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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/

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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,,,


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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/

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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,,,

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


© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Visit and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at

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/

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

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/

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/

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

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

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/
A rest stop and snack stand at Llulluchapampa, before the final ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass © Karen Rubin/

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/
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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/
The descent from Runkuracay Pass proves the more challenging © Karen Rubin/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

“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,,,

Next: Day 3 on the Inca Trail


© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Visit and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at

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/

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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

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/

“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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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,,,

Next: Day 2: Conquering Dead Woman’s Pass

See also:





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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/

By Karen Rubin, with Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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/

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,,,

Next: Setting Out on the Inca Trail


© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Visit and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at

Santa Cruz Island is Wonder-ful Start to Galapagos Adventure

Opportunities for close encounters with unique animals such as giant tortoises at the El Chato Ranch Tortoise Reserve abound during the course of a voyage of discovery to the Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter

Travel Features Syndicate,

For a place that seems so remote, so exotic, so far from the reaches of the everyday and which affords such a unique opportunity to see rare and endangered animals, the Galapagos is surprisingly easy to reach – not at all like Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” All that it takes to have this “once in a lifetime,” “bucket list,” wonder-ful experience, is making the decision to go.

“Nature’s Greatest Laboratory,” the Galapagos is where you see natural selection and evolution unfold before you in real time. The Galapagos is also the poster child for the importance of tourism to provide the economic resources to protect the environment and culture, but also the critical need to rein in tourism and development. In effect, the Galapagos is the model for what responsible, sustainable tourism can mean to preservation, conservation of these precious places.

The rocky shore of Santa Cruz © Karen Rubin/

The Galapagos became a national park (Ecuador’s first) in 1959, the same year that the Charles Darwin Research Station was founded and 100 years after Darwin published his seminal “On the Origin of the Species”-  introducing the concepts of natural selection and evolution which he developed as a young naturalist who joined the voyage of the Beagle. The park began operations in 1968. In 1979 UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands Natural Heritage for Humanity, making the Park Service responsible for park conservation and guarding the islands.

Swimming with marine iguana, at Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

Karen has been writing about the origin of “soft adventure” travel since Lars Eric Lindblad basically invented it and more than anyone else, opened Galapagos to the world in the 1970s. At the same time, Lindblad crusaded for insuring the protection of the Galapagos – lobbying to limit on the numbers of visitors, the size of ships, which are in force today. (His son, Sven Lindblad now continues that legacy with his own company, Lindblad Expeditions, and specially designed expeditionary ships in partnership with National Geographic.)

Finally, we have the opportunity to see the Galapagos and its responsible tourism preservation strategies first hand.

The best way to experience the Galapagos is by ship (you feel a little like Darwin) and we book a four-day/three-night cruise on the 100-passenger MV Galapagos Legend, a gorgeous ship that affords all the luxury amenities, which is operated by Go Galapagos (

We cleverly organize our trip to arrive in the Galapagos a couple of days before the cruise, on Santa Cruz, easily accessed from the Baltra International Airport where we will meet up for the cruise.

The “welcome committee” – a golden iguana – on arrival at Baltra International Airport, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

We fly in separately from Quito and Guayaquil into Baltra International Airport on a tiny island that became a US naval base during World War II. Just walking from the plane at Baltra Airport into the terminal, Karen ise met by a “welcoming committee” of a golden iguana (land iguanas were extinct on Baltra by 1954, but thanks to repopulating effort from nearby North Seymour island, they have recovered). 

Encountering a wild giant tortoise on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

Along with most of the other air travelers, we get on buses to the ferry ($5 fare), and the short ferry ride ($1 fare) to Santa Cruz, one of four inhabited islands, where we have the most splendid introduction to the Galapagos.

Ecuador has the highest biodiversity per square kilometer in the world, spread out among a wide variety of environments, even within the small area of Santa Cruz island © Karen Rubin/

It’s almost an hour’s drive from the ferry to get to Puerto Ayora on the island’s southern tip along the longest paved road in the Galapagos, and you already see the variety of geology and ecosystems which support such diversity of animal life and vegetation. The taxi driver pulls over so Karen can see giant tortoises wandering in a pasture, mixed in with cows.

Ecuador has the highest biodiversity per square kilometer in the world, spread out among a wide variety of environments such as the rainforest to the east and the dry forests to the south. Indeed, within minutes of landing, we already see many of the animals and birds that the Galapagos is famous for.

A pelican in flight © Karen Rubin/

Santa Cruz has a long history of human settlement and agriculture, which has left the landscape permanently altered by invasive species. But the island really developed with World War I and II and settlers from the United States and Europe. Some 12,000 people now live on the island, the second largest of the archipelago. Besides ranches and farms that raise avocados, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, and lemons, Santa Cruz is the main tourism hub for the Galapagos and in fact, offers a microcosm of what you see throughout. 

Playa Garrapatero, a long beautiful sand beach with clear waters © Karen Rubin/

Karen’s taxi stops at Playa Garrapatero, a long beautiful white powder sand beach with clear waters (and no kiosks so bring your own food!) where David and Laini, Eric and Sarah are already encamped – Eric and Sarah on the last legs of their six-month odyssey. (Imagine, meeting up in the Galapagos!). We arrange with the driver for a taxi to pick us up later (no cell service!). (They have biked here about 15 miles along a hilly route from their AirBnB in Puerto Ayora).

Laini organized a stay in a fantastic AirBnB, Encantadas Guest House, walking distance to everything Puerto Ayora, and steps away from the entrance to the boardwalk that leads to the fabulous beach at Tortuga Bay.

Our delightful AirBnB, Encantadas Guest House, in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, is actually two buildings, roomy enough for the five of us © Karen Rubin/

Puerto Ayora is absolutely charming and fun – unbelievably wonderful restaurants and delightful (and tastefully upscale) shops. (Calle Charles Binford is a bustling street of seafood restaurants where you order that day’s catch the length of your arm, some of them still moving, for a $10 complete dinner; elsewhere you can also get a three-course lunch for $5, such as at Laguna Beach, one of our favorite stops; also La Pausa, which Karen insists is the best cerviche ever!).

Lunch at Laguna Beach in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island © Karen Rubin/
Calle Charles Binford in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, is a bustling street of seafood restaurants where you order that day’s catch the length of your arm, some of them still moving, for a $10 complete dinner © Karen Rubin/
Calle Charles Binford in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, is a bustling street of seafood restaurants where you order that day’s catch the length of your arm, some of them still moving, for a $10 complete dinner © Karen Rubin/
Delightful La Pausa restaurant in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, serves the best cerviche © Karen Rubin/

One of the fun places to stop is the fish market on the pier where the fishermen bring in their catches, eagerly awaited by a gaggle of pelicans and a sea lion or two that hang out daily, waiting patiently for their share of scraps.

Pelicans seem to understand the rules at the fish market: wait patiently and you will be rewarded © Karen Rubin/
A park is decorated with beautiful mosaics in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
A park is decorated with beautiful mosaics in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

There also are any number of tour companies offering day-trips to the various islands, scuba diving, bike rentals.

Red crab along the rocks in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Hollywood clearly found inspiration in Santa Cruz’ marine iguana © Karen Rubin/
Marine iguana in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Marine iguana in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

We walk along the rocky shore and are dazzled to see the marine iguanas, red crabs, sea lions and pelicans.

Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station/Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center is a must to learn about the conservation efforts of the islands’ giant tortoises. Established in 1959, the center has a new guided tour – including infrastructure to support it. The tour is fantastic, introducing you to the concepts – which you can see in real life – of natural selection and evolution which Darwin developed on his five-year voyage (1831-1836) around the world on the Beagle; he studied and documented flora and fauna, particularly noting the specialization of species living in the isolation of the Galapagos islands.

