Peru: The Snake, The Puma, The Condor

I have just returned from spending half a month in South America. It was my boyfriend and I’s first time to the continent and we explored Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. 

First stop: Peru! We flew into Cuzco and immediately started travelling north into the Sacred Valley towards the world wonder that is Machu Picchu. 

Machu Picchu is known to be one of the most sacred places in the world. Not only is it visually jaw dropping with incredibly vast mountains that sit high within the clouds, sky and bright green earth encompass grey city ruins. But the history also contributes to the sacredness. Built around 1400 AD as a royal estate for the Incan ruler, not one slave was used to move, chisel or polish the tons of perfectly aligned granite stones. The Incan community built the site together, by hand, with love. The altitude is near 8,000 feet above sea level. Nishanth and I could hardly walk up the entrance steps without huffing and puffing due to the lack of oxygen. To think of the labor that went into building this place, at a time without technology or machinery, is unbelievable. Part of the mysteriousness. How. did. they. do. that?

Furthermore, the architecture of Machu Picchu was consciously built in perfect alignment with the cosmos in order to receive the maximum amount of spiritual energy. Many people claim to feel a powerful energetic vibration, all of which is why it has become such an alluring place to visit.

One of the first things we noticed upon our arrival was the profound respect and appreciation for the Earth that Peruvians have. The Inca people began to worship Pachamama (Mother Earth, or World Mother) as God long before Roman Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish in the 1500's. After the conquest, which forced people to the church, the figure of Virgin Mary became united with that of Pachamama. Modern day Peruvians seem to now believe deeply in Pachamama and Jesus Cristo equally and the Holy Trinity is ever present in both.

In Catholicism, the trinity is represented by Father, Son and Spirit. The correlation in Andean cosmology is hanan pacha (the world above), kay pacha (this present world),and uku pacha (the underworld).

All around Peru we kept seeing recurring images of snakes, pumas and condors. These animal images were on murals, jewelry, key chains, massive stone carvings, statues in parks and town squares, hanging above home and office entrances, on car bumper stickers - everywhere! 

After we finished hiking Machu Picchu, Nishanth and I were relaxing in the nearby thermal hot springs when I started to chat with a local shaman. Born and raised in the Andes mountains, he explained the importance of the animals in the trinity.

The snake is symbolic of the underworld, where we all come from. Just as snakes require a shedding of layers to transform and be reborn, a human, when dying is exchanging the body to a new one. The same as a snake changes its skin and thus every year becomes more mature, we too shall continuously shed our dark side in order to find answers to life's difficult questions and hence, grow wiser.  

Puma, the master of the Amazon, signifies life in this present world. The puma uses patience, courage and strength to navigate the jungle, something humans can learn from to help navigate life on Earth. To reach a state equal to a puma, we must learn to adapt to different environmental conditions, become invisible to predators, and be strong, courageous and determined. Only then are we ready to move on to the next level. To enter a new cycle. To take flight for the world above.

Condor, the worlds largest bird has a 10ft. wingspan and lives very high up on the rocks in the Andes mountains where it contemplates everything from above. It is the symbol of the upper world, associated with the sun deity which is the benefactor of all living beings. Without the sun, what could exist? This bird is the only bird strong enough to fly up to heaven, as a messenger to the gods. The condor symbolizes an air, and with wings and feathers - he flies up and up to the ultimate state of freedom. 

Throughout our time in Peru, we witnessed several despachos, or offerings, to Pachamama. Alcohol is splashed onto the ground before it is drunk, as a payment to Mother Earth. Farmers in particular highly value being on good terms with nature to ensure their crops and livestock remain healthy and protected. Cleansing rituals are performed by burning plants, wood and other items in order to scare evil spirits and bring good luck. It is believed that if you are struggling and feeling down on your luck, it is because you are taking too much from the Earth and you must give something back.

Aside from Machu Picchu, we visited several traditional towns in the Sacred Valley. Hours were spent wandering through markets, admiring the colorful textiles, eating quinoa (indigenous to the Andes!) with avocado, drinking coca tea, speaking Spanish, and of course taking photos. Cuzco city was charming and absolutely gorgeous. We stayed in an AirBNB with an 85 year old candle maker named Rosa. She spends her mornings molding and decorating the wax with colors and sequins before selling them in the Plaza De Armas in the afternoon. Dream job! We also traveled south to visit Lago Titicaca, the worlds highest elevated lake. The Uros Islands are floating villages made entirely out of reed. We stayed with a host family one night and learned about the simplicity of their lives. They took us for rides on their reed boats, dressed us up in their traditional clothing and at night we watched the sunset and admired the bright stars. If one place is the complete opposite of New York City - it is here! I told the host family about how fast paced life is in Manhattan and they thought it was hilarious...and confusing. 

One of the highlights of our trip was a day hike to a place called Rainbow Mountain. A rock formation that bulges out of the ground striped with red, yellow, pink, brown and blue colors. Rainbow Mountain sits at 17,000 ft. high and due to the low levels of oxygen, the 3 hour hike was by far the most physically difficult experience of my entire life! My heart has never beat so quickly and my head has never felt so light. Walking in silence because we were too tired to talk, Nishanth and I made it to the peak feeling exhausted though very proud and accomplished. The highest point of Earth I have ever stood upon. I immediately knew the difficult hike was worth it because the view of the striped mountain was absolutely stunning and surreal. Unlike anything I have ever seen.

