Fall 2017 Travel Plans

We’ve always said that having a baby wouldn’t slow us down – and we’re trying to make sure it stays true!  Of course we have slowed down a bit, but we have a busy fall planned.  We’ve completed a few successful overnighters (one weekend up in the Bay Area staying with my mom, and one down in LA at a hotel for a good friend’s wedding), and he did a great job.  So, what do we have planned?

  • Another weekend up in northern California – a couple of nights at my mom’s, and then our first real (mini) vacation as a family in Carmel.  We’ll be spending two nights there and have nothing planned other than enjoying the cooler temperatures!  We’re looking forward to a lot of walking, eating good food, wine tasting, and window shopping.
  • Oliver’s first trip to the beach in San Diego.  Mission Beach is my family’s annual vacation spot (although we kind of stopped for the past few years).  All of us are planning to go again, so Ryan and I rented a house right by the house everyone else will be staying in.  We’ll be down there for 4 nights and I’m really looking forward to morning walks on the boardwalk and relaxing afternoons on the beach.
  • Oliver’s first camping trip!  We’ve been planning to go to Yosemite since the beginning of the year and I can’t wait!  We’re staying in Yosemite Valley at Upper Pines (where we usually stay) and Oliver’s baby friends Emma and Austin will also be there.  So, it won’t be our usual camping trip with lofty hiking goals, but more of a relaxing trip.
  • Oliver’s first plane ride (notice a pattern?  A lot of firsts for Oliver!).  We’re headed to Denver for a week to visit Ryan’s family since most of them haven’t met Oliver yet!  Since we’re spending more than a long weekend there, we managed to sneak in a short trip to Aspen (I’ve never been!) with Ryan’s parents and brother and his wife.
  • And although it’s not booked yet, we’re also planning a trip to Europe!  We’re hoping for October, but we haven’t been able to get Oliver’s passport yet (we tried yesterday morning, but there were too many people so we have to go back sometime this week).  We haven’t yet decided where, but some ideas include: London, English countryside, Paris, southern France, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bruges.  We need to book this soon since our planned departure date is in 7 weeks (!), so hopefully we can get serious about this in the next week or so.

Just writing it all out seems exhausting, but we are excited to experience old and new places with Oliver.  I am a bit nervous about some things – mostly the plane flights and dealing with feeding and naps while out and about (particularly in Europe), but I’m sure we’ll survive!

 

Sheraton Iguazú – Parque Nacional Iguazú, Argentina

We’re back from our two-week trip to Argentina!  We had a wonderful time and can’t wait to share what we loved best.  We started our adventure in Iguazú National Park and stayed inside the park at the Sheraton (only hotel in the park in Argentina).  This was the only hotel on the trip that there was no debate about – it was a Starwood property that could be booked with points (so it was “free”) and it was inside the park.  There was nothing else for us to consider, and we booked it as soon as we booked our flights!

Sheraton Iguazú

 A view of the hotel (yes, the exterior is a bit outdated) from the entrance to the park.  It was THAT close!  Better than we could have imagined.

Price. As I mentioned above, we were luckily enough to book our hotel using Starpoints.  For this time of year (late October), it was 16k points per night, for a total of 48,000 points. (When we were originally thinking of visiting in early September, the rate was 12k/night.)  I’m not sure how much it would have been if we had paid for it, but rooms seems to start around $300 (give or take, depending on the time of year).

Location.  In the national park!  Just a quick walk from our room (5 or so minutes) to the lower circuit trail of the park.  We could see (and hear!) the waterfalls from the hotel, and it was amazing.  You could also be the first and/or last people in the park.  We wandered into the park on our first afternoon, and we were surprised with how empty it was (it was about an hour before closing) and how close we were to the falls!

For us it was worth it to stay in the park, but it is about 30 minutes away from the town.  We took a taxi a couple of nights to eat dinner in town, which wasn’t a big deal for us.  One more logistical note – we had to pay the $260 (pesos) each to enter the park as we were driving in.  We had read that by getting your ticket stamped, you can then pay half price for the park entrance the following day (but on the third day, you would pay full price again).  Well, one perk to staying at the Sheraton was that we paid the entrance fee once, and never had to pay again (even though we left the park several times during our stay).

Iguazú Falls - Lower Circuit

This was a surprise for us – we went on a quick walk from the hotel on our first afternoon there, and ended up walking the lower circuit!

Room.  Since we booked with points, we had the standard room, with a view of the jungle.  A few days before the trip, I received an email saying we could upgrade to a falls view room for $50/night.  I jumped at the opportunity.  As luck would have it, we ended up getting a free upgrade when we got there!  Our room was second from the end, so our view of the falls wasn’t that great.  But it was still neat to see the mist from the falls and hear the falls!

Sheraton Iguazu - Room

Dining.  Honestly, it was a bit subpar.  They do have a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, but we decided to skip it for everything except snacks.  The food was just okay, and the service was really lacking.  Breakfast was better – it was a buffet with eggs, meats, potatoes, cheeses, fruit, cereal, and an omelette bar.  They even had champagne! Breakfast was open from 6:30-10:30, so guests can get a very early start (the park doesn’t open until 8am, though).

Amenities.  The hotel has a pool (which we used everyday), a gym (which we never used), and a spa (which we tried to use, but it was booked).  It really is set up so you don’t have to leave the hotel to go into town for anything.  They even had a little gift shop that seemed to sell most things you’d need for your trip.  As mentioned above, there is also a bar in the lobby, and a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner.  The hotel also serves drinks and food at the pool, but the bar was being repainted while we were there, so it was closed.  They did have people taking orders, but the service wasn’t consistent and we were never able to get anything ordered.

