Monthly Archives: October 2012

Huaraz, Peru and the Cordillera Blanca Mountain Range

On a trip of this length it’s very easy to make plans only to break them later due to a variety of reasons, including anything from loving a place and wanting to stay longer or even sometimes hating a place and wanting to move on as soon as possible. So we decided early on that our plan was not to have a plan, but instead to choose countries or sections of a continent to visit and figure out the specifics as we traveled. One of the ways we decide where to go is by talking to other travelers. They’ve either done better research than we have or have already been to a place and can give you the thumbs up or down. That’s exactly how we decided to visit Huaraz, Peru. We came across more than a couple travelers that told us Huaraz, and more specifically the mountains surrounding it, were a must see.

Huaraz is considered a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Near the city are the mountain ranges of the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra. These ranges have some of the highest mountains in the Andes, treks that rank in the top 5 or so in the Andes (maybe even the world), great rock climbing and ice climbing, mountain biking, and a myriad of other activities offered by the many guide agencies in town. So it’s easy to see why we were attracted to this area. An interesting little fact about the Cordillera Blanca mountains is that it’s home to the mountain featured in the movie Touching the Void, which is a true story about a climber that had to crawl down much a mountain with a broken leg after his partner cut their climbing rope and left him behind. You’ll have to watch the movie to get the full story.

So, without much planned we made our way to Huaraz. Unfortunately, during our day layover between Chachapoyas and Huaraz, in the beach town of Huanchaco, Sarah picked up a not so friendly bacteria from a plate of ceviche—a dish consisting of fish cooked only by the acidity of a lime. So the first few days in Huaraz were spent resting and recovering. The downside to that time was that cabin fever started to set in for me, but the upside was that our Canadian friends, Jon and Ariane, made their way to Huaraz, allowing us to hang out with them once again.

Our original plan was to do a well known trek called the “Huayhuash” trek. It ranges from 8-14 days in length, depending on the route you take and how much you’re willing to pay a guide agency. After asking around we found out that we missed the best season to do the Huayhuash trek. It was now the rainy season and that section of the Cordillera Blanca range is especially susceptible to the seasonal rain due to it’s location. Other sections, and consequently other treks, are better protected from the rain and were therefore a better option. One of the most popular treks is the Santa Cruz trek, 4 days and 3 nights in length. We opted for this trek due to the amount of time we’d already spent in Huaraz, the lower cost, the need for less technical gear, and the fact that Jon and Ariane were up for doing this trek as well.

We spent a couple more days acclimating to the higher elevation and taking in all that was the city of Huaraz. And due to nationwide teacher protests in Peru our trek was delayed one more day. The jury is out on whether the trek was really delayed as a result of the protests. We found out that our guide agency wasn’t completely honest with us on a few accounts. This seems to be a common practice in Huaraz, likely due to the low profit margins and abundance of guide agencies competing for clients. Sarah and I made the best of the added day and took a guided rock climbing trip.

Below our many photos from out time there.

Photos in and around Huaraz:

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Most of the corn we’ve seen so far has massive corn kernels. It’s corn on steroids. Really it’s just a different type of corn we don’t see in the states.

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We seen many only model U.S. cars through South America. Here’s and old Dodge pickup that was parked near our hostel.

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This was an especially exciting day in Huaraz. While walking through town we stumbled upon a clash between police and the protesters. Minutes before this photo was taken rocks were being thrown and the police and they in return were chasing down the people throwing the rocks. We had to run with the crowd in order to avoid being run over. Kind of scary and thrilling at the same time. For the most part, though, the protests we witnessed all over Peru were peaceful.

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We saw women, and sometimes men, all over Peru dressed in traditional clothing. This photo was taken in the Huaraz market. The hats these women wear are really cool.

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Also at the market we saw Cuyes (Guinea Pigs). They’re eaten all over Peru. We’ve yet to sample any.

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One of the cool things about countries like Peru is that you still see lots of things being fixed, as opposed to in the the U.S. where you simply buy a new version of whatever it is that broke. This is our friend Jon having his battery replaced. The watch failed to work a few days later though.

