Peru: My dish on Ollayntantambo, Maras salt mines, and a Pachamanca feast!

Well hello there again!

I have been MIA for quite some time. A lot has happened in my life since my last post about Hawaii in April 2018. Right before my trip to Peru, my dad passed away. It was very sudden and very heartbreaking. I considered not going on the trip because I wasn’t sure how I would handle it but in the end decided to go to lift my spirits (as travel always does) and because it is the last thing I have ever done that my dad knew about. My dad is the biggest reason I have been able to travel so much over the years and I owe a lot of my cultural experiences and sense of adventure to him. I knew he would want me to go and enjoy it.

With that being said, this trip to Peru has been in the works for a little over a year. It started with me mentioning the notion to my boyfriend Kevin’s mother Norma about how much I would love to experience the country with their family (she is a native Peruvian from Lima). After that was retaliated with much enthusiasm it was full gear coordination mode and reaching out to a travel agency to set up our itinerary.

It is recommended if not CRITICAL that you book a trip to Peru through an agency. This is because of how spread out everything is, what types of needs you will have (specifically if you are coming from North America and are not accustomed to the altitude) and also for safety.

We used Quechua Treks to plan our trip and as a collective group we have nothing but amazing things to say.

But now I will get into the juice regarding my favorite activities, food and thoughts on Cuzco. We were there for a 14 day whirlwind and it was very exhausting but also completely wonderful and I learned so much! So again to avoid writing a novel about every thing I did and saw I will highlight my favorites starting with the town of Ollayntantambo and our hike in Yucay.

*I will also note here that my trip had too many things I wanted to discuss and show so there is a second part of this post focused on the city of Cuzco and Machu Picchu and another post solely focused on Lima.


A restaurant in Ollayntantambo selling Cuy (guinea pig) a national dish. 

Ollayntantambo is a small mountain town in Cuzco and flush with tourists since it has a direct train to Machu Picchu. The town revolves around one square that is dotted with shops and small eateries and it feels relatively safe and is quite charming. We stayed at El Albergue which was directly across from the train station. It was very rustic and had its own restaurant and small cocktail bar (pisco sour, anyone?). The food was so FRESH and excellent (but more on this later).

Ollayntantambo is a good place to get souvenirs because they have some unique tapestries and other hand made goods that are cheaper than in Lima or larger towns  around Cuzco like Aguas Calientes and are guaranteed to be authentic. I got a beautiful hand-made hot pink tapestry telling an old Peruvian folk tale for under 100 dollars and didn’t see anything like it anywhere else.

Restaurant-wise we ate our breakfasts and dinner at the hotel and one night we dined at Chuncho which is in the heart of the square. Let it be known that I had no idea Peru had such a wide variety of potatoes and corn! Each potato has its own distinct flavor and texture as well! Chuncho had delicious cocktails and farm to table dishes like the spicy chicken stew we ordered. Also- Kevin tried Cuy and hated it. (He said it was too fussy with the tiny bones and it had a greasy, gamey taste).

Hike in Yucay:

Yucay (as our guide, Zac said) is an overlooked activity in Cuzco. We did a walking tour of a trail following a wide channel stream that trickles down from Mt. San Juan. It was a beautiful day for the hike and we were the only people out and about on the trail (the benefits of it being overlooked) and all I can say is WOW!

It was extremely serene and relaxing (also challenging and dusty (BUT DO IT ANYWAY). We also made a doggy friend who followed us back down the mountain and who shared our lunch with us.

*Side note: the amount of stray dogs in Peru (specifically Cuzco) is astronomical and I was beside myself each time I saw one. If only I could leave the United States behind and start a dog resort in Cuzco!

Maras Moray Mountain Biking:

I have one word to sum up mountain biking: In insanely high altitude. Literally closer to the sun. That word is WATER. Say it with me. WAHHHTERRRR.

My aunt calls me an aquarium because I could probably slam a few fish bowls of the stuff over a light lunch that only lasts an hour. I am no weakling when it comes to how much H2O I can chug at all hours of the day. The reason I am making such a fuss about this is because I was doing my usual fish-bowl ingesting during our mountain bike exploration and it STILL wasn’t enough. I felt overheated and sick after 20 minutes of biking. The sights were gorgeous and it was worth the views but the terrain was rough, the road was dusty, and the air was dry (and devoid of oxygen a.k.a high altitude).

To sum this up: if you are a biking enthusiast who is okay with not breathing or at least feeling very out of shape- go to Maras Moray to mountain bike. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I would recommend staying on the bus.

