Category Archives: Camping/Hiking/Outdoors

Day 4 on the Inca Trail: Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, The Lost City Of The Incas

Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Inca, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are awakened at 3 am when the Alpaca Expeditions staff bring hot coffee to our tents. We have everything ready for leaving the Wiñaywayna campsite by 3:15 am (I had packed everything the night before and only kept out what I would be taking on the trail), and set out, our bagged breakfast in hand, wearing our headlamps in the dark for the surprisingly short distance walk to the check-in point for Machu Picchu where we wait until it opens at 5:30 am.

Our guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman wanted us to get up so early to be first on line (he claims to have a 98% success rate). In fact, there is only a group of six ahead of us and something like 200 behind us, checking our passport against the list of permits granted for the day.

Somehow, I wind up leading our pack of 15 trekkers and I surprise myself at the pace I set for the one-hour hike on this mostly flat portion of the trail to the Sun Gate. I am in the lead until we get to what Lizandro calls the “Gringo killer”- 50 of the steepest steps – more like a rock climbing wall – where you need to use your hands to crawl up like cat.

Lizandro has prepared us for the fact that the sun only comes through the Sun Gate (Inti Punku) at sunrise on the solstice. But from here, we get our first view of Machu Picchu in the distance (it’s still an hour’s hike away).

One of the many nice aspects of our guides, Lizandro and Georgio, is that they have been patiently  taking individual and group photos of us with our phones and cameras at each of the key spots along the trail, and so we stop at the Sun Gate to take our turn posing for those shots. (Everyone wants to be at this small point for the sunrise, which is why Lizandro wanted us first.)

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And then we continue (downhill!), from the Sun Gate at 8956 ft. elevation, an hour more to Machu Picchu, descending to 7,873 elevation over the course of three miles from the Wiñaywayna campsite. At the same time, the temperature which had been cold at the highest elevations, becomes warm, even balmy, so we are actually sweating (need sunscreen and hat!) at the site.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the Inca trail gives us views that show how Machu Picchu is positioned – we see the entirety of the Lost City (I can only imagine what it was like before it was excavated) and how it is etched amid the contours of the mountain peaks – which is how it was kept hidden from the Spanish when they invaded in 1538 and for 400 years.

The first view of Machu Picchu from the famed Sun Gate on the Inca Trail as dawn breaks © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Literally 10 seconds after I pass a scenic overlook, the sun pokes out. (These views and so much more, are why we take the Inca Trail trek.)

At about 7:40 am, we walk in what seems to be a back entrance into the city, where we are perched on high terraces and the views are the iconic ones of magazines and postcards (and I suspect are not available to the day-trippers who come in from the bottom entrance for the tour). How lucky we are because the sun breaks through, highlighting the structures, for exquisite scenes.

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We actually walk down and out of Machu Picchu site to wait for our ticketed time to re-enter (you can only stay 2 ½ hours and can only come in with a guide). While we wait, we have to use the bathroom before we reenter and check bigger backpacks and hiking poles.

We made it! Karen, Sarah and Eric at Machu Picchu at the end of the Alpaca Expeditions four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek (photo by Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman)

Our scheduled time to enter Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour with Lizandro is 8:30 am, who leads us on Circuit #4 (there are four different circuits to control crowds) to the highlights: the terraces, Sun Temple, Royal Mausoleum, Palace, Plaza, Sacred Rock.

Machu means “old, ancient, big). Picchu means peak , so Machu Picchu actually means “Ancient Mountain,” but that was not its indigenous name.

Lizandro tells us that it was built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, the 9th Incan king but its first emperor, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca, the Empire Builder. Beginning in 1438, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui began a far-reaching expansion that brought much of the modern-day territory of Peru under the ruling Inca family control. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo  and Machu Picchu. He built Machu Picchu up in the mountains, instead of the valley, to be closer to sun, to connect the sky and the earth in one place, as well as for protection.  “Mountains were gods that protected the villages and the animals,” he relates. Almost all of the construction faces east to catch the sunrise – the Inca rulers claimed to be the children of Inti, the Sun God.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest. But Bingham is credited with bringing Machu Picchu to the attention of the world. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the next 100 years, the Empire ultimately expanded to what are today six South American countries, connected by 25,000 miles of roads, suspension bridges and trails, and controlling a population as many as 18 million.

The Sun Gate was built as a check point to enter Machu Picchu, but positioned so that on December 22, the summer solstice, the sun beam would come through gate; and on June 21, it comes through the other window.  

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Machu Picchu is built in two sections – an urban sector has some 200 units of which 172 were homes, and the rest were temples, and a sun dial.

There would have been 700-800 people living here full time – 60% were nobles, the rest were farmers and workers.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend the scale of the construction, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they build Machu Picchu without slaves, without animals to carry, without a wheel, iron tools, or written language? Consider that China’s Great Wall and the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor, draft animals, a wheel, iron tools and written language.

What they had was a culture and a labor system based on principles: Ani – reciprocity – one for all, all for one; Minka – community benefit – vulnerable – collectivity (how the Peruvians got through Covid despite a poor health care system); and Mita – paying taxes by work, labor (not cash) to benefit the whole.

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is, why it is worthy of being called one of the Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It took 50-60 years to build Machu Picchu for Pachacuti, the first Incan Emperor,  who ruled from 1432-1472, but it was never finished. I can’t help but wonder how many men were impressed to build this enormous complex of structures in that amount of time.

When the Spanish invaded in 1538, Machu Picchu was abandoned before it was finished and the Incan forces fell back to arm Vilcabamba, the Inca’s last stronghold. “They promised to come back but didn’t,” Lizandro says.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman relates the background to Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Inca © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mindboggling to contemplate that as complex a construction as what we see, the scale, and the fact that more than 60% is still unexcavated, under 400 years of overgrowth.

The archaeologist Hiram Bingham didn’t discover Machu Picchu (it was discovered in 1902 by Bolivian fortune hunters looking for Incan treasure), but came on an expedition in 1911 in search of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca after the Spanish conquest.

“He set up tents at base, met a local to ask where Vilcabamba might be. The man didn’t know, but on July 24 1911, with machete in hand, Bingham had a big surprise: the sight of Machu Picchu took his breath away. Two families were living here, cultivating the terraces two years before Bingham arrived. They were running away from paying taxes to the government.” [Off the grid?]

Only 40% of Machu Picchu has been excavated so far, which means that 60% is still underground and hidden from view © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bingham returned for a second, then a third expedition. He uncovered eight Inca trails (the Inca destroyed many of the trails to prevent the Spanish from reaching Machu Picchu) and took away artifacts, he claimed, for two years. “More than 100 years later, Yale still has the artifacts and is requiring Peru to build a museum to hold artifacts near Machu Picchu. But Peru wants it by the river. In 2015, the United States sent 11 percent of the artifacts back – but not all were real, some were replicas that they returned. The Peru government wants all of it back.”

The photos Bingham published brought international attention to Machu Picchu, the “Lost City of the Inca” – and tourists. The first tourist following the Inca trail came in 1954 and this Incan Citadel has become the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

Machu Picchu, reached on Day 4 of the Alpaca Expeditions 26-mile Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We trekkers follow Circuit 4 (there are four circuits, to spread out the crowds): starting at the Main Gate (where we must present our passports and permit), to the Sun Temple, House of the Inka, the water foundation; Granitic Chaos; Sacred Plaza; Intiwatana Pyramid; Sacred Rock; Three Gates; Water Mirrors; and Condor Temple.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the astonishing construction of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We climb the steep stone steps and come to the Sun Temple. It was built as a royal tomb to contain the mummified remains of the king.  Lizandro points to how a temple would have the highest quality building stones and most precise placement and its architecture emphasizes the “harmony between people and nature. They always incorporate the natural bedrock. The windows are aligned for summer and winter solstice – a solar observatory. There are three steps – the Inca triology. The mummified body was placed in the tomb in fetal position.” There are no mummies left in the tomb, but there would have been mummies of the 12 Inca kings (others were buried). On the day of Ayamaki, the mummies would have been paraded from the mausoleum.

The Royal Tomb at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lizandro notes that the word ‘jerky” – the dehydrated meat snack – comes from the indigenous Quechua word, “jakky charky” (related to mummification).

We come to the Royal Inca Palace, where we can see that instead of windows (too cold), there would have been shelves for idols. “Bingham got here in time to see some.”

Only when you are actually at Machu Picchu can you begin to comprehend what an astonishing construction it is © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How would they have set the weighty keystone in place? With ramps, aloe vera to make it slick, he says. The enormous stone building blocks, weighing tons, are trapezoid shape and set at a slight incline angle, for stability against earthquakes. Indeed, Peru suffered two big earthquakes – in 1650 and 1950 – when the colonial buildings collapsed, the great cathedral in Cuzco collapsed, but these structures remained (in fact, the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco unearthed Incan structures). We see under one massive block a roller-shaped stone – a precursor to the wheel.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps. The straight lines and perfect angles, the precision, the sheer size and bulk of the stones, and how this entire city is nestled on a plateau amid these sheer mountain peaks.

You only appreciate the scale of Machu Picchu as you haul yourself up the high steep stone steps © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a large open area, like a field, which would have been used for festivals, activities, an amphitheater. And in the middle, is what would have been a sundial. In 1978, the then president invited the Spanish King and Queen to visit, and their helicopter landing in the field, broke the sundial. (I find it ironic that the Spanish were still destroying Incan heritage.)

In this small plaza, Lizandro points out a huge section of bedrock cut to mimic the shape of the mountain behind – mountains were considered sacred.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman points to the precision of the placement of the stone boulders for the temple at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He explains a bit of the Incan society hierarchy – the Inca were the royal family and nobles – perhaps 20,000 who ruled over a population of dozens of different tribes totaling as many as 18 million across much of South America. Professionals could become nobles (rise to that privileged class) because of their expertise, skill and function. Teenagers could show a talent and go into a profession.

Can’t help but thinking of architect Antoni Gaudi’s style at Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We sit around for a bit of a rest, and Lizandro explains some of the contemporary politics. Apparently, in the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori [a fixture in Peru’s politics from 1990 to 2003] wanted to privatize Machu Picchu – selling it off to Chilean investors, drawing an outcry of protests from the people. “The president did well his first five years – investing in industrial farming – but after he was reelected, he sold off or privatized without people knowing.” Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, wound up being investigated for corruption. He tried to flee to Japan and was captured enroute in Santiago with eight suitcases of cash. He was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.”

Lizandro says the Peruvian constitution (which I subsequently read has been rewritten and set aside multiple times since the country’s independence, while the government has undergone a series of coups back and forth from dictatorship to democracy, socialism to capitalism) favors foreign companies (they don’t pay tax). Because 50 percent of Peru’s population lives in Lima, he tells us, the people who live in rural areas, in the mountains, have little say.

The view of Machu Picchu from the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Several of our group have obtained permits in advance to climb Huayna Picchu – that famous nub of a mountain, like an overlord, in the iconic Machu Picchu images – and Sarah has obtained one, while the rest of us continue touring Machu Picchu with Lizandro.

The steep stone trail to the top of Huayna Picchu © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sarah reports back that the 45-minute hike is extremely arduous – much harder than the Inca Trail hike – almost straight up to a tiny perch at the top, at 8,835 ft., 850 ft. higher than Machu Picchu, where everyone has to take turns for the photo, but you get a famous view of Machu Picchu. The trail was built by the Inca who also built temples and terraces at the top.  “I would definitely recommend it to fitter hikers looking for one last challenge. It’s not super long and being able to see the scale of Machu Picchu from above was really impressive.”

Sarah with other members of our Alpaca Expeditions trek celebrate reaching the Huayna Picchu summit.

We finally come back down to the entrance/exit to Machu Picchu and Lizandro hands us a ticket for the bus that takes us down an extremely winding road to the village of Aguas Calientes. We meet for a last lunch together in a local restaurant – kind of a celebratory meal ( optional and not included). Lizandro gives us our train ticket, departing Aguas Calientes 3:20 pm (you need to take seriously the notice to be on the platform at least 30 minutes ahead of time, which is when the train loads) to Ollantaytambo.

The train is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the two-hour trip (which for some reason takes us much longer). At Ollantaytambo, we are met by the Alpaca Expeditions bus for the two-hour drive back to Cuzco and drop off back at our hotel.

The train from Aguas Calientes is wonderfully vintage, with roof-windows, and very comfortable for the relaxing two-hour trip to Ollantaytambo © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Candidly, I had been so obsessed about getting passed Day 2, Machu Picchu was more of an end-goal of a quest than the prime attraction – being here means I had gotten over the Dead Woman’s Pass, completed the 26 miles, going as high as nearly 14,000 feet – much as it would have been for the pilgrims who undertook this journey of a lifetime. It is personal.

For me, it is not just a trip of a lifetime but a now or never proposition.

I am not the only one celebrating an important milestone. Indeed, this is the sort of bucket-list trip that warrants a milestone – Peter timed reaching Machu Picchu for his 35th birthday; a couple had just gotten engaged at the start of the hike; another 30-something couple (he’s Italian, she’s Dutch) is on their honeymoon .That’s how special this trek is, embodying physical, spiritual – just as it did for the Inca, a triumph of will and willpower. A test of character then as now.

Eric and Sarah relax on the train after our four-day trek and two-hour tour of Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are at the same time amazed by the ability of these people to construct these sites at all, but then wonder at the level of control exerted, the role of religion in maintaining that control and how authoritarians throughout human history use religion (the divine right). No surprise: the Inca kings claimed to be the son of the Sun God, Inti. And yet, you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment of that government capable of building the 25,000 miles of roads, in producing the amount of food to sustain the population, and unifying a population of 18 million into a society.

You appreciate the social structure that produced these extraordinary mountain villages in a society that did not have slaves nor currency, did not have the wheel or beasts of burden, did not have compass, ruler, alphabet or written language.

Most astonishing, these structures were built within 20, 40 or 60 years’ time – apparently, each chief would select a project to be completed within his own lifetime.

Photos do not do justice, you have to stand next to the rock walls, trace how the boulders link to perfectly together, see the curve at the edge, the inclined angle (for stability against earthquake) with such exquisite precision, hoist yourself up the steep stone steps, look beyond to the distance these boulders would have had to be transported from their quarry.

You stand perched on these terraced structures built into the side of a mountain and simply cannot fathom what it took to build.

All these thoughts come to me as I step, climb, step, climb the trail.

