A Travellerspoint blog

The Long Road to Cusco (and home)

by gabrielle

all seasons in one day

Cusco is an absolutely beautiful city! Everyone add it to their travel wish lists... right now! While walking around the city I felt like Cusco was what old, colonial South American cities should look like really comes to life in the colors, buildings, churches, balconies and of course, cobble stone streets. See??

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Cusco also had a fantastic local market (San Pedro Market) with just about everything you could possibly want! I went for lunch and had a few tasty meals for quite a steal... $1.05

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Besides wandering around a bit and admiring the architecture I spent most of my first two days in Cusco trying to adjust the the altitude before my big trek to Machu Picchu. Cusco sits at 11,500 feet above sea level and my crazy ear popping woke up many times over the course of my long, cold, 24 hour bus ride from Lima. Which was gorgeous by the way, j just uncomfortable.
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Upon arriving in Cusco I felt a bit light headed, not very hungry and had some stomach issues and after consulting the internet, determined I indeed was feeling some altitude sickness. A girl I met told me she felt the same but was fine after drinking two liters of water in one day so I lugged around a dainty 2.5 liter bottle and hoped I would be ready enough to start the trek the next morning at 4:30 am.

We were told to meet our guide by the reception area of our hotel at 4:30 am to start our trek. I should have taken the fact that my wakeup call came about 15 minutes late as a sign that we were not expected to be ready at exactly 4:30... that damn "latin time" got me again! At 5:10 our guide showed up and walked us to the bus that we would be taking for 2 hours to start the actual walking part of the trek. We had breakfast, received a run down of what the day would look like then started walking. Day 1 we walked 20 km or 12.4 miles and it took us about 8 hours. The incline was gradual, some parts were flat, some shorter parts exhausting steep! By the time we reached camp we had climbed to an elevation of 12,470 feet above sea level. I spent most of day one getting to know Carlos, an older Peruvian fellow and the three Germans on the trek.
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Our trek was called the Salkantay Trek because it heads towards then around this beautiful mountain (Salkantay) in order to get to Machu Picchu. We were walking with excellent views right towards Salkantay the whole 4 hours after lunch on our first day.
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And then finally, arrived at camp! It was FREEZING by this point!
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As in about 35 degrees and I slept in absolutely everything I had packed and was still shivering cold. And I looked like this:
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To make matters worse I must have had a bad breakfast because I had to get out of the tent many times and race to the outhouse hoping not to grab the attention of all of the wild dogs I saw silhouetted in the moonlight to throw up! I seriously slept 2 hours tops and was pretty worried about how I would fair on day two.

The first night and the morning of day two we were told would be our coldest days and I was pretty darn freezing. Mind over matter took effect however and I ended up being near the front of the pack (of 17) most of the day. We ended up walking a total of 22 km or 13.67 miles on day two and it took us about 10 hours.
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We hiked about 4 hours to the highest point hikers were allowed to go near Salkantay with blue skies and majestic views of the mountain but once we reached the prime photo taking spot the clouds had already decided to settle in. Boo. But here is what was supposed to be a killer view:
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At this point we had reached 15,187 feet above sea level!
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Now just two hours to go until our lunch break! It was downhill and seemed to be getting warmer with every step! During this portion of the journey I chatted with the young Canadian guy and the two Spanish speaking French girls and got caught in a mule parade!
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After lunch I felt quite energized and was in the front of the pack with the two speedy Spainards, Angel and Jesus. Angel and Jesus (yes those are their real names) were the only two consistently faster than me all week. But that makes sense, right? I mean no one can compete with an Angel and Jesus! Here is our night #2 camp:
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The guy from Argentina was celebrating his birthday that night and somehow our guides got their hand on a cake. We sang him "Happy Birthday" in Spanish, French, English, German and Quechua (a Peruvian indigenous language).
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Day three was our rainforest day and the guides told us to be prepared. The most it rained was a sprinkle however but we sure looked cool!
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Sometimes along the trail if we happen to be sticking together pretty well our guide would point out things and show us certain plants. This really cool bamboo looking stem is a wind instrument that people actually play. We all had fun taking pieces and testing them out along the trail. I happened to get a serious bass note!
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Sometimes "pachamama" or mother nature was our toilet but other times we'd come across an outhouse with a snack shack nearby where you can buy "snigkers" or even see a couple of turkeys!
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Lunch on day three was in a little town and one of the German girls and I happened to make it there first! Two meals out of the week we ate "family style" and this was one of them. The cooks were fantastic about having a lot of meat free options which rarely happens so I was pretty stoked!
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Day three we walked 16 km or 9.9 miles and it took us about 5.5 hours. We settled into camp in an actual town called Santa Teresa where we got to enjoy the nearby natural hot springs. What a treat! Our blistered feet and sore bodies really needed it!
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Night three was our "party night" because we were allowed to sleep in until 7am the next morning (as opposed to 5 am like the others). We celebrated with another huge "family style" meal and a campfire accompanied by blaring reggaeton, salsa and other upbeat latin music.
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Day four was a short day. We walked just 14 km or 8.6 miles and it was only 5 of us with one guide because the rest of the group had opted to pay for the additional zipline activity and would meet us in Hydroelectica for lunch by way of a bus. I chose to walk because I had zip lined before, was trying to save the money and I was determined to walk as much as the trek allowed! Day four was hot! Talk about weather extremes!
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He is our first glimpse of Machu Picchu Mountain (the pointy one in the middle).
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After stopping for lunch we were very close. All we had to do was follow the railroad tracks to Aguas Calientes (at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain) where we would stay in an actual hostel for the night. Woo hoo! This day I walked and got to know the outgoing fella from Mexico.
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Carlos (as seen crossing the tracks above) turned out to be pretty funny! When I walked behind him he was always arguing with the guide about how far we had walked that day or the previous days claiming it was farther than we were told. He told me he had a girlfriend back in Lima and we decided that he just wanted to beef up his numbers for bragging rights!

