IT’S TIME TO GET EXCITED

It is officially time to get excited. In three weeks and two days, my sister and I will board a plane (two planes, to be exact) for China. We are finalizing plans, and I’m starting to get that thrill in my bones that makes me want to turn the music up to its maximum volume and break out some very uncoordinated dance moves.

Some of the things I am excited about:

(1) Hike the Great Wall: We finally settled on a guide and hike for the Great Wall. As you probably know, the Great Wall of China is huge and you can see it and hike it at many different portions alongs its windy route. We settled on Dandelion Hiking which received very good reviews on TripAdvisor and offers guided hiking trips at half the price than many other companies ($73 compared to $150 and up). So far, they have been very responsive and helpful. They deliberately offer “off-the-beaten-track” trips, which means I won’t have throngs of tourists obstructing my photographs. They recommended the Chen Castle Great Wall hike, which is about five miles and looks amazing.

Chen Castle

(2) The Shanghai Marriage Market: I just discovered this gem. Every Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of Chinese parents gather in the People’s Square, hawking pictures and descriptions of their single children, looking for prospective marriage partners for them. The People’s Square is right across from our hotel, and I am definitely going to this.

marriage market

(3) See the second tallest building in the world: At 2,073 feet, the Shanghai Tower is now the second tallest building in the world, behind the Burj Khalifa which I don’t expect to see anytime soon. Growing up in Chicago, I always took for granted that the Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) was the tallest building in the world and would always stay that way. Boy has the world changed.

Shanghai tower

(4) Visit a canal town: There are a whole bunch of canal towns a short distance from Shanghai, and we plan to take a day trip to explore one of them. We haven’t chosen which one yet, but it should be fun.

Suzhou

5) Acrobats: We plan on seeing an acrobatic show at Shanghai’s Circus World. Maybe it’s a little touristy and cheesy, but I like touristy and cheesy, especially if it involves gymnastics.

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(6) Take this picture: There is something quietly beautiful about Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I’m hoping the real thing lives up to the pictures.

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(7) New hotels: You know you’re travel obsessed when part of the fun of traveling is trying out new hotels. In total, I will sleep in four new hotels from four different chains (Hilton, Club Carlson, IHG, and SPG). Woohoo!

(8) Mockingjay: What!?!? Why am I talking about the Hunger Games? Because I have a tradition of seeing movies I really want to see in foreign countries and the third installment in the Hunger Games series comes out the weekend I leave for China. I’ve already mapped out all the good theaters in Beijing and Shanghai.

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Oh Canada

I haven’t been doing much traveling lately since we are in the height of election season, but last week I stole away to spend the Jewish holidays with friends in Toronto. Dan and Daveeda are some of my favorite people in the world and I wish I could pack them up and take them with me wherever I live. But until they agree to that arrangement or I figure out how to teleport, I’ll have to settle for trekking to Canada every once in a while.

We spent most of the holiday doing what we Jews do best: Praying, eating, and sleeping — and then eating again. But we spent one day taking the kids to Edwards Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden in eastern Toronto.

It was a beautiful fall day and it was just nice to be outdoors and explore the gardens.

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And then the kids decided to take a bath in the river, which was a lot of fun for them and a little less fun for the adults.

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How Much Does It Cost to See China and Japan in Style?

I have finally booked all the pieces of my trip to Asia this fall. I will start off in China with my sister where we will see Beijing and Shanghai. After my sister flies home, I will spend a couple of days in Kyoto, Japan by myself. Here is the route.

Flight Map

Weirdly, the most expensive part of this trip has been my visa application to enter China. I could have applied for the visa myself, but I have limited time and even more limited patience, so I mailed everything to Allied Visa & Passport which was recommended by The Points Guy.

Here is the breakdown of all the costs:

  • Flight: Washington D.C. – Beijing (business class): 75,000 Aeroplan miles + $65.70 in fees.
  • Hotel: Four nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing: 184,560 Hilton points + $99.91. I booked three nights with points and one night with cash plus points.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Raddison Blu Shanghai New World: 88,000 Club Carlson points + $163.87. (I booked four nights using points and paid in full for one night, which I will split with my sister.)
  • Flight: Shanghai – Osaka, Japan (economy): 7,5000 British Airways miles + $91.82 in fees
  • Hotel: One night at Indigo on the Bund: Free. I used my annual IHG free hotel certificate.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Westin Kyoto: 40,000 SPG points
  • Flight: Osaka – Washington D.C. (business/first class): 80,000 United miles + $61.40 in fees. I will be flying business class to Beijing and then first class to Washington D.C. First class was only an additional 5,000 miles, so I said, why the hell not?
  • Chinese visa application: $140
  • Visa Service: $40 (normally it costs $45 but I should get a $5 discount for referencing The Points Guy) + $41 in FedEx fees.

