Suck the Juice Out of Your Next Vacation

Sunny or Cloudy, seize the day!
Sunny or Cloudy, seize the day!

In my high school, Latin wasn’t a language students were forced to (or could choose to) study. Yet, it’s a safe bet to say that most of my generation learned at least two words in Latin during the late eighties/early nineties due to the (now) classic film Dead Poets Society. If you get the reference, then I’m sure you already know which two words they are: carpe diem—seize the day. Yes, those two words were the underlying message throughout the film, and inspired a group of adolescent boys to drink deep from their lives and make the most of them. That same principle carries over to travel, and I’m pleased to now present another aspect of my “travel philosophy”, namely: suck the juice out of every experience.

 

It isn’t hard to take things for granted—even on vacation. Usually our minds are so cluttered from the life we leave behind that it takes awhile to clear out the distractions and pay attention to the here and now. Failure to do so can lead to regret further down the line, as no one wants to look back on a travel experience (& the costs involved) and wish they had done things differently or lament that they didn’t have the wherewithal to recognize the significance of what they were doing and thinking at the time.

 

So how does one avoid post-traveler’s regret? How does one not just scrape the surface of an experience with their teeth, but rather bite down hard and suck out the juice as rivulets of sticky nectar drip down your chin until you’re left with little more than dried out lump of pulp? Here’s a few words of advice from someone who metaphorically needs a bib.

 

Take A Mental Snapshot

 

Oftentimes, we don’t recognize our greatest experiences until they’re over. Developing a habit of pausing to examine various moments in time during your trip can do much to ramp up your awareness. When composing your mental snapshot be sure to include the following elements: Who you’re with; What you’re doing; & Where you are. Capturing these factors will not only bring delight as you fill in the blanks, but also prepare you for my next suggestion.

 

Don’t Just Swallow—Digest

 

Just as our bodies need time to assimilate what we put into them, so too our minds need a chance to reflect on the experiences had if we’re to get the most meaning out of them. At this point—perhaps on the long flight back home, or a monotonous car or train ride between destinations—there are a few secondary questions to ask yourself to go along with the who, what and where from the first step. For instance, compare those answers to your previous expectations. Did you ever think you would be in ______ with ______ doing _____? Chances are your answer will be no, leading you to better appreciate what you experienced, and setting the stage for future delight in the unscripted nature of life. Of course, our ability to digest is dependent upon how we eat, which leads me to the third factor…

 

Eat Well, But Slowly

 

Given the time constraints most people have, the temptation is there to cram as much in as possible and sort it out later. True, you can accomplish a lot that way, but just like with any enjoyable meal, it always tastes better if you slow down and savor the flavor. I know from personal experience that this is hard. Even when it comes to literal eating, I’m always the first one done with their plate. But over time I’ve learned to desist (or at least pull back) from cramming my metaphorical face when traveling and to take the time to absorb the subtle nuances that are lost in a whirlwind tour. So stare out at that sunset. Sit and talk with some locals in the piazza, plaza or praca. Float on your back and gaze up at the clouds. And by all means enjoy that gelato, samosa or kebab. Just do it slowly enough that you’re aware of the experience.

 

Armed with these basic tenets of travel philosophy, you can now not only suck the juice out of your vacation but your everyday life as well. Remember carpe diem. And while I’d recommend against standing up on your plane seat or cruise dinner table and shouting out “O Captain, my Captain!” you should be able to seize the day on the days you travel and also be able to hang onto them.

 

 

The Joy of Guidebooks

Any Flavor You Like
Any Flavor You Like

When it comes to souvenirs, most people have an area of particular interest. Some go for the obligatory t-shirt or hat with the name of the destination emblazoned for all to see. Others collect spoons, bells, thimbles, or other such trinkets. And yet others are just content with the stamp in their passport to go along with photos as reminders of their trip. While I consider myself a connoisseur of all such areas of interest (with a particular leaning toward hat pins, local musical instruments and not just a t-shirt but the properly artistic RIGHT t-shirt) my first and often favorite keepsake is the purchased before I ever leave—the guidebook.

Yes, my personal library is dominated by travel guidebooks—my earliest accomplices in planning my travels. I’m not 100% sure why they hold such fascination for me. Perhaps it’s because of the promise they hold—that something inside will lead me to a decision that will take me thousands of miles from my home just to experience it in person. Perhaps it’s the validation that if I commit to buying the guidebook then I really must be going to that destination. Or perhaps it’s because I just like to look at pictures and gather ideas on how to make them my own.