We had our final dinner together in Aguas Calientes and made a plan to meet at 4:20 am the next morning for the 1 hour (straight up) hike to Machu Picchu and hit the sack around 9 am. The Mexican guy had the idea to take a picture of all of our passports together. The only one not represented is from the couple from Argentina.
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In case you're curious, the Swiss passport is by far the coolest!

Here we are at 4:20 am the next morning ready to start our day! Can't you tell??
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The group separates easily based on breaks and fitness level etc but I was told by previous trekkers that it was important to get up as fast as you can so you can be one of the first in when it opens at 6am and have a tourist free view for a few minutes. I am proud to say I was the 14th person up overall (Jesus was 3rd I think!).
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Ta-dah! Machu Picchu!!! I made it!
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We had about a 2 hour tour and then the rest of the day to wander around on our own and explore this crazy old city on top of a mountain. I just wish I could go back in time and see it functioning like it once did. Incredible! I got most of what the tour guide said but my most interesting tidbits came from the employee picking up garbage along the trail on the way back to town. Of course her rambled about lots of things and had very strong opinions about the Spanish but he did say that American tourists are his favorites because they respect the land and never litter. Go us!
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Here is an overview of Machu Picchu from the UNESCO web site:
"Macchu Picchu is an outstanding example of man's interaction with his natural environment.

Standing 2,430 m above sea level, in the midst of a tropical mountain forest in an extraordinarily beautiful setting, Machu Picchu was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Machu Picchu covers 32,500 ha in some of the scenically most attractive mountainous territory of the Peruvian Andes. As the last stronghold of the Incas and of superb architectural and archaeological importance, Machu Picchu is one of the most important cultural sites in Latin America; the stonework of the site remains as one of the world's great examples of the use of a natural raw material to provide outstanding architecture which is totally appropriate to the surroundings. The surrounding valleys have been cultivated continuously for well over 1,000 years, providing one of the world's greatest examples of a productive man-land relationship; the people living around Machu Picchu continue a way of life which closely resembles that of their Inca ancestors, being based on potatoes, maize and llamas. Machu Picchu also provides a secure habitat for several endangered species, notably the spectacled bear, one of the most interesting species in the area. Others animals include: dwarf brocket, the otter, long-tailed weasel, pampas cat and the vulnerable ocelot, boa, the Andean cock of the rock, and the Andean condor."

A maximum of 2,500 people are allowed on Machu Picchu each day. There was also an option to buy a ticket (in advance for $10) to climb the neighboring Huayana Picchu as well which offers an aerial view of Macchu Picchu and some more cool rock structures. We were pretty darn high up there but the views were breathtaking!
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After a few more hours of exploration we hiked back down to Aguas Calientes, took a 1.5 hour train ride followed by a 2 hour bus ride and arrived back in Cusco around 11 pm. All in all we walked 72 Km or 44.7 miles plus whatever our Machu Picchu day added up to over the 5 day trek. Wooo-eee!
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I took a couple of days to re-cooperate in Cusco before taking the dreaded bus ride back to Lima. All I really did in those couple of days was visit the Inca museum. It was cool to see the pictures and models of Machu Picchu when it was first discovered and before Hiram Bingham initiated the restoration process.
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I found this picture helpful showing (on a map of Europe as a reference) the size and reach of the Inca Empire.
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So that was Cusco! A great place. One I would definitely go back to. I sprung the 17 dollars extra to take the nicer bus back to Lima and am so glad I did! It was almost 4 hours shorter of a ride, showed decent movies, had ample leg room and even wifi!
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In Lima I stayed with my mom's friend's daughter and her husband for two nights both before and after my Cusco trip. I cannot tell you how nice it is for a traveler to be in a "home" especially with a welcome set like this:
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Cookies, fruit, a body AND a hair towel?? The royal treatment by my standards!

