Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Vacation Days: The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, Peru

Hello there! Long time no see!


^ I haven't aged a bit, huh?

I came back this week from my 10-day solo trip to Peru and Panama, and of course I have been dying to share all of my adventures with you! Don't worry, I'm going to split it all up into a few different parts and throw some food blog posts in between so I don't completely lose you.

This post is going to be focused on the apex of my trip, the main reason for my travels, the torture of all tortures and beauty of all beauties: The Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. So without further adieu...



Day 1 of the Inca Trail:
(AKA: "What in God's Name Did I Get Myself Into?")
(AKA: "The Awful Bathroom Incident of 2014")

Aww, look how happy and clean and excited and naive and not at all out of breath I look!


Too bad it was so ugly.

(kidding.)


And, yay puppies!

My tour group consisted of a husband and wife from the UK in their 60s (who were unbelievably incredible and inspirational) and our amazing guide Ludwig. We were definitely one of the smallest groups on the trail, compared to others that sometimes had up to 12 people, and I really like the dynamic it created. It almost seemed like we had our own private tour! The tour group I used is called Enigma, and I cannot recommend them enough.


Day one of the Inca trail was by far the most challenging day for me. We hiked pretty much all day long, and the final few hours of the day were spent hiking uphill on steep uneven Incan stone steps. I was really struggling to catch my breath in this new world up in the clouds. The words of motivation I muttered under my breath ranged from "You can do this" to "Get it together Ogonosky" to "My butt better look amazing after this" to a string of very strong words that would make my mother rinse my mouth out with soap.


Oh, what is this bathroom incident I mentioned in the subtitle, you ask? During our lunch break I used one of the bathrooms along the trail, which was a hole in the ground of a little shack. The floor was covered in what I can only describe as growing cultures in a petri dish. I was super nervous and stressed out about it, and as I --er-- repositioned myself my sunglasses slid off my head and, you guessed it…….fell onto the petri dish ground. 

I KNOW.

I quickly weighed my options: I could throw the sunglasses away and not have them for the rest of the trip, or I could douse them in copious amounts of hand sanitizer, suck it up, and go. It was a desperate moment, and I'm not proud of the decision I made. I won't tell you what I did, but let's just say I told my boyfriend Jon the story, and I'm pretty sure I'm never going to hear from him again.


Day 2 of the Inca Trail:
(AKA: "Peaking the Tallest Point")
(AKA: "What in God's Name Did I Get Myself Into? Part 2") 



Yeah, I woke up to this view. It was rough.


And I also peaked the highest point of the entire trail, at almost 14,000 feet! Fortunately I finally caught my breath on this day, and there were far less expletives coming out of my mouth on the hike. I also had a lot of quiet contemplative solo time, which I really cherished. Day two was another full day of hiking. The beginning of the hike was all uphill to this peak, followed by a few hours of sharp downhill climbing. My knees were singing, but again, I was happy to just be able to breathe and not die.



As much as I may try to convince you that I was really "roughing it" and the bathrooms were terrifying (well except for, you know...the one...), we had a team of porters who were total Herculean ninjas and a chef who cooked us   a m a z i n g   three-course meals. The picture above depicts the third course of lunch that day. It's stupid how good it was.



I got to my tent that night, shins throbbing, covered in bites from "midges," starting to smell myself a little, and still questioning my sanity, but I was pretty excited from all the events from the day.

And I had some really bizarre dreams.


Day 3 of the Inca Trail:
(AKA: "That One Time I had a Photo Shoot with some Llamas on a Peruvian Hillside")




Day three was by far my favorite day on the trail. And not just because of the llamas!

(Okay, that's a lie.)


Day three was only a half a day of hiking, and the views were absolutely stunning. Like the previous days, we stopped at a few archeological sites and were given some very interesting Incan history lessons from Ludwig (see above). 


I cannot stress just how downright magical this place is. The mystery, the culture, the beautiful world up in the clouds....


Oh, hey guys.



(My best friend from high school's name is Erica, and we must have watched Emporer's New Groove together 692 times, and she's literally going to need CPR after she sees this.)

    

What's that? You...want to take some pictures with me?


Promise not to spit on me?


