Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Lost City

The is my last day in a Spanish speaking country, yikes! I´m certainly not ready to go back to struggling with Portuguese. I´ve just mastered enough Spanish to get across what I want or looking for. Also, that means that its back to Brazil and my flight home is soon enough. But enough complaining that I have to go back to Brazil, let´s finish the rest of Colombia!

I left Cartagena for my only bus trip in Colombia to Taganga, which is the small beach town just outside of Santa Marta. And it was hotter in Taganga than it was in Cartagena if you can even imagine. It felt like my face was melting off. The beach itself in Taganga isn´t that beautiful, but if you walk over the hill you arrive at a beautiful beach with really calm, warm bath water. I immediately jumped in as I needed to cool off and just floated the afternoon away.

The main reason to go to Taganga besides the beaches is that it is the starting point for the Lost City trek. Usually the trek is meant to go for 6 days, most people do it in 5, but myself and two boys decided we could do it in 4 days, very ambitious. We booked our tour to leave for the next day and I tackled the issue of packing everything I didn´t need for the trek in my big bag.

Sunday morning arrived and I woke up not feeling well, like the kind of not feeling well that doesn´t need to be described in detail and not the best way to start a trek. We were picked up in a jeep that took us about 2 hours to the starting point for the trek. Thank god for Cipro, or else I don´t think I would have even made it to the beginning. We started the trek after lunch in the hot mid-day heat and couldn´t be more excited after hiking for about a half hour to reach a river we could swim in. I was the only girl that jumped in and I felt a lot better after doing so. We had the hardest hike of the trek that afternoon in my opinion. That or it could have been that my medicine was making me dizzy from climbing up on the switchbacks. Either way, I happily handed over my backpack for the guide to carry, and that was the last time I carried it. We hiked for a little over 4 hours before arriving at the first campsite. There isn´t much to do in the campsite after dark and all of the people in our group forgot to bring cards, but we entertained ourselves with a few mind games and puzzles. We spent the night sleeping in hammocks with mosquito nets over them and I don´t know if it was from the hiking or it was really that comfortable, but I slept like a baby.

The next day we were up early because we were supposed to go all the way to the 3rd campsite, but found out there wasn´t any room there since a big group of school kids was a day ahead of us. So we had some extra time and we had the option to visit an area cocaine factory if we wanted. I decided not to participate, not because of safety or whatever, but because I don´t support or use drugs so why would I want to spend my money on something I don´t believe it. I think it would have been interesting and something you can really only see here, but not worth the $15 that was asked. Either way, we only walked to the 2nd campsite on the trail that day. We passed through many of the indegious villages in the mountains where people really live without moderm inventions, very untouched by society. It turned out we were lucky that we didn´t walk all the way to the 3rd campsite because as soon as we arrived at the 2nd site, it began to pour rain. We had most of the afternoon for free time, but nothing really to do so I took a nap. I think I could sleep in hammocks forever!

We were up early again on the 3rd day and had about a 4 hour walk to arrive at the 3rd campsite. We had to cross the river several times and the guide ended up carrying a few of us girls on his back through the water so we didn´t have to take off our shoes. Sometimes its really nice being a girl in South America when you receive special treatment like that. The walking that day was very different, we were climbing over rocks along the river and really in the jungle now instead of the farms fields we had been through the days before. Very hot and humid still, I don´t think I was ever really dry for the 4 days. We arrived at the 3rd campsite before lunch and ate before walking one kilometer more to the Lost City. Finally after 3 days of walking we had arrived! We had to cross the river another 5 times and then were at the bottom of 1200 stairs that we had to walk up to get into the Lost City.

The stairs were very narrow, steep and covered with moss and wet leaves. It wasn´t an easy climb to the top, but once we were up there it made climbing through the Green Hell as it is affectionately called, the city was spectacular. It also worked in our favor that we didn´t go all the way to the 3rd campsite the day before because then we would have visited the city in the morning with all the other groups, but in the afternoon we had the place to ourselves. Also, this was the only day of the trek that it didn´t rain in the afternoon, so I consider ourselves very lucky.

The guide showed us around the city, which was protected by the military since tourists were kidnapped there back in 2003. He told us the story of how it was found by some local campers in the 1970s and how most of the city was looted for treasure. Its a sad story and many of the Colombians feel that the money that was made off of Lost City treasure is considered worse blood money than money from cocaine. The city was absolutly gorgeous and it was a very special moment for all of us to just enjoy the view from the top.

The way down from the Lost City was the only hiccup in the whole trip. I was walking down the steep, narrow stairs and slipped and fell down about 4 or 5 stairs and rock went right into my back. I picked myself up and carried on down the rest of the stairs, but I knew something was wrong. I had the guide piggyback me across the rivers to get back to camp and discovered how much pain I was in. Definitely a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. One of the other guides gave me some painkillers, but told me only to take one at a time and I just wanted to explain that I am American and have a very high tolerance for painkillers, but I needed to save the other pill for the next day as we had to walk all 14 kilometers back to the beginning.

The 4th day was a struggle, I´m not going to lie. I slipped a few more times on the rocks back and did my best to keep up with the boys. I was never more than a few mintues behind them. The guide kept insisting that I rent a mule to take me back, but I had already spend enough money on this trek that I wasn´t going to spend more on something I thought I was capable of doing. We made it all the way back to the 1st campsite in a little over 5 hours! We stopped there for lunch for an hour before hiking the rest of the way in the rain. I took a big slide in the mud going down hill in the rain, but I was already so wet and dirty that a little more mud didn´t hurt. I could not have been happier to arrive back in the little village at the beginning. It took us a total of just over 8.5 hours, so about 7.5 hours hiking. And it started to rain again too.

Apparently the tour company did not realize that we wanted to do the tour in 4 days and forgot to arrange transfer back to Taganga for us. We ended up on the back of some motorbikes that took us down a dirt bumpy road to the main road for an hour. After all the walking, this was the worst part of the trip. I think it might have done more damage to my back than the hiking did. We then had to take a bus to Santa Marta and then a taxi to Taganga, finally reaching the hostel where our big bags were stored. At that point I was in some serious pain and could hardly stand up let alone carry my bag. I had to get a taxi back to Santa Marta because I was staying there to be close to the airport since I was flying to Medellin the next day. Luckily, my friends, taxi drivers, people who were in the hostel were able to help my lift my bag and help me as much as possible.

