A Travellerspoint blog

Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca

White Gold??

overcast 27 °F
View 2007 on natewhd's travel map.

Although my first week in Peru wasn’t exactly magical, the following week would more than make up for it. We left the quiet city of Trujillo at all of 25 meters above sea level and arrived in Huaraz at 3350 meters above sea level (10, 800 ft). We started off the day with a wonderful breakfast up on the rooftop of our hotel, overlooking all of the Cordillera Blanca or the white mountains. I know, not exactly creative, but the mountains more than make up for the lack of creativity in the people who gave them their name.

The biggest decision to make was whether to take the 8 day hike in the Cordillera Huayash or the 4 day hike through the Cordillera Blanca. Being as our schedule was a little tight and our lungs barely acclimated to the high mountain air, we elected for the 4 day trip called the Santa Cruz trail. These four days would turn out to be some of the most magical days of the entire trip.

It is well know that the Incans worshipped the highest peaks in the Andes as gods. The made sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans, which were presented as gifts to the mountains. To this day many people blow on coca leaves before eating them, as a sort of offer to the mystical mountains of the Andes. All of this may seem quite foolish, but as is often the case, you have walk a mile in a mans moccasins, to really understand his point of view.

We started the trek at approximately 3,500 (11,375 feet) meters above sea level and hiked a steady four hours to our first camp site at 3,800 meters. On this hike you are immediately impacted by your surroundings as the skyline is full of sharp snow capped peaks gently exposed by the passing clouds. The first night was brightly illuminated by a 3/4 moon reflected off of the crisp white snow all around us. The reality of sleeping through this cold night was a different story, but something you just have to get used to. Our guide woke us up bight and early for a cup' of mate de coca, or coca leaf tea that is commonly believed to energize hikers and help combat altitude sickness.
The second day we would do the majority of the climbing. It was a hard 9 hour hike culminating at mountain pass called Punto Union. The pass is 4750 meters (15,500 ft) above sea level. The view from that altitude combined with the thin air leaves anyone speechless. Which, in my opinion, is exactly how it should be. It is exactly the type of place that leaves you feeling so insignificant, that you instinctively remain silent.
It becomes easy to understand why the natives in their primitive way had so much respect for the mighty peaks of the Andes. These snow capped peaks slowly melt during the afternoon sun to feed a number of high mountain lakes of deep turquoise and crystal blue water. As the water level rises the lakes begin to overflow, enormous waterfalls are created from all sides of the mountain. These waterfalls form the rivers that eventually distribute the life form to the thousands of square acres that surround them. All of this is visible as you begin the descent into the valley. Plant and animal life begin to decorate the landscape, trees and bushes are able to prosper here. The ground has a spongy soft feel as if it had recently been covered by the overflowing water. And this is the good fortune that the Santa Cruz valley receives from the kindness of the giants that guard it.
But the mountains are not always kind to the inhabitants of the Cordillera Blanca. Avalanches and enormous rockslides are common in this territory, and often create barriers along the very trails we were hiking. And the seemingly tranquil glacier lakes represent the most pressing danger. As the earth begins to warm the delicate ice walls of the lakes are starting to deteriorate. In 1970 this danger was illustrated when and earthquake in the valley caused enormous avalanches and destroyed the lakes’ retaining walls. This created a devastating combination. The rapidly falling water from the lakes melted the snow and accumulated into a large amount of land mass that came pouring down the mountainside. The result was tens of thousands of deaths and a virtually destroyed landscape.

The Incans and Pre-Incans obviously experienced both sides of this delicate balance of give and take with their providers. Thus worshiping them as their gods, not only for the life that they provide them, but the imminent danger that they represent. Having spent only four days walking through their terrain, I have developed a new respect for the sensitivity of the ecosystem that supports life in the area. Unfortunately all of the blowing of coca leaves in the world wont slow down the inevitable effects that global warming and man made environmental changes are having on this fragile ecosystem.

