Travel with Kids: Health

Keepin’ It Real: Travel with Kids

Installment #3: Medical Mishaps

….and so I sit on the red twill couch in the sunny living room of our apartment in Sevilla, Spain. My knees propped up with pillows obeying the instructions of Dr. Ruiz from Hospital Universitario Virgen del Rocio, who, after painfully draining it, told me I was not allowed move my knee for at least 24 hours. Jacob took the girls to their art and theater class for me instead of going to his Spanish class this evening because the girls deserve to get out of this house and do something fun. Sitting quietly and obediently at a busy hospital for two hours is a lot to ask of an 8 and 6 year old.

The growing pain and inflammation in my right knee had been haunting the back of my mind since we arrived. Each time we travel to a new destination, my knees seem to get a little inflamed but then it subsides and I am able to keep up with our adventures. So, I thought this is what would happen here too. I ramped up my yoga practice trying to be gentle on my knees, not over tax them. I found an English speaking Physiotherapist/Orthopedist/Eastern Medicine practitioner nearby and made an appointment. I surfed the Internet for an Acupuncturist as a treatment supplement. All while the inflammation grew and grew. The increased walking here could have been the cause or maybe over the last 5 months I have not properly rehabilitated my knee. Whatever the reason, two days ago I could no longer walk without looking like Igor from the movie “Young Frankenstein.” My knee was so inflamed it looked like an over full water balloon ready to spring a leak at any moment then burst.

Jacob immediately relegated me to the couch and instructed the girls to push me around on a rolling office chair if I needed to use the bathroom. He went to stock up on food and walk by an Acupuncture clinic whose website made it seem like they were still in business; however, their email bounced back and the message I heard when I called could have said it is no longer in service but it was in Spanish and so I wasn’t sure. He returned half an hour later with food and news that the clinic was indeed closed down. We spent the afternoon trying and failing to figure out options for English speaking doctors in the area. When that proved difficult, Jacob took to consulting with Dr. Google instead and determined that:

a. I have some strange disease I have never heard of

b. fibromyalgia is causing the inflammation

We decided those weren’t the most hopeful of prognoses and went back to seeking an actual doctor. After a couple of phone conversations with receptionists, the Physiotherapist I had an appointment with later in the week, texted me at 10pm to tell me he could see me at his office at noon the next day and included the address. “Wait”, I thought, “this address looks different than the one on his website, better consult Google again.  Hmmm, it isn’t showing me Sevilla, there must be a mistake”. I sent him a text explaining my confusion about the location and thanked him for rearranging his schedule for me. Alas, his clinic was NOT in Sevilla it is in Madrid. He hasn’t practiced here in over 4 years. Great. That’s only a 4-hour car ride or 2 and a half hour train ride away! I immediately started to cry. The pain was getting worse and the fear growing that our broken Spanish would not be sufficient to get treatment and we would have to go home. However, now here I am less than 24 hours later, relishing the relief from the pain caused by pressure in my knee and feeling more hopeful that with proper rehabilitation we can continue our journey.

A Keepin’ it Real blog post about health has been bouncing around in my head for a while now. What better time to write it than after seeking and receiving medical care in a foreign country?? I must admit, I sat in the waiting room of the hospital looking around at the mass of people awaiting their care and witnessed myself experiencing many different emotions. I felt a lot of trepidation about the quality of treatment I would receive immediately followed by a feeling of shame for that thought to come into my mind. I felt relief that we were in Spain and not in Panama or Peru when this happened. There was a sense of hilarity at the situation. For instance, about every five minutes or so, Jacob and I immediately stopped our conversation and strained to understand the name and instructions being said over the loudspeaker. When we were finally called to “Rayos numero dos”, Jacob pushed me in my wheelchair, out into the hall around and around a pole, the girls following behind like obedient little ducklings, trying to determine what the instructions meant since all the doors in the hallway were closed. OH! Of course, silly. It means x-ray! At the moment of our realization, the x-ray technician opened the door to “Rayos numero dos”.

Finally, after the x-ray and initial consultation with a nurse, I lay on the treatment table in the third and final room of our medical adventure and I felt the feeling of vulnerability. No matter the country, no matter the facility, lying on a treatment table in an unknown place is vulnerable; however, I also felt trust. Trust that this man was doing exactly what his education and training had taught him. In fact, looking back, it seemed they were actually more careful about sterilizing my knee prior to the treatment than the fancy sports medicine doctor I saw in the States. I even got a little numbing spray on the injection site prior to being stuck with the giant needle.

Knees aside, the biggest unknown about long-term travel for me is health. How do we stay healthy? If we get sick, how do we get the medications and treatment we need? All blog posts I have read say everyone at one time or another will get travelers diarrhea. So, when Quinn came down with it in Lima I was scared we would be unable to keep her hydrated. Happily, that was not the case. Common sense was our best ally. Even the common cold can foul up plans for exploration. As everyone knows, if one member of the family is ill it is likely to get passed to all.

We battled this type of illness beginning in Urubamba, Peru. It was our first stay in a hostel and there were three other petri dishes, a.k.a. kids, staying there as well. One of which already had a cold. So, you can imagine the cold found its way into everyone in the house then followed us around through the Sacred Valley. Airplane travel is another kind of petri dish so we likely picked up another bug traveling from Peru to Spain. All told, at least one of us was sick for a full month.

