Thursday, December 24, 2009

Chi-Chi-Chi-lay-lay-lay!


Before I go into any description of our final experiences in Bolivia, I must express my insane happiness at being in Chile again! In order to maintain composure during the 3 previous months of travel I must have somehow put out of my mind how much I have been anticipating my return to the country where I studied back in 2005. But now that I am here, I am psyched up for many weeks of travel south through the varied landscapes of this pencil thin country. It is also much easier to plan an itinerary in Chile because there is really only one direction in which to travel, south, and any east and west travel can be accomplished in a matter of a couple of hours at most. We crossed the Chilean border from Bolivia 2 days ago after finishing up a 3 day tour of the salt flats and other sights in southwestern Bolivia. After the almost 3 weeks of travel on rough Bolivian roads riddled with potholes and uneven surfaces, my first impression of Chile was as we eased away from the border crossing on a minibus. Almost immediately we pulled onto a beautifully paved, two-lane road marked with yellow and white lines. Even in the middle of the dusty, remote Atacama desert, the Chileans have managed to create amazing roads. And that is a major difference between the poorest and the richest countries in Latinamerica.

Bolivia was THE country for viewing some beautifully unique and otherworldly scenery. In the south, Brad and I spent 2 nights in Tupiza, a town with the feeling you get in rural Oregon, especially in places like Grants Pass. The streets were fronted with stores that could have been saloons and the leisurely pace was welcome, perfectly suited to sidling around the town´s plazas. Surrounding Tupiza on all sides are rainbow colored rocky hills cut with valleys and a small river. The scenery reminded me of the North American southwest, deserty and with a strong sunshine that can turn rapidly to dry lightning and thunder. From Tupiza, Brad and I worked on booking a tour to see the remote sections of southwestern Bolivia and ending at the Chilean border. But we had no luck finding other travellers who wanted to do the same tour and we were forced to take a bus north to Uyuni, a town made up mostly of tour agencies just waiting to provide us with our desired itinerary. The trouble with Uyuni is that with over 60 tour agencies, none of which have stellar reputations, we were thrown into the fray of deciding which tour operators were telling us the truth about their exceptional service and which ones were going to send us out onto the salar with drivers who drink or decide to somehow shirk their responsibilities as guides. Luckily, on our first outing to weed through the masses, we ran into our 4 friends from the NW who had just, that minute, returned from the tour and highly recommended their tour operator. Problem solved! We booked with Kantuta tours leaving on Sunday.

There were 6 of us and the driver who loaded into the Toyota "cuatro por cuatro" on the first day of the tour. Brad and me, Guido (Italian), Susana (Bolivian), Morgan (North Carolinian), Daniel (Chilean) and Adalit, our great driver who provided us with good information and super positive energy throughout the trip. We visited the cementerio de trenes (train cemetary) first where we got to climb around on trains that were used back in 1825 and which are now just rusting slowly into the desert sand. Then it was off to the real highlight, the Salar de Uyuni by way of a small village whose existance is determined by collecting mounds of salt from the salt flats and processing, packaging, and selling it (even though we noticed that the salt we used at all of the meals on the salt flats tour was imported from Chile....). Adalit drove us expertly past the mounds of salt and onto the white expanse of salt that extends out in all directions seemingly without boundaries or limits. The farther we drove away from Uyuni, the whiter the salt got and the sun reflected blindingly back at us from the ground. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world stretching 4,085 square miles. Also, it is really high above sea level at 3,656 meters and impressively it only varies in altitude at most by 1 meter across the entire area! That makes the salar a perfect place to goof around with a camera and create artistic perspective shots that depict tiny people standing on big people´s shoulders or tiny people karateing huge plastic dinosaurs! If you care to peek at the results of our hours long salt flats photography session you can find the best shots on our photo page! You will see we got very excited about jumping too. Also, there was an island (Intiwasi) made of coral in the middle of the salt flat that is home to thousands of giant cacti that have been around for many hundreds of years (there may be a picture of an Andean Emu that lives with the cacti on that island...who knew there was such a thing as an Andean Emu??).

The first night was spent at the edge of the Salar in a salt hotel, literally a building made of salt blocks harvested from the Salar. The ground was covered with a thick layer of loose salt crystals and the beds were supported by huge chunks of salt as well. It was a nice idea but we stayed at a non-salt hostel the next night that was, in reality, much nicer. On the second day of the tour, Adalit drove us to sight after sight of amazing scenery, each one differing starkly from the previous. We saw volcanos, deserty landscapes with Salvador Daliesque rocks, lagunas that changed colors from bright green to white to pink to blue depending on their mineral content, flocks of pink flamengos inhabiting the lagunas, and expanses of desert that ended in rainbow colored volcanic ridges. Through all of this, the roads were created in the moment by the drivers and we bumped along in our trusty Jeep oohing and ahhing and the incredible, surrealistic scenes.

The final night at the hotel next to the Laguna Colorada, a red lake teeming with flamengos, was full of merriment and I didn´t sleep much due to several Argentine rugby players and other partyers who decided that singing was better than sleep and the party continued well into the night before we woke up at 4:30am, primetime for geyser viewing. The high altitude geyser field is a free-for-all for tourists with no safety precautions surrounding the boiling pots of claylike mud that bubble and spurt randomly high into the air. Sulfery steam shot from vents in the ground and with the rising sun and the colorful volcanic mineral pools, the whole scene was wild and otherworldly. I could have spent much more time there but the next stop was a hot springs pool where Brad and I bathed in the healing steamy water before a lovely breakfast catered to us beside a large laguna surrounded by volcanos. And finally, we reached Laguna Verde, a white rimmed greenish lake, complete with flamingos, and a volcano guardian called Licancabur which stradles the Bolivian Chilean border. We departed from our tour there at the remote border crossing marking the edge of the Bolivian altiplano and as we entered Chile, we headed straight downhill (on that lovely paved road) all the way to the Atacama desert and the little touristy town of San Pedro de Atacama. We have plans to stay in San Pedro for Christmas tomorrow and to leave the next day probably for Calama or Antofagasta to commence our tour of Chile! It is very exciting to be in San Pedro because I have been here before and I am having a great time remembering what I did during that time. I found the hostel where I stayed and the benches in the beautiful plaza where I spent time reading and writing journal entries. This time in San Pedro we are camping. Brad took me out to a delicious dinner of salmon and steak the other night (probably the best food we´ve had on this trip). And tomorrow, on Christmas, I think we will rent bikes to cruise around to the valleys around town.

I´m thinking about everyone back home today on Christmas eve. I feel sad that I will be missing our traditional Swedish dinner because I´m sure it will be just as delicious and exciting as ever! But I also feel very lucky to be in this beautiful desert town with perfect, dry, hot, sunny weather for the holidays. I love and miss you all very much. Merry Christmas!

Love,
Anika

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Heart of Darkness


I had been looking forward to our arrival in Potosi and a tour of their historic mines. The mines captured my imagination and I read anything I could find relating to their history. Cerro Rico, the rich mountain, looms directly over Potosi, its excavation ravaged face a reminder that the town below would not exist at all except for the minerals hidden deep in its bowels.

The Spanish began mining the mountain in 1546, and it has been mined continuously for the following 463 years. The quality silver ore was depleted in the first 250 years of mining. During this time the mountain was producing more than half the world’s silver. Potosi grew to a city of over 200,000 people, larger than London or Paris. In this period, the Spanish removed 45,000 tons of silver from the ´rich mountain´. At today’s price of $17.41 per ounce, Spain’s total take was $25,070,400,000 in today’s dollars price for which some colonialists willing sold their humanity. An estimated 8 million forced labors died working the mines, most of them indigenous Americans. 8 millions lives, painfully lived and silently lost to satiate man’s endless desire for shiny metals.

A tour of the mines today provides a profound lesson in colonialism’s lasting impact in South America. Indigenous peoples, speaking their native Quechua, today chose to enter the same mines that were the tombs and torment of their ancestors. The rich veins of silver are gone and can be seen adorning Catholic churches throughout Europe. Modern miners remove an inferior ore, containing mainly zinc and lead, with trace amounts of silver. Potosi at 4090 meters (13,400 feet) has no agriculture and little other industry. The miners work in small groups each with their own claim, and each getting paid based on the quality and quantity of ore produced. They choose to work in the mines, and being independent they choose how many days to work and how many hours each day. But choice is a function of opportunity and in Potosi, the poorest district in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country there is little to choose between. 5000 men, and only men, work the mines. In any given year 25 men die from accidents inside the mines; cave ins, explosions, or toxic gases. That is one half percent, or one in every 200.

I met a man on the third level of the mine who had been working the mine for 30 years, rolling the dice each year. On the fourth level I met a 15 year old boy who had been working the mines for 2 years. He was shirtless in the stifling heat and worked with a hand chisel at a vein of ore. We gave him a gift which consisted of a stick of dynamite, detonator, fuse, and ammonium nitrate. No toy fireworks for this boy whose childhood was over years ago. I hope he avoids the myriad dangers that lie within that mountain, however if he comes out of the mines safely year after year he will take something equally as deadly with him. The mountain never leaves the miners, they carry it with them, particles of the Cerro Rico lodged in their lungs. They start young and die young usually around 40, main of silicosis pneumonia. The miners of Potosi knowingly sacrifice their bodies to wrest these minerals from the mountain. The Spaniards forced their ancestors to unwillingly make the same sacrifice. My mind wants there to be a difference, to believe that that things must have changed drastically for the better after so many years. However faced with the vivid reality, the difference it not enough.

