Archive | May, 2014

Uyuni Salt Flats – Salar de Uyuni – Photo Essay

27 May

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BOLIVIA: Copacabana, Lake Titicaca and La Paz

17 May

With Tour Peru (http://www.tourperu.com.pe/), we took the apparently “dangerous” bus trip into Bolivia.  It all worked out just fine: our journey from Cusco to Puno was overnight – and having booked the cama seats, we settled into oversized, leather chairs that turned into comfortable beds (although the road was rather bumpy; a great sleep tool for some!).

From Puno, we took another bus and drove to Yunguyo, where we crossed the border into yet again, another fabulous country. As Canadians, we are lucky that good relations exist and we do not have to pay hefty entrance fees (like e.g. our American counterparts who pay $135.00 US per person to enter Bolivia).  However, the border process is still an interesting one.

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First, we needed to get exit stamps at the Peruvian side (we couldn’t find the white exit ticket from my passport so that involved more bureaucracy; copying passport pages, paying extra fees etc.). Then we lined up for two different Bolivian state offices to get our entrance documentation. Once completed, we walked across state lines and got back into the bus (with some cheers as we were the last ones!) for our final leg into Copacabana.

Copacabana – Lake Titicaca

Copacabana is a delightful, small town on Lago (lake) Titicaca. The first thing you’ll notice driving into town is this breathtaking lake (apparently the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest of the world’s large lakes at 3,810 metres or 12,507 feet above sea level). We all quickly realized how much we missed WATER. The sight of this stunning blue body of agua, overshadowed by rays of sunshine put our bodies at ease and gave smiles to our faces.

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Lake Titicaca

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The picturesque town of Copacabana

We smiled even more when we saw what our accommodations were going to be like for the next 3 nights. Our apartment was a 2 level deluxe house, shaped in the form of huge snail shell. The boys were thrilled! Moreover, two free-roaming llamas and colourful hammocks in our garden and in-room fireplace made it the coolest place we stayed in so far. Our “snail house” was located high up on a hill – and had many, small circular windows that gave fabulous views over the lake and nightly spectacle of stars. Hostal Las Olas (http://hostallasolas.com) was the place to be in town and honestly, we had the best hideaway. What a treat!

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Our fabulous “Snail House”

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Our llamas – here in a cage but usually roaming freely in our garden

After a good coffee at El Condor & The Eagle Cafe, we set off to explore the town. We noticed right away that the merchants in Bolivia are much less commercial (“pushy”), then their Peruvian counterparts; we could easily browse without being bombarded with selling tactics. It was a refreshing change and speaks to the less-developed and down-to-earth nature of this country.

When we walked towards the Lake, we met a nice American-Bolivian family (the mother Sonia had left the United States to return to her roots in Bolivia after her divorce. Her daughter Sylvia who still lived in America was visiting her mom & new husband). Together with the three of them, we took a boat tour on Lake Titicaca to one of the floating islands (that the area is so well-known for).

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With Sylvia, Sonia & husband

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Floating Reed Island

The islets are made of reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that these plants develop and interweave, form a natural layer called Khili (about one to two metres thick) that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The reeds at the bottom of the islands rot away fairly quickly, so new reeds are added to the top constantly, about every three months (or more in the rainy season). These islands are constructed so smartly and apparently last about thirty years.

Although we carefully stepped onto the reed island (the reeds break more and more as they are walked upon), we still sank about 3 inches and had to stabilize ourselves. Once settled, we were invited to come and scoop our own “truita” (trout fish) out of one of the ponds (the trout fish was introduced into the Lake in 1940 from Canada). Five jumpy fish were caught, killed, filleted and cooked to perfection within 20 minutes. Freshness never tasted better – so delicious!

After a nice meal and wonderful chat, we climbed a nearby rock to take in the stunning surroundings from above. It was so nice to be on the water again and for me to take pictures of the colourful, local boats. We all thoroughly enjoyed our day on this famous lake.

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On top of the mountain, enjoying the view over Lake Titicaca

 

Isla del Sol

The water kept pulling us and the next day we set off on another boat tour – this time heading for Lake Titicaca’s largest island; Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). This gorgeous, rocky, hilly island (with harsh terrain, no paved roads or motor vehicles) is located about 2 hours from Copacabana.

Upon arrival, we were told that hiking from the North to the South part of the Island would take about 2.5 hours (3 hours max).  We enthusiastically took off walking, on a very picturesque mountain path  – with stunning views of the lake all alongside us. Filou was so in his element; he must have climbed every steep slope he could find in the first couple of hours (we told him to conserve some energy but he wouldn’t hear of it)!

