree! There were no clouds, no light pollution, and crystal clear skies. 

The morning of day two began with a 5am wake up and 5:30am breakfast with the crew. Sierra slept with a trash can next to the bed, and reported not sleeping very well. She decided that she had the strength to pull off the trek and opted out of taking a horse. I was relieved first of all because she was feeling slightly better, and second of all because it meant we got to trek together! It was probably in the low 40’s when we began hiking at 6:30am, a bit chilly, but we warmed up soon on the gradual uphill through the valley. The looming Salkantay peak grew closer and closer throughout the morning, as the uphill got more and more intense. We passed 13,000’, then 13,500’ and the terrain began getting really steep. Around 14,000’ the trail turned to switchbacks, known as the “7 Snakes”, a series of increasingly difficult switchbacks leading to a small flat area just before the final push to the pass. At these elevations you can feel every breath, and it becomes a task just focusing on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Putting one foot in front of the other isn’t the issue so much as getting enough oxygen to your brain to keep going. We took short breaks every 5 to 10 minutes, which never seemed like enough. Roy knows how to make sure everyone sticks together and that we all reach the summit together. 

Finally after 3 1/2 hours of trekking, the summit was in sight. We would break every time a group of horses would pass by, thanking them for allowing us the opportunity to stop and breathe, as well as for carrying all our stuff! The last few hundred feet felt like forever, but hand in hand, Sierra and I made it to the Salkantay Pass at just under 15,200’! The air was thin but our smiles were big, and we set our bags down amongst some rocks as Roy passed around coca leaves for us to leave as a gift to the Apu, or mountain spirit. 

The view of the mountain from here was unparalleled, it loomed another 5,500’ over our heads and was covered in ice and snow. We were blessed with a cloudless day, bright blue skies, and filled with a sense of accomplishment. After taking some group photos and spending about an hour at the highest point of our trek, we began our 10 mile downhill trek.

The view grew gradually less snowy and started to turn more lush, as we wound through a valley with several streams running through it converging into a larger river. After about two hours we rolled into our lunch spot amongst the horses, in what could barely be called a village. A few ramshackle tin roofed huts dotted the countryside, as the horses grazed around us. 

We had another 3 hour hike downhill to our next campsite, and this was when the pain started to creep into my knees. Fortunately we had walking poles, but regardless it’s tough on anyones knees going downhill for so long. The flora gradually changed into lush jungle, as a river rushed below us and we went from zero shade to covered paths lined with flowers and lichen, even stepping through running water at points.

After ascending 2,500’ and descending 5,500’ over the course of almost 16 miles, we pulled into our second campsite in the small town of Chaullay at 9,700’ just before dark, where we had our tents set up for us underneath straw huts. Hot showers were available for a price, so for about $5 we cleaned up a bit before sitting down to dinner. After almost 11 hours of trekking we were completely exhausted so we crawled into our tent and promptly passed out. 

Day 3 began just as early as any other, with a 5am wakeup. We said goodbye to our horseman Ruben, as our bags would be transported by van from here on out. We began by hiking down the local road through the town of Chaullay, then took some switchbacks down to a path that had us following a rushing river - the convergence of several rivers which all joined here to form the Urubamba River. This same water will flow through Aguas Calientes, our final stop, and then continue on to feed into the Amazon River. 

I started off feeling a little groggy but chalked it up to the fact that waking up at 5am every morning was just starting to wear me down a bit. The terrain was mostly flat for the first half of the day, until we reached a point where we had to cross the river. Roy led us to a makeshift cable car that was basically just a platform suspended from a cable linked to both sides of the river, maybe 200 feet long. There was a rope attached to each side of the platform which was meant to be pulled by one side to transport people over the river, two at a time. Erik ran down to a small bridge made of wood, straw and mud, crossed over to the other side and ran up to the opposing end of the cable. He was supposed to grab the rope and then push the platform across so Roy could pull it the rest of the way, but unfortunately he forgot to grab the rope, therefore leaving the platform stranded halfway over the river. Out of luck on our daring river crossing, we instead had to walk down to the shore and cross the makeshift bridge.

On the small farm across the way, Roy cracked open a Granadilla for us (related to a passion fruit), telling us about how this fruit is the main source of income for families in this valley. This location is the perfect temperature and elevation for this tropical-like fruit to grow. It's round and orange-brown on the outside, with a white flesh inside filled with black seeds covered in the gooey, passion fruit like gel. After a short break here, we continued along the narrow and steep path alongside the river. It was about this time that I started to feel like I was having stomach issues, a little weak and not quite up for hiking. It was only 9am and we still had 3 more hours to go. We crossed over many places on the trail where landslides had washed it out, and new paths had been cut through the slides. We passed through shady areas covered in vegetation, and open areas with no protection from the harsh sun. 

By the time we reached our second to last stop around 12pm, I was really feeling the effects of something nasty. I knew it couldn’t be the elevation, since we were under 9,000’ now, but I started to feel like I had no energy to move on and my stomach was churning. After sitting on a bench in the shade with the rest of the group for a few minutes, the feeling you get when you’re about to vomit hit me like a wave, and I quickly left the group to go purge whatever was in my stomach. Sierra brought me some Gatorade which helped a little, but I knew I was dealing with something nasty at this point. Fortunately we only had 20 more minutes to go until the end of our trekking for the day, so if there was any day to get sick I guess this was the one. We had vans waiting for us down by the river to transport us to our campsite at Lucmabamba, at the extremely breathable elevation of 6,500’.

The van first took us to a coffee plantation, where there were organized tours intended to sell you their product. This doesn’t appeal to me much when I’m feeling my best, let alone wrenching in pain. I skipped the tour and laid down in the van while the rest of the group took the tour. After another 20 minute bumpy van ride down a dusty road, lunch was waiting for us at the campsite, but there was nothing I could do to put any food in me. I barely felt like talking to anyone, my brain was foggy, my stomach was churning, and all I wanted to do was lie down. I had one more bout of vomiting in the bushes, when Tiama offered me some of her extra stash of Cipro. At this point, being almost positive it was a bacterial infection, I took her up on it. Suellen gave me some soda water which helped to settle my stomach a bit, and I left the lunch table to go get horizontal in one of the tents. It didn’t help that it was an actual oven inside the tent, but being horizontal at this point was more important than staying cool. I slept for a little bit, but before long it was time for the van to depart for the afternoon’s activities. 