The Mountain that Eats People


Two nights ago we arrived in Potosi, Bolivia, the highest city in the world. I am not quite sure what designations a city must have to be a city because I am certain there must be higher settlements somewhere in Nepal or elsewhere but regardless, Potosi is a hilly, windy, bustling mining city with a fascinating history. It was founded in 1546 by the Spanish because they had discovered silver in the veins of Cerro Rico, the reddish mountain that lies just beyond the boundaries of Potosi. Cerro Rico towers over the city in more ways than just being the dominant land feature of the 4,060 meter landscape. Although you can hardly lose sight of it while you walk through the town, the most important influence it has on the population of Potosi is that it provides thousands of men with dangerous mining jobs so that they can afford to feed and clothe their families. There are no other industries in this region so Cerro Rico lures many men to it's caves with the promise of a salary from it's mineral rich rocks. For hundreds of years Cerro Rico has been mined beginning with the Spanish who employed indiginous workers as well as imported African slaves to extract the silver that practically sustained the Spanish monarchy. There was so much silver that many workers were required to extract it so Potosi actually became one of the biggest cities in the world in the 1600's, bigger even than Paris and London. But as the 45,000 tons of silver were being extracted from the 150 mines that snake through the mountain, it is rumored that over 8 million lives have been lost. Lacking professional engineers and geologists to consult on how the tunnels are constructed, to be sure there are accidents that happen within the mines but the majority of the miners who have lost their lives have died because they have no protective equpiment to help prevent the inhalation of dust as they work. The life expectancy of the miners is short, about 40 years, and most die of silicosis in their lungs.

Cerro Rico has been continuously mined since the 1500's and the silver has been all but been depleted from it's veins, but the mines are still producing minerals like zinc and lead as well as the occasional silver. These 3 minerals are extracted from the waste rock in nearby factories but there is no further separation and the Bolivians export the 3 mixed together so the value of the product is pretty low. However, generations of men from Potosi have worked and continue to work in the mines, and often children as young as 13 begin their careers in the footsteps of their fathers, grandfathers, and older brothers. Most miners work independently to earn their salaries which amount to between 30 and 50 Bolivianos per day, or about 3 to 5 US dollars after a long 10 hour shift in the mines. The working conditions are extremely harsh, with extreme temperature fluxuations and the presence of toxins in the air that prevent the miners from eating during their shifts. They drink soda and they chew massive amounts of coca leaves to combat not only the difficulties of working at altitude but also to keep them alert as they work. Another important aspect of the miner's work is their belief and worship of the Tio, or the devil. Each mine contains a statue of the Tio where the miners can leave offering of coca leaves, cigarettes, and alcohol to ask for protection during their shifts in the mine. They believe that they are so far underground beneath Cerro Rico that God's power cannot sufice so they reach out to Tio for that protection.

After learning much of the history of Potosi I was quite interested to visit the city and to do one of the available tours to the mines inside of Cerro Rico. I was warned it is not an easy experience and that it is challenging both physically and mentally. The first stop on the tour was to acquire the necessary gear to enter the mines: large pants, a jacket, rubber boots and a hardhat complete with a headlamp powered by a waistbelt battery pack. From there, we stopped at the miner's market to purchase gifts to give to the miners we would meet in the mines. Brad and I bought dynamite, a liter of soda and some coca leaves to distribute. Since the miners work for themselves the gifts do help their individual chances for a successful workday. As we rode in the bus to the mine, it was hard to shake the thought that I had a whole stick of dynamite complete with fuse resting in my lap. We entered Mina Candalaria, which our guide, Efra, informed us was one of the oldest mines on Cerro Rico, dating back to when the Spanish mined the mountain. The walls were reinforced with rock that had been put in place hundreds of years ago. For 1.5 hours we toured the tunnels, walking down narrow passageways that were fixed with rails on which the hand powered mine carts could ride, full of mostly waste materials. We descended through openings just big enough to pass through on our hands and knees and we shimmied down rickety ladders to the 4th and last level in the mine. At each turn we met miners and we watched them work, shoveling waste materials, chipping away at the rocks with hand tools, separating potential minerals from walls, and creating 20 inch long cylindrical holes where at the end of the day, they would place dynamite and blast a new hole to hopefully follow or expose a lucrative mineral vein. Our guide facilitated conversations, often in Quechua, and we learned about several miners but their stories were mostly the same - they are in their mid 20's, they started working in the mines as young teenagers, their fathers and brothers all work nearby in the same mine, they are glad to be almost done with their 10 hour shift. We distributed our gifts, Brad got to try his hand at using a hammer, we shook hands with the miners and moved on. It was very hot inside of the mine especially at the 4th level. The dust was thick in the air and the chemical smells made me feel quite lightheaded. Even though I was using a t-shirt to cover my nose and mouth I found it was a chore to breath. After less than 2 hours inside the mine, the blue sky and fresh air outside were overwhelmingly blissful. It made me so grateful that I never have to go inside of the mine again and it was so hard to imagine how 5,000 brave men work day after day in those appallaing underground conditions chipping away at rocks and exploding holes into the base of that mountain. Our guide told us that you can visit Potosi, but unless you visit the mines, you cannot possibly understand the culture of the city. They say that Cerro Rico is the mountain that eats people because so many die there, but the miners also say that the people eat the mountain because it sustains them so much in life...a vicious cycle.

We are taking a relaxed day today before going south to Tupiza in the morning. I think Brad wrote a post about Potosi also so we'll see if we had different things to say about the experience in the mines! More pictures should be up now from way back at Machu Picchu. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Bolivia and Halfway Blues

Today is an errand day in La Paz, Bolivia. Brad and I were just walking from the bus station having bought tickets on tonight´s 12 hour overnight bus to Sucre when the menacing clouds opened up and a midday shower forced us into the nearest internet and phone cafe. Luckily, we have many internet tasks to accomplish and we could be here for the duration of the storm. We´ve actually had brilliant weather here in Bolivia since we arrived last Saturday to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Coming from Puno, Peru, we borded a minibus headed for the border town of Yuguyo around 2:30pm thinking we would have just enough time to get through the border formalities before it closed at 6pm (or 7pm Bolivia time since it is one hour later here). But of course, the minibus sat in the station for at least 3o minutes while the bus driver stood in front yelling the name of the bus´ destination until finally every last seat and several aisle positions were full. This departure delay put a bit of stress on our border crossing time frame and we spent a tense 2.5 hours watching Lake Titicaca on the left side of the bus and the setting sun on the right side. We made it to Yuguyo with 15 minutes to complete the whole border crossing but luckily it was not busy and we said goodbye to Peru, paid the required for Americans only $135 reciprocity fee and entered Bolivia. Since I didn´t have passport photos, they charged me an extra $5 to cross and our friends who had crossed several days earlier said that even after they had paid the $135 in cash, the border officials demanded photo copies of their ATM cards! I don´t believe there is any consistency in the requirements for crossing the Bolivian border except the common factor that all Americans must pay at least $135.

Copacabana was a beautifully tranquil, though touristy, little town right on the shores on Lake Titicaca. We arrived on Saturday night and were immediately informed that everything would be closed the following day, Sunday, due to the Bolivian national elections. Things are normally closed on Sundays in Latinamerican cities but on election day not even buses would run and we couldn´t get on a boat to the nearby Isla del Sol. So we spent a very relaxed day reading books in the plazas and by the lake and on our hostel rooftop. Many radios blared with election updates and by the evening, Evo Morales was projected to be reelected by a landslide. At 1am, on our way back to our hostel, Brad and I encountered about 15 Bolivian men parading and dancing around the main plaza with a bass drum, several other percussion instruments and many pan flutes!

Next stop, La Paz. To enter the highest capital city in the world, all transportation goes through the neighborhood of El Alto which begins on a plateau and spills over the side of the valley joining the rest of stunning La Paz as it runs down through a huge valley watched over by extremely tall snowy mountains. The traffic seemed impossibly thick with colectivo vans and taxis choking the roadways and asserting themselves on their horns. Somehow our bus wove it´s way through the madness and dropped us in the middle of the masses of people that perpetually crowd the streets of La Paz. There are market stalls on every street corner and some streets have both the normal shops in buildings as well as market stalls double wide on the sidewalks being fed by electrical wires hanging low over walkways. There is barely room for people to walk let alone the cars that also insist on plowing through. Brad and I and an American couple, Molly and Ryan, who we have been travelling with a bit, got dorm beds at the Adventure Brew hostel, which promised fun by including free beer and an all you can eat pancake breakfasts in the total cost of the room. We took full advantage of these things the first night and morning but we realized very soon that our travel philosophies differ quite a bit from those people who travel to party. I was often in bed hours before the rest of the people in our dorm room were back from the bars, especially if they had visited the notorious bar where you can buy cocaine all night long. My time in La Paz was a mix of wandering through the market streets including the witches market where you can buy herbs and spices as well as llama fetuses and spending some time feeling sick with an upset stomach (the first illness I have really experienced on this trip).

