Machu Picchu on a Budget

Machu Picchu.

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Words itself cannot describe the boundless beauty, delicate details, and haunting history of this ancient world wonder.

When I first came to Peru in 2014, I definitely wanted to go to Machu Picchu.  But everyone I met that went to Machu Picchu warned “it’s expensive”, albeit stunning.  So with my tight budget, and thirst for the sun and waves, I decided to stay on the coast.  I figured Machu Picchu wasn’t going away or disappearing any time soon (hopefully!), so I tucked it away for another trip.

Just over a year later, I got that second chance to go back to Peru, and this time with my boyfriend.  Our only plan: Machu Picchu.

Before setting off on our travels, we did extensive research on Machu Picchu.  We had a pretty tight budget, so we had to see what was available.  We were keen to do the Inca Trail, the ever popular 4-5 day, 26 mile trek through lush cloud-forest and tropical Andean jungle, but decided against it when we found out that it had a months-long waiting list, and that each company charged quite a hefty fee to go (which didn’t include any extra camping gear that would most certainly be needed).

Another option we found was to take the train to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes…. but one-way tickets (for tourists) start at $82 – one way…. and so we discarded that option quickly.

We knew that the internet only gave us so many options, so we decided to do the rest of our research on Machu Picchu the old-fashioned way: by asking other travelers who had done it.  And then we did it ourselves.

It’s so worth it, and I think going to Machu Picchu on a budget actually makes the whole trip a lot more authentic.  When you arrive to Cusco, there are signs and people nagging you to pay an absurd amount of money to be stuck to a tight schedule, and traveling with a group.  Doing Machu Picchu on a budget and taking our time, camping out, mingling with the locals… it just added to the authenticity.

Not to mention, if you’re traveling for a long period of time, you want to really sustain your budget so you can do everything.  It’s super easy to spend half your budget on Machu Picchu.  I’m here to tell you: don’t.  It’s not necessary!

 

Machu Picchu on a Budget: The Budget

I began to keep track of our budget the day we left Cusco.  This is the budget for the 5-day trek we did, not including airfare, not including any of our costs while we were actually in Cusco.

Transportation (including bus to Machu Picchu): S/.255
Accommodation (camping): S/.50
Food (eating out, snacks, beer):  S/.293.50
Tickets to Machu Picchu: S/.192 (as an Ecuadorian citizen, my boyfriend got the discounted fare of S/.64, which is only available to nationals of the Andean Pact countries)

Total: S/. 790.50 ~ $235.12

No, that is not a typo. Between two people for a 5 day trek we spent only $235.  That’s $117.56 PER PERSON.  Remember, this doesn’t include the airfare or bus fare getting to Cusco.  From Lima, we found flights for $160 round trip, per person.  Bussing is definitely cheaper (though the nicer companies like Cruz del Sur aren’t that much cheaper), and to take the bus from Lima, where we were, to Cusco, takes a good 24 hours.  We weren’t about to do that, and we surely weren’t going to take a more economic bus ride because we tried one of those and had a horrible experience (stay tuned for a bussing in Peru post next…)

And clearly, we spent most of our money on food.  But if we would have had a camping stove, we would have saved even more money..

Anyhow, in total, including our flights, we spent about $555 between two people for a five day trek to Machu Picchu.

So there’s the Machu Picchu budget.  Let’s continue on with the journey.

 

Machu Picchu on a Budget: The Itinerary

We did the entire trek in five days. It is possible to do it in three, if you get transportation direct from Cusco to the Hidroelectrica.  Our Dutch friends who we met camping in Cusco, Evita and Willem, did this instead.  They found a company around the Plaza del Armas in Cusco that charged them about $70 USD round trip.  This definitely saves time if you don’t have it; but if you do have time (and you should make time for Machu Picchu) support the local economy and take the local buses.

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I highlighted a map of the route. I find maps super helpful to get a good idea of where exactly I am and where I’m going.

Day One [travel from Cusco to Santa Teresa]

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Plaza del Armas, Cusco

We left Cusco in the morning around 10:30.  It would have been earlier, but the first cab we got in took us to the wrong bus station.  (Pro-tip #1: be sure to tell the taxi to take you to Terminal de Quillabamba.)  We told our taxi driver to take us to the terminal where the buses go to Santa Maria.  Instead, he took us to the bigger, interregional bus station.  It was further away, and thus it was more expensive to take us there.  Pro-tip #2: from the Plaza del Armas in Cusco, your taxi to the Terminal de Quillabamba should be around S/.7 – any more than 10 soles, and you know you’re getting ripped off.

We made it to the Quillabamba station with just minutes to spare.  When you walk in, people will be shouting “Quillabamba! Santa Maria!”  The buses stop in Santa Maria on the way to Quillabamba, and should cost anywhere between S/.15 – S/.20 (we paid 20 soles each) and the trip itself takes about 4-5 hours, through the Sacred Valley.

Once in Santa Maria, there will be many colectivos that go to Santa Teresa for S/.10.  These colectivos usually leave when they have a full car.  It’s a 45-minute drive along a precarious dirt road along the cliffs of the Andes; but the drivers are fairly cautious in their 4 x 4 Toyota station wagons.  Don’t be surprised when they lay on the horn before they round a sharp corner, as this is their way of notifying any on-coming traffic of their presence.  It’s a funny, if not efficient, system.

We camped this evening in Santa Teresa at Don Moscoso’s place, for a whopping five soles, total (we left an extra 5 with him because he held some of our excess luggage that we didn’t take to Machu Picchu).  Unfortunately, a huge tour group of about 30 or more people, arrived to camp at the same spot, and blasted reggaeton (and later some cool 80s hits) into the evening.  That was fine and all, but the thing is, this campsite only had two toilets to share… between all of these people.  Definitely one of the more, ah, adventurous place we have camped, but hey, that’s what traveling is all about, right?  Adventure! That said, Don Moscoso is a wonderful, friendly human being who is seemingly well respected and well known in the Santa Teresa community.  He kept a bag of our stuff safe while we left to do Machu Picchu – which was a good idea, because we totally overpacked.