I couldn´t wait to get clean and dry and I struggled to repack my bag for the airplane. I left in the morning for the airport and had the most interesting taxi driver. He kept showing me videos on his cell phone, first of his family at the beach and then of music videos he had recorded from his TV. I watched them all just so I could avoid having a conversation and pretending to speak Spanish.

I had to fly through Bogota to get to Medellin so it was a very long day of travelling. When I finally arrived in Medellin, I couldn´t carry my bag out to the taxis and some guy helped me. Then I found out how much a taxi was to the city, very expensive and I couldn´lift my bag and I was in so much pain, I just lost it and started to cry. Immediately I was surrounded by Colombians ready to help me. Luckily the were able to get me into a collectivo taxi and I arrived at my hostel.

I went to bed early and decided the best thing to do was to go to the hospital in the morning. I took a taxi there and found someone who could speak enough English to explain how much pain I was in and why I needed to see a doctor. Everyone at the hospital was wonderful and very helpful. The doctor was talking to me and trying to explain that I needed some pain medicine and I thought she meant some IV meds and again I started to cry since I don´t think I could handle an IV. She went running out of the room for the nurse that could speak English and I felt foolish when I figured out that all she meant was a shot for the pain. The took some x-rays and didn´t see anything broken and gave me some painkillers and a gel to put on my back. I just finished the pain meds and my back is still really sore, still can´t lift my bag yet, but I am mobile and can still travel.

I tried to make the most of the rest of my day in Medellin. I took the metro to the downtown area and walked around a bit. Saw many of the scupltures for Boltera, he makes everyone really fat and big and they are a bit funny to look at. I did a lot of people watching before taking the metro to the cable car line. I took that all the way to the top and a fantastic view of the city. As most cities on the Andes, Medellin is built between the mountains and is beautiful. I went back to that hostel for the evening and signed up to play in the beer pong tournament. I know it probably wasn´t the best idea to have some drinks on painkillers but I craved some social interaction. I was paired with a guy from New Hampshire and we made it to the finals against two guys from England. We lost right at the end but it was very exciting and a great lead up to the World Cup game the next day.

I had been looking forward to the start of the World Cup for some time and what a better place to be than South America. A big group of us ended up watching the USA game at Hooters of all places, my first time in a Hooters actually. It was exciting to watch it with an international crowd and while a tie is still a tie, its better than a loss.

I had to get up really early the next day to catch my plane back to Bogota so I didn´t fully enjoy the Medellin nightlife as most of the gringos do, but I was worried about my back too. The plane ride to Bogota was really short, like 20 minutes and I arrived at my hostel in the early afternoon. I used most of the afternoon trying to decide how to get to Brazil from Bogota, should I even try to go to Brazil since it was really expensive or should I try to go into Central America. I had a lot of trouble making the decision and finding the right flight and then the credit card woudln´t work. I was exhausted and had to give up for the day. I needed to get out and luckily there was a Boltera Museum just down the street for some light humor.

Before I arrived in Bogota, I had contacted Catalina, a local that was a foreign exchange student at Waunakee my senior year and we planned to meet up. She picked me up with her boyfriend and brother and took me to this really nice area of Bogota with some fancy pubs and clubs. They were really great guides and I was so thankful that we could all speak English together and it was really awesome to see Catalina after 8 years!

The next morning I finally booked my flight back to Brazil as the credit card was blocked since they wanted to know why it was being used in Bogota. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and I had the afternoon free. Some people in the hostel were going to go on a bike tour of the city and I decided to join. It wasn´t the best decision for my back, but I´m only here once! The tour ended up being almost 4 hours and we saw quite a lot of the city, more than I would have seen on foot. It stated to rain a little bit, but I really enjoyed seeing Bogota in this perspective.

Yesterday was also a big touristy day in Bogota. I went with some people from the hostel to the top of the mountain Monserrat where you can get a nice view of the city and there is a nice church up there too. Then we went to the Gold Museum which as all this fantastic gold artifacts that were found in Colombia over the last like 4000 years or something. Its only on the places to see before you die and it was an excellent museum. After lunch we did some souvenir shopping and I of course bought more things than I need. Its the American way...

I planned to meet up with Catalina again last night and I met her at her apartment. She drove me up to one of the hills that overlooks the city at night and it was amazing. Bogota is about 9 million people and the lights were endless. I love seeing cities at night, everything just looks so much better lit up. We drove around a bit more of the city and she showed me some more neighborhoods and nice spots and then we had some dinner. A very delicious curry and some sushi and I was able to fill her in on everything that has happened in Waunakee in the last 8 years! Not too much obviously. Haha. We picked up her boyfriend after dinner and drove around to some more places in Bogota before I went back to the hostel.

Today was also a busy day in Bogota. A couple of us went to the national police musuem and had a tour there. Most of it was really interesting and they have a lot of items that were Pablo Escobars and the other drug cartel leaders. There are also many different types of police divisions here and I don´t really understand the difference between the military and the police, but either way I feel safer when I see them on the streets.

Tonight I fly off to Salvador on the northern coast of Brazil. Very excited to have decided to go back to Brazil since I think they are going to do well in the World Cup and it will be very thrilling to watch it with the locals. Just about 3 and half weeks until I´m back. If anyone knows of a job or a cheap car, let me know, I´m looking for both. Now its off to the beaches, hopefully getting some color back after being in the mountains for so long!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Triple Trouble

OMG I cannot believe that it is already June! Time flies when you´re having fun and fun is exactly what we have been having. My apologies for not updating sooner, but we´ve been moving pretty fast and internet is not always the easiest to come by, so now I´m here and I want to update you on everything that I´ve been doing for the last two plus weeks.

We left Lima after Sarah´s birthday and headed up the coast to the city of Trujillo, but we didn´t actually stay there. Instead we took a taxi out to the surf village of Huanchaco. We were very excited to finally be on the beach after spending the last month or so in the mountains. Unfortunately, our excitement was short lived because the weather there turned out to be cloudy, chilly and a little windy. We filled our time there though. A man at the hostel we were staying at told us about a local cerviche place that we had to try. It wasn´t on the map and we had to follow his very vague directions and asking the locals who eventually led us right to the door, we enjoyed Peru´s best cerviche. The only disappointment from the day was that the man who told us about the restaurant told us not to take our cameras for safety and now I have no documentation of this delicious meal. I also do not have docmentation of the events that followed including Sarah learning to juggle with the rastafarians on the beach or me getting one of those dirty traveller braids put in my hair. There is even a shell on the end of it. It wasn´t all fun and games as we did experience a little culture in Huanchaco too by visiting the Pre Inca site of Chan Chan.

