Category: Uncategorized

Home again, home again

Where’d the blog go? Where are you guys? Are you back?

Somehow, many weeks have passed since my last post, and in the meantime, we’ve returned to the Bay Area and are working on getting ourselves settled back in! For those who may have missed the update, we decided in December to come back earlier than originally planned for two main reasons: 1) Vaya Adventures wants and needs more of Jim’s attention, and he was quite busy planning fun excursions for us most days and didn’t have enough time for the business and 2) homeschooling all three of our precious little angels and finding ways for them to interact with their peers and get space from each other was a challenge with all the moving around we were doing.

We’re very happy we embarked on a such an adventure, and we consider ourselves so fortunate to come home to the Bay Area and be surrounded again by so many of our family members and friends.

Hike with Ryan, Eveli, Sebastien and Grayson soon after we got back home:

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Our actual trip home was uneventful, but a VERY long travel day, including our flight from Panama City to San Francisco. Jim and I didn’t even realize until after takeoff that this flight would by 7.5 hours long. We were not mentally prepared! At one point the pilot announced that we had 5.5 more hours and I thought Cecelia might scream.

After landing at SFO we encountered a very long customs line (and this was in advance of the immigration ban), which put us square in the middle of the Bay Area evening commute (Welcome home!) By the time we reached Berkeley, we were 19 hours into a 20 hour day (which started at 4am in Cartagena) and somewhat delirious, but with the help of our sweet friends and family, we gathered our cars, were fed delicious snacks and Cheeseboard Pizza, and hit our pillows hard for a LONG night’s sleep.

We definitely experienced some culture shock the first few days of being back. The Bay Area is FILLED with people, and traffic, and wow, so different from where we’ve been the past few months. Somehow five months felt fairly long while we were gone, but once we were home seemed much shorter.

The kids were so excited that they could speak English to people we met throughout the day and be understood, but they’re still busting out their new Spanish vocabularies here and there. We will definitely be sticking with Duolingo to make sure the learning doesn’t stop now that we’re home. Just ask Colin about his Spanish- all three of the kids have better accents than Jim or I ever will, and Colin likes to rub it in.

We’ve quickly embarked on making up for lost time at some of our favorite local restaurants, but I’ve also been so happy to eat at home more, and to cook exactly what we like to eat for dinner. Within the first few weeks, we’ve hit Zachary’s pizza, the Cheeseboard (more than once), SOOP (soup!), Sol Y Luna (our neighborhood Mexican joint), and Scoop (amazingly delectable homemade ice cream). We certainly didn’t starve at any point on our trip, but it has been nice to have some of our favorites so close at hand again.

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Cecelia and Sean are back at Cragmont Elementary, and fully into the swing of things after only a few weeks. The first few days they definitely had some anxieties about their knowledge of the curriculum, and just feeling like they knew what was going on, but it didn’t last long for either of them. Within a few days, Cecelia had been given a viola (4th graders get instruments and have music instruction at school) and Sean was back to full-court basketball games at recess and lunch every day. They seem to have great teachers (both of whom we did not know previously) and have been really happy to see all of their old friends and classmates again.

Colin and I took a quick trip to San Diego to see Grandma and Grandpa because I was homesick too! Colin didn’t mind the uninterrupted attention of all three adults in the house, and he had some special fun with Grandpa while me and my mom got to go to yoga (three days in a row!) and did some (totally unnecessary) shopping.

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Colin and I have been spending a lot of quality time together and he will be back in preschool a few days a week starting next week. Unfortunately, his old preschool did not have space for him right now, so we’ll be trying a new school. I think he’ll do great regardless, and that he’s ready…the other day after 2 straight weeks of hanging out with (only) me all day long he asked “When do I get to go back to school too?” (Translation: “no offense, mama, but I need some space!”

The last few weeks we’ve been so happy to visit with our sweet nephews and nieces (and their parents of course) and to see our friends (and a newborn baby!) Colin has helped me babysit his cousin Greta (8 months), and until I find my next job, I have a hunch that we’ll have some more babysitting opportunities coming our way 🙂 (My siblings have babysat for us SO many times we’re in serious debt, so it’s good to start paying things back a little).

Cecelia with Grayson and Greta:

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Sebastien in his new Kaka jersey (retired national player from Brazil):

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Colin and Greta with a gorilla family at a local kids’ museum:

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Colin and I babysitting Greta:

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The winter here has been VERY wet- tons of rain all of January and we’ve had quite a bit since we’ve been back too. We’ve gotten in some good (muddy) hikes at the Green House and the waterfall is gushing!

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The kids and Jim took advantage and headed to Lake Tahoe this weekend with friends…I was tempted to go too, but if I had, this post never would have gotten written 🙂 (besides, it’s good for all of us to have a little space, right?) I took full advantage filling my weekend with visits with friends and family, updating my resume (anyone want to hire me?) and catching up on all the ‘little’ things that pile up when you leave the country for 5 months 🙂

Colin took his first (and second) ever ski lessons, and the kids had a great time tearing up some fresh powder with their friends.

 

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I’ve still got stories to share about coffee tasting and white sand beaches in Columbia and more, so despite the irregular chronology, this is certainly NOT the last post.

