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Hitting the Highlights in Rio de Janeiro

Hitting the Highlights in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is a temptress of a town. Forested mountains divide art deco buildings and white apartment blocks into surprisingly serene and navigable neighborhoods, while gleaming beaches punctuated by red umbrellas line the eastern edge. Throughout the city, the famous Christ Redeemer gazes down upon his domain of streets, sand, and soccer fields, his outstretched arms embracing them all. Complementing the utopian landscape, the lust for life Cariocas (Rio locals) exude along with gregarious and welcoming personalities is unparalleled. Altogether, the combination of spectacular scenery, vibrant culture, and a remarkably modern and efficient public transportation system makes Rio de Janeiro one of the most exciting, authentic, yet tourist-friendly cities in the world. It only took a day for me to fall in love with Rio. I arrived to the city after an over-night bus ride, expecting to be groggy and temperamental when faced with a lack of sleep and the challenges of traversing a …
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Chasing Waterfalls at Iguazu Falls

Chasing Waterfalls at Iguazu Falls

I’m not sure what it is about famous waterfalls and international borders, but they seem to be attracted to each other. Last year I spent my January holidays shivering but struck by Niagara Falls, which flows and freezes along the US-Canadian border. This year I migrated south to the steamy jungles of southern Brazil and eastern Argentina, where instead of January icicles and snow piles I encountered the Garden of Eden-esque landscape that encompasses Iguazu Falls, recently named one of the “New 7 Wonders of the Nature.” With white water rushing like liquid diamonds over emerald cliffs, ringed by rainbows shimmering in the spray, it was impossible not to be impressed. The difference between the two famous falls is vast. As a Midwesterner who grew up with Niagara Falls only a few hours away, I thought I was prepared for Iguazu—but instead I was stunned by its natural grandeur. Surrounded only by deep jungle and a few unimposing walkways, here the organic landscape dominates and …
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Penguins in Peru: Visiting Islas Ballestas

Penguins in Peru: Visiting Islas Ballestas

In addition to the pink river dolphins in the Amazon and the massive condors in the Andes, Peru has another treat for wildlife lovers. Penguins in Paracas. Paracas is a tiny seaside town several hours south of Lima. This sliver of sand along the Pacific Ocean attracts travelers looking for ocean-view luxury and a chance to see Peru’s main bird sanctuary. Home to 160 species of marine birds, the Islas Ballestas are a series of rocky isles located just offshore and are the highlight of a visit to Peru’s southern coast. The best time to visit the islands is in the morning when the seas are relatively calm and the sun not too strong. As I boarded an excursion boat in a bright orange life vest, a multi-lingual guide welcomed me aboard. Because the islands are located within a protected reserve, the only way to visit is via boat tours led by professional guides partnered with the national park. During the ride to the islands, we pass a massive mountainside carving. Called the Candelabra, …
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Ancient Legends, Architecture & Adobo de Cerdo in Arequipa

Ancient Legends, Architecture & Adobo de Cerdo in Arequipa

According to legend, Inca ruler Mayta Capac passed through Peru’s southern canyon country in the year 1300. Enchanted by the lush valley surrounded by snow topped volcanic peaks, Mayta Capac announced “Ari, quepay.” Quechan for: “Yes, stay.” A little over 200 years later, the Spaniards re-founded the area as the city of Arequipa. How Arequipa truly got its name is left to historic speculation, but the point behind the story is valid: Arequipa is worth the stay. Today, the city of Arequipa is a charming collection of churches and colonial-era buildings. Built from pearly white volcanic stone called sillar, the city seems to blaze with an inner light, sparking under an ever-present southern sun. Even from behind your sunglasses it’s easy to see how “The White City” earned its nickname. Though Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city, it has the welcoming allure of a small Andean town. A scattering of traditional restaurants called picanterias furthers this image. They also help to …
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Where is Machu Picchu and How to Get There

Where is Machu Picchu and How to Get There

Most historians believe Machu Picchu’s mountainside construction began in the 1400s under the watchful eye of Inca ruler Pachacutec. The prevailing theory is that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat, a place where the Inca elite could relax and enjoy their lavish surroundings. For this reason, Machu Picchu was placed far from other Inca cities and sites. It was so well isolated that the Spaniards—who conquered the Inca Empire and its Cuzco capital in the 1530s—never knew Machu Picchu existed. So where is Machu Picchu’s mysterious location? The site is situated in south central Peru, a South American country with 5 bordering neighbors: Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. A typical Peru vacation begins in Lima, the location of the country’s main international airport. Lima is also the capital and largest city in Peru. From here you will likely fly to Cuzco, the city closest to Machu Picchu. Time in the air is about one hour. By bus the journey takes 24 hours. From Cuzco, Machu …
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Cultural Awareness in Cuzco

