Learning Your Way Around Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana- “World’s First and Best Park”

Although it’s not the most visited of all of the US national parks, Yellowstone National Park is certainly high on many people’s lists. Since 2015, the annual number of visitors to Yellowstone has been steadily increasing from 4 million people. By the way, the reference in the title is because we saw someone wearing a t-shirt at the park declaring that Yellowstone was the “World’s First and Best National Park;” Yellowstone was established in 1872 and was not only the United States’ first national park but also the world’s first national park.

We spent four nights in Yellowstone (so I make no claims to being an expert) and despite the fact that it’s 3,472 square miles spread out over parts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, or larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, I feel like we were able to see quite a bit of the park in that amount of time. Well, sort of. We saw a decent amount of the bottom part of the park, but we really didn’t see much of the top part other than driving through it on our way to the airport in Idaho Falls. In this post I will obviously focus on the lower part of the park.

I’ll give a little bit of background geographical information here, to give everyone an idea of the lay of the land. Yellowstone has five general areas within the park. In the north is Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt, which includes Lamar Valley. The central part includes Canyon Village to the east and Norris Geyser Basin and Madison to the west. The southern part includes Lake Village, Fishing Bridge, and Bridge Bay to the east; Grant Village and West Thumb to the central part; and Old Faithful to the west.

One more thing to know about logistics:  there are 5 entrances; north, northeast, south, east, and west. The North Entrance is the only park entrance open to wheeled vehicles all year. Winters are brutal in this part of the US, and the other entrances close in the fall and don’t re-open until the spring (which can be late May for some entrances). If you’re combining Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, some people say you can make a day trip from Jackson through Grand Teton and up to Yellowstone through the south entrance, which you could technically do, but it would be a really long day with most of it spent in the car.

Geothermal Areas:  Geysers, Pools, Mud Pots, Fumaroles, and Springs

There are an estimated approximately 10,000 geothermal areas in Yellowstone. Throughout the park, there are several geyser basins. The main geyser basins are described in detail below, but there are others including Norris Geyser Basin, which is the hottest geyser basin in the park and is home to Steamboat Geyser, the tallest active geyser in the world.

West Thumb Geyser Basin is the largest geyser basin on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. This is where you’ll find the following geysers, pools, and springs:  Abyss Pool, Black Pool, Hillside Geyser, Twin Geysers, Blue Funnel Spring, Ephedra Spring, Fumaroles, Big Cone, Fishing Cone, Lakeshore Geyser, Surging Spring, Ledge Spring, Percolating Spring, Thumb Paint Pots, and more. There is also a historic Ranger Station, Duck Lake Trail, and Lake Overlook Trail.

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The Upper Geyser Basin includes Biscuit Basin, Black Sand Basin, and the Old Faithful area. The walking paths that connect the Old Faithful area, Biscuit Basin, and Black Sand Basin contain a huge amount of springs, pools, and geysers. If you only have time to visit one basin, this is the one where you should spend your time. Some of my favorites on the walk between Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin are Morning Glory Pool, Grotto Geyser, Chromatic Pool, and Castle Geyser.

Don’t make the mistake of just viewing Old Faithful explode into the air and then leave. There are many other geysers, springs, and pools on the walkway around the Old Faithful Area. Some other great ones include Beehive Geyser, Grand Geyser, Riverside Geyser, Sawmill and Daisy Geyser. Also, in addition to the seating area in front of Old Faithful, there’s an observation point a short walk uphill where you can get a less-crowded view of Old Faithful from above. More on that in a later post or this one will be way too long.

Biscuit Basin includes Silver Spring Globe, Shell, and Avoca Springs, Sapphire Pool (one of my favorites), Black Opal Pool, Jewel, Cauliflower, and Black Pearl Geysers. The Firehole River and a highway divide the basin.

Black Sand Basin contains only five geysers and hot springs but is one area not to be missed. You’ll see the colorful and aptly named Rainbow Pool (my daughter’s favorite), Emerald Pool, Spouter Geyser, Cliff Geyser, and Sunset Lake which discharges into Iron Creek, and overflows into Rainbow Pool creating a large microbial mat between the two thermal features.

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Midway Geyser Basin is technically part of the Lower Geyser Basin but is given its own domain. The famous Grand Prismatic Spring, which is almost 370 feet in diameter, is here, as is the now dormant Excelsior Geyser.

The Lower Geyser Basin is the largest of the geyser basin areas in Yellowstone, at 11 square miles. If you take the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, you can see the beautiful Celestine Pool; Clepsydra, Fountain, Morning, and Jet Geysers; Fumaroles (steam vents), Leather Pool, Red Spouter, Silex Spring, Sizzler, and Spasm Geyser.

