Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Part 4

The final day of the trek had arrived and it started with, well, a 4am wakeup call. The goal was to leave the campsite early enough so that we could arrive at Machu Picchu, also known as the Sacred Valley, before it got too crowded. We quickly got ready and slammed down a speedy breakfast of toast and porridge as Paul gave us a rundown of the plan for the day. He wanted us to get on the trail ASAP where we would walk just a few minutes and be stopped at the last checkpoint before we got to Machu Picchu. The trail didn’t open until 5:30am, but the goal was to get in line sooner than later so that we weren’t behind too many other hikers. When we arrived to the checkpoint, we sat and waited with other hikers – shivering alongside the pitch-black trail – until we were given the go-ahead by the park rangers. We strapped on our packs and made our way up the mountain. The past three days we had walked a total of 24.25 miles and we only had less than 2.5 to go until we reached the finish line. I think we were all ready and excited to get there. Our feet moved slowly along the trail as the darkness began to fade and the sun rose out of the mountains. We didn’t have far to go, and although the last three days had taken a toll on our bodies, it didn’t dampen our spirits. By this point, we had bonded as a group, and we were determined to get there, dangit!

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Getting an early start to the day

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Not too far into the hike, we reached an incline so steep we had to bear crawl our way up. We all looked at Paul like he was crazy, but I guess we couldn’t turn back after getting this far, so we followed suit. Slowly but surely we all made it to the top – and I guess my legs are a little stronger because of it (trying to find a bright side here).

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Nature’s stair climber. Cole is second in line slowly climbing his way up the steep incline.

Two hours into the hike, we reached Intipunku, a sun gate that was once a fortress of Machu Picchu. It is the main entry point to the Sacred Valley, which meant that we were almost to our final destination. It was also the first place that we could see Machu Picchu in all its glory from a distance. Of course, we had to take some pictures (why yes, we are “that family” who wore matching t-shirts), absorbed the scenery, and then got back on the trail so that we could beat the crowds. I will say that it was a relief to actually be able to finally see our destination in the distance after miles of wondering if I would ever get there.

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Intipunku with Machu Picchu in the distance.

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The whole crew (minus the guides, Paul and Andreas)

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The view of Machu Picchu from Intipunku

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While at Intipunku, Cole taught dad how to take a selfie.

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Dad’s second selfie. Not too shabby!

After just one more mile of hiking, we were there. The arrival to Machu Picchu was all a blur due to a mix of excitement and being in awe of my surroundings. We had made it – and I never wanted to leave. You know that moment in Castaway when Tom Hanks finally makes a fire after many failed attempts and he can’t contain his excitement? That’s about how I felt.

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I love Mountain Mike’s expression in this picture. That’s a look of pure happiness right there.

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When we walked down to the entrance of Machu Picchu, the crowds were a bit overwhelming. I guess you could say we were spoiled since we had seen ruin after ruin without any crowds. Plus, after being on a hike for four days and only being surrounded by mountains and trees, it was a shock to see so many people all at once. Tourists by the busloads were entering the citadel and it seemed very similar to a theme park. That’s why, in my opinion, if you want to see Machu Picchu, you should do the hike so that you can see a multitude of ruins without the crowds. It is challenging – but completely worth it to be able to witness such an amazing piece of history. You can very well take a bus up to Machu Picchu, but you’ll be missing everything else that is only accessible via the Inca Trail.

Don’t get me wrong though: Machu Picchu was still as amazing as I had hoped, and the Sacred Valley was so big that it didn’t seem as crowded once all the people had dispersed. It was like a mini city. There was an area for farming, two separate towns, and various temples – and all of it was built on the side of a mountain. Pretty amazing, right? For the next two hours, Paul and Andreas put their tour guide hats on and weaved us in and out of the various 15th-century structures as they explained its history and told a multitude of fascinating stories. Although it is not confirmed exactly what Machu Picchu was used for, the archeological site is said to have been the estate for the Inca emperor but was abandoned during the Spanish conquest. It wasn’t until several hundred years later that an American explorer brought attention to the site and is now the most well-known icon of the Inca civilization. (Warning: lots of pictures ahead)

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Mowing the lawn

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Touring the Sacred Valley

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The view from Machu Picchu

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After exploring the mysterious, yet marvelous site, we took a bus to the nearest town of Aguas Calientes where we enjoyed a delicious lunch to celebrate the end of the hike. After intaking all of the calories we had burned over the past few days, it took a train and a bus to get us back to Cusco. We were all exhausted, and the ride back to the city was pretty quiet – and rightfully so.

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Aguas Calientes, the town right outside of Machu Picchu

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When we arrived back to the hotel, the group decided to meet for dinner so that we could celebrate one more time before we all said goodbye. We enjoyed appetizers and toasted to our trip with Pisco Sours, a famous Peruvian cocktail.

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Pisco Sour: lemon juice, egg white, pisco (brandy) and simple syrup

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Toasting to the hike.

As long as the four days felt, I was sad that it had to end. We had hiked a total of 26.74 miles together, and getting to know the rest of the group had been so much fun. The amount of amazing things I got to witness and the history I learned was insurmountable to anything I had ever experienced before, and I was unbelievably thankful that I got to do it with my favorite people – my family. We were all physically and mentally challenged on the hike, and in a weird way, I think we liked that. I am blessed to have a family who pushes each other out of our comfort zones and is always up for an adventure. Hiking the Inca Trail was pretty amazing, but doing it with my family was even better.

Day 4 Recap:

  • Maximum Altitude: 8,964 feet
  • Machu Picchu Altitude: 7,872 feet
  • Distance: 2.49 miles
  • Walking Time: 3 hours
  • Total Hiking Distance: 26.74 miles

 

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Part 3

When I woke up on day three of the hike, the past two days had clearly taken a toll on my body. My calves were sore, I was exhausted, and I was starting to look like a troll doll after being without makeup or a hairbrush. But, at the same time, I was looking forward to another day on the trail because it meant we would just be that much closer to the finish line – and a gorgeous view at Machu Picchu. So, just like the previous morning, we were awakened by our guides at 5:15am, drank piping hot mint tea to try to warm up, shoveled down some quinoa porridge, and got back in our single file line as we continued our journey on the Inca Trail.

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“On the road again…”

Although our guide, Paul, had told us the second day would be the hardest day of the trip, I disagree. In my opinion, day three was the toughest, longest, but also my favorite and most memorable. From conquering two passes and slithering our way through narrow mountain tunnels, to the picturesque views and getting to see more Incan archaeological sites, day three was full of adventure…and leg cramps.

Our first task of the day was to make the ascent to the top of Runcuracay, the second pass of the trip (we reached the first pass on day two). After a few hours of hiking uphill, we took a break at a circular tambo (Incan structure) that is rumored to have been a place where messengers would stop for food and rest while on the trail – so it was only necessary that we took a snack break there, right? Sites like this were one of the things I loved most about the hike, because although you can get to Machu Picchu by bus, all of these other sites we got to see are only accessible via the trail. There was something special about standing in an Incan site only surrounded by a handful of other people. It was peaceful, eye-opening and seemed as if we had gone back in time for a split second. I guess you could say it was similar to Machu Picchu, but without the crowds – but I’ll get to that in my next post.