We had two options, zip lining or hot springs. Seven of our group opted for both, but four of us chose to do just the hot springs. Sierra and I already did one of the best ziplines in the world in Thailand, so it just didn't make sense to pay the 100 soles (about $32) per person to do the one here. We already made this decision long before I got sick, not that ziplining at this point would’ve even been an option for me! Our van dropped the majority of our crew off at the zipline and took the rest of us up the road to the Santa Teresa hot springs. Being in a big crowded place like this wasn’t very appealing to me at this point, but I felt like getting in the warm water would help. Joseph, Andrea, Sierra and I got into the hottest pool we could find, which also happened to be the least crowded. The next two and a half hours we all just soaked and relaxed in the natural springs. The bottom of the large pools were comprised of soft gravel, and we found a warm spot near the edge where the heat seemed to be coming from. We were gifted a beautiful view of the mountains and clouds as the sun was setting, turning the puffy white clouds a bright purplish-orange. Almost two hours later the zipliners joined us in the springs. The van ride back to camp after dark was a long, 45 minute ride back down the same bumpy, dusty road. We even came to an impasse at one point with a large truck that couldn’t back up, and with cars lining up behind our van, it took more than 5 minutes for everyone to work out how to squeeze around each other on the narrow road.

My appetite began to return around dinner time, and I was able to put down some popcorn and soup. Roy had the chef brew Sierra and me some tea that would help settle our stomachs, as Sierra was having some stomach issues as well. Fortunately falling asleep in the tent was easy this night, regardless of the fact that another group of campers apparently stayed up until the wee hours of the morning drinking rum and wine, playing guitar, and singing songs around the campfire. Roy had us up at 4am the next morning for the longest day of all, 27km or about 18 miles of trekking. I knew that in my current state this was going to be one hell of an unpleasant day, or I was going to have to find a different solution, given that the first 3 hours were all uphill, and the next 3 hours were steep downhill. Roy offered me the option of taking a van with the cooks from the campsite to the beginning of the flat part, Hidroelectrica, from where we would follow the train tracks on flat ground for the last 3 hours. 

Taking the van afforded us a little extra time to rest at the campsite, and by the time it left around 8:30am, Sierra, myself and Suellen all joined a group of 4 other trekkers who weren’t feeling up to the challenge as well. The hour long bus ride was just about the best $6 I’d ever spent, delivering us to the restaurant in Hidroelectrica where Sierra and I relaxed in the hammocks in the shade until our group finally arrived around noon. I was slowly starting to feel better but still had a nasty feeling in my stomach. We had lunch with the group at an overcrowded tourist-stop restaurant, then began our three hour trek along the tracks. 

The path was lined with trees and comprised of large chunks of gravel making it difficult to walk too quickly, and the occasional Perurail train would come down the tracks leaving a trail of noise and fumes in its wake. We were afforded several gorgeous views of the river and the towering mountains over our heads, at times even catching glimpses of the edge of the Machu Picchu ruins, thousands of feet over our heads. The majority of our group seemed to be in quite the hurry to get to Aguas Calientes, and we don’t blame them - they spent the first six hours of the morning slogging up and down incredibly steep terrain in the heat and humidity. We took few breaks and rolled into town just before 4pm, and even though the sun was far from setting, the mountains cradling this small town made it seem like dark was near. 

Aguas Calientes is a town built on tourism, with an odd mix of five-star luxury accommodations and dining, and shanty-town style buildings lining the streets. A huge market in the center of town creates an almost labyrinthine path between the main road and the side of town where our hotel was located. Roy led us through the market, weaving in and out of narrow, shop-lined paths all seeming to sell the same wares, and we eventually emerged on the other side. We got checked into our hotel, and everyone darted for their rooms - showering was the number one priority at this point. The rooms weren’t bad, but the hot water did cut out altogether at one point and we could hear pretty much every conversation going on in the other rooms on our floor - regardless, we were happy to have a nice bed and be truly clean for the first time in 4 days!  Dinner was at a restaurant back in the main part of town, where we filled out questionnaires about our experience with Salkantay Trekking. Thumbs up all around from us! We felt like we couldn’t have had a better guide with Roy, and that the experience was more than we could have imagined - and we haven’t even seen Machu Picchu yet!

Day five, the final day, the magnum opus, the grand finale! Roy told us last night that the two options were either to hike up or take a bus up, but no matter what we do, we’d better start at 4am sharp! The gates to the site open at 6am, and guaranteed people will be lined up en masse by then, so whether you take the hour and a half to hike or the 25 minute bus, we needed to start the day as a group, and doing so required a 4am start. We decided to take the bus to the top, with 7 of the 11 in our group opting for the same (we wanted to have energy to hike around and not be exhausted!), but even though the first bus left at 5:30am, the line was already quite long by the time we got in it a few minutes after 4. We waited out on the sidewalk in the chilly morning air for an hour and a half before the buses began loading. One by one they scooped up sixty or so passengers and began ferrying us up the steep switchbacks to Machu Picchu. We would occasionally see the hikers crossing the road in front of us with their headlamps on, feeling grateful we weren’t tackling a 1,200 foot vertical gain on foot.

Roy wasn’t kidding about the line, even though we were one of the first buses up, there were already hundreds of people in front of us waiting at the gate. We saw Jeroen and Kristal further up in line, impressed that they had made it up so fast on foot! Once we scanned our tickets and passports, the whole family reunited on the other side of the entrance. Roy began the two hour walking tour around the ruins, as we marveled in awe at the magnificence of this ancient city. Clouds swirled through the mountaintops at a blistering pace, the backdrop of Roys history lessons changing completely before our eyes. One moment the sun would peek through and create golden patterned clouds, and before you knew it the whole of Machu Picchu would be enveloped in thick white clouds. 

We roamed through the narrow paths and peered through windows to the valley below as we learned of the ancient hierarchy of priests and commoners dwellings, denoted by the style of stone masonry involved. The most sacred places would have perfectly symmetrical, straight lined stone blocks, while the quarters of the highest members of society would be slightly less perfect, yet still be comprised of excellent stone work, and the quarters of the commoners would be made from much rougher and less polished rocks. We learned of the special stones where everyone would leave offerings on June 21st, the winter solstice, and of the guard house at the highest point looking down over the valley to prepare for attacks.

Machu Picchu was never found by the Spaniards thanks to it’s remote and elevated position, instead it was destroyed by vegetation. Abandoned a hundred years after it was first conceived, the Incas left to fight the Conquistadors and left the city to ruin. It was discovered by several people in the early 1900’s, two unknown men who carved their names into the rocks, but the man who brought it to prominence in the Western world was one Hiram Bingham, a professor who understood the importance of this archeological site and who was dedicated to restoring and protecting this incredible place.

As our tour wrapped up, we took one last group photo and said our goodbyes to Roy and Erik. We were now left to our own devices to spend the rest of the day exploring the site. Today is June 29th, and tomorrow will be the last day that visitors are allowed to explore Machu Picchu in full, with or without a tour guide, all day long. Starting July 1st, 2017, entry will be separated into two separate time slots, and all visitors must be accompanied by a tour guide. Most tours last 2-3 hours, and once the tour is over the visitor must leave as well. They are changing the rules to combat the wear and tear on the grounds, which sees somewhere between 4,500-5,500 people a day. Roy told us to take our time and enjoy all of our time here, as we would be some of the last people to take in Machu Picchu in it’s entirety.