Now we are in the colonial city of Sucre, which is a lot less frenetic than La Paz and feels quite comfortable. There is a beautiful plaza and some fun shops and a central market that sells fruits, vegetables and meat. Last night, Brad and I, Molly and Ryan, and a couple from Portland, Justin and Julia, went out for dinner and drinks with the purpose of watching the Blazer game! It was very fun to experience such a Portland specific event even though the Blazers lost. I´m at an imaginary mid point in this trip (about 3 months in) and I am feeling a bit travel weary and I find that I am being affected negatively by each countries´ little quirks whereas at the start of the trip, those quirks were interesting and fun. I find that I often think about Portland and the Northwest and miss my friends, family and the structured life that I had while I was living and working in Portland. Brad and I often say we would fly back in a second if we could just have a burrito from the truck on 50th and Division in Portland! But even though I am feeling these things, I am still incredibly excited about the prospects for our travel in the near future. We have so many more amazing things to see and do, starting probably within the week with the Salt flats and the amazing scenery in southwestern Bolivia. Plus, we will be heading into Chile after that and I can´t wait to get back to that country where there will be some familiarity. No doubt this little bout of homesickness and nostalgia for the NW will pass with the holiday season!
Love,
Anika

Friday, December 4, 2009

Checking Off the Highlights

If anybody remembers back to when Brad and I started planning our South American trip, pretty much the only concrete item on the list of things to do was a visit to Machu Picchu, hopefully after hiking the 4 day, 3 night Inca trail to the ruins. Now, since we weren´t going to plan a single day of the trip, we adamantly refused to heed the recommended advice to reserve a spot on a trek at least 6 weeks in advance in order to snag 2 of the only 400 Inca trail passes that are handed out each day since the government started regulating access to the trail a few years ago. We decided that since we would be in Cuzco during the low tourist season, and since our schedule was so flexible, we could probably manage to tag along with a tour group even if we had to wait several days to do so.

We arrived in Cuzco at 5:30am after yet another overnight bus trip and we wandered, bleary eyed and sleepy through the early morning, rain soaked streets, not realizing that we were passing through the Plaza de Armas and many important historical landmarks. Finding the Hostel Samay Wasi in the hilly neighborhood of San Blas whose super friendly owers fed us breakfast and put us up in a lovely double room, we rested a bit before tackling the daunting task of visiting the multitude of tour companies that litter the streets and allies of Cuzco. We visited at least 5 different tour companies after the initial positive discovery that there were Inca trail passes still available starting on the 29th of November, just 4 days away. Getting different price quotes and a sense of the vibe of each company, we decided on one and that afternoon we had booked a trail trip with the ridiculously named X-treme Tourbulencia company. We learned from them that the same regulations that limit the number of tourists on the trail per day, also have strict guidelines for what gear the tourists can carry and also, fortunately, how much weight and what items the required porters can carry. Brad and I had hoped that by carrying our own tent, sleeping bags and mattresses, we could get a discount on the trail price, but the rules will not allow tourists to even carry tents. Since I am so used to backpacking with all of the necessary items strapped to my own back I had serious reservations at the prospect of using human pack animals to do my job. But setting those thoughts aside until the trip, Brad and I had several days in which to discover Cuzco and the Inca ruins that stand just outside of the city.

Walking through the streets of Cuzco, you have to avoid, or better yet, appear to ignore, the constant barrage of vendors peddling their goods directly in your path, women shoving flyers for massages in your face and then pursuing you with verbal solicitations, and little boys pouting on the street corners when you walk by without letting them shine your shoes. It is an overwhelming scene to say the least but despite these little annoyances, I thouroughly enjoyed the time I spent marvelling at the modern structures built directly on top of the original Inca stone foundations that have lasted impeccably for 500 years through invasions and earthquakes. Just outside of Cuzco, in the Sacred Valley, we visited 5 Incan ruin sights that are easily explored with the purchase of a Boleto Turistico, which is yet another expense that must be paid in order to do the important once in a lifetime historical tours of the area. Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman), Qénqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara and Pisaq were important ceremonial, military fortresses, and residential communities that are wonderfully preserved. However, reading the brochures and listening to guides makes you realize how little historians really know about the Incan culture despite the fact that there are so many living descendents.

At 6am on November 29th, our Inca trail guides, Russell and Freud, picked us up at our hostel, loaded us onto a bus with 7 other tourists and 10 porters and drove us 3 hours to the starting point of the Inca trail, km 82 in the Sacred Valley. After getting our passports stamped, we headed off on a relatively flat trail for several kilometers in a sprinkling of raindrops that I feared would be a constant during the full 4 day trip since it is the rainy season in the mountains of Peru. My unease at having porters to carry much of my gear was brought out when we stopped for lunch only to discover the porters were already there having set up a giant dining tent inside of which was a cloth covered table, plastic stools, and a 4-piece silverwear set for each person. This was followed by a 4-course lunch of stuffed avocado, a vegetable soup, a meat, onion and rice dish for the main plate, and hot coca tea to finish. Such luxury is unheard of when I hike by myself and being catered to was uncomfortable. The rest of the hiking day was a gradual uphill to a campsite (of course already established by the porters so that all of us lazy tourists had to do was choose a tent) in a beautiful valley at the end of which, when the clouds finally cleared, we could see a snowy mountain and an almost full moon. On day 2, we hiked in sunshine to Dead Woman´s pass at just over 4,200 meters. It was a challenging but exciting hike up many Inca made stone stairs and then down the other side into a waterfall fed river valley where we found our campsite and sat down to 2 elaborate meals seperated by a tea time. In the middle of that night, the rain started and didn´t stop until we reached the third campsite at 1pm. Day 3 is supposed to be the most scenic hike as you climb over 2 passes, walk along a sharp ridgeline, explore several Incan ruins, and crawl through a couple of tunnels. We couldn´t see the snowy mountain views and we got completely soaked but it was still an enjoyable day and the misty scenery that we could see was beautiful. The last campsite on the trail is pretty silly to most hikers who are used to roughing it a bit more. See, there´s a restaurant on the site that plays club music and offers hot showers for a fee. You can also buy candy bars, beer, toilet paper and many other items. I do admit, a beer was pretty refreshing especially after the rain stopped and the sun came out in this edge of the Amazon rainforest section of the route to Machu Picchu.

The final day on the trail starts with a jolt at 3:45am as the porters literally start taking the stakes out of the tents while you scramble to pack your gear, eat a pancake and rush onto the trail only to be stopped in line at the control station and a locked gate that doesn´t open until 5:30am. Brad and I and a Canadian member of our group named Peter, scrambled to arrive at control as early as possible to establish our place in line. There were 3 groups ahead of us and as we waited at least 200 people lined up behind us. There was a lot of anticipation mounting as we waited, almost like the start of a road race. And when the gate opened, people literally started running down the narrow, rocky stairsteps that make up the majority of the trail. Brad, Peter and I are strong hikers and we soon passed every other person on the trail as we sped the 35 minutes to arrive at the Sun gate, the original official entrance to Machu Picchu. All of this rushing was only necessary on that morning because we wanted to acquire a ticket to climb the famous mountain, Huayna Picchu, that appears in almost every picture of Machu Picchu. There are a limited number of passes available to climb this mountain due to the fact that 3-5 people disappear each year while summiting. As we skidded to a halt at the sun gate to regroup, 3 dudes without backpacks sprinted past us onto the traverse that leads to the city of Machu Picchu making us the 2nd group from the Inca trail to appear at the ruin. Even with this mad dash, none of us procured tickets because they had been given out to the tourists who had come on the buses early in the morning. We were disappointed but only for a moment because we had before us the stunning city of Machu Picchu to explore. Early in the morning, there were some sprinkles and the mist obscured much of the view of the city but as the day progressed, the sun made an appearance and it got quite warm and we enjoyed fantastic views of the Incan stonework, the many temples, the famous sun dial, and some llamas that live at the sight! And in the end, we were able to climb Huayna Picchu, a hike that took us up the steep, slippery stone stairs of the mountain to the ruins at the top from which we had an incredible birds eye view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding hills that make up the impossible site where the ruins are located.

Even though there were hundreds of other people on the Inca trail, it was still a stunning introduction to Machu Picchu and I´m thrilled that it worked out so well for us to obtain a pass even without making reservations months in advance! We spent a day recovering back in Cuzco after taking the train back into town from Aguas Calientes in the Sacred Valley. And today I am in Puno, Peru, on the edge of the high altitude Lake Titicaca, yet another highlight of South America. We are on the verge of hopping over into Bolivia where, after spending way too much money in Cuzco, we will be able to live very cheaply for as long as we want! I´ll put pictures up soon.
Happy December everyone!
Love,
Anika

Friday, November 27, 2009

Money Math

Shockingly almost everyone in South America seems to want money for their goods or services. In my bank account sits the money that both they and I desperately need. Finding the best way to access this money is a recurring problem that I have been studying for the last few months. With globalization on its unstoppable march it is now possible to walk up to any ATM and withdraw money in your choice of US dollars or the local currency, nuevo Peruvian Soles in my present location. Sounds incredibly simple, but lets take a deeper look. A quick look at my online bank statement after my first withdrawl showed a 5 dollar foreign ATM transaction fee in addition to a $1.50 fee charged by the local bank. The maximum amount of Soles that can be withdrawn from most ATMs is maddeningly capped at 400 soles. At the current interbank exchange rate of 2.88 soles per dollar that amounts to 138.88 dollars. Now with fees equaling 6.50 dollars per transation, 4.8% of my money is lost before it even reaches me. Another look at my online bank statement and a little more math shows me that they have not given me the interbank exchange rate of 2.88/dollar, but instead 2.79/dollar. This is a 3.2% gap. If we add this to our transaction fees, we see that a full 8% of my money disappears in the move from Bank of America to my hand in Peru. This was an unacceptable situation; maddening in fact becuase the money simply vanishes and I have nothing to show for it.