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The Pilgrim clan on the exterior of Runcuracay’s walls.

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Runcuracay from a distance.

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Mom and I with our guides, Paul (red shirt) and Andreas, at the Runcuracay site. I think Paul is secretly an Aggie.

After a snack and a quick rest, we continued our way up to the second pass. When we arrived, there was an overlook you could climb up to see some amazing views of the mountains, so Cole and I pretty much bear crawled our way up. To say it was a steep drop was an understatement, and I was quite proud of both of us for actually making it to the very top. Mom and dad stayed with the rest of the group, and I don’t blame them.

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Runcuracay pass

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Runcuracay pass

 

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Made it to the top! (The steep drop was on the other side. We thought it would be best if we didn’t have our backs to it…)

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After walking uphill for most of the morning, it was a relief to know that we had a two-hour descent. Our next “checkpoint” was another archaeological site that looked more like a fortress. Named Sayaqmarka, it was a surprisingly well-preserved town with maze-like paths that zig-zagged through the ruins.

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Sayaqmarka from afar

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Weaving our way through Sayaqmarka.

Once we made our way through the town, Paul wrangled us back in so that we could get to our destination before dark. We had to make another ascent to the third and final pass of the trip. Before long, the trails were right on the edge of the mountain and when I looked down (which I don’t recommend) it was a straight drop off. To me, this seemed to be the scariest part of the trip. We all took our time and were sure to be careful where we stepped. We had entered into the semi-tropical cloud forest and the scenery was different compared to the dirt, gravel and cacti we were used to seeing. We were suddenly surrounded by an abundance of moss, bamboo, and a wet and slippery path that all had us a bit “on edge”…literally. At one point, we reached a tunnel that took us inside the mountain and was completely pitch black except for the tiny bit of light I could see on the other side. Once everyone had made it safely out of the tunnel, we continued our ascent. We were all sure to stay “mountainside,” and by that I mean I was practically hugging the mountain. It was a bit a scary, and in an effort not to fall, I didn’t take many pictures.

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The entrance to the tunnel. Where the man in the green shirt is standing is where the longer portion of the tunnel started. 

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When we finally reached Phuyupatamarca, the third pass, I was just grateful that we were done with that portion of the trail. We were also greeted by some llamas so that a was pretty great.

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Phuyupatamarca pass

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Phuyupatamarca pass with the Phuyupatamarca site in the distance.

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The Real Llamas of Phuyupatamarca

From there, we made yet another descent to my absolute favorite ruins of the trip that were named the same as the pass, Phuyupatamarca. We got to spend a lot of time at the site since we had been hiking for eight hours and we had about two more to go until we got to the campsite. Like every other site we had seen, the views were unbelievable and as I stared out into the distance, all I could see was a mountainous landscape for miles. The site was used for sacred and religious ceremonies and consists of many platforms. It is also nicknamed “the place of the clouds,” and from the pictures below, you can see why. At that moment, I couldn’t believe I was even there and I definitely didn’t want to leave.

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The view from Phuyupatamarca. You can also see the Urubamba River in the distance.

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Cole really wanted to wear his running shorts for this picture. 

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Mom found a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in her day pack and she was really excited about it.

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Mountain Mike

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By this point of the trip, I was completely in awe of everything I had seen, and my expectations had been surpassed by far. I didn’t want to leave Phuyupatamarca, but I also didn’t want to be there when it was dark, so onwards we went to the campsite. When we finally arrived, the sun was starting to set but our guides had one more stop for us to make. We dropped off our packs at our tents, and then they took us on a quick 10-minute hike to Wiñay Wayna, another Incan site built into the hillside overlooking the river. The terraced ruins are connected by various “houses” and Andreas explained to us the lengths the Incans took to get this site built – including a war they fought to obtain fertilizer for the land (bird poop). Any who… it was an amazing sight and we had the ruins all to ourselves.

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Wiñay Wayna

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The whole crew at the campsite.

Dinner that night was bittersweet. With it being the last night on the trail, we were sad that we would soon have to leave our new hiking friends, although I also knew that I was just that much closer to a hot shower and an actual bed to sleep in. To celebrate the final night and the fact that we would be reaching Machu Picchu in the morning, the chefs presented us with a cake they made by holding it over a fire…so that was pretty impressive. We were all amazed and grateful to have such wonderful people helping us make this dream a reality. As the cake was passed around the table, we all enjoyed conversation and took in the last night of the trip.

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The chefs presenting the cake.

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After dinner and the delicious dessert, we headed off for bed knowing that we were so close to reaching Machu Picchu. We had hiked nearly ten miles that day, and we only had less than three miles left until we would arrive at the most famous Inca citadel.

Day 3 Recap:

  • Maximum Altitude: 13,039 feet
  • Distance: 9.94 miles
  • Walking Time: 10 hours

 

 

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Part 2

On the morning of day two, we were greeted by a 5am wakeup call. Paul, our guide, came around to each of our tents to give us some mint tea as if that would make up for the fact that we were up before the break of dawn, but he didn’t seem to care. After packing up and grabbing a quick breakfast, we were back on the Inca Trail, and we had a long day ahead of us.IMG_1665

We were headed to Warmiwañusca pass – the first of three passes that we would cross on the trip, and also the steepest – and I am not exaggerating. We hiked uphill for nearly five hours. To help keep our heart rates steady and to acclimate to the altitude, Paul had us hike up the mountain for 12 minutes, rest for 3, hike for 12, rest for 3, and this cycle was repeated for what seemed like eternity. Personally, I would have just have liked to keep going until I made it to the pass, but I also know I wouldn’t have been able to last for the rest of the trip, so it was a smart move. There were some parts that were so steep I just kept staring at the ground while I tried to keep my mind off of the fact that my legs were globs of jello and any misstep would have me tumbling right back down the mountain.

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When I say we spent half the day hiking uphill, WE SPENT HALF THE DAY HIKING UPHILL. This super accurate map proves it.

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Making the uphill trek to Warmiwañusca pass

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Taking a break on the mountain

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When we stopped for lunch, I think everyone was relieved that we were able to sit down and rest for an hour. Well, I know I was. We also had some good lunch entertainment when a drove of piglets came running through the campsite.

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A hungry group of hikers ready for lunch. I will say it was nice that every time it was ready for lunch or dinner, the food was already cooked and ready to eat. I guess you could say that was the “glamping” part of the trip.

 

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“and this little piggy went to Peru…”

After lunch, we were back on the trail. Hiking in a single file line, we slowly made our way up the mountain, one step at a time. But surprisingly, the further we hiked, the easier it got….or maybe my legs were just numb by that point. After five hours of huffing and puffing, the steep climb was worth the amazing views once we reached Warmiwañusca pass. It was unbelievable. The weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, and everywhere you looked there were mountains against a clear blue backdrop.