The third day of the hike we set out for the glacier lake situated near the base of Alpamayo. Alpamayo was voted the most beautiful mountain in the world in the 1940s, and justifiably so. Unfortunately the cloud cover would make it very difficult to see the magnificent snow capped peak of this mountain that reaches 19,500 ft in altitude. The lake was a rich turquoise blue and set at an altitude of 14,500 ft above sea level. The biggest entertainment came from a Swiss traveler, Mathias, who just couldn’t resist the urge to take a swim. We all stood around the lake, bundled in jackets, gloves and scarves to watch Mathias take the plunge .

The rest of the hike would be through the Valley of Santa Cruz. The valley has two very large lakes and is line with jagged rocky snow covered mountains. Waterfalls are so frequent that they begin to blend into the scenery. Wild horses , mules, goats , and cows can be seen grazing throughout the valley. The ground is so wet that you have check your footing, or you may just sink in! The last think you want is to wake in the morning to frozen wet boots at sub zero temps. The changes had been extraordinary over the 4 day span. We had gradually climbed our way into the silent solidarity of the Cordillera Blanca, where few organisms are able to survive. Later we descended through the rich environment of the Santa Cruz Valley now plush with plant and animal life. If anyone in Peru wants to meet their maker, according to the Incas, this is where they would need to go. Our guide told us that in 7 years he had never taken a Peruvian on this journey, and that most didn’t know it existed. A sad reality, but blatantly evident through the lack of respect or concern that most Peruvians have for their natural habitat.
At the end of the trip we had hiked 48 km (30 miles) in little more than three days, and climbed from 3500 to 4750 meters above sea level, then descended back down to about 3300 to the end of the trail. For me it was clearly the experience of my time in Peru. If I had it to do over again I would have stayed the extra two weeks and hiked the Cordillera Huayash instead of heading to much more popular southern part of the country.

Posted by natewhd 18:35 Archived in Peru Comments (0)


Night buses and bathroom doors


So I digress...........
After the more than difficult last day in Ecuador it was a 15 hour overnight bus journey to Máncora, Peru. A quiet beach town allegedly boasting some of the best beaches and surf in Peru. Unfortunately neither would prove to be true.
Arriving after such a long bus journey, with very little sleep, I was ready to relax. Unfortunately the beach was not quite as advertised. I didn't take a single picture of the beach because I was disgusted at the amount of pollution, and the overall poor condition. None the less it proved a good spot to relax and try the famous Peruvian Ceviche. Of course, I am already familiar with Ceviche, just not in Peru.
Máncora was sort of a blast from the past and reminded me of my hometown of Virginia Beach. Every restaurant was stocked full of Surfer magazines, and everyone walked around dressed in surfer attire. The only problem is that very little surfing actually happens there. There is a small area with off shore breaks, which never had anything to right home about. On top of that you can find as many as 100 people fighting for ankle slappers all afternoon. So.. if you like that sort of thing....
Peru travel is almost always better done by night bus, as the landscapes along the Panamerican highway are non existent, and everything is a 10 hour journey.
Leaving Máncora we went to the third biggest city in Peru, called Trujillo. Another long night journey, which got off on the wrong foot. We arrived at the hostel, Casa de Clara at about 7am. As soon as we got to the room Brenda went into the bathroom and found herself locked inside. The owner got nervous mumbling to himself and then finally ran out of the house to find a locksmith. Almost one hour later.. the owner had disappeared, and it was time to take the matter into my own hands. First I was gentle, using my leatherman to try and pick the lock, but later it was time to get more aggressive. It turned out one hard shot and she opened right up. Who knew? Needless top say we didn't wind up spending the night.
Trujillo as it would turn out, is one of my favorite cities in Peru. A magnificent main plaza, great people and restaurants. It is also located withing 30 minutes of the Archaeological site of Chan Chan and the beaches of Huanchaco.
Chan Chan is large pre Inca civilization of the Chimú culture. They use strictly adobe style architecture and are famous for designs and carving in the walls. The city was inhabited by as many as 30,000 people before being taken over as part of the Incan Empire in 1470. Man of the ancient traditions are still used to this day. Including, breeding of hairless dogs which people use to treat arthritis. The theory is that the dogs give off so much heat that you can let them sleep on your knees or hands to help with arthritis pain.
Huanchaco is definitely a better stop than Mancorá, and provides for some fantastic sunset scenery. The locals still use traditional reed boats made from totora, as they have for over 1000 years. The boats are hand made and last an average of 18 months. They are quite the spectacle in the afternoon, standing upright, drying out on the beach. The waves in Huanchaco are substantially better than Máncora, and the fisherman can often be seen riding the waved with their reed boats into shore.