Really promise me Erica?


How about a little kiss?


Llama = #OverIt


But seriously, that view.




Bye guys!


Then we visited another archeological site, and it rained a little, but I put on my "sexy pants" and was good to go!

Day three rocked my socks off.


Day 4 of the Inca Trail:
(AKA: "Arriving at Machu Picchu") 
(AKA: "That Magical Moment When I Encountered a Running Toilet Again") 
(AKA: "I Need a Beer or Four") 
On the last day, we woke up at 3:45 am to get ready for our morning hike to Machu Picchu. We arrived at the Sun Gate around 8:00 to be greeted with our first view of MP, shown above.

And of course I ugly cried like an idiot.


Our fearless group!

(please ignore the puffy faced girl on the left).


It really was as spectacular as it looks. Also, take a mental note of Waynapicchu - the tall, steep, scary mountain behind Machu Picchu there.



Huh. Where did those sunglasses come from…?


Remember how I said to take a mental note of that tall, steep, scary mountain behind Machu Picchu? Yeah, I decided to peak it. Because 4 days on the Inca Trail wasn't enough.


I literally had to crab walk up and down the thing.


But I did some yoga above Machu Picchu and almost fell off the side of a mountain, so that was cool.


But seriously, the views.


Oh, and did I mention the running toilets at the entrance to Machu Picchu? I didn't even care that it cost me 1 Peruvian sole to get in! I actually almost kissed a toilet, it was such a special moment!


Here's another picture of a llama to help you help you forget what I just said.


After we were done touring Machu Picchu and learning all about the history/mystery behind it, we took a bus down to a little town called Aguas Calientes, where we toasted to an amazing trip!

Hiking the Inca Trail was by far the most challenging and most incredible experience of my life. The Enigma crew of Ludwig, our porters, and chef was outstanding, and I couldn't have asked for better hiking buddies. If you've never taken a solo trip before, I say carpe diem! And if you want to push your mental and physical abilities to the limit, while learning more about yourself and expanding yourself spiritually, hike the Inca trail. You absolutely will not regret it.


And you'll probably make a few friends along the way.

*All photos were taken with my Nikon D60 and my iPhone.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Paulie's

This is going to be my last post for a few weeks...


Because I LEAVE FOR PERU NEXT WEEK (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) after which time I will promptly report back with a bajillion pictures of all of the llamas - err, I mean the majesty of Machu Picchu! I'll also do my best to Instagram stuff, but the whole wi-fi 13,000 feet above sea level situation may be a bit dicey.

But seriously, I cannot even tell you how excited/nervous/ready/not ready I am. This is my first solo international trip, I haven't hiked in like 10 years, my backpack is quite literally twice my size, and I've heard the bathroom situation on the Inca trail is the stuff nightmares are made of.

God, I'm so hardcore.

(So hardcore that I may or may not be packing an inflatable mattress pad, travel pillow, hair straightener, and framed picture of Jonathan Taylor Thomas with me because, prioirites.)


Speaking of travel, remember how I creepily lamented about how much I missed my badass world traveler friend Megan? Well she came back! And we reunited at Paulie's in Montrose, and it really was just as awesome as everyone says it is, and it was super romantic, and she and I are in love! ....what?

This was another occasion where I went to dinner, post-90 minute hot yoga sesh and wanted to eat all of the things. (My logic is if I repeatedly put myself in a heated room where I can barely breathe and twist myself up like a perfect beautiful yogi pretzel fall over a lot, I probably won't get altitude sickness on the Inca Trail. It's science).

You know what else is science? 9,000 degree Houston summer + dumping a bucket of ice on yourself = Not such a bad thing!


Now onto the food!

I started off with the small tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad, which was still pretty big. And delicious. Look at the copious amount of basil on top! Love it. The tomatoes were ultra juicy and fresh, and the mozzarella tasted like it had just been churned (churned? coagulated? congealed? I'll stop). Plus it was a departure from a normal caprese salad in that it was drizzled with some sort of mustard sauce, maybe a hollandaise actually? Whatever it was, it was GOOD. And creamy, yet light. It definitely is on my list of top five best caprese salads I've ever had.


