Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year from the Ilinizas!

Feeling good on the summit of Iliniza Norte

Mike, Paul, and Deanna arrived safely in Quito a few days ago, and we have had quite a full trip already. We spent the first two days eating lots of seco de chivo (goat stew - delicious) and empanadas and humitas (cornbread-like tamales). Oh yes, and hiking. First, we climbed almost to the summit of Rucu Pichincha, a volcano basically within the city limits of Quito. You take a cable car to the start of the trail to the summit. The views were really lovely, and it was nice to get away into "nature" so close to the urban environment. Although we had to turn back a few meters below the summit due to poor visibility, cold, and lack of gloves, it was a nice time.

The way up Pichincha, with clouds covering the peak.

Around the point we decided to turn back on Pichincha.

Now we are in El Chaupi, which is a small village at the base of the Ilinizas. We climbed Iliniza Norte yesterday. I was very much surprised by how beautiful the scenery was both on the way up and on the descent. The weather was very clear until we just about got to the summit -- 16,818 feet - but even then it wasn't too bad.

The Ilinizas - we climbed the north summit, which is on the right.
Mike in the saddle between the two summits.
One of our guides at the Pasa de Muerte, getting close to the summit.

It is funny to think that a few years ago, Mike, Kevin, and I stood atop Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone National Park at 10,219 in elevation, and that was the highest I'd ever hiked. Yesterday was a new record that will be broken, hopefully, tomorrow night/the morning of January 2 when we attempt the summit of Cotopaxi, and then again, hopefully, with Chimborazo, which tops out at over 20,700 feet.

Cotopaxi, as seen from Iliniza Norte. Too high. Tomorrow.

Paul and Deanna on the Ilinizas

Mike on the unnecessary but fun rappel off the summit.

Nice scenery on the way back down.

In the meantime, we are enjoying a rest day. We went to the "big town" of Machachi this morning for snacks and an ATM run. I misjudged where the stop was on the way there, so we got off way too soon. Fortunately, an older woman and her grandson helped us out, and we were soon in the second "bus." By bus, I mean pickup truck. There wasn't room for all of us in the cab, so Paul got the windy seat in the back.

We are reading and snacking and trying to conserve energy for tomorrow's climb. The family that runs the lodge where we are staying has some adorable and very nice children, including this one. So there as been plenty of playing around with them too.

Too cute.

Tonight is New Years' Eve, or Viejo Ano (Old Year) here. There are some interesting Ecuadorian traditions that I haven't seen before. On the way to town today, we were stopped by a "cop" and "robbers" - an adult and kids in costumes with fake guns, seeking change from passersby. While we waited for the bus, we saw them "hold up" several people as part of the year-end celebrations. They even had a joke roadblock set up. People also make effigies, complete with masks, to represent the bad things of the past year and burn them before midnight. There are a lot of effigies and masks around town. We won't be staying up to see the bonfire but I bet it will be quite the scene.

Some of the masks and smaller effigies for sale.

Bad thoughts waiting to be burned tonight.

Happy New Year!






Tuesday, December 25, 2012

¡Feliz Navidad!

A Nativity in Cuzco

It is my first Christmas away from family and friends. I did not expect to miss our traditions as much as I do. The special joy of getting let out of work early for a holiday party; Hawley's hot spiced cider and freshly baked chex mix; family dinner on Christmas eve, where I inevitably eat an entire jar of sweet pickles while the actual food cooks; catching up with Ohio friends at a pub or someone's house; the sunny Christmas in Florida, followed by kayaking or biking or some other unfathomable-to-a-northerner "winter" activity; the familiar ornaments on the Christmas tree. (These will soon be joined by snow tire commercials, hockey games, and lots of shoveling, no doubt.) I rarely get to do all of these things in a single holiday season, and future years will be no different, but I miss all the traditions greatly.


Instead, I am in South America, making my own Christmas this year. It has been interesting to watch the holiday slowly appear. First, in Bolivia, a Christmas tree or two showed up in the hostel common room or business lobby. Then we got to Cuzco, and people were out gift shopping in the evenings. Then, lights started to appear. And Nativity scenes. And one Coca-Cola sponsored Santa and elves for photos, even.

The Christmas Llama!

I spent Christmas eve in Quito at a boisterous "family" dinner with the staff and guests of the hostel where I am staying. There was Christmas music, wine, a roast turkey dinner, and freshly-baked desserts.