But that was enough for sunny beaches. It was time to head off for another brutually long journey top the Cordillera Blanca (White Mountian Range) in the heart of the Andes.

Posted by natewhd 11:37 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

The Galápagos Islands

George Bush should go

View 2007 on natewhd's travel map.

The second phase of my trip to Ecuador was to the famous Galapagos Islands. It is an extremely expensive trip on a backpacker budget, but as everyone who has gone would tell you, worth every penny.
The Islands technically belong to Ecuador even though the lie 600 miles off the nearest Ecuadorian coastline. They were first made famous when Charles Darwin arrived and noticed that almost all of the wildlife on the Islands had evolved and adapted to their unique environment. 100% of the reptiles, 50% of sea life, and 70% of the birds are endemic species, they can only be found in the Galapagos. Knowing all of that makes it almost impossible not to reach deep in your pocket and shell out the hefty airfare $350, park entrance $100, and tour expenses of $100 to $300 dollars a day.
The tour we arranged is what is called a land tour. The majority of the tours are on cruise ships which travel by night ( 6-8 hours) and leave all day for exploring the islands. The problem is that most are foreign companies, and very little of the enormous revenue gained is distributed amongst the islanders. This leads them to continue in illegal fishing, gaming and otherwise harmful behavior to what is truly one of the most spectacular places on Earth. The land tour in contrast is totally operated by locals and consist of short two to three hour speed boat trips from island to island, leaving overnight stays in hotels and plenty of time to get to know the islands and the people who inhabit them.
The thing that I didn't take into consideration was sea sickness. I have never been sea sick in my life, and so I don't even consider that a speed boating rushing through rough seas could be a problem.
The first day we set out from Baltra Island to San Cristobal. The journey was 2 and half hours and included a drifting period to observed large volcanic rock island with sea lions and endemic birds. During this drift just about everyone on the boat got wheezy. Later in route to San Cristobal one of the boat motors had a problem. The captain shut it down and the three man crew went to work, meanwhile the boat was at the mercy of the rough open sea of the Pacific. It was during this time that everyone on the boat started getting sick. With the crew busy repairing the motor, I was left to pass out and collect vomit bags. One of the only people not sea sick, I was starting to seriously question the decision to take the speed boat land tour. Fortunately that would be the only such episode, the following day the other passengers discovered Mareol, a motion sickness pill.
We stopped for snorkeling and got a chance to swim along side baby sea lions and enormous sting rays. The water is crystal clear and pristine, and the sea life is spectacular.
On San Cristobal Island we got our fist view of the Giant Turtles, land turtles weighing up to 500lbs and living a life span of approximately 250 years. There are 5 species of Giant Turtles in the Galapagos, all of which are considered endangered. These turtles can survive up to 6 months without food or water, thus making them very attractive to the pirates that inhabited the island centuries ago. They would put them in the ship and the kill them as they need food, without any need to maintain them. Currently introduced animals brought from the mainland, such as savage pigs, dogs, and goats represent the main problem. Eating the eggs, and destroying the natural habitat. All inhabited island have turtle breading centers, and gradually reintroduce these animals into the wild.

After San Cristobal we went to Floreana Island. We walked around the island observing enormous land and sea iguanas, and later a natural spring which provides the drinking water for the Island. Situated in the highlands are old ruins of pirate caves and dwelling of the first settlers of the Island.

