In traditional Hawaiian culture, the feast and festivities of a Luau were used to celebrate special occasions. So, while in Hawaii to celebrate my aunt’s 70th birthday, a Luau was high on our to-do list.
We chose the Smith Family Garden Luau at Smith’s Tropical Paradise on the island of Kauai. While sorting out my grandma’s slides from her trip to Hawaii in 1991, I found that this is the luau she attended while on the island, so since we were back in Hawaii with her two daughters and two of her granddaughters, it felt like the perfect place to celebrate!
Smith’s Tropical Paradise was created over sixty years ago by Walter Smith Sr. and his wife Emily along the Wailua River. Today, four generations later, the company has grown as the Smith family continues to welcome guests to explore their beautiful gardens, take a boat ride to the Fern Grotto, and enjoy a feast and show at the Garden Luau.
We started with a two-mile boat ride along the Wailua River with Captain Walter Jr. III sharing stories about the island and his family’s company on our way to visit the Fern Grotto.
Once docked, there’s a short walk through the lush rainforest to the Fern Grotto—a geological wonder of Kauai. Here, the ferns grow upside down from the roof of the grotto, which was formed millions of years ago.
When my grandma visited thirty-one years ago, guests were able to walk right into the grotto and be surrounded by the ferns. Unfortunately, this is no longer an option as rocks have begun to fall from the ceiling and the grotto was deemed unsafe for entry.
So, in order to continue tours here, they built a large platform out front. While here, we were treated to several Hawaiian songs performed by one of the crew on ukulele while another showed us some traditional hula dances. More of these were performed on the boat ride back.
From here, we headed over to explore the gardens at Smith’s Tropical Paradise, where we were greeted with a shell lei before boarding a tram for a tour around the thirty-acre botanical garden.
Since I began sorting through Grandma’s travel slides, I’ve enjoyed seeking out places she’s been on my travels and trying to get a similar photo to the ones she took.
The, entrance may have changed a bit in the past 31 years, but I’d say it still looks pretty similar!
Then you were free to wander around the beautiful, lush grounds including a Hibiscus garden, Japanese Garden, Bamboo Rainforest, multiple ponds, and more. The grounds were gorgeous with all the lush green foliage and brightly coloured flowers, with the mountains creating a lovely backdrop!
At 6 p.m., the Imu ceremony begins where they dig the Kalua pig out of the earthen imu oven.
The host explains about the Hawaiian cooking method called Kalua and what food to expect during dinner before sounding the conch shell and giving the food a blessing.
The Smith family entertains during cocktails and dinner with Hawaiian songs, stories, and hula. So we grabbed a Mai Tai and a Blue Hawaiian and enjoyed the music.
The dinner was delicious and included many traditional Hawaiian dishes like Kalua pig, beef teriyaki, sweet ‘n’ sour mahi mahi, lomi salmon, fresh poi, Hawaiian sweet potato, various salads, and dessert including tropical fruit, coconut cake, and rice pudding.
The Rhythm of Aloha show began at 8 p.m. in the outdoor Lagoon Theatre, complete with an erupting volcano!
The show was great—full of music and dance with some history of the island woven in. There were traditional hula dances from Hawaii and Tahiti, Samoan fire dances, and traditional dances from New Zealand, Japan, and the Philippines.
It was a fun show and made me want to learn to hula! (Pre-Covid, guests were invited up to participate, so hopefully that will open again soon!)
It was a wonderful way to experience some Hawaiian culture with my Ohana, made even more special as we shared the same experience as my grandma!
The entire Fern Grotto tour takes about one hour and twenty minutes. Tickets are best purchased online ahead of time. Tickets are $30 for adults and $15 for children. Tours currently run Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
*If you are going to the luau after the boat tour, select the 3:30 p.m. time.
The Smith’s Family Garden Luau dates vary based on time of year. Check the website for more details. Adult $125.00, Jr. (7-13) $35.00 & Child (3-6) $25.00. The luau includes entrance to the gardens, dinner, drinks, and the show.
If you just want to tour Smith’s Tropical Paradise gardens, you can Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 8:30–4 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be bought at the entrance.
Santorini has been at the top of my travel wish list for years and the main reason I’ve always wanted to visit Greece. Flipping through travel magazines and seeing those white churches with the bright blue domes sitting high up on the Caldera made me want to book a plane ticket there immediately, and yet, somehow it’s taken me years to finally do it. Thankfully, when I first saw Oia, it was everything I imagined and more!
Walking along the cobblestone streets was like stepping into the photos of the travel magazines that made me dream of coming here. The contrast between the white cliff of Cycladic houses perched 300+ metres up at the top of the Caldera and the beautiful deep turquoise Aegean Sea shining below was breathtaking. I was immediately in love with all the blue doors and shutters and colourful flowers, such a striking contrast against all the white.
The island of Santorini surrounds the vast crater left by one of history’s largest volcanic eruptions, with smaller islands found around the western edge. The sunsets hitting the snow-white buildings give the whole place an orange-red glow and are definitely not to be missed!
We spent five days in Santorini, the first three at an Airbnb just outside Oia, in Finikia, and the last two in Fira.