Learning about the near-extinction and conservation efforts of giant tortoises at the Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

The dramatic climax of the tour comes when you enter a special darkened room to see a mummified Lonesome George, the last of his species, the Pinta tortoise. Lonesome George died in 2012 at the age estimated to be around 100 years old. (Lonesome George was named for comedian George Gobel because of a character the comedian played.) His body was sent to a taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City to be mummified, and is now both a cautionary tale of extinction and an iconic symbol of the conservation efforts in the Galapagos.

At the Darwin Research Station, seeing the mummified Lonesome George, the last of his species, is both a cautionary tale of the threat of extinction and an iconic symbol of the conservation efforts in the Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, a long-term program run jointly by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Charles Darwin Foundation, began in 1965 to save the giant tortoise population on Pinzón. It was quickly expanded to include other populations, in particular that of Española where only 14 individuals remained. As of 2008, more than 4,000 young tortoises from eight different populations have been repatriated to their native island, with nearly 1,500 going back to Española. At the Tortoise Center, we observe a variety of tortoises, including hatchlings, juveniles and full-grown individuals.

Learning about the near-extinction and conservation efforts of giant tortoises at the Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

There would have been 350,000 tortoises in the 15th Century – the pirates and explorers who found their way here used tortoises and sea turtles for food and fresh water; by 1959, when the Darwin Research Center was founded, there were only 16,000 great tortoises left. The efforts of this center, and three others located in the Galapagos have resulted in the population reboundng to 50,000.

Eric and David follow the footsteps of discovery of naturalist Charles Darwin and Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, at the Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

Among the fascinating facts: the conservationists impact whether a tortoise egg will hatch as male or female by controlling the incubator temperature – a higher temperature produces a female.  The eggs are brought here to hatch because they would not survive in the wild due to the introduced animals – rats, cats, dogs – and are kept here for four to six years until their shells are firm enough to give them a defense against predators, and then are returned to their native island. We see their colored markings and numbers on their shells. “If left to nature, their survival rate is zero because of intruder animals,” our guide tells us. “We investigate how they live, behave, learn what tortoise need, study mortality. After, we restore the population.”

Seeing interactions of giant tortoises at the Darwin Research Station © Karen Rubin/

We keep hearing that the tortoises are not “social” but we keep seeing interactions. Perhaps they are changing their behavior simply by putting them together in these reserves, Karen wonders.

Baby marine iguana at the Darwin Research Station © Karen Rubin/

There is a sandy path that goes along the coast where we find many black marine iguanas and their babies.

Charles Darwin Research Station, Av. Charles Darwin s/n, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos,, $10 fee; allocate two hours.

We pick up some sandwiches at Galapagos Deli in town and then go off to what is easily the most wonderful day on any beach Karen has ever had, on Tortuga Bay – soft powdery white sand, the most exquisite blue-aqua-green waters, white waves, black lava rock, and a quiet cove where you get to snorkel with parrot fish and black marine iguanas (the Galapagos is the only place in the world where you see these marine iguana).

The gorgeous mile-long walk to Tortuga Bay beach, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

But first, we walk about 45 minutes down a mile-long paved path through a gorgeous lush forest (cactus trees!), before you get to this most stunning beach. There are actually two beaches – the long beach which is open to the ocean, has strong undercurrents and is not great for swimming.

The stunning white powder sand beach at Tortuga Bay Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
The stunning white powder sand beach at Tortuga Bay Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

But then we come to a small cove at the end which offers superb calm waters for snorkeling and swimming with those black marine iguana as well as colorful parrot fish. Just passed this cove and around a thicket of mangrove trees we find a second beach at “Tortuga Laguna” that is more of a protected lagoon area on the bay, where the water is calm and families gather along the more narrow strip of sand.

Snorkeling at the protected cove, ringed with black lava rock at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
A fun encounter with a parrot fish while snorkeling at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Snorkeling with a marine iguana at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Snorkeling at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Enjoying a day at the beach at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
A quiet lagoon ideal for swimming at Tortuga Bay, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

We round out this exquisite stay on Santa Cruz by arranging with our taxi driver on our way to meet our Go Galapagos cruise group at Baltra Airport to stop at the El Chato Ranch – Giant Tortoise Reserve in the Highlands (a rainforest), where we get to see where great tortoises are protectedand also get to walk through two lava tubes.(The boots they give you to wear through the mud is appreciated, $10 admission, General Rodriguez Lara 629 Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz 200350, Ecuador, +593 98 864 4178,

El Chato Ranch Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/
Walking through a lava tube at El Chato Ranch Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

At the driver’s suggestion, we also make a quick stop at Los Gemelos (Twin Craters) – two giant pit craters which were caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers, located just off the road. If we had more time, we would have walked the trail through the Scalesia forest, which is an excellent place to spot terrestrial birds such as Vermilion Flycatchers, Short-eared Owls, the Galapagos Dove and several finch species.

Los Gemelos are twin craters that give insight into the geologic history of Santa Cruz island © Karen Rubin/

Two days is really not enough time in Santa Cruz to take advantage of all it offers – you can easily spend a week. On our list for when we return:

Las Grietas (The Crevices), a strip of water through two rock formations where we hear the snorkeling is fantastic. From there the trail passes by lagoons, a beach, and the residential zone until reaching the cliffs of the main crevice. Take care climbing down into the crevices. There, you can see fresh water at the surface and the salt water of the sea at the bottom. It’s a great place to swim or snorkel. (Take a water taxi from the municipal pier to the pier of Finch Bay Hotel on the other side of the bay.)

El Mirador is a partially collapsed lava tube. Located in the arid zone, you may also get to see several of Darwin’s finches and a barn owl that lives inside the tube.

Dragon Hill, created by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park to restore the population of land iguanas that had been decimated by feral dogs, is also a wonderful place for snorkeling. Heading inland on the trail, you pass two small salt-water lagoons where you might see flamingos and other shore birds.

Playa de los Perros is a very short beach out on the western outer point of Academy Bay. The highlight is a white-tipped shark pond where you can watch sharks. It is reached by an 8-minute boat ride from the municipal pier followed by a ½ km hike on a rough trail.

Santa Cruz is ground zero for the urgency and need for sustainable tourism and development of such precious and rare places as the Galapagos. Indeed, the main point of visiting the Galapagos is that you see this process unfolding in front of you – this delicate balance between predator and prey, population numbers and the resources sufficient to sustain it, whether it is the giant tortoise, the iguana or humans. Humans have been the invasive species for centuries, not only decimating the population of sea turtles and tortoises for food and water, but introducing rats, cats, dogs and goats.

A birthday party in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos. The population of the island, second largest among the Galapagos, has grown with the increase in tourism © Karen Rubin/
One of the artful shops in the charging town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island, Galapagos © Karen Rubin/

The growth of tourism has led to the growth in population in the Galapagos, putting pressure on local resources and municipalities in health, education, waste management and all the aspects of daily life, the Galapagos Conservancy notes. In effect, the Galapagos demonstrates in real time the principles of natural selection and the need to keep resources in balance. The islands are also a model in terms of adapting to these pressures – so there are strict limits on everything from owning a car to requiring the ships that bring in vital goods take away the waste that cannot be recycled (before, they just piled waste onto a dump without treatment). In 2006, the community and the national park built the “Fabricio Valverde Environmental Center” that now recycles 40% of the waste materials generated in Santa Cruz. On our walk from Tortuga Bay we also see the Galapagos Renewable Energy Center building.

Not discussed with us tourists but what must be a major concern to islanders: the impacts of human-caused climate change – stronger storms, rising sea levels. But it all adds to the urgency: see the Galapagos now.

An excellent source of information is the Galapagos Conservancy, which, since 1985, “has been the only U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated exclusively to the protection and restoration of the Galápagos Islands  and its brilliant mosaic of life, including more than 2,000 species found nowhere else on Earth.” (

Some important tips: You pay $20 airport fee at Quito or Guayaquil for the flight to the Galapagos, $100 in cash to the Galapagos National Park (US dollars are used for currency in Ecuador) upon arrival. The electrical plugs are the same as we use in the US. Karen really appreciated her waterproof Olympus Tough TG-6, though an inexpensive waterproof pouch for David’s cell phone also worked well (video!).