It has hard not to just want to hang around their apartment and enjoy being so comfortable during my few days in Lima which I did a lot of but did manage to get out and look around a little. The couple took me to the fountain park one night and I wandered on my own while they were at work the other times.
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After Lima I felt I was done with Peru but knew the trip to my next destination (Cuenca back in Ecuador) would be too far to go all in one shot so I stopped at the beach in Mancora for a couple of days to relax and soak up some sun.
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My first day eating lunch there the fellas were haggling over the "before" version of the meals. I don't even eat meat but the up close view from the tables didn't really do much for the appetite if you ask me!
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The trip from Mancora across the border and onto Cuenca in Ecuador was a pretty tough one and reminded me again that I am not a fan of traveling alone (especially as a young, foreign female). Once I had finally made it across and took the bus 5 hours more to Cuenca, I decided that I was done traveling and ready to go back home to the US. It wasn't one particular event that guided me towards this decision but rather a series of small events combined with significant change of heart that helped me determine now was the right time. I have been at if for about two years now and I have thoroughly loved my gypsy lifestyle and all the excitement, adventure, freedom and even the challenges that is had it offer but I have hit my "saturation point" and my dad so appropriately calls it. It started to make me sad and embarrassed that I wasn't as excited about seeing these new places and doing new things. And it's not at all that the places in South America were not as worthy as other places, heck no the problem was definitely me; now is not the right time for me to explore these incredible places and I acknowledged that. I will always be a traveler but I need and want a long break. I want to be nearer to all of the people I love that I haven't been able to see much of in the past two years. I want to live in a place long enough to put my own address on documents instead of using my parents, I want to tailgate at football games and enjoy all the other fantastic "only in America" things I love. I want to be a regular at a coffee shop and get this... I even want a real job! I have been really craving all of these things as well as stability these past 7 weeks so I feel very comfortable with my decision. And if I needed a reinforcement I got one at the airport in Guayaquil when I took a later flight in exchange for a HUGE travel voucher, a room at the Marriott for 12 hours and 3 meals where I got to use the fitness center on the 16th floor with city views, watch movies, relax on one of my TWO big comfy beds and take the longest, hottest, cleanest shower in the history of all backpacking! Jackpot!

Thank you so much for reading my blogs over the years. I hope you have enjoyed them and your travel wish list is longer for it! :)

I'll leave you with the few pics I took in Cuenca before heading to the airport:
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 09.10.2012 15:04 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Peru: pretty, chilly but really pretty chilly!

by gabrielle

overcast 65 °F

Getting from Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador to our first stop called Chachapoyas in Peru was much more difficult than any of us had anticipated. No one thing made it so ridiculous but rather the culmination of all of the various hand-offs and modes of transport together, none of which were smooth... literally! I met two girls from Minnesota at the hostel in Vilcabamba who were headed in the same direction as me so we decided to make the two day trip to Chachapoyas together. A bus we could just hop right on was supposed to pass by at 6am so like the punctual Americans we are we got out there at 5:45 am, beating the sun and waited... until 6:53am when the bus finally rolled up. This bus was supposed to take us to Zumba, the border town on the Ecuadorian side and take about 5 hours total. After just an hour our bus broke down on some mountain road because of a belt issue, we were refunded (some) of our money and we waited for FOUR hours for our replacement bus to take over. Since we had already lost half a days worth of travel we decided to stay the night in Zumba and get moving bright and early the next morning.
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This turned out to be a genius decision because our next mode of transport was a "ranchero" that would take us us the remaining 2.5 hours to the La Balsa Peruvian border crossing.
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AND the whole trip was an unpaved, mountain road so picture an earthquake simulator at an arcade or wherever without seat belts that lasts 2.5 hours and leaves your tailbone nice and sore! However, as usual the locals somehow mastered ranchero riding and didn't seem to bounce around much at all. In fact, the woman you see in the pink shirt was breastfeeding for the first little while then her baby peacefully slept the rest of the way. I mean come on!
Here is a video: If it doesn't work as a link just copy and paste it.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sl00BS2_m20&feature=youtu.be

