Do You Want to See Pictures?

Yes, we took thousands of pictures during our 13 month trip, and we would love to share them with you.  Below is a website that we will be updating as we go through our pictures, country by country.  So far, our 2011 road trip and Iceland have been uploaded. 

http://mikeandsarahsbigtrip.shutterfly.com/

If you have any questions, let us know.  I’ll post again when the next batch of pictures are up on the website.  Hope you enjoy them:)

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FAQS

Home is sweet but catching up with all of our loved ones is even sweeter. We are getting settled back into “real” life in Southeast Portland. Mike starts school next week, and I am looking for full-time employment. It is good to be home, but we are missing the daily adventures of traveling.

We thought it would be fun to blog our top ten frequently asked questions as we are re-entering life again. So here we go…

What was your favorite country that you visited?

New Zealand was the best country because we loved everything about it! The people were super friendly, the scenery was gorgeous, there were tons of outdoor activities, and the wine was fabulous. What more could you ask for in a country? Plus, we got to drive “The Hoff” around and take our time visiting each area. It really was the perfect month of going at our own pace, plus seeing and learning about an amazing country.

Were you ever scared?

Our normal answer is yes, crossing the streets in Hanoi was taking a risk to our life! Mopeds were everywhere and did not follow the road rules. So really, no, we were never truly scared for our safety. I think the only time that was really nerve racking, and we really had no idea what we were in for, was Egypt’s airport. If you read our blog, you already know the story, but for those of you who just couldn’t read all the details here is the short version…

We arrived in Egypt in the middle of the night to switch planes and continue to Tanzania. As soon as we were off the plane, we met chaos. There were tons of people yelling at each other, plus our gate was hard to find with only a few minutes until our next flight took off. The security machine was broken, so they went from letting no one through for 40 minutes to letting everyone through without checking for weapons. Turns out we were delayed and put into a small room with 200 screaming Egyptians who had been waiting for 8 hours for their flight. We went into survival mode and grabbed some bottled water and found any empty corner. We recruited 2 big Scandinavian guys to help protect our corner and sat down for the long haul. Luckily, our flight took off after a very stressful hour of waiting. The chaos confirmed our decision not to visit Egypt on this trip.

Where was your favorite food?

That is a tough question as we ate so much yummy food while we traveled. My favorite food was Thai. It was delicious and flavorful. One of the great things in Thailand is that we could easily eat at the street markets and vendors without the worry of getting sick as everything was super clean. We also tried to go only to restaurants with Thai people because we knew it would be good stuff! It also was great to take a cooking class, and since we have been home we actually have cooked pad thai and tom yum soup!

Italy and India are not very far behind Thailand! Needless to say, we ate pretty well! Although, Mike did lose 30 lbs by the time we got back!

Were you ever homesick?

One of the hardest days of the whole trip was Thanksgiving. We were on day 15 of our hike on the Annapurna circuit and had a relatively short day of trekking. So we had a lot of time to think about our families and friends. We really missed our traditional Thanksgiving meal as we ate Daal Baht for dinner! It was also really hard as we hadn’t had any communication with the families since we left on our hike, so we didn’t really know what was going on at home.

It was especially hard as my uncle was admitted to the hospital and put into a coma right before we left on the trek. So we did not know his status until we got back to town. Sadly, he died the day we got back, and so that was another hard day of not being home with the family. He was an incredible person and I miss him!

What did you miss the most?

We missed our family, friends, and our dog, Gidget. Once a month or so, we skyped with both of our parents; it was great to catch up real time. Facebook helped as we could get the gist of what was going on with everyone too. Gidget was a little harder, but Bonnie kept us posted with pictures:)  I also missed my bathroom!

What was the weirdest thing you ate?

Unfortunately, we don’t have a great answer for this question. I would love to say we ate crickets and tarantulas, but we missed our chance in Cambodia because I wasn’t feeling very well. So, I think horse would be the strangest.  Mike tried guinea pig, and it was disgustingly awful.

How much were you sick?

Luckily, we only got food poisoning once for the whole trip. It occurred while we were in Turkey, and we were both sick for 3 days! I think that because our malaria medication was a low dosage of antibiotic that it helped us from getting sick more. We did both get the flu and really bad colds in Argentina. I also got what I think was a mild case of Dengue Fever where I wanted to curl up and die in Ho Chi Minh City!

What was your least favorite country?

India was our least favorite, mostly due to the short amount of time and the large amount of stuff that we crammed into it. Our travel schedule was very fast paced which was nice because we got to see a lot of sights, but also exhausting in addition of just the chaotic nature of visiting the country. We did really enjoy the Taj Mahal and observing the holiday festivities of Dewali. I’m not sure Mike will ever be convinced to go back, but I would be open to it if we had more time and preparation.

Would you take a trip like this again?

Yes, I would love to take an extended trip to travel again! I am not sure I would spend a whole year away from home, but I think 6 months would be a nice amount of time. We hit a little bit of a wall at 7 months. Africa, Europe, and central America are calling our namesJ

What was your favorite piece of gear that you brought with you?

Mike and I packed minimal gear for this trip with about 25 lbs each including sleeping bags and a tent. It was great to wake up and just wear whatever was clean, or well clean enough, for the day. One of the things that was the most handy was our calculator. We kept track of our daily spending and also used it for currency conversions. I also loved my pink fleece which was always the perfect layer. Nothing too exciting here.

We also wanted to put together some fun facts of our trip around the world…

* We went through 3 wine openers

* Mike had to buy 3 new pairs of sandals

* 21 countries and 6 continents (We are counting the Vatican City and USA!)

* Traveled through 16 states during our 2 road trips

* 3 is the number of large animals who hung out by Mike’s bathrooms

* 1 large bird who played chicken with us

* Watched Forest Gump 3 times in 3 different languages

* Gained more elevation than the height of Everest on our Annapurna Circuit hike

* Rhode Island was the only license plate that we did not see on both road trips!

* 98 blog posts

* 956 pictures taken in Argentina

* Yet to calculate, how many miles did we actually travel in distance!

Pictures… We will be posting links to our pictures from our trip by country. I am hoping to start in September, so please stay tunedJ Thanks again for following us around the world!

 

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USA! USA! USA!

When last we left you (well over two months ago), we had just finished basking on the beaches of Ecuador and were preparing for the 30 hour trip back to Lima.  I’d love to tell you that we had a daring and adventurous time in the infamous capital of Peru, but truthfully, the tourist areas of Lima are pretty darn safe and even sort of boring.  We enjoyed walking along a clifftop walkway between the beach and hoity-toity shopping district, and we also took one of those double-decker bus tours, mainly because it would take us to the cathedral.  The cathedral was quite grand and featured the bones of Inca conqueror Fransisco Pizarro, but mainly we were just killing time until our night flight back home.  Quite possibly the most exciting moments of our Lima visit were to be had in the final hour of our ongoing Rummy competition; fueled by generous happy hour pours of Peruvian white wine and a chicken tamale, I came out victorious after months of keeping scores with a decisive victory in our final game abroad.  🙂

The flight into Houston was really uncomfortable; we both were feeling the painful effects of countless hours sleeping with crooked backs on night buses, and we also had managed to contract a stomach thing in Lima (and no, it wasn’t the generous happy hour pours).  Anyway, we were happy to land in Houston, which had very clean bathrooms.  Customs was backed up, but we had no problems getting back into our normal country.

More trying was the act of obtaining breakfast; you may not realize it, but you are all friggin’ crazy at the airport!  Rushing here and there, talking on I-Phones while simultaneously pounding on I-Pads, while also somehow holding a cup of coffee and a small child in each hand seems to be an American specialty!  All the while, the bright lights seemed to threaten my retinal well-being, and those guys on the golf-cart train that carry super-sized people holding super-sized Wendys bags and eldery people carrying eldery suitcases seemed determined to run me down!  I had gone for coffee while Sarah got bagels, and we met up only to realize that we had both endured equally horrifying moments…we found an empty gate and sat nibbling the bagels like nervous squirrels chomping acorns before the neighbor dog gets outside!  There was a plane to Portland leaving next to us, and I nearly got on it and headed directly home!