After a bit of investigation I discovered it was possible to withdraw larger amounts from the bank tellers. This requires one to jump through a number of hoops, your origanal passport is necessary and also possibly another form of picture ID, driver´s licence; the bank may also want you to produce copies of these document that they can keep on file. But eventually they will give you a large lump sum of US currency. They will then offer you an insultingly low exchange rate which you refuse.

Now you step out on to the street with 500 dollars in your pocket. Your eyes are a little sharper. You are a little more aware of your environment, who and what is around you. Near the banks you find ´casas de cambio´, money changing shops. People sit in small booths advertising what currencies they exchange, almost always only dollars or Euros. Shady looking men sit outside the shops with huge stacks of dirty looking bills in their hands. They try to catch your attention, promising higher rates than the people in the booths. They have no real estate overhead so they probably do offer marginally better rates, but making these transactions on the busy sidewalk doesn´t feel right. You´ve also been warned that many of these individuals are slight of hand artists and operate with ´fixed´calculators to fleece the mathmatically lazy. After entering a number of casas de cambio you decide the best rate you can get is 2.87 soles/dollar, wonderfully close the official rate. You tell the woman behind the glass that you would like to change 200 dollars. She punches some buttons on her calculator and pushes it toward you through the hole, it reads 574. You take a few second as the gears in your head go to work 100 x 2.87 easy 287, multiple that by two...... yes 574. OK, you hand over the two 50´s and one 100. She inspects them very carefully and when she is satisfied begins counting out your money below the counter out of view. She passes it to you through the hole in the glass. Now, when you turned down the bank´s exchange rate of 2.80/dollar the friendly teller lady told you to make sure and check the bills from the casa de cambios. A quick inspection shows you that the bottom 100 sole note in the stack is clearly a counterfit note. It is dirty and worn, probably in an attempt to hide the low quality of the forgery. The real give away is that the purple ink forming the large 100 does not change to black as you tilt the note to an acute angle to your eye. "Este billete no esta valido", you say, handing the note back through the glass. The woman on the other side cracks a knowing smile and changes it for a real note. After one more count you pocket the bills and walk out. It´s one of the only times on this continent you have neglected to say "gracias" after a transaction.

The bank would not say how much the transation fee would be for a 500 dollar withdrawl. A quick look on the internet shows the withdrawl and directly after it a 15 dollar fee, an even 3%. The difference between the official 2.88 rate and the 2.87 is about .3%. So, was this all worth it to save 4.7%? You think so, if only to abate your anger at some faceless corporation skimming your hard earned money with impunity.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lucuma Haiku

Lucuma ice cream
Is my favorite thing ever
When it is hot out



It tastes like a fruit
But also like cookie dough
How can that be true?



Orange colored ice cream
Normally is not my thing
Lucuma is orange



What is lucuma?
National fruit of Peru
Chile would argue


I eat lucuma
Whenever I can find it
Almost everyday

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rise and Shine


Rise and shine, Anika hates that phrase, probably becuase of its repeated use when the need was to rise from a warm soft bed. To emerge from the world of cozy, fuzzy dreams and face the sometimes cruel cold morning. Luckily that phrase was not in Alberto´s volcabulary when he approached our tent at 1:30am. ¨Hola chicos, breakfast is ready¨, our guide said in his mix of English and Spanish. The annoucement cought neither Anika nor I by surprise. We had been awake for hours, Anika had slept none at all since we retired to our tent 7 hours earlier at 6:30pm. The air was thin and the night was bitterly cold. Stones were piled waist high around our tent but at 5200 meters (17060 feet) the cold tendrils of mountain air still managed to reach into our shelter and through the three sleeping bags that covered the two of us. We were ready to get out and get moving.

We emerge quickly after Alberto´s wake up call, wrapped in all the layers we possessed. A clear night sky of stars greated us. A welcome replacement to the overcast sky that covered us when we retired. A few cups of coca tea and a light breakfast were quickly consumed and we found ourselves on the headlight lit trail at 2am. The summit of Chachani stood a little over 800 meters above us at 6075 meters, but we would have to traverse the flanks of two lesser summits before tackling the final, highest peak. We kept our pace slow and steady stopping infrequently and for only enought time to drink some water and eat what little food our disgruntled stomachs could manage. We reached a gently sloping shoulder withing the first hour and began our traverse of the first peak. Our eyes were glued to our feet and the small portion of the trail illuminated by our head lamps. As we cleared a ridge to our left our attension was drawn the sparkling lights of Arequipa, roughly 3000 meters below us. It was somewhere between 3 and 4 in the morning and I though of all the people down there sleeping peacefully as we trudged along the steep volcanic scree. The sky began to lighten as we reached the saddle between the first and second peaks, Angel and Fatima. We steadied ourselved with our ice axes, planted into the uphill slope. We began the traverse of Fatima gaining more altitude, with numerous switchbacks. The thin air made itself felt and I was forced to rest more often than my ego would have prefered. Our climbing partners, Emily and Andy, provided well timed encouragment and the four of us pressed on at a slower but steady pace.

Rounding the second peak into the final saddle brought us into the path of a powerful and bone chilling wind. We covered our faces and began the final accent toward Chachani´s summit. My feelings on the switchbacks alternated between a steady determination as I leaned into the wind with eyes downcast, to an almost giddy lightness as I would round the turn and let the wind push me upwards for a stretch. I have never felt so inexplicably out of breath as on that last trudge to the summit. I put my fingers to my neck and my pulse felt as if it were trying to knock my whole hand away. Breaths between each step were needed as I approuched the top. Once again my climbing partners provided needed encouragement. It was a funny feeling approuching the climax of the climb, being so close to the summit, but still needed to rest. There the top was 10 yards away and I was waiting to catch my breath.

Miracously the summit was sunny and calm, as well as free of snow at this time of year. We reveled in the unobstructed 360 degree veiw. We took silly pictures, laughed, and hugged. Anika was all smiles and I´m sure she could have climbed another 1000 meters with little trouble. The sun was starting to make his presence felt and it was nice to have an external source of warmth. We shed layers as we decended, cutting out all the switchbacks and letting the loose volcanic soil cushion out steep plunging steps. By the time we reached base camp 7 and a half hours had elapsed and we were all suffering headaches in differing degrees. A surpisingly short one hour break only intensified the hammering behind my temples and I was pleased to decend further to the road where our 4X4 awaited. The 3 hour drive back to Ariequipa lacked the anticipation of the trip up the mountain, but we suffered the curved and bumps with zombie like stocism, even as the jeep broke down, was fixed, then broke down again.

A day and a half proved sufficent recovery time and Anika and I then booked an overnight bus to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and today Peru´s biggest tourist town, providing a gateway to Machu Pichu. We arrived this morning, so far so good. I wish all of you the best.

-Brad

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It Doesn´t Get Any Better Than This!


Many people begin the Santa Cruz trek fearing that because there is so much literature and hype about it and so many people tackle it either solo or with a guide each year that maybe their expectations will be too great and by the time they reach the end, they will feel that it hasn´t lived up to those expectations. I admit, I even had this thought because back in January when I started paging through my guidebook months before we started on this adventure, I had highlighted the Santa Cruz trek in yellow meaning it was a not-to-miss stop in our travels. However, Brad and I completed the trek a couple of days ago and I believe that I have never seen so many natural wonders packed into a mere 30 or so kilometers and 4 days of walking! Every meter farther along the trail or up the next switchback revealed something new and completely amazing!

The trek started in the tiny town of Cashapampa, about 3 hours and 2 very packed colectivos to the north of Huaraz. Cashapampa´s backdrop is massive rock face that soars out of the valley where the town is located and we realized as we got closer that the minute sliver of a canyon visible from the trailhead was our route through that wall and into the Santa Cruz valley beyond. We headed up the trail following the Rio Santa Cruz the whole way. It was a steep beginning as we climbed on a rocky trail beside massive boulders which seemed to have been randomly plopped into the valley and up into the canyon before the valley widened a bit and the trail flattened out onto the green riverbank. We saw several other hikers either walking the opposite direction as Brad and me or we passed them going the same way and everybody had a recommendation for side trips or places to camp. The guided trips on Santa Cruz start from the opposite direction, at the town of Vaqueria, our ending point, so the people we were hiking with were all carrying their own big backpacks with tents, food, and stoves and we ended up getting to know a nice group of people that we would see and camp near throughout the trip. The first night, we camped in a green field beside a massive emerald green lake that filled up the valley and ended right at the foot of a 6000m snowy mountain that peaked through the valley walls and watched over us in our little tent that night. The wind blew pretty hard right at sunset and it was bitterly cold overnight because there was not one cloud in sight, providing no insulation from the cold. It was tough getting and staying warm, but when the sun emerged on day 2, it was hot and I used a shit ton of sunscreen!

On the second day, we hiked farther down the canyon and took a sidetrip that switchbacked up the left side of the canyon and into a higher valley that gave us our first look at Alpamayo, a mountain that the Peruvians brag about as being named the world´s most beautiful mountain this past year. I´m not sure exactly how you can rate a mountain on it´s beauty but apparently there is a such a measurement! Alpamayo is not quite 6000m but it is flanked by at least 4 other peaks that are. And looking behind us down the high valley, we could see at least 5 other razor sharp, pointed mountains that stood out beautifully against the perfect blue sky that accompanied us throughout our second day of hiking! Above the valley, we hiked through a morrine and into a bowl that held a aquamarine lake with chunks of ice floating at it´s surface and a glacier from the mountain just above touching the water at the other end. As we relaxed beside the chilly water, a thunderous crack broke the silence and we watched as a seemingly small chunk of ice from the glacier plunged into the lake! It is very exhilerating to watch a glacier move and we felt lucky to be the only witnesses to that moment. That night, we camped on a meadow below, you guessed it, more snowy, insanely tall mountain peaks and millions of stars.