 

Day Two [walk from hidroelectrica to campsite at Aguas Calientes]

From the mercado in Santa Teresa, we caught another colectivo to the Hidroelectrica (s/.10).  Apparently there is a hike from Santa Teresa to the Hidroelectrica that takes about seven hours; but we decided to save time and energy.  The Hidroelectrica is exactly what you think it is: a huge hydroelectric power plant along the Rio Vilcanota.  This is the starting point for the ‘hike’ to Machu Picchu.

There are signs along the railroad that lead you to Aguas Calientes – look out for these signs.  The hike 2-3 hour hike goes along the railroad tracks, except for a portion at the very beginning.  We got confused and ended up right along the river in an lightly marked trail through the trees, and ended up scaling up a very sketchy pathway to the actual trail.  Don’t do what we did: if you get lost, just ask the many food vendors that sit along the tracks at the entrance for directions.

The trail is pretty flat and has some stunning views.  We took a few rest stops for snacks and water, but we did it all in about three hours.  You can easily do the walk in two, even one and a half, if you have less luggage than we did.

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The campsite is about 15 minutes before you arrive to Aguas Calientes on the main path, right after the Puentes Ruinas (the two bridges that lead to Machu Picchu).  You are close when you get to the Machu Picchu train station.  Camping here is s/.15, and there are clean bathrooms and even some exercise equipment, in case the walk wasn’t a good enough work out for you.

After setting up tent we walked into Aguas Calientes for dinner, and to buy our tickets to Machu Picchu.  The little town, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, was formed during the construction of the railroad, which goes right through the city.  Naturally, tourism makes up a big chunk of the economy in this town, which is represented by the abundance of overpriced hotels and restaurants.  As the name suggests, there are thermal hot springs here; but that, too, is known to be touristy and crowded.  Save yourself the money and wait to enjoy the hot springs in Santa Teresa.

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view from our tent: Machu Picchu is up in the clouds there in the middle

Pro-tip #3buy your ticket in advance to enter Machu Picchu.  From what we saw it is heavily regulated and there is no way for you to enter the ruins without a pre-purchased ticket.  Also, they allow at most 2,500 visitors per day into Machu Picchu, and during high season, this could mean that they sell out days before.  Tickets can be bought in Cusco, or at the Machu Picchu Cultural Center near the main plaza in Aguas Calientes.  The tickets you buy are only valid for the day you buy them for: they specifically state that there are no refunds or exchanges.  You can also buy the tickets online.

 

Day Three [MACHU PICCHU]

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We woke up to rain that lasted until about mid-morning.  When the rain stopped, we walked to Aguas Calientes and ate lunch at the mercado (cheapest eats in town probably, a menú for only S/.8) before taking the bus up to Machu Picchu.  Now, we could have easily done the walk up to Machu Picchu for free, instead of spending S/.40 each on a one-way bus ticket.  But the morning rain delayed us, and we knew that once we got up to Machu Picchu, we would be doing our fair share of walking.  So we opted to buy the bus ticket up, and do the walk down.  This is an equally excellent option, and though the bus ride up feels a bit like you’re on a Disneyland ride, it’s worth it.  We assumed the high price of the bus tickets is because 1) they use nice Mercedes buses, likely for their durability and safety, and 2) these bus drivers have a risky job, and we can only hope they are being compensated well for it.  They drive these massive buses up and down the windy, zig-zaggy road to Machu Picchu several times a day, full of tourists… so in the end, we were happy to support them.

There are three different types of tickets to enter Machu Picchu: you can visit just the city (S/.128 ~ $38) , or visit the city and Machu Picchu Mountain (S/.142 ~ $42), or visit the city, Machu Picchu Mountain, and Waynu Picchu (S/.152 ~ $45).  The latter is obviously the most expensive option, and would also require more time.  Remember that Machu Picchu was once a city that was home to perhaps 1,000 people if not more; and though that doesn’t seem like a lot, it is a lot of people to house on a skinny mountain top, and you can easily spend five hours walking around just the city, from going to the Sun Gate and to the Inca Bridge.

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We did just the city, and didn’t even make it to the Sun Gate, nor did we walk all the way to the Inca Bridge (my fear of heights got the best of me when I saw the narrow walkway to the bridge).  We spent about three hours there, but could have easily spent eight hours… but because we went midday, our time was a bit limited.  Nevertheless, we spent an enchanting afternoon getting lost in the land of the Incas.

 

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The walk down from Machu Picchu can be done easily in 45 minutes.  It’s an easy, 400 meter descent from the top to the Puentes Ruinas, and a thorough workout for your calves.  When we got to the Puentes Ruinas, we enjoyed a celebratory cerveza at the foot of the mountain.

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Day Four [travel from Aguas Calientes to Santa Teresa thermal baths]

We left the campsite around 9:30 a.m. to begin the walk back to Santa Teresa.  This time we did the walk in just 2 1/2 hours, stopping a few times to rest and refuel with fruits and water.  When we arrived to the Hidroelectrica, we found a colectivo right away to Santa Teresa.

From Santa Teresa you can walk to the thermal baths, or take a taxi for about S/.12.  With all the stuff we were carrying, we chose to take a taxi.  The cost to camp here is S/.5 per person, and that includes your ticket to the thermal baths.  The baths begin to fill up around midday, as more people (many in large groups) begin returning from Machu Picchu.  We chose to rest and relax in our tent (also hiding from those persistent sandflies) until around 8 or 9 p.m., when the air had cooled down, and most of the people had gone.  There’s no better way to end a trip than to relax in a natural hot spring, relieving any aching bones and muscles from the long walk.

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Day Five [travel back to Cusco]

We lucked out and got a colectivo from the thermal baths to take us back to the mercado in Santa Teresa in the morning (S/.8).  We bought a couple of fresh papaya and aloe vera juice before taking a ride back to Santa Maria.

We had hoped to catch a bus in Santa Maria back to Cusco, but we were told that the next bus wouldn’t pass for another couple of hours.  There were three other travelers heading back to Cusco from Santa Teresa, and we were able to find transportation in a van for S/.20 per person from Santa Maria to Cusco.

