Ecuador’s Final Gifts

Canoa Beach

Canoa Beach

Since leaving the Galapagos Islands in the middle of January, we’ve covered a lot of territory. I’m going to attempt to describe the highlights.

After the Galapagos Islands we spent a long day travelling north from Guayaquil along the coast of Ecuador to a small surfing village called Canoa. This was just a small fishing village until about ten years ago when Ecuadorian and foreign tourists started showing up there to enjoy the long stretch of white sandy beach and gentle surf.DSCN2530 Now it’s a bustling tourist destination with oodles of small tiki-type bars and restaurants, as well as vendors selling sun hats and sun dresses, dotting the beach. It’s quiet during the week and hopping on the weekends as busloads of tourists arrive Friday nights.

Our plan was to spend two weeks here learning to surf while I, Darcy, gave attention to my mid-year reports for my students.DSCN2452 We found an amazing room on the third floor of the Canoa Mar Hostel across the street from the beach. The view from our patio was impressive. Being just a hop, skip and a jump from the beach was truly awesome!

The unfortunate view from our hostel.

The unfortunate view from our hostel.

 

Within a couple of days of being there, Jonathan was heading into the waves with a rented surfboard. It took me a few more days to gather the courage to sign up for a surfing lesson. Then away I went. After one hour of instruction and support from my American instructor, I had stood up on a surfboard for a split second at least a couple of times. I had felt what it feels like to surf. I was exhilarated! And exhausted! I went out a couple more times on my own having such a good time trying to surf. However, soon enough, I pulled a muscle in my leg and was unable to get out there again. In the meantime, Jonathan had strained some muscles in his ribs and was also unable to surf. So, within a few days of being in Canoa, our dreams of becoming super surfers were dashed. Could our ages possibly be catching up with us? Jonathan was adamant that his surfboard was too hard, and that after a few days in the surf even his rock hard abdominal muscles had to sustain some damage. I suspect it’s because he’s 40 and has spent more time on a cushion than in the gym.

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While I worked away on my reports and attended a couple of private Spanish classes, Jonathan chilled out. I did a lot of chilling out as well. One thing we both really enjoyed while in Canoa was getting up early and going for barefoot walks/runs along the nearly deserted beach. We enjoyed watching the fishermen get their boats ready to go out fishing, observing how their whole family came out to help load gear and push the boat out into the crashing waves.DSCN2511

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Angie, Donovan, Darcy, Ari Paul and Jardi – Maybe the nicest family in Canoa.

Another blessing of our time here was getting to know the family that managed the hostel – Angie, Jardi and their sons Donovan (9) and Paul (5). Despite my inability to communicate much with them because of not speaking Spanish, our friendship blossomed over the two weeks we were there and all of us were sad to say goodbye.

It only loved me for the fermented banana juice on my finger.

It only loved me for the fermented banana juice on my finger.

After my mid-year reports were complete, we made our way northeast up into the mountains to a small town in the cloud forest called Mindo (1250 meters). This area is known for its bird-watching  waterfalls and artisan chocolate. Upon arrival we noticed the abundance of hummingbirds of numerous varieties to be found here. It wasn’t unusual to see upwards of 8 or 9 of them humming around the various feeders.

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During our time here we visited a butterfly garden and enjoyed close encounters with these beautiful beings. I was most impressed with the cocoons that look like droplets of molten gold. Wow!

A butterfly cocoon you could wear as an earring.

A butterfly cocoon you could wear as an earring.

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One day while eating lunch we met a couple, Genny (Ecuadoran) and Ingo (German) who have a farm near Mindo. They were considering homeschooling their two eldest daughters, so when I told them about my work and my experience with homeschooling, they invited Jonathan and I to come spend a couple days at their farm. So off we went for two nights. Their farm is located about an hour drive from the town of Mindo. It is lush and green; one of their main challenges for growing food is too much water. The highlights for me from our time with Genny and Ingo were riding a horse bareback for an hour and a half – a very painful experience. I had a very slow horse that spooked whenever a motorcycle went by, which happened three times during my ride. Another highlight was getting to know their two Great Dane puppies – Tank and Dozer . They were so adorable, big and unruly, affectionate and playful. Thirdly, I, together with another volunteer, plucked three freshly beheaded chickens for the evening’s stew. This was very unpleasant and not at all easy. By the end I was splattered in chicken blood and had a much deeper appreciation for all of the chickens I have eaten in my entire life, especially the last seven months in South America! To travel back to Mindo from the farm, we got a ride in the back of the Milk Truck. This truck stops by numerous farms everyday collecting and buying fresh milk to then sell to a larger milk company. It was a beautiful way to experience the beauty of the area while quickly meeting dozens of farmers, their dogs and mules.

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We spent quite a few more days in Mindo since it was Carnival and we were advised not to travel by bus at that time. Carnival was celebrated by public water fights and spraying others with canned white foam. Jonathan got involved by filling his backpack up with water balloons and chucking them at people in trucks passing by and at children armed with water guns. At the peak of the festivities, young people had dug a mud pit in the main plaza and were carrying each other and throwing each other into it – though mostly it was teenage boys throwing their female friends into the muck. All in all, it was reasonably low key and quite a bit of fun.