Total out of pocket costs: $571.82 after my sister and I split the two hotel rooms I had to pay for. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

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The Ultimate Challenge: Booking our China Hotels

Booking our China hotels was simultaneously a challenge and an obsession. I love investigating hotels and figuring out the best options for my points. If that makes me something of a travel geek, well, I’m perfectly okay with that. And China is a travel geek’s heaven because there are so many chain hotels and so many options.

In Beijing, I knew I wanted to be close to the main attractions – The Forbidden Temple and Tiananmen Square — and also close to a convenient subway stop. This meant some terrific hotels were struck from the list: The Conrad and the Park Hyatt for starters.

So I made this awesome map:

Beijing hotel map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

Once my lovely map was complete, we had a couple of options: The Grand Hyatt, the new W hotel which doesn’t open until late September, the Hilton Beijing, and the Park Plaza. I have gold status with Hilton and Club Carlson (Park Plaza), and platinum status with Hyatt thanks to my new Hyatt credit card.

While the new W hotel looks amazing, I have limited SPG points, and the combination of my lack of status and the desire to use my SPG points elsewhere knocked it out of the running. My sister and I both recently applied and received our Hyatt credit cards which gives us two free nights each, but again, I decided to save that perk for a more expensive Hyatt property. The Park Plaza’s reviews were just okay, so that left the Hilton, where my gold status will get us lounge access, free wifi, and hopefully, an upgrade.

Here are some pictures:

Choosing our hotel in Shanghai was even more of a challenge. Shanghai’s tourist attractions are spread across several neighborhoods. Despite the allure of staying in one of the sky-high (literally) Hyatts in Pudong, we will probably spend more time across the river in Puxi, and I don’t want to bother with the constant commute.

This left us with a couple of options in central Puxi: Waldorf Astoria on the Bund (too expensive and used all my Hilton points in Beijing); Hotel Indigo on the Bund; Hyatt on the Bund; Radisson Blu Shanghai New World; Le Royal Meridian Shanghai; the Westin Bund; Shanghai Andaz Hotel.

It was time to make another beautiful map:

Shanghai map

Key: The red pins are hotels. The purple pins are tourist attractions. The yellow heart is our hotel. The gift boxes are shopping centers. And the circles and stars are subway stops.

My sister will be with me in Shanghai for four nights, and I will probably stay another two. The Hyatt on the Bund got amazing reviews, but it is a little out of the way. The SPG properties are similarly amazing but I have decided to go to Kyoto for a couple of days after my sister abandons me and want to save my SPG points for my limited hotel options in Japan. So I took a second look at the Radisson Blu New World and really liked what I saw. It is not as glamorous or modern as the sky-high Hyatts, but it is pretty nice. Thanks to my Club Carlson credit card, I get the last night of every reservation free, and my gold status should get us lounge access, free internet and possibly, an upgrade. Plus, the Radisson Blu is in a great location, overlooking the People’s Park, near the intersection of three subway lines.

Some pictures to whet your (and my) appetite:

I saw a little trick on one of the blogs that I will be putting to the test. When you redeem your Club Carlson points, the credit card gives you the last night of the reservation free. But I wanted to get at least two free nights out of our stay. So I booked one reservation for our first two nights using 44,000 Club Carlson points. I paid in full ($170) for the third night. And then I booked the fourth and fifth nights using another 44,000 points.

For my last night in Shanghai, I am using my free IHG night (I get one free night certificate a year thanks to my IHG credit card) at the rave-reviewed Indigo on the Bund. I’ve stayed at plenty of IHG properties over the years from Holiday Inn Express to the Intercontinental in Paris. But I’ve never stayed at the boutique Indigo brand and am very much looking forward to it. Its modern, artsy decor is totally up my alley and the views of the Pudong skyline look amazing.