We look forward to continuing to see our families and friends we missed while we were gone. We are so grateful we had the opportunity to go on this amazing adventure, and the support of our family and friends while we were gone and now that we’re back has been great.

Thanks to everyone who has sent me feedback and encouragement on the blog along the way! It’s been fun to share this adventure.

Tchau for now,

Carly

 

Lima!

Before mud volcanoes and coffee in Colombia, we were in Lima for a few days, enjoying delicious food, city sights, and doing a lot of laundry after all of our adventures in the (hot, sticky, rainy) Amazon (yes, we still have plenty of chores to do on the road!)

Lima is an old city (especially by U.S. standards), having been founded in 1535, and is on the Pacific coast of Peru. What’s amazing (and was surprising to me) about Lima is that the downtown has a mix of Incan archeological sites, elegant Spanish cathedrals, and opulent Spanish palaces, all set against the backdrop of beach life on the coast, including a vibrant surf culture. Given my prior experience with Lima (and Peru in general), I never quite imagined it as a coastal ‘beach’ city, but we were definitely happy to be near the ocean again, which we hadn’t seen since November in Uruguay.

We stayed in a neighborhood called Miraflores, which is south of downtown Lima and known as one of the more modern and affluent neighborhoods of the city. Our Airbnb was on a quiet street a few blocks from bluffs with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. Our first day, we arrived in time for a glorious sunset. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our adventures in the Amazon had tired us out, and we ended up taking it VERY easy in Lima, which was enjoyed by all.

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Neighborhoods around the city have been built up around many of the old buildings which makes for beautiful architectural sights where you’d least expect them. Some of them have been turned into boutique hotels, some into private homes, and still others into trendy restaurants in the happening Lima food scene.

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On one of our adventures while in Lima, we ventured to the district south of Miraflores known as Chorrillos, which is rougher around the edges, to have ceviche at a ‘local’ restaurant. Peru is known as being one of the top destinations in Latin America for food, and the ceviche in Lima is one of the reasons why. (It also just happens to be one of Jim’s all-time favorite foods…)

Surprising all of us (including herself), after Cecelia tried fresh fish ceviche and fried calamari, she declared that she is no longer a vegetarian. Not sure if it will last, but her enthusiasm was still a major testament to the food for which Lima is best known.

We had ceviche two of the four days we were in town, and Colin was the only one who wouldn’t try it (preferring to enjoy two of his favorites, pizza and pesto which were in short supply in the jungle).

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After stuffing ourselves with lots of fresh fish (and other yummy things), we needed a walk to keep us awake so we headed toward the local beach. On our way down a foot path, it was hilarious to hear the mom of a local family walking up past us say (in Spanish of course) “Mira los gringos, que lindos,” which loosely translates as “How cute, look at those gringos.”

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And yes, they are pretty cute, especially when they’re goofing around like above. Just funny to hear her say it and of course she didn’t expect us to hear (or understand) her.

The beach in Chorrillos was packed and families were enjoying the perfect beach weather. In Rio we noticed that people sit really close to each other at the beach, and the same was true here. The density was truly impressive. We’ve seen the same thing at Coney Island of course, but it’s not the typical scene we’re used to from our experiences in San Diego and on the Jersey Shore. Probably the biggest disappointment of our Chorrillos outing was the amount of trash we saw people leaving everywhere on the beach. It was truly a mess; plastic bottles and bags were floating around at the shoreline and the beach was strewn with all the waste from the day’s festivities, waiting for the incoming waves to carry it away.

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What was cool, however, is that the kids noticed the trash on their own and talked amongst themselves about how people shouldn’t leave their trash behind because of the animals, the ocean, and other people who want to enjoy the beach. I guess it was a small silver lining to an otherwise discouraging moment.

The coastline in Miraflores was a great place for us to get out on another family bike ride (we’re SO close to actually all being able to do this without special seats, etc.), and bike rides on this trip have been a highlight because they are something that we unanimously enjoy (there aren’t that many things on the unanimous list right now…) The coastline has been beautifully designed with parks, paths, and recreation facilities in mind (although some of it is under major construction currently which created some small detours), so our ride took us through sites like the Parque de Amor (park of love), with which its passionate starring statue, was not the kids’ favorite.

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We even tried a mini BMX course (dirt, off-road) along the way!

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After Lima, we said goodbye to Peru and headed for Bogota. The relatively shorter stays in the Amazon and Lima before leaving for Colombia left some of us in a better mood than others, but we rallied and got psyched up for our fun plans in a totally new place.

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More to come soon!

Tchau for now,

All of us

 

 

 

 

 

 

Care for a dip in an active volcano?

My parents have had a lot of crazy ideas but none of them as crazy as taking us innocent little children into an active volcano.    It was kind of weird, we just woke up one morning and they said “we’re going in a volcano.”   No need to worry though, it was a mud volcano. It took about 45 minutes to get there and we drove to it in a private van.  When we got there we bought our tickets to go in the volcano.  To get to the entrance to the volcano we had to go up a staircase which was about 60 feet high.  Once we walked to the top of the volcano we slowly lowered ourselves into the mud.  It was really weird, you couldn’t sink even if you tried.