Leaving Floreana we headed for Isabella Island to spend the night. We arrived just in time to see the magnificent sunset along the west coast of the island.
Isabella is the largest island and consist of 5 Volcanoes. The following morning we took a journey on horseback to see the largest volcanic crater in the world.
Later we hiked along the surface of the volcanic lava observing the beginnings of life form, cactus and small plants growing through what looks like the surface of the moon. You can see different colors of lava representing different eruptions, craters formed by bubbling lava and hot air trapped underneath. There are also many lava tunnels which are formed from the air rushing underneath the lava as it flows to the sea. The view from the highest point is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen.
The following day we off to visit another turtle creation center where we able to interact a little with the turtles. Feeding the large turtles and picking up the small ones. Holding a baby giant turtle in your hands is impressive when you think that this little creature will actually go on to live about 3 times your life span. Leaving the creation center we hiked through a mangrove area to see the famous Galapagos flamingos, and of course more land iguanas.
Leaving the Island by boat we got an excellent view of the blue footed bobby. A spectacular looking bird with bright blue feet, endemic of course to the Galapagos.
In Santa Cruz we would pass the remaining three nights of the tour. A visit to the Charles Darwin center we saw another Giant Turtle named Lonesome George.
He is the last of his species and they have been searching for over 20 years for a mate. So far no luck, they estimate his age to be around 200. We also got an opportunioty to visit the protected area where the turtles are introduced into the wild. They look amazing roaming around in their natural habitat.
By far the most beautiful island in terms of classic island qualities is Bartalome. The combination of white sand and golden sand beaches, volcanic rock and craters, and crystal blue bays blending into the turquoise ocean. It is from here that the classic propaganda photo is taken, I didn't mind taking one myself.
The Galapagos Islands give a person a new respect for the world. As the Earths ocean plates shift the islands are moving over hot spots they create volcanic eruptions. Over time these volcanic rock bases begin to break down into surfaces suitable for plant and animal life to survive. The birds of the Galapagos have evolved beak's to be able to penetrate the rough surface in search of food. And the reptiles turtles etc.. to survive extended periods without food or water. There is nothing more substantial to give you an idea how many parts of this planet may have looked millions of years ago. They are some of the youngest parts of land in the world, and they date back millions of years. Sorry George Bush, but knowing this doesn't bode well for your insistence of teaching creationism to the youngsters of our country. Perhaps leaving the country a bit, would´ve done you some good. I know it did for me.

The experience of the trip???
My second opportunity to snorkel with the sea lions. We were swimming along when I encountered two extremely playful sea lions. The swam up to withing inches of my body and spiraled around diving down blowing out air bubbles along the way, I mimicked their tricks and they showed me new ones. Ive yet to see the photos because I had to buy a disposable underwater camera, but I cant wait to see them. It certainly makes swimming in a caged pool with the dolphins seem a little cheap when you do it in the wild
The sea lions are definately the most friendly animals, and the stars of the show in the Galapagos

Posted by natewhd 16:30 Archived in Ecuador Comments (5)


Everything changes

View 2007 on natewhd's travel map.

As a result of having gotten so far behind I have decided to break Ecuador up into two sections. The first entry will be Ecuador the mainland, and the second the Galapagos Islands.

The easy way to start is to say that crossing the border into Ecuador, suddenly everything changed. It was not just a difference of culture or landscape, but also a change in perception. Brenda was required to get a tourist visa for Ecuador, which limited our time to only thirty days. The lazy schedule of Colombia now out the window we would start traveling at an almost touristy pace.

Unfortunately the security of my belongings would also come into play as we would be robbed twice in a little more than a week. The most painful was my memory chip which stored all of my photos from the last 8 months of travel. That was actually stolen from an Internet cafe as I was writing my last blog entry.

Our trip in Ecuador started in a town called Otavalo. A small town in the foothills of the Andes, it was the perfect place to start. Saturday mornings in Otavalo the whole town turns into a fair, and the local people fill the streets dressed in traditional Otavaleño clothing. The women wear long cashmere skirts hemmed with traditional designs and white blouses embroidered by hand with designs of flowers, vines, etc.. They also wrap a cloth around their backs which is usually occupied to carry their children, hens, or a 100lb bag of potatoes..no kidding. When not doubled over carrying an enormous load the outfit is very appealing and accented with a lot of neck and wrist jewelry. The men (but who cares about them right?) dress in linen pants and shirts with a small car and always have along braid.