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While in Huaraz we crossed paths with Erin and Zach, the couple from Seattle that we met at the farm in Ecuador. They are volunteering at an after school program in Huaraz for 3 months. They’re new group of friends introduced us to a local drink called Chuchuguasi, an alcoholic drink with supposed medicinal properties. It was cheap, costing around 40 cents, and strong.

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Me trying on an awesome hat/scarf combo at the artisan’s market.

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You see this hat worn around Peru by some of the men. It’s a wool felt cone.

Climbing near Huaraz:

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On our way to the climbing wall with our guide

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Sarah and I hadn’t climbed for a while and so we opted to have our guide lead the first route. Feel comfortable after the first climb, I led the next two. It felt really good to climb.

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Sarah climbing the first route of the day. Unfortunately, the guide service picked routes that were a little hard. Nonetheless it was still a good time.

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This had good pockets for hand holds but had a slight angle that made it challenging. Plus we were both out of climbing shape.

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The wall was on the outskirts of town in a small neighborhood. This was the view from the neighborhood.

Santa Cruz Trek:

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This is the view looking south (I think) on the second day of the Santa Cruz trek. We had just reached the highest point of the trek.

Day one of the trek started with a 5 hour colectivo ride from Huaraz to the trail head near a small town high in the mountains. We’ve ridden buses through a large portion of the Andes Mountains and I’m still fascinated by the farming that I see in this environment. All of the planting and harvesting is done by hand and cows are used for tilling. Some of the farms are located on very steep hillsides. There are usually grazing sheep scattered about as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t capture any photos along the way so you’ll have to use your imagination. We did manage to capture a couple photos had the highest point of the drive.

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The drive to the starting point of the trek was very dust, hence the face mask.

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This view from the road got us really excited about the trek ahead.

After a long drive we finally arrived at the start of the trek in the Huascaran National Park. The last half of the day we hiked approximately 9 km to the first campsite. Even though we’d been in Huaraz for about a week at that point, we still found it difficult to catch our breath at the slightly higher elevations. I found myself having to catch my breath even when sitting. After the first day that wasn’t a problem.

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Huascaran National Park encompasses the Santa Cruz trek. It’s also the name of the highest peak in the park.

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Our guide and donkey driver preparing the gear on the first day.

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These guys did all of the work.

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The first leg of the trek took us through some small farming communities. Here are some of the folks and their sheep that live near the park.

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Very curios donkeys we encountered on the first day. He seemed so proud perched on his rock.

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It turns out that the donkey’s were very friendly, especially when they knew you had food. This guide stole a banana out of Angelic’s pack.

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As we hiked in the views got better and better. In the foreground is pasture land and you can see the glacier covered peaks in the distance.

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The first night’s campsite at 12,700 feet.

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Soaking up the sun and taking a nap after the first hike.

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Out little tent city.

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The outhouse was in rough shape inside and out.

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First course of the first night’s dinner, soup with a hard boiled egg. The dinners were delicious throughout the trek.

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Second course of rice, potatoes and chicken.

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Me sipping on some coca leaf tea to help with the altitude induced headache I had. This stuff really works. Also sporting my new wool Peruvian cap.

We woke early on the second day to get a jump on the longest day of the trek, at 18 km. The whole crew performed pretty well but I’m proud to say that Sarah and I seemed to be in the best shape of the bunch. It helps that we hand donkeys carrying nearly all of of the gear and the fact that we were sucking on coca leaves the entire time. This day saw the highest point of the trek at 4,750 meters. That’s the highest Sarah and I have ever been. It was very rewarding to reach the top, especially given that the good weather allowed for spectacular views. Over the next two days the weather degraded, so we were lucky to have good weather on the leg of the trek that offered the best views.

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The first day’s breakfast was the best, only because it included avocado. Every day after was only eggs, bread and jam.

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After much thought I decided that this was the best setup for hiking. Being so chilly at those elevations I opted to tuck in the pants to trap the heat. My sandals had more robust soles than my shoes so I went with them. It turned out to be a very good setup.

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The views just got better and better.