There are several hikes within the archeological site available, some of which are free, like the Sun Gate, and others which require advanced ticket purchase, such as Huayna Picchu mountain (the main prominence seen in most photos of Machu Picchu) or Machu Picchu mountain, the highest peak within the site, another 1,800 feet or so above the city ruins. We pre-booked our tickets for Machu Picchu mountain, as did several others in our group, so a few of us took to the trail and began our trek up the Incan stairs. What proceeded was thousands of stone stairs built into the side of the mountain, pushing our legs to the limits as we climbed higher and higher, which only afforded better views of the site and the surrounding valley. A little over an hour later we reached the top of the mountain, 10,161’ in the air, with 360 degree views of the entire valley. We could see all the way down to Hidroelectrica where we had our lunch, as well as the full 11km pathway along the train tracks that we had hiked the day before. Machu Picchu looked like it was swarming with ants from this elevation. Sierra and I had another ceremony for Kiki, where we spread her ashes from the top of the mountain. After eating our lunch that we hauled to the top, and about an hour of relaxing and watching the clouds swirl by, we headed back down the steep and uneven rock staircase to return to the main part of Machu Picchu.

Exhausted, we found a nice flat grassy area to fall asleep for a little while. There’s no shade here however, so after 30 minutes or so we were both sweating and feeling like we needed to get moving again. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around new parts of the site that we hadn’t seen in the morning, taking the occasional llama selfie here and there, which is of course obligatory for anyone who takes their time at Machu Picchu seriously. We finally called it a day after 9 hours of taking it all in, wondering how long it might be before we return to this special place.

Originally we had planned to hike down the hill to Aguas Calientes, but after all we’d been through, decided that the bus was definitely the best option. We were shuttled down the hill in cushy seats and air conditioning, not regretting our decision or the $12 fare one bit. When we arrived back in town, we went back to the hotel to find our duffel bags waiting in the lobby, and did a quick change of clothes in the lobby bathroom to freshen up a bit after our long and sweaty day. We ran into Joseph and Andrea on our way to grab some food, who ended up joining us a few minutes later at a craft beer house called Mapacho. Sadly, the only thing that sounded good was smoothies, pizza and salad, so we passed on the cerveza and filled our starving bellies. 

Our group reunited at the train station just before dark, as we talked about our days and waited for the platform to open. A mass of bodies was clustered in the waiting area of the station, a chaotic mess of travelers shoving their way to the front to be closer to the doors when they eventually opened. We separated into our respective cars for the two hour ride through the Sacred Valley to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we arrived having not achieved our goal of getting a little shuteye on the train. We were greeted by drivers holding Salkantay Trekking signs, and led to our van as a group. The two hour ride back to Cusco was relatively smooth, albeit a little chilly with the A/C on full blast. As we arrived back in the city, we were dropped off at all of our respective accommodations. It was hard saying goodbye to this family we had grown so close to over the last 5 days, but we all agreed to stay in touch. Sierra and I were the second to last to get dropped off, at our hotel for the next two nights, a B&B called La Escala just south of the main plaza. 

We’re not sure if it was just coincidence, or if the company notified him of our arrival, but there was a nice man named Martin waiting outside for us to help us in with our bags. He showed us our room with a huge King-sized bed, and we were happy to see the rest of our bags had already been delivered earlier in the day. We made cups of tea, had a proper hot shower, and got in bed for our first truly restful night of sleep in almost a week.

The Salkantay Trail taught us many things about ourselves, about our limits and physical endurance. Gasping for air as we peered up at the towering Salkantay Peak covered in glaciers above us, feeling every step in our knees as we plodded downhill for miles and miles, and wiping the sleep from our eyes before sunrise every morning did nothing but add to the experience. This trek is a true example of the journey being more important than the destination. So many people visit Machu Picchu by van, train and bus, without ever really expending that much energy to arrive there. Not that there’s anything wrong with this method, but there’s something about trekking for days alongside massive mountains, rushing rivers and lush jungle terrain that makes arriving at the destination that much sweeter. This has truly been a journey, one that has brought the two of us even closer together, taught us so much, and left us feeling humbled in the presence of this beautiful, sacred part of Mother Earth.

Welcome to Cusco!

We arrived in Cusco around 6am very groggy from our sleepless night at the Lima airport. It was about 35 degrees outside! Quite a difference from Costa Rica. Immediately we were rushed by men yelling “Taxi?” “Taxi?” but we didn’t need a taxi because our Airbnb arranged a ride for us. We stayed on the lookout for someone who’s only photo reference was a black and white photo from when he was probably about 11 years old. Fortunately we sent him a current photo of us, so he knew who to look out for. Rodolpho located us and pulled a very bold, illegal U-turn in front of angry morning traffic in order to pick us up, but traffic police were waving and whistling at him and not letting him pull over. He continued to drive forward and finally was able to pull over to pick us up. Not exactly sure why, but Cusco is full of police! They’re lined up in places with large guard shields and helmets as if they’re waiting for some big attack. It’s not very inviting, but I guess they’re just there to protect and serve…..?

As we made our way through the streets of Cusco for the first time, my first impressions were of the smelly diesel cars, stray dogs running around everywhere, and of the narrow, one way, cobblestone roads. 20 minutes later we arrived at our Airbnb. Since it was barely even 7am, the host was not answering the door. After a couple phone calls, Heidy came down to let us in, clearly having just woken up. Once inside, she kindly made us hot cups of coca tea to help acclimilate to the high elevation. Her home had no central heating and instead relies on a portable propane heater that sits in the middle of the dining/living room. Since we arrived so early, our room still had a guest in it, so although all we wanted to do was sleep, we still couldn’t. After a little while, Heidy tidied and generously offered us her daughter’s room in the meantime. We ended up sleeping for about 2 hours in there. We came out of hiding and Heidy made us some breakfast. She didn’t speak more than a word of English, but our hearts were all we needed to communicate, oh and some of Andre’s college Spanish. Alas we were able to check into our room, where we slept more until about 3pm.

The living/dining room of our Airbnb.

The living/dining room of our Airbnb.

We just happened to be in town in time for Cusco’s major June celebrations, including their New Year known as Inti Raymi - Festival of the Sun. Literally all day and all night, some kind of fireworks or marching bands could be heard off in the distance, along with car alarms and barking dogs. Eventually we decided to see what the hubbub was about and we made our way toward the main plaza. It was a 15 minute walk downtown from our Airbnb, emphasis on the “down.” Cusco is built into the mountain sides so the streets and walkways are either uphill or downhill. We walked to the town center, Plaza de Armas where probably a thousand people were gathered - families hanging out together, kids running around chasing toys, locals in traditional garb, vendors left and right coming up to you asking you to buy whatever they’re selling, some women in brightly colored outfits toting lambs and tugging pompom wearing alpacas around asking if you want a photo, tourists wandering aimlessly (us included), stray, but happy dogs playing in the grass, - it was beautiful, poetic chaos. I feel like I could spend hours trying to describe the sights of this city, but nothing would ever come close to actually experiencing it.