Things settled down as we made the flight on to Washington D.C. and enjoyed a grand greeting from Sarah’s mom and dad.  It was 100 degrees that day, so they treated us to a nice little air-conditioned driving tour of DC before heading up the road for a real American burger (which the Peruvian bacteria in my stomach seemed to detest).  As we headed towards the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I realized how really nice it was to have a few hours–the entire next day, in fact–just to catch up with Doug and Fay before the craziness of the rest world caught up to us.

We spent the next week with almost all of Sarah’s entire family; they had spent many family vacations on the beaches of the Outer Banks, and I must say that they know how to do the beach vacation like no others!  Some of the highlights were celebrating Sarah’s Grandma’s birthday a few months early, playing in the waves with our neice and nephew, spending afternoon hours hanging out with everyone at our swimming pool, and watching Doug do his best Gallagher impression as he attempted to determine whether watermelons or cantaloupes could float…this could only be accomplished, of course, by tossing said melons off of the third floor balcony into the pool.

The second week of our road tour home included Christmas in July with the Mathews after we had all gone back to Indiana, visits with Sarah’s friends in the Chicago area, a tour of Sarah’s old schools and neighborhoods in the town in which she grew up, and another road trip with Sarah’s grandma up to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.  Ruth is an amazing person, and I am very lucky to have been able to get to know her better during our time up at her house the past two summers.

By the way, while I have mentioned spending time with friends…y’all kept saying that “things were about the same” and that you were just living your “boring lives,” but many of you have kids on the way, upcoming marriages, upcoming marriage proposals…what do you want, an alien abduction?  🙂  Seriously, we greatly enjoyed hearing what life has brought you over the past year, and your “boring” details were pretty exciting to two out-of-touch repatriots!

Another highlight of our trip was spending time with Sarah’s brother and sister-in-law, along with our new nephew!  Gracin is an adorable little guy who always seems to be wearing his smile, and we had a blast playing with him…Josh and Tracy even trusted us with him for a day of babysitting, and I was glad that he liked us so much that he didn’t poop all that day!  Josh and Tracy had scouted out a brewfarm in Wisconsin for a great picnic and tasting on a Sunday afternoon, and we laughed a lot during our visit.  They are fun people and great parents, and it was great to see how much they all enjoy one another.  We also got in some friend time while in Minneapolis, and life seemed to be good all-around.

Back on our own, we returned to our nomadic ways and spent a couple of days exploring South Dakota and Wyoming, with a quick stop in Iowa to summit the corn field that is the state’s highest point–Sarah noted that you couldn’t even see over the corn!  In South Dakota, we visited the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, which I would highly recommend, and the work-in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial, which I would highly recommend avoiding.  A three hour hike took us to the summit of South Dakota’s highest peak, and then we rocked on to Wyoming.

Devil’s Tower ranks its own paragraph; in addition to being a very important figure in Native American folklore and history, it also carries a very significant meaning to Sarah…plus it looks cool.  As a child on a family vacation here, Sarah vowed to become a rock climber!  She has, indeed, become a very good rock climber, and next summer will include an attempt by the Raff family to climb Devil’s Tower.

As we headed back home, I was eager to see my family; it had been 13 months since I’d seen my parents, and I couldn’t wait to get home.  At the same time, the trip wouldn’t have been complete without a stop in Bozeman, Montana, to visit my closest friend Dusty and his wife.  Sarah and I had been wondering whether they would have news for us, and a jubilant Dusty jumping up and down while pointing at Courtney’s belly and yelling, “look what I did!” answered our question.  We can’t wait to meet their daughter!

Finally, our trip led us back to Longview, Washington.  We spent three days catching up with my parents, who hadn’t seemed to age a bit over the past year…even though, we probably caused some extra worries for them, not to mention for Sarah’s parents, too.   We also dropped in on my uncle and aunt, and I gave Sarah a tour of my old stomping grounds, as well.  My parents seem to live a pretty relaxed lifestyle (they worked hard enough for long enough…would you have wanted to raise me?), and it was a perfect way to end a fun but hectic monthlong parade of welcome homes.  Thanks to everyone we saw along the way!

Our first couple of weeks back home were incredibly busy; lots of cleaning, moving, and readjusting to life.  The craziest thing, though, wasn’t how hard it was to readjust; surprisingly, it was how quickly the sense of adventure gave way to everyday life.  Thank you for your questions, it makes the trip come back to life all over again!

So, I guess this a wrap for me.  We left Portland on July 1, 2011, and stayed gone for 13 months…nearly 12 of them outside the United States.  We’ve travelled a lot of roads…six continents and 21 countries…making a ton of memories along the way.  From the Colosseum to Ephesus, from Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Taj Mahal to the Annapurna Circuit, from rock climbing in Thailand to Angkor Wat, from snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef to trekking the fjordlands in New Zealand, from the slow hilltown life of Northern Argentina or the rugged beauty of Patagonian Chile, from the Amazon jungle in Bolivia to Machu Pichu in Peru, from climbing in the Andes to relaxing on the beaches of Ecuador, it was a long and glorious hit parade, but it’s also good to be home. 

Here’s a hope and a promise, though, that not too many moons pass over us before we tackle another (though shorter) version of our many-moons adventure again; after all how many people get nearly their entire first year of marriage all to themselves.

Y’all thought you were reading an adventure blog, but it turns out that at heart, it’s a love story.  Peace.

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BBQ Party/Welcome Back: Fri., Aug. 17 @7:00

Hi All,

As you probably know, Sarah and I are back in Portland.  The readjusment hasn’t really begun yet because we have spent the last month visiting friends and family and are now working our rearends off to get moved in and catch up on a year’s worth of stuff.

Anyway, we wanted to remind/invite you all to the barbecue that our great friend Maria is hosting for us on Friday, Aug. 17 at 7:00 PM.  We are very excited to see as many of you as possible that night!  I would really like to get a giant bullet-shaped metal bucket of hops from the Lucky Lab for the occasion, but I am not quite sure how much to get.  If you would like to join us but have not already RSVP’d, please email me or check your invitations on Facebook by this Monday (I can give you her address).  You are still welcome to join us if you don’t RSVP, of course, but there might not be enough of the good stuff!

Thanks to everyone for following us this year; you all mean a great deal to us, and we often wondered how you were doing as the year went on (these conversations often replaced, “how was your day, honey,” which would only be met with an incredulous look from said honey).  We will have two more blogs–one for the road trip home, and one with some FAQ’s that we have received during the last month. 

Cheers!

PS If you were hesitant to come to our party because you were afraid my Dad would be there, he has assured me that he doesn’t want to drink with any of us young punks anyway!

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The Last Hurrah: Ecuador: June 22 – June 30

Ecuador was not in our original game plan, but we had a week left of our around-the-world tour, and spending it at the beach sounded perfect. Plus, if we made it to Ecuador, we would have 20 countries in 12 months.

It was a perfect plan, but it would take us 46 hours of traveling from Huaraz, Peru, to our final destination of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador. We took an overnight bus on June 21st from Huaraz to Trujillo, arriving at 4:30 AM. Our next bus didn’t leave until 11:45 PM. So what does one do with a 19 hour layover? We tried to sleep in the bus station then started the long day of wandering around from café to café. Luckily, the main square was beautiful and clean, so we spent several hours people watching from the bench. The security is tight in this park, and I got in trouble for laying down for a nap! Shoe shining and sales pitches are also not allowed. However, the crazy guy in an oversized suit screaming about the government and lecturing about the banks was allowed!

The surprise of the day was the friendly locals. Everybody said, “Buenos Dias,” and smiled at us, which was quite the change from the reserved mountain people. At one café, the waiter sat down with us to practice his English as there were no other customers. Thirty minutes into our conversation, he poured us his fruit moonshine that he keeps behind the counter; it was potent but delicious!

Finally, it was time to catch our bus to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. The bus ride was 19 hours but felt faster by good movies and comfortable seats as we had upgraded to first class. In Guayaquil, we transferred to the local bus to travel the final three hours to Puerto Lopez, our final destination.

According to our guide book, Puerto Lopez is a small fishing village with a few good restaurants and access to Ecuador’s only coastal national park. When we arrived on Saturday night, the town was partying exactly what I was not expecting! The town was thumping as we wandered around trying to find a place to sleep. We got the last bungalow at the last hostel in town, and we quickly fell asleep even with the loud music.