It was also the highest we would climb during the trip, with the pass being 13,866 feet above sea level. Once we reached the top, we took a long break so that we could explore, hydrate and snack before the descent to the campsite.

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The whole crew looking a bit winded. Our guide, Paul, is on the far left and the other guide, Andreas, is in the very back.

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Warmiwañusca pass

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After taking a break at the pass, we still had a long day ahead of us before we made it to the campsite. The rest of the day’s hike was all downhill for about three miles – and after descending that long, it’s almost worst than climbing uphill. With rock and gravel making up that part of the trail, we all had to be very careful where we stepped and were sure to take it nice and slow. An injury on the mountain would not have been ideal.

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Mountain Man

It was a long day, but probably the most memorable. We really got to know the rest of the group that day as well as our guides, Paul and Andreas. They even helped us learn simple words in the Quechua language so that we could communicate to the porters. Whenever one would pass us on the trail, we would practice saying “allianchu” and “sulpike,” which mean “hello” and “thank you.”

Alas, we made it to the campsite right before dusk. We were all so exhausted and sore that we were in bed right after dinner. My legs hurt just thinking about it.

Day 2 Recap:

  • Maximum Altitude: 13,866 feet
  • Distance: 6.84 miles
  • Walking Time: 7 hours
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The campsite on day two

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Good night!

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Part 1

I recently went on another crazy international adventure, and oh how nice it was to travel again. This time though, I wasn’t alone. The whole Pilgrim clan (my dad, mom, my brother, and I) made our way down to Cusco, Peru where we hiked the Inca Trail (Camino Inka) – a four-day, three-night camping/backpacking extravaganza that brought us to the final destination of the 15th century Inca citadel, Machu Picchu. It was the craziest, most amazing thing I have ever done. I will do my best to convey the incredible, breathtaking, inspiring, and insane aspects of our trip into words but if you have ever been considering doing the hike to Machu Picchu, DO IT and DO IT NOW.

I don’t want to speak for the rest of my family, but I think it is safe to say that this trip took us all out of our comfort zone. From camping in the mountains (in the middle of nowhere) and sleeping in 30-degree weather to hiking 6-10 hours a day and enduring steep inclines, we pushed ourselves – but we also surprised ourselves on many different levels.

In these next few posts I will detail the highs, lows and everything in between about our trip to Peru – but first, we will start at the beginning. This whole thing started nearly a year ago when my dad convinced us all to hike the Inca Trail. I was just excited to go on another trip, so I was all in, and so were mom and Cole. Before we knew it, we were packing our hiking/adventure gear and we were on our way to Lima, Peru. Well, some of us were. Long story short, I missed my connecting flight due to bad weather so I wasn’t able to get on the Lima flight with the rest of my family. So as they were starting their Peruvian adventure, I had a luxurious one-night getaway vacation…in a Houston hotel. But that is another story for another day. Although I arrived a day late, I eventually made it to the final destination of Cusco, Peru. Cusco is a province home to Cusco City, the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th to 16th century. Cusco is known for its architectural heritage – the most popular of its ruins being Machu Picchu.

Finally the day had come for us to make the trek to Machu Picchu by foot, and none of use had any idea what to expect.

Day 1

After spending a night in Cusco, the Pilgrim clan had an early start on June 7th as we made the three-hour drive to the trailhead. We had two tour guides for the trip, Paul and Andreas, who were Inca Trail gurus and Cusco locals. We also had eight other hikers in our group that consisted of a mother/son duo from London, a Welsh couple, and two men from the UK who went solo (been there, done that). It was a really great group of people although we had a feeling they saw us as “those annoying Americans.”

I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I was a little nervous. I had no idea what to expect, I hadn’t been camping in years, I don’t do good with altitude, and I am known to pass out on a whim – so I just kept picturing myself face planting on top of a mountain somewhere in the middle of Peru. I also knew that there would obviously not be any hot showers available on the mountain, and we each had to carry our own toilet paper roll if that tells you anything. But despite not having any fancy amenities, we were all excited and ready to get started, so onwards we went.

Before I go any further, let me do a little bit of explaining. We only had to carry a day pack with the immediate things we would need on the trail (i.e. water, sunscreen, rain jacket, bug spray, etc.) The rest of our gear, clothes, tents and food were carried by porters. Porters are locals of nearby villages who carry the gear in large, 44-pound packs on their backs. I know, it’s crazy. They are usually farmers who will work with a tourism group during Machu Picchu’s peak season so that they can earn extra money for their families. These guys don’t just walk – but run – up and down mountains like it’s nothing but a thing. They were all very nice and it was fascinating getting to know about their culture and language, Quechua.

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Porters getting ready for the Inca trail.

So, once everything was packed up and ready to go we were on our way, and in four days we would reach our destination of Machu Picchu.

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The whole group at the start of the trail. (Guides not pictured)

Day one was the least arduous of the four days, but also a good indicator for how we would do on the trek. We took it nice and slow so that we could get acclimated to the altitude and get accustomed to what the next few days would be like. Our main guide, Paul, took the lead and everyone followed in a straight line with Andreas, the other guide, in the back. It was very Snow White and the Seven Dwarves-ish and I’m surprised we didn’t start singing “hi ho, hi ho…”

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The start of the Inca Trail is on the left after you cross the bridge.

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It wasn’t long until we came across the first Incan ruins of the hike, the archaeological site “Llaqtapata.” Discovered in 1912, it is speculated that the Incans used the site for administrative and ceremonial purposes. The views were unbelievable and I knew it was only going to improve from there as we continued our ascent into the mountains. To make it even better, the weather was perfect for hiking. Not too hot and not too cold with the sun shining bright. It wasn’t even the end of day one and my expectations had already been surpassed.

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Llaqtapata

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After hiking 7.47 miles, we made it to the Huayllabamba campsite where the porters cooked a delicious dinner where we all gathered in the dining tent, ate a three-course meal (far from the “camping food” I’m accustomed to), and got to mingle and get to know the rest of the group. After all, we were going to be stuck with each other for the next few days, so we might as well enjoy it! After dinner, we took “showers” – which was washing our face in a bucket of lukewarm water – and used a baby wipe to “freshen up” before heading off to bed…in 30 degree weather. Ahhh the outdoors.

 

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The campsite in the small Incan village of Huayllabamba

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When your feet are too big for the “bathtub”

Day 1 of the Camino Inka hike was a successful introduction for what was to come. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit intimidated at the beginning just because I had no idea what to expect or if I would even be able to complete the trek. I learned a lot about myself and my family during this trip, and every day of the adventure continued to amaze me.

Day 1 Recap:

  • Maximum Altitude: 9,694 feet
  • Distance: 7.47 miles
  • Walking Time: 6 hours

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Hello, It’s Me

I’m back! …Well I’ve been back for a while, but back to writing that is.