We stayed for three days with and Otavaleñan family and had a wonderful experience. They still live in a very humble environment, grow all of their own feed and participate in local community projects as their ancestors have one in that community for thousands of years. If someone is building a house, everyone helps. Likewise with community farms etc.. I had some amazing photos of all of this, but you`ll just have to use your imaginations.

Laving Otavalo we headed for Quito to arrange our Galapagos trip. The night we arrived Ecuador was playing a soccer match against Brazil. We got into Quito in time to catch the match in a local bar which fell desperately silent as Ecuador was throttled 5-0. Late wandering around the center we stumbled upon a live outdoor theater and dance performance. It was a collaboration of several different countries and consisted of dancers hoisted by cable lines gliding from rooftop to rooftop which an amazing light show and live music. It was quite simply one of the most spectacular outdoor performances I have ever seen, and free to kick of the international theater and dance festival in Quito. Not bad for an opening night.

Quito turned out to be a cultural city with all of the things you enjoy and hate about a big city. Not surprisingly it would never duplicate the magic of the first night, not that I expected it to. We did take advantage of the opportunity to eat wonderful international cuisine, a warm welcome after literally two months of pot luck.

After a round trip flight to the islands then back to Quito we headed south to town called Baños. For those of you practicing elementary Spanish, your probably laughing to yourselves about a town called bathrooms, but it actually means baths. It is home to several thermal hot spring, and rest in a valley surrounded by mountains, volcano's, and over 65 waterfalls. One day we decided to rent an ATV an head along he trail of the 12 waterfalls. It was a spectacular trip and culminated with a great hike and my first opportunity to swim and bathe in the waterfalls of fresh mountain water in years.
From the viewpoint in Baños
Leaving Baños we had big plans to take the famous nose of the devil train ride, but tit was sold out when we arrived and we had to keep on moving. We took a similar route in bus which provided spectacular views of the Volcano Chimborazo at 6100 meters the highest peak in Ecuador. We traveled all day and arrived at the picturesque arquelogical site of Ingapirca. Unfprtunately the whole town had lost power that night, we used candles and got by. The next day visiting the ruins was spectactular. Here are some shots

Cuenca is in my opinion the most beautiful city in Ecuador, with a peaceful and tastefully designed historic center, as well as a river that divides the old and the new. There is all of the usual fanfare, but we decided to take it easy and relax for a few days. The end of our Ecuador experience would be spent in a place called Vilcabamba.

Vilcabamba is the very south of Ecuador and on the edge of the rainforest and the Andes mountain range. The people of Vilcabamba are famed for living for more than 100 years and taking advantage of the healing waters and exceptional climate. Ironic as it would be, we would experience some of biggest weather difficulties in Vilcabamba. We took an 8 hour hiking, horseback, and canopy tour in the cloud forest. The day started exceptionally with fantastic views of the surrounding valleys as our horses navigated the edges of the mountainsides along steep inclines. Arriving at the nature reserve, we started our hike through the cloud forest. The hike was difficult and filled with muddy steep down hills, complicated by the rain that started to fall. By the time we arrived at the zip lines it was an all out downpour. The hike back was a struggle with just about everyone sliding everywhere and and a 20 river crossing over a tree trunk now soaked and slippery.
The return would be equally difficult as the rain continued to fall and the path was now too slippery to navigate on horseback. Our guide told us the contrary, but while crossing a relatively flat pass my horse slid two legs over the ledge and fell to thew ground. Naturally he started to buck like crazy, thinking he was falling over the mountainside. I was fortunate to free me feet from the stirrups and jump off as he was trying to throw me. Needless to say it was enough of a scare that we all walked the rest of the way pulling our horses along. Scary in itself when you imagine pulling a horse down a hiking trail covered in steep rocking downhills, slippery as hell. More than a few times we had to jump off the trails as the horses slid out of control towards us.

Finally after 10 tough ours we arrived back at the lodge. Just time enough to bathe, change into dry clothes and head to the bus station for an overnight bus into Peru. Anyway that was our farewell to Ecuador. More or less a disaster as far as the mainland was concerned, but that is what happens when you rush things.

Posted by natewhd 17:50 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Colombia San Agustin and the South

Moving on and saying goodbye to Colombia

View 2007 on natewhd's travel map.