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The mud felt kind of good but mostly weird plus it went 2,000 meters down. It was so weird that at one point my mom said that it felt like we were taking a bath in really thick chocolate pudding.

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When we got out of the mud we went down to the lagoon to wash off.  After we got most of the mud out of our hair and stuff, we went to change into dry clothes for the ride home.  On the ride home we got one cookie each, they were chocolate chip.  By the time we got there we were done with the cookies and ready to relax.

THE END:)

(by Cecelia)

A special visit

Through Jim’s travels and connections in Peru over the past many years, he became aware of indigenous photographer Martin Chambi. Chambi has an amazing story: he was born in 1891 into a Quechua-speaking peasant family in one of the poorest regions of Peru. When his father went to work at a gold mine on a small tributary in a nearby province, Chambi went along and happened to learn the rudiments of photography from the mine photographer. This encounter sparked an interest in photography for him that led him to move to Arequipa in 1908 and serve as an apprentice in the studio of Max T. Vargas, and then to eventually establish his own studio in 1917.

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Jim became aware that members of Chambi’s family are maintaining an archive of Chambi’s work in Cusco and has made a few attempts over the years at trying to contact the administrator of the archive, Chambi’s grandson Teo Chambi. On this trip, we were fortunate that Teo Chambi was in town and available and we were able to go and meet with him, hear stories of his grandfather’s life and experience as a photographer, and see the amazing trove of items that are being preserved.

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If you’ve traveled in or read about Peru, particularly the Cusco region, you’ve probably seen at least one of Chambi’s photographs at one point or another. He was a pioneer in the subject matter of the people and landscapes of the Cusco region; many of his photographs of indigenous people and the Inca ruins throughout the Sacred Valley, including Machu Picchu, were the first of their kind that many had seen.

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What makes his work all the more impressive (at least to a photography novice like me) is that at the time he began his career, photography was a newer art (or science) involving glass plates, chemicals (like nitric acid), and lots of other heavy equipment. For example, when Chambi visited a site like Machu Picchu, we would have with him a maximum of 30 glass plates for 30 photographs; very different than how we approach photography today with our digital cameras and iPhones, taking as many pictures as we want and deleting the ones we don’t like. He would have had 30 chances to get the ‘right’ shot. Such a different approach at such a different time. From his work, it’s evident that 30 was plenty, but amazing to think about the time and preparation that probably went into each shot when such a limited number were available. What has also struck me looking at his work is that despite how much set-up and preparation may have been involved, many of his subjects and the subject matter still seem to be captured in their natural state. Even in the posed, formal shots, he captures so much of the spirit and character of his subjects. His body of work is beautiful, and definitely work looking into (much is available on the archive website) if you are interested in Peru and the Cusco region.

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Our visit to the archive wasn’t something the kids would put at the top of their favorites list, but even for the first 45 minutes of the 1 1/2 meeting, they were very busy looking through the books featuring his work and the examples around the studio. Very fun and interesting to get off the beaten tourist track (even a little further!) and get introduced to and more familiar with such an amazing artist.

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This is a photograph of Martin Chambi, his wife, and their 6 children, including our host’s mom, second from the right in the checkered dress.

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A basketball team in Cusco:

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The archive meeting room, and coffee table FILLED with wonderful books of Chambi’s and other artists’ work:

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We even got to pose against a re-creation of the backdrop that was used in many of Chambi’s studio portraits:

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There will be an exhibition of Chambi’s work at the SF Moma in 2017, so Bay Area friends can see his work firsthand.

So many unique adventures in such a relatively short trip! We’re feeling very fortunate (and sometimes tired!) and excited to come home soon and share more tales of our travels with everyone in person.

Tchau for now!

XOXO

All of us!

 

Welcome to the jungle

And by ‘jungle’ I do not mean life on the road with three kids (although it would be a perfectly applicable description of that as well). We left Huayocarri in the Sacred Valley after a little over one month there, and spent four days last week in the Peruvian Amazon checking out the nature and wildlife.

It’s amazing to me how amenable to crazy-sounding travel plans the kids have become and I’m definitely interested to know if it will make them more ‘flexible’ with plans when we get home. This time around, we told them the day held an early wake-up (always their least favorite news), a 40-minute flight (from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado), a two-ish hour boat ride up the Tambopata River from Puerto Maldonado (which itself is a 40-minute flight from Cusco), and then a 15-minute uphill hike to get to our lodge.

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On the way to our lodge, lunch was served out of huge leaves similar to banana tree leaves:

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While first reactions to our open-air rooms and the many bugs and creatures roaming about included some trepidation, we all had a great time and by the time we left, the kids asked to stay for four more nights (they told our guide that they were going to stay on with him after we left and then it was his turn for trepidation as they had definitely already worn him out).

Among the creatures we wanted to keep our distance from, the bullet ants (one pictured below) and army ants were out en force. This picture doesn’t do the size justice of a bullet ant…and we have been told their bite is quite painful so we stepped around them with care.

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As Jim put it while we were en route, suffering is always at least a small part of going to the Amazon (setting expectations is always important), and we did have some moments of suffering (especially those of us who the mosquitoes find particularly sweet).