Where to Stay

We decided to stay inside the park, at Grant Village, which was a wise decision especially after hearing a co-worker who went there a week before I did say he had to drive one hour just to get to the entrance of the park and then another hour or two from there depending on what part of the park he was going to that day. By staying inside the park, you’ll greatly reduce the amount of time you spend driving each day. There are nine hotel/lodges within Yellowstone and 12 campgrounds, so you do have some options. Just remember they fill up several months to a year in advance so you’ll need to make your reservations early.

However, even if you stay within the park, you will still spend time driving within the park, just because it is so spread out and enormous. For example, to get from Grant Village to Old Faithful, it will take about 30 or 40 minutes if you aren’t slowed down by construction, traffic, or animals crossing or blocking the road (we had to deal with all three of these at one time or another). If you were staying outside the park and drove in the north entrance, for example, it could easily take you 2 1/2 to 3 hours just to drive from your hotel to Old Faithful. Believe me, we saw first-hand the huge line of cars trying to enter the park from the north entrance one morning.

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Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

As you may guess, there are no Airbnb properties or non-National Park Service hotels within the park, but there are some near the entrances if you truly don’t mind a long drive into and back out of the park or can’t get reservations in the park. Within the park, Canyon Village has Canyon Lodge and Cabins. Tower-Roosevelt area has Roosevelt Lodge and Cabins. Mammoth Hot Springs has Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins. Old Faithful area has three options:  Old Faithful Inn, Old Faithful Cabins, and Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins. West Thumb and Grant Village has Grant Village. Lake Village has Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins and Lake Lodge Cabins.

If you want to focus your time on the northern part of the park but also have relatively quick access to geysers, I would stay in Canyon Village. Tower-Roosevelt and Mammoth Hot Springs to the north are great if you want to explore Lamar Valley. If you will be fishing and spending more time at Yellowstone Lake or want a fairly central location in the park, Grant Village would be a good option. Old Faithful area is great for focusing on geysers, pools, and springs since a large proportion are in this area.

Just by taking some time to learn the layout of Yellowstone and deciding where you want to focus your time, you can reduce the amount of driving you’ll be doing within the park and be able to spend more time outside enjoying the park. I feel like Grant Village was a good choice for accommodations for my family and I since it was only about a thirty minute drive to the Old Faithful area of the park (as I mentioned earlier), which is where so many of the geyser basins are but we could also get to the Canyon area in about an hour so it was a relatively central location for the places we went during that week.

Where to Fly Into

If you don’t live within driving distance of Yellowstone and/or don’t want to take a cross-country road trip, you can fly into Idaho Falls Regional Airport and drive in through the north or south entrance, which should each take about 3 hours. An alternative is to fly into Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah and come up through the south entrance, which would take about 6 hours. Jackson Hole Airport is the quickest way to Yellowstone, at only about an hour’s drive to the south entrance, but it’s also likely the most expensive option.

I have another post coming soon with specific tips for viewing geysers, pools, springs, and waterfalls plus trail info and safety.

Have you been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, what did you do there? If not, is it on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

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Exploring Grand Teton National Park by Water- Stand Up Paddle Boarding in String Lake and Leigh Lake, Hot Springs, and Floating Down the Snake River

Many people just drive the scenic 42-mile loop around Grand Teton National Park, pulling over to take some pictures along the way and call it a day (or maybe two days). Others take a more active pursuit and hike some of over 200 miles of trails in the park. Both of these are great ways to see the park, but my family and I also experienced the park by water, and you really get different views of the park when you’re on the water than if you’re in a car or hiking a trail. If you’d like to read more about hiking and more background information on Grand Teton, you can find all of that here.

I highly recommend taking a raft down the Snake River with Triangle X Ranch, which is also a Dude Ranch with cabins and several other activities. We did a 10-mile, 2 ½ hour evening float on a raft down the Snake River but there are options to take an evening dinner float and a lunch float. We saw an eagle’s nest and eagle, several beavers and their dams, and a moose. Our guide was friendly and chatty and pointed out things along the way. The scenery was of course the star of the show and we had views of the Teton Mountain Range just about the entire time.

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From our float down the Snake River (it was threatening rain hence the poncho)

These float trips don’t go through any rapids, so you won’t be whitewater rafting, which means you just sit on the edge of the raft and let the guide do all of the work for you. If you’re wondering what to wear, I wore athletic pants, a short-sleeve shirt, and hiking shoes. I would have been more comfortable with a light-weight jacket, however. This was in July, so if you’ll be going in the spring or fall, you definitely want a jacket or even light-weight coat depending on the temperature that day. Our guide also had blankets and ponchos on the raft if we wanted any. 

Another one of my favorite things we did was stand up paddle boarding (SUP) on String Lake and Leigh Lake. We rented from Mudroom, located at the ground level of Caldera House in Teton Village. Rentals were a reasonable $50 each for 24 hours and included an inflatable paddle board, paddle, personal flotation device, pump, permit, and wheeled bag to put everything in.