Sheraton Iguazú - Pool

Transportation.  Usually this would go in a city overview, but since we didn’t actually spend much time in the city (Puerto Iguazú) and I won’t be writing a city overview, I’ve added it here.  For the Argentine side of the park, there is no transportation needed.  You walk to the start of the lower circuit and upper circuit trails, and to get to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), you take the free train that runs in the park.  For everything else, we used taxis arranged by the hotel – to go to the Brazilian side, to go to dinner in town (25-30 minute drive), to go to the front entrance of the park for the Full Moon Walk, and to get to the airport.  This was so smooth – the hotel has their own taxi service, so we were able to get a taxi at a moment’s notice.  Even to cross the border and go into Brazil!  And in all cases (other than getting dropped off at the airport), it was arranged so we had a roundtrip ride.  All rides were paid in Argentine pesos.

While the hotel wasn’t perfect, it was great for our stay!  I would definitely plan to stay here on a return trip.  I would also consider staying on the Brazilian side at the hotel inside the park – the Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas.  Apparently the rules are a bit relaxed on the Brazilian side, so you can actually enter the park before it opens or after it closes (not the case with the Argentine side).  If you are looking for nightlife, it may be best to stay in town – either Puerto Iguazú in Argentina or Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil.  Through the grapevine we’ve heard that Foz is better for restaurants and nightlife, but we didn’t even drive through the town, so I can’t really comment on that.  No matter where you stay, Iguazú Falls should be considered for any trip to Argentina (or Brazil)!

Next stop, Argentina!

We’re headed to Argentina today (right now)!  Despite being very busy these last few weeks and feeling like we haven’t had time to do much research, we managed to line up a few fun activities for our trip.  I can’t decide which stop I’m most excited for – they’re all so different! Here’s a look at all we’ve booked so far:

Iguazu Falls 

About two months ago I read something online about a full moon walk at Iguazu Falls. It happens once a month, around the full moon (of course!), which is when we’ll be there! For 5 nights, a company takes 3 tours out to see the falls under the moonlight. We had such a great time when we did our night visit to the Alhambra, so I knew we had to take advantage of this.  We booked and got our preferred date and time, and I can’t wait! I’m just crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates.

El Calafate

I already talked about our El Calafate activities in my post here, but will mention them again (now that we’ve officially booked). We’ll be taking the mini trekking tour with Hielo y Adventura on our first full day, which includes a trek across a glacier!  Our second day will be a bit more relaxing but the views will be stunning – we’ll be on an all-day boat cruise that will allow us to get up close to the glaciers.  We ended up booking with Marpatag because the experience looks more luxurious, but there are other (cheaper) options.

El Chaltén

Nothing booked! We have two long hikes and a few short ones planned, but the days are flexible and there’s nothing to book in advance!

Buenos Aires

Not wanting to be bored (but how could we be?) with 5 days in the city, we booked a few fun and different activities.  We’re starting out with dinner at the Argentine Experience – I guess it’s not a cooking class, and honestly I don’t really understand what it is. But it comes very highly rated and one of my best friends was just there and raves about it. This was a must do! The next night we are seeing a tango show! It doesn’t include dinner (which was our preference) and is in an intimate setting.  If we like it enough, maybe we’ll visit a tango club 😉

We decided to take one day trip (as opposed to two, which just seemed like too much time away from the city) and it was between a visit to an estancia, the Tigre delta, and a day in Colonia del Sacramento (in Uruguay).  Ryan found an estancia that offers a day trip (including transportation back and forth) that sounds like a lot of fun. It starts with a tour of the town (San Antinio de Areco) and then a visit to the estancia, with either horseback riding, a carriage ride, or a swim, a barbecue picnic, and a demonstration put on by gauchos! We booked this for the middle of our time I’m Buenos Aires.

We plan to tour the Teatro Colón, but thought it would be even more special to see an opera while in town.  When we went to buy tickets, we noticed that there was also a concert, so we booked that instead! The performance is in two weeks and we just booked it this morning.  Based on what I read online, we either wanted seats in the orchestra or the balcony.  I’m not sure if this is the case with all performances, but there were almost no seats left.  Luckily between the two of us we were able to navigate through the Spanish-only website and purchase two tickets.

The last thing we have booked is a graffiti tour.  One of our friends went to Buenos Aires a few years ago and this was his favorite experience of the trip.  We booked through Graffitimundo, which has south city and north city tours. However, the tours are only offered certain days, so although we really wanted to fit it in at the beginning of our trip, we’re having to wait until the very end.

And there you have it! A quick look at most of our plans for our trip.  We have high hopes for everything we’ve booked and for the activities in between.  We can’t wait for the adventure to begin!

City Overview: Tokyo, Japan

We just returned from our week-long adventure in Japan!  We had a wonderful time in Tokyo and Kyoto (despite the sometimes rainy weather), and we can’t wait to write more about the trip!

Shinjuku, TokyoCity.  Tokyo, Japan

When?  3 nights – September 5-8, 2015.  After we booked our plane tickets we found out that it’s the rainy season, and that there may even be a typhoon while we were there.  It worked out fine and our plans weren’t ruined, but it was less ideal to have to deal with rain.  For our 7-night trip, 3 nights was perfect.  That meant two full days in Tokyo, which gave us the opportunity to see our top priorities, while still allowing time for 4 nights in Kyoto.

Where?  We stayed at the Granbell Shinjuku Hotel, which we loved.   I was worried that the Shinjuku area would be too crowded for me, but we weren’t on any of the main streets – just close enough to be able to walk to shops and restaurants.  We aren’t big on the nightlife (and really, we had a horrible time getting adjusted to the time zone), but Shinjuku (particularly east of Shinjuku station), seemed to be lively well into the night.