I felt like a human being again after a good night of sleep and was only slightly disappointed that it was overcast and drizzly outside. The day was spent exploring the tiny town, eating, and resting in our bungalow. Ecuador’s currency is US dollars, so it was a nice change not to have to do math in my head today. It was weird, though, because all those Sacajawea dollars that the US citizens rejected have made their way down to Ecuador! This town would be a great place to rest and get ready to head home where we would reintroduce ourselves into normal life, our families, and US culture.

On June 25th, we took a tour to Isla de la Plata, an island off the coast and part of the national park. The island is called “Silver Island” because all the bird poop looks like silver plating. When the light is shined on it, it glimmers. No lighthouse is needed on this island! The island is famous for its bird colonies of blue-footed boobies and fragates. It was mating season, so we got to see the male birds at their finest. The male blue-footed boobies do a little dance and squawk to get the female’s attention. The male fragates puff out their brilliant red chests and wait on the branches for the females.

 

A Single Male Fragate

A Paired-Off Male Fragate

On the way back from the island, we observed a pod of humpback whales. We never saw them breech, but we saw lots of spouts, backs, and a few tails here and there. The whales were within 15 feet of our boat and I felt like I could almost touch them. It was incredible and a definite wildlife highlight of the trip!

The next two days were overcast and dreary, so we just hung out at the little café and went swimming between rain showers. We did have a pleasant surprise of running into our friends Jens and Doris from our Bolivian Salt Flat tour. It was so great to catch up with them and find out how their trip has been since we last saw them.

It was time to move on to Los Tunas, a little beach 20 km south of Puerto Lopez, on June 28th. We took the little local bus and got off at the eco-lodge, recommended by our guidebook, outside of town which ended up being closed. So we walked the 2km into town to find another place to stay. We found a great little B&B right on the beach with lots of hammocks. The B&B was owned by a Peruvian woman who got her masters in marine biology at University of Washington! It was sunny here, so we spent the day at the beach reading and swimming. The water felt like bath water, but there was a very strong undertow, so the swimming was limited.

Los Tunas only has two restaurants and one is in the hull of an old wooden ship. The wood was gorgeous, and the place had a fun atmosphere plus the food was yummy! We continued our rummy tournament over a box of white wine. We only had a few days left to finish the tournament, and we were neck and neck!

The next two days, we were blessed with sunny, warm weather so we spent most of our day on the beach or in a hammock in the shade. We also worked on a little yoga on the beach and played with our hostel’s dogs. The dogs were playful and loved to be chased around the beach. They also liked to chase the sand crabs and kept us entertained just watching them!

Our time on Ecuador’s coast was relaxing and restful. I wouldn’t say that we got to really see Ecuador, but we were both okay with that as we were feeling the exhaustion of traveling for 12 months in a row. Now, it was time to make our way back to Lima and end our round-the-world trip. It is a weird contrast… part of me is ready to go home, and the other part wants to keep on going and see more of the world. I guess we will just need to take another trip in the futureJ

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Haurez, Peru: Getting High the Raff Way in the Andes–June 16-21

After Machu Picchu, we spent an extra day in Cuzco sort of fiddling around, enjoying the variety of good restaurants available there, and getting ready to move on again.  It was a little bittersweet because Machu Picchu was the final big event that we had planned for our trip, and now we had to face the reality that, well, we would soon be back to reality.  Sarah started looking at her resume, and I even shaved the small animal that had somehow taken over my face!

The problem with focusing on reality, though, was that we still had three weeks left before we flew out of Lima and landed back statesides, so we were a little premature in calling it quits…sort of like “you’re not dead yet,” only different.  Hauraz, a smallish town in Northern Peru that sits right in the middle of some of the largest peaks in the Andes, was a great place to play for a while and lose ourselves again as we tried to avoid the unavoidable.

We weren’t really sure about what we wanted to do once we got to this Andean playground, but we knew that we wouldn’t be bored; we had our choice of trekking, climbing mountains, or climbing rocks.  This, as most of you know, creates a challenge for Sarah and I in choosing because we love all three of those things.  We decided to keep the decision easy and just do all three! I had promised retirement from the big peaks until we come back in shape some day, but that lasted for about 15 minutes after we hit town and the Andes worked their charm on us.  By the time that we had been in town for an hour, we had signed up to rock climb the next day, climb a 5500 m peak, and then do a very popular day hike to a mountain lagoon before calling it good six days later.

All that planning can make a guy thirsty, so it was an amazing thing that there was a real honest-to-goodness microbrewery in the middle of rural Peru; an American/Peruvian couple had started the business last year and were actually importing their hops from Oregon.  That meant that their beer tasted a whole lot like home!  Even better, we met our friends Kate and Simon there since they were actually in Hauraz too; in fact, they had actually just climbed the same mountain that we had signed up for…their first summit…and so it was fun to hear all about it before.  We have shared several fun experiences with Kate and Simon, and it was awesome to have another nice night with them before we headed our separate ways for the remainder of our travels.

The following day, we got our rock on at a local crag just outside of town.  Since we didn’t have any gear or any idea how to get to the crag, we hired a guide for the day.  It turned out that she was a young lady from Colorado who had lived in Peru for two years, and so it was interesting to hear about her experience as a semi-local “Gringa.”  Both Sarah and I were a little rusty, me more than Sarah of course, so it was also nice just to let Ally lead for the day.  The rock was a little slippery, but the routes were pretty fun, and I was happily blasted after 5 routes; Sarah finished two more, including an impressive roof move that had spit me back out repeatedly for half and hour…it took her 30 seconds to dance through that spot!  I have some work to do when we get back, but we left Chancos that day feeling excited to hit Smith and some alpine peaks this autumn (climbers don’t say “fall”).

 That night, we got all geared up with some super cool rental gear again and looked every bit as dashing as we had after our climb in Bolivia the month before.  The main difference, luckily, was that I got a helmet without getting into a near-wrestling match with our guide this time, so I was thinking that climbing in Peru might be all right after all.  Even better, it would just be Sarah and I with our guide, so at least, we would all be competent.

Our mountain, 5686 m Villunaraju, was located in the pristine Llaca Valley, in the realm of scenic Huascaran National Park, among loads of wildflowers and the solitude of the hill and mountains around it.  We had a guide, Manuel, who seemed genuinely excited about the sport of climbing, and the magic of the isolated Andes in this area left me eager to set things right after the Andean fiasco that was climbing in Bolivia.

The ascent to high camp on the first of our two day climb was actually one of the tougher pack-in jobs we’ve had in our climbing experience; if I was hoping for  an authentic climb, I was getting it since Manuel’s backpack was too small for the group gear.  No porters this time…Sarah and Mike had to carry their own weight.  If anything, my pack weighed more than Manuel’s by the time I threw in a rope, a bag of food that included a handful of avocados, and the group’s mess kit in the top of my pack.  It was fine, though, since both Sarah and I were hoping for a larger sense of independence on this climb; we were each looking for more of a rope mate than a guide.

The trail was a series of switchbacks that climbed steeply for about 2 1/2 hours through subapline flower meadows before switching to more bouldery terrain.  The whole time we had nice views of two very glaciated huge mountains.  A large lake sat below the mountain, a boulder dam holding the water levels; this was an additon built by the Peruvian government after an avalanche flooded the entire valley down into Huaraz in 1971, killing 21,000 people.  Several other huge earthquakes have devastated the region periodically, a reminder that life here is hard despite the beautiful surroundings.

I was surprised that what seemed like a snail’s pace under our heavy loads still got us up to camp exactly halfway between the 2-3 hour average, and we also all both hit high camp feeling really good despite the laborious hike under full weight.  We even had all afternoon to nap and enjoy the views back down the valley.  It was a bit strange to know that we would be climbing a peak that we actually would not see until first light, but we made due with the surrounding Andes, as well as a fox that was extremely interested in the going-ons…and the rice…in camp.

 

Our high camp at 4800 m was set nicely into the rocks, and the three of us were nestled in cozily to our three person tent, but none of us slept much anyway.  When the alarm rang at 1:00 AM, I was ready to be up already and glad that we were quick in heading up the trail.  Any hint of sickness on my part cleared the moment I stood up, and a cup of tea combined with fresh air seemed to give Sarah the lift that she needed after some initial feelings of nausea.