Continuing up the coast we made our last stop in Peru to the surfer hot spot of Mancora. We decided here to Loki it up. Loki is a chain of party hostels in Bolivia and Peru that we had heard a lot about but had never stayed in one. This Loki was like a resort, a big pool in the center surrounded by the rooms on one side and the massive bar on the other. Needless to say we had a really excellent time at the Loki. Oh and its also right on the beach. Our first day there I enjoyed breakfast at a nearby restaurant that actually had french toast with real maple syrup, I could not have been happier. I am starting to realize right now that a lot of my blogging is about food. I love to eat and really I just love food so bear with me. Mancora was intense and the Loki was great, but its a vortex I´ve decided. They want you to eat, drink and not sleep at the Loki and once you get in you can´t get out. We did get out but Sarah and I were happy to extended our stay there since Amanda was very sick and didn´t get to experience the Loki in all its goodness.

Ready to move on to Ecuador we boarded a bus to take us to the border. I was a little nervous about crossing the border since its meant to be the worst border in South America. It turned out to be fine, it took a little longer than some of the other border crossings, but no questions asked. Our first stop in Ecuador was to the colonial town of Cuenca. We arrived at night not having a hostel booked and just went with the first one we saw at the bus station. It was alright, no one else was staying there and that gave it a haunted like feel. Cuenca the city was beautiful. The architecture was stunning and very well preserved. The whole city was named a UNESCO World Heritage city a few years ago and you can tell why. We spent most of the day wandering the city and adjusting to using the US dollar as the currency. The highlight of the day was when we went into this shop that makes and sells Panamaian hats. Turns out they are really from Ecuador and were misnamed a century ago. In this shop this little old man shakes all of our hands and takes up stairs to his little shop filled with the hats. He measures our heads to find a hat that fits us and knows exactly which hat will look the best on us. The only thing I could relate it to is in Harry Potter when the wandmaker helps Harry choose his wand. Yes, I´m that cool to make a Harry Potter reference. Anways, it was a totally awesome experience and I couldn´t walk away without a hat and obviously I look good in it.

We left the next day for Baños, but first stopping at the largest Inca site in Ecuador, Ingapirca. After Machu Picchu nothing really holds the coin, but it was great to see the Inca face craved into the side of the mountain. We´ve seen them before, but were never able to get this close or to see one with Inca eyelashes.

We had an interesting bus experience trying to get to Baños. Instead of going to the bus station or terminal, we stood on the side of the road waiting for a bus to go by that said Quito since that was the right direction and just get on that. It reminds of older movies where people just get on and off at random stops. The bus ride itself was terrible, very curvy and very fast in the mountains. I could not have been happier to arrive in Baños in one piece.

I have to giggle a little bit every time I think about that I was in a town that is called bathroom. Obviously there is a reason for it, there are thermal springs under the city from the area volcanos. Speaking of volcanos, in case you missed it, the Tungurahua volcano just outside of Baños erupted last Friday and guess who was there to see it. This girl. It was amazing. We took a taxi up to a viewpoint at night and just stood there watching it. We could see the red lava pouring down the volcano and sparks shooting out of the top. Luckily, the ash didn´t really cover Baños and we did not have to be evacuated from the city as we feared.

Baños was a really great city with many adventure activities to choose from. I choose to rent one of this buggys and drive up the ´waterfall road.´ It was awesome! I rented it with this Australian guy and we had a blast. It was raining for a little bit while we were driving, but that made it more fun. We stopped at one waterfall and took a cable car across the river to get closer, it was a little scary to be suspended over the river but it turned out to be really cool. We visited another waterfall that we had to hike down to that was called something about the devil. I´ve never seen such powerful water. Both of us were very impressed and stared at it for about five minutes just in awe. We were having such a great time on the buggy we ended up returning it an hour later than we were supposed to have it!

In Baños, we were trying to decide where to go next in Ecuador and how to plan the rest of our trip and when to fly back to Brazil. After much discussion, Amanda, Sarah and I decided to split up for a few weeks before meeting in Bogota mid-June to fly back to Brazil. Amanda and Sarah went into the jungle in Ecuador and I decided to keep moving north into Colombia. First though, we had to go to Quito.

I arrived in Quito before Amanda and Sarah traveling with two Danish girls that had been with us since Huanchaco. Quito the city is massive. Its built between the mountains and the length of the city is unbelievable. The main thing that I wanted to do in Quito was visit the middle of the earth, the equator. We had to take a few buses to get up there and it was super touristy when we actually go there, but now I can say that I´ve been to the equator. Also in Quito, one of my friends from high school, Audrey Raemisch, has been living there for the past two years so we met up for lunch one day. It was good to see here and get in a little Waunakee gossip.

I saw a little more of the city too in Quito. The old town of the city is really cool and Sarah and I spent the afternoon there. We went to the top of the Basilica overlooking the city. We had to climb these really steep steps to get to the top, but the view was worth it. We also tried to find a local handicrafts market but instead ended up in a dodgy area and then got caught in the rain on our way back to the metrobus. Its really always an exciting day for us!

I left the next day for Colombia while Amanda and Sarah stayed an extra day in Quito before going into the jungle. I decided against taking the bus to Cali in Colombia by myself and instead took my first internal South American flight. It was only an hour flight, but it was really bumpy and I was happy to land in Colombia. I feel like a real badass being in Colombia too since its the only country in South America that the US State Department has a travel warning against. So far so good though. I arrived at the hostel in Cali and it turned out I had a four person dorm for myself. Very exciting to have a room to myself after three months of sharing. Some friends that I had met before were staying there too. I´m so glad that I flew into Colombia too after listening to their 26 hour bus journey!