One of the illions of market stands in Otavalo.

One of the illions of market stands in Otavalo.

From Mindo we passed through Quito to Otavalo (2530 meters), a very popular tourist destination north of the capital city. This is the centre for Indigenous artisans in Ecuador and the city is famous for its market which operates daily but with the mega-market happening on Saturdays.

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Colours of South America

We spent just two days here enjoying the hot sun and shopping for friends and family. It was a great opportunity to send home some beautiful blankets and sweaters to loved ones shivering in the Canadian winter.

From Otavalo, we headed into the northeast corner of Ecuador to a town called Lago Agrio from where we would start a four-day tour of the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve staying at the Cuyabeno Lodge (www.neotropicturis.com). This was to be our first time heading into the Amazon jungle.

Guilver keeping all senses peeled for illusive amazonian critters.

Guilver keeping all senses peeled for illusive amazonian critters.

We travelled by motorized canoe down the Cuyabeno River for two hours to the lodge where we stayed for three nights. Our excellent guide, Guilver, was spotting wildlife within moments of us being in the canoe. It was magic to observe him tuning in to the sounds and movements of our surroundings. Almost immediately we saw monkeys, then a nearly invisible sloth. I was thrilled! Over the next four days of canoe trips (both motorized and human powered)

The sweetest yellow python I ever met.

The sweetest yellow python I ever met.

and jungle walks, we saw seven of the nine resident species of monkeys, a sloth, blue and yellow macaws (parrots), a baby cayman and a large cayman, a python, a pink river dolphin, piranhas, many, many different birds, bats, many interesting spiders and frogs including a tarantula and the small, very poisonous frog the local Indigenous people sometimes use for their poison darts.

Only a few centimeters big but still screaming "poisonous"!

Only a few centimeters big but still screaming “poisonous”!

Jonathan swam in the lagoon at sunset one evening which was absolutely gorgeous. One morning we visited a village of the Siona tribe, one of the dozens of Indigenous groups living in this part of South America. We were shown the traditional way of making bread from yucca and we had the chance to try a blow dart gun. We are so grateful for Guilver, our guide. Not only did he have a near super human capacity to find things that didn’t want to be seen, he spoke excellent English and was a wealth of knowledge about the wildlife in the area. He also showed great sensitivity towards the impact of increased tourism on both the environment as well as the local indigenous people. Jonathan and I both agree that this time in the Cuyabeno Reserve was a major highlight of our entire trip.

Sunset in Cuyabeno

Sunset in Cuyabeno

We were about ready to leave Ecuador when we decided to visit one final place, which meant backtracking a bit to the middle of the country, one of the most important parts of Ecuador -the volcanic mountains south of Quito. So off we went to Latacunga (2800 meters), the launching point for visits to the surrounding volcanoes. We did an overnight trip to Quilotoa (3850 meters), a beautiful crater lake.

Quilatoa Crater Lake from the vantage of a !#@$% hard place to get to.

Quilotoa Crater Lake from the vantage of a !#@$% hard place to get to.

It was very cold up there, and windy! Jonathan and I walked around the crater of this volcano in an afternoon, taking about four and a half hours. The combination of the high altitude and steep up and down climbs nearly wiped us out completely! It was a very challenging walk. We were very happy to get back to our super simple hostel for a cup of hot tea. After dinner we enjoyed lighting the woodstove in our room so we could meditate and sleep in the comfort only a fire can give. In the morning we went back to Latacunga for one more night.

The following day we bee-lined it north for the border between Ecuador and Colombia. Our 90-day entry visa was about to expire and we were more than ready to jump into a new country and a new culture. Little did we know that the day we would enter Colombia would be the day the coffee growers would go on strike leaving us stranded in the ‘not very exciting’ town of Pasto. More on that coming up.

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Galapagos – Mucho Wow!

Upon landing on the Galapagos Islands we weren’t too sure what to expect. Of course all the literature talks about Darwin’s finches, unique and fearless wildlife, beautiful beaches and giant land tortoises, and as amazing as that all seems, it doesn’t nearly capture the place.

Our flight from Guayaquil landed on the island of Baltra early in the morning; the sky was overcast and it was hot and humid (not my body’s favorite combination of conditions). My clothing immediately starting to stick uncomfortably and as I took in my first impression of this often harsh and desolate volcanic island I thought to myself, “well this is kind of drab”. Leave it to me to judge a place after about 30 seconds of experience. Plus, judging a place by its airport locale is like judging a country by its border town. Not very well informed.

Luckily, a quick look at Darcy, DSCN2211a ray of light and eternal optimist, got me thinking straight again and it wasn’t long before I’d fallen in love with this beautiful place. The ‘drabness’ I felt became a perception that had evolved into an appreciation of an often harsh and inhospitable environment where nature had flourished in exotic and beautiful ways.

Our first wildlife encounter came that afternoon as we set foot on Tortuga Bay Beach. The sky had mostly cleared by then and the humidity didn’t seem so oppressive now that  the promise of an ocean swim was so close at hand. The beach itself was long, wide and immaculate and so sparsely populated that we could almost feel we had it to ourselves… gratefully a looong cry from the beaches of Ipanema or Copacabana in Rio.