Vilcanota Mountain Range: Chicon and the Pumahuanca

Our Pachamanca meal at the El Albergue hotel in Ollantaytambo:

I am now going to circle back to our hotel, El Albergue. The hotel is a rustic treasure nestled in the heart of an organic farm growing vegetables, farming llamas, and guinea pigs and even has its own distillery, all encompassed by gorgeous mountain views. All of our meals (and cocktails) were farm to table deliciousness.

view from our room at the El Albergue
Pisco sour (a Peruvian classic) at the El Albergue cocktail lounge

Cuisine-wise my ultimate highlight was the pachamanca feast that was made personally for us and presented by the Albergue chef himself.

What is a pachamanca you may ask? Listen well because this style of Peruvian cooking will change your life… and it should be a new mini-mission of yours to have at some point.

Pachamanca (meaning “earth oven”)  is a traditional Incan meal that is seared on hot stones underground. The stones are layered on top to create a steam that slow cooks the meat. It is similar to the kalua Polynesian pig roasting style typical for a luau. Our lunch consisted of chicken, pork, and lamb with andean potatoes and camote, organic vegetables, chicha morada (which is a purple corn sweet beverage) and house salad. The meat, vegetables and spices are covered with the stones and a tarp is laid over top and then buried with dirt to create mouth-watering smoke perfumed meat that falls off the bone in juicy tenderness.

Below shows some samples of the process…

Once this meal was graciously served to us, we were able to hear more about the history of the farm and the traditions that they have in place to ensure authenticity and exciting flavor in their dishes.

Andean potatoes
An assortment of lamb, chicken and pork
Fresh salad from the garden
Sweet corn cake and cafe for dessert
Our group with the chef
El Albergue organic farm 

After a delicious meal we headed over to a Cañazo (sugar cane liquor) distillery and coffee roasting facility located on the property.

The distillery was very impressive given the fact that they are constantly experimenting with different flavors and textures. They also produce an assortment of spirits such as rum, gin and vodka using Cañazo. These spirits can be found around Peru but I don’t believe they can be found in North America or the majority of South America.

Selection of artisanal spirits 

Maras Salt Mines:

Let me start by saying I have seen pictures of the salt mines on social media for a while now and originally, this was the site that I was most excited about going to. Most of the images I saw showed people walking around within the mines and I was so excited to see the squares of salt up close…

Our tour guide informed us that just this spring they had restricted people from walking within the mines because they were damaging them. I was SO disappointed I could only see them from afar and also… PEOPLE SUCK. Why can’t you just go and appreciate natural beauty without defiling it?!?! Anyways, rant over.

The salt mines aesthetically did not disappoint. But other than taking in the views there isn’t much else to do in this location. There are little market stands aligning the path down to the views of the mine selling the regular tourist garb, though.

Worker at the Maras salt mine

And that concludes one of THREE blog posts I have about Peru. My other blogs focus JUST on Lima and the city of Cuzco and Machu Picchu (including the Inca Trail)

Go check them out!

The Big Island of Hawaiʻi

I wish I would have started this ten trips ago. I always thought it was more romantic to write in a journal versus type a blog during my trips, but I now realize how much more tangible a virtual post is. I mean honestly its 2018. Either way I figured I would give a cliff notes version of my most recent adventure which was to the big island of Hawaiʻi.

My experience was a bit different than most people given that my aunt moved to Hawaiʻi in her 20’s, married a local and never looked back. It is only natural that my family would eventually make our way over to unveil the bohemian- hippie- simple islander lifestyle that she had so easily adapted. So, the week leading up to Christmas I packed the lightest suitcase in the history of my travels (aka bathing suits and a pair of shorts) and we flew the grueling route from Detroit to Kailua- Kona. The majority of our trip we stayed at the Royal Kona- a ten minute drive from my aunts condo.

I can be observant when I want to be and I peak during travel time… that being said these are my first impressions:

  1. Everyones casual. In demeanor, in clothing, in attitude.
  2. The people are lovely, and they find humor in everything- that includes making me eat a mollusk that my uncle cut off of a rock that tasted like a booger (wheres the cocktail sauce?!)
  3. The whole idea of “island time”- it couldn’t be more true, life just moves slower and I think the mainland has a lot to learn from that.
  4. If you stare at the ocean long enough with no agenda, you actually mentally and physically relax. It really works I promise.
  5. As a sign of respect, older people are called “Uncle” and “Auntie” which was confusing at first but I dig it now.

In order to not write a small book about my trip, I can summarize it into 3 major highlights.

  1. Waipiʻo Valley
  2. The beach cookout/ Octopus Hunt
  3. The Luau (tourism requires)

Waipiʻo Valley:

The lookout from Waipiʻo Valley

This place is nothing short of spectacular. It is thus far the most aesthetically beautiful place I have ever been. I hadn’t even googled a picture before we decided to drive the two hour trip around the island to visit. The drive alone was stunning, every 20 minutes the entire terrain changed. Like many I have always envisioned Hawaiʻi to be predominately ocean, palm trees and grassy hills. On our drive we experienced miles of post-apocalyptic looking lava fields, bamboo forests, deep valleys of waterfalls and rolling pastures with plenty of cows.