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Isla del Sol

We had about 4.5 hours to make it in time for our return boat so felt that we could easily accomplish this task (although Anthony was limping a bit as he had twisted his ankle in the morning and we had forgotten to take extra money out of the bank machine so we had some pressure to make it back to our boat in time, as we had no funds to stay the night).

We admired the island’s many rolling hills that contain beautiful agricultural terraces. These terraces adapt the island’s steep and rocky terrain into agriculture – the main activity of the approximately 800 families living there. It was quite laughable that several much older, native ladies with their donkeys and extremely heavy back loads were quickly surpassing us while climbing the hills (and we thought we were somewhat in shape after globetrotting for 9 months)!

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But we enjoyed the spectacular views, had great family chats and were happy for the first 2-3 hours. It was then when we realized we were up for a major challenge. Crossing this island was not a small task at all – and it took us much longer then anticipated (it didn’t help that there was no signage at all which made us take a wrong turn and that Emile also started to limp as he had made a small slip down a rock).

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Our climbing goat on Isla Del Sol

We were already envisioning what sleeping on the beach would be like…but the kids really wanted to get back to our beautiful “Snail House”. They tried to help and rushed out in front of us to make it in time for the boat. By this time Anthony’s foot was really hurting and although he was a trooper – he and I were exactly 5 minutes late for the boat. Do you think they would wait for us (even with pleas from the children)? NO! We couldn’t believe seeing the boat take off right in front of us.

Thank goodness there was another boat that took us back ½ hour later…and although we accomplished one of our hardest hikes to date, the beautiful start to the day, had a bit of a nasty aftertaste.

However, our last day in Copacabana was a good one again as we bumped into the lovely French family we had met in Cusco. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner out with Renaud, Severine and their 2 children; Mahé and Delpheé, as well as their friends from Germany. There were some great laughs all around and I was happy to have a drinking buddy for the night (and a French one no less!). Together Severine and I finished a nice bottle of red, which was the perfect ending to a wonderful stay in Copacabana!

And so we left the city, after being chased down the many stairs of Hostal Las Olas by the llamas in our garden (we did not want to leave with some llama spit on us, so made a real bee-line not to cross them). One of the more determined llama’s chased another couple in so much haste, that it tripped over a water hose and almost landed on Anthony and our suitcases. What a story that would have been! But full of gratitude for our fantastic stay at Las Olas and unharmed from llama attack we left to take a bus to La Paz.

 

La Paz

Driving into the city of La Paz was quite a unique experience, and one that quickly had us in awe. We were first welcomed by the imposing, triple peaked and snow-capped Illimani Mountain (6402 meters) and then by the city itself. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by high mountains. As it grew, the city climbed the hills resulting in varying elevations of 3,200 to 4,100 meters. It was quite the sight!

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La Paz and Mount Illimani

To learn about La Paz, we took the city’s FREE walking tour organized by Red Cap City Tours (http://www.redcapwalkingtours.com). We gathered at 11:00 am at Plaza San Pedro and were welcomed by two bright, well-informed, English speaking ladies that were ready to show us their vibrant town.

They first taught us about the infamous San Pedro prison. This correctional facility is quite a unique one! There are no uniformed prison guards but elected inmate leaders enforce the laws of the community (with stabbings being commonplace!). Not only is the prison home to about 1,500 inmates, who are there mostly because of drug-related charges, but their spouses and children also live with them inside.

What is so unique is that inmates have to buy or rent their accommodation and the sale of cocaine to visiting tourists helps them make money (how ironic as they were incarcerated for drug offences in the first place!). The prison has many living quarters and the wealthiest area “La Posta” provides inmates with private bathrooms, a kitchen, and even cable television or a hot tub! And there is a hospital inside the prison, as well as multiple churches and a hotel for visiting guests – how bizarre!

Although no longer allowed, due to several accidents (who would think?), the prison was an infamous tourist attraction until recently. Youngsters had the opportunity to pay a fee and go into the facility to visit with inmates for fun. The book Marching Powder by Rusty Young describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden who became known for offering prison tours to tourists. However, one should think before getting involved with drugs in Bolivia and ending up in this jail as most of the inmates are still waiting (15 years!), to get their “fair” trial.

From there we visited Rodriguez Market – a lively street market where the prominent item sold is the potato. In just Peru and Bolivia alone there are some 10,000 different varieties of potatoes, in colours ranging from green, to black, to pink and white (we saw a lots of chunos; white potatoes that are freeze-dried and can last up to 20-30 years).