A preview of our first few days in Cusco!

Since Cusco rests at around 11,000 ft, we spent our first 4 days acclimatizing before our Salkantay trek. Each day after breakfast, we’d make our way downtown to explore things like the San Pedro market - a large square where permanent vendors sell their goods and food stalls line the perimeter. On the 2nd day there were actually 2 festivals happening adjacent to one another. Around the main square was Corpus Christi - a parade of decorative floats accompanied by marching bands all dedicated to some kind of Catholic Saint or Virgin. A couple streets over it was Chiriuchu - some other type of festival celebrated by eating a traditional and symbolic dish known by the same name. It consists of a bowl first lined with toasted maize, then topped with a fried Spanish omelet made out of corn, potato, and onion. Next it’s layered with a type of sausage, cured lamb meat, a type of potato hash, rehydrated seaweed, dried fish roe, and the main event, roasted guinea pig. Is your brain saying, “What the f***?!” Then you’re probably not from Peru. We decided, “when in Rome,” and out of the hundred stalls all serving the same version of this dish, we walked into one and ordered “uno Chiriuchu por favor.” It was a family run stall with 3 generations operating the small production. Grandma was chopping up the guinea pig, etc., mom was serving and seating customers, and little 2 year old daughter was around our table marveling at our cameras. She was the cutest thing you’d ever seen. She wouldn’t leave our sides and at one point reached up for me to hug and kiss her, climbed on my lap, and told her mom that I’m her new mom now. Toward the end of our meal, we asked mom what her daughter’s name was…..Ciera! After all that, this little girl and I had the same name, just different spelling. I digress though because I know you’re dying to know what the dish tasted like! Well, the dish is meant to be eaten with your hands and a little piece of each element all in one bite. I wasn’t quite that comfortable so I went at my own, picky pace. The fried Spanish omelet seemed like a safe place to start, and was my favorite. The seaweed was fairly bland, and the dried fish roe was extremely odd. It was stringy and sticky, crunchy and salty. I didn’t eat the sausage, and I had a bite of the cured meat before knowing it was lamb. It wasn’t that great and was very salty. Eventually, I got over my willies and was peer pressured by Andre to try the guinea pig. It was actually really flavorful! It was stuffed full of an herb mixture that infused the meat with a unique, hard to pinpoint flavor. However, I say meat lightly because the poor little guinea pigs don’t really have that much meat on them to begin with. We washed it all down with a large, room temperature Cusqueña cerveza. 

Ciera fascinated with our cameras, and the Chiriuchu in the foreground.

Ciera fascinated with our cameras, and the Chiriuchu in the foreground.

The last day in Cusco before leaving for our big trek was Inti Raymi, the New Year festival. The day long showcase commenced at 9am. We left the house at 8 and by the time we got to the first location, it was packed! People were selling plastic stools not to sit on, but to stand on so you could see over the crowds of people. The festivities traveled to 3 different locations across the city over the course of the day. Hundreds of actors and dancers cloaked in ornate costumes danced in formations choreographed to symbolize the honoring of the sun during the Winter Solstice. We followed the traveling show from location to location, ending up on top of this hill at a historical site called Saksaywaman (almost pronounced like ‘sexy woman’). We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we followed the masses up the never-ending hillside. At one point it split and some people went left, some went right. We were already on the left side so we just continued up that way which wound up and around to an area that we realized was actually across the road from the main action. We climbed the hillside like everyone else and found a place to sit down. Our view was slightly obscured by some trees, but actually, we had a pretty darn good viewing spot. I think the locals come out to this show more for the social, family gathering aspect of it (and to eat guinea pig) than the actual performance. We were over an hour and a half early, but it was so necessary in order to secure the spot we got. The finale of the performance sadly ends in the live sacrifice of a llama. We ended up leaving before that though. As much as we don’t wish the sacrifice of any animal, nor do we condone things like that, there was a part of us that was intrigued by it. “Would they really cut a llama’s heart out on stage in front of all these people?!” “Then what?” Uhhuhh, I shudder at the thought, but my human nature is still curious. 

A fraction of the spectators at Saksaywaman for Inti Raymi.

A fraction of the spectators at Saksaywaman for Inti Raymi.

That night we had our trekking orientation where we met our guide, our group, and learned what we’d be up to for the following 5 days. The guide referred to us all as family. He said, “This is your family now.” Our family consisted of 1 couple from New Jersey, a newlywed couple on their honeymoon from the Netherlands, a mom with her 2 daughters from Massachusetts, and 1 more couple from Colorado. They informed us that we’d be getting started the next day at 4am! Andre and I were the first ones to be picked up the next morning at 4am sharp! #notfun The street we stayed on was too small and narrow for the van, so we had to hike down at least a 1/4 mile with all of our stuff, still half asleep. One by one the van continued to pick up everyone else, and then we drove for 2 hours outside of the city to a tiny town called Mollepata. Around 6:30am we had a family breakfast where we started to get to know each other. After breakfast we drove a little further to the starting point our trek. They saddled up the horses with our duffle bags while we got acquainted with our trekking poles, and off we went! To be continued..

Our new Salkantay family.

Our new Salkantay family.

Lessons

We’ve only been on the road for 25 days and traveling has already taught me some valuable lessons: patience, flexibility, and surrender. Life in most of the world, moves at a much slower pace than we’re used to in America, especially Los Angeles; I couldn’t even imagine how I’d feel if I were a New Yorker! Things just take more time while traveling. Transportation is rarely on schedule (outside of Japan), and dining in these countries is a taste of near stillness, pun intended. If you’re hungry and you’re just now deciding to go get something to eat, fugetabouit! In all realness though, you probably won’t be eating for at least an hour and a half. Even walking on the streets here in Peru is exercising my patience, though that’s one exercise I won’t bow down to. Most people doddle, maybe even a slight waddle down the sidewalk. Oftentimes in a random pattern making getting around them like a puzzle. I can’t stand it, if I’m being completely honest. So I resort to the dodge and weave or walk-around. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s our culture, but I’m a get from A to B in the most efficient time possible kinda gal. That’s just not how people roll in these parts of the world. They don’t mind making 9 stops on the way to the beach when you only have two days there and it takes 4.5 hours to drive to the beach without stopping in the first place. Getting from point A to point B is an “eventually” kind of attitude.

