The Lunar Landscape – Uyuni Trip Continued

Day 2 began early in the dark and cold. Breakfast was terrible and the hostel workers were hostile, so we were on our way without delay. The theme of the day was rocks and more rocks. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was magical to drive for an hour or more seeing this:

Sandy Expanse

And then suddenly to see this:

The Rocks Await

The magic of nature! It was fascinating how the elements and time combined to plop down these rock playgrounds at random intervals. We had a blast exploring although the rest of the group was definitely more adventuresome than we were. Climbing is not among my skills.

“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call”

Go Ask Alice was my mental soundtrack often throughout this surreal trip.

This view reminded me of a sand art picture someone had when I was a kid.

Sand Art

Despite the desolate landscape, we saw some animals on the trip in addition to the flamingos and viscacha.

One challenge of the long drives is the lack of bathrooms or shelter for a “natural” bathroom. We were all desperate on the second day, which wasn’t a big issue for the men but a hardship for us women. At one stop we found some scrubby bushes, but when I saw evidence of prior use, I managed to hold off until we hit a store about 2 minutes from our hotel. Not a moment too soon!

Behave!

We stayed in a salt hostel the second night. The tables, chairs, beds, and interior walls were all made of salt. It was still frigid, but the accommodations were slightly better – we had a private, windowless room – and the workers were friendly.

In order to see the sunrise from Incahuasi Island, we were on the road shortly after 5 a.m. on the third and final day. Of course, there was no road; we were driving in the dark across the salt flats. It was disorienting: I felt as though we weren’t moving because the landscape never changed – the salt flat is over 4,000 square miles! I spent the entire day convinced we were on a frozen lake as opposed to a salt flat. I kept expecting to see some ice shanties and snowmobiles.

The island was amazing. It was the top of a volcano back when the salt flat was covered by a sea. Now it is covered by cacti, but you can still see the coral and other fossils. We got there and hoofed it to the top to get perfect pictures of the sunrise. For some reason, I had a hard time getting to the top, possibly due to the altitude or because I am not a morning person, but I managed to get there in time to see the sunrise along with a crowd of tourists. I tend to find sunrises overrated (don’t get me started on the Grand Canyon sunrise trip!) but this one was spectacular.

Morning has Broken

After breakfast we zoomed across the ice salt to get to the “perfect” spot for our photo shoot. Due to the expanse, the horizon is messed up and the shots are surreal. We played around for a couple of hours. Beatriz and Jorge came well prepared  – shots off the salt flat!

After a fast stop at a salt hotel, which apparently was only open for the Dakar rally, and a small town for trinkets, we were on the outskirts of Uyuni at the Train Graveyard. This is always the part of every trip when Matt and I would call it a day, but the tour operators want to give you your money’s worth even if obviously not everyone welcomed tourists.

Uyuni was a desolate, depressing town. While there was plenty of space because it was surrounded by the salt flat, there was garbage dumped on just about every corner. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there if they had a choice. I asked our guide if he lived there and he spoke with pride as to how healthy it was there and how people never get sick because they have a good quality of life. I was stunned, but to each their own. We checked into one of the nicest salt hotels in town (at about $55 a night) and enjoyed the hot shower and comfy beds!

“What a long, strange trip it’s been” sums up the Uyuni salt flat tour perfectly!

Incredible Iguazú Falls!

When I 15, I went to Niagara Falls and was underwhelmed. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I recall thinking the gardens were pretty and feeling cheated by the falls. I was expecting something  majestic and it looked like a big dam. Decades later, Iguazú Falls provided the majesty I was seeking.

Iguazú Falls is on the border between Argentina and Brazil and is described as the “largest waterfall system in the world,” which I learned is because there are various ways to measure waterfalls in order to maintain bragging rights! We wanted to go to both sides of the falls but didn’t have time to get the required Brazilian visa. While I read posts that said sneaking visa-less over the border in a cab was no big deal, we decided not to become an international incident and stayed in Argentina. Compared with many of our adventures, it was pretty easy to get to the falls – we walked into town from our lovely hotel, the Iguazú Jungle Lodge, and caught a bus to the falls. Once there, it reminded us of the Milwaukee County Zoo – walking paths winding through wooded areas, kiosks and concession stands and even a train to take you to the “Devil’s Throat” to see where about 1/2 of the Iguazú river’s volume crashes over the top of the falls. The Devil’s Throat is 80 meters (262 feet) high and 2,700 meters (8,858 feet, 1-3/4 miles!) in diameter. The entry to the falls had an amusement park feel, but soon we were taken by the natural beauty. I had so much fun the first day and we didn’t get to see every corner of the park, so I decided to return the following day. Matt opted to join me and was glad he did as our first day was overcast and the second day sunny, which gave different perspectives. Plus, it had rained considerably overnight so the falls were noticeably fuller the second day.

First stop both days was the Devil’s Throat. Spectacular!

