Day 1: Chicago to Buenos Aires

Welcome back to the blog: Take-a-Kid-on-Vacation edition. Three years after our planned trip for June 2020 was canceled (thanks, Covid), we are on our way to Patagonia! This time, we are heading for the Argentina side, specifically to Mount Fitz Roy — the same mountain that is on the Patagonia clothing company logo. We will get to spend seven nights at Explora El Chalten with great food, scenic hikes, and giant mountains.

Continuing the tradition of pointing at trains.

The adventure started with a flight to Miami with Matt & Jo and Mom & Dad on separate flights. We stayed at the very convenient (but not much else) Miami Airport hotel to sleep for a few hours before the next leg. After Mom & Dad checked in for their flight the next morning and were assigned seats to avoid getting Delta’d, we all met up for the hotel breakfast, fancy lounge access (thanks, parents in business class!) and to board the 8.5 hour flight.

Aerolineas Argentinas sound like a good airline to take to Argentina.

Hey, that’s where we’re going!

A few movies, a couple of meals, and one sunset later, we landed in Buenos Aires! Customs and baggage claim was a breeze, and we met our driver to take us to the hotel. With a 5:45 am departure time from the hotel tomorrow, we went to our rooms, had our beers we kept from the flight, and went to sleep.

Checking out the sunset as we near Buenos Aires

The aforementioned sunset

The Fast and the Furious: Airport Shuttle

Tomorrow is our last travel day, and we should arrive in Explora by the late afternoon. Just one more ride to the airport, a three hour flight, and a three hour car ride to go!

Day 12: SkyLodge to Chicago

Today we woke up in our crazy SkyLodge pod and enjoyed the sunrise view from the side of a cliff! The pod was a bit cold from the night – maybe mid-30s, similar to camping outside in the fall – but we quickly rectified that and warmed up with some tea thanks to the hot water provided in the thermos.

Hot tea to warm up in the pod

Geared up and ready to go

At 7am, we put on our harnesses and made the 10-minute climb back over to the dining capsule for coffee and breakfast with the rest of the group. We had fruit, bread, granola, and the guides even made us eggs.

You know, just a quick climb to breakfast

Morning view from the breakfast pod

Delicious breakfast banana rings

Dining pod has the cliff wall built in

After, we had about an hour of free time to go back to our pods, enjoy the view and get ready for the day. During this time the photographer stopped by and helped take some fun pictures and videos with the drone.

Chillin’ in the pod

Chillin’ on the pod

Pod window for fresh air

We got the top pod, one of the other pods can be seen below us

To get back down off the cliff, we took 6 zip lines. Our pod was the highest, so when it was time to leave, everyone met on our platform to climb a bit further up to get to the first zip line.

Bye pod! Heading up and out.

Waiting on our platform for the rest of the group

On the way to the first zip line

At about 10:30, we made it back down all in one piece and left right away for the Cusco airport. On the way, we were stopped by transport authority. I suppose our driver had the right papers since we were able to continue on.

Made it back alive!


We arrived back in the hustle of Cusco. Our flight wasn’t until 6:00, but others in our group had a flight at 1:40. We spent our time relaxing and people watching until our flight. Plus, we had to have one more Inca Kola.

Welcome back to Cusco!

Anybody need a hand cart? I know a great place…

Most of the day was spent in airports enjoying Peruvian classics

The flight went well and we made it to the Lima airport with plenty of time before our flight to Miami (so early, they had us wait 45 minutes before we could check our bags). Our Miami was a red-eye that departed at 11:45. Once we checked in, we got moved to the 2-seat exit row (woo!). We got some dinner at ChinaWok in the food court and made our way to the gate.

Exit row leg room!

“Made with Peruvian potatoes”

After a few hours of sleep, we arrived in Miami at about 6am, we went through customs (Global Entry is still the best), re-checked our bags, went back through security and made it to our gate with 20 minutes to spare before boarding our last flight to Chicago. We made it back home right on schedule. It was a wonderful trip that won’t be forgotten!

Day 11: Chinchero & SkyLodge

Knowing that we would be going to SkyLodge later this afternoon, we wanted an easier half-day activity in the morning. Based on another solid recommendation from Luciano, we opted for the overland tour of textiles and an archeological site at Chinchero. Our new Explora friends Ben and Keith were also leaving the hotel after lunch, so they joined us on the exploration as well. Not quite a private tour, but close enough (besides, Ben and Keith are awesome!).