Meeting our first Galapagonian.

Meeting our first Galapagonian.

We started noticing strange tracks on the beach; long lines  flanked on either side by clawed footprints, often leading from the water across the beach to the cactusy, thorny ground cover. Our curiosity was soon satisfied when we spied a lone, charcoal grey lizard slowly making its way down the beach. Darcy and I were both amazed to be seeing what must be one of the Galapagos’ famed marine iguanas. Quickly we snapped a dozen photos thinking our luck had brought us a rare gift. It wa so unafraid of us that I was easily able to approach it for some nice close ups, so it seemed, at least for the iguanas, that the Galapagos’ reputation for fearless wildlife was true.

As we proceeded down the beach to some nice still waters for snorkeling we saw that, though a definite gift it was, our iguana sighting was hardly rare.DSCN2314b There would soon be so many lizards underfoot as to necessitate extreme vigilance to avoid stepping on them. Once in a good basking position they didn’t seem to move for anything or anyone.

The rest of our two weeks on the islands was similarly wonderful. We elected to do our own thing and go from place to place at our own speed as opposed to going on a tour boat. Tour boats offer visits to places inaccessible (or very expensive) to solo travelers but it means milling about on a fixed schedule in a big group of people. Pros and cons considered, Darcy and I chose to see fewer places at our own pace. We weren´t disappointed. Of course avoiding tours is impossible if you want to visit some of the attractions.

Los Tuneles

Los Tuneles

We visited a place place called Los Tuneles, on Isabela Island, an amazing landscape formed of an ancient lava flow that has been eroded over the centuries to form a labyrinthian system of tunnels and caves that reach out into the ocean. We snorkeled here, in torquoise waters, amidst sea turtles, white tip sharks, rays and the ever present tropical fish. Darcy, who struggles to find comfort while in the water, in an olympic confrontation of fears, swam with a group of 7 or 8 white tip sharks! Such a champion! (And she´s fine by the way)DSCN2440

The islands were indeed a trip through a wildlife documentary…mind blowing giant tortoises,DSCN2378 playfully swimming with sea lions,DSCN2192 diving amongst hammerheads, sea turtles, and rays of all kinds, observing the mating rituals of marine iguanas (not fun for the female), getting all gooey at the sight of nursing baby sea lions, and watching as flocks of pelicans,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA frigate birds and blueIMG_8741 footed boobies rained from the sky while diving for their prey. We also did a beautiful hike up to see one of the world´s largest calderas (of an active volcano), and wander through its surrounding treacherous and desolate lava fields.

La Sierra Negra caldera

La Sierra Negra caldera

The human habitation of the islands is almost an after thought. Though very present and developing steadily, the human impact to the feeling of the Galapagos Islands, to me, is still overshadowed by the wildness of the place and the ubiquitous presence of it´s fearless wildlife.

No, please don´t get up.

No, please don´t get up.

The only customer at the fisherman´s wharf.

The only customer at the fisherman´s wharf.

It´s so great to see that after all the history of the islands, and some of it quite nasty, the wildlife retains its fearlessness and freedoms, the exotic landscapes have avoided the “progress” of development and the people that do call the Galapagos home have, to a noticeable degree,  a love and appreciation for its integrity. Hats off to the Ecuadorian government and other organizations who are so active in preserving the natural state of the Galapagos. May they continue and grow in their success.

Lastly, but really firstly, thank you so much to all of our wonderful wedding guests for your enormously generous gifts. This trip wouldn´t have been possible without you. May  your generosity come back to you in infinite ways.

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Chillin’ in Vilcabamba and Cuenca

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Vilcabamba, the supposed valley of long life, where the average temperature sits between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius and a vast array of fruits and vegetables can be grown all year round;where new agers and conspiracy theorists of all ages from Europe and North America are flocking to get back to the land. A small village where you can find green juices, spirulina-dark chocolate truffles, kale in your salad, freshly baked chocolate croissants made with organic chocolate by a woman from Belgium, every kind of healer/intuitive/body worker you could ever imagine; trippy art made with highlighter markers displayed on clotheslines in the main plaza that become even more trippy when viewed through 3D glasses; people decked out in gold body glitter and barefeet as their everyday attire; and Hare Krishna’s serving vegetarian food and handing out pamphlets in the plaza.

Darcy and our 'dog for the day.' We called him Scruffy. He joined us for a hike in Vilcabamba.

Darcy and our ‘dog for the day.’ We called him Scruffy. He joined us for a hike in Vilcabamba.

It’s a place where the local Ecuadorians speak English causing me great confusion and, as in all of Ecuador, where the American dollar is the currency. We met more Canadians in this little village than in the previous four months of our journey, most of them considering making a move to Vilcabamba for their retirement and/or change of lifestyle. And, boy, is it tempting. It is so very beautiful there -emerald mountains surrounding a lush green valley and the cost of living, though recently inflated by the massive influx of ex-pats, is still very low. We spent a lovely week there enjoying the climate, the nature, the interesting and diverse company, and the delicious, nourishing and uber-healthy food. Though we initially thought we’d stay a month or so, after a few days we were ready to see what Ecuador was like outside of this ex-pat paradise.