We get to Baltra airport and meet up with the guides and fellow passengers for our cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend (

See also:





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Bike Tours Are Most Satisfying Way to Experience World Sustainably; Operators Expand Horizons bike-and-boat trip among the Greek Islands © Karen Rubin/

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate,

Celebrate Trails Day on April 23 follows immediately after Earth Day for a good reason – biking fulfills the best attributes of sustainable, responsible travel while minimizing the adverse impacts of tourism. Biking lets travelers, adventurers, explorers experience places far and near with the least carbon impact of going place to place; taking the slow-road so you can really connect to local communities you would never see otherwise and spending your tourism dollars with the people who need it most; you can stop and get off to interact with people, take a photo, travel at a pace and a perspective – sitting in a saddle without the wall of windows – to really see, focus, smell the roses, and yet have an ever changing view to see, with the excitement and intrigue of new experiences that might be around the next bend.

And then there’s that endorphin thing that happens as you pedal and take in the fresh air that revs the brain and fills you with good feelings. And biking also affords  a way to be in community but socially distanced and in open, uncrowded spaces.

Tour operators are responding to the desire to explore by bicycle with new itineraries, near and far: such as close-to-home (reachable by car) programs that take advantage of New York State’s new 750-mile Empire State Trail (you can ride north-south from the tip of Manhattan to the Canadian border and west-east from Buffalo to Albany), or for a close-to-home foreign experience, biking in Quebec, as well as to trips to exotic locales – like New Zealand, Vietnam, Chile. Or how about Albania, Bulgaria or Transylvania?

More offerings that combine boat and bike make the trip even more convenient (you only unpack once) and add a special element of plying waterways by a small river boat, canal boat or barge, or go from island to island. And many offer an e-bike option, opening a whole new dimension for exploration on two-wheels, especially for people who are concerned about physical abilities.

Here are examples of what’s being offered:

Discovery Bicycle Tours’ Coast of Maine cyclists enjoy a classic view at Thurston’s Lobster Pound © Karen Rubin/

Discovery Bicycle Tours has an amazing array of itineraries in the United States (including new itineraries on the NYS Empire Trail), Canada, Europe, Chile, New Zealand and Vietnam. What I love best (I biked with them last summer on the Maine Coast/Acadia national park, and before that Vermont) is that the programs are really geared for a vacation, the guides there to make your experience purely enjoyable. There are all these extras, as well. A new itinerary on New York’s Empire State Trail; an itinerary on the Erie Canal Trail and New York’s scenic lakes, canal path from the Buffalo area with added scenic riding along Lake Ontario to the Finger Lakes on six-day Erie Canal & NY Lakes tour; a new 3-day Hudson Valley Weekend tour (bike car-free paths & quiet roads, dine at the famous Culinary Institute of America and visit a family-owned winery; a gentle six-day Lake Champlain Islands bike tour with beautiful views of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks; and a challenging six-day biking/camping Green Mountain Gravel Adventure  on gorgeous Vermont dirt roads and trails and experience famous Vermont craft breweries and swimming holes.

Nearby but exotic: a six-day tour of the Quebec Eastern Townships known for their beauty, their villages and their wineries.

Among Discovery Bicycle’s international itineraries is a new six-day in England, Cotswolds & Stonehenge Bike Tour and a Moselle River Bike & Barge tour. From close to home to far, far away, Discovery is introducing an 11-day New Zealand Trails tour to experience New Zealand’s unmatched scenery, riding car-free rail-trails and quiet bikeways along deep blue lakes amid soaring ice-covered peaks, through rolling grasslands and hidden valleys (Nov., Jan., Feb.)

(Discovery Bicycle, 800-257-2226,,

The Crazy Horse Monument, just off the Mickelson Trail, is visited on Wilderness Voyageurs’ Badlands Black Hills bike tour in South Dakota © Karen Rubin/

Wilderness Voyageurs, starting out from its home base in Ohiopyle, PA, has spread throughout the US. We’ve traveled with them on their South Dakota “Badlands & Black Hills” tour and on rides along the Great Allegheny Passage with Rails to Trails Conservancy.

Wilderness Voyageurs’ 4-day Chesapeake Bay Bike Tour takes advantage of the easy elevation gain for a charming journey along the Maryland coastline. Cycle through farms, woodlands and see bald eagles and endangered species in the Blackwater National Wildlife Preserve. Enjoy seafood feasts, ferry rides, and century-old architecture.

Wilderness Voyageurs is also featuring a specially designed five-day Type 1 Diabetes Ride on the Great Allegheny Passage (July 24)., biking, hiking, visiting Fallingwater, with Dr. Jody Stanislaw, a naturopathic doctor and a Type 1 diabetic, who will be guiding each day with tips on the balance between insulin, exercise, and diet. It’s an ever-changing equation and if you’re tired of the sugar roller coaster, this is an exceptional opportunity. Ride together with fellow type 1s and Dr. Jody. 

Other Wilderness Voyageurs biketours include Katy Rail Trail: Iowa Trestle Tour; Idaho Coeur D’Alene The Hiawatha; New Mexico Hub & Spoke; Colorful Colorado; Seneca Lake Backroads and Brews.

(Wilderness Voyageurs,103 Garrett St., Ohiopyle, PA 15470, 800-272-4141,,

Predjama Castle, improbably built into a crevasse halfway up a 123-meter cliff-face, and connecting to a cave system, visited by our group on the Slovenia tour © Karen Rubin/, specializing in European biking adventures (guided, self-guided and bike/boat tours), has listed its top destinations for 2022: The Greek Islands (which I did); Czech Republic; Croatia; Transylvania, Romania; Salzburg, Austria; Umbria, Italy; Scotland; Dolomites, Italy; Southern France and Albania (which I did). I’ve also taken their self-guided Venice-Croatia trip and their guided Slovenia biketour and for our first self-guided bike tour, the Danube Bike Trail (ideal for families and first-timers).

“If you’re itching to get back in the saddle with a European bike tour but want to explore destinations heavy on beauty and light on people for most or all of your tour,” Jim Johnson, president of, suggests Bulgaria, Slovenia (which I did – biggest surprises were visits to Predjama Castle and Postojna Cave), Apulia (Puglia), Transylvania, and Connemara (Ireland).

But this year, recognizing that some may still be more comfortable traveling closer to home, is offering new tours from its sister company, Bike the South. One of them is “Tennessee Hills and Stills,” focusing on the state’s whiskey producing tradition.

Check the really user-friendly site:,, 877-462-2423, 423-756-8907.

Butterfield & Robinson, long known as a luxury tour company, has introduced a series of departures geared to families with young adults (late teens and up), who will relish this opportunity to share an experience before their YA flies the coop. Among the itineraries: Switzerland E-Bike, Alsace E-Bike, Tuscany biking, Berlin to Prague Active, Mallorca E-Biking, Prague to Vienna; Alentejo, Portugal; Catalonia; the Camino do Santiago Biking,

Perhaps most intriguing: Cambodia & Vietnam: in Cambodia, see the spectacular ancient Khmer temples at Angkor, comprising one of the most jaw-dropping temple complexes in the world; then head to Vietnam and experience the buzz of Ho Chi Minh City and the serene landscapes of Can Tho; delve deep with three nights in Hoi An and wrap up in the Imperial City of Hue.

 (Butterfield & Robinson,, 866-551-9090,

More biking tours are incorporating camping options. TrekTravel is going a step further, with a new partnership with AutoCamp ( to provide (get this) Airstream suites (those famous RVs) for two brand new itineraries; Palm Springs & Joshua Tree, and California Wine Country.

Among TrekTravel’s most popular itineraries this year: Prague to Vienna, New Mexico (cycle on the historic streets of Santa Fe, within the expansive pine forests, and beneath high desert mesas and Badland formations).