Even with all the precautions and immune system boosting protocols, the risk of catching a parasite, virus or bacterial infection is very real. Up to this point in our travels, our experience has showed us that in Costa Rica, Peru, Spain and Paris, one does not buy medications at a grocery store but instead at a pharmacy. Usually, you have to speak to the pharmacist to explain what you need and she/he gets it from behind the counter, even ibuprofen and vitamins. In fact, in many of these countries a trip to speak with your pharmacist is your first course of action.  Doctors are reserved for emergencies or when the pharmacist is stumped. One time, in my broken Spanish, I asked the pharmacist for fish vitamins instead of fish oil…oops what’s the word for oil again?? How about the word for fish when it is swimming in the ocean and not in lemon juice on a plate?

Trust is a big factor when it comes to medicine in a foreign country. Can I trust the pill, treatment or advice I receive is the same or as good as what I would find at home, where I am more familiar? I think this speaks to so many issues of diversity. Can I trust the unfamiliar? Can I trust that another culture is as good as or even better than my own or that I just might learn something from that other culture? More aptly can I accept this as a possibility? The experience at the Hospital in Sevilla taught me that yes, I can and at times I must.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Our strategy moving forward is of course, mindfulness and preventative medicine. I need to accept that I have some sort of problem with my knees and listen to them, seek out rehabilitative advice and do it.  I don’t want to avoid travel because of the fear of getting sick. I don’t want to make judgments based on secondhand knowledge or assumptions. I want to ask questions and research to find out what is available so I can negotiate treatment in a way that feels safe.  Otherwise, I am allowing my fear to grow and fester to an unnatural size and creating a self-imposed barrier to potentially amazing experiences and people.

Some tips to stay healthy:

  • Listen to your body and rest when needed.  Traveling is tiring and when you are tired your body has less energy to fight off infection. The girls are perfect, at times loud, little gages of when we need to rest.
  • Vitamins are important.  We are now taking daily multi and “fish vitamins”. Every little thing you carry has to be weighed according to its importance and cost.
  • Eat more vegetable soup. We thought we could get our nutrients through eating healthy foods and follow the advice of smart travelers ahead of us, only eating fresh veggies we have washed and peeled ourselves. However, when you are bouncing around a lot preparing your own fresh veggies can get tricky and in some places the risk of parasites on those fresh veggies is very real so you end up skipping it.
  • Carry hand-sanitizer everyday.  More often than not, there is no soap (or toilet paper) in the bathroom; therefore, I carry around a natural hand sanitizer made from essential oils.


Sacred Valley, Peru: Cusco

“…sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory”

Dr. Suess

Our road in the Sacred Valley ended in the ancient capitol city of Cusco.  Like the ruins at Machu Picchu, Cusco seems to be made up mostly of stairs. Just a step outside your door to go on any general errand, add in the elevation of 3,399 meters (aprox 11,150 ft) and you have the ultimate hike for your legs, heart and lungs.  Our hostel was located in a historic district a little downhill from the bottom of a long staircase that leads to the Saqsaywaman ruins.  We made the climb up that long staircase to the ruins one day and dangled the “carrot” of a special snack as motivation for the girls to keep them going.  Really, they didn’t need much encouragement; taking breaks and playing games like counting stairs on the way up is really all it took.  The snack was just the icing.  As you get higher and higher the view of the sprawling city of Cusco opens up and you can see the swath of monochromatic, brown adobe houses and buildings with the occasional pop of white and azure blue, sprawling down the valley and up the hillsides.

The Incan people designed the city in the shape of a puma with the ruins of Saqsaywaman forming the head. After the war with the Spaniards, the only thing left in tact of the once fortress are giant stone walls. Ruins at SaqsaywamanThe stones that make up these walls are incredible with some of them weighing up to 200 tons. It blows my mind how exactly these unfathomably huge stones were not only moved but set into place. There are vertical stones that form the walls and also giant stones that lay horizontally across a doorways.  The walls at the entrance of the ruins were made in such a way as to form the teeth of the Puma’s head and they jig jog back and forth for several hundred feet. For me, the most amazing thing about the ancient people of Peru was their ability to move mass quantities of huge stones up and down mountains and across valleys all at dizzying elevations.Cusco

On one of our first nights in Cusco, Jacob the girls and I set off in an exploration of the city and search for food. Our path took us by a wall that once belonged to an important Incan Palace that was later converted into a private residence when the Spaniards took control of the city.  There was a large group of people blocking the way in the already narrow street. I was bringing up the rear of the Davī Train and as I tried to make my way through the crowd, a friendly man, caught my ear and halted my forward movement by explaining the reason for all the fuss. He said they were all taking pictures of the 12-angled stone, a symbol of the 12 royal Incan families. Without that stone, the whole structure would collapse. He then causally asked where we had been in Peru and if we had seen Machu Picchu or “The Sleeping Incan” yet. “The Sleeping Incan?” I asked. This was just the opportunity he was waiting for, he whipped out his artists portfolio and explained that Mount Wayna Picchu forms the nose of the Sleeping Incan. P1020734He showed me his beautiful drawing that highlighted the entire face and then of course asked if I would like to buy any of his pieces.  “Ohhh, I get it”, I thought “You weren’t just a friendly local sharing some of your knowledge, you are out here with a purpose”.  I can’t begrudge him for asking, under other circumstances, I may have purchased his art but I had to turn him down. This experience was a lesson on so many levels. I learned about the twelve angled stone, all I see now when I look at pictures of Machu Picchu is the Sleeping Incan and the artist gave me a preview of the mass of much-more-pushy artists and other entrepreneurs we would encounter peddling their wares around the Plaza de Armas.

