Resilient Canoa.

Road stimulus.  We had a long road ahead of us as we departed volcano land.  Almost 10 hours to be exact.  What I should note here is that it was 10 hours to go about 200 miles.  This should tell you that we were not on any mega highways.  But rather, we were on 2 lane roads, sometimes behind banana trucks, or scooters, or dodging dogs snoozing in the road, or sections of highway that all the sudden became dirt roads or hour-long construction detours, flocks of sheep, pigs the size of a small cow, a random donkey, possibly a waterfall, or even a river of mud.  You name it, we saw it.  Highly entertained, and slightly shell shocked from the road stimulus, the journey to the west coast of Ecuador didn’t really feel like 10 hours at all.  We finally made it to Rio Muchacho, organic farm and eco-lodge.  Rio Muchacho is the real deal in organic farming.  Since 1990, owners Nicola Mears and Dario Proaño Leroux have been not only farming organically, but also teaching locals, farmers, volunteers, foreign students, and tourists all about non-polluting agriculture, alternative energy, seed saving, food security, and the use of permaculture crops.

Commandments of organic farming.  The land on the Rio Muchacho farm once was barren and desert-like, clear cut from deforestation and not suitable for farming.  However, using the tenants of organic farming, Nicola and Dario were able to successfully start a garden that has turned into a full-fledged farm.  Here are the agricultural principles they abide by:

1.     Avoid monocultures by consistently rotating the farm’s garden beds

2.     Never burn, but rather, return all organic matter to the earth

3.     Feed the soil, not necessarily the plant itself

4.     Grow what grows well, using seeds that are adapted to local conditions

5.     Care for insect populations and encourage beneficial insects on the farm

Because of these organic farming methods, the farm can produce enough food to feed Nicola & Dario’s family, the volunteers, staff, and guests of Rio Muchacho.  Any other food needed in meal preparations are purchased locally, of course!

A billion dollar industry.  We were especially interested in learning more about cacao exportation and chocolate production in Ecuador.  I should note that I absolutely adore (for reals) dark chocolate and have been most excited about this part of our trip.  Therefore, this is a forewarning that I am about to geek out.  OK, here it goes.  Ecuador is one of the largest producers of cacao in the world.  The western coast of Ecuador is perfect for growing cacao trees and the exportation of cacao beans is a huge industry.  Most cacao farms are small, family owned businesses and many farmers are still impoverished despite the massive amounts of money that chocolate contributes to worldwide.  While learning about chocolate production at Rio Muchacho, we also wanted to gather information about the problems associated with it.  Chocolate is a multibillion-dollar industry.  To meet the world’s chocolate demands there has been massive deforestation to land, including the rainforest.  Some of the slash and burn techniques mentioned in previous blogs are also used to create cacao farms.  There are also social problems as slave and child labor (particularly in parts of Africa) are often used in an effort to produce large quantities of cacao.  However, Nicola shared some tips with us.  As a consumer there are some important things you should think about when purchasing chocolate.  First and foremost, buy “Fair Trade” chocolate as this ensures that famers are getting a fair price for the cacao they produce.  Also, buy organic as this not only ensures cacao is free from harmful pesticides, but organic farmers typically grow cacao in the shade (how it naturally grows) which reduces impact on deforestation.  Additionally, organic farms are usually inspected regularly and this improves working conditions for farm laborers.  Buying “Fair Trade”, organic chocolate and avoiding mass-produced chocolate will likely cost you more, but is totally worth it.  Your chocolate will not only taste better but you will feel better knowing that your purchase is making a positive impact.  And if you’re especially interested in making a positive impact, buy chocolate from Ecuador (or anywhere in Central/South America) if you can find it.  Countries like Ecuador produce the cacao, not places such as France or Switzerland, where you might associate chocolate.  Countries like Ecuador can benefit significantly from producing their own chocolate instead of only exporting the cacao.