So we headed on to Cuenca which became our home for a month.

The view from our hostel room over the south side and newer part of Cuenca.

The view from our hostel room over the south side and newer part of Cuenca.

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador found in the mountains, at 2500 m above sea level, in the south of Ecuador. It has the reputation of being the art and spiritual centre of the country. We started taking Spanish classes almost immediately and spent

More amazing street art.

More amazing street art.

a good portion of our time there studying and doing homework. I (Darcy) found this to be very fulfilling as I started to put together all the odds and ends of the language I had been collecting over the last few months.

Cuenca

Cuenca

Cuenca, like Vilcabamba, is a place being settled by oodles of ex-pats, mostly retirees from North America, particularly the U.S. We met many of these folks, or folks here checking it out as a place to expatriate. We, too, are here with this purpose.  Though our intention has been to check out several parts of the world to see where we might like to settle down, we’ve been meeting plenty of people who have been to the same places we are intending to go and they’ve chosen Cuenca and it’s surrounding countryside! We wonder if we ought to simply go with their experience; we will certainly see. For now though, we will continue to make our way to Honduras for Jonathan’s SCUBA training and see where life takes us after that.

Jonathan and I spent December 21st-23rd doing a three-day Vipassana meditation self-course, observing silence throughout and meditating most of each of the days. This was a wonderful experience despite the noise and distractions of the city including an outdoor rock and hip-hop concert right outside our hostel.

On December 24th, we observed the massive “Pase del Nino Viajero” parade, the largest parade held in Ecuador.

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Roasted pig on a float in the Christmas Eve parade.

Roasted pig on a float in the Christmas Eve parade.

This little girl was so cute dancing along with the older dancers.

This little girl was so cute dancing along with the older dancers.

Wow, can they ever spin!

Wow, can they ever spin!

The pictures will give you a sense of what this was all about. It is a parade where thanks is given for the abundance people have in their lives. To show gratitude they make floats covered in food, bottles of alcohol, chocolate bars, fruit, bread and any number of things. Children dress up as the characters in the Christmas Story: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the Wise Men, etc. Some children wear very fancy dresses or dress as cowboys are are paraded on horses. There are dancers, bands, clowns and all manner of other characters participating in the parade. There are over 500 floats in the parade and it lasts for hours with floats taking their places around 4:30am.

On Christmas we enjoyed a lovely Christmas ‘dinner’ at lunchtime at a local cafe with other foreigners away from family at this time. That evening we went to see “The Hobbit” as it opened on Christmas Day. It was a bit of an unusual Christmas for us but one we enjoyed thoroughly. We are so grateful for Skype as we were able to be with each of our families for some time -mine on Christmas Eve and Jonathan’s on Christmas morning and Christmas evening. It made the homesickness a little more bearable… or worse… I’m not sure which.

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Next for us: The Galapagos Islands!

The Many Wonderful Steps to Ecuador

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Our time in Peru is quickly coming to a close. In a day or two we’ll make our way to Ecuador and the village of Vilcabamba.

Since leaving Cuzco we’ve followed a somewhat convoluted path from south to north taking in some of the diverse experiences that Peru has to offer.

Our first stop was down to sea level to the city of Nazca, our first time below 2000 m in over 2 months.It was great to see the Pacific ocean again and to take in the air rich with oxygen and the familiar and comforting scents of the sea. Of course Nazca is famous for the Nazca Lines, huge forms, lines and figures (geoglyphs) that were drawn onto a vast area of desert, what is believed to be, about 1500 years ago.

The condor

The condor

I always thought the lines had been etched into the stone but it turns out that they were created by sweeping reddish stones and pebbles away to expose the whiter ground beneath. Like the Inca, the Nazca were pre-literate and so no one really knows what the lines are all about. Out of all the explanations I heard, the one that resonated most with me while I was flying over them was that they represented certain astronomical features at different times of year, creating a calender of sorts. But who knows…some of the most interesting and baffling formations are a a long band of holes and leveled-off mountain tops


Regardless, it was fascinating to imagine how the Nazca people surveyed, engineered and created such works. Many of the lines at ground level crossed significant geological features such as mountains but from the air maintained the integrity of their intended shape such as a circle or straight line. Many of the lines extended for kilometers. I love mysteries like this!

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Next was a quick stop in the odd little town of Paracas. Ostensibly a beach side resort town for the wealthy of Lima, it’s located just beyond the industrial section of the larger city of Ica. This area was hit by a destructive earthquake a number of years ago so most of the town is still in a state of repair with many of the buildings being flimsy, thrown-together affairs.

DSCN1780It was here we went on a tour of the Bellestas Islands, a collection of islands in the Paracas National Reservation that is home to a stunning array of birds and other marine animals.

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It was a beautiful day and the sea was kind enough to allow us to get quite close to the sleeping sea lions and the huge colonies of pelicans, cormorants, boobies, penguins and more.

We left Paracas after only a day and embarked on a long bus ride north through Lima to the small town of Caraz, once again above 2000m in the Andes.

