A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: jakegambling


To the Southern tip of the world

Re-entry into the civilized world was surprisingly abrupt and far from subtle. While I was working on the ranch, the South American holiday season had begun, and the once quiet town of Puerto Varas had transformed into a bustling tourist village. In fact, most of Patagonia was like this now, and the majority of the travellers I met from this point on were actually South American. After regrouping in Puerto Varas and getting a vague plan settled out, I jumped on a bus to cross back into Argentina, set for the lake town of Bariloche. It wasn't until about five minutes after passing the boarder crossing that I realized I had been stamped out of Chile, but never received a stamp into Argentina. Dreading the logistics of getting this settled out in Argentina, my bus stopped at yet another boarder crossing, about 40 minutes of driving past the first. This turned out to be the entry point back into Argentina. Apparently, the boarder between Chile and Argentina is so vague and imprecise that the official exit point of Chile and entry point of Argentina may be dozens of kilometres apart. Many Chilean and Argentinean towns that are close to the boarder exist solely as a means of making an official claim on the land.

My trip to Bariloche was more or less over before it started. Arriving in the evening, I struggled to find even a single available bed in the whole town (again, height of the summer holidays), and was unable to stay for more than one night. I was forced then to move further down into a town called Esquel, still in Northern Patagonia. The Argentinian landscape here was drastically different from its Patagonian neighbour. Where the Chilean side is heavily forested, mountainous, and scattered with off-shore islands, the mountain and volcano range that separates the two countries (there are about 2,000 volcanoes in Chile alone) produces very dry, almost desertous, grasslands to the east, which are mostly flat except for the striking mountain peaks that mark the introduction into Chile. Esquel is located quite close to Chile, and thus is surrounded by mountains which are, to the discontent of the residents, in the process of being mined. The change in landscape caused by the mining is being multiplied by the growing presence of pine tree plantations. This tree, being a very good absorber of water in the atmosphere, has turned this town from a snow-capped and fairly barren place to live, to a much warmer, dryer environment within the span of 10 years. While some would argue this is a welcome change, the rate and extent of the change is no less than shocking. Regardless, I enjoyed a few days of hiking, and even some rock climbing, in the quiet environment that Esquel had to offer.

The next stop required another 18 hour bus ride through almost entirely uninhabited land, bringing me into Southern Patagonia. I arrived in El Chalten on an uncharacteristically cloudless day, where the famous jutting peaks of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre could be seen easily in their entirety from the front doorstep of my accommodation. To understand the rarity of this, Fitz Roy was originally believed to be a volcano, due to the thick cloud that almost always sits on top of it. Somehow, the great weather held on for most of my stay.

What was originally meant to be a few day stopover in this town turned into 8 days of hiking, rock climbing, and just hanging out (not, of course, without a large cup full of yerba mate, a growing addiction of mine since entering Argentina and Chile). El Chalten, the self-proclaimed "trekking capital of Argentina" (and arguably, South America) is one of those towns that was only established as a territorial claim for Argentina, but is slowly turning into the trademark area of Southern Patagonia. Only recently equipped with the luxuries of internet and phone lines, it was very easy to get stuck here, enjoying each day with a new hike or adventure, all just a walk away from any point in town. The only thing you'd need to worry about in a day is the risk of suddenly changing weather (it can go from sunny to completely miserable within a span of 5-10 minutes) or insane winds. I once heard a local say, "if it's not windy, it's not Patagonia". He wasn't kidding. Some of the winds were strong enough to support my full body weight.

The lack of produce was a bit of a downside to the area as well (the grocery store owner was unaware of the difference between broccoli and cauliflower). But still, this was one of my favourite places in South America, and I've made a mental note to return as soon as I can, fully equipped with adventure gear. My next stop was just a few hours down the road, to the slightly larger and more touristic El Calafate. My reason for coming here was simple: the Perito Moreno glacier. This glacier, though a popular attraction with high tourism traffic, is truly impressive, both in size, location, and activity. If you sit and stare at the glacier front for just a few minutes, you are guaranteed to see a large chunk of ice breaking off and plummeting into the lake below. Every half hour or so, an entire piece of the wall will crack and drop off, with a huge and dramatic boom and splash. It's hard to imagine how there's any glacier left, considering this happens all day, every day.