More pictures:

 

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Part 16: Highlights and Lowlights

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside
Part 13: Regards from 12,000 Feet
Part 14: Lima – The Worst Capital City Ever?
Part 15: The Children of Peru

My final post on my Peru trip comes a good six weeks after it ended. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what was awesome, what was a little less awesome, and what was the opposite of awesome.

Highlights

  • I did not get kidnapped or mugged! In preparing for this trip, I read many a horror story about tourists who were either kidnapped by rogue taxi drivers in the middle of the night and forced to withdraw large sums of money from an ATM machine or mugged in plain daylight. Thankfully, our trip was uneventful in both these respects. We took normal precautions that anyone should take when traveling, and we were fine. I have returned stateside with my computer, my iPad, my iPhone, my DSLR camera and passport. Definitely a huge highlight.
  • I did not get (too) sick! We similarly heard horror stories about people getting very ill either from altitude sickness or from eating Peruvian food. We came prepared. We took altitude sickness medication before we landed, and arranged our trip strategically to acclimate to higher elevations. We certainly experienced some common effects from the lack of oxygen at over 10,000 feet altitude, but nothing that seriously impacted our trip. We also drank bottled water and largely avoided eating raw, unpeeled foods.
  • The SPG hotels. I used my points to book rooms for us in the two Starwood hotels that coincided with our itinerary in Urubamba and Cusco. As I reviewed here and here, these hotels were beautiful and very relaxing.

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  • Collectivos. Collectivos are a great and cheap way for getting around Peru’s countryside and, in my opinion, a hysterical and authentically Peruvian experience.

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  • The children of Peru. As I detailed in this blog post, I had a great time taking pictures and interacting with Peru’s adorable children. I loved seeing their faces light up when I took a photo and showed them the picture on the digital screen. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand anything they were saying except “photo!” Their enjoyment (and mine) superseded our language barrier.

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This photo cracks me up

  • The salt pans. Sure, people come to Peru to see Machu Picchu, and that was certainly incredible. But I had never seen anything like the salt pans in the Sacred Valley, and seeing new things for the first time is always something special.

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  • Making new friends. Travel is a strange and wonderful thing, bringing people together who may never have met otherwise. If we had been sitting next to one another on the subway in New York City, we probably wouldn’t have said a word to each other simply because that is not what people do. We go about our daily lives and don’t strike up conversations with strangers. But what is considered odd in the monotony of our regular lives is deemed normal when traveling. We met some wonderful couples from Canada, New York, and New Jersey and exchanged email addresses. We may never see each other again, or we may become lifelong friends. All because we were visiting Machu Picchu on the same day. That is truly an amazing thing.
  • Hanging out with my good/old friend. Although we live only three and a half hours away by train, it seems like Lisa and I only spend significant time together when we travel to a foreign country. It was great to get in some quality girlfriend time. We were long overdue.

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  • Remembering why I love traveling. When I left D.C. for Peru, I felt weighed down by the turmoil in my personal life and wondered if I should have prolonged the trip. But once we landed in Peru and our adventure began, I remembered why I love traveling: It takes me outside of myself. Real life disappeared, at least for two weeks. We got caught up in the beauty and the newness of this amazing country.
  • Peru’s unrivaled beauty. Peru is a beautiful country with soaring mountains, colorful farms, historic ruins, and rolling hills. What is there not to like?

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Lowlights

  • The persistent lack of wifi. Lame, I know. While some people love going away and shutting off all of their gadgets, I get anxious without 3G. I am addicted to technology, and the first step is admitting it. So here I am admitting it.
  • Getting dressed. This sounds odd so let me explain. Mornings and nights are chilly in Peru’s winter climate, especially at higher altitudes. Daytime is warm and extremely sunny. If I wore my Uggs and fleece in the morning, it was just right until about 11 a.m. and then I was sweltering and stuck carrying my fleece around. The opposite had me shivering in the morning. I never knew quite what to wear, and while this is not exactly an earth-shattering problem, it was a mild nuisance.