The border crossing was a simple stamp on the Ecuadorian side, we walked across ourselves then on the other side we spotted the tiny "migracion" sign on the brown building, answered a few questions and got another stamp then had our names and passport numbers added to an Excel spreadsheet and that was it!
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We ate lunch with a few friends at the border crossing then negotiated our price for the shared car we would take the next 2 hours of the journey to Jaen.
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We bumped along in the backseat of a late 80-someting Honda type hatchback along another unpaved mountain road (albeit under construction to be paved eventually) listening to loud reggaeton as our driver zoomed and swerved around the machinery until we reached our destination of Jaen for the next transportation change. We were dropped off a the wrong "terminal" so we piled into a motor taxi and held onto our bags balanced on the back rack and made our way through town to the other terminal. Next we boarded a station wagon type rig that already had two passengers headed our way to San Ignacio so one of the girls got a $1.50 discount for taking the 2 hour ride on the center console. Luckily the road was paved this time! Once in San Ignacio we had our fingers crossed that we would get a real bus to take us the remaining 5 hours to Chachapoyas but no, another one hour ride in a van was up next to take us to Bagua Grande. In Bagua Grande we ate dinner/late lunch (around 4 pm) with our previous van driver who must have had a short term memory issue! He asked us where were were from, how old we were and if we like Peru better than Ecuador about 3 times each! In Bagua Grande people kept telling us that no more cars were going to Chachapoyas that day but we were too determined to take no for an answer and eventually found a guy willing to take us but for an unfair price (he knew he was one of our last hopes). I did not like his attitude one bit either! Once we were settled into the backseat of the station wagon with our bags in the back he decided to tell us that he had an errand to run... he needed to go buy a baby goat for his wife's birthday tomorrow (she was sitting in the front seat). He promised it would only take 15 minutes and not to worry because the goat would be riding on top of the car, not inside with us. Without much choice we headed in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go honking at places in the country that seemed to have animals. So yes, that means he had no particular place in mind where he would be buying this goat! We finally found a place with darling baby goats and other various animals only to find out that none of the 8 people there were authorized to make a goat sale and we would have to wait for the owner. One of the girls tried to argue a fairer price since we were doing him this favor but he wasn't having it. He just kept telling us to "chill." Frustrated and annoyed we headed back to the main road, caught a motor taxi back into town and our helpful driver drove us around for 20 minutes trying to find someone else to take us to Chachapoyas. And just to add the cherry on top... this little goat was not a cute new pet but a birthday dinner present for his wife! ;( No one was going to Chachapoyas. BUT we did find a car headed to Pedro Ruiz which is just one hour from Chachapoyas. We took the three hour ride with a friendly other passenger in the front seat to Pedro Ruiz where we were able to catch a "collectivo" (large van that leaves once it's full to a given destination) the remaining one hour to Chachapoyas where we arrived around 10 pm, found a cheap hostel and went straight to bed. Phew!

Chachapoyas is a fun little colonial town that we happened to catch in the last three days of their annual month long patron saint festival. This meant nightly fireworks, endless marching band performances and parades, street performers and this awesome sawdust/grass street art/mural contest that surrounded the main square. We went to the ruins that day but found out that a parade at 1 pm would trample through and ruin all of the impressive art that had less than half a day to shine in the first place!
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As a day trip from Chachapoyas we went to visit the ruins of Kuelap. There are ruins ALL over Peru with Machu Picchu being the most famous so to avoid being desensitized by the time I got to Machu Picchu I decided that Kuelap would be the only other ruins I'd visit here in Peru. Here is some info about the ruins straight from a Peruvian tourist website:

"Kuelap, at 3100 meters high in the Andes Mountains, dominates the landscape as an oval shaped fortress city 600 meters long with defensive stone walls. Kuelap, a mountaintop fortress city, rivals any ruins in the new world complete with living quarters for thousands of residents and a most impressive stone wall fortification reaching 60 feet high in circumference to the city. Surrounding Kuelap lies the mountainous and remote Vilaya Region. Kuelap is not, strictly speaking, an Inca ruin but was built by the Chachapoyas, a fierce, Northern tribe who were finally conquered by the Incas only a short time before the arrival of the Spanish. Kuelap has several sinister features. One is the mysterious el tintero (or "inkpot"), a circular building with only an opening in the top, said to be used for housing jaguars which were fed with human captives as sacrifices. Another is Kuelap's main entrance, termed a "killing corridor" in Hilary Brandt's "Backpacking and Trekking in Peru and Bolivia".
"Kuelap was designed to be a death trap. Its walls were so high and backfilled to prevent any chance of breeching. However, its three doors leading inwards were open and laid out to give an optical illusion to the approaching enemy that they could storm inside. However, inside was a killing corridor with huge walls on the sides and a steep climb as the corridor got narrower and narrower to a final point where only one man at a time could squeeze through". This "killing corridor" entrance to Kuelap is littered with bones."
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We took a van the 3 hours from Chachapoyas to get to Kuelap and only hiked the last 20 minutes or so and I think that may have had a lot to do with the "wow" factor of coming across ruins on top of a mountain. I still thought it was pretty impressive but I am hiking for 5 days and 4 nights to get to Machu Picchu so I think it will be much more amazing because it will be so well earned!

From Chachapoyas I parted ways with the girls from Minnesota and took a 13 hour bus ride to the coast to a beach town called Huanchacho. Here my only objective was to take a surf lesson, which I did! The first say was quite the success and I stood up more time then I didn't and I even rode the wave all the way into the beach 3-4 times! So fun! The second day I decided to go with a German girl who was staying in my dorm room and use a different company and it was a total bust! Apparently it is pretty easy to become a surf snob because I knew my board was too small for me (especially as a beginner) and the holes in the shoes made the rocks pretty painful and easy to trip over while trying to stand up. Oh well, it was still pretty fun floppin' around and trying!
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Huanchaco was also a great place to practice Spanish. I made a few local friends along the malecon (boardwalk) and got a tour around town and even joined up in a birthday volleyball game.
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This cute little lady working at the post office sets up this mirror so she can see the ocean while she is at work! Genius!
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I met a few fun travelers at my hostel in Huanchaco as well. One Dutch girl and I had to take the bus together to the next town over and as we were getting ready I took out my toothpaste and she asked to borrow some. Once she saw it she was shocked! Her response got the attention of a English guy who was nearby and we all had a good laugh about the enormous "American size" toothpaste tube I had. I tried to defend myself saying I just wanted to make sure I wouldn't run out, the English guy laughed and said that probably wouldn't be possible! I guess 8 oz is pretty big. They claim they are lucky if they can find a 4 oz-er for a big trip! Good ol' USA!