Budding chocolatiers.  We had the opportunity to make chocolate while we were on the farm.  Rio Muchacho has a few cacao trees and they harvest the pods when they are ready.  They then ferment the cacao seeds, called beans, which are inside the pod.  After the fermentation process the beans are then dried.  The next step is to roast the beans over a fire until they are toasted.  From here, you peel the beans, removing the outside shell.  At this point you have the start of cacao nibs.  But to take it a step further, you then begin the grinding process until you have a paste.  The smell and texture of the paste is amazing, you get the sense of the cacao’s richness when you see and taste it in such a raw form.  To make chocolate, however, you then add in milk and sugar.  How much you add depends on how sweet or milky you want your chocolate.  Also, I want to note that there are more intricate steps to producing chocolate bars.  It can get technical and often looks like a science experiment.  But for our purposes, we kept it simple.  And it was delicious.  By far it the best thing I ate during the entire trip!  Take a look at the steps in the pictures below.

Beach vibes.  After Rio Muchacho we made the quick hop over to the beach town of Canoa.  This small fishing village also has a beautiful stretch of beach, consistent surf waves, stunning sunsets, friendly locals, and an extremely laid back vibe.  We loved it here.  We dropped our bags and stayed for a couple days, very easily getting into the mellow rhythm of life on the coast.  As relaxing as things were, we were also consumed with heartache as we learned more about what happened in Canoa almost exactly one year ago.

Forever impacted our hearts.  In April of 2016 the west coast of Ecuador was rocked with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.  Canoa was among many of the towns hit.  Nearly 700 people were killed and over 16,000 were injured.  Maybe you vaguely remember hearing about this in the news, or maybe you didn’t hear about it all.  Regardless, Ecuador got very little airtime during such a horrific natural disaster.  We were humbled by the locals who shared their stories with us.  Some of the gruesome details I won’t share here.  We were told that directly after the earthquake there was a fear of a tsunami and those who were able to get out retreated inland as quickly as possible.  There was luckily no tsunami, but because of the threat, many people were not rescued out of buildings right away.  We were told that what this area needed was for people, specifically tourists, to come back.  As we drove through the destruction in some of the neighboring towns, I have to admit that I wondered what we were doing there.  Watching the sunset next to empty lots and dilapidated buildings, knowing what had happened in those exact spots one year ago is one of the eeriest feelings.  The feeling soon dispelled as we observed the locals in their daily routines.  Their friendliness, their resilience, and positivity impressed us beyond belief.  The hotel worker living in a tent on his employers property, the American girl running her parents restaurant while her mother recovers from partial paralysis, the expat who fled the area to get massive medical treatment only to return a few months later to rebuild and start his life again, the young Australian who started volunteering with clean up efforts and never left, the travel guide turned hostel owner (only 4 days into his new venture when we met him) with a building in need of majors repairs, these are the people of Canoa.  These are the resilient people who shared their story with us and forever impacted our hearts.  We are grateful for their story and humbled to share it with you.

Here are some photos of the area now.  As you can see there is still a lot of work to be done to rebuild.

Rio Muchacho was also affected.  Please watch their story below.  If you feel compelled to help please click on the link below to contribute:


Preserving Páramos. 

A shy volcano.  After leaving the Amazon jungle we headed back into volcano country.  No, believe it or not, we are volcano seekers.  It may seem that way, like storm chasers or something crazy like that.  But no, there are just simply a lot of volcanoes in Ecuador.  That being said, we made it to the region of Cotopaxi National Park where the recently active and second largest volcano (almost 20,000 feet) in Ecuador, Cotopaxi, resides.  Let’s rewind.  Did I say recently active?  Yes I did.  The last activity was in August of 2015.  This makes Cotopaxi one of the tallest and most active volcanoes in the world.  While you might think that this monster of a volcano looks rugged and jagged, is it actually a really beautiful cone shape, rounded and snow capped with glaciers.  Because of the altitude Cotopaxi is covered with clouds a majority of the time.  We even overheard some people calling it a “shy” volcano.  Because we didn’t really get a full glimpse of Cotopaxi, I guess we would agree that it was “shy”, besides that whole eruption business.

The hacienda.  Like I mentioned, we were in the Cotopaxi National Park region, but staying at a comfortably safe distance away from the volcano on an Ecuadorian hacienda called El Porvenir.  Porvenir means “future”.  We met the effervescent and charismatic, Jorge Perez (General Manager of Hacienda El Porvenir and owner of Tierra del Volcán), who’s family has owned the hacienda for many generations.  He quite literally put the El Porvenir namesake into action when he opened the hacienda to guests in 1999.  Built with the traditional Andean construction and many of the original furnishings from Jorge’s family, this place is like cozying up at your grandmother’s house.  The locals include Chagras, who are Ecuadorian cowboys, in charge of the cattle and livestock of the land.  We got to experience a bit of this culture on horseback as we explored the land around the hacienda.  We were even outfitted like Chagras, which made the experience even better.  Not being a big fan of horseback riding (I know, weird), I still really enjoyed this experience as it was an incredible way to see the area around the hacienda and catch a little glimpse of Cotopaxi.