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We made it back to our amazing campsite, Quinta Lala, below the Sacsay Huaman ruins in Cusco, in the late afternoon.  Around the bonfire later on, sipping soup and swapping stories with our friends, we reveled in the glory and majesty of Machu Picchu.

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Machu Picchu on a budget: The [bare] Necessities

What you have and bring with you is essential to maintaining the budget.  Here are a few items

Tent –  Camping in Peru is dirt cheap, and this is the #1 way to save money on your way to Machu Picchu; not to mention, there are some amazing views.  Hostels in Aguas Calientes  start at around S/. 30 (~ $10), but the most we ever paid to camp was s/. 15 for two people (~ $4.50).  The campsite is at the base of Machu Picchu, with a stunning view of Machu Picchu (and quite frankly, a way better option than any of the overpriced hostels/hotels that make up the Disneyland-like town of Aguas Calientes).  Just make sure your tent is nice and waterproof, and well ventilated.  It is warm and humid in the Sacred Valley, and it could rain any second.

Water filter/water bottle – Seriously.  I have the Sawyer Mini Filter, and it is a game changer.  The Andes in Peru is studded with glaciers, and thus there is an ample supply of fresh (though untreated) glacier water.  This is a good item to have in general when you’re traveling, but it’s worth mentioning for this, because it really came in handy for us (and saved us those extra soles that we’d be spending daily on water).

Bug repellent – As I mentioned, it’s fairly warm and humid in the Sacred Valley.  However, it’s not mosquitoes you have to worry about, but the tiny, pesky sandflies.  You won’t know they’re on you until you feel a tiny sting on your skin, that will have you itching for days after.  Try to go for natural products, laden with citronella and lemongrass essential oils, rather than the poisonous DEET-infused sprays… but that’s just my opinion.  (And if you’re in the Seattle area, stop by The Hidden Alchemist in Pioneer Square and get a bottle of bug repellent.  It works like a charm and smells fantastic!)

Good pair of shoes/socks – Since we weren’t doing the super long and intensive Inca Trail hike, we didn’t really gear up.  I had no hiking boots, just my Vans, and purchased a good pair of long socks before hand, and had absolutely no problems.  The most walking you’ll do is from the Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes, and then all of the walking in Machu Picchu.  I saw people in flip flops, flats, even girls wearing wedges… so no, for this trek, you don’t need a pair of the latest and greatest hiking boots.

Rain gear – Poncho, rain jacket, umbrella, what have you… stay prepared and stay dry.

Camping stove – We didn’t have one, but could have saved even more money if we did. (Needless to say, it’s our next investment!)  None of these camping spots had kitchens available (like I presumed they might), so we ended up eating out.  Which, as you can see from the budget I’ve outlined, we spent the most on food, and surely with a stove, we would have spent less.  If you already have one of these lying around, do not forget it!  And if you are traveling for a long time and planning to camp… investing in one of these is a good idea.

Headlamp – Another one of those “always good to have wherever you’re traveling” items, but also one worth mentioning.  When you’re camping, a headlamp or some sort of light is always essential.  Do not pack your bag without it!

Toilet Paper – Many of the campsites have bathrooms, but no toilet paper (not paper towels/hand dryers).  While this is surely the eco-friendly option, it can be an unfriendly surprise.  Stay fresh and prepared, bring your own roll of TP.  In fact, TP is good to have wherever you’re traveling, especially if you’re doing a long distance bus ride.  Just trust me on this one.

 

Last thoughts on Machu Picchu

This was my first time going to Machu Picchu; but I know it won’t be my last.  Even a month later, the sights and smells of the renowned World Heritage site stay clear in my mind.

It is, however, very crowded.  We went in late October, which is technically the off-season, and though there were many people, I can only imagine what it might be like in the high-season.  Plan your trip accordingly.. July and August, and December-March tend to be the busiest time.

Decide your route to Cusco in advance.  If you are really short on time, chances are you’ll be flying into Cusco from Lima.  Some of you might come from the south, likely from Arequipa by bus.  Because of our time frame we chose to fly.  We bought our tickets directly from the LCPeru airline website.  Payment can be done online, or you can go to an affiliated bank in Lima and pay in cash within two hours of booking.  LAN and Avianca also have flights from Lima to Cusco; we found that LCPeru was the cheapest and most efficient, with a wide variety of flight times.

We brought way too many things for this easy trek.  Pack as light as you can: and if you can, leave some unnecessary items at your hostel/campground in Cusco, or somewhere safe.  Now we know for next time 🙂

 

So there you have it. Machu Picchu on a budget.  Now you have no excuse to skip Machu Picchu, no matter what your budget may be.

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Soul Surfing: How One Small Choice Changed My Life.

Deepak Chopra once said, “When you make a choice, you change the future.”  I couldn’t find a more fitting quote to begin my story… because my life completely changed when I made the choice to start surfing.

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I didn’t take to surfing right away.  The first time I surfed was in Canoa, a friendly little beach town in Ecuador.  I was volunteering at a hostel in exchange for free accommodation.  The owner of the hostel offered to give me surf lessons, and claimed he’d turn me into a pro in three months (ha!).  Surfing, and the culture around it, intrigued me my entire life, but having grown up in landlocked Las Vegas and later near the cold waters of Seattle, I didn’t know too much about it except Hawaii, Kelly Slater, and Johnny Tsunami.  So when I got the opportunity to get free surf lessons, I dove right in.

I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

It was not an ideal first surf lesson.  Waves were frantically crashing into me, I was gulping down gallons of seawater, and I felt awkward, tired, and embarrassingly out of shape.  I got stung by jellyfish, and sat down on the beach, watching the waves, ruminating about this whole surf thing.  Okay, I get it, it could be fun, but maybe it just isn’t for me.  That session left me less-than-enthused about surfing, and so a couple of months passed before I got back on a board again. 