Another market of great interest in La Paz is the Witches Market. We were looking forward to passing through this neigbourhood with its colourful stalls and fascinating ingredients (herbs, parts of frogs and insects used for rituals as well as colourful soapstone figurines and other offerings). However, we were quickly a little disturbed as the most prominent product available here are dried llama fetuses (fairly large ones too!). The locals believe that a llama fetus needs to be buried  in the foundation of their new house or business as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). 

And the girls of Red Cap Tours told us the crazy story that sometimes street people are buried alive in the foundation of large buildings as a larger offering – we all just focused on believing this was a true urban myth as it was too crazy a story!

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Llama fetuses in La Paz’s Witches Market – good luck offerings for Pachamama

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Soapstone figures and other colourful offerings

Upon departing the area, we also saw a yatiri or witch doctor, all dressed in black with a dark hat. He was carrying his coca pouch (used to help him tell fortunes). But we are not superstitious and prefer to leave the spirits where they belong so passed on getting details about our future. Why jinx our awesome travelling fortune when we have great wealth and happiness already?

We then saw the gorgeous cathedral at San Francisco Plaza and moved to Plaza Murillo where we learned about Bolivian politics and history. By this time the kids were losing a bit of interest and wanted to feed the pigeons in the plaza – what a delight; there was crazy laughter!

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Feeding the pigeons in Plaza Murillo

All in all a fantastic tour… and from the top of Hotel Presidente (where we had an awesome view of the city), we said goodbye to our lovely tour guides.

The next day was Mother’s Day, which we celebrated in style at Sol Y Luna, a wonderful Dutch café, decorated appropriately with Holland flags and orange banners.  The best was the “Broodje Kroket Sate” (bread crumbed fried meat roll on bread): we all were in heaven. So delicious!I was in my element and happily hummed along with some great Dutch tunes (which I unfortunately didn’t recognize – must have been away from Holland too long) and after we played a fun game of billiards, it was time to wrap up the day.  I received a beautiful orange llama poncho as my mother’s day gift and with that, our visit to this interesting city was complete.

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Dutch style; orange Ponchito for Mother’s Day

Next it is onto the Bolivian capital of Sucre!

PERU: Cusco and the Sacred Valley_2

4 May

Choco Museo

In the days leading up to Semana Santa (Easter), one of the things on the children’s mind was chocolate (and eggs)! A fabulous Easter egg hunt, such as the one we did annually at Deerhurst Resort or my friend Marie’s house, was not in the cards so we opted to go to the Cusco Choco Museo (http://www.chocomuseo.com) to learn about Peruvian cacao and make some yummy Easter treats.

Emile, Filou and I (together with our new travellingfriends; Rachel Greenley & family), signed up for a 2-hour workshop where we were promised to learn the chocolate making process from cacao bean to bar. Everyone was excited and when we entered the Choco Museo, we knew we were in the right place; sweet cacao smells and cups of cacao husk tea (to die for!), were awaiting us.

We first learned how cacao is harvested in the plantations. From there, we went onto roasting the cacao beans in a beautiful clay pot. When cooled down, we peeled the beans and got to grind them into a paste using a mortar and pestle. This was harder then it looked as strength and a consistent pressing and turning motion was needed to get to the paste stage (in a machine, beans are crushed for 24 hours to make them into refined chocolate!).

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Emile roasting his cacao beans in a clay pot

Our cacao paste was then used to prepare the first known cacao drink, invented by the Mayas (a people from the northern regions of South-America). Our lovely Peruvian instructor explained to us that the Mayas prepared this chocolate beverage, using a secret ingredient. She continued to say that in order for us to re-create this sweet drink, she needed 3 volunteers.

Of course our boys, together with Rachel’s son Sean, were eager to sign up for this volunteer task. However, once they got the explanation of what was involved, only our brave little Filou was still game. She mentioned that 3 drops of blood were to be added to this drink. The Mayas collected this blood by piercing the bottom of their tongues.

We couldn’t believe it but Filou was still up for the task after the explanation! The instructor then showed him a pin and told him to put his mouth over a bow while sticking out his tongue. She kept such a straight face that we all thought it was for real…but when push came to shove she touched his tongue with a piece of soft thread…you should have seen him smile when he realized it was all a joke and he got a chocolate for being such a great sport! We all had a good laugh and finally got to taste the “non-bloody”, delicious coco drink!

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Filou getting his tongue pierced for our “bloody” chocolate drink

Then, we received a large bowl of refined dark or milk chocolate and some molds to get our creativity going. We had such a fun time making a variety of tasty chocolates using spices such as mint, cinnamon, chili, sea salt etc. Also, there were different kinds of nuts and fun items on hand for the kids, such as crushed Oreo’s, M&M’s and coconut pieces.