Our Alpaca Expeditions group, at Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At each site, Lizandro tells us more of the story of the Inca and the society they created – but unlike the sturdy bedrock that these sites were built on, the Inca’s hold on the people was really not that strong because it was not a bond. At a certain point, their hold was by force. “The Inca weren’t very nice people,” he says softly.

What was unexpected was to come away with an understanding of the limits of authoritarian control. Indeed, the Inca ruled for less than 400 years, but the empire existed only for a century before it was toppled, too weak and lacking support of the people, to withstand the Spanish invaders. There are lessons for day.  And as we learn, Peru is still going through these cycles of economic struggle, political ping-pong between dictatorship and democracy, socialism and capitalism, since becoming independent from Spain in 1821. The more things change, the more they stay the same, may well be the lasting lesson.

Alpaca Expeditions offers many ways to get to experience Machu Picchu – the trek is its own experience, and when you think about it, is very inexpensive (from $650); it’s not even that difficult or expensive an airfare to reach (at this stage, you fly through Lima or Quito to Cuzco, but a new international airport is being built closer to Cuzco). The tour company also offers many different programs – like the Sacred Valley excursions – to different areas.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

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Day 3 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Town in the Clouds, Terraces of the Sun & Forever Young

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

On our third morning on the Inca Trail, we are wakened at 5 am at our tents in the Chaquiccocha campsite to be packed up, have breakfast at 5:30 am and out by 6:30 am to begin what is generally considered the most relaxed day of the four-day trek, when our Alpaca Expeditions group will hike 6.2 miles mostly downhill, and visit two Incan sites, Phuyupatamarka (Town in the Clouds) and Intipata (Terraces of the Sun), before reaching the campsite, where, we are told, a special activity awaits.

I’m still on a high from surviving Day 2 and the dual challenges of Dead Woman’s Pass and Runkuracay Pass, so I feel I can handle anything (and not just on this trek).

It’s a foggy morning and before setting out, Lizandro organizes all of us in a great circle with the porters and staff and guests (Giorgio calls “family” and Lizandro calls “team” and both are true in the way we have bonded) so we meet each other. We learn that the porters all come from one mountain village, that two are brothers, 62 and 68 years old, that one of the porters is a woman (very unusual, but Alpaca Expeditions has made an effort to recruit women).

Getting to know you: Alpaca Expeditions porters and staff and trekkers introduce ourselves © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each of the trekkers introduce ourselves, as well, and I mention that today is my 71st birthday – mentioning it because I am pretty pleased with the achievement (and our guide, Giorgio, at one point guessed I was 55 – perhaps just being polite) – to emphasize that they have made this an experience of a lifetime possible for me.

Alpaca Expeditions’ “Green Machine” porters and staff who make our Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu – a trip of a lifetime for many – possible © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We hike for 2 hours along what they call “Inca flat” (gradual inclines) and begin to enter the jungle, known as the Cloud Forest. As we walk, we have the opportunity to see Salkantay, the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley, and get glimpses of a fantastic panoramic view of the Vilcabamba mountain range through mist and clouds.

One of the fun sections of the Inca Trail goes through a small cave © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Towards the end of the Inca flats, we begin to make our way up to the last peak and our third pass, Phuyupatamarka (Temple Above the Clouds) at 12,073 ft. from where we have great views overlooking the Urubamba River.  Down the valley, we get our first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, but the famous “Lost City” itself is still hidden from view.

From Phuyupatamarka it´s a 3-hour walk down a flight of steps to our last campsite and the grand finale for this day, exploring the Incan site of Wiñaywayna (Forever Young).

On the descent, we stop in a small cave, and just as the pilgrims did 600 years ago as they came closer to Machu Picchu, the religious center, Lizandro uses this site, the Temple Above the Clouds, to discuss religious beliefs and practices at the time of the Inca.

Exploring the Incan site of Phuyupatamarka © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This would have been one of the religious sites where pilgrims would be able to show their devotion and purify themselves before they reached Machu Picchu. It could have been a place of offerings, a ritual shower, of sacrifice (animals, Lizandro says, not humans, which he says would happen only rarely).

At the time of the Inca and thousands of years before, the many different tribes were polytheists, worshipping many gods mostly associated with Nature. They believed that nature, man and the Pachamama (Mother Earth), lived in harmony and perpetual interrelationship. The Inca state promoted the worship of a creator god (Wiracocha), sun god (Inti), Moon Goddess (Mamaquilla), thunder god (Illapa) and Earth Mother (Pachamama), and a host of other supernatural entities. But the ruling Inca established Inti, the sun god, as the most important (the first Incan king declared himself to be the son of Inti, to establish his divine power and authority).

Eric takes in the dramatic landscape along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Lizandro points to a trinity that organizes the belief system: “The Inca thought three lives (past, present and future) ran parallel – one underneath (past), one above (future). They divided the world in three dimensions, three stages of life, which they depicted with animals – the condor (the heavens), the puma (the middle world of earth), and the snake (the underworld).

The snake represents knowledge, wisdom; because everything known is from past; the puma represents strength, energy; the condor connects this world to next world because it could touch heaven and carry heavy things, he says. “The Inca saw life as a circle, not a line, so life never ends. They believed life is reborn and when they were buried, they were placed in fetal position pointing to the sun and mountains; rulers were mummified and their mummified remains taken and paraded around one day a year. Children didn’t inherit property – people were buried with their belongings (for next life). Machu Picchu would have taken more than a lifetime to build, but the Emperor Pachacuti believed he wouldn’t enjoy it in this world, but the next.”

And the linchpin to it all, the basis for the Inca emperor’s power and authority, was religious faith.

So, while the Inca did not have slaves, they had a system of labor, whereby the men would give two to three months of service to the rulers (the first Incan Emperor, Pachacútec, the Alexander the Great of the Inca, had them build Machu Picchu, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the various palaces and temples, and gave 50 percent of what they harvested to the nobles and the priests out of religious devotion.  And the people were kept ignorant – only the nobles and priests were educated.

He says there would have been six water fountains here – so people could take a ritual shower “to purify mind and body before going to Machu Picchu.” He also points to a sacrificial rock.

There appears to be an altar carved into the bedrock facing sunrise.

We have about 45 minutes of a steep downward hike before it levels off again.

The Incan site of Intipata, Terraces of the Sun, one of the sites that would have served the pilgrims and nobles on their way to Machu Picchu and were abandoned for 400 years before being discovered by archaeologists © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to an Incan site, Intipata (Terraces of the Sun) that interestingly, overlooks our final campsite waaaay down the mountain. Lizandro points out what would have been a platform for sacrifice. “Not for human. That would be rare” indicating that it would take place only in extreme circumstances, like a famine and would be mainly girls 11 and 13 years old who belonged to Cuzco noble families who were told they were born to be sacrificed as offerings to stop a national disaster. He describes one instance when the king sacrificed his daughter. (I’ll bet it was a period of famine, because they needed to reduce population to keep in balance.) The sacrificed were given fresh vegetable hallucinogenic flower to eat. “They offered them not death, but life.”

Llama at Intipata. “The Llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed,” our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro, tells us © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More typically, it was a llama that would be sacrificed. “The Llama represents spiritual life and the black llama, a symbol of material life, would be sacrificed.”

At Intipata, a boulder that would have been used as a platform for ritual sacrifice © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Inca did not have a written alphabet, yet they had to figure ways to communicate across distances – to alert the villages along the Inca Trail when the king was coming, when enemies approached. They did it using runners – sometimes in relays (they could do the 26 mile distance we did in four days’ hike in four hours), using conch trumpets. Also, the patterns and colors of their clothing would identify who they were, what tribe, and so, whether friend or foe.

Terraces at Intipata. The scale is mind-blowing © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But they also had a system of colored strings and knots, called quipu, that recorded and relayed information, which he shows us as an example. Lizandro says (not disguising a sense of resentment) that only a few of these quipu have survived but some 1500 of them have been taken to foreign museums (in fact, most of what the archeologists have taken from the Incan sites have yet to be returned).

(I imagine that the quipu could be read like Morse code and while they did not have an alphabet, the code was probably based on mathematics- perhaps a computer could decipher?)

Getting set for our Alpaca Expeditions cooking class activity © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the end of our third day hike – relatively short and easy (it doesn’t feel like five hours!), we get into camp at 1 pm and Lizandro tells us to look forward to an “activity” – a cooking class, where Chef Mario shows us how to cook a popular Peruvian dish, lomas latudo. We get chef’s hats and aprons and the platters of ingredients – beef, red pepper, tomatoes, onions, yellow pepper, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, pepper, cilantro, oil to fry potato (served with French fries and rice) – which we learn how to properly cut, dice, stir and sauté – before enjoying our handiwork for lunch.

Chef Mario leads a cooking demonstration © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Later in the afternoon, after time to relax, we walk a surprisingly short distance (less than 10 minutes) along a trail from our campsite to one of the most impressive Incan villages of all, Wiñaywayna, and (unlike when we go to Machu Picchu the next day) we have it almost to ourselves to explore.

Eric demonstrates the tossing technique during our Alpaca Expeditions cooking class © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu and the most popular campsite because of its proximity to Machu Picchu.

Winawayna, one of the most impressive archaeological sites along the Inca Trail, was named ”Forever Young” because of the blooming orchids found there © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Winawayna was discovered by a local archaeologist in 1942 who was there excavating different site, Chamchabamba, and found it hidden under dense vegetation and cloud forest and amazingly, they found orchid flowers growing on the wall. Lizandro explains that Peru has 435 species orchids, but they mostly bloom early or at the end rainy season, some bloom only  every 4-5 years or for only one day year, opening at sunrise and dying at sunset, but the ones found here bloom year round, which is why they named the site, Winawayna  – Forever Young – for the orchid. (If Dead Woman’s Pass, thankfully, did not prove prescient for me, perhaps Forever Young on this, my birthday?)

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We explore the site, climbing up and down the steep stone steps, walking through the corridors, really getting into the architecture and engineering, the logistics, as if the people left only yesterday. You realize these ruins were buried under overgrowth for 400 years and can only marvel at what was involved in the archeological excavation so that we can appreciate it today.

Wiñaywayna is the most spectacular Inca site on the trail after Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Most of the Inca sites have yet to be uncovered and are still buried, and the ones that we do see have only been partially excavated. Indeed, only about 40 percent of Machu Picchu has been excavated.

We go through a room with three walls and big windows which, Lizandro tells us, means it was a storage room – the windows provided ventilation for better preservation of the supplies, while homes had no windows because it would be too cold; instead, there are spaces in the walls where they would put idols for decoration.

Wiñaywayna is remarkably intact so you can see how the homes, storage rooms and temple were constructed © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see what would have been a watch tower. There would have been guards with weapons at the ready to protect Machu Picchu – like sling shots (a rope of wool with a bag in the middle with rocks),  arrows, lances, spears, hatchets – fine for use against another tribe, but fairly useless against the weapons the Spanish invaders wielded. The guard would have been able to recognize if someone coming was friend or foe by the colors and design of their clothes.

Seven windows arranged on a curve in the temple at Winawayna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The temple here has three different architectural styles, which Lizandro says shows it was built by different generations and different engineers. A wall of this temple has seven windows that look out to the peak, arranged in a curve. The round shape was to reflect the sun, to provide different places to observe sun, like a sun dial. The seven windows are homage to the Seven Sister stars of the Pleiades.

Appreciating the terraces – an agricultural laboratory to determine the best methods at different levels of elevation – and how Winawayna was built into these steep cliffs of the Andes Mountains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The terraces here at Wiñaywayna were Inca laboratories – narrow and concave to follow the curves of the mountain, every seven levels is a different ecology, using granite and quartz to absorb heat from the sun to keep plants from freezing overnight. “The Inca realized that elevations produced better potato and corn adapted to altitude.”

This site, along with the others purposely abandoned in 1538 with the Spanish conquest.

The first Spanish expedition, in 1532, had only 167. “They were invaders, not explorers.  They came to destroy the culture, the civilization. They took gold and silver and brought disease,” Lizandro says. The population at the time of the Inca was as high as 18 million before the Spanish.

Appreciating the terraces – an agricultural laboratory to determine the best methods at different levels of elevation – and how Winawayna was built into these steep cliffs of the Andes Mountains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Machu Picchu and the other sites were built at the same time in the mid 1400s, over a period of about 60 years. Less than 100 years later, the population started decreasing– the human ecologist in me can’t help but wonder if the massive building projects and empire building didn’t take its toll on the population.

“European diseases came even before the Spaniards came. Cortez brought disease to the Mayans, and the Mayans, trying to flee the Spaniards by going south, carried the diseases to Inca along the same network of roads the Inca used to conquer and unify its empire. The 12th Incan king, Huayna Cápac (it is believed) died in 1525 from smallpox and there was no king to follow.”

He says that it is wrong to think of an Incan civilization, rather than an Incan ruler and ruling family of perhaps 20,000 that dominated a population that ranged in size from 10 to 20 million.  “When he passed away, he was mummified to continue guiding.” Because the Incan ruler could have as many concubines as he wanted, Huayna Cápac likely had 500 children throughout the kingdom, but only three who were sons of the Queen, were in line to be king. Two of the brothers were fighting a civil war for control at the time the Spanish came to Cuzco in 1533.

They saw amazing gold, silver – a city of gold – buildings covered in gold, a temple that had life-sized animals of gold. The Spaniards melted them to make coins. Then the Spanish king sent more soldiers.”

The view through the temple at Winawayna © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Incan kingdom, weakened by civil war and not exactly supported by the masses they had subjugated for a century, abandoned this place to protect Machu Picchu, which was holy to them, like the Vatican. Machu Picchu was hidden amid the mountain peaks. To protect it from the Spanish invaders, the Inca destroyed the trails that led to Machu Picchu, and ultimately, abandoned Machu Picchu as well, making a last stand at Vilcabamba.

“The Inca weren’t the nicest to build such a civilization. For 100 years, they had to kill to control, so not all people were happy, so they didn’t help the Inca against the Spanish,” Lizandro says.

None of these grand projects were ever finished, which is more understandable than if they were completed.

We have as much time as we want to explore until darkness begins to fall because we can just stroll back to the campsite.

When we sit down to dinner, Chef Mario presents me with the most amazing birthday cake I have ever had in my life – completely decorated. It took him three hours to prepare it with the camping equipment he cooks with. I share the cake with Peter who timed his Machu Picchu ascent for his 35th birthday the next morning.