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Caraz, along with its more famous neighbour Huaraz, are found between two spectacular mountain ranges…the Cordillera Blanca (for its snow and glaciers) and the Cordillera Negra (no snow or glaciers). This area is Mecca for climbers, hikers, mountaineers, parasailors etc, for its stunning natural beauty.DSCN1820 Darcy and I went on possibly the longest walk of both our lives, around 35 km, from the village of Paron to Laguna Paron and back. I’m still footsore more than a week later. It was worth it though as you may appreciate from the photos.

Cajamarca was next, the city where the Spanish captured and executed the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. It’s said that they originally held him for a ransom of gold equal to filling a room with treasure up to a level on the wall determined by Atahualpa holding his hand over his head, but the Spanish got cold feet while waiting for it to arrive and decided to just do away with him. The messengers that were tasked with bringing the loot to Cajamarca caught wind of their emperor’s death while on the shores of Lake Titicaca and decided to dump the gold in the lake where it supposedly remains to this day. Amusingly, years ago, Jacques Cousteau brought a mini-sub to Bolivia and explored the bottom of the lake in a vain effort to find the treasure.

At Los Banos del Inca

At Los Banos del Inca

Cajamarca is also home to Los Banos del Inca, or the Inca’s Baths, where Darcy and I and our tired bodies, spent a few hours in steamy, hot-springy paradise. We thoroughly enjoyed a soak in a private hot spring (or rather a pool that’s emptied and refilled after each client), a wonderful massage and then a sweat in a steam room scented with natural eucalyptus. We left feeling rejuvenated and squeaky clean.

Our last stop in Peru was Chachapoyas, another mountain town which lies just south of the border with Ecuador. We spent many a relaxing day there at the Backpackers Hostel which is run by Donna and Jose and their son Jose Antonio, a wonderfully kind and generous family.

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Hyein

We were also blessed to meet two young Korean travelers, Hyein and Heejin, who lit a fire under us to get out and see some things….perhaps some ‘ruins burnout’ starting to set in at this point.

Heejin

Heejin

So we saw Kuelap, a huge mountain top ruin complex dating back to the Chachapoyan culture of the 6th century AD.

A house foundation beside one of the 3 entrances to Kuelap.

A house foundation beside one of the 3 entrances to Kuelap.

Once again we were confronted by a lot of mysteries, theories and hypotheses…houses with a small burial chamber in the middle of their main  living space, bones interred within all the walls, curious sculptures on random stones to name a few. It was another beautiful testament to human ingenuity and the amazing number of diverse ways culture has expressed itself over the centuries.

Darcy, Hyien and Heejin also did a day trek out to Gocta Waterfall. At 771m, it’s the third highest free-falling waterfall in the world.

Gocta Waterfall...third highest in the world at 771m.

Gocta Waterfall…third highest in the world at 771m.

At this point we started feeling very excited to get to Ecuador, the country that captivated our interest and imagination four years ago and seeded our adventure to South and Central America. It took us one full day of travel to arrive at a town on the Peruvian side of the Peru-Ecuador border and then another full day to cross the border and travel to our destination -Vilcabamba, Ecuador. And that is another tale to tell -coming soon!

Adios and muchas gracias para todos, Peru!

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Still Crying Over the Inca Trail

It’s me, Darcy, writing this time!

Cuzco Inca

This guy yelled at me, “don’t touch the walls!” How could I not touch them? They’re amazing!

Cusco, what can I say about Cusco? Narrow stone streets with the tiniest of sidewalks, dangerously slick as soon as it rained, where, in order to pass by another, one needs to step onto the road. All around the city, the magnificent remnants of Incan stonework, usually built-upon by the Spaniards in their colonial style. I could feel history in the perfectly shaped stones, fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces. I would touch them as I walked through the streets and alleys, until I got yelled at by a man dressed as a Sapa Inca (an emperor), “don’t touch the walls”, trying to protect these six-hundred-year-old stone walls from the oil of my fingertips.

I loved how I could find anything I wanted to eat, including Indian food (though it made both Jonathan and I sick), shepherd’s pie in an Irish Pub (Paddy’s Pub), superb wood-oven-fired pizza (two places: La Pizza Carlo and another right around the corner that I don’t know the name of), to die-for chocolate cupcakes (Encantasq’a Bakery), massive, fully-loaded, bacon-infused hamburgers (The Meeting Place) and chalupas (El Cuate), just to name some of the food we enjoyed.

The fountain in the sun palace. We’re told that the 4 provinces of the Inca empire started from here, each quadrant a different province.

Robin and Matt with Darcy in the ancient Wari (pre-Inca) ruins of Piquillacta.

Cusco is also the place where we reunited with some travelers we had met along the way: Robyn and Matt from Australia who we met in Carumba, Brazil, the day before we crossed the border into Bolivia, and Jenna and Lauren from the States who we trekked with in the Colca Canyon. We also met Sara, a fellow Canadian, connected to us through the power of Facebook, as well as fellow Vipassana meditators whom we were able to join for a group sit. We met Ignat from Bulgaria and spent two days visiting sites with him. In this way, our time in Cusco was rejuvenating….friendship and speaking English is good for the weary traveler’s spirit!