Preserving Páramos.  One important thing to note about Jorge is his passion for conserving not only his families land, but also the entire highland ecosystem around Cotopaxi called Páramos.  Via his company, Tierra del Volcán, he has been instrumental in encouraging other private landowners to follow suite in establishing conservation easements on their land.  This is important because it protects the land from slash and burn agricultural techniques and overgrazing, which can be very damaging to the area.  Additionally landowners have started voluntarily contributing land to a private reserve to be used for more sustainable agricultural practices and ecotourism.  Jorge and his team have also placed their efforts into the local schools, educating local children about sustainability and environmental issues.  Last, but not least, El Porvenir has started re-forestation efforts by planting trees around the hacienda.  This is no easy feat as growing trees at altitude can take twice as long and require a bit more TLC during the initial growth period.

Rim hikes.  Onwards to the next volcano!  Again, I swear, we are not chasing volcanoes.  This time we headed due west for another volcanic region called Quilotoa.  Quilotoa had an eruption over 800 years ago that formed a large caldera or crater lake that is 2 miles wide.  We hiked around the rim of Quilotoa taking in the incredible views.  Our hike continued beyond Quilotoa and back to our lodge in Chugchulán, 9 miles away.  The hike took about 5 hours, covering some intense, but beautiful terrain.

Black Sheep.  While in Quilotoa we stayed at the Black Sheep Inn, which has been at the forefront of the eco-hotel scene in Ecuador since 1995.  This lodge put ecotourism on the map for the Quilotoa area.  With solar and wind power, a recycling center, organic gardens, reforestation efforts, and even composting toilets, this lodge is as green as it gets.  The lodge has won numerous awards over the years for their contributions to sustainable travel and ecological conservation projects.  The Black Sheep Inn is working towards becoming self sufficient in energy, water, and food production.  This is an incredible mission for a lodge that holds up to 35 guests at a time, plus a full staff.  After reading all of this you might think we were staying in a tent in the woods, but the Black Sheep Inn couldn’t be further from that.  Each room is super tidy and cozy, with a wood-burning stove to keep you warm all night.  There is also a common area where all the guests eat meals together, family style, which is great for meeting and talking to other travelers.  And to top things off, since 2012 the lodge has been 100% community operated.  The Black Sheep Inn is truly a model for ecotourism and sustainable travel!

While we are really beginning to become one with the Ecuadorian volcanoes, it is time to part ways.  Up next is the coast!  Check out our next post coming to you soon, beachside.  

Lungs of the earth.

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The jungle journey.  Here in Ecuador you can get from high up in the Andes mountains to way down into the depths of the Amazon jungle in a matter of hours.  This is exactly what we did as we journeyed from the mountain town of Otavalo to Sacha Lodge in the Amazon.  It was a bit of a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” kind of day with a taxi, plane, boat, canoe, and a hike to reach 50 miles deep into the jungle.  Immediately dripping with sweat as we ventured closer to the lodge, the Amazon was like a punch in the face with humidity.  Remember my altitude meltdown?  Maybe that altitude wasn’t so bad after all.

Lungs of the world.  Ok, real talk.  The Amazon is essential to life on earth.  To put it in perspective, think of the Amazon as the lungs of mother earth.  Without the Amazon jungle we could not sustain life.  Pretty heavy, I know.  Stick with me here.  The entire Amazon basin covers approximately 3 million square miles (essentially the size of the continental U.S.) and stretches across nine countries.  Ecuador contains just 2% of the Amazon, but is known to have the most diverse set of species on earth.  So all these stats are great, but to put it simply, we could not sustain life without the Amazon.  Being the largest rainforest on earth that absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen, we depend heavily on Amazonia to “breath” for us!

