Travel


How could I not use this as a title, at least once?!

Landing in Iceland you immediately notice three things:  it’s stark landscape, clean air, and the freezing temperatures!

It’s very much like winter in Canada, but with an added breeze (read: whipping, screaming wind) off the North Atlantic.  I was grateful to have brought my parka and sealskin gloves!  Interestingly, it actually isn’t a very cold place.  Because of it’s position on the jetstream, it rarely gets colder than -15.  It just seems a lot colder and damper coming from a balmy Canadian autumn where we’ve had temperatures in the 20’s!  In any case, we spent the first day strolling around Reykjavik and enjoying the sites.  With a population of 120,000, it really felt like a small city.

I loved the colourful homes and rooftops.  One of my favourite things to do in every city I visit is walk around and see how people really live.  Most of the homes are made of tin, as it seems to handle the weather better than other materials.  Interestingly, all the homes are heated by geothermal technology, since Iceland has a steady supply of hot springs.  This technology is also used to heat city streets, driveways and sidewalks.  Just imagine: NEVER having to shovel!

Here`s a pic of one of my favourite homes:

Iceland seems to have a wonderful cafe culture, and each neighbourhood features a friendly local place to get your lattes and carrot cake.  Carrot cake was all over this country  – just one more reason Iceland is awesome.

One of the most interesting activities Vegas has to offer is the ability to head to one of the many shooting ranges and try out some weapons.
Growing up, we were not allowed to have guns of any kind in the house, including the bright, plastic water guns. Truth be told, just the idea of real guns scare me.
But hey, it’s Vegas! …and dad and hubby really wanted to go.

My dad got the WWII package, and Mike got the Coalition Forces package, which contained the weapons used in Iraq today.
I shot the women’s package, which consisted of a handgun and a beretta.

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In the next photo, I would like to point out that I have accurately hit Osama Bin Laden in the left eye- the same eye shot that actually killed him. Coincidence?! You’re welcome, America.

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Okay, so Vegas wasn’t as creepy as I had imagined. Yes, it still is kind of awful in terms of the chain smoking, prostitution cards and gambler addictions, but if you can look past those things, its actually kind of great.
Yep. I said it. It was kind of great.

Its just a gluttonous kind of place. Lots of food, lots of booze, lots of gambling, smoking and partying. None of which I’m opposed to – in principal.

We were lucky to enjoy the most spectacular weather in Las Vegas. It was warm and extremely dry. Yes, I know it is a desert, but it’s a type of feeling that I’ve never experienced! I loved the landscaping of regular peoples homes – stones, cacti and neat rocks.

We had the opportunity to rent a car and travel out to the the desert. We drove out to a place called the Valley of Fire, which is a State Park known for spectacular rock formations in vivid red colours. It was not a disappointment. The colour is so shocking red, even my awesome iPhone camera couldn’t capture it accurately – you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

So it’s finally safe to post this little tidbit of information: We’re heading to Vegas on Wednesday!
The impetus for this trip is actually to surprise my mom in celebration of her 60th Birthday. Pretty big deal huh?

As of today, my parents have already flown out (which is why its safe to post this blog entry!), and we will be joining her halfway through her trip.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Vegas, and to be brutally honest, I’ve never really wanted to go. My preconcieved notions are as follows:

*its too noisy
*its garish and tacky
*I get sad when I see old people blowing their pensions on the one-armed bandit
*its cheesy
*its full of Americans and punks and ne’er-do-well gangsters
*showgirls, showgirls, showgirls! (okay, I’m kinda excited for that!)

Okay – so its all out there in the open! I know SO many people who LOVE Vegas, and think it is the best thing ever. So, we’ll see. I’m keeping an open mind. If nothing else, the weather is supposed to kick some serious ass – 91 degrees! Hooray!

I am just so excited to see my mom’s reaction – lets hope someone’s got a camera!

So Lima’s got a pretty bad rap in the travel world. People say its boring, dangerous, not much to do, etc. etc. etc. These people are just wrong, I tell you!
Like any city, its got its rough neighbourhoods, but generally speaking, Lima is a lovely cosmopolitan city with lots to offer. The architecture in spots is extremely European, thanks to the Spanish Colonialists. They’ve got lots of lovely little churches, like this one:

The Church of San Francisco was really cool, because underneath is a giant crypt full of bodies. They are arranged by body part, so for example – the femur section, kneecap section, and skull section. You’ll have to take my word on how cool this was, because there were no photos allowed, unfortunately.

The Church la Merced was the very first church in Peru:

Oh wait, have I just stepped into Paris?! Nope, still in Lima! Another gorgeous building. Upon closer inspection however, it is really gotten quite shabby.

Lets hope the government puts some cash into preserving these amazing structures!

Wait a minute, are we in Spain now?! Nope, still in Lima! This is the stunning Plaza de Mayor. We saw a workers protest here on the final day of the trip – what is with all these protests?!

This gorgeous square is also home to the very first Pisco Sour. Now that is a little bit of information I can get excited about!