In the morning, we spent the day walking around Cali. It not that exciting of a city, but we tried some local food and drink from the street and just absorbed the new country. It much more developed than Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador and kind of reminds me of Brazil except they speak Spanish. It was really hot in Cali and it looked like it was going to rain so we decided to go to the movies and saw Robin Hood. About 5 minutes into the movie, the older couple next to me starts talking to each other and realize they are in Robin Hood and they thought they were going to see Prince of Pershia.

The main reason I wanted to go to Cali was that its supposed to be the salsa city of Colombia. Everyone wanted to go out, but it was a Tuesday night. We tried. The first place we went to was full and the second place was very lame and the third place was alright, but at that point we were tired and decided to call it a night after a bit. When we arrived back at the hostel, the woman working behind the desk had had a few drinks and decided she would just teach us salsa in the courtyard. It was fun, but I still don´t think I have the hips for salsa.

I had to get up early the next day to get on my plan to Cartagena. I arrived without a hitch and met another girl who I had met in Baños. We walked around the Old City that is all walled in to protect the city from pirates. It is sooooo hot! I´m so lucky that I have a room with air conditioning, seriously I don´t think I´ve been this hot since Thailand!

Today we went to a volcano that instead of being filled with lava is filled with mud. At the top you go into a mud bath and these old men massage you while you are in it. Super strange, but really fun. Then after the mud bath you go down into the lake and women help you clean the mud off. Surprisingly the men are very gentle and the woman very rough. On the way back to the city we stopped at a beach and swam in the Caribbean Sea, it felt like bath water, so nice. We had a private walking tour tonight around the walls of the city with a man who we think works at our hostel, but we aren´t sure. It was nice to see the city at night, very romantic!

Anyways, I´m getting kicked out of the internet cafe. I´m taking a bus tomorrow to Santa Marta and then wherever I can in the next 2 weeks in Colombia!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trying times and Lines

Out of Cusco finally! Not in a bad way, but it is the most expensive city in Peru so I´m happy to save a little bit of money. We arrived off a night bus to Arequipa and got to the hostel before 6am not expecting to be able to get into our room, but luckily the nice people at Hostel Sol de Oro let us check into an empty triple and catch up on some sleep.

Arequipa is a nice city. There is a beautiful Plaza de Armas with the obligatory cathedral. We walked around the city and had a delicious falfal for lunch. The main reason to visit Arequipa is for the jumping off point for the Colca Canyon, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon. We successfully negotiated a price for a 2 day 1 night trek into the canyon for the day after next. Our egos were a little inflated after conquering the Inca Trail so we thought we could handle anything.

The highlight of Arequipa is the museum to visit the Ice Maiden Juanita. She is a 14ish year old girl that was an Inca human sacrifice that was found in 1995 in the top of an area volcano. The museum is absolutely amazing and the tour was very well presented. The mummy is just wow. Amazing after 500 plus years, she is still so well in tact. Amanda and I saw mummy child sacrifices at a museum in Salta, but this was truly spectacular and it was really interesting to learn more about the Inca Culture. I also visited a 500 year old convent in the city. It was really different than what I imagined a convent would be like. All the walls were painted bright colors and had really detailed murals on the walls. I did tour of the convent by myself and it was kind of creepy at some points being in the really old convent cells and going in and out of the shadows.

We had to get up really early the next day to begin our trek into the Colca Canyon. First we stopped at the Cruz de Condor to see all the condors flying over the canyon. They are truly majestic birds and the soar really close to the lookouts so it was an awesome view.

We arrived at the canyon ready to begin our second trek in two weeks. However, it turns out that we were fibbed a little bit too. We were told we would be walking 3-4 hours on the first day, instead it was a grueling 7 hours straight down a gravel path into the canyon and it was hard. Our egos were burst within the first terrifying slip down the gravel. The canyon itself it gorgeous, but we really couldn´t enjoy it too much since we spent most of the time making sure we didn´t fall off the cliffs. Also, our group and guide were terrible, not supportive or encouraging and balked because we weren´t running with them. I tried to explain that we weren´t slow, just cautious, but we couldn´t have happier to arrive at the oasis that evening.

The next day was better, just 3 and a half hours back to the top of the canyon. Going up is still so much better than going down. The best part about the day was after the trek, we stopped at some thermal baths in town and were able to relax our muscles. Seriously, this two day trek was a hell of a lot worse than the 4 day one and our feet were torn to shreds.

We had booked a bus that night following the canyon to Nazca. We arrived there in the morning and after a quick walk around the 2 blocks that are Nazca we changed our plans of staying 2 nights to just one night. The thing to do in Nazca is to fly over the Nazca lines, which are in shapes of animals and other things that have zero explanation for their existence. I was really nervous about the flight over the lines because its flying in a little 6 seater plane, but I agreed and I´m really glad that I did. Sarah however, was not so glad that we took the flight and was a little queasy after takeoff.

The lines were really sweet. They were hard to take pictures of, but I did the best that I could. There are about 14 in total and the plane would fly over each of them twice, once on the left and once on the right. The whole plane ride was only 35 minutes and while I´m glad I went, I was even better when we landed.

Quick to get out of Nazca, we boarded a local bus to Ica. Sarah was very lucky that day to sit next to a stranger that decided to breast feed the whole 2 hours to Ica. In Ica, we took a taxi to the sand dune oasis of Huacachina. Its just a tiny hippie village literally in the middle of these massive sand dunes. We picked the hostel there based on which one had the best pool and we spent the next day catching some rays. The hostel we were staying in offered a sand dune buggy trip with sandboarding on the dunes later in the afternoon. Super adrenaline rush!!! Our buggy driver was insane. Every time he turned on the engine, he did the father, son, holy spirit over his chest, which of course was very comforting. He drove like a maniac over the dunes and it was the best rollercoaster ride I had ever been on. The sandboarding was really awesome too! We started first with some little hills, first on our stomachs on the board and then tried one standing up. Very difficult to try to carve in sand, not like snow. We then went to some much bigger hills and went down them on our stomachs again. So freakin fast! It was really really really fast! Amanda took a little tumble off the board on the last hill and has a war wound on her chin to prove it.

The next day we spent most of the day on the bus to Lima. We arrived in the capital city to celebrate Sarah´s 25th birthday yesterday!!! We hadn´t heard great things about Lima and central Lima is not meant to be safe at all. We are staying out in the suburb of Miraflores and it is surprisingly wonderful. We are really close to the best grocery store that I have ever been in. Amanda and I were so excited to be there we run around the store going from food sampler to food sampler, just so happy for some free food! We walked around the neighborhood yesterday and down to the beach area before going out last night to celebrate.