Cultural Awareness in Cuzco

Combining the old with the new, Cuzco is the cobblestoned cultural center of Peru. Once the capital of the Incan Empire and now one of the most prized places in all of South America, this highland hub should feature prominently in any Peru vacation itinerary. Unfortunately, many visitors breeze by Cuzco on their way to Machu Picchu, missing many of the best ruins, museums, and cultural attractions the country has to offer. A few leisurely days here are recommended not only to gradually acclimatize (because if you’re coming from Lima you’ve gone from sea level to 10,800 feet) but also to soak in the Andean atmosphere. Ladies leading llamas, intricate indigenous artwork, and highland delicacies like baked cuy, pachamanca, and trucha meet you at every corner, tempting you to stay longer. Visiting Cuzco is like stepping into a historical reenactment where the lines between modernity and antiquity blur. The pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary are distinguishable but inseparable. …
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Flying over the Nazca Lines in Southern Peru

Flying over the Nazca Lines in Southern Peru

Eight hours south by road from Lima—the second largest desert city in the world—sits one of Peru’s many mysteries: The Nazca Lines. This animal cracker collection of whales, monkeys, birds, and other creatures etched into the arid desert floor has baffled archeologists, locals, and tourists alike since their discovery nearly 75 years ago. From the ground the etching are indistinguishable, and from the air they appear faded—like artwork left to hang in front of a sunny window.  Which makes sense, as the 310 square miles of desert drawings have adorned the landscape for over 2,000 years, sprawled beneath a harsh Peruvian sun. But as I peer out the window of my small aircraft, nose pressed against the window and hands clinging to my already snug seatbelt, I can’t help but be fascinated by this desert version of Peruvian crop circles. The Nazca Lines are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the mysteries of why they were created and for what purpose remains unknown. Theories …
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Into the Amazing Amazon

Into the Amazing Amazon

Immense. Overwhelming.  Incredibly, vibrantly alive. The Amazon Rainforest is unlike any other place in South America; unlike any other place in the world. It covers 1.4 billion acres, touches 9 countries, and contains more animal species than anywhere else on Earth. Its vastness conceals dozens of indigenous Amazonian tribes that manage to make their home in one of the world’s last untamed regions, completely untouched by the 21st century. For nature lovers, adventure seekers, and travel enthusiasts, a tour of the Amazon cannot be beat. I last visited the Amazon in January, during its rainy season. Peru’s two main launching points for excursions into the Amazon are Iquitos (in the north) and Puerto Maldonado (in the south). I’d come from Puerto Maldonado. From town I traveled by motorized covered canoe up river to my Amazon lodge, getting my first taste of Peru’s famous forest. Although the Amazon Basin covers more than half of the county, only 5% of Peru’s population lives here. It …
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Machu Picchu: #1 Place To See Before You Die

Machu Picchu: #1 Place To See Before You Die

After a fierce competition, Machu Picchu claimed the top spot in Huffington Post’s Ultimate Places to See Before You Die. Thousands of readers weighed in, moving Machu Picchu through the bracket to a final faceoff against the Great Pyramid of Giza. One ancient civilization verses another, but the Egyptians were no match for the Incas. See the entire Ultimate Travel bracket here.                        
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Scenic Serenity in the Colca Canyon

Scenic Serenity in the Colca Canyon

Stand on the rim of the Colca Canyon and look down. Or look up. Or just look around because you’re literally surrounded by three hundred and sixty degrees of remarkable vistas. Whether you’re peering down thousands of feet to the canyon floor, squinting up at the condors soaring overhead, or taking in the terraces from across the way, chances are you’ll have trouble looking away for long. The Colca Canyon carves down 11,155 feet and carries on 62 miles through Peru’s canyon country, the southern portion of the country that contains the colonial city of Arequipa and sky-high lake of Titicaca. The Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world, sits in the heart of this region, about 4 hours from Arequipa and 6 from Puno. The region’s main attraction is serenity surrounded by spectacular scenery. Small villages dot the landscape and Quecha-speaking locals lead llamas along the roadside while adorned in brightly-colored, intricate traditional skirts and hats. Towns like Chivay, …
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Morning Mist at Machu Picchu

Morning Mist at Machu Picchu

There are many spectacular sights in Peru:  pink river dolphins splashing in the Amazon River, cultural festivals with elaborate costumes in Cuzco, and an aerial view of the massively mysterious Nazca Lines. But the Peru experience that lingers in my mind took place during a quiet morning at none other than Machu Picchu. On this particular day I’d risen before dawn and entered the ancient citadel under the cover of darkness. A sea of mist surrounded the site, seeping between stone structures and hiding all other visitors from sight. Turning left and away from the main ruins, I followed the twisting stone path toward the Sun Gate, which is where the Inca Trail meets Machu Picchu. The Incas called this gateway Intipunku. For me, the 45 minute inclined walk was undeniably spiritual; I was overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and natural majesty. With the mist obscuring any sign of the ancient complex below, I was alone in the semitropical mountain range, 8,000 feet up in the air and …
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Rodent Fossils Discovered in Peru Date Back 41 Million Years

Rodent Fossils Discovered in Peru Date Back 41 Million Years

Scientists in Peru recently found the oldest rodent fossils yet discovered in South America. An international team of scientists discovered the fossils in the Peruvian Amazon and believe the teeth belonged to mouse-sized animals that lived around 41 million years ago--10 million years older than previously discovered fossils. Read the entire BBC article here. Common critters living in Peru today include the rabbit-like viscacha (pictured about at Machu Picchu), the tasty guinea pig, and the large Amazon-dwelling capybara.
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