The Lima coastline is also incredibly stunning. It is very clear that the government is investing in this area to make it a hot attraction. It is lined with gorgeous new condos, parks, and even a shopping mall in Miraflores that has cleverly been built into a cliff, so as not to obstruct the views.

I could definitely see this area of Lima becoming a playground destination for rich travelers and retirees, much like Panama.

I guess this title is a little deceiving, as we didn’t really get to see too much of Puno at all.  By the next afternoon the sickness had dissipated enough to warrant heading outside in search of snacks, and to also catch a glimpse of Lake Titicaca.

Most of the tourists depart early in the morning to see the lake tribes and return late in the evening.  This means that most of the shops nearby are closed the rest of the day.  We took a  couple photos, grabbed some bananas and dinner rolls, and headed back to the hotel.  On the way we caught an example of globalization initiatives by one of Canada’s finest brands:

After our tour mates returned to the hotel, we got together to head out for a traditional Peruvian dinner: Guinea Pig!   It seems so interesting to me that these little fellows are kept around the house as pets, until one night you can’t decide what you’d like for dinner, and your pet’s cute furriness suddenly begins to look…delicious!

Here is a photo of one of our friends demonstrating the typical spread – the guinea pig is flayed out on a plate – claws covered delicately in tinfoil.  This restaurant was first class, and they gutted the beast for you – covering its empty body with a fresh and tasty salad.  Also notice the side serving of Peruvian tater tots with cheese sauce?!  SO GOOD!

Notice the head and teeth are intact.  Our guide Alim showed us the traditional way of eating this part of the head, and the neat crafts you can do with it afterward:

Notice it is in the shape of a condor, the sacred bird of the Incas!  Guinea pig looks very unappetizing, but its really just like dark meat with a fried skin.  Not quite like chicken, but not really unlike it either.

So Machu Picchu was NOT the finale of our trip, but I think it might have been better if it were.  After our hike we had a couple additional days in Cusco to recuperate and relax before heading south to Lake Titicaca.  The plan was to take a 7 hour journey by bus to the town of Puno where we would take a boat cruise of  the lake, which is the highest navigable lake in the world. The scenery changed dramatically as we went from jungle to mountain, to an almost desert-like environment.   All seemed to be going well until the last stretch, when we were inexplicably stopped in what appeared to be a traffic jam.  After waiting for an hour, our guide discovered that the traffic jam was part of a protest by local Puno residents, who had blocked the entrance to the city by throwing masses of boulders on the highway.  They told us if we attempted to pass, our vehicle would be stoned.

Our only option was to backpack the last 30 minutes into the city.  Ugh. I normally wouldn’t mind, but my stomach was kinda sore.

In any case, we unloaded our gear and began the walk.   It was very disconcerting seeing the blockages on the road, but even moreso seeing the numbers of people at the clifftop ready to throw rocks at us.

The area was dusty and polluted, not to mention the extremely high altitude, which made it very difficult to breathe.  At this point, my stomach started hurting a bit more.  Within about 10 minutes I was unable to walk, the pain was so strong.  Luckily, my tour mates grabbed my bags and helped me onto our bus, which our guide had somehow procured and was ready and waiting for us.  It really warmed my heart to see the numbers of local men and women who rushed out of their homes and shops to come to my aid, bringing coca leaves, smelling salts, and all manner of medicine to help.  I was surprised to see the level of care and concern these people had for me – a stranger in the middle of nowhere.  Despite the discomfort (ok – PAIN), this was one of the best memories I have of the kindness of the Peruvian people.

Luckily we had an AMAZING GAP Adventures guide, as well as the best medical insurance money could buy.  Within 15 minutes of our arrival to the hotel, a doctor had arrived from the local hospital to treat me, with our guide acting as interpreter.  I ended up having a vicious intestinal infection, complete with delirium, shakes, fever, and a racing heart.  A cardiologist was also called in to make sure I wouldn’t have a heart attack.  A little over the top, I’m sure – but it was great to be in good hands!  A needle in my bum, handfulls of pills, and a good sleep later, I was ready to rock on the next adventure!

So what the heck is the difference between a llama and an alpaca?  Are they even different?!   They sure are, but not by a lot!  They are both members of the camelid family, however the llama has a longer neck and bigger head.  We were told that historically (and still today) llamas were used as beasts of burden to assist farmers and Spanish conquistadors.  They refuse to carry more than 40 lbs.  I am not sure if this is scientifically true, but we did hear it more than once on the trip!  In any case, check out these llamas we saw grazing at Machu Picchu:

Alpacas on the other hand, remind me more of sheep, in terms of their matted, thick hair.  Its smaller than a llama.  Their coat is the thickest of all camelids.

For the record, alpacas are also delicious, particulary when dressed with some tangy Andean cheese!  Yum!  Interesting fact: Alpacas use communal dung piles, so they never, ever, eat where they poop.  This helps prevent illness and intestinal issues in herds, as well as allows them to be housetrained!  Neat!