It has been 10 months since I’ve done any writing that isn’t work related, and frankly, that is 10 months too long. So, with a new year comes a new resolution (one of many) to write as frequently as possible this year…and beyond, of course. Since I believe that accountability is a huge factor in keeping a resolution, you’ve heard it here first. And although not everything I write will be documented on this blog for the world to see, and believe me, I am doing you a favor, my hope is that the more people who know about this goal of mine, the more I will be likely to stick to it. Or else I will fall back into my routine of watching endless episodes of who knows what on Netflix while I make excuses on why watching hours of television at a time is acceptable. So if you noticed I haven’t posted in a while, feel free to call me out on it…because chances are I am trying to convince myself on why binge watching every season of Law & Order: SVU is “Okay.”

So here goes nothing. I guess I should pick up where I left off…and there is a lot to catch up on.

After Traveling Cara

This blog was originally created to document my lone backpacking trip across Europe during the winter/spring of last year. And although this blog is titled Traveling Cara, it won’t all be about traveling…but I hope a portion of it will be! If you want to get deep and philosophical, I guess the title could still apply in that I am continuing to learn and grow as a person, and in a sense traveling through life? Ok that is a bit of a stretch, but the truth is I’ve already paid for this domain and I still have a year left on the license, so Traveling Cara it is.

After returning from Europe, the most common questions I was asked was “What did you learn from the experience?,” “What would you do differently if you did it again?” and “What now?” With a year to think this over, here are my answers.

What I learned:

It is okay to take rest days. I was averaging 8-12 miles of walking every day, sometimes more, and I realized that I needed to give myself some time to rest every once and a while. So every four or five days, I would make a point to have a not-so-busy itinerary and just take it easy. Miraculously, I managed to stay healthy and illness-free for the duration of the trip.

I will never travel without a fanny pack again. Traveling place to place and living with multiple people in a hostel at once, I never trusted anyone. It made me extremely nervous carrying my passport, cash and debit card around so I had them with me at all times in my handy dandy fanny pack. I even slept with it on. It was extremely thin and easy to hide under clothes, so I felt as if it were pretty well hidden. It comforted me knowing that I knew where my important documents were at all times because I did eventually want to go home, and without cash or a passport it would have made been quite difficult. So take that, pick pockets! Pick pocketers? Not sure.

Do a lot of research when choosing a hostel…and sometimes that won’t even help. Let’s just say I had some interesting experiences living in hostels and although it was a cheap option for lodging, I don’t miss it. Take advantage of hostel websites such as hostelworld.com to read reviews on hostels before booking.

What would I do differently if I did it again?

Remember my debit card pin number. You heard me. To this day, I can still not believe this happened and it turned out to be the most difficult experience of the whole trip. From the beginning, my main method of funding for my trip was going to be my debit card so that I could get a little cash at a time at ATM machines, because I didn’t feel comfortable carrying too much money at once. But remember that whole Target scam that happened and people’s credit cards and bank accounts were compromised? I, a frequent Target shopper, was one of those people. So, not too long before going on the trip, I had to get a new debit card and subsequently a new pin number that I was not as familiar with. Maybe it was the jet lag after the long flight, but the day I landed in Ireland, it was like the pin number was erased from my memory, and still to this day I can not remember what it was. It was a burden…but an even bigger burden on my mom who had to send me money transfers through my account back at home. Soooo, that was fun. It is comical looking back at it, but it was definitely a debacle and I even had to sleep in an airport one night because of my mistake, so I think I have learned my lesson. NEVER. AGAIN.

Now what?

After returning from Europe, I got a job in Fort Worth as a marketing content coordinator. So I made the move and although it was hard leaving The Woodlands, I was ready to start a new chapter in Fort Worth, and as an added bonus, I now live close to both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and lots of cousins. I am surrounded by family…and that’s just how I like it. I love my job and all of the wonderful people I have met here, and after a crazy, whirlwind of a year, I can’t help but think that I am right where I belong.

P.S. My manager and I won a lip sync contest back in October, so I was pretty happy about that. I think it is safe to say that I am at the right place.

This year I hope to continue to learn and grow in my new position here in Fort Worth, while also working towards personal resolutions and goals such as starting yoga (breathe Cara, breathe), training for my third marathon, and most importantly, continuing to write – because that’s what I love to do. So, these blog posts will be filled with be my random ramblings and thoughts. Here goes nothing…You’ve been warned.

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Feelin’ the Bern: The Final Destination

When my mom and I landed back in Zürich, it hit me that I had just three days left of my trip. I had been in Europe for 50 days and counting, and I couldn’t believe that it was about to come to an end. The only negative side of this adventure was that it made me want to visit more places and see more of what Europe had to offer. Knowing that I would be flying back to Houston soon, I was happy to get back home, but there was part of me that felt like there was still so much to see and do. But the good news was that I still had three days to get some last minute exploring in, so right when my mom and I got to Zürich, we took a train straight to Bern, a city just an hour away. I had heard from many other travelers during my trip that Bern was a must-see when in Switzerland, a city known for its medieval city center formed in the shape of a horseshoe around the River Aare. We arrived to Bern late Tuesday night, and we had to be back in Zürich to catch our flights to Houston on Thursday morning. It was going to be a quick trip, but we were more than ready to make the best out of what little time we had.

Before I continue, I have to brag on my mom. The daring Little Nugget decided that she wanted to try out a hostel for the night while we were in Bern. Hostels are like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get. It could be really nice, or it could be just awful, and I had experienced both while on this trip. As much as I was sick of hostels by that point, I was glad that she was willing to try it out. It was actually one of the nicest (and most expensive) hostels I had stayed at, so I think we were both pleasantly surprised. Once we arrived, we planned out the next day so we could make the best out of our time, and then we got a good night’s sleep. It came to our surprise the next morning when we looked out the window and the whole city was covered in a thin layer of snow. It was a breathtaking sight, and after putting multiple layers of clothing on, we made our way to the city center. We walked along the river, amazed at the beautiful sights and unique buildings.

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See that McDonald’s to the left? Turns out a Big Mac in Switzerland costs about $11…

Our first task of the day was to visit the Albert Einstein Museum, a component of the Bern Historical Museum. Albert and I share a birthday (pi day) and since it was just two days prior, I felt like it was something to go see, and I am so glad we did. The exhibit was very interesting and told all about his life from childhood up to his death. The German-born genius and Nobel Prize winner lived in Bern for three years and was where he developed the Theory of Relativity.

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The Bern Historical Museum

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The entrance to the Einstein Museum was covered in mirrors.

After a full morning of learning all about Einstein and trying to comprehend how he figured out that crazy physics stuff, we went to a local restaurant where I had one of the best meals I have ever eaten…and I am not exaggerating. In my previous post, I had mentioned that while in Zürich, my mom and I ordered Rösti, a classic Swiss dish consisting of a skillet filled with hash browns topped with cheese and a fried egg. It was so good that while we were in Bern we ordered another one, but this time it had macaroni and cheese with bacon crumbles on top. Yes, you heard me. A giant hash brown with mac & cheese. What more do you need? It was glorious and I am pretty sure it consisted of a whole day’s worth of calories, but it was worth it.