More than the suffering though, it was such a welcome shock to the system to be away from ‘real life’ even more than we have been all along on this trip. Our rooms had no windows (or walls for that matter) and being an eco-lodge, there was only electricity at certain times of the day. While the main lodge did have wifi, it was really poor, and we had actually decided beforehand that the kids wouldn’t bring their tablets, so we had very limited screen time and screen access while we were there.

The result was four days and four nights interacting only with each other, the other guests (we met visitors from Australia, the UK, China, New Zealand, and Texas), the jungle weather (huge rainstorms followed by intense sun) and exploring the vegetation and creatures all around us with our guide, Fernando.

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We scaled a (TALL) tree (using the climbing technique known as ‘jumaring,’ click this link if you want to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8KRKWEMwyA), climbed an observation platform to watch the sunrise above the jungle canopy, kayaked in a torrential Amazon downpour (at which point Sean stated: “I think it’s fair to say that this day is one of the worst of my life,”) played soccer in the mud (once with galoshes on), and woke up at 4am to see macaws gather where they congregate to extract salt from a naturally occurring clay lick.

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On one of our night hikes, Cecelia helped one of the guides find a tiger moth and we learned that there are over 11,000 known species and probably many more waiting to be discovered…so now, Cecelia is waiting to hear whether or not she found one of the new ones. If so, she’s decided it will be named either the “Cecelia” or “Bob.”

In this picture, the guide is showing Cecelia a tic-infested beetle. (Yes, yuck!, but still quite cool :))
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We enjoyed our Amazon jaunt and definitely tired ourselves out! Other than the mosquito bites, we survived our jungle adventures unscathed and we were on to our next stop, Lima, to see the ocean (we’ve missed it since Uruguay) and eat some ceviche (for which Lima is known). More to come soon from Miraflores (our neighborhood in Lima).

Tchau for now.

XOXOX, Us

Our New Year’s Eve Best of/Worst of List

Everyone makes lists this time of year, so we decided to make one of our own, featuring our favorite (and least favorite) highlights of our trip so far. We’ve been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences exploring new cities, having adventures in nature, staying at beautiful hotels, and eating at delicious restaurants, that this was a hard list to make. In most cases, we let the majority vote win, in other cases, we had to let there be ties to limit the drama (and prevent any sort of insurrection).  So without further ado, some of the most memorable details of our trip so far.

Best Croissant: Ninina Bakery in Buenos Aires (would also win for ‘best scone’ ‘best cookie’ ‘most beautiful selection of cakes’ ‘best fresh granola,’ you get the idea.)

Favorite animal sighting: Maned wolf, Ocelet, and Anaconda (3-way tie) in the Pantanal. Important to note that the maned wolf and ocelot were in the wild, and the Anaconda was trying to crawl into the main dining room of our Fazenda and was being removed with a stick by the kitchen staff.

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Best Country for Vegetarians: Peru (it’s not close!) With Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay all known for their beef, all menus in those destinations centered around meats prepared a variety of ways. The Sacred Valley in Peru is known for being extremely fertile land for agriculture and we’re surrounded by fields of corn, squash, greens, cabbage, eggplant, and hundreds of other crops. Needless to say, Cecelia has been eating a much better diet now that we’re here.

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Best Pizza: 3-way tie between Las Quartetas/Kentucky Pizza (both in Buenos Aires) and Vespa (Rio)

Las Quartetas is one of the oldest pizzerias in Buenos Aires and had a great old school charm with delicious traditional Argentinian pizza, recommended by a friend of Jim’s. Kentucky Pizzeria is a chain in Buenos Aires and is by far the restaurant we returned to the most so far on the trip. The pizza was good and the prices could not be beat: the entire family could have their fill + 1-2 beers each for the adults and the total cost would be about ~$20.

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Most Memorable Bug Experience: Pantanal and Alacranes (aka scorpions) in house in Peru Poor Cecelia was the favorite of the mosquitoes in the Pantanal and she came home from one night excursion and counted 149 bites total on her body. Although she did suffer at first, Benadryl and time were the remedies there, and pretty soon, it was just a record to brag about. The alacranes  are another story- shortly after our stay started in Huayoccari we saw a few small scorpions on the walls and the floor. We asked about them and were told, ‘oh no, don’t worry about those. They aren’t scorpions, they’re just alacranes.’ But believe me, they’re scorpions and when you look up the definition of ‘alacran,’ this is what you’ll see: “scorpion, any of several species of arachnids with a long segmented tail ending in a venomous sting.” Anyway, we’ve been careful every time we come home, and Jim has become very skilled at smashing them in one clean blow. P.S. Yes, we both purposely didn’t tell our moms about these until they were in the past tense, as in right now.

(We don’t have pics of these- too traumatic!)

Best soccer field: “little goals” field, near the lagoon where Olympic rowing and crew took place in Rio. Here’s a shot of my crazy family singing the national anthem before the start of one of our games.

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Best sushi: Sushi Leblon (only Jim and I can actually vote on this since we left the kids with a babysitter to have a hot date at this super popular sushi spot in the Leblon neighborhood in Rio). Besides for being a major hotspot with lots of good people-watching, the sushi was easily some of the best we’ve ever had.

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Best Cabs: Unanimous agreement here between the kids that the cabs in Buenos Aires have been by far the best. I haven’t been able to get any specifics out of them other than “the cabs didn’t smell as bad,” so we’ll just leave it at that and move on to the next category.