Devil’s Throat Panorama

Thank goodness that I had to get over my grate phobia in El Calafate, because I really had to get over it to enjoy Iguazú Falls!

On the first day, we had bought tickets for a boat ride under the falls. We lingered at the Devil’s Throat and then needed to scurry around the park to find the boat launch. Somehow we missed a turn and arrived 5 minutes before the boat was leaving. Thankfully, we were obviously not the first clueless tourists and the worker provided us tickets for the following excursion. I had been ambivalent about doing the ride, but it was great fun. You cruise down the river and look at the falls and then suddenly the captain guns the engines and drives you smack into one. Despite the ponchos, there is no escaping the deluge of water. I thought the women who brought swimming goggles were brilliant as I feared my contacts were going to get pushed out of my eyes! When you are on the trip, you feel like you are directly under the falls with the amount of water that crashes down on you, so I was surprised when we watched another boat cruise into the falls and saw that they really just go to the perimeter.

I loved that there were so many waterfalls to see – between 150 and 300 depending on the amount of water flow. Each one was pretty in its own way.

The lush jungle setting made it so much more magical than Niagara and allowed us to see capuchin monkeys, toucans and other birds, coati (raccoon-like creatures that will shamelessly try to steal your food) and butterflies. There were boa constrictor warning signs and jaguars in the park, so I watched for those although I couldn’t decide whether I was disappointed or relieved when we didn’t see any!

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Iguazú Falls is a magical place. It is no wonder that upon seeing it, Eleanor Roosevelt is reported to have said, “Poor Niagara!”

 

Going Native – A Homestay in Sibayo (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part II)

I am wearing an embroidered, gathered skirt, heavy shawl and too-small hat as I dance around a fire in a small, cobblestone courtyard – no easy feat in hiking boots and at an altitude of 12,730 feet (3880 meters) above sea level. Welcome to a homestay at Samana Wasi, in the Peruvian town of Sibayo.

After our stop in Sumbay (Cruising the Colca Canyon Part I – Cave Art), we continued through the canyon with a few stops along the way, most notably at the Castillos Encantados (Enchanted Castles) where we took a short hike to enjoy the rock formations.

We arrived in Sibayo and were greeted by Nieves and Vesevio, the owners of Samana Wasi. In an effort to assist communities with maintaining traditional lifestyles, the government has promoted “experiential tourism” in towns like Sibayo. Guests stay with a family and see a traditional way of life and the tourist income allows the locals to continue that life. The Peruvian government fronted money to improve the infrastructure of Sibayo with new cobblestone roads, a quaint town square, a lookout pavilion that doubles as a community center, statutes and paint in cheerful colors to liven up the homes. Several families formed a cooperative to host tourists and initially guests booked through a central agency that placed tourists in the various homes. But Vesevio told Salome that the co-op system has broken down because some families had very poor accommodations and tour agencies began booking directly with the better homes. Vesevio was proud to say that his home had the most bookings, a fact confirmed by our tour agent who made a point to tell us that we were staying in the best home in Sibayo.

Semana Wasi was a small lodge with traditional single story stone buildings with thatched roofs surrounding a courtyard. Our room was…rustic. If this room was the best in town, what were the other rooms like? The plain furnishings, less than spotless blankets and cement floor were not a complete surprise, but the stench was overpowering. We had an attached bathroom, but the promised shower wasn’t there and the bathroom had a 3/4 wall between ours and another bathroom. We stood in our room a bit stunned for a few minutes not wanting to offend anyone. But how could you miss the smell of shit? Ultimately we closed the bathroom door and held our breath any time we needed to use it. No shower? No problem as we wouldn’t have wanted to spend that much time in the bathroom anyhow. Once again, my years at the cottage with an outhouse served me well. We ultimately decided that the plumbing must not be hooked up properly (or at all) and chalked it up to another adventure.* We met fellow lodgers – a group from Belgium – who told us that they were booked into a hotel but decided to stay another night at the lodge. Apparently their rooms didn’t stink or they weren’t as particular as we are.

But while the room was lacking, the hospitality was not. After a stroll through town, we joined Nieves, her daughter-in-law (whose name I never caught) and Dulce, a rejected 1-month old alpaca, in the kitchen as our meal was made. Nieves and the other woman were friendly and we had a nice conversation about Dulce and the food that was being prepared. We also learned why the women wore different hats. Nieves and Lady (Nieves 13-year old daughter) wore tall, white hats with some shiny bling and a flower or two. Nieves daughter-in-law’s hat was lower with embroidery as was one of the other woman’s hats. The women wear the traditional hat of their culture: Collagua or Cabana. Both cultures practiced skull shaping until it was banned by the conquering Spaniards. The Collagua forced skulls into a taller, narrower shape and the Cabana forced skulls into a squatter, broader shape. Once the practice was banned, they demonstrated their cultures through their hats. The Collagua wear white, tall hats, and the Cabana wear low, embroidered hats. Marriage does not change the hat one wears, which is why the daughter-in-law still wore the hat of her ancestors, and the type of hat is determined by the mother (so the daughter of a Collagua man and a Cabana woman would wear the Cabana hat of her mother’s culture). After our visit in the kitchen, we sat down with the friendly Belgians to enjoy a traditional meal of fresh tea, quinoa soup, pancakes and rice.