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Mac & Cheese Rösti with bacon crumbles

After lunch, we made our way to the edge of the city to see the Paul Klee Museum. Klee was a Swiss-German abstract artist whose paintings often reflected his humor and childlike perspective. Mom was familiar with several of his artworks, so that was our next stop of the day. When we arrived, even the building itself was a piece of art. The structure was complete with steel and glass that created three large curves. We stood there in amazement while we took picture after picture…and we hadn’t even been inside yet. The building housed the largest collection of Klee’s paintings. I think mom was just happy that she got to go to another museum!

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A sculpture in front of the Paul Klee Museum

With a few hours left of daylight, we decided to take the Gurtenbahn, a funicular railway, to the top of Gurten mountain. The summit provided some fantastic views overlooking Bern. As we walked around, mom noticed a giant lookout tower in the distance, so of course we had to go see what it was. We climbed up the many flight of stairs to the top, allowing for even better views of the city. It was freezing cold but completely worth it. As I looked out at the sprawling Swiss landscape, I couldn’t help but reflect on how far I had come since January 26. Eight countries and 27 destinations later, it was my last full day in Europe before I went back home to Texas. I also couldn’t believe that my mom was standing right next to me in Switzerland, and I was beyond grateful that she was by my side.

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She made it to the top of the tower!

It was almost time to catch the train back to Zürich, but before we did, we of course had to stop at a chocolate shop. After all, it’s what Switzerland is known for. I guess you could say it was a “sweet” way to end our trip to Bern. When we made it back to Zürich, a city we had already visited before going to Rome, we stayed at a hotel near the airport since we both had to catch early flights the next morning.

Mom and I each had to fly back alone, but we were set to arrive in Houston within an hour of each other. One part of me wanted so badly to stay. There was still so much I wanted to see and do, and I loved the freedom I had of being able to go somewhere on a whim. At the same time, I missed home: I missed my family, my friends, and most importantly, my cat. I also really, really, really missed Chick-Fil-A…a spicy chicken sandwich with waffle fries was calling my name. So for the last time, I packed up my backpack, and the Little Nugget and I made our way to the airport. Her flight left first, with mine following an hour later. As the plane took off, I looked out the window at the clear sky as I reminisced about all the memories I had made over the past two months. It was refreshing and cathartic to do it alone, and if I could do it all over again…I would in a heartbeat. Before I knew it, I was back in Houston. It was hot and muggy just as I had remembered it, but it was home. And oh how nice it was to be home.

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Homeward bound

When In Rome

After being in Lucerne for three days, I was sad to leave such a beautiful city, yet excited to arrive at my next destination, Zürich, where I would meet up with my mom. She met me in Switzerland so that she could join me on the trip for the final week I would be in Europe, and I couldn’t have been more excited. The plan was that she was going to meet me in Switzerland, and then we were going to fly over to Rome for five days. We were then going to fly back to Switzerland  where we would explore the country a little longer before we would make our way back to Houston. The other exciting part was that while in Rome, we would meet up with my cousin Sadie, a teacher, who decided to come see the Eternal City during her spring break. So, it just so happened that on my final week across Europe, I got to have two of my favorite people in the world by my side, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. After nearly two months of traveling alone, it was nice to be around people that I could be silly around and laugh with…and that is all we did for the five glorious days that we were together in Rome. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I had to get to Zürich so that I could meet the Little Nugget, a nickname I gave my mom a long time ago since I tower six inches above her. I arrived to the city the night before she was set to land, because she was originally supposed to arrive early the next morning. However, due to her first flight being delayed by several hours, she was unable to make her connecting flight. So, she got rerouted, and in turn, didn’t arrive to Zürich until late that afternoon. By the time I finally got to see her and embrace her in a great bear hug, she had been on planes and in airports for nearly 24 hours. The poor thing was exhausted, but she still put on a smile as we walked around the city and caught up on two months worth of talking.

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She made it!

Just like that, Traveling Cara had turned into Traveling Cara & Cheryl, and everything was right with the world. Talking a mile a minute, we toured Zürich for the rest of the day and indulged in a Swiss favorite, Rösti, that is basically a giant hash brown in a skillet topped with cheese and a fried egg. Delicious? You bet. Shortly after, we went back to the hotel because Mom had some serious jet lag, and the Little Nugget was out by 9.

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Swiss Rösti

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The next day, we hopped on a plane to Rome: one of the destinations I had very much been looking forward to. Ever since I had seen Gladiator, I was fascinated and in awe of the city…and Russell Crowe. I think my mom was even more excited than I was. Being both an artist and art teacher, she was thrilled to get to finally see some of the world’s most well-known landmarks and art, including one of the items on the very top of her list: the Sistine Chapel. When we landed in the airport, we met up with Sadie. Just one year apart from each other, I guess you could say we’ve been best friends our whole lives, so I was thrilled to finally see her. It was like a mini family reunion in an Italian airport.

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Since Sadie had already been to Rome twice before, she was a professional and knew what she was doing, so she got us the perfect apartment to stay in while we were there. It was spacious and smack-dab in the middle of the city. We were in the perfect location for all of the major sights we wanted to see.

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Although Sadie and mom had some major jet lag, we had just a few hours of the day left so we decided to go on a night walk to see some of Rome’s main attractions: Campo de’Fiori, Piazza Novona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. NOTE: The night walk was recommended by Rick Steves, an European travel guru. My mom brought his Rome travel book along with her, and it was actually very useful. He has books on all of the major European cities, as well as a website complete with all of the information you could ever need. The guy even has his own television show. So if you ever go to Europe, at least check out his site. You can thank me later. Any who, the walk was absolutely beautiful and the Roman landmarks sparkled at night. It seemed to make the city even more magical, if that is even possible. Wide-eyed and amazed, we ended the night with some gelato, something that would become quite common throughout the rest of our trip.

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Camp de’Fiori

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Piazza Navona

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The Pantheon

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The Pantheon dome

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Sadie making a wish at the Trevi Fountain

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The Trevi Fountain

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Gelato with a view

The next morning, mom and I woke up bright and early so that we could beat the crowds at the Colosseum. Since Sadie had already been, she did her own thing and met up with us later that day. The Colosseum was one of the main things I wanted to see. I was fascinated about the whole premise behind the giant arena. Luckily, we went on a weekday right when it opened, so we were able to skip the lines and walk straight in. The oval amphitheater was massive, and having been completed in 80 AD, I was amazed at how much the structure was still in tact. In its prime, the Colosseum could hold up to 80,000 spectators. I could just imagine everyone piling in, both royals and peasants alike, to see the most popular (though very gory, violent and twisted), sporting event in Rome. Citizens would watch and cheer as other human beings fought for survival in the arena. Humans fought humans, wild animals fought humans, and animals fought animals…to the death. Although disturbing, there was so much history in that amphitheater.