Our guide Ediht explains the day at the trusty map

Best white corn statue guy we pass in Huayllabamba each day

We started with a van ride to the town of Chinchero, where a group of local women gave a presentation on how they wash, dye, spin, and use wool to make their products. They use sheep wool, alpaca wool, and baby alpca wool — which is the term used for the wool from the first sheering, not actually from baby alpacas.

Making this look easy

Using a combination of all natural and local sources (leaves, salts, seeds, etc), they are able to create a variety of colors and shades to dye the wool. Then, they turn the wool into yarn and use it to weave or knit. Once the presentation was over, we were able to shop their products. We ended up walking away with 3 pairs of gloves and a blanket. The pattern on the blanket represents the Inca Trail, the mountains, and the Chakana, which is a symbol for the terraces, a compass, and the 3 worlds.

The parasitic beetle cochineal on the prickly pear cactus provides the red dyes

What the wool looks like once dipped in the dye

Meticulous weaving

Explaining how each symbol has meaning

After making our purchases we drove a few minutes to the archeological site and the adobe church of the village . On the way to the entrance, we passed through shops and we finally found the style of sweater I was looking for. With the exchange rate, they were very well priced and I ended up getting two, as well as a magnet to add to our collection.

All the sweaters!

When we were done shopping, we walked around the church and viewed the mural depicting one of the battles that took place there. The leader of the battle was Mateo Pumacahua, the owner of the house that is now the spa at Explora.

Markets in the town square with the church and archeological site

I think this church door is trying to quote something

We made it back at about 11:30 and we were technically checked out of the hotel (but could wait inside), so there wasn’t much we could do. There were more celebrations going on in the neighborhood, so we decided to walk around and see if we could find anything. We walked to the town square and the nearby roads, but it was pretty quiet (other than the random fireworks).

The road behind Explora

Urquillos town square

My reaction when fireworks are set off right behind this wall

After our little backyard exploration, we went back to the hotel to wait for SkyLodge to pick us up. They arrived a few minutes early, we said goodbye to Explora, and we were on the way. At SkyLodge there were two other pairs already there. We signed our life away and learned how to use the safety equipment. Once we were all harnessed up, we starting climbing the 400 meter via ferrata.

Excited to start!

See those little pods waaayy up at the top? That’s our hotel.

We were basically rock climbing with pre-set handholds on a cliff overlooking the Urubamba river and the Sacred Valley. There was one section of hanging suspension bridge which was tough to start, but ended up being pretty fun.

Let’s rock this climb!

Didn’t look down much

Up, up, up!!!

Does landscape mode help??

Getting closer to the pods

Matt displays the very important safety wires

Was a suspension bridge really necessary?!?!?

We reached the top of the climb about an hour and a half later, in time to watch the sunset. There are three sleeping capsules and one dinning capsule. We all met in the dining capsule where we could still see the sun setting. The photographer set us up for a picture, which is when Matt surprised me and got down on one knee to propose! I said yes, by the way.

Any questions?

Good answer!

After calming down, we relaxed in the dining capsule while our multitalented guides made dinner. We talked and enjoyed the meal until we were ready to go to our sleeping capsules for the night. By this time is was dark, so we used our headlights to see where the handles and wires were. The top of each capsule has a platform to stand on and where you can access the hatch to get in. One of the guides came with us to show us how to use the capsule. All of the curtains on can be opened, and the sky was clear enough to see the stars. The moon was almost full which blocked some of the stars, but it was still a pretty amazing view — and a perfect view of the moon overhead.

It was dark arriving to our pod after dinner, see next day for daylight pics!

Day 10: Tastayoc

Today’s exploration was called Tastayoc, named for the remote mountain town where the hike begins. After breakfast, we met our guide, Bider, who explained the route, and we found that once again we had a private tour! Woo! Probably a bit of luck, but we are also choosing the harder hikes that probably aren’t on anybody else’s radar.

Speaking of which, Tastayoc is located way up (Puna region) at 3,976 meters beyond Ollantaytambo (which is the larger city where we previously caught the train for Machu Picchu and started our Pumatambo exploration). Therefore, today’s drive clocked in a bit longer at about two hours, and I may have slept through most of it.

The winding mountain roads lull Jo to sleep

Along the way, Bider talked about how he used to be a pro-mountain biker. He had sponsors and competed in professional races. When he started to work at Explora, he had to choose to either work or continue competing as Explora prefers to have their guides in tact. Feeling satisfied with 10-plus years of mountain biking, he decided to stay with Explora.

Bider also mentioned that today marks the end of a two week vacation for students. We saw many attempting to catch busses (there are no “official” school busses) with their parents standing with them. Turns out, busses tend to pass kids standing alone, but if the parents are there, they have to stop, or the parents can report them.