Just out of camp, we might have hit our most challenging 20 minute stretch, a scramble up really steep bouldery terrain in the stiff plastic boots we had been given.  I am far from graceful in plastics, apparently, and was counting the seconds until we got onto the snow!  Soon enough, though, it was time to rope up, and make our way up the glacier, and life was once again okay!

Once on the glacier, our group moved very efficiently.  Sarah seemed to be getting stronger as we ascended, and I had the feeling that our team would not be denied.  Although there had been one other team in high camp, we were the only ones on the mountain this morning, and I held visions of a solitary experience upon a peak set magnificently high in the Andes.

With the exception of two long sections of moderately steep inclines, much of the trail seemed to be nearly a traverse (on the descent, however, we realized that we had actually been climbing at a very gradual rate the entire time); my only complaint was that my boots were too big and were slowly processing my feet into two pounds of ground round sirloin!  Other than that, it was a beautiful calm night, and a good dose of French-stepping kept the hamburger at bay!

The final 20 feet up to the saddle just below the summit was slightly high angle, and we got the pick of our axes in three of four times before hitting the saddle just as the first light of the day arose on the horizon.  Manuel, who had proven to be an excellent guide and a competent climber, belayed up that pitch on a munter on his ice-axe; I hadn’t seen this method but was duly impressed…quick and easy!

From the saddle, we climbed 10 more minutes, maybe 15, up an exposed line that mellowed to a wide, mild boot path over a false summit and then up a few meters to the bona fide top.  Standing at over 19,000 feet with Sarah at my side felt pretty damn good!  She had battled through the altitude problems, and we had joined a solid young climber in a very successful team!  We were alone on top of Villunaraju for sunrise, and all of the things lacking in our Potosi climb in Bolivia were now absolutely right on the apex on which we were standing.  The fact that it was significantly easier to climb mattered little as we stared over a good two dozen peaks–some seemingly an arm’s length away and others seemingly too steep to fathom climbing–me with my arm around my wife…one of our finest moments in South America!

We descended swiftly and without incident, happy to see a little more of our route in the light for a change!  Back in Hauraz, we celebrated with a good meal and a beer or two (Oregon hopped!) and then stared up at the sky as the sun set over our mountain…sometimes I am the luckiest man in the world!

After resting a day, we embarked on the classic day hike around Huaraz…a day hike to Laguna 69…before taking a night bus out of town on a slow trip to Ecuador (our final country of the trip).  There are two mountain areas around Huaraz…the Cordillera Blanco (white, snowcapped peaks) and the Cordillera Negro (black, rocky mountains); that day, we were headed right smack-dab into one of the most scenic portions of the former.  While the name of the lake may have enticing and even naughty implications, it was simply named for it’s distinction as the 69th lake surveyed after the last big earthquake to rock Northern Peru. 

The hike, even with a day’s rest after our climb, still took us over 4,000 meters and was surprisingly challenging.  It was also, however, equally beautiful, and we enjoyed passing through fields of high altitude purple and white lupines, with cascading waterfalls on either side of the trail.  The weather was somewhat cloudly for much of it, but we still enjoyed the occasional mountain view as the fog came in and out, sometimes breaking up tiny snow flurries!

Man, was Laguna 69 blue!  The sun wasn’t even out, and still it was one of the prettiest blue hues that I have ever seen on a lake!  It sat in a high alpine basin literally at the base of two giant mountains.  At first, we could only see the lower flanks of the peaks, epically carved glacier poking out underneath the clouds, but soon the full mountain emerged and treated us to it’s spectacular glory!

I’m not sure that we have experienced a place quite like Hauraz, maybe we’d scooted through one or two similar places without stopping, but nowhere had we taken the time to fully explore the trifecta of Mike and Sarah bliss…rock, snow, and treks…that left Hauraz right at the top of places to which I’d love to return!  After making the most of this Andean playground, however, the time had come to move on to the beaches of Ecuador…country number 20 of Mike and Sarah’s Big Trip! 

 

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Machu Picchu: The Lost City: June 12

The grand finale of our 5 day Salkantay hike was a tour of Machu Picchu. We had seen the ruins from a distance the day prior, but today was the big day that I have been looking forward to for a long time.

It was an early start in order to catch the sunrise from the ruins. Since we had put in over 60km in the last 4 days, our tour group decided to take the bus from Aguas Calientes to the entrance instead of hiking the 1.5 hours uphill. It was a good decision since the hike was on stone staircases and the main road, plus we would not have seen anything in the dark. The only bad thing was that Mike had to throw out his hot coffee that he hadn’t even taken a sip of yet to board the bus. He was a little grumpy after that but cheered up as soon as we started the ride up the hill!

The gates opened at 6 AM, and most of the tourists headed uphill to the funeral hut for the classic sunrise views of Machu Picchu and to watch the sunrise. However, our guide, the notorious Freddie, took us to the lower terraces. We still got a great view, but it wasn’t a good start to our 3 hour guided tour.

The natural setting has the sun rising perfectly over the sun gate, where the Inca road enters Machu Picchu on the summer solstice and in a niche in the green mountains for the winter solstice. Since we were only 1 week off from winter solstice, the sun rose fairly close to the niche, which was cool! The famous sun temple has two windows, and each is lined up perfectly to receive the sun beams of summer and winter solstice.

Machu Picchu is thought to have been a university for agriculture, religion, and astrology. It was rediscovered in 1911 by an American, Hiram Bingham. He did not find any gold but many pieces of pottery and other artifacts. Much of the city still remains a mystery.

I will share a few of my favorite sites as there was so much to see throughout the ruins. I was amazed at the stonework and engineering of the city on top a mountain. The natural beauty of the surrounding green mountains really added to the overall picture of the ruins. We had a beautiful sunny day, so we did not capture that misty, mysterious look of the city.

The sacred water fountains are amazing and run through the center of the ruins. They still work today, although with less water pressure as some of the water is now used for the nearby hotel. The fountains cascade onto each other and channel all the way down the mountainside. The top fountains were sacred for use by the priests and nobles only, and the common people used the lower fountains.

The Sacred Plaza is above the main city and is in a ‘U’ shape with the High Priest House, Temple of the Three Windows, and the Main Temple. The open side has views of the snow-capped mountains and green valleys. From here, we could see where we were the prior day.

In the plaza were 3 carved rocks. One was shaped like a diamond with tiny altars around it. It is thought that it is in the shape of the Southern Cross with each point in the cardinal directions. It is in the exact position of the Southern Cross in the sky at harvest time. The other two rocks are altars too, but not much is known about them.

The Temple of the Three Windows looks over Machu Picchu with 3 perfectly spaced trapezoidal windows. What amazing stonework to make them the same size and at the same exact height as well! The Incas used trapezoidal windows and doors in all their building because they added stability during earthquakes. On the plaza side of the temple was half of a carved Incan cross symbolizing the rules of their society. Our guide skipped this and said it was not significant, so we learned about it from our friend, Marcos!  That Freddie!

On the final side was the main temple. On the far side were 7 identical trapezoidal niches at the exact same height above a huge single rock that was the altar. On the sides closest to us were huge rocks that made up the walls. I kept thinking to myself, “how on earth did they move these huge boulders”?! This was also the location where we could easily see how much Machu Picchu is sinking, as they have braces up to help support the building walls.

The most famous part of Machu Picchu is Intiwatana (Hitching Post of the Sun). This rock sits on one of the highest sections of the ruins. The rock was carved with a pillar on top, which is a dial to tell the seasons. The pillar’s shadows hit a small circular carvings on nearby rocks for the solstices. The base of the rock is rectangular with one corner pointing to magnetic north. It is amazing to see what the Incan’s knew and built in their time!

The Temple of the Condor was used for sacrifices of llamas. On the ground, the beak and head of the condor was carved into a large stone. This is where the llama was killed, and the blood pooled in the niche of the condor’s beak. Above this carving were natural boulders, too, that formed the condor’s wings.

Our less than desirable guided tour by Freddie left out the Sun Temple and Royal Tombs which are two main highlights! Luckily, we had some spare time to explore them on our own and listen in to other tour guides to find out their significance! The Sun Temple was spectacular as is it in a rounded shape so the stonework is really amazing!