I walked around Old Town this morning where, to my surprise, there were crowds of people and most businesses were open. My friend filled herself with fresh coconut juice and goat stew. I, again, chickened out on trying it. Not unwisely, perhaps.

We came across a live music and dance processional outside one of the churches this morning

An art exhibit in Plaza Grande this morning.

Later, I'm going to make my stuffing (from my Bolivian Thanksgiving meal) and flan (when in Rome...) for Christmas Day. It isn't the same, but it'll do. Mike and Paul and Deanna arrive in two days, and that will be present enough!


Adios to (Cuzco) Peru

Sun on my final day in Peru. Sun!!

My brief trip to Peru is over. I fly into and out of Cuzco, so I can't really say I saw Peru. More like I saw Cuzco and some of the surrounding Sacred Valley.

Cuzco grew on me the longer I stayed. It is filled with colonial buildings and restaurants, and is clean and orderly thanks - no doubt - to the influx of tourist money that comes from being so near Machu Picchu. It is no Sucre, and I am pleased to no longer be asked if I would like to look at some pictures/get a massage/buy a hat/get a shoe shine/eat in a restaurant/pose beside a baby llama at least 10 times per block. But I enjoyed my many hours of wandering around the town after Christen left. I found a delicious sweet hot oatmeal drink that is on the list of foods to reproduce when I get home and got into the Christmas spirit with all the lights and street festivals and shoppers out and about. I wussed out about trying the local guinea pig specialty, though.

The Plaza San Francisco at night, post-camera-repair!

On my final day in Peru, I took a trip out to Ollantatamba, which has some of the longest continually inhabited Incan ruins. I think. They, like most of the attractions around Cuzco, are quite expensive to get into, and I did not pay for this one. Instead, I hiked up to the (free!) old granaries on the other side of town. They were lovely and just as enjoyable for me.

Las Granarias - the cheap-o's ruins

Inside the granaries.

So, I say good-bye to my second South American country. Good-bye, Peru!


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Good Times on the Way to Machu Picchu

The sun finally came out at just the right time on the last day

Our hearty band of 14 hikers, two guides, and gobs of porters have completed the hike to Machu Picchu. I don't have much to say, really, about Machu Picchu itself. It was quite impressive, and swarmed with tourists, and I understand the attention it receives. It was the last and largest of the ruins we saw along the way, and I enjoyed learning more about the incredible accomplishments of the Incan people, who dominated the region for centuries without a written language, wheels, or metal tools but developed a complex society and built massive, elaborate networks and cities.


Group shot at the top of Dead Woman's Pass

What I enjoyed most about the trip wasn't Machu Picchu, but the people we went with. Our group was full of really excellent, funny, interesting, kind people. I won't forget Elie, looking like death from an illness but determined to do the hike, laughing as JP questioned her on the potential side effects of the antibiotics she was about to take, or Elena choosing to stay back with her, and carry her backpack, for the entire day just to make sure she was OK. Or Jane, not really a hiker before, hauling herself up to Dead Woman's Pass (a 1200 meter climb) with an exhausted smile on her face. Or Ed and Brandy sharing stories from their time in Germany and being called upon to identify all the types of plants along the way. Or Johnny gamely eating pounds and pounds of leftover food at the end of several meals. Or when JP was missing right before the train back left, everyone resorting to shouting "JP!!!" to find him - and it worked! Or just sitting around at "tea time" (really) or after the trip was over telling stories and jokes.

Tea time

I also saw my first orchids in the wild and - between the clouds - beautiful mountain scenery, and got to explore several Incan ruins and see guinea pigs in one woman's home (kept for eating, not for pets), and have lots of fun with Christen. She gamely ignored my crankiness over our 4-something am wake-ups each morning and shared her camera when mine broke in the middle of the trip. (Last we saw it, last night, it was in about 50 pieces at the repair shop, where the tech asked me for yet more time to work on it...) We laughed until we were crying more than once, so I hope it outweighs my grumpiness. Now we're off on our separate ways - to Colombia and Ecuador - for more adventures.

Rocking the ponchos on day 1
(the only really rainy day of hiking we had, fortunately!)

Christen and me in one of the Incan tunnels. They made these without explosives or metal tools, people!

One of the other ruins along the way.

Prime views from Machu Picchu


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Peru: So far, so good

I won't be spending much time in Peru or seeing a large section of the country. We flew into Cuzco and, ten days later, I will be flying out.

Cuzco is quieter and more orderly and cleaner and less "thrown in the deep end" than La Paz. I have been incredibly happy and grateful to have Christen here, not least because she has taken the lead in figuring out what to do and where to go and how to get there. Thanks to Christen's initiative, we've already seen some interesting sights around the Sacred Valley.