Awake and ready to go!

We arrived in Tastayoc in the rain and got ready to start. The first few miles of the 8 mile hike was uphill. We crossed through farms and fields as well as streams. The land we were walking through is owned by the locals, so the trails are not really hiking trails, but lama and alpaca trails. Also because it is private land, Explora has an agreement with the owners to allow us to hike on their land, so we did not see any other non-villagers during the hike.

And we’re off

Hey Matt, this is how you cross a stream

As we got higher, the precipitation turns solidly into snow. The ground was starting to get covered, as with the elevation change, it was also getting colder pretty quickly. Eventually, we made it to the top! This is the highest point we reached today, and the highest point we reached on the entire trip, at 4,687 meters (15,377 feet). We had some celebratory (and body warming) tea and Bider even made a snowman.

High enough for a coating of snow

Ok, that’s a bit more snow

Made it to the top… now we have a snowstorm

Do you want to build a snowman?

We continued our route and started to descend. The clouds were also shifting, making for some sunny spots and stark contrasts between the snowy shale mountains and the ones covered in grass.

Heading to warmer climates

30 minutes of sunshine

Quick, before the clouds roll in

Eventually, we descended far enough that we were out of the snow. We passed a few farms with lamas and their accompanying guard dogs. We have seen a lot of stray dogs around the cities and villages. They help keep large predators away from the crops and animals. The dogs in the city and bigger towns were all very calm and friendly, but these dogs were clearly trying to get these giant two-legged predators off their land.

Crossing the Peruvian farm lama security system

Crossing farms down the valley

GET OFF MY FARM!… Biscuito?

On your Monday afternoon commute, look for light rain and lama congestion

We survived the barking dogs and continued our way down. Since we were at lower elevations again, there were some new plants we hadn’t seen yet. Bider pulled a bud off a plant and asked us to smell it to see if we recognized it. It’s smelled similar to the muña leaf, which is mint and very common, but looked different. Bider explained that this is Ccuñuca, a similar plant to muña, but it stronger and even better at curing ailments. He also pointed out two varieties of the plants that the Incans used to make tools since the wood is very durable.

You’re saying this is even better than Muña tea?

We finally made it back to the van and had some snacks and lunch. It started raining again as we were finishing up, so we hopped back in the van to go to Explora. Along the way, we saw some kids walking home from school.

Arriving in Patacancha

School’s out at 2 pm!

This is a reminder we are missing the 2nd to last episode of Better Call Saul. Werner… Ziegler???

Twice a month, Explora organizes a traditional Peruvian barbecue in the open area at the spa house. We had walked through multiple times thinking, “they should use this space for something.” Well, apparently they do. There were local vegetables like beans, potatoes and corn, as well as pork, lamb, guinea pig, and chicken — some of the animals we had been seeing on the local farms. As we ate, there was a band playing and a show of traditional dances. We sat with Keith and Ben, who we met on day 1 and are the only other people we have been on an exploration with (except the people on the Machu Picchu trip, but they went home already). It was a great way to spend the last night.

Traditional music and dance at the BBQ

Explora friends, Keith and Ben

Tomorrow, we plan on going on a very easy half-day exploration in the morning before heading to SkyLodge for the night.

Day 9: Five Lagoons

It was raining again today, so we packed our rain jackets and a few warmer items. When we went to start the exploration, we found Chio was our guide again, and it was just us. Double score! Rather than starting with the standard pre-exploration briefing at the map, we went outside and Chio explained the day by pointing to the mountain we were heading to. We hopped in the van for the hour and a half drive.

Rainy drive in the morning

Along the way, Chio explained that since it has started raining, the crops needs to be planted if they haven’t been yet. At Explora, the crops have been planted and they rented one of their fields to the Corn King of Cusco – a man who has the record for the tallest corn. We also saw something that looked like a watermelon growing on a tree, which turns out to be a type of pumpkin.

We arrived in the small mountain village (about 200 people and a bunch of alpacas) called Sapaccto where we began our hike. As the name of the exploration implies, there are 5 lagoons on the path. We went up a steep incline to get to the first lagoon at 4,200 meters. This lagoon is called Carcelcocha, meaning prison lagoon due to the vertical sticks around the perimeter.

Zapaco welcoming party

Lagoon number 1 (rainy)

There are over 4,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, and one preparation is Chuño — a naturally freeze-dried potato that takes a week to make. This is a process from the Incan times and is important to the people in small villages because once the process is complete, the potatoes have more nutrients and last up to 5 years. Also on this trail we came across tambos, small huts placed along trails for shelter.