In the heart of the valley

Waipiʻo itself was something out of a dream. Anyone going to the big island should make it a priority to visit, even though it is not the easiest place to get to. The road down into the valley is claimed to be the steepest road in America. They advise no compact cars to attempt the descent and for good reason. Just seeing people walking up and down the road made me cringe in pain. Luckily we had a family friend who not only had a fun jeep to take us down but also had property in the middle of the valley that had been in the family for generations. Winding around the valley through trees, huge ditches and puddles, amidst wild horses, a commune of wandering backpackers and curious tourists was kind of stressful but very interesting. We ended up having a pack of tourists following our vehicle down private property roads assuming we were also breaking rules… until we finally told them to turn back and closed the gate.

His property was right smack dab in the middle of the valley, walls of vegetation and waterfalls were on all sides. He had an irrigation system set up to produce vegetables and flowers. The valley is the kind of sweet serenity you get no other place. It was very quiet except for our voices and the occasional trickle of water or rustle of leaves. It just didn’t look like a real place and I’m still awe struck that people actually LIVE there.

Black sand beach of Waipiʻo Valley

We took the Jeep to the front of the valley where a black sand beach was capped with woods, an occasional hipster pick up truck grill-out and lots of tourists. This is a place I would have planned to spend more time at (and also arrived earlier to avoid tourists all over the place) had I known the beauty and ability to camp. That means a lot coming from me because I have never desired to camp ANYWHERE else.

To me- Waipiʻo Valley was one of the biggest highlights in Hilo and on my entire trip in general and it is a big bucket list item for me to be able to return and spend more time.

2. The beach cookout/octopus hunt:

Having an uncle who was born and raised on the island means I had an “in” to a family beach cookout. All his nieces and nephews arrived with a huge tent, poke, pizza, noodles, crab, tuna- you name it.

The “Ohana” family attitude proves true with people related or not. Everyone is very communal and happy to kick back with a beer, some food and eventually make their way to the ocean to boogie board or surf. Since it was a few days until Christmas, we listened to festive music on the beach which was odd for a Michigander but a nice change from the -7 degree temps back home.

My Uncle tricked me into eating some sort of weird clam that I mentioned earlier which did not go down well even though my Aunt persisted that people DO in fact eat it. I also tried spam wrapped in seaweed which is a local favorite, even the grocery store had 20 different flavors. The reasoning behind the spam craze goes back to the World War Two days when GI’s ate it in all different ways due to the fact that it didn’t need refrigeration… you can even find spam on McDonald’s and Burger King menus!

My sister was relentless in her desire to participate in an octopus hunt. My aunt and uncle are versed in spear fishing and cooking the plunder at home in a big pot. We decided to go out on our boogie boards to follow my uncle with his spear around hunting octo-houses. Octopus make little houses out of stones so if you have the patience to scour the ocean floor you just might get lucky. After about 20 minutes paddling around in the water my uncle found one. He poked at it under its rock and we watched the tentacles curl around the spear. At first he had it but then it released some ink and jetted away under a different rock.

He poked around in a rock mound a few feet away and had it for good that time. We were so excited we almost flipped off our board. He said you have to stroke the head of the octopus to calm it down so the tentacles don’t curl around your head and suffocate you.

He also flipped the head inside out to paralyze it and then beat it against a rock to make sure it was dead and to wash the ink off. The one that he caught was small to medium in size but he said he had caught one with tentacles as big as an arm!

Although I never got to eat our spoils, it was still exciting to see the action and know that it provided a family feast.

3. The Luau:

Ahhhh the Luau.

Growing up I took Hawaiian and Tahitian dance lessons and so my background knowledge of the art made me eager to see what a more authentic rendition would look like. It seems one of the biggest if not THE biggest touristy attraction on the island is to go to a luau complete with sugary mai-tai’s and smoked pork. The luau we attended knew how to keep the show moving and funnel traffic to the point that it was a bit overwhelming. We had a short happy hour before the show started and they opened with a couple of songs to warm up the crowd. They then announced the unveiling of the smoked pig across the lawn that had been underground covered in banana leaves for a handful of days. We all rushed to see the complete carcass dug up and swung onto a table as the meat literally fell off the bone. It was a horrifyingly fascinating and I couldn’t look away.

The dances were pretty spectacular. The opening dances told the history of the island which was packed with information that was hard to understand given that it was explained so fast. I learned that all of the dancers only do the shows as a part time gig and have to work other jobs on the side (my Uncle used to be a dancer) because it doesn’t pay enough.

If you had any doubts on picking The Big Island of Hawaii I can assure you that it will not disappoint in any way shape or form. There really is something for everyone. Kailua currently is becoming busier every year as a tourist destination and it is only a matter of time before it gets the foot traffic that some of the other islands are already accustomed to.