Cozumel, Tulum, Puerto Escondido– these are the kind of sun-soaked destinations I think of when imagining the typical Mexico vacation. So as I flipped through Travel & Leisure’s annual “Best of” edition the other day, I was more than a little surprised to find that Oaxaca City– this colonial capital tucked in a valley near the Guatemalan border– was voted the #1 city in Mexico for 2018. Surprised, but not confused.
Oaxaca City established itself as a capital of the region’s culinary traditions, architecture, and culture well before Travel & Leisure announced its popularity and remote workers started scooping up its Airbnb’s. Case in point: UNESCO named Oaxaca City’s historic center a Cultural Heritage Site back in 1987, and tourism has been the city’s– and the state’s– primary economic driver ever since.
After arriving via overnight bus from Mexico City, I spent just enough time in Oaxaca to throw down my bags on the floor of my hostel, make the most of its breakfast bar, and sneak in a quick shower before I was headed right back out of town. This time, it was for an impromptu day trip one of Oaxaca’s most iconic sites: a self-guided Hierve el Agua tour.
Technically, this waterfall’s name translates to “the water boils”, but Hierve el Agua is far from boiling– it’s actually calcified. The greenish-yellow pools here are the result of spring water bubbling up through limestone and slowly, over thousands of years, becoming calcified as they bubbled over the edge of the rock. The result: two waterfalls that look as if they’re made from stone, and a series of mineral-rich pools overlooking the green valley below.
Quick poll: does anyone know what there is to do in Oaxaca, Mexico? If you answered with a shy “um…no?”, don’t be embarrassed– you are my people. Up until a few days before I arrived, I had little-to-no idea what the state (or its capital city) of Oaxaca had to offer.
But even with my (sort of embarrassing) lack of Mexico travel savvy, I knew that the city of Oaxaca was well worth a place on my Mexico itinerary. Why? That was basically thanks to a former employer who made occasional visits to Oaxaca City for menu inspiration, not to mention the countless fellow travelers in Mexico City who raved about their own exciting plans for the southern half of the country. That’s not the kind of detailed travel research I typically pride myself on, but that lack of preparation actually worked out beautifully. After just three days in Oaxaca, I would leave with an understanding of why so many expats decide to make this city their temporary home.
I’ve had an itch to do a long trip around Mexico for years. Back in 2011, I heard about a few Spanish language schools in Oaxaca and became convinced that that was where I wanted to go. And then I learned about Hierve el Agua, the surfing and mountains along the Pacific coast, the ruins in the Yucatan and, of course, the food– and next thing I knew, I was harboring a full-on fantasy. Backpacking around Mexico for a couple months cemented itself pretty high up on my dream trip list.
So, by the time I landed in Mexico City, I had been thinking about this trip for years. The problem was, I’d fantasized about this trip so much that I was intimidated to actually take it– I didn’t want to go until I had every stop planned out perfectly. But thanks to a last-minute change of plans in Lima, I found myself with two months to spare and just one obligation: get to Cozumel, Mexico by early October. That pretty much settled it– between the cold, grey weather in Lima and my general hankering for sunshine and tacos, I decided to finally take The Trip; I was finally going to solo travel Mexico.
I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear around here, but I am truly a sucker for a good list. (Okay, I’m a sucker for any quality of list.) I’ll jump at any opportunity to write a travel-related list– and what better opportunity than the start of a new year?
Before I jump into mapping out my 2019 plans, I wanted to take some time to reflect on 2018– a year that brought me around the country and to another continent, through canyons and mountain passes. This year also brought a whole lot of firsts, from my first experience traveling as half of a couple to my first attempts at surfing.
Anyone who’s seen me hoist up my 65L backpack at baggage claim could tell you: I’m not the person to go to for “packing light” advice. When it comes to negotiating what to take and what to leave behind, I tend to cut back in all the wrong areas. Example: I packed around a dozen crossword puzzles for Peru— actually taken from newspapers, so each one came with the entire page— but thought eh, who needs a sweater?
That said, I’m a sucker for a good list. Traditionally, I spend the week or so leading up to a trip excitedly writing and rewriting my entire packing list, right down to how many socks I plan on bringing. I even get weirdly into reading other people’s packing lists. I couldn’t tell you why, but I truly love packing. (And yes, I do feel a little #blessed for that.)
August was an incredible month.
I’ve tried to come up with some more writerly adjectives to describe it— awesome, bonkers and dope all come to mind— but nothing else really fits. And for a month that took me from the bottom of the world’s second-deepest canyon to the top of a glacial pass, I think “incredible” is a pretty fitting descriptor. So, after publishing 13 posts covering 11 destinations in Peru, I’m pausing to reflect on a truly incredible month.
After a whirlwind month through southern Peru— and just one day after hiking to Machu Picchu— I was back in Lima, in one of my favorite spots in Peru: the capital’s Barranco district.
While neighboring Miraflores is known for its highrises and shopping centers, Barranco has a reputation as a home for the arts. This district boasts some of Lima’s best street art, restaurants, and more than a few of its most popular museums. So, when I came back here with over a week to spare, I settled right into a routine that almost daily took me past some of Barranco’s best spots.
This is my last post in a three-part series documenting my Salkantay Trek tour, wrapping things up at Machu Picchu. Want to start from the beginning? Head to Part 1 and Part 2. I’ve condensed my tips for the trek into this, my final post on reaching Machu Picchu. If you’re looking for facts and figures, scroll down for my Salkantay Trek packing list, tips, and information on what it costs.
By the end of our fourth day on the Salkantay Trek, we had seen so many beautiful landscapes that I had almost forgotten what lay at the end of the trek. But on the morning of our fifth and final day, that changed. It started to sink in: we were going to Machu Picchu.
Not many things could get me to happily roll out of bed at 3:00 a.m. and spend the next two hours sitting on the sidewalk. But if anything makes that list, it’s Machu Picchu.
After our second day of hiking the Salkantay Trek, we were finally in the jungle. And from Challway, where we started Day 3, it was (almost) all downhill.
The previous two days had taken us from the famous Humantay Lake all the way up to the Salkantay Pass, at a lung-straining 15,200 feet. And on the second day alone, the scenery was enough to make me forget all about Machu Picchu; we had walked from the glacial lake at Salkantay Pass down through the cloud forest and into the jungle at Challway in one, long stretch. By our third morning, we had already seen more than I could’ve imagined– and we still had two days of hiking left.
On the itinerary for Day 3: hike from Challway to Playa Sahuayaco, and then on to our camp near the small town of Santa Teresa.