Tomorrow night we are going to take a bus up the PanAmerican South Highway near the city of Trujillo where there are some more Inca ruins and stay on the beach near there. Then another beach in Peru before we cross into Ecuador. Few places there before Colombia!!! Very excited about Colombia has we have heard the best things about Colombia!!! Only 8 weeks left in South America!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Inca Trail

Day One: Began very early, we were up at 3am to make sure our bags were packed and to take our big backpacks to the hostel we were staying at when we returned from the Inca Trail. We met the Llamapath group at 4am and began our adventure to the beginning of the trail. First we took a bus for almost two hours to a small town where we had breakfast and then we had to go on another short bus ride to kilometer 82 where the Inca Trail begins. The most important purchase of the trip was made here, a walking stick, I´ll be forever grateful for that walking stick and I probably couldn´t have done the trek without it.

We had a easy 20 minute walk to the checkpoint and got our passports stamped as we crossed the river to begin the hike. The stamp is really cool and it was nice seeing that there were porter regulations and rules that needed to be followed to enter the national park. All the porters had to be weighed with what they were carrying because they used to carry too much and hurt themselves.

Our llamapath guides were fantastic! We had one head guide and two assistant ones. There were 22 porters, a chef and sous chefs for our group of 17. Of the 17, 14 were from the United States, 2 Canadians and of course our token British ladies. It was an amazing group of people, our guide called us Super Hikers! Everyone was super supportive of each other and encouraging each step of the way.

The hike on the first day wasn´t easy. We hiked for probably around 8 hours that day. Up and down, up and down for about 14 kilometers. At one point, Amanda, Sarah and I were behind the group a little and 3 llamas came charging at us much to our delight. We were also chased by some goats, but that wasn´t nearly as exciting. We stopped mid day for lunch and let me tell you, these porters are amazing. They started after us, run ahead, set up tents, and had lunch nearly cooked for us by the time we arrived. I´ve never had better service in my life. And lunch was a 4 course meal, yum!! The same thing happened when we arrived at our campsite later, all the tents set up and our bags in the tents with sleeping mats rolled out.

Day Two: The worst day of the Inca Trail so we are told. And it wasn´t easy, but it wasn´t terrible either. We started the morning early again, but not as early as the day before. We set out to climb to 4200 meters, which is around 13,779 feet, through a pass in the mountains called Dead Woman´s Pass, I think the name is self explanitory. It was a killer, however for some reason I have a much easier time hiking up than I do hiking down. We stopped around 4000 meters and one of the assistant guides rubbed this Anden scent thing on my forehead and had me inhale it to help me breathe at such a high altitude. The last 200 meters of the pass were brutal and one of the hardest parts of the trail, but I made it! The view from the top was spectacular. I hard to believe that we had been climbing through the mountains and to see how far we had come. Major breaktime at the top of the pass and since we were so far up, the other side of the pass was under the clouds. It was very weird, one side we could see everything and the other side was just an abyss.

The trek down to lunch was just as difficult as climbing up. I think I have such a fear of falling that I really take my time and move step by step. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment we had achieved that morning. The afternoon was not much easier either. Back up to 4000 meters and then back down again. We stopped at some Inca ruins at the end of the day and could see our campsite from there, never been so happy to lay down! If we could do day two of the Inca Trail, we could do anything! 11 hours of hiking and 16 kilometers!

Day Three: Its meant to be the easy day of the trek and I took my sweet time. Most of the trail that day was downhill and it was painful. By that point some blisters had appeared and going downhill just pushed all my toes to the front of my boots and it hurt. It was also a lot colder that day and about as hour into hiking, it started to rain. I did have a poncho with me, but it made the rocks really slippery. We also entered the jungle part of the trail and saw some beautiful flowers and the snowcapped mountains in the distance.

We arrived at camp an hour later than what it was supposed to take, but it didn´t matter. We were at camp and there was a hot shower available! After 3 days of trekking it was necessary. And I only brought one pair of hiking socks with me. Disgusting! I couldn´t even leave them in my tent at night, I had to tie them in a plastic bag. Won´t be making that mistake again!

After the clean up we took a stoll to a nearby Inca ruin and it was beauiful! I wasn´t expecting to see what I saw when I turned the corner on the path, but it took my breath away. I got really excited then to see Machu Picchu the next day!!! We had a ceremony that night for the porters, chefs and guides thanking them for all their hardwork and how much we appreciated them.

Day Four: Machu Picchu!!! We had to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to eat and pack up. We had a 5 minute walk to the gate and had to wait there until 5:30 when it opened and we could finish our hike into Machu Piccu. It was also at this time when it started to rain again! We had about a 40 minute hike up the the Sun Gate, including 50 steps of what is called the Gringo Killer. From the Sun Gate that´s where you are supposed to see Machu Picchu for the first time. However, because of the rain and clouds, we couldn´t see anything. It was a bit disappointing, but no one controls the weather. We climbed down the rest of the way to the ruins and lucky enough, the rain stopped and the clouds began to lift. By the time we reached the bottom and had our snack, the weather had cleared it was beyond words! Our guide gave us a two hour tour around the ruins and we just soaked it up. Finally after 4 days and 27 miles, we were there!!! I truly believe there is no better way to appreciate Machu Picchu than to do the Inca Trail. We laughed at the people who came for the day and were struggling with the steps, but hey, we had just climbed the Gringo Killer! We had some free time and so we climbed back up to the top to get the famous picture by the guard house and also some photos with the llamas. I was taking a picture with one llama behind me and didn´t know the others were approaching and one of them made a noise and really scared me!

We left Machu Picchu around 1pm to go to the tourist town of Aquas Calientes where wer had to take the train later back to Cusco. We were super lucky with the weather because as soon as we sat down for lunch it started to downpour. Lunch was great, so nice to relax and let loose with our new friends. I even tried some guinea pig. Yes that´s right. I was hesitant, but when in Peru. I only had a little picture and whadya know, it tasted like chicken. Because of the rain we decided to skip the thermal baths that were there and instead found a restaurant that was serving 5 for 1 cocktails. 9 rounds later, we were ready for the train back to Cusco. Slept on the train, then had to take a 25 minute bus ride because the trains still aren´t running completely after the mudslides. Then the nearly 2 hour bus ride back to Cusco arriving at 2am, almost 24 hours after we had awaken!