A beautiful 500 year old ceremonial fountain….still working after all these years.

We did a lot of site seeing in Cusco and the surrounding area seeing many Inca ruins and visiting a few museums and art galleries. We were trying our best to learn as much as we could about the history of the Inca Civilization though we were challenged as the sites had nothing in the way of signage or information to explain what we were looking at, and being the shoestring travelers we are, we did not want to hire guides at each site. So we looked up each place we visited on the internet, then did a lot of guessing and wondering and a lot more marveling at the beauty of each site. We were often left speechless.

A two kilometer aqueduct that provided water to the Inca palace, local homes and irrigation channels of the nearby terraces. The Inca weren’t afraid of work!

So little is actually known about the Inca since they had no system of writing. What is known was recorded by the Spanish after they had conquered the Incan Empire. I think I formulated way more questions than I found answers during our time in Cusco. Most of the information we found (either by internet, pamphlet, guide or through questioning locals) was always hypothetical and never concrete.

The ruined Wari city of Piquillacta.

This mystery often added to our feelings of awe and amazement, though it also left us feeling incredibly frustrated and saddened at the ignorance of the colonizers to destroy so much of what the Incas and the civilizations before them had built over many hundreds of years.

It has definitely given us deeper appreciation for our own First Nations back home.

A few days before it was time to go on our Inca Trail trek, I started experiencing quite a lot of pain in the adductor muscles of my left hip. It hurt to walk down any slope or steps. I started freaking out a bit, afraid I wouldn’t survive the very strenuous four-day trek we were about to embark on. The day before we left I had an emergency Skype call with my sister Tuula, a Registered Massage Therapist, who taught me how to walk properly so I wouldn’t cause any more damage! That same day, Jonathan came down with a fever and upset stomach and spent the whole day in bed, forcing himself to get up in the evening so we could attend the mandatory information meeting with our trekking company, SAS Travel! We were feeling quite nervous, needless to say, me hobbling along the street with my sore hip, Jonathan walking weakly, hot, chilled and sweaty from fever to our meeting. We were determined to start and complete our trek, booked three months before from Canada. When our orientation meeting finished, we stepped outside to find rain dumping on the streets of Cusco – people running and dashing every which way. Suddenly there were oodles of women on the streets selling rain ponchos! Good timing! Jonathan, up until that moment, was not going to buy rain pants or a poncho for the trek. Once we were in that rain for just a couple of minutes, completely soaked, he changed his mind! So off we went, Jonathan feverish, me limping, to buy more gear. Then we had the best shepherd’s pie of our life, went home, packed up and hit the hay. Jonathan slept immediately. I couldn’t sleep despite needing to be up-and-at-it at 4:30am to be picked up at 5am from our hotel by our tour company.

Our campsite on the first night.

Jonathan and I have discussed a few times what we might like to write about the Inca Trail itself and our journey on it. I’m kind of stumped as to what to write. It was so beautiful and for some reason I start to cry whenever I think about it and remember it. I can’t explain why. In fact, throughout the trek, I’d just start tearing up. I felt such gratitude. I felt incredibly present during the walk. Though there were many people on the trail with us, (16 in our group alone, 200 trekkers and 300 porters and guides a day on the trail), I often felt like I was the only one on the trail -me, my breath, my ‘pelivic tilt, engage the glutes’ mantra,’ my focus on using my walking poles effectively, and my observation of the strain in every muscle of my body keeping me incredibly present. Once in awhile Jonathan and I would chat with our amazing lead guide, Freddy, picking his brain as much as we could about the Inca Civilization, the trail itself and the flowers and plants we were seeing. Freddy and the assistant guide Elvis, were incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about sharing Inca history as well as about trekking in Peru. Freddy has walked the Inca Trail over 500 times, first as a porter and then as a guide.

The trek was a challenge, but it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be and I’m so glad for that. I was encouraged by many people to simply enjoy the journey. I really did that. I paused frequently to look around and enjoy the ever-changing scenery and the breath-taking views. When it rained, I enjoyed the feeling of the rain on my cold hands emerging from my poncho as I walked.

The Inca trail. The path was often built up by terraces below so that the path would be more even and easier to follow quickly.

We were told that the Inca Trail was not built as the quick and easy route for people to travel to Machu Picchu. It seems it was built as a pilgrimage. We were told that the Sapa Inca (the king Inca) would walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu at each solstice. Normally the Sapa Inca would be carried from place to place on a litter. But when it was time for him to go to Machu Picchu, he walked along the Inca Trail as a way to prepare for the ceremonies, rituals and celebrations that would take place. I wondered what it would mean for me to walk this pilgrimage.

Arrival at the Sun Gate.

On the fourth day of our trek, as we approached the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu, I reflected on this… what had I learned, experienced or gained from the journey? What was most present to me was simply that I had enjoyed, felt happy and been present to the journey itself, even though there was often discomfort. Aha! This is my spiritual practice and work, I realized. So though this seemed so obvious, so simplistic, I realized I had experienced what I practice -presence to the reality of each moment. Awesome! This was my pilgrimage!