The itinerary I’ve been eying: Portugal, featuring the Alentejo wine region, a majestic countryside of wheat, olive trees, vineyards, and the seat of the world’s cork production where you see the cork tree groves and Roman temples in towns like Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

TrekTravel is also continuing to offer private trips for 10 or more guests (Top 5 destinations: California Wine Country, Ashville to Brevard, Puglia, San Juan Islands, and Tuscany).

(TrekTravel, 866-719-2427,

Duvine Cycling & Adventure Co. is another high-end active travel company with trips that combine wine and gastronomy in such lavish places as France (Ride Through France’s Most Fabled Terroirs) and Italy. Duvine’s newest itinerary is Bike and Boat in Amalfi: The Amalfi Coast has dazzled travelers for decades, but there’s another side of this destination that’s rarely seen. Our two new tours hold the key to the Cilento Coast, Italy’s best-kept secret. Whether by bike or private yacht, you’ll wend up the Amalfi Coast with views stretching back to Calabria, climb to towns memorialized by Hemingway, and hike Positano’s Path of the Gods to vertiginous vineyards.

(, 888-396-5383)

B’spoke Cycling Holidays, based in London, are geared for the harder-core, but for more leisurely cycling, look to their sister brand Cycling for Softies which offers luxury cycling tours in Europe’s famous wine regions.

BSpoke Tours, Unit 3, Walton Lodge Laundry, 374 Coldharbour Lane, London, SW9 8PL,,

I’m headed to Europe for Boat Bike Tours’ eight-day Bruges-Amsterdam tour. A leading European operator of boat-and-bike tours which more or less founded the concept 40 years ago, the company offers 70 itineraries in Netherlands, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Danube Countries, Austria and Serbia. Germany, Greece, Hungary, France, Italy, and Slovakia incorporating their fleet of 50 ships, from barges and sailing ships to motor yachts. (More when I return.) You can live chat on their website,, +31 20 72 35 400

Celebrate Trails Day

Riding over the Rosendale Trestle on the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, near New Paltz. Now part of New York’s 750-mile Empire State Trail, the trail has been improved largely with the advocacy of such groups as Parks & Trail NY and the Rails to Trails Conservancy © Karen Rubin/

Hosted on the fourth Saturday of April, Celebrate Trails Day (formerly Opening Day for Trails) is an annual spring celebration of America’s trails. Started by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 2013, the celebration encourages people across the country to get outside and enjoy the nation’s exceptional trails and trail systems. There are featured events throughout the country, and if you let RTC know you will #CelebrateTrails, you can win prizes (

“Trails make getting outdoors and around by foot, bike and wheelchair more accessible for everyone. These essential outdoor spaces give us the space to swap car trips for bike trips, reducing emissions and helping the environment; bring  powerful economic opportunity to communities big, small and in between; and deliver health and happiness for so many people. This year, in a time when trails are more in demand than ever, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these special places. Let’s get out and make more trail moments!” the organization states.

Rails to Trails advocates for creation of multi-purpose trails using strong arguments of health and quality-of-life for locals, economic opportunities for communities along the route, and climate benefits of non-carbon-emitting transportation. Since 1992, RTC has advocated for more than $15.6 billion in funds to support more than 54,000 trail and active transportation projects. The Trails Transform America campaign has this message for Congress: Trail networks are as fundamental to America’s transportation systems as roads and rail lines and deserve robust federal investment. Explore trail network projects that are bringing transformative benefits to communities nationwide.

The most ambitious of projects is The Great American Rail-Trail which, once completed, would enable riders to cross the entire nation on linked rail trails. Stretching more than 3,700 miles between Washington DC and Washington State, through 12 states, the trail will directly serve nearly 50 million people within 50 miles of the route. 

The RTC site is also a great place to find trails near and far and download the TrailLink app,

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 2121 Ward Court, NW, 5th Floor, Washington, DC 20037, 866-202-9788,


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Travelers Navigate a Tricky Landscape in 2022

One of the historic Maine Windjammers, the Victory Chimes, is enveloped in fog. Big cruiseships may be a dubious proposition, but small ships – riverboats, barges – and even a self-piloted canalboat will be desirable ways to keep sailing © Karen Rubin/

Where to go in 2022 is as much a question of “how to go” and “why to go”.

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate,

We can see just how important travel is in our lives – to our wellbeing, our growth, our connections to family and friends, and as literal ambassadors of peace, understanding and shared innovation.We know this from the huge surge that occurred during 2021, after the COVID-19 vaccine opened floodgates to travelers, by making it safe(r) to be out and about. Even during the worst of the pandemic, before a vaccine, people found a way to continue to embrace experiences, drawing upon the infinite possibilities to tailor something that felt right.

It may well be that the Omicron variant, by virtue of just how transmissible but less dangerous (at least for those who are vaccinated and use precautions like masking, social distancing) will help bring about the end of the global coronavirus pandemic, as more people develop immunity. Or not. It may well be that new variants will arise – perhaps progressively less dangerous. Or not. And it is more likely that some form of virus will be endemic and dealing with it will be part of the “new normal” of everyday life. And people will find a way to go on with their lives and have this in mind: life is precious and our time is finite, make the best of every day. And that includes sharing experiences with the ones you hold dear. And top of the list to achieve that is travel.

Where to go in 2022 is as much a question of “how to go” and “why to go”.

I’m thinking that many of the same trends of 2021 will hold in 2022 – a focus on outdoors activities, low-density destinations, open-spaces (national and state parks), bike trips, driveable destinations, RVs and camping.

Parks & Trails NY’s Cycle the Erie eight-day, 400-mile biking/camping trip will be back at full strength, 650 riders, July 10-17 © Karen Rubin/

Even if the Omicron variant of COVID-19 abates, as is expected, and is less dangerous than Delta, and travelers are much more likely (even required) to be vaccinated and show a negative test, people will be concerned about whether there is yet another variant around the corner that can break through, whether destinations will impose new restrictions, from mandated quarantines to capacity controls to shutting borders altogether (airlines, tour operators, hotels and the like must continue flexible cancellation policies if they want to stay in business at all). There likely will be the continued need for advance purchase of ticketing, and possibly a return to capacity controls, as well as requirements for masking and social distancing. This will define the new “normal” because the protocols won’t be going away any time soon – certainly not until there are months that go by without a coronavirus outbreak before anyone feels safe enough.

Taking a flight from Mexico just before the Christmas holiday rush and the onset of Omicron. There is increasing resolution that some form of COVID-19 will become endemic and become part of a “new normal” for travelers © Laini Miranda/

But because there is now widespread vaccinations, masking, and testing will be much more available (and free), people will continue to travel and live their lives. COVID will be “endemic” – embedded in how we live.

And the lure of travel – for all the benefits travel affords in terms of personal growth, renewal, bonding, discovery – will be very strong, even stronger. And where there is a will, there will be a way.

People will opt for travel that does not require a lot of connections (if taking air) or complicated itineraries, will many will seize opportunities to travel last minute because of the changeability of the situation. They will look for flexibility (and ability to cancel or change), and travel styles that give them more control.

Travel companies have already adapted: like G Adventures (, with a new “Travel with Confidence” policy; Moab Adventure Center ( and its parent, Western River Expeditions, which organize customized small-group trips.

Attractions like the Skunk Train railbike in Fort Bragg, California, will likely continue with COVID-19 protocols © Karen Rubin/

The innovations and adaptations – on airlines, at hotels and resorts, attractions, restaurants –  that have already been put into place will be continued, improved, enhanced. Many have actually been very popular improvements.

Indoor attractions may well continue capacity limits, advance purchase and online/touchless ticketing.