Flexibility - many friends and family advised us to “stay flexible.” This really is great advice when traveling. Here’s an example: Andre and I were planning to catch a 1pm bus from Uvita to San Jose, our second to last day in Costa Rica. We scheduled our whole morning around this plan. We called an information center and asked them to arrange for a taxi to pick us up at 12:30pm. The woman at the center told us there was a more direct bus at 2pm and suggested we take that one instead. We agreed and arranged for a taxi at 1:30pm. 1:30 came, and went. At 1:45 we realized no taxi was coming, so we threw our packs on and started hoofing it. Meanwhile Andre was calling everyone we could think of that might be able to get us a taxi pronto. We got to the main road, and I saw a van coming, so I just stuck my thumb out in the air. He pulled over and it seemed like he was some kind of non-legitimate taxi driver. Andre made a price deal for a ride to the bus station and we crawled in to his beater van. Just the day before we were on a walk and I joked about how in order to be considered a Costa Rican, you have to carry a machete. Andre joked that when you’re born, they put a machete in your hand. This flashed through my mind, along with other not so wholesome imaginative machinations when I noticed a machete sitting behind the driver of this “taxi.” I urged Andre to make sure he knew exactly where to take us and to follow on GPS. Ok, I was a little paranoid. Fortunately, we arrived, each of us in one piece, safely at the bus station just 2 minutes before 2, whew! Andre went to go purchase our tickets and came back with a discouraged look on his face. As it turned out, there was never a 2:00pm bus. There’s a 3 and a 4. The 3:00 bus cost twice as much as the 4:00, an equivalent of $20. Demasiado. (way too much) So our only option was to wait the 2 hours for the 4:00 bus. Staying flexible… I noticed that the 3:00 bus arrived at 3, but then everyone got off the bus, including the driver, and stopped to have a sit down meal, maybe even a beer. They didn’t reload until 3:30. I knew this would be our fate as well, and like clockwork, the 4:00 bus arrived, and like clockwork, we didn’t leave until 4:30ish. Another thing I’ve found that you need to remain flexible with is food. Anyone who knows me knows that I prefer organic, healthful “hippie” food. Well, that preference has kind of had to slide while traveling. You just can’t get the same kinds of foods, or products for that matter, as you can in the states. It’s frustrating, but also a good stretch (that was my pun on staying flexible).

Surrender - We left San Jose, Costa Rica and arrived in Lima, Peru around 8pm on Tuesday night. We had a 9 hour layover in the Lima airport before our 5am flight the next day to Cusco. Though our final destination was Cusco, we had to pick up our checked bags in Lima, and re-check them to Cusco. Why? This was the first of many unanswerable whys. We went straight from baggage claim to the check in counter and waited in line. It seemed as though something was awry with the computers because people and bags were piling up, but no one was getting anywhere. Finally a ticket agent came over to us and asked us where were were headed. He said it was too early to check in our bags and we’d have to return to the ticket counter when they reopen at 12 midnight. Why #2. So we looked up online suggestions for what to do when stuck in the Lima airport. A popular recommendation was to hang out in Starbucks for access to wifi. We found the Starbucks, but so did everyone else so there were no empty seats. We hung around on either side waiting for a table to open up. I thought I secured one, but quickly got swiped by a family of 5. Finally I pounced on a clearing table like a hyena waiting for lions to finish their meal. There we worked on our volunteering teaser compilation video, [you can see it here: Costa Rica Volunteering ] while killing time before checking our bags in at midnight. By 10:30pm we decided to start looking for where to eat dinner. There were really only 2 options, a semi-fine dining restaurant, or hardcore fast food. Um, I’ll take the former please thank you. We walked into Tanta with our giant backpacks looking for an unobtrusive spot to sit down. LOUD, CHAOTIC, NEVER ENDING Spanish music, and freezing cold AC blasted us from all angles. It’s 11pm, I’m tired, hungry, uncomfortable, and sleep is not in our forecast. We put up with it all in exchange for a halfway decent meal. Another thing to note, we ordered water to drink. The waiters brought us bottles, but we returned them for tap water so save some money. After we drank them of course, I said to Andre, “Are you sure the tap water is safe to drink in Peru?” He googled it, and sure enough, nope! Even the locals drink bottled water here. Uhhh oh. The music gnawed on our nerves until we couldn’t take it anymore.

Here we were, thinking we were being so smart by checking in our bags right when they open at midnight. Yeah, well so did everyone else. We got in line by 11:55pm and came in about 150th place. Womp. We stood in line, inching our way toward the front for about half an hour. 12:30am. Finally, free from the heavy burden of our bags, we made our way toward the gate. But wait, we were stopped by Peruvian TSA saying we can’t go through, it’s too early. We have to come back at 2:30am. Why #3. Our options were to either stay up or find a place to attempt to sleep. Another google recommendation was to catch some z’s in the cafeteria. It did not look like a sleeping zone to me and so we wandered the halls looking for anything else. All the shops and cafes are open 24hrs in this airport and they all play terrible music, extra loud, all the time. We tried sitting down in a hallway, but the cold stone floors weren’t cutting it. We surrendered to the cafeteria. This was an experience. It was at least 1am by this point; the custodians were cleaning the cafeteria, so they were stacking and swinging around metal tables and metal chairs, people were talking and laughing, fluorescent lights were glaring, it was cold, and all we wanted was a little shut eye. Andre set an alarm for 2:30am so we could at least get to the gate and try to sleep there. The alarm went off, I reluctantly removed my eye mask and ear plugs, and we drudgingly made our way to security. I seriously felt like I was in the twilight zone. My eyes were glazed over, and my hearing was muffled. I couldn’t tell if anything was really happening or not. Once we made it past security, we were struck by how quiet this side of the airport was, and how empty too! WHY #4 do they not let people over here more than 2 hours before their flight?!?! Almost every bench of seats was taken up by a horizontal body. We found a row long enough for us to lie head to head, and we again made another attempt at sleeping. “[extremely loud, illegible Spanish announcement] Flight 839 Cusco ahora embarque!” Ugh, time to get back up and stand in line. 4:35am, I surrender.

...to be continued.

Costa Rica: Coming to a Close

I can’t believe we leave for Peru in less than 3 days! It’s our last day in the quaint beach town of Uvita, but it’s one of the first days we have nothing to do but just chill and hang out. With nothing on the books today, we both had plans of sleeping in. Between the Howler Monkeys howling, and flocks of Scarlet Macaws squawking, and consistently waking up early every day since we’ve been here, it was difficult for me to sleep in. So I’m up, with coffee in hand, and at this very moment writing from the hammock on the porch. It’s working out better than I even predicted, but we’ll see how long I can last writing in this position. The sounds that surround me are mesmerizing - cicadas buzzing away becoming the monotonous white noise of the jungle, alongside grasshoppers shaking their rattles, various birds singing and chirping, roosters cawing, (Is that what roosters do? Caw? Or is the technical term cuck-a-doodle-doing?) I can even hear the deep roll of the ocean breaking from here. It smells like fresh, dampen tropical earth, and now all my senses are fully engaged. 

