Upper Egypt

What Cairo lacked, the rest of the country made up for when we flew down south to Upper Egypt (called “Upper Egypt” because the Nile flows from south to north). It was like flying to an entirely different world from noisy, overcrowded Cairo. The indigenous peoples of this region are Nubians — much darker than the Arabs we met in Cairo, and fluent in varieties of the Nubian language. They hail from one of the earliest civilizations of ancient Africa and are split between modern-day Egypt and Sudan. Nubia is one of the hottest, sunniest, and driest regions in the world, and is where Egypt’s most impressive temples are. If you only have a few days in Egypt, this is where I’d recommend spending your time.

At 5:00 am, a tour guide and driver picked us up from our Airbnb in Cairo and took us to the dysfunctional Cairo airport, where we caught an hour and a half flight to Aswan. There, another tour guide and driver led us on a breathtaking tour of the High Dam, Abu Simbel (my favorite!), and  Philae Temple.

High Dam

The High Dam was built across the Nile between Egypt and Sudan to better control flooding, provide more water for irrigation, and generate hydroelectricity. Before the dam was built, flooding was too inconsistent; some years flooding could destroy the whole crop, while other years the lack of it brought drought and famine. Unfortunately, the High Dam has also caused the relocation of over 100,000 people and many archaeological sites. Additionally, it’s created tension between various countries and contributed to the Cold War; it was partly funded by the Soviet Union.

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At the High Dam, facing Sudan

Abu Simbel

After the dam, we fell asleep in the car as our driver sped for three hours down to Abu Simbel, one of the most spectacular sites I’ve ever seen. Abu Simbel consists of two massive temples carved into solid rock cliffs in the 13th century B.C., in the southernmost part of Egypt, right by the border with Sudan. They are monuments for Pharaoh Ramses II & his favorite wife (out of 37) Nefertari, created to both celebrate his victory over the Hittites and symbolize his power over the conquered lands of Nubia. The temples are perfectly positioned so that on October 21 and February 21 (the dates of his birth and coronation), the sun rays penetrate and illuminate the sculptures deep inside the temple. Eventually, both temples were covered up by sand and weren’t rediscovered again until 1813. The entire complex was relocated in 1968 to avoid being submerged by a flood after the High Dam was built. An international team of engineers and scientists dug away the top of the cliff and completely disassembled both temples, reconstructing them on higher ground. Skip the pyramids and come to Abu Simbel instead.

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Abu Simbel
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In awe
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Entrance of the larger temple
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Entrance of the smaller temple
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We couldn’t take a photo inside, so this was the closest we got

Philae Temple

We drove another three hours back up to Aswan, from which we took a little motorboat to the island of Angilika, where the Philae Temple stands. According to legend, the god Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother Set, who was jealous of the love between Osiris and their sister Isis (obviously incest was acceptable back then). Isis searched for the fragments of his body and brought Osiris back to life with her magical powers. The Philae Temple is dedicated to Isis and was nearly lost underwater when the Aswan High Dam was built, but was rescued by multiple nations with the help of UNESCO. The entire island was surrounded with a dam, and the inside was pumped dry. Then every stone block of the complex was labelled and removed, later to be reassembled on higher ground.

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Taking us on his little boat to Philae Temple
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There it is!
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Entrance
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Philae Temple
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Hieroglyphs everywhere
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Christians carved off the faces of gods

After a long day, we were finally dropped off at the Basma Hotel Aswan for the night. I’m always wary of hotels that tour companies select, but we loved our stay here, especially our room with a prime view of the resort.

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View from our balcony at Basma Hotel Aswan

At 5:00 am the next morning, a different tour guide and driver picked us up from the hotel and drove us three hours to Luxor, where we visited Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, the Colossi of Memnon, Karnak Temple, and Luxor Temple. Luxor is often called the “world’s greatest open-air museum.”

Karnak Temple

Approximately 30 pharaohs contributed to the building of Karnak Temple, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity never seen before. In the Hypostyle Hall, 134 massive columns are arranged in 16 rows. The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. A roof, now fallen, was once supported by the columns. In 1899, 11 of the massive columns collapsed in a chain reaction because their foundations were undermined by ground water. An archaeologist supervised the rebuilding that was completed in 1902.

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Hypostyle Hall
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Sphinxes lining the entrance of Karnak Temple
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The security guard told us to stand on these stones and do these poses — for a tip
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Obsessed with these massive columns

Luxor Temple

Unlike other temples, Luxor Temple was not dedicated to a god but was where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned. During the Christian era, the hall was converted into a Christian church. Then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually a mosque was built over it, which was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today (scroll to the second photo below to see the mosque, and how much the temple was buried).

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Hiding behind fluted columns at Luxor Temple
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That window used to be at ground level!
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The Romans drew themselves into history

After our whirlwind of sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in a rooftop pool at a hotel in Luxor as we waited for our flight back to Cairo. From our hotel, we could see both the Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, as well as the row of sphinxes lining the path between the two.

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Our rooftop pool
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View from our hotel in Luxor

Upper Egypt is breathtaking. The farther south you go in Egypt, the deeper into Egypt’s African roots you discover. Abu Simbel, Philae Temple, and Karnak Temple are enough to justify an entire trip to Egypt. I wasn’t impressed by the pyramids in Giza, but in Upper Egypt, it felt like there was still a connection between modern-day Egyptians and their ancient history. Seeing these monuments still standing, thousands of years after construction, was already incredible, but learning about their relocation and rebuilding was perhaps even more impressive. For a civilization that was so concerned with preserving its legacy, it’s only fitting that the monuments ancient Egyptians left behind would undergo many rebirths and continue to influence other civilizations throughout history.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. We took all private tours using Emo Tours again, which seemed to be the biggest company in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Two out of three of our guides were wonderful. I definitely recommend having a guide at all the sites to show you the short cuts and make the vast history somewhat digestible.
  2. Abu Simbel may seem like a hassle to get to, requiring a flight and three-hour drive, but it’s worth it. Trust me. Machu Picchu, Mont St-Michel, Cappadocia, and Petra are the only other sites I’ve visited that match its grandeur. Plus, because Abu Simbel takes more effort to visit, there will be fewer tourists than all the other temples on your itinerary.
  3. At some of the sites, you have an option of paying a fee to take photos inside. Pay to take photos inside Abu Simbel. Not doing this is one of my biggest regrets.
  4. One of our best meals in Egypt was at El Zaeem, a popular koshary restaurant in Luxor. While it was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, Google Maps gave us the wrong address and we quickly got frustrated by the mix of hasslers on the sidewalks and chaotic traffic — the traffic laws are no different from Cairo, after all. Fortunately, someone noticed we looked lost and, as soon as I mentioned “koshary”, he led us two more blocks down to El Zaeem. We ordered koshary and ful (mashed fava bean dip with a drizzle of tahini).
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Ful from El Zaeem
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Cairo

Cairo was tough for us. With 20 million people and a notoriously corrupt government, Cairo was quite the culture shock after perfect, civilized Amman. We could feel the pollution in our lungs as we attempted to explore the city. We were unable to cross a street without risking our lives because traffic laws barely exist, so we resorted to shamelessly walking alongside locals who happened to be going our way. And it felt like a third of the Cairenes we met were either trying to scam us or at least pressure us for tips, as if all of Cairo was Times Square. If Jordan gave us hope for the Middle East (and humanity in general), Egypt reminded us of why we need so much hope.

