Welcome to Our Blog

As many of you know we will be travelling around the world for a year while JJ is applying to medical school. The purpose of our blog is to document what we have been up to and keep our family and friends informed. We hope you enjoy. Please e-mail us to let us know what you have been up to or with advice or people you may know that we can visit along the way!!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hong Kong

We had a layover in Hong Kong on our way to Nepal, so JJ arranged for it to be extended and we got to have about 48 hours seeing the city/territory. We had no idea what a treat we were in for and we barely skimmed the surface of activities! First of all, Hong Kong is probably one of the top 5 easiest cities to go visit. It jumps to that ranking because it has excellent and easy to understand public transportation, plus a bus that takes you right to the city center from the airport for cheap and it has wireless internet on it! As we left the airport, we immediately passed some of the tallest high rise apartment buildings I think I have ever seen. Not only were they massive, there were about 25 of them in a row, all lining the coast on the South China Sea. Can you imagine how many thousands of people lived in those buildings?! As we went over numerous bridges, I realized that half of Hong Kong is comprised of islands, while the other half is actually connected to mainland China. When we got to the Canadian Hostel, right by the Kowloon Peninsula on Nathan Street, we were introduced to the typical South-east Asian dorm-style room. It was so tiny, you could hop from the bed into the bathroom and back, but it was cheap and had a great location!

It was pretty early in the morning, so we dropped our stuff off and set out for some exploring. We walked to the water on the edge of the Kowloon Peninsula and found ourselves on the Avenue of the Stars. Movie Stars from Hong Kong that is! This seemed to be exactly like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, by Sunset Blvd, but it was a walkway right on the water. We walked by many of the cement sets of handprints, but could not help taking silly tourist pictures of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s handprints. We also had other tourists taking pictures of us! Apparently, many Asian people like to take pictures of anyone and everyone doing anything! Since we fell into that category, many random people snapped pictures of us, and so of course, we took some random people pictures too! After the Star Walk, we found a very helpful Hong Kong Information Office, and decided to take the Star Ferry across the causeway bay to the “central” area of Hong Kong Island. The nice lady in the tourist office gave us a few maps with walking tours and information included, so we embarked on our self-guided tour. First stop, dry seafood market! Ewww! Dried sea cucumbers really do look like turds in every size and color! Not only that, but we saw everything else imaginable from the ocean that was dried and treated to go in your food, hair, bathtub or whatever! We also saw a handful of places that just had hundreds of bags of shark fins lying on the floor. Sadly, we assumed that these were for shark fin soup, when we tried to take a picture of these fins, the people running the shops all freaked out! Does that mean they feel a little guilty? I hope so!

We continued along the walking tour into the herbal Chinese medicine market district, a very interesting herb garden with marked indicators of the herbs and their uses, and a beautiful Buddhist Temple. There was more sandalwood incense burning than I thought there should be without the fire department shutting the place down, but despite the all the fumes, the sights inside the temple were really beautiful. After leaving the temple, we wound up in a really swanky area that seemed like Soho in New York City. There were tons of cute boutique shops and restaurants and lots of foreigners! Although, I think the Hong Kongers dress more fashionably! Everyone is wearing different shades of black, grey, blue, and brown designer clothing and bags. It seemed like there was a common uniform to look stylish, have expensive designer taste, and wear dark clothes! We walked past art galleries, antique shops, and then past city hall to Dim Sum! We got a recommendation to eat at Maxims, one of the best places, which also happened to also be expensive and fancy, with fancy people, but hey, the food was great! Thank goodness we had our friend’s John and Jonathan show us how to go through many sessions of Dim Sum in Downtown LA before we got to Hong Kong! We knew exactly what to do and waved over the ladies pushing the carts of delicious goodies, while we ate and they stamped our card with some sort of Chinese (Cantonese) characters that said what we ate.

When we got to the lobby of City Hall, we were amazed to see a string quartet set up and playing classical music for a lunch concert. As we made our way back to the other side of Hong Kong on the Ferry, I took time to absorb all of the incredible sky scrapers and architectural masterpieces I had seen throughout the day. I have not seen any tall buildings that can match the grandeur of the ones in Hong Kong. They are truly a sight to behold! The weather was not very clear all day or we would have taken a trip up to the top of Victoria Peak to get a good 360 degree view of the city, but instead we took the metro subway to Prince Charles area for a walk around the flower market and bird garden.

I have never seen so many amazing orchids at one time! At the flower market, there were shops crammed full with gorgeous, exotic orchids. Too bad we could not take some with us! The bird market was set in a pretty garden, but all the birds in cages bothered me, so we wandered another direction into a veggie market with mountains of bok choy and other tasty greens. In South America, green veggies are not a staple in the diet by any means, so I was very excited about this!
We continued walking towards the Mong Kok area where we found the streets lively and full of people shopping, eating, and taking in the scene! From there, we walked all the way back to the Peninsula Area and staked out a good place on the Avenue of the Stars to watch the nightly Hong Kong laser light show across the causeway bay. Soon after, the music started and because it was synchronized with the lasers, the show was pretty cool! Colorful lasers bounced across buildings and the water to the music for about 15 minutes. Afterward, we exchanged picture taking with a set of software engineering students who could work a Canon camera like a video game controller and ended up taking an excellent picture of us! We took a survey for one of their classes and then walked to the night market. We had an incredible dinner right in the middle of the market. JJ had beef and Chinese broccoli and I had bean curd and mushrooms. Afterward, we went shopping at the night market, looking at imitations of everything imaginable, including: watches of all brands, movies, software, ipods, clothes, purses, you name it, they got it! Finally, we walked back, had an incredible sweet waffle on the way from a packed stand, and then made it into bed!

The next morning, we walked back to the Avenue of the Stars, where the rainy clouds from the day before had cleared and we got nice views of the skyline and Victoria peak in the background of the city. We took the metro subway to the “ladies market” where there was an entire street cut off from traffic and packed full of the same imitation goods. I guess there were a few more purses though, since it was the ladies market after all. For lunch, we went into a Japanese ramen restaurant where we enjoyed observing other people eating their food as much as the food itself! I guess the traditional way of eating Ramen is with a pair of chopsticks to pick up the goodies and a ladel for slurping up the broth. So you can imagine the sound effects were awesome. After we bought a few watches and ipod accessories at the ladies market, we took the metro back to our hotel and then transferred to the airport bus to make our way to Kathmandu, Nepal!

Our Pit Stop in Los Angeles

We only had about 8 days in LA between our trip in South America and our trip to Asia, but it was jammed packed full of awesome stuff. The first Saturday, we drove up one hour north of LA, to Ventura, where we went on a nice, long bike ride with Papa Joe (JJ’s Dad). It was a great ride through the hills of Ventura County and around Lake Casitas. We at lunch in Ojai (East of Ventura), at a fantastic health food market/restaurant/store, called the Farmer and the Cook. It was excellent and we really enjoyed our meal until we realized we had to ride our bikes all the way back to Ventura! But, it was a nice ride and a great way to spend time together, so we enjoyed every minute. That night back in LA, we went with our friend Josh to see the movie Gnomeo and Juliet. If you did not already know, I am a gnome fanatic and I loved every second of the movie and all 10 versions of “Crocodile Rock” that Elton John used as the music in the film. I think there may have been only one other song used, but who is counting?!

We spent the next week getting ready for the next part of our trip (to Nepal and Thailand) and hanging out with family and friends in LA. A few wonderful people, families, and JJ’s sweet Grandma Selma, all held birthday dinner/celebrations for us because we were turning 26 and the week before we left, JJ got a call from the Dean of the UCLA/Drew program that he was accepted to medical school at his first choice! YES! There are no words to describe how happy we both are to know that we will be living in LA while he attends medical school at UCLA! We are so glad that we got to spend some meaningful time with our family and friends in LA, it really recharged our batteries and reminded us how lucky we are to have them all! If we missed you, we will be living in LA the next 5 years or more, so let’s get together when we get back officially in June!

Flamingos and Penguins on Our Way Home

When we returned to El Calafate, we asked the receptionist at the campground to tell us where to get the best empanada in town. When we found the place, we knew it would be good because there were four people in a tiny open kitchen all busy making empanadas by hand. We got 7 empanadas to share and ended up leaving after getting a total of 12. Yes, they were that good! Actually, they were the best we had in Argentina. Next, we walked to a nature reserve in town where flamingos can sometimes be spotted. When we got there, all of the flamingoes were too far away to see, so we headed back into town to get a cup of traditional mate at a cool coffee/bar we saw. The waitress was really nice and helped us by arranging the mate in the cup for us and adding a bunch of sugar since the leaves or whatever it is made up of is really strong. She even brought us a cupcake! By the way, we heard that people in Argentina drink a lot of mate tea, but we had no idea that just about every person drinks mate all day, every day. So, I guess I was expecting it would be easier to drink since everyone is drinking it all the time, but no! It was so bitter that we probably added about 1 cup of sugar into the little cup just to drink it! The metal straw thing is also pretty weird, but JJ said he could get used to it. Later in the afternoon, we walked back over to the estuary area and found a whole bunch of flamingoes with our binoculars, but they were so far away, you could hardly make them out. We watched the clouds and sky change colors while we polished off a bottle of wine.

The next day, we took the early bus back to Punta Arenas, Chile, where met lots of interesting travelers camping there. Actually, about half of them had biked to Punta Arenas from other parts of Chile, South America, Central America, and Canada! We met a young guy from Colorado who was biking north from Punta Arenas along the West Coast of Chile. He found a riding partner and bought a tandem bike from people who had just biked down with their 10 year old daughter from Alaska over the past 18 months. To be very clear, he found the guy to ride with him, bought the bike, and made this decision all in one day! We spent the rest of the day walking around Punta Arenas and took a really nice walk along an ocean pathway that wraps along the coast. We took a detour to check out the municipal cemetery before we went wine shopping at the biggest grocery store.