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Right across the way from the Colosseum was the Roman Forum, the next thing on our agenda. The Forum is a rectangular plaza covered in ruins—what used to be the center of the ancient Roman city. It was magnificent, and once again, it was hard to believe that some structures were still standing after all of this time. Ruin after ruin, we weaved in and out of the Forum, as we saw various basilicas, monuments, and structures from the Roman empire. I would also like to note that it was absolutely gorgeous outside and made it even more enjoyable. The sun was out, and I didn’t have to wear my purple Michelin Man jacket, so I would say it was a successful day. When we met up with Sadie, we walked around the city and once again, ate gelato. Surprise!

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The next day was more focused on the arts and museums. It was recommended that we go see the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, so that was our first destination of the day. The palace was home to a large art collection that dates back to the 16th century. It was complete with several galleries featuring beautiful pieces of art, as well as a family chapel, large and intricate tapestries, and a peaceful courtyard adorned with blooming orange trees. It was a one-of-a-kind experience and we were there for the most of the morning and into the early afternoon. Afterwards, we took a quick lunch break to refuel and grabbed some pizza by the slice, and then the three stooge-ettes were back at it again. Our next stop was the National Roman Museum, which was good, but compared to the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, it couldn’t compete. The museum had a lot of statues and busts of different people throughout the Roman empire, and there was a whole floor dedicated to just tapestries that was absolutely amazing.

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After knocking out two museums, we all walked over to Castel Sant’Angelo. The giant cylinder that towers over the city has been used as a mausoleum, castle and a fortress over the years. The most stunning feature about the structure was the view overlooking the city. The Roman skyline was spectacular, and you could see St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. It was one of those moments where I couldn’t look away, and I never wanted to leave the Eternal City.

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Our next stop was Villa Borghese Gardens, one of the largest public parks in Rome. It reminded me of Central Park in a way, complete with a carousel, a café, street entertainers, and towering trees along the shaded pathways. The sun was starting to set, making for a beautiful view. I couldn’t help myself and stopped at a dessert shop while we were there and ate a super tiny and adorable cannoli.

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Her “Jackie O” look

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Day three was all about Vatican City. Once again, we woke up bright and early to beat the crowds, with an agenda to see the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. In order to get to the Sistine Chapel, we had to weave through the museums. It was packed, but definitely well worth it as we saw an immense art collection accrued by the Popes over many centuries. And then, there we were: face to face with the Sistine Chapel. Pictures were not allowed, but my goodness it was breathtaking and exceeded all of my expectations. Being an artist, I think my mom was in awe the whole time we were there, with her head pointed straight up at the ceiling that was painted by Michelangelo. I’m not going to speak on her behalf, but I think that was one of her favorite moments while in Rome. After staring in amazement at the intricately painted frescos in the chapel, the next stop of the day was St. Peter’s Basilica. By this point, I had seen many churches and cathedrals over the past weeks, with each being beautiful in its own right. St. Peter’s, however, took the cake. The Italian church displayed beautiful Renaissance architecture and amazing artworks. One of the largest churches in the world, it is no wonder why so many people from all across the world make the pilgrimage to the Catholic church each year. St. Peter’s Square was just as amazing, complete with an obelisk, massive columns and marvelous fountains, all overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica. We had spent nearly a full day at Vatican City, and it was well worth it, too.

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St. Peter’s Basilica (photo taken by Sadie)

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…she took this one, too

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St. Peter’s Square at night

Mom, Sadie, and I walked back to the apartment after a long and adventurous day. I think we were all still in amazement at what we had witnessed. We stopped by the local market to grab some fresh bread, mozzarella, and wine, where Sadie had the brilliant idea to make some appetizers before dinner. We opened the apartment windows as we could hear the bustling crowds on the streets below us, and we talked, laughed, ate, and laughed some more. It was our last full day in Rome, and we were going to take full advantage of it. Just like that old saying goes, “It’s not where you are, but who you are with.” Although, where we were was pretty amazing, but it was even better that I was surrounded by my two best friends. I was finally with people who understood me and my weird, sarcastic humor. So, there we were on our last night in Rome. For one final time, we walked around the city as the sun started to set. We ended the night at an Italian restaurant, that in my opinion, was the best meal I had eaten during our time in Rome.

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The next morning was the last day that my mom and I would be in Rome. We had to fly back to Switzerland where we would be there for the next two days, and then we would make our way back to Houston. Sadie decided to stay a few more days in Italy, and the time had come where we had to say our goodbyes…but not before one last adventure. The day before, Sadie and I had wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s, but it had closed right before we got there. So we crawled out of bed at the break of dawn so that we could get to the top. As we climbed up the steps of the dome, the stairs got smaller and smaller as we got close. It definitely wasn’t made for tall people, but Sadie and I (both right under 6 feet), were bound and determined. We finally made it. The weather was perfect, the view was spectacular, I was slightly out of breath, and my legs were feeling nice and toned. The city’s skyline seemed to go on for miles, and it was the perfect way to say farewell to the Eternal City.

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The view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica

Just like that, it was time to leave. Out of all the cities I had visited on this trip, Rome quickly made it to my list of favorites. We were able to accomplish a lot during the time we were there, but there is still so much I would like to see and do, as well as visit other parts of Italy. You can bet that I will go back someday, but for now, Arrivederci, Roma.

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A city with a view

When I walked out of the train station and onto the streets of Lucerne, Switzerland, I was immediately greeted by the majestic Swiss Alps that surrounded the city. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and the mountains were reflecting onto Lake Lucerne as a multitude of swans glided across the water. It was a sight better than I could have even imagined and made for a great first impression of the country best known for its chocolate, watches and cheese. Although one of my final stops, I had been looking forward to going to Switzerland since I had originally planned out this trip. I had always seen pictures of the gorgeous landscapes paired with the snowcapped mountain ranges, and for someone who lives in an area that is flat for miles, I was beyond excited to see what all Switzerland had to offer. I guess you could say I saved the best country for last, because once I arrived, I didn’t want to leave.

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Swanzerland

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My first stop in Switzerland was Lucerne, a city situated on the lake shore complete with Renaissance-style wooden bridges, views of Mount Pilatus and Mount Rigi, and the smell of confectionery treats filling the air from the many chocolate shops. When I arrived I still had a few hours of daytime, so I walked over to Old Town where my first stop was a visit to Old Chapel Bridge. Built in 1333, it is the oldest covered bridge in Europe complete with an octagonal water tower. I also got to see some remnants of the city walls that are still standing after being built hundreds of years ago. I was one happy camper and couldn’t wait to spend the next two days in the city.

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Old Chapel Bridge

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Lucerne City Walls

 

A few weeks back, I had met some other backpackers who had just visited Lucerne, and they recommended I invest in the Tell-Pass: a two-day ticket that gives you unlimited travel on the city’s trains, buses, ferries, and cable cars. I knew that if I planned out my trip just right, I would be able to see all of the main attractions of Lucerne and put the pass to good use, so I went for it. Aside from eating my weight in fish & chips back in Ireland and Scotland, this was one of my better decisions on this trip, and I highly recommend investing in the Tell-Pass if you ever find yourself in Lucerne.