After three nights in Huanchaco I took a night bus to Lima where I wouls stay with some family friends and muster up the energy to make the long trip to Cusco to climb Machu Picchu. I think I will include my few days in Lima in the next blog post because what to do you know... this one has gotten pretty lengthy!

But first, the missing photos from the last entry!

The Blue Footed Boobies:
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Isla de la Plata:
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And the sequence I described of the whales showing off:
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Ciao!!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 08.25.2012 10:51 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Switchin' it Up

by gabrielle

sunny 80 °F

So Puerto Lopez still wasn’t making the cut and I had to bust outta there a bit early. By Thursday (exactly 8 days after arriving) I was about ready to pull my hair out I was so bored and had so little to do. Not to mention my “host dad”/Spanish teacher had left to Quito again so that would mean I would go at least a couple of more days without Spanish lessons in the morning and I decided that enough was enough! I nervously told my “host mom” on Friday that I didn’t know there would be so little work to do with the kids, I wasn’t having Spanish lessons in the morning and I didn’t like spending so much time alone so I wanted to continue on with my travels earlier than planned. She simply said, “Well then you can have a two hour class on Monday when he gets back.” So now I know I couldn’t phrase it like a pending decision and when my “host dad” got back, I would have to be strong and direct. And that I was! I told him Sunday morning and was on a bus out of town by 1pm the same day. I felt a bit guilty since I had originally told them I would stay a month and they were likely depending on the money but my sister and parents were quick to remind me that it’s “my trip” and they weren’t necessarily following through on their end either.

As I mentioned in the last post, Puerto Lopez is the whale capital of Ecuador and I did manage to go on a whale watching trip/tour on Saturday before leaving on Sunday. My boat had about 18 people on it and was half Spanish speaking tourists and then the other half, German/English speaking so it was nice to have the guide say it all in Spanish and then I could essentially check if I understood it as he repeated the same info in English. The tour consisted of an hour and half stomach churning boat road out to Isla de la Plata (Silver Island) which is supposed to be like a mini Galapagos in terms of some odd plant and bird life. We got to the island and took an hour and a half ish walk to the opposite coast to learn about some of the plants and birds. The most interesting plant had small, white-ish grape like berries on it that could be eaten (although very sticky) or squeezed into a bowl and mixed with a little bit of water and used as hair gel. I believe it too because Mohawks and a variety of other trendy spiky dos are very popular with Ecuadorian guys of all ages and I’m sure legit hair gel costs can add up quickly!

The craziest birds we saw were called Blue Footed Boobies. With our guide’s strong accent this was a hilarious name to hear 100 times in an hour (yes, I’m a tad immature)! So these birds are kind of rooster sized I guess and they truly do have bright blue feet. We learned that they start out white, and then as they age get darker and darker blue. These birds were all over the place and didn’t seem to notice or care at all that groups full of people stop just feet away to watch them do what they do. And what they do is odd! We learned that these birds get new mates each year, don’t build nests but just hang out on the ground, they can fly and they can swim down 20 feet to catch fish and they find their new mates by doing a “dance.” The strangest part of all of this was as the guide was explaining these things, the birds were doing them like they were acting or had gotten some kind of cue. For example: our guide pointed out a male standing alone on the trail about 15 feet away and said, “he is going to dance to attract a potential mate who is flying overhead by lifting each foot one at a time from side to side and making this noise (he demonstrated the sound).” And then sure enough, this bird starts doing this leg lift dance while making this whistle noise and a female lands down next to him and they start checking each other out! Then we move along the trail a little bit and see a Booby couple who are standing beak to beak in the middle of their 15 day mating ritual which consists of more dancing, sound making and taking turns going fishing (we didn’t see the fishing). We kept moving down the trail as our guide explains that after the 15 days, the male literally stands on the females back and a little bit later they hatch their eggs and of course as he is telling us this, we see a male Blue Footed Booby step up onto the females back. It was just ridiculous! Honestly, if someone told me it was all rehearsed I would probably believe them.

After our walk we ate a quick lunch on the boat and then had an opportunity to snorkel. Unfortunately the waves were kind of crazy and it just wasn’t a good day for it. Three or four of us swam around a little bit anyway but only like enough to get about 4 jelly fish stings each! They were just little pricks but still, so itchy. The whole boat ride back was dedicated to whale watching and within about 20 minutes of leaving the island we saw one and just putted around it for awhile. It was about 50 yards away and at first you just see the spray from the blow hole, then it took its enormous fin and slapped the water several times then it disappeared, or so we thought… but then it came back up and another 50 years from where it was before and did its magnificent breach leap just like you see on the discovery channel! It was pretty incredible to see. We saw this combo or some variation of it about 3 or 4 more times over the next hour and a half then made our way back to Puerto Lopez. After all those years living in Washington I’ve never been whale watching but now after seeing these Humpbacks, I would love to see the Orcas in Washington too. Oh and P.S. Their backs really are so humped. I didn’t expect it to be such an angle!