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

Cabana and Collagua Girls with Alpacas

That evening we were treated to a traditional Pachamama (World Mother or Mother Earth) ceremony. Honoring pachamama through traditional rituals remains common and Salomé’s family still engages in the practice despite living in Arequipa. Offerings are made to Pachamama to ensure good plantings, harvests, travel and health. Vesevio asked for good travel for all of us and good health for an ailing guest during our ceremony, which included offerings of coca leaves and other herbs being passed around the circle and offered to the mountain apus (spirits). It was very interesting but we did not take pictures out of respect.

Then the party began. We were dressed in traditional garb and the local musicians showed up. Soon we were all dancing. And what would be a dance without some shots?

Shots!

The Belgians had a 5:30 wake up call so the party ended around 9. We crawled into bed and were thankful for the heavy alpaca blankets as it was about 50 degrees in the room. We slept well until a rooster started crowing at 3:30. Yep, we were back in Peru! We had a simple breakfast and then Nieves escorted us on a walk through the town to a suspension bridge. Sibayo’s people were famous for the long treks they would make from the mountains to the coast. They would pack up their mountain goods, trade them along the way to the coast where they would collect seaweed (needed for iodine in those days) and trade it along the trek home. The round trip took about 3 months. There are still some older villagers who made this trek in their youth.

We continued past the square, to the suspension bridge and then up to the lookout. Our conversation lagged a bit, but then Nieves and I began to talk about the plants she was collecting and their uses. It was very interesting to hear how the plants are still used to treat all common maladies and made me want to learn more about their medicinal properties. Back at Samana Wasi, we said goodbye to the family and headed on our way through the canyon.

We enjoyed a unique experience with a wonderful family who made us feel welcome and at ease. It is odd to view someone’s lifestyle as a tourist attraction, but this visit was very comfortable and it felt as though the family was showing us their normal activities and not a “show” for the tourists. A few days later we would experience the “show” when we toured Lake Titicaca, but we left Sibayo with a warm feeling and an appreciation for the life they continue to lead there.

Part III – The Condors

* Note: I mentioned the plumbing problem to the tour operator who said he would tell the family so it could correct the issue.

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Under the Sea: Snorkeling Trip to Pinzón

A month ago, before our friend Jo returned to England, we went on a snorkeling day trip to Pinzón. While I enjoyed our bird watching trip to North Seymour island, Matt prefers snorkeling to bird watching and this trip was right up his alley because you cannot touch foot on Pinzón without a special permit. Instead this trip entailed 3 snorkeling stops around Pinzón and a visit to a beach on Santa Cruz. First step was taking a water taxi from the Puerto Ayora dock to the boat, the Contagious, which was no-frills compared to the boat from our prior trip. I was glad that I had popped dramamine before we set off as the seas were bumpy.

After about an hour and a half crashing through the waves, we arrived at our first snorkeling destination, a calm bay. Three penguins flopped into the water as we were disembarking but we never saw them afterwards. We jumped off the boat and started swimming. It was like we were in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear and everywhere we looked there were fish and more fish. While many fish were the same types we see at the beach near our house, they were much bigger in the deeper water.

Our guide (whose name escapes me) was a great guy who made sure we saw a lot. He swam with us and pointed out tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. He also stirred things up at times…

Next stop was in a deeper area with a stronger current. The fun continued.

I hate snakes. Eels are simply snakes of the water.

The show-off sea lion was more entertaining.

Then Jo called me over. I thought it was to see a sea turtle, which I had yet to see. I was wrong.

Eeks!

Eeks! White Tipped Reef Shark

Despite my fear, I followed this guy for awhile. Then I decided not to press my luck and went back to viewing tamer animals.

At this stop, Matt and I also had a baby sea lion playfully swim back and forth between us. Happily, we did not see it get eaten by a shark.

Frolicking Sea Lion

Frolicking Sea Lion

Our third snorkeling stop was equally spectacular. As I still hadn’t seen any sea turtles, our guide came and got me when he spotted some. He linked his arm through mine and we swam off after them. Fantastic.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Then it was shark time once again. Our guide woke up the sharks for our viewing enjoyment. Who the heck wakes up sharks?!

Strangely, being in a group and with a guide made me feel safer. Maybe someone else would look tastier than I? Still, I could only watch them for so long. As we continued swimming there was suddenly this big shadow below me in the water. I instinctively glanced over my shoulder to see what large thing was above me just as a realized that I was seeing a HUGE manta ray beneath me. Matt said he reacted the same way.  We agreed that its wings were 12-15 feet wide. It appeared to float away. Unbelievable.