Our jungle oasis.  We are excited to tell you about Sacha lodge, our little jungle home while we were in the Amazon.  Sacha is the Kichwa or Quichua (the name of the local indigenous community) word that means “forest”.  The lodge sits adjacent to the Yasuni National Park and consists of 4,500 acres purchased from private landowners.  The area owned by the lodge consists of both primary (untouched land) and secondary (previously clear cut, experiencing re-growth) rainforest.  Sacha lodge ensures that all of their land is free from hunting, logging, mining, or oil drilling.  Additionally, 90% of the staff are locals from the surrounding Amazon region.  Employing locals provides non-destructive income to the region and encourages both ecotourism and conservation as well.

The threats.  Sacha lodge is the largest private reserve in Ecuadorian rainforest.  Private reserves such as Sacha lodge save the rainforest from the major threats and contribute to conservation.  There are three major threats to the rainforest: illegal hunting, timber extraction, and oil extraction.  For example, the Yasuni National Park (adjacent to Sacha lodge) has assisted in reviving the howler monkey population, who were once hunted by local communities.  The creation of a private reserve made it illegal to hunt, which has assisted in sustaining this species of monkey, and many other animal populations as well.  The demand for palm oil is also a major issue that causes deforestation.  Because palm oil can be a great source of income for communities, the “slash and burn” technique is often used to clear rainforests to create palm oil farms.  “Slash and burn” is devastating to the Amazon, so private reserves also prohibit this type of farming.  Lastly, there is another controversial threat, which is oil.  Because there are oil reserves below the Amazon basin, oil companies have moved in to capitalize on this resource.  While oil can certainly provide communities with a great source of income, the devastation to the rainforest can be catastrophic.  Ecotourism provides a more sustainable source of income for the Amazon’s local communities while protecting the precious rainforest that we all rely on for life.

 The Sacha's Kapok tree tower, 135 feet above the jungle floor.

The Sacha's Kapok tree tower, 135 feet above the jungle floor.

Every insect known to man.  So, what did we see while we were at Sacha lodge?  So much!  Probably too much.  We saw tarantulas, frogs, snakes, caiman, leaf cutter ants (so many ants), and pretty much every insect known to man.  You are either intrigued at this point or ready to stop reading, so let me move on from the scary critter category.  Howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, pygmy marmosets (smallest monkey in the, can we say cute?) river otters, sloths, turtles, toucans, owls, and many different species of birds were among some of the other, less scary, things we encountered.  Fun fact: Ecuador has the largest population of bird species, right behind Colombia.  I never thought I could appreciate bird watching until now.  Our guides kept us very busy, waking us up at 5:30am every morning to get a start on the day, beating the heat and catching glimpses of the animals when they are most active.  Marching through the jungle, with your eyes barely open, in the morning mist, watching the sunrise and the animals begin to stir is a pretty magical experience.  We thought we might keel over without our second cup of morning joe, but watching squirrel monkeys leap past you while jumping from palm tree to palm tree is better than any caffeine kick and worth every second of the dawn wake up call.   

Superleaf.  Another really special part about Sacha lodge is their partnership with the local Nueva Providencia community.  This community of indigenous people from the Amazon inhabits a large territory that has been recognized by the Ecuadorian government in order to preserve their culture and traditions.  We were lucky enough to visit the community and learn about their way of life.  The experience was led by women of the community, which is not typical because men usually bring in the only source of income for the family.  We were also given a cup of tea steeped with the guayusa leaf.  Guayusa is found nearly exclusively in this area of Ecuador and contains almost as much caffeine as coffee.  While it is not like green or black tea, it is rich with polyphenols and antioxidants.  Many deem this leaf as a “superleaf” due to all of the health benefits.  As demand is increasing in the western world for this healthy elixir, the locals of the Amazon can benefit from the sustainable income.  It seems that growing guayusa is low impact on the environment because there is no need for fertilizers or chemicals and does not require deforestation for production.  It will be interesting to see whether places in North America will continue to demand this product.  I know we will certainly be looking for guayusa when we return stateside so we can support the Nueva Providencia community.


I could go on and on about the Ecuadorian Amazon.  We really enjoyed our time exploring the area and staying at the Sacha lodge.  But all good things must come to an end, so we made the journey back to Quito and headed south into the heart of Ecuador, towards more volcanoes and cowboy (Chagra) country.  Stay tuned for life on the hacienda.   