Underneath the Sun Temple are the Royal Tombs, even though no bodies were ever found here. There were several niches in the walls for the mummies. The rock was carved on each side to form holes to create a sort of seat belt to keep the mummies in their place. There was also an Incan cross and some more great examples of their stonework!

Huayna Picchu means “new mountain” and provides the famous backdrop of the ruins. The hike to the top is a steep staircase, and my tired legs protested, but we eventually were richly rewarded with amazing views of the ruins. The city was built in the shape of a condor. This symbolized the spirit and conveyance to the after life. It took us all awhile to see the image as it was upside down from our viewpoint. There were also great views of the surrounding valley and mountains. I can sure see why the Incas chose this location for their sacred university!

Our final site of the day was the funeral rock and the postcard view of Machu Picchu. The funeral rock is a huge boulder carved and used for offerings. We took lots of photos and soaked up the energy and mystery of this spectacular city from this great vantage point. I really could have spent a couple more hours to wander around and explore all of the small details.

The day ended with a train and bus ride to Cusco to say goodbye to our new friends. It had been an amazing adventure and Machu Picchu exceeded our high expectations. It truly was spectacular and a major highlight in our year of touring!

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Salkantay Trek: The (Incan) Road to Machu Picchu–June 8-11, 2012

With less than a month remaining in our “many moons,” the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu was really our final big event before flying home to rejoin the daily grind of reality. Machu Picchu is one of those places that you can learn about and imagine in great detail while still having no real idea what to expect when you actually lay eyes on it in person. Needless to say, both Sarah and beheld the five day adventure ahead of us with eager excitement.

Our first morning got off to a rough start, though, when we descended the stairs of our hostel at 5:15 sharp to await our bus to the trailhead. We had made all the necessary preparations the night before, considering we had to be up before the crack of the ass, and woke up ready to rock and roll. The only problem was that the bus didn’t show up; we waited an hour, but still no one came. I waited outside for a few minutes every now and then but saw no one except for a few drunken teenage girls staggering home from their Corpus Christi celebration of the previous night. The poor kid who managed the hotel at night tried to call their office, but of course, the bus leaves before the office opens…allegedly. Finally, I decided to walk down to the hotel beside the office; the SAS tour company owned the hotel, and I figured they could get a hold of someone to help me…if not, at least I would have someone to yell at besides drunken teenage girls staggering home.

I had just stomped through the remains of Cuzco’s wild party…I daresay their port-a-potties could use mending…when I met up with a panicked looking dude in an SAS jacket. Apparently he had been running around everywhere in search of our small hostel. Granted the place, set back in a group of apartments on a road currently closed for construction, was a little hard to find. They had the address, though, and even though the hotel sign was halfway between our door and the next, there were only two doors, and ours had a clearly labeled doorbell for the “Chakana House” (a lovely, cheap bed and breakfast, by the way). Anyway, we were soon piling onto the bus, slightly afraid that 13 other trekkers might want blood after an hour of waiting while the workers apparently ran back and forth in front of our door…although, I found it strange that they looked nothing like drunken teenage girls, but I still hadn’t seen them.

At first, neither of us had been thrilled with the prospect of trekking in a group of 17 tourists and the accompanying entourage of guides, cooks, and horsemen porters…a large group even by Josh Lockerby (our good Mazama friend) standards! J Lots of things can go wrong with so many people, and 17 personalities seemed like a pretty tight fit, but we were soon to find that we had lucked out and were about to make some great new friends. We started to meet people over breakfast halfway through the trip to the trailhead, and were soon (literally) all in the same boat…er truck…that they piled us all into for over an hour of extremely bumpy, curvy roads. It was here that I realized that I had my arm around a nice English chap who looked very similar to our good friend Jonas, if Jonas didn’t spend hours in the weight room! After a few minutes of deliberation about how creepy I would come off if I immediately asked the stranger I was hugging to have a picture with me, Chris and I were officially new friends.

The first two days of our 60 kilometer trek would be the toughest as we would hike to a mountain pass at 4600 meters, where we would hopefully be staring up at stunning views of 6270 m Salkantay. Although, it was currently the dry season here, it had rained in Cuzco the previous two days, and quite a bit of fresh snow had fallen in the hills; our prospects of sleeping at 4000 m weren’t so good then, and we were most likely in for a much shorter first day. Basically, the first section of trail climbed gently uphill on a dirt road with sporadic farms, green hills, and the lovely river valley running below us. As we hiked, we did our best to meet everyone; we had a wide variety of people in our group–Colorado, Michigan, New York, Calgary, Russia, Singapore, England, Holland, and Hungary, as well as our Peruvian crew–and all had interesting stories once I began to get nosy.

After a rainy half hour into our lunch spot, we got our first taste of one of my favorite parts of the trek…the gourmet food! If our first lunch was any indication of the meals to come, we really did have “to feel so lucky, chicos,” as our guide Freddy reminded us every two seconds…although he, having drank too much the night before and then forgotten half his personal gear in Cuzco, wasn’t feeling so lucky himself, and I began wondering about the competence of our chubby trekking guide. Anyway, the menu consisted of cream of spinach soup, cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh avocados (as one hiker noted, the bacon of all fruits), rice, and curried chicken. Everything was spectacular!

We finally got some sun after lunch, and the mountains came out partially as well. So far, the scenery had been impressive, even with the spotty weather and low clouds. When the mountains are around 6000 m tall, partial views are still pretty good. As expected, we slept quite low because of the snow, but at least we would be a little warmer. Thankfully, the clouds lifted just before sunset, and we got our first truly decent views of the mountains surrounding the high elevation cow field we were currently occupying…head lamps mandatory when dodging the land mines on the way to el bano natural…before we popped into the dining tent for popcorn and tea. After a delicious dinner, we shared a couple of rounds of hot totties spiked with the rum our group had gone in on together, and so we went to bed warm after our first day’s hike.

Day 2

Each day began with Milton, our camp coordinator, calling from outside the tent, Hola! Hola! Wakeup Tea! He would then leave two cups of tea for us, joking that it contained rum or whiskey, and two bowls of hot water that we could use to wash our faces. I plan on petitioning the Mazamas to begin this service when I return, but only on climbs in which I do not assist. On this particular morning, though, the cold air had awakened me long before Milton came around, and I was quite happy to get going after slugging down a couple of pancakes and a bowl of delicious quinoa porridge.

Already the most difficult day of the trek, we had piled on a couple of extra hours by sleeping low, so we had to get moving early on day two. I was glad that our group was fit, though, and we made it to the pass with minimal altitude problems among our ranks; Sarah and I must fully be acclimated because neither of us felt any worse for wear as we climbed to the pass, although we did get a little winded during the snowball fight we had at the spot where we should have camped the previous night. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any good views of Salkantay because the weather was pretty cloudy, but we would have another chance in a couple of days when we would be looking from the other side.

Just below the pass, it began to snow, which turned to rain not far below. A soggy couple of hours brought us into our lunch spot, where we also managed to wait out the rain. After lunch (ceviche, and many other tasty treats!), we still had a long hike as we began to descend through a more jungle-like area on our way down to 2800 m Collpa Pampa…a flat spot halfway between the mountains and true jungle. Probably the neatest feature of this stretch was the spider bamboo plant, which grows 2 cm per day in this area (up to 6 cm daily in bonafide rainforest) and truly looks like a family of spiders sliding down a long reed pole. During the walk, we hiked mostly with our friends Kricket, Scott, and Conner (sorry about my Americanized spelling of your name, bud)–all three were extremely nice and had great senses of humor (translation…they laughed at my jokes!), and we really enjoyed spending time with them on the trails!

It was after dark by the time we all reached camp, and it had been a great day. I was disappointed with our guide, though, because he left several inexperienced hikers by themselves; it would be difficult to get lost on the trail, but some of them had been dealing with minor problems on the way down. Moreover, our fearless leader immediately got someone to buy him a beer and hadn’t even taken a head count in camp; he didn’t even know who was still missing! Everyone got in okay, but I have a pretty good idea where that bottle of beer would have ended up if it was the first thing I saw after being left out in the dark in the jungle!