A concern for health and wellness will likely overhang travel planning. People should be monitoring CDC and WTO health reports and State department – not just on infection rates, but what destinations, travel suppliers, hotels, restaurants are doing to take COVID-19 health protocols seriously. Use your own protocols – the more protective N95 masks, hand-sanitizing. (New: Fend Wellness Sanitizing Hand Wipe Mitts are wearable hand mitt wipes that provide a protective liner between you and all surfaces that come in contact with your hands, available on Amazon and online,

For complicated, long-distance and expensive itineraries, use a travel advisor (,,, and the new Reco from Tripadvisor ( Try to make plans with flexible cancellations or change policies; use respected and well established tour operators and travel companies which can adapt quickly on the ground and revise itineraries as necessary and even extract you if conditions warrant. If traveling abroad, purchase travel insurance that incorporates health coverage (your domestic health insurance does not provide much coverage; my go-to travel insurance company is

Check with State Department ( and as to conditions. Make sure vaccinations (and cards) are in order (many countries are much more restrictive than the United States). Sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP,, which shares your contact information with the nearest U.S. embassy and sends travel alert notifications. The STEP app is worth downloading prior to traveling.

So high on our list for travel in 2022:

Letchworth State Park, New York, considered the “Grand Canyon of the East.” 2022 will still be a year of discovering fantastic attractions within driving distance © Karen Rubin/

Road Trip!: Continue to discover destinations, experiences within driveable distance, or, for long-distance holidays, revert to the old-school “road trip” and string together destinations in an itinerary that make a loop. An excellent way to do that is to go to because each of these 300 member properties from 44 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, are destinations in their own right. Hotels and resorts are being scrupulous about cleaning and sanitizing and have installed procedures and technology. You can also create your own itineraries using (which offers extremely flexible cancellation policy),,

Major ski destinations, like Gore Mountain, in New York’s Adirondacks, are within driving distance of major metropolitan areas © Karen Rubin/

Ski/snowboarding/mountain resorts holidays – More people taking up skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, uphilling which are ideal outdoor activities during winter. Fortunately, there are many major ski areas within driving distance. Ski passes like Vail Resorts’ EpicPass and Alterra Mountain Company’s Ikon Pass, which provide access to dozens of destinations, let you really explore. And to help, Alterra just introduced the Ikon Pass Travel, a trip planning service (

Renting a camper van, like this one from Moterra, to explore will continue to be a trend in 2022 © Sarah Falter/

Renting RVs/camper vans will continue – last year was a boom for camper van rental companies like Moterra (307-200-7220,; Blacksford, offering an all-inclusive RV pricing with unlimited miles, 24-hour roadside assistance and a free annual pass to national parks (; and Tracks & Trails markets packaged national park RV vacations, 800-247-0970, Another idea: pilot your own canalboat – like an RV on the water – on the Erie Canal (, 315-986-3011).

Pilot your own canalboat on the Erie Canal © Karen Rubin/

And while big cruiseships may be a dubious proposition, small ships like Blount (, 800-556-7450) and riverboats like CroisiEurope (, 800-768-7232), and historic sailboats like the Maine Windjammers (800-807-WIND, will be desirable ways to keep sailing.

State parks like Watkins Glen in New York’s Finger Lakes will be a big draw in 2022 © Karen Rubin/

Camping/glamping –Check out New York State campgrounds in state parks like Watkins Glen and Letchworth State Park; book at 800-456-CAMP, Last year, New York expanded glamping/camping opportunities along its picturesque canals through Tentrr ( To find private campgrounds, visit Campground Owners of New York, 585-586-4360,, and Kampgrounds of America (our favorite: Herkimer Diamond Mines KOA, Herkimer, NY (315-891-7355, If California is your destination, visit

Our campsite at Watkins Glen State Park © Karen Rubin/

And nationally: Kampgrounds of America (; Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resorts with 75 locations  throughout North America (pools, water slides, splashgrounds, activities,; and, internationally, Glamping Hub, with 22,000 locations around the world, from safari tents, yurts, treehouses, to cabins (; and Pitchup, which has 5344 campgrounds, glamping sites throughout the Americas, Europe (

Bike tours, like Discovery Bicycle’s Maine Coast trip, afford the opportunity to get off the bike and enjoy the sights © Karen Rubin/

Bike tours are among our favorite modes of travel – a perfect pace and immersion into surroundings with scenic and important heritage routes, that are offered as inn-to-inn, bike/boat tours, or as bike/camping trips, and as guided tours or self-guided. Among our favorite bike tour companies: Bike Tours (, Wilderness Voyageurs (855-550-7705,, Discovery Bicycle Tours, which has a new Vermont Gravel biking/camping trip (800-257-2226, Also, Parks & Trails NY is back with its 24th Cycle the Erie Canal,  eight-day, 400-mile biking/camping trip, from Buffalo to Albany, (July 10-17); registration has just opened (

The Grand Prismatic, one of the most dramatic –and surreal – sights in Yellowstone National Park © Karen Rubin/

Visits to national and state parks will again be popular this year.  There are tour operators that have organized tours, and you can do what we did last year, go to AirBnB, and to get availability, but there are two companies that dominate in-park lodging: Xanterra ( and Delaware North (

Our own cabin at the Elkhorn Inn, West Jackson, just outside the entrance to Yellowstone Park, booked on © Karen Rubin/

Delaware North last year implemented its Rest Assured Commitment to Care comprehensive health and safety program at the lodging properties it operates, including re-engineered operating procedures to minimize contact risk and bolstered hygiene protocols aligned with guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Delaware North Parks and Resorts operates lodging in and near many iconic national and state parks, including Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Shenandoah, Sequoia & Kings Canyon and Olympic National Parks and Niagara Falls State Park, as well as at cultural attractions such as Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex ( 

Book early if you want to visit the Grand Canyon National Park this year © Karen Rubin/

Known for its “Legendary Hospitality with a Softer Footprint,” Xanterra Travel Collection has operations in Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Xanterra Travel Collection also owns and operates the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel in Williams, Ariz., The Grand Hotel in Tusayan, Ariz., The Oasis at Death Valley in Death Valley Calif., Windstar Cruises, Holiday Vacations, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations, and Country Walkers.

The historic Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park © Karen Rubin/

Wellness travel – There will be more interest in visiting resorts that cater to wellness (not the same thing as medical tourism), like Canyon Ranch or like the The Inn at Leola Village, Leola, PA, touting its Paid Time Off Wellness Package ( The Global Wellness Institute defines wellness tourism as “travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal wellbeing…an opportunity to maintain and improve our holistic health.” A helpful source is

Wellness and glamping combine at Picocanoa Rodavento, an eco-lodge in Veracruz, Mexico where thrill seekers can explore the surrounding jungle-clad hills by whitewater rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing and even zipping across the canyon and colorful treetops. The glamping site offers traditional wellness treatments, including a traditional Mayan temazcal prehispanico steam bath, as well as an outdoor pool and bar surrounded by lush greenery, a campfire for enjoying traditional batucada drum parties and safari tents and cabins that travelers can book for $98/night on outdoor accommodation website.

Beachfront resort, Nayarit, Mexico © Eric Leiberman/

Beach and golf resorts that afford lots of space, uncrowded, perhaps with own villas and beachfront will be in high demand. Many Caribbean and Mexican resorts, for example, are emphasizing their COVID-19 protocols and healthful ambiance. Club Med, a pioneer of the all-inclusive concept, for example, is touting its spacious low-density resorts surrounded by nature, spread across 50 acres, operating at a limited capacity, its enhanced safety and hygiene protocols, free onsite antigen testing, and free cancellation policy, as well as unlimited culinary options, and inclusive activities from skiing and snowboarding to standup paddle boarding and snorkeling and family activity programs (, 800-Club-Med)

A villa vacation in Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico © Eric Leiberman/

Villa-style vacations, where you have a base to stay and go out from there, offer the advantage of being stand-alone. Many resorts offer villa accommodations, like Banyan Tree Mayakoba, an all-villa five-star eco resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya (; also the Altamer Resort, Anguilla ( Sources include,,,,

Dude Ranches check off all the items on our list for being outside, inclusive and pure fun. New York State has a surprising number of these delightful venues. Among our favorites: Pine Ridge Dude Ranch (866-600-0859,; Ridin’ Hy (518-494-2742,; and the ever-popular Rocking Horse Ranch (877-605-6062,