 The Sacha Lodge canopy walk, nearly 100 feet off the ground and 940 feet long, perfect for watching animals and sunsets.

The Sacha Lodge canopy walk, nearly 100 feet off the ground and 940 feet long, perfect for watching animals and sunsets.

Volcanic hikes.

Otavalo, Ecuador

Hello Ecuador.  We said goodbye to Peru and made our way to Quito, Ecuador for the next leg of our trip.  Right away we set off for a smaller town northeast of Quito, called Otavalo.  Otavalo is most famous for their large market, but is also surrounded by three large volcanoes, Imbabura (15,190 ft), Cotacachi (16,388 ft), and Mojanda (13,986 ft), which make the landscape pretty incredible.  Two of the three volcanoes are completely inactive.  The other is dormant so we had nothing to worry about, otherwise I assure you we would have reconsidered the itinerary.  It took us almost two hours from Quito to get to our little lodge, high up in the Andes mountain range.  We were glad to make it as all of the previous travel was starting to catch up with us!

Not your average farmers market.  So the main draw to Otavalo is their massive market, especially on Saturdays.  We are not talking about a little farmers market here, we are talking about rows and rows of handmade textiles, blankets, wooden goods, jewelry, instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, spices, wool, and the list goes on.  The prices are extremely reasonable and negotiating is encouraged.  While this area has a large agricultural focus due to the fertile volcanic soil, the market is a large revenue source for the town.  The increase in tourism, however, has also decreased the amount of handmade items available.  While this is certainly a negative, in some of the smaller surrounding towns you can be assured that you are buying handmade goods.  Regardless, the market is a great place to learn about the community and contribute to the locals, which is at the core of sustainable tourism.

A hike of volcanic proportions.  It’s not everyday that you hike on a volcano.  We jumped on the opportunity to do a hike on the Mojanda volcano, which is at 14,000 feet.  It was an incredible experience because we had the place to ourselves.  Walking for a couple of hours with no one else around was really peaceful, but also a bit spooky.  Also, because the weather changes so quickly at altitude, when the clouds roll in and a thick layer of fog encompasses you, it feels slightly eerie.  I will just be honest here and tell you that the title of this section also coincides with how I was feeling about the altitude on this hike.  Pretty much over it.  Perhaps (by perhaps, I mean definitely) I had a mini meltdown as every step felt like I was running a 10K, and every gasp of air felt like I had an elephant sitting on my chest.  Luckily Russ was there to pull me of the metaphoric volcanic ledge.  I pulled it together to finish the hike and now we can check volcano hike of the list.  Although I am not sure that was on the list.  But who cares, after you blow your lid (see what I did there) on the top of a volcano, it automatically goes on your bucket list.

R&R.  So this blog is short and sweet because we spent a lot of our time in Otavalo resting and relaxing after our Machu Picchu travels.  This was definitely the place to do it.  The views were spectacular from our lodge, the locals were very friendly, and it was extremely cold in the evenings, with no heating besides a wooden stove, so it made it easy to cozy up and rest here. 

Next up….The Amazon!  Lot’s to report on here, so stay tuned for our next blog post from the jungle! 


Cusco // Sacred Valley // Machu Picchu, Peru

Villages to city life.  So, we left our little slice of heaven in Lake Titicaca for Cusco.  After a 6 hour bus ride, we made it to the city.  Cusco has about 400,000 people and sits on the eastern part of the Andes mountain range.  While Cusco is not as high as Lake Titicaca, it is still 11,000 feet above sea level.  Used as a gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, Cusco is bustling with tourists and backpackers.  The city is also home to the Inca ceremonial fortress, Sacsayhuaman or Saqsaywaman or the butchered English version pronounced Sexy Woman.  No women, no sexiness, just a whole lot of meticulous stonework.  Anyway, moving on.  The Sacsayhuaman site was my first taste of Incan ruins and it is pretty mind boggling, I must say.  Take a look at the picture of the stone wall below and you’ll see what I mean.  Crazy.