On the third day, we tackled that highest point of the trek, the Punta Union pass, which is just about 4760m or 15,000 feet tall! It took us almost 2 hours to hike from camp to the pass and once there, we caught our first glimpses of the next valley we would enter. The pass is an unbroken wall of rock except for a notch that the trail goes through that is just big enough to stand in the middle and spread your arms to touch each side! We continued down the next valley to the next campsite, again overlooked by white mountains and we pitched our tent on a flat spot by a river where horses were grazing. We had arrived at the pass just as some clouds were forming and by the time we reached camp, the sky was pretty grey. It rained during the night and the morning looked dreary and foggy. The initial plan had been to hike out of the Santa Cruz trek and then hike to another lake that is on the road out of the national park but we decided that the clouds would obscure most of what we wanted to see at that lake, so we ended up heading back to Huaraz. Plus I had a touch of a headache and was not feeling all that well, so it was great to head back to town. We waited at Vaqueria for a couple of hours and 7 buddies who we had been hiking and camping near us throughout the trek (one couple from Seattle) all finished and we were able to share a colectivo van. The road is so bad, however that each bump in the road sent my brain crashing into my skull and the 3 hour ride started to resemble torture.

Back in Huaraz, after a nap, a large dinner and a beer, I started feeling much better and we spent one more day relaxing before heading out at 9am on a bus to Lima. From Lima, we hopped directly on a night bus for Arequipa, which was a grueling 15 hour trip! I am actually just trying to stay awake right now after arriving a few hours ago so I´m sorry if the description of our trek above is incoherent in any way! Arequipa is Peru´s second largest city and it is directly in the middle of the desert watched over by 2 large mountains, Chachani and El Misti, one of which is the easiest over 6000m peak to climb in the world! It´s really hot here. But from what I have seen it is a colonial city filled with interesting arquitecture and plazas. I´m also hoping to find a good book exchange since I´ve just finished off my 9th or 10th book of the trip and I´m eager for something really good to read! Peru is exciting for sure...I continue to love all of the places I have visited, even the cities have been pretty hospitable and the Peruvian people are extremely helpful, friendly and knowledgeable about their country.

Anyway, check out the pictures of the trek. They don´t quite do the landscape justice but I tried!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Cordillera Blanca


Even though it has been 3 nights since we arrived in Huaraz, I am still quite happy to be bumming around this colorful mountain city! We have enjoyed three perfectly clear, warm sunny days that showcase the dozen or so 6,000 meter mountain peaks that surround Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, jutting up just outside of the green valley walls that enclose the city. Especially as the sun sets just around 6pm, the glow of the fading light illuminates the peaks and they are such a huge presence in this place that I feel tempted to climb each one of them! Unfortunately, I don´t think Huaraz will be the place for scaling huge mountains...we will leave that for an upcoming adventure in Arequipe, farther south in Peru. For now, Brad and I are preparing to do a 4 or 5 night backpacking trip in the Cordillera Blanca, a trip called the Santa Cruz trek that has become a big draw for travellers but fortunately we are at the end of the high season for trekking in Peru and we don´t expect to meet too many other trekkers.
Brad has been a bit sick with a cold for these past few days so we have been resting and trying to get in a lot of sleep and relaxation and he is much better today! We actually did a day hike outside of Huaraz today to the Laguna Churup, which lies just at the base of Volcan Churup. The hike took us to a couple of small indigenous villages where they speak mostly Quechua. The women wear brightly colored skirts often embroidered with sparkly threads, similarly colored layers of shawls, and tall cowboylike hats covered with either another bright cloth or some other intricate decoration like feathers or fabrics. I am very interested in the combination of traditional outfits and western clothing that exist in the same space. Sometimes it is the young people that wear sweat pants and fleeces but sometimes they are dressed traditionally and the older women and men have adopted more western attire. The primary occupation in the small towns is definitely farming and raising animals and as we hiked we passed many herds of sheep, cows cutting the grass as they grazed, and burros hauling bags of produce and grains. Leaving the villages, we hiked up a low rocky ridge to the entrance of a massive canyon created by the ancient existence and movement of glaciers coming off of Volcan Churup. We climbed the side of a huge, crystal clear waterfall careening down the canyon wall and ended up at the turquoise colored Laguna Churup over which towered the snowcapped and partially glaciated mountain. Further along the trail was the Laguna Churupita, a smaller aquamarine colored version of the lower lake. It was a perfect start to our exploration of the Cordillera Blanca and I am more excited than ever to start our trip tomorrow!
There are more picture up on picasa though they don´t have captions yet.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Swedes in Big Pink Buses


So I had just been out in Huanchaco last night sending some emails in a internet place full of 12 year old Peruvian boys playing online shooting games, when I got back to the hostel only to find two huge pink buses parked outside and at least 30 jolly Swedes mingling around. Fascinated by this sight, I observed as each member of the group set to various tasks in arranging the bus for spending the night. See, these buses are specially equipped with beds both inside of them and on the roof, underneath a canvas tentlike tarp that pops up high enough to provide space for probably about 10 people to stretch out for the night on cots! I talked with one Swedish girl who told me that this group had been travelling together in the Pink Caravan for 3 weeks in Peru and had about 2 more weeks to go. They both travel and sleep in the bus so they can cut down on costs and see a lot of places in a shorter period of time. I mentioned that the Swedes were jolly, well it turns out, according to the girl, several of the men had been drinking whiskey all during the travel day. When I mentioned that my dad's cousin started the only whiskey distillery in Sweden, Mackmyra, the men got very excited wishing that they had that whiskey to drink in Peru but unfortunately it is very difficult to get, even in Sweden!
Well, they got their buses set up and went to bed and bright and early at 7am all 30 or so of them were wide awake and ready to start their day and they just happen to be sharing the bathrooms and the kitchen that the campers (ie Brad and I) use so there was quite a ruckus at that hour. Impressively they hauled in all of the supplies to cook up a large smorgasbord that they all devoured before heading out to view the ruins that are in this area. Later, I looked in the trash and saw boxes of cornflakes, bottles of cream, and hard boiled egg shells...all in the true Swedish breakfast spirit! Dad, I thought you would appreciate this story very much!

We are heading to Huaraz tonight on the 9:15 night bus. More details when we arrive!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Overnight bus trips are long and you don´t really sleep as much as you expect to especially when the bus is driving along curvy, partially paved mountain roads and hurtling down hills in the pitch dark. But overnight trips do save on hostel costs and you get a lot of mileage out of the way in the process. We left Loja, Ecuador at 11pm on Friday and we arrived in Piura, Peru at 7am the next day. At 3am all of the passengers were awakened and ushered off the bus to take care of border formalities - getting our exit stamps from Ecuador, walking across a bridge to Peru, and getting an entrance stamp by a dude in a track suit sitting in a blank room with lizards crawling across the walls and a single lightbulb to illuminate the process. It all felt like a dream when the morning sky started to light up and we became aware of the surroundings in a brand new country! Loja is in the mountains so we had descended to sea level by the time we stepped off the bus in Piura. We then immediately switched buses several more times in Chiclayo and then Trujillo and ended our trip in the beach town of Huanchaco, Peru, a small, relaxed surfing town filled with tourists - both Peruvian and foreigners. This beach, unlike rainy Puerto Lopez, is sunny and warm! And since we are just at the edge of a massive desert that we drove for 6 hours through, the heat is dry and quite perect. Speaking of this desert, I had no idea before I got here that northern Peru, at least west of the Andes, is a huge sandy, flat expanse of desert that goes right up to the ocean!

In Huanchaco we are camping in the beautiful yard of a hostel right on the oceanfront. The tent got too hot this morning so I just took my sleeping bag into the hammock that is set up almost directly outside of the tent and continued to recover from the long bus ride by sleeping for another hour or so, late into the morning. Tomorrow I think we will visit some ruins that are really close, just into the desert a little ways. I am very excited to be in a new country! I am working on learning the new exchange rate for Peruvian Soles and I am listening for what Peruvian spanish sounds like since there is usually a slight difference from country to country! Anyway, the internet is cutting me off now so I will leave you with this...more later!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The way things are done.

I´ve been pretty hard on my shoes, and unlike Anika only brought one pair. Somewhere on the slopes of Cotopaxi a hole opened up along the outer edge near the sole. My normal behavor when the seems start to come apart on a pair of shoes is to toss them and start looking for a new pair. However, I got these shoes special for this trip and they are just right in so many ways. Also, I´m starting to get into the grove of the way things are done down here. To throw these shoes away would be needless and senselessly wasteful. I have past dozens of shoe repair places as I´ve walked the street of various cities. Once we returned from the mountains I stopped at the first one we passed. Thirty minutes and a dollar later my shoe was as good as new. There was something very satisfing about this experience. I´m hoping to wear some more holes in these boots in order to have the pleasure of repeating it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turning 26



We spent my birthday at an Ecoresort on the beach south of Puerto Lopez. The place was very nice with beautiful Bamboo architecture, a fabulous botanical garden, and even a swimming pool. The rooms were very expensive, but we were able to set up our tent in the corner of the garden and stay for 7 dollars a night. We spent some time on the beach, but the gray skys and thin mist limited this activity. Mostly we sat in confortable chairs and read our books in front of an open fire. Cards also past the time. Anika is getting better at cribbage and the games are becoming more interesting. It has been nice to relax for a few days after the fast paced travel schedule that brought us out of Quito, up a volcano, around a crater lake, and down to the coast in what seemed to be a the blink of an eye.