I previously left off the day before our hike through the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We found a recommended guide by the name of Jorge through Trip Advisor. Someone left a review saying, how great he was and to just contact him directly “here’s his number: “ So we did just that and made plans to meet up with Jorge in the morning. We got up early, made breakfast and coffee and then walked the 20 minutes to get into town to catch the 7:30am bus to the reserve. The roads here are very primitive and at times hard to believe the buses drive through these places, but what choice do they have? Once at the reserve, we waited in line for our tickets and linked up with Jorge. We only had one other hiker with us, her name was Siobhan from the UK. We felt so lucky to have such a small, intimate group! Right off the bat, Jorge inspired us with his vast knowledge of the jungle and it’s inhabitants. Immediately he spotted a type of Costa Rican Robin, who was in fact, in the middle of mating. He had never seen this happen his entire 12 years of guiding. We were off to a sexy start! 

Jorge was a wizard at spotting things. He had along with him a telescope, so he’d spot a creature and then zoom right into it so we could take turns seeing it up close. The best thing about Jorge was not just his vast knowledge, but his passion - for nature, for his home Costa Rica, for the jungle, for life. It truly made our experience in the Cloud Forest a rich event. One of the highlights was when I spotted a tarantula crawling slowly on the side of the path. Jorge immediately went over to pick it up. His calm and interested demeanor made me want to hold the giant, fuzzy spider too! So one by one, each of us took turns handling this wild tarantula. According to Jorge, they’re not poisonous and would only bite if they felt threatened, and even if they did bite, it’s no worse than a bee sting. Siobhan even summoned up her courage, challenged her fear of spiders, and held the tarantula! We were beyond blessed with perfect weather; a light misty rain in the morning, sun peaking through in the afternoon, and the famous clouds blowing in and out allowing us the chance to at once be enveloped by the mystifying clouds, and the next moment to have a limitless view open wide for us. What was supposed to be a 3 hour tour was already at 5 hours long! Unfortunately we didn’t see as many mammals as we hoped for. No monkeys, no sloths, but it didn’t seem to matter as there were endless amounts of things to marvel at. The one thing Andre really wanted to see was the infamous Quetzal. A symbol of Costa Rica. A legend in it’s own right. And they’re here, in this forest! We were at the tail end of our 5.5 hour tour and I spotted something dip off a tree and fly into the forest. We stopped and waited for a moment. Then…”There! It’s a Quetzal!!” I exclaimed. “This is a miracle!” said Jorge as he hurriedly set up the telescope. The Quetzal is a magical looking bird decorated with bright iridescent blue and green feathers, long cascading plumes of perfectly coiffed tail feathers, and a distinct little tuft atop its cute head. We didn’t have very much time to wonder at this creature before it flew off again, but it was a true gift to be sent away with. A quote by John Muir states, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I can say with most certainty that this is true. I felt a literal glow emanating from the inside of my soul out walking out of the jungle. It was a magical feeling I won’t soon forget. 

By the end of the hike, the four of us had felt like a group of old friends. We were all starving so Jorge took us to a nearby local restaurant that I’m sure we wouldn’t have found on our own. It was the most delicious Costa Rican meal I’d had this whole trip! Then the four of us went to the local cheese making factory and got milkshakes! I felt like a little kid. We ended our time together interviewing Jorge for Love Set Run. It was hard to say goodbye to our new friends, but that’s just part of traveling. The impermanence of things is felt at an almost constant rate. You just start to get to know a place, or a person, and you have to leave. Saying goodbye to Monteverde had me in tears. There was something about it that captured a piece of my heart. 

The Love Forest, I mean, Cloud Forest.

The Love Forest, I mean, Cloud Forest.

Our cat Kiki passed away just a couple months before this trip. We’ve planned to have a ceremony and spread her ashes in every country we visit. Costa Rica being the first country, I’ve constantly been on the lookout, and listening to my intuition, on where I should put a piece of Kiki. Monteverde felt like such a special place, but there was never a time or location that presented the perfect moment to do so. Our last morning in Monteverde was a super early one. I was up at 3:45am to finish packing and catch a 5:15am taxi to the bus station. As I was brushing my teeth, the necklace that Kiki’s ashes are in fell off. I caught it with my free hand underneath my shirt. I tried to catch all the ashes and put them back in the bottle, but for some reason they weren’t fitting as compactly. So I felt like it was sign that part of Kiki should stay in Monteverde. I remembered that when we first arrived at our Airbnb and our host came to greet us, there was a beautiful Blue-gray Tanager that flew into the tree outside our unit. Kiki had the most gorgeous blue eyes; and in Kiki’s final days, a pet intuitive told us that she would bring us messages through birds and feathers. As we ran down through the rain to catch our taxi, I stopped to sprinkle a little of Kiki’s ashes in the tree with the blue bird. 

The Blue-gray Tanager in Monteverde & Kiki

The Blue-gray Tanager in Monteverde & Kiki

Uvita is primarily known for a very special geologic formation along the coast called a Tombolo. It’s an outcropping of land that’s connected to the beach by a long spit, only visible during low tide. The curious thing about the Tombolo here in Uvita is that it’s shaped just like a whale’s tail, and each year this area attracts the migration of Humpback whales specifically to reproduce and nurture their young before heading back out to cooler waters. Do they know? Did the gods create a signal for the whales? It’s just too uncanny. On Thursday afternoon, we caught the low tide and walked out to the end of the “whale tail.” I made a bouquet of flowers and we had our Kiki ceremony out on the edge of the rocks. By the end of our ceremony, the tide had already begun rise and come back in. It was the perfect place to honor Kiki here in Costa Rica. 

Uvita Whale Tail, photo by Andre Mercier

Uvita Whale Tail, photo by Andre Mercier

We hung out on the beach for a bit and watched the crabs busy themselves digging holes. It was pretty hilarious watching their scoop, drag, and pat down technique. As we were leaving the beach, I picked up trash, as I usually do. I’ve noticed a trend that when I pick up trash on a beach, I usually find a gorgeous shell. So I did indeed find a beautiful, intact shell as my prize. However, I knew it’s home is here and not in my pocket, so we offered it back the sea. 

The past three days, Andre and I completed the final portion of our PADI Open Water Scuba Diving certification course. The first day was at a pool learning all the exercises we would be asked to perform in the ocean. The next two days were spent out at Caño Island, 50 meters off the coast of Uvita; about an hour and a half boat ride. Since it’s the rainy season, the local diving has poor visibility from runoff sediment, so we were encouraged to do our dives off Caño Island. Caño is a small, protected national reserve, so it’s teeming with life! The fish have no human threats so they aren’t afraid of divers. Large schools of fish comfortably let us float on into their classrooms! We did two separate dives each day. On Friday we saw White Tipped Reef sharks, stingrays, turtles, eels, a giant lobster, an eel bickering with a lobster, starfish, parrotfish, Bluefin Jacks, Runts, Morish Idols, beautiful, delicate sea fans, and all kinds of different fish. Saturday on the boat ride out to the island we saw Brydy whales surface! We also had a pod of dolphins come swim alongside the boat, I spotted a turtle at the surface, and on our last dive, we were graced by the esteemed presence of a 15ft wide Manta Ray!! This was definitely some of the most spectacular diving we’ve done together. Both Andre and I passed our course with flying fish colors! Our instructor Sarah was just awesome. We feel very accomplished and super stoked to finally be certified. What a perfect way to end our stay in Costa Rica. 