My final stop in Patagonia was back on the Chilean side, way at the Southern tip, almost stretching into Antartica. Punta Arenas is a surprisingly large city, considering how far removed it is from the rest of the world. Cold enough to warrant a warm jacket even in the peak of summer, this area is not surprisingly home to quite a few penguin colonies. Two hours on a ferry-like boat, and I was able to visit one of these colonies on a chunk of land almost completely filled with birds (both magellanic penguins and seagulls). After a while of laughing at the penguins waddling around (and trying not to step on them), I went back to Punta Arenas for a flight all the way back up to Santiago. With only two days left before leaving South America, I wanted to spend the time in Valparaiso, a trendy costal city about an hour northwest of Santiago. So two more days flew by, and as I checked out the street festivals, beaches, outdoor escalators, and impressive street art that constitutes Valparaiso, I became prematurely nostalgic for what I was leaving behind.

Sure enough, it was a bittersweet moment arriving back in YVR airport, excited to catch up with friends and family, but all too aware that my last 5 or so months were starting to feel like a dream. It felt like I had never left. Well, except for my urges to say "gracias" all the time, or to throw toilet paper in the garbage. Still, it was a journey I won't soon come to forget, and I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity. Thank you all who supported me along the way or even just showed me a good time - the experiences are largely the people you find along the way. Latin America, I will be back.

Posted by jakegambling 20:26 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Chilean Patagonia

Living the rancher life

I seem to have fallen behind a few months, but I'll do my best to catch up:

The series of buses that took me back over the Andes and all the way down into Chilean Patagonia had all gone very smoothly, excluding my accidental consumption of a plastic fork prong during one of the bus dinners. I even had the luxury of a full 180 degree reclining bed seat during one of the nights. I had never imagined a bus sleep could be so restful. My final bus ride had brought me into a rather small town called Puerto Varas, and suddenly I felt as though I was back in Coastal BC. Most buildings had a log-cabin feel, everything was very expensive (by South American standards), and the landscape was almost identical to home, consisting of heavily forested mountains that dropped straight into the massive Llanquihue lake. Now I just had to find the ranch where I had organized a volunteer position. Following the vague directions of the ranch owner, I took a local bus around the lake for about an hour and a half to the dock of a neighbouring lake. After asking around at the dock and no doubt looking very lost, I managed to find someone who was willing to give me a boat ride to the one and only entrance point of the ranch, across the lake. Another hour on the boat, and I arrived at Fundo Puntiagudo, my home for the next few weeks.

Fundo Puntiagudo is a family-run cattle ranch and bee apiary, spanning a full 55 hectares in the middle of a Chilean national park. It's nestled in a picturesque valley, isolated by a lake on one side, and a combination of volcanoes and expansive forest on the other three. Despite the stunning beauty of the area (I will try to do it justice with photos), the only thing I noticed once stepping onto the dock was the horseflies. With time, I became quite adept at snatching the horseflies out of the air, and would have competitions with the other volunteers to see who could catch the most. That, or we would just throw them at each other. One day, we were able to catch over 60 horseflies each, without taking a single step. I did get used to them though, and was soon able to enjoy the ranch for what it was, huge buzzing pests and all.

Slightly over half my time on the ranch was bee work. Considering I knew absolutely nothing about bee-keeping before arriving, and my spanish vocabulary was lacking in words such as "larval stage", "honeycomb frame", and "drone population", I think I caught on pretty well. A lot of the work involved first finding the queen bee, which could only be identified by being about 10% longer than the rest of the bees. Essentially, it was like a 3-dimensional, constantly moving 'Where's Waldo?'. To add to the distraction, every now and then a bee would find it's way through my boots and 2 layers of jumpsuit to give me a sting on the leg. Ernesto (one of the ranchers) decided to do a bit of work without his mask on, and took about 10 stings to the face in 20 seconds (once one bee stings you, the scent attracts many more). Despite my description, it was actually a lot of fun. Working with the honey itself was no less enjoyable, and I would end up with my hands COVERED in a mater of minutes. I felt like Winnie the Pooh. With an average harvest of 15, 000 kg of honey from 200-400 hives (and 2-3 harvests a year), I had never imagined being around so much honey. We hardly ate a single meal that didn't incorporate this delicious golden goodness.

The second largest portion of my work on the ranch dealt with the cows. With a valley that stays above freezing pretty much all year round (despite the snowy mountains surrounding it even in the summer), I would argue that Fundo Puntiagudo is one of the best places in the world to raise cattle. The cows are outside all year round, grazing on huge grassy meadows and drinking from glacier streams for 8 months of the year. The first two or so months of winter, they're released into the surrounding national park (to prevent them from destroying the now damp fields), where they roam the mountains and graze on whatever they can find. The rest of the winter is spent by the ranchers searching the forests to find and bring back the cows. Only once have they not found them all (only one went missing).