For the next two days, I was a girl on a mission. The first item on my checklist was to go to the top of Mount Pilatus, a mountain overlooking Lucerne with a summit of approximately 6,981 feet. I first took the tram to the outskirts of town, then made a short walk over to the Dragon Ride, an aerial cable car that goes up to the summit. I made it to the top and was relieved to be on solid ground. I walked around at the summit, but due to the thick snow and cold winds I didn’t stay outside for long, but instead sat at a café as I looked out onto the Swiss landscape. Note: Another way to get to the top of the mountain is by taking the world’s steepest cogwheel train. Unfortunately, the train is closed during the winter and I was very upset by this…OK I was actually quite relieved.

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A view from the cable car

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After a few hours at the top of Mount Pilatus, I made my way back to town so that I could catch a ferry that toured Lake Lucerne. This would become my favorite thing to do during my stay in the city, and I still can’t get over all of God’s beauty I witnessed on that three-hour boat ride. The calming waters of the lake made for a peaceful ride, and the Swiss flag blew in the wind as the ferry glided along through the mountains. I caught myself with my mouth wide open in amazement a couple of times. Never in my life had I seen such beautiful scenery, and I was trying to let it all soak in. Still in awe of what I had witnessed after stepping off the ferry, I decided to take another ferry the very next morning that went to other parts of the lake. By this point of the trip, I guess you could say it was also an excuse for me not to have to walk around and explore. Why walk when a ferry can take you around town?

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I spent the rest of my time in Lucerne walking around Old Town, weaving in and out of various streets trying to soak in the Swiss culture. I also came across the Lion Monument, a rock relief honoring the Swiss guards who were killed in the French Revolution. The monument was carved from a giant rock slab that sat on the edge of a pond. It was a beautiful, yet somber memorial, and the surrounding area was completely quiet as visitors all stood still and silent as they gazed at the lion.

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Old Town

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The Lion Monument

On this trip, I have constantly found my self amazed at every place I’ve visited. Each city or town brings something completely different and unique to the table. As soon as I think it can’t get any better, it does–and Lucerne proved that once again. Having wanting to visit Switzerland for such a long time, it felt like a dream now that I was finally there. The views were almost unreal. The only negative thing about Switzerland that I can even think of is how expensive everything is there. I mean, I spent nearly 8 francs on a tiny jar of peanut butter, and if you want to eat at a restaurant, be prepared to spend at least 25 francs per person. But hey, if that’s the only negative, I’ll take it.

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Although my time in Lucerne had come to an end, I still had a few more days in Switzerland. I made my way to Zürich where I awaited the arrival of my mini-me, mama Pilgrim. I was on the final week of my trip, and I was going to have a travel buddy for the last seven days. Excited? I think yes.

P.S. My expensive jar of peanut butter (which I had labeled with my name) was stolen the very next day, and I am still bitter about it.

Aggies in Heidelberg

After nearly two weeks in Austria, my next stop was Heidelberg, Germany. I was excited about this leg of the trip particularly because I got to meet up with Rebekah, a friend from college who is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree at the University of Mannheim. Rebekah suggested we meet in Heidelberg for the day to catch up and explore the city, and I have to say, it was so nice to see a familiar face abroad.

Situated on the Neckar River, Heidelberg is located in southwest Germany and is home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. The city also hosts various events and festivals throughout the year, including the world famous Christmas market. I found the city quite adorable and unique unlike any place I have visited so far, and I knew right away that I was going to enjoy my stay.

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After meeting Rebekah at the tram stop, she started to give me a tour of the city. Originally from Germany, Rebekah is fluent in the language and had already been to Heidelberg a couple of times so she was basically my tour guide and translator since the only German I know is “danke” and “gesundheit,” and that didn’t get me very far. As we started walking around, she was quick to inform me that Heidelberg is well known for its Christmas market that takes place in five separate locations throughout the city. There was even a year-round Christmas store that sold every ornament and decoration you could possibly imagine. It was wonderful, and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful Heidelberg would be during Christmastime. The town was already unique in its own right, with various shops and bakeries that lined the streets. From a store full of gummy bears and a chocolate shop complete with giant chocolate bunnies, to a bakery that only sold pretzel breads and croissants, I was extremely happy to be in the town of Heidelberg, and I also had a sugar rush for most of the time I was there.

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In Germany, TJ Maxx is known as TK Maxx. Weird, right?

One of the first things we did while in the city was walk up to Heidelberg Castle which was no easy feat as it was situated on top of a very steep hill. The castle’s silhouette could be seen from many parts of the town, and added to Heidelberg’s character. The famous German ruin was demolished hundreds of years ago, and although it has only been partially rebuilt, the structure was still magnificent and had an excellent view of Heidelberg. Once home to residents such as Frederick V and Elizabeth Charlotte, it was fascinating to walk around the ruins and picture what the castle used to look like. We walked around the gardens, stepped out on to the edge of the hill as we overlooked over the city, and saw a water fountain of Neptune that caused many tourists to mimic the pose…can you blame them? It’s not like you see a fountain like that very often.

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Neptune acting all casual on a rock with his water jug.

While at the castle, Rebekah was explaining to me that it was also home to the world’s largest wine barrel, so naturally, I was very excited to see it. We walked in and right in front of us was a huge barrel. We were impressed, so we took some pictures and moved on. That was until we realized that although it was a large barrel, it wasn’t the largest. As we walked into the next room, we were face to face with the REAL world’s largest barrel and oh my goodness. It took up the whole room. We were both amazed and couldn’t help but think how much wine it could store. What a party that would be!

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The first giant barrel we saw.

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The actual world’s largest barrel

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You can see it to scale with the random person standing in front of it. Talk about a party.

After exploring the castle and trying to figure out how many grapes it took to fill the gigantic wine barrel, we made our way back to town for lunch. Rebekah recommended we try a specific restaurant where we both ordered a Döner, a Turkish kebab complete with sliced meat, lettuce, tomato, and a yogurt sauce that is all stuffed into a pita pocket. It was very good…so good in fact that I never even had the chance to take a picture of it because I ate it that fast. Oops. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

To work off our meat extravaganza we had just indulged in, we hiked up the Philosophers Path (Philosophenweg). Apparently it was named by philosophers and professors of Heidelberg University who often walked the path. The trail led us up a steep set of steps as we made our way up the hill, only to be greeted by a panoramic view of Heidelberg and the Neckar River. It was a beautiful sight and there was even a cherry blossom beginning to bloom, a sign that spring is near. It was quiet and peaceful, and it was a fantastic way to see Heidelberg as a whole, with the majestic castle jutting out into the skyline.

 

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A view overlooking Heidelberg, with the castle in the left corner.

As we got back to town, we stopped at a café for coffee and dessert where I was for some reason compelled to get a gigantic ice cream sundae. I don’t regret the decision at all. It had been a few years since Rebekah and I had seen each other, so it was nice to talk and catch up.