Farmers freeze-drying potatoes

Boil ’em, mash ’em stick ’em in a stew

Human tambo and dog tambo

Near the lake, we saw short stone walls in a square shape. Chio explained that while these look like corrals that you might use for the alpaca, they are actually abrigos, or sweaters. They block the wind and keep the area warm. As we continued, we were walking on shale that had been so exposed to the weather that it was soft. Dragging a hiking pole along the edge would crumble the rock. We hiked on the shale towards the the highest point of the day at 4,357 meters.

Shale we continue hiking up?


We descended to the second lagoon, called Sunturcocha, or Condor Lagoon. Just as we were approaching, the weather shifted (a theme for the day) and we had a beautiful view of the lagoon and surrounding mountains.

Lagoon number 2 (sunny and steamy)

Onwards and upwards to the next lagoon

Matt successfully crossed the creek!

The next lagoon we saw was technically number 5, but because we were higher than it, we could see it from our vantage point. This lagoon is called Pampacocha, which doesn’t make any sense because there are no pampas nearby. It currently looks like two lakes because the water level is low, but as the rainy season continues, it will fill up to one large lagoon. The weather had cleared up again, and we took this opportunity to have a snack. Like yesterday, we decided to wait until we were done with the hike to have lunch, but we couldn’t pass up some delicious Explora soup.

Lagoon number 5 (still sunny)

The soup is always good

After warming up and re-energizing, we followed the path to lagoon number 4, Humillecocha.

Cool terrain on the way to lagoon number 4

Lagoon number 4 (cloudy)

Very close to Humillecocha was Lagoon 3, Totoracocha, named for the branches around the lagoon. This was one of the smaller lagoons we saw today.

Lagoon number 3 (cloudy)

The weather was changing yet again at this point and it had starting sleeting, what Chio called graniso. Not too far along the trail, we made it down to Pampacocha where we could see the lagoon closer up. Also in this area, we saw a bunch of alpacas hanging out on the side of the mountain. I suppose if you live above 4,000 meters, you have to be a pretty good climber.

And now… sleet!

Lagoon number 5 again (cloudy)

Only about two minutes past the alpacas, we made it back to the van. As we did, it really started pouring. We ate our delicious trout sandwiches in the van, then drove back towards Explora. On the way, we drove through Calca. Because today is Sunday, there were a lot of cars from Cusco parked outside the more popular sacred valley restaurants.

Raining in the van…

We arrived back at Explora at 3:00, giving us time hit up the spa. Matt went for a deep-tissue massage while Jo relaxed by the pool.

…but great weather back at Explora

Time to relax and blog at the spa

After the spa, we went back to the bar for the drinks of the day and to decide our last full day exploration. We couldn’t decide between a few options that had been mentioned, but then the director of the explorations came over and presented a different option that sounded better than the other two. We will drive to an area of the valley we have not been to yet and should see some more lagoons, some glaciers, and if the weather cooperates a view of Mt. Veronica. The bad news is it leaves at 6:45, so we ate dinner and went to sleep as soon as possible. Should be a fun last full day!

Day 8: Ollantaytambo

By now we have our morning routine set. We packed our bags for the day, had breakfast, and met our guide to learn about the route. The exploration for the day was called Pumatambo because we were going to Ollantaytambo and Pumamarca. We got lucky again and were the only ones on the hike. Gabriel was our guide for the day and recommended bringing a rain jacket (to ensure that it wouldn’t rain). We went to the van and set off towards Ollantaytambo, the town where we got off the train yesterday.

Morning calisthenics on the Inca Trail

Strawberry fields forever approaching Ollantaytambo

Instead of going all the way to the train station, we started at the Inca trail where we saw some more terraces and Incan structures on our route. The trail led us to the city center and market where we entered a traditional style shop that had a bunch of guinea pigs running around. We were allowed to feed them some veggies and shop around. They sold stone carved pieces and textile. We bought small shale statues of bulls, called toritos. We have been seeing toritos on the roofs of houses and stores all around Peru. They are traditional statues, representing the duality (there are always two), and are meant to protect the house below. We also had time to walk around the market stalls before entering the main archeological site of Ollantaytambo.

City center market and canal

Hey Mary, what model is this Singer?

Incan Starbucks

We entered the Ollantaytambo Sanctuary — built by the 9th Incan king, Pachacutek. He was the designer of many of the fortress ruins that are still standing today. Like many of the structures, this one features terraces as retaining walls for the houses and buildings above. Similar to Machu Picchu, this site features a sun temple, where the movement of the sun and the solstice can be tracked.