A few months later I was in a tiny little fishing village just a few hours north of Canoa, in the Esmeraldas province.   I was living with my now-boyfriend, Carlos, and two friends, Shane and Anna; all of them surfers.  When they would go surfing, I would hang out on the beach, take photos of everyone else surfing in a state of awe and inspiration.  I wanted to go and give it another shot, but I was still discouraged after that first time.  And frankly, I was scared.  Scared that I would suck at it and hate it, scared that I would get hurt, or get another stung by yet another jellyfish or god knows what else that’s in the ocean.  I was scared for absolutely no reason at all.

One sunny February day, all of my roomies were out of town, and I was enjoying a relaxing beach day.  Two friends, Morongo and Roberto (aka Gallo), and some others were playing around in the surf.  Morongo called me over, giving me shit like he always does to everyone, badgering me to give surfing a try.  I had my reservations at first, but Morongo & Gallo were persuasive, and I’m forever grateful that they were.  What made this time around different than the first time was their encouragement and their eagerness to share the joy of surfing.  Not to mention, the left point break that Mompiche is known for is an incredible wave to learn on.

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The next thing I knew, I was up on the board and (clumsily) finding my balance, and cruising down a wave.  All of my fears flew out and disappeared into the blue behind me.

From that moment on, my life slowly started to change.  

Every time my roomies went surfing, I would hop over to Morongo’s house on the way and borrow one of his longboards in exchange for babysitting his kids, Kai and Kingston (which, in retrospect, was kind of an unfair trade… I mean, just look at how cute they are!).  I was hooked.  I didn’t want to stop surfing, like, ever.

After weeks of watching and studying the waves and the surfers, I felt like I had a better idea of what I was supposed to be doing, unlike my first time.  After each surf session, my previous fears, worries, doubts, the negativity slowly faded away.  I wasn’t just enjoying the surfing as a sport, I was falling in love with the lifestyle.

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I have gone through some major physical, mental, and emotional changes because of surfing; all of them absolutely positive.  I’m not saying that none of this would have happened if I didn’t start surfing; but it was a catalyst in establishing and maintaining this new lifestyle.  There are invaluable life lessons to be gained from surfing: here are a few that I’ve learned over the past year and a half.

Patience.  Patience with myself, as I learn how to surf.  Patience with nature, and patience for the things that are out of my control.  The waves aren’t always surfable; sometimes the ocean will be flat for days or weeks before the right swell comes in with a trove of fun waves.  And when there are waves, the sets might be several long minutes apart, which can be equally frustrating and relaxing.  Sometimes the conditions just aren’t good: it’s too windy, or too small, or too choppy, or the waves are WAY bigger and more powerful than I’m used to, but fuck it, I’ll go anyway, and I’m going to give it my best shot, even if it means wiping out every single time and not catching any waves.  Patience to push myself and know that the more I practice, the better I will get.  

Which leads me to perseverance.  The desire to keep going day after day after day, despite dozens of body-crushing wipe-outs the day before.  Make each day better than the last.  I learned from my mistakes, and embraced the wipe-outs, as Aaliyah whispers softly in my ear: if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again, you can dust it off and try again, agaaaaain…. And because I’ve persevered, because I never gave up on myself, I can proudly say that yes, I am riding waves.  

Along those same lines, I got a grip on my self-control… like, saying no to yet another glass of wine (I know, crazy right?!) so I don’t wake up tired and groggy when I want to go surfing early.  And then actually waking up early.  My circadian rhythm has done a complete 180 from when I was worked the busy night shifts in restaurants.  Gone are the days when I used to think waking up at 10:00 was early; now, if I wake up at 7:30, I consider that sleeping in!

I’ve also learned that nothing is permanent.  No two waves are alike, just like no two snowflakes are the same.  In this way she is always challenging us, our mother Earth, for she shows us that each day, each wave, each wind, is never the same as the last.  Surfing is unique in that the conditions in which you surf are constantly changing.  Some days, the sea is calm and glassy, producing beautiful, elegant, silky smooth waves; ideal surfing conditions.  And in just a couple of hours that sultry minx can turn into a raging, windy maniac, throwing messy, unorganized waves onto the shore in a drunken manner, while you are drowning trying to stay afloat

So with each wave, you must adjust your positioning to either catch the wave or get out of the way; or do nothing and get tossed under the hissing white wash as the wave breaks.  So it is in life: everything changes, all the time, and it’s up to you to step aside and accept the change and go on with your life, or let it drown you in its wake.  It’s your choice, what will you do?

Finally, balance.  The key to surfing is, ultimately, balance.  Just like you need to find balance on the board to catch the wave, you need balance in your life.  Healthy eating habits, yoga and meditation, getting enough sleep; are all ways to maintain that balance.  Surfing has helped me not only find balance, but strive to maintain that balance.

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Through surfing I have gained the utmost respect for her majesty, Mother Nature, la pacha mama.  I am so grateful for this gift of waves she’s brings us, I mean, if everything has a purpose, surely waves are created for the enjoyment of us humans, and dolphins, and geese, and all other living beings, right?!  But really, each day I go out into the ocean, I am always in awe of the humbling beauty of our Earth, and I am reminded more and more that if we don’t continue to care for our planet, then perhaps one day, there won’t be waves for us to surf, mountains to hike, or even trees for us to breathe.   So in a way, surfing has taught me to become more environmentally conscious (though years of living in Seattle definitely helped plant the seeds for that), and it has set me on the path to a sustainable, conscious lifestyle.

Surfing is personal.  You don’t have teammates who you can pass the wave to, like you can a ball, but there are always fellow surfers in the water to share the waves with.  Sure there are famous surfers who compete with each other for prizes and status; but even while watching those competitions, there is an intoxicating air of conviviality and camaraderie.  It’s less about competing, and more about enjoying nature to the fullest, and when you’re in the water, with other like-minded people, it’s not a competition or a race to see who can get the most waves.  You genuinely want everyone to catch waves, and have as much fun as you do.