My favorite place in the historical part of Cusco is the Barrio de San Blas. It is the artist district near the Plaza de Armas. We happened upon the plaza here while a small market was underway. Artists were selling everything from handmade jewelry to paintings, pottery and of course colorful woven fabrics. The sounds from a large fountain built into the side of the hill and lovely Peruvian flute music provided the perfect backdrop to sit and feel the ambience while Jacob scouted out our top two restaurant choices for the evening.

San Blas fountain
San Blas fountain

Of the two, we chose the restaurant that seemed more authentic and rustic.  Boy did our choice ever work out in our favor. The food from this place would be the baseline from which we compared every meal hence forward for the remainder of our time in Peru. If you can’t tell by now, Jacob and I love to eat. We can’t eat out all the time but when we can, we tend to center our activities around the restaurants we want to try. Beautiful museums, eh; amazing cathedrals, peh! Delicious new cuisine? Sign me up!

The restaurant was called Seledonia’s Mesa. You know you are in a good spot when you see the majority of the patrons are locals. The small restaurant is also a cooking school and is down THE MOST DANGEROUSLY NARROW STREET I have ever seen. We literally had to side step with our backs against the walls of buildings when cars would drive up the street. Oh, how I wish we found it on day one instead of day three because I would have taken a class.  After opening the old wooden door from the street, the scene of a small courtyard surrounded by red adobe houses opens before you.  The houses have pops of pink and green from the bougainvillea that lazily hangs down the walls. It is my understanding that Seledonia and her family live in one of those houses.

She prepares all the classic Peruvian dishes with her own special flare. We ordered the Rocoto Relleno and Chupe de Andino as starters. Chupe de Andino is a common quinoa and vegetable soup found all over the country and it seems that no two are alike. This one had an amazing broth flavored with juniper berries (holy cow, I never knew the joy of juniper berries) and had all the lovely veggies like onion, tomato, cabbage, squash but also a big chunk of potato that you could dip your spoon into like ice cream.  I will never prepare vegetable soup the same again. No more cubed potatoes that begin to disintegrate when simmering, one big chunk of a quartered potato that sits in the middle of the bowl like an island is the only way for me from now on.  She topped the soup with a perfectly poached egg that gave the broth an added richness but not so rich that you wish you hadn’t indulged. Rocoto Relleno is also a classic dish with different preparations. It is a spicy, red Rocoto pepper stuffed with ground meat simmered with cumin, paprika and raisins, which normally would turn me off but they add the perfect sweetness to the spice. The most common preparation is the roasted and stuffed variety but Seledonia’s rellano was prepared with an egg batter sort of like a soft chili relleno that you might find at a Tex-Mex restaurant in the States but so much more refined.

We had a very frustrating dining experience in Cusco. The hostel’s hosts, where we stayed, did not seem very happy with us using their kitchen.  This barrier created a constant search for decent, affordable restaurants.  We learned the hard way that the really special restaurants are not found in the Plaza de Armas nor are they on Calle Plateros, a main street off the plaza that always seemed to pull us toward it which was not good when we didn’t have a plan and were starving. We wasted some precious meals on very bad pizza once and very bad service a second time. Instead, we found the restaurants that fit our criteria were tucked into side streets around the San Blas neighborhood.  I am sure there are great places in other neighborhoods and should we have had more time we may have uncovered the hidden gems along the other frighteningly narrow streets of Cusco.

Looking back on our time in Cusco, I am glad we saved the exploration of the city for the end of our trip. Some people fly in and stay here a few days before heading down the valley.  But for me, the elevation and extreme inclines throughout the city would have prohibited us from exploring all that we did within our timeframe. Cusco and the sacred valley are very dependent on the tourist industry.  This could result in a feeling of constantly being hustled rather than experience the authentic Peru.  Cusco in particular is a nexus for hustlers. The kind and honest people of Peru far outnumber the hustlers, you just have to look a little harder in some places to find them. Despite that, the city is a beautiful mixture of native Quechua (descendants of the Incans) influences and Spanish colonial heritage.  It is saturated with a thousand plus years of history and layers of architecture from the gothic cathedrals in the plazas, to the ruins that lay beneath and around them.