Since all of the cattle work was done on horseback, I was useless unless I quickly improved my horse-riding skills. But these horses weren't the calm, domesticated horses living in stables like I had seen back in North America. They were built like the Chilean ranchers (short, but incredibly strong), and had to be chased down and lassoed in an open field every time we wanted to ride one. My first experience with these horses involved watching Jorge (another rancher), getting bucked off his horse, which he has ridden every day for years. Needless to say, I was given "gordo" (the fat, old horse) for the first while. Still, cow herding was a blast from the get-go. We would move the cows and bulls, yelling and chasing, all around the property, through rivers and valleys, along beaches, and even onto a boat once. I can tell you from experience, farm animals really do not like to be on boats. Although not used for cow herding, my skill-set even expanded to the realm of tractor driving. I might even call my driving proficient, so long as the tractor is no less than fifty years old, that is.

The majority of my time on the ranch was spent living with a British and a French volunteer, Matt, and Pierre, respectively. We had a cabin to ourselves, with water sourced directly from the river, a wood-burning stove to cook the slowest meals of my life and a daily batch of bread, and rats in the attic too lull us to sleep with their scampering. Our electricity was also sourced by the river that ran through the farm, using a small turbine. This meant that the power generated would fluctuate with the river's activity. Some days, it would take an hour to boil a cup of water in the kettle, yet a few minutes later, our lightbulbs would start exploding. The system had some kinks, but it was useful. Between the use of a wood burning stove and making fires for some of the bee work (melting down old wax), it's no surprise that I got at least one big fiery blast to the face. Despite the serious shortening of my eyelashes, eyebrows, and front portion of my hair, it did give me an uneven, stenchy, but arguably necessary trim to my beard.

Most of our days working were spent with the two ranchers that I've mentioned, Ernesto and Jorge. In addition to being the most rustic, skillful, hard-working farmers that I could imagine (it took me 3 weeks to find out that Ernesto had a broken foot, all while doing the work of 3 men), the patience of these guys in teaching us volunteers was incredible. My lack of knowledge about cattle herding or bee keeping would have been hard enough for them to deal with, but the language barrier became a whole lot bigger at the farm. There's Spanish, then there's Chilean Spanish, then there's country-side Chilean Spanish, and THEN there's toothless old man from the Chilean countryside Spanish. I didn't stand a chance. Luckily only one of the ranchers was toothless, but it still felt like another language altogether, and took a decent amount of time to get a hang of the accents.

Being at the ranch in the summer had huge perks, beyond the obvious sunshine. Work breaks involved snacking on the plethora of cherries, raspberries, gooseberries, and whatever else we could get our hands on within the farmland (including wild basil). There were enough berries to provide bucketfuls every day, which gave us great jams, juice concentrates, and an almost everlasting supply of crumble. There were some cons to living in such a lush, remote area as well. On two occasions, we ended up getting very lost in the surrounding forest, one of which coincided with our discovery of Patagonian tarantulas and the widespread use of electric fencing.

I ended up spending both Christmas and New Years on the ranch, which were both as relaxed and low-key as I could have asked for. Jorge actually killed one of his lambs on Christmas eve (generously giving everyone a large portion for Christmas dinner), and was kind enough to show us the multi-day procedure of preparing the lamb skin into a useful pelt or rug. New year's eve was a comfortable evening of home-made pizza (not terribly Chilean, but delicious nonetheless) and pisco, and the following day was spent fishing on the lake. Work continued as normal for the next few weeks, except the arrival of Rodrigo (a new Mexican volunteer), and the departure of Pierre, and we all fell victim to getting lost in the amazing routine of life at the ranch. Suddenly, three and a half weeks had passed by, and I realized that I needed to move on if I were going to see any of the rest of Patagonia. So after some sad goodbyes and a boat ride back to civilization, I found myself back in Puerto Varas, struggling to reenter the travelling mindset.

Posted by jakegambling 17:31 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

From Ecuador to Chile

With some stuff in between

Immediately following the departure of my mum, I took a relatively short bus ride (3.5 hours) to the town of Baños (yes, this word DOES mean "bathroom" in Spanish, although the literal translation is just "bath", referring to the hot springs for which the area is known). This town is also recognized for its abundance of adventure sports, including, but not limited to rock climbing, rafting, bunjee jumping, paragliding, canyoning, and even "extreme" swinging (see pictures). No, I didn't do all of these myself, but I definitely had some fun in this town, and also came to learn the dangers of mixing beards with rappel lines. I hope the next person to use the equipment isn't too grossed out when they find a chunk of hair stuck in the belay device.

