life on pine ✧

adventures in baños, ecuador

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baños is known as the backpackers destination in ecuador

and for good reason – this adventure town is filled with waterfalls, hot springs, hikes, SWINGS!, and many other adventures. after our peaceful weekend in cotopaxi national park we weren't sure if this backpacker town would be right for us, but knew that we had to see "the swing" and chill out for a few days. and was it worth it? 100% yes. that swing is good clean fun and we were all belly laughing and asking for another turn after turn. it might have been our timing, but it also wasn't packed with other tourists – we were the only people there for a good while and we got as many rides as we could in. 

want to see the swing?

read more about casa del arbol here, and don't listen to any of the bad reviews – its a grand ol' time. 

planning a trip to baños? some other spots worth seeing:

  1. PAILON DEL DIABLO WATERFALL | also known as devil's cauldron, this waterfall on the rio pastaza is a tributary of the upper amazon river basin. it's a relatively easy hike down to the waterfall and back, but you should allow a few hours to soak in both the waterfall itself, as well as the immense hydrologic power churning through the gorge. after descending into the gorge from town, the trail winds toward the entrance, where for a small fee, they allow access to an otherworldly set of stairs carved into the cliffs adjacent to this huge waterfall.

  2. CHECK OUT THE HOT SPRINGS | [if you're not weirded out by the freaky color] – we didn't get a chance to do this, but due to the town's name literally translating to bath, these healing waters are definitely something they're known for. 
  3. CAFE HOOD | this restaurant + hostel combo is a must if you're planning to eat out in town. their food is healthy, delicious and unique, we found ourselves coming back multiple times for lunch & dinner 
  4. LUNA RUNTUN OR HOTEL SAMARI | these two spots were a mini splurge for us {relatively}, but with their big pools, hot tubs, and comfy rooms – we were happy to pay a little extra to enjoy our only 2 nights spent in this little funky town. even if you don't stay at luna runtun, stop by their bar and restaurant for the a magical view over the town.

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exploring cotopaxi national park, ecuador

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only an hour and a half drive from quito [ecuador's capital] lies one of the most unique and pure national parks we have visited. with the cotopaxi volcano being their centerpiece, the park's flora and fauna is mystically intriguing due to the very rich soil. we were able to see a lot of their diverse plants and pine vegetation, but sadly not enough of the native animals that live in the park other than the beautiful wild horses. also commonly found are wolves, pumas, bears, rabbits, condors, and foxes, or the extremely rare high altitude hummingbird that lives in the slopes of the volcano between 13,000 - 15,000 ft.

we checked into the hacienda el porvenir, a cozy spot tucked away just outside of the park. we spent our days here cozied up by the fire, drinking wine, wearing panchos, riding horses through the valley, exploring the park in our car and on foot, playing cards and enjoying the crisp mountain air. next time i would love to mountain bike down the dirt road from the base of the volcano which is offered by most local outfitters.



on our final day in the park we woke up early and drove 3 hours to the stunning quilotoa lake. this is actually part of a bigger trail, the quilotoa loop, however we didn't have enough time to make the full trek. considering making the drive to the lake? we would 100% recommend it! not only is the lake itself actually breathtaking, but the countryside drive is stunning. do be aware that if the clouds come in, they will completely swallow the lake. we watched this happen before our eyes and had we arrived 20 minutes later, we would have missed it all. 

ecuador is a country that completely took us by surprise and somewhere i look forward to visiting again soon. so many volcanoes, beautiful beaches, alpine lakes, and the warmest of people.

trekking to the sun gate at machu picchu

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when we decided to visit peru there were moments we considered not going to machu picchu

which in hindsight sounds crazy. the two main reasons being: 1. the price [it didn't seem very backpacker friendly once you add up the train, entry fees, lodging, guide, etc.] 2. the "touristy" ness of it – i'd heard rumors that it was getting a little out of control. we quickly came to our senses though and realized this was likely a once and a life time experience that would be worth the splurge. later, my parents decided to join us – and it ended up being one of the most memorable and special experiences. 

part of me thought that it would be one of those places ruined by tourism, however that is completely not the case. this is a well oiled machine and if done right, you can experience this treasure in a really unique way. in my opinion, trekking to the sungate is 100% the way to go. this takes 1 day [with an overnight stay] and i honestly couldn't recommend it more. this approach gives you a really unique view of machu picchu, and also gives you that feeling of "WE MADE IT" – which likely wouldn't feel the same if you just took the bus in. 