Officially certified divers, with our instructor Sarah

Officially certified divers, with our instructor Sarah

We have one more bus ride from Uvita to San Jose. Our last night in Costa Rica is at an Airbnb yoga studio/apartment so we get to participate in yoga class mañana! I’ve also made contact with a fellow Nichiren Buddhist Soka Gakkai member in San Jose. We have plans to meet up with him for breakfast tomorrow before our flight(s) to Peru. It just so happens that he’s an environmental specialist, so he’s agreed to do an interview with us! Our rhythm is palpable. I’m excited to see what the next chapter has in store. Adios Costa Rica. Hasta la próxima vez!

Hot, Sweaty, Dirty, & Happy

The past ten days we spent our time volunteering at the Rio Celeste Organic Farm with our new friend Luis and his family. Neither one of us had ever done so much manual labor before. It really gave us a deeper appreciation for people who do that kind of work. Our first day of work involved weeding the greenhouse area and planting new keiki (baby) ginger plants. It wasn't too bad. Midway through our work, Luis brought us mini bananas grown on the property. They were the most delicious bananas I've ever tasted. Super sweet with less of a tang than their larger counterparts. We discovered lots of bugs and things, friends and foes in the garden. Andre even found a little baby snake that was red with a black and yellow head. Was it poisonous? We don't know, but we marveled at it anyway. Our second day we hand brushed these wooden planks with wire brushes, stripping all the bark off and smoothing them out. Then we got to spend the weekend at the beach. All I can say about that was that it was a weekend of unexpected affairs including 44 mosquito bites. The sunset was to die for though, and swimming in the ocean was a refreshing reprieve.

Sunset from Playa Del Coco

Sunset from Playa Del Coco

Monday was nice and cloudy which meant tolerable temperatures despite the humidity. Don't get us wrong, we were still sweating away. Our task was to finish hand brushing the wooden planks, and then stain them. Tuesday and Wednesday our work was performed under the blistering sun while we hand weeded a garden with machetes. It was tedious! Any sunscreen we put on was soon dripping off our bodies and attracting flying dirt particles. The worst part was uncovering clusters of ants which immediately went crazy crawling all over, biting us on their way. Thursday and Friday we raked up cut weeds, loaded them into a wheelbarrow, and wheeled them off - again under the hot Costa Rican sun. We were praying for clouds which came and went. I guess it was better than working in the pouring rain. There was, though, a soothing element of meditation to all the work. Sometimes we'd play music, sometimes we'd work in silence, but time went by so slowly that the work became an, albeit laborious, meditation. The reward was in knowing that we were helping a local Costa Rican family survive, and see a dream become reality. Luis, the owner of the farm, has a dream for his family's farm and he works incredibly hard each and every day to make that dream come true. I know a lot of our friends back home in LA are all doing the same. 

Machete wielding, sweaty gringos.

Machete wielding, sweaty gringos.

All of our work was done between breakfast and lunch so on two occasions after lunch we had the opportunity to walk down through the jungle to the famous and extraordinary Rio Celeste River! Our trek the first day took an hour and 15 minutes because our "tour guide" didn't know his way. We eventually found a path leading to a beautiful swim hole. The color of the river is the most striking blue you can imagine. It seriously doesn't look real! It's a milky cyan that seems as though someone upstream is playing a trick on you and just dyed the river, but leave it to nature, it's real! Jumping into the cold river was just what the doctor ordered after a hot and disgustingly humid hike. The next day we went back to the river because, yes, it's that amazing. Only this time we went with Luis and he lead us down a path that took no more than 15 minutes to an even more gorgeous part of the river. While we were swimming, we caught a glimpse of the magnificent Blue Morpho Butterfly! It was surreal seeing this plate sized, bright iridescent blue winged creature floating through the jungle! #thisplaceisamazing

As we made our way back toward the house, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. Before we knew it we were caught in a torrential downpour that felt like inescapable buckets of water being poured over our heads. We made it back to the house soaked to the bone with our jaws on the floor at the amount of rain falling. A brand new river formed running down the center of the property! Video on that to come! Friday, our final day on the farm, while we were working away, Luis was struck by a Terciopelo - the most venomous snake in Costa Rica! Fortunately it struck his rubber boot, so he was ok. Sadly, the snake had to be put down because, well, like I said, it's the most venomous snake in the country. They lost 3 cows last year to deadly snake bites. #thisshitisreal After an exhausting end to our work week, we had the opportunity to go to the nearby Tenorio National Park and hike to the celebrated Rio Celeste Waterfall. A sight too stunning for words.

Due to minerals from the nearby volcano, the water in the river runs this milky, electric blue color!

Due to minerals from the nearby volcano, the water in the river runs this milky, electric blue color!

The more time we spent on the farm, the more like family we became which made saying goodbye that much harder. Saturday morning we were sent off by Luis, his permanent volunteer Kenny, and his cousin's family - wife and two children. We hopped on the first of three buses to get to our next destination Monteverde. The first bus was an hour of standing room only. There were several moments where I thought to myself, "There's no way we can fit more people." Yet the bus would stop and groups of 6 would make their way on. The second bus was only 30 minutes, yet it was the most comfortable and easiest of the rides. Our third bus was the funkiest! It was an older refurbished school bus with super narrow seats that we awkwardly maneuvered our way through with our giant backpacks on back and daypacks/camera gear on front. We sat all the way at the back of the bus near an engine I'm guessing because it was very hot. That ride was 2.5 hours on a dirt road through the countryside. The views out the window were gorgeous. Andre and I made the most of the situation, which we always do. Talks of existentialism, pointing out funny signs, videoing and photographing the unique visuals, etc. Finally we arrived in Monteverde. It was raining and we had a rocky, hilly walk to our airbnb. Once inside though, we set our bags down, fell onto the bed and breathed a sigh of extreme relief. That evening we walked to a well known and popular restaurant called Taco Taco. Our walk was graced by the crossing of an armadillo! I just love armadillos! Ok, I love a lot of animals. It felt like a nice welcome gift from nature. Our stay here in Monteverde is a short 3.5 day visit. Thus far we've visited the Orchid Garden and the Butterfly Garden. Plans for the Cloud Forest, a chocolate farming and making tour, and local art to come next. Then it's off to our next and final Costa Rican destination Uvita! Hasta luego amigos! - S

Is this really happening?

We awoke at 4:30am to finish the last of our packing before the journey actually began. Thanks to all the planning and preparation, we felt so ready for the adventure that awaited us. In the Uber ride to the airport, it still hadn't sunk in. We had a nice driver who told us stories of how many times he's been discriminated against since the transfer of administration. It was heartbreaking, and fueled my wish to unite cultures rather than divide even more.

Our first flight from Los Angeles took us to Dallas for a short layover. We arrived in Dallas, grabbed some lunch to go at the airport, and immediately got in line to board the flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. Fortunately it wasn't a full flight, so under scornful eyes of the flight attendants, we slyly moved to an empty exit row to give 6'4" Andre some more leg room. The flight was an easy 4 hours. 

The sun had just set as we landed and it was pouring rain outside. We tried to mentally prepare for the rain because the forecast predicted 100% chance of thunderstorms every day! The airport was very nice, and air conditioned, however the humidity still made its way in. It seemed as though our flight was the only one in the entire airport. We made our way to baggage claim and I called my parents to let them know we made it safely. Andre's backpack came out fairly quickly. The more time that went by not seeing my bag the more nervous I became. Then all of a sudden these men came over and started pulling bag after bag off the carousel with fervent pace. Hey that's my bag! He pulled it off and flung it into the pile with the others. I was so confused, but I grabbed my backpack and we hurried out to catch our Uber.

As we were walking toward customs, Andre noticed this girl that had the same backpack as me. A light went off in my head because when I put the backpack on, it didn't feel the same. So I went up to her and said, "Excuse me, you and I have the same backpack, can we..." Before I could even finish my sentence I could tell that she had mine and I had hers! Utter disbelief doesn't even begin to explain how we all felt. What were the chances that this girl on our flight would have the exact same Osprey Ariel 65L teal colored backpack, and that she would take mine and I would take hers?! She didn't even have a luggage tag on her bag, so had we not bumped into each other, who knows how and when we would have found one another again to exchange bags. I was just buzzing with appreciation for my fortune and guardian Kiki. 😽

Once the rightful backpacks were on the rightful shoulders, we went through customs and outside to find our driver. Because of the bag snafu taking time, our driver was gone by the time we got outside. We thought he left us and we'd have to call someone else. But low and behold he circled around and picked us up. He was a vibrant character with enthusiasm for both showing off and practicing his English. We honestly couldn't have asked for more helpful, polite, friendly ambassador to Costa Rica. He even helped us find our airbnb in the dark by calling the hosts for us.

Our hosts were Marcos y Alejandra, a young couple living la pura vida, hanging out playing guitar and singing on a Tuesday night. We got settled in our room and then walked to a nearby neighborhood, Escalante - informally known as restaurant row. We walked down the street deciding where to have a bite. Colonia Tavar was the winner with it's decent sized crowd, nice atmosphere, and inviting garden entry. There's something here called Tico Time and it describes the time table the locals are on, which if you're familiar with "island time" it's probably even slower than that. It was definitely a good 25+ minutes before anyone took our order and that's after asking. We tried the restaurant's specialty Arepas, a Venezuelan dish made of a stuffed corn "tortilla" filled with an assortment of things of your choice ranging from cheese, to beans, to plantains, meat, mushrooms, avocado, greens, goat cheese, you name it really. Basically a Venezuelan hot pocket. Super tasty! We walked back home, visited with our hosts for a bit, and cashed in for the night in preparation for the next day's long journey by bus to the Rio Celeste Farm where our first volunteering opportunity begins.

It still doesn't feel real, more like a dream that we're even here doing this. I don't know if it will ever feel real, because what is reality anyway? Where does the illusion begin and end? Maybe more on that concept after Peru. 😉 Buenos noches!

Planning a trip around the world

Planning a trip around the world

Thus, the question of how and when to start vagabonding is not really a question at all. Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility. From here, the reality of vagabonding comes into sharper focus as you adjust your worldview and begin to embrace the exhilarating uncertainty that true travel promises.
— Rolf Potts, Vagabonding

When we were on our honeymoon in 2013, we were sitting on a beach in Gili Trawangan, a tiny little backpackers island about 3 hours off the coast of Bali, watching the full moon over our heads and feeling the warm water lap at our feet. Our 44 day trip spanning three countries was coming to an end, and we began to daydream about a life of travel. Not just one filled with pleasure and lavish accommodations, but one with more of a positive impact - we felt that there was so much more to traveling than the traditional "spend a bunch of money at a nice resort" model.

We had just finished working with a tsunami relief crew in Ishinomaki, Japan, an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and an orphanage in Denpasar, Bali. It felt good to give back on our honeymoon but we still left feeling like a day or two in each of these places wasn’t enough. We also knew that it wasn’t realistic to take a year or more off from our careers to go volunteer in one place, which is what some would argue to be the most effective form of global volunteering. 

We wondered how we could find a healthy balance between the fulfillment of leisure travel and the positive impact created by volunteer work, all in one trip. This was the birth of Love Set Run, we just didn’t know it yet.

In 2014, we decided that it was time to start saving. Andre signed up for a credit card with good travel benefits in hopes of getting a few plane tickets for free. The travel planning had begun. 

By late 2015 we began to pick out the countries we wanted to visit. The first version of our list was 22 countries long. We wanted to travel for 3 months. No way was that happening. We began the painstaking process of finding countries to knock off the list - not an easy task when you want to go EVERYWHERE.

In early 2016 we set the intention of leaving in the summer. We were mere weeks away from beginning to book plane tickets when Andre was offered the opportunity to be a supervisor on location in Atlanta for a Marvel film. Unable to pass up this incredible opportunity, we shelved the plans for 2016 and decided that 2017 was going to be the year. This also gave us another year to save, and of course rack up more credit card points.

By January of 2017, the planning had reached a fever pitch. The countries were picked. We had our name. The credit card points had accumulated into the hundreds of thousands. We stopped watching movies at home (one of our favorite activities). We stopped going out for the most part. What used to be lazy evenings and weekends turned into full-blown research sessions. Plane tickets, volunteering opportunities, accommodations, activities, transportation - not just for one trip, but 8 countries back to back. How do we get from here to there? Where do we rest our heads this night? How do we make the biggest impact in each country?

We quickly realized what a gargantuan task we had taken on, but we welcomed the challenge. This was a task unlike one we had ever faced, planning to circumnavigate the globe while doing our best to spread awareness about the issues facing our world today. We are less than a month away from departure and the end is still nowhere in sight. It’s invigorating, and as Rolf Potts says in the quote above, “Vagabonding starts now.” Dreaming of and planning for exotic destinations is almost (..almost) as good as being there itself.

As our departure date grows closer, we will check more and more to-do’s off the list, while new things that we couldn’t have planned for will inevitably come to light. It’s all part of the joy of trip planning though - staying flexible, learning new things, figuring out how to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. 

We will be posting regular updates to Facebook and Instagram as we go, and the YouTube web series will be released sequentially by country within the months following our return to home. Thanks for reading, we’re excited that you’ve chosen to follow along with us on this journey around the world. 

-A&S