Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Peru, The Sacred Valley and Machupicchu

 There are so many beautiful places in the world, so many places to visit. If you are looking for breath-taking beauty along with incredible history and lots of walking and hiking (of course, there are sites for all abilities), then you have to go to Peru.

Probably the most expensive part of the trip is the airfare, so if you have a mileage credit card, definitely start building up the miles!  If you belong to an airline that travels to Peru and have miles already, even better!!!!

I just came back from an incredible journey to the Sacred Valley and Machupicchu with a group totalling 8 people. This was the perfect number. We had a private tour bus as well as our own private guides who were knowledgeable, fun and passionate about their jobs.

The initial travel is directly to Lima. Most flights get you there late at night, so you can sleep at the airport hotel and the following morning start your adventure! The best way to do this is to work with a travel agent (Vacation On Your Mind!) who will coordinate with a local tour operator to create a custom vacation. This is exactly what we did! You need at least 5 days for the touring, but my suggestion is not to do less than 6. There is so much to see in this area that at the end of 5 days, you will be disappointed that you didn't stay longer!

We left Lima and flew to Cusco, which is known as the archaeological Capital of the Americas. It is a beautiful city where you will find a mix of indigenous styles and modern western influence. It is a vibrant city, alive from early in the morning through late nite. The elevation is high - about 12,000 feet, so many tour operators opt for a day there and then to continue on to a town with a lower elevation so that you can become accustomed to the change.  This is exactly what we did.  Cusco has a long and very interesting history dating back to 1200AD and linked to the first Inca ruler, and by the 15th century there was vast Inca expansion. lI'm not going to give away any more of its colorful history!

The Sacred Valley is home to many indigenous people, the Quechua. They speak their own native language, but most have learned Spanish. This was a big help to us because, since it is their second language, they spoke Spanish slowly and we were able to understand a little more!!!

We visited incredible ruins, including Sacsayhuaman, Tambomachay, Q'uenko, Puca Pucara and the "Koricncha", one of the most important building in Inca times (the Temple of the Sun) directly from Cusco and then were taken directly to the Sacred Valley (9100 feet).

In the Sacred Valley we visited the colonial villages of Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. In Pisac we hiked for 2 hours to an ancient religious sector of the archaeological site which was hidden high in the mountains.  Don't worry - it's not all hiking! We went to a very unique local market in Pisac to begin our souvenir search!

In Ollantaytambo, we visited a major ruin that is known as the best surviving example of Inca urban planning and engineering. It was amazing. And, Ollantaytambo is still a living, breathing Inca city!

In Ollantaytambo,  we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), also known as Machu Picchu village. The town is about 30 minutes from the Machupicchu archaeological site. In Aguas Calientes there are hot springs, lots of shopping and restaurants galore.

There are two ways to see Machupicchu. One way is to stay at the only hotel that is just outside the gates of the site. They have a restaurant. You can get up pre-dawn and watch the sunrise. However, by the time you can go into the site, it is already light out. The sun hasn't come up over the mountain yet, but it is definitely light! A more affordable way is to stay in Aguas Calientes and take an early morning (they start at 5:30am) bus up to the site.  Again, you can be in the site before the sun comes up over the mountains and shines on the incredible ruins.  There is another way for those who are in great shape and love hiking. You can hike from Aguas Calientes up to Macchupicchu. It's between 1 1/2 and 2 hours to hike. It is steep and the air is a little thin, so this is only for those who prepare!!!

There are really no words to describe Machupicchu. It is defiinitiely the most incredible of the ruins. The beauty, the history, the llamas, the sanctity, the tranquility, the energy . . . you just need to be there!!! It is at the beginning of the Amazon Jungle (rain forest). You can wander around the ruins all day! There is a hike to the Sun Gate ("Intipunku"). For those who are in the best of shape, are not afraid of heights and have great balance, you can climb to the top of Waynapicchu mountain. It is a steep path up to the top and there is a limited amount of people allowed to climb it each day. It is also an additional fee, so if you are interested, you need to purchase those tickets in advance.