The resort was mostly empty and the staff had little to do. I played a couple of games of pool with the them and had some interesting conversations. I wanted to talk about Ecuador, but my new friend kept bringing the conversation back to Michael Jackson. What a strange live that guy had.

There are so many more places to go, and so many things that I am exited to see; it is hard to stay focused on the time and place in which I find myself. The comfort and familiarity of home are missed, but novelty and awe take their place.

More pictures are up, and I added a link to them on the right.
-Brad

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From the mountains to the beaches of Ecuador



Back again, finally!

It has been a whirlwind of travel this past week or so. Since that first day in Quito, things drastically improved. We spend a couple of great days sightseeing around the city and getting a lot of important business done. There are a great deal of very old churches and monestaries in the old town of Quito and we saw most of them, at least from the outside. Often it costs several dollars to enter a church so we had to pick and choose which to visit. The one we spent the most time visiting was the monestary of Santa Catalina where nuns live in silence except for 1 hour each day (from 12:30 to 1:30pm) when they can speak to each other about specified topics in the little courtyard outside of their rooms. The nuns also make candies, lotions, non-alcoholic wines and other goods that you can buy through a revolving window so that the nuns remain hidden. I bought a delicious candy called a turron which is made of honey and peanuts. We also visited the museum which has a wide display of religious art mostly in the Quiteño style which, the guide informed us, is characterized by an excessive amount of blood and gore. Most of the gruesome paintings featured fountains of blood squirting from Jesus´wounds with lambs drinking from the bloody rivers. The guide also gave us a look into a replica of a nun´s cell and as a finale, she led us up a windy staircase into the bell tower which gave us a spectacular view of all of Quito´s old town. In Quito, we also visited two outdoor stores where Brad bought a waterproof backpack cover, an English language bookstore with used books which was far superior to any book exchange that we have encountered in hostals, and El Guapulo, a bohemian neighborhood with roads that twist down into a valley that supposedly marks Francisco de Orellana´s journey from Quito to the Atlantic via the Amazon, the first such decent by a European. We also watched the Ecuador vs Chile soccer game in which Ecuador was disqualified from the World Cup.

Preparing ourselves for a backpacking adventure in Cotopaxi National Park took several days in Quito and a very interesting trip to the Supermaxi grocery store where we cobbled together a few days worth of meals suitable to be carried on our backs. We even found peanut butter! And then we were off on a southbound bus to be dropped at the El Boliche entrance to the park. As we hopped off the bus and watched it speed down the panamaerican highway we hoped that the directions we had photocopied out of the hiking and backpacking guide to Ecuador plus the topographical maps we had bought wouldn´t lead us astray. The first day was to be a 9 or 10km hike to a camp site at the Rio Daule where there was water and picnic sites. We hiked and hiked with no sign of a camp site and so we continued along a road that we knew would, and eventually did, lead us to the main entrance road into the park. However, instead of meeting the road somewhere in the middle, we emerged directly at the park entrance station, Control Caspi, and the guard looked at us like we had wandered off of another planet since, according to him, the road we had been hiking on is the old road into Cotopaxi and is definitely no longer used by anyone at all! So, we camped at the park entrance station and at 9 the next morning, we were packed and once again starting our hike toward the volcano, though the morning was cloudy and we could not see any sign of the 19,300 foot peak. We felt incredibly stong striding along that road, refusing all offers of rides toward the interior of the park. Even though we were at about 12,000 feet, we were very well acclimatized having just lived at La Luna for 2 weeks and walking felt great! Soon we came to Mariscal Sucre, where there is a restaurant, a museum and several cabañas. We passed a deserted camping area and it struck us as bizarre that nobody would be camping on a weekend in Ecuador´s most famous national park. We passed Laguna Limpiopungo, a high altitude lake home to many species of birds. And we kept on walking, starting up the road that leads to the climber´s refugio, where those attempting the summit start their climbs. As the slope increased and we started to feel tired, Brad and I scouted out a campsite in the dip between a couple of green hills and set up our tent. We had a sweeping view of the flat paramo that lay below with Laguna Limpiopungo, 2 volcanos to the east, several more peaks to the north, and as the sun set, Cotopaxi showed it´s glaciers and towered over us as we made dinner and prepared for bed. During the night it rained nonstop and there was plenty of lightning and thunder. I felt nervous about the flashing all around us but we were safe and our trusty tent even kept us and our packs perfectly dry. We emerged in the morning to sun and a clear view of the climbers descending from their morning summit victories. That morning we made it to the climber´s refugio at about 16,000 feet and we spent at least an hour enjoying the views, talking to the climbers who had been to the top that day, and drinking a beer and some hot chocolate. When the tourists started pouring in from their hired buses, we began our descent and walked almost all the way out of the park before hailing a pickup truck and getting a bumpy ride out to the panamericana where we flagged a bus to Latacunga. It was a stunning adventure!

It´s hard to transition from the serenity and crisp clean air of the mountains to a bustling city. I always find myself feeling a bit stressed out and slighly more irritable when making desicions. Latacunga has very little in the way of hostels and so we ended up in the Hotel Centro which is just as cheap as most hostels and had a private bathroom and a TV (the first one we´ve watched pretty much since we left Portland). It wasn´t the nicest room and unlike a hostel there was a serious lack of information about the city and the surrounding area, not to mention there were no other backpackers sitting around to relate their experiences and to give advice. We managed to get ourselves fed (although I did have to dodge chicken feet in my soup again) and to book a ticket on a bus the next morning to Chugchilan, a little town on what the Lonely Planet dubs the Quilotoa Loop. The Loop is a series of towns in the highlands that specialize in farming and in other crafts. Some of the towns are close enough together that you can hike between them and some require a bus or other transportation. When we arried in Chugchilan there was a thick fog restricting our views of almost everything but what was about 15 feet in front of us. I was worried that it would be foggy the next day as well and that our plan to hike 8 miles to Laguna Quilotoa would be threatened but the locals assured us it would clear in the morning. Brad and I camped in the yard of a beautiful hostel and spent some time reading in front of their nice wood stove. Sure enough when we woke up, the sun was out and it was a really warm day for our hike. Grabbing some bread and bananas for breakfast, we made our way out of town, into a steep canyon and then straight up the other side. We wound our way along a trail that is used by tourists and locals (as well as llamas) to pass between the little villages. I greeted a little girl in one village saying Buenos Dias and she definitely mocked my accent as she repeated the greeting back to me. We also encountered several children who tried to convince us that we were lost so that they could guide us back to town, earing a dollar or a gift for their services. Clearly, many tourists pass through the area and the local children have learned well how to get what they want from us. Laguna Quilotoa is a crater lake and it is incredibly striking, although I think that because I grew up near the Crater Lake in Oregon, I was slightly less impressed by it´s beauty. When Brad and I got to the crater rim, we were just sitting down to enjoy tunafish sandwiches for lunch when the clouds moved it, it started to rain, then hail, and pretty soon we were in the middle of a full blown thunder and lightning storm that crashed and echoed around the crater walls. We made our way around the crater on a tiny, trecherous trail that passed what looked like a couple of funeral pyres perched on the rocky cliffs on the way to the little village of Quilotoa. By the time we got there, the lake was completely obscured by fog, we were pretty well drenched, and we decided to hire a pickup truck to take us to the village of Zumbahua where we immediately caught a bus toward the warmer weather at the coast.

We had planned to stay one more night at least around Quilotoa but the beauty of not having an itinerary allowed us to spontaneously switch our schedule to match our needs. I really needed to be in the sun and warmer weather so we went west to the Pacific Ocean. But first, the bus stopped in Quevedo, a city that is not even mentioned in the guide book because it has no services for travelers. After a lot of asking around we ended up at a decent hostel for the night but it was on one of the busiest, loudest streets I have ever seen and all night we could not only hear but feel the rumbling trucks passing beside our room. From Quevedo, we got a bus to Portoviejo, from Portoviejo we got a bus to Jipijapa (pronounced hippihoppa), from Jipijapa we got a bus to Puerto Lopez, our final destination, which is where I am right now. Puerto Viejo has been both exciting and a bit of a letdown. First, it is a quiet beach town with dirt roads and a very clean beach in a bay that is loaded with blue fishing boats. We are staying in a bamboo hostel with beautiful plants and hammocks (and cold showers) and beds that have mosquito nets though they aren´t really needed they just look kinda cool. That stuff is all great! The only letdown is that the sun hasn´t really made a clear appearance since we got here almost 2 nights ago. Today was pretty bright and the breeze is definitely warm but I was hoping for some blue skies and sun! I guess you can´t have everything and we certainly do have quite a few very good things. Tonight we ate fresh fish for dinner that was caught by some fellow travelers who we met in Otavalo and who happened to be here too. They went out fishing today and invited us to eat some of their delicious fish! Tomorrow I believe we will be heading just a little way down the coast to another little beach. But now I think it is time to go read my book. In a hammock. With a bowl of fresh pineapple from the market.