Lizandro then asks us what time we would like to wake up in order to get to the check point to Machu Picchu before the other 200 trekkers who will be on line: “3 am? No? Then 3:01,” he says, noting that he has a 98% success rate in being first in line for the checkpoint when it opens at 5:30 am. The check point is only about 10 minutes walk from the campsite. Why so important to be first? Well, to get to the Sun Gate by sunrise, and before the small space gets jammed crammed with people all elbowing to get the best views and photos.

Tomorrow is the day we will reach the goal of our trek: Machu Picchu.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Day 4 on the Inca Trail – Machu Picchu!

__________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Day 2 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Dual Challenges of Dead Woman´s Pass, Runcuraccay

Eric and Sarah celebrate having reached Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

This is the day I have been dreading for weeks. This is the day of reckoning. Dead Woman’s Pass.

Everyone  – and not just my about to turn 71-year old self, some 25 to 40 years older than the other 14 in our pack – it seems had the same anxiety over Day 2, which is the longest, most challenging day, when we will hike for four hours up to 13,829 ft over what I hope is not presciently named Dead Woman’s Pass (the name comes from its shape, not an event).

In fact, the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass is only the first four hours of the full day’s hike, followed by two hours down, then rest and lunch. But then (and this is what could have done me in), another hike up another mountain, to Runcuraccay Pass at 13,020 ft albeit not quite as high, but steeper, 1,378 ft in elevation, more like a stadium staircase times 100 that I had imagined the whole way up to Dead Woman’s Pass would be, and then a steeper (1,220 ft), challenging decline to our campsite at Choquicocha. Indeed, it is the Runcuraccay Pass that proves the more fearsome, as I soon discover, but actually unfolds to some of the most dramatic and interesting views and sites of the entire four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek. In all, we will hike a total of 10 miles, which includes a mile’s worth of up and downs.

One of my fears is that I won’t make it into camp before dark (there are 12 hours of daylight) so I keep my headlamp handy in my day pack.

(I used Day 1, the second hardest of the four day-hike, as a test, fully well expecting that our guide would politely tap me on the shoulder and suggest I walk back down the way I came, which also was my strategy if I decided the trek was too hard. But he didn’t. And I didn’t. But pressed on.)

Our Alpaca Expeditions group up at 5 am for breakfast before tackling the most challenging day on the Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu: hiking over Dead Woman’s Pass at an altitude of 13,779 ft. above sealevel, followed by Runkuracay Pass at 13,020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s 5 am when we are wakened in our tents with basins of hot water and soap and hot coca tea (to help with the altitude).

Breakfast is sensational, providing excellent energy food (porridge is especially good). Indeed, breakfast typically offers some combination of scrambled eggs or omelette, pancakes, porridge, cereal, fruit salad, toast, orange juice, milk, tea, coffee, hot chocolate. We are always supplied enough drinking water – tap water that is boiled for us.

Alpaca Expeditions’ Green Machine team of porters cheer us on as we leave for Day 2 on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we leave camp at just about 6 am with the first light, the porters line up and applaud for us, giving us that extra boost of encouragement.

As we get higher, Lizandro stops to tell us little stories – a clever ploy so that we rest and acclimate to the higher altitude (in fact, I hear that older people such as myself do better with the altitude precisely because we go slower and stop more often).

Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At another point, he distributes coca leaves and instructs us how to stuff it into a cheek and let the liquid blend with saliva to get its benefit of countering altitude sickness. Then, at another stop, he distributes a kind of plant oil (like eucalyptus) and shows us how to clap three times, then breath in the vapor, which opens up our air passages so we can breathe better.

Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro gives us an oil and shows us how to inhale it to breathe more efficiently as we climb the last stage to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hiking up to Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of Alpaca Expeditions’ four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Before the last ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, there is a rest stop at Llulluchampampa (the best public restrooms on the trail!) and a stand where locals sell snacks and such. There are llamas with a baby grazing and hummingbirds. We see snow on the peaks.

Llama graze along the Inca Trail at Llulluchapampa, happy at an altitude of 12460 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
A rest stop and snack stand at Llulluchapampa, before the final ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Actually, I make it up to Dead Woman’s Pass by 9:15 am – coming in not at the end of the pack as I expected, but more towards the middle, Eric tells me. Everyone cheers. I honestly don’t remember feeling pain or discomfort, though I know I stopped several times along the way.

A rest break at Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, at 13020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Group photo! Our Alpaca Expeditions pack celebrates reaching Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, at 13020 ft. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On reaching the pass, we stop for a short break to enjoy the views and take photos (our guide, Lizandro, patiently takes each of our photos and a group photo), and we each indulge in the self-satisfaction of the accomplishment before setting off again to descend to Pacaymayu Valley, Hidden River. It’s another hour and a half down the side of the valley – to our lunch spot.

Beginning the descent from Dead Woman’s Pass 13,020 ft. to Pacaymayu at 11,700 ft. on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get in at 11:15 am to the cheers of the porters and fellow trekkers, where I find mats have been laid out for us to rest, but Mary Kate (who is part of the group of six women who are friends or friends of friends or friends of friends of friends of Caroline), is leading yoga stretches.

Mary Kate leads our Alpaca Expeditions trekkers in yoga stretches © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We enjoy a snack and then a fantastic and welcome lunch served in the dining tent (delectable chicken salad appetizer; Sara Lawa soup which is a kind of egg-drop soup made with corn flour, eggs, ginger) and I am struck by how really excellent the food is, I mean as good as the finest restaurant in Peru. Alpaca Expeditions boasts the best chefs in the mountains, and I am inclined to agree.

Alpaca Expeditions sets out basin of warm water and soap before lunch in the dining tent © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Chef Mario seems to use spices, flavors, textures (hot soups, energizing carbs, reinforcing proteins) that are medicinal or at least appropriate to the activity, whether to hike, rest, sleep or wake. All the food is prepared from fresh ingredients purchased in the Cusco local market and carried up for us by the porters, then prepared by the chef (no canned or rehydrated food) who also caters to vegetarians, lactose intolerant and food allergies with heaping platters.

Lunch typically includes a delicious soup (like corn or mushroom) and some combination of chicken and rice, sausage, fried fish, ceviche, steak, beans, fried rice, french fries, boiled potatoes, vegetables, salad.

Tea time snack when we make it into camp for lunch © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is such a lot of food but it is not just for us – the porters and staff eat the same food as we do (which, we learn, was not always the case for the trekking companies and a feature of Alpaca Expeditions that we really appreciate).

 After this delightful lunch, the realization sets in: this is only the half-way mark of this challenging day. We actually have another mountain to climb and descend.

Alpaca Expeditions porters hike up to Runkuracay Pass on the four-day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In fact, the two-hour climb up the next mountain to Runcuraccay Pass is steeper though shorter and really what I had envisioned (and feared) the Dead Woman’s Pass would be like and altogether more challenging.

We stop at a small Inca site (Runcu Raccay) and see two huge waterfalls cascading down the opposite side of the valley.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide, Lizandro, explain that while the Inca did not have written language, they communicated with quipu – a system of colored strings and knots – that so far have not been deciphered © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After the second pass, it’s another hour of a steep downhill hike to reach the magnificent Inca site, Sayacmarca (an otherwise inaccessible village).

The second half of the Day 2 Inca Trail trek proves the more challenging, but also the most scenic © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This part of the trek has actually been the hardest. Eric and Sarah, who had just 10 days before hiked Rainbow Mountain, a 6.2-mile out-and-back trail near Pitumarca, Cusco, where they hiked 1,627 ft  in elevation up to 16,000 feet (and suffered altitude sickness), are skipping up and down these peaks like a mountain goat. I’m a tortoise, taking my sweet time, going slow and steady, stopping for the views.

Eric and Sarah, on the “grand finale” of a six-month travel odyssey, having already hiked Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, literally skip up and down the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The descent from Runkuracay Pass proves the more challenging © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The trail disappears as a thin line hugging the mountainside, the people are mere dots of color, and then, in the distance, this amazing and improbable fortress, Sayacmarca, appears. This is an astonishing view as we descend (it is steep), with the mountain mist – even more astonishing because you are not prepared for it as you are for Machu Picchu. And to realize that this construction was basically to protect Machu Picchu. (Here, though, as Lizandro warned, we encounter the meanest mosquitoes.)

Those tiny dots of color are members of our Alpaca Expeditions pack on the Inca Trail toward Sayacamaka, the “inaccessible village” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1941, an archeaologist came upon Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named it “inaccessible village.” The site is strategic – on top of mountain, surrounded by valleys, and protected. We see what would have been a watch tower. These structures were used for resting places, like a hostel, for the pilgrims, nobles and travelers, spaced 20-25 km apart, they could be reached in a day’s hike and knew there would be food and drink ready, Lizandro tells us.

Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named by archaeologist “inaccessible village” emerges out of the mist along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Incans would build a temple just for storing idols (gold), but worshipped in open area – more important than temple, because they were in contact with nature, which was the essence of their religion.

Some 16 small rooms have been excavated – the ones with windows were storage rooms; homes did not have windows (too cold). There were no farming terraces here; food came from other places, supplied by other community people.

Sayacamaka, which was completely buried under the overgrowth and named by archaeologist “inaccessible village” emerges out of the mist along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a huge rock in the middle of house that was natural, part of mountain, in the same shape as mountain. “The Inca made a replica to be closer to mountain (it was considered a god).”

Sayacamaka is one of the most intriguing and dramatic sites along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they get the building stones there? Lizandro points to where a quarry would have been on the other side of the mountain, that would have been brought up the steep trail using only human power. How many would have built the village, and over what period of time, I wonder.

They also engineered canals to bring drinking water – we see three small, square constructions that served as water fountains.

Peru’s Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Environment is responsible for these sites; rangers protect. While they excavate and can restore, they cannot rebuild any of the structures.

Sayacamaka is one of the most intriguing and dramatic sites along the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In 1915, the archeologist Hiram Bingham, who is most responsible for uncovering Machu Picchu, 1915 found 8 of these Incan trails – portions have been revived. One of the trails led to Vilcambaba, the last refuge of the Inca. In 1538, these sites along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu were abandoned by order of Manco Inca, the last Incan king to protect them from the invading Spaniards.

After exploring Sayacamaka, it’s only 20 minutes further to our second campsite, Chaquicocha (Dry Lake) at 11,808 ft. altitude, as the sun sets over the Vilcabamba mountain range. 

Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We reach the Chaquicoche campsite at around 6:30 pm, just as darkness descends, having met the toughest challenge of the trip (and my life).

The Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest. It has one of the most picturesque settings with a fantastic view of the night sky to observe the stars, except it is cloudy tonight. It is also quite cold, and I am so happy with my $4 purchase of knee-high alpaca wool socks.

Chaquicocha campsite is described as a recently restored Inca settlement at the gateway to the jungle, nestled between two eco-systems – high ground and cloud forest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Happy Hour” ( tea time) before dinner consists of popcorn, fried wontons, tea, coffee, followed by another superb dinner (the menu might consist of some combination of stuffed chicken, vegetable tortillas, pizza, spaghetti, pork cutlet, sauteed vegetables, salad).

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies (which includes 200 for trekkers and 300 for porters and staff) and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Day 3 on the Inca Trail

__________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Day 1 on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: A Test

Crossing the bridge to set out on the Inca Trail on Day 1 of the four-day, 26-mile Alpaca Expeditions trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

For me, the first day of the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu is a test – like throwing down the gauntlet. It is the second hardest (Day 2 is the day I have been dreading), when we will hike 8.7 miles, and climbing 1,866 feet to an altitude of 10,829 feet where our campsite will be. My strategy is that if I find it too difficult, I will simply walk back the way I came, rather than continue on to Day 2.

The day actually begins the evening before, when our group meets at 6 pm (we arrive late from our Sacred Valley day tour) at the Alpaca Expeditions offices for an orientation and to pick up the duffle bags (we are limited to 7 kg which includes the sleeping bag, so only about 4 kg of stuff), as well as a rain cover for our day packs, a rain poncho and hiking poles that we have rented (we will leave the rest of our luggage at the hotel or can store it with Alpaca). A team of porters will carry not only our duffels (they carry 3!), but the camping gear (tents, sleeping bags and mats), a dining tent and stools, cooking stuff, our food, and even a private potty tent.

Alpaca Expeditions’ Porters House provides a place for the porters to stay between expeditions, and is where trekkers have breakfast before setting out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our adventure starts with a pick up at our hotel, Amaru Inca, in Cuzco’s historic district at 4 am. We pick up the other participants at various locations (didn’t realize we could have overnighted at Ollantaytambo!) and are taken to Piskachucho, Porters House, where we enjoy a marvelous and energizing breakfast. This is a bunkhouse where the porters – who come from mountain villages hours away – stay between expeditions.

We stop off for a bathroom break at a fantastic shop where I purchase a treasure: the most marvelous alpaca wool knee-high socks for $4 which I adore to keep me comfy cozy on the cold nights in the tent.

Alpaca Expeditions guides Lizandro and Giorgio give us a bit of an orientation and pep talk at the museum at the entrance to Machu Picchu national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive to Km 82, and go through the first Inca Trail checkpoint to begin trek (we have to present our passport and be checked off against the list of permits, which are limited to 200 trekkers a day, which is why you have to book this trip sometimes months in advance). Machu Picchu became a national sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. There is a small museum there and our lead guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, uses this opportunity to gather us all together to reintroduce ourselves (after the orientation meeting the night before), and give us a little intro and pep talk.

Our Alpaca Expeditions group sets out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are a group of 15: a couple on their honeymoon (he from Italy, she from Netherlands), a couple from New York (actually he comes from my hometown and she from Miami) who just got engaged; a couple from Norway living in Guyana; a couple (she from New Zealand, he from Ukraine) doing remote work in Lima; a group of six ladies organized by one who actually did not know each other until the trip, but were friends or friends of friends, who come from NY, Kentucky, California; Eric and Sarah who are finishing up six-month travel odyssey with this grand finale, and me. Every one is well traveled and adventurous (also between 25 and 35 years younger than me. On the trail, I find a family taking a private tour where the parents are in their mid-60s, so I think I am the oldest trekker on the trail at this point.)

Crossing the river to the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

What we call the Inca Trail was part of an immense network built Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s. These roads linked the main cities of the empire with Cusco, the capital, and Machu Picchu. During the time of the Inca, the trail was the only way to get to Machu Picchu.

Sarah and Eric at the start of the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, the “grand finale” to their six-month odyssey © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide, Lizandro, tells us about the animals we may encounter: puma and condor (not surprisingly, they are also sacred animals that appear in architecture), speckle bear (a herbivore), and birds like fly catcher and hummingbirds (32 species).