Regardless of the underlying psychology, travel guidebooks are still a tremendous resource despite the overabundance of information available on the Web. Below are some of my favorites and why.

1) Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com)

It’s my impression that in the clique of travel guidebooks, Lonely Planet is like the cool kid everybody wants to be like. While other (in fact almost all) guidebooks offer more in the way of color pictures of a destination, when it comes down to cold, hard facts about even the most obscure villages in the remotest parts of a little-known country, I’ve found the entries in Lonely Planet guides to be spot on. Not only are their suggestions about lodging and sights really dependable, but there are extensive maps that come in really handy. So while I’ll usually check out three or four guides from my library for a more complete picture of a given destination, it’s usually the Lonely Planet guide that I buy—especially now that you can purchase only pertinent chapters in .pdf form. It’s also worth mentioning that they offer guides covering a lot more countries than most.

2) DK Eyewitness Guides (www.us.dk.com)

If you’re more interested in learning visually than in simply reading, DK Eyewitness Guides are probably your best bet. Not only are there color photos on nearly every page, but when it comes to examining major points of interest, such as palaces, ruins or other noteworthy monuments, there are illustrated guides and cross-sections showing in great detail the buildings in question. There are also illustrated close-ups of key neighborhoods, which is some pretty useful information when on site. The write-ups of lesser towns or points of interest may be a bit limited, but the visual treat is well worth it and serves to stoke the flames of wanderlust.

3) Insight Guides (www.insightguides.com)

When it comes to pictures, Insight Guides are my favorite. They strike a fine balance between information and visual stimulation. They also have a great free app that offers a daily travel photo of the highest caliber. When I’m looking for ideas I often look at Insight Guides.

Naturally there are many other guides—all with their own virtues. The key is in finding out which brand tells YOU the things YOU want to know. My suggestion is to go to your local library or bookstore and peruse your options before making a purchase. And from there it’s all bliss poring over the information that you would someday make your own. Then you too, can experience the joy of guidebooks and get a leg up on purchasing your first souvenir.

Do you have a favorite guidebook brand? Leave a comment and tell us why!

The Witty Traveler’s Guide to Cuzco & The Sacred Valley

For decades the forlorn majesty of the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu have drawn travelers the world over. Ever since I first saw that first picture of those terraced green slopes precariously protruding out of the Andean jungle, I vowed to someday see it for myself. So I booked the flights, arranged my transport and lodging, and felt that thrill of knowing nothing was going to stop me from realizing my dream. Then, in early 2010, something did—namely water. Lots of it. Whole mountainsides full of it. So much water that the flooding and ensuing mudslides critically damaged the only infrastructure to and from that iconic outpost, with repairs due a very inconvenient month or so after I was scheduled to return home.

Bummer.

However, due to a bizarre combination of factors that might possibly disrupt the time/space continuum if I tried to explain it, it would have cost more for me to cancel my trip to Peru than to go. So, in order to protect the universe as we know it, I went, and in return received the mother of all consolation prizes: A memorable stay in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley completely unencumbered by that show-stealing, wanderlust-inducing prima donna up to its neck in water less than 100 miles away. Yes, the sideshow had become the main attraction and I couldn’t have been happier.

Despite my clever moniker, I need to be (kind of) serious for just one paragraph. If you intend to visit Cuzco or any other location situated over 11 thousand feet above sea level, be certain your lungs can handle it. Not five minutes after disembarking the plane, my father, whom I was traveling with, began struggling to breathe. Apparently the high altitude exacerbated a previously unknown respiratory infection, so instead of joining me in this Inca wonderland, he spent most of his time in a Peruvian clinic, sucking down giant tanks of oxygen like it was…well…air. Granted, this was an extreme and unforeseen case, but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that nugget of information along. So, if you don’t want to go the way of the conquistadores, see your doctor first before you book. That said, most people suffer little more than some mild shortness of breath and fatigue when they first arrive, which dissipates rather quickly the longer you stay.

Cuzco, once the capital of the far-flung Incan Empire and believed by them to be the center of the world, fell to Spanish invaders in the 1500’s. In turn, the new overlords denuded the city of its riches, tore down many structures and promptly built their own right on top of the existing (and much sturdier) Inca-built foundations. The result is a unique mix of architecture that blends Old World charm with even Older World engineering. Inca masonry consists of blocks of hewn stone in irregular shapes and sizes so perfectly fit together without mortar, that in many spots it would be really difficult to fit a knife blade between them. Picture in your mind a massive game of organic Tetris (cue maddeningly addicting music here) and you’ve got the idea.