Transportation.  We flew direct from LAX to Narita International.  We took the Narita Express (a train) from the airport into Tokyo, which took about 90 minutes.  From there, we took the Tokyo metro to a station closer to our hotel, and walked from there.  We relied on the metro a lot (which was very smooth and easy to use), and only used a taxi on our last day, since it was raining. Ryan will go into more detail about the transportation logistics.

Food.  Amazing.  We had some of the best food in Tokyo – an unforgettable sushi dinner at Sushi Iwa and ramen in the Golden Gai area were the highlights.  Everywhere we turned there was a sushi place – serving fresh fish that was caught locally and purchased at the fish market.  Even the department stores and train stations had restaurants.  It really was amazing, and I wish we had more time in Tokyo just so we could experience more of the food.Food

A food court (and grocery store!) in the basement of a department store. 

Day Trips. None, although we had toyed with the idea of a trip to Hakone, an area known for hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji.

Senso-JiAttractions.  This city has a lot to offer, and we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface.  Some of our favorite activities include a visit to Meiji Shrine, Gyoen Shinjuku park, a Kabuki play, and Asakusa (and Senso-Ji, shown to the right).  If that doesn’t interest you, there are museums (historical museums like the Edo museum and art museums), several other parks, Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo Universal Studios, Odaiba (an “island” with attractions to last at least a full day), and so many others.  It really is diverse and anyone could find something fun to do during a visit.  And there are so many people – visiting, living, wandering – that it can be fun tojust sit and people-watch!

 

Language Barrier.  We do not speak any Japanese.  The only word either of us used the entire time was “arigato” (thank you).  It worried me, but overall it worked out just fine.  Some of the people we met spoke English, and some not so much.  But everyone was very willing to help, so we never felt frustrated.  It’s amazing how much can be communicated through gestures!

Cost.  I hate to call a city expensive, but Tokyo did feel a bit more expensive than some other cities we’ve visited, at least for hotels.  Food can be VERY expensive, but you can also spend $10 and get a bowl of ramen and a beer!  It really does vary, and we did not spend too much money on transportation or visiting attractions, but did decide to splurge (a bit) on our hotel and on our one very nice sushi dinner.  

Advice. If you want to eat at a specific restaurant (and one that’s popular), plan to make reservations ahead.  We used the Visa Signature Concierge service for Sushi Iwa, but working with your hotel would be another good option.  Some restaurants may take reservations directly, but keep in mind that many restaurants will charge a hefty fee for a missed reservation (this can include being late).  So take the reservations seriously, and plan accordingly!

Closing comments. Tokyo was a great introduction to East Asia.  The city is modern and transportation is easy, everyone we encountered was very friendly, and there’s a lot of different types of attractions to enjoy.  And the food is amazing!  I think our 3 nights was enough to do what we really wanted, but you can easily spend more time exploring and enjoying this huge city!

Building a House in Mexico

We built a house!! Okay, we didn’t build it all by ourselves, but Ryan and I, along with about 40 other people, built a house in Tijuana over the weekend.  It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and an opportunity presented itself on a free weekend.  A coworker has done over 100 of these builds with an organization called Corazón.  (We learned more about the organization while on our trip and, in addition to building houses, Corazón helps with the cost of school – even college – for kids that participate.)

We left from San Diego and drove across the border on a bus.  The border crossing took a while (we all had to have our passports examined and our bags x-rayed; the way back was way quicker, believe it or not!), but the actual time spent driving was very minimal.  I had never been to Tijuana before or close to the border, so it was a bit shocking to see just how different things were just on the other side.  Such a change from the nice San Corazon - the view (SD)Diego homes and shops – small houses that were mostly falling apart, makeshift stairs and roofs, dirt sidewalks.  And a lot of the houses had a view of San Diego – imagine looking over and seeing that million-dollar view, but being just out of reach (pictured on the left is the view from our build site).  It was really eye-opening, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to help out a little.  I know building one house isn’t changing the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Almost everyone on our build was a first-timer, so we were warned that there was a chance we wouldn’t finish.  The first-time builders thing wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but we also had to deal with a “difficult” build site.  Luckily the day wasn’t too warm (a high of about 90 degrees, but most of us were from Bakersfield so we were expecting a lot worse) and we were all prepared with light clothes, hats, sunscreen, and lots of water.

Corazon - stairsWe had to walk up stairs made from tires and dirt (pictured on the right side of the picture above).  We spent quite a bit of time in a daisy chain, bringing materials up and down the stairs.  Much of the initial painting was done in the lower area, with the final exterior and the touch-ups completed once the house was up.  Ryan and I both spent the first few hours down below, painting the large plywood pieces and trim (used for trim all over the house, and some interior rails and steps).  We were called up late in the morning to see the walls go up, which was when it really hit us – this was actually going to be a house!

Corazon - walls going up

We were on track to finish before the end of the day, but there was still a lot of work ahead of us – putting up the roof (which was first priority after lunch), finishing the interior, putting up walls for the bathroom, and painting the exterior of the house.  We took our lunch break around noon, and I was so excited and ready for our rice and beans – Corazón provides the family money to buy ricCorazon - lunche and beans and, as a thank you, they cook lunch for us.  Imagine my surprise when we were presented with fish tacos topped with pico de gallo, lettuce, chipotle sauce, and salsa verde!  The family also had two types of fruit juice and cups with fresh fruit for dessert. Lunch was absolutely delicious, and if I didn’t have a lot of hard work ahead of me, I would have eaten at least two more tacos.