Setting out on the Inca Trail on Day 1 of the four-day, 26-mile Alpaca Expeditions trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We head out and cross a bridge over a rushing river after scouts tell us the trail has been reopened. It had been closed down for a month after a rock slide killed two porters. We are the first group of trekkers on the trail – which saves about an hour.

Lizandro stops to point out an insect on cactus – cochinillia – which the Inca used for dying textile. The prickly pear on a cactus, he says, should be eaten before sundown or it will cause an upset stomach. He points to a kind of bean which is made into a powder as a base for aspirin.

Lizandro explains the properties of green agave so important to Incan society © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The green agave was used to make string, while ichu grass was woven into rope, strong enough to haul the massive building stones and build suspension bridges (an Incan invention). Part of the bridge’s strength and reliability came from the fact that each cable was replaced every year by local villagers as part of their mit’a – their public service obligation.

Incan society innovated suspension bridges, which villagers replaced each year as part of their mit’a public service obligation to the state © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Indeed, the Inca did not use currency, nor, apparently, have slave labor; their society was organized on a system of Anyi (reciprocity, like barter); Minka (communities work together) and Mita (a labor tax, where every man was obligated to do two to three months of service to the government or serve in the military each year). By combining their political authority with religious authority, the people who were impressed to build temples and palaces did it out of devotion.

The first morning’s hike takes us through a few mountain villages – now set up to sell drinks, snacks and items to the hikers, I’m thinking, much as they would have to the pilgrims 600 years ago.

The Inca Trail takes us through mountain villages © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the last village we encounter before ascending into mountain wilderness, Lizandro tells us this is actually the village where he grew up, and where 96 families still live. From the age of 5, he was leading a pack horse on the trail. There was no school in his community, so his parents sent him to live with an uncle for three years, until his parents couldn’t afford to send him. He met a chef and began as a porter at age 18 (one of the youngest) and spent two years as a porter and then a chef before becoming a guide, which is how he learned English; our other guide, Georgio, lives in the Sacred Valley and joined Alpaca Expeditions this year.

The first 2 hours of the trek are relatively easy – a warm up – as we make our way to our first Inca site where there is also a stunning overlook.

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike (each time, giving us time to rest and refresh and acclimate to the altitude and recover energy to progress).

Overview of an Incan village © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coming to our first Incan site on the trail, Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This site would have housed travelers and soldiers who manned the nearby “hill fort” of Willkaragay, and a shrine with rounded walls known as Pulpituyuq that had religious and ceremonial functions. Patallacta was burned by Manco Inca Yupanqui, the last Incan emperor, who destroyed a number of settlements along the Inca road system during his retreat from Cuzco in 1536, to block pursuit from the Spanish conquistadors. This is one reason why the Spanish never discovered the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu. This was a small resting place and Lizandro begins his story that he will continue at various sites and resting places along our four-day hike © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“The culture that built these weren’t the only civilization,” Lizandro tells us. The peoples who lived here were one of the oldest cultures in the hemisphere: the Caral civilization of Peru is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, dating back to 3200 BCE, who built pyramids before the Egyptians.

Pre-Incans like the Paracas performed skull surgery 2000 years ago. I learn that Inca was one of the first cultures that could do surgery; surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries; the surgical procedure—known as trepanation —was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat.

Besides the Paracas, there were the Nasca who were responsible for those mysterious lines etched into plains that could only be seen from high up in the shapes of monkey and toucan even though these animals didn’t live here (sometimes I think we imagine what the shapes represent); Chimu, believed to be the first civilization to practice human sacrifice (500 skeletons were found in one tomb near Lima); Tiajuanacas who were the first culture to domesticate animals – llama used to carry goods, alpaca for their fur and meat, and vincuna, all three in the family of camels.

These civilizations and cultures all preceded the Inca but the Inca, a ruling family that imbued themselves with divine authority, were the first to conquer the Andes and establish such a vast empire. The Inca reigned from 1150 to 1533, but the history is mostly lost – eradicated by the Spanish – because the Inca did not develop a written language (that is that they know of).

Coming to our first Incan site on the trail, Patallacta was an ancient Inca checkpoint for the approach to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

How did they build such big monuments and conquer the Andes?

According to myth, Lizandro relates, around 1100, the first Incan king and queen emerged from Lake Titicaca floating islands, traveled north looking for good soil and came to Cuzco Valley which was already inhabited; the couple transformed the land – built homes, established religion (the sun god, Inti, being the most important, and the Incan king anointed himself the son of the sun), conquered the tribes around Cuzco and made Cuzco the center of their universe and the spiritual center of the Andes. Then they discovered (and conquered) the Sacred Valley – sacred because of the production of corn.

Overview of an ancient Incan village © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Over the next 350 years or so, the Inca expanded their empire, built a road system (known as the Royal Road in Quechua) was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. It stretched to Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile and was at least 25,000 miles long. It was also a communications system, similar to the Roman Empire – they connected the three regions, the coast, Andes and rainforest.

Most of the Incan sites we see were built in the mid-1400s by Pachacuti, who was the “Alexander the Great” of the Inca. He rebuilt Cuzco, built Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. These Incan sites we encounter along the Incan Trail were built specifically as resting places for pilgrims and travelers headed to Machu Picchu, for religious purpose and for protection of Machu Picchu.

They would send messages by relay runners who carried quipu – messages based on strings and knots (they did not have written alphabet). The runners – who might announce the impending arrival of a noble – could make it to Machu Picchu in four hours (we take four days).

Lunch at Hatunchaca before we enter the wilderness© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From Patallacta it’s another 2-hour hike to Hatunchaca, a kind of way station, where we have lunch, actually served in a small building (avocado salad, a sensational pumpkin soup  – the soups are so welcome, comfort food – garlic bread; trout (outstanding), rice, roasted potato, corn.

We meet villagers during the day’s hike on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The next hour (for me, more like 1 hr 20 min) is all uphill, making me all the more anxious for Day 2 hike, which will be the real challenge. I am imagining that tomorrow will be this times 10 – four hours of this just to get to Dead Woman’s Pass.

On this last stretch, we pass through two small communities where we can buy an energy drink, snacks, or essential items like batteries.

At Wayllabamba (9842 ft elevation it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, associated with fertility), but then it thunders and rains © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We come to a ranger station at Wayllabamba (9,842 ft elevation) where it begins to mist and we delight in seeing a rainbow (auspicious? Some indigenous people worshipped the rainbow, associated with fertility), then drizzle, then thunder, and as we get into camp, at 4:30 pm, it is a real downpour but we get cozy inside our tents at the Ayapata campsite (10,829 ft elevation) where the sleeping bag (winter grade) and mat and our duffels are already placed (whew!).

We settle into our tents and relax. Then it’s tea time! with snacks (popcorn!), and by 7:30 pm a marvelous dinner.

Our tents are all set up when we get to the Ayapata campsite for our first night © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The rain clears out and the stars are amazing.

Lizandro points out the constellations so important to the Inca. For the Incan culture, the Milky Way was believed to be a river, Mayu, the source of all water on earth. For the Inca, earth and sky are connected, sacred, alive and parts of one whole. The sky had special, even religious significance in managing this civilization and organizing daily life. Astronomy was key to agriculture and food production was tied to religion. The Incas could identify the solstices, equinoxes, the changes of season in order to better identify the time of sowing and harvesting. We see how the Incan sites were constructed to connect to the solstice – even Machu Picchu site was constructed around the stars. In the magnificent Southern Hemisphere sky, away from all the artificial lighting, you can appreciate the wonder the sky evoked.

We hiked 8.7 miles this day, and climbed from an altitude of 8,923 ft to 10,829, to the Ayapata campsite, the hike helping us to acclimate and get used to the Inca Trail. I’m feeling fine after today’s hike – at first feeling sensory deprived because I did not bring a book with me (too much weight) so I look over old tweets. I fall asleep anxious about what Day 2 will bring.

The stars come out at Ayapata campsite, so we can appreciate the constellations that inspired such wonder and awe in the Inca © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Day 2: Conquering Dead Woman’s Pass

See also:

ALPACA EXPEDITIONS’ INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU IS PERSONAL TEST OF MIND OVER MATTER

VISIT TO PERU’S SACRED VALLEY IS BEST WAY TO PREPARE FOR INCA TRAIL TREK TO MACHU PICCHU

INCAN SITES OF PISAC, OLLANTAYTAMBO IN PERU’S SACRED VALLEY ARE PREVIEW TO MACHU PICCHU

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© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Alpaca Expeditions’ Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu is Personal Test of Mind Over Matter

Our Alpaca Expeditions group strikes a celebratory pose after reaching Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the four-day classic Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The day after we crossed over Dead Woman’s Pass at 13,829 feet above sea level on the Inca Trail and the day before reaching Machu Picchu – the destination of this Alpaca Expeditions four-day/three-night trek –  I celebrated my 71st birthday. I say this because I am not a habitual hiker or climber, am reasonably but not especially fit and live at sea level.  So I was really, really anxious for weeks about whether or not Dead Woman’s Pass, named for its shape, would take on new meaning.

And while age would normally be a private matter, I say this because if I could do it, anyone who is determined (it is mostly about mind over matter) can do it too.

Early morning breakfast before we head out to conquer the Dead Woman’s Pass on Day 2 of the four-day Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But my success (and yes, I do considerate it a major life accomplishment, if only to overcome fear and go outside my comfort zone to take on the challenge) has a lot to do with how well Alpaca Expeditions runs this trip –all that our guides do to make the trek as comfortable and enjoyable as possible; how the porters (who are carrying our gear) all line up to applaud and cheer us when we come in from the hike; the quality of the camping and trekking equipment; the incredible food, snacks and teas (tea time!) that chef Mario serves that are not only the quality of a fine restaurant but seem perfect for the task; providing basins of hot water and soap and delivering hot coca tea as our wake up call. (The private porto-potty tent, and an actual “sanitation engineer” assigned to keep it functioning, is also extremely appreciated.)

Alpaca Expeditions’ “Green Machine” team of porters cheer us as we set out on Day 2 for Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hike itself – 26 miles with some fairly steep ups and downs – is actually considered moderate difficulty, along a trail of stones, albeit some high (especially for someone like me with short legs), some narrow, and some that can be slick.

Imagining the people who laid these stone steps, carved the trail, and the pilgrims who used it to trek to Machu Picchu 600 years ago © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

The main problem comes from the altitude. And my great fear that inhabits my mind with each step as I try to prepare myself by walking up and down the steepest hill in my neighborhood for an hour (fortunately, it is on my corner) is Day 2, when we climb not one but two mountain passes – the first to Dead Woman’s Pass at 13779 ft., which will take four hours, and the second, Runkuracay, at 13020 ft, a distance of 10 miles that involves 10 hours of hiking. I calculate the amount of sunlight in the day and am concerned it will take me 12 hours and I won’t get into camp before dark. I console myself by giving myself an escape plan: I figure that if I have difficulty on Day 1 (the second toughest day) when the hike is  8.7 miles taking 7 hours to get to the campsite at 10,827 feet elevation, I can decide to simply walk back to the start. (I believe the tour operator also has this as a plan; in fact, we ask what happens if somebody is injured along the way and we are told that the porters, who carry huge loads, would carry the person on their back.) It is also a comfort to know the guides carry satellite phones which they can use for an emergency. I also pack my headlamp in my daypack.

The view from Dead Woman’s Pass. Altitude was the major concern in doing the Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu. Otherwise, the hike is considered “moderate.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And I prepare myself for altitude sickness – not having any alcohol before the trek, taking Sorojchi pills (mainly aspirin and caffeine, sold over the counter in Cuzco) and drinking plenty of water (which works!). I also have Ibuprofin with me.

Trekking among the peaks of the Andes along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide, Lizandro Aranzabal Huaman, cleverly stops at opportune times to talk to us about plants, insects (used for medicine as well as for dyes, cactus for rope for bridges and to haul stones), the tribal people who still inhabit the mountain villages where he grew up, the Incan sites along the trail, the history, culture and legacy of the Inca Empire. This not only enhances the experience as our imagination fills the images of what we see, but (cleverly) gives us time to rest and acclimate to the higher and higher altitudes, get back our legs and our fortitude, and get revitalized for the next stage.

And on Day 2, Lizandro takes out a bag of coca leaves and shows us how to pack it into a cheek and let the juice mix with saliva to help avert altitude sickness, and before we are about to ascend the stage to Dead Woman’s Pass, he whips out a vial of an oil, like eucalyptus, which he puts into our palms, tells us to clap three times, then inhale the vapors to open our nasal passages and make our breathing more efficient. That works too.

Our Alpaca Expeditions guide Lizandro gives us an oil that helps us breathe more efficiently as we climb the last stage to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But we also go at our own pace – our guide, Georgio, typically stays in the back of the pack – so we can stop as often as we need, and admire the view, take a photo, take some extra breaths.

I am surprised the trek is not as much about the landscape, scenery, or nature– the views of the pointed peaks with clouds and mist are beautiful, to be sure – as it is a conversation with the people who built the trail, laid the stones that line the entire trail, built the fortresses, enclaves, resting places for pilgrims and nobility on their way to Machu Picchu.

Alpaca Expeditions “Green Machine” team of porters haul up our duffels and camping gear © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You feel a oneness with the pilgrims, as you walk in their footsteps. It all becomes a matter of personal challenge and self-discipline, mind over matter, just as it would have been for the pilgrims 600 years ago when these sites were built. Each step engages you with the human dimension in time, space and substance.

And I can’t help thinking about the people who actually built all of this.

Lizandro stops at Incan sites along the trail to tell us about the history and culture of the Inca, which also gives us time to rest © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our voyage in the Galapagos, where we had just traveled, was about natural selection, survival of the fittest and the ecosystems in the natural world. Here, trekking on the Inca Trail, going from site to site, we learn about the human ecology. I can only wonder as I plod up these trails, what was involved to hoist those multi-ton boulders and set them in place to build these structures, the amount of food production that must have been required to sustain a population with the numbers of laborers and soldiers to build, expand and secure the Empire, and the sheer amount of calories to create and sustain all of this, without the benefit of draft animals, the wheel, iron tools, written language.

So much surprises me about the Inca Trail trek, but most of all was the number of Inca sites – resting places along the pilgrimage route, defensive forts built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s in support of Machu Picchu his greatest project– that we encounter. Like Machu Picchu, they were rescued from the overgrowth after 400 years being abandoned to Nature. How meticulously they were restored (not rebuilt) by the government– so that we could better appreciate the society, the culture and the history in their context.