We´ve spent the last few days in Cusco just relaxing and recovering. I went and had an Inca Massage for an hour and twenty minutes and they even used hot stones on my body. Very necessary! Most people here are coming off treks and ready to begin them so there is always a lot going on. I went with the hostel one afternoon horseback riding. A very different experience that in Argentina. I had to wait while they brought me a different horse because the one I was supposed to have decided it was too angry to be ridden.

Yesterday we did a day trip to the Sacred Valley around Cusco to visit more of the Inca sites. It was a really strange day. The people on the tour with us were just really weird and took pictures of pretty much every rock that we saw. There was even a man on the tour we nicknamed ´BFG´Big Freaky Giant because he kept taking pictures out the window and saying weird things like Óh yeah baby, that´s it´ The tour was good and we were probably the smartest people there since we had been to Machu Picchu and were Inca experts at this point. We had fun playing in the ruins too!

Tonight we board a bus to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. As nice as it was to stop and rest in Cusco, I´m ready to move on and see the rest of South America! Just over two months gone and just over two months to go!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Flamingos in the Desert

Time flies when you´re having fun or you don´t have internet access. I didn´t realize how long its been since I´ve updated and so much as happened in between. First of all, Sarah, Amanda´s friend from home, arrived without a hitch in Santiago a day before the volcano ash covered Europe. We spent the day with her in Santiago, perhaps enjoying a few too many pisco sours and a couple bottles of wine, but what better way to welcome her to South America. Alcohol and getting on a 23 hour bus ride to the north of Chile. YES, please!

So we took the bus to San Pedro way at the top of Chile near the Bolivian border. Thankfully, I only had to endure 7 hours of it sitting next to a woman soring in my face. I did nudge her but she went right back at it. We arrived in San Pedro with one intention, to book a tour across the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia and that´s exactly what we did when we got there. We had heard some not so great things about the tour operators, that they drive drunk and recklessly, but we had a very good recommendation for a Canadian in Santiago and it turned out great. San Pedro did have a ton of really cool things to see around the area like geysers and salt lakes, but we were on a time crunch trying to make it to Cusco for the Inca Trail.

The next morning we started our jeep adventure into Bolivia. The jeeps have a guide/driver and then 6 or 7 people in the jeep with all of our luggage strapped to the roof of the jeep. We had to wait a while to get stamped out of Chile, but crossing into Bolivia was rather easy. As an American citizen I do require a visa for Bolivia, but the driver of the jeep was allowed to hold my passport until we got to Uyuni and I could go to immigration there.

We crossed the Dali Rock Desert visiting first the White Lagoon and then the Green Lagoon, both very beautiful. The next stop was a thermal bath. Luckily I had worn my swimsuit under my clothes to enjoy the hot water, unlucky that I did not pack clothes to change into in my day bag and a had to sit in my wet suit in the freezing temperatures. We then went to some geysers and saw the mud bubbling and smoking. Finally we did arrive at our hostel for the night and I was able to change into some dry clothes. The hostel wasn´t really even a hostel since it didn´t have any heat or electricity! Doubled up on the blankets that night and even wore my hat to bed, since like a good Wisconsite I know that heat escapes through the top of your head.

The highlight of the first day was after lunch when we visited the red lagoon and there were LLAMAS and FLAMINGOS! What are flamingos doing in the Bolivian desert? I have no idea since my spanish is still subpar, but there are three kinds that live there.

The second day was continuing through the Dali Rock Desert visiting the stone tree and four more lagoons. More flamingos, more llamas, a fox and a really cute rabbit. We stopped to see a volcano that was smoking but it was difficult to see since it was cloudy out. It was a long day driving and it was really cold. I´m really glad that I had my winter jacket, hat and mittens. Just at sunset we arrived at the salt hostel where everything was made of salt. The beds, the walls, the tables and chairs. Really cool, and there was hot showers!

Couldn´t wait for the next day on the salt flats!! We woke up really early before the sunrise to see it come up over the salt. It wasn´t the best sunrise I´ve ever seen since it was still a little overcast, but it was still a great experience. The salt flats are a salt desert that covers like 12,000 kilometers. Not sure what that is in miles, but its freakin´ huge. We spent a lot of time taking pictures of the sun and using the vastness of the salt to take a lot of really fun photos using perspective angles. We then went to an island in the salt flat that was covering in cacti and did a little bit of hiking around the island. The sun finally did come out for good and we stopped to take some more pictures. The best part of the day was when our driver stopped in the middle of the salt flat and we ate a picnic lunch there just enjoying the scenery and the surrealness of it all. We were the only jeep that stopped to eat there so I felt pretty lucky.

The trip ended in Uyuni and I was all set to head over to immigration to get my visa so we could take the night bus to La Paz. However, that´s when our plan blew up in our face when we found out it was Sunday and immigration was closed. Ugh, that was the wrost thing that could have happened since the last thing we wanted to do was spend the night in Uyuni, especially not after someone threw a rock at Amanda. But the fates were on our side and immigration opened especially for me to get my visa and we were able to take the night train to La Paz.

La Paz is a crazy busy city. We were told many times to hold on to our bags and watch our belongings. Even just walking from the bus station to the hostel, my bag was sprayed with mustard as a distraction for me to set my stuff down to clean it off and then whoever steals my stuff. HA HA, I have read my lonely planet and I knew the trick and I just kept walking. We spent the 2 days in La Paz shopping in the Witches Market buying as many souvenirs with llamas on them that would fit into our bags. The hostel we stayed at was really cool as well and had a microbrewery in it. At night there was also a poker tournament and of course having never played poker in my life, I joined the tournament. And won. on a pair of 2´s. Free pitcher of beer!

Next stop was Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. This is the most massive lake I have ever seen. We even had to take a ferry across it to get to Copacabana because it is just too big to go around. We had absolutely the best hostel ever in Copacabana too! It wasn´t even a hostel really, it was like a cabin in the hills overlooking the lake. It had hammocks for us to relax on and 3 beds with the best shower ever and all ours! We spend the day enjoying the view and had the best dinner that night of some stuffed trout.

