A visit to Machu Picchu seems to be on everyone’s bucketlist, as it should be. The ruins incredibly sacred, scenic, and unlike any other in the world. It’s nestled high in the mountains amongst the Andes glacier topped mountains and low valley jungles. Whether you decide to do a trek in or a hike once you are there, here are some basic thoughts for planning your trip:
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
Purchase your entrance tickets at least 1 month in advance, 3 months if you want to hike Huayna Picchu during the high season. You can purchase them here for the best rate. (use Google translate if needed)
Purchase your entrance tickets for a 6AM start so you can be among the first into the site.
Purchase your BUS tickets for the ride up the night before your visit so that you can get in line at 4:30 AM the day of and be ready to go.
Don’t hike up from Auguas Calientes! (unless you really want to) It is a very steep trail with BIG steps up and traverses the same path the bus takes (so you don’t get any different perspective) Even the most fit people in our group got to the top very out of breath and sweating.
DO get a mountain hike ticket! This ticket gets you 1 re-entrance (the normal MP ticket does not allow for re-entry so if you get hungry or need to pee… you’re outta luck)
Dress in layers. It is COLD in the morning but gets very hot during the day. Dress accordingly.
Pack a snack. As previously stated, there’s no re-entry unless you have a mountain ticket.
We were up at 4 and heading out of our hostel with our guide and group by 4:30 to the bus stop. We got bagged lunches/breakfast from the tour company as our last remaining meal provided by them. By the time we got there (about 4:40) the line was already formed and we were maybe 1-2 bus loads from the front of the line… By 5 AM I’d say the end was 10 bus loads back.
We were stationed right outside some convenience shops which did open their doors early for the queue of people. We sat on the curb in our line spot, some of us cracking into our bag of snacks for some breakfast. Around 5:30 the bus officials came by to inspect both our bus tickets and entrance tickets against our passport. (Make sure you book your tickets under the same name) and by 5:40 the buses were rolling up to start moving people up the mountain.
There were at least 10 buses in droves and we were quickly shepherded onto the bus with our group. The ride lasted about 20 minutes and the first half was pretty dark, but twilight illuminated the views for the 2nd half. At the top we got in line to wait the 5 minutes or so we still had before they opened the gates, and our fellows who hiked up met us in front of the line.
We shuffled in showing our tickets a second time and were among the first people into the site so we immediately headed up to the terraces to get the best view. We took a couple shots of the group in a couple good locations before settling at the top of the terraces with our guide to learn some history.
Most of what we were told were things we actually learned from either the Sacred Valley tour or the day before at Llactapata and it lasted about an hour. I wish we had walked among the ruins for our tour but that is a 1 way journey… so unless you have a re-entry ticket, you don’t want to walk around down there until you are ready to leave.
Crowds moving in to watch the sunrise
It WAS one beautiful sunrise- definitely worth the early morning
Around 7AM we said goodbye to our guide and snapped a few more photos of llamas enjoying all the vantage points we could of the terraces before heading up for our hike to Machu Picchu Mountain.
So many llamas
Machu Picchu Mountain
Now onto the hike which was challenging. I’d say it probably is less so when it isn’t on the heels of a 4 day trek, but it is steep and long. About double the height of Huayna Picchu, this trail takes around 1.5-2 hours to climb at a moderate pace. Expect it will take 3 hours round trip. We checked in at the gate to the start of the trail, showing our tickets once again and signing a registrar. As this trail was really more stairs than anything else, we decided to hike at our own pace and do our own thing for it. (my hiking partner got up to the top in probably an hour or so while it took me 1.5)
I’d say I’ve never seen so many stairs in my life (but that would be a lie after hiking around Mt. Huangshan in China)
How the majority of the climb looks
There are pretty spectacular views as you go. Pictured above is the ridge we climbed over the day before with Llactapata hidden in the clouds and the Llatapata resort seen in that cleared space just below the middle of the picture.
The best part is every couple of flights you get another astounding view down on Machu Picchu. Once you get close to the summit, it takes you around the back which doesn’t mean less stairs, but it does give you a bit of a break on steepness, and makes cresting out on top that much more spectacular
First view of the summit from the stairs
Looking down on the river bend we walked the day before
Awesome views of Machu Picchi and Huayna Picchu
Above the ridge line from the previous days climb but still a little ways to go
The trail has frequent drop offs… Keep that in mind if planning to do this hike and don’t have the head for heights
Finally on top!
On top the view down to Machu Picchu is amazing, but the best part really is being above the clouds and at the top of the world. Across nearby ridges you can see the top of Salkantay Mountain poking it’s head up (amazing to think we started our trek on the far side of that mountain) and the ridge we climbed to visit Llactapata. The entire bend of the river is laid out and it is so much easier to see just how nestled among mountains the Incas built their temple. It certainly provides a post card view from the top.
There’s a lovely little hut for getting out of the sun and a summit sign to pose with. I spent about 20 minutes trying to de-sweatify, taking in the views, and sharing the largest avocado I’ve ever seen with generous fellow hikers. After about 20 minutes, my friend and I headed down hoping to have plenty of time to check out other parts of the site. It took about an hour to get down (making it well and truly 3 hours RT for me. I am perfectly average on the hiking scale! Woohoo!)
The top of Salkantay Mountain! We started our trek on the far side of that mountain!
The trail down with steep drop offs
Once we got down from the hike, we were shocked by the loads of people meandering around so after a quick break in the sun, we decided to head out through the ruins where you guessed it, even more people milled about!
There were loads of guides with 15+ people groups randomly stopping to point things out in narrow corridors. It. Was. Stressful. And in the end we mostly just wanted to get out of there instead of being able to enjoy the peace and tranquility of what should be exploring stunning architecture and ruins.
My advice for dealing with the crowds
In a perfect world, I’d take 2 days to see MP- 1 day to get up early and get there first things so I can then explore the ruins on my own at 6:30 AM (most people don’t head down there as it is 1 way to the exit) maybe even climb Huayna Picchu since you get to walk through the ruins on the way to that mountain. And then I’d plan a second day to climb MP mountain.
I have heard that if you don’t need to catch a train that day, the place empties out a lot an hour or 2 before close so you might also be able to have some peace then if you use you MP mountain re-entry.
So. many. people
It was cool to explore the ruins themselves. It would’ve been nice to have a personal guide walking around pointing out specific structural intricacies that we may not have learned on previous tours.
Magic floating building. The Incas were magicians.
My last glimpse of the mountain as we exited the site.
The exit is definitely a la Disneyland. There was a long line for the bus (took about 30 minutes), it was hot, and people routinely tried to cut in line. Again you had to have your ticket and passport out for inspection before getting on as well. The bus ride itself was much more scenic this time since it wasn’t as dark and Aguas Calientes is a fun town to explore in the afternoon.
Grilled Alpaca, quinoa, and my signature banana milk shake for lunch
Once you’re finished with your Machu Picchu adventure, pick a spot for lunch, enjoy the street performers that seem to be everywhere, and wander the charming streets of Aguas Calientes.
Bonus: If you do a trek into Machu Picchu, then you get to experience the train back to Ollantaytambo/ Cusco for your first time and it is MAGICAL.
All in all- a Salkantay trek is an incredible trekking experience and Machu Picchu the most awesome finale! I will do a summary post on all 5 days of our trek soon but for now, I hope the Salkantay Trek has earned it’s spot on every reader’s bucket list.