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The scenery for SUP doesn’t get much better than this!

We went back to String Lake and started there early the next morning. We had been stand up paddle boarding before but never on an inflatable board. It was fairly straight-forward inflating the boards and only took maybe 15-20 minutes to get all three boards set up for my family and me. The lake was crystal clear with a slight greenish hue and shallow enough to see to the bottom. Shortly after a lunch and bathroom break we decided to go over to adjoining Leigh Lake. To get from String Lake to Leigh Lake, you have to get out of String Lake at one end just before the small rapids and walk a short distance to enter Leigh Lake.

Leigh Lake is much bigger than String Lake, deeper as well, and although the water is clear in shallow parts, much of it is too deep to see the bottom. For reference, String Lake has a surface area of 100 acres while Leigh Lake’s surface area is 1,792 acres. The water was also choppier when we were out than String Lake no doubt because we weren’t as protected from the wind.

Even if you’ve never been stand up paddleboarding, it’s easy to learn. You just start out on your knees, paddling along until you feel stable, then try slowly standing up and keep your knees slightly bent for more stability. If you fall in the water, no big deal, just get back on your board and keep trying. Paddle boards are like bigger, more stable surfboards and you want to position yourself in the center of the board. Paddle on your right if you want to go left, paddle on your left if you want to go right, alternating between the two sides to go straight. It’s best to start in a small bay or other protected area of water because the water will be calmer and easier for you to paddle and keep your balance.

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You can also take a boat ride along Jenny Lake with Jenny Lake Boating at the base of Mount Teewinot. There are round-trip and one-way options. For example, you can hike to Hidden Falls and then take the shuttle to return to the East side of the lake. Shuttles run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day during service but you can’t make reservations for shuttle trips. There are also scenic boat tours with this same company, which you can reserve in advance, and the tours last about an hour.

For those that enjoy hot springs like I do, Granite Hot Springs Pool is an option in this area although it’s not directly within Grand Teton National Park limits. The natural, hot spring water (which you can see running directly from the source into the pool) is relaxing if you will be in the southern part of Wyoming, about an hour from Jackson. The pool is in the Gros Ventre Mountains surrounded by forest and cliffs but it is just one single swimming pool so don’t expect anything fancy. Entrance to the pool is $8 per adult and towel rental is an extra $2 per person. There are male and female changing rooms.

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There are also many other options for enjoying Grand Teton National Park from the water. The National Park Service page about boating and floating in Grand Teton National Park has an extensive list of companies offering everything from kayak tours to fees required within the park and other boat rentals, which you can find here:  National Park Service- Boating and Floating in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you been to Grand Teton National Park? If so, did you do any water activities there? Have you ever been stand up paddle boarding?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Things to Do and Where to Stay in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

When I was doing research for my vacation in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, I found very little information other than places to hike and where to get good photos. Maybe it was just where I was or wasn’t looking but I had a hard time deciding the best place to stay and other information. Now, after having been there, I feel considerably more confident about recommending places. Although I feel like I ended up making good choices, I got lucky really because I had so little information to go on. My hope is the information here will help others with planning a vacation to Grand Teton National Park.

Lay of the Land

Let’s start with some basics. Jackson refers to the town proper just south of Grand Teton National Park. Jackson Hole refers to the valley between the Teton Mountain Range and Gros Ventre Mountains in Wyoming, which includes Yellowstone National Park and spans a huge area. Grand Teton National Park is between Jackson and Yellowstone National Park. 

I personally divide Grand Teton National Park into three parts:  the northern part which includes Colter Bay and the enormous Jackson Lake, the middle part which includes Jenny Lake, Leigh Lake, String Lake, and Teton Canyon, and the southern part which includes Moose, Death Canyon, Granite Canyon, and Teton Village. Although it may seem somewhat small for a national park, it’s much bigger than it seems and it’s impossible to see the entire park in one day or even two days. We were there for two nights and about 3 full days and I feel like we barely scratched the surface of the park; however, I did learn a ton of information about the area.

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Oxbow Bend

Where to Stay

Regarding accommodations, you can stay in Jackson, but I found it to be pretty touristy. That being said, there are plenty of options here regarding places to stay, eat, and shop. Just north of Jackson is Teton Village, which I really liked. This is a ski resort area that’s open year-round and has a nice selection of shops and restaurants. The condos and hotels in Teton Village are expensive but everywhere in this area is expensive to be honest. We ate at Mangy Moose Steakhouse and Saloon in Teton Village and enjoyed the food and service.