At the hub of this menagerie of terra cotta and plaster is Plaza de Armas, the main square and site of the city’s famous cathedral. Branching off in all directions are narrow streets lined with souvenir shops, hole–in-the-wall restaurants, and indigenous people dressed in traditional garb standing next to the family llama, hoping for a few coins in return for the photo op. Seriously, there were so many llamas everywhere that I felt I was trapped in the end credits of Monty Python & the Holy Grail (you Anglophiles know exactly what I’m talking about).

Llocals with their llama, Cuzco
Llocals with their llama, Cuzco

Llamas aside, there are also a few museums and churches of note, but my favorite experience by far was just wandering the backstreets (not too far back—the neighborhoods can get kind of gritty), perusing the alpaca-centric handicrafts, and enjoying a grilled meat dinner (at times alpaca-centric as well) to be washed down with a pisco sour (the national drink) or a bottle of hyper-sweet Inca Kola, which I highly recommend for anyone who has ever wondered what liquefied bubble gum would taste like.

Once you’ve satisfied your taste for colonial Spanish culture, it’s time to venture outside the city limits to see those Inca ruins that bring so many people here in the first place. At this point I must stress the necessity of having already purchased a Cuzco Visitor’s Ticket, which grants entrance to most attractions both in the city and in outlying regions. If not, you may find yourself stuck outside with the llamas. Most visitors opt for conveniently packaged tours that take in the numerous ruins on the outskirts of town, which can be arranged ahead of time or by one of the many travel agencies in town which rival the llamas in terms of sheer numbers. Since I was divvying my time between sightseeing and my father’s bedside, I can also vouch for the simplicity of just negotiating a price with a local cab driver, which will likely not be as informative, but certainly more flexible to your schedule.

Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru
Yet Another Llama, Sachsayhuaman Fortress, Cuzco, Peru

The largest attraction just outside of town, is by far the imposing ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, perched on a bluff overlooking the city. Pronounced as the English term sexy woman, though with no apparent correlation, this cluster of monolithic stones and grassy ramparts made me wonder how any army might have gained mastery of it while being defended. It also made me wonder what I was thinking in telling my wife later on that I went to see Sacsayhuaman (sexy woman) today. And since her appreciation of the subtleties of Quechua terminology are tragically limited, I emptied my pockets of coins and took a great picture of an adorable baby llama just for her as sort of a peace offering.

Not much farther down the road are the ruins of Qenko, Puca Pucara, and Tambo Machay. Here there are great examples of traditional trapezoidal-shaped doorways and windows, an ancient altar, and just a great Inca vibe. In fact, most of the aforementioned ruins just begged the questions: Where is Indiana Jones? Where are they hiding that giant rolling boulder? And what’s with all these llamas? Now that you’ve whetted your appetite for all things Inca, it’s time to venture out into the heartland—the Sacred Valley.

Leaving the congestion of Cuzco behind, a favorite stop is Pisac, known for its colorful market and terraced hillsides above the town. Once again shopping opportunities abound, and yes, you can take a picture with a llama here as well. Following the meandering (and as was the case during my visit) swollen banks of the Urubamba River past the small, touristy town that bears the same name, visitors arrive at what could easily be the main attraction if it weren’t for that ‘other’ set of ruins that people come to see—the living Inca town of Ollantaytambo.

Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru
Citadel, Ollantaytambo, Peru

Nestled at the base of the verdant valley, the terraced layers reach precipitously upward, forming an amphitheater with stunning views of the village below. Approaching the top of the fortress—once a strategic military post—there is an impressive set of granite monoliths forming a wall that both attests to the endurance of Inca craftsmanship, and leaves one silently pondering just how many llamas were necessary to haul them up there.

Back on the valley floor, there are preserved examples of stone irrigation and other structures that give a glimpse into the past, so long as you can envision the town without souvenir stalls. Still, standing there and looking around at the remaining buildings clinging to the mountainsides and absorbing the authenticity and sense of history, it was completely possible for me to say “Machu who?”

I know quite well that Cuzco and the Sacred Valley will always play second fiddle to the diva out in the hills, and honestly, I’d welcome the chance to return and compare them for myself. But to all potential travelers to the area, I say make some room for exploring the stage, not just its biggest star, and your trip to Peru will have been worth the effort. If not, you can take comfort in knowing that somewhere, very close, there will be a llama waiting just for you.