On the way back to Santa Cruz, we swung by Daphne to check out the animals on shore. Highlights were the masked booby and fur sea lion.

A fantastic trip and one I recommend to any snorkeler. Thank you Jo Browne for the awesome photos! An underwater camera is on the shopping list for our trip to the US next year…

Walk the Line: A Visit to the Equator

North and South of the Equator

North and South of the Equator

Who can resist the draw of standing on the equator? Matt and I couldn’t, so one Sunday we set off from Quito to go to Mitad del Mundo, “the Middle of the World.” We intended to take a cheap bus there, but for some reason, despite directions, couldn’t figure out where to catch the bus. So we settled for a $15 cab ride to drive us the 1/2 hour to the site. After some confusion (apparently the theme of our day) we realized that the building we, and a bunch of other people, were hanging around was just the Unasur (Union of South American Nations) building, and was not getting us closer to standing on the equator! We headed over to the ticket booth, which was inexplicable chaos. There were some people waiting, but nothing like a Milwaukee Summerfest crowd. The delay seemed to be because newcomers would conveniently not see the lines and just pop ahead of all of us waiting. Eventually, I had enough of this nonsense and skipped ahead of the skippees to the front of a line.

We were in at last. Our full tickets included the planetarium, and we were urged several times to go directly to the planetarium. We took a quick photo or two on the equator, rushed to the planetarium… and waited in line for about 40 minutes. The show was in Spanish, and while I understood a decent amount of it, a nap seemed more in order. Frankly, apart from the Little and Big Dippers, Southern Cross, Orion’s Belt (but not the whole guy) I can never see the constellations – it’s a bunch of dots and a lot of imagination to me!

We headed to the monument and went to the top to enjoy the views and the sight of the equatorial line running across the premises.

Now here is the rub: the monument is in the wrong spot and we were not actually at the equator! We knew that before entering the complex, but decided to check out the spectacle all the same. And a spectacle it was. The monument also houses a nice museum showcasing the indigenous cultures of Ecuador, and the grounds have tons of souvenir shops, restaurants, a couple other museums and even some entertainment, all devoted to the wrong spot on the map. I find it hilarious that although modern GPS proves the equator to be about 240 meters north of this line, this entire complex pretends that isn’t the case. Not a disclaimer anywhere that you aren’t on the real deal. Apparently the motto is “Why be right if people will pay anyhow?” And indeed, we did!

Walk the Line

Walk the Wrong Line

But then we walked down the road to the real equator, at the Intiñan museum. Privately owned (yes, the incorrect location is owned by the local government), the Intiñan museum was hokey but charming.

We were told to wait for an English tour, but a mountain storm was brewing so we tagged along on a Spanish tour, which we quickly ditched when we realized it was going to take us through little exhibits of the different regions of Ecuador. We just wanted to stand on the equator. And so we did.

Matt didn’t try, but I was determined to balance the egg!

All in all, a fun, silly time. Especially when you consider that the equator is a line and certainly there are other spots in the area on which one could cross it.

We tried for a picture proof, but because our phone GPS is not military grade, this was as close as we could get.

As close as we could get on our GPS

As close as we could get on our GPS

A Weekend in the Country

From the first time I heard of Granja Porcon, I had no interest in going there. About an hour from Cajamarca, numerous people mentioned it to us as a “must see” tourist site. But when I asked what one did there, all I heard was that it was in the country and had a zoo. In the country? Don’t I live in the country? Roosters wake me up long before dawn, cows graze on the side of the running path, horses frolic along the bank of the river a few blocks from my house, I recognize the burros that carry a farmer’s milk down our street every day…how much more country did I need? As for a zoo, I have mixed feelings about them and was pretty sure a small, private zoo would make me feel less mixed and more distressed. Add to the fact that Granja Porcon is run by Evangelists and had been described as both a commune and a cult and I was not sold.

But as our entertainment options are limited, when some friends suggested we go there for the weekend in order to take advantage of the hiking trials, I was persuaded. We set off Friday after work in Korrine’s dad’s car with Rodrigo as our driver. Our first stop was at the grocery store to buy some wine that we intended to “sneak” onto the grounds. To be honest, while alcohol was not served on the premises, I never saw any mention that it wasn’t allowed, but it added to our high school feel for the weekend: dad’s car and smuggled booze.