The next morning, we took a bumpy 45 minute boat ride to La Isla de Penguinos Magellicos (Magenellic Penguins). We got to spend an entire hour walking around the colony that hosts 150,000 penguins! The penguins were awesome and we had a great time watching them sit on their eggs, swim in the ocean, or waddle around. We saw a sea lion pop its head out a few times pretty close to shore, but we couldn’t tell if it got a meal or not. After making our way back to the mainland, we had our last seafood dinner where I sampled the local king crab and JJ had Chilean sea bass. Then, we packed up the tent and made our way to the airport for a flight at midnight.
With our low fare tickets, we had to take a lot of connecting flights on the way home to Los Angeles. The plan was Punta Arenas, Chile to Santiago, Chile, to Lima, Peru to Panama City, Panama to Los Angeles in about 24 hours! Well, our first flight was cancelled and when we finally made it to Santiago, our next flight was delayed 5 hours. We missed our connection to Panama City. When we got to Lima, the whole scene was chaos, but finally JJ got the airline put us into a hotel and got us booked on the first flight out in the morning. I was nervous about the hotel situation because we had to be back at the airport in 9 hours and it was 30 minutes from the airport. But, when the taxi pulled up at a 5 star resort, I was sure that someone screwed up and we hit the jackpot! Delphines Hotel and Casino in the Miraflores area of Lima was the nicest hotel JJ and I have ever stayed at. We walked in wearing our hiking boots and total camper outfits, which seemed appropriate since we spent every night the last 3 weeks before that sleeping in our tent. After checking in, we were whisked away to the gourmet buffet. We were at the hotel on live dancing night and were seated on the stage with several couples of traditional Peruvian Dancers dancing right in front of us while we had some of the best food all trip. There was everything you could think of, including full ceviche bar! After stuffing ourselves, dancing on the stage with the dancers, and laughing hysterically (due to being overtired and the entire ridiculous situation) we made our way to our fancy room! They even had bathrobes!!! We only got about 5 hours of sleep, but the entire lay over experience was crazy! When we finally made it back to LA, 44 hours after leaving Punta Arenas, we were relieved and exhausted. It was amazing to see JJ’s Dad waiting for us in the airport and he whisked us away to our favorite sushi restaurant, Hide, to welcome us back.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Perito Moreno and Los Glaciares N.P., Patagonia, Argentina

We took the Saturday Night bus from Puerto Natales, Chile to El Calafate, Argentina. The border crossing was easy and the sunset across the sky provided plenty of entertainment. When we arrived in El Calafate, two things happened. First, the smell of meat cooking descended upon us from all directions because people were barbequing in every possible place. Second, we realized that there was some sort of party/festival going on and the whole town was out (at midnight when we arrived), including children of all ages. We set up our tent at the municipal camp ground (whose main attraction was enormous barbeques at every tent site) ground and got to sleep around 2am. The next day, we made our way by bus to the Perito Moreno Glacier, probably the most famous in all of Argentina. Although the day trip was expensive, when we got to the glacier we knew it was worth it. This glacier is actually considered “stable” because it is growing (by a few meters every day) instead of receding. Its position between two bodies of water (Lago Argentino and Channel de los Tempanos) actually makes for a dramatic viewing experience and a coastline that wraps around the glacier. Even when standing on the viewing platforms, the glacier is very close and its incredible size is apparent. The edge of the glacier, where gigantic pieces of ice are constantly breaking off is 240 feet high! Since we arrived in the afternoon of a particularly sunny day, it was no surprise when an enormous piece broke off its left side as soon as we pulled up. We sat in various places along the viewing platform (actually miles long) with our eyes glued to it. There was constant thundering as pieces broke off into the lake below, but about halfway through our visit, JJ noticed a crack forming in a large section directly in front of us and got his camera ready. Almost instantly, the biggest piece of the day broke off right in front of us! The pictures in the sequence he took speak for themselves! A few hours later, just as we were about to leave, I was taking a video and another huge chunk broke off! When we got back to town, it was already 10pm, but that is just about the time that it seems most Argentines have dinner. So, we decided to get some dinner also, at a Parrilla, a special meat grilling restaurant (that also served local trout for me!). JJ could not resist the meat sampler platter (of course, it was all you can eat) and about 2 hours later, we walked out after polishing off a bottle of red wine and eating more food than we could have imagined.

The next day, we took a very early bus to El Chalten, Argentina, to begin exploring Los Glaciares National Park. The weather was so nice when we arrived in town, the bus driver pulled off at a viewpoint so we could get a view of the famous Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre peaks the park is famous for. After planning our route at the Park Service Office, we headed to the market to get our supplies, where we just missed it being open. Every day, everything in the El Chalten closes from 1pm to 4:30pm, for lunch? siesta? Watching football (soccer)? No one knows why, but everything mysteriously closes! So we killed some time by eating as many empanadas as we could from a little bakery we found and JJ journeyed to some random field to hard boil eggs for our backpacking trip. After our 9 day excursion in Torres del Paine, we were happy to fill our bags with veggies and other tasty foods. Later in the afternoon, we began hiking on the trail to Laguna Torre. We passed over hills and walked through small valleys, although the clouds did not grant us a view of Cerro Torre until we reached our campsite for the night, De Agostini. We had a massive dinner of rice, lentils, beets, carrots, onion, garlic, and stock. JJ concocted this tasty, nutritious idea from a crazy Canadian guy, Cameron, we met in Torres Del Paine. Thus, the dish has earned its name, “Cam Slop.”

The next morning, we woke up to cloudy skies, but decided to walk to the mirador next to Glacier Grande, above Laguna Torre. We pretty much walked up and over the perimeter of the lake, to earn closer views of Glacier Grande. On the way back, JJ stopped dead in his tracks to show me an Andean Condor (probably juvenile, but still huge!) perched on a rock only about 20 feet in front of us. It was just looking at us! I could not believe how close we were to it, how big it was, and how lucky we were that they only eat things that are already dead! After a few minutes, it took off, and we were just awestruck. It is so rare to get that close to an Andean Condor and really, any wildlife in Patagonia. The terrain we have been in is similar in many ways to Alaska, but there is no wildlife to dot the scenery. We have met a handful of Alaskans that are kind of creeped out by the place because they can keep their food in their tent and nothing will take it, not even the other people at the campsite! After lunch, we hiked through the forest to our next camping site at the base of Laguna de los Tres and Cerro Fitz Roy, Poincenot, where we would base camp for two nights.

The next morning, the skies cleared and we began our hike straight up the trail to Cerro Fitz Roy. After quite a tough climb, we reached the base of Laguna de los Tres and awed at the steep rock formations in front of us. We decided this was a perfect lunch spot and made our ridiculous sandwiches with fresh veggies while we watched the clouds and light change around Cerro Fitz Roy. After we made our way down, we continued through the river valley, and over a field of boulders until we got to Piedras Blancas. Piedras Blancas is an incredible blue glacier hanging off a narrow cliff, with waterfalls coming off it. We decided not to go anywhere else, but to stay there lying in view of the glacier with the warm sun.

The next day was clear and perfect again! We hiked out of the campsite towards Laguna Capri. The spot was beautiful and the views of Cerro Fitz Roy were fantastic. We continued on the trail back to El Chalten, quickly set up our tent in a campground, grabbed a ton of empanadas and pastries for lunch, then continued to the Park Service Office. We began hiking towards Loma del Pilegue Tombado, where we heard you could get views of Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy all in one place. The trail gradually rose uphill the entire way. We walked through several different types of forests, cow pastures, and finally onto a rocky field above the tree line. We were rewarded for our 3 plus hours of uphill with spectacular views of the two famous peaks and the entire Los Glaciares National Park! We continued hiking up a very steep mountain of shale until we felt like we were on top of the world. When we made it back down, JJ made a delicious spaghetti supper for us and we drank a bottle of wine, very happy to give our legs a rest after one of our longest days of hiking.

The next day we were planning to hike back to Laguna Capri to relax and spend the day, but the weather got so ugly that we decided to make our way back to El Calafate (the first of many parts to our journey back to Punta Arenas, Chile to make our connecting flights to Los Angeles on March 2nd!). We got really lucky with a few beautiful days here in Argentina, but now it is time to make our way back to Chile!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Torres del Paine and Patagonia, Chile

Let the camping begin! We made our way from the airport in Punta Arenas, Chile (now is the time to look at a map and see how far south this actually is) to Hostal Independencia and set up our tent. Our rumbling tummies took us over to a local seafood restaurant where we filled up and then went back to have a nap. We spent the later parts of the afternoon walking around Punta Arenas and getting oriented, checking out the grocery stores and picking up random supplies, and going to the central plaza to touch the big toe on the statue of Magellan. Local lore states that if you touch his toe, you will come back to Patagonia one day!

The next day, we took a bus to Puerto Natales, about 2.5 hours north of Punta Arenas. Puerto Natales is the gateway city to Torres del Paine National Park and as we pulled into town, I got really excited seeing the gorgeous mountains and snowy peaks surrounding the bay the town is situated on. We set up our tent at Hostal Josmar 2 and went to the 3pm talk at Erratic Rock, an American owned gear shop. One hour and a half later, it seemed as though we knew everything there was to know about Torres Del Paine and the various trail options. We had the time to do the full circuit loop around the park, so we set off from there and prepared our minds, our bodies, and our packs (with lots of food!) for the next 8 days.