The Red Reflet Ranch, in Ten Sleep, Wyoming. Dude and guest ranches are ideal venues for 2022 family vacations © Karen Rubin/

Want the real West? Dude Ranch Association, with 100 members across the western United States and Canada, each entirely different from one another, can help you choose where to go (307-587-2339; another source is the Colorado Dude Ranch Association (866-942-3472,

More focus on experiential and purposeful travel – those bucketlist experiences that resonate at a fundamental level with one’s being, the experiences that are important enough to risk going outside one’s comfort zone. It could be anything: hiking/camping trip to Machu Picchu (; wildlife safari in Kenya (EF Go Ahead experts navigate travel and health and safety guidelines and plan fully refundable trips with no change fees, 800, 590-1161,; a voyage to Antarctica (, 844-44-ATLAS) or a cooking class in Paris (

A wildlife safari in Kahna Tiger Preserve, India. Travelers will choose destinations and experiences with more intention and not put off what’s on their bucket-list © Karen Rubin/

A corollary of this is more focus on sustainable, responsible tourism and ecotourism. Even if much of society has become entrenched in “me-me-me” view, people who are travelers tend to have a more open, one-world sensibility, and are sensitive to the need to protect and appreciate environment, heritage, ecology. There is a lot more interest in seeking out travel experiences that immerse you in local cultures and use tourism to bolster local economies in order to sustain local communities and culture, and do as much good in the world as for oneself.

TRIPS by Culture Trip, is touting its “ extremely flexible and generous cancellation plan in place should Covid restrictions change your plans, including rebooking for free up to 48 hours before departure and if TRIPS by Culture Trip cannot change your booking dates, they will refund the booking (, 678-967-4965).

Even though you may want to hold out to survey the situation, you are best advised to book early because dates will fill, and take advantage of flexible cancellation or rebooking policies. National Plan for Vacation Day is January 25th.


© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at

Global Travel Industry Embraces Climate Action

Great Schooner Race. Want to save the planet? Go old-school on a historic Maine Windjammer © Karen Rubin/

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate,

The travel industry is often vilified as a contributor to global warming because of its reliance on transportation systems that emit carbon, like airplanes, buses, cars, cruiseships. Just the simple act of going anywhere, it is charged, leaves a carbon footprint –bottled water, toiletries and especially airplane travel. The most scathing attack on reputation comes from climate activist Greta Thunberg, who preferred to cross the Atlantic Ocean during a record season for storms by sailboat rather than fly to the Climate Conference which had been rerouted to Madrid, Spain.

But the calculations are wrong and unfair. A cost-benefit analysis would show that travelers provide the economic underpinnings that protect cultural heritage and fund environmental protection and conservation, and that the industry is among the most aggressive in not just curbing carbon emissions and developing the technology to transition clean, green, sustainable energy and economy, but modeling the techniques that travelers take back to their own homes, communities, and decision-makers. Travelers are not just ambassadors for peace and understanding among peoples, they also serve as ambassadors in the cause of climate action – sharing what they learn after seeing an offshore wind farm off Holland (so popular for its windmills), solar panels on farm houses in Germany, battery chargers for e-bikes in Slovenia, learning the story of energy innovation at the new Museum of Energy in Utica, New York.

Solar panels on a farm house in Germany, seen from a train enroute to Passau for the start of our trip on the Danube Bike Trail © Karen Rubin/

In effect, travel industry companies such as The Travel Corporation, with its wide-ranging brands, Hurtigruten and Lindblad Expeditions are catalysts for climate action in wider society.

After all, the existential threat posed by climate change and global warming poses to the planet – the super storms, wild fires, flooding, drought, sea-level rise, pandemics, famine and conflict – pose an existential threat to the travel industry, too.

Whole segments of the travel industry (largest in the world, generating $9 trillion -10% -to the global economy and 20% of jobs) are dedicated to sustainable, responsible travel.

Hotels, like the Sand Pearl in Clearwater Beach, Florida, are being purpose-built with LEED standards, use low-flow plumbing, cold washing and drying for laundry, farm-to-table dining, and few or no plastics.

Smaller, expeditionary-style cruise ships are being designed with pioneering technology to eliminate carbon emissions.

Expeditionary cruise company Hurtigruten developed the world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, which made its maiden voyage in 2019 through the Northwest Passage (photo by Karsten Bidstrup)

Hurtigruten developed the world’s first hybrid battery-powered cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, which made its maiden voyage in 2019 through the Northwest Passage (ironically only navigable because of global warming); its sister ship MS Fridtjof Nansen was launched in 2020. Hurtigruten also pioneered battery-powered, no-emission snowmobiles for use in the Arctic, generating renewable energy from the Arctic winds and the midnight sun. (For Earth Day, Hurtigruten was offering up to 40% off per person on select expedition cruises to remote destinations such as Alaska, Norway, the British Isles and North America in 2021 and 2022, 844-991-1048,

Another expeditionary cruise company, PONANT is launching the first electric luxury polar ship in 2021. It will operate with a mix of liquified natural gas (the cleanest fuel on the market) and electric battery (zero emission and can operate for up to eight hours at a time). Le Commandant-Charcot will be fitted with the latest technology for minimizing environmental impact, as well as a scientific laboratory for conducting operational oceanography missions and research, in which guests will be able to participate.

In Iceland, see how geothermal energy is turned into a clean, renewable source of electricity and heat © Karen Rubin/

Indeed, the push to green technology and sustainable practices is throughout the cruise industry, even the mega-ships that are as big as a small city, in effect demonstrating solutions from waste recycling and desalinization to producing energy from food waste. “Green technologies are being incorporated into newly built ships and are sometimes retrofitted onto older ones — think solar panels, exhaust ‘scrubber’ systems that help minimize emissions, advances in hull design that let ships cut through the water more efficiently, cooking oil conversion systems and energy-efficient appliances. Some cruise lines also collaborate with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to collect data about the ocean’s health and climate changes,” writes, in a report on the latest green practices of the major mainstream and luxury cruise lines.

Then again, you can literally go old-school on one of Maine Windjammer Association’s fleet of nine historic sailing ships (

Great Schooner Race. Save the planet? Go old-school on a historic Maine Windjammer © Karen Rubin/

One of the industry’s biggest enterprises, The Travel Corporation, which owns major travel brands, has gone whole-hog into sustainability, implementing a five-step Climate Action Plan to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and source 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources across the organization by 2025. This includes TTC’s 20+ offices, 18 Red Carnation Hotels, 13 Uniworld ships, six accommodations/facilities, 500+ vehicles and more than 1,500 itineraries operated worldwide by its 40 brands including ContikiTrafalgarInsight Vacations and Uniworld

Among Contiki Holiday’s destinations worldwide is Petra, the archaeological wonder in Jordan, visited on its “Israel and Jordan Uncovered” tour. Contiki Holidays, one of The Travel Corporation’s companies, has declared it will be 100% carbon neutral by 2022 as part of a new five-point Climate Action Plan and sustainable travel policies. Travelers are vital to providing the economic sustenance to preserve sites like Petra, but controls have to be in place to prevent the ravages of over-tourism © Karen Rubin/

The goals also include: reduce food waste by 50% across all hotels and ships by 2025; increase the use of local and organic food products by our supply chain by 2025; reduce printed brochures by 50% by 2025; eliminate as many unnecessary single-use plastics from our operations and itineraries by 2022; include at least one MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® Experience on 50% of TTC itineraries by 2025; achieve a 20% increase of itineraries visiting developing regions for select specialist brands by 2025; increase employee and market sentiment regarding diversity and inclusion across brands; complete 30,000 volunteer hours by 2025; and ensure all wildlife experiences across TTC brands adhere to the Animal Welfare Policy by 2021.