Lima Two

We arrived on a morning flight for our second exploration of Lima. I won’t gush about the apartment we rented like the one in Barranco, because frankly, it was a complete dive. But, as they say, it is somewhere to lay your head. How bad was it? None of us felt we could walk around the apartment without shoes on. Maybe our apartment tainted our joy for Lima or the fact that we passed a stomach bug between each other for a few days, making excursions all together difficult but our second trip to Lima was definitely not as glorious at the first. Lima does not have an easy to navigate public transportation system; therefore, we decided to jump on the double-decker city tour bus to get an overview of the city, plus the girls had been begging to ride one for the last month. The tour bus took us around Miraflores and then headed to downtown where we could see the Plaza de Armas and various other historical sites. While good in theory, viewing the city in this way was not so good in action. Lima TrafficThe traffic is HORRENDOUS in Lima. This may be for many reasons, but I am sure it is mostly because the traffic laws seem to be optional. For example, if one would like to make a left hand turn across multiple lanes of traffic, it is socially acceptable to start your turn while traffic is moving and stop in the middle of the lanes until the way is clear or other drivers finally concede to your action. The same is true of making a right hand turn. If you realize too late that the street you need to turn right on is now here and you are in the center lane, it is perfectly acceptable to go ahead and make that turn in front of your neighboring car by just making a quick honk to communicate your desire.

There we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the top of the double-decker bus, choking on exhaust fumes but making the best of it by marveling at the buildings and pure chaos of the streets below. The best part of the tour was when we finally arrived to Museo del Convento de San Francisco de Asis de Lima the only hop off destination of the “hop on hop off” tour. The church of San Francisco was built in the late 1600s and houses the remains of over 25,000 people in the catacombs. The girls were disturbingly interested and unfazed by the creepy, dimly lit underground maze, dank smell and displays of human bones and skulls. It provided a great lesson on the cycle of life for girls including more existential topics such as heaven and earth, spirituality and religion and differing beliefs on the subject. We were toured all over the church from the library, complete with iron spiral stair case leading to the high shelves of books, to the music balcony where we were able to voyeuristically watch some of a small wedding ceremony.

By far our best day of round two was the walk to a highly praised, very fancy cevicheria called La Mar. Jacob and I ordered the recommended ceviche dishes along with a plate of calamari and octopus sautéed in a sort of barbecue sauce accompanied by roasted Choclo, a type of giant corn found all over the country (you can find most often as street food. Venders, steam it in the husk and serve it with a slice of fresh cheese).  We made a new ceviche aficionado out of our oldest daughter and our youngest was happy to stick with her beautifully cooked Mahi Mahi (no complaints there in the least). Jacob and I sampled the Pisco Sours, which are tangy, frothy, go-down-way-to-easily drinks that remind me of my Dad’s famous margaritas (he does not taint the tequila with margarita mix, lime juice only baby). Let the buyer beware before ordering your second  Pisco Sour, there effect sneaks up on you! Good thing we were walking.

The God of Play
The God of Play

And walk we did! Miraflores has a lovely greenbelt with trails along cliffs that parallel the Pacific Ocean. There are playgrounds, green fields and sculptures that dot the way, beautiful views of the coast despite the clouds and intrigue as paragliders dip up and down in the sky.

Lima is a complex city and like all of Peru home to warm, friendly people. Infamously known for its crime and traffic but with hidden gems of neighborhoods that are trying, successfully, to enter the modern era. If we were to go back and I imagine one day we will, I would stay in Barranco or in a better part of Miraflores instead of the business district. The city is huge and I am sure even with the eight days we were there in total, there is still so much to see, do and eat.

nighttime storefront with 1950s car parked out front

Lima One

Sergio, the owner of the apartment we rented in the Barranco District, picked us up at the airport at 8:30 on a foggy night in Lima, Peru. With the girls asleep, one on each of my legs in the backseat, I watched out the window as Sergio weaved in and out of the crazy traffic, the cacophony of horn honking serenading our journey. I felt very grateful for my sleeping daughters, otherwise their moans and complaints of motion sickness would have added to the din.

Barranco DistrictWe only booked 3 days at the apartment so that we could quickly move on to the Sacred Valley before the rainy season socked us in at Machu Picchu. We filed in, sleepy-eyed and thankful to be able to crash in fresh beds. Arriving at night can be so nice because when you wake up in the morning you get to discover your new place with fresh eyes. The girls were ecstatic because they each got their own rooms, albeit small but still quite a luxury from sleeping on bunk beds in the living room in Panama. Our apartment was in a great location, within walking distance to the main plaza in the Barranco district.

Sergio told Barranco Plazaus Barranco is a very safe neighborhood at night and so we did not hesitate to participate in the nighttime energy in the plaza. It comes alive with street vendors and people out wandering about in the warm lights that wash everything with a cozy, welcoming glow.  Jacob fell in love almost instantly as we wound our way through the streets and across old bridges taking in views of the ocean and huge modern sculptures of animals made out of wood and recycled materials. We found the best street empanadas with golden flaky dough filled with beef and sweet caramelized onions for 2.50 soles (about .80 USD) sold by a sweet Peruvian woman on the corner at the entrance to the plaza.

Jacob and the TucanOn our first day there, I could tell we were all starting to get the hang of this traveling thing as we whizzed around a local grocery store stocking up on a few items to cook at home. Mackenzie and I had fun picking out new fruits and vegetables we hadn’t seen before. We came across an appealing looking yellow fruit sort of in the shape of a tomato if it had been crossed with a bell pepper (later learned it is called Cocona which is a fruit from the jungle) and of course had to buy the purple corn. I had it in my mind that I would take the corn home and treat it like the yellow corn I am familiar with, boil it up, cut it off the husk and fold it into the rice and beans we had planned for dinner. So, there I am watching this corn bubbling in the water turning it a very deep purple but not getting any softer. Ten then twenty minutes go by and the kernels are still hard and dry. “Jacob! Better look up this purple corn and tell me what I am doing wrong!”