That’s not to say that I regret visiting. We could have flown straight to Aswan for the temples in southern Egypt and merely stopped by Cairo on a daytrip to see the pyramids, but that wouldn’t feel right — the same way that I don’t think it’s right to visit the Yucatán peninsula without exploring Mexico City as well, or to go on a safari in South Africa without also visiting Johannesburg.

The best thing we did in Cairo was take a food tour with the only food tour company in the city, Bellies En-Route. For nearly six hours, our guide Laila impressively led seven naive tourists through the crazy streets of downtown Cairo to eight different spots. She took us to places we never would have found on our own, and everything we tried was incredible. In fact, we returned to two of the restaurants later because we loved them so much (and it’s kind of a hassle trying new restaurants in Cairo on your own).

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Koshari is Egypt’s national dish, made of boiled macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli, lentils, rice, hummus, and fried onions, topped with tomato sauce and a garlic/vinegar dressing
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Arabic coffee is made with very lightly roasted bean that almost stays green, with cardamom
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Molokhhia: stew made with okra leaves, garlic, and stock
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Fresh sugar cane juice
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Lentil soup, fried eggplants, and lots of fava bean dishes
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Kunafa, basbousa, and zalabya

We rode camels near the Giza Pyramids. The camel rides got us some great photos, especially since the herders knew exactly where to place us for the perfect shots, but I couldn’t help but compare them to the peaceful camel rides we took through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Like everything in Egypt, the camel ride felt transactional, and our camel herder bluntly told us to give him a tip while we were still riding our camels.

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Look how proud Anthony’s camel looks!
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Our camel herder told me to lift my arms over my head, but I couldn’t because my jumpsuit was too tight 😦

The Giza Pyramids were constructed roughly 4,500 years ago. They’re so old that the time period in which Cleopatra lived is closer to us than to the Pyramids. Pharaohs erected these massive pyramid tombs for themselves, filling them with everything one might need in the afterlife. The largest of the Giza Pyramids was dedicated to Pharaoh Khufu. Khufu’s son, Pharaoh Khafre, built the second one, as well as the Great Sphinx, a limestone monument with the body of a lion and Khafre’s own head. Sphinxes were guard dogs of the pyramids. The third of the Giza Pyramids is considerably smaller than the first two, built by Pharaoh Menkaure. The mere existence of these pyramids testifies to the resourcefulness and organization of ancient Egypt.

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We look like we’re on an engagement photo shoot
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Obligatory

While I typically don’t have much interest in Egyptian artifacts, touring the colossal Egyptian Museum ended up being one of my favorite activities in Cairo. Seeing artifacts in the actual country instead of in England, France, and Germany is a sensational feeling. Commissioned in 1835 to stop widespread plundering and looting of the country’s many archaeological sites, the Egyptian Museum is home to 120,000 Egyptian artifacts. An entire section is dedicated to Tutankhamen, the most famous of all Egyptian pharaohs, as his tomb was relatively intact when it was discovered in 1922.

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Mummy
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Queen Nefertiti. Her more famous mask is in Berin
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Guard dog

My other favorite activity was sailing down the Nile on a felucca. These traditional sailboats are perfect for escaping the hustle and bustle of the city. It was the only time I felt calm in Cairo. Even with the invention of motorized boats, feluccas have remained the primary transportation of the Nile.

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Lots of space
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We’re so relaxed!

Those were the highlights of our time in Cairo; honestly, everything else was either underwhelming or tension-filled. The airport is dysfunctional, traffic lanes are meaningless (a two-lane road becomes a four-lane road in Cairo), Ubers don’t have seatbelts, and even the supposedly fancy part of Cairo (Zamalek) felt like a desolate place to live since people just seemed to stay in their mansions. I’m reluctant to blame all of this on Egypt itself because so many of its problems stem from colonialism. I’ve been to Manila a few times, so I’m familiar with what this can do to a society. It’s a real shame, especially for Egypt, because the citizens of this country seem detached from their impressive history. We left Cairo for Aswan and Luxor, where ancient history felt a little more immediate.

Tips for future travelers:

I struggled to get an e-Visa before our trip (surprise, surprise, the website was not functioning properly), so we resorted to getting our visas upon arrival. Fortunately, this was a simple process. Just go to a bank window by baggage claim and pay $25 for a visa sticker. Bring this to customs, and they’ll put the sticker on a blank page in your passport.

Ubers are not allowed at the airport, so you’re going to have to walk out to the parking lot and request one there. Be ready for no seat belts.

Stay at a hotel. I booked an Airbnb because I usually prefer apartment rentals while staying in big cities so I can feel like a local (it really worked for us in Rome, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, and Mexico City!), but I would not recommend an Airbnb in Cairo. It was always difficult for drivers to find our apartment, and, while we did find a decent place in the center of town, it was definitely one of my least favorite Airbnbs we’ve ever stayed in.

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View from our Airbnb

For every tour except the food tour, we used Emo Tours, which seems to be the biggest company (and probably sponsored by the government) in Egypt. It worked pretty well. Most of our guides were entertaining and knowledgeable, and the company was good about communication, but we did notice that our one-hour felucca ride ended up being only 20 minutes, and our 30-minute camel ride ended up being only 15 minutes. Regardless, I definitely recommend having a guide at the Egyptian Museum, Giza Pyramids, and Khan El Khalili Bazaar because people will hassle you less when they see that you’re with a local, and it’s nice to have guides deal with purchasing tickets.

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Khan El Khalili Bazaar

Tip everyone.

Eat koshari, ful (mashed fava beans with pita bread), ta’ameya (falafel made of fava beans), molokhia (okra stew), and hamam mahshi (grilled pigeon).

Buy basbousa and kunafa at El Abd and Mandarine Koueider.

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Amman

I have a soft spot for Amman not only because it reminded me of Istanbul — a hilly, cosmopolitan city of mosques, pistachio desserts, and rich history — but also because it was in Amman that we could really appreciate the inclusion of immigrants for which Jordan is so famous. Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by much larger, much more powerful countries. Despite its inevitable vulnerability to regional turmoil, Jordan has graciously welcomed refugees, i.e., cleaned up other countries’ messes. 60% of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, mostly refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli War and Six-Day War. Jordan is the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948. It has not been easy; schools must operate on double shifts, with teachers working both shifts, and since 2011, Jordan has also been taking in Syrian refugees fleeing the  Syrian civil war. Yet Jordan remains one of the most generous places I have ever visited, and its immigrants have only added to its tapestry of cultures.

We didn’t have much time in Amman, but we made sure to take a cooking class, smoke shisha at a rooftop bar, hike up to Amman Citadel for the best view of the city, eat the best kunafa of my life, and cautiously climb the steep steps of the Roman Theater.