One warm afternoon in town, following a day of exploring, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the ice-cream truck tune playing in the streets. My excitement turned quickly into disappointment, as I realized this was in fact the song of the garbage truck. Why would the garbage truck play a high-pitched, overly-joyfull, repetitive melody as it drives around? Beats me. Despite the loss of beard hair and the deceiving garbage trucks, my time in Baños was actually very enjoyable, and I spent most of my time with a new group of friends who enjoyed small talk about as little as I do, to the point where we still didn't know each other's names after spending a full 3 days together. Eventually, it was time to move on again though, and I found myself all the way back in Lima in no time at all. Having already familiarized myself with this area, I felt no need to stick around.

26 hours of bus rides later, I had made it to Puno, a small town on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. What I found most surprising while staring out the windows of these bus rides was the complete lack of any vegetation in most of Peru. It seemed the entire drive was through nothing but barren, desertous, grey, rocky hills. Puno itself was nothing to brag about, so I quickly bused to Copacabana, the largest Bolivian town on Lake Titicaca. After having spent a while in low altitude, every time I climbed the five flights of stairs to my room on the lakeside (at around 4000 m), I felt as though my heart was going to explode out of my chest. It took the better part of a week in Bolivia before I felt relatively acclimatized again. My time at lake Titicaca was short, but sweet. I spent a night on la Isla del Sol, where the massive lake could have been easily mistaken for the ocean. The return trip to the mainland the next day was interesting though, as all faith was put in the hands of the boat driver as he navigated through a rainstorm, with no view at all of the nose of the boat. Even still, he managed to squeeze through a rocky gap only 1.5x the width of boat, while driving with the toes of a single foot (he couldn't reach the steering and see beyond the boat at the same time).

As I continued south, the next logical resting point was in La Paz. I've never before seen a city built with such little regard to the surrounding area. Most cities have found a relatively flat spot to be founded on, but La Paz is literally right in the middle of a steep and jagged mountain range. This fact, combined with the noise, chaos, and thin air of the city itself (La Paz is the world's highest administrative capital, at 3,650 m above sea level) makes for a very unique environment to find oneself in. Interestingly, La Paz also has a rather strong naval presence, despite sharing no boarders with the ocean. They used to, of course, but lost the land during 1879 to Chile. They have maintained their navy regardless, feeling they still have a claim to the Pacific.

Being in Bolivia felt a bit more like Guatemala than the rest of South America had. Markets lined almost every street, selling anything from fresh produce, to pirated DVDs, to bags of unknown powders, to llama foetuses. In front of each market stand was an old Bolivian woman, dressed in traditional garb and a very classy bowler hat, and between the stands ran a river of people, producing even more chaos than the streets filled with cars (which is hard to imagine). Bolivia did have the potential to be the cheapest country I had visited, but it is also the one the rips off tourists the most. Unfortunately, I had never felt more like a travelling bag of money.

After a few days exploring the cracks and crevices of La Paz, I wanted to continue south to Uyuni, a desert town famous for its salt flats and proximity to the Atacama desert (the highest and driest desert in the world, sitting between 4,000-5,000 m, without a single drop of rain ever recorded). The night bus ride to Uyuni was somewhat unique. Not so infrequently, a blizzard of sand would rage across the road and around the bus. I have no idea how the driver could see where he was going... although maybe he couldn't. On top of that, some of the "bus stops" would be nothing more than a person standing in the middle of the desert at 5 AM, without a single sign of any civilization for miles around. I suppose there's a system, I just don't get it.

I was relieved to find that the tacky christmas songs playing over every loudspeaker in Bolivia had been replaced by live music in Uyuni. I especially enjoyed the man playing "Silent Night" on his accordion, not bothering with words, but rather un-melodically singing "blaaahhh blah blaaahhh". After becoming quickly familiar with the town that spanned a whopping 9 square blocks, I set up a 3-day tour of the desert and salt flats, and before I knew it, I was riding in a jeep across a seemingly endless landscape of salt. The sunburn I had given my face in lake Titicaca also decided to peel at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if my tour group figured I was a leper for the first day or two.

Spanning more than 10, 000 square kilometres, the Uyuni salt flats are the largest in the world. We would drive (rather quickly) for long periods of time in a single direction and not see a single change in the flat, white landscape. It was bizarre. Another strange sight was the small rocky island in the middle of the flats, which supposedly used to be a coral reef when this 4,000 m high land was in the ocean. We spent the first night in a hotel built almost entirely out of salt, before leaving the flats and exploring the rest of the desert.