Mother earth.  After one night we were ready to escape city life again.  We headed out to what is called the Sacred Valley or Valle Sagrado de los Incas.  This area is rich with archeological sites as well as agriculture due to its position beneath the mountain range.  The Sacred Valley is also where you depart for Machu Picchu.  With the remnants of the Inca empire sprawling out into this valley, you can certainly understand why it is deemed sacred.  In fact, most locals still frequently reference the Inca goddess Pachamama, Mama Pacha, or mother earth.  According to this mythology, she reigns over agricultural harvests, the mountains, earthquakes, and basically has the power to sustain life on earth. Pachamama is represented by the snake, puma, and condor to symbolize the past, present, and future.  So yeah, Pachamama pretty much runs the show around these parts.  In all seriousness, locals still toast/honor her before festivities or meetings.  She’s a big deal.  Don’t mess with mama.  

The little bulls.  It is important to note the Spanish influence in this region.  Because the Spaniards came in and pretty much took over the Incas, you will find influences of the Spanish culture throughout this area.  There are a lot of negatives to the Spanish conquest, of course, but an important spiritual symbol to the Peruvian Andeans is the Torito de Pucará.  Toro means bull in Spanish.  Many Peruvians in the Sacred Valley have this relic on the top of their roof (see picture).  It is believed that the little bulls will watch over livestock procreation, protection, fertility, and happiness in the home.  The duality of the two bulls create a balance of positive and negative energy. 

Colegio intercultural.  Sol y Luna Colegio Intercultural is the school our hotel, where we stayed in the Sacred Valley, founded for local children.  The school assists students in the area, providing full and partial scholarships, regardless of a child’s background or academic ability.  Because this valley is very rural, some children would have to walk far distances (sometimes up to 2 hours) to attend school, or not attend at all.  Sol y Luna Colegio Intercultural serves 163 students and provides room and board for those children who live far away.  Medical care as well as assistance for children with special needs is also provided.  We loved learning about the hotel’s endeavors in supporting the local community!

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Taking the long way.  Well, I must talk about the pinnacle of our time in the Sacred Valley: Machu Picchu.  It is hard to describe in a blog the magnitude of what is known as the “Lost City of the Incas”.  Another UNESCO world heritage site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu seems unreal.  We started our day by train, the only way up to the foothill town of Aguas Caliente, where you begin your ascent to Machu Picchu.  I don’t know about you, but it’s been a minute since I’ve last been on a train, so this part of the journey already puts you in the right frame of mind for what you are about to see.  After a near 2 hour train ride, we were ready to then jump on a bus and make our final leg of the journey to the top.  However, there is no just jumping on any mode of transportation on the way to Machu Picchu, I quickly learned.  There are masses of people from all different cultures, nationalities, and age ranges, all waiting to do the same exact thing.  This little cultural melting pot is very cool but also a bit of a cluster.  So, Russ and I made a split decision to skip the lines and hike to the top.  No biggie, right?  After almost 2 hours of continuous ascending of stone stairs, through the humid jungle, dodging snakes, condors and pumas, with hearts pounding and little oxygen (again, that pesky altitude thing), we made it to the top.  Okay, maybe I made up the part about snakes, condors, and pumas, but it added a little something, didn’t it?  We were a bit of a sweaty mess when we finally arrived, but it made the experience that much better.  Words won’t be able to do Machu Picchu justice, so I will just provide pictures.  It’s incredible.

Birthplace of the sun.

Lake Titicaca, Peru

Birthplace of the sun.  Lake Titicaca is a little slice of heaven.  No really, it is pretty magical here.  Not only is this place literally close to the heavens, 12,715 feet above sea level to be exact, but according to Andean belief it is the birthplace of the sun.  Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and highest body of water in the world that can be navigated by boat.  Between the stunning views, the friendly locals, the Inca remnants throughout the landscape, and the rich traditions still in practice today, this place is a dream.

Holy Altitude.  There is so much I want to tell you about Lake Titicaca, but we need to get something out of the way first: altitude sickness.  We flew from Lima straight to Lake Titicaca (don’t do this, by the way), so essentially went from sea level to nearly 13,000 feet.  I am going to spare you the gory details and just share the pictures below.  Basically, we were out of commission for over 24 hours and are still feeling the affects days later.  While we were fully aware that we would experience some type of altitude sickness, I don’t think we were prepared for what hit us.  And it definitely hit us. 