Oia, located on the northern tip of the island, is a must-see when visiting Santorini. Restoration work after the earthquake in 1956 has turned this spot into one of the most stunning places in the Cyclades. Built at the top of the steep Caldera, bright white buildings are nestled into the dark volcanic rock and the contrast is stunning. Today, the often-narrow streets are lined with shops and restaurants. Boutique hotels and Airbnbs can be found built into the sides of the Caldera. Spend your time exploring the labyrinth of streets here, finding the iconic blue domes and numerous churches.
While not much remains of Oia Castle after the earthquake, the ruins of the Venetian Castle of Agios Nikolaos is worth a visit for the views alone. This is also one of the most popular places to watch the sunset.
Over 250 steps below Oia, you’ll find Ammoudi Bay. The walk down is full of beautiful views of the dark-red Caldera with its snow-white peaks looming above.
Several fish tavernas are found down here, making it a perfect spot to enjoy fresh fish for lunch or dinner. To get back to the top, you can take a taxi or ride a donkey … or just hike it like we did and get your steps in!
Another must-do in Oia is a sunset cruise. There are many tour options ranging in size, price, and number of participants. We went with Barbarossa Sailing, and are so glad we did. We sailed out from Ammoudi Bay and went snorkelling in the Caldera and spotted the tiny church built in the rocks at sea level and saw the boats hidden in caves for protection, sailed around Santorini, checking out the various rock formations and the old port of Fira.
We stopped for another swim in the hot springs by the newest island (still over 500 years old) before having a delicious dinner made by the crew onboard and then sailing back out into the water to watch the sunset, which was amazing over the water. (Have I mentioned that the sunsets here are not to be missed??) The cruise ended back in Ammoudi Bay, which all lit up at night is also a must see!
From Oia, we moved to Fira, Santorini’s largest town. Views from here are amazing as you’re in the middle of the island and able to see both edges of the island’s moon shape.
Much like in Oia, the Caldera’s edge is filled with layers of hotels, restaurants, and cave apartments. The narrow cobblestone streets twist and turn as you make your way up and downhill.
The old port of Santorini is 587 steps down from Fira. Here, along with walking or taking a donkey, you can also ride the cable car and enjoy the view.
Following the Caldera’s edge, you can walk to the neighbouring town of Firostefani, filled with more beautiful views and great restaurants to catch the sunset from. Anywhere along the edge here offers beautiful views of the island, the sea sparkling below and, of course, the sunset!
Also be sure to stop by The Church of the Three Bells of Fira, one of the most photographed Greek Catholic churches on the island, also known as the Church of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While it can be a bit tricky to figure out how to get up, the view from the top is a must-see.
As one of Greece’s most important producers of wine, no trip to Santorini is complete without touring one of its wineries. Here, they are known for fresh dry white wine made mainly from the assyrtiko grapes of the region, and I couldn’t wait to try some.
We headed to Santo Wines for a tasting with a view. They have several different tasting options available. I opted for the 7 Premium wines and was quite happy with my decision! Our server gave us a brief history of the winery and some info about each of the wines we would be tasting, but if you are looking for something more in depth, tours are also available.
And of course, the food here is amazing. If you want a sunset view along with your dinner, be sure to arrive early or make a reservation. A few of our favourites were Piatsa Souvlaki Grill House, a cheap, delicious spot near the Oia bus stop with gyros, souvlaki, tzatziki and pita and more; Terpsi N Oia, a fancier spot where we enjoyed a great breakfast with a gorgeous view over the Caldera and the 3 blue domes in Oia; and in Firostefani, we had an amazing meal with a sunset view at Vanilia Mediterranean Cuisine.
Tips and Info
Santorini is a popular cruise ship stop, especially in Oia and Fira. To help avoid the huge crush of cruise ship passengers that flock here starting mid-morning, head out early in the day and then back out in the evenings. This is also a great way to beat the heat, as shade is almost non-existent here. Plus, if you’re looking to get great photos before both the crowds and the sun hit, 7 a.m. is a great time to be out exploring!
A cheap and easy way to travel both around the island and to and from the airport is by bus. Most rides cost less than €2 and buses run on a fairly regular schedule during the high and shoulder seasons. Buses all have luggage areas too, making it a much cheaper alternative to taxis. More info can be found here.
Ditch the heels as the cobblestone is very uneven and you are constantly walking up and down stairs and hills.
If possible, avoid high season, when crowds and prices are both at their peak.
Oia is a must, but accommodation prices here are definitely at the higher end, especially during the high season. So, while I would have LOVED to have a place right on the side of the Caldera facing the gorgeous sunset, based on booking last minute and the $500 a night and up price tag, we opted to stay just outside of Oia in Finikia, in our own Cycladic-style house. Then we’d walk about 20 minutes into Oia each day. This is a great option if you are unable to book well in advance or are looking for cheaper accommodations.
Of all the Greek islands, Mykonos is considered to be the glamorous party island of the Cyclades, and after spending a few days here, it was pretty easy to see why the rich and famous flock to its fancy beach clubs and party the night away. But, for those of us with tighter budgets, Mykonos still has plenty to offer.
Mykonos has been attracting visitors since the 1920s, but back then, rather than sun seekers and party goers, the island was an intriguing getaway for archaeologists and antiquity hunters, who would use it as a base to visit ancient Greece on the island of Delos.