The desert surrounding Uyuni is a strange and barren place, filled with various multi-coloured lakes and mountains, and of course, flamingoes (from africa to the galapagos to the desertous Bolivian highlands, where don't these guys live?). After a day more of exploring around, we settled down for another night in the middle of nowhere, and were able to enjoy another amazing feature of this part of the world: the night sky. The altitude of our location (now 5,000 m) combined with the huge distance between us and any city resulted in one of the most spectacular starry nights I could imagine, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. The following morning began with a trip to the nearby geysers at sunrise, and took us afterwards to a much anticipated bathe in the neighbouring hot springs. After a few hours in the jeep back to Uyuni, I wasted no time at all and jumped straight onto another bus, bringing me to the Argentinian boarder.

This was certainly one of the stranger bus rides I have taken in Latin America. The bus drove all through the night (not so unusual), but at around 3 30 in the morning, it decided to stop in the middle of nowhere. Too tired and confused to do anything, I fell back asleep in the stationary bus. I woke up again at around 7 AM to see a long line of Bolivians walking endlessly down the "highway", next to my still stationary bus. Now alone in the bus, but convinced I hadn't yet reached my destination, I stayed seated for another hour until, sure enough, a driver jumped back in, picked up a bunch of the walking Bolivians, and continued on. We stopped again half an hour later, when two more buses blocking the road prevented us from continuing. The bus driver assured me that the town was a 20 minute walk away. An hour and a half after walking down a desert road with a sea of Bolivians, very unsure of exactly where I was going, I arrived in the town of destination, and made my way to the boarder. Supposedly, all of the roads had been closed as a protest to their poor state and lack of upkeep. I still don't get why there were SO many people though, or why my bus felt the need to make two separate stops in the middle of nowhere. The boarder crossing wasn't any less confusing, but after standing in lines and running back and fourth to an Internet cafe, I made it into Argentina, and immediately jumped on another bus to the city of Salta. This bus was also held up for about 2 hours by protests. The roads looked fine here, so I'm not really sure what they were about.

In Argentina, I was able to feel for the first time that I was in summer, as opposed to a rainy or dry season. I was far enough south that true seasons had returned, and it wouldn't even get dark until 10 30 PM. It felt as though I was in some strange spanish-speaking parallel of North America. Daily routine, however, was hugely different. Everything shuts down completely for a siesta between 1-5 PM every day (a time of the day I had previously believed to be important for actually doing things), and the entire country becomes one big ghost-town. This is something I'm still not used to, although I suppose it does make sense when dinner time is at 10 or 11 PM, bed is at 1 or 2 AM (or sometimes never), and the day still starts at 7 AM.

After a day or two spent in Salta to recuperate from the plethora of busing I had endured, I took yet another bus down to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina (and arguably, of South America). Indeed, it was hard to avoid the huge flow of wine that runs through this region, especially when wine is served for free on buses, is handed out for free at the hostels every night, and cost about a fifth of the price of soy sauce when it wasn't free. None of it was bad wine, either (by North American standards, that is). Nevertheless, Christmas was a few days away, and I didn't much feel like spending it on a bus or in a hostel, so I quickly set up a volunteer position in Chilean Patagonia. Yet another few days on buses (South America really is huge), and I had arrived in the 7th country of my trip, thrilled to be in a place where I could stay put for a few weeks.

Stay tuned for the full set of photos!

Posted by jakegambling 11:13 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)


From Galapagos to Amazon

The arrival of my mum marked an abrupt transition from being essentially a travelling bum to being on vacation. Comfy beds, pre-organized trips, and meals worth more than $3 were a few of the luxuries I quickly became accustomed to. On top of all that, I must say it was certainly nice to have a familiar face to spend some time with. After one full day of exploring Quito, a city full of character, history, and insanely steep streets, it was time to prepare ourselves for the Galapagos. However, this was not before we got a chance to check out a few Quito hotspots, including a bizarre modern art gallery featuring the well known painting of Jesus with his good friend Amy Winehouse, and a not so bizarre lunch diner featuring the familiar cilantro soup with a rather unexpected chicken foot.

We arrived the next day on San Cristóbal island, one of two places in the Galapagos with an airport, and immediately found ourselves stepping over snoozing sea lions and watching pelicans fishing off the pier. After a quick visit to the giant galapagos turtle sanctuary, followed by the first of many stunning sunsets, it was time to pull the anchor of our 20-person boat, set sail (so to speak), and go to bed. Sleeps were certainly interesting on the open ocean. Between the rumbling of the motor and the constant swelling of waves, you could consider yourself lucky if not woken up by the slam of a swinging door or the sudden panic of almost rolling out of bed. Amazingly, not a single person was sea sick over the entire 5 days on the water, although we all felt ourselves rocking back and fourth every time we arrived back on land. Our tour of the Galapagos included the south-eastern islands, namely San Cristóbal, Española, Santa Cruz, and Floreana. Mornings were often spent walking around a new island, lying on the beach with the sea lions and marine iguanas, and going for a snorkel in the surprisingly cold pacific waters. The snorkelling here was incredibly diverse, ranging from shallow reefs full of huge colourful fish, sea lions, and sea turtles, to deep water snorkelling, where the only break in the bottomless blue surroundings was the eerie silhouette of a shark or two. We also had to be weary of the not all that uncommon sting ray or puffer fish.