Surfing isn’t about winning or losing; but if it was, the only way you can lose is if you don’t try.  And the only person you will ever disappoint, is yourself, for not trying.  Isn’t that the way life should be, all the time? 

summer of mangoes ( + mango & arugula salad recipe)

It’s summertime in the Dominican Republic, which means many things.  It’s about to get hot, like, unbearably hot, unlike the “cooler” winter months.  Every day is a sunny day, some days are a bit cloudier than others, with the menacing green-grey look of a storm, but rain is scarce; instead, the moisture simply floats by, creating a natural sauna-like atmosphere.  But summertime in the Dominican Republic also means windy days, a breath of fresh air to the relentless sun and humidity.  With the winds come the wind-sports enthusiasts, newbies, amateurs, and pros alike, kitesurfers and windsurfers from all over the world.  For many, summer in the Dominican Republic also means vacation, long holidays to the beach or away, and the influx of tourists from the U.S., Canada, Europe, to the shiny, all-inclusive resorts all along the coast.

But the best thing about summer in the Dominican Republic, is that it’s MANGO SEASON!

Mango trees are everywhere, all along the sides of the roads, in the hills by the rivers, next to the beach, all over the place.  (The picture above is a HUGE mango tree that we saw on the trail to the Damajagua River near Puerto Plata.)  There are at least five mango trees in my backyard, two of which are big, fruitful trees, the tops of which hang heavy with the weight of ripening, reddening mangoes.

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And all the mangoes, though different, are all so flavorful and juicy and delicious, and in various shades of yellows, oranges, reds, and even yellow-greens on the outside, and always a happy shade of orange on the inside.

Some have a bit of a harder texture, a bit meatier as well, quite like a melon, full of flavor but perfect for salsa or salads or in yogurt.

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Others, like this one below, are softer, super juicy, and so hairy that you’ll be flossing your teeth for about an hour after eating one.

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Thanks to the abundance of mangoes, there’s always at least one, or a variation of mango something, in my fridge.  (They gotta go in the fridge, otherwise flies end up moving in with me.)  Usually, it’s my go-to post-surf snack; I stand over the sink, not even bothering to get a plate and sit down, slicing and eating with sea-salty hands, devouring the mango to the pit, as juice runs down my forearms and into the sink or dripping onto my bathing suit.  I’m constantly experimenting with mango in my meals, as well.  I’ve been perfecting my mango salsa recipe, mixing it with different flavors, most favorably (flavorably?) with cilantro, onion, a hint of lime, and ginger.  I especially love the sweet tang of mango salsa with fish tacos (or other tacos), which is something I’ve been eating a lot of lately.

Then came that brilliant mango-radicchio slaw that was created by mixing a leftover radicchio slaw with leftover mango salsa.  That got me thinking more about salads and mangoes.  Mango is awesome in salads, but it’s super sweet flavor needs something as equally as strong to give it more depth (which is why I really liked the radicchio in it).  Romaine and spinach is a bit too boring, not enough oomph (and I especially don’t enjoy the flavor of the spinach they have here), but there is a good amount of arugula here.  Spicy, peppery, crunchy, amazing arugula.  I’m pretty sure this is a match made in paradise.

A search for “mango arugula” came up with this salad, which I altered a bit to fit the ingredients I had.   I had some red cabbage left in the fridge which I added without hesitation, and it gave a pleasant crunch and vibrant color to the already bright salad.  I used apple cider vinegar in place of the champagne vinegar the recipe calls for.  I’m telling you, this salad is damn good.  In 24 hours I’ve made this salad twice; first for dinner last night as a side to a filet of lenguado (sole), and again for lunch, with stove-top garlic bread.

It’s the perfect summer salad, no matter where in the world you are, and it’s super easy to make.  Buen provecho!

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mango + arugula salad

1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 cups arugula, rinsed
1/2 cup red cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 mango, diced
1/2 avocado, diced
squeeze of lime
s + p

1.  After slicing the onions, place them in a small bowl, toss with lime juice, sprinkle with salt + pepper.

2.  Combine arugula, red cabbage, and lime-soaked onions into a bowl, toss with orange vinaigrette.  Set aside while dicing up mango and avocado.

3.  Top the arugula, cabbage, and onion mixture with diced mango and avocado.  Sprinkle with dressing.

4. Serve and enjoy 🙂

For the orange vinaigrette*:

juice of 1/2 orange (or ~ 1/4 cup)
juice of 1 lime
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 clove of garlic, minced
cilantro (optional)
s + p, cumin to taste

*the measurements of the dressing I took from the salad recipe; I don’t have measuring spoons/cups so I eyeballed everything and had enough leftover for about 3 more salads.  

1. Combine OJ, lime juice, olive oil, ACV, garlic, cilantro, salt, pepper, and cumin into a jar, seal the jar and shake all of the contents like a saltshaker.  Voila!

Best friends & catfish tacos (recipe included)

In a fantastic turn of events, my friend Alicia spontaneously came to visit me in the Dominican Republic this past week.  We’ve been friends since our junior year of college, in our “Peace & Media” class, a special topics communications course.  In the last six years together, we’ve gone through a number of breakups, countless bottles of wine and whiskey, danced our hearts out at numerous concerts, literally ate tons of food, and had many unforgettable adventures.  The last time I saw Alicia was in February, right before I left for Ecuador, at my mom & dad’s house in Auburn, about a 40 minute drive down south I-5 from Seattle.  She had just gotten back from a trip to Puerto Vallarta, and we sat in my parents’ kitchen talking about her week with tequila and yoga (she leads a very balanced life).

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She came at the perfect time.  I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic lately and there was only one cure: a familiar face, perhaps that of one of my most favorite people, you know, someone who just gets me.  We flirted with the idea of her visit with intensity in the early weeks of June, but it didn’t seem possible between her busy summer work schedule.  I almost lost hope that she would come at all.  And then, outta the blue she sent me a picture of her flight itinerary, giving me two days’ notice for her five day trip.

We did all of the things we missed doing together, like catching each other up on our juicy, adventurous lives, gossiping about current events, chatting about how have come to find peace and happiness in each of our lives, dreaming up all the possibilities of our futures, all while emptying bottles of wine (and the occasional cerveza) and of course, devouring delicious food.