The view of the Patallacta from above on the Inca Trail near Willkaraqay on the first morning of the four-day trek to Machu Picchu © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

They were built to accommodate people making a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. This is once in a lifetime for me, as well, or as I tell myself, “now or never” as the window of opportunity closes for me. So seize the day, which is my motto.

You read about these sites, see photographs of it (indeed, the photos archeologist Hiram Bingham published of Machu Picchu, “The Lost City of the Inca”, is what inspired the excavations and spurred this multi-million dollar tourism industry that supports preservation and conservation). But it is only when you are physically here, climbing the steep stone steps, seeing how they are built into these mountains, the scale and the precision with which they were built 600 years ago, feeling the stone, that you can understand and can appreciate.

Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and in no time, we are, as we set out on the Inca Trail © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The story unfolds as we haul ourselves up the heights, over mountain passes and down onto plateaus.

Lizandro says, “Okay, team.” Giorgio calls us “Family” and we are off and in no time at all, we are as we set out on the Inca Trail.

Tips to prepare: Comfortable hiking boots are essential. Since so much of the four-day, 26-mile hike involves steep stone steps, I wanted a light boot with good grip and as comfortable as possible (hard for my hard-to-fit feet, I went through several different brands). I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.

After several trials and errors, I am exceedingly happy with the Altra lone peak all-weather mid (Wide)  hiking boots I bought at REI just before came – as comfortable as sneakers, but great grip, ankle support. I broke them in (and tested them) on my daily “workout” going up/down the steepest hill in my neighborhood.

Our tents are set up and ready for us when we come into camp. Alpaca Expeditions’ excellent camping equipment (even a private porto-potty tent) make the Inca Trail trek as comfortable as possible © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hiking poles are essential (if you don’t bring your own, you can rent from Alpaca Expeditions). They provide the tents but you rent the sleeping bag, mat (really recommended). Bring power bank to recharge phone and camera batteries (no place to plug in for four days; bring extra, charged batteries for camera). Bring a light, compact camera, like a point-and-shoot, to hike with so you don’t carry any extra weight (I packed my Nikon Z5 in the duffel and hiked with it the last day into Machu Picchu).

Comfortable hiking boots and hiking poles are essential for the Inca Trail trek © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bring two water bottles (they provide boiled drinking water to fill). Bring layers and hats for cold and warm weather; expect rain or mist (you trek through the Cloud Forest). The first two nights camping are likely to be cold – the sleeping bags are excellent quality winter grade but I was thrilled with my the warm knee-high alpaca wool socks I bought for $4 at the shop just before starting the hike). A headlamp is a must. I   loved the Black Diamond Astro 300 lumens from REI)

Bring altitude sickness medicine (there is a prescription medicine, but I was happy with the Sorojchi Pills you can purchase over-the-counter in Cuzco), also people bring coca leaves or candy; have ibuprofen on hand.

Definitely do what you can to prepare yourself physically (and mentally). As I was walking up/down the hill for an hour, I was contemplating doing this for 9 more hours and it wasn’t a pleasant thought. I resigned myself to feeling very uncomfortable for 12 hours, and that in itself was comforting.

The permits to do the Inca Trail trek are limited to 500 a day for all the trekking companies and get booked up months in advance. This is roughly made up of 200 tourists and 300 porters, guides and support staff. There’s also a limit to the number of visitors allowed to enter the site of Machu Picchu – capped at 5000 people per day.

More information: Alpaca Expeditions, USA Phone: (202)-550-8534, info@alpacaexpeditions.com, raulmanager@alpacaexpeditions.com, https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/

Next: Setting Out on the Inca Trail

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© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Dispatch 5 From Living the Nomadic Life, a Global Odyssey: Australia-New Zealand-Chile

Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their adventures in MexicoSouth Korea, VietnamMalaysia and Cambodia and Indonesia. Here’s their dispatch #5 from the Southern Hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand, Chile.

AUSTRALIA Melbourne

We took an overnight flight Bali → Melbourne (actually we flew separately though our flights were minutes apart–cheaper!). Food costs in Australia brought us straight back to SF living, at >$20/meal, but we managed to find  $1 oysters our budget can always accommodate!

In the colder Melbourne climate, Sarah expanded her small wardrobe when she realized for the first time she doesn’t just fit into Eric’s tops, she fits into his pants too! A whole new world. Feeling fresh in Eric’s khakis, we spent our few days there wandering hipster neighborhoods, catching an AFL game, exploring a winter food fest (including fake snow), and laughing our arses off at a comedy show (we def missed some local references, but Sarah howled when they mentioned anything Bravo-related). We reckon it was a pretty good time. 

One of Melbourne’s hipster neighborhoods © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Watching an Australian Football League game (Australia’s own version of football, invented in Melbourne) in Melbourne © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Can’t leave Australia without seeing an actual koala © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

NEW ZEALAND Lake Hawea, Wanaka

We arrived in New Zealand just in time for winter holidays, which meant that our serendipitous trip planning had met its match. When we began our search for an accommodation just three days before arriving, we knew we’d made a mistake – everything was booked solid. One shout out to friends and we were connected with Jack & Cass – our saviors! Jack and Cass showed us their beautiful town of Lake Hawea, South Island, where we hiked around, marveled at views of the humongous lake, drank flat whites in the morning and craft beers in the evening, and got real local watching the All Blacks (rugby) at a local pub.

Lake Hawea, Wanaka, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lake Hawea, Wanaka, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Meeting up with friends in Lake Hawea, Wanaka, New Zealand © goingplacesfarandnear.com

At the Mount Iron Track, we got some gorgeous views of South Island mountains, lakes and ski fields 🙂 Did ya’ll know that the only native land mammal in NZ is the bat? Everything else came with the humans…wild. And still to this day, there are no big scary predators or poisonous snakes in all of NZ…paradise. And did we mention the public bathrooms everywhere are beautiful and spotless!? Again, huge shout out to Jack & Cass for showing us their home and such a good time. It was a massive highlight of our whole trip!

Cardrona, Remarkables

Skiing in summer (or actually, our summer, their winter!) was a huge bucket list item. So to round-out our time on the South Island, we hit the slopes at Cardrona ski field with lots of borrowed gear and some thrift store finds Eric couldn’t resist ($8 for a helmet, goggles & gloves?!). It was basically a white-out all day on slippery ice, but Sarah only fell once, whined twice, and we were truly stoked to have the chance to ski on this sabbatical.

Skiing Cardrona in New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Skiing Cardrona in New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When the opportunity came about to ski again at Remarkables a few days later (about an hour south near Queenstown), Eric jumped at it and lucked out with a bluebird day. Sarah audibled and jumped at a local jewelry-making class.

Skiing Remarkables, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Skiing Remarkables, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Making my own ring in jewelry-making class © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Queenstown

We caught a flight from Queenstown → Auckland, but squeezed in time to explore this charming, twinkly-light town right on the lake. Our Airbnb gave us ghost vibes, so we skipped about town as much as the frigid temps would allow. Notably, we nommed some delicious (and massive) fish n’ chips, and washed it down with fried kiwi for dessert (!!).

Queenstown, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Queenstown, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Queenstown, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Van Life – Coromandel Peninsula

We zipped up to North Island to begin our week-long van life extravaganza. We hit the road after stocking up on pb&j, chips & craft beer. First stop: Coromandel Peninsula. We were treated to neon greenery, the salty ocean, and cool fog (but thankfully little rain despite the forecast!). Also, no road trip is complete without Taco Bell, and Eric wants everyone to know that TB in NZ is unparalleled – perfectly crispy tortilla, succulent pulled pork & it weighed approx. 1KG. Watch out, San Francisco burritos..

We zipped up to North Island to begin our week-long van life extravaganza © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Van Life – Rotorua, Taupo

We continued south in the van, coming to find that NZ is bubbling with thermal activity– especially in Rotorua & Taupo. Geothermal steam oozes from ponds at local parks and Eric veered off the road for any and all opportunity to hop in a thermal bath – his favorite being the Hot N’ Cold river where two rivers converge (one piping hot, one ice cold, as the name suggests). It was his dream come true – a natural version of a hot tub and cold plunge!

Hot N’ Cold River, Rotorua, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hot N’ Cold River, Rotorua, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rotorua, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rotorua, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Rotorua, New Zealand © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our campsite in this region was chosen for us when we got our van thoroughly stuck in the mud. Thankfully a lovely Kiwi helped us MacGyver a way out in the morning:) Sarah also tried mountain biking here for the first time, and basically screamed the entire way down.

Taupo, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mountain biking, Taupo, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Mountain biking, Taupo, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Taupo, New Zealand © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

CHILE Santiago, Valparaiso

The direct flight from Auckland → Santiago, being loosely in the direction of home (California), was what ultimately led to the decision of concluding our adventure in South America. We touched down in Santiago and immediately had to gear our stomachs up for cream-sauce & mayo-covered-everything (Eric was ready). Sarah’s dad, Joel, joined us for the Chile leg, and we spent the first couple days at parks, drinking pisco sours, and consuming “completos” (local version of a hot dog).

Santiago, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Santiago, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric also squeezed in one more day on the slopes of Valle Nevado (ya know, because he had to maximize the return on the thrift store ski gear he picked up in NZ). Then we scooped up a rental car and drove west to Valparaiso, a graffiti-filled port town. We wanted to love Valparaiso, but lots of warnings of crime plus stray dogs and their doodoo on every inch of the street left us feeling a tiny bit meh. Joel did find a really cool hat at the market though——->

Happy with their hats from the Valparaiso market © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Skiing at Valle Nevado, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Valparaiso, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Valparaiso, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Valparaiso, Chile © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Valparaiso, Chile © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Valparaiso, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Casablanca, Maipo

We continued on with a stop in Casablanca (wine country) where we sipped some delicious (and inexpensive) vino, ate pizza, and slept in a tiny house overlooking vineyards. We loved the much more chill and less elitist vibes of the wineries we visited (compared to Northern California).

Casablanca, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Casablanca, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Casablanca, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Casablanca, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 

And to round-out the road trip, we visited the mountains of San Jose de Maipo. We stocked up on food and took the hosts 4×4 van up the steep and rocky road to our Airbnb. The cute cabin had one furnace, so Eric and Joel got to practice the manly skill of fire building 24/7, and we all slept in four layers of clothing. We spent the days cooking meals and going for lots of walks with mountain views (the neighbor’s sweet dog accompanied us wherever we went).

Atacama Desert

Last stop in Chile: The Atacama Desert, the driest and one of the highest deserts in the world. Lots to see in this vast dryland, which often felt like another planet – salt flats, sand dunes, lagoons with flamingos (did you know flamingos are born white, and their diet of exclusively sea monkeys turns them pink!?), multicolored canyons & geothermal springs.

Flamingoes, Atacama Desert, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Lagoon, Atacama Desert, © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Atacama Desert, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Atacama Desert, Chile © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Atacama Desert, © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At one point we were locked out of our car in the middle of the desert, but thankfully we are small humans and were able to climb in through the trunk back to mobile safety. After the panic subsided we were treated to a herd of llamas trekking alongside our car for 30 minutes. This desert oasis has an added bonus– a Death-Valley-meets-Albuquerque boho-chic little town called San Pedro de Atacama. Lots of funky cool souvenir shops and live music to check out.

San Pedro de Atacama © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
San Pedro de Atacama © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
San Pedro de Atacama © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Now off to Peru and Ecuador for trekking and wildlife viewing, the grand finale of our six-month odyssey.

See also:

DISPATCH 1 FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: MEXICO

DISPATCH 2 FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: SOUTH KOREA TO VIETNAM

DISPATCH 3 FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: MALAYSIA TO CAMBODIA

DISPATCH 4 FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: INDONESIA

DISPATCH 5 FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: AUSTRALIA-NEW ZEALAND-CHILE

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© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Most Glorious Fall Foliage is Right in Our Neck of the Woods

A hike up Chimney Mountain in New York’s Adirondacks to take in the fall colors © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Take advantage of the outdoors this fall – hiking, biking, kayaking, pick-your-own apples, pumpkins, and camping!

And New York State really has it all.

The I LOVE NY weekly foliage report is a great tool for visitors looking to plan a seasonal getaway – you can not only follow the progress of the changing colors, but the new interactive fall foliage map, located on the I LOVE NY foliage website, showcases great foliage viewing locations in each of the various regions throughout the state. You can use the map to see what the foliage is like during peak viewing in a given area find nearby, must-see attractions and events, from harvest festivals to Halloween celebrations, craft beverage trails, museums and family fun. Reports and the new interactive map are updated Wednesdays throughout the season at www.iloveny.com/foliage or dial 800/CALL-NYS (800/225-5697).

Thanks in part to its size and location, New York State has one of the longest and most colorful foliage seasons in the country. From late September through mid-November, some part of the state is likely experiencing peak foliage.  

Travelers are invited to share their photos of New York State’s amazing foliage on social media by using the #NYLovesFall hashtag. Submitted photos may be featured on the I LOVE NY fall foliage website and official I LOVE NY social media accounts reaching nearly two million followers. 

A hike up Chimney Mountain in New York’s Adirondacks to take in the fall colors © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The colors are already turning in the ADIRONDACKS, which peaks around Columbus Day weekend. Adirondack Experience lists hikes in categories, one of which is “best summit views” with excellent descriptions (also alltrails.com gives precise maps, elevations).  Last fall, based on their recommendation, we did Chimney Mountain and Castle Rock hikes in one day (www.adirondack.net). The Adirondack Fall Foliage Meter (www.adirondacksusa.com/fall) provides up-to-the-minute fall foliage reports on where the leaves are prettiest and most colorful. More sources: Adirondacks Regional Tourism, visitadirondacks.com; Hamilton County Tourism, adirondackexperience.com, 800-648-5239.

A hike up Chimney Mountain in New York’s Adirondacks to take in the fall colors © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A little later in the season, GREENE COUNTY/GREAT NORTHERN CATSKILLS are spectacular (https://www.greatnortherncatskills.com/outdoors) – like hiking through the exquisite North South Campground, which is part of the Hudson River School Art Trail (a network of trails and attractions like Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana, where besides his extraordinary home, you can visit Olana’s 250-acre landscape for free (olana.org) and the Thomas Cole House (thomascole.org). I’m still partial to spending as much time outdoors as possible, so I am happy following the Hudson River Art School Trail (hudsonriverschool.org). (These days, it is best to check the website to make sure indoor attractions are open and if they require advance purchase, timed tickets.)