The drive out of Cajamarca was pretty and uneventful. After about an hour we arrived at the turnoff to Granja Porcon. Another 25 minutes and we were at the gate, just as the sun was setting. We had reserved a cabin and the guard gave us directions to get there. I tried listening to the directions in order to help navigate, but after he kept describing the roads we were not supposed to take, I gave up. We started up the mountain, darkness descended and we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at one place where we saw lights and the woman there told us to continue up the road. Just as we left, a man ran after us shouting that we should take a left – but left led us back down the mountain. We confirmed that we were supposed to go up the mountain, took a right to do so and then laughed at his “left” direction. 20 minutes later we were not laughing when we could see nothing and were utterly lost. We headed back down the mountain, intending to go back for more directions, when a lady on the side of the road waved us down, introduced herself as Marleny and told us that she had been waiting for us to show us our cabin. The “left” made sense as we had to take a left to go down a small, dark road that led only to the cabin – a left that was only about 5 minutes away from the house where we had asked directions! It was now about 8:00 and there was only one restaurant – back down the mountain – that was open to serve us dinner. We unloaded the car, nervously trying to hide our bottles, called in our dinner order and then began the trek down the mountain. Marleny came with us because she thought we would get lost otherwise. She was right!

The way back

The way back

Despite calling ahead by about 1/2 hour, the restaurant was deserted. A man quickly appeared and opened the place up for us. It was a cold, beautiful, rustic room with windows that overlooked the Porcon main square, but at the late hour we could only see a few lights in the distance. We enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken soup and fried trout and headed back up the mountain to our cabin, stopping to pick up a thermos of hot, boiled water from Marleny’s house. A few drinks later we called it a night. It was freezing in the cabin – the only heat was the fireplace in the main room and the beds had those old fashioned wool blankets that weigh you down so you can barely move. Matt and I slept with our hats on and were still cold!

Warming at the heath

Warming at the hearth

The day dawned overcast, but it was still breathtaking. It felt as though we were on a movie set – gorgeous setting, rustic cabin, cows mooing, lambs bleating and roosters crowing – unreal.

We headed back to the restaurant for a breakfast of caldo verde (my favorite soup) with numerous stops along the way to admire the vicuñas and avoid the lambs. Vicuñas are cousins of alpacas and llamas (and guanacos, another wild camelid in the Andes) and are prized for their wool, which can run up to $3,000 a yard! The animals can only be shorn every 3 years and then only about a pound of wool results from each animal. While they are described as shy, the ones at Porcon are obviously accustomed to tourists because we got amazingly close to them. They were gorgeous – so graceful and delicate. The lambs, on the other hand, were just hilarious. They were all over the road and it was all Rodrigo could do not to hit any of them. The downside of all the lambs was that meant there was no sheep cheese for sale – something I was really looking forward to as I am so tired of the limited cheese selection here.

Once we tore ourselves away from the vicuñas, I then became fascinated by a hummingbird feeding outside of the window at the restaurant. It was quite a dramatic scene when another hummingbird appeared and they began fighting. In addition the view was breathtaking.

Fight!

Fight!

After breakfast, we wandered into the town to check out the weaving shops, dairy and zoo.

I found the dairy products to be disappointing – while there were some decent fresh cheeses with herbs and a brick that was sharper than anything else here, nothing came close to amazing Carr Valley or other Wisconsin-produced cheeses. The others were hyping the ice cream and I, lover of Kopps frozen custard, couldn’t wait. What a letdown! The so-called “ice cream” was really ice-milk on a stick and not at all creamy. There were many exotic fruit flavors, but that was little consolation for me. After that crushing disappointment, we headed to the zoo.

 

Zoo Sign

Zoo sign

The zoo was interesting. One the one hand, the old-fashioned, small enclosures were incredibly depressing. But all zoo enclosures are depressing – no matter how big the enclosure, the lions and tigers still pace in captivity, the birds can’t fly free and many animals are far from their natural habitats. On the other hand, it was unbelievable how close we could get to the animals. As I was watching the spectacled bears, native to Peru, walk along the fence, a little girl stuck her finger into the enclosure and I started panicking, wondering if it is socially acceptable for a stranger to yell at a kid when you think she might lose a finger (and then, to try to think of how to say it in Spanish!). Thankfully, her mother saw her in the seconds these thoughts raced through my brain and pulled her away. Yikes!

After the zoo and a mediocre meal in town, we headed back up the mountain to our paradise. Marleny, who was parking cars in town, tried to persuade us to stop at the trout farm or come back to see the 4 o’clock milking, but as neither of those things are novelties to us, we declined and relaxed the afternoon and evening away. Well, except for the parts where Rodrigo smoked us out of the house by trying to start the wood stove in the kitchen, not realizing that he had blocked the flue and that we didn’t have the key to the kitchen door so there was no ventilation and then, when Marleny showed up unannounced and we scurried around trying to hide our wine bottles and glasses!

We were all in bed by 10 pm, but that allowed Rodrigo, Matt and me to get up early and climb to the summit of Mt. Porcon the next morning. It was only an hour hike on a dirt path to reach the top and the views were amazing. After all my reluctance to go, I completely fell for Porcon and would love to go back to do more hiking. It was peaceful and picturesque – the perfect getaway weekend.

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part III – Day 2 Summit and the Long Day 3

Apart from the 3 young guys, I think everyone is nervous as we start off on Day 2 – the alleged killer day of the hike. We leave camp around 6:30 am, stop at the trail checkpoint, are given the briefing on our mandatory stops for the day and then are let loose on the trail.