Of course, we did some “touristy-vacation-in-paradise” things, too, like taking long walks on the beach, getting a massage on the beach, you know, all of that dreamy stuff.  One day we took the cable car (aka teleferico, the only one in the Caribbean!) up Isabel del Torres mountain in Puerto Plata,

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we lounged on the beach and lived out our mermaid fantasies,

we sipped coconuts and ate a delicious fresh fish lunch (so fresh we joked that the server must have gone in the water to grab it himself),

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& on her last night, in true Sarah/Alicia fashion, we went out, like ALL OUT, to the Pizza & Spaghetti House in Cabarete with our new friend Marsha (surprisingly also from Seattle, but whom we met here in Cabarete) for a fancy pasta dinner with prosecco and wine and averna (kind of a sweeter Fernet), and the restaurants’ house-made fennel liqueur, AND two desserts – one of which we ordered, while the other just happened to fall onto our table like a lucky feather, both of which we devoured.  (Below is a photo of the last piece of tiramisu, which we adorably all shared because none of us wanted to be that person who took the last bite).

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On the day we went to the cable car, we stopped by at the local one-stop-shop supermarket, La Sirena.  We stocked up on all of the important things: fish fillets, taco fixings, and two bottles of wine (one red and one white, obviously).  I found a couple of large frozen basa fillets for about $2, thinking it was bass, because well, that’s the closest translation, right?  WRONG!  A quick google-search later revealed that it was in fact, catfish, not bass.  Looking around the produce section for cabbage to make a slaw, Alicia stumbled upon some “really pretty red cabbage that will make the tacos look beautiful” which turned out to be radicchio.  So we went with it, because experimenting is fun and it’s especially fun to experiment with flavors!  The radicchio added such a nice, unique element to the tacos, and the sweetness of the mango salsa helped to balance out the bitter radicchio.  The catfish was soft and flaky, with just a perfect hint of salt, pepper, and lime, and the guac added a certain rich earthiness to the entire taco.  Each bite was like a fiesta of flavor in your mouth.  (Although, the corn tortillas we used were flimsy and crappy, but you can’t win ’em all, I suppose.)

 

And the best part was that the wine I had picked out, a macabeu/garnatxa blend from Catalunya (Spain), went PERFECTLY with it.  I mean, it was bright, crisp, with slight a bitterness like a grapefruit and a hint of minerality, it sliced up the bitter radicchio flavor and left a refreshing, key-lime pie taste in your mouth.

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This was perhaps the best meal we had the entire trip (I mean, that pasta meal was good, but this was like, so incredible and easy to make that I surprised myself).  Fresh, healthy, fun, & incredibly flavorful.  The next day we used up the rest of the radicchio and cut up another mango to make a radicchio-mango salad… but I’ll probably have to write a whole different post about that, after I try a few more variations.  Until then, here’s my catfish-taco with a radicchio slaw and mango salsa recipe.

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Ingredients
1 lb catfish filet (if available; another light white flesh fish, like tilapia or flounder might work)
1 cup of radicchio, julienned
1 mango, diced
1 tomato, diced
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
cilantro, chopped (as much or as little as you want, or omit if it tastes like soap to you)
Avocado
~ 1 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
~ 3 limes
salt + pepper to taste
coconut oil (or whatever oil you want to use)
Corn tortillas

Preparation

For the radicchio slaw: Put the julienned radicchio in a bowl, toss with the apple cider vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice, and s+p.  Set aside or in the fridge (give it about 20 minutes to soak up, if not a bit more).  (This helped with cutting the bitterness out of the radicchio.  You can also soak the radicchio in water, but I liked the taste that ACV added).

For the mango salsa: add the diced mango, tomato, chopped onion, garlic, cilantro, juice of one lime, and s+p to a bowl and mix until combined.  Set aside or in the fridge.

For the guac: I’m a a HUGE guac fan, and I love to make all sorts of spicy and interesting guacamoles but with all of the flavors going on between the radicchio and the mango salsa, I just mashed up the avocado with a hint of lime and s+p and called it good.  But if you want to spice it up more, by all means do so.

For the fish: season the fish filet with a bit of s+p, and squeeze some lime over it.  Heat up the coconut oil in a pan on med/med-high, and once hot, add the filet and cook about 5-7 minutes each side (or until it’s just falling apart).

Assembling the tacos: Now this part is totally up to you.  I spread the guac on the tortillas, then added the fish, topping it off with the radicchio slaw and mango salsa.  But, you can do it however you want.  Have fun with it!

 

Buen provecho!

Take it from me: DO NOT TRAVEL DURING MERCURY RETROGRADE!

Whew.  It’s been a wild ride, but we survived.  We made it to Cabarete, the Dominican Republic.  It is the last day of the dreaded Mercury Retrograde, and it is also my birthday.  27th, if we’re counting.  Frankly, this being the last day of Mercury retrograde is the best birthday present a girl could ask for.  I feel like Mercury’s ominous cloud of bad communication and silliness is finally lifting, and I finally feel like me again.

As I was reflecting back on our journey here to Cabarete, I realize it didn’t really go as smoothly as I thought.  It’s quite laughable, really, the little mishaps and mixups that happened while we were on the road.. it’s not like any of them were super huge problems, but we definitely had more than our fair share.

When we got to Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito, we first walked to the wrong Avianca counter; there are two, on opposite ends of the building, one for domestic flights and the other for international flights.  That was a silly mistake, and luckily the building is tiny compared to Charles de Gaulle in Paris or even Sea-Tac back home.

Finally, after waiting forever them to check in our surfboards, we made it to the security line.  The jar of coconut oil (that good Trader Joe’s coconut oil) my mom brought was taken out of Carlos’ carry-on while going through security.  Let’s just say I overreacted a bit about this, and then felt super bad once we arrived to Cabarete and found that coconut oil is as abundant as the coconuts themselves.

That was May 14th, Thursday.  Four days until the beginning of Mercury Retrograde.

Surprisingly, our day in Panama City, May 15th, went smoothly.  Despite it being the fifteenth, the day everyone in Panama gets paid, and also a Friday, we accomplished everything we needed to do, like fixing an iPad screen, replacing the not-charging speaker, getting a new phone battery, before we got to the DR.  We stayed the night of the 15th at the airport, as I had the first flight out the next morning.  Three days until Mercury Retrograde.