SO! here's what our trip looked like if you're interested:

4am: picked up at our hotel by our guide in a comfy van by alpaca expeditions 
6:30am boarded the train in olleyntambo to start of the trailhead
8:30am began our trek which was mostly uphill – but totally doable
11:00am: explored the wiñay wayna ruins (surprise that blew us away)
12:00pm tented lunch, cooked right there on the mountain
2:00pm arrive at the sungate
4:00pm bus down to aguas calientes
7:00pm dinner at indio feliz - known to one of the best meals in town

we didn't actually go *in* to machu picchu until the following day, we only hiked to the outer perimeter – which is the perfect vantage point and is great for people who don't want to pay the fee to go inside. after soaking in the breathtaking views for a few hours, we boarded the bus and headed down to aguas calientes – a little town that was built for the tourism of MP. its cute enough for one night and we enjoyed our stay at the el mapi

DAY 2 consisted of exploring inside the gates

we woke up and had breakfast at our hotel [included in the price] and boarded the bus to the gates of machu picchu around 8:30. some people wake up at 4 am to get to the top for sunrise, but honestly this seemed exhausting and not necessary. at 8am there was no line for the bus – so unless you're a huge sunrise person, don't listen to the people who tell you to go at 4am. the rest of the morning consisted of a full tour with our guide and exploring each little nook and cranny. after exploring we made our way back to town for lunch/drinks at our hotel before heading back to cusco on the train.

there are many ways to make machu picchu happen but we were SO happy with this experience. 

my hiking gear: leggings, hoodie, tank are all from OV , socks are smartwool, boots are salomon


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a day trip to the the sacred valley

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the sacred valley, peru 

if i'm being honest – i was very confused when we were trying to plan this part of our trip. there is *so* much info floating around on the internet and at one point i thought the sacred valley and machu picchu was the same thing. i hope that for future travelers this makes it a little easier to understand.

the sacred valley is a region in the andean highlands near cusco and the ancient city of machu picchu. it formed the heart of the incan empire and is an area of fertile farmland and spanish colonial villages. we visited ollantaytambo, urubamba, moray, the maras salt flats and loved the entire experience. if we'd had more time, i also think staying a night in ollantaytambo would be really fun – the town seemed very cute. 


how to take a day trip to this region

as i mentioned in this post, this was only a day-trip from cusco. we started at about 8am and ended around 4pm – nothing felt rushed and we were able to see/learn a lot.  i would highly recommend doing this before going to machu picchu, because you learn so much about the incans and it's a great way to ease into the history of the region. 

we took a private tour through alpaca expeditions, which cost roughly $250 for 4 people. this included a private guide, all transportation and lunch. there are definitely cheaper ways to do this, however you lose the perk of having a knowledgable guide [our guide was trained for 4+ years on this region and grew up here]. we are forever grateful to have had my parents in town to treat us to such an incredible experience.  


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exploring cusco, the capital of the incan empire

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a rough guide on how to tackle cusco

if you are traveling to the sacred valley or machu picchu, you will inevitably spend a few nights in cusco. and the good thing is, we really liked this town – yes, it's full of tourists. but there is a powerful energy of excitement and you can feel it as you walk through the cozy cobble stoned streets. we ate delicious food, tried many pisco sours, explored the markets and back streets [which almost made it feel semi-european], and loved our cozy little airbnb.

we had 5 days here, and i think any less would be rushing it. of course more time is always better, but 5 days did feel like enough to really experience the region. if we'd had more time i would have loved to see rainbow mountain  – this excursion requires waking up around 3am, though, so you'll want to have another buffer day.

DAY 1: land in cusco [from lima] in the afternoon – check into your lodging and spend the evening exploring
DAY 2: explore the sacred valley [day trip] read more about this HERE
DAY 3: explore cusco
DAY 4: leave for macchu picchu [overnight, sleep in aguas calientes
DAY 5: travel back to cusco for the night

where to eat and drink in cusco, peru 

cusco is actually full of really delicious restaurants and bars for any price range. because of the amount of people in the city though, it is best to make reservations [at least for dinner] to avoid having to wait for a table. here are some of our favorites:

BARRIO CEVICHE [thanks for the rec, michelle!]: recommended for lunch – arrive when they open to get your pick of tables. some of the tastiest fish and rosé you can get, and right on the square. 
MORENA owned by the same people as barrio ceviche, this peruvian restaurant was our favorite place we had dinner. great decor, amazing food, a pisco sour cart!, excellent service. this is a must. 
CICCIOLINA you'll 100% need a reservation here, they get crazy packed [and for good reason, their food is delicious – we ate here twice]. the squid ink pasta was a highlight for me. 
LA BODEGA 138 after a long day exploring the sacred valley, we wanted a casual and easy dinner. this spot has great salads, good beer and amazing pizzas [which also made tasty left overs]. 
NUEVO MUNDO BAR craft beer in peru is surprisingly awesome – this is a cool bar on the square to grab a drink


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