Since launching its first sustainability strategy in 2015, TTC has invested in energy conservation and reducing its environmental impact across its portfolio of brands. Advancements to date include installing solar panels in 2020 at the Uniworld head office in Encino, California, implementing a 400kW Tesla plant supplying over 95% of Xigera Safari Lodge’s energy, which opened December 2020 as part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, and the recent shift to 100% renewable electricity by Contiki’s Chateau De Cruix and Haus Schöneck as well as Red Carnation Hotel’s Ashford Castle.  

Red Carnation implemented a 400kW Tesla plant supplying over 95% of Xigera Safari Lodge’s energy (photo provided by TTC)

Looking forward, TTC has committed to carbon neutral offices and business travel beginning January 1, 2022, through its partnership with offset provider South Pole. Contiki is moving to become a completely carbon neutral business, meaning unavoidable emissions from all trips departing as of January 1, 2022 will be offset. 

As part of its climate action plan, TTC’s philanthropy, TreadRight Foundation, is investing in two new developing, nature-based solutions for removing excess carbon from our atmosphere: Project Vesta‘s mission is to harness the natural power of the ocean to remove a trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and permanently store carbon in rock; and GreenWave is a regenerative ocean farming organization studying how kelp can be added to soil to increase its carbon storage potential while decreasing harmful nitrous oxide emissions on farms. (Learn more at

Another pioneer in sustainable travel, Lindblad Expeditions offers its passengers an easy way to calculate the carbon footprint of your flights and choose a project to invest in to offset that footprint. “It costs less than you probably think, and it’s an easy and quick way to take climate action.” In addition, Lindblad supports three major National Geographic initiatives including the National Geographic Pristine Seas project (

Lindblad Expeditions is resuming voyages to the Galapagos on the National Geographic Endeavor this summer (photo provided by Lindblad Expeditions).

Off Season Adventures trips (they travel off season to minimize impact) allocates a portion of the tour price to its sister nonprofit, Second Look Worldwide organization, which supports infrastructure projects and improvements in the destinations it visited. The first initiative, Kakoi Water Project, brings a sustainable year-round solar-powered water source to the 15,000 people who live on the border of Tarangire National Park in Tanzania (

Biking Albania with aid of e-bikes – many hotels now have charging stations for e bikes © Karen Rubin/

Travelers should also be mindful when they select travel providers, including hotels, tour companies and operators that they adhere to responsible travel principles. Travelers can also choose the most sustainable styles of travel which exert the least impact on the environment while maximizing interactions with local people and sustaining local economies: biking (,,, hiking (,, walking (,), multi-sport outdoor adventures (,,,;  kayaking, canoeing, rafting (;, sailing (; use local transportation (find local links at,; traveling in electric vehicles (hotels like the Inn at Death Valley and the Tenaya Lodge outside Yosemite National Park provide electric charging stations); camping/glamping (, and staying at eco-lodges (;; and traveling in off-peak times and exploring less traveled, off-the-beaten track destinations.

Designated parking spots for electric vehicles at the historic Inn at Death Valley in Death Valley National Park © Karen Rubin/

Great sources are the Center for Responsible Travel ( and Green Global Travel (

For the travel industry, every day is Earth Day.


© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at

See America: Cruise the Erie Canal across New York State by Self-Skippered Canalboat

Erie Canal Adventures rents Lockmaster canalboats that let you cruise fancy free on the Erie Canal, New York State (c) Karen Rubin/

By Karen Rubin
Travel Features Syndicate,

If you want to see how America came to be, travel along the Erie Canal. A marvel of engineering when it was opened in 1825, the canal, which spans 353-miles from Albany to Buffalo, creating a water highway for commerce from the Midwest through New York City to the rest of the world, remains a dazzling achievement. But it was also the artery and an engine for invention, innovation, economic development, and ultimately social and political movements. Bike along the Erie Canalway (now virtually uninterrupted and part of the 750-mile Empire State Trail; there are several bike tour companies that offer inn-to-inn bike trips), but to really get the sense of it, float along the canal, tying up at the small towns and major cities that the canal birthed, and see unfold before you all the major social and economic movements that made America: immigration, labor, abolition and civil rights, women’s rights.

A few years ago, I had that opportunity, and in this time when people are shunning cruising because of the coronavirus pandemic but embracing RVs, renting your own self-skippered, specially-designed Lockmaster canal boat offers the best of those worlds. Founded decades ago as Mid-Lakes Navigation by Peter Wiles who designed the Lockmaster canalboats and was a significant force in repurposing the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use, the company, Erie Canal Adventures, is now in the hands of Brian Kennan, and . And even though you are still in New York State, the sights and experiences are as interesting and exciting as sailing the canals of Europe.

The company has made accommodations for COVID-19 – sanitizing the compartments so that there is a tape over them until the passengers arrive; instead of cooking utensils and “hard goods” being kept on the boat, they are taken off after each trip, sanitized and provided to guests in a sanitized tote when they arrive.

The orientation is still done on the water – the guide wears mask and gloves – to take you through one of the canal locks (thrilling), but the orientation that would have been done in the cabin is now offered by video.

Bikes are still provided but they are taken off the boat after each cruise, sanitized and replaced for each trip.

This part of New York State is already in Phase 4 – meaning that there is indoor and outdoor dining (with social distancing), many of the museums and attractions have reopened like the George Eastman Museum and the Strong Museum (with limits on capacity). In the various canal towns, you won’t have any trouble finding groceries or restaurants. And New York State has been successful containing the spread of illness and turning from the worst infection rate to the lowest in the country, because New Yorkers have scrupulously adhered to using masks and social distancing. (Now, to prevent any reemergence, the state is imposing a 14-day quarantine on visitors from states where COVID-19 rates are surging.)

Cruising the Erie Canal in a Lockmaster canal boat, as cyclists ride the towpath (c) Karen Rubin/

I am at the helm of a 41-foot canal boat, a boat so enchanting and lovely, it turns heads and evokes waves, smiles, and snapped photos as it chugs pleasantly along at a top speed of 6 mph.

From this vantage point, I can appreciate this marvel of engineering, of grit and ingenuity the Erie Canal was, the vital role it played in the United States’ emergence as an Industrial giant in the 19th century and a dominant economic power in the 20th century.

There is no place in the United States like the Erie Canal, and no experience like having your own self-skippered canal boat – our floating home for the week – and a bicycle with which to explore the towns that were literally birthed by the canal. And to a New York City kid, seeing this bucolic countryside is a revelation. (“This is New Yawk!”)

It is extraordinary and thrilling to travel on the 363-mile long Erie Canal that slices through New York State and played such a vital part in the nation’s history, especially as we go through locks that are filled for us, and under bridges that must be lifted for us to pass.

Most of all, it lets us explore and appreciate the extraordinary innovation and ingenuity that developed because of the Erie Canal, the villages and towns, the factories and businesses that developed, and how the canal turned New York City into a global financial capital, and united the East with the West, how it funneled thousands of immigrants who populated the Midwest.

This is a true adventure. One where there are new discoveries, new insights, new perspectives formed with every new encounter. The Erie Canal birthed these places and now we see how they are being reborn, revitalized.

Going through one of the locks on the Erie Canal, New York State (c) Karen Rubin/

Setting off on our first morning, I have rarely felt that exhilarating sense of being so fancy free – to not have a set itinerary or schedule or even know where I am going or what I will see, but to have the power and ability just go where your curiosity leads. It is a marvelous.

We had trepidation about navigating the boat – a 41-foot long houseboat, like a floating RV – docking and most intriguingly going through the locks along the canal. But when we arrive, we get a two-hour orientation – every aspect about operating the boat, plugging in to electricity and water; how to turn on the engine, the stove, the shower, flush the toilet; how to recharge the batteries by running the engine in neutral; how to operate the radio and the correct protocol when contacting bridge and lock operators to “request passage”.

We are taken on a “shake-down” cruise that includes going back and forth through a lock. We are provided with a chart book and a handy sheet that lets you approximate how many hours between ports (important to keep track of the hours the lift operator is available).