Saturday, May 16th, 4 a.m., Tocumen International Airport in Panama.  I’d slept maybe two hours.  A huge line already been forming since like, midnight, for one of the flights, to Caracas, thankfully not to Bogota, the second flight out of Panama.  But the line at the counter going to Bogota was well formed already.  Luckily we had done web check-in, so we got to go in the shorter line.  While checking in our bags at the ticketing counter, we had a huge miscommunication issue with the clerk.  Long story short: she tried to charge us an overweight bag fee on top of the $107 board bag fee.  What made it worse was when another employee told us that it’s up to the clerk’s discretion at the desk whom they charge.

So in my tired and hangry state I did my bit of bitching at this discriminating and unfriendly desk clerk, and bitterly shuffled around the weight of my bags so that they would not exceed the 32 kilos.  By this time I had about 20 minutes until departure, which I barely made.

The rest of the day traveling went smoothly, from Bogota to Santo Domingo.  We shared a taxi from the airport to the Colonial Zone.  We had met a cool older couple to share the taxi ride with, as our accommodations were close by.  Before we got into the taxi, we told the taxi driver our separate addresses and agreed on a price of 4000 pesos total (about $80 total, for the four of us).  When we got to the others’ hotel, the taxi driver began to help us with the luggage, and then ours, assuming that we were also staying at this hotel.

But we told you our address, and you said you knew where it was, we complained.

No you didn’t, or I wouldn’t have agreed to 4000 pesos.  Oh.  Sure.

He dropped us off, and we didn’t pay him a penny more.

Oh, and the electricity was off in the neighborhood when we arrive; but our AirBnB guesthouse had a generator or something, because we had electricity.  Thank the gods.  Two days until Mercury Retrograde.

We spent the next day wandering around the Colonial Zone.  That evening we went to a live, outdoor, and free merengue/bachata concert in front of the monastery of San Francisco ruins.  This Sunday, May 17th, was like the calm before the storm.  It was the last day before Mercury Retrograde.

May 18th started off fine enough – we had just made it to the bus going to Sosua, and that would be about a 4 hour bus ride.  When we got on, the bus was full.  We started to look for seats at least near each other, when a guy sitting by himself offered up his seat to sit next to someone else, so we could sit together.  So that was really nice.  And the rest of the ride passed smoothly enough.  But it didn’t stop the fact that Mercury retrograde had begun.

When we got to Sosua we were nearly attacked by the taxi drivers, each one wanting us to choose them, all spitting out prices at the same time.  After about 30 seconds of confusion, I saw one of the taxi drivers just taking our board bag to his car; he ended up charging us more than we had bargained for.

I didn’t have it in me to argue anymore.

When we arrived to our AirBnB, we learned that our room wasn’t available because the person who was in there previously had decided to stay an extra day, so we were to stay in this lady’s house, sleep in her bed, while she went to her boyfriends or something.  That night, my boyfriend and I had crazy dreams, like bad crazy dreams.  We were miserable during our stay there, we both had weird dreams the entire week, we were irritable with each other, and hot and tired from the Caribbean heat.  All we just wanted was to be comfortable, and find an inspiring, peaceful place to stay.

Until now we did almost everything you shouldn’t do during Mercury retrograde.

We found and purchased a used scooter.  It started leaking gas like crazy.  The first day we got it, I was back at his place twice because he didn’t fix it right the first time.  Then last week I had to go back, after getting my oil changed, because the gas tank was leaking like crazy again.  So far it has been good… so far….

We also found a studio apartment to rent, but this actually turned out incredible; the location is perfect for us, right next to the surf break and just far enough out of town (but not too far) so that although it’s on the main road, it’s peaceful, quiet, and inspiring, especially on my balcony.  My next door neighbors are cows, and there’s a dog, who we call “Poochie” who comes and hangs out with me sometimes.

My boyfriend also started a job, a very big no-no during the retrograde; but he’s been doing a great, and I think it also helps that he at least accept the job before Mercury went into retrograde.

So we did a lot of traveling, moving, restarting, buying, all this stuff during the Mercury retrograde.  Yet we survived!  And I’m even a year older!  I don’t know if it’s the birthday, or the wine, or the birthday wine, but I actually feel the difference, as if all is right with the world again.

But I’m going to be way more conscious from here on out about the days we’re traveling, and from here on out I will never travel during mercury retrograde if I don’t have to.  I’m serious.  Let this be a lesson to you all, as well.  Don’t do what we did, and travel when Mercury starts going backwards.  Just save yourself the trouble.  Lock yourself in the house, don’t talk to anyone, in fact just sleep it off if you can.

But if you can’t do any of that, and you do end up traveling during the retrograde, just remember to breathe.  That, and laugh it off.  This too shall pass, and Mercury will straighten itself out soon enough.

Happy travels!

P.S. September 17 – October 9, the next Mercury Retrograde.  Stay conscious, my friends!

Travel hacks for packin’ your pack.

Call me crazy, but I find that half of the fun of traveling is the packing process.  I like to take the time to reevaluate everything I have – most of the time while I’m muttering “I have way too much shit” – and figure out the most efficient and space-saving ways to pack my backpack.  It’s a bit like playing Tetris, and I am kind of a pro at Tetris.  Which makes me a pro at packing!  Now, a lot of these are common sense, but when it’s the night before you leave and you still have an entire backpack to pack, it can get stressful and you’ll end up with a disorganized, heavy bag.  So here’s a few tips to make that part of your journey a bit easier.

1.  Store anything that is easily breakable inside your shoes.  Perhaps the most common, but a great one.  This would obviously work best with sneakers or boots, as they provide the most cushion for the pushin’ (and you know that those airport luggage handlers are about as bad as those UPS guys).  Stuff like perfume, a jar of honey you bought in Mindo, or sunscreen, would fit best.  Make sure to wrap ’em first, in an old sock or a plastic bag, whatever you prefer; I hate to use so much plastic, but I find that in case of unexpected spills, plastic bags will contain the spills better.

2.  That being said, ladies, utilize any extra small purses to store any lotions, shampoos, sunscreens, etc.. in case you run out of shoes to store stuff in.  Don’t forget to wrap ’em up, though – the last thing you need is a spoiled purse.