The next day we went out to the Island of the Sun in the middle of the lake that is very important in Incan history. However, there was a hike to the ruins on the island and we were the only ones that didn´t wear proper foot attire. Not to be deterred, we did the hike anyways and it was really great to see some of the culture and history of the islands.

We took a bus the next day to Puno in Peru to see Lake Titicaca from the other side. Puno is a lot bigger than Copacabana and it is a city that has to grow on you. Also, we went from the best hostel to possibly the worst one yet. It was just one night but I´m pretty sure we were the only ones there. We did end up enjoying Puno and took a half day trip to the floating islands. There is a large group of people that made these islands with the reeds from the lake and actually live there. It was really cool to visit and one of families even dressed Sarah and I up in the traditional clothing. It was really a great trip and a very interesting lifestyle.

Yesterday afternoon we left Puno for Cusco on what was meant to be a 6 hour bus ride. 8 hours later we arrived in Cusco at midnight. The bus ride was terrible, probably as bad as the 25 hour one with the kid throwing up next to me. At one point this man got on and was shouting about something for an hour and a half. It took us 45 minutes to realize that he was selling cream to whiten your skin and toothbrushes.

Today was a planning and relaxing day. We had to get all of our money in soles to pay for the rest of the Inca Trail and mentally perpare ourselves for 4 days of hiking. I can´t believe its actually time for the trek either because that means my trip is nearly half way over!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bikes and Wines

For those of you who may have missed my facebook status the other day this is what it said: Last full day in argentina! Thanks for the delicious steak, beautiful wine, and the gorgeous men! It's been a great 3 weeks. Which means I´m now in Chile!! Haven´t felt any aftershocks yet or seen any earthquake destruction either.

It was really sad to leave Argentina after spending 3 weeks there, but its always exciting to move on to a new place. We´ve had a great last week or so...

We arrived in Salta to the rain after just leaving the rain in Cordoba. After the nicest bus trip ever there (seriously, get on the bus, eat, sleep, wake up, eat, arrive) we ended up wandering the city trying to find our hostel since the map given out by them was terrible. The only way to be positive about walking an hour with 40 pounds on our backs would be to consider it training for the Inca Trail. We made the most of our time in Salta even in the rain since it continued the next day as well. Finally on our 3rd there we got out of the rain and took a day trip up to the Humahuaca Valley. Most amazing trip ever. We were driving in the clouds and suddenly they just broke and the sun started to shine and all the mountains were different colors. The picture is of me at the Seven Colored Mountain. There were cacti everywhere and I´ve never seen a real giant cactus in real life so I was obviously really excited! We spent the day enjoying the scenery and visiting little villages of the only ´true Argentines´ left. The tour was great too because it was only 4 people, the driver and the guide. In the afternoon the driver could tell we were dragging a little and offered us some cocoa leaves to chew. They help you stay awake and are meant to help with the altitude. It was not tasty, but not nasty either. And I stayed awake.

We left Salta ready for some great weather and we had some in the Mendoza wine country. Most importantly on the ride to Mendoza on the bus, we played BINGO! and Amanda won a free bottle of wine. We didn´t understand all the numbers, but I was right next to the guy calling them so I was sneak a look if we didn´t know what he just said. We had had some great wines in Argentina up to this point, but this ia the area where most of the vineyards and winerys are and a place that I have been looking forward to going since I booked this trip. We arrived and met up with Jo, a woman we had met in Cordoba, showered and couldn´t wait to get out to Maipu where many of the winerys are.

Maipu was fantastic! Most of the backpackers do a tour called ¨Bikes and Wines¨ and that´s literally what it is. We rented our bikes, got a map and took off to visit the local hot spots. First stop was an olive oil place that also offered a shot of absinthe. My insides have never burned so much, yuck! We also visited the wine museum to make sure we were getting some local culture as well. Not really, they just had a free tasting, but it was cool so see some of the old equipment. We rode a while down the road and then made the best decison of our lives, to eat lunch at one of the vineyards. I had the most delicious steak ever with carmelized onions and bleu cheese, mouth heaven. I wish I would have taken a picture of it so everyone who read this would be jealous of it! The restaurant overlooked the grape fields as well and it was just a great afternoon enjoyed amazingly delicious food and a bottle of wine in the sun.

We spend the next day wandering the city of Mendoza. There are many different plazas and squares in the city and then we wandering around this giant park that is there too. Kind of a lazy day, but definitely necessary after the wine the previous day. That night we met a friend of a friend that is part of a consortium of vineyards in Mendoza and they have a local tasting room which was right by the hostel. We went over there and met her and enjoyed a glass of wine. It always nice to be put touch with people who know someone that you know or another American since it helps with the homesickness which always arises at some point.

Our last day in Mendoza we had wanted to go out to another area of winerys and do a bike tour there, but we were informed the area was under construction and unable to ride bikes there. And really we wanted to ride bikes. So we went back to Maipu since we hadn´t made it to all the winerys out there. Really awesome day again! We rode further out and could see the mountains that surround Mendoza. We went to one really small winery that many don´t make it out too and had our own private tasting. The woman that worked there also told us about a beer patio that locals go to if we didn´t want anymore wine. We had lunch at the same place that we ate at the other day because the food was so good and it was our last day in Argentina and wanted to treat ourselves. This time I went for the chicken and brie with pesto. Yum! At that point we were done with the wine and went over to the beer patio and enjoyed a beer.

The next morning we boarded our bus to cross the Andes into Chile. The border crossing was a little scary. We all had to get off the bus and watch our bags go through a scanner and then we all had our carryons on a long table that a dog went back and forth in front of. I was nervous I wouldn´t make it across the border with my beef jerky in my bag, but I think the dog was looking for drugs and not meat.

We arrived in Valpariso, Chile and immediately were in love. The city sits on several hills overlooking the ocean. All the houses are painted bright colors and it has a real bohemian feel to the city. The hills are really steep too and there are 100 year old elevators that you can take up and down the hills. We wandered the city that afternoon and had a really great meal at a vegetarian place. We had spoiled ourselves here and upgraded to a double room. Best decision ever! Two single beds and couch. High ceiling and very cutesy decor. So glad we went there too because the breakfast was the best ever! Homemade rolls and jelly, scrambled eggs and a huge platter of fresh cut up fruit. I was happy to eat everything in sight! We visited Pablo Neruda´s home there and really just spent most of our time walking the hills, taking the elevators and enjoying the views and the graffiti murals.