The island became more popular in the 1960s when celebrities began vacationing here, and its popularity has continued to grow. Now, during the high season, the island, which is home to over 12,000 people, sees a huge influx of tourists and cruise ship passengers, adding up to 15,000 more people a day!
With its popularity comes a higher price tag on many things, especially if you are planning to visit between June and the end of August, when prices are double or triple what they are in the low season or even the shoulder seasons of May and September. We arrived near the end of May when the temperatures were already rising and the crowds were getting bigger, but with only three nights here, we jumped right into exploring what Mykonos had to offer.
One of the most famous sights on the island is the windmills.
They were built and in use in Mykonos from around the 1500s and up to the first decades of the 20th century. As the island is blessed with a strong wind most days, windmills were the ideal tool for grinding grain into flour—primarily wheat and barley.
While they are no longer operational, many of the windmills still stand as a reminder of the past … and a great photo spot! Be sure to check them out during the day and then come back in the evening, grab a beer, and find a spot to sit and watch the gorgeous Mykonos sunset!
Below the main set of windmills, you’ll find the Little Venice area of the island, filled with lots of trendy boutiques and restaurants with colourful flowers and cascading bougainvillea. This is the perfect place to grab a drink at one of the bars and catch the sunset. (Just be aware that reservations are often required and many have a €100 sitting fee during the sunset hours.)
As you make your way along the cobblestone streets and up and down the many stairs found here in between shops and restaurants, you’ll also find a number of tiny churches. I’ve never seen so many churches in such a small area as I did around Little Venice and Old Mykonos.
Another thing Mykonos is known for is its beautiful beaches and many beach clubs, including Paradise, Super Paradise, and Paraga. Dotted along each one you’ll find beach bars, restaurants, and lounge chairs. Even for those who aren’t into the crowded party scene (like my husband and I), you’ll still have a great time down at the beaches.
We had a delicious dinner at Paraga Beach at Taso’s Taverna and then strolled along the beach watching the sunset!
One thing I was most excited about on our trip to Greece was Greek food, and Mykonos didn’t disappoint—especially the fresh seafood found here. The beach tavernas have amazing dishes, but the ones found in Old Mykonos, like Captain’s, also have a great variety. We opted for the seafood-sharing platter and weren’t disappointed!
I made a promise to my husband that when he joins me on trips, I will always do my best to find a craft brewery for him to enjoy, and it turns out Mykonos has a great one. It was a bit of an adventure to find (I don’t recommend walking from town), but Mykonos Brewing Company was worth the visit.
We enjoyed a tasting flight of the beers they had on tap as the guy working told us all about each one and a bit about the history of the brewery. My fave was Fragos’ko, a beer made with the local prickly pear!
If ancient Greek ruins are more your style, then don’t miss taking a trip over to Delos island. This UNESCO world heritage site, which was once considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, is easily accessed from Mykonos by boat. The Cyclades name comes from the islands encircling the sacred island of Delos, the mythical birthplace of the twins Apollo and Artemis. There are no permanent dwellings and overnight stays aren’t allowed. The island is only 5km long and 1300m wide and can mostly be explored in a few hours. Many of the pieces found on the island are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but there’s a good collection found here.
Tickets can be purchased down by the water in Old Mykonos. There are several time slots each day and you can opt for just the return boat ride for €22 or a guided tour for €60. The boat ride takes about 30 minutes. Entrance to the island isn’t included in the ticket and costs €8 at the gate. Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and good walking shoes!
Where to stay
There are so many options around the island vastly ranging in price.
We wanted to be within walkable distance to Old Mykonos and the windmills and found Oniro Suites, a small boutique hotel about a 7-minute walk from Old Mykonos.
The room was beautiful and the small pool was perfect after a hot walk around town, but the best parts were Anna, who worked reception, and the amazing continental breakfast that was included each morning. We were expecting the typical North American-style breakfast, and instead had some of the best breakfast food we’ve ever had.
Mykonos is easily accessed by high-speed ferry. We used SeaJets, but you can find all the options on FerryHopper.
If you are arriving to the island by ferry, you can take the SeaBus from the new port (where the ferries land) to the old port for €2. The SeaBus departs every 30 minutes and has lots of room for luggage.
The main Windmills of Mykonos are located in the Chora, just a 5-minute walk away from Fabrika central bus station. They are also just up the hill from Little Venice.
You can rent cars, ATVs, and motorcycles everywhere and many tourists use this as a way to travel around the island.
But if ATVs aren’t your thing, you can easily (and cheaply) get around the island by public bus. Schedules can be found here. It’s a great way to travel to the beach clubs, especially if you’re planning to drink. Plus, asking for a roundtrip ticket to Paradise is fun!
Today is my Travelling Grandma’s birthday and to celebrate I’m continuing to work my way through her massive collection of slides from her travels.
As as kid, I always loved seeing all the photos from her latest travels and hoping one day I would be able to see all the same places that she had.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to go through her slides and pick out photos of her in iconic and interesting places around the world with the hopes of being able to take photos of myself in those same places as I continue my travels.
I didn’t know at the time, what a huge undertaking this little project of mine would become. When I received boxes of her slides from my uncle, some were sorted into slide carousels…but many were just left in boxes with elastics that have long since rotted away, leaving thousands of slides in unmarked piles and turning this project into a huge game of ‘Where in the World is Grandma?’