It seemed the cliche of the Galapagos held true - it was near impossible to find a beach that wasn't filled with sea lions, burping and flopping around. Now, although they may seem goofy and awkward on land, when they're doing circles around you in the water, their size and agility is quite intimidating. Indeed, the truly unique thing about the animals in the Galapagos is how close they will let you be without showing any sign of uneasiness. Unless, as my mum learned, you step on the edge of a booby nest. Then, they bite. She had the honour of being the first person (to the knowledge of the Galapagos workers) to have been bitten by a booby - an honour she wears like a badge. However, even if you were to step right on a marine iguana (as was done by one of the staff), they will simply look at you with what I can only assume is a slightly unhappy expression, and slowly walk off. A personal favourite behaviour of these iguanas though, is their sneezing. Since none of the Galapagos islands have any source of fresh water, most of the animals end up with far too much salt in their diet. To get rid of this excess salt, the iguanas concentrate it in a gland near their nose, which they periodically sneeze out (very amusing when they're gathered in large groups).

One evening, during the usual island walk-around, we were fortunate enough to witness the rather comical mating ritual of the albatross. This more or less involves "sword fighting" with beaks, neck stretches, jaw chattering, and noises resembling anything from a howling wolf to a drum roll. All that was missing was the illuminating voice of David Attenborough. The rest of the days on the Galapagos were similarly filled with weird and wonderful animals, but to get a better idea of some of the things we saw, you'll just have to look at the photos.

Before we knew it, we had to say goodbye to the Galapagos, and hello to the Amazon. This next journey started in a town called Coca, which, due to the expansion of the oil industry in the amazon, has grown to 10 times the size it was around 20 years ago. From here, we took a 2 hour boat ride down the massive Napo river, entered the jungle, and rode for another 45 minutes in a canoe down a narrow black water creek to the lagoon where we were staying. For those who aren't aware (which was me 2 weeks ago), black water is a fresh body of water sourced entirely by rain, made dark by the high concentrations of tannins leeched from the trees. The plus side of staying near such water is the lack of mosquitoes, since it's too acidic to lay eggs in. Well, that and the fact that it's stunningly beautiful. Our lodging was right on the edge of the lagoon, and free time could be spent checking out the anacondas and caymans, fishing for pirañas, or going for a swim (no joke). On the evening of our arrival, a simple canoe ride around the lagoon was sufficient to find an array of birds, bats, and three different types of primates (capuchins, squirrel monkeys, and howler monkeys, whose freakishly raspy howl sounds like the beginnings of a storm). Another evening, we got a quick glimpse of the worlds smallest primate, the pygmy marmoset, whose fully grown adults are only 5 inches long.

Whereas the Galapagos has huge numbers of the same animals that were all easy to find and approach, the Amazon is filled with very small populations of a huge diversity of species, each about as hard to find as a stick bug in a pile of sticks. Our days in the Amazon were spent hunting for any and every living thing we could find - a task made exponentially easier by our guides, who not only had the eyes of an eagle, but also knew the flaura and fauna of the Amazon to extremely impressive detail. As if things weren't hard enough to see already, we got to explore the jungle after dark one night. Luckily for us, some animals like to be seen, and what first seemed like a floating ember in the middle of the jungle turned out to be an orange bioluminescent beetle. We also got lucky at times, such as the tangle of breeding anacondas right across from our lodge, and the bright pink roseate spoonbill sitting in plain sight near the river (an animal that our guide hadn't seen in four years). But again, rather than describe all these animals to you, just take a look at the photos.

We were introduced one day to a native family living alongside the Napo river. Obviously these were not the un-contacted, purely traditional natives living deep inside the jungle that might first come to mind, but rather they represented the more modern and widespread amazonian native that still live mostly from the land. We had the opportunity to taste some freshly brewed mate, a drink called chicha (an alcoholic beverage that used to be fermented using the saliva of the natives), and a rather tasty bowl of food (including a very oily weevil larva). Though not at all displeasing to the pallet, this was all in quite sharp contrast to the food we were eating at the lodge, where every meal cooked by our gourmet chef was probably the best I had ever had. Like I said, travelling with my mum allowed me a moment or two of luxury.