Thanks for reading! More pictures are up in the Ecuador section of picasa.
Love,
Anika

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Shaky Start In Quito

Buenas Tardes a Todos,
So here we are in Quito, about 2 hours south of Otavalo and the farthest south Brad has ever been! Since we are going south, I guess almost every travel day brings us farther south than Brad has ever been, but it´s still fun to say! Anyway, we left La Luna, saying goodbye to a lot of people with whom we have worked and spent some great times. It felt a little strange to put on the backpacks and walk down the 4km to the Panamerica for the last time. It was also strange to watch our stuff that we had strewn about our little room at La Luna, get packed neatly into our 2 small bags. I almost forgot that it all fit the first time but nothing has changed besides the addition of a new headband and a coin purse from Otavalo. We easily flagged a Quito bound bus and paid our $2 upon boarding. We arrived at the northern bus station and immediately transferred buses to go to the southern bus station, the one that the Lonely Planet shows us is directly in the middle of the Old Town, a mere 5 or 6 blocks from the Casa Bambu, our hostel. When we arrived at the southern terminal, we climbed into a taxi and upon naming our destination, discovered that we were instead at a brand new southern bus terminal that is way the hell south of town, not at all near the Old Town and certainly a long distance from the Casa Bambu. It was just 3 months ago that the bus terminal had moved locations from the Old Town to the south of town. The cab ride took us to the front door of the Casa Bambu and we checked into 2 dorm beds. Since the main center of Quito is divided into the New Town and the Old Town, we chose the Casa Bambu because it is situated directly between the two, easy walking distance from each and in a very quiet neighborhood up a hill that looks out over the city. There is a roof terrace in the hostel that has spectacular views, a pool table, ping pong, hammocks, and a pretty little garden with a lawn that appears to be made for tents. When we inquired about camping, however, the hostel owner informed us that they are beginning to remodel so they will not allow camping at this time. Bummer since it would be bad ass to camp in the middle of Quito.

This morning, Brad and I awoke after a really great night of sleep (we even got to sleep in past 7:45 which is when we have been waking up in order to open the door of La Luna at 8 and start serving coffee) and we were ready to tackle the various errands we had lined up to accomplish today. First off, after the failed trip to the US Embassy in Bogota, Brad and I figured that the best place to get additional pages for his passport would be in Quito since the US Embassy is located just a few blocks from Casa Bambu. When we arrived at the supposed embassy site, the building could have been an embassy, it had large fences and flags, but none of the flags featured the stars and stripes. A nearby traffic cop explained to us that 3 months ago, the US Embassy moved to a new location waaaaay up in the northern section of Quito (sound familiar?) and we would have to catch a bus to get there. Setting aside our expectations of getting the errands out of the way early, we boarded the bus and half an hour later arrived at the embassy only to discover that services for citizens of the USA didn´t begin until 1:30pm. So we got right back on the bus and hopped off close to the hostel for our next activity, a visit to the Instituto Geografico Militar, which is actually located exactly where the Lonely Planet specifies. And it was extremely easy to obtain and buy copies of the topographical maps that we will need when we go hiking in Cotopaxi National Park and in the highland villages near Laguna Quilotoa in the coming weeks.

I was so excited to start seeing the sights of Quito that the morning of a few setbacks seemed to take forever, and so it was finally time to head out to see the Old Town. I have a few memories of the wide plazas in Old Town from when I was briefly in Quito with my family back in 2005 and I was really anxious to see if I remembered everything correctly. Walking from the hostel, we went south along a very busy, exhaust filled street, Avenida Gran Colombia, until we got to the Mercado Central, a two storey building with food stalls serving up Almuerzos as well as stalls loaded with fruits, vegetables, and meats to buy. Being lunch time, we surveyed the options and sat down to eat a chicken soup followed by a plate of rice, potatos, and more chicken. Sounded just about what we expected until the soup came and the chicken part of the soup was chicken feet and what looked like a chicken head without the beak (Brad actually told me the chicken head part later because I was too busy trying not to look at what was sitting at the bottom of the broth and potatos besides the all too obvious chicken foot). The rest of the meal wasn´t much better not to mention that a woman who was selling juice came up and totally tricked us into buying an additional disgustingly sweet juice from her when we figured it was just the juice that always comes with the Almuerzo. Oh well, lessons learned!

Following lunch, we walked back into the street to head toward the Plaza Grande in Old Town. The drizzle that had started just before lunch turned suddenly into a deluge and we ran up a hill and across several streets to a massive gothic church called the Basilica del Voto Nacional to escape the water. Inside, there were very few lights and the side aisles were so dim and eerie that to see the end of them you actually had to walk the full length of the church. Many other people had chosen to take refuge from the storm in the church too and we stood together in the doorway to watch the weather. Figuring that tomorrow morning would be a better opportunity to do more exploring, Brad and I hurried back through the rain to the hostel, me to do some interneting, and Brad to head out to attempt to get his passport business sorted out. And that brings us to the moment. I´m feeling a bit silly about the restart of our travels after so long in Otavalo but I´m sure we will quickly feel more at ease again.

Hasta Luego,
Anika

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fuya Fuya



It´s Wednesday in Otavalo and Brad and I are in town for a couple of hours today between our work shifts up at La Luna. We visited a book store but found the English books were too expensive to buy, even used. I found the post office in order to buy a couple of stamps so I could send a letter and possibly a post card back to the States but there were several people in line all waiting to send huge packages of what looked like woven sweaters and scarves so I decided to wait on the stamp purchase. It´s fun to walk around Otavalo on days when the market is not happening because things are much calmer and far fewer tourists are in the streets.
La Luna has been almost empty of guests since Sunday so Brad and I took the opportunity to do one of the many hikes in the hills that surround Otavalo. We walked 10.5km up a road to Laguna Mojanda, a large lake in what appears to be the crater of a huge volcano but is really just a high altitude lake sitting in a basin between sharp little peaks and steep green hillsides. To the west is Volcan Fuya Fuya whose 4260 meter high summit lies just about 2km beyond the lake. When we arrived at the lake, it was cloudy but very calm and after a short sandwich break, we climbed to the top of Fuya Fuya and were greeted with beautiful views mostly to the south toward Quito and down the sides of the mountain to Otavalo and lots of very hilly green farmland. On extremely clear days you can see all the way to Quito, several snowy Andes peaks, and some people even say you can see Colombia. Even without the long distance views, it was a thrill to stand on the peak watching the mist float in and to enjoy the complete isolation and silence of being the only people around. We finished our day by hiking the road back to La Luna. As we collapsed into the hammocks on the porch to rest our legs, the first rain we have seen in Ecuador began to fall and it was beautiful to watch the parched grass and dusty roads get a much needed soaking.
After a couple of days with no guests at La Luna, the place is starting to fill up again and we are expecting almost full occupancy on Friday and Saturday this weekend. For the past 2 weekends, a group of 8 American students and their 2 guides has lived in the dormitory and we have been serving them breakfast and sometimes lunch and dinner which gets a bit hectic (but fun) especially when they all make special requests to go along with the order they place off the menu (instead of just avodado slices on the nachos, make it into guacamole and add a touch of lime, oh and light on the cheese). It´s pretty interesting to meet all of the travellers who pass through on their way to other adventures. We get great information about places we hope to visit and we have a growing list of contacts who we hope to keep meeting up with throughout our travels. Just a few more days left at our job in Otavalo and then it´s off to Quito on Monday. It has been incredibly relaxing to be in one place for 2 weeks and we have made some good friends with the owners and others who have also enjoyed staying for more than just a night or two at La Luna. I think, however, that I will be ready to move on to more travels when the time comes!
Hope all is well and keep up the comments...we love hearing from you!
Anika
P.S. more pictures here http://picasaweb.google.com/swiftbradley/Colombia# and http://picasaweb.google.com/swiftbradley/Ecuador#

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Let the Good Times Roll

It has been over a week since we came to Otavalo and six days since we started working at La Luna. The owners are quite nice and the work is not hard. We take orders in the morning for breakfast and bring food out from the kitchen. We keep track of guests' tabs and deal with payment when they check out. We do a little cleaning up at the end of the night, feed the dogs and close the resturant. I have done some repainting of the rooms and some prep work on the walls before applying new plaster. Everyday I move the horse, Lulu, to a new stop in the yard and bring her water.
We were taking special care of Lulu early in the week becuase she was very pregnant. No one knew exactly how far along she was but they knew it was close to a year, which is a horse's gestation period. A few days ago we awoke to find that Lulu had given birth during the night and tragicly the colt was not alive. Lulu was standing next to it and looked extremely sad. I helped dig a grave and we buried the colt; it was a sad morning.
I have been playing soccer almost daily with the local kids and adults; everyone is included in the game. They play with a small ball which I am not used to and the altitude here, 10,000 feet, has severely limited my endurance, but I still enjoy the games a great deal. No one gets angry during the games and smiles are abundant. The people here are some the happiest I have seen in all my travels. They are not rich, but not overly poor. They have maintained their traditions and have pride in their heritage. Family bonds are close and it has been fasicnating to learn how everyone is interconnected. The people here have not abondoned their culture in search of western style materialism. I believe this pride in who they are and who their ancestors were is the source of their happiness.
Work is not hard and most the time there is nothing to do, so we read lots of book and go on walks into town or around the hills surrounding the hostel. The locals are exeedingly friendly and I have had the privledge of several conversations ranging from soil conditions and the need for rain, to lessons in Quechua, the first language of many here. In fact a conversation in spanish can be slow at times as it is possible that both of us are conversing in our second language. We are looking forward to another wonderful week here. See you later.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Two More Weeks In Otavalo