On Sunday I left Puerto Lopez and moved just 45 minutes south to the crazy, surfer, party town of Montanita. I had heard too much about this place not to check it out and I was pretty interested in learning to surf. I met a few people on the whale watching trip that were also all traveling alone and just chatting with them and exchanging travel tips and stories gave me some much needed encouragement about setting out on my own “backpacker style.” And Montanita delivered just as I had heard it would. Everyone was super carefree and willing to make friends with whomever, give directions or lend advice and I instantly felt better about being alone. Before I even saw the beach I had two great conversations with locals all in Spanish and met a friendly girl from Denver who recommended a hostel for me. After checking in I decided to explore a bit but didn’t make it very far once I spotted the beach volleyball court… stick to what you know, right? I ended up playing volleyball (2 on 2) for the next 3 days and hanging with and meeting a lot of fun people that way. My partner was usually one of the multitasking lifeguards on duty or whoever was standing around wanting to play. It was great! I met a few really fun people at the hostel as well and they came out and laid around near the court for most of the day and I would check back in or play cards with them too. I only stayed three nights but felt it was the perfect amount of time in this backpacker haven and was ready to see what else Ecuador had to offer! The one major bummer was that I made a huge rookie travel mistake and left my things (camera included) on some rocks and went swimming at night with some people when the tide was out really far and it got stolen. Classic “should’ve known better” but I got a new one and am choosing to not dwell on it. That being said I am in the process of collecting Booby, whale watching and Montanita pics from other travelers I have met and will include them in the next post.

I left Montanita at 5:45 am the next morning and arrived 38km shy of my intended destination at 10:30pm the same night. Since it was too late to get the last bus to Vilcabamba I stayed in a hostel with a girl from Luxemboug I met on the bus and we made the trip together the next day. Vilcabamba is a beautiful little town in a valley surround by small mountains and very diverse vegetation and landscapes and is conveniently located just north of the Peruvian border along the route I had planned. Apparently this magical little valley is known as the fountain of youth because the tap water is potable via the mountains in endless supply, the people eat lots of fresh produce, take advantage of the many outdoor excursions the area has to offer and it is not uncommon to live well past 100 years old. Alice and I stayed at a hostel 2 km outside of the town center that came highly recommended by many other travelers and were lucky enough to land two beds in a dorm. The place is called Izhcayluma (meaning) and was a bit out of budget ($10 per night) but included a fantastic breakfast buffet, gorgeous views of the valley, trail maps, a friendly staff and not to mention a pretty sweet set up! Here are some pics.
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Our first afternoon we took a long walk through town and the surrounding areas and the similarities between the landscapes of Vilcabamba, some southwestern states in the US and even eastern Washington were crazy!
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Our second day Alice and I did a horseback riding/hiking tour through the mountains and Podo Carpus National Park. You never know what you’re in for with these tours but this one was fantastic! Besides Alice, there was a young, newlywed couple from Colorado with us and of course, our crazy character of a guide, Jaime. Around 9 am the five of us mounted our horses Trevor (mine), Aventura, Pedon (“the farter” more or less?), Hot Chocolate and Tequila and walked the few blocks through town before taking off into a fast gallop on the main road to get to the trailhead. It was so fun! Yes, occasionally it backfires or is a bit sketchy but for the most part I love and appreciate the freedom and lack of restrictions that developing countries tend to provide on tours. Things are a lot simpler and often more exhilarating without liability waivers, fancy/expensive equipment, and the looming fear of a “sue happy” culture.
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Once at the trail head we started the nearly three hour climb with the mountains through a dusty, narrow trail that sometimes flirted just a yard from the cliffs edge. I felt comfortable on Trevor though and knew he wouldn’t let me down. When we thought we were near the top, Jaime told us to leave the horses to eat and re energize (not tied up of course) and we set off on a pretty grueling two hour hike even further up the mountain to a waterfall for lunch. It is exhausting riding a horse for that long in the sun, ducking and maneuvering around branches (unless of course Jaime happened to be in front of you whacking them away with his machete) so needless to say, we were pretty lame hikers and more than ready to stop for lunch. The water was crystal clear at the falls, freezing and delicious to drink but Jaime and the new Colorado husband were the only ones brave enough to take a dip. Jaime said that they would both live 20 years longer than us because of it but the sun was hiding behind the clouds often enough that I couldn’t muster up the nerve! After lunch we hiked up even further and somehow made a loop back down to meet the horses. Jaime was impressed by my ability to handle a horse so Trevor and I led most of the way both up and down which made me feel like a legit cowgirl! By the time we made it down to the bottom of the mountain again (around 5 pm) all of our knees and thighs ached but no one complained when we got to run the horses the 2 km back to town. What a rush!
And if all of that wasn’t enough, Jaime didn’t speak any English and the Colorado couple didn’t speak much Spanish so Jaime alternated riding alongside Alice and me and I got to practice Spanish all day! It was wonderful! By the end of it I had learned all about his 12 brothers and sisters and how he is the youngest and was supposed to be a priest and how his dad had 7 other children with other women in town and so on and so on. What a day! Please note the awesome hats they gave us to wear too! At first I thought it was just for fun but they were totally helpful in protecting us from branches and blocking the sun! Yeehaw!
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My third and final day in Vilcabamba was pretty lazy and consisted of a short hike, yet another attempt to find stamps (third town and still no luck!) and a lot of lounging at the hostel reading in the hammocks outside our dorms. At one point all three hammocks were being used and two German guys were sitting at the picnic table right next to them. I was one of the two peaceful readers in the hammocks and the girl in the third started to snore and the rest of us snickered a little... Then one of the German guys let out a fart and we all giggled a bit more, then the other German guy let out a short series of huge farts and we all laughed like middle schoolers but still no one spoke about anyone else’s “private sounds” and we all went back to what we were doing. Man, you gotta love travel!