The second half of the day was absolutely harder for me.  I decided that I actually wanted to use the hammer I brought (and bought specifically for this trip), so I volunteered to get up onto the roof.  The roof frame had been built before lunch, but it had to be carried and pulled up onto the top of the house (there were two pieces, to make the A-frame).  This is where you really need a lot of people helping.  Even once it was up on the roof, there were several people who had to hold up one side, while some of us started nailing it to the top of the house.  With at least 15 people on top of the house, both sides of the frame seemed to be stable in no time at all, but there was a lot of extra nailing that had to be done to make sure the roof would stay secure during wind storms.

Corazon - exteriorScaffolding was up all around the house, which allowed us to get around relatively safely.

When the team started to nail down the plywood and put down the paper layer (before the shingles), I decided to stay on the scaffolding and work on some exterior painting (very hard work – trying to duck underneath the roof and paint without getting anything in my eyes).  However, I joined them up on top when they started laying down the shingles.  The smaller tack-like nails we used for the shingles were much quicker and easier to hammer in than the longer ones used to keep the roof in place.  I think the shingles were made out of rubber – the material had a good grip, so I wasn’t worried about slipping off the roof.  The only downside is that the sun made them VERY hot to the touch, so I had to be careful not to put my hands or knees down while I nailed.

Corazon - shingles

By the time I got down from the roof (at least two hours after I started) the house was really coming together!  I was so surprised by the amount of work that had been done to the interior and exterior of the house.  From there, it was really just the finishing touches – finishing up the walls of the bathroom, adding the loft to the house, putting the trim on the outside of the house, touching up the exterior paint, etc.

Corazon - interiorThe inside of the house had a loft area, and two small “rooms” separated by the wall pictured above.  Not shown is the small kitchen countertop, a storage area on the other side of the house, and the small bathroom.  The bathroom would eventually have a toilet, but we were told that the family would not have electricity or running water – the former could be added on, but running water was not part of the future plan.  Some houses did have running water.  While we were building, we had access to another family’s home for the bathroom – it was very nice with running water and a tub.

Corazon - us at the endThe family members, some of whom helped us build, were so grateful for their new house.  I wish we could have done more to help!  It didn’t seem fair that we were about to get back onto the bus, just 8 hours after we arrived, and go back to take a nice warm shower in our fancy downtown San Diego hotel.  So, while I felt good about the work we had done, it just doesn’t seem like it was enough.  We plan to donate to Corazón because I think they do a lot of good work with the donations (I was sold once I heard about the academics program).  We were still smiling at the end of the day, so I think it’s safe to say we would definitely do something like this again!  I can’t believe it took me this long to participate in a house build, but it was a great first build experience.

 

Asia Impromptu: Japan in a Month

While a trip to Japan has been on our travel shortlist for some time, it has not been planned or talked about much (aside from watching an Anthony Bourdain episode or two). Keep in mind that our “shortlist” always has at least 15-20 big trips on it, so there’s no way to really plan out each one until we get a little more serious about actually taking the trip. Well, our fast-approaching Japan trip got real last Sunday, when Ryan and I were relaxing, researching plans for our Argentina trip, and reading the newspaper/doing the crossword puzzle. Ryan was looking through the travel section when he noticed cheaper than normal airfares from LA during the Labor Day holiday. Having no plans yet, he started to actually look at prices, and then verified those prices online.

The most intriguing destination was Tokyo, with fares on United (our current airline of choice, but I keep saying I want to switch my loyalty) around $700 round trip. We played around with different days for departure and return, and realized with our current remaining days off, we could only really get away for a long weekend. We spent the rest of the day researching Argentina and jokingly talking about Japan, as if it were going to happen.

Monday morning at work I started to dig through my email to learn more about unpaid time. We would only have to take 6 hours in order to add a few more days to our hypothetical Japan trip, so I wasted no time in asking my supervisor. Ryan waiting a little longer, but as soon as he got the OK on Wednesday, we booked! This was with very minimal research – although I did talk to a good friend who spent 4 days in Tokyo last year and loved it. The tickets were $799 round trip (we could have added another day for about $400 total, but since we again have two large vacations this year, I thought 7 nights in Japan would be plenty), which is much cheaper than our normal international airfare purchases.

Sashimi - from Japan Travel Guide

And now the fun begins! With less than a month to go, we haven’t booked a thing, but we do know that most or all of our time will be spent between Tokyo and Kyoto. We also know we will be staying at least one night at a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. And of course we will be eating as much Japanese food as we can handle – sushi, sashimi, soba, udon, tempura – I won’t say “no” to anything!  (I’ve already spent a lot of time reading about the food on this Japan Travel Guide site – the picture above comes from the “sashimi” section.)

So now it’s time to scour the books and internet and figure out what our must-see sites are.  We toyed with a hike up Mt. Fuji, but since we only have 7 nights, neither of us are in great shape (I’m sure we’d be fine), and it requires packing special clothes and shoes, so I think we’ll have to save that for another trip.  So, our activities will likely focus on staying in town (instead of day trips away) to see as much of the two cities as we can with our short stay.  I’m looking forward to the research!

South America Round 2: Argentina!

We’re going to Argentina!  We’ve been wanting to go back to South America ever since we got back from Peru, and we’re finally able to make it happen this year.  We’ve booked our flights into and out of Argentina and one of our hotels but other than that, nothing is set in stone.  That doesn’t mean we haven’t been thinking and planning, though!  We have a very good idea of things to do and places to stay, but just haven’t finalized or booked anything yet.