Sanctuary Map

Heading up the terraces to the Sun Temple

We climbed the stairs and made it to the top of the sanctuary. We had views of the site as well as the surrounding mountains and valley. Another similarity between the different Incan sites are the storage rooms. The Incans built storage units in an area that would keep them cool. In this case, that meant they were across the valley on another mountain. Because they were so far away, when the Spanish came and burned down the city and crops, their reserves were left in tact.

View from the top

Nice stones mean important door

We took the steps back down where we explored the courtyard where there is a cantuta plant, the pink national flower of Peru. We walked back into the market, and the van picked us up to drive us to the second half of the day.

Made it back down!

National flower of Peru

The next part of the exploration was the hike to Pumamarka, another archeological area. Apparently, we are pretty fast walkers, and we made it to the start of the hike about an hour ahead of schedule. Normally, guests would eat lunch about halfway through the hike, but since it was still fairly early, we opted to wait until we were done. The first kilometer of the hike was a steep incline. We started at 2,882 meters and our highest point was 3,427 meters.

On the way up to Pumamarca

Cow did I get up here?!

Turns out that most explorations stop at the bottom of the hill that Pumamarca is on. Because we were speedy, we had time to walk up and explore the ruins. Pumamarca is not as popular as the others (quite possibly due to it’s location), but it is just as important, if not more. It was built by the Kilke about 1000 years prior to the Incas, but since there was no remains of pottery or tools, the origins and function of the site are not known.

Pumamarca ruins

The average Incan was 1.6 meters tall

As an added bonus, we saw some friendly alpacas and even were able to touch them. We had just purchased a small alpaca keychain (to be used as a Christmas tree ornament) from a vendor and got to show it off with it’s kin.

Can you approach the alpacas?

Yes, they don’t care

We finished the hike and met the van just below Pumamarca for lunch. By waiting until the end of the hike, we successfully avoided el mal de puerco (AKA food coma). Once we were done, we took the van back to Explora. One thing we had noticed while in the van the past few days are all of the political ads. There is an election coming up, and rather than billboards, ads are painted onto sides of buildings. There is usually the politician’s name as well as a logo that represents their values. We’ve seen a pencil, broom, shovel, something that looks like the Avengers A, and a Vicuña — which looks like an alpaca but is not an alpaca. Regardless, we are including the following photo of this political ad to showcase another example of the duality that is so important to Peruvian culture — male/female in this case.

It’s the smiley face that really does it

We arrived back at Explora at 4:00. Plenty of time to enjoy the hot tub, swim a few laps, and shower. Otherwise known as our spa routine. We also tried 2 more drinks from the bar: a mojito made, of course, with muña and Matacuy, and a pitusity. For dinner, we had pre-ordered the cuy (roasted guinea pig) a traditional meal typically served on special occasions.

Today’s bar selections

We somehow unlocked chef Manuel’s secret menu

Tomorrow we meet at 7:45 for a hike around the 5 Lakes.

Day 7: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu day! Since we are in Peru and the hotel is called Explora: Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley, we figured we should probably go. We had an early start (5:30 wake up call — this is vacation?) and got ready for the day. When we walked to breakfast, we found that it was actually raining. This is the dry season — though the end of it — and the last time it rained in this area was April. We were told there were thunderstorms in Machu Picchu, so we prepared for wet weather.

Rainy morning

After breakfast, we met with Chio and the two other travelers who would be going to Machu Picchu today. Chio briefed us about the route and travel plan, though she was not actually joining us. An Explora driver took us to the train station in Ollantaytambo and made sure we were in the right place to get on the train. We then took the Vistadome PeruRail to the last stop, Aguas Calientes, were we met with our guide for the day. When we got off the train, we realized there was no station — we were just immediately on the street/tracks and walking past shops.

Weather starting to clear up as we got on the train

OK, maybe you can’t canoe from Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes

Arrived at Aguas Calientes

When we met Fatima, our guide, she took us to the bus stop where a long line was already forming. We got in line with the other people who were scheduled to enter Machu Picchu at 11:00 and waited until it was our turn. The bus ride was a fun 20 minute ride up switchbacks on a narrow, unpaved road to the entrance. When we arrived, we saw that there are 4 routes to chose from, and we picked the “high and long” route.