Machu Picchu Day Costs:
Breakfast: Included in Salkantay Trek Tour Return bus ticket from Agua Calientes to MP: $25 Machu Picchu entrance + MP mountain $40 Guide in MP (included in Salkantay Trek tour which was $405) Lunch in Agua Calientes at Munaycha $17 Gelato in town: $3.75 Snacks and water purchased from shops: $13.50 Taxi to hotel from tour office in Cusco $13- $3.25 pp Hotel near Cusco airport (with included airport shuttle): $57- 14.25pp
The Qorikancha The Inka Musum The Plaza De Armas cathedrals The Saqsaywaman ruins
Cusco is a very walk-able city making the museums and nearby ruins easy to see on your own without a tour.
The Inka Museum
We hit the Inka Museum on an easy afternoon. I’d read it was a little let downish but if you appreciate history and pottery, I think you will enjoy it. We breezed through most of it- reading what captions they did have in English. I loved learning about the different regions the Inkas lived in, the types of food they ate in each location, and the interesting pottery they made.
The best part however was definitely the mummies. After visiting the Sacred Valley the day before and seeing some of the alcoves mummies were worshiped in, and learning about how cared for the mummies were, it was fascinating to actually see some!
*Like the cathedrals, the museum was a no photo zone so all I got was the one photo at the entrance! At only $3 it’s a quick (at your pace) interesting stop.
The museum is an easy walk from the Plaza de Armas. (no taxi needed)
Inca Museum General Information:
Cost: 10s ($3)
The Koricancha as seen from the solar garden (by the street)
After the Inka Museum, we headed to the Temple of the Sun- the Koricancha – which was my favorite building in Cusco. It’s a nice walk from the Plaza de Armas or Inca Museum so again no taxi needed. The cathedral next to it is free to visit, but as the Koricancha is a museum, it cost $3 to visit. Luckily most of this building was photographable because it was SO cool.
About the Qorikancha
Originally, this building was dedicated to the highest of Inca dieties: the Inti or Sun and was built with the highest level of stone masonry the Incas used- interlocking boulders free of any imperfections and fitted together with no mortar. They also built the layout in a way to resemble what they were worshiping- with the temple having sunrays that moved out from a central point. The temple housed mummies and so much gold that the name of the building still reflects it, Qori = worked gold and kancha = enclosed or building. While none of the gold remains and barely any of the walls, the foundations still stand the test of time.
The Spanish built the Convent of Santo Domingo directly on top of it encompassing the walls of the temple and building a cathedral adjacent to it. It was pretty insane to walk into what looks like a convent on the outside and see the inner courtyard to match, then look to the side and see Inca walls and ceremonial rooms. You can walk around the rooms and go out on the stone balconies to look down at the Solar garden. Some of the convent rooms house more artifacts and pottery, and some of the stone walls still show the etched designs from the Inca times.
An example of the “lego” stone pieces that were used for building the Temple of the Sun.
Another view of all inner courtyard for this massive convent
The Temple of the sun on the inside of the convent
Looking out one of the balconies at the solar garden
The inner courtyard from the 2nd floor
Continuing upstairs is really cool as this is one of the few cathedrals from where you can gain access to the choir balcony (though again no photos are allowed as it is part of the cathedral) Once I explored the convent and ruins, I visited the cathedral and then met up with my friends outside so we could walk back.
Awesome views of the Cusco hillside from the 2nd floor of the Convent
Qorikancha General Information:
Monday-Saturday 8:30AM – 5:30 PM
Sunday: 12:00 PM-5:00 PM
Adult Price: 15s ($4.5)
Child Price: 5s ($1.50)
Church of Santo Domingo Hours
Monday- Saturday: 7AM-7:30 PM
Sunday: 7AM-11AM and 6PM to 8:30PM
Mass: 7AM, 6:30PM, 7:30PM (Sunday only) no tourists allowed at these times
A little bit of a walk back to the Plaza but a cool one nonetheless.
More beautiful lighting on the plaza at sunset from our terrace in the airbnb.
Plaza De Armas
Like most cities constructed by the Spanish conquistadors, Cusco has a plaza de armas. The design is in military style where there is a square often surrounded by important buildings like churches or governmental works. The name is derived from the fact that this square would be a refuge where arms would be supplied to defenders in case of an attack.
In Cusco, the Plaza de Armas has 2 massive cathedrals adjacent to it- both are very cool to check it. The cathedral pictured above- Iglesia De La Compañia De Jesús is free and easy to visit. Just be sure not to take photos inside or interrupt during a mass.
The second church is the Cathedral of Cusco. It costs 10s/$3 to enter but has really stunning architecture and artwork within. (Specifically a painting of the last supper in which Cuy is the main event) The history of this cathedral is what really sets it apart. It shows a prime example of the Spanish dominating the Inkan culture by being built on the spot of the old ruler’s palace and being constructed of stones stolen from the Sascayhuaman temple.
Sacsayhuamán is a massive Incan complex high above Cusco. It’s main plaza was capable of holding 1000s of people and was the length of at least 3 football fields. While the structure was not intentially built as a fortress- it’s elevated ground, immense walls, and overall size made it essential to the defense and control of Cusco. Once the Spaniards had gained control of the temple, they began tearing it down to use the stones for their buildings in the city. While we unfortunately didn’t get to explore it due to time- we drove by it on various tours and I was definitely impressed with its size.
Sacsayhuamán Practical Information:
How to get there: You can follow a walking trail from the Plaza de Armas uphill for 45 minutes. This will take you through the beautiful San Blas neighborhood and is not a bad option. You could arrange a city tour where they provide the transportation. Or you can hire a taxi for the 10 minute drive there (this would cost ~$10)
Hours: Open 6AM-7PM
Cost: Included in the Tourist ticket 70-130 soles.
* Sacsayhuamán does not have its own private ticket. You must purchase a Cusco Tourist ticket which ranges from 70-130s ($21-$40) and includes entrance to multiple other archaeological sites and museums.
There you have it. The best sites to see within walking distance of Cusco city center without a tour. See also my post for my complete guide to Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Pin me:
While our first 2 days in Cusco were enjoyable, this day really BROUGHT it. It was one of the first tours I landed upon when searching things to do in Cusco for a half day and for only $65 riding, it really intrigued me. So far the only other country I’ve ridden in was Iceland, so I was definitely interested to see what tours were like in other countries. Luckily my friends were also game for a little riding adventure so we booked it, made sure to wear pants, loaded up on sunscreen, and got ready for out tour.
We did NOT know what we were getting into, in the best way possible. This was hands down the BEST riding tour I could imagine, and possibly one of the best tours I’ve ever taken.
About our tour
We were picked up at a hotel near our Airbnb (easier to coordinate) by a private taxi driver at 9AM who drove us 15 minutes up past the San Blas neighborhood and Sacsayhuaman ruins to a small farm where the horses were already tacked and ready to go.
There we met another couple slated for our time slot making our group once again- 6. (the magic number of Peru groups apparently)
The ONLY con of this tour was there were not bathrooms at the ranch. Meaning those who had too much coffee to drink had to head for the bushes before we started. (for once I wasn’t among that group) We fitted our riding helmets which the guides were very explicit that we had to use, and then met the horses.
Out of our group, I was the 2nd most experienced rider, though there were 3 of us that had decent experience. Then there were 3 total beginners. Our guide, Holgar matched us to our horses. I was matched with a horse named Seos (who wouldn’t spook at my camera being slung around my side). We got a very brief safety/ riding demonstration before we were all helped to mount our horses.