If you want to stay inside the park, there are several lodges, all of which are pretty rustic (think log cabins) and expensive for what you get. You basically are paying for the convenience of staying inside the park. The National Park Service page for lodging in Grand Teton Park is here. We stayed in nearby Moran and found a one-bedroom cabin for much less than what we would have paid inside the park, and it was only a 15 minute drive to Oxbow Bend, for example. Sometimes you save literally hours of driving time by staying inside the park but in this case, you can easily stay just outside the park and not have a long drive just to get to an entrance.

Outside the park, besides Moran and Jackson, there are places to stay in Alta, Moose, and Elk, just to name a few. I think where a person or family stays on vacation is highly personal. For instance, some people might be interested in staying in more of a traditional hotel, other people may want to stay in a condo in Teton Village, while others might want more of a ranch experience while in Wyoming. My point is, there are many different options of where to stay in this area if you just look around a bit. I always like to bring up Google maps and find whatever place I’m interested in, then click on Nearby and find hotels and other lodging options that are in the area.

Things to Do

Must-do overall in Grand Teton:  Oxbow Bend (one of the best views in the park with the Teton Range reflected in the Snake River), Schwabachers Landing, Leigh Lake, String Lake, and Jenny Lake. 

Must-do hiking:  hike around Jenny lake, taking Jenny Lake Loop trail to Hidden Falls Trail to Inspiration Point. This was recommended to us by a park ranger when we asked her where we should hike. The falls were beautiful and the view from Inspiration Point was well worth the hike to the top. Round-trip for the Hidden Falls Trail to Inspiration Point Trail and back was about 2 ½ hours but we were going at a pretty decent pace especially on the way back. Hidden Falls is 5 miles roundtrip and Inspiration Point is 5.9 miles roundtrip from the visitor center. There is an option to take a boat across Jenny lake if you don’t want to hike the entire loop or you just want to take a boat ride along Jenny lake. 

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Hiking around Jenny Lake

The 4-mile loop of Taggart Lake Trail is another popular trail, located south of Jenny Lake. Static Peak Divide, a strenuous 16-mile trail in Death Canyon also gets high reviews, as do Cascade Canyon, a 10-mile strenuous trail from Jenny Lake Trailhead, and Lake Solitude, a 15-mile strenuous trail also from Jenny Lake Trailhead. An easy but no less scenic than the others is String Lake Loop, at 3.8 miles, just north of Jenny Lake. A park ranger also highly recommended the trails at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve area but we didn’t have time to go there.

Other options:  ride the aerial tram from the base of Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. It’s a 15-minute ride to the top with views of Grand Teton National Park, Snake River Valley, and the town below. Corbet’s Cabin restaurant is at the top. We didn’t have time for the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which overlooks the National Elk Refuge, north of Jackson but it would be great if the weather isn’t amenable to outdoor activities. Nor did we go horseback riding, which seems hugely popular in the area. Jackson Lake Lodge and Colter Bay Village offer short and long horseback rides.

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The tram and nearby shops in Teton Village

You could easily spend a week or more in Grand Teton National Park and still not see all of the park, depending on what you chose to do with your time and how many activities you want to do. However, if you’re not into hiking that much or water activities (indeed, I have an entire post on water activities coming soon), there is always the option to drive around the park and take in the scenery. It’s possible to drive the 42 mile loop around the park in a day.

The most recommended loop is to drive from Moose up the inner park road to Jackson Lake Junction and follow the outer park road through Moran Junction, ending back up in Moose. If you’re coming from Yellowstone, you will follow the Rockefeller, Jr. Parkway and enter the park at the Jackson Lake Junction. If you’re coming from Jackson, you’ll go north on Highway 26/89/191 and enter at Moose Junction. Finally, if you’re coming from Dubois in the east, you’ll drive over Togwotee Pass and enter the park at Moran Junction.

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View from Observation Point

Park entrance fee for a car is $35 for 7 days. If you plan on combining Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, you have to pay an additional $35 entrance fee for Yellowstone (also valid for 7 days). If you plan on visiting more than two national parks with entrance fees within 365 days, you might want to consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass for $80.

National Park Service planning guide link

Have you been to Grand Teton National Park? If so, what did you do there? If not, do you want to go?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

 

Things to Do in Arequipa, Peru Other Than Hike Colca Canyon

Do you know the feeling you get when you first go to a new city and you are immediately drawn to it? That’s how I felt when our plane landed in Arequipa from Cusco in Peru. I usually don’t fall in love with a city so quickly but right away I liked Arequipa. There are white stone buildings everywhere and the historical section is especially beautiful. Our hotel in Arequipa was in the historical section and when we entered our hotel room, I could feel right away that it was much warmer than our room in Cusco. Yes! This was a much nicer hotel overall than that in Cusco, too although the price difference was only about $25/night. (If you’re wondering about my reference to Cusco, you can read my post here.)