Elvis and Freddy our awesome and enthusiastic guides.

When I walked through the Sun Gate, high-fiving Freddy and Elvis on my way through, tears welled up… I could see Machu Picchu in all of it’s early morning glory ahead of me, and though I was there with the other 199 tourist trekkers passing through that gate, one by one all sharing the same experience, I felt it was my moment, my own personal accomplishment, another moment to simply feel and appreciate. Machu Picchu certainly wasn’t the point, I realized that too.

Gosh, and what can I say about Machu Picchu? It’s really a remarkable place. I’m so grateful for the tour Freddy gave us. Many of the questions that had been formulating in my mind over the 11 days in Cusco before the trek were answered.

The Sun Temple of Machu Picchu looking down towards the Urubamba river.

Seeing an Inca site that had not been destroyed by the Spanish filled in the gaps of what the other sites may have looked like six hundred years ago. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine what it was like in those days when the Inca civilization was at its peak… I wish I could go back in time to have a glimpse.

I feel deeply grateful for all of the friends and family who gave Jonathan and I monetary wedding gifts so that we could do this very special and unforgettable trip. Thank you! We thought of you all often and shared our gratitude with each other. It is my wish now that every one do the Inca Trail! You can do it! We were told of an 83-old-woman who completed the trek! Awesome! I’m so glad my hip held up, thanks to Tuula’s advice, those awesome walking poles, twice daily doses of ibuprofen, topical anti-inflammatory gel and going slow and steady. I’m thankful that Jonathan was feeling better by the end of the first day of our trek.

Amazing porters walking and the cloud forest…just one of the many micro climates we passed through during the many ups and downs of the trek.

I’m thankful for the awesome work of the porters who carried everything needed for our trek. Our group of 16 trekkers needed the support of 19 porters. These men, in our particular group, aged 22-59 years old, are incredibly strong and skilled. They move at least twice as fast as the tourist trekkers, often running downhill under their 50-60 lb load wearing sandals. The porters set up our tents each afternoon so they were ready when we arrived and took them down in the morning. An interesting fact….The speed record for the 45km Inca Trail was made by a porter who accomplished it in under 4 hours!

I’m thankful for the abundant delicious and nutritious food we enjoyed! Freddy said we would gain weight on our trek because the food is so good. I think this was true for me. This was really important to me as I was nervous about not having the strength to hike for so many hours a day. I’m thankful for Freddy and Elvis, for always encouraging me to go slow and steady, even when I was the last one in our group. I never felt pressured to hurry up – a huge relief.

I don’t know why this adventure still has me tearing up and feeling moved as I write. It was a really special experience that I will cherish always.

I hope the pictures will fill in all of what words can’t express.

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Still sniffly and teary,

Darcy

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon

Greetings all!

Darcy and I entered Peru on October 13th and headed straight for the old colonial city of Arequipa, the jumping off point to the beautiful Colca Canyon.

Arequipa itself is quite beautiful. Situated at 2335m above sea level, it was built at the base the volcano, El Misti. Most of the older colonial era buildings were built using sillar, a pearly white volcanic rock, giving the city its nickname, La Ciudad Blanca.

Jonathan, Matthias (DEU), Hector (SP), and Darcy

It’s a fairly metropolitan city which afforded D and I the opportunity to treat ourselves to some relatively luxurious meals and some good coffee. We were also very pleased to run into our friends, Hector and Matthias, who we met in Sucre, Bolivia.

Darcy warming her hands in the kitchen of what used to be a nun’s cell.

One of the highlights to Arequipa was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. This is a huge complex in the middle of the city, essentially a city within a city. It was built in the late 16th century and, at its height, housed approximately 450 people, 1/3 nuns and the rest servants, in a completely cloistered community. Today, due to the significant seismic activity in the area, (there are around 80 volcanoes nearby), many of the structures, especially 2nd and 3rd floors, have been destroyed. Much of the ground floor still remains, however, and the monastery is now open to the public. We happened to visit it on a Thursday night which, to our luck, was one of the nights of the week where the fire places, stoves and lanterns were lit to create an ambiance reminiscent of centuries past….that was the bright side. The downside was you couldn’t see details very clearly nor read any of the signs. I imagine they went to bed early in those days. Luckily I had my head lamp.

The beautiful terraced hillsides of the Colca Canyon.

Our next adventure took us to the Colca Canyon where we enjoyed a 5-day trek following the delightful, though at times frightfully steep, dusty and difficult, footpaths that link some of the farming villages nestled in its depths. This was our training trek in preparation for the Inca Trail.

The Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon (4160m deep), twice as deep as the Grand Canyon though admittedly not as dramatic since the walls aren’t as steep and the canyon descends from mountain tops instead of flat plains. Nevertheless, it’s huge, impressive and very beautiful with multicolored stone mountainsides, jaw dropping terraced slopes, rivers, waterfalls and of course the colorful, kind and generous Andean people.

The ‘hot’ thermal spring with an easy hop into the river when you needed to cool down.