Holgar getting ready to mount his horse for the “riding demonstration”
The ride started off following the road past the ranch just a little ways before skirting off up a decently steep hill through beautiful woodlands. We spent the next hour or so going up and down hills, passing lush farming fields, and with incredible views of Cusco city below. We mostly rode in order of the horse’s preference so I got lucky to go in 3rd and could hear the guide the whole time.
The entirety of Cusco laid out beyond the hill
Holgar pointed out a field that was growing the grain they use for their local beer, and also spotted 2 big Condors just getting ready to take flight! Half way to our first destination he started introducing a little bit of trotting in short bursts and would check how everyone was doing. I found it a blast to trot and even canter at times through the trees and hillside. (My horse really wanted to MOVE, every time a spot opened up where he could go faster to catch up, he broke right into a nice canter) So beyond the scenery, the riding experience in and of itself was the BEST.
The Devil’s Balcony/Temple of the Rainbow
We eventually got to our first stop where we dismounted and had a short walk along an “original Inca trail” (you’ll hear that a LOT from guides around Cusco) and this trail had one of their irrigation trenches as well. When we got to a hill overlooking a lush valley with a river flowing through we split up into 2 groups to visit the Devil’s Balcony.
We kept our helmets on to protect our noggins from bumps when climbing down the rocks and came to a small natural little cave with a balcony overlooking the river. It was so tucked away and hidden, you’d never know it was there unless a guide or local showed you!
We then returned to the overlook while the other 3 people checked it out before heading down to the river to peer into the lower cave/ tunnel where the water flowed through. I would’ve loved to trek back into the cave but I have a feeling it would’ve gotten our feet wet and Holgar wasn’t keen on guiding us down there. We did however learn a bit more about how this site was a “Temple to the rainbow” either from the culture pre-Inca or the Incans themselves. You could see some hints at foundations around and it would make sense they would make use of the cave and natural balcony.
Climbing down through the rocks to visit the balcony
The balcony overlooking the river as it flowed out of the center of the rock
Temple of the Rainbow
The big cave is in the lower left and the balcony the upper right- almost around where the bushes are.
Once we walked back to the horses, we were given our bagged snacks and water bottles which was perfectly timed after the walk. The snacks included some cookies, an orange, crackers, and a few hard candies. We had about 15 minutes to eat/drink and enjoy the view from our sitting spot where they even laid out the saddle cushions in a row for us to sit on. SUCH SERVICE.
The view in the other direction from our snack break. The devils balcony is over (out of frame) to the right.
Remounting our horses
We remounted our horses and headed back the way we came
Eventually we came to our 2nd/ last stop: the Temple of the Moon (another spot above Cusco) where we dismounted and walked around learning about it’s initial discovery and the different purposes of the rooms. Holgar pointed to one cave opening where they just recently discovered a mummy !
Visiting the Temple of the Moon
I will note here that while the devil’s balcony is quite out of the way and more difficult to get directions to, the Temple of the Moon is an “easy” hike from Cusco. The path actually follows the Inca highway to Antisuyo leaving from the Plaza de Armas and rising up through San Blas, passing Sacsayhuaman, crossing the Avenida Circunvalación and eventually flattening out. The site is free to visit and is frequented by locals who visit for exercise and spirituality. So if you aren’t a horse back rider, don’t care to find another sort of tour to visit, and would like to make the trek yourself- it IS an option. (Pair it with a visit to Sacsayhuaman which is a must see in Cusco)
After walking around and learning a bit more about the Temple of the Moon, we remounted and had a short but FAST ride back to the ranch. (lots more cantering)
Back at the ranch we were reunited with jackets and backpacks and said goodbye to our sweet horses. The same taxi driver as before drove us back into town and dropped us off in the main square so we could find lunch and continue our city exploring right around 1.
AMAZING tour and even better value. If you’ve ever wanted to do a riding tour and find yourself in Cusco- even if only for a day- I recommend this. It was quite literally- my favorite thing we did and saw in our first 3 days.
I literally can’t read Cusco without singing it in my head exactly as it is sung in the Emperor’s New Groove. ( In fact I quoted/ sung a lot of parts from that movie throughout this trip) Cusco is hands down and incredibly beautiful, historic city. This city has ANGLES. Everywhere you turn there are either idyllic cobblestone alleyways, ancient palace ruins, cathedrals, and rolling hills that in the words of Pacha, “the hills just sing.”
Top things to do around Cusco
1. Check out my city guide here for all the walk-able, no tour needed sites.
2. Take a horseback riding tour. I’ve done several riding tours in 4 different countries now and nothing holds a candle to this tour.
3. Branch out to see the Sacred Valley of the Incas. There are so many archeological sites around, if you’re on a time crunch, best book a tour to see them all.
4. Visit the salt mines.
5. Hike to the Rainbow Mountain
Where to stay in Cusco
My top pick: Airbnb apartment $33/night
This is where I stayed with 3 friends for 3 nights in Cusco. It had a kitchen, living room/dining area, 2 bedrooms, private bathroom, washing machine and drying area, and best of all- views of the Plaza de Armas from the covered terrace. It’s also a super easy walk to all the historical sites in the city, great restaurants, and perfect for walking around at night in a safe area.
Rooftop view from our airbnb
Other great options include:
*Keep in mind that while some of these places have incredible views- it also means you’ll have to hike up them hills at the end of the day sight seeing.
Another rooftop view from our airbnb terrace
Plaza de Armas- a 5 minute walk from our airbnb
Where to eat in Cusco
Ceviche- located right on the Plaza de Armas. Excellent seafood, excellent pasta (if you aren’t into seafood), best dining service we had, and a really clean restaurant with reasonable prices.
Pachapapa- located a 5-10 min walk from the Plaza de Armas, this restaurant was recommended to us by our trekking guide. It had very good food and a very romantic atmosphere. You might want to make a reservation here if you want to sit out under the heaters and twinkle lights on the patio. Otherwise inside is very nice too.
Kusikuy Resaurante- Another easy 5 minute walk (and 1 minute walk from that airbnb) this restaurant had amazing fruit juices and the cheapest price for Cuy that we saw and was fairly good. So if you are wanting to try Cuy on your trip- this would be the recommended place.
A Note on Cuy
After learning about the traditions of eating guinea pigs, something they have done in the Andes for over 5,000 years, I wasn’t as shocked as I thought I would be. I was glad I didn’t order it- I just sampled some, but understanding that it is something they have eaten for so long, eat at celebrations like Christmas and the like, made it easier for me to compartmentalize and not condone a culture that is not my own. Yes I’ve had guinea pigs as pets, and NO if I’d held one earlier in the day, I’d likely not have been able to eat one. BUT that being said- if you can try it, I recommend you do. It was quite the cultural experience.
** Also it’s so ingrained in the culture, the cathedrals in Peru literally placed Cuy as the main dish in the Last Supper paintings. Not kidding –
Other popular foods at restaurants- grilled alpaca and creamed quinoa
You’ll have no trouble working off those meals in hilly Cusco and at least in the historical center- it was very safe to walk around in the evening.
A Note on Altitude Sickness
Everyone reacts to high altitude differently- you can be in seriously amazing shape and suffer from it- or (such as myself) in decent hiking shape and still experience it. From experience I know that I can breathe fine at 11,000+ feet and don’t really feel nausea, but can experience headaches…
and headaches it was. Cusco sits right around 11,000 feet and can be challenging to fly into because of the extreme change from lower altitude to high. I did try to drink water (which I’m normally terrible at when travelling) and also tried the tea but neither of those things really helped with my headaches. Sadly advil/ ibuprofen only dulled the ache without ever really getting rid of it.