What I’ve found as I’ve been sorting through the thousands of slides, is that we have a very similar way of taking photos on our trips. We are always marking where we are by taking photos of airports, ‘Welcome’ signs, destination markers, hotels we stay at, info plaques at places we visit etc. As most of the slides aren’t labeled, besides perhaps a country and date on the box, this has made this scavenger hunt a little easier to figure out where she is in the world.
I’ve also realized that we already have some very similar photos of us on our travels. It’s been interesting to see how places have changed over the years and fun to think of us visiting the same spots.
While I was never able to go on a big trip with my grandma, seeing photos of us in the same places almost makes it feel like we were travelling together!
It’s been 9 years since my ‘Travelling Grandma’ left us. Over the past year, I’ve been slowly working my way through the thousands and thousands of slides she took on her trips. I never got the chance to travel with her…but during this year of no travel, her and I have been around the world together. ❤
If you had asked me growing up what my travel goals were, I would have given you a long list, which included travelling to all the continents, visiting all the countries my Grandma had travelled to and more, seeing the wonders of the world, and on and on…but climbing mountains was never something I had really thought much about. In fact, if you had asked if summiting mountains was a goal of mine, I would likely have just laughed—at least until I spent several months living in Kenya, and found myself climbing Mt. Kenya. It ended up being a tough but very cool adventure, and I thought, Well, now I can check climbing a mountain off my life list and move on!
Climbing bigger mountains definitely wasn’t in the plans until some members of the group who I had volunteered with in Kenya in 2008 started talking about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. After debating my plans to never climb another mountain, I decided it would be a great adventure and I’m never one who likes to be left behind or miss out on a great experience…even if it is a challenging one.
So this is how, exactly ten years ago today, I found myself in Moshi, Tanzania, having an early morning cup of Kilimanjaro coffee while waiting to meet our guide and set off on our trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We met our guide, Julius, who told us to call him “Whitey,” an interesting nickname for this tall, dark Tanzanian guide. We all introduced ourselves and headed over to the Ahsante Tours office to pick up any rented gear and have a briefing before setting off to the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
We arrived at the Machame Route Gate, at a height of 1800m, got signed in and met our assistant guide, Benedict, or “Benny.” We took a group shot to mark the start of our trek and by 10:45am, we finally started making our way up the tallest mountain in Africa.
We spent the day hiking and chatting away, something that slowly died down on subsequent days as the air got thinner and our energy levels dwindled. But for now, we were fresh and excited. The setting today felt like hiking through a jungle, with some steep muddy parts thrown in to challenge us.
In between Whitey regaling us with songs, including a soulful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” and laughing and yelling out encouragement to us as we hiked along, I had some questions for him. I wanted to know how many times he had climbed this mountain, and he told me he quit counting at 120. 120?!? For me, once proved to be a challenge. I cannot imagine trekking up and down this mountain well over 120 times. (He is still a guide today, so I can only imagine what his count is now!) He’s been working on the mountain for 7 years, beginning as a porter at 18 years old, quickly working through the ranks to assistant guide and doing all the required training to become a lead guide. He told me becoming a guide was his dream. He grew up in Moshi and spent his childhood looking out at Mt. Kilimanjaro, knowing one day he wanted to climb it. Once he did, he couldn’t wait to bring others up his beloved mountain so they could see the beauty for themselves. We were definitely in good hands with him, and his love for his job and the mountain were unmistakable. He said he feels most at home on the mountain, and when he’s gone, he can’t wait to get back.
Around 5pm, we made it out of the jungle and into that evening’s camp, already set up and waiting for us. After settling into our tents, we met in the dining tent for hot chocolate and popcorn. Then we walked up to the ranger station to check in that we made it through day one, and then Whitey led us in what became a nightly routine of singing and dancing all together with our guides and porters.
This was a team bonding time, which became a little harder each day as our energy waned. But no matter how tired we were, we always mustered a last bit of strength for this fun. A perfect way to end each day of trekking!
The food prepared for each of our meals along this journey was delicious, made even more so by how hungry we were by the end of each day and how impressive it was that they were making pumpkin soup, pasta dishes and tasty desserts on the side of a mountain!
After dinner each night, Whitey came in to brief us on what the following day would entail and ask each of us to share our high and low moment of the day—another great daily tradition of this trek. Bedtime came early each night as we were always exhausted from the day.
“Now I’m in my tent, writing about day one by the light of my headlamp on Mt. Kili, 3000m up. How cool is that? Amazing!” — Journal excerpt
Day two began at 6am with a knock on the tent. “Jambo, good morning! Tea for you!” I opened the tent to find steaming mugs of chai tea waiting, a cozy way to start the morning, still wrapped up in my sleeping bag.
Breakfast was at 7am, before starting the day’s journey at 8am. Whitey told us today would definitely be “Pole Pole,” which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. He had told us from the start this was how we would be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and repeated these words often throughout the trek. Pole Pole was certainly the mantra of today as we made our way mostly uphill on a six-hour trek.
We stopped for lunch around 12pm and then made it to camp around 3pm. All day today, the scenery was beautiful. We woke up above the clouds and by lunchtime had climbed above a second layer of clouds.