We always take a cooking class or food tour in every country we visit. In Jordan, we took a cooking class at Beit Sitti, run by three sisters who want to keep their grandmother’s recipes alive. We learned to make maqluba (meat, rice, and vegetables cooked upside-down), mutabal (eggplant dip), shrak (flatbread), fattoush (salad), and basbousa (baked semolina and coconut soaked in rose water). Beit Sitti means “grandmother’s kitchen”, and after our class in the outdoor patio, we went inside to eat in her charming dining room and living room.

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Making maqluba
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The dining table, where we’d enjoy our hard work

Located on top of the city’s highest hill, the Amman Citadel has been inhabited by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans throughout its history. The site contains fragments of a colossal stone statue of Hercules that was destroyed by an earthquake. All that remains are three fingers and an elbow. It would have been 42 feet high, making it among the largest statues in the world.

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Hercules’ hand

The Roman Theater is a 6,000-seat theater that dates back to the 2nd century, when the Romans called this city Philadelphia. Unlike other Roman theaters, which are built from the ground up, this one was carved into the hillside. Even the highest section of seats can see and hear clearly, thanks to the steepness of the cavea. It faces north so audiences are protected from the sun. The theater is still used for cultural activities, such as the International Book Fair, marathon prize ceremony, and musical concerts.

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Steep, slippery stairs
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Perfect acoustics

One of the best things we did was take an “Alternative Downtown” tour through Airbnb with a young Palestinian guide named Anas. He led us through the oldest souk in Amman, where he bought us some necklaces when he noticed how touched we were by the legends he told of displacement and resilience. Then he took us to a Palestinian neighborhood, where we ran into his friends who bought us coffee and invited us to breakfast in their tire shop. We wandered around downtown and met the “duke” of Amman, who purchased a historic home that was about to be demolished for a new hotel and turned it into a cultural center instead, and invited us to join him for another breakfast. Anas then brought us to Habibah, where the kunafa is so good that I went back twice that day to get more. Next, he led us to the top of a parking lot for a secret view of the city. And finally, we ended at a neighborhood covered in street art, where more of his friends offered us drinks and welcomed us into their nonprofit restaurant that donates meals to the hungry.

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Overlooking Amman from the Palestinian side of town
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The Duke’s Diwan

Jordan, more than any other country I’ve been to, is proof that it is possible to be surrounded by corrupt countries (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) and war-torn countries (e.g., Syria, Iraq), yet still remain peaceful, civilized, and open-minded. This country is not perfect, but I think it has done as much good as it can and should be a model for the rest of us.

Tips for future travelers:

Eat at Hashem, a popular restaurant that serves Jordanian street food 24-hours a day. Order falafel and a bunch of spreads for a perfect dinner.

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Our first dinner in Amman

Stay at The House Boutique Suites, a hotel that perfectly matched civilized Amman. Our stylish room came with a kitchen and a huge bed we never wanted to leave. The hotel offered a lavish breakfast (make sure to walk over to the Middle Eastern section on the opposite side of the Western food section), free self-service laundry facilities, and a rooftop pool overlooking Amman.

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Our room
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Rooftop pool

Use your Jordan Pass to enter the Amman Citadel and Roman Theater for free.

Try kunafa at Habibah. Kunafa is made of a fine semolina dough prepared in a large round shallow dish, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with a mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios. It closes at midnight, which is fortunate because you’ll definitely want to come back after every meal throughout the day.

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Kunafa

Eat mansaf as often as you can. Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish and one of my favorite dishes in the world. Made of tender lamb cooked in a dried fermented yogurt sauce, sitting on rice and a thin flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, and dipped into more yogurt sauce. Also eat maqluba (meat, vegetables, and rice cooked in a pot upside-down), falafel, hummus, ful medames (mashed fava beans and olive oil), and baklava.

The city is built on seven hills, which you’ll notice immediately while walking around. Much to our delight, Amman is surprisingly walkable, though you’ll have to get used to holding your hand up and making eye contact with drivers to stop traffic as you cross the street.

Petra + Wadi Rum

I knew I’d enjoy Jordan, but I had no idea that it would immediately become one of my favorite countries in the world. We spent the first half of our time in Jordan with a tour company that brought us to Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and the Dead Sea. If you only have a short time like we did, our two-day tour package is the way to go.

We were exhausted when we landed in Amman after undergoing two red-eye flights in a row — we took one red-eye from New York to Frankfurt, spent the day exploring Heidelberg, then returned to the airport for another red-eye from Frankfurt to Amman. However, between sporadic naps on our three-hour drive to Petra, we couldn’t help but find ourselves intrigued by our guide Hassan, who was born in Amman to two Palestinian refugees. His father came to Jordan during the 1948 war, while his mother came during the 1967 war. He described the Palestine-Israel conflict as a “long, sad story” that he doesn’t think he’ll “see the end of.” Nevertheless, he is a proud citizen of Jordan and was eager to share with us how welcoming the country is to all groups of people.

The Smallest Hotel in the World

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On our way to Petra, we stopped at “the smallest hotel in the world” — a converted Volkswagen Beetle owned by a charming old man who didn’t speak much English but who did introduce us to the generosity of Jordanians. His goal was to bring tourism to his hometown of Al Jaya because this overlooked desert village has some of the most beautiful scenery in the region. The hotel has been open since he retired in 2011 and was furnished by his daughter, who adorned it with handmade embroidered sheets and pillows. Even though we weren’t staying there, he let us take photos in the hotel, served us Turkish coffee in the lobby (located in a small cave across the street, where he also sells fossils and coins that he found in the area), excitedly showed us a photo of Eliot Spitzer visiting his hotel when he found out we were from New York, and then gave us some fossils to take with us.

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I think we just fit!
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The lobby/shop in a cave across the street

Petra

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The Treasury at Petra

After that heartfelt stop, we continued on to Petra, the main reason I wanted to visit Jordan. Hassan found us a fantastic guide named Shuayb, who was funny and incredibly knowledgeable about the site since he was born and raised in Petra. He helped us appreciate many things that we wouldn’t have even noticed and knew all the best angles for photos with the Treasury.

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Shuayd found this spot for us
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Wearing a keffiyeh, which I purchased from one of the vendors outside Petra
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Incredible rock carvings

Obviously we came for the Treasury, but we hadn’t realized how impressive the rest of Petra was until we started exploring. Petra was once the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century B.C. and was an important trading hub. Shuayb led us through the Siq, a narrow gorge leading to Petra’s famous buildings carved out of the cliffs. The Siq made the ancient city one of the most protected in its time. Petra is also called the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved. Some of the stone patterns were so stunning that they look like paintings. Every so often, Shuayb would point up at a rock and exclaim “Monet!” or “Van Gogh!” or “That’s definitely a Picasso”, and the natural patterns on the rocks really did look like an artist painted them.

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A whole city carved into rock
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Royal tombs
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Great for framing!
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Those colors are not painted — they’re natural!
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Surrounded by camels

To top off our trip to Petra, Hassan took us to a picturesque restaurant called My Mom’s Recipe, where I had mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. Made of lamb cooked in a sauce of dried fermented yogurt and served with rice over a layer of flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, mansaf is one of my new favorite dishes. It’s comforting but refreshing, something only a place like Jordan could master. Anthony had maqluba, another traditional dish, consisting of meat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, and eggplant placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down when served.