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  • Our hotel in Aguas Calientes. When it comes to staying overnight near Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes is the only show in town (unless you want to fork over $1,000 a night on Machu Picchu mountain itself). Because tourists have no other option, prices in this small town are absurdly inflated. A mid-range hotel cost us $150 a night, but it wasn’t exactly the Hampton Inn. Case in point: I had to blow dry my clothing thanks to the persistent humidity in the hotel that left everything a little damp.
  • Lima. In fairness, we only had four hours to explore Lima before our flight home, and a good portion of that time was spent navigating Lima’s horrific traffic. That said, what we saw we did not like. Read more about our quick trip to Lima here, but overall, we were extremely unimpressed. It was cold, rainy, dreary, and not particularly interesting.
  • Exhaustion. Let me be clear about one thing: I am not a morning person. I don’t like getting up early and I usually can sleep pretty much anywhere. But for some reason, I consistently woke up between six and seven a.m. throughout our trip and could not fall back asleep. A fellow traveler attributed this phenomenon to the altitude and perhaps he was right. By the end of the trip, the early mornings caught up with me and I was completely wiped.
  • Constantly flying. We saw a lot on this trip and I wouldn’t change our itinerary at all. But Peru is not Europe, and the unless you want to spend hours and hours on a bus in which you may or may not get mugged, your best bet for getting around the country is to fly. In total, I took seven flights in two weeks and it grew wearisome by the end.
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Part 15: The Children of Peru

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside
Part 13: Regards from 12,000 Feet
Part 14: Lima – The Worst Capital City Ever?

In another life, I’d like a job photographing children all around the world. Photographing the children of Peru and showing them how to use my camera was one of my favorite experiences of our trip. Warning: Be prepared for a ton of cuteness.

In Urubamba:

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In Ollantaytambo:

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In Aguas Calientes:

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In Pisac:

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The kids in Cusco were unbelievably adorable. As I traveled across Peru, I was initially shocked when some of the children put out their hands and said, “Propina,” right after I took their picture. Propina, I learned, means “tip.” Peru is an overwhelmingly poor country, and the children, I realized, learn from their parents who seek an extra soles from tourists every chance they get. But the children we found playing in an empty courtyard in Cusco had no interest in a “propina.” They just wanted to have fun, and fun they had.

They loved posing for pictures and then loved seeing their goofy poses on the screen. They had no inhibitions about jumping on me, on each other, and just generally trying to one-up themselves. I was laughing hysterically the entire time.

It started out with a simple pose.

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And ended up with a Peruvian version of a pyramid:

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And then they stole my hat, and attempted to steal it from each other:

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When one of the girls started crying – I think having five other kids jump all over you might have that effect on a person — I offered them granola bars and band-aids which they thought was the greatest present ever.

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On the side of the road in the Sacred Valley:

At a stop along the highway in the Sacred Valley, we chanced upon these adorable girls who were wrapping their dolls up in scarves just like Peruvian women wrap their babies. The girl in red was strikingly beautiful.

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On Taquille Island:

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Part 14: Lima – The Worst Capital City Ever?

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside
Part 13: Regards from 12,000 Feet

Everything I read about Lima before I saw it set my expectations extremely low. So low that I thought I couldn’t be disappointed. I was wrong. Apparently, I didn’t set the bar low enough.

Now, in all fairness, we only had about four hours to see Lima – a sprawling city with many, diverse neighborhoods – until our flight back to the U.S. Our original plan was to head to Miraflores, Lima’s wealthy, coastal neighborhood, known for its hip shops and scenic views. But our cab driver managed to convince us that we’d be better off seeing Lima’s colonial center.

As we drove to our destination, we encountered some of the worst traffic and driving we have ever seen (and we have both driven in New York City!) and a slew of poor, dilapidated neighborhoods. The cab driver even warned us to keep our bags on the floor, lest someone break the window and grab our bags from the car as we muddled our way through Lima’s traffic jams. That’s just crazy!

Lima’s colonial center encompasses a few blocks filled with colonial churches and buildings. But the surrounding neighborhood is decidedly seedy, to put it bluntly. It didn’t help that it was cold and drizzly, casting a seemingly permanent grayness over the depressing city.

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I love this picture. It is so random.

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This is Lima’s famous Monastery of San Francisco, which is covered in birds. This was probably the most exciting thing we saw in Lima…after the Starbucks, but more about that later.

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After walking around for an hour or so, we were cold and slightly damp and had seen all we needed to see. But we still had another 40 minutes until our taxi driver would pick us up. So we stumbled around numbly until we saw a familiar logo.

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I don’t even drink coffee, but it was warm; there were comfortable chairs to sit on; and there was free wifi. How sad is it that Starbucks was our favorite part of Lima?