We took our artisanal chocolates home – after they had cooled down in the fridge for about 1 hour and savoured our delicious creations for days to come (even after Easter).

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Easter

The Easter spirit in Cusco came alive by the various street decorations (red flags), sales of many different kinds of Easter cookies in the markets and on the streets, as well as the procession of Señor de Los Temblores. On the Monday of Semana Santa, a procession followed this patron saint of Cusco (a black jesus on the cross who is believed to have limited the damage from an earthquake in 1650) through the local streets.

During this procession, there were such masses of people and police around Plaza de Armas that it took Anthony and Emile about 1 hour to fight through the crowds to get home (after music lesson). On Good Friday, the local tradition is for women to cook 12 different vegetarian/fish dishes. And with a beautiful church on every corner of the city and many spiritual people (mainly catholics), religion appears to be alive and well in Cusco.

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Procession of Señor de Los Temblores, in streets of Cusco for Semana Santa (Easter)

On Easter Sunday, we fled the masses of tourists and took a colectivo to the beautiful town of Pisac.  This little village in the sacred valley on the Urubamba River is full of history and charm and boasts a large Sunday market.  After some nice strolling around, we met up with friends that live up in Gringo Ville; a lovely community of houses that are surrounded by ruins and mountains – what a beautiful spot!  We had a lovely bohemic day chatting with Brie & family and several of their friends & neighbours.

Speaking of friends, it was a real delight to have good friend Jeannette Lee and her partner Dave in town. They came to Cusco to trek the Salkantay Pass (apparently more beautiful and less touristy than the popular Inka trail) – and we ended up having a nice catch up over lunch. Afterwards, there was some fun jamming going on in San Blas Plaza all together – what a treat for the boys to learn from such a great friend and accomplished musician!

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Jamming in San Blas Plaza with good friend Jeanette Lee, from Canada

Depacho ceremony; honouring Pachamama

Our new amiga Lainie suggested that we go for a hike in nature to give some love and appreciation to Mother Earth. Her friend Ceasar, led us up into the hills above the Sacsayhuaman Ruins (where a few days before the kids had enjoyed the natural rock slides).  The nature was beautiful, with hardly anyone around. We ended up at a place near a river with a large rock that had some impressive Inca carvings (huge Inca cross). Following some fun climbs and getting in touch with nature (we all had to take off our shoes and it was suggested we lie down in the grass, stare up into the sky and take in nature), Ceasar started the Despacho Ceremony.

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Ceasar with traditional headpiece

In the Andean traditions of Peru, a Despacho is a ceremonial offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus (mountains).  It is the Inka’s believe that the land, earth and universe will take care of them if they take care of it. They consider a Despacho, an offering or fair exchange for what was taken from the land and to preserve their relationship with it (Ceasar urged us all to re-gain our relationship with nature as he believes many of the harms and illnesses nowadays are due to our lost connection with Mother Earth). Our Despacho focused on thanks for the bountiful offerings Mother Earth gives us each day, personal gratitude for the beauty in our lives and prayers for those in need that surround us.

We gathered in a circle around Ceasar and watched him make the preparations for the ceremony. He placed a wide variety of symbolic offerings on a large colourful blanket in front of him, all with great care and intention. There were sacred rocks, crystals, flowers, dried corn, coca leaves, strings, candies, wine etc.  He then arranged bundles of coca leaves (3 in each bundle with pointy leaves representing the mountains, and rounded leaves representing the earth) and handed a bundle to each one of us (we were there with 3 wonderful families).  We were then instructed to blow on the leaves, give a prayer and send thanks and good wishes into the universe.  Also, a type of flowery alcohol was poured into our hands three times, We were to smell the liquid and rub it over our entire bodies as a type of cleansing.

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Filou receiving the “cleansing” liquid 

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Ceasar blowing prayers onto the coca leaves

Ceasar then took our leaves back, dipped them in wine and arranged them, together with many beautiful flowers, candies and confetti, into an amazingly colourful ensemble. Once completed, the bundle was folded, tied up into a package and burnt ceremonially over a large fire. It is believed that the fire allows the spirits to “eat” the offerings in peace and that any heavy energy is turned into ash for Pachamama to consume and compost, transforming into fertile ground for new endeavours.

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Prayer to the mountains

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Depacho offering of flowers, candies, feathers and many good wishes for Pachamama (Mother Earth)

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Final thanks and prayers with the offering package in hand, before it is being burnt and given to Pachamama and the mountain spirits

We all felt very privileged to have been part of this sacred ceremony; a wonderful practice of gratitude. Thanks to Lainie for organizing, Ceasar for leading the ceremony and Carrie for translating and explaining the interesting, local traditions & beliefs.