Super Quinoa.  Anyway, moving on, the first day we were back on our feet we visited a local village.  Along the way we learned about the agricultural practices of the locals.  Each family has their own plot of land and farm it completely by hand.  Each plot is meticulously kept and they harvest crops such as potatoes, beans, quinoa, and a “super quinoa” called cañihua (or kaniwa). Perhaps cañhua will be the next super food?!  On weekends the locals bring their crops and goods to the village market and use an exchange/bartering system instead of money.  We thought that this was a brilliant, and sustainable, system for exchanging goods in the community.

Go local!  On our visit to the village we were invited into one of the local homes to see the women who weave beautiful blankets, rugs, pillowcases, hats, and other garments.  Their craftsmanship is incredible.  Each piece can take weeks or even months to complete.  The materials are all locally sourced; including sheep and alpaca wool died using natural ingredients.  The hotel, on Lake Titicaca, fully supports this local village.  All of the hotel decorations are purchased from these villagers.  In addition, 80% of the materials, food, and goods used in the hotel are purchased from the local communities.  The other 20% are purchased from larger, surrounding cities.  The hotel also donated an elementary school (previously only a middle and high school existed) in an effort to support education among the community.

Muña saved us.  There is a plant that is widely used in this area called muña.  It was served to us as a tea to help us with altitude sickness.  It was delicious and a lifesaver!  It tastes and smells a bit like mint.  Muña grows wild, but the locals also use it to plant around their crops as a natural insect repellent/pesticide.  There are so many amazing ways to use muña and it is just as important to this area as the coca leaf (which is also used for teas and elixirs, but mostly for chewing).  Muña pictured below as a wild plant and in tea.  

Not your average tiny house.  The next day we were feeling even better (well, we weren’t in the fetal position, so let’s call it a good day) and headed out to visit the Isla de Uros, floating villages.  Literally, villages built in the middle of the lake on the root system of reeds.  This is the mic drop of my sustainability reporting.  I could probably stop this blog after telling you about the floating villages.  There are approximately 90 islands containing small villages of houses, schools, and even a medical clinic.  The houses are very small, also made of reed, to keep the families warm at night (the temperatures drop significantly on Lake Titicaca after the sun goes down).  They do not have plumbing, electricity (they use solar, which can be seen in photo below), or any modern kitchen appliances.  It’s incredible to say the least.  Additionally, they use reed boats for transportation.  These boats are made with used plastic water bottles.  The inside of the boat is entirely constructed of plastic bottles and the outside is then wrapped with reed.  Remember my last blog post about plastic bottles?  If the people of the Isla de Uros can do their part, we can too!

Fairytale land.  The last place we visited was Tequile island.  No, it was not a fairytale because we drank tequila all day.  Maybe that’s another blog post.  It was a fairytale because this place is absolutely gorgeous and untouched in tradition and culture. For over 2,000 years the people of this island have been living completely self sufficiently.  Think Mediterranean Sea and Greek Islands, but on a lake, 13,000 feet above sea level! 

The island is now a UNESCO world heritage site and the locals have partnered with tour guides to share their way of life with visitors.  It is a matriarchal society and both weaving (done by females) and knitting (done by the males) are an important part of their social system.  Women’s hair is very sacred and is typically grown until they become married.  Upon marriage they cut their hair and offer it to their husband.  Women also knit brightly colored belts that could take many months to make.  The belt includes a symbolic story about what the wife asks her husband to promise in their marriage.  Woven within the belts are strands of the wife’s hair.  Men wear their marriage belt (used instead of a wedding ring) very proudly and hold it as one of their most prized possessions.

Lather up.  Speaking of hair, because women of Tequile Island want to grow long, healthy hair prior to marriage, they use part of a cactus leaf, called chuho, as a shampoo.  When ground and added with water it forms a lather which is then applied to the hair for washing.  How easy!  Pick a plant, grind it up, add water, and voila- natural shampoo.

Although sick, we couldn’t get enough of Lake Titicaca as well as our hotel Titilaka.  This place, including the hotel, is truly magical and has so much to offer in sustainable tourism.  For now, however, we are off in search of more oxygen.  We're hoping to find some as we decent a couple hundred feet to Cusco.  Hasta la próxima!


All the ceviche.