My arrival to Colombia had not been well planned, but rather a spur of the moment decision based on a layover in Bogotá, and an earthquake in Peru. Upon entry the immigration officials gave me 60 days to visit their beautiful country, and it would turn out not to be enough. As we arrived to the southern stretch of the country the pressure to keep a more pressing schedule started to set in.

The city of Popayan was our first destination in the south, having skipped the famous party city of Cali. Popayan is an attractive city, but the downtown is similar to just about every Colombian town. The whole town is whitewashed, and has a definite sterile appearance. There isn’t a ton to do, but it serves as a good launching point to the famous destinations of Tierradentro and San Agustin. For many years the territory of San Agustin has been occupied by paramilitary groups, and has suffered as a result. The government has invested a surprising small sum into the development of the territory, and the highway is the worst part.

The trek to San Agustin from Popayan is about 70 miles but takes all of 6 and a half hours. The road is completely unpaved and in desperate condition. I was lucky enough to get the last seat on the bus of the last departure of the day. The trunk of the minibus, now full of potatoes and food goods, didn`t offer space for my backpack. This meant that it would have to ride in my lap. Not so uncommon as the passengers to either side of me also had their children in their laps. If you can help it is best not to sit in the back of the bus on a ride like this, because it is basically like sitting in the back of a rollercoaster. Every bump and dip is exaggerated about 3 fold. Needless to say I was happy to arrive and leave that whole experience behind me.

Fortunately, waiting in San Agustin was the most comfortable hostel I have ever visited. The owner is Swiss (Rene)and his wife (Paloma) Colombian/Italian. The whole place is based around ecotourism and situated on an organic farm. The rooms were both palapa style huts and bamboo cabins. Paloma makes a mean curry, a very welcome flavor after months of unseasoned meat and potatoes. The scenery in San Agustin is amazing and the views are spectacular from every angle. The hostel is called El Maco, if your ever in San Agustin.
A visit to the archaeological park shows an exhibit of one of the lost cultures of Colombia. The are large stone sculptures which are tombs of a former Indian tribe about 3000 years ago. Little is now about, what became of them, or the significance of their sculptures. Information has been extrapolated through anthologist studies of other tribes in the area. All guess work as far as I’m concerned. None the less, a fascinating tour and worthwhile afternoon.

The following day we headed out on a horseback tour of the valley. I had never been horseback riding before, and 4 hours was probably a bit much. The trip took us into the spectacular canyon of Chaquira, and through farmer’s trails to see other tomb sites. It was an excellent combination of natural beauty, archaeological mystery, and extreme fun. The horses were well trained, and knew exactly where to go, when to gallop, and when to trot. My horse had a bit of a complex (probably for being the smallest) and always wanted to be at the front of the pack. Honestly there a few things more fun than riding a horse in full gallop when he takes a sharp turn. With 7 horses behind you, you know your toast if you don’t hang on. After a few days of recuperation, I was ready to get moving again. Knowing we had a rough ride back made it easier to stay and relax a few more days at El Maco, but eventually we had to bid a sad farewell.
In the Chaquira canyon there are stone carvings that are perfectly illuminated at sunrise on one side, and sunset everyday
Before crossing the border to Ecuador, a quick trip to Las Lajas is well worth the time. This is a small cathedral built into the walls of a canyon. The altar is actually constructed from the stone face of the canyon wall. There is waterfall shooting out from the left side, and a base that rises easily 50 feet bridging the river and providing the foundation. The church is known for having delivered in more request for miracles than any other church in Colombia. Along the walk down the walls are lined with plaques and thanks for miracles received. There must be at least two thousand of them. Not sure I buy into all of that, but it is definitely and impressive site, and a beautiful last glimpse at the spectacular Colombian vistas.

All in all it was a spectacular two months in Colombia, and we crossed the border with just a few days to spare. As always I`m about 10 days behind in publishing this blog, if you want to see where I am today check out the map below. In two days I`ll be off to the Galapagos Islands which will slow probably keep me from updating for the next two weeks.

Posted by natewhd 16:17 Archived in Colombia Comments (3)

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