After the first day, the beginning of the hike is wonderful. The walking is uphill from the get-go, but not terribly steep, and it is great to walk at our own paces and enjoy the scenery. For many stretches I see and hear no one on the path. This lady is huffing up the trail with us. I ask her if she walks it everyday and she says yes because she sells water and beverages at the rest point. She is sweating bullets, which makes me feel better, but she still beats me to the rest spot and has her wares spread out by the time I arrive.

 

Water Vendor

Water Vendor

I hit the designated rest spot in under an hour and again arrive in the middle of the pack, which makes me feel good. Matt is pleased to report that he was the 4th in after the young guys.

The entire group arrives in good time, which makes our guides happy. We are set loose again with a designated meeting place for a snack before the steep summit to Dead Woman’s Path.

Then it is the big push to the summit. It is steep hiking and a light rain starts to fall. As I approach the top, I hear loud cheers, apparently for each person who makes it to the top. Encouraging. Unfortunately, the acoustics are deceiving and it takes me what seems to be an eternity to arrive. I am walking with some porters and one keeps assuring me that we are almost there. I stop to rest, not realizing that I am really am almost to the top, and when I arrive I anticipate the cheers and… nothing. I look around and realize that it is a specific group (the Frenchies) that are cheering for their hikers only. My friendly porter must have seen my disappointment because he claps for me and gives me a big smile, which cheers me up. I spot Katie from our group (she and I had been passing each other on and off the entire summit) and she tells me that Matt has just left. A driving rain begins and there is time for a quick selfie before starting the horrible descent. After all the hype, the hike between the snack break and the summit takes me only about an hour and a half.

Katie and I begin our descent together. We hoped we were on the 3,000 step “gringo killer,” but while it is a killer on our knees to navigate the slippery steps, it is not the infamous descent – that comes tomorrow. We sidestep a fair amount, which is slooow going. On the plus side, Katie is good company and we chat about politics and healthcare in our respective countries. We arrive at camp just before 1:00,which I find pretty amazing given the horror stories I heard about Day 2. Everyone arrives by 1:35 and we have lunch at 1:45 – 45 minutes before our guides thought we would all arrive.

We have the afternoon to relax, but instead I obsess over the uphill trail that we will take in the morning. They feed us well – we have a tea at 5:00 and dinner at 7:00 and then we turn in early.

The two worst parts of the trip for me are apparent at this campsite. First, the camp toilets:

Camp Toilet

Camp Toilet

I’ve used squatters before and anticipated them for the trail. What I did not anticipate was how much harder they are to use when you have been hiking all day! Do you squat only slightly, and risk peeing on your foot, or squat lower and risk your shaky legs giving out and landing you in the shit? Thankfully, I manage the trip without peeing on my foot or falling into the shit, but it is no picnic. I should mention that this picture was taken when the toilet was still relatively clean – by the next morning it was a cesspool of toilet paper in the corner and shit on the floor. The toilets got worse the further we went down the trail.

Second, sleeping on the ground. Our night 2 campsite was on sheer rock and I got about 3 hours of sleep because I was in so much pain. The night was extremely cold and then it started raining about 2 am. The rain wasn’t so bad – pleasant on the tent and I think all of us were listening to it hoping that rain at night would mean no rain during our hiking hours.

Day 3 we get up to an overcast day and hit the trail by 6:40. I am dragging and often make it last or close to last to our meeting points. On the other hand, Mark has a burst of energy and decides to keep pace with the young guys. The scenery is spectacular and while there is some rain, it isn’t terrible. We see many remains and walk through different types of ecosystems; I really enjoy the cloudforest with the dripping mosses and ferns.

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After lunch we hit the gringo killer steps and it is once again slow going. It is raining and we are cautioned to be extremely careful. We stop at Phuyupatamarca and then we descend into the cloudforest. Our guides tell us to detour to see the Intipata remains – in retrospect, I think they wanted to give the porters time to set up camp for us. We arrive to our campsite at Wiñay Wayna around 4:30 and go to the natural museum just down the trail. I regret this visit as it is full of mounted snakes, spiders and bugs! The curator assures me that only one of the snakes in poisonous and that most of the spiders are non-venomous. UGH. We have our afternoon tea and then play cards until dinner time. As usual, we turn in early. This campsite is pretty comfortable, but we wake from our slumber to a spectacular thunderstorm at 12:30. At one point a branch hits our tent and Matt and I jump a mile. Our tent holds firm and everything stays dry. Unfortunately, as our wakeup is 3:30 am, by the time the storm passes around 2:00, we never fall back asleep.

NEXT: The Payoff – Machu Picchu!