It turns out this corn is not intended for eating. It is for making Chicha Morada; a favorite local drink that is served in almost every restaurant in Peru. The corn is boiled in water with pineapple rind, lemons, cinnamon and cloves to make a delicious, smooth, sweet drink that is reminiscent of the flavors of the holidays. Plus, the purple corn is known to have more antioxidants than blueberries so it’s healthy too! I am sure the sugar that you add only increases the health benefits. Well, I didn’t have quite the right ingredients to make Chicha Morada the traditional way but I threw in the tomato-pepper, which had a lemony, acidic flavor and some essential oils of cinnamon, cloves and orange that I had along, some sugar and viola! Not Chicha Morada.

Not only did our stay in Barranco teach us about Chicha Morada but chicharrón as well. An Uber driver told us about one of his favorite restaurants to get the chicharrón sandwich called El Chinito. This restaurant was hidden in plain sight on a busy street in Barranco, crammed in between a wall of other stores and businesses. Amazingly, they fit an iron spiral staircase and 5 round tables into this tiny place where 3-4 people can cram themselves around each one to enjoy the delicious slow cooked meats this resturant has to offer. When we arrived, the owner could tell we were El Chinito virgins and took our taste buds on a tour offering samples of each kind of meat. From pork with various rubs to slow roasted turkey but the favorite for all of us (even the girls) were the crunchy on the outside tender on the inside ribs of the chicharrón. It was an intimate experience as the other patrons had front row seating to the drama as we tried to understand the Spanish descriptions of the food. Of course we ordered the chicharrón sandwich, which is juicy, salty sliced pork belly that is that is laid atop thinly cut, soft and crispy sweet potato slices. It is garnished with a tangy onion slaw that gives the needed acid to the already decadent sandwich. All this is piled into a perfectly crusty French roll and served with none other than Chicha Morada. Oh, wow. I am now officially a foodie.

After our first full day in Barranco, Jacob and I knew we had to come back and stay in Lima a bit longer, neither one of us realized how much the city would intrigue us nor how much good food we would find there. Sadly, Sergio’s apartment was not available for our return (its no wonder, it is priced at such a bargain and in prime location I am sure he has it booked all the time). We booked another apartment in the neighboring Miraflores district for 5 nights upon our return from the Sacred Valley.  With lessons of local cuisine on our taste buds and continued practice of Spanish on our tongues, we felt prepared for our Sacred Valley adventure.  We said goodbye for now to Lima and boarded our plane for Cusco.


llama standing in the ruins

Sacred Valley, Peru: Machu Picchu

We have returned from our trek to Machu Picchu.  I am relaxing on our bed, a small glass of beer held between my knees as I type.  Jacob is lying next to me, spent from his trek up Wayna Picchu (aka Huayna Picchu) early this morning.  He spent the rest of the day with me and the girls exploring the ruins. I am worried he has caught the cold the girls are both struggling with or perhaps he just pushed himself too hard today.

We are staying in our one-room hostel with a private bathroom in Aguas Calliente.  There are mixed opinions on whether or not you should even stay in Aguas Calliente.  We read that there is really nothing special about this town except for the transit up to the ruins.  Many people take the train in early from Ollantaytambo, head up to the ruins for the day and then back to Ollantay later in the evening.  That seemed like an extremely long day and there is no way we want to push the girls that hard or ourselves for that matter.  Therefore, we are embracing Aguas Calliente where we have reached the ultimate in tourist destinations.  Expensive food and water and people on the street hustling to get you to eat at their establishment.

There are hot springs nearby but after reading recent reviews we decided to pass because they were described as more like lukewarm springs with questionable sanitation. This hostel is, well…it’s ok.  The rooms and bathrooms are clean but the kitchen is grimy and has a funky smell.  Every building around here, including this one, seems to be in some state of construction (or maybe deconstruction).  However, the ability to come in on a later train from Ollantaytambo, get a good nights rest, explore the ruins all day and rest before taking the train back in the morning is worth it, especially for the girls.

Town of Aguas Calliente with river running through the middle and mountains in backgroundI suppose if you had a bit more to spend, you could stay in one of the hotels at the top of the hill that seems to have an amazing view of the mountains which practically sit on top of this village.  They are huge, rounded, dome like structures some with magnificent, sheer cliffs on the some of the sides.  It is beautiful here, lush and green with vegetation. This location is what they call the “eye brow” of the amazon.  There are jungle-like trees, succulent plants and tropical flowers; much different than in Ollantaytambo.  I half expect to see monkeys swinging in the trees.  The town has a river that runs through the middle and has steep walkways on either side filled with restaurants, small markets and tourist shops.

Jacob snuck out early this morning to do his climb.  When we woke a couple hours later, the girls were quite angry with him for leaving them behind.  They didn’t quite understand the enormity of the hike up Wayna Picchu.   I packed a lunch, snacks, and water for all of us.  After getting myself and the girls ready, we headed for the bus to take us up to the ruins.  Machu Picchu has been a bucket list place for me for as long as I can remember.  As a warm up to the amount of stairs in the ruins, you first climb many flights of stairs from where the buses drop you off to the entrance of the grounds.  I felt a sense of urgency and excitement to get to the top but had to temper that to go at an appropriate pace for the girls.  At last we reached the top and the postcard scene of Machu Picchu lay before us.  It was a beautiful sunny day with clouds high in the sky.  Much the same as I felt the first time I traveled outside of North America and saw the Eiffel Tower, a sense of awe and disbelief poured over me.  There is a palpable tranquility that permeates the air in the Sacred Valley and it seems to culminate here at Machu Picchu.