We rose early and took the 2 hour bus ride into the park, passing gorgeous mountains, valleys, and lakes along the way. Once in the park, we saw wild vicunas (vanacos?), a relative of the camel, and some Andean Condors Passing overhead. We got off at park “administration”, the very last stop on the bus. While making our tuna and tortilla lunch, we got our first taste of the famous Patagonia wind. We heard that the weather and wind in Torres Del Paine was unpredictable, but there was nothing like actually experiencing it. After browsing the informational posters and several large maps at the park administration, we started hiking on our first day of the trek (known as the tail of the Q), which turned out to only be two hours of relatively flat terrain we were thankful for. The view to our right was of the entire Paine Mastiff, consisting of sedimentary rock with a main layer of a granite intrusion that was heated and uplifted about 12 million years ago. The Paine Mastiff stands alone and is not connected to the Andes at all, although the surrounding mountains (part of the Andes range) make the scenery even more stunning! We also learned that all the water running through the park is the result of melt off from two massive glaciers. We arrived at our first campsite, Las Carratas, and chose a spot that would best shelter us from the wind. The view and the surrounding campsite area consisted of an overlook above a wide, blue glacial melt river and dead trees, twisted, and gnarled into shapes by wind and fire. We had a nice dinner of queso risotto and a massive chocolate bar then chatted with the other campers before heading to sleep in our tent. The stars were fantastic after the sunset at about 10pm!

We woke up to a magenta colored sky for sunrise! We began walking up and over rolling hills into a river valley where we got an excellent view (mirador) of Lake Pehoe and the Paine Mastiff. It was really neat to be looking into the valleys we would hike into for the next few days. Just as the rain began to come down, we took our lunch break in a nice shelter for campers. From there, we headed along the “W” path towards the base of the French Valley and Campamento Italiano. The rain was off and on and we passed several high mountain glaciers, Lago Skottsberg, and lots of other hikers! When we crossed the river we had been following, we found the most amazing campsite right next to the river (it was the last one and very far from the bathrooms, but still it was the best!)! We had an incredible view of the French Glacier from our tent door. JJ could not resist the urge to give himself a wash in the freezing, ice cold, glacial water (seriously, the water was coming off the glacier only about a mile from our tent site). I dipped my feet in and they almost instantly went numb, just to give you an idea of how cold the water was. After pasta dinner and our nightly chocolate bar, it was time to tell the glacier goodnight.

The sky was clear blue when we woke up, giving us an unbelievable view! The clouds quickly rolled in after breakfast, but we continued with our plans to spend the day hiking up the French Valley and back without our heavy backpacks. The trail began to climb along rocks and shale left as the glacier has scraped up the valley over thousands of years. We had been hearing the “white thunder” from the glacier as it dropped huge chunks of ice all morning due to the intense sunshine, but as soon as we got to a nice viewpoint, a massive piece broke off! We got some great views and then continued our hike along the right side, passing by the French Glacier and into the depths of the valley. We walked through rolling forests and over small hills for about 2 hours until we finally climbed up to the mirador, where we got a very nice 360 degree view of the whole French Valley for our lunch spot! There were lots of people at the viewpoint and we longed for less crowded trails and climbing over the mountain passes we saw in the distance (which we would get to a few days later!). Back at Campamento Italiano, we decided to stay there a second night instead of hiking to Los Cuernos because our spot was so nice. We washed out some clothes in the river and relaxed before our long day of hiking the next day. Although, the wind got to be so strong later in the evening we had a sandstorm inside our tent because of the mesh lining!

We actually woke up late because of our battles with the wind and sand. But we felt well rested and ready to battle the wind along the trail. For our lunch stop at Los Cuernos, it was so windy that our Peanut Butter and Jelly filled tortillas almost blew away! As we walked along the shore of Lake Pehoe, we saw a waterspout (tornado that forms over water) due to the high wind! We thought the wind had died off a bit as we took a marked shortcut towards Refugio Chileno that gave us great views of crystal blue Lake Pehoe. Well, when we got to the pass into the valley of the Torres we realized we were wrong! We could actually see the wind and rain coming out of the valley towards us in sheets! We bundled up as quickly as possible (I sort of looked like a bank robber with my buff scarf wrapped around my head) and headed into some of the strongest winds I have ever faced in my life, but at least the trail was downhill from there! We took a rest stop from the weather at Refugio Chileno, where we sat by a warm fire and shared a nice tall glass of red wine! Realizing that the rain and wind were not going to stop, we decided to put our packs back on and head the hour more up the trail to Campamento Los Torres. The way was uphill, but sheltered by trees most of the way. When we got to the campsite, we made our way to site 29, where our friends Caitlin and PJ had left us some buried treasure when they were at the same campsite only about 2 and a half weeks before us! We dug up the note they wrote us following their directions and read it before bed, putting huge smiles on our faces!

Most campers wake up at 5:30am to hike up 45 more minutes to the view of the famous “Torres”, the three towers of Torres Del Paine National Park. We heard the alarm go off, just barely, due to the loud rain hammering down on our tent. We decided not to get up and let the weather tell us what to do, which was obviously to sleep until about 11am. By lunch time, the skies had cleared and it had turned into a beautiful day! We took all of our things outside the campsite and onto a rock field to dry out. Everything was crisp and as good as new in about 30 minutes thanks to the wind and sunshine combo. We saw a few large foxes walking through the rock field while we were waiting. After having lunch, we decided to hike up and see the Torres. The short hike was steep and well worth the views! The Torres sit at the base of a little lake and the views were really clear! This was a very romantic spot to spend Valentines Day together. We decided that we would spend the night at the campsite again and try our luck for the famous orange sunrise views of the Torres in the morning. We had the best dinner of the trip which was pasta with pesto sauce and a ton of parmesan cheese and felt happy about our decision to stay.

We woke up at 5:30am to partly cloudy skies, but were determined to try to see those first rays of sunshine on the Torres. So, we geared up in all our clothes, packed the stove and our breakfast, then put on the headlamps and began our hike up to the viewpoint. When we got to the top, you could not see the Torres, but you could see lots of snow! The sunrise was gorgeous, but you could not see the rays of light or even the towers due the heavy clouds all around us. The weather at that high altitude was freezing, but with JJ’s expert cooking skills, he got the stove fired up and we enjoyed our hot coffee and oatmeal while trying to wait out the weather. We gave up waiting when quarter sized snowflakes started falling from the sky and made our way back to the campsite. We quickly packed up the tent and headed down and out of the valley. We made our way to the Hotel Las Torres just in time for lunch, which JJ initiated with an ice cream and roll of cookies he bought from the lodge store. We used the afternoon sunshine to dry out our tent and continued hiking into the “backside” of the park. Although it was mostly sunny we battled wind, rain, wind, rain, wind, and rain constantly, but only for a few minutes before the sunshine came out again. The weather is so crazy here! We walked over rolling hills and got dramatic views of lakes and neighboring mountains. We crossed into a river valley and then walked through it finally reaching Campamento Seron. We ate dinner, watched for Condors (that we thought would come get the dead horse in the field nearby the campground – but they didn’t show up), talked to some nice Americans and one Dutch guy, and then headed to sleep.

We woke up to a beautiful day and no condors, but a lot of hiking to get under way (19 miles to be exact!), so we set out after breakfast and immediately began climbing out of the river valley we were in. We filled up our water at a spring along the way and got asked questions in Hebrew by a crew of Israelis for about the 10th time since we started the circuit in Torres Del Paine. Apparently, JJ or me, or both of us appear to be Israeli – and there are a lot of Israelis in Chile right now! So, after politely explaining that we knew the language they were speaking to us was Hebrew, but no, we did not know any of it, and yes, we were American Jews, we began to hike again along the trail. We got amazing views of the glaciers and mountains surrounding us on the backside and it turned out to be the prettiest day with the most spectacular scenery we had seen so far in Torres Del Paine. After finding the Dutch guy’s camera along the trail, then walked with him to lunch at Refugio Dickson. At Refugio Dickson, we had to stock up on supplies, since we extended our trip from 8 days to 9 days and we were hoping to buy some pasta, packaged foods, etc. However, being Chile and all, at the mini-store all we could manage to buy were a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, a can of tuna, mayonnaise, chocolate bars, cookies, and milky way bars. JJ had a complete nutrition plan ready to tell me how these foods would help maximize our hiking abilities, but I was really too hungry to think about it, so we ate! We had a half dozen eggs and bread with lunch, right after JJ fixed some complicated problem with his stove using some tools he produced from his backpack. I asked him why he had the tools and he said he always did just in case, so I was very happy for the extra weight for a record of 5 minutes, seeing as he fixed the stove. After lunch, we headed up and up into the mountains and then dropped into a river valley, making our way to Campamento Los Perros, which sits at the base of the Los Perros Glacier. We camped next to some nice American guys from Wisconsin and ate our dinner in the cook shed due to the warmth coming from the door! We treated ourselves to a can of pinapple for desert, which we heated up on the stove for a warm, tasty treat!

I woke up very excited to climb over the John Gardner Pass, which I think was the highlight of the backside circuit. The trail began to climb almost as soon as we left the campsite and after a series of muddy forested sections, we made our way to the rock field below the pass. It was a little intimidating to see hikers so far above us and in the distance, but our packs were light, the weather was perfect, and we were feeling good. We made it to the top of the pass about 2 and a half hours after we started hiking and the views were absolutely spectacular of the great southern ice field on the other side. I had seen it before in pictures, but the sheer size of the ice field was breathtaking. I took so many pictures of this incredible sight and stopped JJ frequently just so I could stare at it. We began our immediate descent towards the edge of the ice field, Glacier Grey, heading down through a forest on an incredibly steep section of the trail. For the next 3 hours we went almost straight downhill and thanked our lucky stars we did not have knee problems. After a few more hours, climbing down and up some ladders, and repeatedly enjoying the amazing views, we made it to Camapamento Los Guardas, our last campsite. The campsite was really quiet and not heavily populated with campers, so we really enjoyed our stay there, especially with the view of the edge of glacier grey almost all to ourselves!