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Mansaf
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A close-up of my mansaf, with Anthony’s maqluba in the background

Wadi Rum

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Stretching on Mars

We drove an hour and a half to Wadi Rum, which is what Anthony was looking forward to the most, since Wadi Rum has served as the setting for Mars in pretty much every Mars-related movie and TV show. Hassan said good-bye to us as we joined two women in the back of a pickup truck. Two years ago we rode camels through the calm Sahara Desert, so it was a nice change to ride in the back of a pickup truck without a seatbelt through the rugged Wadi Rum. We quickly made friends with our truckmates, Loes from the Netherlands and Anna from Belarus, who ended up joining us in Aqaba, the Dead Sea, and Amman!

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So grateful to be here
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With our friends Anna and Loes

Wadi Rum is stunning. I was skeptical because I didn’t think Wadi Rum could compete with the smooth orange dunes of the Sahara, but the two are incomparable. Wadi Rum means “valley of the moon” and is red due to iron oxide. Exploring it is a voyage through the geological evolution of Earth.

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The truck dropped us off at a bedouin camp with about twenty private tents, a large dining tent, and separate bathroom tents. Our first bed in three days! We joined the rest of the campers, most of whom were European, for a buffet dinner cooked by bedouins. It was April, so by nighttime the temperatures dropped to almost freezing, but the plush blankets in our tent kept us toasty.

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Bedouin tents
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So cozy!

The next morning we had a buffet breakfast (which included my favorite, za’atar!) before the four of us left the camp and took a guided tour of Wadi Rum. We drove past massive plateaus that had popped straight up from the sand due to tectonic movement. We climbed natural rock bridges that were shaped by blowing sand and winter floods. We took photos of hieroglyphs, which trace human existence back 12,000 years.

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Hiking up sand dunes
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My astronaut
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My astronaut
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Climbing through gorges
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My astronaut

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Aqaba

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Water, at last

After being surrounded by desert for the past 24 hours, Hassan drove us about an hour to Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, located on the tip of the biblical Red Sea between the continents of Asia and Africa. Aqaba is the only seaport of Jordan so pretty much all of Jordan’s exports depart from here. From the beach, you can see Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (if you really crane your neck). Hassan knew thow much I love food so he led us through a market to watch goat meat being chopped for mansaf, into a crowded bakery where he bought us some fresh shrak (flatbread), and to a lovely lunch spot for our only seafood on the entire trip. We tried sayadiyah, a dish consisting of grouper fish, rice, onions, turmeric, cumin, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, garlic powder, and pine nuts.

Dead Sea

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Floating in the Dead Sea

From the Red Sea, we drove three hours to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth (1,410.8 feet below sea level!) and nine times as salty as the ocean, which means anyone can easily float in it owing to natural buoyancy. Due to the saltiness, plants and animals cannot flourish here, hence its name. The mineral content of the water, low content of allergens, and higher atmospheric pressure have positive health benefits especially for people with cystic fibrosis, psoriasis, and osteoarthritis. Though it’s constantly sunny, UVB rays are weaker in the region, so it takes longer to sunburn. The Dead Sea is receding at an alarming rate, and experts worry that it may be completely gone by 2050. Considering we had just left Mars, and now we were floating, Jordan has to be one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.

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Mud mask
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Hmm… what’s on our itinerary today?

After a long day, Hassan finally dropped us off in Amman, where our time in Jordan was about to get even more extraordinary.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Buy a Jordan Pass in advance. It will waive the expensive visa fee and will allow you entry to all the sites you want to see, like Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Amman Citadel. You can buy it online, print it out before you leave, and show it to customs before receiving your visa.
  2. Our tour was through Jordan Private Tours and Travel and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was organized, efficient, and led us to Hassan, whom we loved so much that we hired him again in Amman to take us to the airport.
  3. If you want to wear a keffiyeh (it looks great in photos!), don’t pay more than 5 JOD and get the salesman to teach you how to tie it on your head so you can wear it the next day, too.
  4. Aim for Petra in the morning or late afternoon. If you go midday, you’re going to experience rush hour in the Siq. We arrived at 10am, and by the time we were leaving around 1pm, it was noticeably more crowded.
  5. Always have some spare JODs for tips! While Jordanians aren’t obnoxious about tipping like Egyptians, you’ll want some extra cash to tip people because everyone here is so darn helpful.

Padua

Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.

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Students call this the Old Courtyard. It’s lined with plaques of every student
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Galileo’s podium
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Imagine defending your dissertation here!
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The “new courtyard”

We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.

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A model of the Anatomical Theater
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We are inside the real Anatomical Theater, down below where the dissections occurred

In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.

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Statue dedicated to the first female graduate in the world

Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.

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Pretty arcaded streets
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Prato della Valle
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Cobblestone streets
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Palazzo della Ragione

My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.

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Bigoli and oxtail

After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!

Venice (Pt. 2)

Venice is stunning in any season, but if you have a choice, visit in the winter. You’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and might see an eerie fog seductively blanketing the canals. Most importantly, you’ll be visiting at a much more ethical time. In the summer, cruise ship passengers flood Venice every day, and the city’s infrastructure suffocates under the hordes of sightseers. Tourists outnumber Venetians by 140 to 1. Souvenir shops have replaced grocery stores, while luxury hotels have replaced medical offices. When I visited Venice for my second time a few summers ago, I was disappointed by how much the whole place felt like Disneyland or Las Vegas — unabashedly fake and crawling with tacky tourists who are there just to check Venice off their lists rather than to actually learn anything. So we returned this winter for my husband’s birthday and experienced the city the way it should be.

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Foggy afternoon in St. Mark’s Square

It happened to be Carnevale when we visited, an incredible time to be in Venice. We were there during the first few days of this multi-week celebration, which began with an opening ceremony of glowing floats at night and a costumed gondola parade the following morning. Carnevale brings out the most decadent side of Venice, with people parading around in extravagant costumes and colorful confetti strewn across the pavement.

The tradition of Carnevale began when the Republic of Venice won a victory in the 12th century. To celebrate, Venetians gathered and danced in St. Mark’s Square. Carnevale was celebrated for centuries, and debaucherous revelers donned masks because anything they did while their faces were covered didn’t count. The Holy Roman Empire banned the festival in 1797, and wearing masks was strictly forbidden. Carnevale gradually reappeared in the 19th century, and finally in 1979, the government decided to officially bring it back completely. What surprised us was how egalitarian Carnevale is. Sure, some people spend thousands of euros on elaborate handmade costumes and attend fancy masquerade balls, but other people just buy cheap masks — most likely made in China instead of Venice — from one of the many stands scattered throughout the city. If you want a nice medium, you can also rent authentic costumes for the day and support Italian craftsmanship at a fraction of the cost of purchasing.

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Matching masks

If you only have one weekend to experience Carnevale, aim for the final weekend. We went on the first weekend, which felt like a low-key introduction to the festivities. The final weekend has the huge costume competition and entertaining historical reenactments.