In the distance, you could see the summit of Mt. Meru in Arusha peeking out from the clouds. We were now up at 3,800m. We climbed up to 3,900m and then back down a bit to sleep and let our bodies adjust to the altitude. “Climb High, Sleep Low” was another mountain mantra that helped us to safely acclimatize.
Tonight’s camp was at Shira Cave, so after settling in, Benny took us up to see the old cave.
“The sunset tonight was incredible, going down through the clouds, behind the hills, and the view of the peak was amazing. It’s so beautiful and peaceful up here. After dinner, once it was dark, the sky was lit up by 1000s of stars. Gorgeous. Tonight was one of the most beautiful sunsets and starry skies I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking!” — Journal excerpt
Once again, day three began at 6am with another steaming cup of chai tea at our tent door. A girl could get used to this kind of wake up…even if it is earlier than I would like!
Another incredible view this morning up above the clouds, with the summit stretching high above us and the sun just starting to streak through the clouds.
Our highest point today was Lava Tower at 4560m, a very cool rock formation created by volcanic activity on the mountain years ago. The tower stands 90m tall and is a beautiful backdrop for a much-needed resting spot by this point in the trek. We went back down to 3950m to sleep.
Every time I’d ask Whitey how much farther, he’d tell me we were almost there. Finally, about nine hours later, it was true! Each day, our singing and dancing ritual got a little more challenging, but still no one could resist celebrating the end of another day of trekking and being closer to our goal of reaching the summit.
On day four, after about 20 minutes of hiking, we arrived at Barranco Wall, a challenging climb up 257m. We went Pole Pole for sure here, trying not to lose our footing. We carefully made our way up this part of the trek, our guides helping us across the tricky parts.
As we got to higher altitudes and trickier spots, we had both Whitey and Benny, plus Francis and Joaquim, two other guides in training, with us at all times to help us along and make sure everyone was still doing okay with the altitude.
Today was when things really got tough. The higher altitudes and steeper parts were challenging and we were moving at a turtle’s pace. Even if we wanted to go faster, I’m not sure many of us could have done anything other than go Pole Pole.
Camp tonight had by far the best bathrooms—still just a squat hole in the ground—but this one had a cement floor, instead of the usual wood. And even better, the contents weren’t up around the top! (Some days it’s the little things that bring you joy!) Whitey gave us a pep talk as part of the briefing tonight and we all went to bed early to prepare for the summit.
We were woken up at 11:30pm to get ready and had hot chocolate, popcorn and porridge. I was dressed in as many layers as I could manage because it was freezing in the pitch-black night this high up on the mountain. We set off just after midnight, with only the stars above and our headlamps to help guide our way. You could only see what was right in front of you, which was likely a good thing, because if I had seen how far and high I still had to go in the freezing cold, I might have crawled right back into my warm sleeping bag!
We took a break about halfway up.
“When you looked out across the darkness, you could see the red/orange line of the sun beginning to rise above the clouds and there was a tiny sliver of a crescent moon just above the cloud line. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, and for a moment, I forgot about being freezing and exhausted and just stared out at the beauty, taking it all in.” — Journal excerpt
The higher we climbed, the harder it got. My muscles burned and near the top, my breathing became more laboured. We made our way through the snow and ice closer to the top, past the glaciers.
Whitey said he’d already seen a dramatic decline in the size of the glaciers in the seven years he had been climbing Kilimanjaro due to global warming. It was still an impressive sight, but I wonder what it used to look like?
We stopped for a tea break, before slowly continuing along the snowy, rocky trail to Stella Point. From there, we only had an hour left to go, but that last hour felt like we were hardly moving, everyone inhaling deeply, trying to get enough oxygen to take our next slow step.
Finally, around 8am, we rounded the last bend in the trail and made it to the summit, 5896m up. Making my way over to the flags and the sign saying, “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak,” welcoming me to the highest point in Africa, I burst into tears, exhaustion and excitement flooding over me.
Even though I wanted to quit at least 100 times today, I had made it. I could check climbing the highest mountain in Africa off my travel list!
Watching the sun rise over the rooftop of Africa is a moment I will never forget.
Those of us who made it to the summit got a group shot and quickly took our photos with the sign. Then, about 15-20 minutes later, we were on our way back down. Such a long way to go for such a short stay, but with the high altitude, we couldn’t linger.
We made it back to camp eleven hours after leaving it, toenails bleeding from the impact of heading basically straight back down, slipping and sliding through the gritty sand. After a nap and lunch, we packed up and hiked another two hours or so to that night’s camp. Today the highs were all about making it to the top and celebrating that victory!
The final morning after breakfast, we gathered for one last dance party before packing up and heading down the rest of the mountain, about a five-hour journey.
Back at the hotel that night, after having my first shower in six days (which was amazing), we met for one last dinner all together and toasted our success with cold Kilimanjaro beers.
Climbing mountains may not have started out on my life’s travel list, but the fact that I made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains one of my proudest travel experiences. Standing at the top, smiling through my tears and watching that incredible sun rising to the “Heaven of Africa,” as Whitey put it, is definitely a moment I will never forget.
I always knew I enjoyed a challenge and was not a quitter, and completing this trek cemented that for me. But now I’m seriously through climbing mountains…I think!
For some singing, dancing, hiking and commentary on this beautiful but challenging trek, check out the video below!