In the morning, we woke up before sunrise to began heading down to the Catamaran dock in front of Paine Grande Lodge. We were moving incredibly fast, but also enjoying the early morning sights. Within the first 30 minutes, JJ pointed out a small hawk sitting in a branch only about 1 foot from where we were standing! We saw Andean Condors zooming over the hills above us and enjoyed the last views we had of Glacier Grey, the southern ice field, and Lago Grey. After battling more occasional wind gusts, we finally made our way back to Lago Pehoe and to the Catamaran dock. Some really nice Americans we met with a gluten allergy that were staying at the nice lodge and gave us their amazing veggie sandwiches when we got there because they could not eat them, but we sure could! We enjoyed the pretty and scenic ride in the catamaran alongside the park we had just walked through and around! After returning to Puerto Natales, we went out for a celebratory dinner at a local Chilean/American owned Brew/Pub, Bagueles (wild horses). The food was excellent and we talked about the highlights of the trip for hours over our Pale Ales.

Santiago, Chile

Our flight from Lima arrived very late at night, but Helena was waiting up for us in Providencia (the neighborhood in Santiago where her apartment is located). We were so happy to see her, even though we had never met in person! The next morning we made a typical breakfast with avocado, tomato, and cheese she had bought from the store while we were sleeping. What a hostess! Then we headed out on Helena’s guided walking tour of the Provedecia area. JJ and I immediately felt like we were walking around in Santa Monica during the summer time. It was very warm, but there was a cool breeze in the air and not a cloud in the sky. In her area, the city seemed incredibly modern and almost western European. We had a nice lunch and headed out again to navigate the Santiago metro system and make our way to the out-of-town train that would take us south of Santiago.

Helena and her family invited us to come visit their family farm and apple orchard in the San Fernando Valley of Chile. This is actually funny on numerous levels since Helena and JJ grew up only a few miles away from each other in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, California. We got some ice cream because we could not resist seeing it everywhere we went (everyone in Chile is always eating ice cream! Non-stop!!! There are even McDonalds that only serve ice cream!) and watched the landscape change for the next 2 hours. When we got off the train, Helena’s father was waiting for us. He drove us to the farm in the “village” of Tres Puentes (3 bridges). We met her mother, her sister, and her nephew, Lucas, also known as “El Nino Velos” (the very fast boy!). Everyone made us feel so welcome and like we were a part of the family. The farm property was gorgeous and we were amazed by all of the apple trees surrounding us! Too bad they were not going to be ripe for picking for a few more weeks! Granny smith, pink lady, gala, red chief, etc. etc.! The Rojas family also had chickens, a small flock of geese, cats, and a dog named Jack. After playing with Lucas and bribing him with sweets, we sat down to late afternoon tea/dinner with their family and got to sample the local produce and homemade bread! More family friends arrived later in the evening and we began to try many, many bottles of Chilean wine!

The next day, JJ and I borrowed some bikes and took a ride for about an hour around the Rojas farm. We saw many different orchards and enjoyed the beautiful green scenery. The blackberry bushes covering the fences along the road were just too tempting, so we also stopped many times to sample them. We got a little lost, but made it back just in time for lunch. The table had moved from the pretty corner of the yard we had eaten at the night before to a section of the yard next to the small river flowing through the property (irrigating the soil of the farm). Helena’s mom called this a new “restaurant” and served us the most incredible lunch that included potatoes, tomatoes, salad, green beans, fish, chicken, wine, watermelon, and other delicious food from the neighboring farms! We were so full after lunch we had to take a nap. I woke up in the afternoon to make fresh bread with Helena. I have no idea how much yeast, flour, water, salt, and vegetable shortening when into the dough, but the result turned out to be delicious! Helena took us into the town of San Fernando to show us around and to pick up her sister from the train station. We took a walk through town and passed through some very nice parks. After another good meal that evening, Helena’s mom walked us over to the tomato orchard at one of the neighbor’s homes. We walked around the back of a home and then into a gigantic greenhouse that seemed to go on forever with some of the most gorgeous (and tastiest) tomatoes I have ever seen! We also were given some freshly picked peaches and nectarines by the nice lady who grew the tomatoes. Of course, JJ and I devoured on the amazing fruit right there in front of her to show our gratitude! On the walk back we enveloped by a clear sky full of shining stars. We could see Orion’s belt and the Southern Cross.

The next morning we woke up and had another breakfast of fresh, delicious eggs from their chickens, and said our goodbyes to Helena’s mom, sister, and Lucas. We had such a fantastic time visiting them and left for Santiago with pounds of tomatoes, pears, and fresh eggs. After a filling lunch where I got corn tamale called homida, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the apartment and avoiding the heat. JJ went out to buy some empanadas to go with our wine and we went out to have few pisco sour’s and to stroll down Suecia (a popular street for clubbing in Provedencia on a Friday night). Some of the names and themes of the bars on Suecia made me laugh out loud, like “Louisiana” with a river boat theme, and “Bed Rock” with a Flintstones theme.

The next day, Helena joined us for a day trip to Valparaiso, a very hilly, pirate-ish, historical port-city on the coast from Santiago. When we arrived in “Valpo” via bus and a metro from pretty Vina del Mar, Helena walked us straight to her favorite seafood restaurant above a local produce market. It was about 2pm on Saturday afternoon and the place was full of people! It was the best looking food I had seen in Chile and when we finally got a table, we could not order fast enough, everything looked so good! I got a fish stew with clams, mussels, shrimp, fish, etc! JJ and Helena had seafood platters with different local catches. JJ’s fish was known as a congor eel, which apparently isn’t an eel at all, but a very long, great-tasting fish. After lunch, we made our way walking up the very steep hills of Valpo towards Pablo Neruda’s home, the famous Chilean poet and politician. He had several homes, but the one in Valpo is known as La Sebastiana, after the original Spanish architect.

The home is incredible because of his eclectic, but somehow functional taste, and the 360 degree view of the entire Valpo area. JJ and I just about drooled on the floor when we saw the incredible ocean view he had from almost every room. Too bad you couldn’t take pictures of the inside of the house! We joined back with Helena and made our way down, across the hills towards the port where we could watch the big cruise boats and the small tourist boats. Later in the evening after walking through the lower parts of the city, we found something hot to drink, watched JJ pound back a local hot dog “El Italiano” (with Tomatoes, Avocado and Mayo, it looks like the Italian flag) with everything on it and piece of banana cake, then got back on the bus for Santiago.

JJ and I decided that the next day would be devoted to our own walking tour of Santiago. We set out for a long day of walking a sight-seeing after a filling breakfast of some more fresh San Fernando eggs! We began to walk along the river and through a modern sculpture garden, tried out some free and strange exercise equipment, then we crossed another big park area and to “the best ice cream shop in Santiago”, Emporio Santa Rosa. I chose berries and mint, while JJ had a cone of rich chocolate. We sat in Parque Forrestal and enjoyed the shade of the trees before setting out on the bohemian side-street, Lastarria. We made our way to the main boulevard, Benardo O’Higgins and headed down to the La Moneda, the capital building in Santiago. When we got to La Moneda, we learned that there had been a bike race, the “Tour de Chile” completed there in the morning, which explained the confetti everywhere! I admired the gigantic Chilean flag, very similar to the Texas flag, before we headed down to the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, the museum under the capital. Before going in, we decided to see if we could get an ice-coffee at one of the trendy cafes inside, so we asked for a café helado. The bartender could speak some English and too be sure, we asked if we just ordered an ice coffee and they said, yes of course. So out came two ice cream glasses full of vanilla ice cream, and blended ice and coffee, which was promptly poured on top, then covered with whipped cream. Not what we wanted, but so good! So, here is to having ice cream more than once in a day and also not always getting what you want! We made our way with a very strong sugar rush down into the museum, where we first viewed early 1900’s black and white print of Patagonia, Chile, the region we would next visit! Next, we entered the main exhibition, “Art in America”, which covered modern works of art from North and South American artists. As soon as we entered, a very peppy and tall, English speaking Chilean girl asked us if we wanted to have a quick walk through with her in a free guided tour! Of course, we took advantage of this as she walked us quickly through the exhibit, pointing out the best works from various artists and asking inquisitive questions. Our favorites included a large pencil drawing that was done with such skill it looked like a photograph, a more liberal and creative drawing that gave the illusion of being wrinkled from the way it was drawn, and a flip flop raft made with barbed wire. We really enjoyed the exhibit, especially with the surprise of a rare Any Warhol print of a Native American woman in neon colors.

After the positive museum experience, we made our way to another one of Neruda’s homes at the base of Cerro San Cristobal. We wound our way through an interesting and colorful neighborhood of nice houses until we found his, right on time for our tour! Our strange, but very informative tour guide took us through Neruda’s Santiago Home, known as La Chascona, the crazy haired woman! He gave the house this name on account of the mistress he had at the time. We liked this house very much and were impressed by the mix of architecture to look like a boat and the retro fixings around the house. After leaving the home, we tried a local snack, jugo con huecitos, made of barley bites and reconstituted juice from a dried peach. Then, we took the cable car lift to the top of the hill where we hiked a little further to see the Virgen de Santiago. We hiked all the way down the hill in the direction of Provedencia and made our way back to Helena’s apartment, enjoying the great views of Santiago the whole way down.