My favorite part of Carnevale was just hanging out in St. Mark’s Square and seeing all the costumes. St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace are the perfect backdrop. Every afternoon of Carnevale, costumed people parade around, waiting for you to take photos of their hard work.

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But why is everyone around us dress like peasants?

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Sisters?
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Who’s that creeper on the left?
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She is wearing a Colombina mask, while he wears a Bauta mask

Tips for future travelers to Venice:

We stayed at 3749 Ponte Chiodo, a charming guest house that we had stayed at four years ago. It’s located in the peaceful neighborhood of Cannaregio, which feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square but is only a 20-minute walk or leisurely vaporetto ride away. It also has some of the best restaurants in Venice. Our room was on the top floor and had a lovely view of a small canal. The owner Mattias was as helpful as last time, offering restaurant recommendations and encouraging guests to get to know each other during our intimate breakfasts around the dining table each morning. We loved opening up the heavy, dark green front door with our key and walking through a secret garden to reach the entrance of the house, then climbing up a narrow staircase to get to our room after a long day. 3749 Ponte Chiodo was a breath of fresh air — a real home in a city full of monotonous hotel chains.

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Our bedroom at 3749 Ponte Chiodo
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View from our bedroom
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Request the blue room!

We ate fairly well on this trip, which is a bit of a surprise because Venice is infamous for being one of the least pleasant cities to eat in Italy. Typically overpriced and inauthentic, restaurants in this small city feel forced to cater to tourists who visit here once and never return. Fortunately, our research led us to perhaps the best meals possible in Venice.

If you’re not eating cicchetti for lunch every day, you failed at Venice. It’s a Venetian lunch tradition to stand at the bar and order an assortment of toast topped with fresh seafood, and pair it with a glass of Prosecco, the wine specialty of this region. A meal for two will cost you roughly €16. We tried a few places for cicchetti, and All’Arco was by far the best, as evidenced by the stream of locals there throughout the day.

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Cicchetti and fresh octopus with two glasses of prosecco at All’Arco
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A mix of locals and food tours come here
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My 2nd favorite place for cicchetti: Al Portego

Our favorite restaurants for dinner were Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, all of which were just a quick walk from our guest house. They’re all osterias, which is my preferred type of eating establishment in Italy. Osterias began as places serving wine and simple food, with concise menus that emphasize local specialties and whatever’s fresh that day. They are cheaper than ristorantes and have that rustic feel you want when you’re in Italy. In Venice, stick to ordering seafood, risotto, squid ink pastas, and tiramisu, paired with a carafe of house wine or Prosecco.

Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go is a fantastic place for a takeout lunch. It’s essentially fast-casual pasta, but done surprisingly well. Choose your fresh pasta noodles, the sauce, and any toppings. You can watch the pasta being made behind the glass, and when it’s done you just eat it out of a cardboard takeout container. At roughly €7, this is probably the best deal in Venice.

We decided to take a couple of walking tours with a company called La Bussola and were amazed by how many more facts we learned about Venice — and it’s my third time here! Each tour is free, two and a half hours long, and led by passionate graduate students who specialized in some aspect of Venetian culture. We learned that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, the original Venetians were a bunch of refugees fleeing attack from Germanic tribes, and that Venice was built on wood pilings that have petrified under water without oxygen. One of the tours ended on the rooftop of a fancy department store near the Rialto Bridge that offered a panoramic view of the entire city.

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The Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal by foot until the Accademia Bridge was built nearly 300 years later. It was burnt down in 1310, collapsed under weight during a wedding in 1444, and collapsed a third time in 1524. It was finally rebuilt with marble and is anchored at each end with no support in the middle – an architectural marvel!
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View from the rooftop of Fondaco dei Tedeschi
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The bottom of Fondaco dei Tedeschi is not so bad either
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Built on wood pilings driven into clay

La Bussola also took us to what looked like a modest church from the outside, but entering completely took my breath away. Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire houses the biggest canvas painting in the world. When you enter, make sure to look up, because an astonishingly three-dimensional painting depicting the martyrdom and apotheosis of St. Pantalon fills the entire ceiling. It was painted on canvas by Fumiani over 24 years, until he fell to his death from the scaffolding as he was giving his painting the finishing touches. Structural features of the church are continued in the architecture of the painting, creating a magnificent visual illusion. Fumiani was a master of perspective. I have been to the Vatican, and I can honestly say that I was more impressed by this than the Sistine Chapel.

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Photos are not allowed inside, so this photo is from Arttrav

If it’s your first time in Venice, make sure to check out at least these tourist attractions:

  • St. Mark’s Basilica: Book in advance to enter this opulent golden cathedral and symbol of Venetian wealth. 
  • Burano: Take a 45-minute vaporetto ride to this calm, picturesque island of bright colorful homes.
  • Libreria Acqua Alta: This adorable bookstore stuffs its books into waterproof basins to highlight the flooding that Venice must coexist with. There is now a long line to enter because it recently exploded on social media.
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St. Mark’s Basilica is a hodgepodge of styles
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The island of Burano is more relaxed and more colorful than Venice
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Visiting Libreria Acqua Alta four summers ago

One of the best ways to see Venice is by vaporetto. These water buses travel along the Grand Canal, around the lagoon, and even to the other islands. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, so while walking is often quicker, catching a cheap vaporetto is sometimes a preferable mode of transportation. If you’re under 29, you get a discount through Rolling Venice. We purchased unlimited three-day passes and validated each time we entered a station.

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Mexico City

Perhaps Donald Trump should worry about Americans crossing the border into Mexico (instead of the other way around) because Mexico City was one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with its cheap food, ideal weather year-round, and increasing environmental sustainability. “Livable” isn’t what I was expecting from this city, based on the stories and rumors I’d heard. I came to Mexico City prepared to pity the city that seems unfairly dangerous to so many Americans. That agenda went out the window as soon as we arrived, because I immediately realized that this city doesn’t need my pity at all. In some ways, life here is astoundingly better than in the U.S.

Home to a whopping 21 million people, Mexico City is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It’s located at an altitude of over 7,000 feet — roughly the same as Machu Picchu. Due to its tropical latitude but high elevation, it has a temperate climate — never too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer. The city is the oldest capital city in the Americas, and is one of only two capital cities founded by Native Americans (the other is Quito, Ecuador). Originally called Tenochtitlan, it was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a natural lake that was eventually drained by Spanish colonists. Tenochtitlan was an impressive sight laced with canals, and bridges connecting it to the mainland — much like Venice. Of course, the Spanish completely destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, while preserving the ancient city’s basic layout, built Catholic churches over the old Aztec temples and renamed it “México” because the Spanish found this indigenous word easier to pronounce.

A few decades ago, Mexico City was infamous for being one of the world’s most polluted cities; however, the city has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels, which are now similar to those of Los Angeles. Much of this is thanks to Mexico City’s many modes of public transportation, from the subway, to suburban rail, light rail, buses, trolleys, and a bike sharing system with well-defined bike lanes. We caught the subway a couple of times but usually either walked because Mexico City is a surprisingly walkable city for such a sprawl, or caught Ubers because Ubers are dirt-cheap.