Lucky bus number 8

High Long route

Fatima lead us through the site, explaining the significance of what we were seeing along the way. Because we took the high route, we were able to get an overhead view. Ancient Incas and adventurous hikers would enter at this point from the Sun Gate — the original main entrance to Machu Picchu.

Sun gods gave us a good 30 minutes

Is this pose instagram worthy?

The Inca leaders chose this spot for multiple reasons, including its proximity to the jungle. They wanted to rule the land in the jungle, but they were not prepared for the climate, predators, or crafty jungle warriors shooting them from the trees. They decided to build here. The terraces on the east side were designed for farming, whereas the terraces on the western side were primarily for structural support, greenhouses, and sunset barbecues (probably).

Some of the terraces with stone support

Feel like I’ve seen this before on the blog somewhere

In the Temple of the Sun, an astronomy lab was in the process of being built. It used the windows of the buildings to measure the sun for the solstice and equinox. They originally were building a lab that was redesigned before it was complete, so they just built right on top of the first structure.

Temple of the Sun (round structure on the left)

This Vischacha is the manager of the Sun Temple

There was a very strict class system in Machu Picchu. The upper class and religious leaders had nice houses with perfectly formed stones, nice courtyards, and spoke a second language. The lower class was not allowed to learn the second language and their houses were made of any stone that would stack.

This rare historic manor features a stone lined courtyard, open floor plan, and plastered walls

With reinforced terraces, smooth stone, and high ceilings, this Incan treasure is just what you need

There are 14 llamas that live in Machu Picchu that walk around freely. There used to be 16 of them, but 2 died of old age. There also just happens to be 14 Incan kings (not counting the Spanish appointed “king”). Coincidence??

Ready for the sunset view

After 3 hours exploring, learning, and taking pictures before hopping on the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We made it back in great time as the bus was probably going faster than the train.

Matt’s Yelp review of Machu Picchu

We walked through a market to Inca Terra, a very nice hotel and restaurant, for a 3-course lunch. Three of the items we ordered we also made during the cooking class in Lima: pisco sour, pollo de causa, and lomo salta. They did a pretty good job too. The restaurant is near the original train station that was taken out by mudslides in 2010. Which is why all the trains now arrive in the middle of the main street lower on the hillside.

It’s been 12 years. Not in a big hurry to restore the original train station.

After lunch we walked back thru the market to the train station. Fatima helped set us on our way when our train was called, and after walking down to the temporary “train station”, we made it onboard.

We were lucky with the rain. It started raining while we were in the restaurant, but pretty much stopped by the time we went to the train. We were expecting a quiet train ride back, but were surprised with a display of traditional dances and fashion show of various alpaca wool garments for sale, giving Jo some new ideas for souvenirs.

Cool looking handrails in Aguas Calientes

You did it! Congratulations!

An addition to the ‘Jo points at trains’ series

After arriving back in Ollantaytambo, our Explora driver picked us up and we made it back to the hotel at 7:30. We tried a new drink – a Matacuy sour. Matacuy means guinea pig killer and there is a dog’s face on the bottle, but it was a delicious drink. Good news… we were gifted a bottle of Matacuy so we can have more back home.

The art of cocktail making

Tomorrow we go back to Ollyantayambo for an uphill hike to view the surrounding area. We don’t even need to leave until 8am!

Day 6: Maras Plateau

Today’s exploration was a full day hike to the Inca remains of Moray and the Maras salt mines. Although there was a concert next door until 4 am (seriously) we left the blinds open so we could wake up with the sun. We had breakfast and coffee and met our guide at 8:15. Turns out, even though there are a lot of guests in the hotel, we were the only ones on this tour.

Is the concert over yet??

Guess what Jo needs…


Our guide, Chio, explained the route for the day along with the main sights. We got in the van and were off. It was about an hour drive to the town of Misminay, a small farming village at 3,710 meters. We walked along a path, learning about some of the local trees and herbs along the way. For example, muña, an Andean mint that makes great tea and is also used to help digestion.

Heading out for the day

We walked a couple of miles to Moray, an archeological site that shows 4 circular terraces. Since we hiked from a higher elevation, we had some great overhead views.

I think I just discovered something


We continued to walk down along the paths along the highest rings of the Moray for a closer view. The function is unknown (possibly an agricultural research lab, possibly a religious site, possibly aliens, etc), but they were constructed deliberately. There were 4 existing sinkholes that were made into terraces with stairs connecting each level. The stairs are too far apart for people, leading archeologists to believe that they were made for the donkeys and alpacas. Up until about 10 years ago, people were allowed in the Moray, but now, only locals during specific celebrations and the restoration council are allowed.