Don't forget there are more pics that I didn't include in the blog in the photo gallery if you want to check them out! Also, I must credit my new friend Alice for many of the better pics. She was kind enough to share hers with me from her fancy camera!

Peru bound tomorrow…stay tuned!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 08.14.2012 13:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Let's Get This Show on the Road!

by gabrielle

sunny 80 °F

“Not all who wander are lost” is a quote Swhite really likes and it seems truly fitting for what I am doing on this trip to South America…ergo: the title of the blog. I will be moving around not so frequently for the next four months but I don’t feel I will be aimlessly wandering because I have a specific purpose in mind (as well as a return flight home) and my purpose is to improve my Spanish. While practicing my Spanish I plan to volunteer where I can and work on organic farms in exchange for food and lodging (WWOFF program). I knew it was important to take this trip alone because the best language progress comes when you have no other choice and totally immerse yourself. I would love to still be traveling with my buddy or sister but then I could talk to them all I wanted and wouldn’t force myself outside my comfort zone and speak Spanish even when it’s not going so well and even when I don’t feel like it. But let me tell you, I sure do miss having a travel buddy! I can’t even explain the security and confidence I had and now don’t just knowing I am here alone versus before. Not to mention entertainment factor! Even if we both had no idea what was going on, at least we had each other. After one week in Ecuador I won’t say I’ve been totally lonely yet, but that is definitely my biggest fear for the months to come.

Here are some pics from my first walk around town (Puerto Lopez)... and the sign I'm always looking for! ("playa" means beach)
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For those of you who read my Dominican Republic blog from three years ago you might remember me saying something along the lines of, “I’m too young to retire!” That exclamation holds true here in Ecuador also. I completely forgot how slow of a pace, relaxed and "tranquillo" or “chill” everything is in Latin America. There is no rush for anything, schedules seem more or less obsolete and I seem to be the only one that doesn’t know how to pass hours and hours doing nothing. I swear Latinos invented “postin’ up” and they do it like champs all day!

Here are some pics from around town. Puerto Lopez is a small (around 12,000 people) fishing town on the coast. The whale capital of Ecuador!
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This is the Malecon or strip of bars, restaurants and shops along the beach.
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I arrived in Guayaquil late last Tuesday night the 24th, slept at a hostel, got up and arrived in my first month-long stop, Puerto Lopez, Ecuador at about 2:00pm. I heard about this town and opportunity from a friend of my sister’s who said she had the best Spanish teacher ever here and they also take volunteers for their after school program for boys. This sounded like a good jumping off point to me! I wanted a month’s worth of formal lessons to get back into the habit of speaking Spanish all the time and I wanted something to keep me busy during the days. I had been corresponding with the teacher all through June and July and had gathered that I would be staying in the cabanas they have, eating three meals a day with them, taking my Spanish lessons in the morning, helping with soccer practice in the afternoons and tutoring some kids in English in the early evening. When I arrived Wednesday I rested and took a walk around town and along the beach then Thursday morning I was told there was a group of volunteers from Canada here so I wouldn’t actually start anything until Monday. I was also told that my cabana was going to be repainted and cleaned so I would have to move into the main house for the next couple of days. Aside from the main house there are two cabanas (each with two separate rooms) and a classroom type building that would somewhat comfortably fit about two kitchen tables on the property. The main house is about the size of a large studio apartment and shaped like a barn. There are wall separators for the two bedrooms but all the ceiling space is open and shared. There are no seal-able doors or windows (they are either completely open or have bamboo lattice) so we sleep with mosquito nets at night. I am now in the room intended for the parents of the household while they sleep on the bottom bunk of their 11 year old son’s bunk bed in the next room. There is a small, basic bathroom attached to the main room/kitchen and once you are outside the bathroom or the bedroom, you are in the kitchen. So I went from volunteer and student in a personal cabana with my own bathroom to up close and personal style “host daughter” in less than 24 hours. Talk about intimate! By Friday a large family (about 6 people) from Quito showed up who apparently used to own the property and needed to sign some papers but they stayed for 4 days, used the kitchen area often and stayed in the cabanas (thus putting off the cleaning and painting of mine a few more days). Then on Saturday my “host mom’s” entire family showed up (about 10 people) and set up camp in the classroom type room. Aside from the family in the cabanas, everyone shared the same bathroom. Oh yeah, did I mention the water and electricity goes out daily…for hours at a time? So if you can imagine it, it’s been quite the week for me especially because I haven’t had anything to do, like at all. I ran on the beach almost every day, took lots of walks around town, went to the beach to swim or read or people watch, read in my room, napped and still had time to spend hours reorganizing my Pinterest pages online each evening (Pinterest works much faster than other sites when the internet is working). I have been sleeping just fine though believe it or not! The family goes to bed around 10:30 and wakes up between 7 and 8 and I generally follow suit. There are lots of wild dogs, roosters and other various birds making noise all through the night but luckily I am used to sleeping in crazy places so it hasn't been a problem. Sunday night however I woke up twice. The first time around midnight because the room was shaking (yes, we had a small earthquake or "tremble" as the translation goes) and second time around 4 am because some kind of marching band was parading down the street (turns out it was opening day of a new fishing season). I didn't mention either the next morning because I was afraid I was having really vivid dreams or something but by mid afternoon, one of the boys asked me if I felt the "tremble" or heard the band. Oh the excitement!