In Greene County:

Take a Ride:

The Windham Mountain Skyride features a two-mile chairlift to the summit of Windham Mountain, providing incredible panoramic views and is open through October 11th. For additional mountainous scenery, the Hunter Mountain Scenic Skyride offers a two-mile, six-passenger chairlift with views of the Northern Catskill Mountains, open through October 17th.

Explore one of many motorcycle routes showcasing scenic views: ride on the Mohican Trail past the Five State Lookout, the Mountain Clove Run, or another picturesque route in the Great Northern Catskills. Or explore the 120 miles of some of the best mountain biking trails in the country.

Take a Hike:

In Prattsville, Pratt Rock, known as “New York’s Mount Rushmore,” offers a 3.1-mile round trip hike featuring a historical monument dedicated to Zadock Pratt, with summit views overlooking the valley with ample foliage.

For a challenging, yet rewarding ascent, the Hunter Mountain Fire Tower via Spruceton Trail, offers incredible panoramic views of the Catskill Mountains.

For a less intense, yet equally as scenic excursion, the Mountain Top Arboretum in Tannersville offers 178 acres of trails and boardwalks to admire the autumnal beauty.

Visit Local Farms:

Boehm Farm located in Climax offers a pick-your-own produce experience in addition to a variety of farm-grown and baked seasonal goodies. Be sure to call prior to visiting for the most up-to-date information on picking variety availability.

For a family experience, find spectacular views at East Durham Farms in East Durham. Bring home farm-grown produce, local jams, jellies, cheeses and other goods for everyone to enjoy.

To sample fall-grown produce and locally made products, visit Story Farms in Catskill for delicious harvested fruits and vegetables from the family-run farm, or RSK Farm in Prattsville for a variety of fall vegetables available at their farmstand.

(Great Northern Catskills, 800-355-CATS, 518-943-3223, www.greatnortherncatskills.com)

Letchworth State Park, the “Grand Canyon of the East” (where New York State has just opened an innovative autism nature trail) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Finger Lakes region has over 1,000 waterfalls and gorges, 650 miles of shoreline, more than 16,000 acres of National Forest, and over 2,000 miles of hiking and biking trails – such as we enjoyed in Watkins Glen State Park and Letchworth State Park, the “Grand Canyon of the East” (where the state has just opened an innovative autism nature trail – a one-mile hiking loop that includes eight marked sensory stations, each designed to address a different sensory experience in a safe and supportive environment). Also, vineyards, wineries, breweries, rail-trails. museums, art galleries, historic sites, theaters. Excellent planning aids are available from The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, 309 Lake Street Penn Yan, NY 14527, 315-536-7488, 800-530-7488, www.fingerlakes.org. Another excellent source of visitor information is Visit Finger Lakes, 585-394-3915, info@visitfingerlakes.com, www.visitfingerlakes.com.

Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Go totally au natural and camp out (through October). We adored our camping adventures at the in Letchworth State Park and the4 Six Nations Campground in Watkins Glen State Park (https://newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com/)

In Coxsackie, Gather Greene is a glamping destination with 17 wooden glamping cabins on 100 acres of rolling hills and fields, each equipped with air conditioning and heating, full bathrooms, a mini-fridge (176 Levitt RoadCoxsackie,  262-448-3683, www.gathergreene.com).

Camp New York is a network of independent campground owners across New York State, from the high peaks of Adirondacks to the majestic Niagara Falls frontier, from the scenic Finger Lakes to the eastern edges of Long Island, and everywhere in between (585-586-4360, www.campnewyork.com). Here are some of their recommendations: For those looking to take scenic fall drives, U.S. Route 20 runs east/west through the heart of NYS, crossing along the tips of several Finger Lakes and offering beautiful rolling hills and sweeping vistas. These websites, https://nyroute20.com/ and https://www.dot.ny.gov/display/programs/scenic-byways/route-20, cover sights to see in the Central New York section. Some popular base camps along the way include Lebanon Reservoir Campground in Hamilton (www.lebanoncampground.com), about 15 minutes off Route 20, and Cider House Campground in Bouckville (www.ciderhousecampground.com), which is located right on Route 20 in the heart of the Madison Bouckville Antiques Community (https://www.ciderhousecampground.com/https://www.madisontourism.com/things-to-do/antiquing/). Families looking for spooky destinations across New York should check out the Haunted History Trail (https://hauntedhistorytrail.com/) and crosscheck the haunts of interest with neighboring campgrounds on CampNewYork.com.

New England Beckons

NEW HAMPSHIRE’s Lakes Region not only offers gorgeous scenery, hiking, biking, but wonderful fall festivals and events.

I have my sights set on the 58-mile long Northern Rail Trail. Set geographically right in the middle of classic New England, it crosses New Hampshire beginning just north of the state’s capitol in Concord, N.H. and extends almost to Vermont in Lebanon, N.H. Now a recreational trail, it was once the rail bed of the Northern Railroad built in 1847, so the gradient never exceeds 1 percent. It traverses rivers, working farms, orchards, horse and alpaca farms, lakes, quaint towns and historic covered bridges and affords classic New England vistas. Railroad buffs will love seeing the historical artifacts that remain: there are the original granite mile markers a couple of old railway stations and noteworthy rock work supporting trestle crossings and culverts. You can easily imagine what New England looked like in the 1850s. Currently the trail has been completed for four-season use from Lebanon, NH through Grafton, NH and Danbury, Andover to Depot Street in Franklin. (The Friends of the Northern Rail Trail group has the goal of extending the tail from Danbury, NH to Boscawen in Merrimack County, NH).  (More information: Friends of the Northern Rail Trail, www.fnrt.org )

New Hampshire innkeepers have made it delightful to turn the Northern Rail Trail ride into an inn-to-inn bike tour. Seven historic inns throughout the Lakes and Dartmouth-Lake Sunapee regions are connected by the trail and offer inn-to-inn packages. For more information, maps and rates, visit Bike the Northern Rail Trail website at: http://bikethenorthernrailtrail.com and find the innkeepers at www.nhcountryinns.com.

We recently enjoyed our stay at Mill Falls at the Lake (312 Daniel Webster Highway, Meredith, NH 03253, 800-622-6455, 844-745-2931, info@millfalls.com, www.millfalls.com)  , but there are scores of bnbs, cabins, cottages, hotels in the region.

The Lakes Region tourism office has a fantastic site to plan a visit: https://www.lakesregion.org/

Of course, VERMONT has practically trademarked “fall foliage.” Indeed, three-quarters of the state is blanketed with forests, most of it maple trees that turn the vibrant shades of red, orange and yellow. You can track the progress of the color changes with the state’s foliage forecaster and sign up for Vermont’s fall foliage report to get real time updates on where the color is peaking each week.  Find trip planning inspiration, ideas and resources at https://vermontvacation.com/seasons/fall.

There, you can link to Vermont’s 10 federally designated scenic byways routes and roads that take you through Vermont’s forests and farmland to historic villages and towns that are vibrant hubs of culture, commerce and recreation. These byways range in length from 14 miles to 400 miles and provide access to museums, art galleries, antique auctions and curio shops, trail heads, swimming holes, waterfalls, hikes and valley views (https://vermontvacation.com/byways). You can also follow the Vermont Arts Council’s recommendations for arts and foliage viewing destinations along Vermont’s most scenic drives during foliage season (www.vermontartscouncil.org/blog/autumn-and-art).

Enjoying the fall foliage biking along the 12.7-mile Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in the Berkshires, Massachusetts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

MASSACHUSETTS is the 8th most forested state in the United States, with over 3 million acres of forest, accounting for 62% of the entire state.  Some parts of Western Massachusetts are over 90% forested. Its foliage season stretches from mid-September to early November.  Here are some highlights and “secret gems”:

CAPE & ISLANDS: In Cape Cod, a secret gem is theWest Barnstable Conservation Area, one of the largest conservation parcels (1,114 acres) on the Cape. The entire tract is filled with glorious fall colors from mid-October through November. Better yet, rather than drive, Cape Cod is a paradise for cyclists, with the most wonderful bike paths that basically extend over the entire Cape.

Foliage comes later to Martha’s Vineyard than the rest of Massachusetts, typically peaking for brilliant colors at the end of October into early November. TRAILSMV is a free app that allows visitors to explore the Island’s fabulous network of pristine trails for walking, biking and hiking that make leaf peeping so much fun. 

The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in the Berkshires of Massachusetts is a stunning trail for biking and walking
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

WESTERN MA: In the gorgeous Berkshires, find the best fall foliage at this site: https://berkshires.org/four-fabulous-ways-to-enjoy-fall-foliage/#more-82593

Mohawk Trail: Hoosac Range Trail (2441 Mohawk Trail) located at the first summit on the Mohawk Trail features high elevation long views and sublime rock cliffs formed by “glacial plucking” with trees twisted into fantastical forms by wind and ice. Look out for migratory raptors at Spruce Hill and great views over North Adams, Mount Greylock and Florida State Forest. (https://www.bnrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Hoosac_Range_trailmap.pdf)

Mount Greylock State Reservation is the highest point in Massachusetts.  At 3,481’, on a clear day, you can see as far as 90 miles away. The middle of September to middle of October with peak season typically Columbus Day weekend. 

The Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in the Berkshires of Massachusetts is a stunning trail for biking and walking
© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

NORTH OF BOSTON: Some secret gems are:Harold Parker State Park in Andover; Old Town Hill in Newbury; Ravenswood Park in Gloucester; and Pipestave Hill and Mill Pond in West Newbury.

Merrimack Valley: The Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge is a 12-mile river wetlands conservation area stretching from the towns of Billerica, Massachusetts (downstream) to Wayland, Massachusetts (upstream), along the Concord River and Sudbury River (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/great_meadows/)

Drive the 90-mile Essex Coastal Scenic Byway that links 14 coastal communities from Lynn to Salisbury and features breathtaking vistas, working harbors, quaint villages, world-class art and culture, and distinctive local food, shops, lodging and visitor services. 

Fall in the Berkshires, Massachusetts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

CENTRAL MA: The secret gem here is theTully River Valley: Royalston, Athol, and Orange offers many options for hikers, bikers, and paddlers. A 4.5-mile foot trail loops around Tully Lake and the quarter-mile cascades of Doane’s Falls, and a 7.5-mile mountain bike and hiking trail circles adjacent Long Pond, passing by red maple trees that offer vivid foliage along the water’s edge starting in late September. Access is available at Tully Lake Recreation Area on Route 32, and Tully Lake Campground and Doane’s Falls Reservation on Doane Hill Road (https://thetrustees.org/content/tully-trail/).

Jacob’s Hill Reservation features two vistas with panoramic westerly views across the Tully Valley, and the steep cascades of Spirit Falls, which are especially picturesque after an autumn rain. The entrance is on Route 68 in Royalston, and the reservation may also be reached via the Tully Trail from Long Pond. Across the valley rises Tully Mountain in Orange, where ledges provide a striking view across the region to Mount Monadnock, Wachusett Mountain, and Mount Watatic (https://thetrustees.org/place/jacobs-hill/

Fall in the Berkshires, Massachusetts © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

NORTH CENTRAL MA: The Mount Wachusett State Reservation located in Princeton and Westminster, offers stunning views of the region. Visitors can also take the skyride at Mt. Wachusett Ski Area. With over 800 farms and orchards in the region, the country roads in North Central Massachusetts provide scenic opportunities to see the bright vivid fall colors. These include routes 119, 13, 2A, 140, 117, 70, 202 just to name a few.  Best time to go: late September/October.

SOUTHEASTERN MASSACHUSETTS has some of the largest cranberry bogs in the nation and is a great place to see foliage alongside the cranberry bogs flooded with crimson berries.

Plymouth/South of Boston: A great experience in Plymouth County is the wet harvesting of cranberries at the height of fall foliage.  The A. D. Makepeace Company in Wareham gives cranberry bog tours starting in late September that takes you into the heart of cranberry country in Massachusetts (www.admakepeace.com)

Freetown-Fall River State Forest offers 5,000 acres of forest and open space, a perfect setting for fall foliage.  It is also the home of the Wampanoag Reservation (the “”eople of the First Light” who were there when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (https://www.mass.gov/locations/freetown-fall-river-state-forest http://visitsemass.com/freetown-fall-river-state-forest/)

GREATER BOSTON:The Emerald Necklace, a ring of green open space created by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 19th century is a great way to enjoy foliage in the city of Boston.  Highlights include Franklin Park in Dorchester, the Arnold Arboretum and Jamaica Pond, Olmsted Park, The Riverway and Back Bay Fens. You complete the Necklace by taking the Commonwealth Avenue Mall into the Public Garden and then to Boston Common (https://www.emeraldnecklace.org/park-overview/emerald-necklace-map/)

To track fall foliage in Massachusetts State Parks, go to https://www.mass.gov/location-details/fall-foliage-season-in-the-parks.

A great guide to visiting Massachusetts is available at https://www.visit-massachusetts.com/state/foliage/.

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Our Favorite Hiking & Camping Gear for 2 Months On the Road in our Converted Subaru

Wild camping in our REI Half Dome 3 Plus tent by Little Payette Lake, ID © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

*Black Friday & Cyber Monday Deals*

By Laini Miranda & Dave E. Leiberman, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We just returned home from two months living out of our converted Subaru while we traveled 8,300 miles around the country. We outfitted our Subaru Forester with a platform bed and two drawers underneath to maximize storage, which we designed and built ourselves, and brought along enough creature comforts so that we didn’t miss a thing while we were on the road or wild camping.

Our wild camp spot outside of Silverton, CO, just before the rainstorms © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here’s more of our round-up of our favorite hiking and camping gear (See also: Car Camping in Comfort: How We Turned our Subaru into Our Home On the Road):

WEARABLES

Smith’s Chromapop Lowdown Slim 2 are the perfect polarized sunglasses to enrich every day of our 7 weeks on the road. There’s not a day we spend without these glasses © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Smith Chromapop Sunglasses – $179.99

These sunglasses are probably the most important gear we own and the most noticeable improvement to this trip versus our previous desert adventures. Dave has enjoyed Warby Parkers in the past and both of us are usually very happy with our standard >$20 sunglasses. These Smith glasses, however, are game changers. I have the rose gold lenses, Dave the green/grey, and we both love how they don’t change the color of the world outside but just enhance it. The polarization is different from any other “polarized” glasses we’ve tried.