Before heading out, I did some reading about the ruins and one site in particular caught my attention.  The Intihuatana Stone or “Hitching Post of the Sun” is high atop a hill and looks directly at Wayna Picchu.  It was designed to “hitch the sun at the two equinoxes” and is thought to be a “precise indicator of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods” (information taken from  The Incan people had several of these stones scattered throughout their territory.  They believed that if a person touched their forehead to the stone they would be opened to the Spirit world.  large carved stone in the shape of a tower with mountains in the backgroundThe Spaniards systematically destroyed all of the Intihuatana stones during their conquest but because they never found it, the one at Machu Picchu is still intact.  When the stones were destroyed, the Incan people believed the deities would no longer reside in that area.  So, all who know me well know that of course this is exactly where I want to go.  If this stone has not been destroyed, then the magic is still there.  As we ascended the top of the hill and viewed the stone, I was immediately washed with tranquility and could feel the vibration from the sacred mountain of Wayna Picchu and that shrine.  Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to touch my forehead to the stone but I did reach out and touch it with my hand and was immediately reprimanded by a staff person standing nearby.  I felt a profound connection with the earth and the Great Spirit, Universal Energy, God, Love or whatever the name, I felt It all around me.  I was literally tingling from head to foot.

A couple of days ago we received some heartbreaking news that Jacob’s dear Grandmother, Shirley Martin, was hospitalized due to pneumonia and kidney failure.  She is embarking on the journey of death and many family and friends are surrounding her right now.  This news hung in the air for me as we entered the ruins.  I kept her with me all day, speaking to her about the impact she has had on me with her belief of living in love, acceptance of others, extreme, sometimes dirty, sense of humor and generosity of spirit.  I immediately felt a connection with her when we first met.  She made a point of developing a relationship with me by calling, emailing, and seeking me out at family gatherings.  I sent so many prayers to Wayna Picchu to help her on her journey; to bring her peace and feel my love, all of our love.  I hope she felt my presence across the miles.

Tree with ruins and mountains all around
Feeling Shirley’s presence

The entirety of Machu Picchu is about five square miles. I think we probably hiked three of these miles up and down SO MANY STAIRS.  If the girls were even one year younger, we could not have accomplished it.  They were driven by their intrigue and curiosity to hear the stories of the Incan people and each got to pick the ruin they wanted to see most. This helped keep them from thinking about their tired legs.  The girls would probably say their favorite part was getting up close to some llamas that were grazing on a terrace.  Mackenzie seemed to pick the favorite grass of one particular llama and made a new friend. Mackenzie feeding a llama Now, I as I look at my family laying in bed, the girls bingeing on TV shows they haven’t seen in 2 months, Jacob lying next to me and my own body feeling the fatigue, I know we had a profoundly spectacular day.

Valley of farmland with mountains on either side

The Sacred Valley of Peru: Urubamba and Ollantaytambo

We started our journey to the Sacred Valley by flying into Cusco from Lima.  As soon as we deboarded the plane I could feel the altitude. Cusco sits at 3,399 meters or 11,150 feet above sea level.  Our host in Lima suggested we get to Cusco and then go to bed, allowing our bodies to acclimate overnight.  I was worried this would not work for the girls so we decided to land in Cusco and then immediately go “down valley” to stay in Urubamba. I am so glad we did.  Even at 9,420 feet in Urubamba I suffered a bit of altitude sickness.

I had a headache and was tired for the entire first day.  Renata, the woman who runs the hostel where we stayed, gave me coca tea made from steeping the dried leaves.  After drinking the tea, I felt better almost immediately. I read about all the symptoms and treatments before we left, but in the moment, I didn’t realize this is what was happening.  I am a mountain girl!  I should adjust fine, isn’t high altitude in my bones and blood? Apparently, when you have spent the last 2 months at sea level, “mountain-girl” no longer applies.

Urubamba is a wonderful town nestled in the sacred valley.  The Andes Mountains tower over it, some at a height of over 18,000 feet.  Rio Urubamba snakes its way through hundreds upon hundreds of green farmland planted with maize, potatoes, squash and other vegetables. The decision to stay there was really based on accommodations we could afford.  We researched staying there versus Ollantaytambo and noticed there is quiet a debate over which is better.  In my opinion, the two can’t really be compared. Urubamba is much less touristed, therefore, you really get the feel of a small, authentic Peruvian town.  Ollantaytambo is a picturesque city built in and around ruins and caters to tourists.

We booked a family-run hostel on Air B&B in a district just outside Urubamba called Yanahuara.  The description said it was within walking distance to the river but a good hike into town.  It seemed like a great opportunity to interact with a Peruvian family and put our Spanish skills to the test so we went ahead despite the distance from Urubamba. Our host contacted us on the day of our arrival to tell us that he had made a mistake and the hostel we originally booked was full but nearby there was a family room at his mother’s “backpacker house”.