Back in the Sacred Valley, you can see more sites. You can go to Moray to see ruins that are a great example of the agriculture of the Inca civilization, to the Maras Salt Mines which are in the valley. You start high above and can see the 4000 salt beds in this Inca area. Once there, you can walk out and watch the locals working their "salt pools" and even taste some of it. It's something different and really interesting.  Chinchero is another example of Incan ruins with a city that is still alive and with rich culture  in the textiles. You can watch a really interesting demonstration on how sheep, llama, alpaca, etc. wool is created, dyed and weaved.

To shift gears, let's talk about the food. It's icredible - and it's not expensive.  You can get beef, chicken, pork and fish at just about any restaurant. And you can also get lamb, alpaca and guinea pig as well. We never had a bad meal. Most hotels include breakfast for their guests, which is great since you want to eat and leave to go to your next site!  They have coca tea, which is made from coca leaves. Yes, this is the plant that is used to produce cocaine, but no worries - you need to process it with other chemicals for that to happen. Locals say that the coca tea helps you with elevation adjustment, although those of us who drank it didn't feel any different!  Wine, beer, alcoholic beverages, juices, soft drinks - you can get it all. The Peruvian local drink is made with Pisco, an alcohoic beverage that I can only equate with tequila and vodka. Pisco Sours are a favorite there. If you have one and don't like it, try it some place else - everyone makes them slightly different!

We stayed at beautiful boutique hotels. Depending on your budget, you can go three, four or five star.  All the hotels were extremely clean, comfortable and the staff was some of the best we have ever encountered!

Again, using a tour company is the best way to see this part of Peru. Driving is absolutely crazy there, there are narrow, steep roads with cliffs galore. And even in town, there are these "taxis" which are motorcycles with compartments built over them to carry people! Speed bumps are very common - it's the only thing to slow down the drivers.  Using a tour company, once you've decided on your tour, they handle all the transportation tickets, site tickets, hotel arrangements, everything. All you have to do is show up!

Interested? Call me!!!! We're going again. Once is definitely not enough for me. It's magical, beautiful and I guess it stays in your blood!!!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Paradise in Playa Mujeres

Relatively unknown, compared to the Riviera Maya and the Cancun hotel zone, Playa Mujeres is a paradise on the verge of becoming the next great vacation spot. About 40 minutes north of the Cancun airport, lies a magnificent resort, Excellence Playa Mujeres. It is located on a 2 mile stretch of pristine white sand beach with crystal clear waters.

When we arrived at the front entrance, we were greeted like royalty. Of course, there was a cool wet towel and choice of champagne or a fruity cocktail . . . I chose both! Check-in was painless and very quick. We were welcomed with "welcome home" from many of the staff. They truly want you to feel like it is your home for the time you are here . . . And they aim to please!

The elegance of the resort is evident, yet there are no formalities. For our first lunch, we chose to eat outside, overlooking some of the pools and beach. You can't go wrong with
Cerviche and sangria to start off our holiday!

Our junior suite was ready by the time we finished lunch. Instead of describing the room, just look at some of the photos. New, clean, elegant . . . Beautiful. I was impressed.

A quick change into bathing suits and we are down on the beach, , , , palm trees and plenty of shade for those who are sun shy!!! Jesus, the beach bartender was at our chairs as soon. We sat down. Get the monitor . . . Very well made! After a sip or two, we took a walk into the calm, clean, crystal clear Caribbean. The water temperature was just too perfect!!! This is what Caribbean water should be like, everywhere!

Prefer sitting by a pool? This resort has a magnificent mending pool, with hammocks hanging just over the water, chairs placed in shallow areas for maximum comfort, again, plenty of shade for those who need it, and a pool bar with friendly staff. Along the buildings of the resort are smaller pools with many of the same features. There are plenty of quiet areas, and for those who want more activity, hang out closer to the pool bar and the Sol bar for live music and a large array of social activites.

The resort has .... Restaurants. Which one to go to first?!?!?! We chose Chez Isabelle. The atmosphere is romantic. The food was excellent. We had onion soup, surprisingly excellent, quiche lorraine, escargot, duck in a balsamic reduction and rack of lamb. I decided right then that I could eat there every night!!! We had wine poured freely through dinner and shared a dessert . . .just too full! After dinner, we went out to a courtyard where there was a live band, a good band, playing great classics, a mix of rock, blues. Jazz, etc. The bartender there, Pablo, became a quick friend. We had a nice ruby port while we listened to the music. There was a show (there is one every night) but we finished dinner too late to see it. We will see one another night. Tonight is about the music!