We stayed at an Airbnb in trendy Colonia Roma partly because some of the city’s hottest restaurants are there, but the most memorable meals we had were street food from outdoor stalls and markets. Mexico has one of the most extensive street food cultures in the world, and it’s not a surprise that Mexico City consistently ranks as “the number one food destination in the world.” The skilled cooks who prepare the tacos and tortas at these stalls are masters of their art and deserve just as much prestige as Japanese sushi chefs. Every major neighborhood has its own market(s) at which residents (“chilangos”) buy everything from fresh produce to spices to children’s toys. Meanwhile, outdoor stalls are set up around the city — near parks, along sidewalks, sometimes literally on the street. We ate delicious 30-cent tacos on plastic stools, jealous of all the chilangos eating alongside us.

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Living room of our Airbnb, which had a kitchen, laundry machine, rooftop, two bathrooms, and a doorman who we grew fond of

Tips for future travelers:

Take a food tour with Sabores. Our tour lasted four and a half hours and brought us all over Centro Histórico. We tried grasshopper salsa and ate ants from a plastic bag, learned what tomatoes should actually look like vs. what society wants them to look like, chewed chilcuague (a medicinal root that makes your whole mouth tingle, and makes water taste like sparkling water if you drink it right after one nibble of the root), and discovered what good mole is. Mole is a sauce made of fruit, chili pepper, and spices such as cinnamon and tomatoes, all of which are roasted and ground by hand for at least one day.

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Our food tour group
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Mole poblano
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Fresh birds at Mercado San Juan
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Seafood tostada
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Trying ants
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Picking up desserts at an old dulceria

Visit Coyoacán, my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It feels more like a small town due the numerous parks and cobblestone streets. The Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky House are located in Coyoacán, but even just wandering around this colorful neighborhood is enough to fall in love. Homes are painted bright colors, the plazas are full of families eating ice cream, and the massive Mercado de Coyoacán is the perfect spot for lunch.

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Coyoacan
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One of my favorite markets

Hang out in Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. The term zócalo means “base” and was only adopted into the common Mexican lexicon in the 19th century. Supposedly, plans had been made to construct a large monument in the center of the plaza, but nothing besides the base was ever constructed, hence the term zócalo. The name stuck and even spread to other cities across Mexico, which began to use the term zócalo to refer to their main squares. We visited Zócalo almost every day because it was so centrally located and served as a meeting point for our tours. One day, we stumbled upon a huge Oaxacan festival there. Tents were set up and vendors sold Oaxacan goods, quickly convincing me that my next trip to Mexico must include Oaxaca, a state best known for its indigenous people and unique gastronomy.

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Zocalo

If you’re interested in architecture, check out Museo Soumaya, a stunning contemporary art museum covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. Also check out the Torre Latinoamericana, the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly active seismic land. Torre Latinoamericana doesn’t look like much now, as its design is fairly straightforward and it is no longer the tallest building, but the fact that it withstood the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake that toppled other buildings nearby is quite impressive. There is an observatory at the top that includes access to a gallery showcasing the history of construction projects around Mexico City.

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Museo Soumaya
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Look at those tiles!
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Torre Latinoamericana behind us

Stroll through Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas. Some of our best meals were street tacos from two of the stalls on the southwest corner of the park that open up every night.

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Alameda Central
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This taco from a stall near Alameda Central was my favorite meal in Mexico

Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent performing arts center made of Carrara marble and dreanlike yellow and orange crystal dragon scale tiles. For the best view, you can wait an hour to sit in a crowded open-air cafe at Sears (yes! Sears still exists). For the second best view, squeeze your way through Sears’ gardening equipment on the same floor and see almost the same thing for free without a wait.

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In front of Palacio de Bellas Artes
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Carrara marble

The best way to get to Mexico City from the airport is to exit baggage claim and find a booth marked “Taxi Autorizado”. Tell the ticket seller your destination, pay for your ticket (we paid 200 pesos, or roughly ten bucks for a cab to Colonia Roma), and present the ticket to one of their drivers outside. The best way to return to the airport is to Uber; it’ll be even cheaper.

Don’t drink the tap water. Instead, try pulque, mezcal, jamaica (hibiscus juice), horchata, Mexican cola, or tequila. We were worried about the ice in our drinks since tap water is unsafe to drink, but we never had an issue; restaurants use filtered water for their ice, and most of the beverages you’ll have on the street don’t come with ice.

How can you tell if a food stall is safe? Look for the crowded ones. Locals tend to know what is good, and a busy one indicates that the food is not sitting around. We didn’t get sick once in Mexico City.

Book tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. You’ll still have to wait in a line outside, but you’ll be able to enter as soon as it’s your time slot.

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Frida’s wheelchair in her studio
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Frida’s kitchen
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Obligatory photo with the azul wall

Cusco

We only had about 24 hours in Cusco, but even just our short time there was enough to convince us that Cusco is one of the fascinating cities we’ve ever been to. It was the capital of the Inca Empire until the Spaniards moved the capital down to coastal Lima because they couldn’t handle the altitude. When the Spanish invaded, they plundered the city and constructed their own Catholic buildings, meanwhile killing many Incas with smallpox. Fortunately, a big earthquake in 1950 toppled the poorly-constructed Spanish buildings, while the Inca architecture underneath was left standing.

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We stayed at Hostal Corihuasi, a restored colonial guest house, just a brisk uphill walk from the main plaza. Our rustic room had parquet floors, hand-woven rugs, alpaca wool blankets, and wraparound windows that offered a panoramic view of the entire city. Cusco felt huge, especially after staying in little towns like Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the past week. From our windows, Cusco was a sea of red roofs and cathedrals, surrounded by mountains — much like Florence. Another thing we noticed in the lobby of our hotel was a huge oxygen tank, reminding us that we were 11,152 feet above sea level. We had saved Cusco for the end of our trip for that very reason, and thanks to that, we felt fine our entire time there.

Unlike Aguas Calientes, which is pretty much mocked by everyone we meet, Cusco seems to be universally loved. Remnants of both the Inca Empire and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors share Cusco’s narrow cobblestoned streets, creating a unique mashup of Andean and Spanish styles that makes Cusco like no other place on earth.

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Roaming around San Blas
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Steep staircases running through town
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Plaza de Armas

We joined a free historical walking tour, wandered around Mercado San Pedro, bought chocolate at the ChocoMuseo, got kissed by an alpaca, and then later ate alpaca burgers. If I could spend a month in only one place in Peru, Cusco would be my first choice because it felt incredibly livable.

By the time our cab arrived to take us to the airport, I wasn’t ready to leave Peru yet. This country didn’t hit me immediately the way my other favorite countries (Italy, Turkey, and South Africa) did. In fact, I didn’t start crying until our plane took off and I started going through my photos from Ollantaytambo. Peru was magical, but in a quiet way. This trip was my first venture into Latin America, opening a new world (pun intended) to me, and I can’t wait to return.