As quickly as we had arrived, it was again time to depart. At least we got a goodbye from a juvenile three-toed sloth on the way to our boat. Back in Quito, my mum and I had a few more hours for some wandering and rather interesting people-watching, but eventually we bid farewell, and I was once again on my own. The whole adventure was such an amazingly unique break in my trip, and I couldn't have been happier to spend it with my dear (not so) old mamà.

Stay tuned for the full collection of photos once the internet improves!

Posted by jakegambling 18:00 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)


in a nutshell

Arriving in Cusco was literally a breath of fresh air. I had left the uncomfortably humid climate of the Amazon (as well as northern Colombia), and was finally back in an area where the air was cool and refreshing. This was mostly due to the altitude of Cusco (3,400 m), which meant the air was also quite thin for a big city. Immediately, I also noticed the vast improvement in food (beginning with an empanada so delicious I wanted to cry), and was wooed by the beauty of the city, which was dotted with steep cobblestone streets and ornate cathedrals. Cusco certainly seemed to have no shortage of culture, emphasized by the women walking around town carrying baby goats in slings. Sadly though, after two weeks in the Cusco area, I got the impression that anything that seemed cultural was ultimately for tourism, and the areas outside the large tourist hub in Cusco were really not so unique or appealing. Still, it is a pleasant city, and being right in the middle of the Andes, and I couldn't spend time there without doing at least a little bit of exploring.

Based off a recommendation, I started with a 5 day hike around the Ausangate mountain range, about a 3.5 hour bus ride out of Cusco. This hike began in a small rural village and quickly took us into extremely remote areas, dominated by huge open landscapes and the occasional Alpaca farm. The first day did not look so promising. Although it was initially hot and sunny, as we climbed towards the mountains a few hours into the hike, herds of Alpaca came running back towards their farms from their grazing areas. Our guide assured us that this was a sign of heavy rain. Indeed, it rained quite hard, hailed, and even started blizzarding with snow as tents were being set up, resulting in one tent being blown across the valley. On the bright side, this first camp site also had hot springs, which I'm quite surprised weren't actually boiling considering how hot they really were. After a hot meal and coca leaf tea (no, it doesn't have the same effect as cocaine, but it helps with altitude), it was time for bed at 8 PM. Once the sun goes down and everything starts freezing over (including the tents themselves), there's really no reason to stay awake.

The rest of the days are harder to distinguish. The sun shone all day long, the alpacas roamed in the dozens, the air was thin and dry, and the scenery was spectacular. From a single view point, I could see desert-like rolling hills, sharp multi-coloured mountains displaying brilliant reds and greens, snow-filled peaks with melting glaciers, and turquoise lakes, sourced by cascades of glacier water. And none of this was ever further than two or three kilometres away. Around every corner and over every pass, I kept thinking that it couldn't get much more beautiful, and then it did (I will attempt to do some justice to the scenery with photos, but of course it couldn't all be accurately captured). More amazing still were the small huts inhabited by locals in the middle of nowhere. How they survive in these areas, with no roads, little vegetation, and a multi-day hike to the nearest town is beyond me.

Our second camp spot was neighbouring a fairly active glacier, which fed a turquoise lake below (the French pair I was hiking with were immediately compelled to go for a swim). Every few minutes to an hour, there would be a thunderous crack and boom, as the glacier ice shifted under changing temperatures. The morning of the third day, we were actually woken up by a rather large explosion of the glacier, and all ran out of our tents to watch an avalanche of ice fall down the rocky mountainside into the lake. Later this day, we also passed the highest point of our hike, at 5, 200 m (over 17, 000 feet). While pondering the fact that not even alpine grasses can survive this cold, oxygen-poor environment, I look to my right to see a group of wild vicuña (a non-domesticated relative of the alpaca and llama), casually trotting over the pass. Later on in the day, we set up camp next to what was pretty much a big lump in the ground, filled with chinchillas. I don't know what these animals are living off of, but they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it. Our fourth day of hiking took us past a few more lakes and mountainsides to eventually reach what could be argued to be civilization. This small Quechua village was the home of our guide, and after a long relaxing soak in the local hot springs, we spent the evening and night with his family, including his dogs, kittens, chickens, and alpaca herd of 120 strong (did I mention that the guide did the entire trek in sandals?). The last day, after hiking to a larger village, checking out the Sunday market, and bidding farewell to our guide, ended with a bus ride back to Cusco.