Back to some basics . . . The concierge is incredibly helpful with Anything you will need. You might choose to stay in the Excellence Club, which is an upgraded service, private check in, rooms closer to the beach (although many of the standard rooms have good views as well), a private bar, pool and beach area, if you want a little more pricacy!

The resort has one buffet style restaurant, Tuscaca, that is opened for breakfast and lunch. It becomes an italian restaurant for dinner.Definitely nit the typical buffet. At breakfast, there is a piano and horn ensemble playing, champagne, mimosas, bloody marts, an omlette station, crepe station, great fruit, fresh fruit drinks, smoked salmon with all the ecoutrements, and so much more. The food is excellent. For lunch on the second day we tried Toscana and delighted in fresh grilled calamari and shrimp, other seafood delights, salads galore, traditional Mexican foods, pasta station, pizza, sushi (they will make whatever you want) and so much more. Again, the service is great and they are extremely helpful. For example, I took the wrong sauce for my sushi, which was soy sauce with habeneros. I thought I would need a fire extinguisher, but one of the waiters saw my distress and brought over some bread, told me to eat it all, and onAly after that, to drink the water he was pouring. Way better than the fire extinguisher!

During the day, we met Oscar, who works with the social staff. He looked so familiar, and we realized we had met him while he was working at another resort. We introduced ourselves and he was as personable as we remembered! He had taught me in a spanish class at the other resort. I had requested that he do it on the beach so not to miss out on the scenery. He agreed . . . How could I forget him?!

I could tell you so many great stories about this resort, but instead I will just tell you about a few of the employees that made our trip so perfect!

Maria, the beach bartender, had so much fun at her job! She'd come around and say, "What's my name? . ..  remember to give me good comments!" There is a survey that you fill out during your stay -and she wanted to be sure to be mentioned - and for good reason. Great service, always a smile, and FUNNY! At the end of every day, she would come around to say adios, and would say, "See you tomorrow, same time, same place same crazy waitress!"  We looked forward to seeing her every day.

Jesus was another great beach waiter. He remembered every drink that we would order, and the next day, would still remember our favorites!

Daniel, at the water activities desk, was just a pleasure to be around. He took us out for Hobie Cat lessons (we had them before, but it's always good to take a refresher). He made it so much easier to understand the wind, the sail . . . even though I'm still not that sure about it. But, we did manage to take the Hobie Cat out by ourselves and, thanks to Jay, we made it back to shore!

I could go on about more servers, but you don't have all day. So I will just mention our absolute favorite person at the resort, Vilma, the concierge in the main lobby. She helped us more than you can imagine. Her attitude was one of excellence, an "if you want it, I can get it done" attitude with a smile (always). She met us the mornings of our excursions to wish us a good trip, she met us when we returned to see how our day was, she took us on a private tour of the resort and all the incredible suites, printed our boarding passes, made local calls for us, and so more. And when we were leaving, she made sure to be there, with hugs, wishing us safe travel home and hopes that we would return.  An incredible woman who has a passion for what she does - and it shows!

Enought about the hotel.  For excursions, we have done the Mayan ruins, the ecological parks, the jet ski tours, etc. This time, since Isla Mujeres (an island just off of Cancun known for it's white sand beaches, fishing villages, turtles, and more) was in plain view on the horizon, we took a catamaran excursion, by Sea Passion, to the island. We sailed, snorkeled, sailed, had a great lunch (with an option for lobster tail), sailed, docked in the market area where you can shop for all the Mexican items and more, and then hit the beach for a while before getting back on the catamaran for the sail back to the mainland. And, if I didn't mention it, this is a HUGE catamaran - 75 feet of pure heaven, with a great, fun staff, great music and some fun surprises on the way back . . . and unlimited drinks (alcoholic and non).  We left for the tour at 9am and returned after 5pm - so a full day of fun!