“Ok, I guess we just go for it and trust”.

Many of the houses in this district are tucked behind tall adobe walls.  Hoping we were at the right location, we walked up to a large wooden door in one of these walls and rang the bell. After several rings, knocks and “holas” our hostess, Renata opened the door and led us into a large green yard lined with flowering trees and bushes, a fire-pit to one side, the three-story-house at the back and a large wood-fired oven on the side of the house.   She led us in through the kitchen and up a steep set of stairs to our room that was packed in with three “super-twin” beds covered with fuzzy, white and black tiger stripped comforters. Feeling like we had finally landed, we all took a sigh of relief. The next four days were full of broken Spanish, exploration of the food markets and life in Urubamba as well as the ruins of Moray and the Salineras salt pans nearby.

Our timing for interaction with a Peruvian family couldn’t have been more perfect. Renata’s daughter (also Renata), her son-in-law and grandson also live in the house.  In addition, there was a Brazilian couple, their two kids ages 2 and 6 and the Aunt of the kids staying in the house. Young Renata invited us to her son’s 8th birthday party scheduled to be at the house, later in the week. Despite the nervousness of meeting new people with whom we could barely communicate, we were all starving for some social interaction.  The girls struggled at times to understand what the other kids were saying as well they sometimes felt frustrated when they couldn’t relay when they were tired of playing.  With a little help from us, they learned that language doesn’t have to be a total barrier to connection with others and they found ways to play using words like listo (ready), hola and adios.

There is not much in the way of markets and restaurants in Yanahara.  The closest store sold bread and eggs and a few other staples.  Therefore, we needed to find a way to get into town without having to hike the 45 minutes by foot. There are seemingly hundreds of collectivos, essentially local buses, which are really just large minivans, that bump up and down the main road from Urubamba to the outer districts.  The driver stuffs as many people along with their big buckets of some sort of liquid, loads of groceries and armfuls of grass (still not sure what this is but lots of people buy it by the armload) as he can. You can even strap a live goat to the roof if need be (this came as quite a shock to the girls when the driver hoisted this poor beast off the roof; they watched the action out the window with jaws to the floor).  I really don’t blame the driver for the overcrowded conditions since the price per person is only one Sol or about 27 US cents.

Word of caution:  If catching a collectivo from Urubamba to a nearby district, you must pick up the collectivo from the terminal in town.  If you try to catch it on the road home, it will be too full and the driver won’t stop for you.  Hot sun, altitude sick mom and tired kids make this a tough lesson to learn.

We found some great food in Urubamba. Our first full day there happened to be Thanksgiving. We decided to make our way into town and find the restaurant, Q’anela, which was recommended to us by young Renata. After wandering around and around the main plaza, the girls growing crabby, everyone feeling frustrated that we couldn’t find the restaurant that seemed so easy to find by Renata’s directions, we decided we would just scrap it and go into the next place we found. Low and behold it was Q’anela! tip: write the name of the place down to help confirm the restaurant…locals can’t help if you can’t remember the name!

The restaurant is part of a large adobe building with white walls inside and dark brown, wood floors. The owner offered us a spot in the “jardin” which is a green square courtyard surrounded with herbs and flowering trees. We were the only patrons and had our pick of tables. This was definitely a splurge on a good meal. Plates were between 25-30 Soles which is about $7-$10 USD. We ordered a carafe of house made lemonade to start. This lemonade is like no other I have ever tasted. The límon fruit is combined with the perfect amount of sugar. Her secret ingredients are mint and lemon verbena.  All this is blended together to create a smooth, tart, herbaceous little bit of heaven. I have been dreaming of it ever since.lemonade with herbs on a plate in front The rest of the meal followed suit. Jacob and I shared a bowl of Chupe de Andino (quinoa and vegetable soup) and a spicy ensalada of fava beans, onions, tomatoes and rocoto pepper, and Aji de Gallina (classic Peruvian dish of chicken cooked in a beautiful cream sauce served with rice). We finished the meal with chocolate mousse drizzled with a chocolate and baileys sauce and finished with candied hazelnuts. We held our family and friends close in our hearts as we shared the things for which we are each grateful.

The next day we hired a man to drive us to the ruins of Moray and Salineras Salt pans.  He took us on a bumpy, dirt road that led up up the mountain, stopping once for a photo op of the valley below and second time to change a flat tire.  The ruins of Moray are old Incan agricultural laboratories where archeologists say the Incans experimented with the effect of temperature on various crops.  They also may have held festivals here.  We were all amazed at the perfect circles they were able to carve into the mountains.  The way in which they were designed must have had significance to them in some way. concentric circles of the ruins at Moray The temperature definitely changed from the top 0f the ridge to the basin.  The sun in this area is intense, just like in Colorado. Hot, dry and will burn you if you don’t wear sunscreen and hats.

After hiking down into the ruins and then huffing it back out, we headed out to the Salineras Salt Pans. From a distance, Mackenzie described this as if someone had spilled paint all over the side of the mountain.  As you get closer, you can see layer upon layer of individual squares, sort of like a checkerboard up the mountain, filled with water.  The Incan and pre-Incan people figured out that the earth here is highly saturated with salt and when it rains, the saltwater runs down the side of the mountain, is captured in these square pits designed by the ancient people and then slowly evaporates leaving the salt behind.