Despite the success of the Ausangate trip, I didn't feel right leaving Cusco without visiting the (probably) most well-known attraction in South America - Machu Picchu. Of the multiple options of getting to the ancient city, I found the most appealing to be another 5 day hike through a region called Salkantay. However, craving an extra day's rest in Cusco after Ausangate, I decided to leave a day later than planned and get the hike done in 4 days (I should be relatively fit by now, right?). Also, blown away by the outrageous prices of having a guide for the hike, I decided to try it solo.

Perhaps all of the good weather had been used up in Ausangte, or perhaps my Salkantay hike lined up perfectly with the beginning of the Peruvian rainy season, but I can't say I was dry for single part of my 4 days to Machu Picchu. The first day started out beautiful and sunny, which was a much needed mental boost, considering I got dropped off 15 km away from the spot I expected to start at (an extra 4 hours of hiking to start the first day). This first day also had the most challenging climb over the Salkantay pass (4, 600 m), which of course was done during a windy downpour of rain, hail, and sleet, accompanied by a thunderstorm to set the mood. During this climb, I also became familiar with how much a 50+ lb bag can take a toll at altitude. After a 12 or so hour hiking day, I was ready to collapse inside my tent, although a few other mishaps prevented the much needed relaxation. My instant coffee (a substance stickier than sugar itself) exploded inside my bag, my only bowl/cup/plate was broken in half, and my tent seemed to have 0% water resistance. I won't lie, I was not a happy camper (pun intended). Waking up literally dripping with water the next morning, I was optimistic for a new day. It was certainly easier than the first, and involved a full day of descent from snowy mountain peaks into semi-tropical jungle. That evening, after having to kick chickens out of my tent, involved another attempt to stay relatively dry during the characteristic thunderstorm.

The third day brought me into the town of Aguas Calientes, a touristy hub marking the entrance into Machu Picchu, where all of the various trails and transportation methods converge into one ultimate location. Even in the off season, this place was bustling. The final morning, I got an early start to climb up to the ruins, but found myself deep in fog about halfway up the mountain. Since the ruins themselves were also saturated with fog, and since the only ticket I was able to buy also included access all the way up Machu Picchu mountain, I figured I might as well climb it (as tired as I already was) in hopes of rising above the fog. After another hour of climbing up stone stairs as steep as ladders, I made it to the peak of Machu Picchu mountain (proudly, the first person of the day to the top). However, as it was still dense with fog (over 1km above Aguas Calientes), I walked back down to the ruins, where the clouds had lifted just enough to see the city in close proximity. Overall, while the ancient Incan village is extremely impressive and beautiful, I can't say it was a highlight. Maybe it was the fog, or the masses of tourists, or maybe I was just to tired to appreciate it, but the magic of Machu Picchu was somewhat lost on me. Definitely worth the visit, but after a few moments of reflection and appreciation, I soon found myself walking back down to find a bus back to Cusco. Worth noting is that on this bus ride back, I sat next to a man called Rodrigo Rodriguez.

I still had a few days before meeting my mum in Ecuador, so I decided I would spend the time in the big city, Lima. Staying two blocks from the beach of the Pacific ocean, a lot of my time in Lima was spent surfing on the Peruvian coastline (alongside pods of dolphins, of course). The landscape actually held quite a strong resemblance to that of Southern California, with palm trees lining the roads, high-rises stretching inland into the desert, well-manicured parks on every street, and large sandy cliffs dropping down into the (usually rather foggy) shoreline. Besides surfing, I spent a lot of time enjoying the Lima cuisine (it is the "gastronomic capital" of the Americas), either exploring unfamiliar items in street corner diners, or divulging in some fresh ceviche at the local fish market. I also went to explore the China town in Lima one day which, despite being fairly large, was completely void of any Chinese people.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the people in South America are vastly different in a big city. Of the two in-depth conversations I had with locals on my first day in Lima, the first one mostly involved a 65 year old man describing to me how he secretly takes Viagra in order to keep his 22 year old girlfriend impressed. The second, although less eccentric initially, ended in an invitation back to the apartment of a young gay Cuban man who works in the adult film business. I kindly declined. It seems the modesty of South Americans is completely lost in the city. Another notable place in Lima is John F. Kennedy Park, a small grassy area close to my accommodation. Being the only place I've seen with a sign reading 'DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CATS HERE' (or something of the equivalent in Spanish), I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that this park is filled with cats. If you try to feed any of the cats (which, judging by their healthy weight, it seems many people do), you can quickly find yourself surrounded by a sea of dozens of them. I liked this park.

Eventually, the time came to head up to Quito, in Ecuador, for some mother/son adventures. Stay tuned for an update on those.

Posted by jakegambling 05:46 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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