Best Pool: Recanto Cataratas (at Iguazu Falls) This was the kids’ first experience at a true ‘resort’ featuring two outdoor pools, one indoor pool, a hot tub, and game-room with air hockey and pool. We had beautiful sunny weather and enjoyed the pool and grounds for a few days while poor Jim worked at his travel conference.

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Best hot chocolate: Buenos Aires, with our churros on the food tour. In Buenos Aires, a traditional hot chocolate is served as a ‘submarina;’ you are served hot milk with a chocolate bar on the side and you put the chocolate bar into the milk and stir as it melts.

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Best haircut: Sean’s Faux Hawk (like a mohawk, but not totally bald on the sides). Sean decided what he wanted and without hesitation, we walked into Bethel Peluqueria on the street in Urabamba where all of the haircut stores are (at least 15 in 2 blocks!) and he sat down and went for it. Thankfully, he was quite happy with the result and has decided it will be his cut of choice for the next cut as well.

Worst Night’s Sleep: The house we were supposed to stay in for 6 weeks in La Barra, near Punta del Este in Uruguay. Now known by all in the family as “that mosquito torture chamber.” We spent the majority of this night comforting the kids who couldn’t sleep and stalking mosquitoes that were busy biting us. We all woke up with plenty of new bites, and very lacking in sleep. We said good riddance as quickly as possible.

Worst hotel ever: El Esplendor in Montevideo. The list of things that were wrong about this place is long. Some highlights: we needed to move rooms 3 times after a 1-hour long check-in process because ALL of the rooms smelled strongly of smoke. (It was a non-smoking hotel with a $100 fee for smoking in the rooms, but apparently every previous guest ever didn’t care.) We also had the lovely treat of finding the bottoms of a set of women’s pajamas folded in the blanket at the end of the bed in the room we finally decided was OK. To top things off, the eggs in the breakfast buffet were orange and even Jim wouldn’t eat them (that’s saying something).

Best Night’s Sleep: Pueblo Hotel, Machu Picchu. Just like at home, the day leading up to the night’s sleep has a ton to do with how well we’ve slept. The day we stayed here, we spent many hours at Machu Picchu, hiking up to the sun gate, and exploring all over the ruins in higher altitude and what were eventually pouring rains. It didn’t hurt that we were spoiled rotten at the Pueblo in a beautiful suite with great beds, fancy linens, private hot tub, private outdoor shower, and heated floors, but I’m certain we would have slept well this night just about anywhere since we did such a good job of wearing ourselves out.

Best local beer: Quilmes (Argentina). Every country has their own (or a few) local mass brewed beers (like our Miller and Bud) and Quilmes definitely had an edge over the three options in Brazil, 2 in Uruguay and 1 in Peru.

However, when you start talking about the best local artisan and craft beers, the tables tip in favor of Peru, with the Sierra Andina and Sacred Valley breweries, both of which have great IPA (India Pale Ales) that we had been missing until we arrived to the Sacred Valley.

Best Meal: Recently described in our post from Aguas Calientes and our visit to Machu Picchu, Chullpi has been the best overall dining experience we’ve all had on this trip (and maybe otherwise too!) We were spoiled rotten with amazing food, personal explanations of each plate by the chef, two surprise courses, and a dessert that had the kids asking if they could please lick their plates (“it would be a compliment to the chef,” they assured us.) The finishing touch at Chullpi that basically blew our minds was a dessert that seemed to be some sort of tasty encrusted molten ball of chocolate. It had a light and thin outer layer and when you popped it into your mouth, the warm chocolate burst out and every single one of us lit up with smiles and delight. Magical.

The ‘molten chocolate’ balls are the very nondescript looking light-colored items in the top plate in the picture below:

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Best discovery we’ll continue to enjoy at home: Tannat, known as the national grape in Uruguay, was new to us on this trip. It is featured in the delicious local Uruguayan wine of the same name and we’re looking forward to finding it in some of our local outposts at home and sharing it with friends and family. Tannat is lighter than a cabernet or merlot, has great flavor like a Malbec, but is more drinkable like a red Italian table wine, without being too light, and is great with all different types of food. It has historically been grown in the Southwest of France, but is now very prominent in Uruguay as well.

Best Juice Bar: Polis Sucos (Ipanema, Rio). One of our earliest culinary discoveries on the trip that made everyone happy. They offered every combination of fresh juice with and without ice and/or milk (delicious, like a fresh fruit milkshake without the ice cream). Favorite to date: pineapple, ginger, mint, and orange (name on the menu, “Happy”).

Best hotel(s) (so far): Three-way tie between the Monasterio (Cusco), Fazenda Vik (fancy beyond fancy polo ranch in Uruguay) and Fazenda San Francisco (our humble lodge in the Pantanal).

Best Tourist Attraction: Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina), Machu Picchu, Sugarloaf Mountain (Rio), and Paralympics (Rio) Way too tough to pick just one here. The list is really a lot longer, we’ve gotten to see so many cool things!