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Peru grows over 4,000 varieties of potatoes
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This alpaca is trained to kiss when you say “beso”

Tips for future travelers

We hired Taxi Datum for all our cab rides throughout Peru. It cost 127 soles from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, and 20 soles from Cusco to the airport. It’s easy to book online, and they’re always prompt.

If you stay in Hostal Corihuasi, request Room 1 for the best view.

The two alpaca burgers we tried were phenomenal. Chakruna Native Burgers is a fun burger shop in San Blas. Make sure to order a side of fries (even though each burger already comes with fries) because they are wonderful and are accompanied by five different sauces. Meanwhile, Hanz Homemade Craft Beer & Food had an even better alpaca burger and is entirely run by one man who took everyone’s orders, walked them to the outdoor restroom so they wouldn’t get lost, and kept us entertained throughout dinner. I’d probably be a regular at Hanz if I had my dream month in Cusco.

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A perfect alpaca burger, Peruvian beer, and a variety of Peruvian potato chips from Hanz

Machu Picchu

We visited Machu Picchu on Christmas Day. It was such an easy, straightforward experience that I almost wish we had struggled a little more — if only to make the buildup to Machu Picchu a little more epic.

Our journey began with a comfortable hour and a half train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The ride through the Sacred Valley up into the Andes was like something out of an romanticized nature documentary. There are two train companies to choose from (PeruRail and Inca Rail), and we went with PeruRail, the older and more established company. Our ride on the Vistadome included a sandwich wrap and a beverage. We tried our first chicha morada, a fermented, slightly alcoholic drink made from purple maize.

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PeruRail Vistadome
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Huge windows!
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Spinach wrap and a glass of chicha
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Riding through the Andes

I was glad our hotel sent someone to meet us at the chaotic station as soon as our train arrived. Our hotel opened up just last year and is rated “#1 Hotel in Aguas Calientes”. It’s easy to see why (e.g., the facilities are brand new, our luxurious room had a jacuzzi tub and a panoramic view of town, and the breakfast buffet was satisfying and served on the top floor with an even better view than our room), but it’s also easy to see why Aguas Calientes gets its unfavorable reputation — the hotel has three different names online, and most of the staff didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

Anyone who visits Machu Picchu must at least pass through Aguas Calientes. We had heard only horror stories of this odd town prior to our trip, so we were expecting the worst but found ourselves surprisingly delighted by it. Sure, some streets are obscenely touristy, but the town itself is tucked into such a naturally stunning setting that we found it easy to overlook all the English menus being thrust into our faces. Aguas Calientes lies deep in a gorge, just a few miles below Machu Picchu. It’s enclosed by lush forests, rushing rivers, and stone cliffs. All over town are large granite rocks that have gorgeous sculptures carved into them. Since we arrived the day before Christmas, children were popping fireworks on the street, making the place feel lively, if not also a bit dangerous.

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The touristy street
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Stone carving
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The setting of Aguas Calientes

We had surprisingly good food in Aguas Calientes. In fact, we went to one restaurant twice in our two days there because we couldn’t imagine having a better meal anywhere else. We tried alpaca (tastes like beef!) and Peruvian craft beer for our first meal at Mapacho, and then we returned to Mapacho the next day for a trio of appetizers (trout ceviche, yuca ball, and causa limena) and roasted guinea pig. Guinea pigs are our new favorite meat — fatty with a crispy skin! We had the same sweet waitress as the night before, and she gave me a hug on our way out.

When we woke up the next morning, it was the big day, the whole reason we were in Peru. I had read the same piece of advice over and over: Wake up at 3 am and stand in a long line for the morning buses to Machu Picchu. Regardless, we decided to wake up at a leisurely 5:30 am and enjoy the complimentary breakfast at our hotel before heading out to the bus station. Much to our relief, there was a line of buses waiting to take people up, and almost no people waiting. In fact, we had to sit on our bus for a few minutes so it could fill up. At last, our bus began winding its way up the mountain for 25 minutes, entering another world. The massive lush mountains partially obscured by the morning fog was straight out of Jurassic Park. We expected dinosaurs to pop out at any moment.

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View at the entrance

We spent the first hour milling around the watchkeeper’s hut, waiting for the fog to dissipate so we could anxiously take perfect photos. Once we felt that we had taken enough, we finally explored the site, climbing through ruins and hiking up terraces. We had no idea how vast Machu Picchu was. It includes more than 150 buildings, 600 terraces, and over 100 flights of stairs, most of which were carved from a single slab of stone. Many of the stones weigh more than 50 pounds, but no wheels were used to transport them up the mountain. Instead, it is believed that men either pushed the heavy rocks or chiseled the rocks from the side of the mountain itself. Its sacred Intihuatana stone accurately indicates the two equinoxes; twice a year, the sun sits directly over the stone, creating no shadow.

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Finding that perfect shot
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Christmas card from Machu Picchu!

The Incas built Machu Picchu in the 15th century but abandoned it only eighty years later when the Spanish started colonizing other parts of their empire. It was never discovered by the Spanish and was thus saved from plunder and destruction. It remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls without the use of mortar, and still stands strong despite sitting on two fault lines. In Quechua, the name means “old mountain”.

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Terraces

A few hours later, we were satisfied enough to leave. One could spend an entire day at Machu Picchu, but it was starting to sprinkle and we were getting pretty hungry, so we decided to return to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch. A bus was waiting for us outside, and we rode it back, surrounded by other awestruck, exhausted tourists.

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Glad we brought our ponchos!

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re short on time like we were, take the train to Aguas Calientes. However, if you have more time, you might as well brave the five-day Inca Trail hike. We’re still young, and I expect we’ll be back in Peru at some point, so we’ll definitely hike it next time.

Most people have awful experiences in Aguas Calientes, and I think part of that has to do with their hotel. While our hotel had a couple of flaws, we thought it was an incredibly relaxing place that matched the dramatic setting of Aguas Calientes. At $140/night, it was the most expensive place we stayed during our time in Peru, but it was worth it.

Make sure you book your entrance tickets to Machu Picchu months in advance. You’ll need to decide what hikes you want to do before you book. I’d recommend just doing the Inca Trail hike, but then forgoing all the hikes at the actual site. You’re there to enjoy!

Take the bus up to Machu Picchu. The 90-minute hike up the mountain follows the same road that the bus takes, and I pitied any hiker we passed on our way up. It’s no fun to walk alongside vehicles! Purchase your bus tickets in Aguas Calientes the night before, just in case there are long lines the day of. The bus ticket office is open until 9 pm every day.

Aim for a family-centric holiday. I think the main reason we dealt with no lines is that we decided to go on Christmas Day, when most people (Peruvians and tourists alike) would rather stay home with their families.

Eat at Mapacho and Full House. At Mapacho, walk up to the second floor for an even better view of the rapids.


It’s called Aguas Calientes for a reason. Bathe in the hot springs, or at least get a massage like we did. I recommend Nature Spa Healing Hands for a no-frills massage.

If you are prone to carsickness, don’t sit in the back of the bus on your way to or from Machu Picchu. It’s a winding, bumpy ride.

What to bring to Machu Picchu? Passports (yes, they check!), snacks, water, and a poncho.