Hello! Well, I´m back in Otavalo after one full day of relaxation on the La Luna farm. I literally did nothing but write in my journal, read my book, talk with fellow travelers and the hostel owners, and eat a home cooked meal full of vegetables and other goods we purchased at the market on Saturday. It´s great to have no agenda, it feels very freeing to not quite know what we will be up to tomorrow or the next day. Although having said that, Brad and I have decided to commit to 2 full weeks of working at La Luna. There has been a couple helping out but they are leaving tomorrow so we thought we would ask if they need more help and the owner, Kevin, agreed to let us work in exchange for room and board. Since it is the off season here in Ecuador, there are very few occupants in the rooms and no reservations on the books so our job basically consists of hanging out around the farm from 8-11 each morning and then again from 6-10 at night to help out with serving and sometimes preparing food and keeping track of people´s expenses. We get to eat any of the food we want and we will move into an upstairs room with a carpet, a fireplace, and a balcony that has a hammock on it! I am very excited for this opportunity. It will give us a chance to do a lot of the hiking around Otavalo as our schedule is pretty flexible and Kevin will likely give us a few days to sight see in the area. We will also get by spending very little money although I will have to restrain myself from buying tons of beautiful crafts at the Saturday markets in town! And speaking of Saturday market, we wrote our last posts before we had made any purchases but by the end of the market we had an extensive array of fruits and vegetables, many of which I had not tasted or even heard of before. For a grand total of $5.00 we bought 1 pineapple, 5 bananas, 2 oranges, 2 guayabanas, 1 tomato, 6 apples, 3 red onions, 15 hot peppers, 1 lime, 1 huge avocado, 1 grapefruit, 2 heads of broccoli, 1 pepino (a sweet fruit with a taste between a mango and a pear), 1 unknown fruit with slimy seeds, 1 quarter pound of quinoa, and 3 bagel-like bread things! Since Ecuador uses the dollar no conversion was necessary to see how much produce we got for the amount of money we spent.
Not much more news to report so I will stop here.
Hope everyone is doing well! We love hearing your comments and getting your emails!

Chao,
Anika

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Beautiful Otavalo



We crossed our first border yesterday! La frontera, as they call it in Colombia was a busy place with people entering and leaving Colombia and Ecuador. We had a day full of logistics including transportation on taxis, colectivos (taxis that carry as many passengers as can fit and charge less money), big buses, and a brief walk across a bridge that served as the official border crossing.

Our last night in Colombia was spent at El Sanctuario Las Lajas, a little tiny town just outisde of the border town of Ipiales. There is a church there that was built in the early 1900´s after an image of the virgen appeared on the rock wall of a sheer canyon. The church was built around the image on the side of the canyon supported by an arched bridge that stradles a little river fed by a waterfall. There are many pilgrims that come from both Ecuador and Colombia to visit the sanctuario and there are many very cheap hotels to house all of the visitors. We stayed in La Casa Pastoral which is run by nuns and is decorated with religious imagery. The rooms were just big enough to hold a double bed, which I really think was a mattress filled with straw on top of some very hard boards. It was a beautiful place to finish our travels in Colombia.

Without any problems, we received a stamp in our passports and arrived in Ecuador. Easily, we caught a big bus and rode 3 hours through the gorgeous countryside. We are now staying in a beautiful hostal/farm called La Luna, about 4km outside of Otavalo. La Luna has a lot of space that includes dormitories, regular rooms, and also spaces to camp on their lawn, which we decided to do. It´s fun to take out our tent and have our own little space especially when we can also spend time socializing with other guests in the common areas (which all have fireplaces) and use their bathrooms, showers, and kitchen facilities. We woke up this morning to the crowing of roosters and the sound of a very pregnant horse munching some grass right beside the tent! Also, we have perfect views of two spectacular volcanos that border the valley where Otavalo lies. Today is Saturday and it is the big Otavalo market day. It is a market I have heard about for years from my grandma DJ who visited it in the 70´s and I feel very excited to be here. Brad and I woke up at 6am to walk the 45 minutes downhill from La Luna to be in time for the Feria de los Animales (animal market) which starts early and ends early unlike the crafts and food markets that stay open all day. There was a lot of action among the local people who bring their cows, chickens, pigs, alpacas, kittens, ducks, and guinea pigs to sell and to trade or purchase other animals. Many people wear the traditional clothing of colorful shawls and skirts and both men and women wear their hair in long braids often coverd in woven cloth. It is interesting to be inside of this market that has been happening for hundreds of years in this same beautiful valley. After we write these blog entries, the plan is to stay in town and look at the crafts, purchase a backpack load full of fresh fruit and eat some delicious street food for lunch! I feel super relaxed in this town and I think we will be here for quite a few days, camping, visiting with people and taking walks in the green countryside to nearby lakes and waterfalls.

It is very exciting to be in a new country! I didn´t anticipate feeling a huge difference between Colombia and Ecuador so soon after crossing the border but I do feel a larger sense of security here in Ecuador. The recent history of violence in Colombia is definitely fading away with the increased police and military presence on roads and in cities. There were many police checkpoints on long bus rides where we had to show our passports and Brad got searched but it was all out of concern for the safety of the bus passengers. The Colombians themselves are extremely friendly and helpful but they are quick to remind foreigners of the need to be wary of personal safety and the security of belongings. I think that tourism is increasing and with a few more years of safe progress, Colombia may become a hot spot for travelers because it has so much to offer in terms of natural beauty and cultural variety unique to each region.

With that, it´s time to enjoy the market! The sun is shining and it is a gorgeous day in Ecuador.

I´m not sure what Brad wrote about in his post because we´re not consulting each other, but if he didn´t write about climbing the 15,000 ft. very windy volcano in Parque Nacional Purace then I´ll have to write another entry soon!

Love,
Anika

From Ecuador



We left you last at Popayan. We departed to the national park of Purace. A two hour bus ride over mountainous dirt roads eventually dropped us at a crossroads called La Cuza de Mina (the cross of the mine). This is a junction with the "main" road, with the smaller road leading up the volcano and eventually to a sulfur mine high on its slopes. We hoisted our packs and began the short climb up the road to the park entrance. We met the park ranger, his family, and their two dogs, Negro and Conga. We explained to the park ranger that we would like to camp for the night and then climb the volcano in the morning. He was very helpful and showed us where to set up camp and explained the eccentricities of trail. The wind was strong all night and neitherAnika nor I slept well. We had pitched our tent under a three walled shelter and the sounds of the tree branches scraping against the roof and wall gave the night a dark ominous feeling. We started out climb a little after 7am the next morning and soon were leaning against a stiff wind. Clouds came and went allowing us to more fully appreciate the vistas when they revealed themselves. Anika was a strong climber and found herself frequently waiting for me. We reached the edge of the crater after about three and one half hours. The wind was blowing about 45 miles per hour and the temperature was slightly below freezing, maybe 30F degrees. We were immersed in clouds that were blowing by us with great speed, coating all the volcanic rock in a thin layer of ice. We tried to peer over the crater rim, but could see little. We were a little over 15000 feet at the crater´s edges, a new high for both Anika and I. Without a view there was little reason to stay and we soon descended out of clouds and had a scenic leisurely hike back to Pilimbala, the ranger station. We broke camp and hiked the two kilometers out to the the main dirt road. After some time we were able to wave a bus down secure a ride back into Popayan, were we got a much needed nights rest.

The next morning we were off again, catching an early bus to the
Ecuadorian/Colombian border town of Ipiales. This took 7 hours on a cramped bus filled adults, children, a large rocking horse, and plenty of salsa music. A quick shared taxi ride brought us to Las Lajas, the site of a famous church which we planned to visit in the morning. Apparently the image of the virgin appeared on the rockface overlooking the river and a church was build over the river and directly abutting the rock face. I wanted to look for the virgin´s image in the rock, but today the image is painted directly onto the cliff and gilded with 24K gold leaf, so there can be no confusion as to whether it is there or not.

The next morning
we crossed the border into Ecuador. There were no hassles from border officials on either side. We got our stamps, walked across a bridge and were in Ecuador. I feel somewhat more comfortable in this country. By all accounts Colombia has become quite safe in recent years, but I still have been unable to shake some of my preconceptions. It had been such a violent place so recently, I feel this part of its history was not far enough in the past for my comfort.

We are currently in
Otavalo, a small town famous for it`s indigenous heritage and the Saturday market. We are camping on the picturesque grounds of a hostel situated on a hill above town. At 10,000 feet the hostel is about 1,000 feet above the town and the views are spectacular. It takes about an hour to walk down into town. I am taking a break from the market to write this entry and it has been fascinating. We started the morning at the animal market, were every manner of domesticated animal is displayed, inspected, and bought or sold. There were crates full of ducklings, baskets of chicks, bags of kittens, piles of piglets, boxes of puppies, and much more. Every so often one of the animals would get loose and go running around the market. One large pig reeked havoc on tables, fences, ankles and calves; avoiding numerous lasso attempts and eventually making a run for it across the Pan America Highway with a number of locals in pursuit.

We have met many other interesting travelers. Last night we had beers with a German/Swiss couple at our hostel. They have been traveling for over a year. Going from India up through Nepal, into Tibet and then Mongolia, across to Japan and then onto Hawaii, from there to San Francisco where they purchased a motorcycle with a side car. They have driven the bike down from California through
Central America; then strapping it onto the deck of a boat they brought it from Panama down to Colombia. They plan to ride southern end of the continent and then ride a cargo ship back to Europe. People that this have good stories and good energy, it's quite inspiring.

Otavalo is a gorgeous place and we hope to spend a number of days here, relaxing and planning our next move. The beaches of Ecuador might be in order. We'll see and let you know.