The next day, Helena helped us get things together for our backpacking trip in Torres Del Paine National Park, in Patagonia, Chile. We took an afternoon train to Conche y Toro winery, where we tasted and sampled wines from one of the largest wine producers in the world. We even got to go in the “cellar of the devil”, where the famous while, Casa del Diablo got its name from. We had a great time on the beautiful property. Later in the evening we went with Helena to meet her friends at an art light show on the river, where images where projected onto the river below us. Afterwards, we had a meal at a restaurant on Lastarria, called Patagonia. The food was great and we were very exited for the next part of our journey.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Machu Picchu

Waking up without hot coca tea was actually not a problem, because we were so excited to see Machu Picchu. Time actually flew by in the bus line and the rain stopped as the sun came up. It was going to be a beautiful day! Finally! There are really no perfect words to describe seeing Machu Picchu for the first time in person. Breathtaking, unbelievable, and uplifting might be a good start, but nothing can do it justice. The most incredible part of the ruins is really location. It is located at the top of some mountains in this gorgeous region of the Andes, where the sacred river literally snakes around the site. After taking countless pictures, Saul began to explain the history of the site. Apparently, many historians and archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was a sort of university or college for boys of the royal Incan families. There are countless terraces that were used for crop experimentation, several temples, astrological viewing points, and homes on the site.

We walked through a few amazing temples were amazed by a perfect replica of the Southern Cross star constellation made from stone, and a temple to the Condor, where granite rock was placed to strategically look like a Condor in the temple. We also walked through some sacred sacrificial sites and tomb locations. Saul made a point of also telling us that many people believe Machu Picchu was an unfinished and eventually abandoned Incan project, based on the fact that an expansive rock quarry was located on site. Also, when the residents of Machu Picchu heard of the Spanish conquest, they took all of their treasure into the jungle, which have not yet been uncovered! Hiram Bingham, A professor at Yale Universty “found” Machu Picchu in 1911 and started taking any artifact he could find (something like over 50,000 artifacts) and shipping them back to the states. This year, 2011, Yale is supposed to ship all the artifacts back and of course, everyone in Peru is really excited about it.

Around 10am, we started heading up Huayna (Wayna) Picchu with our group. JJ and I were in Zion National Park only a few months ago, and this steep mountain rising above us reminded us of the rock fin we recently hiked up known as Angel’s Landing. The way up was very steep and I decided to get it done as quickly as possible so we could enjoy the view and miss the rain. It was supposed to take an hour to hike up to the top, but we hiked up with a friend from our group named Jamie (the PE Teacher) in about 30 minutes. I think that was a pretty good time considering the steep rock steps we clambered up and a few narrow passages including a tunnel that I could barely squeeze out of. About one minute from the top, I saw a girl wearing a white, lacy hippy dress, wearing flowers in her hair. She was singing some sort of chant while she was walking and at this point I figured the altitude was getting to me, but JJ and Jamie saw her too, so I knew I didn’t totally loose it!

The view from the top was astounding! We could see the entire Machu Picchu complex and a 360 degree view of the surrounding area, making the whole place seem even more mystical. Because of the rain, there were waterfalls in almost every direction coming down the steep Andes Mountains. After we all made it up, we sang Happy Birthday to Jeremy, another guy in our group, and all had a shot of tequila to celebrate! Slowly making our way down to a lower platform, we said our first set of goodbyes to the group. We would see some of them again in Cuzco a few days later, but we really did luck out and have awesome people in our group and we were sad to part ways. JJ and I had a lunch of avocado and cheese sandwiches we had brought while we watched our friends make their way down the steep stone steps and gazed at Machu Picchu below us. We could see the place where we hiked down from the Inca Trail the day before and noted how close it was to the entrance of the sun gate. We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the ruins and making our way over to the sun gate, the place we would have hiked through if the Inca Trail had not been closed in that section. Before leaving the top, I reflected on the fact that there were terraces and housing ruins all round me on the top of this very high mountain. The Incan people must have been very focused on protecting their sacred city to have developed a place so high and remote.

After making it down from Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, we hiked to the top part of the complex, where we got a different set of views and found what seemed to be a high altar of sacrifice. This beautiful cut piece of granite with elevated steps awed us, especially since we saw every person who passed by it hold their hands above it as if they were extracting some sort of powerful energy from it. I had to try it out of course. From there we hiked back towards the entrance in with perfect timing to see Machu Picchu lit up with sunlight as the clouds parted! We could not believe our good luck with the weather on the day that mattered most. Next, we hiked up to the top terraces of the complex, where we found many Llamas grazing! There were so many posing Llamas to take pictures of, but we could not stop paying attention to the baby llamas (or maybe they were alpacas?). We made the gradual uphill journey to the sun gate. The views were great, but our legs were getting tired and it was time to make our way out of the complex. Ten hours after arriving at the complex, we took one last view and made our way back to Aguas Calientes via bus.

The next morning, we took the tourist train back to Ollantambo. The train was really nice and had overhead windows. I felt really special on the train, repeating a journey that my grandparents and one of my aunts had taken to get to Machu Picchu many years before me. The ride was really beautiful and the weather was nice along the way. We stopped for lunch before heading back to Cuzco via collectivo bus. When we arrived, we walked around and then had dinner with the friends me made from our Inca Trail group who were still in town. Eleven of us when out for an eclectic meal which including people ordering pizza, ravioli, nachos, alpaca, and even guinea pig (cui). There were some very funny moments playing with the guinea pig remains after dinner and I am sure people enjoyed my faces, being universally recognized as the only vegetarian on the trip. Afterwards, we went back to their hostal and had a red wine fest. We drank and had a good time until about midnight when we could not keep our eyes open anymore. We said our final goodbyes and walked back to the El Tuco. Once again, JJ and I really think we got lucky to have spent 4 days with a great variety of entertaining, generous, and positive people. Our experience getting to Machu Picchu and actually being at that world wonder is something that we will reflect on for the rest of our lives.

We flew from Cuzco to Santiago, Chile. We are now in Santiago, having a great time with our new friend, Helena. We will write more about this soon!

Cuzco, Peru

With the first rays of light, and unmistakable sound of rain, we happily got off the bus in Cuzco and made our way to the El Tuco, a really lovely place ran by “Coco”. After a quick nap, we went out to explore the city and meet our SAS Inca Trail hiking group at the pre-meeting. We quickly determined that Cuzco was a very pretty and interesting city, with many side-streets to adventure out from the main touristy gringo areas. Later in the evening, we got the full briefing on our 4 day Inca Trail hike from our main guide, Saul, who was really energetic and excited! We met the 9 other Americans, 4 semi-Brit’s on our trip and headed off to sleep after our $1.50 dinner.

We got picked up at our hostel the next morning before the sun was up. After going around town and getting everyone on the bus, we headed towards the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s, where kilometer 82 of the Inca Trail is located and our 4 day hike would begin. At breakfast, we learned that 3 of the 15 people in our hiking crew would have birthdays on the trail and that everyone was really excited, despite the off and on rain. Actually, about half of our group had come to celebrate someone’s 30th birthday by doing the Inca trail and all were somehow connected. The vibe was great from the start.

The Inca Trail

Day 1

After a brief pit-stop in Ollantambo, we got out of the bus and began our trek at the famous “kilometer 82”. We crossed a bridge over the “sacred” and raging Urubamaba River, which we would follow the entire Inca Trail. Then, we began our slow and steady climb. It was still really early in the day and we had quite a while until lunch, but the scenery took our minds away from our appetites as the rain cleared and we could view the steep Andes Mountains and the beautiful scenery all around us.

Saul, our guide, allowed us to take very frequent breaks and explained the flora, fauna, geography, and history of the Inca and Pre-Inca Cultures along the way. For example, our first lesson was about a beautiful white trumpet flower (a potent hallucinogenic plant) some guys he knew that made a tea from it and went crazy. For lunch, our first actual meal on the trek, we were happily surprised with the quality and variety. There were about 6 different freshly prepared dishes to choose from (at every meal!). After lunch, we passed by an overlook where we spotted some really impressive ruins along the river. We spent the rest of the day getting to know our group better and found that we were in the company of a variety of interesting people from a Walmart executive, several army contractors, a lawyer, massage therapist, to a PE Teacher. We arrived at camp, “Wayllabamba” in the late afternoon with our tent already set up for us and hot water ready to wash our faces with! This was our first “group” backpacking experience and we were amazed with the luxury of it!... Note to self…. Afternoon tea was followed by “joke” telling and a great dinner, then it was off to bed in order to rest up for day 2, which is the longest and most difficult day of the trail.

Day 2

When we woke up in the morning, we were immediately handed a cup of hot coca tea through our tent. Wow, there is nothing like getting your morning started in your sleeping bag with a hot cup of tea! At breakfast, we were informed of the route for the day, which included a 3 to 4 hour uphill section and then 2 hours of downhill on steep terrain, than another 2 hour uphill. We began the day walking through a temperate rain forest and then a cloud forest. There was a waterfall running next to the trail and everything was covered in green moss and lichens. JJ and I agreed that with all of the branches and the bromeliads everywhere you looked, we felt like we were in a Dr. Seuss book, similar to a landscape we hiked through with our friend Justin, about 5 years ago on Frasier Island off the east coast of Australia. The clouds, fog, and mist set into the valley we hiked up and out of on our way to “Dead Woman’s Pass”, the toughest climb of the Inca Trail. We could not really see the pass, but about 500 meters from the top, we heard the sound of Andean windpipes. It was awesome! Our own live soundtrack, provided (we later found out) by one of the guides on the trail. We finally reached the top of the trail and pounded back some cereal bars and chocolate bars called “Sublime” (Peruvian version of a Mr. Goodbar) and began walking down the steep stone steps. By lunch time, the rain was coming down pretty hard and we were excited for a break from the very steep steps.

Although, because of the rain, the waterfalls next to the lunch spot, Pacaymayo, were full of water and pouring down the mountain. Walking out of the lunch tent, the rain subsided and we had a full view of waterfalls surrounding us. After walking for a bit, we entered another set of really impressive ruins, that Saul believed were a watchtower overlooking the Sacred Valley. After climbing and descending more, we took some great pictures of the clouded Andes Mountains, and walked through more ruins, thought to have been a mountain market along the Inca Trail (500 years ago!) and an astrological viewpoint.