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Our guide, Juan, soaking it up. It being all of the goodness of the outdoors.

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We saw a lot of elevation change this day, so coca leaves were a must. Jon and Ariane fueling up.

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Sarah’s first time doing coca leaves.

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Green teeth are a clear sign of coca use.

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And more great views.

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According to our guide, this poor donkey was carrying too much weight, causing him to tip over.

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The stairs right before the summit.

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Punta Union was the highest point of our trek, at 15,580 feet. This is the highest Sarah and I had ever been. It was awesome.

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Posing with the crew at the summit. In order from left to right we have Jon, Ariane (French Canadians), Sarah, Dave, Angelic (England) and Do Ho (South Korea).

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The valley on the other side of Punta Union. Even more great views ahead.

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Happy to be going down hill.

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Sarah near the bottom of the second day’s hike.

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We saw lots of cows and horses grazing throughout the hike. Evidently some our wild and some our owned by people. I don’t know how they track them down. They’re miles and a day or more hike into some parts of the park.

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The second night’s campsite was just around the bend. This was the highest elevation we slept at. It was a little chilly.

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Jon almost to the campsite.

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River near our campsite.

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We arrived to a group of horses running through an open field. It was really cool to see the horses interact. They grazed near our campsite for the evening.

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Our asses taking a well deserved break.

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Awesome sunset of the first night.

The third day was a bit shorter than the previous day, coming in at round 12km. Most of the hike was down hill and flat, which was a welcome change from almost entirely uphill the day before. Our guide informed us that in February of this year a lake broke loose creating a landslide that traveled several miles down the valley we were hiking that day and deposited material in some areas up to 7 meters deep. It turned what used to be a lush, green valley floor, into a brown, dry, rock covered desert. We saw clear evidence of the extreme changes made to the environment by the landslide near our campsite and along much of the hike that day. Luckily no hikers were in the area at the time. Sadly, many horses, cows and donkeys were killed.

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We woke the next morning to snow on the ground.

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The valley we hiked through on the third day. All of the land in the foreground and the light brown section at the bottom of the valley is all of the debris carried by the land slide that occurred in February.

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More land slide damage.

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Our donkey’s hard at work again.

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This is better view of the debris deposited by the land slide on the valley floor.

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The glacier melt in some areas was crystal clear. I was almost tempted to drink it.

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There were rock walls like this throughout the park. Before being designated a park, people farmed and raised livestock. These walls are very similar to those scattered all over New England.

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We came across quite a few bones.

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Getting a little closer to the third campsite.

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The plants changed as we descended. It became more and more desert like, with sand and some cacti appearing. This view reminds me of Yosemite a bit.

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Someone propped this skull up on the trail. Kind of ominous.

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Sarah and Juan.

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The river at this point was really flowing.

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The last campsite.

With the poor weather and swarms of biting insects at our campsite, everyone was in a hurry to get back to civilization. The last leg of the trek went by pretty quickly, only taking about 2 hours to finish. The trail followed the river that we had been following since the end of the second day. It was really cool to see the river grow to become larger and faster as we moved down stream. Much of the river is fed by glacier melt-water, and over the last two days of the trek, rain water. We ended the trek at the point that most tour companies start the trek. I’m not sure why we went the opposite way. Maybe to do more downhill than up.

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At the end of the hike. This is usually where most people start the hike.

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This little guy greeted us at the end.

This section of the Andes is amazing and by far my favorite of what we’ve experienced thus far. We hope to return to the Cordillera Blanca region in the future to do follow through on our original plan to do the longer Huayhuash trek.

Along the way we took several panoramic shots. All but one of them stitched together well in Photoshop.

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Categories: Nature, Outdoors, South America | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Hello Peru! Chachapoyas, Kuelap, and Gocta

Our trip from Ecuador to Peru was quite exhausting…

We had started our first of two days at 6 am in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. We coincidentally met up with a couple from Montreal Canada, Ariane and Jon, that we had met the day before. The four of us were all headed for the same border crossing into Peru. We opted for the less popular border crossing in La Balsa because it was closer to our first destination in Peru, Chachapoyas.