Great concert seating

Close up of the walls, complete with trendy floating stairs

They did say it looks like an avocado

After viewing the site, we continued our hike another 30 minutes to our lunch spot. Because we were hiking on or near main roads, the van was able to meet us for lunch — meaning, we did not need to carry our own — and we enjoyed an Explora style 3-course hiking lunch. Not too shabby. Once full and rested, we started again for the second part of the hike and the next main attraction: the Maras salt mines.

Lunch oasis appears

We continued our downhill hike through the town of Maras, where we drove through this morning to get to Misminay. Maras is one of the towns in Peru that has many preserved Incan architecture. We walked past a decorative doorway from the 1500s. Once the Spanish came, they changed the architecture and culture in ways that can also be seen today. Almost every building is still white with blue doors, and many have crosses above the door, showing the catholic influence.

On the road again

The town of Maras and their blue doors

From there, we followed a mountain bike path down towards the salt mines. This road is used by hikers and bikers alike, but it is specifically a route for a mountain biking competition.

Yeah, that’s gonna be a no for me

Once we arrived at the Maras salt mines, we first stopped at a lookout point before hiking in closer. There are about 4,500 terraced pools from the pre-Spanish time that the villagers continue to maintain. Water is routed into the pools, which, when evaporated, leave layers of salt. The only people who are allowed to own a salt pool are those who live in Maras or Pichingoto, the two villages on the main road on either side of the salt mines.

Almost there!

Overlooking the salt mines

I’m suddenly very thirsty

Evaporation in process

The last stop was to meet the van 3 km down the road. We walked along the salt mine valley, with different views and perspectives the whole time. We made it past Pichingoto to the van, back at 2,850 meters. After stretching and enjoying a post-hike snack, we hopped back in the van and drove about 30 minutes back to Explora.

Back in the valley

We did it!

We arrived on the earlier side (at about 4:15) so Chio helped us pick our exploration for the day after tomorrow (we already know we are going to Machu Picchu tomorrow), and we went back to the spa to relax.

The spa house is preserved from the 1700s

Tomorrow will be an easier day, but it will be long. We are set to leave at 7 am and likely won’t return until at least 7:30 pm. Should be a fun adventure.

Day 5: Cusco to Sacred Valley

Explora was scheduled to pick us up from our Cusco hotel at 11:00, so we had a relaxed start to the morning. After packing up, we had breakfast and took in the amazing view we weren’t able to see last night in the dark. After breakfast, we still had some time, so we decided to walk around the neighborhood. We stumbled upon a shop selling alpaca wool sweaters, ponchos, hats, etc (it wasn’t hard, they are pretty common). We knew alpaca sweaters were on the list of things we wanted to take home, so we tried a few on and each bought a soft and warm sweater. We walked back to the hotel and hung out on our terrace until Explora came to pick us up. As expected, one person came to the door and we walked down to the van.

Oh, hi, Cusco. Didn’t know you were there

Walking around the “streets” of Cusco near the hotel

Enthusiastic alpaca sweater salesman

Cusco is a bit much, let’s go

While the Sacred Valley is only 15 km north of Cusco as the Nazgul flies, the ride took about 2 hours. We enjoyed driving through the different towns and villages and seeing the views along the way. Soon enough, we arrived at Explora. We had time to unpack and have lunch before setting off on our first exploration, a short hike in Huertos de Yucay.

Approaching Sacred Valley decked out in Alpaca

Arrived at Explora-Valle Sagrado

The view right outside…

…Our room

The hike followed the Urubamba River, through an area where prominent Inca leaders used to live. The Incan architecture and walls are still in place today (I think this will be a theme on this trip).

Let’s get hiking and even out that tan

If he stand very very still, maybe no one will notice the donkey

One example of the waterway created by the Incans

An example of how the current farmers control the flow of water

The land was, and still is, used as terraced farmland. We walked right along fields and saw some farmers working. On the way back down, the terraces were clear to see.

Farming in action

Walking though terrace farms

More walking through terrace farms, now with animals

Some of the ancient architecture is still found in the area, but with no real use. The walls and water canals definitely have a purpose, but the huts on rocks, not so much.

Ancient Incan Benchy

Terraced farming

More views of the terrace

When we arrived back at the hotel we had about an hour and a half before our orientation meeting, so we decided to check out the spa. We spent some time relaxing in the hot tub, then swam a few leisurely laps in the pool before showing and getting ready. We didn’t spend too much time there today, but it is very likely that we will be back.