But then I caught my breath and I admired something above.  Travelling up, up, and away.
In flight to ultimate freedom, soaring high overhead - a condor. 

Gracias por todos, Pachamama. 

Iceland

SURREAL. REFRESHING. MYSTICAL. OTHER-WORLDLY. CALMING.
The five words I would use to describe Iceland.

Flying from New York City's chaos, crowds of people and consumerism to Iceland's calm, untouched desolation was quite an insane experience. Though the two are only a short six hour flight apart, the differences could not be more extreme!

Iceland's entire population is less than the number of residents in Midtown Manhattan alone. 66% of Icelander's live in the adorable and colorful capital city of Reykjavik. The other 34% fascinatingly get by in the "countryside" of Iceland. "Countryside" does not seem like an accurate description, though, considering the landscape is so strange and other-worldly it truly resembles outer space more than planet Earth. The Apollo 11 actually trained in Iceland to prepare for landing on the moon because the terrain is so similar.

Iceland takes nature to a whole new level. I have always considered myself someone who loves the outdoors and this place is just the beacon of natures majesty. I spent Thanksgiving week soaking in geothermal hot springs, climbing Europe's largest glacier to get to an ice cave, wandering down a Diamond Beach, chasing too many waterfalls to count, petting wild horses, watching geyser's shoot water 100 feet into the air, and eating chocolate covered black licorice for every meal (seriously delicious!!) 

The Winter sun in Iceland does not rise until 10am and it then sets at 4pm. The trade off for waking up to complete darkness at 8am is complete darkness at night. In the Nordics this means one thing - the Northern Lights!! The starry sky dripping with green and orange lights were without a doubt the highlight of my trip. 

I have a tough time explaining Iceland because it is unlike any other place in the world that I have been.
It is stunning and indescribable, baffling and weird. And that is precisely why you should go!
The photos could never do it justice....

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Click here for my recap of the Northern Lights! Because they were so amazing they deserve their own post.

And click here to learn more about Reykjavik and the Icelandic people. Because they were so bad ass, and also deserve their own post!

Big thanks to Danielle ~ for your driving and good folk tunes.
And to Laura ~ for your map reading and Irish sense of humor.
All too good, xo.

Reykjavik,Iceland

Reykjavík.
Ray-kuh-vick? Ri-ka-vick? Ray-shuh-vik?
I will probably never know how to actually pronounce it, but that only adds to the coolness of this capital city. This "big" city by Icelandic standards, has the small town, quirky, European vibe that wins me over every time.

The streets are lined with colorful houses, street art, and inviting cafes serving fresh caught fish and strong beer. (Even though beer was illegal until 1989.) Of the countries 330k person population, 120k of them live in Reykjavik. Whenever I travel, I am always most eager to learn about the local people. 

Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and dressed in their handmade wool sweaters and hats, the Icelanders were so welcoming and always eager to chat. That is, when I could find them! The Icelandic people are so few that in recent years they have become outnumbered by visiting tourists. British and Scottish accents flood the streets, so I was particularly excited on Sunday afternoon when we found what seemed to be the local haven - Kolaportid Flea Market. An indoor market where I could observe the Icelanders in their natural habitat, purchasing local delicacies and fresh fish for the week and catching up with their friends. I bought $40 worth of insanely delicious chocolate covered black licorice and the best smoked salmon I have ever tasted. My friends decided to be brave and daringly tried the infamous 'fermented shark'. Let's just say I dodged a bullet on that one. 

Bjork, Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men are all from Reyjkavik, so I walked the streets with their music in my ears as the perfect soundtrack for the city. 

Despite the Winters cold and extreme darkness, Reykjavik remained warm, colorful, and bright. 
I will definitely be back...
xxx

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Northern Lights

It was our third night in Iceland and finally the rain and fog cleared and the sky was speckled with stars as we checked into our farmhouse cottage in Hellisholar. We asked the owner of the property what our chances of seeing the Northern Lights were. He stepped outside and said, "If you can see those stars, you will see the lights here. Go sit in the hot tub and wait until 10pm."

Umm. OK! 

Like giddy school children, my friends and I relaxed in the hot (err, more like lukewarm, but i'm not complaining because this is Iceland) tub. We laid our heads back drinking Einstok with our eyes glued upward. The stars alone were a sight to see. Never before have I seen so many glittering lights with my bare eyes.

10pm started to roll around and we were getting impatient but I remained stubborn and insistent that tonight would be the night! As we headed back to our cottage, we all stopped in our frozen tracks and gasped.

HOLY SHIT WHAT IS THE SKY DOING OVER THERE? There were bright white lights in the oddest forms floating above our little cottage. OMG, this is it, they are coming! I couldn't race back to our cottage fast enough to grab my tripod and set my Nikon's slow shutter speed.

The Northern Lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Beautiful colors fold like curtains and light jumps and dances as a result. 

I stayed outside in awe and near tears watching the mysterious green glow above the red and orange streaks. It was like someone was taking a paintbrush to the sky from above. Absolutely beautiful and I don't fully understand it but I think that only adds to the magic.

If seeing the Northern Lights is not yet at the top of your bucket list, do yourself a favor and add it now!!

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