The BEST excursion we have ever done is only available from about May 15 - September 15 each year. We went on the  Cancun Whale Shark Tour. (www.cancunwhalesharktours,com). Roddrigo is the owner of this company and he has been doing this for years! There are many companies doing this tour, but his company is reasonably priced with the biggest bang for your buck. First class operation (now the boats are not yachts . . . they are made for people to get in and out of the water on a regular basis so they are simple, but fast and their captains are pros!).  Whale sharks migrate to about 25 miles off the coast of Cancun every year during the times I mentioned. I cannot explain how incredible the experience was - you simply have to do it. The feeling of swimming with some of the biggest fish in the sea - some were almost as long as our boat - is just breath-taking and euphoric. These sharks are vegetarians and extremely docile. And they are definitely used to having humans and boats around. They come back year after year (they are monitored) and are unaffected by us!  Imagine jumping into the water where you see fins all around you, and swimming out to swim along side (if you can keep up) with a whale shark.  We were 12 guests on the boat. We went into the water 3 at a time and we were able to go 3 times.  We were not rushed, our guide, Dioser, was a master! we swam up to these great creatures, swam with them and then swam to the next, and the next, and the next. There were over 100 sharks in the area, so no shortage for the other boats that were there.   We had people who had never snorkeled and some who were afraid of fish (not to mention sharks) on our boat, and everyone got into the water and loved it. It was an event I will never forget. Of course, bring an underwater camera - and an underwater video camera if you have one.  If someone doesn't believe you, just show them. And, I keep looking at them to bring back the incredible feelings of freedom!!!

I could go on forever about the resort, but I don't need to.  Since I am back, I've already booked this hotel for clients who read some of my Facebook posts! This is a definite repeat resort for me.  I've only been home a couple of days and I'm ready to go back.

If you want more information, just email me at kathi@vacationonyourmind.com or find me on Facebook. My page is Vacation On Your Mind. And when you find it, please "like" the page and you will see a lot more!!!!

Monday, June 13, 2011


Are you thinking about a vacation for a special occasion? Do you want to feel totally pampered? Would you like to wake up in exotic ports, walk out onto your suite veranda with your coffee, or perhaps a mimosa or Bloody Mary, not have to worry about anything?

Then you need to look at Silversea. I am posting the latest special cruise fares. If you have any questions, or want more information, please email or call me!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cruising . . . Kicking it up a notch!!!

If you want an incredible, luxurious cruise for that special occasion, go Silversea! There are incredible prices right now through mid-June, so if you are thinking of booking a holiday, don't wait!!! Do it now!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Riviera Maya, Mexico

I just returned from the Riviera Maya (eastern coast of Mexico) where there is a vacation waiting for everyone. Whether it's a luxurious boutique resort, an upscale adults only resort or a more affordable family resort, the Mayan Riviera where you can spend your days just dreamily sipping a drink on the beach or never having the chance because of the numerous activities offered.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


If you want to experience a tropical island that has it all . . . beautiful beaches, rainforests, mountains, volcanoes, spectacular greenery and the warmest, friendliest people . . . St. Lucia is
for you!

Whether you are going on your honeymoon, vacationing with kids, or just in the mood for a romantic holiday, St. Lucia has what you are looking for. Destination Weddings are popular there and resorts are ready to work with prospective brides . . . and grooms (if they want to get involved!). There are adult - only resorts and resorts that welcome families, with children of all ages1

The international airport is on the south end of the island, Vieux Fort. If you are planning on spending your time on the west coast, you can take a taxi and get a great tour of a good portion of the island's lower east coast, through the rainforest and out to the west coast (that will bring you into Castries). Of course, there are beautiful resorts in the Castries area, but there are beautiful resorts all over the island including ones that overlook the Pitons, the Gros and Petit Pitons, twin volcanoes that are spectacular!

If you want to get to the west side a little quicker, charter a helicopter and opt for the extended tour so that you can fly over the Pitons. It's worth the difference in price!

The island offers many activities. Dive and snorkeling sites are abundant. You can climb the Pitons. How about a trip through the rainforest? Charter a sailboat or motor yacht for a day . . . or two? Sunset sails, day sails, deep sea fishing, rum shops, catamaran snorkeling cruises, windsurfing, golf, tennis, . . . or just visiting some quaint fishing villages and partaking in the incredible fresh catches!!!!

There are vacations for all budgets, from simple hotels to majestic open-walled resorts in the hillsides overlooking incredible views!

St. Lucia is one of my favorite Caribbean destinations. Make it one of yours!