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Holy Chicken Coop Batman, I’m Going to Beijing and Shanghai!

Yes, I just got back from Peru a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I’m a crazy person who can’t stop buying travel books (I now own more than 70). And yes, I love planning trips almost as much as I love taking them. So pretty much as soon as I got back to the U.S., I began searching for my next travel partner and destination.

The advantage of working in politics is that the dead time is entirely predictable. Nothing happens in December of an election year. Nothing. So I knew I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted, so long as I could find someone to travel with and I could make the miles and points work.

When my sister agreed to accompany me for a week and a half, that’s when I really went into crazy mode. We considered Argentina, Hawaii, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, and Chile. We seriously considered Hawaii because of the warm weather and the ease of staying in the U.S. But we were both somewhat daunted by the high prices and the annoyance of hopping from island to island. We considered a tour of Budapest, Prague and Berlin because of my weird obsession with Communist era history and my desire to stay in this freaking awesome hotel.

But then, in one of our many gchats, I typed: “Hey, you know, you could fly to Beijing for only 35,000 United miles in economy.”

And my sister typed, “Oh, I really want to see the Great Wall.”

And suddenly, it just became clear: We were going to China.

Sure, it’s going to be cold. Maybe even freezing. But there are so many great sights between Beijing and Shanghai that excited both of us, it became a slam dunk. And to top it off, this trip will be personal for us.

Our maternal grandparents escaped German-occupied Poland during World War II via Japan and then Shanghai. They were lucky enough to secure Japanese visas at the last minute and made their way to Kobe, Japan. When the Japanese realized they didn’t want a bunch of European Jews on their hands, they dumped them in Shanghai, where my grandparents lived for five years. Today, much of the Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai no longer exists, but there is a museum dedicated to the community, and I’ve heard good things about the experience.

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Finally, being the points-obsessed person that I am, I love how many great hotel options we have to choose from. It’s a cliche, but I really do feel like a kid in a candy store. So many gorgeous hotels for so few points — how will we ever choose?

Somehow, I think we will manage.

Here is the challenge: My sister doesn’t want to take too many days off of work, so she will be abandoning me after a week and two days. The question is, what do I do then? Do I stick around Shanghai and just explore the city’s many neighborhoods? Do I hop a plane to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors? Do I hop a plane to Guilin to see the pretty karst mountains and these amazing rice terraces?

Rice Terraces

I’m a little wary of exploring China’s countryside by my lonesome. Big cities I can handle solo, but I literally do not speak a word of Chinese and I’ve heard it’s not the easiest country to navigate by yourself. Another option is to hop a plane to another country on the way home. I’m considering Kyoto, Japan because it’s actually warmer than China. I considered stopping off in Europe but the inefficiency of the trip gave me pause. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to the U.S. is about 13 hours. A nonstop flight from Shanghai to Germany is 12 hours! That is nuts. If I hadn’t already been to Hong Kong, that would be an obvious choice, but I was just there in November 2013.

So faithful readers, where should I go in early December?

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Updated Maps

What’s a girl to do when she’s sick and feeling sorry for herself? Update her “Where I’ve Been” maps, of course.

This is both awesome and depressing. I have 12 states left to visit in the United States, mostly thanks to work. I’ve actually gotten some color in Asia and South America. But then, there is a shit ton of white space. There are so many places to see! The good news is that I am in the process of planning a trip to China (which apparently counts separately from Hong Kong) so that will give me a big swath of turquoise in Asia.

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Part 13: Regards From 12,000 Feet

Part 1: Getting to the Sacred Valley is Not Easy
Part 2: The Most Awesome Hotel Ever
Part 3: When in Urubamba…
Part 4: A Town Called Olly
Part 5: Can You Pass the Salt?
Part 6: How to Get to Machu Picchu
Part 7: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered (Machu Picchu)
Part 8: My Love Affair with Starwood Continues
Part 9: Hats Galore in Pisac (and other things)
Part 10: Cusco: The Highs and Lows
Part 11: 10 Things You Can Buy at Cusco’s San Pedro Market
Part 12: Exploring Cusco’s Countryside

It was finally time for the last major destination of of our journey. We had saved the remote, 12,000-foot Puno for last. To my knowledge, there are three ways to get to Puno: A bus, a train, or a plane. Since we didn’t have 8-10 hours to spend on the road we opted for the latter. It was a quick one and a half hour flight from Cusco’s tiny airport to Juliaca’s even tinier airport.