We have about 2 weeks in Argentina, and here is the high-level plan:

Map of Argentina - Itinerary

So, we’re starting up north in Iguazú Falls, and I’ve already booked the Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa, which is actually inside the national park.  It worked out great for us because I was able to book free nights (16,000 starpoints/night), and we will hopefully be some of the first people in the park both days.  The rate includes a free buffet breakfast (comparable rate for booking 3-4 months out would be $264-$330 USD, depending on whether you wanted the flexibility to cancel and pay upon arrival).  We’ll fly in on a Friday, and spend Saturday on the Brazilian side and Sunday on the Argentine side before flying down to Patagonia on Monday.

We are planning to spend about one week in Argentine Patagonia, splitting time between El Calafate and El Chaltén.  I can’t wait to see the glaciers, go hiking, and explore the southern part of Argentina. We haven’t quite figured out the split between the two cities, but we are leaning toward 3 nights in El Calafate and 4 nights in El Chaltén.  We plan to take a one-day cruise in El Calafate, as well as trek across one of the glaciers, Perito Moreno.  In El Chaltén we plan to hike several day hikes, weather permitting.  Just for fun, here’s a view of the glaciers that we will (hopefully) see on our cruise in El Calafate:

Glaciers from MarPatag Cruise

This picture is from the MarPatag site, which is one of the companies we are considering for the cruise.  They have two-night cruise that looks very luxurious and has been tempting us, but right now we’re sticking with the full-day cruise because it’s more practical (and a lot more cost effective).

Our last stop will be in (and around) Buenos Aires.  Right now we are looking to spend 5 nights there and fly out late on Saturday night.  One of my good friends just spent 3 months in South America and she advised us not to spend too much time in Buenos Aires.  However, we plan to do a couple of all day side trips, so I’m hoping that we won’t be bored after only 5 days and nights.  Plus, our research so far gave us a lot of good ideas for activities to do in Buenos Aires, so I’m confident we’ll enjoy our time here.

That’s all we have for now – since we do like to plan ahead, I’m sure we will be booking some things (like our activities in El Calafate and any day trips from Buenos Aires), but we’ll try to leave in some flexibility in case we change our minds once we are down there.  I’m looking forward to our second trip to South America!

Last-Minute Getaway: North of the Border

After tentative Super Bowl weekend plans fell through, our 3-day weekend was suddenly cleared. And while we love spending long weekends at home to relax and catch up, we’ve been home every weekend this month (albeit with guests) and we’re ready to get out of Bakersfield.

We were open to anywhere we could drive or fly (plus driving time to the airport) to in about 5 hours or less. Mexico was promising, but in the end we decided to go north of the border, to Vancouver!

20140126-134057.jpg

Just ordered this book yesterday – Amazon Prime has been very good to us, especially with Sunday deliveries by Amazon!

All we’ve done so far is book our flights from LA to Vancouver on Thursday night (returning Sunday). So now the fun begins! We hope to have our hotel booked in the last couple of days, as well as figure out which activities we’re interested in and where we’d like to eat.

This is my biggest last minute trip, and it’s something I’ve longed to do. It’s much easier to be spontaneous with our long weekends, so I’m looking forward to seeing how next weekend pans out!

Cooking in Cusco

We had an opportunity to cook a few of the popular and traditional dishes of the Andean region.  Through our hotel, Encantada, we booked a lunchtime cooking class for two for $100 (before tip, but this did include the lessons and the food).  The restaurant is A Mi Manera, and it’s worth a visit even if you don’t take the cooking class.

We started out in the bar and we were provided with two menus.  We thought we would have to choose one, but they had each of us pick the one we wanted to do, so we did it all!  Here’s what the lineup looked like:

Drinks: Chicha Morada (Kristin), Pisco Sour (Ryan)
Starter: Quinoa Atamalada con Arroz (Kristin), Cebiche (Ryan)
Main: Rocoto Relleno (Kristin), Lomo Saltado (Ryan)
(Good news: some of the recipes are on the restuarant’s website!)

I started with my drink, the non-alcoholic chicha morada.  The base was pre-made, and it’s created by boiling purple corn and chilling the resulting mixture.  This made my part very simple: I cut up some pineapple, added juice from one juice, an ounce or so of simply sugar, and blended those with the purple corn juice in a blender.  Ryan’s pisco sour was a bit more complicated, involving an egg white and alcohol, but the result was delicious!

Cooking Class, A Mi Manera, Cusco, Peru, Drinks

Once our drinks were prepared, we moved over to the kitchen to start the real work.  The ingredients were already out and some of the early steps were pre-prepared for us.  I went to work on one side and Ryan on the other.  I started with the rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper) dish and Ryan with the cebiche.

For my dish, I started with a mixture of egg, milk, and cheese, which would eventually by poured into a dish with my pepper and potato.  I wish I knew what I stuffed the pepper with (it was pre-made by the chefs), but it was ground meat with veggies.  The potato was already boiled, so I just had to peel the skin and place it in the dish alongside the stuffed pepper.  Add a little sliced cheese on top, pour the egg/milk/cheese mixture in the dish, and it was done (well, after simmering on the stove and then baking in the oven).

Cooking Class, A Mi Manera, Cusco, Peru

Ryan’s cebiche (the recipe is on the site), was made with the expected fish (he used pejerrey), red onion, hot peppers, limes, and cilantro.  However, there was one surprise ingredient (missing on the recipe online): milk! Since Ryan made this dish first, the fish was able to sit in the acidic sauce and cook for the remainder of our class.

