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.

IMG_2249

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.

20190523_093458
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.

IMG_2355
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.

20190523_104007
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

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_2197
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.

20190522_085710
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.

IMG_2215
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.

20190522_170757
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.

20190521_093028
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.

20190521_135319
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.

20190521_115705
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.

20190521_173158
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

 

 

Is Hiking in the Mountains Good Cross-Training for Runners?

This is the question I asked myself after taking two weeks off from running while I was hiking the mountains of Peru. I had planned on trying to run while I was in Arequipa towards the latter part of my vacation, a city that I thought would be more manageable as far as running, but that turned out to not be a viable option either. Everywhere we were in Peru, I found challenges to finding a safe running route, from uneven cobblestones to massive crowds of people to wild dogs (and their inevitable poo left behind) to very high elevation, and then I was sick. At least on this trip to Peru, it was not meant for me to run.

Unfortunately when I returned home from my two-week vacation in Peru, I returned home to ungodly heat and humidity. The day after I got back, I ran and immediately felt the heat and humidity hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought perhaps my legs would be stronger from all of the intense hiking but instead I found my inner thighs to be so sore that I felt it pretty early on when I started running. I had to ask myself were they just sore from hiking and I didn’t feel it until I started running or had they gotten weaker from not running? Either case, it was unexpected.

I had to jump right into half marathon training for my next race and actually skip ahead a few weeks, so there was no easing back into running. I felt like I was terribly slow on my first few runs, but then I was curious. I looked back at my runs this time last year and found something surprising.

20190523_104007
Hiking Huayna Picchu was intense and as it turns out was good cross-training for me!

My runs were on average one minute per mile faster compared with runs this time last year. What? That was unexpected. In fact, five days after I got home from Peru, I saw a notification on my Garmin watch that I had run my fastest mile ever, or at least since having Garmin Connect, during a 5-mile run. That was most definitely unexpected. I ran in the evening too, at the peak of the high temperature for the day (yes, no morning run for me that day, despite the fact I recently proclaimed I have become a “sometimes” morning runner).

Maybe there is something to hiking mountains as cross-training for runners after all. I don’t think there is any substitution for acclimating to heat and humidity but maybe hiking, especially the extremely difficult hiking at high elevation that I did helped me not only maintain my fitness level but helped my legs and the rest of my body get a little stronger. I did a little research and found an article on the subject, Two weeks in the mountains can change your blood for months.”

Now I’m a full-on believer that yes, hiking, especially at high elevation is great cross-training for runners. If only there were some mountains within a reasonable drive for a day-trip near where I live. In the meantime, I have some super-powered red blood cells that will hopefully help power me through not only my half marathon training cycle but also for my race next month. I’ll need all the help I can get because the race is at 5,906 feet, high enough to have me a little concerned. After all, the Boulder Rez Half Marathon in Colorado was at about 5,300 feet and it was so difficult my legs felt like lead when I was running it. I’m curious to see how/if there are any lingering effects from my time in Peru when I run in Wyoming. Only time will tell!

Have you experienced increases in fitness levels after exercising at high elevation then returning home to lower ground? Do you have a story to tell about this? I’d love to hear about your experiences or someone you know!

Happy running!

Donna

Lares Trek to Machu Picchu with Alpaca Expeditions- Day One

If you want to go to Machu Picchu in Peru you have many options. You can stay in Aguas Calientes and take the bus to Machu Picchu and tour the ruins with a guide, you can stay in Cusco and take the train to Ollantaytambo then the bus to Aguas Calientes then the bus to Machu Picchu, or you can take a guided hike and camp along the way finishing at Machu Picchu. The latter is what my family and I chose to do.

There are seemingly hundreds of companies that offer treks to Machu Picchu. As far as options for hiking routes, there is the more popular Classic Inca Trek, the more difficult Salkantay Trek, or the Lares Trek in addition to alternative treks. I decided to take the Lares Trek for several reasons:  it isn’t considered as popular as the Classic Inca Trail so it’s not as crowded, it has stops along the way at salt pans (which I find beautiful), thermal baths (which I find incredibly soothing and relaxing), at a local market where we would buy foods for local families along the trek, at a local school where we would talk with the children and give them some supplies and bread, and at a local family’s house. We chose the 4 day/3 night trek, which meant we would be camping in tents for 2 nights and at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the third night then take the short bus ride to Machu Picchu the next morning.