There are so many more highlights that we’ll bore everyone with in our stories when we get home, but it’s been fun for us to talk about the highs and lows that we all remember so far. Overwhelmingly, the trip has been great, and we’re finishing 2016 with a feeling of gratitude for all of the people we’ve met and experiences we’ve had so far. And we’re excited that we have more adventure awaiting us already in 2017 with our next stops in the Peruvian Amazon, Colombian coffee country, Bogota, and Cartagena.

Despite all of the fun adventures and good eating we’ve been doing, there are of course some things about home that we miss. Other than people (our family and friends who we miss the most of all), the number one thing that we each miss the most are:

Cecelia: Our house

Sean: My nerf gun

Colin: Beary (Beary is Colin’s favorite stuffed animal. He was all packed and ready to come with us on the trip but in our excitement, he was left in the front yard and never even made it into the airport shuttle. The good news is that he’s waiting for us safe and sound in Berkeley.

Jim: Running in Tilden Park

Carly: The washer and dryer. Rather than try to wax poetic about something less material, I’ll just be honest and say that I won’t be disappointed when we get back home and I can regularly use a washer and dryer again. I’m sure I sound spoiled and I shouldn’t be so attached to material things, but let’s be clear, a family of 5 generates a lot of dirty laundry!

We wish everyone at home a very happy new year and hope that 2017 is filled with happiness, good health, and lots of new adventures for all of us!

All our love!

Tchau for now xoxox

Llamas, guinea pigs, and ruins, oh my!

Llamas, guinea pigs, and ruins, oh my!

It’s hard to believe we’ve already been in Peru almost one month (we arrived November 30) and that we’re coming to the end of our fourth month away. We’ve spent the last few weeks exploring the Sacred Valley of Peru, including many sites of Inca ruins, local markets, soccer fields, hiking trails, and restaurants.

When we first arrived to our rented house in Huayoccari, the contrast between our new surroundings and where we’d just come from in Montevideo and Buenos Aires felt extreme. The Sacred Valley is roughly 60km in the Andean Highlands of Peru, and consists of fertile farmland that was once the heart of the Inca empire. Today, it is many small towns, and a few larger ones, both in the valley along the Urubamba River and in the even higher highlands, well above where we are staying (which is at ~9,000ft.)

Our house is ~1 mile up a dirt road off the main road through the valley, and our primary form of transportation to the nearest ‘big’ city (Urubamba) or anywhere else is to walk down to the main road and catch a ‘combi’ which are basically minivans that act as local busses and run back and forth through the valley on no specific schedule. Passengers are picked up whether or not there are seats available, and they stop and start as quickly as possible, so traveling in them with our group of five has been interesting to say the least. (At least we’re providing some entertainment for the locals). We’ve also learned that there aren’t specific stops- to request a stop, you simply call up to the driver “baja esquina” (literal translation: get down/off, corner) and then you see where the driver decides to stop.

We’re fortunate in that our house has a nice flat yard in the back which we’ve used extensively for soccer, and the first few days, we could only go a few minutes before one of us would call “halftime” due to the altitude. We’ve definitely gotten acclimated, but physical exercise is still noticeably more challenging than we’re used to!

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We’ve packed in so many fun adventures and activities during our time here thanks in great part to one of Jim’s longtime friends, Franco Negri, who runs Explorandes, one of Vaya Adventures’ longest-standing business partners. Franco and his wife Marlis hosted Jim in their home 14 years ago (when they had 1 infant daughter who was 6 months old…they now have 4 children, the youngest being 5) and helped Jim start to get familiar with Cusco and the Sacred Valley for setting up his operations in Peru.

Only a few days after our arrival, we joined Franco, three of his kids (Mateo 12, Alegria 8, and Kantu 5) and a few of their friends for a BBQ at a local ‘sport club’ that is the only place of it’s kind in the area, with an indoor 50m pool, a turf soccer field, volleyball courts, climbing wall, grass soccer field, and more. Needless, to say, the kids had fun! (But wow, try swimming 50m (not to mention actual laps) at altitude sometime…a bit of a challenge!)

Colin’s 5th birthday was a few days after we arrived, and Franco and his family came over to help us celebrate with Colin’s requested menu: chicken and rice. I wasn’t quite ready to ‘entertain’ so early in our stay (was still learning how to use the oven!) but it was fairly easy since one of the most common types of restaurants in Peru serves “pollo a la brasa” which is basically rotisserie chicken with papas fritas (thick-cut french fries) and other sides. We also took Colin to a local bakery and he picked out his own cake, which we served with sides of jelly beans and gummy bears.

We made a “pin the soccer ball on the goal” game (original artwork by Jim and Cecelia), and had lots of fun.

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The first major Incan site that we visited was Ollantaytambo, which is about 40 minutes north of where we are staying in the Sacred Valley. During the Inca empire, Ollantaytambo was a royal estate, and later was an important stronghold for the Inca resistance against the Spanish conquest. The site is elaborate and beautiful, featuring incredible terraces (to make the steep slopes farmable, and for defense), ceremonial centers, storehouses, temples, and baths. At 9,160ft and featuring the large stone steps typical of Inca sites, it was one of our more challenging visits since we were still adjusting to the altitude.