Our first mode of transportation was a 7 hour bus ride to Zumba Ecuador, then an open sided truck called Ranchero, for another 1.5 to La Balsa, Ecuador. We crossed very easily into Peru as we were the only ones. We took a Taxi from the border for another 1.5 to San Ignacio, Peru. After 12 hours of travel time, we had some beers and stayed the night in San Ignacio.

Dave and I in the Ranchero

Check out the massive security between Ecuador and Peru. It was crazy.

Our taxi ride from the border to San Ignacio with our new friends.

We thought we were getting some yummy dark beer finally. Turns out it’s really sweet. Oh well.

We woke up early the second day too and started with a tuk tuk ride to a colectivo, a 15 passenger van, to Jaen. Once we were in Jaen, we took another tuk tuk to a colectivo to Bagua Grande. Once there, we took our final colectivo to Chachapoyas. In total, the second day was 8-9 hours of travel.

Crammed into the back of the dusty colectivo. A nice peruvian couple did offer us some of their freshly cut pineapple. We couldn’t say no, it would have been rude. We survived, there were no bugs in the pineapple and it was tasty. Thanks again nice Peruvian couple!

Finally in Chachapoyas!

Chachapoyas was a hub for some of the local attractions. We decided to visit two of them. The first was a trip to the pre-Inca civilization of the Chachapoyas people called Kuelap. It was quicker to get there if you booked it through a tour, so we did.

One the way to Kuelap we stopped at another pre-Inca civilization site that was build on the side of a mountain face. There were estimated to be about 200 people living on this cliff. Not sure how they did it or how they got from house to house.

A little hard to see the actual rock walls, but they are there on the side of this mountain.

Close up of the rock walls they build on the side of the mountain for their houses.

Kuelap fortress was recently rediscovered in 2006 and is on top of a mountain at 9,842 ft high in the cloud forest.

Kuelap park  entrance

It was originally built by the Chachapoyas people and was estimated to house anywhere from 2400-4000 people as it has 400 round house structures. To put it into comparison, Machu Picchu is estimated to house 200-300, if I remember correctly.

Map showing the layout of the round house structures that were found inside the Kuelap Fortress.

Kuelap was eventually invaded and taken over by the  Inca and then several decades later, the Spanish and Chachapoyas people worked together to reclaim Kuelap Fortress.  It was determined to be pre-Inca as all the structures are round and Incas always build things in squares. Here are many great pictures from the site.

This wall surrounds the fortress and can get up to 19 meters (62 ft) high. The fortress is about 600 meters (1,968 ft) long and 110 meters (361 ft) wide.

Entrance #1 into the fortress. It might be a little hard to see, but they started out wide and then got narrower as it got closer to the entrance for safety reasons.

Top view on entrance #1.

View from above entrance #3, this shot does a good job showing how high up this city was.

The tight squeeze up to the second level where the most important people lived.

Human remains were found in the walls of some of the buildings.

Dave and I standing next to the reconstructed building to show what they looked.

The three sideways diamonds represent the earth, sea, and air.

A face carved into the highest structure.

Dave with the cloud abyss behind him.

One of the densely population sections of Kuelap.

The second attraction we decided to go see was the Gocta waterfall. The waterfall has two falls with a total height of 771 meters (2,530 ft). If you talk to the local tour guides, they’ll say it’s the third tallest in the world, but if you google it, it’s actually the 16th tallest. Still, pictures doesn’t do it justice, this is a tall waterfall.

The view from the road towards the waterfall.

Dave in front of the falls trying to get some perspective on size. Also, note Dave’s facial hair.

It was a 3 mile hike through the Andes Mountains and through some farms near the village. This trail and some of the roads to the village were not there prior to 2005. Before these were created it was a 4-day trek to go see the waterfall. I’m glad these were constructed when we were visiting.

Trail along the mountains towards the waterfall.

This section was a little scary because there was loose rock and a steep fall to the river below.

A small section was very jungle like.

Overall the waterfall was very beautiful and a lot prettier than we thought it was going to be.

Getting close enough that you can’t see the first of the two waterfalls.