The true otherworldly colors at the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park come through with our Smith Chromapop Sunglasses © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Outside almost all day everyday on this trip, we notice that the way the Smith Chromapop Sunglasses filter intense sun while balancing shadows and contrast throughout the day is nothing short of magic. They are also light enough that you don’t notice you’re wearing them all day. Dave even wore them inside a few times without realizing they were still on.

Laini initially bought these Keen Targhees for a 6-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu and has sworn by them for the past 11 years © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Keen Targhee – $130-150

Merrell Moab Ventilator – $100

Good hiking shoes are everything. Laini initially bought these Keen Targhees for a 6-day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu and has sworn by them for the past 11 years. The soles have just finally started to come loose a bit, but it wasn’t anything that some Shoe Goo (another recommendation) couldn’t fix. Dave has also owned his Merrels for many years and had a similar issue with his sole towards the end of our road trip. Both shoes provide so much comfort and support that we barely even notice our feet on 7+ mile hikes. We especially love these shoes for their Vibram soles that seem to let us scale pretty vertical slickrock boulders with zero slippage. They are also both waterproof, making them perfect for creek hikes (for deeper or more frequent waters we’d recommend an actual water shoe like Keen’s Newport style).

Dave has been hiking in his Merrels for years and the shoes provide so much comfort and support that we barely even notice our feet on 7+ mile hikes © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Darn Tough No show Lightweight Hiking Sock – $17

We bring multiple pairs of socks with us, but find ourselves washing these out overnight to reuse them since they’re the most comfortable, lightest weight socks we’ve tried. The merino wool lets you wear them for two or three days straight before you even need to wash them (we try to stick to no more than two). These work great for our low hiking shoes, but they also make them in mid-calf for boot styles.

HYDRATION

Using our Hydrapak 4L Seeker to fill up water bottles on our hike through the Dry Fork Slot Canyons of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hydrapak 4L Seeker – $28

This collapsible water bottle/bag is indispensable for us on our long hiking days. We fill up with our water pump, throw it in a backpack on our way out, and roll it up when we’re finished with it. The super durable handle is also useful for clipping to a backpack and the large threaded mouth is both pleasant to drink out of and compatible with most 42mm threaded filters. The BPA & PVC-free material can also be frozen or filled with hot water. Generally this 4L container plus two water bottles hydrates both of us for 6-7 mile hikes. On longer hikes we bring a water cube and stash it after a mile or so. They also sell a handy Plug-N-Play Cap Kit that can turn your Seeker into a solar shower or camp tap.

Made from 50% recycled plastic, the Recon Hydrapak water bottle is super lightweight, has a great drinking spout, and doesn’t spill when closed tightly, great for this hike at Craters of the Moon National Monument © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Recon Hydrapak Water Bottle – $17

Made from 50% recycled plastic, this water bottle is super lightweight, has a great drinking spout, and doesn’t spill when closed tightly. It touts a “patented twist cap that provides an experience like drinking out of a glass”, and as someone who hates drinking out of Nalgenes, I can attest to that branding. It’s so lightweight and comfortable to carry with its durable and flexible handle, I usually prefer to hold it while hiking instead of clipping to my backpack.

Hiking with the Recon Hydrapak water bottle in hand © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

FANS

Karacel Battery Operated Rechargeable Fan – $16.99

Rechargeable Tent Fan with Light – $29.99

These fans are indispensable in desert camping. We did a ton of research to find ones that were rechargeable, kept their charge throughout the night, and didn’t make too much noise. We prefer the convenient hook and fan/light combo of the $29.99 model and find that this is all we need for most nights in the tent, but the Karacel is a great second fan for extra hot nights in the tent or car.

COOKING ESSENTIALS

The Classic Coleman 2-Burner Stove with our Stanley Boil & Brew bring comforts of home to our wild camping at Badlands National Park © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Stanley Boil + Brew French Press – $25

Does just what the name suggests and makes a delicious cup of coffee. We also love that it’s the same height as a standard 16oz Propane tank and our mess kit so all three fit perfectly side by side in the front compartment of our car kitchen drawer.

Overmont Lightweight Mess Kit – $28.99

This may not be the best mess kit out there, but for the price you really can’t beat it. We’ve used this for the past 3 years and love it. The food-grade anodized aluminum is super lightweight, compact, and everything nestles inside each other to fit in one small carrying case. On our road trip we only take with us the two pots, sponge, and spatula, and keep our mugs inside the pots. 

2-piece Stainless Steel Travel Mugs – $17.99

Again, there are certainly better versions out there, but we love how lightweight and inexpensive these mugs are. They fit perfectly in the pot of our mess kit and can be clipped to our backpack if we’re on the move.

Coleman Classic 2-Burner Stove – $43.99

It’s a classic for a reason. 

PERSONAL CARE 

Advanced Elements Solar Shower is also handy for washing our feet after a trip to Third Beach in Olympic National Park © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

5 Gallon Solar Shower – $34.99

We shopped around a bit, but I ended up going with Wirecutter’s pick for best solar shower. With the hooks on each edge of the bag and some reusable zip ties, we strap this to our roof rack clear-side-up and by the time we reach our campsite the water is as hot as our home shower (sometimes after extra long summer drives we actually need to leave it in the shade for a bit to cool it off before using––the thermometer on the bag is really helpful for this scenario). The durable strap is made to hang from a tree, but we use it just as much from the roof of our car. In the backcountry of the desert when no one else is around for miles you don’t even need to worry about a privacy tent. Pull the nozzle down from the hose to open the valve, push it back up to close. Two of us can shower (one of us with long knotty hair), and we still have water left in the bag.

Triptips Portable Toilet – $38.99

You might wonder where one goes to the bathroom when backcountry camping. If you must know, this portable toilet is actually excellent. The accordion wall design collapses to a mere 2 inches and fits in its own carrying bag when traveling. When we set up camp, we pop in the bottom circle which makes the accordion take its cylindrical form, place the seat over the top, and it can apparently hold up to 330 lbs. The seat is surprisingly comfortable for being so small, and it closes so tightly that you really can’t smell a thing when it’s latched. We use these compostable toilet bags (only for solid waste) and tie them to the roof rack until we get to a dump station. TMI? Sorry.

Our makeshift powder room with “HI NINGER collapsible sink by Little Payette Lake, ID (the sink collapses to a cutting board for food prep) © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

MISCELLANEOUS

Bamboo Charcoal Air Purifying Bags/Shoe Deodorizers – $14.79/12-pack

This is perhaps the best $15 we spent in our car living. We stick one of these in each shoe when we take it off and don’t even notice we have several pairs of sweaty sneakers and sandals in our car. These things may actually be magic.

Thermarest Compressible Travel Pillow – $25.99 (bought for $14.99 at Mountain Steals)

Ok, so our secret to comfy camping is that we bring our big pillows from home because we generally prioritize our sleep, but a last minute thought to throw one of these in the car was great for our long driving days. We continue to keep this in the car since it compresses into such a compact log, and even becomes a nice lumbar support. In the future we may just bring two of these on longer road trips since they are actually quite comfortable––just make sure you give it enough time for the shredded foam filling to fully expand. The attached cover is so soft you don’t even need an extra pillow case.

The soles of our hiking boots have just finally started to come loose a bit after many years of wear, but it wasn’t anything that some Shoe Goo couldn’t fix © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Shoe Goo – $3.98

This 1oz tube is a lifesaver for when you need a quick shoe repair on-the-go. Parts of both of our soles came loose at certain points with all the hiking we do between slickrock and loose dirt. We use this goo at night, hold it in place with some masking tape (painter’s tape, really), and the shoe is good to go the next morning.

Reusable Zip Ties, 100 pack – $13.99

We use these for so many things while camping we can’t leave them off the list. The 10” ties hold up to 50 lbs, and are sturdy enough to secure our solar panels and solar shower to our roof rack even while driving on major highways. 

See also: Car Camping in Comfort: How We Turned our Subaru into Our Home On the Road

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Car Camping in Comfort: How We Turned our Subaru into Our Home On the Road

Our wild camp spot at Grand Staircase National Monument, comfy in our REI Half Dome 3+ on our Best Choice 4″ thick Folding Mattress © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Laini Miranda & Dave E. Leiberman

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

We just returned home from two months living out of our Subaru while we traveled around the country. Without much pre-planning, our route took us 8,300 miles from upstate New York through Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, The San Juan Islands, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and back home to New York. 

We outfitted our Subaru Forester with a platform bed and two drawers underneath to maximize storage, which we designed and built ourselves, and brought along enough creature comforts so that we didn’t miss a thing while we were on the road or wild camping (other than friends and family, of course!). 

Here’s a round-up of some of the things we learned we can’t live without, in no particular order:

We outfitted our Subaru Forester with a platform bed and two drawers underneath to maximize storage, which we designed and built ourselves, and brought along enough creature comforts so that we didn’t miss a thing while we were on the road or wild camping © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

500W Jackery Power Bank  – $499

We keep the Jackery Power Bank on the floor behind our front seats, plugged into the 12V cigarette lighter in the rear of the car. The Jackery powers our car fridge, cell phones, laptop and fans. The 2.4A in the USB outlet charges our phones so much faster than the car USB does, we’ve actually been keeping it in the car even when not on a road trip. While driving any substantial distance, the Jackery stays at a healthy 99% and rarely drops below 50% even overnight when not drawing power from the car. We use the 60W solar panels to top off the Jackery on days we aren’t driving. 

Alpicool C9 Mini Refrigerator – $159.99

Our car fridge sits next to the Jackery on the floor behind the driver’s seat and stays plugged into the 12V plug on the Jackery at all times. We keep the fridge on “Eco” mode, which fluctuates between about 38 and 44 degrees. We opted for the C9 because that was as much space as we could dedicate in our Subaru and it worked well for us, but I definitely see the benefits of the larger C20 model with the raised lid if you have the extra room. Most days our Alpicool stored: 1L milk, 1 block of cheese, turkey, 4 or 5 string cheeses, jam, hot sauce, and 3 beers, with a little room to stuff random things on top if needed. This refrigerator is miraculously quiet. We almost never notice it while driving, and even when sleeping in the car, the compressor isn’t loud enough to be heard over our earplugs, even with it located just below our heads. The great thing about keeping the Alpicool behind the driver’s seat is that the passenger can easily access its contents with the lid on top. We love never having to deal with melted ice as we used to with our cooler, and find that this size fits enough for a week in the desert.

Rockpals Portable Solar Panel is easy to position for optimal sun exposure on top of or beside the car. It then folds up into a slim briefcase we can quickly slide into any free gaps in our car. © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

60W Rockpals Portable Solar Panel – $159.99

This is a cleverly designed, high quality solar “briefcase” that we use to top up our Jackery when not driving. The 20-25 watts we get with full sun keeps our Jackery from depleting even when powering our Alipicool fridge throughout the day and night. It’s easy to position it for optimal sun exposure on top of or beside the car, especially with the two kickstands attached to the back. It then folds up into a slim briefcase we can quickly slide into any free gaps in our car.

Best Choice Tri-Fold Mattress – $89 at time of purchase

This 4-inch foam mattress is what kept us on the road for 7 weeks and has us wanting to go right back out. The tri-fold feature of this mattress allows us to keep it semi-folded when not in use, and easily move it between the car and our tent to make every night as comfortable as sleeping in our bed at home. The twin is 75 x 39” and perfect for two small adults. We purchased this for $89.99, but it does seem to fluctuate on Amazon so we recommend grabbing it whenever you see a good deal, even if you’re not car camping anytime soon! We plan to use this in place of an air mattress whenever we need an extra guest bed. 

Our Subaru camper car outfitted with collapsible sink, and REI Half Dome 3+ at Little Payette Lake, ID © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Collapsible Sink and Cutting Board – $16.99

This is an integral part of our kitchen and bathroom setup. We cut a hole in our pull-out wood counter exactly the size of this sink, pop it in, and immediately have a basin for washing dishes, brushing teeth, doing laundry, and everything in between. It has a push drain to release water when ready, and collapses down to a perfect sized cutting board. At just over an inch collapsed, it’s easy to store anywhere. It does drip a bit with the drain plugged, but since we only use it outside that doesn’t really bother us. We now can’t imagine ever camping without this. 

Wild camp spot outside of Silverton, CO, just before the rainstorms © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Wireless Auto Water Pump – $12.99

Did you think you can’t have running water in your car?? We bought a longer silicon tube for this pump, inserted it into our 7 gallon water container and have water on demand. We use this baby constantly–filling up our water bottles while driving or before hikes, making food, washing dishes, brushing teeth, etc., and we only had to charge it ONCE in our 7 weeks on the road. While these water pumps are generally made to be used on top of a water cooler jug, we fashioned a bottom for it with inspiration from a YouTube video by Todd Parker: cut a notch in a roll of electrical tape, stuff that inside the base, add adhesive neodymium rare earth magnets to the bottom, affix a metal plate to the surface you want to hold the pump, and you have a beautiful faucet with running water! We most often use this pump either from the front seat to fill up water bottles during long drives, or affixed to the metal plate next to our pop-in sink in the back of the car for cooking or washing up. We bought this 25-ft braided sleeve so we can move the long hose back and forth without the silicon tube collecting dust and grime, also a brilliant Todd Parker recommendation. (Note: we do not personally know Todd Parker.) 

Our REI Half Dome 3 Plus tent by Little Payette Lake, ID © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Car Rear Window Shade – 2 pack – $12.99

This is a simple product that lets us turn our car windows into screens. On the nights we opt to sleep in the car instead of setting up our tent, we put one of these window sleeves on each door, open the window, and voila, great airflow without the mosquitoes. We also leave one of these on the rear window above the refrigerator during the PNW heat wave to reduce the heat in the car, but we don’t recommend them on any other windows while driving since they also reduce visibility (an added plus for when you have to sleep in the Cracker Barrel parking lot).

LEMLEON Car Window Shade fits our Subaru Forester windows perfectly. It comes with velcro to secure them to the inside of the car door, though you can still easily raise them to see the sunrise over the Badlands. (OR: “We raise our Lemleon Car Window Shades to catch the sunrise over Badlands National Park” © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

EzyShade Windshield Sun Shade – $12.97

Sun Shades are a must when leaving the car in the desert sun. We tried two different kinds and like these the best. It takes about 10 seconds to stuff these two rounded rectangular pieces into our windshield and just as long to collapse them back into a small circle that fits in the car door pocket. We use ours so frequently we just keep it in the slot between the seat and the door.