Here's a street view of the property (you can only see the two cabana buildings), the inside of my cabana before I got kicked out with the HUGE cockroach waiting for me in the bathroom! And a pic of my 20 year old "host brother":
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Aside from all that I must mention that the family is absolutely wonderful! The husband and wife started a soccer team for the boys in town to keep them out of trouble, help them focus their energy on something productive, teach them how to be fair, honest and respectful people and players and to teach them that anything is possible (including a future in professional soccer). There are about 25 boys involved in the team and program in some way, the youngest being 9 and the oldest 23 (most are 12-15). There is an older team and younger team and they pile in the back of a truck 3-5 times a week and practice on a dirt yet official sized field in the next small coastal town over. And when there are volunteers (like me), the family organizes English class at their house after school that is totally optional. I don’t exactly understand how their league/season works but they do play official games at some point throughout the year. Besides the 11 year old son who has absolutely no interest in me (or is extremely shy) there is also a 20 year old boy who lives with the family permanently and sleeps in one of the cabanas. He is still in high school (I don’t really understand the system), and the wife told me he has lived with them since he was 10 (he told me his family also lives in town but gave no details). He is very involved in the program and plays on the older team. Like many of the boys, he is like a son to the couple and the right hand man to the husband when it comes to coaching, teaching etc. He has been wonderful to me since I have been here and I really appreciate his kindness! Yesterday I served as his assistant coach of sorts during soccer practice in the absence of the husband (who was out of town all weekend) running drills and even participating in the scrimmage for the last 20 minutes. I haven’t played soccer since I was about 12 but luckily I am athletic and could keep up, and by that I mean only keep up, not do anything tricky or make very effective passes like these little studs. You should see these boys play! Their footwork is outrageous and even though none of the older ones were there yesterday (many have jobs and kids) the younger group would easily dominate most high school teams I have seen. I will be sure to take a couple videos at some point while I’m here. Oh yeah, I will continue to say "little" even though most of the boys are 12+ because they are soooo short! I am told it's a malnutrition issue so most of them look years younger than they are and very few have cracked 5 feet tall.

Here are the boys playing a "just for fun" game on the beach with the Canadian volunteer group Friday afternoon. Notice how nothing is out of bounds, including the waves!
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And a pic of their sad farewell with the Canadians. Some of the boys even brought gifts like their favorite pillow, toys or a $1 bill.
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I went to Las Friales, a beautiful three beach portion of a national park near Puerto Lopez with the Canadian group and my older host bro on Saturday (the rest of the group left Monday). My first time at a black sand beach!
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Today (Tuesday) was my first English class. I had one group of 10 at 2:00 and another group of 10 at 3:00 (school gets out at 1/1:30 for most of them). The family has some flash cards and games and some limited materials but since I was told their English level is “0”, I started with introductions, pronunciation of the alphabet and the game “memory” using complete sentences when flipping cards. They are energetic, kind, enthusiastic and they chose to come so I think it will work out just fine. I have been told that I will do English class on Tuesdays and Thursdays and help at soccer practice Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I had my first Spanish class tonight too and really hammered on some grammar I needed to practice so that was good. I'm finally making moves!

So there is my lengthy first week update! Enjoy the pics and check back in a couple weeks for another update!

P.s. As I am trying to post this while lying in bed (Wednesday morning) I must include that there has been a marching band of sorts playing since 6:30am as well as regular cannon shots being fired followed by the squeals of the school children! I will have to ask about this when I go to breakfast...

Posted by 3ifBySEA 08.01.2012 06:14 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

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