Day 3

Our fearless leader, whom I had privately dubbed Freddie the Flatulent, for all the hot foul air that came out of his mouth, had promised that our third day would be full of fun activities (in addition to another nice trek), and for once, he wasn’t full of it. By the end of the day, we had done all kinds of fun stuff, had a beer or three, and crawled into our tent with that wholly satisfied exhaustion that is so rare and euphoric–the perfect blend of exertion and leisure.

The day’s hike was really easy, a downhill walk through the jungle that descended only 500 meters to La Playa, a riverside village along the Urubamba at 2300 m, which was like sea level compared to where we’d been the past few weeks. By this time, our group had really bonded, and hiking together was loads of fun. We had all packed our swimsuits because there was supposed to be a waterfall that we could swim under; my plan was to be among the first into the falls, which would require only one mad dash and a lunge back out as opposed to those who went later, thus requiring a longer stay as the bar was raised higher…no one remembers the dude who goes first! In the end, the waterfall was not really a place you could swim under, and none of us did anything but appreciate it’s beauty while the suits remained packed.

The scenery in the high jungle, or Ceja de Seha, continued to be marvelous as we descended. In addition to the spider bamboo, we saw all kinds of flowers–purple lupine, big yellow conical flowers that grew out of large shrubs, red teardrop buds, wild strawberry blossoms, and a very pretty pink blossom with purple leaves (bromalia, I think we call it at home) all brightened up the hillsides below us. We also passed through banana and passion fruit plantations, stopping to purchase the latter for a juicy cool treat in the heat of the late morning sun. Also interesting was the sensitive fern, which shrinks from the human touch; apparently, Sarah had a collection of plants in college that she named after her male friends according to the characteristics they shared…the sensitive fern was among them. I probably would have been a skunk weed.

Our adventure for the day was a rickety “gondola” ride in a steel framed box with a wood plank seat across the valley several hundred feet above the river. I think that Freddie the Flatulent tried to sneak across without paying the local guy who was in charge of the car because the man came running down after us and a short but heated argument ensued before we were allowed to cross. I also had one of my more embarrassing moments of the trip here; I had stepped away from the group to take a pee and was happily in midstream when the guy’s daughter came running down the trail. In my haste to tuck it in, I dribbled a good deal of pee down the front of my shorts. Luckily, I was really well hydrated, so I wasn’t the stinky kid for the rest of the day, but I did have to spend a few extra minutes developing a sudden fascination with ferns before it was safe to rejoin the group.

The cable car was quite fun; it just ran on a rope and pulley system that two people would set into motion by pushing the car off of the edge. Momentum would carry the passengers most of the way, and then Eddie the Assistant and Joshuwa, a big strong guy from Calgary, would reel the car in the rest of the way by pulling the ropes…the key was for the front person in the cart to take out the slack by grabbing the ring holding the nearest length of rope to them. Sarah and I rode across with a girl named Maria, a Russian native who currently lived in London; we did our best to scream bloody murder the whole way, although it was neither super fast nor scary, in order to make it extra fun. All the way, we could look down, way down, into the river far below. By this time, Eddie and Joshuwa had been pulling people across for nearly half an hour, so I volunteered to take a turn doing the hard work. Because the car basically came to a full stop before you took the passengers’ weight, hauling the rope in still demanded a lot of tugging. The first group I pulled in made it pretty interesting when the first guy dropped the rope…all of a sudden all tension was gone, and I slowly realized that the edge of the cliff was getting closer and closer! Luckily, reality set in and I dug in at about the same time both Eddie and Joshuwa lunged for me (thanks, guys!), and it was business as usual, except I had a little less skin left on my fingers!

La Playa was an hour and a half down the road, and again I was disappointed to see the guides leave the slower folks behind…this time because Peru had a football game that afternoon, and the campground had a television. The rest of our crew, however, did an amazing job, and it was sheer luxury to come into camp stick our bags inside our tent, and accept a cup of coca tea while our cook and his assistants prepared another scrumptious meal. For all Freddie the Flatulent’s ineptitude, his crew was fantastic! After lunch, we had most of the afternoon to relax, and I had a great time kicking a soccer ball around with the campground owner’s young children.

One of the big things for the day was supposed to be a friendly soccer match, so we all walked over to the local pitch to choose teams. Freddie the Flatulent insisted on betting for beers, which was interesting considering he just helped himself to people’s beers anyway (Chicos, salud!), although he did have the good sense to stay away from mine. That upped the ante, plus we had several competitive personalities and some soccer players too, and the game quickly became more serious than it should have been. The pitch was both our best asset and worst liability; it was the worst pitch I’ve ever seen. Aside from the odd brick or dung pile you might encounter, much of it looked as though the soldiers might be adding barbed wire to the trenches any day now, and any control of the ball was a joke. I quickly tied my boot laces all the way around my bad ankle and resolved to maintain half speed the whole game…most of the time, I remembered.

Julio, the cook, was easily the best player on the pitch, but Milton, Eddie, and Kricket were all good players, too. Freddie the Flatulent’s best talents were cheating and changing the rules, not to mention dirty fouls. After a particularly dirty hit on one of my teammates, my old instincts came back…Freddie simply needed to eat turf the next time I was near both him and the ball. Mission accomplished, he retaliated with a really nasty slide tackle from behind, and so I had to nail him once again. He finally backed off, and I settled down again and remembered that the game was supposed to be fun. Sometimes when you don’t have those competitive moments often as you get older, you let them get the best of you, and I noticed that my wife had a lot better attitude and also seemed to be having more fun. While I was busy puffing out my chest, she was scoring a hat trick (although we might have to have a talk about the offsides rule!) and her giggles and waving arms whenever the ball came near helped some of us remember that it’s just fun and games. Maybe I should have her next to me in the coaching box back home! I found the goal shortly after for a game winner (we played 2 out 3) and then remembered that I am 34, out of shape, and have a mushy ankle; from then on, it was defense only…after all, my wife was killing my team by scoring all those goals!

By the time, the sun went down and we called the game, everyone was all smiles; even Freddie the Flatulent and I high-fived, although neither one of us would be sending postcards after the week was over…but I had already known that by the end of day one. This was our last night of camping, and Julio had outdone himself now that he had more than a propane tank and a two-burner camp stove to work with; it was Italian night: pasta parmesan, veggie pizza, stuffed chili peppers, and stuffed chicken, too! To top it off, he had baked and iced a beautifully decorated, moist tasting cake…Julio truly was a genuine chef (and a damn good soccer player to boot)! After dinner, we had a bonfire and a couple of beers, happily exhausted from a fun-filled day!

 Day 4

Our final day of trekking was more difficult than we had expected, partly because of the extreme heat and also because both of us had burned up a bunch of fast-twitch muscle that had sat idle for months and now was screaming in painful protest! The three hours it took to climb the hill out of the jungle were hot and painful, but we did get some nice views of the valley and surrounding hills. Of course, as with every hill we climbed in a third world country, we would know the summit was close when he came upon a stone staircase with ridiculously high steps in the middle of nowhere. These steps, known as “The Gringo Killers,” left me wondering how the Incas, who were fairly short people even for the time period in which they reigned, ever went anywhere.

After a well deserved rest (and a pledge to act my age…a promise I seem to make often but seldom manage to remember), we walked downhill and encountered the highlight of the day: the Incan ruins of Llaqtapa. Because Sarah already described ruins in the Sacred Valley and will soon post about Machu Picchu, as well, I won’t say anything about the ruins, except to mention that this had once been a village on the Salkantay trade route that we had been following the past few days. The views on the other hand, including Salkantay and all of the surrounding mountains, not to mention our first glimpse of Machu Picchu, tucked in among countless towering green cliffs across the valley, were nothing short of phenomenal…well worth the strenuous climb up that morning’s hill.

We finished the trek about 90 minutes later after zigzagging steeply down the hill and across the river to a hydroelectric plant where we met the railroad tracks. After one last welcome tea from Milton and one final culinary dream from Julio, we said goodbye to that portion of our crew and piled onto the train for the short ride to tourist hub Aguas Caliente. Here, we got a bed and a hot shower; most of the group went to check out the hot springs outside of town, but they are sulfurous and so might make throat close, so Sarah and I put our sore legs up and rested awhile…the verdict upon the group’s return…those springs look and smell like pee. We hit town for a “Gringo Killer Happy Hour” with our friends, and then hit the sack right after dinner. Our 60 kilometer trek had been awesome…great scenery, a few adventures, and new fun friends…but the lost city of Machu Picchu sat awaiting us just up the hill.