The lomo saltado and quinoa atamalada recipes are also on the website.  We had a lot of fun with this and we were able to mostly prepare it on our own (except for the rice and french fries).  We even shaped the rice into a pyramid and half sphere!  Ok, so we had some help with rice molds (here are a couple I’m thinking about ordering: pyramid and half sphere) – these were used for all dishes we ordered that came with a side of rice.

Cooking Class , A Mi Manera, Cusco, Peru

We ended the class by sitting down to enjoy our food (the finished products are pictured above)!  We dug right into the cebiche, which had already been sitting out for a good 20 minutes.  Neither of us were brave enough to try the “tiger’s milk” (ok, I wasn’t feeling well, otherwise I definitely would have), but we did enjoy the spicy result of the fish.  The quinoa was creamy, cheesy, and thick and perfect for a cool fall or winter day.  The lomo saltado tasted like the ones we had in Ollantaytambo at the restaurant – I think this is definitely something we’ll be able to recreate at home with little difficulty.  I do wish I had the details about the meat mixture that was stuffed inside the pepper.  It was much more flavorful than any stuffed pepper I’ve ever made.  I’m sure the Andean cheese on top helped that!

I would highly recommend this class to anyone who enjoys cooking and learning about a new type of cuisine.  It made the Peruvian dishes seem less intimidating, and I’m excited to try a few of them out at home!  Nati and her team were very sweet and helpful.

City Overview: Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America

City.  Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America (located in the Sacred Valley)

Ollantaytambo, Peru, South America

When?  Four nights at the end of September (September 27 – October 1).

Where?  We selected Hotel Sol as our home base for the four nights, and I’m glad we did!  The other two places we were looking at were El Albergue, which is located right next to the train station, therefore it’s about a 10 minutes walk up to town, and Casa de Wow!  El Abergue didn’t have the type of room we wanted available (and I wasn’t completely sold on staying away from the main town center) and Casa de Wow was sold out.  Ryan will provide more detail about Hotel Sol, but as a summary: we paid $85/night, which allowed us a spacious room on the first floor with a terrace.  This also included breakfast (and even a boxed breakfast for the morning we left for Machu Picchu at 4:30 a.m.).

Transportation.  We flew from Lima to Cusco and then took taxis (arranged by the hotel) to and from the airport (almost a two hour drive).  We took the train to Machu Picchu and hired a driver for our day trip to the Pisac ruins.

Food.  The typical Andean cuisine can be found here.  The three biggies are trout, alpaca (pictured below), and guinea pig, and between the two of us, we tried them all!

Grilled Alpaca, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Day Trips. We took two – one to Machu Picchu, which was planned in advance, and one to the ruins at Pisac which was planned the day before (but discussed prior to the trip).  There are some other great options nearby – Moray and the salt mines at Maras.  We had originally planned to visit both of those and Pisac on the same day, but I’m so glad we stuck with a half day instead, which was already very exhausting.

Attractions.  The major attraction in the town of Ollantaytambo is the Fortress (a picture of us at the Fortress is below).  There is no information inside, so either a guidebook or a guide is highly recommended (we went with a guide, since neither of the guidebooks had any real information on it).  The town also has other hikes nearby and we did one of them – Pinkullyuna.

Fortress, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Language Barrier.  We did not brush up on our Spanish before leaving, but we know the (very) basics.  Our guide spoke English, and we were maybe able to understand about 60-70% of what he said.  We had no issues at the hotel or restaurants.

Cost.  Very cost effective, especially compared to our other vacations.  We were pleasantly surprised by the low cost of food (most of our meals were around $15 or less per person)

Advice.  Ollantaytambo was very much a “cash town” (some of the restaurants did accept credit cards, though, as did our hotel).  There are two ATMs in town (only one worked), but the big issue was keeping enough of the smaller (less than 50 soles) bills and coins.  If you get them, hold on to them!  They will be needed for tips and small purchases (water, souvenirs, etc.), and we were even hounded for a 10 sol bill for the purchase of our 260-soles activity boletos.

Closing Comments.  If you have the time, plan to stay in one of the smaller towns in the Sacred Valley, instead of spending all of your time in Cusco.  We were very happy with our choice of Ollantaytambo, which was small and welcoming, but also offered plenty of restaurants, shops, and nearby attractions to keep us busy.

Hasta Luego, Peru!

We’re enjoying our last night in Peru by sipping on wine while watching the ocean in the distance.

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We’re sad to leave, but excited to share stories from our many adventures: Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, Pisac, Cusco, and our amazing culinary experiences in the capital of Lima!

For now I’ll leave you with a couple of (iPhone) pictures and save the rest for when we return.

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A view of the Sacred Valley from the fortress in Ollantaytambo

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A sneak preview of Machu Picchu

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The city if Cusco from Sacsayhuaman

Hasta luego!

Pio Pio: A Preview of Peru

After searching for a late-night option for our post-theater dinner, we decided that we couldn’t resist a sneak preview of Peruvian food.   Enter Pio Pio, a trendy Peruvian eatery in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.  (What a difference a few blocks makes!  We walked through Times Square, which was packed with people.  About a 5-10 minute walk to the west brought us to Hell’s Kitchen with empty streets.)

Pio Pio, New York

I was in love when we first sat down and I tried the green dipping sauce (yes, before any of the food came out).  The sauce was addicting and perfect on every dish.  I single-handedly emptied our bowl of the sauce before the main course came out.  Luckily the waiter brought more over, which was demolished before the end of the meal.  I asked him what this special green sauce was, and all I got was that it’s a mayo-based sauce with jalapeños.  It wasn’t particularly spicy, but it was creamy and delicious!