Sadly, we had to leave and arrived in Santiago yesterday. On the bus here I didn´t even know we had entered the city because there are no highrises or anything. We walked around the downtown area and its nice but I´m glad we aren´t spending too much time here. Amanda is at the airport now picking up her friend Sarah that will be joining us for the remainder of our adventure! We have to run up the rest of Chile and across Bolivia into Peru for the Inca Trail by the 25th of this month so we have some busy days ahead of us!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Beauty and the Beef

If Bariloche is just the tip of Patagonia, then I really can't imagine how much more beautiful it gets by going further south. However, we decided that we didn't have enough time to see everything that we would want to see in the amount of time that we have for Argentina. So it looks like there will have to be another trip to Argentina in the future.

The rest of our stay in Bariloche was great. We woke up the next morning after eating a delicious meal of tandorri trout, a regional speciality, to a gray and cloudy sky. Thinking the day was shot, we wandering into town going from chocolate shop to chocolate shop hoping to collect as many free samples as possible. As we were stuffing our faces, the clouds broke and we decided to work off some of those calories. We heard about a walk to a waterfall and decided to try our luck there and actually find a waterfall. We did. It was a nice waterfall, but the walk was shorter than we thought it was going to be so we set off on one to a viewpoint. Wow, that was the walk we were looking for. Very steep climb, but the view was fantastic overlooking the lakes and mountains surrounding us. Definitely worth climbing over rocks to get there.

The next day we woke up to similar weather. Luck didn't hold out that day and the clouds never really cleared. However, we did find a luge. Very, very excited about that. And the weather was a perfect excuse to enjoy some cheese fondue. Yum!!!!!!! I really don't think its ever possible to eat too much cheese.

Saturday morning we got up really early to take the bus to a little hippie community about 2 hours south of Bariloche called El Bolson. They have a really awesome craft market on the weekend that I'm so glad we decided to go to. I bought all sorts of goodies for myself. El Bolson was absolutely gorgeous. The mountains are much higher and snow capped. Its not right on a lake like Bariloche, but doesn't lack any of its beauty. The town is only around 22,000 which was fantastic to be able to cross the street without worring about getting run down.

Sunday was probably my favorite day of the entire trip so far. We had booked a horseback riding trip in the Andes for that morning. Again it was cloudy when we woke up and I thought it was going to be a bust. AH HA! Just as we started to ride up into the mountains the clouds started to lift and we could see all the beautiful valleys and farms and mountains. At one point while riding we were even above some of the clouds. Riding was amazing, the area grows a lot of blackberries and we could pull them off the bushes while we were riding. I loved everything about this day, it was one of those days that I really can't believe that this is what I'm doing.

However, since that was my best day, it had to be followed by the worst day. Not really the worst and I feel bad complaining, but it was pretty terrible. We had booked a bus to take us up to Cordoba which was going to take 25 hours. And the bus only had semi-camma, which really isn't so bad, but it was since we were sitting next a little boy who was throwing up. And then him mom would feed him more cakes and let him play in aisle with his trucks and just be plain annoying. For 25 hours. I could not have been more happier to arrive in Cordoba.

Cordoba is the second largest city in Argentina and has a really large student population. We were exhausted when we arrived at the hostel and coudln't wait to shower. But we had to wait a little longer since the water was out when we got here. Finally we did get cleaned up and set out to explore. We went to a museum and walked around the city. The higlight of the day though was back at the hostel. They had arranged for an acoustic band to come and play on the rooftop. They were amazing, played some bassanova, jazz, samba and sang in English and Spanish. It was a really relaxing way to enjoy the evening.

We booked a day trip for the next day to take us to Alta Gracia and the surrounding Calamuchita Valley. Alta Gracia has an old Jesuit site that was really cool to explore and interesting to learn about. The real reason everyone goes to this town though is the Che Guevara Museum that is there. It is actually in the house that his family moved to in the area when they had to leave the city to treat his asthma. Putting my feelings for Che aside, the museum was really great. A lot of pictures from his life and it was set up really tastefully and not exploiting him like the rest of the world. We talked about this later, but about how Che would hate how he has been commercialized and people wear shirts with his face and don't even understand what it means.

The rest of the excursion was really nice and super nice to not have to think about what bus to get on and where to have to be and how to get there. We had an english speaking guide as well, so we actually knew what we were looking at too. The last spot for the day was the community of Villa Generla Belgrano. Its a German community was establishe after the second world war and its so weird to be in. It kind of looks like New Glarus but with everything in Spanish. Its set up kind of for tourists, but its so strange to see all these beer steins and bavarian type building in the middle of Argentina.

Yesterday was a really great day in Cordoba. We met up with Lucas, a local that we had met in Sao Paulo and had exchanged info with. He was lucky enough to show us around the city and be our guide/translator for the day. Its always great being with a local too since we found out much more about the city than we would have on our own. We walked past many of the places that we had the other day, but now we actually knew what we were looking at and the history of it. Super fun! We went to an art museum and walked around a pond in a park and capped off the great day with a few brews. And no matter what Lucas would say, his English was really great and sooooooo much better than the Spanglish that I speak.

We had a BBQ on the roof of the hostel last night. Beef, Beef, and more BEEF! We haven't had a BBQ in a while so it was nice to get back on track with enjoying some of the best in the world. And it was cooked just the way I like it. Pink!

Today we woke up to rain. Probably just going to relax and maybe go see Alice in Wonderland. Getting on the night bus to Salta this evening. In executive class. We ride in style now after the last experience. I really just think there should be a special family area where kids should be kept so they don't bother everyone else. Like at church.

I'm continuing to love Argentina more and more each day. The one issue that I do have is that they don't recycle. A little part of me dies every time I put my plastic bottle in the garbage. The litter too is a little bit of an issue, but its the recycling that I really stress about. Brazil was really great about it and had set up bins for plastic and glass everywhere. But if thats is my only complaint, well then, I really am enjoying myself.

Hope everyone has a fantastic Easter and finds all the eggs the Easter Bunny hid!