Some of the earliest memories I have of my “travelling Grandma” are of sitting in her living room, watching slides of her latest travels and listening to her tell us stories from around the world. Seeing the Taj Mahal, animals in the African savanna, the Pyramids, penguins in Antarctica and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and landscapes started my quest to follow in her footsteps and see the world for myself at a very young age.
By the time she passed in her mid 90’s, she had been to over 120 countries, taking thousands of photos along the way and turning most of them into slides to share her travels with others.
These slides have now made their way to me and as I’ve been home from my job as a flight attendant and not able to take off on any travels of my own during the current Covid-19 pandemic, I have finally begun the task of going through and organizing her slides, reliving her travels as I go.
Today, she would have turned 104 and I can’t think of a better way to honour her birthday then by diving into another set of slides and heading out on an adventure with her…. and of course having an ice cream cone to go with it!
These photos are a small selection of today’s slides from my grandma’s travels to Costa Rica, Galapagos Islands, Iceland and Arizona.
Like so many others worldwide, I’m currently sitting at home, trying to help stop the spread of Covid-19, while desperately wishing I was able to be out travelling. I spent some time this morning, looking through photos of my trip to Peru and all the photos of llamas brought a big smile to my face.
Hopefully, these adorable llamas along the Inca Trail can bring a smile to yours as well!
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for years. The more photos I saw of this mysterious Incan wonder and the more I read about the Inca Trail and how Machu Picchu was ‘lost’ for years, the more I wanted to see it for myself. While there are options for just seeing Machu Picchu, I didn’t want to arrive at the site by train. I dreamed of following the path of the Incans and hiking my way along the Inca Trail.
One of the most famous treks in the world, the Inca Trail trek itself is 42km, leading you along ancient narrow paths in the Peruvian countryside, up into the Andean Mountains. This mix of jungle, Incan ruins, cloud forest and beautiful Sacred Valley views lead the way to the incredible Machu Picchu, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
Machu Picchu’s existence was not widely known in the West until it was “discovered” in 1911 by the Yale University professor Hiram Bingham, who was led to the site by a local Quechua-speaking resident as he sought to find the lost city of the Incas.
I couldn’t wait to get there!
Our trek started in Cusco. Here, we met with our guide, got our gear and learned about what each day would entail, before taking a bus to the town of Ollantaytambo to stay overnight.
During the Incan Empire, this area was the site of the Emperor’s royal estate. Today, the small town is basically built around all the trekkers heading to the Inca Trail. We took a tour of the town, filled mainly with shops and restaurants for tourists, and then climbed up one of the surrounding hills to an old Incan site that used to be storehouses for the Inca’s crops.
Being up high helped protect the crops from both thieves and decay. The view of the Sacred Valley was beautiful from up here.
After a dinner of alpaca pasta, we headed to bed, ready to start our trek in the morning.
After breakfast, we drove over to the start of the Inca Trail, Kilometre 82. We got our bags all sorted out (what we were carrying and what the Porters were taking), making sure the weight was under the limit. Then we got our passports checked and tickets taken and headed across the bridge one at a time to start our trek of the Inca Trail!
It was so beautiful. I have been wanting to do this trip for so long that crossing that bridge was an exciting moment for me.
By 9:30am, we were hiking and it was uphill pretty much right from the start. We spent the next couple of hours going uphill and downhill, stopping for breaks every hour. The landscape was incredible. Most of it was so green, especially down in the valley when you were looking up at the hills surrounding you. As we passed various old Incan ruins our guides would give us some info about what we were seeing. The first big one we stopped at was Patallacta or Llactapata.
As you make your way along the trail, you are walking on a mixture of the original Inca Trail and a newer one, located nearby. This has been done in places to help preserve the original trail. Looking at all the sites and even parts of the trail itself, it’s incredible to think that most of this was built pre-1500s. How were they able to get all this stone here? This would be a challenge to build today, and yet they did it without any modern tools. Each time we came across a new site, this is something I marvelled at again and again.
As we walked, the sun soon turned to a misty rain. This continued on and off for most of day one, so it was nice to stop for our lunch break at Tarayoc for warm tea and soup followed by fish with rice and vegetables. After a break, we headed back to the trail. We passed houses along the way, and locals out on motorbikes, and horses and donkeys carrying loads along the trail. What a view you would have living out here (and also what a challenge unless you could completely live off the land!)
We hiked for about six hours that first day and of course the last 45 minutes was once again pretty much straight uphill! Camp tonight was at 3100m. I was exhausted by the time we made it there and so happy to see my tent! After arriving at our first camp, our guide, Odie, introduced us to the rest of our crew. The cooks and porters ranged in age from teens to their mid fifties, some of them earning money for school or training to become guides themselves, and others who had hiked this trail working as either cooks or porters their whole lives. While the language barrier made it hard to have conversations, learning something about each of them and sharing something about ourselves was great. We all sat for our first “Hot Drink Happy Hour” and had a hot chocolate or tea and cookies before having dinner in the dining tent around 6:30pm: soup followed by chicken and vegetables. By 7:30pm we all made our way to our tents, exhausted. It was pitch black and cold, but you could see so many stars. What a day!