We made it to the 2nd campsite just before dark. At this point, there was no rain and we finally got to meet all 22 chuskees (porters) for our group. The entire time we were on the trail we saw mostly very tiny, but extremely strong indigenous, Quechua speaking Andean men hauling packs on their backs up the trail at a very fast pace. There are now limits on what the porters (ages 18 – around 60 years old) can carry, up to a limit of 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds). Although, they prefer the name chuskee – which is the Quechua word for Incan running warrior or messenger (I would prefer that too!). These men are vital to hiking groups doing the Inca Trail by transporting all the food, tents, chairs, etc. that the group will need for the 3-4 days on the trail. Their packs often seemed much larger than they were, yet they would keep a very fast pace and travel in groups uphill and usually run downhill! After dinner, there were some “ghost stories” told by Saul and we all fell asleep to the rain outside.

Day 3

At breakfast the next morning, we were informed that there had been a rock slide between the 3rd campsite and the sun gate (traditional entrance to Machu Picchu). Therefore, we would be actually completing the trail today and not hiking through to Machu Picchu. We were all disappointed, but understood the safety concern. After a mostly rainy morning of downhill hiking, we stopped just before a steep downhill section to enjoy a few moments of sunshine. We had passed through two original Inca Tunnels through the rock on the way, and stopped to reflect and discuss the history of the tunnels and the trail. All of the sudden, JJ and I looked up and spotted the most gorgeous (and large) Technicolor butterfly. It was the prettiest one I have ever seen and seemed almost fluorescent. We made our way to Huinay Huayna (Winawayna) where we stopped for lunch and watched the rain come pouring down. Since it was our first trip on the Inca Trail and Saul’s last for the season, he decided that at the Huinay Huayna ruins we would have a sacred ceremony to Pachamama, Mother Earth. After viewing the ruins from the rainy windows of one of the sacred temples at the Incan site, we made a giant circle with the chuskees and Saul led us through a beautiful ceremony. He played some Incan and Pre-Incan tunes on his recorder (flute like instrument) and we all made an offering of coca leaves and buried them in the ground. It was a really memorable part of the journey.

After lunch, we hiked down to the train tracks and made our along the river and past a hydro-electric dam to Aguas Calientes, the last town before Machu Picchu. The way was long and flat, but our legs were tired. We arrived at the hostel with just enough time to put on our bathing suits and run to the packed hot springs before dinner. We had a really great time with our awesome group and we were happy to relax with them in the warm, but not so hot water. After dinner, everyone headed to bed in order to get some shut-eye before the 3:30 wake up call. We needed to get to Machu Picchu early in order to get a stamp that would allow us to hike up Huayna (Wayna) Picchu, the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu that only 400 people get to hike up a day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Arequipa and Canyon de Colca, Peru

We found a large spare room at Casa de Sillar and were pretty impressed with Arequipa from the start. The Plaza de Armas (main square) was buzzing with life and we treated ourselves to a nice lunch overlooking the plaza in one of the touristy restaurants with great views and live Peruvian music. After a filling lunch, we began our walking tour of Arequipa, admiring the stone work everywhere out of volcanic, white “sillar” rock. We walked past a few churches, a famous nunnery, and then began to plan our trek to Cabanaconde where we wanted to begin the Canyon de Colca Trek. After gaining some good information at Colca Trek, we made our way back to the hostal and I finished making my first scarf! We went out for a one dollar dinner (3 Peruvian Soles) we could not pass up (I had fish and rice, JJ had spaghetti and chicken with hot, sweet tea for dessert). Then we decided to see what else we could get for cheap and we tried a fancy dolce de leche pastry and a yogurt shop where you picked out fresh fruit and they blended it in frozen yogurt for you.

In the morning, we headed out on our 6 hour bus ride to Cabanaconde. The ride was pretty smooth until after the first three hours when we reached the town of Chivay. I have never seen so many people get on a bus before in my life. There were people literally packed on the bus in every way and poor JJ was sitting in the aisle having every body part imagined rubbed all over him. My favorite was when a probably 6 or 7 year old girl standing next to him just completely passed out and fell asleep on his shoulder. In this area of Peru, I have noticed that almost all of the women wear an extremely colorful embroidered hat and dress in traditional clothing. So, people watching is very interesting at the moment. As the bus wound up and down the rim of the Canyon de Colca, we admired all the step farming plots that date back to pre-Incan times. We were excited that the next day we would get to hike on walking trails that have been used for thousands of years. We got a few glimpses of how deep Canyon de Colca actually is (deeper than the Grand Canyon, but not as grand) and tried to determine where we would start the trail and try to spot Andean Condors (with the largest wingspan of any land bird) the next morning. When we arrived in Cabanaconde, we meet Louis, one of the brother owners of Pachamama Hostal. He was really nice and helped us plan our whole hiking trek in Canyon de Colca, and gave us a map. We had a great pasta dinner there and visited with other travelers from around the world!

The next morning, we woke up at 5:45 to get on the local bus to the Cruz de Condor viewpoint. The indigenous ladies boarded the bus also with gigantic bags they tied around their backs and shoulders. These grain sacks are usually as big as they are and probably weigh about the same as them too. These particular sacks were filled with food and crafts to sell at the viewpoint. The Andean Condors supposedly fly right by the viewpoint in the morning as they scan the entire canyon for a meal. Well, we could not see a thing because of the thick and misty clouds. So we hopped back on a bus to Cabanaconde and had breakfast before heading out to Viewpoint San Miguel where we would begin our descent all the way to the canyon floor. Right as we sat down to breakfast, we looked up to the sky where the clouds had parted a bit to see a giant condor in the sky above us! Awesome! We might have to give that viewpoint another try on the way to Arequipa.

When we made it to the trail head, we passed by desert vegetation on the rocky trail and took it easy on the many switchbacks down the canyon. Views of the river and where the trail would take us the next two days were taken into account. The volcanic rock and granite (igneous and metamorphic) that makes up this canyon takes way longer to erode than the sandstone and shale (sedimentary) that make up the Grand Canyon. Canyon de Colca is extremely steep and narrow because of the sturdy rock it has been carved out of. Also, because of the volcanic rocks, there are many cool formations and hexagonal fracturing like a Devil’s Postpile in California! We made our way down to the Colca River just as it began to pour rain. We quickly switched into our rain gear and soon regretted it as we began sweating bullets up the steep route through San Juan de Chucho towards Tapay. We loved the canyon views we got as we climbed up the other side towards Tapay and the trail was not marked, but many rocks were spray painted where to go so we had no trouble. As we passed through the stone archway of Tapay, we admired the stream flowing through the small town and the beautiful church and plaza that sat on a hillside with great views of the canyon. We thought about how incredible it is that in the middle of a canyon with no roads there is a community of people who have been here thousands of years. After almost 5 hours of hiking, we settled into a tiny cabin next to a family’s home, known as “Maruja”. The whole set up was really cute. The bathroom was outside next to where the sheep, pig, ducks, chickens, and guinea pigs were kept (all for eating!). We had an incredible candle lit dinner (the electricity is very spotty here) of alpaca steak for JJ and a Spanish omelet for me and sweet hot tea for dessert. We were in bed by 8pm to get ready for the next full day of hiking!

After breakfast, we hiked out of Tapay and through the small villages of Cosnirhua and Malata. We walked by Pre-Incan terraces that were still being used by the local people to plant the crops they sustain from still to this day! There was not a cloud in the sky and we got incredible canyon views the in both directions. We really enjoyed the mostly level hike for about 2 hours as we walked west through the canyon. The trail then took us down a steep set of switchbacks as we made our way to the “Oasis” of the canyon, known as Sangalle. In Sangalle, natural spring water rushes up through the bottom of the canyon and fills in cool swimming pools that the local indigenous people have placed on their properties. We opted to stop at the beautiful Oasis for the afternoon before making the long haul up to the top of the canyon rim and back to Cabanaconde. We headed to “Eden”, where we had an incredible lunch of avocado salad made from use of the tree above our head, and spaghetti with home-made tomato sauce. Not only were there monstrous avocado trees, but papaya, banana, apple, etc. We had a fantastic swim in the pool and read under a tree. Refreshed, we were ready to hike almost straight up the canyon.

We hiked up and up and up. Literally! I kept seeing these blue flags along the way that I would use as markers, but they just seemed farther and farther! It was over 3 hours of straight uphill, but the views were incredible the whole way. Actually, we lucked out because that very sunny warm weather that allowed us to get in the cold natural swimming pool, clouded over and cooled down the air as we made our way up. We still sweated like crazy, but enjoyed the breeze and occasional rain drops along the way. After climbing up about 1,200 meters (almost 4,000 feet), we finally made it to the top of the Canyon de Colca! We were exhausted when we got back to the Pachamama Hostal, but very happy! We accomplished a lot of great hiking the past two days and felt ready for Machu Picchu. We walked through the town and found a 2 course dinner for 5 soles each (about $1.50 U.S. each), then fell fast asleep.
We woke up early in the morning to try our luck again at viewing the Andean Condors. We got on the same bus with the indigenous ladies and made our way to the Cruz del Condor. It looked like the clouds were going to clear the whole ride and then they didn’t. Not for the first 2 hours we were there at least. But that’s okay, we decided to bargain with the indigenous ladies and bought some of their goods. In the last hour we were there, between 9am and 10am, the clouds actually did burn off and we got stunning views from above the entire canyon! You could even see the snow covered tops of some of the surrounding volcanoes. Finally, about 10 minutes before we had to leave, we spotted huge Andean Condors, male and female, cruising through the sky below us. Even though they were far below us, their 9 to 10 foot wingspans made a lasting impression on us.