I chose Alpaca Expeditions because it came recommended. I later found out Alpaca Expeditions is the most popular trekking company to Machu Picchu for Americans. They promise an English-speaking guide, delicious food prepared by an on-site chef, a horse if you need assistance along the hike, a satellite phone for emergencies, small groups, and much more. There are options to upgrade some things for your hike, which I recommend. Let me just say every single one of us said many times on the trek how glad we were to have the walking poles.

20190520_125406
Day one of the Lares Trek- just the beginning!

The evening before our trek began, we met at Alpaca Expeditions headquarters in Cusco. We paid the balance that we owed and met with the rest of our group, a family of four from Connecticut, which meant there would only be seven of us not including those working for Alpaca Expeditions. We also met with our guide, Abelito, who explained briefly what we would be doing each day of the trek. He told us that the porters and horsemen would be in charge of carrying the tents, sleeping bags and pads, all food, water, cooking supplies, and basically everything we would need on the trek except for  personal items in a small backpack. Each of us was given a duffle bag to put our clothes and personal items in, which we would get each evening. We only had to carry a small day pack with any items we would want along the trek during the day, like sunscreen, bug spray, camera, and things like that.

Day one of our hike began with a 5 a.m. pickup in a large van at our hotel in Cusco. We drove 3 hours on curvy, winding roads, where we had to pull over after maybe an hour so I could throw up on the side of the road (and yes, I had taken an anti-nausea pill before I got sick). After I no longer had anything in my stomach, I was fine for the rest of the drive. We stopped at a market in a small town and bought sugar, flour, rice, pasta, bread, and coca leaves that we would later give to a family and school children. We took a guided tour of the market and were told all about the vegetables and other things sold there. 

IMG_2159
Waterfalls!

After driving for a while longer, we stopped for breakfast at a spot along the roadside overlooking a mountain. This was our first taste of food prepared by the chef and it was a great start with fruit salad, bread with jam, freshly squeezed mango juice, hot tea, coffee, and more. After a short drive to the Lares Hot Springs, we put on our swim suits in the changing area and had 45 minutes to relax in the pools. There were multiple pools with varying degrees of temperature. I’m a huge fan of hot springs so I thought it was a great way to start the hike!

We drove the short drive from the hot springs to the trailhead for the Lares Trek, got a quick lesson on how to adjust our hiking poles and we were off! After hiking for 2 hours we had a huge lunch at a beautiful spot along the trail then hiked for 1 and ½ hours more when we stopped at our first campsite that was near a lake, aptly named the Blue Lagoon. We had hiked 7.8 miles for the first day past waterfalls, sheep, and mountains, and re-fueled that evening with a hearty dinner of pasta, soup, roasted chicken, vegetables, bread, tea, and hot cocoa. Before dinner was served, we had some light snacks like popcorn, which we all devoured.

IMG_2371
This was a short walk from our campsite. Listening to the water flow at night was soothing.

We all happily took our hot water bottles from the cook to sleep with and collapsed into our warm sleeping bags for the night. It was cold that night, as is usual in the Highlands of Peru, but the sleeping bag was the kind that goes around your head to keep you warmer and we also had insulated mats to keep us off the ground and a super-warm blanket (not sure if it was alpaca or wool but I got so warm in the middle of the night I took mine off and put it on my daughter). I should also note that there were two people max in each tent (my husband had his tent to himself), which was fantastic.

The first day was pretty easy because the hiking we did was moderate and not for terribly long stretches. It was a good start for our trek and I was feeling really good about our decision to choose the Lares Trek with Alpaca Expeditions. We hadn’t yet reached the highest point in our trek, and I knew day two was set to be our most difficult segment of the trek. I was anxiously looking forward to what we would see and do the next day.

To be continued…

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

Many months ago when my husband and I were discussing where we wanted to go during our daughter’s school break the end of February/first part of March, Hawaii came up. As much as I’m dying to go to Portugal, I want to wait until the weather is more ideal than it would be the end of February. Hawaii, on the other hand, has perfect weather year-round. The last time we were in Hawaii, which was the second time for each of us, we went to Kauai and the big island and these had become our collective favorite islands. I think it was assumed we would return to the big island and Kauai this time as well.