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You Can’t Ruin the Incas: June 6 – 7

The last “big ticket” item of our year long adventure began with our visit to the Incan ruins around Cusco and would finish with a hike to Machu Picchu. I was super excited to learn more about the Incas and see some of their famous stonework in person.

We arrived in Cusco early on June 6 after an overnight bus from Arequipa without a hotel reservation. So the first order of business was to secure a room in the most touristy city in Peru during peak season. The first 3 Lonely Planet’s picks were full, and we were getting more frustrated by the minute for not making reservations. Outside the third place, a woman approached us with a business card for her hostal. Normally, we say no right away but in this situation we decided to check it out. The room ended up being perfect with tons of windows, wood ceiling beams, and a cheap price to boot! So, sometimes it is good that we don’t make reservations!

After cleaning up and eating, we headed to our tour agency to sign up for a tour of the Sacred Valley the next day and pay the remainder of our Machu Picchu trek. With our business out of the way, we had the rest of the day to explore Cusco and relax.

Cusco was the Inca capital before the Spanish conquest, but all that remains in town are a few stone walls. Most of the temples and buildings were disassembled and the stones used to build churches and houses for the Spanish. The main square is beautiful with colorful flowers and trees in the center and 2 churches towering over it. Tons of locals and tourists were milling about and enjoying the sunshine. We had read that Cusco has festivals often, so we thought maybe something was going on.

A few minutes later, we heard music, and around the corner came a parade. There were 20 boys carrying a huge, wooden statue of a saint and a small band playing. They proceeded to carry the saint into one of the churches. Not knowing the significance, we asked another bystander and found out that they were preparing for the Corpus Christi celebration for the next day. Little did we know that we were in town for a huge fiesta!

Corpus Christi in Peru is celebrated as a combination of Inca and Catholic traditions. The Incas used to parade around with mummies of the noble families to honor the dead once a year. So when the Spanish came, they modified the celebration to carry the town saints around the square. Following the parade is a big party where cuy (guinea pig) is eaten in celebration and to bring good health. Good timing on our part to be able to observe this major holiday!

On June 7th, we toured the Inca’s Sacred Valley with a group of 10 and our tour guide, Isaac. On our drive to the first site, Isaac told us the history of the Incan empire. I had forgotten that they didn’t have a long reign with only 100 years at the very peak of the empire. The Spanish killed all of the noble families and priests, so much of the knowledge perished, and only parts of their culture lived on through the lower classes. So, most of what we know now about the ruins is an educated guess.

Our first stop was a small craft fair, and our guide said that most of the crafts were made in the village so we would get a good price. So we went shopping, but everything turned out to be the same old stuff that we have been seeing since Bolivia!

The tour did get better, though, with our next stop at the Pisac ruins. This area of the valley was once a huge farming area with most of the produce getting shipped to Cusco to feed the capital. The ruins were high up on the mountainside with many terraces. On the lower terraces, corn would be grown, then quinoa and potatoes and finally, on the highest terraces, tubers. All was based on the optimal growing temperature for the crops. Smart Incas!

Isaac explained how the Incas learned to graft potatoes and corn to end up creating 500 different types of corn and 4,000 types of potatoes! The Incas also figured out how to freeze dry potatoes to last 1,000 years. I am not sure where the 1,000 years came from since the Incas didn‘t rule that long ago, but I would believe 600, which is still impressive! They used these potatoes in times of draught, earthquakes, and also to feed their soldiers.

The common houses in the complex were built with regular stones held together with mortar made of clay, llama hair, and water. Temples and noble houses were made with stones perfectly carved to fit without the need for mortar. All of the rocks were a perfect fit, and it was really amazing to look at all the different angles. The Inca’s must have been patient people! The exteriors of the temples were plated in gold. It was hard to imagine what it would have looked like back in the day!

Our next stop was Ollantaytambo which was the only battle in which the Incas defeated the Spanish, claiming victory by flooding the valley floor beneath the city to slow the horses down. Ollantaytambo is also famous as the best example of an Incan city design. The city is shaped like a llama, which is a sacred animal in their culture. The ruins also have great terraces leading up to the temples at the top of the city.

The unfinished sun temple was amazing. On one side were the completed “choir” stalls, which were niches built into the walls to hold important ceremony objects. Each niche was the exact same size and at the exact same level. The one completed wall of the temple was huge. Each stone was 10’ tall and 4’ wide. I kept trying to imagine how they moved these huge stones from 4km away and across a river! The center stone had the start of the Inca cross carved into it. Each line of the cross symbolizes one of the Incan commandments to live by.

Across from the ruins on another mountainside were the warehouses and a huge pre-Inca carving of a god with a crown on his head carrying a bag.

At the base of the ruins was the water temple using a water system which was built to bring fresh water from the base of the snowcap to the city. The Incas built stone pipes to carry the water, so it was untouched for 8km from the snow melt to the city. The water still runs through the sacred fountains today.

The last stop of the tour was the tiny village of Chincheros to look at the colonial church. When we arrived, the town was busy with all the villagers partying for Corpus Christi. Outside the church in town square, it was a major rave! Ten different bands were playing, with some people dressed up as Incas and others with Spanish costumes and dancing traditional dances. Also, there was food everywhere and tubs of corn beer with people just dipping their empty cups into the tub. It was one of the happiest parties I have ever seen, and it was really neat to see both cultures celebrating together.

Back in Cusco, the parties were going at full steam, but we had to skip out early to prepare for our 5 day trek to Machu Picchu. Our day in the Sacred Valley was beautiful, and we learned so much. The Incas were talented and patient people, and we were now really excited to see the “Lost City.”

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Colca Canyon: Cold Hot Springs, Warm Beds, and Mike Fights a Crazy Lady!–June 2-5

Having enjoyed Puno much more than we had expected, we said goodbye to Lake Titicaca on Saturday morning and began the long journey to the tiny village of Cabanaconde, at the head of Peru’s large Colca Canyon. We were hoping to get off the Gringo Trail for a few days of peace and, hopefully, some more amazing desert scenery. Only 12 hours of bus rides, with a 3 hour wait in between, stood between us and the next segment of our Peruvian adventure.

The local bus in Peru is a lot like the buses that we described in India or Nepal, and we considered ourselves wily veterans of elbow to elbow, elbow to butt, butt on our shoulder journeys. That being the case, there is no longer novelty in these experiences, and so we opted for what we thought was the tourist bus. While it was a far cry more comfortable than the local bus, it was sort of a middle class Peruvian citizen bus, and so subject to the most annoying of travel customs that we had encountered in a long time: the travel bus salesman! For hour long stretches on two occasions of the six hour trip to travel hub Arequippa (that’s 1/3 of the trip for you mathemagicians), Sarah and I were tortured by extremely voluminous idiots strutting up and down the aisles while extolling the virtues of amazing diet supplements (according to the guy’s visual aids, they would keep the Incredible Hulk from sweating on the toilet while also providing a lovely burst of vitamin C) or the wonders of purchasing reader’s guides to just about anything useless in Peru. The Peruvians, apparently immune to this atrocity, simply slept through the tirades; I, on the other hand, yelled at the first guy and gave the 2nd guy my best “I am going to kill you slowly“ glare. There is a reason that they are simply bus salesmen, however, and they don’t attempt to understand their customers’ needs or interest levels–that and they know that the white dude ain‘t good for the soles (Peruvian money); thus, the annoyance continued despite my Gringo protests. Needless to say, both Sarah and I were extremely relieved to arrive in Arequippa and stumble out into the bus station with burning ears and pounding headaches. On the plus side, the view from the bus station was nothing short of marvelous, and we were happy to be free.