Our trusty REI Half Dome and Nemo blanket after 2 straight days of thunderstorms outside of Silverton, CO © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

REI Half Dome 3 Plus Tent – $329

This tent is brilliant. Its color-coded poles and ingenious architecture enables us to pitch it in under 2 minutes. Usually one of us pitches the tent while the other starts the fire or preps food. The upper portion of the tent is full mesh, which allows for optimal air flow and viewing of the Milky Way. In the desert we tend to not need the fly, but for the few days of torrential downpours and strong winds we encounter in the Colorado mountains, when we are thrilled at the durability and protectiveness of the fly and footprint. We used to use the 2 Plus model, but the 3 Plus is extra luxurious and easily fits our 4” tri-fold foam mattress plus plenty of room to hang out on rainy nights (Note: the 2 Plus would also fit the twin 4” tri-fold). We also love the location and quantity of pockets and hanging loops for all our tent gear. 

Nemo Victory Blanket – $29.99 (40% off at Mountain Steals at time of writing)

We use this blanket daily, whether it’s the rug by our tent (the 2P is the exact length of our REI Half-dome 3), or a blanket on a pebbly beach. The fabric side is extremely soft and delightful to lay on, while the under-side is waterproof and more durable. Though it is thick enough to keep us comfortable even on a lava rock ground in Craters of the Moon, it is light enough that I barely notice carrying it on a 2 mile hike to Third Beach in Olympic National Park. It even dried remarkably fast after 2 straight days of torrential downpours in Colorado. One of us remarks almost every day about how much we love this blanket.

Our Nemo Victory blanket makes the perfect sunset spot on the wet rocky shores by Washington Park in Anacortes, WA. © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

MPowerd Solar Lights – $24.95 – $49.95

This brand has nailed the compact solar light game. We highly recommend their Luci Solar String Lights and the Luci Lux Inflatable Lantern. Both give off warm light and offer 3 different brightness settings, as well as a battery level indicator. The string lights are long enough to provide light to our tent between a couple trees, and the Luci Lux (which flattens to less than an inch) is the only lantern we now use while camping. The attached strap lets us easily hang it from the opened hatch of our Subaru or the tent ceiling. The lowest setting, warm light, and frosted/matte finish also makes for a perfect pillow-side lamp. 

Luci Solar String Lights gives off warm light and offer 3 different brightness settings, as well as a battery level indicator and is long enough to string between a couple trees. ©Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Next: More of our favorite hiking & camping gear 

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

New York’s Watkins Glen State Park is Spellbinding

By Karen Rubin, David Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Walking the Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park in New York’s Finger Lakes is, in a word, spellbinding.

The centerpiece of the 778-acre Watkins Glen State Park is a 400-foot deep, narrow gorge cut by the Glen Creek that was left “hanging” when glaciers of the last continental glaciation, some 12,000 years ago, deepened the Seneca valley, creating rapids and waterfalls through layers of hard rock. The textures and shapes of the soft shales, sandstone and limestone – which erode at different rates – are gorgeous.

If you have ever visited a slot canyon, and marveled at the smooth, twisted, perfectly contoured curves, walk the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, where you can watch Mother Nature working her magic.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We don’t waste time after arriving at the Six Nations Campground in the park in the afternoon, in order to take advantage of the beautiful sunlight. So we drop out things and rush down to the Gorge Trail for a taste of what we will see more completely the next day.

In the course of a 1.5 mile stone trail, with 800 steps and beautiful stone bridges you see 19 incredible waterfalls.

Cascading falls on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The waterfalls range from those that flow from dramatic heights of 200 foot-high cliffs, to those that cascade; you see waterfalls coming in together from different directions, cutting through the sedimentary rock of shale, sandstone and limestone, making exquisite, remarkably perfect shapes and cuts that are astonishingly precise and straight or curved, and cascades of falls that twist.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In this “hanging valley,” we also see “hanging gardens” – the tender mosses, ferns, mosslike plants (liverworts) that drape over the rocks and down the rock walls, the delicate plants that stubbornly grow, albeit slowly in crevasses in the rock walls. They depend on continuous moisture trickling down, and you can see differences in ecosystems based on the amount of sun, shade and moisture that a section of the rock wall gets. (Visitors are told not to pick anything.)

A place of perfect peace, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You are enveloped by a feeling of perfect peace – the sound of the flowing water, the cool of the green moss and moist rock, the fresh smell, the late afternoon light that turns the tops of the trees into shades of yellow and gold. The gorge is fairly narrow, so you feel cocooned in this primal, Jurassic Park-like setting.

Looking down into where the water flattens out at one point into soil what appeared to be a giant fossil skeleton, exposed in the low water. It is exciting to imagine.

Could this be a titanoboa fossil, only just exposed in the Glen Creek? © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We walk back to Mile Point Bridge where we follow the trail back into the Six Nations Campground, after this brief survey mission.

Back at our campsite, we set up our tents and go downtown to where John, who checked us into the campground, had recommended as the best place in Watkins Glen for sunset: the marina on the southern tip of Seneca Lake. There is a rock wall that is very popular for people to walk out to watch. We opt to go to the Village Marina for dinner where we can dine outside and take in the sunset.

Blazing sunset from the Village Marina in Watkins Glen © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The colors that blaze through the sky, reflect back in the water, after the sun went behind the hills, are spectacular.

The next day, we stroll down from our campsite to the Gorge Trail.

We enter the Gorge Trail at Mile Point Bridge, giving us our first stunning view. We walk the half-mile to the end, at Jacob’s Ladder (a set of 180 stairs that goes to the Upper Entrance), and then return, choosing to go back along the Gorge Trail rather than connect to the Indian Trail that goes along the rim for views down into the Gorge. Going back this way on the Gorge Trail we go down in elevation towards the Main Entrance in the village (many people who don’t want to do the 1.5 mile trail both ways start park up here, hike down, and take a shuttle bus back, $5).

Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, is spellbinding © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Just beyond the Mile Point Bridge is Frowning Cliff, a gorgeous waterfall, then the climatic scene, Rainbow Falls (most dramatic from the other direction on the way back; you walk behind the falls along the trail), aptly named because, on some afternoons, the sunlight comes at just the right angle to create rainbows.

Rainbow Falls, one of the highlights of the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On to the Central Cascade (plunging more than 60 feet, this is the highest waterfall in the Gorge), Glen Cathedral (the horizontal layers of shale were formed 380 million years ago; ripples in the rock were created by wave action at the bottom of an ancient sea floor that eventually turned to stone), then a steeper descent, through the Spiral Tunnel (hand cut in 1927) to the Cavern Cascade, where you again walk behind the waterfall) and across Sentry Bridge (look for a round flume hole in the rock where, in the 1800s, water was once diverted to power a mill where the visitor center now stands) to the new Visitor Center and main entrance on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen.

Cascading falls on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Walk through the Spiral Tunnel (hand cut in 1927) to the Cavern Cascade, where you walk behind the waterfall, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Along the way, we meet up with a park ranger who we tell about seeing what appeared to be a giant fossil. He tells us that it was exposed only two days before and might well be a titanoboa – a giant sea snake that could be as big as 45 feet long. This exciting news passes from one to another as people come to that spot to view it. Another park ranger tells us that a naturalist is coming to investigate.

For awhile, visitors to Watkins Glen State Park that morning had an extra thrill beyond the breathtaking scenery: the prospect of seeing a newly discovered fossil of a prehistoric sea snake, Monster in the Glen.

A place of perfect peace, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We finish walking the trail, have a delightful lunch at the Harbor Hotel on the lake. By now it is the afternoon and markedly less crowded (everyone seems to come out early for the walk) as we walk back on the Gorge Trail.

By the time we get back to where the “titanoboa fossil” would have been, we see the naturalist has etched in the soil, “Not a Fossil,” and smudged the image completely away, having revealed the fossil to be a hoax (people had remarked on what they thought were footprints leading to it).

Not a fossil! But now the mystery remains: who created it and how? © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

So, if we didn’t witness a major fossil discovery, we were witness to the hoax. ow the mystery is: Who created the hoax? How? Anyway, it got everyone buzzing that day.

Also, on my walk I saw in black rock what looked like an ammonite. That too was smudged away on our return.

Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park, is spellbinding © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

This stunning gorge has been visited by tourists since 1863 and was privately operated as a tourist resort ($1 admission per person, equivalent to $34 today) until New York State acquired the property, in 1906 for a state park. (It is named for Samuel Watkins; “glen” comes from a Greek word meaning “small, narrow, secluded valley”.). After the 1935 flood destroyed the trail, it was rebuilt with a stunning series of stone walks, staircases (there are 800 steps altogether), bridges and tunnels cut through the rock, by Franklin D Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps between 1935-1940. (You can do the trail one way and take a shuttle bus, $5, back).

The stunning rock formations, created by the rushing water, on the Glen Creek Gorge Trail, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Capping this experience is the beautiful Six Nations Campground – beautiful trees, excellent restroom facilities, and a glorious Olympic-sized pool. There are also a couple of pavilions that can be rented for groups and even the Iroquois Lodge, which is essentially a house that can be rented instead of a campsite (altogether, you can imagine a wedding here, with photos in front of waterfalls; there are also lovely accommodations in town including a luxury Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, right on Seneca Lake, where we enjoy lunch). Where we camp, we are just a short walk down to the Gorge Trail.

Our campsite at Six Nations Campground, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Six Nations Campground is named for the Haundenosaunee Confederation, more commonly known to us as Iroquois (Haundenosaunee means “They made the house”), a reminder of whose land this was before the European colonists came. The loops of the campground are named for the nations of the Confederacy: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the park brochure notes, is renowned for its organization and democratic system, one of the first of its kind (Ben Franklin is said to have drawn upon the Iroquois Confederation for our US Constitution; suffragist Melinda Gage drew upon the Oneida’s matriarchal structure, in which women could be chiefs, own property, have custody of their children in a divorce, to set out demands for women’s rights in 1848).In 1842, what remained of the First Nations were relegated to the Six Nations Indian Reserve. (More information is available at nearby Ganondaganb State Historic Site, 7000 County Rd. 41 (Houghton Hill Rd), Victor, NY 14564).

Walking the stone trail along the Glen Creek Gorge, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There are seven moderate trails in Watkins Glen State Park ranging from 0.7 to 7.6 miles and from 479 to 1,171 feet above sea level, but we focus all our time on the Gorge Trail (1.5 miles), captivated by the views and the enchantment of the place. Other trails – the Indian Trail (2.4 miles) and the South Rim Trail (2.6 miles) provide views of the Gorge from above. You can connect from the Gorge Trail to Lovers Lane Loop which takes you to a Suspension Bridge for a view above the gorge. You can also do a Gorge Trail, Outer Rim and Finger Lakes Trail combination (7.6 miles, about 3 hours) (see alltrails.com for more detail). (The trail is closed in winter.)

Cavern Cascade, Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon when we return to the campsite. We go to the gorgeous, Olympic-sized pool to refresh before returning to the campsite for an amazing steak dinner David and Laini prepared over the campfire they built for our second night camping.

The gorgeous Olympic-sized pool at Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is no wonder that Watkins Glen State Park was awarded the third best among 6,000 state parks nationwide in 2015, and is consistently among the state’s top parks.

Watkins Glen State Park, 1009 N Franklin St, Watkins Glen, NY 14891, 607-535-4511, https://parks.ny.gov/parks/watkinsglen/maps.aspx.

There is so much to do in Watkins Glen, in the heart of the Finger Lakes, you could easily make this your base for a week.

Auto enthusiasts know Watkins Glen for its famous NASCAR races. The pavement is dotted with names of winners throughout the years, the crosswalks painted like the race start/finish. Auto racing is still sacred here, with much of the quaint village (the downtown was a recipient of New York State’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award) themed for autos.

Wine enthusiasts know Watkins Glen as the southerly point of Seneca Lake, from which you can drive up Winery Trails on both sides.

Nearby is the Corning Museum of Glass; about 1 ½ hours drive away is another jewel,  Letchworth State Park, “The Grand Canyon of the East,” where we camped and hiked last year; a half-hour away is Ithaca.

The Finger Lakes region has over 1,000 waterfalls and gorges, 650 miles of shoreline, more than 16,000 acres of National Forest, and over 2,000 miles of hiking and biking trails. There is plenty to explore indoors at museums, art galleries, historic sites, theaters, wineries, breweries.

With summer turning to fall foliage season (which is amazing here), plan early and secure tickets and lodging.  

Excellent planning aids are available from The Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, 309 Lake Street Penn Yan, NY 14527, 315-536-7488, 800-530-7488, www.fingerlakes.org.

New York State Begins Weekly ILoveNY Fall Foliage Reports; New Interactive Map

The 2021 fall foliage season is underway in New York State. Fall is one of the most popular travel times in New York, attracting visitors from around the world to explore the state’s unique communities and support local businesses. To help travelers and foliage enthusiasts plan a fall getaway, I LOVE NY has begun issuing its weekly fall foliage reports and will now include a new enhanced interactive progression map (www.iloveny.com/foliage).    

The foliage report is compiled each week using the on-location field observations from I LOVE NY’s team of volunteer leaf peepers. More than 85 spotters extending across the state’s 11 vacation regions are tasked with keeping track of the color change in their area as leaves progress each week. Reports detail the predominant leaf colors, approximate percentage of change, and how much color change has progressed relative to peak conditions.  

View from Chimney Mountain, The Adirondacks. ILoveny.com/foliage report helps you monitor the progress of fall foliage throughout New York State © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

New this year, I LOVE NY is introducing an enhanced, interactive map that tracks weekly foliage change and progression across the state throughout the season. The map, located on the I LOVE NY foliage website, showcases great foliage viewing locations in each of the various regions throughout the state. Visitors can also use the map to see what the foliage is like during peak viewing in a given area, and learn about nearby, must-see attractions. 

Thanks in part to its size and location, New York State has one of the longest and most colorful foliage seasons in the country. On any weekend from late September through mid-November, part of the state is likely experiencing peak foliage.  

Travelers are also invited to share their photos of New York State’s amazing foliage on social media by using the #NYLovesFall hashtag. Photos submitted to this hashtag have a chance of being featured on the I LOVE NY fall foliage website and official I LOVE NY social media accounts reaching nearly two million followers. Reports and the new interactive map are updated Wednesdays throughout the season at www.iloveny.com/foliage.Reports are also available toll-free by dialing 800/CALL-NYS (800/225-5697) from anywhere in the U.S., its territories and Canada. For more information on how to volunteer for as an I LOVE NY leaf peeper, e-mail your name, address and phone number to foliage@esd.ny.gov.

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© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures