A Month in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, Peru

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Hike Outside OllantaytamboOllantaytambo is a little village in the Sacred Valley of Peru, an hour and a half from Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. We came here right after Machu Picchu to relax and recuperate, as something about high-altitude hiking combined with party-induced sleep deprivation makes me susceptible to colds. After just a few days here, we were so comfortable that we decided to make Ollantaytambo our home for a few weeks, which quickly became a month. Read more

Galapagos on less than $50 a day, Day 2

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Beach on San Cristobal, Galapagos, as seen from gorgeous blue water. Day 2 of my trip to Galapagos on a budget.Today was day 2 of our trip to the Galapagos. Since we don’t like to book our hotels in advance, we had to spend part of the day looking for a hotel to stay in starting tomorrow, Easter Sunday.
I have to admit, I was almost starting to regret our strategy, because so much of the town was closed yesterday that I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a nice place with a room available, but I’m happy to say that we’ve now found several nice places with rooms for around $20 per person. We haven’t decided where we’ll end up yet, but I’ll be sure and post that as part of tomorrow’s writeup.
So we both spent the morning working, and an hour or so of the afternoon scouting hotels. Afterwards, we walked north (right if you’re facing the water from town) to a nice little beach across from the university (an affiliate of UNC Chapel Hill) and hung out there, alternating between snorkeling and just enjoying the view. We’ve noticed that a lot of tourists here are really sunburnt, so we hung out under the shade of a tree near the back.
It was a hot day, and the cold water was a nice relief. I had to admit, when I first waded in, I almost chickened out and didn’t go under, but I ended up swimming for at least an hour, getting in and out multiple times.

We had fortunately brought a snorkel with us that we stumbled across at a sporting goods store in Quito – $11 for mask and snorkel. I already had a pair of goggles, and we used my gopro hero 2 to shoot some photos and video.
Underwater visibility was not great, I’m guessing because the waves were stirring up the sand. Still, this was a great beach, and we had a very good time for zero dollars.

Plus, we found out that the vendors on the beach sell chicken empanadas for a dollar. Considering that most of the restaurants we found yesterday wanted at least $14 for a meal that would normally cost about $6, this was a nice find, and will be helpful for our quest to see the Galapagos for somewhere under ten million dollars. The empanadas were delicious, by the way – I ended up having two.

After several snorkeling sessions on the first beach, we packed up and walked further north, following a sign that said “Cabo del Horno”, which is apparently “Cape Horn” in english. I thought it meant “Cape Oven”, but that shows the quality of my spanish. At one point, the path just plain ended, and we had to look for a few seconds before we saw a pedestrian-only trail off to the right.
This trail was marked by little white as a nesting ground for aquatic iguanas, and we either saw a great many of these along the way, or just some other lizard.
This path was a nice little walk of probably about 8 minutes.

Cape Horn beach was pristine, and even nicer than the first beach, though it had no shade. We put our stuff down and hopped in the water, and as soon as I looked below the surface, I saw that I was in the middle of a school of fish. Then about 10 seconds later, I saw that I was right next to a sea turtle. And then about 10 seconds after that, we found yet another sea turtle. We followed this second one around for quite some time, watching him eat things and generally be amazing.

Now we’re back at the hotel, in the air-conditioning, getting ready for dinner and to meet up with a friend from Canoa for drinks. Given our turtle adventure today, I already consider this Galapagos trip worthwhile, and I’m excited for what we’ll see when we actually engage in some kind of organized activity, rather than stumbling onto wonders by pure chance.

Photo is of Cape Horn beach from the water.

Visiting Galapagos on a budget, Day 1

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Sea Lions Galapagos Day 1
Today we flew from Quito to San Cristóbal in the Galapagos.
We had purchased our tickets via Cheapoair.com, each paying around $215 for one-way tickets. This is the same we would have paid if we had flown from Quito to Santa Cruz, say to meet a cruise we had booked.
We knew we didn’t want to get on a cruise, though, because that kind of regimented, inflexible travel is my worst nightmare. Our plan, as usual, was to show up and see how we liked it here, then book our return flights once we knew how long we wanted to stay.
There was very little information online about visiting the Galapagos without a cruise ship, so we didn’t know if we’d even be allowed to fly in without a return ticket.
Fortunately, that came off without a hitch.
Since there was nothing online, here was the process in as much detail as I can provide.

Materials required: Plane tickets, passport, luggage under 20kg (44 pounds), $100 for national park entry fee paid at arrival airport, $10 for Galapagos pseudo-customs processing fee at departure airport. A pen is handy for the forms.

1. Purchase ticket and make hotel reservation for two nights (in case we showed up and everything was booked. Was completely unnecessary, but the cruise company propaganda made us think it would be a problem).
2. Arrive at airport several hours early, having barely slept the night before (necessary whether you’re getting on a cruise or not. Sleep optional). Cab ride took a total of 40 minutes, though many people told us to allow 2 hours.
3. Wait in ~30 minute line at airport to acquire entry permit to the galapagos. This required our passports and $10 each. The kind and friendly woman behind the desk asked us for our flight number (we were worried because many people had multi-page printouts to give her, but she happily accepted our e-ticket shown on my phone), looked at our passports, and did a great deal of typing. Then she handed us two forms that were like regular customs forms, but gigantic – each was about as long as a sheet of legal-sized paper. Fortunately, on these forms she had already typed the majority of our vital information.
Unfortunately, a great deal of it was wrong, including my passport number and gender. For those of you who do not know what I look like, I have a massive beard, and am very difficult to mistake for a woman.
We were worried by this, too – it felt wrong for us to correct the officially typed information. She also gave us an arbitrary departure date, one week after our arrival, and after much deliberation, we went ahead and changed it to around when we actually expect to leave. None of this ever turned out to be a problem.
4. Take bags to a room behind the booth where we attained our entry forms, to have them x-rayed. Our bags, not the forms. The official asked us whether we were bringing any fruits or vegetables in, and had a cursory look around. Our one-pound block of cheese was allowed through, as was the candy sucker I declared with pride.
5. Stand in a special Galapagos check-in line, that, thankfully, was much shorter than the regular check-in lines, and was just past the fruit-check station. We were allowed to check in up to two bags each, with a total max weight of 20 kilos (44lbs). Somebody else’s bags were actually 20.4 kilos altogether, but this was not a problem, so I guess you get a little leeway. My paraglider and all the stuff I carry with it happily slid just under the limit at 19.2 kilos. They didn’t weigh the carryon bags.
6. {Optional} Instead of going through security, walk across the airport to a terminal containing only restaurants and a mac store, and is therefore more of a conveniently-located shopping mall than an airport terminal. Seriously, there were no planes or check-in desks or anything. We had time to kill because we were warned that we had to get to the airport two hours before our flight, and it would take up to two hours to get to the new airport from Quito. We were either very fortunate or over-careful, and therefore had about two hours to kill before going through customs. Actually getting to the airport from central Quito took 40 minutes, not two hours.
7. Board plane, begin to panic as the pilot announces the wrong destination. It turns out you’re not the one who is confused about where the plane is going, but the man flying it, which is somehow better.
8. Fill out remaining sections of entry form, realizing that its hard-hitting questions include a list of the activities you hope to enjoy on the islands, starting with your favorite.
8. Pass through 3 hours or so of increasingly bizarre Ecuadorian flight regulations that seemingly ban the use of your laptop at any time in the plane, whether the plane is taking off, landing, flying at a steady altitude, or even sitting on the ground waiting 45 minutes for the doors to open and allow a new set of passengers to board. Use of my kindle was completely ignored.
9. [Optional] Awaken to find that one of your neighbors has been stealing your complimentary beverages. Realize that his loud celebration at this minor windfall is what woke you up.
10. Finally arrive at the San Cristóbal airport.
11. Become overjoyed that $100 entry fee can now be paid with an actual $100 bill, meaning you can stop carrying the theoretically valuable but practically useless currency. Hand over your entry form and receive a stub (which you also filled out) and a colorful receipt for the $100.
12. Wait for an hour for your bag in the strangest baggage collection process I have ever seen. Note that this includes the time in Colombia that my bags were unloaded by horse-drawn cart. Today’s baggage collection process was so bizarre and chaotic that I’m going to save its description for another post. The good news is San Cristóbal’s airport is still in construction, so hopefully some day it will be better. I would still definitely advise flying to San Cristóbal over Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz sucks, and its airport is unnecessarily far away from town. If you’re going on a cruise, of course, you have to go to Santa Cruz.
13. Smile, sprint, and cajole your way into one of the white pickup trucks that serves as taxis on the island. Pay $1.50 for a ride to your hotel, not caring that the sources online said it only cost a dollar. Note – it helped to walk to the driver window and clearly tell the driver the name of the hotel where we were going.
14. Ride in the taxi for approximately 4 minutes (depending on your hotel, of course, we were staying at Casa Mabel).
15. Check in, turn on the air-conditioning, collapse on bed.

Photo is of Sea Lions on the beach in San Cristobal, Galapagos. Note the baby nursing from its mother.

Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

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Silly-looking man with arms outstretched in front of the same Machu Picchu photo everyone takes, ruined city in the mountains with green courtyards.

Obligatory Machu Picchu photo. Pro Tip: You have to start hiking at 4:30 in order to get to the top early enough to shoot it without tourists everywhere.

What to say about the Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu. It’s one of the more relatively active ways to get from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. It involves hiking on the famous “Inca Trail to Machu Picchu”, but does not require a 6-month reservation to do it. It’s extremely fun, and if you get lucky with the pricing, it’s cheaper than taking the train.  Read more

Paragliding in Roldanillo, Colombia

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Dirt path leading up a hillside, surrounded by fog

Photo is at the takeoff in Roldanillo. Most days, when we got to the top, we emerged into fog, which we had to wait for before we could take off. 

Written Spring 2013

I just finished the best day of paragliding I’ve ever had, and they tell me that the conditions weren’t even very good. Read more

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