For my entree I ordered the small portion of the primavera aglio e olio (say that ten times fast), which was made up of grilled vegetables, olive oil and garlic. I also asked to have it tossed in a marinara sauce because sometimes you just need some extra marinara in your life, you know? And again, the small portion was massive, even for the intense state of hunger I was in. The pasta, made in-house, is exceptional. I know I run the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy (what else is new.), but I really could taste the love and care that went into making it. And the barely-crisped, beautiful variety of grilled vegetables was exciting and perfect. The sauce was also incredibly flavorful and fresh, but I almost wanted more of it! Note to self for next time.

It also came with a side of grilled garlicky toast that was fluffy and light and gobbled up in no time!

Paulie's really is a Houston institution and truly lives up to all the hype surrounding it. The super casual (hullo, I showed up looking/smelling like the swamp monster) counter service spot still manages to offer an intimate, romantic vibe (perfect for my bromance reunion with Megan), while producing delicate, phenomenal food!


2,786 selfies with llamas, coming soon to a blog near you.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Houston Restaurant Weeks at Backstreet Cafe

Sometimes a dessert literally changes your life.


But I suppose moreso than desserts changing your life? BABIES. Sometimes a BABY changes your life.

Mom, I'm not pregnant, breathe.

But my friend Meredith was pregnant when we went to Backstreet Cafe together last week! And this week she's not pregnant anymore because she had a baby this week! And he's beautiful and perfect and I want to pinch his little cheeks for the rest of his days forever and ever amen.


Ugh, did YOUR heart just do a backflip? Because my heart just did a backflip!

So right before Meredith's life was changed forever by a baby, we decided to try out Backstreet Cafe's HRW menu where my life was changed forever by a piece of chocolate cake.

Please don't feel sorry for me.


Oh what's that up there? Just a regular ole' hunk of bread? HARDLY. Try to only have just one piece of this fresh, warm, fluffy, sinful sourdough bread. You cannot do it, I promise. This is a 5-slices-in-your-mouth minimum loaf, I assure you.

Oh, and just TRY not to order something off of their summer tomato menu to start off with - like these crispy, decadent, fried green tomatoes - even though you're about to essentially have a 3- or 4-course meal.


Nope can't do it, I promise you.

Oh, and what's that, Backstreet Cafe HRW Menu? You have an entire section dedicated to a FOUR COURSE vegetarian meal?


Sure, the meal would have been sufficient with just three courses, but then I wouldn't have been able to drown in the light, lemony, savory amuse orzo summer salad, the perfect starter for my palate.

You just get me Backstreet Cafe.


Um, hello, cornmeal crusted avocado, I think we just became best friends. You are so rich and indulgent, you could basically be a dessert. The creamed corn, the kick of poblano, and the slightly crunchy avocado make you a home run hitter!

(You should try out for the Astros, I hear they're hiring.)


And YOU saffron brushed cauliflower steak?? You were coated and roasted so perfectly, my heart sang. The slow roasted mixed grains underneath tasted like fried rice with a fancy, sensational makeover. The two of you melted so perfectly into one another, I swear I lost consciousness for a moment.


The only thing I'm sad to report on is I was not your biggest fan seasonal summer cobbler. All the right elements were there, but the balance was off, and you quickly turned into a berry mush.

But that's okay, because Meredith shared her dessert with me from the Red Dinner HRW menu...


I really am not a dessert person, so this is saying a lot. If you go to Backstreet Cafe, and you can only order one thing because your very life depends on it,  please promise me you'll get the dark chocolate cake. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this is hands down the single best dessert I have ever had in my entire life.

Mindblown.

The cake was rich, soft, moist, and velvety. Combined with the cheese ice cream and marinated strawberries, it was an utterly sensual experience.

I lost. my. mind.

I hadn't been to Backstreet Cafe since my friend Amanda was in town (Gah, was it really that long ago?!), and I am so glad I came back to dine off of the Houston Restaurant Weeks menu with Meredith! The only (and I really mean only) thing that would have made the experience better is if it hadn't been 5,000 degrees outside and we had been able to sit out on Backstreet's magical patio. It's easily one of my favorite restaurants in Houston, so I encourage you to run not walk.


50 Shades of Cake.