Dave and I and Ariane and Jon at the bottom of the falls.

It’s hard to show just how tall it actually is.

Categories: Nature, South America, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: good food, fireworks and horseback riding

Vilcabamba is in the southern part of Ecuador, and though it’s considered a standard stop on the gringo circuit, we figured we’d stop by to see what it was all about on our way south to Peru. Just as with Cuenca, Vilcabamba is attracting a lot of folks from the U.S. and other wealthy first world countries looking to relocate and potentially retire outside of their home countries (they’re attracted by a lower cost of living, the fact that Ecuador uses U.S. currency and potentially a more relaxed and slower pace of life). Knowing this ahead of time we assumed that Vilcabamba would have the same vibe and be of a similar scale to Cuenca. Suffice to say, our assumptions were wrong. It’s a much smaller town and not nearly as developed as Cuenca. That’s not a bad thing at all, just not what we expected.

We arrived late in the day and didn’t have much time to search for a hostel before sunset. We don’t like walking around a city we don’t know in the dark. So we typically try to arrive early enough as to give ourselves time to find an affordable place to stay. Given that it was late and darkness was quickly approaching, we stuck closely to the guidebook’s recommendations and only checked out three hostels. The first was all booked up; the second was nice but a little pricey; and the third was weird, i.e. no one was staying there and there was at least one room that looked like a sketchy operating room. So we settled on the second hostel, prearranging to switch to a less expensive room the next day. The hostel was called “ Rendezvous” and was appropriately owned and operated by a French man in his forties. One thing that made paying a little more than usual for our room was that breakfast was included. That was a first for us during our travels. Though this seems to be commonplace for hostels in Vilcabamba we definitely saw it as a treat. It was a quality meal on top of that, including fresh fruit or eggs, homemade bread with butter and jam, fresh squeezed juice, and coffee or hot chocolate.

The hostel we stayed at in Vilcabamba.

Being that it’s a popular place for wealthy U.S. citizens to relocate, things are a bit more expensive in Vilcabamba. So for dinner the first night we went to a place close to the hostel and each got the soup of the day and shared a plate of delicious nachos. After a little exploring the next day we were able to find a great restaurant with very good prices. The tactic for finding decent food at a good price is to walk around town looking for the place that the locals eat. Since they’re most likely earning wages that are more in line with the cost of living, the chance is good that wherever they choose to eat is more affordable. And affordable for them usually means affordable for us.

Great restaurant in Vilcabamba serving Ecuadorian food at an affordable price.

The place we found was called “Katherine’s” and surprisingly it was located right outside of the main square where many of the most expensive restaurants were located. They had several lunch plates to choose from all costing $2.50 each. That’s a great price considering that lunch in Ecuador almost always consists of a bowl of soup, a main dish with rice, meat and sometimes veggies, and a juice. Being such a great deal we decided we could afford a lunch for each of us, as opposed to sharing a plate like the night before. To our surprise the lunch combo was more than enough food for one person. With the price, the portions and the quality food, we decide to eat lunch there the next day, but this time splitting the meal. That came out to $1.25 per person. That’s definitely our style.

Katherine’s restaurant soup. It’s more like a stew being that there’s a good food to broth ratio.

This was the second half of the meal, including rice, chicken, veggies and pasta, and a drink.

It’s also worth mentioning that part of the reason we like to save money on meals is so that we can enjoy some of the local sweets. I use the term “local” pretty loosely since many of the desserts we choose are things we can get back home. Either way it’s a nice indulgence. My favorite dessert yet has been the Tres Leches (Three Milks) cake we had in Vilcabamba. It was recommended by a fella from New York that’s been living in Vilcabamba for several months trying to decide whether to completely relocate and settle down. He was a wealthy businessman who grew tired of the corporate rat race, as he put it. Anyway, back to the cake. It was delicious, especially with a cup of quality coffee. What’s interesting is that though much of the quality coffee consumed in the U.S. might be grown in places like Ecuador, most of what’s served at restaurants is instant dissolvable coffee. This has been our experience thus far. So to get a good cup of joe is something to be excited about.

Tres Leches cake and a good cup of coffee for dessert.