Lima, Peru

All the ceviche.  It’s safe to say that we have covered the ceviche front in the two days that we have been in Peru.  Mission accomplished.  Lima is at the forefront of the food scene in Peru (it’s known as the "Gastronomical Capital of the Americas") and we were adamant about trying all we could in two days time.  We could have easily stayed longer, but managed to cover a lot of ground.  19 miles to be exact.  Yep, you read that correctly.  Russ and I spent two days on foot trekking around Lima in search of all the ceviche and pisco sours we could get our hands on.  Was it worth the near marathon to find these culinary delights?  Absolutely.  Case in point below.

That mellow beach pace.  All the walking allowed us to take in the sights of Lima.  One part Southern California, one part colonial charm, Lima has a little bit of everything to offer.  You can find modern restaurants, coffee shops, and even breweries all tucked alongside old churches, adorable town squares, and cobblestone streets.  Not to mention the fact that the entire city skirts the rolling coastline of the Pacific.  The views are incredible, to say the least.  The people are friendly, laid back, and move at a slow, mellow beach pace.  There is no rush here. 

140 million bottles of water.  I didn’t expect to report on sustainability practices happening in Lima, but I did notice two things that I’d like to share.  Let’s get the negative out of the way: bottled water.  Plastic water bottles are everywhere.  Unfortunately, it is not safe to drink tap water here in Peru.  Russ and I always travel with our reusable water bottles, but unless we want to be sick as dogs, we have been opting for the bottled water.  We calculated that each of us, on average, drink about 5 bottles per day.  With tourism being the third largest industry and roughly 4 million people expected to visit Peru this year on an average of 7 days per trip, that roughly equates to 140 million bottles of water.  Yikes.  That plastic must go somewhere.  Inevitably, it sometimes ends up in that beautiful Pacific water I just mentioned above.  You can do your part though, even if it is on a small scale.  Use reusable bottles whenever you can.  Once you get in the habit, it’s really simple AND will save you money.  Bonus!

Salud to Lima.  Ok, so on to the positive.  The portion sizes in Lima were perfect.  Never once did we leave anything behind on our plates.  And never once did we leave the table feeling hungry.  All of the food we had was fresh, preservative-free, with simple ingredients and big flavors.  It seems like such a simple concept, to serve normal size portions that leave you satiated and eliminate food waste. We could all take a lesson from Lima (and probably all of Peru, I will report back on this) in portion control.  Salud a Lima!

Next up is Lake Titicaca.  I can’t wait to share our experiences here as we go from the sea to high up in the Andes Mountains.  Stay tuned!

Planning, packing, preparing.

Austin, Texas --> Lima, Peru

Planning.  Packing.  Preparing.  This has been our life on repeat for the past few weeks.  If you know Russ and I, you're probably not surprised.  We've been swimming in a sea of to-do lists, spreadsheets, itineraries, travel blogs, websites, you name it, to plan our next big adventure.  I could have added Panic to that little alliteration that I so cleverly whipped up (it took an embarrassingly long time) because, well, putting your life on hold for a solid month as an adult is no easy task.  We think it will be worth it.

Why Peru and Ecuador?  South America offers an abundance of opportunities to learn about sustainable development and environmental issues, which is the focus of our trip.  With some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the world, Peru and Ecuador are prime for learning about sustainability practices, eco-tourism, and conservation. We aim to share via this blog so that you can not only learn about sustainability along with us, but perhaps spread awareness and/or incorporate some eco-practices at home too.

Also, I should mention ceviche, chocolate, coffee, the Amazon, beaches, mountains, Machu Picchu, and this Pisco Sour concoction that apparently we must try (um, no problem).  So yeah, for a number of reasons, Peru and Ecuador have been on the top of our bucket list for a while now.

Disclaimer: I (Mel, the lady with the oversized backpack that I can barely lift, pictured below) will be the blogger for this trip.  I am not a professional blogger nor am I a sustainability guru.  But, I hope you will still find these posts enjoyable and useful.  If not, stop reading and save yourself now!

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Four weeks.  Two countries.  One mission.  Or, maybe a couple of missions if you count the obligatory chocolate tastings, but you get what I was doing there.  Regardless, we are excited.  We hope that you will follow us and Mountain Sun as we explore Peru and Ecuador.

Follow the Sun!

 Shameless send-off selfie.  Many more of these to come....stay tuned!

Shameless send-off selfie.  Many more of these to come....stay tuned!