If you missed the first 2 posts of the journey, find them here https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/ and https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/17/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-ii-the-trek-begins/

Hiking to Machu Picchu Part II – The Trek Begins

5:20 am on Monday morning and Matt, Carl, Mark and I are cramming a few bites of breakfast into our mouths when Edwin and Jimmy, our guides for the trek, arrive at our hotel to pick us up. This is it – no turning back. We grab our backpacks and duffel bags provided to us by Peru Treks and get on the bus. I’m a bit nervous as the duffel bag weighs a precious pound – does that mean I only got to pack 4.5 pounds and not 5.5 pounds? I asked at the trek office on Saturday but didn’t get a clear response, so now I am anxious that I will be forced to leave some of my clothes on the trailhead or, more likely, get Matt to carry them.

As we wind through Cusco, we stop to pick up our fellow trekkers. Each time I size them up: do they look older, fitter, fun? In the end, we have a great group, even if the 4 of us are the oldest on the hike and 20+ years older than many of the others. The only two other Americans on the hike, Dusty and Jenny, are from WI and UW grads, so there is an instant bond with them. The fact that Dusty is a doctor gives me a sense of security and even though he jokes that he can prescribe drugs and refer to specialists, I am confident that he could perform CPR or splint a broken leg in a pinch! Happily, we never have to call on his skills. There are 5 Australians: Erin and Mark, a couple in their 30s; Katie and Tim, friends who have just finished University and are traveling for a few months; and Ian, who has been traveling for 2 years and celebrates his 25th birthday on the trail. Two other youngsters are Kirk from New Zealand and Crazy Henry from Manchester, England. Crazy Henry is so named because he smokes and drinks like a fiend yet can effortlessly scamper up mountains. I am convinced he could have hiked the entire trail in a day with no problem. Diego, who is probably about my age, is from Colombia but lives in the US and speaks perfect English, and is the nicest uncle as he brought his teenage niece, Isabella, on the hike. Isabella also speaks great English and is a sweetheart. After a stop at a designated shop/restaurant in Ollantaytambo, we reach Km 82 and chaos ensues. Our duffel bags are dumped out for us to jam our sleeping bags and mats into them and then have them weighed, we are mobbed by local folks trying to sell us all kinds of things, the sun is hot…overwhelming. After years of the trail being a free-for-all, the government now limits the number of trekkers to 500 starting per day. This number includes all of the porters and guides, so about 200-220 tourists can start the trail each day. We are not trekking during peak season, and I later estimate that about 110 other tourists began the trek with us, but it seems like at least half of them are dropped off at Km 82 at the same time we are. Good news – my duffel bag makes the weigh in, so I am good to go.

The Gang

The Gang

Day 1 is known as the easy day of hike and while it isn’t terribly hard, it is still hiking in the Andes with plenty of ups and downs.We begin hiking at about 10:45. The views are great and we pass some Incan ruins, which we are instructed to call remains as they were not destroyed by man but rather left to the elements. It is cloudy at times, but it never rains. We walk loosely as a group and stop frequently, which actually makes it harder because I never get into a rhythm and the frequent, long breaks make me stiffen up each time. But I understand that the guides are seeing how we do with the altitude and also assessing our hiking abilities for the coming days. We pass farms and houses; it is much like the hikes Matt and I do in the countryside around Cajamarca. At the rest stops there are ladies selling snacks, beverages and coca leaves. Coca leaves are common in Peru and trekkers are advised to chew them to combat altitude sickness and get an energy boost while hiking. I think they taste terrible, and the alkaline substance (made of ash or lye) you add to activate the chemicals in the leaves is awful, but I do chew them during some of the more challenging parts of the hike. I don’t know whether they actually help or have a placebo effect, but the guides and porters swear by them. Having frequent bottled water available is great as I can carry 1 – 1 1/2 liters at a time instead of filling up my camelback to 2 1/2 liters. We stop for lunch at a site with many of the other groups and the porters set up a tent, have buckets of water for us to wash our hands and camp chairs for us to sit on. Our lunch starts with a hot soup (a staple for all lunches and dinners) and is followed by a lot of starches, vegetables and some fried fish. Very civilized.

After lunch, we walk for about an hour and have another break and then finally we make the final push to our camp at 10,137 feet. We climb up past several farms until we reach our barnyard site. I arrive in the middle of the pack at around 4:30. We sleep on animal dung that night, which at the time it seems unpleasant, but when we sleep on rock the second night, the poop site seems nice by comparison! We relax at camp, have dinner and then turn in around 8:00; sunset is around 5:30, so it is already pitch black. Matt and I both sleep well – the only night on the hike that we do. Due to our group’s hiking skills (in fact, the porter with my and Matt’s bags arrives a good 30-40 minutes after I do) we get an extra half hour to sleep in on Tuesday – our wake up call is at 5:30 when the porters shake our tents and bring us coca tea. It is a cloudy morning and we have the dreaded challenging day ahead of us. By 6:30 we are packed up and on the trail.