I was thrilled to try a few dishes that I had already heard about (some are written about here):

  • papa rellena: deep fried mashed potato stuffed with meat sauce, served with salsa criolla.  The ground beef was juicy and tender, and tasted similar to Tex-Mex seasoning I’ve tasted in the past.  The dish was delicious, and it’s something that might be a safer option for someone who is nervous about trying new foods.  None of the flavors were too different than foods we are accostomed to in the US (at least in the west!).

Papa Rellena, Pio Pio, New York

  • causa de cangrejo: cold mashed potato cake filled with avocado and crab meat (there was also an option for chicken).  It’s like a Peruvian California (sushi) roll – with potato wrapped around inside of rice.  Oh, and the green sauce instead of soy sauce for dipping. 

Causa de Cangrejo, Pio Pio, New York

  • cebiche mixto: fresh corvina, shrimp octopus and calamari marinated in lime juice and mixed with red onions, cilantro, and rocato hot pepper, served with sweet potato and choclo corn.  For me, this wasn’t as good as I expected it to be – the cilantro definitely overpowered the dish and I was hoping for larger chunks of fish (perhaps I was wanting tiradito).  However, I was very excited to try the choclo corn, which was toasted and similar to large corn nuts.

Ceviche, Pio Pio, New York

  • lomo saltado: tender beef saute with tomatoes and onions in a soy sauce, served with rice and french fries.  To my surprise, the french fries came mixed in with the meat and veggies, while the rice was served off to the side.  I was surprised by the Asian flavors in the dish.  I have read that there is a lot of Asian influence in Peruvian cuisine, especially Chinese, so it will be interesting to see if this hold true when we try the dish in Peru!

Lomo Saltado, Pio Pio, New York

Pisco Sour, Pio Pio, New York

I couldn’t resist a taste (or two) of the pisco sour – a cocktail made from pisco (a grape brandy), citrus, sugar, egg whites, and Angostura bitters. I haven’t ever had anything quite like it, but I keep wanting to compare it to a margarita (probably because of the citrus flavors).  It was strong, but drinkable, and definitely more acidic than sweet.  I plan to order my fair share while in Peru, just to make sure I taste the different variations of the popular drink.  

So, the dinner was a success – the food was delicious and now we can’t wait for Peru.  But was it authentic?  I guess we’re about to find out – tonight we are off to Peru for 9 nights!  We are packed up (for the most part) and we just have to get through one more day of work before driving down to LAX to catch our red-eye flight.  For now, we will have to daydream about Peruvian cuisine, but in just over 24 hours we will be there to experience it first-hand!

Napa Valley, New York?

One of our favorite activities during our trip to New York was visiting the High Line and the Cheslea Market.  Both were overcrowded, but very enjoyable, especially after a satisfying brunch.  The Chelsea Market reminded me a bit of what an expanded Ferry Building (in San Francisco) might look like – the same sort of feel and idea, but a lot more people and more shops and restaurants.

Chelsea Market, New York

To avoid the hordes of people and satisfy our wine addiction, we stopped into a wine shop, Chelsea Wine Vault, to explore.  Once there, we learned about a weekend “wine school class” they offer: each weekend features four wine from a specific region (it changes each weekend), and the class is taught by a sommelier.  It just so happens that our wines were all from Napa Valley – somewhere all four of us had been.  Since none of us had ever done anything quite like this, and because a little wine in the afternoon sounded delightful, we paid the $20/person and waited for the class to start. 

I’m so glad we took the class.  Not only did we try fantastic wines (my favorite was the 2010 Pine Ridge “Forefront” Cabernet Sauvignon – I left with a bottle and plan to visit the winery next time we’re in Napa), but we learned a lot about what to look for when tasting wines and evaluating wines.  We even had an official “Wine Evaluation Form” in our packet, which helps explain what “90+ points” means for a wine.  One fun fact we learned is that when wines are evaluated, they are only compared to wines of the same varietal, from the same region, and within the same price range.  

Wine Evaluation Form

Our sommelier was David Hunter, who personally tastes and buys all of the wine sold at the Chelsea Wine Vault.  He was funny and full of information – the hour-long class flew by and we were wishing it was longer.  We went through each section of the evaluation form, and I’d love to pass along some of the information we learned (a brief overview). 

1. Appearance (15 points) – color and clarity: hold your wine glass at a 45° angle against a white piece of paper to judge the color and clarity.  Is the color consistent all the way through?  Is it cloudy, chunky, hazy, or clear?

2. Nose (20 points) – cleanliness, complexity and bouquet: is the aroma appealing?  Or does it “hurt” you (think of smelling vodka)?  Does it smell like cheap perfume, is it too fruity, or does it have no smell? The complexity – how many aromas can you identify?  Are there multiple layers?  And finally, the bouquet is how the aromas come together – the overall smell.

3. Palate Impression (50 points) – body, texture, flavor, balance, and finish & aftertaste – how heavy does the wine feel on your tongue?  Is the texture smooth, does it “hurt” you (again, think about taking a shot of vodka), is it acidic (does it make your mouth water)?  Is each element balanced without one taking over (for example, not too sweet or too acidic)?  How long does the aftertaste stay in your mouth? If it’s under 30 seconds, it’s simple, if it’s between 30 seconds and one minute it’s medium, and if it’s over a minute, it’s complex.

4. Overall Assessment (15 points) – overall quality, value for your money, food compatibility, aging potential, and general appeal of the wine – is the wine good for the money?  What is the aging potential (he let us know that this would be a hard one for us to judge)?