Filming a CSR documentary-commercial in Santa Teresa

A few days later, I was also grateful for Emile who found an interesting posting at his Spanish school. A film crew was looking for seven people to participate in the filming of a documentary-commercial for ScotiaBank. I was in the mood for doing something crazy so I signed up and, together with six 20-yr old cute backpackers (I was thankful they included my 40+ face), I set off to Santa Teresa. In true Peruvian style we spent the first day waiting (all day!!!) for people and lost luggage to arrive, and after a 6-hour bus ride we finally arrived at our destination.

Santa Teresa, a town deep into the mountains, on the edge of the Amazon, is situated 6.5 km from Machu Picchu and is at the axis of several alternative routes leading to the archeological site. In 1998, a landslide completely buried the town and destroyed that bridge that connected it to Machu Picchu and Cusco. Since then, the people of Santa Teresa have been a true example of what determination, hard work and a fighting spirit can do to resurrect a community.

It was because of the needs in this area that ScotiaBank (http://www.scotiabank.com/brightfuture/) – in cooperation with the humanitarian organization CARE (http://www.care.org) – decided to focus on one aspect of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative “Bright Future” here. To celebrate the end of their 4-year commitment and successful launch of initiatives and entrepreneurship in this region, a documentary was commissioned.

The crew, a group of about 12-15 funky, hard-working, independent filmmakers from Lima (one was the spitting image of film star Johnny Depp), came together to make some magic happen. We were asked to bring at least 3 different outfits as several scenes were to be taped over the next couple of days.

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Part of the crew at work

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With sound technician, Mario Rivas

For example, we pretended to hike the Inka Trail (which in reality, was us walking up a steep set of stairs with heavy backpacks – 3 times!). We also acted that we were visiting a plantation and strolled the “coffee route”. It was here that we learned how the locals had turned their coffee beans into a sellable product and an educational, tourism opportunity. I was asked to do a scene in which I used a very large rock to grind coffee beans by hand. It was in the traditional way, that a stone was moved in in a back-and-forward motion to crush the roasted goodies. It was fun to do but harder then it looked!

Besides coffee, Santa Teresa also produces some delicious, organic honey and we got to witness the launch of the first honey store in town! The opening of this commercial outlet was inaugurated with the breaking of a bottle of honey liquor. In the honey scene, Sophie (another Dutch girl) and I, had to taste and buy honey (after 3 scenes of tastings, we had had our fair share of the sweet stuff!).

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Scene in the honey shop, being filmed by director  Jorge Carmona

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With Sophie van der Ploeg; honey shop scene

Lastly, the locals have learned to use their beautiful pieces of land into camping opportunities for trekkers. Our film crew set up 10 tents on one piece of land and mounted a “Camping” sign. We pretended to drink coffee by the campfire and unpack our backpacks. It was all a lot of fun!

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The “film stars” from L to R: Diego, Camilla, Iris, Melissa, Kyle, Sophie & me

It was an amazing weekend of connections, Spanish practice, and fun activities such as salsa dancing. The crew took amazing care of us – feeding us local dishes such as Pachamanca (fried yuka root, sweet potatoes, lamb and chicken cooked underground) and Cuye (guinea pig).

The guinea pig, a true local delicacy, took us all by surprise. The animals were cooked over a large fire and served in its entirety (complete with head, arms, legs and fingernails!). We all wanted to be respectful of local traditions and gave it a try, with some of us liking it more then others (it tasted like a piece of salty rabbit!). Thanks to sweet Sugey, director Jorge Carmona and its amazing crew, we were all a very unique experience richer; one that I will certainly remember for a long time to come!

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Our lunch; guinea pigs (a Peruvian delicacy) and chicken

And with that wonderful memory and many others, it is time for us to leave Peru. We say Hasta Luego to the lamas, the colourful people, lomo saltado and the numerous magnificent ruins. Our time here was one of many connections – Kim, Lainie, Brie, Rhoni, Raisa, Rachel, Mel & families – we thank you for your warm friendships.

Kim & Scott– you guys were the sweetest for throwing us a good-bye party! We hope our “Inka” paths with continue to cross. Now we’re set for a long bus ride and get into the beautiful country of Bolivia. Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo Perú!

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Natural rock slides at Sacsayhuaman Ruins

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Lainie, me, Kim & Rachel

Farewell Peru

At our Cusco Farewell party; beautiful Buen Viaje sign made by Kat and Kane Crawford