Our second bus was nearly uninhabited–Saturday night is a great night for a quiet bus ride–and, thankfully, salesman free. The area between Arequippa and Cabanaconde is supposed to be beautiful mountainous desert leading into the Colca Canyon itself, but we would have to wait for the return trip to enjoy the scenery during the day. The best part of the ride was when a young man who wanted to practice his English (for once, he actually really only wanted to practice) boarded the bus and began talking with us about life in the area; he liked Alan Jackson and played a song on his cell phone for us, and I gave him a book with four stories in English to help him learn more of our language. Late that night, we got into Cabanaconde and followed the hostel manager who met the bus to the main hostel in town. We had wondered how easy it would be to visit the canyon without joining a tour–we had heard varying descriptions of how to go about seeing the area–but five minutes talking to the manager left us with a good solid plan, and we looked forward to setting out early the next day.

Cabanconde, which sits at 3287 m, is only a few minutes walk from the top of the Colca Canyon. Allegedly, you are supposed to buy a tourist ticket just to ride the bus through the towns that sit at the top of the canyon, but in reality there is almost no place to buy them. We checked around the square, but anything that looked like an office was closed on Sunday morning. Rather than waste our time trying to spend money on something that apparently wasn’t as important as all the posters on the buses and around town claimed, we instead headed out for the canyon at the edge of town. It was sort of like a scavenger hunt, where we walked out to the bullfighting ring (no joke) before circling around it and heading to the old soccer field, then descending an old stone staircase and passing a set of cows at the rim of the canyon. Just above the rim was a lovely viewpoint, and Sarah and I also saw a condor flying at close range near that spot; it was much closer than we had ever seen one, and their wingspan really is amazing!

We spent the morning making our way down to the bottom of the canyon. After a brief gentle section near the top, the trail switch-backed steeply and aggressively down about 1,000 meters to the river below us. It went from warm to sizzling in about two minutes flat, and the trail was very dusty, but the views of the river itself were quite pleasant. We took it fairly slow in order to save our knees and my ankle for the next two days, and the plus side was that neither of us rode the trail with our butts, even in the most eroded sections of switchback. Once at the bottom, we had to walk along the road that they are building (ding ding ding ding: we know why they are charging a fee now–they need money to ruin the area!), but the red layers of canyon wall were impressive enough to distract us from the heat and the dust of the rocky dirt road. While nowhere near as colorful or colossal as the Grand Canyon, we were still in a pretty magnificent place, and the area we were heading for was right on the river and decidedly green and verdant.

We left the road and followed a trail that appeared to go nowhere from the road but actually led to a tiny rural hostel that rented stone cabanas built into the natural landscape of the hill. Strangely enough, the hostel advertised orthapedic beds…even stranger, they actually had them, and we enjoyed a lovely nap on some of the best mattresses we’d slept on in ages underneath the dirt and stone walls with a reed exterior of our $10 cabana. The nice lady who ran the place only made lunch at a certain time before sharing the rest with her husband; we were too late for this, and so spent the exact same amount on crackers and cookies that may or may not have been delivered in the past decade, but she promised a good dinner that night at only a fraction of the cost. Supposedly, they had hot springs, but all we found were a couple of nice tile pools with ice cold river water; it was nice to soak our feet for a few minutes, but the ice baths ended there. We were curious about whether the springs just change naturally with currents or whether the road construction and other development had made the hot water run cold.

The view from outside our cabana was tremendous–rushing river below us, green forest above the water, and red cliffs towering over our heads–and we sat outside enjoying the crimson glow of the fading afternoon sun before heading into the dining area for a cup of coca tea, harboring hopes that if we looked pathetic enough, the lady would serve dinner early. There were two other people camping in the hostel’s back yard; the two young men turned out to be students from, of all places, Flagstaff, Arizona! I thought it was funny that they were down there, considering that they lived only an hour or so from the most famous canyon in the world, but they explained that they were trying to spend three weeks in Peru within a budget of around $600, and life in the Colca Canyon is cheap. They had managed to see Machu Picchu and some of the other highlights around expensive Cusco and now planned to explore about every inch of the canyon from the sounds of it. While I had to smile at the irony of their surroundings, they will always remember this adventure on a shoestring fondly, and I wish that I had possessed either the guts or the ambition to undertake something similar when I had been their age. After saying goodbye to the guys, we wolfed down our long anticipated vegetable omelet and rice before admiring the stars outside our room and then hopping into orthapedic heaven for a good night’s sleep.

Our destination for the next day, a place known as The Oasis, required a climb back out of the lion’s share of the canyon before descending almost all the way back down. Learning from the blazing heat of the previous day, we got a really early start and managed to complete almost the entire climb before the sun really hit us fully. Most of this section was on the road anyway, with views identical to our previous hike and the dust identical as well. One highlight was seeing steam coming off of a geyser beside the river, and the views from the top of the canyon down the river valley were excellent, as well. We could also see why our legs were pretty wrecked that day…the switchbacks we had descended across the canyon were brutal!

We had to dodge a bulldozer that was making more road, a detour that introduced my calves to the hospitality of more than one cactus as I focused more on trying to alert the driver of our presence. Back on trail, as opposed to road, we moved into a much greener portion of the canyon, with occasional glimpses of a white-capped peak far above us. We were surprised to see what looked like a large resort below us, the shimmering hot spring pools looming large down in the canyon. In reality, it was only a tiny village, but the pools tended to catch your eye in the hot dry temperatures of the late morning sun. Sarah found a game trail that we followed through somewhat thick underbrush, and we soon found ourselves next to a fenced-in cactus farm. The main trail connected here, and soon we were down at the bottom of the canyon again in The Oasis, a popular daytrip from Cabanaconde.

We got a cabana similar to the one from the night before, although the mattresses were quite subpar in comparison, at a place with a lovely flower garden and a wonderful looking “hot spring” pool that was every bit as cold as the ones we’d visited the day before! It didn’t matter, though, because it was hot enough just to enjoy a regular swim, and the afternoon by the pool was a very relaxing treat! The woman who ran the place was very hard to understand, and she was very displeased that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, refusing to slow down for me and repeatedly asking with a grimace, “no, habla Spanish?” We had the same conversation that I have successfully transacted countless times over the past four months, but I couldn’t help it that she wouldn’t move her friggin’ lips when she muttered, and I was doing the best I could. We managed to establish that she would rent us a room and feed us mashed potatoes and rice for lunch, and I was under the impression that I had ordered dinner for that evening too. This was partly due to the fact that she used the word for dinner, and I used the word for yes. Later, I asked what time it would be, and she smiled and told me 6:00…I understood this because it is not only one word but also one syllable and can be uttered successfully without moving one’s lips or speaking too quickly for someone who has admitted the crime of not speaking Spanish (to all of you Americans who can’t understand why people don’t “just learn the language in our country,” it takes up to six years to be fluent while simultaneously learning to read the new culture around you…patience is in order on our part!), and both Sarah and I held high hopes of another omelette that evening. To skip a longer story, she had given our dinner away to some people who came in right before dark and then tried to blame me for not speaking better Spanish; a fairly unpleasant encounter ensued, made worse by some intervening people who were trying to help us out. I was able to use my inferior Spanish to calm her down, and soon she resentfully threw a plate of watery spaghetti in front of us. We ate quickly and retired to our cabana before any more harm could be done. Not the best night for the Raffs, although we sure enjoyed her beautiful swimming pool! Me gusto…you old bat!

We needed to be back in Cabanaconde by 9 AM the next day, and the climb out of the canyon takes a good three hours minimum, so we had to get going well before dawn. I wasn’t about to try to negotiate breakfast with the crazy old hostel lady, so we would need to get up to town early enough to grab a bite and buy bus tickets back to Arequippa. We had to catch the night bus to Cusco that evening, and we wanted to get to Arequippa’s bus station well in advance, since complications are common and resolutions are slow in Peru. Anyway, we rocked the hike out of the canyon, buoyed by cool temperatures and growling stomachs; near the top, the sun rose across the canyon, and we watched a hummingbird suckle a cactus in the pink rays of early light. Not a bad end to our adventure in Colca Canyon; we had enjoyed a few days of near solitude, and now had a trek to Machu Picchu…the final “big ticket” adventure of our trip…in our sights. Back in Cabanaconde, we got some breakfast and boarded…of all things…the dreaded local bus. I sat there waiting for it to leave town, trying to figure out what would be worse: the 50 elbows jabbing me all over my body or another conversation with that dingy old bat!

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