Wine Tasting, Chelsea Market

And finally, David left us with the most important piece of information: in order to store wine properly, the bottles should be left on their side at 55° F (this we have been following since we started using a wine cooler) and kept in a humid area.  The humidity part is where we failed, but luckily it’s easy enough to fix: just place a damp sponge in the cooler and change it out every month.  While we are likely okay without the added humidity for most of our wines, this tip may save the bottles of Brunello di Montalcino that we brought back from Italy and plan to store for over 10-15 years.  Thank you, David!  The class was enjoyable and informative, and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!

City Overview: New York City, New York, United States

We just returned from a long weekend in New York City!  I don’t feel qualified to write a city overview on New York since we barely scratched the surface, but this will be have to work as a suitable overview until we have another chance to explore the great city!

New York City Skyline

City.  New York City, New York, United States

When?  Friday, August 31, 2013 – Tuesday, September 3, 2013 (4 nights and 4 full days + half of a day, over Labor Day Weekend).  We took a red-eye from LAX and landed at Newark just before 8am.

Where? The W Union Square served as our wonderful base for the long weekend.  After originally booking the Sheraton in Times Square, we jumped at the chance to book the W during a sale (a non-refundable reservation, but it was close enough to the trip that we felt comfortable booking).  With all taxes and fees, we paid just under $300 a night, which isn’t much more than other hotels we had looked at during our trip planning.  We’ll post a more detailed post about the hotel, but overall we really enjoyed our stay and would recommend this hotel (and this area!) to anyone visiting New York.

Transportation.  As mentioned above, we flew into (and out of) the Newark airport.  We took the train into and out of Penn Station and a taxi to/from the hotel (we were originally planning to take the subway, but we were talked out of it by a stranger on the train – thank goodness).  Other than getting into and out of New York, we stuck with the subway (mostly) and a few cab rides here and there.  Very easy and not too expensive – we bought a 7-day subway pass and the cab fares were surprisingly inexpensive.

Food.  We ate well, thanks to our hosts for the weekend (Ryan’s brother, Kevin, and his girlfriend, Meagan).  New York has so much to offer – I wish we had done more research beforehand, but we still tried a variety of cuisines – pizza, Italian (non-pizza Italian), several brunches, bagels, Peruvian (I can’t wait to share more about that meal), and even a late-night bar dinner.

New York Pizza

Day Trips.  None, in less Brooklyn or the Bronx count!

Attractions.  We did a lot – Yankees game, spent time in Brooklyn, the 9/11 Memorial, the Met, Central Park (pictured below), a little bit of shopping, a boat ride on the river, and more.  Some of the best experiences were just wandering around (especially with Kevin and Meagan – they were troopers and played tourist with us for the weekend while making sure we tried some of their favorite spots for food).

Central Park, New York City

Language Barrier.  None, unless you have issues understanding the New York accent (I honestly barely noticed it).

Cost.  We had issues finding a reasonably-priced hotel (really nothing in Manhattan south of Central Park for under the low $200s – okay, maybe a few options, but not much), but I was pleasantly surprised with the cost of food.  It is very possible to eat cheaply – we did a few times – and I’m sure it’s very easy to be extravagant.

Advice.  The only downside was the weather – hot (mid 80s) and very humid (so it felt like 100+).  I was miserable at times.  If possible, go during the spring or summer, when it will be more manageable!

Closing comments.  We are sitting here wishing we were back in New York.  We had a great time and plan to visit again next year.  It’s definitely a place to continue to visit because there will always be more to explore.  We plan to go again and again!  (Also, our 4 night trip definitely felt like a long enough mini vacation, so a long weekend will be great for a quick trip!)

May Lake: A Truly Enjoyable Hike

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy hiking, but it can be hard work.  The view from the top is almost always worth it, but the steep climbs, heat, sweat, and sore legs can sometimes take away from the fun (and that’s just on the way up – the way down brings knee and ankle problems that people twice our age experience). 

I was so happy when my Yosemite-obsessed friend suggested May Lake for our hike this past weekend.  It’s one I have never done and I’ve seen pictures – it’s gorgeous.  The other great part?  The hike was nice, short, and very easy compared to our usual hikes (Yosemite Falls and anything from Happy Isles up – Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, or all the way up to the top of Half Dome). 

The worst part about this hike is the almost 1.5 hour drive from the valley floor (we stayed in the Upper Pines campground).  Luckily, there are closer campgrounds that we passed along the way, including the Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat, and White Wolf campgrounds.  One thing to note is that Tioga Pass Road is open seasonally, so your best bets for hiking up there (or camping in one of the campgrounds) is from about June to September.

The hike itself is just over a mile and while it has a steady incline throughout, it is not a steep incline.  No fancy gear is required – just make sure you wear comfortable clothes and some sort of tennis shoes.  No swimming is allowed in the lake, so no need for a swim suit.  Bring water and food for a picnic at the lake, but if you are only going to the lake, your caloric needs will be no where near those of Half Dome or Yosemite Falls.  There is also a restroom at the top, which is a recent addition.

And finally, after an hour and a half drive and a 30 minute hike, you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of peaceful May Lake: 

May Lake, Yosemite National Park, California

The short hike is perfect for an easy backpacking trip.  There are campgrounds at May Lake (May Lake High Sierra Camp).  A wilderness permit is required, which is a separate reservation system from the Yosemte campgrounds (such as Upper Pines).

Add an extra 4.5 miles (roundtrip) to your hike by ascending Mt. Hoffman.  This is a great choice if you are backpacking and staying at the High Sierra Camp, but even if May Lake is a day trip, it is doable!  We were just there to enjoy the scenery, so we opted out of the additional trek up Mt. Hoffman. 

May Lake is the perfect hike for a low-key Saturday in Yosemite.  Next time, I’ll stay in the area and save on the driving time to and from the valley.  Enjoy!