At the time of our trip planning, the big island was having its most recent massive volcanic eruption. Sections of the island were closed and the air quality was poor. I knew of course things wouldn’t always be like that but I had no idea how long the lingering effects would go on. For example, would Volcanoes National Park or parts of it be closed when we wanted to go there? How long would the poor air quality linger? Not really wanting to take a chance and perhaps being overly-cautious, I suggested maybe we should skip the big island but go to another island instead, along with Kauai. Perhaps we should go to Oahu; after all, Oahu is the most-visited of the Hawaiian islands.

Although he didn’t say as much, I could tell my husband was highly doubtful of my suggestion to go to Oahu. He had been to Oahu many years ago with his mother and sister and had been less than impressed. He tells stories of having to step over body after body on Waikiki Beach and only having barely enough room to put his towel down. Pretty much all he remembers doing on that vacation is going to Waikiki Beach multiple days, driving to the North Shore for the day, and taking a day trip to the big island.

Nonetheless, I began researching Oahu and talking to some co-workers who I knew had been to Oahu several times. I decided we would go to Kauai for a week and Oahu for four days. However, I was adamant that we wouldn’t stay in the Waikiki or Honolulu areas. When I found this gem of a place on Airbnb, I was sold. Since it’s actually part of Paradise Bay Resort, you get resort amenities (more on that later) and free breakfast through Airbnb. We would be staying on the east side of Oahu in a bay, close enough to drive to plenty of good places to hike and pretty much anywhere else on the island we wanted but far enough from the massive crowds to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Flying into Oahu, I immediately noticed the colors of the water seemed somehow prettier than the other islands. The turquoise was more vivid and there was more variation in colors. Then I saw the sprawl of Honolulu and all of the buildings, homes, and hotels crammed together and I was glad I had found the resort in Kaneohe Bay. After we landed and collected our rental car, we drove to the Crazy Shirts outlet and got some lunch nearby. Then we went up to the top of the Diamond Head State Monument and the fun really started.

Diamond Head State Monument is undoubtedly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been to but absolutely worth it for the views. From the trailhead to the summit of Diamond Head Crater is 0.8 miles one way with 560 feet increase in elevation from the crater floor. There are hundreds of stairs and you go through a couple of tunnels. If you don’t like crowds or small spaces, I wouldn’t advise going here. However, if you don’t mind pushing your way through hordes of people (sometimes you literally have to do this), you’ll be rewarded with amazing views like this:

IMG_1982
View from top of Diamond Head State Monument
IMG_1979.JPG
Another view from Diamond Head showing the masses of people around but amazing views

For the rest of our time in Oahu, we mostly spent our time hiking but we also went to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). One thing we discovered about the PCC is that you don’t in fact have to buy a ticket to walk around the grounds if you get there after 6 pm. General admission ticket prices (which are the cheapest offered) are $64.95 for adults and this includes a visitor’s center tour, self-guided tour through six different themed areas (like New Zealand), hands-on activities, a canoe ride, a brief movie, and a canoe show. However, if you’re content to walk through the themed areas on your own for a couple of hours in the evening, you can do so for free. There are also options that you can add on things like a luau, reserved seating, an evening show, and on and on with the most-inclusive package priced at $242.95.

Another non-hiking activity we did in Oahu was visit the Byodo-In Temple in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The Byodo-In Temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple often used for weddings, funerals, and cremation services. I found the temple and grounds to be beautiful and peaceful. There is also a small gift shop on-site.

IMG_2002
Byodo-In Temple

Some of our favorite hiking spots were Waimea Valley and Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park. Waimea Valley also has a botanical garden with thousands of different types of plants from around the world and a waterfall that you can swim in. This valley has historically been home to kings, chiefs, and high priests. You can see many archaeological sites throughout the valley. Admission for visiting adults is $16.95 and you can arrange for complimentary tours and activities depending on the day and time (check the website).

IMG_2333
A Looking Glass Tree at Waimea Valley (as Alice in Wonderland fans, my daughter and I loved seeing this)
20190305_150521
Waterfall at Waimea Valley

Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park was established to nurture and foster native Hawaiian cultural traditions and the cultural landscape of rural windward Oʻahu. Established as a “living park”, there are thirty-one families living in the ahupuaʻa of Kahana. These families assist with interpretive programs that share the Hawaiian values and lifestyle. There are two hiking trails available to the public, Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail is a one mile long loop trail that begins at the Orientation Center and takes about one hour. The trail passes two cultural sites and offers stunning views of Kahana Bay. Nakoa Trail is named for the koa trees found along this 2.5 mile loop trail through a tropical rain forest. The loop hike takes about 2 hours. The total length of the hike is 5 miles from the Orientation Center.