The day started with a knock on the tent around 5am. “Good morning, would you like a hot drink?” A very early start, but such a lovely wake up call! We were given warm water to wash our hands and faces and a cup of hot tea. We had a breakfast of porridge and pancakes with chocolate sauce and coffee. By 6:30am, we had loaded up and were ready for what Odie said would be our toughest day, as we gained 1000m in elevation and then had to come back down 600m. It was steep right from the start!
Twenty minutes in, we stopped as Odie had to do some paperwork at the checkpoint. They make sure everyone is accounted for and that none of the porters are carrying more than the allowed weight of 25kg. It’s great that they are being monitored and that this rule was put in place to protect them from being completely overloaded.
The first part of the hike today was through lush vegetation, at times with small waterfalls and a river flowing beside us. The trail was a mix of dirt and rocks with large stone ‘steps’ in some parts (which I found much harder to climb). The trees were covered in moss and we saw some very large hummingbirds, in beautiful colours. The misty rain had settled in again by this point and the higher we went, the harder it was to breathe. At one point, I was stopping for a breather every twenty steps or so.
We climbed higher and higher and after three hours of climbing, we finally reached Dead Woman’s Pass – a name that was quite fitting for how I was feeling by that point!
The view was incredible and looking down at where we came from was almost unbelievable. We had a nice break here, taking photos and catching our breath.
Although being up at 4215m, it was quite chilly. At one point, someone yelled that they saw something moving. We all ran to look at what Odie called a Bobcat – dark in colour, with a long, ringed tail – a wild Andean cat. He said in the 10 years he’s been leading treks here, he’s only seen a couple of others, so we were very lucky to have spotted this cat!
After 15-20 minutes, we were all starting to shiver, so we began the trek back down the other side of the pass. As always, the scenery was gorgeous, although you needed to spend a lot of time looking down at where you were stepping so you didn’t go tumbling.
Just before 2pm, I saw Jorge waving the purple G Adventures flag meaning I had made it to tonight’s campsite. What an amazing sight!!
The porters all cheer you on as you make it into camp and hand you a refreshing drink. By 2:30pm, we sat down for lunch. I had been saying all day that I just wanted some spaghetti and cake and that’s what we ended up having for lunch! It was delicious! We had a restful afternoon until “Hot Drink Happy Hour” before dinner. The campsite tonight was around 3600m and the view was amazing. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever camped!
Another 5am wake up call with a cup of coca tea before breakfast. We set out around 6:15am for our 16km hike today. It was a beautiful sunny day as we started our uphill climb.
We soon came to Runcuracay Ruins, which Odie said were discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1915. This site had been used as a resting spot for Incas using the Inca Trail. The entire trail is 40,000km long, so this was one of the resting spots used by messengers as they travelled along the trail. We explored the ruins and then continued on our way.
The view from up above was beautiful, looking down on the ruins, with the morning mist still casting shadows over the mountains. The trek was challenging, but the views kept me going.
Today wasn’t as steep, but was more of a rolling up and down.
We also came across a number of llamas walking along the trail today. This made my day!
Each llama had an ear tag and Odie explained that their name was printed on the tag. One of my favourites was Doris.
She walked along with me for a little while before running back with her pack as we entered a cave.
Our lunch spot had a view where you could see for miles.
It also had a bunch of llamas to take photos of! Today’s meal was a feast. We had pizza, ceviche, veggies, chicken stuffed with peppers, pasta with cheese, quinoa burgers, squash, fried jungle potatoes, beef, corn and fried chicken!
Our head Chef, Wilbur, was great. We were certainly never hungry along this trek!
After a break to digest, we began the 3-hour mainly downhill section of today’s hike, much of which had very steep stone steps.
We stopped at another Incan site, Phuyupatamarca. With its elevation around 3600m, it’s also known as “The cloud above the town.”
This site had many different levels and some great views out the ‘windows.’
Shortly after, it began to rain, which made our rock-filled trail very slippery. Soon it was pouring, so the hike along this beautiful, jungle part of the trek was a slow one. We were soaked and cold by the time we finally made it to camp and had a tough time getting warm and dry as the rain continued. Not the best afternoon on the trail, but as we went to the dining tent for “hot drink happy hour,” the Chef surprised us with a cake that said, “Well done Inca Trail 2018.”
Such a nice surprise! We had another great dinner and then said our goodbyes to the cooks and porters as they would be leaving early in the morning to catch the train back to town. Then, it was early to bed as our final day would be an early start.
We were up by 3:30 to have a simple breakfast of bread and coffee and head out to get in line at the final checkpoint. We had to wait there until sunrise as the trail isn’t safe in the dark. Watching the sun rise over the Andes was incredible!
The final hike was about 45 minutes, including one super steep 52-step hill to reach the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku.
From here, you could see the sun rising over the valley on Machu Picchu. We were almost there!
We continued hiking down from the Sun Gate, passing several other Incan sites along the way, until we finally reached the entrance to Machu Picchu, which means ‘Old Mountain.’
I got some more llama selfies on the way and then continued on to what Odie called the “classic picture spot” in Machu Picchu, looking at all the old ruins with Huayna Picchu standing tall in the background. We made it!
We toured around the site, with Odie telling us about the different parts. The detail is incredible, especially considering how old it is and how remote.