One of the days we were exploring Vilcabamba we saw a handful of guys constructing some sort of bamboo structure in the main square. We’d seen a similar structure in one of the other towns we’d visited but didn’t know what it was. After closer inspection we discovered that it was covered in fireworks. Seeing this we decide we had to be around for the show later that night. With a little questioning we figured out what time the show would start. So we made sure to arrive a little early to secure a good spot to observe. As with finding a good place to eat, we settled into a spot near where the locals were standing. Being the observant people that we are, we saw that the spot we chose was a little close to the bamboo tower of fireworks but decided to stay put anyway. This was partly due to the fact that it was raining and the spot was under cover, but also because standing so close to a burning tower of fireworks would never be allowed in the U.S. So this was our chance to live on the edge.

Bamboo tower strapped with fireworks, pre-show.

The tower seemed to be a pretty solid structure. And to verify this, the engineer in the foreground of the above photo, as well as some random old dudes from the town, gave it a shake test several times before the show. We thought for sure that the tower was going to crumble under the force with which these guys were shaking it. But I guess it’s better to have it fall apart at that time than when the fireworks are ignited and the whole town is standing within feet of the structure. This picture also shows how close we were to the structure. We soon found out just how bad of an idea that was.

The bamboo fireworks show in action.

The fireworks show from a safer vantage point.

The start of the fireworks show coincided with the end of an evening church service right next door. There was some sort of the connection between the show and the church service. We think having something to do with the celebration of a Saint. As soon as the first fireworks ignited, being the intelligent people that we are, we decided to relocate. I just remember Sarah squeezing my arm and nervously moving away from the tower. The photos above show our starting point and subsequent new location, behind the churchgoers.  Surprisingly, none of the nearby buildings that were showered with sparks during the show caught on fire. Sadly though, the grand finale, i.e. biggest fireworks spinney wheel at the top of the tower, did not ignite, likely due to the rain. Regardless of that, it was a pretty exciting show. Catholics in Ecuador know how to celebrate.

The next day, and our final full day in Vilcabamba, we decided to take a guided horseback riding trip with a company called Horses of Holger. Based on our past experiences with horseback riding in the U.S., neither of us was very excited about horseback riding. It typically involves walking on a horse in a line of horses and is usually a pretty tame experience. After doing a bit of research about trips in this area, particularly with Horses of Holger, we were enticed by exciting trails and great views in the Andes Mountains.

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The office of Horses of Holger. It was two blocks from our hostel.

The trip we chose involved riding horses from the town of Vilcabamba to the home of Holger and his family high in the Andes Mountains. The first leg of trip was about 1.5 to 2 hours climbing the steep and narrow trails to his house. Once there, we took about a 15 minute walk to the highest point of the property where we had a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. Much of the family land is used as pasture for cows and horses with some land devoted to farming crops like bananas and yuca. In total the family has 200 hectares of land. The time of year that we were there was pretty dry, with the rainy season about to start. So much of the land had a golden color but would soon change to a lush green.

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The horses lined up and ready to go.

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On our way up. Sarah’s second in line wearing the orange shirt.

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This is my second horseback riding trip in Latin America. Both times I was way too big for my horse. The horses are much bigger in the U.S. My pony’s name was Alta-ir, which literally translates to High-to go. Something to do with the stars.

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Sarah was a much better fit for her horse Hidalgo.

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Getting ready to start our hike up to the lookout.

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The view gets better as we climb higher. The air also gets thinner and breathing harder.

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This little guy followed us all the way up, sometimes catching a ride along the way.

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Sarah proudly standing at the summit.

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Sarah and I with our host Holger.

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Panoramic from the lookout on Holger’s property. (click to enlarge)

After returning from the hike, Holger brewed the group some coffee from beans he’d grown on the farm. I spent a little time relaxing in his hammock in the front yard taking in the fresh crisp air while observing some of the animals living on the farm. His home and the land around it is a pretty amazing place. There’s no road to the house and the only way to get there is on foot or by horse.

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Holger lighting a fire to brew coffee for the riders. What a nice guy.