To complicate matters between these species further, you also have the Vicuña.  The Vicuna is a relative of the llama, and the wild ancestor of the alpaca.  In my opinion, it is also the cutest.  Of the three, their wool is most expensive, as they produce the least of it, and it is the most delicate while being extremely warm due to its unique composition.  They were declared endangered in the 1970s, and are protected by law.  They are also the national animal of Peru!  We did see a few, however I didn’t manage to get a good photo.  I will instead use the magic of the interwebs to procure one for you:

Did I mention in my last post that part of this trip entails hiking to Machu Picchu?  For, like, 4 DAYS?

Did I mention that I have never been camping before?  In Ontario, let alone in the Andes, where creepy crawlies exist that will KILL YOU!

Did I mention that the highest point is at 4200 M, or 13779 ft?  And that you can DIE from altitude sickness?  And I already have asthma?!

Be afraid, be very, very afraid.

For these reasons, I was hesitant about this part of our journey, but the more research and preparation I do, the more excited I get for the challenge!

The Inca Trail in Peru is considered one of the top 5 treks in the entire world, and as such, it can get quite busy.  Luckily for us, a limited number of passes are issued for it every year, and we booked far enough in advance that we were able to obtain one!   Also, each person gets their own porter who carries your stuff up for you, sets up your tent, and even cooks your meals, so its not all roughing it!  I mean, it could definitely be a lot worse.  And the bathrooms can’t be any worse than the ones on the roadside in Malaysia, right?

The average temps in November are between 6 and 22C, and because the higher you go, the cooler it is, we are going to need to invest in some thermal clothing.  Of course, I’m excited about the shopping aspect of the preparations!  (“Any excuse to spend money”, my dear husband says – and of course, he’s right!).   So far I’ve gotten my hiking boots on sale at Mountain Equipment Coop, as well as some quick dry pants that zip off at the knees, and a thermal shirt and tights.  Still on the list:  second pair of pants, quick-dry undies and socks, and most importantly:  a cute hat to protect my skin from the sun (well, truthfully, I’m more concerned about a cute hat to cover up the 4-day buildup of unwashed greasy hair!)

Also in preparation for this trekking adventure, I have begun to workout.  Yep, you read that right.  Kelly O is hitting the gym, AND spinning!  I will not be the most out of shape person on the trip… I refuse!  The spinning is a great workout for the thighs and lungs, which will be critical when spending days hiking up ancient stairs in a decreased oxygen environment.  I’m also going to hit up my doctor to stock up on asthma puffers!  Apparently the best thing to do for altitude sickness is to chew/brew coca leaves, which are high in loads of vitamins and are supposed to help counteract altitude sickness symptoms.

In any case, I’m excited to make the journey, this will no doubt be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I think many travellers are divided on the issue of group tours.  There seems to be a wide variance on the types of tours you can take, and along with that the types of people that tend to take these tours.  Many travelers shudder at the thought of taking a group tour, imagining them to be like your grandma taking a bus to Branson, Missouri, or a huge group of Japanese tourists checking out the Path in downtown Toronto.  As a  teenager, I took an EF tour with my highschool to Italy and Greece.  As a 14 year old, a group tour really is the ONLY way to go, and for me, it was a wonderful introduction into the world of travel.  As adults, Mike and I have done lots of travelling, but have never particpated in a group tour – save for a bus jaunt to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam (if you can count an overnight  boat tour as a group tour).

The worries  that travelers have about group travel are many:

1) Will we have time to do what we want to do, away from the group?

2) Will we be annoyed with the other people in the group, and unable to escape?

3) Will we miss out on the “real” experience of travelling by going from chain hotel to chain hotel on an airconditioned bus?

4) Will we not see how “real” people live, and eat local cuisine?

On the other hand, there are unquestionably lots of great advantages to travelling in a group:

1) Travel arrangements are made for you, and the hotels and attractions are usually vetted and pre-paid

2) You have the chance to learn alot more about the place you are visiting by having a good guide – much more interactive than reading it out of a book

3) There is safety in numbers

4) If you have an issue, the organization will have a back-up plan

Because Peru is such a large country with a wide variety of must-see sites, we knew it would take at least 2 domestic flights, and a great deal of inner-country travel to see everything we wanted to see – and that is a heck of a lot of planning.  Also, we only have 2 weeks.  And to hike the Inca Trail, you are obligated by law to have a guide.  We decided that an experienced tour company would have figured out the most efficient way of seeing all the highlights with the minimum amount of wasted time.  We spent a lot of time investigating different companies, and reading up on the experience of fellow travellers.  GAP Adventures is without a doubt one of the most well-respected tour companies in the world.  They are also a Canadian company, and head office is conveniently located a 10 minute walk from my house.  They have a HUGE variety of tours to choose from, so if you are into active adventures, have kids, want to volunteer, or  take in a cultural festival around the world, GAP seems to have everything covered.

We decided on a trip called Quest of the Gods, which will start us off in Lima, then off to the Amazon Rainforest (COOL!).  Then onto Cuzco, and from there a 4 day hike to see the legendary Machu Picchu.  We will also get a chance to go to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world.  Altogether a whirlwind 14 day tour.  Exciting!!!!

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