A demonstration on weavings and natural dyes

Some pre-Incan salt flats that were quite fun to walk around in.

Beautiful Andean mountain scenery

A crazy Incan amphitheater

Plus, we've seen the streets of Cuzco a bit; Christen has had the best chili relleno of her life; and we saw a market day (sorta) in a nearby town. Tomorrow we leave for the 4-day hike to Machu Picchu. (Many) more pictures to come!


Farewell to Bolivia

Mallasita, a town just outside of La Paz

Goodbye, Bolivia. I will miss many things about you. Your vibrant indigenous cultures. Your friendly people. Your beautiful landscapes of every type. The calm and warm and wonderfulness of Coroico. The dusty and stark landscapes of the southwest. The easy life of Sucre. Your loud and crazy but incredibly efficient transportation systems. How cheap everything was. All those piglets and donkeys and sheep and cows and llamas and vicunas and vischacas.


On our final day in Bolivia, Christen and I took a day trip to "Valley of the Moon." It was very cool but, despite not having been to the moon, I don't think it was particularly accurate.

One thing I will not miss, is your food. Except for saltenas.

Oh delicious saltenas.

On to Peru!



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Creature Comforts, Thy Name is Sopocachi

I was feeling pretty grumpy about Bolivia over the last few days. It is an amazing and beautiful country, but it is also (to an outsider) a little chaotic and overwhelming at times. I am often out of my comfort zone. It really helps that I speak some Spanish, albeit not enough to avoid doing things sometimes like demanding that old ladies and babies stand in the freezing rain. (See my Copacabana post...) Being uncomfortable is part of the point of travel, and this trip in particular, but sometimes I just want to be snug and warm solidly within my comfort zone. Now that this trip has officially become the longest trip I have ever taken, I guess I should have expected to feel a little cranky by now.

Not feeling the love in Copacabana
It didn't help that I had to return to La Paz (granted, for a great reason - Christen arrives tonight!). The first time I was in La Paz, I felt awful from mild altitude sickness, I had first-day traveler's blues, and after two days, well, I fled to the lovely Sucre. The second time I was in La Paz, I was sick after the Salar de Uyuni tour, had errands to run that I couldn't really get done anywhere else I wanted to go (like get my watch battery replaced), and just wanted to be where I had good wifi for a day. Then the wifi in the hotel broke, and I didn't feel well enough to go find an internet cafe, and so I laid in my frigidly cold hotel bed from 4pm one afternoon until checkout the next day. (But then I did actually feel better.)
I resolved to make this trip to La Paz different. On my final day of solo travel for a while, I was going to have a lovely time. How? By seeking out creature comforts from my North American life. I was going to Sopocachi.
La Paz is unlike most tilted cities in that the rich do not live on the hills above town, but downhill. The farther to the south you go, the swankier it becomes. After I got in from Coroico, I walked 25 minutes south along the Prado and entered the neighborhood of Sopocachi, the first of the increasingly swanky neighborhoods. It was unreal. It was quieter. Cars stopped at stop lights! Pedestrians used crosswalks, only when they were supposed to! There were cafes with actual coffee and food and wifi and leftover newspapers to read and other Pacenos (residents of La Paz)! This meant I could eat there and feel like a local, sorta. Normally, when I find such a place, it is a gringo-oriented restaurant with no newspapers, no locals, and feigned authenticity.
One of the cafes
After lunch, I saw the last of the Twilight movies in a modern multiplex movie theater and got popcorn. The lack of complex dialogue made it much easier to follow in Spanish.
Too excited for popcorn and a flick to pause and focus the camera.
After the movie, I was pretty happy. Then I saw there was a supermarket across the street. Oh my goodness.
Selection! Somewhat excessive packaging!
I have heard that 90% of the Bolivian economy is informal. I believe it. It is part of the culture that, when you need groceries, you do not go to the impersonal and more-expensive supermarket but walk from vendor to vendor at the mercado, gathering supplies and talking with the merchants.
The meat vendors at the Mercado Campesino in Sucre.
Potatoes, anyone?
Sometimes, however, a girl just wants to find exactly what she is looking for, all in one place, without playing Russian Roulette with her stomach. I stocked up on a few items I have been looking for. Very happy.
Sopocachi even has a Y?
By the end of the day, I felt like I was on Cloud Nine. It was a wonderfully-restorative break.

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