Key advice: “Don’t approach anything faster than you would care to hit it.” The steel-hulled boat is powered by a 50 horsepower diesel engine; its top speed is 6 mph, and it weighs 11 tons “so you can’t get into trouble,” we are told.

The canal boat is outfitted with just about everything you might need – from ponchos to potholders to paper towels. There is even a grill and BBQ tools and canisters of propane. There are safety devices, a tool kit, even a sewing kit.

Our boat, the Canadice, is 41 feet long and can sleep 4 people (one double bed and two bunk beds in the galley; a well designed galley kitchen with small refrigerator and freezer; a shower; a table and sitting area in the bow), suitable for a family; the largest Lockmaster can accommodate 6 adults.

Within moments, the thrill of what this is all about floods over me: This is a real adventure, where have to do everything yourself, not have it done for you, make decisions.

Going through a lock on the Erie Canal: the lock tenders are extremely helpful (c) Karen Rubin/

As we sail along, I reflect on how lovely this boat is: the gorgeous knotty pine wood detailing; the varnished wood seats and a railing that makes for a back rest as you hold the tiller, brass and varnished wood. The cabin is beautiful knotty pine. It has a canvas canopy over the helm and even on a hot day, the breezes as we travel are delightful. The bow has screens with plastic and canvas that zip and snap easily so we can close everything up in the event of rain and a table that can even be moved inside.

The design for the Lockmaster came from Peter Wiles, Sr., who was a key architect of the transition of the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use. He had a small tour boat business on Skaneateles Lake and went to England to see the self-skippered canal boats that operated on the Thames, and brought back the concept for boats that he would design and build here.

Wiles took the charm and the traditional design but adapted the boat to the Erie Canal, with a wider (roomier) beam, mostly flat bottomed and do not have a keel (the Erie Canal is only about 12-feet deep and is actually filled and drained each season). He founded the MidLakes Navigation company which, when we visit, is run by his children, Sarah and Peter Wiles (the company has since been acquired and renamed Erie Canal Adventures).


We soon get the hang of piloting the boat, and after a couple of hours sailing, we come to Fairport, a most charming town, with shops and restaurants right along the canal. It is a picture-perfect model of revitalization.

Fairport did not exist before construction of the Erie Canal dried up a swamp and produced a “fair port” for travelers. “Commerce thrived as entrepreneurs turned ideas into products,” says one of the best guides to this portion of the canal, “100 Must See Miles”

Henry Deland’s mansion is now the Green Lantern Inn, Fairport, one of the canaltowns on the Erie Canal (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.ccm

One of these entrepreneurs was Henry Deland who had the idea to produce baking soda from wood ash. The building right on the canal and next to the bridge where there is now a delightful Towpath Cafe was where Deland manufactured his baking soda which was transported by canal to international markets.

Just up Main Street, on the south side of the canal, I find the Deland Mansion, built in 1876. After Deland made his fortune in Fairport, he bought land and founded Deland, Florida in 1876, which he thought to build into a citrus, agricultural and tourism center. He sold his northern business and hired people to clear land, lay out streets, erect buildings and recruit settlers, most from upstate New York; he lost his fortune in an orange freeze in 1885.

The mansion is magnificent: Second Empire style with tower, porches, fireplaces, it was one of the grandest private residences in western New York. After several private owners, including the Clark Family, the Deland Mansion opened as the Green Lantern Inn sometime after 1928, and served as a restaurant, speakeasy, rooming house, banquet hall.

The mansion is across from the First Baptist Church, which was built at same time as Deland built his mansion.

Each of the canal towns we visit has done a superb job of using historical markers and photos to illustrate the “then and now.” As we follow them, it is like a story that unfolds.

At Fairport, there is a marker that shows how Old South Main Street “yields to urban renewal: Commercial block changes from necessities to niceties.”

The beauty of the canal boat is that you can organize the day around what you want to do – whether it is to just hang out in a town – perhaps visit a museum. Our main purpose is to position us to bike the towpath. And so we tie up the Canadice at Fairport, take down our bikes from the roof, and head out about 7 miles to the next major town, Pittsford, along the canal bikeway. It is one of the prettier rides, with lovely homes on the canal.

The Great Embankment, Erie Canal, New York (c) Karen Rubin/

Just before Pittsford, we cross over a mile-long section called “The Great Embankment.” This is the highest canal embankment, actually built over the Irondequoit Creek which rushes through a tunnel under the canal.

In the earliest days of the Erie Canal, the embankment thrilled both onlookers and passengers as boats seemed to travel in midair over the mile-wide valley created by the Irondequoit Creek. The canal has been rebuilt three times since it originally opened in 1823. The original canal was a mere four-feet deep and 40-feet wide; three times it was enlarged, made deeper (first 7 feet deep and 70-feet wide, then 12-feet deep and 120-feet wide), and in many cases, moved entirely to make a better route as boats became motorized.

This is our first introduction to the engineering of the Erie Canal. I really hadn’t even thought of the canal as having a false bottom, that the canal is actually drained (around November 1), and refilled (around May 1) each season.

The Great Embankment is a revelation, but we will find even more dramatic examples of engineering, as we explore by bike and boat.

We return to Fairport, and prepare to get underway again – actually boating back to Pittsford.

It’s just passed 6 pm when we leave Fairport.

But to leave Fairport, you have to go under a lift bridge, and Fairport’s is very distinctive: it is constructed with no right angles.

Bridge at Fairport (no right angles) lifts for us to sail under, on the Erie Canal, New York State (c) Kaaen Rubin/

There are 16 lift bridges on the Erie Canal, all of them in the west, and the eastern-most one is here at Fairport. The bridges are delights to look at – they have ornate towers and it is wonderful to watch how they work.

We have been instructed on the etiquette of using the radio to ask the lock tender to lift a bridge or open a lock. Some are covered by operators handling multiple bridges, so you might be told to standby and wait for the operator to get back to the bridge. (take note of the hours of operation – westward from Macedon toward Buffalo, the locks are open 7 am to 10 pm; eastward to Lake Oneida in Syracuse (the boats do not go all the way to Albany), the lifts operate 7 am to 7 pm).


We tie up for the night at Port of Pittsford Park, right below the Main Street Bridge (there is no charge but some of the ports along the canal charge up to $15 to overnight).

We stroll the charming streets (and there are some gorgeous residential streets as well), and see what an affluent community Pittsford is. Old money and new money poured in over the last 15 years to revitalize the downtown area.

Pittsford was settled in 1789 by Revolutionary War veterans, but it was the Erie Canal that first brought prosperity to the town, because it facilitated transport to market of tons of heavy gravel from the nearby hills.

We see stunning Victorian-era buildings – the Phoenix Hotel, built in 1812 in the Federalist style, 1812 to serve the Erie Canal and Turnpike trade, restored 1967 as an office building across from the Town Hall, dated 1890. There is also the Canal Lamp Inn, a stunning Victorian, right beside the canal bridge. (Self-guided walk through Pittsford,

Just minutes after we finish our picnic dinner of pizza and get inside our boat and close the hatches, it starts to pour. We are cozy inside. We hear the patter of rain as we watch a DVD on our computer.

Cruising in a canalboat on the Erie Canal, New York State (c) Karen Rubin/

The star attraction – and the major character – in this travel epic is the Erie Canal, itself. The historic markers we come upon are like chapters in the story, and as our trip unfolds, our appreciation of what the canal was, what it represented, and the impact it had, grows.

All 11 Lockmasters in Erie Canal Adventures’ fleet sail from Macedon, near Rochester, NY, and with enough time, you can cruise some 200 miles from Buffalo to Lake Oneida in Syracuse along the canal. Besides sailing along the Erie Canal (as far as , you can also sail on other waterways, taking spurs south to the Finger Lakes, or north up the Oswego canal to Lake Ontario.

Erie Canal Adventures, 315-986-3011,


© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit,, and Blogging at and Send comments or questions to Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at