Originally the rough plan was to spend two days and one night in Colca Canyon, the most popular attraction in Arequipa. I didn’t make reservations in advance because honestly I wasn’t sure how we would feel after our adventures in Cusco. We did a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, camping in tents for the first 2 nights and staying in a hotel on the third night before going to Machu Picchu on the fourth day (you can read the posts about the trek here, here, and here). We also had tickets to hike up Huayna Picchu, a notoriously difficult climb to the top of the huge mountain overlooking Machu Picchu (you can read the post about that here).

I also wasn’t sure about the weather in Arequipa and didn’t want to camp out again if it was going to rain. Finally, I read that it would be considerably cheaper to make reservations in person in Arequipa rather than online in the US. It turns out that decision to wait until we reached Arequipa to make reservations wasn’t necessarily the best one because it meant we couldn’t go.

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Plaza de Armas near the historical center in Arequipa

I wasn’t thinking that it would be so late on a Saturday evening and none of the tour agencies would be open by the time we finished checking into our hotel and eating dinner, nor were many of them open when we tried Sunday morning (since the tours all leave very early in the morning, it was too late to make same-day plans anyway but we wanted to see what was available for the next day). Long story short, a visit to Colca Canyon was not to be this time around, so we figured out our best options for the next couple of days in Arequipa.

What did we end up doing? Well, we went on a free walking tour and ended up hitting most of the hot spots and learned some things about Arequipa along the way. For starters, Arequipa lies on a fault line and has had multiple earthquakes over the years. The city was completely destroyed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the 1600’s. There are three major volcanoes (El Misti, Mount Chachani and Pichu Pichu Peak), but Arequipa and the surrounding area has more than 80 volcanoes, most of which are in the Valley of the Volcanoes. The historic center was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in December 2000 due to its architecture and historical integrity.

On the walking tour, we walked by several churches (there are so many churches in Arequipa), the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Plaza de Armas, Mundo Alpaca, and a street the equivalent of “lover’s lane.” The tour was a little over 2 hours and our guide was funny and informative. I highly recommend doing this if you’re in Arequipa and want to learn about the city.

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That’s a snake skin over the tops of the display cases in the Monasterio de la Recoleta!

On our own, we visited two former monasteries, Monasterio de Santa Catalina (the more popular of the two) and Monasterio de la Recoleta (which I liked even better than the first one). Both places charge a small admission fee and both are filled with historical information, but Monasterio de la Recoleta has a few unique things going for it that I feel put it a bit over the top than Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Monasterio de la Recoleta has  rooms with artifacts from the Amazon, textiles, stamps, money, pre-Columbian artifacts, animals, religious, artwork, an amazing library, the church that’s still being used for services, and stairs to the bell tower with great views. Monasterio de Santa Catalina has former rooms of nuns and monks and artwork but not nearly as many artifacts as Monasterio de la Recoleta.

We took a taxi and visited the Molino de Sabandía (Sabandía Mill), a water mill set in the old Arequipa countryside about 20 minutes from downtown Arequipa, built in 1621. In addition to the mill and various artifacts, the landscape is lovely and there is an  extensive collection of cacti and succulents, as well as a variety of local plants and flowers. You can see vicuñas, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, roosters, local birds and an enormous Arequipa fighting bull. There was a family having a photo shoot at the mill when we were there, and I can see why since it’s such a photogenic place. There isn’t much else in the area but we did find a resort within walking distance and had lunch there before having the front desk call us a taxi back to town.

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Sabandía Mill in the countryside of Arequipa

Casa del Moral is an 18th century mansion that we visited that’s filled with period furniture, paintings and sculptures. Its name is derived from the moral (mulberry in English) trees that grow in its courtyard. Although I read reviews that said the house is small and not worth visiting, we really enjoyed our visit. The mansion has such ornate woodwork and details that it’s not really a place to just quickly whiz by in 10 minutes. Now owned by the bank, there’s also a section in the house with very old coins and bills, which was interesting to see.

Finally, we visited the Mercado Central and found it to be utterly intriguing. We went for the queso helado (“cheese ice cream” but really the name is misleading since it’s actually just ice cream) and stayed for the sites. Queso helado looks like sliced cheese but tastes like vanilla ice cream with cinnamon sprinkled on top. This market is so colorful and so vibrant we loved walking around and taking it all in. There are huge sections for everything from cheeses, fruits and vegetables, clothing, meats, juice bars, flowers, and more. This is where local people shop but we did see the occasional tourist there as well, walking around in awe like we were.

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Mercado Central in Arequipa

There were so many restaurants in Arequipa that we really enjoyed but some of our favorites are Mixtos, Crepisimo, Inkari Pub Pizzeria, Manolo’s, and Chaqchao Chocolate Factory. We stayed at SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western Tierrasur Colonial, which we loved, and it’s a short walk to Plaza de Armas and many other shops and restaurants in the historical district.