In the town of Ollantaytambo:

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Touristing it up with the other tourists:

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Views from the ruins:

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Pondering…

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The family of the owner of the house we are staying in also owns another house up the road from us, as well as a beautiful hacienda even further up the road that hosts lunches for tourists including weaving demonstrations. Through the sister of the owner of this house, we signed up for ceramics classes at “Tallera Huayoccari” and have been enjoying our family ceramics classes a few times each week.

Our teacher, Sergio, has been doing ceramics for 30 years and sells his own works at a store on the main road in Huayocarri. We’ve been shown the basic steps of creating the actual clay (the proportions of different types of rock and sand), how to work with a manual and electric potter’s wheel, and the fundamental steps involved in creating a strong base and building up the side walls. It’s been a lot of fun to take the class together in an art in which none of us has much experience, and the kids have especially enjoyed that they are better at most of the steps than both Jim and I.

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Another amazing local site in the valley are the ‘salineras’ or salt mines, high up in the hills near the towns of Maras and the ruins of Moray. We visited all three plus the town of Chinchero all in a day-the kids are real travel troopers these days! This particular day we were blessed with bright blue skies and great weather, affording amazing views of many far-off peaks and glaciers, including those of Mount Victoria and Mount Salcantay, the latter which is the highest peak in the Vilcabamba mountain range at ~20,500ft.

The 3,000 salt mines are owned by about 300 local families that have been tending them for many generations (hundreds of years).  The mines are terraced on to the steep hillside (like so much of the agriculture in the valley) and are fed by a spring named Qoripujio. The stream feeds the ponds through a series of small aqueducts that must be opened and blocked for each pond. Once each pond is filled and drained via the spring, the remaining water takes about a month to evaporate and leave the crystallized salt. When things get to the point of more salt crystals than water the owners of the ponds manually scrape out the salt which is put into a basket or colander to continue draining.

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These ponds produce pink salt, salts for bath therapies, salts that get combined with flavorings and even salt for animals (salt licks).

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After seeing the salineras and the town of Maras, we visited the ruins of Moray.  Moray is on a high plateau at about 11,500ft and consists of many terraced circular depressions, the largest of which is 98ft deep. That may not sound like much at first, but try to imagine a huge pattern of concentric circles in the middle of an extremely rocky mountain plain and how it could have been created with handmade tools and human labor…it starts to boggle the mind a bit when you remember that the site was created hundreds of years ago with no mechanical tools. While it has sustained some damage from flooding and earthquakes over time, it is largely intact and very impressive.

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Look closely and you’ll see four intrepid travelers headed down the path to the lower circles…

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As with many other Inca sites, it also has an irrigation system. No one knows for sure that the depressions were used for but many speculate that because their depth, design, and orientation with respect to wind and sun creates a temperature difference of as much as 15 °C (27 °F) between the top and the bottom, it is possible that this large temperature difference was used by the Inca to study the effects of different climatic conditions on crops.

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From Moray we headed to Chinchero, which sits at 12,3ooft and has some of the most fertile land in the Sacred Valley. The ruins at Chinchero are thought to be ruins of a country resort for Inca Tupac Yupanquison of Pachacutec. There are many aqueducts and terraces among the ruins which are still in use today for farming purposes. The church in Chinchero that sits over the main plaza was built in 1607 by the Spanish and features ornate painted ceilings (but alas, no photography was permitted so can’t share that particular detail).

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Chinchero is known for the quality of the textiles and weavings and we stopped at a weaving collective for a demonstration of how the different colors are created. These demonstrations can feel touristy, but it was still really cool to see how different plants and even animals (one particular bug provides over 20 shades of red!) are used to dye the sheep, alpaca, and llama wool.

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Franco and his son Mateo also took us for a hike near a small lake up above the town and ruins of Pisac, in an area called Amaru in “parque de la papa” (potato park) which is so-called because more than 1,000 varieties of potato are grown there. Different varieties are grown at different altitudes on the steep slopes, and over time, the farmers have had to move varieties up the mountain to adjust for climate changes (warmer weather). Varieties previously grown at the highest altitudes can no longer be grown successfully because it’s now too warm.

We were at more than 11,000ft and were (mostly) all smiles…

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Franco with Colin and Cecelia:

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We’ve been to Cusco once so far for an overnight and will spend two more days and one more night there before we depart for the Amazon region of Tambopata. Cusco is the capital of the region, and was the historic capital of the Inca empire until the 16th century Spanish conquest. Cusco features many ruin sites as well as many buildings and walls throughout the city feature original Inca architecture with Spanish influence. The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces and used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of a new city. The main plaza of Cusco features a beautiful Spanish cathedral which was built between 1560 and 1664. The main material used was stone, which was extracted from nearby quarries and some blocks of red granite, taken from the fortress of Saksaywaman.

Cusco from the hillside above:

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Because of its antiquity and importance, the city center retains many buildings, plazas, streets and churches of pre-Colombian times and colonial buildings, which led to its declaration as a World Heritage sight by UNESCO in 1983.

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Walking down into Cusco on a typical narrow stone road:

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Plaza de las Armas (main plaza) at night:

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While in Cusco, we also visited the Museo de Chocolate and the kids got to make their own chocolate to bring home. They highly preferred making chocolate to visiting more ruins, but nonetheless we did use our time in Cusco to visit a few more sites.