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The end of the day was nearing, and Rebekah made her way to the tram stop so that she could get back to Mannheim. After traveling solo for six weeks, it was so nice to see someone that I recognized, and it was even nicer to be reunited with a fellow Aggie. Not only is Rebekah in the process of completing her senior thesis this semester, but she is also getting married this summer (YAY!) so she has been busy wedding planning as well. The fact that she took time out of her busy schedule to show a Texan around Heidelberg meant a lot, so thank you, Rebekah.

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My trip to Germany was short, but it sure was eventful. It was my sixth country to visit on this trip, with just two more to go. Whether I liked it or not, my two-month adventure was nearing the end, giving me all the more reason to do and see as much as I could in the next couple of weeks. The next stop? Switzerland.

NOTE: I arrived home safely this past weekend! However, I am a little behind on my blog posts (slacker, I know). I will continue to write about each place I visited, it will just be a bit delayed.

Also, I have been reunited with my cat so that is pretty great.

 

Skiing the slopes of Innsbruck

While on this trip, I knew at some point that I wanted to go skiing. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know where, but I figured since I was going to be in parts of Europe that are well-known for their slopes, I knew I should take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Innsbruck, Austria was just a few hours away from my previous destination, Salzburg, and it is a city surrounded by many ski resorts. In fact, Innsbruck has been a host of the Winter Olympics…twice. So I made my way to the winter sports hub, excited that I would get to ski the mountains of Austria.

I arrived in Innsbruck on a dreary evening, full of fog and rain–prohibiting me to see much of the city the first night I was there. The next morning, I anxiously opened the curtains in my room to see what the weather was like. Overnight it had snowed–hard. The ground was covered in a layer of white powder. To my surprise, I stepped out of the hostel and was greeted by a 360-degree view of snowcapped mountains, something I had been unable to see the previous evening. It was amazing, and I was thrilled that the weather had turned for the better. For my first full day in Innsbruck I toured the town. It was a bustling area full of tourists, skiers, and locals. The city was fabulous and the snowfall made it even more majestic.

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Innsbruck’s most popular landmark: Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof). It was built in the 1500s to represent the day Emperor Maximilian married his wife.

I then ventured over to Schloss Ambras, located on a hill overlooking Innsbruck. The Renaissance palace was the residence of Archduke Ferdinand II who happened to be quite the art collector. He built a museum on the premises specifically to store his famous collections. Because of this, the castle is the oldest museum in the world. With everything from full-length portraits to scientific items and armouries, it was filled with a wide variety of collections. My absolute favorite thing about the castle, however, was the inner courtyard. The space was covered with original frescoes, made to look as though they were three-dimensional. I was amazed as to how much detail went into decorating the walls.

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A view of Innsbruck from Schloss Ambras

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The inner courtyard

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The next day, it was finally time to ski. It had been about five years since I’d last been skiing, so I had no idea how it was going to go. Would my long, flimsy legs even know what to do when on a pair of wood planks? Who knows. When I was younger, my family and I would go skiing nearly every year. It is one of my dad’s favorite hobbies so I think he was hoping that we would like the sport as much as he did. And I did…at first. As a kid I was very daring. When I went skiing, I would dart through the slopes, trying to go as fast as I could. At the time I was not afraid of heights, so instead of doing strategic maneuvers down the mountain and zig-zagging back and forth like you are supposed to, I would just zoom down the slope in one vertical line. But now it’s a whole different story. I am a bit more cautious compared to my younger years, but I figured that if I could ski in elementary school, I could for sure do it now, right? Last famous words.

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Fearless Cara in her prime. Can you tell it was the 90s?

I decided to give it a shot at the Kühtai ski resort, about 45 minutes from Innsbruck. I was excited to finally put my ski pants to use after lugging them around in my pack for five weeks. I woke up bright and early that morning, rented some skis, hopped on the shuttle and made my way to the slopes. Sitting behind me were three guys from New Hampshire who were avid skiers. They were talking about all the fancy jumps and tricks they could do, and I was just hoping I would be able to get my skis on the right feet. After a long bus ride through the winding mountains, it was so nice to finally arrive in Kühtai and breathe fresh air.

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I decided that before I take on the larger slopes, I better see how much my body remembers the sport, so I took the lift up to the kiddy hill: the one they use to teach beginners. It was on this very ski lift–the first one I had been on in years–that I was somehow put in charge of a child. Let me explain. I got in line for the ski lift right behind a ski school class, complete with two instructors and around 10 kids. Each child had to ride the lift with an adult, so I was asked if I would let one ride with me. I obliged and they sent a kid my way who looked to be six or seven…and he only spoke French. Long story short, he was scared to get on the lift and scared to get off, and he didn’t understand a word I was saying so trying to talk him through it didn’t help with the situation. The employees had to stop the lift twice because of us. Needless to say I was never asked to oversee a kid on the ski lift for the rest of the day.

After getting my bearings straight on the beginner slope and not having to watch over any novice skiers other than myself, I was feeling pretty confident and decided to try one of more difficulty (only by a little). I got on the lift and suddenly heard “Texas!” The New Hampshire trio had hopped on the lift right behind me. Once arriving to the top of the slope, I casually waited so that they could get ahead of me so I wouldn’t get in their way. They sped down the mountain as I started slowly zig-zagging back and forth. It was awful. I had terrible form, I couldn’t keep my skis parallel, and everyone was probably wondering what a giraffe was doing on skis. Halfway down the slope, I once again heard, “Texas!” The three guys were already back on the lift to do the route again. That’s how slow I was, people. Finally, by the end of the run, I slowly started getting the hang of things. Although I still had an awkward form, it was slightly improving. A man on the slopes even stopped to give me pointers which helped surprisingly well. After each route I did, the better I became, and I was starting to enjoy myself. The sky was clear, the sun was out, and a heavy bout of snow from the previous night made for fresh powder on the slopes. I am nowhere near to being a good skier, but I didn’t care. Every time I got off the lift I was just looking forward to skiing through the Alps of Austria. The views were incredible, and the air was so clean and fresh. I didn’t fall once, but to be fair, I don’t think I ever skied fast enough to have the chance to fall. Let’s just say I am not the next Lindsey Vonn.

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I was greeted by this smiling cappuccino at the top of the mountain so that was pretty great.

After a full day of skiing, I got on the shuttle bus and headed back to town. Once again, the New Hampshire guys were telling me all about their awesome tricks and I was just like, “I didn’t fall!” It was a fun experience, and I still cannot get over how beautiful it was to ski in Innsbruck. After having been in Austria for a week and a half, it allowed me to see a whole other side of the country I had yet to witness.

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Once I arrived back to town, I slowly made the two mile walk back to my hostel. I felt proud and accomplished after an eventful day, although one day of skiing was all I needed. Exhausted, I fell asleep right when my head hit the pillow. I had another early wake up call ahead so that I could make my way to the next country on my itinerary: Germany.