We made it to the orientation talk where we learned a bit more about Explora and the surrounding area. Afterwards, we met with our guide to pick our exploration for tomorrow — which will be a full day hike down the Madras Plateau. Spending last night in Cusco will prove to be useful as tomorrow’s hike starts at 3732m (or 12,244ft). The good news is that it’s mostly downhill back to Explora. With our plans locked in, we had a delicious dinner and relaxed the rest of the night.

Bar snack and delicious alcohol-free drink

Day 4: Lima to Cusco

We woke up this morning on the earlier side so we had enough time to pack and eat breakfast. We checked out of the hotel at 8:15, but had them hold our bags until later. We set off for our adventure of the day: a market tour, fruit tasting, and cooking class.

Breakfast at the hotel displaying paragliders way too close together

We walked about 40 minutes to one of the markets in the area and met Jose, our guide for the day. Turns out we were the only ones to sign up, so we got a private tour and class. Jose walked us through the market, explaining the different foods at the stalls and how they use them. There are a variety of meats (they like to use the entire animal), fresh fish, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and smoothie/juice counters. Jose bought a few items along the way that we would be using later in our cooking.

This little piggy went to the market

One of the fruit stands at the market

Vegetable stall where you can get a piece of pumpkin

Fish lady will hook you up

Once the market tour was complete, we took a taxi together for a quick ride to Sky Kitchen, located on the top floor of an apartment building. The first thing we did was taste about 35 different fruits. These ranged from the familiar (bananas and citrus) to the unknown (cacti fruit). They were all pretty good, but some standouts were cherimoya, Andean tomatoes, and sanki.

Prepping for Sky Kitchen cooking class

The assortment of Peruvian fruits (and one Mexican)

After the tasting, it was time to cook, but first, we had to start with a a Pisco sour. Pisco is the distilled alcohol from wine, so there are many varieties depending on the wine it came from. We mixed the Pisco with fresh-squeezed limes and egg whites, and boom, delicious drink.

The kitchen, featuring the ever important bottle of Pisco

With that out of the way, it was time to prepare the first course — Causa de Pollo — a mashed-potato, chicken-salad, and avocado tower. Jose taught us how plate it like a professional chef, and I think we did a pretty good job. After each course, we sat down to enjoy it.

There are over 4,000 types of potatoes in Peru (not all pictured)

Adding the finishing touches on the Causa de Pollo

Proud of our work

Ceviche was next. All of the recipes we made were traditional Peruvian food, but this one is pretty well known. We learned about how ceviche uses raw fish, so you have to be sure the fish is fresh. This fish was probably swimming in the Pacific Ocean less than 12 hours ago, so yeah, it was fresh!

All of the ceviche ingredients prepped and ready

Ojo de uva is a good type of fish to use for ceviche, but any fresh whitefish will do

Next on the menu was Lomo Saltado, beef tenderloin stir-fried with tomatoes, onions, soy sauce, red wine, vinegar and herbs. It is served with rice and French fries.

Stir-fry and French fry

The finished product

Finally, we made picarones for dessert. We actually started making this at the start of the class by chopping sweet potato and pumpkin so it could boil and soften, then mashed it, then added flour and yeast and waited until the end of class for it to rise. By this point the dough had risen and we were ready to fry.

We formed the dough into rings using just our fingers on one hand and dropped them into the oil. There is no refined sugar in the recipe, but there is a syrup made from cloves, cinnamon, and a natural rock sugar derived straight from sugar cane. They were like fall-flavored bingets. On the whiteboard in the kitchen, there was a list of names under “picarones challenge.” Some people ate up to 14 of them. We ate 2. We think they were cheating (they were obviously making Minnesota State Fair mini-picarones).

Dough fry

When the class was completed we were full of knowledge and food. It was a great experience. We walked back to the hotel to pick up our bags and relax for a few minutes before heading to the airport. We got there with plenty of time to spare before our 7 pm flight to Cusco.

Sky Kitchen deck

More murals on the drive to the airport

Back at Jorge Chavez International

The flight went well and we were picked up from the airport. The roads were not quite your typical city roads. Soon, we turned off the main street and onto very narrow, uneven, stone roads. The taxi couldn’t quite make the last turn, so we walked up the hill, then up a bunch of stairs that I don’t think the taxi would have been able to climb.

Bye, Lima!

You don’t get this kind of legroom on United

As far as this taxi goes

We made it to our room, complete with a terrace, kitchenette on the first floor, and bedroom on the second floor and enjoyed a few cups of mate de coca tea. Tomorrow we will go to Explora (maybe their van knows how to climb stairs?) for the following 6 nights.