We got picked up by a private tour bus we had hired to take us to lunch and the hot springs in Chivay on the way back to Arequipa. We stopped at an impressive viewpoint overlooking more Pre-Incan terraces and then made our way to the hot spring baths with 5 different pools to choose from. The water was not as hot as Baños but the baths were way less crowded and our tired muscles enjoyed the warm water. We felt very relaxed and hungry when we got out of the pools. The tour driver took us to an expensive buffet restaurant, which we promptly left with some other people from the tour to find a cheap, local restaurant where we paid 4 soles ($1.25 U.S.) for a 2 course lunch and a drink. The bus drove us back to Arequipa and we settled back into our hostal. After dinner we had delicious coconut and mango ice cream cones and walked around town a bit.

We head to Cuzco, Peru tonight on a bus-cama (bus of beds). In 2 days we will begin our 3 day trek on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu and we can’t wait! We hope you are all well and would love to hear what you are up to!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

“Bussing it” through Northern Peru

Crossing the border in Peru was a piece of cake. We just had to avoid looking at the nudie pictures in the Ecuadorian border office hanging on the wall, steer clear of the money changers on the Peru side, and try to decipher the sign “it is not security here to change the money”. Then, we got back on the bus all the way to Piura, Peru. After a quick glace around and a very sketchy feeling, we hightailed it out of Piura on our first overnight bus with the “best” company in Peru, Cruz del Sur. We had no idea what to expect and were pleasantly surprised. We had a 16 hour trip from Piura to Lima, but with all the entertainment, the time passed pretty quickly. The overnight bus rides in South America are set up like plane flights with meals, an attendant, and movies. There are blankies, pillows, and American movies so “awesome” they went straight to DVDs in other countries! HA! The chairs went back very far and we got some sleep thanks to our eye masks and ear plugs. In the morning after breakfast on the bus, we admired the scenery as we travelled along the coast seeing sand dunes of all sizes and nice looking waves rolling across the beaches. Then, the attendant handed out Bingo cards and quickly began calling out numbers in Spanish over the microphone. Guess who won Bingo? JJ!!! He won us a free upgrade to first-class on the next overnight bus ride!

We decided that Lima, Peru was not going to make our list of places to stop and bought our tickets for the next overnight bus to Arequipa, Peru as soon as we arrived at the station. We stretched, had a nice filling lunch for $2.50 each, a slice of lemon meringue pie, and got on the next bus first class! Well, it was really no different than second class except there were leather seats that seemed a little larger than the others 3 across instead of 4. Time flew again with more “awesome” movies. Let me give you some examples; Moby Dick 2010 (self-explanatory), You Again (which I think was Mean Girls – the reunion), and so many fantastic others I just can’t remember. We finally rolled into Arequipa the next morning.

I don’t know if you avid readers are getting the impression that we are taking a lot of buses, but we most definitely are. There are really no other choices for getting around quickly and efficiently than the bus down here. From our constant use of them, we have picked up on a few very interesting and funny characteristics at bus stations and on the actual buses. When you get to the bus station from any taxi and people see you are a couple of gringos, the bus company employees immediately start shouting their “destinations” and offering to take you to the bus that will then take you to the place they are shouting. We have found it is easiest to just shout where we want to go before this starts in order to quickly get the right person to come to us. My favorite “shouting” destination was the city of Guayaquil in Ecuador. Guayaquil is pronounced, why-a-keel. Now say that over and over as you can about 10 times in a row. Pretty funny. Okay, so now you get to your bus and sit in your seats. Pray now that you have a window, if not, you will be smelling things you never imagined, good and gross. Here come the vendors for anything you want. Sugar cane sticks, candy, empanadas, nuts, corn cobs, pre-scooped ice cream cones, etc. They walk up and down the aisles shaking their goods in your face. Now the journey begins and the bus gets its engine roaring. At the very last second a man will jump on and enter the front of the passenger section. This is a salesman. They will be selling food, their own talents, encyclopedias from the 1980s, catalogues (verbally describing every single item inside), or other “deal of a life-time” goods for the next twenty minutes or so. You better listen up and don’t eat that candy that they gave you for “free” at the beginning of the presentation because you will pay for it later! Our favorites have been the guy selling his talent of puppetry and the man selling encyclopedias from 1980 something. Also, we recently saw ladies that had rigged up their broomsticks with special cups and plates in order to complete food transactions with customers from the windows of the bus with a system of raising and lowering the stick.

Free entertainment does not get much better than this!

Cuenca, Ecuador

We arrived in Cuenca this past Friday night after a very long bus ride from Riobamba. Along the way, we zipped up and down beautiful mountainsides, rose in and out of clouds, saw many indigenous farmers, and sat in seats number 1 and 2. At first we thought these would be the best seats on the bus, free of bumps felt in the back, and with plenty of leg room. All was well until JJ (sitting on the aisle) pretty much had women, men, and children throughout the ride rubbing their hands, heads, arm pits, and chests all over him while they tried to stand in the aisle for a temporary ride on the bus. He handled it really well, but was more than really happy to be off the bus. No more seats 1 and 2 for us, I think next time we might go for 9 and 10 or something.

Posada del Rio is a cute hostel ran by two sisters right across the street from Rio Tomebamba in Cuenca. After putting our stuff down in our cute little room on the third floor, we set out on a walk for taking pictures and finding some dinner. We walked down several flights of steps and across the river and noted that there was a nearby park for throwing the Frisbee. We crossed back over the river and up towards the center of town, passing good-looking cafes, artisian shops, and many tourists. About now is when I decided Cuenca was the prettiest South American city we visited so far. At every street corner I would see something I liked. Very cool old architecture, Spanish/Italian/French looking streets with lots of iron work. The sun was at the perfect angle and the pictures JJ took of the many Iglesias were really well lit. We had some delicious typical food for dinner on the main plaza. I sampled a classic Ecuadorian potato soup with a huge slab of avocado and queso fresco in it with a sweet and savory corn tamale as a side. JJ had the churasco beef. Then, we were too tempted to pass up the place next-door, Tutto Freddo, the most raved ice-cream place in Cuenca. We decided to split the banana sundae and for $3 wouldn’t you? Later that night as we were getting ready for bed, we continued to hear very loud booming noises. Eventually, we poked our head out the window and saw our very own fireworks show! It went on for about 7 minutes and in the morning, we asked what the fireworks were for and no one knew what we were talking about.

The next day we had a very heavy breakfast at Café Austral, did our workout/Frisbee throw in the park, and set out on a long walk. We first visited some pretty minimal Incan ruins alongside the river. We were unimpressed, but continued to walk towards a Regional Museum with many more Incan artifacts and some shrunken heads! We walked around the fence of the property and were pleased with the gardens, the huge and obvious Incan stone walls and hillsides. Then, we learned that the museum had closed for the day and our only views were through the fence. Boo! But we continued on and walked past many more picturesque churches and plazas. Then, JACKPOT! We stumbled on a huge produce, fish, meat, and other stuffs market. We walked through with big smiles and made our way upstairs where it appeared many food stalls were full of people having their Saturday almuerzo (lunch). So we made a few laps, and realized the competition of little ladies cooking was really high, since everyone seemed to be cooking the same things. I chose a delicious and seemingly bottomless bowl of encebollado (fish stew) for a whopping $1.25. JJ could not resist the fresh roasted meat of “some sort of animal”, with a very cute old lady serving it, it also came with a interesting variety of corn and a polenta cake with cheese on top. While we were eating, we decided to buy vegetables in the produce section of the market and cook them for dinner. From the indigenous ladies selling their crops, we purchased about a pound of potatoes (0.50), a large bundle of swiss chard (0.25), two red bell peppers and two red onions (0.50), a large sweet plantain for desert (0.25), two fresh mangoes (O.50). So we are cooking dinner for a grand total of $2.00. Once again, food here is cheap! After making our eclectic dinner, we realized that potatoes and swiss chard aren’t the best paired together, plantains take hours or a magic method to cook, and well the cooked food is so cheap that cooking is not worth it unless we want to.

Next, we headed to Loja, Ecuador on a quick pit-stop in our long journey to Arequipa, Peru. We spent the night relaxing and in the morning got on another bus to Piura, Peru and for adventures crossing the border!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Climbing Volcano Chimbarazo

We arrived in Riobamba, where we met some difficulties hailing a cab for one dollar. I guess we just looked too gringo with our bike backpacks, getting right of the bus from Banos. A nice lady on the street hopped in the cab with us she got for one dollar, which we were happy to pay as she rode with us to the Hostal Oasis. Oasis is a very cute, family run place with a very quirky, kitschy feel. We asked some questions about going to an agency to find out about hiking up (or around) dormant Volcano Chimborazo, which is the highest Volcano in Ecuador, the furthest point from the center of the Earth (due to the Earth’s equatorial bulge), and the closest point on Earth to the Sun. Because of our proximity to it and James’s encouragement and certainty about climbing up it, we decided to go speak with someone about it. Although it was Sunday and almost everything in Riobamba was closed, we were really surprised when the English-speaking owner of Julio Verne Expediciones, Popgye (pronounced Pop-gea) from The Netherlands, offered to pick us up at the Hostal and take us over to the office to talk about possibilities with Chilborazo. JJ and I were very happy to meet her and she was incredibly thorough at answering all of our questions. Even though we have never done a technical mountain climb before, and Chimborazo Is even higher than Cotopaxi, we decided to sign up for the overnight tour and attempt to summit Chimborazo at over 6,268 meters (20,564 feet above sea-level), while climbing over-night. We are in good shape, we are feeling good, once in a life-time right?