When we left Arequipa we were already talking about the next time we come back. We will of course go to Colca Canyon for a two-day tour and we’d like to climb the volcano El Misti as well. I’m already looking forward to going back!

Have you been to Arequipa and if so what did you like best when you were there? Would you like to go? Have you been to other parts of Peru?

Happy Travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in Peru

Anthony Bourdain once said, “It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”

I was fortunate enough to visit Machu Picchu and it was everything you hear and read about, and more. It’s difficult to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been there and photos of course don’t do it justice. A cab driver in Cusco, Peru told us before we went there that Machu Picchu holds a special place in his heart, that it’s a magical place that he feels drawn to. For me, however, as special as Machu Picchu is, the journey to get there is what holds a special place in my heart.

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We took a 4 day/3 night trek to Machu Picchu, called the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions and it surpassed my expectations. You can read about the trek here (day one),  here (day two), and here (day three). By the time we reached Machu Picchu, we were exhausted but thrilled to finally be at the famous ruins. There are four hour time limits on visits which must be within one of three daily shifts:  early morning (6-9 am), late morning (9 am-12 pm), and early afternoon (12-3 pm). You have to sign up to enter at a specific hour within these shifts and supposedly only 600 people are allowed to enter at each hourly interval, meaning no more than 2,400 people would be allowed in the ruins for the four hour time, but I’m not sure how much this limit is enforced because it seemed very crowded to me, especially as the day went on.

All of our tickets including the train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, entrance fees to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, and returns back to Cusco were taken care of by our guide from Alpaca Expeditions, which made everything much less stressful.

However, to add to our stress, the morning of our tour of Machu Picchu, our guide was supposed to be at our hotel in Aguas Calientes at 5 am and didn’t show up until 5:50, at which point we were just about in a total panic about what to do (no way to contact the guide so we sent an email to Alpaca Expeditions but didn’t get a response by the time the guide showed up, which by the way his excuse was he had drunk too many beers the night before and over-slept). Long story short, he apologized about a dozen times and in the end I completely forgave him because he was so stellar in every way before this.

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There were so many llamas all over Machu Picchu!

Although we arrived at Machu Picchu a bit later than we were supposed to, everything worked out fine. My first impression was that it’s pretty much what I thought it would be. We’ve all seen photos of Machu Picchu so many times and maybe even seen TV shows about it. Well, it’s exactly like it looks in the photos. It’s also crowded, despite the attempts to limit tourists (although our guide said things do seem to be getting better on that front). It’s every bit as grande and beautiful as it looks.

What did surprise me was the scale of the mountain that lies behind Machu Picchu, the one that you see in the background of the majority of photos of Machu Picchu- Huayna Picchu. You see, we had a separate entrance ticket to climb Huayna Picchu once we were done touring Machu Picchu. Guides aren’t allowed on Huayna Picchu for reasons unbeknownst to me, so we would be climbing that behemoth of a mountain all by ourselves. I was terrified.

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One of the views from Huayna Picchu. The people at Machu Picchu below look tiny!

After we felt like we had seen all we needed to see of Machu Picchu and got all of the history and background from our guide, he walked us out the exit, said good-bye, and my family and I used our separate entrance ticket for Huayna Picchu to get back into Machu Picchu, working our way through the ruins back to the entrance for Huayna Picchu. The peak of Huayna Picchu is 2,693 metres (8,835 ft) above sea level, or about 260 metres (850 ft) higher than Machu Picchu, according to Wikipedia. The truth is, the climb up is strenuous and should only be undertaken by people in good shape.

The climb up Huayna Picchu begins easily enough, and is full of switchbacks to make the climb easier. Still, you will be drenched with sweat and gasping to get your breath unless it’s a cold and rainy day, but then the steps would be slippery and you’d still be out of breath because of the steep increase in elevation so that wouldn’t be ideal either. There are some cables to hold onto that I was grateful to have both on the way up and down.

Here’s the part that most people gloss over in their reviews about Huayna Picchu- the final ascent to the top is like climbing a ladder, only on narrow little rocky, sometimes crumbling stairs. There are no cables or anything else to help you up here. I’m terrified of heights and I had to focus like I’ve never had to focus on anything before just to control my shaking body. I found it easier to use my hands as I climbed up, since it gave me something to do with them, and I just focused on one step at a time. Finally I reached the summit and it was the best feeling ever! Honestly, I’ve never climbed anything as difficult as Huayna Picchu, and I’ve done quite a bit of hiking around the world, although nothing like the via Ferrata in Italy.

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On top of the world- at the top of Huayna Picchu!