My family and I are all about trails with views, so we chose the Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail. As per our former experience with hiking trails in Hawaii, this one was extremely muddy and slippery in parts. The trail wasn’t too difficult other than navigating through the mud until we reached one of the viewpoints of the bay. At this point, the trail became what I would call pretty dangerous, with sharp drop-offs on both sides of a thin walkway. My husband went up that section to take some photos but I chose to stay behind until he came back and we went back the way we came. Also, if you go on this trail, wear bug-spray because we didn’t and got eaten alive by mosquitoes.

20190306_142842
View from Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park

The final thing we did in Oahu that was a ton of fun was to go standup paddleboarding for the first time. Remember that awesome Airbnb we stayed at- well, Paradise Bay Resort offers free standup paddleboarding and kayaking lessons once a day on certain days. After a quick lesson of what to do (it’s pretty simple, honestly) we began paddleboarding around the small body of water (I guess you’d call it an inlet) directly behind the resort. Once I felt confident on my knees, I stood and pretty quickly felt like I had the hang of it. However, the winds were really strong that day and every time I tried to go out into the bay, the wind would push me backwards. Finally, I decided to just stay in the inlet. There were mangroves and I could still see into the bay so it was still scenic.

20190306_121921
Standup paddleboarding!

On our final day in Oahu, we tried to go to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout but unfortunately the Pali Highway was closed when we were there. All was not lost, though. We made our way to Leonard’s Bakery to try some famous malasadas, which are Portuguese donuts without the hole. For the three of us, we ordered two each with Li Hing, cinnamon sugar, and original coating but when I opened the box in the car, I discovered they had given us several extras. We also got some of the custard-filled ones and extra ones of the others as well- bonus!

We decided to walk along the harbor area of Honolulu before heading to the airport and it was a nice way to end our time in Oahu. I know I for one was very glad I decided to take a chance and come to Oahu and I feel pretty sure my family would agree! Since we’re not really ones to go where the crowds are (with some exceptions like Diamond Head in this case) but we prefer to go a bit off the beaten path, the windward side was perfect for us.

Have you been to Oahu? Did you stay in popular Waikiki or somewhere else? Tell me about your experience in Hawaii.

Happy travels!

Donna

Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

I’ve been to the Hawaiian island of Kauai twice; the first time my daughter was almost 2 years old and more recently with my teenage daughter. I feel like the island remained pretty much unchanged in those eleven years with the exception of more traffic and people on the island. However, my experiences both times were vastly different.

The first time I went to Kauai I went with my husband and his parents (and as I mentioned our daughter) and I felt like I was just kind of along for the ride. My mother-in-law had been to Kauai before and pretty much set our itinerary for Kauai and also our time on the big island, which we combined for our 12-day vacation. At the time, I had no problems letting someone else plan what I did on vacation and I don’t remember really even looking up things to do.

We went to the pool at the resort, went to some beaches, a luau, my husband and I hiked in Waimea Canyon while my in-laws watched our daughter, and one day we drove up the coast to see Princeville and the surrounding area. Honestly, I don’t remember much from that vacation other than what I just typed here. Don’t get me wrong. I had a fantastic time but looking back I feel like it was all kind of a blur of beaches and swimming pools with the luau and Waimea Canyon mixed in.

Hawaii 2007 320
My family’s first time in Kauai

Flash-forward to my more recent vacation to Kauai and there are quite a few differences. This time the three of us hiked in Waimea Canyon State Park, hiked part of Sleeping Giant Trail, and Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail with a sweet dog we took on a field trip from the Kauai Humane Society. We snorkeled on our own and swam through schools of fish, saw a spiny lobster, crab, and colorful fish of all shapes and sizes. We crawled through a small opening to get to Makauwahi Cave. We went ziplining and even flew through the air superman style on some of the lines (some of us went upside-down on some of the lines). My daughter and I also ran together several days and were rewarded with ocean views, volcanic rock formations, and sandy beaches along the way. Oh, and we also went to a luau complete with delicious local foods, musicians, several different Polynesian dances, and a fire show.

We’re an active family when we’re at home so it’s not surprising that our vacations are also active. That’s a good thing too, with all of the shave ice we ate! This was the first time I had ever tried Hawaiian shave ice. I always just thought it was like a snow cone. Oh how wrong I was! There is a difference in the quality of shave ice, as I found out. The best kinds are hand-formed with macadamia nut ice cream or vanilla ice cream on the bottom, with two or three flavors that evenly saturate the shave ice from top to bottom and sweet cream poured on top. The ice cream on bottom and cream on top sometimes cost extra (depends on the place) but they’re absolutely worth it.