We went in the early morning, and it was kind of romantic with the morning fog. However, for a better view, stay until the afternoon. It will get more crowded but the fog will clear up.

On our train ride to Aguas Calientes, we rode the Vistadome (the 2nd cheapest train), but on our way home, we rode the Expedition (the cheapest train) because I figured going home would be less exciting; plus, it was night time so there’s not much of a view anyway. The Expedition is a slightly older train and does not include a meal, but it still had huge windows and great service.

Ollantaytambo (+ Sacred Valley)

I could immediately tell that Peru was going to pull my heartstrings because even our flight into Cusco was breathtaking. The pilot made an announcement that we were about to land, but instead of descending, our plane kept getting higher and higher, past snowy mountain peaks and through the clouds. That’s how high Cusco is. At 11,154 feet above sea level, this was the highest at which I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time.

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Flying through clouds

As soon as we found our guide Willian, who was eagerly waiting for us at the airport, we started our half-day tour through the Sacred Valley. Our first stop was Chinchero, where we drank our first of many coca teas, watched traditional weaving demonstrations, and learned the difference between llamas and alpacas. Llamas are generally larger, have longer ears, and are more independent. Meanwhile, alpacas are smaller, have more smooshed faces, and produce a softer fiber (thus, more expensive sweaters). Anthony ended up buying a llama sweater. All of the garments made here are dyed using pigments found only in nature, then tightly spun.

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Dying wool
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Weaving demonstrations
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Llamas and alpacas

Our next stop was the main plaza of Chinchero, encompassing a charming adobe church and Inca stone walls, surrounded by hillsides of fertile terraces that grow potatoes and quinoa. Chinchero is located even higher than Cusco, which is why we were huffing and puffing just climbing the few steps leading through town.

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Church overlooking the plaza
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Terraces of Chinchero

Inca masonry is legendary. Their structures feature precisely cut stones tightly fitted without mortar. The Inca split the stones along their natural fracture lines using stone, bronze, and copper tools. Walls are usually slightly inclined inside, while corners are rounded. This means that Inca buildings can withstand earthquakes.

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Inca masonry

After leaving Chinchero, we drove half an hour to Maras to view the salineras. Salt ponds were dug into this canyon thousands of years ago. Salty water from a local subterranean stream is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto these terraced ponds. The ponds are shaped into polygons and carefully monitored by workers. As the water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated. The pond’s keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days, the keeper harvests the salt by scraping the dry salt from the sides and bottom.

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Salineras built into a canyon
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Love the different shades of brown

Our fourth stop, Moray, is famous for its grass-covered, terraced circular depressions. The temperature differences between each terrace creates a series of micro-climates that matches the varied climates of the Inca Empire, leading many to believe that Moray was a test bed to see what crops could grow where. Even the soils come from different regions. These ruins never flood despite Peru’s infamous rainy season, so there must also be an underground irrigation system.

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Moray

Finally, Willian ended our tour in Ollantaytambo, where we were staying at an adorable hotel called Kamma Guest House. After touring four incredible Inca sites, I felt almost humbled to be staying in the same village as descendants of the Incas.

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Arrived in Ollantaytambo!

Like most tourists, we had come to Peru for Machu Picchu, but I actually preferred the couple of days we spent in Ollantaytambo, a small town of cobblestone streets and ancient Inca buildings. This town is where the Incas retreated when the Spanish started colonizing. Ollantaytambo is surrounded by spectacular green mountains dotted with old ruins. A few small canals run through the town, and a vibrant community still lives in pre-Columbian dwellings. Many of the women still wear traditional attire, and people speak the indigenous language of Quechua.

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Ollantaytambo
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Typical streets in Ollantaytambo
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Little streams bisecting the streets
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Tiger trash cans!

On our first night there, it seemed like the whole town was in the central square for a Christmas children’s performance. Peruvian children are adorable! Due to the high altitude, they were born with bigger lungs and highly oxygenated blood that causes a red flush in their cheeks.

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Children wearing traditional attire
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Christmas festival in the plaza

While roaming around Ollantaytambo, I noticed trapezoids everywhere, especially in the doors and windows. The trapezoid is an extremely stable shape — structurally much more stable than rectangles. Given that the Inca Empire ran through the Andes in a seismic zone, Inca architects learned over time that trapezoids provided extreme stability in times of earthquake.

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Trapezoidal door

One morning, we hiked to an archeological site called Pinkuylluna, which consists of grain storehouses built on the side of a mountain. The entrance was right across from our hotel, and though the hike wasn’t exceedingly high, we were still acclimating to the altitude and needed to take multiple breaks on our way up. Along the way are stunning views of Ollantaytambo. The storehouses were built up there to keep grain dryer and cooler than down in the valley below. They’re now empty, providing an interesting setting for photo shoots. 

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Our goal
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First of many rest breaks
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Stumbling upon ruins
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We’re getting closer!
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We made it!
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Beautiful view of Ollantaytambo below

Ollantaytambo was breathtaking not only because of the high altitude, but because of the remnants of the Inca Empire, as well as the seemingly untouched villages scattered across this region. I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the people we met; they come from such a rich, brilliant civilization. I fell in love with everything we met here — alpacas, Peruvian children, stonework, high-quality salt… you name it. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me that Ollantaytambo was the one town in Peru that brought me to tears when it was time for us to leave.

Tips for future travelers:

The best way to acclimate to the high altitude is by starting in the lowest area, then ending your trip in the highest. We stayed in Ollantaytambo first, moved up to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu, and saved Cusco for last. Our first couple of days in Ollantaytambo were still a little rough, but by the time we got to our most important hike in Machu Picchu, we were fine. I took some acetazolamide pills before and during the trip, and we drank coca tea whenever we had a chance. Coca tea is available everywhere for free.

Hike Pinkuylluna in the morning to avoid the intense sun and larger crowds. It takes about an hour and a half.

Our six-hour Sacred Valley tour with Taxi Datum cost $65, which included an airport pickup and a hotel drop-off. Just be aware, our guide was more of a driver than a comprehensive tour guide.

Things to eat: potatoes (Peru has over 4,000 varieties!), alpaca (tastes like beef), cuy (guinea pig), corn, pisco sour, Cusqueña negra, chocolate, grains

All the meals we had in Ollantaytambo were good, but the most unique one was at Chuncho. “Chuncho” comes from the Quechua word meaning native. Everything on the menu is local and organic — even the cocktails (yes, all their alcohol is distilled on site!). We grated our own salt onto some toasted corn and tried cuy for the first time. I also found my favorite potato (the one with a purple skin and white flesh that makes perfect chips).

Other places to eat: Inti Killa (try the quinoa pizza) and El Cafe del Abuelo for coffee

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Better than 80% of the pizza we’ve had in Italy

A big reason that I fell in love with Ollantaytambo was our hotel, which has only five guest rooms, a view of the entire town from the rooftop, and the sweetest host who gave us restaurant recommendations and made us feel at home. Our room overlooked a small water channel, so I was able to fall asleep to the calming sound of moving water. Breakfast was served on the roof, and our host remembered my random food preferences. Our room cost $65/night.

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Pointing to our balcony at Kamma Guest House