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The fortress of Saksaywaman is on the northern outskirts of Cusco and the huge stones, like at many Inca sites, are carved smooth and fit together with no cement, sand, or other type of mortar. The best-known zone of Saksaywaman includes a huge plaza that can hold thousands of people, and its adjacent three massive terrace walls. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in pre-hispanic America. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between them. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes that have occurred in Cusco over the past few hundred years.

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Thanks again to Franco and Explorandes, we’ve even gotten to enjoy camping while here, with Franco’s team providing all of the (top of the line) equipment, and two onsite cooks who provided us with all of the delicious meals! I guess it would be more accurate to call what we did ‘glamping,’ especially considering that the tent Cecelia and I shared had a beautiful woven rug and two cots with extra plush sleeping pads and cozy sleeping bags.

At the site, we took a nice hike with beautiful views of Lake Piuray and the surrounding towns and far off mountain ranges, and got to enjoy some stand-up paddle-boarding with our guide Alvaro. Alvaro also showed us how to use eucalyptus leaves as natural ‘menthol’ therapy for stuffed up noses (demonstrated in the pic below 🙂 )

The kids also noticed that Alvaro was picking up plastic trash as he walked, so they became an eco-posse and collected tons of trash on our return to the campsite. Alvaro told the kids how impressed he was with their environmental responsibility and they were proud and have continued to pick up trash on other walks we’ve taken since.

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There was a huge storm with heavy rain, lightning, and thunder just after it got dark. Cecelia and I passed the 1-hour storm snuggling and talking in our tent, while ‘the boys’ spent the hour wrestling and somehow playing soccer in their own tent 😉

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The next morning was calm and sunny and we spent a few hours having fun on the lake. Jim and Cecelia played chicken on a  stand-up paddle-board…Cecelia won!

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Just a few days ago, we (finally) went to see Machu Picchu! In addition to enjoying the train ride to the site, hiking to the sun gate (a tough climb for Colin, especially), and covering a lot of ground at the ruins, through Jim’s connections and friends, we were also treated to three unbelievable meals in the town of Aguas Calientes. Peru is definitely known as having some of the very best food in South America, and we concurred even prior to being so spoiled at local spots Chullpi, the Pueblo Hotel’s own cafe, and the Treehouse restaurant. At Chullpi, the chef came to our table with every course and explained each dish. He also treated us to two surprise extra courses between the courses we knew about, both completely exquisite. Jim and I agree that the 2+ hour lunch was definitely the best meal we’ve ever had. We’ve since decided we need to feed the kids cereal, noodles, and soup for dinner for the next few weeks to make sure they don’t get used to anything too gourmet.

Because of all the business that Vaya Adventures does with Inkaterra hotels, we were also upgraded to the presidential suite at the Pueblo Hotel, with a separate adjoining suite for the kids! It was the first (and probably will be the last) time either of us ever spent the night in a presidential suite and needless to say, we didn’t mind it too much! We’ve been so spoiled in the last few days and are extremely grateful to everyone at Explorandes and their many partners for all the special treatment.

The weather the day we were at Machu Picchu was very mixed- the day started off sunny and turned to rain and clouds. The colder weather and rain scared a lot of the other tourists off, so we got to enjoy the ruins almost to ourselves in the afternoon, which was great.

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Jim getting balanced on the Inca trail:

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Despite the pouring rain by the time we left, the kids did great, and even did a ‘treasure hunt’ Jim devised to find three key features within the ruins. This visit to Machu Picchu is 13 years later than when Jim and I hiked the Inca trail to get there while dating in 2003. It was fun to re-visit the site with the kids and many fun memories of that trip have re-emerged for both of us while we’ve been in Peru.

Last but not least for this already lengthy post is our holiday celebrations here in Huayocarri. We returned from Machu Picchu on Christmas Eve with plans to cook our own simple dinner, open a few Christmas presents, and get to bed early so that Santa Claus could make his rounds. We enjoyed a quiet night at home, with our Spotify Christmas playlist, and the kids watched the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Christmas trees are not prominent in these parts, so we decorated a Christmas plant in the house with all homemade decorations.

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Cecelia made pancakes from scratch Christmas morning, which we enjoyed with the local traditional Christmas morning treat, panforte, strong coffee and an omelette that became a scramble due to the uneven heat on the stove that we’re still not quite used to 🙂

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After our own celebration at home, we went to the neighboring town of Yucay to watch a Christmas procession, featuring at least ten different dance groups from all over the area. The elaborate costumes, music and dancing covered a few miles of the main road and included men, women and children.

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After the procession, we joined the locals at the town’s center plaza for a Christmas fair that is scheduled to last the next three days. The children exhausted themselves in a bouncy house slide, running up to slide down over and over again, laughing and shrieking at each other’s antics.

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After watching Charlie Brown’s Christmas, all truly was (finally) calm and bright (clear sky filled with tons of stars) as the kids quickly nodded off to sleep tired out by all of our adventures in the past weeks.

We enjoyed our quiet Christmas, but also missed all of our family and friends. We hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season, and we’re excited to see everyone soon in the New Year.

All of our love and we hope the new year brings everyone health, happiness and new adventures of your own.

XOXOX and Tchau for now!