3.  Don’t roll everything So many people say to “roll it all up” but not everything is better rolled.  I’ve got a few dresses that are better off folded neatly; rolled up they take up way too much space.  Same with jackets and jeans.  I personally prefer the layering method; roll a layer, fold a layer, roll a layer, fold a layer… trust me, sometimes rolling everything just takes up more space.

4.  Use mesh dryer bags to hold underwear.  And then use that mesh bag full of undies as a cushion for the outsides of your bag.  You can also use these undie bags to hold fragile items, as well.

5.  Store your heavy things, like books, hiking boots, or any food items, at the bottom of your bag.  It’ll balance you out and make it that much easier to carry your backpack.

6.  Invest in a reusable quart bag to use as your liquids carry-on bag.  I try to use as little plastic as possible, and reusable quart bags definitely lessen the amount of plastic you’ll use (and waste).

7.  Use tupperware to hold any cords for your electronic devices.  That same tupperware (once you’ve cleaned it, hopefully) can be used to hold food stuffs like granola, or to store any leftovers you may have from that pasta you made too much of at the hostel.

8.  Put lavender in a tea-bag and leave it somewhere in your bag.  I like this as an alternative to the dryer-sheet method, and it smells much better, too.

9.  No matter where you’re going, wear some of your heavier clothing if you’re traveling(or bring an extra pair of pants/sweater in your carry-on).  Even in hot places like Panama, the planes and airports are ice-cold; most of the time, buses are blasting AC too, and can get frigid despite the hot, humid weather. Lighten your load, bring some an extra jacket (a packable down jacket is excellent as it can double as a pillow if need-be), a scarf, or some pants in your carry-on.

10. If you’re carrying any sports equipment, like golf clubs or, in our case, surfboards, protect your goods & create some space in your backpack by using your clothes to wrap the gear.  Just make sure to double check the weight limits with each airlines, otherwise you might be surprised with some “overweight baggage” fees.

11.  BREATHE.  RELAX.  SMILE.  REPEAT.  No, seriously.  So often when I’m packing, I take it too seriously and it stresses me out.  But that’s not why you’re traveling, right?  So why start off on that note?  If you’re feeling stressed, stop, take a breath, drink some water, relax, and keep going.  Make it fun, turn it into a game (Tetris!!!) and find your own way to pack it up.  Besides, you’ll be going on an adventure, so why not start off that way?

What are some of your favorite travel hacks?  Share in the comments below!

Ch-ch-changes..

For the last month and a half I’ve been taking the ~30 minute bus ride from Federal Way into Seattle for work (one of two I currently have) every weekend. Talk about a change from a mere 3 months ago.  It is eerily quiet, unlike the many buses that blast salsa or Cumbia or reggaeton up and down the Panamericana, buses I’ve spent so much time on and never thought I’d actually miss.  No one talks to each other here, unlike the friendly banter you often hear down south.  Everyone is left to their own devices (pun intended), heads down, buds in, faces aglow as their fingers slide up, up, up as their brains vaguely process the mounds of information streaming through the LTE networks (god forbid you’re still running on the edge network), connecting them to the whole world (wide web), while disconnecting themselves from the actual world, their immediate surroundings.

Coming home to the States feels sterile and, in a weird twist of events, completely foreign to me.  It’s so fast paced.  Everyone’s so self absorbed, shifty eyed (Is that from the constant screen gazing?  Or is that because people have officially forgotten what it’s like to talk to each other and make physical eye contact?) and it’s as if I’m traveled deep into the Twilight Zone.

Yet I wasn’t gone that long.  It was just a year and a few weeks, man!  I mean, it flew by!  Seriously WHERE DID THE TIME GO?

But really, nothing’s changed.  I mean, my parents are still the same, more or less; my dad quit smoking and that’s major and we’re all very proud of him, and my mom is, well, maybe turning more into a Korean ajumma day by day, which is both cute and almost scary at the same time.  But they haven’t changed.  My friends, the few I’ve seen and love so dearly, are more or less in their same jobs, at the same apartments, some are advancing in their “careers” or with the same beau or in the same motions of ‘dating’ but not quite ‘settling’ but more or less they are… the same (in a very loving and endearing way).

And Seattle, well, with the exception of the constant smell of ganja every time I hop on the bus or walk down the street, and the exploding mmj industry and the boom of dabbing and everyone hitting the personal vape everywhere and anywhere Seattle is… the same.  Okay well it seems that as Amazon expands so does the population especially near the South Lake Union/Denny Triangle area, so that is also kind of new(ish), but that was already happening before I left.

I mean, really, what did I expect?

I think I expected it all to change because in the year that I’ve been gone, I’ve changed.  My habits, hobbies, goals, likes, dislikes, mindset, everything but my physical appearance (though I’m starting to really miss that constant sun-kissed glow and my skin is rebelling against this dry-cold).  I learned a lot about myself and the type of life I want to live, and it doesn’t really involve the materialism and constant one-upism we face in our society (okay, I have missed shopping a bit, and I have indulged a bit in some of the incredible sales, ahemasosahem, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do).  I learned to love, more importantly I learned to love myself without first drowning myself in a pool of cocktails every night.  I realized that I wanted to start living, and when I wrote that post I wasn’t even close to ready to come home, nor was I close at all to being home.  But, a lot can happen in a short amount of time (especially when you’re out there living) and a string of circumstances brought me home.

For now.

And as the adaptable Gemini that I am, I embraced this sudden turn of events.  I embraced the fact that coming home and living with my parents and working 6 days a week doesn’t mean I’m giving up, it means I’m working my ass off to make more changes.  To move on and embrace this fickle, magical existence on this vast beautiful planet that we call life.

I came back with a mission: recharge the bones, refresh the wardrobe, refuel the bank account, and eat as much of my mom’s homemade Korean food as I can.  I don’t have much of this fleeting event we call time: I’ve been back for just about two months now and I’ve less than two months before I set off again, straight back to Ecuador, to chase a dream, and follow my heart.  To make some even bigger changes.

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