With all that being said- unless you are taking Diamox (high altitude sickness medicine) you really SHOULD plan a few days to chill/ explore Cusco BEFORE your treks – JUST IN CASE to acclimate. It definitely would’ve sucked having to hike with my head feeling ready to explode- especially considering our first camp on our trek was around 12000 feet. The other unexpected part of altitude sickness was inability to sleep. So moral of the story: plan a couple days pre-trek or take Diamox if you don’t have enough a long enough trip to acclimate.
3 days in Cusco costs
Taxi from Airport to Airbnb $22 split 4 ways- $5.50 pp
Whether you have an extended stay in Puerto Rico, or less than a day from a cruise stop over, here’s my walkable itinerary for seeing the best of San Juan.Puerto Rico in one day! Experience history, art, shopping, and admire tons of cool city architecture.
The San Juan Port in the historic area. Grab some bottles of water from the shops around the port as you’ll head up the hill on Calle Marina street to Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New world.
Distance ~0.5 miles
Along the way you’ll pass some squares with little shop tents if you’re a fan of the blown glass, one of the tents that is along the way makes little blown glass animals right there for figurines or jewelry. You’ll also see lots of brightly colored buildings and as you finish the uphill trek, you get an awesome view of the port looking down on the big ships docked there.
Peak down all the colorful alleyways as you trek up the short hill
Vising Castillo San Cristobal
Hours: 9:00-6:00 PM everyday
Cost: (16+): $7.00
*If you have a National Parks Pass, you can get 4 adults entry for free.
This fort as mentioned is the largest Spanish fort in the Americas, spanning 27 acres. It took 150 years to build with construction beginning in 1634. It covers the Eastern gate of San Juan Island and its walls extend in either direction of the coast. There are 3 levels to explore: cannon embrasures, sentry boxes, tunnels to explore, and exhibits to learn about the former military quarters. All in all, it’s a great stop and won’t take longer than an hour for self-guided tours.
**You can also get married here.. *swoon*
After San Cristobal, follow the sea coast along Calle Norzagaray where you can explore old parts of the wall that made up San Cristobal’s defenses with multiple garitas (guard towers) and historical markers. Learn about the La Perla area of San Juan where another fort used to be as you make your way to Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Here walk across the great lawn taking in all the kite flyers and the size of this incredible fort perched on the bay.
Distance ~ 1 mile
Vising Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Hours: 9:00-6:00 PM everyday
Cost: (16+): $7.00
*If you have a National Parks Pass, you can get 4 adults entry for free.
If you have to choose between visiting the 2 forts, this would be the one to go with. While overall containing less “acres” than San Cristobal, this fort has 6 levels and unparallel’d views of the bay and San Juan Isle. While San Cristobal was built to defend against land invasions primarily, this fort was built to defend the bay. And defend it did as there is only one instance where the fort was penetrated by enemy invaders making it the most successful of all the Spanish forts built at that time. Construction began in the 1500s when the battery and tower were built to protect the harbor. In 1632, the governor of San Juan began construction on San Cristobal and the city walls. It was also the center of Spanish life at the time so the structures contained within the fort have a lot more complexity making the tour a bit more interesting.
After a visit to the fort, walk down the stairs on the right/ East side to the start of multiple trails. If you follow the same trail to the right/ East it will take you to the cemetery you pass as you approached the fort from the street. Heading left/ West the path wraps around the bottom of the fort and connects to the Paseo del Moro trail.
Views looking East along the Paseo del Moro trail
Paseo del Moro
This trail was my favorite part of San Juan. (shocker right.. I do love trails) It follows the old wall almost around the entire western side of Old San Juan with nothing else along the way besides the ocean and cats. The old wall has been wonderfully maintained dating all the way back to 1630! Between the wall and the ocean, it’s like walking into Pirates of the Caribbean scene. Along the trail you can also watch the big ships leave from port back to the open ocean easily catch wildlife (other than cats) out in the water. The area directly under the fort has multiple tide pools that can be peaked into, but be careful not to slip on the wet rocks or get soaked by a sneaky wave.
Watching a large ship sail out of San Juan Bay
The area which is maintained by the NPS like the forts, is also serving as a cat sanctuary with little cat boxes, food, and water to help the strays out. There were so many adorable cats, most of which won’t let you get too close but will play with a bit of string if you have some. (My dad led a cat by the string quite a ways down the path as it follow and continually pounced on it)
After following the trail a ways (approx. 0.75 miles) you’ll have two options to make you way back into town and then back to the port. The first option is to turn in at the Puerta De San Juan The Iconic red gate that served as the doorway for dignitaries and bishops to enter into San Juan back when there were only 5 gates into the city.
Or another 5 minutes down the path, the trail ends at a beautiful fountain on the Paseo de la Princesa which is lined with shops, galleries, and also includes for those of you who skipped out on bathrooms at the forts, a public toilet.
Watching a cruise ship sail past the old San Juan walls out into open ocean
Both gates are great options and worth seeing if you have to backtrack as the path between the two has beautiful trees overhanging the path and the fountain is really cool. The old gate takes you down Caleta de San Juan straight to the San Juan Bautista Cathedral. From either location, make sure to head over to Fortaleza street to see the fun umbrella covered walkway and explore more little shops and restaurants. And from there with whatever time you have remaining, head back to your hotel or cruise ship.
Distance ~ 0.75 miles depending on the road you take
Walking Distance for entire loop ~ 3 miles/ 5 km
Colorful buildings of San Juan visible over the old wall
The Paseo del Moro is also a wonderful walk to do at sunset
Other Points of Interest around San Juan to check out in a day:
No trip to Beijing should be complete until you’ve viewed the immense Forbidden City from above- and the place to do that is at Jingshan Park. We happened to visit on day 9 of our trip… our last day, so we ended it as any busy trip should- with a lazy Sunday morning stroll through a park.
Possibly the best kept secret of Chinese tourism, I hadn’t even heard of this park until we arrived in Beijing and our Great Wall tour guide mentioned it to us. Luckily our hotel was an easy 5 minute walk from the East gate of the park which is right where you can find an entrance to the park.
View of the park hill from our hotel breakfast
It costs a couple of coins ( I suspect to keep beggars and homeless out) and is well worth the visit. We bought our tickets easily at the windows by the gate and headed in. The major draw of this park are the pavilions at the top of the hill, from which you have a sprawling expansive view of the Forbidden city. As we started our trek up a hill we passed a choir singing traditional music which we heard almost the rest of the way up.
At the top there were a few photographers setup with props you could pose with for a fee, and several others milling about but on this particular Sunday morning at 10, it wasn’t crowded at all. We snapped a few photos from the top pavilion where we got the best view of the Forbidden city in all its symmetrical and colorful glory. But it’s also to note how cool all the other directions are to see. You can see the temples to the North, West, and East, as well as city sky scrapers a little further out. It was peaceful up here among the small temples with views of ancient and modern combined in one.
View to the West with the city in the distance
Temples to the North of the park
But my favorite view is still of the Forbidden City
We headed down the hill to the West side of the park thinking we’d make a circle. At the bottom we passed a group of seniors perfecting the art of the Chinese yoyo, called a Diabolo which is a single or double string that the performer uses a stick in each hand to manipulate. The movement is like a dance and the performers were more graceful than I think I could ever be. The coolest part for me was the sound that comes from the Diabolo… the combination of sound and grace were mesmerizing and Braden had to practically drag me away from the group.
Luckily as we walked we passed another group of seniors dancing in a square with a boombox playing more traditional music and it seemed that no matter how far we walked, we were surrounded by music. The park has so many paths and gardens intertwining that you could wander it for hours, especially on a sleepy Sunday morning when families young and old wandered hand in hand.
As we continued back toward the East gate to exit where we entered, we passed a historic marker of memorial plaques and the tree planted on the spot where the Emperor Chongzhen hung himself rather than suffer the humiliation of surrendering to an insurrectional army in 1644. While a little grim it was interesting to read about and see a little known piece of history.
We spent about 2 hours wandering around before we headed back to our hotel to pack our bags and prepare for the long day of travel ahead of us.
It took almost an hour to get to the airport and was a struggle finding the right check in counter so I’m glad we had a relaxing peaceful morning before a long series of flights home.
That’s it! It was a wild ride but I hope my posts help you travel to China!
Day 9 costs: Breakfast included in hotel stay Jingshan Park entry: $0.58 Train to airport $8.16 Lunch at airport $19 Day 9 Total: $27.74
Total costs in country: $2,220 for 2 people
Overhead Costs: Plane tickets: $860 Visa Cost: $490 Dog Sitter: $120 Phone Bill: $100
Our day started on a train and similar to our last sleeper train experience, I was up at the crack of dawn unable to fall back asleep… starting what would be a fairly long day. Luckily we didn’t have to worry too much about organizing our trip as this day was our 2nd tour and was organized for us.
About the Tour:
I didn’t book this tour through a website or by happening upon someone’s page but instead was referred to the tour guide Lisa from a friend who had previously visited Beijing. The cost was the most affordable I saw comparing to online prices for a private tour and the biggest benefit was since we had a private car for the day, we didn’t have to worry about what to do with our luggage while we explored the city. While we didn’t get to meet Lisa personally (she had a family emergency) we did have a great tour with one of her associates. Our stops would be the Summer Palace and Forbidden City and would only end up taking about half a day. If you are wanting to book with Lisa, send me a message and I will give you her contact information.
Pickup: We arrived at the South Beijing Rail station right around 9AM and were met right outside our gate by our tour guide for the day. He had excellent English (the best we encountered on our whole trip) and seemed very knowledgeable as he lead us to the car park where we met our private driver who was also very nice. We hopped in and had about a 1 hour drive to the Summer Palace for our first stop. (Traffic was pretty rough)
Once at the Summer Palace, our guide stood in line and bought our tickets for us which was nice, and we headed in. We were unfortunately visiting on a Saturday so it was VERY busy.
The first couple of buildings we passed were beautiful but hard to admire around all the people. Our guide however made up for it by giving us interesting information on the symbology used in the ancient architecture, which would be helpful throughout the day. (ie. How to tell the difference between the female and male lions at the temple gates) He also explained Feng shui to us as both the Summer Palace and Forbidden City incorporate that into their design.
The giant cauldron of bronze was also used for fire safety measures which I found interesting.
Visiting the Summer Palace on your own:
1. By Subway: take line 4 and get off at Beigongmen and exist from D- it is a 3 min walk to the N palace gate.
2. Entrance fee to the park is cheaper but does not include going into any of the buildings. See pricing info and hours below:
As we walked around the giant complex that is the Summer Palace, it was interesting to learn how it was all designed and built for just the Emperor and the Empress.. and for only a few days out of the year.
The lake is completely man made and most of the soil makes up the hill on which the temple sits. Despite the crowds, as we moved around the lake, I started to really enjoy this place. It was just. so. Beautiful. And I found myself wishing we HADN’T taken a tour here so we could’ve spent more time hunting out the quite spaces to site and relax, or renting a boat to paddle around the water. But alas, we had one day to see the sites, so a tour was what we were left with.
The famous 17 arch bridge crossing a section of the lake
The History of the Summer Palace
It was originally built in 1750, by the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and was called “the Garden of Clear Ripples” In 1860, it was destroyed by the Anglo-French Allied Forces and rebuild in 1886. It was again destroyed in 1900 by the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers. In 1912, it was rebuilt as one of the final acts of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). In 1924, it was opened to the public as a tourist attraction and was made an official UNESCO site in 1998.
The layout of the Summer Palace follows the same format as the other imperial palaces in China with the front court buildings serving as the Emperor’s business and ceremonial spaces and the area towards the rear of the court being mostly gardens, relaxing spaces, and living quarters.
We left lakeside and headed for the world’s longest covered promenade: The Long Corridor. While the lake was beautiful, I can’t even begin to explain the beauty that is the long corridor. It stretches on for 2,388 feet/ 728 meters ALMOST HALF A MILE with 273 crossbeam sections. And if the sheer length and colors of this corridor don’t strike your fancy, the over 10,000 paintings of landscapes and folk lore that line the ceiling and side pillars definitely will.
While walking the corridor, you forget the crowds and for a moment, picture yourself an Empress walking a path only meant for you.
Beautiful colors along the ceiling covering every inch of wood
Unfortunately both my husband and our tour guide felt like marathoning this section so I didn’t get to spend nearly the amount of time I would’ve liked photographing it, but word to the wise, save your photos for the second half of the corridor. A LOT less people and quieter space for contemplation and photos.
A beautiful gate section about halfway along the corridor and about where the crowds thinned out.
Closeup of one of the thousands of paintings.
After the long corridor, the last truly spectacular architecture is the Marble Boat. The boat served as a sort of living room for the Empress alone to read and relax in. It was originally built on a base of stone with a wood structure in 1755 but was burned down in 1860. It was restored in 1893 in a new 2 story structure, still made out of wood, but this time painted to imitate marble throughout. Each floor also encompassed a large mirror that would reflect the water around it to further along the feeling of serenity.
After the Marble boat it is a pleasant walk back to the exit passing a few small parks and over some scenic bridges. Our private car and driver picked us up close to the exit and we had about an hour drive to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
There are only a few entrances to the square as you are required to go through security checkpoints to even enter but once you are in, the space is huge and is in fact the 7th largest city square in the world. The world Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace” as the square serves as a gate to the Forbidden City on the Northern side. One the other 4 sides are the Great Hall of the People, National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong who proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in that very square on October 1,1949. (Tip: Don’t visit Beijing on Oct 1 as our guide told us it is one of the few federal holidays, and the crowds that amass at Tiananmen square are huge, hotels sell out, and people sleep within the square.
There is a Monument to the People’s heroes erected in the square that we checked out before heading to the Forbidden City. There are huge tunnel underpasses to the city from the square and you have to cross from bridges to enter as well. The crowds were very thick here which made it a little miserable, but again… we were here on a Saturday.
The crowds were very thick here which made it a little miserable, but again… we were here on a Saturday. After yet another security checkpoint and our guide showing our tickets, we made into the inner city.
Feng shui is again another important part of the design of the Forbidden City. The moat, and a few small pools near the entrance make up the southern ‘water’ requirement. Then Jinshan hill to the north makes up the hill requirement. Additionally there are temples in each direction N,E,S,W.
The moat itself is 170 feet (52m) wide and 20 feet (6m) deep. (most of the earth excavated from the moat went towards building up Jinshan hill to the North) In addition to the moat, the city is completely walled in by a 22 ft wide wall that is 32 feet (10m) high. Quite the defenses which makes entering the city even more impressive.
Standing in front of the Hall Of Supreme Harmony (the most important building in the Forbidden City)
The first set of buildings (the outer court) our guider referred to as the “governing” buildings as important business and government officials were allowed into these buildings to conduct their business with the Emperor. These buildings also included the main ceremonial halls, the first being the one used for coronations that contained the golden Dragon Throne and is known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The second building directly behind it would be the hall of Central and is where the Emperor would rest, practice speeches, and prepare for sacrifice rites before departing for the Temple of Heaven. The last great hall is the Hall of Preserving Harmony which was used for banquets.
Fun Facts about the Forbidden City:
1. The Forbidden City consists of more than 90 palaces and courtyards: 980 buildings… over 8,728 rooms
2. The Forbidden city is the world’s LARGEST palace at 7,750,000 sq feet which is over 3 times larger than the Louvre in France. (also for comparison the Vatican only measures at 1,443,569 sq feet.
3. Originally it was called the “Purple Forbidden city” and is now simply referred to as the “Former Palace” in China.
4. The city took 14 years to complete and was finished in 1420.
5. It took over 1,000,000 workers with more than 100,000 of them being craftsmen
6. It was the home of 24 emperors — 14 of the Ming dynasty and 10 of the Qing dynasty and served as the Imperial palace of China for 492 years.
7. It has not had an Emperor in residence since 1912 and has been a museum since 1925.
Details outside one of the ceremonial halls
Looking toward the Northern inner court where the imperial family lived with Jinshan Park in the background
The second half of buildings (the inner court) were the more private living quarters for the Empress, Emperor, and his many concubines. On the outside, these buildings are virtually identical but there is an addition of a garden that boasted a lot of the same cool boulders/ rocks as the Summer Palace. (said to come from a sacred lake in the south of China.)
A female lion (always on the left) standing guard at the entrance of a hall.
Points of Interest in the Forbidden City include:
A clocks Gallery
The Treasures Gallery
A Porcelain and Ceramics Gallery
A Bronzeware Gallery
All the other architectural details everywhere!
The crowds largely thinned once we were in the city, but our guide still rushed us quite a bit. All in all I doubt we spent more than 1.5 hours within the walls which was a little disappointing for me as a photographer. We learned plenty and I enjoyed all the stories and history bits but I would’ve liked more time to wander for sure since there are so many little gardens, galleries, and rooms you CAN see. We mostly just made a straight line through, only checking out one of the galleries for a living quarter.
The carpentry and colors of the buildings are largely symbolic with yellow and red being regarded as a symbol of good fortune and yellow a symbol of supreme power. (yellow was only used by the imperial family) There’s even small animal carvings in rows along the ridge line of the halls were used to differentiate the importance of the buildings. For example, there are 9 animals along the Hall of Supreme Harmony (the most important building) and 7 animals on the Palace of Earthly Tranquility (where the Empress lived)
Exit through the Northern gate looking across the moat.
How to visit the Forbidden City on your own:
Take Subway Line 1 and get off at the Tiananmen West station (Exit B) (more direct to the Meridian Gate at entrance to the city) OR you can take Subway Line 2 and get off at Qianmen Station (Exit A) and walk through Tiananmen square.
Most visit the Forbidden City through the Tiananmen and Meridian gate and work their way N. When exiting through the N Gate of Divine Prowess only bus options are readily available with the subway being a good walk away. (Or just book your hotel in the close vicinity and walk to it!)
Ticket price is 60 CNY April-October and 40 CNY Nov-March. The Treasure gallery, clock, and watch gallery all cost an extra CNY 10 each
If you are in Beijing the day before you wish to visit, it is highly recommended to purchase your ticket the day before (as tickets DO sell out) and you can purchase tickets at a ticket window near the Meridian Gate. If you have Chinese friends or speak Chinese, you can purchase tickets online though a book website.
You need to show your passport when buying tickets and will have to show your passport with your ticket when you visit.
Opening hours: CLOSED ON MONDAYS!!! See hours below:
One of the many government buildings in the area
Once we exited out the Northern gate we walked a short ways away to a spot our driver could pick us back up, then it was only 5 minutes to our hotel where our tour was complete and we were able to check in. It was only about 2 or so but we were exhausted. (likely from another night on a train) so we ended up eating the snacks we’d bought from the train and hadn’t eaten yet for lunch and napped a while until the day cooled off.
After our nap we headed out for a walk around the area passing a beautiful cathedral.
We ventured back over to the Wangfujing shopping area ( a pleasant walk from our hotel) to do some more souvenir shopping with our last night and grab some dinner.
As the sun started setting, we wandered back toward the Forbidden City wall to walk along the outside moat and follow that back to our hotel. The area was quiet and peaceful and it was fun to see people actually fishing in the moat.
The moat makes for awesome photos in the evening!
Quiet shops opposite the moat and Forbidden City as we walked north.
The North gate at sunset
Looking down the moat at the East corner watch tower.
We had a short 5-10 minute walk back to our hotel and called it a day.
Day 8 costs: Breakfast/lunch snacks from store previous day Tour: $218.62 for 2 people on a private tour Mcdonalds dinner/dessert: $5.38
Day 6- Exploring Shanghair from ancient water towns to modern skyscrapers: We wanted to see all we could in a day of what the Shanghai area had to offer.
The train from Huangshan dropped us off just short of 8AM at the Shanghai station.
*Note there are a few “shanghai” stations as well as airports so it’s important to know which one exactly you will be arriving at.
First matter of business was dropping our big packs off at a luggage storage so we wouldn’t have to lug them around all day. We took a random exit from the train station and found one right at the exit. (I think there are multiple) It was about $4/bag/day so we sorted out what we’d need for the next 2 days and said sayonara to our bags.
Next order of business: Mcdonalds for Breakfast. We went to a very cool underground Mcdonalds… you could say we felt very “hip” going here. Fed and happy we were ready to start exploring.
So now onto the fun stuff: Zhujiajiao Water Town! Don’t pay $200 for a private tour here, it was super easy to get to! (as easy as any metro goes that is) Unfortunately we were heading out during Shanghai’s morning rush hour, so it took us over 30 minutes to buy our tickets from the kiosks. * TIP: Pay attention down there to the top of the machine and whether you can pay with bills or need coins!
Tickets in hand, it was easy to follow the metro map, we only had 2 train transfers to worry about, but it still took around 90 minutes of travel to get to the Zhujiajiao station. Then it was another 10-15 minute walk using Google Maps as guidance to the start of the town.
*The cat statues pictured above signified our turn down to water town. The train station had signs to put you on the major street walking down, but then the signs were all gone and we had to rely on google.
Beautiful waterway right by the train station
Crossing the giant bridge into the water town
About Zhujiajiao Zhujiajiao is a water town on the outskirts of Shanghai, and was established about 1,700 years ago. There are numerous water pathways (no roads!) and thus many stone bridges: 36 in fact! Each one more beautiful than the next. While we visited for the bridges, other points of interest include: North Street: the best preserved ancient street with buildings that date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) Kezhi Yuan Garden: garden dating back to 1912 Qing Dynasty Post Office: exhibits include old post cards of Shanghai and letters written on bamboo Fangsheng Bridge: The main bridge coming into the town. It was built in 1812 and is said to be the largest stone arch bridge in Shanghai with five arches, about 230 feet (70 m) long, and 19 feet (5.8 m) tall.
While maybe not having a ton of other stuff to do activity wise, this little town is one peaceful village. We picked up some beautiful art for souvenirs, had a few drinks/ snacks as we meandered, and watched the little boats go up and down the canals. (We didn’t ourselves take a boat tour this time… it was just too hot, but if interested here’s some info: Boat Trips/Gondola Rides: Each gondola can hold 6 people. There are two kinds of trip – short distance and long distance. The short distance trip only takes passengers up and down the main canal price is about 80 yuan/per boat for about 10 minutes. The Long distance trip goes all over the town and back Price is 150 yuan/per boat. Tickets can be bought in the small wooden ticket booths by the docks
Views along the walkway. Some of the bridges are only 1 meter or under 3,5 feet wide!
If you are interested in visiting the gardens, post office, temples, or other historical buildings there is a small fee. The town/ bridges/ etc are free to enjoy visually but if you want to go in any of the historical buildings, visit the tourist info center for combo tickets.
Here’s a map of the “attractions” for reference
Highlights for me: Bridges and Willow Trees
Roof of the Buddhist Temple.
Time to head back to Shanghai
A carving we came across at one of the entrance points to the water town
Waterways you pass walking to and from the train station. The area is pretty scenic all around!
We headed back to the train/metro station which was a 10 minute walk back, and a short wait and then we were headed back to the city. We got off at the Dongchang Road Station and started exploring the skyscaper financial district.
. There are 2 buildings you can go to the top of in Shanghai that are popular: the older Shanghai Pearl TV station tower, and the newer Shanghai World Financial Center. The latter was cheaper so that’s the one we chose. We bought our tickets and walked through a short exhibit for the building itself, and the massive growth of Shanghai over the last couple of years.
Display at the start of World Financial Building tour
Then you hop in the elevator and ride (very quickly) to the 94th floor. Here they have a couple more exhibitist that are part of a different ticket, and you take the escalator up to floor 97. You can peep out the windows here, but the view is much better from the 2nd elevator ride up to the 100th floor so you may as well hold tight.
The building was also currently hosting a Studio Ghibli exhibit and so there were references to the movies in a few places along the normal “100th floor” visit. The exhibits were separate and fairly expensive so we held off on visiting figuring one day, we will visit the main exhibits in Japan/
Lots of people at the “very top”
It was crowded and hard to get any decent photos with me in them, but it was cool to look out at the sprawling expanse of buildings that make up Shanghai. (though I could’ve done without the smog which lowered the visibility somewhat)
You can see the other popular building, the Pearl TV tower in the background
After gawking at the view for a little while, we made the journey back down and found a pizza place in the restaurant/mall portion of the building for a lunch/dinner
More Studio Ghibli exhibit references on the escalator
After eating our fill, we headed out to continue our trek through the financial district to the river where our next stop was: The Bund. We walked to the Lujiazui station to ride one stop to the East Nanjing Road station. Since the Huangpu river is so wide, there aren’t any bridges in downtown! And so the only way to cross the river is via metro in a tunnel!
Amazing buildings we passed on our walk to the station
From the East Nanjing station it was a short 5-10 minute walk through shopping areas to the Bund photo area.
From here we got to admire the buildings we’d just come from (and visited the top of!) which was very cool. We’d considered doing a night cruise on the Huangpu river (which is generally considered a MUST DO) but we had a decent trek out of the city for our hotel that night so we called it a day around 6:30 and headed on our way…
Lots of people and other cool buildings at the Bund
Heading back to the station
Unfortunately we were headed to our hotel… in the MIDDLE OF RUSH HOUR.
Never before have I stood so close to other humans, or narrowly avoided being guillotined by subway doors. We had 2 connections we had to make and at both of them we had to wait for 2 trains before we could squeeze our way on. That being said, it did finally start to empty out after we cleared the main city center. We even ran into an end station for one line where everyone got off but us and we sat there like confused idiots when the train returned to the station we had been at prior. *facepalm BUT the next time we realized in order to continue on our line we had to GET OFF the train and cross the platform. Oh boy. Other than that, painless to take the metro all the way out to Disneyland Shanghai.
Once there, we walked out into the dark and after a little walking we found a lot of cars lined up that were essentially like uber taxi drivers. Our hotel was only 3 km for Disney but we didn’t want to chance walking in the dark so we paid a couple bucks to have a drive take us. Our hotel was sort of a converted house into a B&B and when we got there, no lights were on and there were several buildings to choose from. Our taxi driver looked at us like we were crazy when we got out… and we thought we were too. (seeing as there was literally a dude bathing outside at one of the buildings, and dogs barking at us everywhere)
Eventually after e-mailing and calling the property (about 10 minutes) the hotel owners came out to guide us in. And everything was peachy from there! We settled into our little room and prepped for our next Disney adventure exhausted but satisfied with everything we saw in one day.
My last Carbon County post: last but not least as the little town of Helper is up there on one of my favorite parts of the area. If you like small towns with artsy vibes, historic buildings, amazing locals, and delicious food, this town is for you!
After my short off-roading/ hiking adventure around the Pinnacle Peak area in the morning, I regrouped with Katie and my favorite tour guide/ new friend Tina. We met up just off hwy 6 at the Big John statue which starts the historic town’s main street. After all the history and stories we’d been hearing about coal mining in the area that weekend, it was cool to see the spirit of the coal industry embodies in this statue
Big John is a must see as he really embodies the heart and soul of Carbon County which got its start with railroads and coal mining. Big John was crafted in CA and arrived at his permanent home of Helper in 1964 alongside the railroad/mining museum. He was named after the hit 1961 song “Big Bad John” as no other name really fits this 20 foot tall miner.
Next up we headed down the street a little ways to the new Harley Davidson museum that is being built (and almost finished) It was beautifully done with a variety of bikes and other HD memorabilia. We just had a quick look around at the work in progress but I’ll definitely have to come back when it’s all finished up.
Helper Points of Interest
The Western Mining and Railroad Museum
Next door: The mining equipment and museum yard
Balance Rock: A little too strenuous of a hike to attempt on any given day but easily seen from the town’s main street when just looking to the north
Big John statue
Spring Canyon: An easy walk where you can see the remains of coal camps that helped form the foundation of Helper
The front entrance to the Harley Davidson museum
A Short History of Helper
Helper was first settled in 1881 by Teancum Pratt and his wives and was followed closely by the railroad only 6 months later. Helper was then named after the team of “helper” coal-powered steam engines that assisted freight trains up the neighboring Price canyon (a 15 mile long climb with a 2.4% grade) to Soldier’s Summit. With the railroad came the need for coal and thus the need for man power and immigrants. In 1900 Helper’s population reached 385 people made up of at least 16 different nationalities and after coal worker strikes in neighboring mines like Castle Gate, the population grew to 850 between 1912-13. Helper essentially became a “hub” with multiple businesses surrounded by several coal mining operations. Even with the Great Depression, the town’s position as a railroad center provided stability and through WWII the town had additional stability provided by the increased demand for coal. Now, even though the need for coal from the mines has declined (the actual Carbon power plant was closed just in 2015 after 60 years of running), the town survives and has become a center for art with several galleries lining its main street. The main street also plays host to a summer art and music festival, monthly markets called “first Fridays” and soon its own film festival
A short ways down the street we passed a fun “alchemy” art studio that had chalk out front so you can grace the sidewalk with your own art. There were lots of beautiful art studios along the street that worth are window shopping and peeping in.
I loved all the fun artsy elements of main street Helper.
Continuing on you pass loads more old buildings that all have descriptions of what they were when first constructed as well as a sign leading to what will be a nice waterway beach spot for playing during the warmer months
And then you come to the museum yard with old mining and railroad equipment.
While you can’t climb up ON the equipment, a lot of the pieces were interesting to learn about and make fun photo props. Right next door is the Western Railroad and Mining Museum which is certainly called for (when it’s open) We unfortunately hit a Monday which during winter hours, it’s closed on.
There were lots of beautiful old buildings to enjoy
The historic street is framed by 2 made over Conoco gas stations that again are fun to walk around for photos and admire that Cars land vibe.
After the gas station we turned and headed back down main street.
I love how nestled it is among those desert cliffs.
After window shopping more art galleries, adding some sidewalk art, and all that walking, we worked up an appetite and obviously had to get lunch in the Balance Rock Diner. (review in my where to eat post here)
And after lunch, we hit up the coffee shop across the street Happiness Within for some caffeine before our drive back to Utah County thus concluding a wonderfully relaxing afternoon stroll along the historic Helper thoroughfare.
So whether passing through or looking for a close by weekend getaway, I definitely recommend stopping in Carbon County for museums, playing in the wonderfully diverse outdoor landscapes, gawking at ancient American rock art, and eating!
Katie and I with our Happiness Within Helper hats (and not shown here: Balance Rock Diner t-shirts) and definitely Helper fan girls now. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of this area.
As my previous pointed out we had a 7 PM ferry to block Island to catch so in that 1 day we went from NYC subways, taxi cabs, and trains, to ferrying on over to Block Island from Rhode Island. It was a chilly ride with light sprinkling and some serious heaving and surging forward and back. Like if you stood on the bow, you may have been doused a time of 2. Luckily it’s just an hour ride over.
Cutest little New England sight to welcome us in.
The STUNNING house I got to stay in compliments of incredible friends with family connections.
The house has 4 “rooms” and another open loft room. The 2 rooms downstairs were occupied by the couples on the trip while my lonesome self had the upstairs loft and rooms to myself. The room I used only had 1 single bed but… by the time I wanted to take a picture I had made quite a mess of the bed so decided to take a pic of this room instead. haha basically the same though.
Outside the 2 small rooms there is the open loft.
With window looking right out to the ocean! What a view to wake up to each morning!
So Day 1 on Block Island was explore by car day and 1st stop was at the Mohegan Bluffs which were named after the native tribe the Niantic indians chased the Mohegans over the bluffs in a battle for territory. The bluffs stand at about 150 feet high and are eroding constantly with at least 250 feet of known erosion. There are about 100 steps that get you close to the bottom, and from there a short trail to the beach. (The trail was fairly muddy so we descended as far as we wanted before heading back up.)
The bluffs offer a great view of the Block Island Wind Farm which is the United State’s first commercial offshore wind farm and just began operations at the end of last year! (A fun fact that Katie loves to tell me is in the construction of the wind turbines, they actually had to stop for a day as there were loads of hammer head sharks swimming around the bases)
At the base of the stairs looking out at the beach
The memorial stone for the Mohegan Bluffs which is actually found at the lighthouse parking and not the bluffs parking.
The SE lighthouse, located on the Mohegan bluffs of Block Island. This lighthouse was built in 1784 and is renowned as being the most architecturally sophisticated lighthouses from the 19th century. So way to go Block Island. It really is a gorgeous lighthouse!
Fun fact? Remember how I mentioned the Mohegan Bluffs eroding 250 feet? Well they actually had to MOVE this 2,000 ton structure back 300 feet in 1990 or it may have been lost. As it is still a functioning lighthouse, they couldn’t move it back further than that so we’ll see if it will have to be moved yet again!
Next up on the Block Island tour: North Light Fibers Mill to essentially see the animals. There’s a lovely range of animals to check out but my favorite (in fact most everyone’s favorite) is the Zedonk. Also plenty of Llamas roaming about. If you’re in need of some wool socks, highly recommend checking out the store cause they had so fantastic ones made exclusively with Merino wool for $25. Still regretting not getting a pair.
Up next: lunch and a stroll on the Town beach. Both the sand and water were so inviting but man it was too cold for that! Still lovely and you can see one of the ferries.
And as the sun set on our first day we headed down to Ballard’s for some BANANA mudslide action. Even though it was freezing and basically drinking a shake may NOT have been the best way to warm up, I couldn’t leave Block Island without trying one.
And heading back from there we were treated to the most AMAZING sunset right from the front porch. From the house you get a great view of North Light! (photos coming up)
None of my photos are edited so you can believe that sky really was that incredible!
And the light reflected back on the house made for a great show of its own!
Next activity? In all seriousness I was assured you can’t go to Block Island and NOT do a puzzle. So rather ambitiously, we started a 1,000 piece puzzle that night that wouldn’t even fit on our table completely. (the corners hung off. haha)
Day 2 started with a lovely walk straight from the house to the North lighthouse.
The North light is situated right on Block Island Point. The current structure is actually the 4th lighthouse to have been built in that spot and was completed in 1867, only 38 years after the first structure was onsite. It’s quite a bit smaller that the SE light but just as charming and much more beach accessible. 🙂
So from there we went to the point which due to very interesting tide currents, creates a V-point.
Looking back at the lighthouse from the point
So we did the car tour, so now onto the most natural way to get around the island: the bike tour! We started at the house and rode into town, making a stop (conveniently going up a hill for a break) at the labyrinth.
It’s called the “Sacred Labyrinth” and is a narrow circular walkway lined with stones where you can “unplug from the distractions of the modern world and enjoy the peace and quiet of a walking meditation” by following the path. It was interesting, although I didn’t even make a full circuit before breaking the path. I guess walking meditation just isn’t for me. haha
Biking along the road our first stop just as we were getting into town as at the Poor People’s Pub. It was a nice stop along our bike route although their Root Beer Floats I must say were quite overpriced.
Then onto the iconic “OAR” restaurant for drinks with a view. They had such a fun outdoor environment with lawn chairs and lots of dogs! We finished our bike tour back at the Ferry terminal to drop 2 of them off making our One way excursion somewhere in the 5-5.5 mile range.
Then we headed back for dinner and to laboriously finish the puzzle. (which we did… hours later haha)
The last day we were up bright and early to close up the house and catch the 11 ferry (with everyone else) off the island. UNFORTUNATELY, it was only 1 enclosed single deck and pouring rain so everyone wanted to be INSIDE. Meaning our sorry butts getting there 10 minutes before leaving were left with the floor seats. haha The wet crowded floor that is also not helped by the ocean and the serious swaying that was going on. Needless to say I was glad I had some food in my stomach.. but not too much. It was a rough start to Memorial Day. haha
Block Island Costs: The ferry from Pt. Judith, RI to Block Island: $12.50 each way Various beverages from Ballard’s, Poor People’s Pub, and The Oar: around $10 average Breakfast, lunch, and dinner we were blessed to have a kitchen so we cooked/ prepared stuff for those meals and thankfully brought most of the groceries with us on the ferry. (The food is crazy expensive at the stores ya’ll. Plan ahead! And also thanks to my wonderful, amazing friends the lodging, car, and bikes were all covered. thanks again guys!
So not a bad memorial day weekend at around $55 plus grocery costs. Definitely recommend checking this little island off the New England coast a try! (But maybe wait till steadier weather cause those beaches really do look amazing!)