machu picchu

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It's hard to believe I took these photos of Machu Picchu eight months ago. There were so many logistics to think about in the present -- the train, the hotel, the buses, the hike -- that I don't know if I fully comprehended the magnitude of it until after the fact.

There had been a rock slide on the zigzag road that takes you to the main gates a couple days before our arrival, so we had to take three different buses and climb stairs between each level to get to the entrance. It took almost an hour to go about two miles.  Harper and I were very prepared -- my bag was filled with advil, bug spray, sunscreen, Neosporin, band-aids, altitude medicine, hand sanitizer, 20 Lara bars -- and no, we did not use any of it. Only 400 tourists per day are allowed up Huayna Pichu (the peak pictured above), and we had tickets to do the early morning hike. I'm not much of a hiker, especially at 8,000 feet, so it was definitely a challenge; I had to stop every few minutes to catch my breath. The stairs were steep and slippery and I kept catching glimpses of the view below, realizing how high we were getting. I kept thinking this is the hardest thing I've ever done. (On the way down I thought that was not so bad, let's do it again!). To get to the peak at the tippy top, all the hikers took turns crawling through a little rock tunnel. It was a bit claustrophobic, but what we met on the other side quickly made it worth it. We were in the clouds completely, and could only see land for brief moments when the clouds would move. There was such a feeling of comradery -- a bunch of strangers all crammed together, helping each other balance from rock to rock and exchanging phones and cameras to take pictures of each other. I kept thinking of Nan Nan, how she's traveled all over the world and how this was one place I'd made it to before her. I tried to be as present as I could so I could remember every detail and describe it to her.

Once we got down and started exploring the main ruins, we were so exhausted that we wandered aimlessly; no tour guide or map, just taking it all in. The weather spanned from every extreme imaginable (I took my sweater on and off every ten minutes) and the people-watching was amazing. After I spent weeks obsessing about what shoes to wear, I couldn't help but notice everyone else's -- some people were dressed in serious hiking gear while others were in flip flops. But one of the sweetest things I noticed was how many older couples were there, checking off a bucket list dream together. Nothing about getting there or being there was easy or comfortable, but they'd all felt strongly enough about seeing this 15-century Inca site to make the effort. And I bet not a single one of them regretted it.

peru | chinchero market

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We were told we couldn't miss the Chinchero Market and went out of our way to swing by before Ollantaytambo. We had just flown into Cuzco, and at an elevation of 11,000+ feet I felt lightheaded and nauseous and sort of like we were on a new planet -- the fruit-filled trees, the colorful textiles, the smell of the textiles, the faces, the braids, the coca tea, the guinea pigs, the stares. Sensory overload to the nth degree, and home to some of the most stunning textiles in the world.

peru | el albergue at ollantaytambo

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Even before we got to Peru, the place Harper and I were most looking forward to staying was undoubtedly El Albergue in Ollantaytambo. The hotel is planted right along the only train tracks that lead to Machu Picchu, making the tiny town nestled in the Sacred Valley a destination as frequented as Machu Picchu itself.  Seeing tourists going to and from a world wonder is a funny thing -- on the departing trains, it’s all nervous energy and excited chatter; on the arrivals, everyone is sunburned, haggard, and asleep with their faces pressed against the glass. Harper and I spent many hours perched by the windows of their cafe, watching the tourists come and go while anticipating our own turn.

The hotel was originally built in the 1920s and was turned over in the '70s to a young artist from Seattle, Wendy Weeks. Weeks and her husband lived there alone for a bit -- painting, enjoying the views, and listening to the hum and whistle of the train going by—before restoring and reopening the property to the public. They couldn’t have made it any more breathtaking if they’d tried. Hummingbirds, passionfruit, and bougainvillea fill the courtyard, and their candle-lit dining room serves gorgeous Peruvian fare grown primarily on the organic farm they maintain out back. It was hard to leave this spot -- it feels like a dream you never want to wake up from, or the flower-heaven that you've been lucky enough to get into.

(More about El Albergue on Gardenista!)