Note: If you are flying to Puno, you will land in the seedy and mildly terrifying down of Juliaca, about an hour’s drive from Puno. All the blogs I read beforehand were unambiguous in their advice to get the hell out of Dodge (Dodge being Juliaca), and from the little that we saw as we drove through it, I’d have to agree.

We chose a hotel on the water, and it was pretty nice to wake up to the views of Lake Titicaca – the worlds highest navigable lake. For those who are curious, we asked our taxi driver what in the world that means — what the heck is a navigable lake? He informed us that Lake Titicaca never freezes, despite its high altitude, and thus, it is navigable all year round. To which I replied: “So really, we should call it ‘the world’s highest perpetually navigable lake?’” and he laughed.

Sometimes, I crack myself up.

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The beautiful view from our hotel.

We went to bed early to wake up at 6 a.m. for our 6:45 pick up. I wish I could tell you that we did a lot of research and picked the best tourist company for the obligatory Lake Titicaca tour, but they all looked more or less the same and we blindly chose one. But I can tell you without any doubt that at 6:45 a.m., it was cold. Not a little chilly, but really, honestly cold. That’s why I’m dressed like this.

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Of course, by noon, the sun was bright and strong, and even though I started shedding layers, I was a sweaty, sweltering mess. So much for planning.

The boat ride to our first stop, the famous Uros Islands, took about an hour in the fast boat. The Uros Islands are inhabited by natives who have their own language and traditions and dress in traditional Peruvian garb. The islands are famous for being made entirely our of the reeds that grow in the water.

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Once we arrived at the first island, we sat on reed benches while our guide and a local Uros resident explained a little bit about their culture and their way of life. Apparently, you can eat the reeds – but only eat the bottom part or you may end up spending a lot of unwanted time in the bathroom (according to our guide – I am not speaking from experience!).

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Lisa was braver than I. Here she is tasting the reeds.

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After the introduction, we had some time to wander around the small island. This is what the inside of a hut looks like:

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After about 10 minutes of wandering around, we boarded a reed boat and zipped off to another floating island, where we had our passports stamped. Note: Entrance to the islands and the boat ride coast 10 soles and stamping your passport costs an additional sole.

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If you’re inclined, there is plenty of opportunity to purchase souvenirs and multicolored trinkets. Lisa purchased one of these lovely hanging thingies.

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Our boat picked us up from the second island and we zipped off to Taquile Island, which is inhabited by Taquileños, who like the Uros natives, have their own tradition, culture and practices. I fell asleep on the ride to Taquile so I can’t actually tell you anything about the journey, but when I groggily stepped off our boat, I had one of those “oh wow…” moments.

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The sky was so blue and the water even bluer. And as we hiked up to the top of the island, the views got bluer and more beautiful.

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I was consistently impressed with the parade of natives carrying plywood up the mountain on their backs. I wasn’t carrying much of anything and I was huffing and puffing. But for them, this was just regular life.

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At the top of the mountain, we stopped to catch our breath in the town square. It’s not a particularly happening spot, but we learned later that this is where all the important town meetings and gatherings takes place.

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During lunch we received a crash course on the intricate practices of the Taquileños. The Taquileños are known for their brightly knitted hats and scarves, but these colorful items serve a utilitarian purpose. There are different hats for single men, engaged men and married men, and different hats for single women and married women. The position of the scarves’ tassels are used to indicate whether a person is happy or sad, and if they are sad, one of the councilmen will approach them and solve their problem. If only my problems could be solved that way.

Taquile side-by-side

The Taquileños are incredibly self-sufficient, relying on the island’s natural resources to get by. In the below picture, a man demonstrates how they make soap out of a plant.

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Finally, the island’s natives demonstrated a traditional Taquile dance for us, even pulling in members of our tour group.

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Lisa and I both really enjoyed Taquile Island, though I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I wasn’t so tired. Most tourists we met in Peru gushed over the Uros floating islands, but I thought the commercialization of them detracted from their beauty. In contrast, Taquile had a purity about it. There weren’t throngs of tourist groups or natives selling souvenirs at every corner. It was just a beautiful hike up a mountain under a startling blue sky, engulfed by the wold’s highest perpetually navigable lake.

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The dynamic duo.

 

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