The way back down Huayna Picchu wasn’t as bad as going up and I never felt any real pangs of fear like I did going up. I passed a guy who was going up and looked scared to death and he hadn’t even reached the worst part yet. I told him if I could do it, he could do it and told him to use his hands going up and just focus on one step at a time. I hope he was able to conquer his fear and make it to the top. The view really is one of the best views I’ve ever seen and absolutely worth the effort.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? Did you go up Huayna Picchu? If so, what was your experience like? Is Machu Picchu on your bucket list?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Three

You can read about day one of the Lares Trek here and day two here, if you haven’t been following along until now. If you have, welcome back. On the morning of day three, we were told our fellow camper who was transported 2 hours away to a lower elevation was doing much better and we would do our final day of hiking and meet him at our campsite later that day. Since our guide had stayed with him in a tent overnight and would remain with him for the day to monitor his health, one of the female porters was our stand-in guide for the walk, which would be our easiest of the four-day trek. However, she almost exclusively spoke Quechuan, the local language, and only a little Spanish, so she was very quiet during the 3 hour hike. 

I should back up, though. As usual, we were woken up early with hot coca tea and given some time to get dressed and pack up before going to the tent for breakfast. As had been the case every other morning, breakfast was a huge spread of food that we all quickly devoured. To our surprise and delight (well, I had actually heard about this part but I didn’t spoil the surprise for my fellow campers) our chef had baked us a cake! He had been cooking this entire time using propane but how you bake a cake at high elevation with propane gas in the middle of nowhere in Peru is beyond me. These guys do this all the time, though so I guess they’ve got it figured out.

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Just one of many “Wow!” photo moments during day three of the trek

After we started on our final hiking portion of the trek, we began seeing more and more llamas and alpacas. We had seen some the previous day but not as many as we saw on day three. This area was obviously farming country, and we passed several small farms. Our porter/guide for the day tried to point out vegetables, flowers, and fauna, but unless it was obvious what she was pointing out, we usually just smiled and went on our way. As we descended from the Highlands, it began to get warmer and the landscape began to noticeably change.

After hiking for 4 hours we reached the final destination of the hiking portion of the Lares Trek, the town of Huaran. This is where our fellow hiker was transported by horse the night before, along with our guide. We had lunch here then said goodbye to the horsemen, porters, and chef, who all went back home. Only our guide, Abelito stayed with us, and a driver for the van that we all climbed into with our duffel bags.

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We saw so many llamas and alpacas on our third day!

We drove to the Salinas salt ponds in the town of Maras and got to walk around the beautiful salt ponds set in a canyon that descends to the Rio Vilcanota. These salt ponds have been in use since the Incas and are farmed by members of the community. You can buy salt very cheaply from various vendors onsite. Honestly I don’t know how they make a profit from the salt itself or from entrance fees which are only $2. Ever since I visited the salt pans in Gozo (part of Malta), I’ve been fascinated by salt pans so I was thrilled when I saw this was part of the itinerary for the Lares Trek. I was not disappointed either.

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The Salinas Salt Ponds

After we left the salt ponds, we drove to the town of Ollantaytambo and had our final meal with the other family from our trek. Our guide talked with the staff at the restaurant he had chosen for us and arranged for our dinners to be ready at a certain time, with spare time for us to walk around the town if we wanted or just find a spot to sit and have a drink. Ollantaytambo is a small town so it didn’t take us long to take a quick walk around to take some photos then go back for dinner.

We reminisced on our journey together, received shirts from Alpaca Expeditions, were given more instructions by Abelito (our guide) and exchanged contact info with the other family. Since the other family had signed up for a second trek, a two-day trek, concluding at Machu Picchu, we would be parting after dinner, but otherwise they would have been with us and Abelito at Machu Picchu the following day (they were assigned a different guide from Alpaca Expeditions for their second trek, while my family and I retained our original guide for Machu Picchu).

After mostly living for three days without seeing anyone else outside our small group, it was strange to once again see crowds of people. As I said in my post on day one of the Lares Trek, one of the reasons I chose the Lares Trek over the Classic Inca Trek was because the Classic Inca Trek is so popular (a.k.a. crowded). We literally saw only a handful of other trekkers while we were hiking, and that’s it. It was fantastic, really. Who wants to be in nature hiking in remote areas of Peru and have hordes of other people around you? Well, actually that would come later, which you will see if you follow my posts regularly.

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Ruins on the mountain in Ollantaytambo that would have nice to have explored if only there was more time!

So my family and I followed Abelito to the train station in Ollantaytambo, where we took a train to Aguas Calientes, and from there we walked to the hotel where we would be staying for the night (a very nice hotel arranged through Alpaca Expeditions). A hot shower and bed the night before touring Machu Picchu was the best idea ever. We set the alarm for yet another early morning wake-up, which really was a theme for our vacation in Peru thus far, and collapsed into the comfy beds. There was no time for any sight-seeing in Aquas Calientes on this day, but there would be some time after we toured Machu Picchu.