After a very nice pizza dinner at El Chacacero and a good sleep, we woke up the next day and packed our bags for Pulingui San Pablo, an indigenous village Popgye recommended we spend the night at one day prior to our climb in order to properly acclimatize for the high-altitude climb. At the village, we stayed at Casa del Condor, an eclectic and almost run-down lodge where we were the only ones staying, but the sheets were clean, there was hot water for tea, and a heater in the room. We made lunch in the kitchen and then relaxed for a bit, I am finally getting confident at the knitting and did that for a while. Then, we packed our water and headed up the hill (small mountain) that rose steeply in front of the hostal. We headed up at over a 40 degree angle for about 45 minutes, until we could no longer see the Casa del Condor below. Realizing that we hiked way higher than we thought because we could not see the top of the ridge from below, we decided to just keep going to the top. Reaching the ridge 45 minutes later, we felt very accomplished. The clouds that had surrounded Chimborazo all day had cleared and we had perfect views of the volcano. We hiked down, and while relaxing outside looking at the mountain, two Quechua-speaking indigenous ladies from the community came to visit with us (Rosa and Manuela) because they saw I was knitting and wanted to see what I was doing. I made out that they knew the stitch and wanted to help me along, so Manuela took over the knitting while we talked. Her hands moved as fast as an electric mixer. When I looked down, she had doubled what I had been working on all day! She tried to show me a different way to hold the knitting needles so that I would do faster and I sort of got it, but I need to practice! They were both very nice and told us that we would have good weather on the mountain. After they wished us luck on the climb, we made a very high-calorie dinner of mac and cheese then headed to bed. JJ perfected the heater in the room and when we had to go out to use the bathroom, we realized it was about 25 degrees cooler outside our room!

In the morning, a truck came to pick us up from Julio Verne and take us up the mountain to the first refugio. We saw our Ecuadorian mountain guide, Eloy, in the front, and in the back was a big surprise, JAMES! He decided he would climb up the mountain with us and he and Sam came to Riobamba the day prior. Heading up the volcano and through the misty clouds, noticed wild vicuña’s, a relative of the llama. We reached the first refuge, the Carrel Hut at 4, 850 meters and had a nice and filling lunch. Then, we strapped on our boots loaded up our packs with food and gear for our climb, and made our way one kilometer up with the stuff to the next refugio, the Whymper Hut at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). This was already higher than we had reached at Cotopaxi, and we were feeling good. We picked our beds and spent the rest of the day drinking hot tea and playing the card game, “shit head” with James. I. As more climbers reached the hut, we visited with them and learned that most of the men (they were all men) had been up Chimborazo before or had serious mountaineering experience. At dinner time (5:30 pm) we estimated there were about 20 men there, including the guides. None of us were hungry (you usually lose your appetite at this altitude), but we shoveled down our soup and pasta in order to get calories needed for the climb. Attempting to sleep was next on the tour agenda, which included whimpering in the cold, and rubbing my feet together to make sure they we still there until I drifted off for about an hour).

We “woke up” at 10:30 pm to eat more “breakfast”, packed up our day packs, put on our harnesses, grabbed our ice-axes and made our way through the dark, slowly following Eloy, the mountain goat (who has been up Chimborazo over 470 times and is 40 years old). We made our swiftly to a point below the glacier about an hour later to put on our cramp-ons and have a snack. Soon after, we got to a place below the glacier where there were frequent rock slides because of the little snow pack. Eloy told us that we would have to move quickly through the area and the next 200 meters. Well on we went, almost running! At this altitude, JJ and I were dog-tired from the energy we needed to do this. We finally got to the start of a very steep slope and took another rest to hydrate and eat. We caught our breath and continued on using the ice-ax as a walking pole and breathing every step- while roped to Eloy. We were moving slow and steady, trying to maintain a rhythm, but Eloy kept trying to make us go faster or without as frequent as the breaks we needed. We realized that he was nervous about the sun coming up in a few hours and melting more on the snow, causing increased rock slides for the way down. We had been going about five and a half hours up the very steep slope (over 40 degree slope) of us and snow as sun began to make its first light in the sky. We demanded a rest and had some of a cliff bar we had saved. Both of us were extremely tired and out of breath, but had the will to keep going. We continued to 5,800 meters (19, 028 feet) until I just could not go anymore and the sky was almost full of light. I was out of energy, even though JJ definitely could have reached the summit 500 more meters (almost one mile) up above us. I could not believe how far I had climbed, how tired I was, how little it seemed we had to go (but at this altitude it is no easy task), and that now I had to go down. I felt terrible that JJ had to sacrifice the summit for me, but he was so proud and happy of what we had accomplished. For having no prior mountaineering experience, we actually did fantastic. Eloy thought that it was time to go down a while before and was very surprised with how well we had done. Going down was a huge task and because of my lack of energy and the feeling of craziness I had about seeing what we climbed up overnight, I was pretty out of it. I needed JJ and Eloy to slowly help me down the mountain. When I got more with it, after chugging two gator-aides and making it down to the first refuge, I was so glad we were down safe and I could rest. Some other guys heading down took my stuff so I did not have to take anything more. I was so happy to be with JJ and James and off that crazy Chimborazo! Looking up at it, I thought about how the conditions were perfect (no wind, no rain, etc), but it was still the most physically challenging thing JJ and I have ever done (way more than a 100 mile century bike ride). I think I am pretty tough, but Chimborazo kicked my butt! At that altitude, and the degree of difficulty, I realize that was no easy under-taking and I am proud to have climbed probably higher than I ever will again in my life! We tiredly made our way back to Riombamba, where we met up with Sam at the hostal. I was so happy to see her we talked about our big adventure, took a big nap, and went out to Mexican food and ice cream (bars) for dessert.

This morning, we said our last goodbye (I think?) to James and Sam. We decided to spend the rest of the day in Riobamba hydrating and resting. We just had a great lunch at a place called “Bonne”, which was the fanciest restaurant we have been to in South America so far. JJ got the plate of the day for lunch which was 3 courses and a whopping $3.57! Can you believe that? Tomorrow we head to Cuenca, Ecuador on a 6 hour bus ride. I know for a fact that JJ and I are ready to do Machu Picchu in 2 weeks from this last adventure! We hope you are all wonderful and if you are climbing mountains of your own, we hope they are easy and safe for you. Enjoy the view!

Baños, Ecuador

Arriving in Baños, we walked from the bus station across the small, cute town to the Hostal Cloud Forest. Along the way, we passed numerous taffy pullers (Baños is apparently famous for their fresh taffy). At first, I was a little bummed out about our room because it did not have the dramatic, valley-sweeping views I had read about, but after stepping out on the balcony, I realized that there was a gigantic waterfall coming down the mountain to the left of our room! We began our post Quilatoa Loop festivities with some beer and chips while sitting on our patio connected to our room, listening to the sounds of the waterfall. After dinner, James had to use his best convincing skills to get us to go out to a Karaoke Bar he had spotted on our walk through town, because we were so tired from the long day of traveling. When we got inside the small bar, we quickly realized that we were in a local’s, Spanish singing karaoke bar. Although, we all agreed to provide the gringo entertainment as long as we could keep our eyes open and looked through the entire song binder, finding about all ten songs in English. James began our selections with a Bon Jovi, a very hard act to follow, the man is awesome at karaoke. I sang a few, he sang a few, we sang a few, and then it was off to bed.

The next morning, JJ and I headed to the café on top of the hostal and decided to each order the #10, which was described as pancakes with fruit and yogurt. A few minutes later, our waitress came with two perfect mountains of what was described. We laughed when we saw how much food we ordered and vowed to split everything we ordered in South America from there on out unless it was a case of starvation. In the early afternoon, we rented bikes, and got some instructions to simply the “waterfall road downhill for 3 hours”, Avenada de Cascadas. We hopped on the aged and hurting mountain bikes and made our way about 10 minutes before the rains started. At first it was a light sprinkle and we did not mind since we had our jackets with us. We rode past a giant power plant and stopped at the first waterfall (cascada) viewing it across the valley, it was impressive, but we decided to quickly get going again because of the looming storm. So we rode on and on, passing about 6 waterfalls on the way to Machay (about 30 km from Banos). While we rode, the rain got harder and we got soaked, but enjoyed the exercise and gorgeous green scenery. It only took us about an hour and a half to get to Machay, which was supposed to take us three hours. We made a decision to stop, instead of heading all the way to Puyo (30 more kilometers downhill at the gateway to the Amazon) because of the weather. When we stopped, we were ushered over to an Ecuadorian tourist post where we learned we could lock up the bikes and hike down to another nice waterfall. We took the opportunity and hikes down and down to the base of a double waterfall. It was definitely the best on we saw and the sun actually came out while we were down next to it. JJ jumped into the freezing pool of water below the second waterfall and then sunned himself on a boulder. We hiked back up the canyon and then put our bikes on top of the next tourist bus headed back to Baños. The driver told us that he would be leaving in twenty minutes, and actually did. We rode in the open tourist truck for about four minutes until the driver turned around and went back to the tourist post because there were not enough tourists on the truck. Whatever, he said to wait twenty minutes more. So, about a coconut popsicle, cheese and banana empanada, and a hour and a half later (when we probably could have biked back to Baños uphill by then), we were driven back to Baños, Ecuadorian time? We met up with James and Sam and decided to try out the famous Baños hot baths at the base of the waterfall. The baths (for $2 per person) were packed (it was Saturday night!) and very, very hot. We spent most of the time going in the hottest pool for about ten minutes and then the coldest pool for about one. After the baths, we felt totally relaxed, had a nice dinner, and went to sleep.

In the morning we woke to a heavy rain and took the opportunity to say our goodbyes to James and Sam over another pancake tower (for only $3.20!) and split it this time. Good food and lodging in Ecuador has been very inexpensive. After some heart-felt goodbyes, JJ and I boarded the bus to Riobamba.