Our trek took us to the villages of Llahuar, with its perfectly placed and almost too hot thermal springs; Fure, with its terraced mountainsides and waterfalls, and Sangalle, the Oasis, with its refreshing pools and lush green vegetation. In between these picturesque and relaxing locations were very steep, dry, dusty trails with cactus all around. We did not want to fall and accidentally grab onto one of them! Ascending and descending was the name of the game on this trek which, though exhausting and painful at times, always led to a beautiful vista and a fulfilling sense of accomplishment.

Jenna, Lauren and Darcy.

We met Jenna and Lauren on our second day, two young and inspiring women. And along with them came Chalupa and Sprinkles, a couple of dogs from Cabanaconde who make it a habit of following gringos around the canyon…. undoubtedly with hopes of treats and loving pets, two things many dogs don’t seem to get a lot of in South America. All four of them were wonderful trekking companions.

Chalupa. There was never a sweeter nor dirtier dog.

Our last day of the walk had us climbing 1100m in two-and- half-hours from the Oasis up to Cabanaconde. We were exhilarated to reach the top!

Some unfortunate news for those of you considering this walk….The day before we finished our trek, a Spanish man who was returning to the main path after having lost it, died from a fall. Since then we’ve learned that it’s not uncommon for tourists to lose their lives here. The path is at times very steep and narrow with all sorts of tangential paths coming off of it. Also, there  very few signs to point the way (we saw two in five days) and the many available maps are either wrong in places or, at the very least, vague.

We’ve seen in several places in Peru now that tourist sites seem to be intentionally left devoid of signs of guidance or explication and pamphlets are incomplete and lack detail. We think this is probably done so that tourists are forced to hire guides. Unfortunately, the Peruvian ministry responsible for this doesn’t seem to appreciate that tourists can’t always afford a guide to every location so they end up being exposed to risks that could easily be reduced.

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As for the Colca Canyon, we didn’t feel a guide was necessary. We got several different maps for comparison sake and let our hostel know of our intentions in the canyon. We also tried to stay relatively close to each other on the path.

Once the trek was over we made our way to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and the starting point to the long anticipated Inca Trail to Machu Picchu!

Lake Titicaca – The Birthplace of the Inca

Traveling west from La Paz, we found ourselves on the shores of the massive, stunning and sacred Lake Titicaca at 3850m in the popular tourist town of Copacabana.

While here, the sky drew much of our attention as it changed rapidly from being completely clear blue to being full of heavy storm clouds and everything in between. The clouds looked so close, it felt  like we could touch them. The sunsets were out of this world. The colour of the lake is like tropical seas, turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, and as clear as clear can be.

We spent a few days in Copacabana, enjoying the local delicacy, fried trout. Here is a photo of Trutcha de Diablo (Devil Trout). It’s a whole trout fried, served with fried tomatoes, onions and hot peppers served over rice and fries. Yum! We enjoyed this meal at one of the dozens of beachside eating places.

Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

One afternoon we headed for Isla del Sol, an island on Lake Titicaca. It took about two hours to get there on a very slow boat powered by two small outboard motors making stops at each of the three villages on the island, from south to north. We got off at the last stop, at the village at the north end of the island, Challapampa, where we spent two nights.On this island there are no cars and no running water. And like most of the remote places we visited in Bolivia, there is cell phone reception. The people here, indigenous Aymara and Quechua speaking people, have maintained their traditional way of life here for a very long time. They fish and farm; masterfully built terraces for growing crops cover almost every bit of land on the island. The villages are simple and lovely. The people, from what we observed, work hard, but not too hard, and were happy. This community is committed to maintaining their way of life. To us, it seemed idyllic.

Cresting the length of the island is a 600-year-old Inca highway beautifully constructed of stone. We followed this road for a  wonderful day hike from the north to south and back again. Along the way we passed the important Inca ruins on the island. Isla del Sol is the site where, legend has it, the first Inca Manco Cápac is said to have emerged from a large sandstone outcrop known as Titikala (the Sacred Rock). Manco Cápac is sais to be the son of Inti the Andean deity of the sun. This was a fitting introduction to Incan culture and a perfect first step towards our visit to Machu Picchu. From the highest point on our walk we could see across the lake eastward to Bolivia to the most stunning range of snow-capped mountains. To the west, we could see Peru, and a small city with the sun reflecting off of the corrugated metal rooftops. The views were breathtaking.

After a six hour walk of steep up and downhills, Jonathan swam in the very cold waters of Lake Titicaca!

While we were on Isla del Sol, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to witness a wedding celebration. The son of the woman who operated the hostel we stayed at our first night got married at the cathedral in Copacabana in the morning, but the fiesta was on the basketball/soccer court on the shore of the lake in Challapampa.

All of the people of the village were invited to join the party. The celebration was all day, from mid-day to quite late at night with a two live bands and a DJ/MC and much drinking and dancing. It was wonderful to see the women and men dressed in their finest, spinning away to the music being played.

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After leaving Isla del Sol, we hung out in Copacabana for the afternoon then boarded a bus heading for Arequipa, Peru. As we crossed the Bolivian-Peruvian border, the sun was setting over sacred Lake Titicaca, giving us a gorgeous farewell to Bolivia and welcome to Peru.