I fell asleep looking forward to finally getting to see the ruins of Machu Picchu. For most people, touring Machu Picchu is probably the highlight of their time in Peru, but honestly, for probably the first time in my life, I could say that the journey was more important than the destination (Machu Picchu). The Lares Trek had taken us past some of the most awe-inspiring views I’ve ever seen in my life. We met people that don’t even own a computer and only recently got electricity in their tiny town. I got to touch an alpaca (actually several) and see many more alpacas and llamas that were in the wild, only a few feet from me. I was able to physically push my body up and down the Andes Mountains at the highest elevations I’ve ever hiked with basically no side effects. Inevitably, this glimpse into Peru and the Peruvian people I saw along the Lares Trek will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Total miles for day 3:  6.2 miles. Elevation of Aguas Calientes:  6,562 ft.

Have you been to Machu Picchu and/or on a trek to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu- Day Two

For day one of our trek, see here:  Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One. Day two of our Lares Trek to Machu Picchu began with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up and steaming cups of coca tea (it’s supposed to help with the high altitude). After getting dressed and packing up our things, we had breakfast consisting of a hot chocolate porridge, bread, pancakes, fruit salad, tea, and coffee, then we headed out for the most difficult part of the trek. We hiked up to just over 14,000 ft and went through Condor Pass. Along the way we saw llamas, alpacas, and lakes that were a gorgeous shade of blue-green. The trail was full of loose rocks and we were once again grateful to have our walking poles.

After reaching the highest point of the trek, we hiked down the mountain, stopping briefly for a snack and only taking short breaks the rest of the time. We finally reached our campsite where we had yet another hearty and delicious lunch:  soup, bread, mixed fruit, mixed vegetables, cauliflower pizza, corn tortillas with broccoli, and a maize drink.

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A group shot doing the llama sign (as instructed to do so by our guide)

After lunch we walked to a one room school and talked with the teacher and children. The teacher, a male, spoke the local Quechuan (a language that goes back to the Inca Empire), and was teaching the children in that language. Our guide, who spoke Quechuan, Spanish, and English, translated for us all and explained where we were from. We gave the children the bread we had bought at the market the previous morning and gave them some things brought from the US like stickers, pens, and pencils. The children were happy to see us and were all adorable. Even though none of us spoke the same language, it was clearly communicated that we were happy to be there and they were happy to see us.

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Inside a Quechuan school in the Highlands of Peru. Their smiles were priceless!

We all took a well-deserved siesta in our tents then walked to meet a local family who lived nearby our campsite. Their house was one room built of stone with a thatched roof. There was a pot simmering over a fire in one corner and one woman was peeling potatoes. The man of the house did most of the talking for the family (in Quechuan, which was translated to English by our guide) and he told us there were 6 people who lived in the main house as well as in the other small house just across the main house where we heard several chickens inside.

There were 2 beds in the main house along with the kitchen, dining area, living area, and a loft storage area on one side. The man and his family, along with the rest of the people in the town were farmers. Some people from our group asked some questions and the man asked us where we were from and what kinds of jobs we had. He said he was very happy to have us in his home because so many people went through the area on treks but hardly anyone stopped by his house. He was hospitable and seemed genuinely happy to talk with us. His wife sang us a song before we left.

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One of the most beautiful views we saw on our second day of the trek

I’ll be perfectly honest here. I wasn’t sure how it would go with meeting the Quechuan family and I didn’t want it to feel like we were just there to stare at them and have everyone be uncomfortable. After talking with them (through the help of our guide), however, it became apparent that they really were happy to share a glimpse of their lives with us, and they were glad to have us as visitors. It seemed they were perhaps as curious about us as we were about them. Meeting with this family and the school children was definitely a highlight of the trek.

We had yet another tasty and filling dinner before bed and once again grabbed a hot water bottle from the cook to sleep with. Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of our fellow trekkers (there was my family of 3 and a family of 4) had to be transported by horse after dinner to a town 2 hours away at a lower elevation because his oxygen levels had become dangerously low. He had been struggling from the beginning with altitude-related problems but other problems as well (truth be told, even before the trek began) and he had been riding the horse almost the entire time but he had gotten steadily worse. One of the horsemen, our guide, and a porter took him to the town then the horseman rode the horse another 2 hours back to our campsite, only to have to get up about 2 hours later for an early morning wake-up.

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Our horseman from the trek with his family’s alpacas (and coca leaves stuffed in his cheek). He was a kind and hard-working man.

Having finished the hardest part of the trek, I was feeling really good about the rest of the trek. I knew the final day of hiking would be a piece of cake compared to the second day. I slept the best on the second night of all of the nights of the trek and was looking forward to our third and final day of hiking and ultimately to seeing Machu Picchu.

Total miles for day 2- 8 miles hiked; highest point reached 14,250 feet.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna