An Update From Brenda

brenda_elwellThe past few months has been a whirlwind of travel – my first trip to the Brazilian Amazon and an area called Recife, in the far northeast of Brazil, plus an inspection trip to Peru (my third trip to Machu Picchu and my first to the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, where I visited the floating islands, an incredible adventure/cultural experience.  In between I squeezed in some vacation time hiking the magnificent Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park in Southern California.  Let’s dip into the culture and history behind these adventure destinations……

BRAZIL – The Amazon and Recife

Brazil is an interesting country, unlike any other in South America.   Here they speak Portuguese instead of Spanish and there is a strong African influence in addition to indigenous.   In the Northeast areas (Salvador de Bahia, Recife) you will find a complete mixture of races and cultures where people identify themselves simply as  “Mestizos” (mixed blood).    In the Southern part of the country, you find a strong German and European influence. People from this area are often blue eyed blondes with German last names.   In the remote jungle regions of the Central and Western part of Brazil you find many indigenous tribes.  And in Rio, you find it all!

I flew into Manaus as my entry point for this early December trip and toured this former rubber capital, a remotely located city of 2 million people accessible only by air and water.   The wide Amazon River is like a bustling metropolis itself with river boats of all shapes and sizes plying the river bringing supplies in and out of the city.   Manuas is famous for its Opera House built 100 years ago by the rubber barons, just to prove it could be done. It is comparable to the finest opera houses you would find in Europe, filled with Italian marble, French gold mirrors and Bohemian crystal.

Manaus is the jumping off point for the Amazon cruises and jungle lodge excursions.  I stayed at Eco Park Lodge, about an hour by boat from the city.  En route we sailed through the “Meeting of the Waters” (Encontra das Aguas),  where the black Rio Negro and the brown Rio Solimões meet and run together for 12 miles without mixing, something I had always wanted to experience.  There are more than a dozen jungle lodges in the Brazilian Amazon ranging from barebones (sleep in a hammock) to 4* comfort with a room with private bath and A/C.  On this trip I stayed in the latter.  Meals and excursions are always included and the food is good and all prepared from fresh local produce.  Brazilian fruits are a wonder to behold. Beautiful and delicious they form an integral part of every meal  including the fancy desserts.

A typical jungle lodge itinerary will include a 2 hour jungle survival walk where you learn what is safe to eat and drink (follow the lead of the monkeys!) and what is not and where to tread and where not. Innocent looking little rivers may be inhabited with big snapping turtles who , when disturbed, can easily  chomp off a toe.    In addition you will fish for piranha, a local delicacy, visit native villages and look for pink dolphins, and, of course, go night hunting for caimans (Amazon alligators). Yes, you stay in the boat although the brave guides often jump into the water to scare up a caiman or two.  No thanks.   Jungle cruises can be basic or deluxe and include the same daily excursions.  Cruises , like the jungle lodge packages,  can last for 2 or 3 days or up to a week or more.

From there I headed to Recife, a growing resort area in the northeast of Brazil.  Not as glamorous or as exciting as Rio (nothing compares to Rio!), Recife is a nice little beachfront city and the area surrounding it is quickly becoming a resort playground for families and couples.   Everyone here is Mestizo (mixed blood ) as this was one of the entry points for the slave market.  I stayed at an area called “Porto do Galinhas,” (Port of the Chickens).   The name comes from the fact that the slave ships arrived with a layer of chickens on top to disguise the fact that they were slave ships.  Brazil being Brazil, rather than lament and bury this reminder of such a terrible time in their history, decided to embrace it and are quick to point out the origin of the name to tourists.

PERU – Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca

In April I escorted a group to one of the most fascinating countries of the world – the headquarters of the famous Inka Empire.  Although this was a working trip and my third trip to Peru, I was delighted to see some areas new to me.  Last year Single Parent Tours ran a one week trip to Peru that was enjoyed by all the participating families.  After a day in bustling Lima to visit some museums we headed off the Sacred Valley, about a one hour scenic drive from the Cusco Airport.  Here we spent 2 days visiting local markets and famous ruins and learning about the salt drainage system owned and operated by the local Quechua Indians, descendants of the Inkas.   I learned there were 3 types of salt – white for the foreigners, (most expensive ), off white for the local populace and brown for the animals.

Machu Picchu never ceases to astound me. Although Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain, has grown from a collection of dirt streets and shopping stalls to a bustling town of  3* and 4* hotels, art galleries and charming restaurants, Machu Picchu remains as pristine and as awe inspiring as my first visit many years ago.

Cusco, the former capital city of the Inka Empire, retains its colonial atmosphere and a walk through its  winding streets reveals many hidden treasures and surprises.  Remnants   of the Inka Empire are everywhere, along with llamas, as colorfully attired as their owners, and delightful shops and restaurants. Peru  is now considered the gastronomic capital of South America, so no matter how remote your location, the locals take pride in serving a meal that is pleasing to the eye as well as the palate, whether it is a tiny café or a 5* restaurant.

Lake Tititcaca, at 13,000 feet, is the highest navigable lake in the world and offers great family fun. You can travel in a reed boat, visit the floating islands where the natives welcome you into their homes and explain how  they build their island and houses out of the local reeds.   We had lunch at one of the islands (500 big Inka steps to the top!).  The lunch was prepared by a local family and our guide explained their native attire and their customs. The meal was as spectacular as the view – all fresh produce grown locally with the fish caught fresh from the lake.   And yes they serve great fries for the kids and yummy delicate Peruvian pancakes for dessert.

Single Parent Trip to Latin America for July 2010

The July 2009 trip to Guatemala was cancelled due to lack of interest. The economy has taken its toll and many parents were hesitant to commit to a trip this year – understandably so.   I am considering offering a trip to Costa Rica for next July and I welcome feedback from our readers indicating their preferred destinations.  Once the economy picks up we will once again offer a safari trip, possibly in 2011. Readers can contact me directly at

Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park

Memorial Day weekend we spent a long weekend hiking this stunning national park, in South Central California, an absolutely wonderful family destination. It is about a 5 hour drive from LAX airport although you can also drive from San Francisco in about the same amount of time.   Once we left the crowded freeways of Los Angeles (part of the California experience) we had a pleasant drive through the farming valleys of southern California.  We passed by grove after grove of orange trees, lemon trees, tomato patches and miles upon miles of grape arbors, no doubt producing all those tasty little California raisins.

There are a few lodges inside Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks but we selected a Comfort Inn , one of many small lodges and motels, only a few minutes from the entrance to the park.  We “covered” the entire park in a day and a half but, if pressed for time, you can do the highlights in a day.  There are 4 Visitor Centers, each an hour apart by car so it is a 3 hour drive non- stop, from the bottom to the top of the park, and it is a curvy mountain drive all the way.  Most of the fabled attractions are just north of the first ranger station – Foothills Visitors Center.  From there it is a short drive north through the Giant Forest Road to the General Sherman Tree.  Along the way you can stop for museums, gorgeous nature walks, all family friendly and several scenic viewpoints.  Be sure to stop and visit Moro Rock. Not for the faint of heart, the walk to the top along the rock face is safe, but definitely not for those with a fear of heights.  At least go part way for the incredible view.

If you can make it up to Kings Canyon Visitor’s Center you will be able to see General Grant Tree, (worth the trip!) and enjoy the walks and views in this lovely mountain area.   If you get this far,  you will have seen most of the park and done a lot.  Beyond this point is the canyon drive to the last visitor’s center – Cedar Grove.  The drive is beautiful with canyons and waterfalls but it does make for a long day with small children unless you are staying inside the park.

The Sequoias are awe inspiring and very majestic. They were much more beautiful than I had expected –the biggest living things on Earth.    We came back with wonderful pictures and an inner calmness from the beautiful pristine walks around the park.  And yes , there are bears – we saw some from the road side. One final note – there are no gas stations in the park , so fill up before you enter the park!

From there we headed due west to Santa Barbara for an overnight to visit some friends and then headed south along the coast back toward LAX.  Being a holiday weekend we were quickly immersed in the notorious coastal traffic, another California experience.     The public beaches are a great stop for families looking for fun and R&R.

Enjoy your summer everyone. I will write again soon about our July 4th weekend trip to the Black Hills and Badlands National Park of South Dakota.

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