Day 2 is different than Day 1 – we are allowed to walk at our own pace with a few meeting points along the way, including a morning snack before the big push to the summit. For the first time, I learn the proper way to hike mountains – go slowly and try to keep your breathing and heart rate stable as opposed to climbing in a burst of energy and then resting to recover. This makes perfect sense, and Carl, who has climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, climbed in this manner the prior day. We are also cautioned to give way to the porters and always keep to the mountain side to avoid being whacked by the porter’s pack and pushed off the mountainside. The porters are amazing – I’m not sure any are taller than I am (5’3″) and they carry huge loads, as Mark can attest. We step aside often for the porters and then try to watch to see how they manage with broken down tennis shoes or sandals. Humbling, to say the least. I also try to see where they walk as they often pick out the best part on the trail – the lowest steps, less slippery spots etc. Each trek company outfits their porters in a specific color; ours wear yellow.

Next Up: The Summit and the Longest Day

If you missed my prior post Hiking to Machu Picchu Part I – Preparation, read it here https://kerryedwyer.com/2014/10/15/hiking-to-machu-picchu-part-i-preparation/

Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

As is clear from my prior posts, Matt and I take full advantage of our life in the mountains and hike most weekends. But the truth is that I like walking far more than I like climbing up and down mountains. That said, when Matt, our friend Carl and Carl’s brother Mark decided they were tackling the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, I decided that I would regret not hiking more than I may end up regretting hiking the trail. We shall see if that proves to be true come early October.

The last time I did an overnight hiking/camping trip was in 1984. Yes, 30 YEARS ago. Watertown (WI) Senior High School had this bizarre right of passage reserved for a select group of decent students: Survival Hike. Led by biology teachers Carlos Alvarez and Dan Herbst (I think another teacher, Tim Gifford was also along for the ride my year), Survival Hike occurred the summer after sophomore year and involved 5 days of trekking up to 20 miles per day in Northern Wisconsin with the “treat” of white water canoeing on the 6th day. The catch, apart from the fact that we carried our own gear, bushwhacked trails, were eaten alive by mosquitos and camped every night: no food. Actually, in the early years food was allowed. First, groups were given $20 to buy provisions for the week. By the time my sister, Mick, went on the hike, provisions totaling a few hundred calories were provided and included a dog biscuit and chocolate. Six years later, we were given nothing – we only ate what we foraged or caught. A few years later, the hike was discontinued.

To this day, I have no idea why our parents allowed Mick or me to participate in Survival Hike. We were not an outdoorsy family and never camped. My mom considered it part of her martyrdom that our vacations were at a cottage with an outhouse. I was not athletic and didn’t own any gear; my mom borrowed a pair of hiking boots that were a size too big for me from a friend’s daughter and I have no idea where my pack came from. Apart from some city walking (we had actually moved to Wauwatosa during my sophomore year but I was given a special exemption to go on the hike, probably because my dad played baseball with Mr. Herbst), I didn’t train at all and never carried a pack.

But I survived. Oh, I whined and probably cried, and threw up when the only thing we found to eat for the entire trip were unripe apples and raspberries (to this day I despise raspberries) on the first day, got about 50 mosquito bites and several blisters, hiked in the rain (I hate wet grass), and lost 15 pounds in 6 days, but I did it. I still don’t exactly understand why I did it, but I have some great memories from the trek: like when two of the guys had to share my friend Katie and my tent because they lost their tent poles and then one of the guys slept walked during a thunderstorm and knocked our tent down. You can imagine the ensuing teenage-girl hysteria. Or when some other kids were getting sent home due to health issues and Mr. Alvarez gave me the option to leave (I really was whining that much) and I made the decision to stay. I like to think that I stopped whining quite so much after that point, but that may be wishful thinking. Or the fact that a guy from Mick’s year, who cried and blamed her when their canoe tipped in the rapids, came along on my year (I think he was doing a bit for NPR) and acted all cool, college-guy when I knew the truth – he just wanted redemption. Plus, it was in the days where your parents signed some waiver and then you got to do totally dangerous, unhealthy things AT YOUR OWN RISK and they didn’t check up on you during the week. And it was long before cell phones so you were in the moment doing what you were doing (hiking! starving!) and not taking pictures and posting every two minutes or calling your parents (or your sister to tell her that cry-baby guy was on your trip although that would have been fun). In fact, I don’t have a single picture from the trip although I am sure someone took a few that I would love/cringe to see.

So with that questionable history, I am signed up for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Compared to Survival Hike, it should be a piece of cake: no bushwhacking, porters to carry the heavy gear, good meals made by the camp cook, decent hiking boots, 26.5 miles over the course of 4 days and no white-water canoeing. But the reality is that the altitude is a killer for many people, the hike is very steep both in ascents and descents, and I am 30 years older. This time, though, I am training and Matt and I have stepped up our weekend hikes to add more altitude. I am even carrying my daypack despite the fact that Matt is usually my porter on our hikes. So maybe my whining will be kept to a minimum on this hike although be warned Matt, Carl and Mark – I am not promising anything.