Our driver suggested we walk across these salt pans until we reached a road that would take us down the side of the mountain and to an old bridge that crosses the Urubamba river where he would pick us up.  We made our way down to the salt pans where you are free to walk across or go up and down.  We followed a sort of path made of salt that traversed the side of the mountain; often very narrow in places.  I kept thinking to myself, if this were the US this would  a.) not be allowed and b.) if it were there would have been waivers to sign and handrails.  As Jacob says, it seems in Peru their theory is if you are clumsy enough to fall off the side of a mountain, it’s your own fault.

Thats Amy and Quinn slowly making their way on the narrow path
Thats Amy and Quinn slowly making their way on the narrow path

As we traversed, I heard a couple of people come up from behind speaking in Spanish.  We kept going in a line until we found a wider part to step aside for them to pass.  It turned out to be an older Peruvian couple, dressed in the typical clothes of the area.  Earlier, our driver had explained that the women wear the tall hats as part of the fashion and the color has significance to where they live and the kind of work they do.  This woman was wearing a tall white hat, indicative of the salt mining of Salineras which is still done today.  We slowly continued our hike descending back down into the valley and through beautiful ranches and adobe houses eventually making it to the bridge.  I am so proud of my daughters.  They are amazing little hikers and are driven by curiosity and interest.

We ended our visit to Urubamba with the birthday party.  Guests arrived with kids of varying ages, the latin beats of salsa, reggaeton, and cumbia music bounced in the background while we ate delicious sandwiches and drank yummy Chicha Morado (a local drink made from boiling purple corn with pineapple rinds, cloves, cinnamon or whatever flavors you fancy). I fumbled along and did my best to communicate through laughter, smiles and body language and even learned a few more words. The girls were challenged to figure out how to play despite the language barrier, using body language and funny games with the few Spanish words they know. Despite awkward moments of having little to say for lack of vocabulary, I know I am forever changed for having stretched the edges of my comfort zone. 

After saying our goodbyes, we moved on down the valley to Ollantaytambo. Our experience at the markets in Urubamba taught us to look for one of these in Ollantaytambo.  You can buy fresh baked rolls, 5 for 30 cents, a block of fresh cheese for about $1.50 and a large carrot for .15 cents.  The markets are packed with mostly women selling their fruit, veggies, bread, cheese and spices and other staples.  It is a bit overwhelming which pile of fruit to stop at: the one at the entrance or the one a few women down?  The produce is amazingly beautiful and fresh especially compared to that of Panama and Costa Rica.  We learned that we can make a great picnic lunch for the four of us for about $3.  The market in Ollantaytambo was sort of hidden down a hill off the main square.  By the looks I got when I entered, I definitely felt like not many tourists find nor shop at the market there.  Still, I loved wandering around looking at all that was available while greeting the venders with smiles and “buenos días”.

large vegetable stand with tomatoes, carrots, onions etc
Urubamba market

The town of Ollantaytambo is built in and around ruins. The streets are all cobblestone.  There is a large canal with rushing water that runs through the town eventually meeting up with the Rio Urubamba.  The sound of water along with the picturesque mountains and narrow, cobblestone streets lined with adobe houses make this a feast for the senses.  While in Ollantay we visited the two major sites: The Fortress or Temple Hill and the “qolqas” (pronounced colcas) or the storehouses that sit on the side of the mountain.  Day one in Ollyantatambo was cloudy and rainy which turned out to be a blessing as we marched up the steep stone steps to the ruins of the storehouses.  At the top, there is a magnificent view of the town below and the Fortress ruins on the opposite side of the valley.  Amy at qolqa ruins and view of ruins at temple hill in backgroundThe qolqas were used to store grain and were built in such a way that by pouring in new grain from the top the old grain is forced to the bottom to be used first.  We stopped inside one of these qolqas to enjoy our lunch.  Poor Mackenzie seemed to have caught the cold that Quinn was just getting over and was feeling very sick and feverish and so we called it a day.

Amazingly, after some good rest, she bounced back and was able and willing to hike up Temple Hill the next day.  From this mountain, you can see across to the qolqas and to the “face in the rock” or the God Wirachoca whom the Incas believed was the creator of all.  We explored Temple Hill, marveling at the construction and the HUGE stones that were somehow brought from the quarry 6km away and up this steep mountain.  We traversed yet another narrow ridge, not for the person with a fear of heights, to the terraces that were and still are used for agriculture eventually making our way down to the “princesses bath” (this of course was the carrot for Mackenzie and Quinn).  Again, marveling at the engineering it took to divert water from the river to create fountains for the baths and for the ceremonial temples. Oh yes, the water still pours from these fountains.

So which place would I recommend staying?  Ollyantatambo is an impressive, beautiful city built in the ancient ruins. Over time, it has developed to cater to tourists.  Food, water and artisan crafts are more pricey here but there is no need for transportation as everything is in walking distance.

street of Ollantaytambo with ruins in the background

Urubamba is an authentic village and with that comes more grit and character but less options of places to stay.  My advice?   If one has the time, stay in both places!

plaza with palm trees and flowering trees
Urubamba Plaza de Armas