There were terraces all the way down to the river below, but the brush had only been cleared down to a certain point after being found again by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
The site has several temples, including the Sun Temple and the Temple of the Condor. You could tell the difference between a temple and a regular building because the temples were built using only rock, with no mortar in between. There were huge storehouses for grain and crops and a large sundial at the top, as well as many other buildings which would have been living quarters.
The Temple of the Condor was made to look like a giant condor, with a cave below. Here, an ancient mummy was found. It was also the place where sacrifices would likely have taken place.
The one downside to this incredible place was the crowds. Tourists flock to Machu Picchu and there were tour groups EVERYWHERE. It was hard to get to see everything with as much detail as I would have liked as you were constantly moving from one point to the next, dodging people. We spent several hours here, taking photos, learning about the history, and walking from building to building.
Before we left, I just stood there and took in this beautiful wonder of the world, so happy to have finally made it here to see this old Incan world for myself!
Since 2002, access to the Inca Trail has been limited to 500 people per day (this is roughly split between 200 tourists & 300 guides and porters). It is necessary for everyone to obtain permits in advance to do the hike. The only way to secure a permit is by booking with an approved tour provider who buys these daily permits in advance. This means that you can only do the Inca Trail with an approved tour company and spaces are capped. Be sure to book early to avoid all the permits being gone for the time you want. (We went with G Adventures on their 7-day Inca Trail tour and had a great time).
There are a number of toilets located along the Inca Trail. They range from outhouses that locals own (they usually cost 1-2 sol to use), to actual restroom facilities located mainly at the campsite. Most are squat toilets, but some flush. The campsite ones had running water to wash with and freezing cold showers if you dare! Best to bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you!
Dress in layers. The temperatures varied from day to day and hour to hour, depending on your elevation. Also be sure to have a warm fleece for the nights and rain gear as we had some rain most days, varying from a light mist to pouring. You’ll want comfortable hiking boots and good socks to avoid blisters.
Most of all, come with an open mind and a camera to record the breathtaking beauty you will find along this ancient trek!
After a week hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and spending nights camping on the ground along the trail, we decided to end our trip to Peru by treating ourselves to a cabana in the jungle!
We boarded the plane in Cusco and took the short flight over to Puerto Maldonado, the start of the Amazon in Peru. The airport here was tiny, so we quickly grabbed our bags and met our Adventures within Reach shuttle. From here, we travelled 15 minutes to the docks to catch our riverboat to the Inkaterra Lodge – Hacienda Concepcion. An immediate difference we noticed from Cusco was the humidity. It was 35+C here and so humid your clothes began sticking to you in a matter of minutes.
Thankfully we were soon cruising down the Madre de Dios River with a bit of a breeze on our 30-minute journey. We docked and made our way up to the main lodge to check in and have lunch (which was amazing!)
The photos I’d seen when booking at the Hacienda Concepcion certainly don’t do it justice. What a gorgeous spot! Our cabana was perfect with a screened in porch you could sit on and listen to the birds and other wildlife moving around outside while looking at all the beautiful vegetation.
After settling in, we met our guide, Plinio, for a tour around the property. As we walked, he explained that the grounds here used to be a cocoa and rubber plantation. They were owned by a Spanish doctor who started a Catholic mission here in the 1950s with the intention of improving the lives of the locals by using his boat as a ‘hospital’ and visiting communities along the river. After the boat sank and the doctor passed away, the grounds were left to decay until they were bought by Inkaterra in 1979 to develop it into a scientific research facility.
Our guide pointed out various types of vegetation we found and let us try some of the cocoa. We also saw birds, insects and a few monkeys!
We enjoyed coffee time in the lodge and then a traditional Pisco Sour at happy hour before heading out for our Twilight River boat excursion.
Here, we found some night birds and a bunch of caimans ranging in size from babies to five feet.
After another delicious meal here, we went back to our cabana for an early night and fell asleep listening to the sounds of the jungle!
I woke up around 3:30am to a huge crash of thunder and rain pouring down, followed by lightning lighting up the sky. It rained a good part of this day, which cooled everything off and sounded so cool pounding against the huge leaves and thatched roofs of both our cabana and the main lodge. Being in the rainforest during a rain storm is certainly quite the experience!
By 2:30pm, it was only spitting rain, so we set out on our next excursion, The Inkaterra Canopy Walk and Anaconda Walkway. We took a riverboat about 25 minutes up river and were greeted by Tamarin monkeys playing in the trees.
We climbed up the tower to the canopy walk, 120-150 feet up into the treetops of the jungle and went one at a time across the six long suspension bridges used by scientists to study the canopy. What a view! Looking down was freaky, but if you just looked straight out you got a unique view of the jungle canopy, looking out over it instead of looking up from the ground. I wanted to see a sloth so badly, but sadly it was not to be on the walk.
That night, we had our final excursion, Hidden Forest. We went for a walk around the property with Plinio, who stopped to point out all kinds of insects, a few chicken tarantulas, a bright green tree frog and a caiman in a little pond.
It was neat and also a little spooky wandering through the dark, listening to all the sounds of the jungle moving around you. On our way to dinner, we found more monkeys playing in the trees including a mama with a baby hanging on her back!
Our last morning, we had another amazing meal.
The food here was incredible and the coffee was delicious! Then, we got our stuff packed up and went for one last walk around the grounds.
It was such a beautiful spot – the perfect place to relax for our final few days in Peru.