Here are some of my favorite things in Kauai:

Koloa Zipline Tours– 8 lines, some of which you can go head-first superman style, tandem, upside down, or traditional. Tour lasts about 3.5 hours and you get a snack and water on the tour. Our guides were laid-back but safety-conscious so I felt like everything was completely safe and secure. The last line is the longest, at about 0.5 mile, with views of the reservoir, farmland with cattle, and of course trees below.

20190302_161007_001-ANIMATION
We were actually much higher up than it looks like here!

Makauwahi Cave Reserve– free guided tours or go on your own. Although you do have to enter through a small opening, there are carpets on the ground and it’s very short, so you’re through it before you know it. You can view the caves from above, but can’t really get good views inside the cave from that vantage. If you get lost trying to find the entrance, just walk down to where a river meets the ocean and you should find it shortly after that.

20190228_135843
Makauwahi Cave Reserve

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail– close to the Makauwahi Cave, this trail runs along the southern part of the island with views of limestone formations, cliffs, and ocean. The area has sharp, jagged rocks everywhere so it’s not a trail where you want to be wearing flip-flops. Bring sunscreen and water as there’s no shade and the sun is relentless. When we were there, signs were posted that the water at Maha’ulepu Beach was contaminated with bacteria and therefore unsafe to enter. All that being said, this place is truly beautiful and worth seeing.

Kauai Humane Society– field trips for well-behaved dogs can be arranged simply by showing up at the shelter, choosing a dog, doing a brief meet-and-greet with the dog, paying the $25 suggested donation (or more if you’re inclined), filling out a form, and taking the dog out along with some supplies in a backpack. Our dog, Priscilla, was truly one of the best-behaved dogs I’ve ever been around. She wasn’t afraid of anything and happily walked along the Maha’ulepu Trail and Beach with us. I hope sweet little Priscilla has found a home by now because she deserves it. One note if you do this, get there promptly at 11 am. The first day we went, we got there around 12:30 and there were no dogs left, so we went back the following day at 11 am and  had no problems getting a dog. I was told they usually have around 8 or 10 dogs per day that can go on field trips so often all of the dogs go out and are taken well before 1 pm.

IMG_1938
Walking the Maha’ulepu Trail with Priscilla from the Kauai Humane Society

Waimea Canyon State Park and Area– called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” this park is enormous and is adjacent to Koke’e State Park, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, and a few Reserve Areas. What all that means is there are plenty of trails in this area. This time the 22 mile Kalalau Trail (my husband and I hiked part of it the previous time we were there) was closed so our daughter chose our trail to hike, the Awa’awapuhi Trail, which is in Koke’e State Park. The Awa’awapuhi Trail is a downhill hike 3.25 miles each way. When we were there it was extremely slick and muddy and we were glad to be wearing our Merrell hiking shoes. If we were really smart, we would have brought a change of shoes for when we got to our car. The trail isn’t terribly scenic until you reach the end but the ultimately the views are great and worth the hike.

IMG_1873-3
Waimea Canyon

Beaches for snorkeling- Lawa’i Beach and Poipu Beach Park. Conditions for snorkeling change throughout the year so check with locals to see what their recommendations are for snorkeling. Also, we found the best beaches for snorkeling are not good for swimming and vice versa. The coral shelf often extends close to the water’s edge so you need to watch your footing carefully. We went in with bare feet and got some cuts and scrapes on our feet and legs but nothing major. Water shoes would have been a better idea. We also didn’t have fins but just the mask and snorkel and that was fine for us because we’re strong swimmers but we saw plenty of other people with fins.

JoJo’s Shave Ice- I especially liked the Colada Special and Locals South Shore. My daughter said the Rainbow was one of her favorites. The 28-oz serving is huge and can easily be shared (or you can keep it all for yourself!). We also liked Uncle’s Shave Ice but theirs wasn’t hand-shaven and I read some spotty reviews. No matter where you get your shave ice, just be sure you get the sweet cream “over” and ice cream “under.” It really makes a big difference.

Have you been to Kauai before? What are some of your favorite things in Kauai? Have you revisited a place many years later and had vastly different experiences?

Happy travels!

Donna