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There’s our friend again.

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Roosters sure are pretty. It’s that redeeming quality that allows us to put up with all of their cocka-doodle-doodling. It’s a rare day that we don’t hear a rooster in South America.

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Relaxing at Holger’s house with his friendly animal neighbors.

The last leg of the trip we retraced our path back to Vilcabamba. My favorite part of any horseback riding trip is getting the horses to run. Most of the time you’re on a narrow trail and so it’s difficult to find room to run. So I would make my horse stop long enough to put a gap between me in the horse in front of me. Once there was enough room I would signal the horse to run until we caught up with the other horses. The best opportunity to run came in the last 10 minutes of the ride. We took a slight detour at the end of the trip down a road under construction, providing a little more room for the horses to spread out. I took this as an opportunity to push my horse a little more and pass some of the other more timid horses and riders. Up until this point the fastest the horse would go was at a trot, which isn’t that fast and involves a lot of bouncing, and isn’t a full out run. After a bit of encouragement—tapping the horse on his side with the short length of rope attached to the reins—I was able to get the horse to run. Running with a horse is so much smoother of a ride than trotting. The horse glides with only a slight jolt when his feet touch the ground. Being that we were so close to home the horses were more than willing to run because it meant getting us amateur riders off of their backs.

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Headed back down the mountain on the narrow trails.

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Almost home. I’m not sure what path the trip takes in the rainy season. This river bed was pretty wide in spots, indicating that it can get pretty full.

The horseback riding was definitely the highlight of our visit to Vilcabamba. I don’t think we were there long enough to see what some of the folks who decided to resettle there see in the town. For us, a few days was plenty enough.

Categories: Nature, South America, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A day hike in Cajas National Park

Dave and I wavered on paying a tour company to take us to Cajas National Park, but it was going to be about $40 each to do this. We did some research online and found that this park is one of the few in Ecuador that has some marked trails. We took a trip to the tourism office in Cuenca and they provided us with information on how to get there and assured us the trails were actually marked. So we decided to save some money and do it ourselves.

View from the park office at Cajas National Park.

How to get to Cajas National Park:

  • Take any bus from downtown Cuenca to south terminal, also called Feria Libre which is listed on the front of the bus. Bus Ride $0.25 each and about 15 minutes long. We started to look for a bus at 6:15-6:30 am.
  • Take any bus from Feria Libre headed to Guayaquil through Cajas. We confirmed with the bus driver and asked them to let us know when we were at the park office. Bus ride $2.00 each and about 30 minutes long. We arrived at Feria Libre at 6:45 am and the bus to Guayaquil came at about 7:20 am.
  • No entrance fee to Cajas and they provide you with a map. We decided to do trail #2.
  • After hiking, wait on the street for buses from Guayaquil to Cuenca to flag down. We were told they come every 30-40 minutes. Another $2.00 ride. Right as we got back to the office there was a bus coming down the road, we ran and caught it. The run was probably the hardest part of the day.
  • Once at Feria Libre, take any bus headed to downtown Cuenca. Another $0.25 ride.

Dave and I at the park entrance.

Once we were at the park, they provided us with a map, information on the weather (it was a really clear day and should be no fog/clouds), and provided guidance on which trail to take. We were told that trail #2 has better views but has higher elevation change than trail #1. We had decided before we came that we were going to do trail #1. We were easily persuaded with thought of better views and from the assurance we got from a couple, a Peruvian women and an Australian man, who also decided to do trail #2.

Trail #2 is green on the map we were provided.

The actual trail head is behind the lake. We took a clearly worn trail around the lake with some great views of the lake. One of my favorite shots came from around the lake.

One of the many good views from around the lake.

My favorite shot of the day.

While on this trail, we eventually caught up with the couple and started chatting. We got along so well that we ended up spending the day and night with them. Jake co-owns a guiding company in Riobamba and also started an eco-volunteer website for Ecuador called Ecuadorecovolunteer.org. His girlfriend, Natalia, works as a biologist in the Amazonian jungle. Both of them were very interesting people to talk and share the day with. Jake had a lot of useful information for us on where to hike in south america, people to contact, books to read, and movies to watch. We were both very fortunate and excited to have met them both.

The four of us took a little while to find the start of trail #2 and once we did we realized it went straight up a mountain side. Breathing was very hard because of the altitude and we took many breaks. There was also some spots were it was a little scary because the trail was very steep and the path was loose gravel.

Jake helping Natalia up the scariest part of the trail.

Taking a break to catch our breath and calm ourselves from the really steep section.

Almost to the top of the really steep section.

Pretty scenic trail to the top.

The views from the top were pretty spectacular and you had a full 360 degree view. The mountains in Ecuador are huge. This peak stood at 4,260 meters, which is 13,976 ft. This is the highest I’ve ever been!

Soaking up the sun and the views. It was also VERY quiet and peaceful.

Dave enjoying his peanut butter and banana sandwich and checking out the map. Of course.

The group, myself, Dave, Jake, Natalia, and two girls from Germany that we met up there.

The way down was also steep and required some technique, for me anyway. The technique was to grab the dry, very strong grass and then slowly take a step. It worked, I’m here to talk about it uninjured. I think we also got off trail at the bottom of the mountains. There were many unmarked trails that lead back to the lake and we followed one of them. It worked out, but I don’t believe we did the full #2 trail.

Perfect technique.

I want to point out how amazed I was at how Natalia hiked the whole trail in dress boots. She was also amazed but said she’d never do it again.

I think this one portrays how big the mountains are.

After a day full of hiking with awesome views and meeting some great people, we saved ourselves $71 to top it all off. This was by far one of the best days of our trip. Below are some more pictures of the day. Click on the images to see a larger version.

It is really rare to see forest above 4,000 meters, but in Cajas they have the quinua forest which is shown behind Dave. They were mostly in the shadows behind big peaks.

Very interesting plant that grew through the spongy like plants. You can see the water it’s holding.

Dave on the trail around the lake.

Very spiky plant that grew throughout the park.

Another panoramic of the park.

Categories: Nature, South America, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Cuenca: One of the many gems of Ecuador

By the time we arrived in Cuenca we had spent a little over 3 weeks in Ecuador, by which time we had visited a handful of its cities and driven threw a dozen more. Those places shaped our view of Ecuador and allowed us to make assumptions about the next town we might visit. It’s safe to say that the city of Cuenca didn’t quite fit the mold of those other places. Cuenca and the surrounding area—especially Cajas National Park—were beautiful. Don’t get me wrong, there is an abundance of beautiful places in Ecuador, but of the places we saw, Cuenca and Cajas National Park top the list.

The most obvious example of this is the architecture. Most of the buildings are in good shape and nearly all of them had vibrant red/orange clay tiled roofs. Some of the streets were paved with nice stones, specifically near the town square. Though small, the town square rivals that of the capital city Quito. The overall beauty of the city, in addition to the low relative cost of living, might be part of what attracts many of the retirees from the U.S. and other wealthy countries. Cuenca has a relatively large expatriate community, somewhere around 1500 people living permanently and another 1,000 with long term visas—according to a New York Times article. It was pretty obvious too–we saw lots of gringos. But it seemed as though the expats and other visitors stuck to a small chunk of the city.

Travelers that might be turned off by the fact that it’s popular stop along the gringo trail shouldn’t be. It’s a friendly and attractive city with great historical architecture, and not to mention, the best variety of food we came across during our travels in Ecuador. The cost of our hostel wasn’t so bad either, probably because we were there just after the busy season.

Here are some pics from our visit, as well as couple shots of the drive from Guayaquil to Cuenca through Cajas National Park. The next post will go into more detail about Cajas National Park.

Cuenca Panoramic

Drive through Cajas National Park.

A couple peaks in Cajas National Park.

The drive through Cajas National Park was spectacular. The road reminds me of the kind they use in car commercials showing a sweet sports car driving in a beautiful location on crazy windy roads.

The view from our hostel. We stayed at “Tourists of the World” hostel.

The church in the central square.

Cuenca central square.

Beautiful building near the square.

Same building, different view.

Blue dome and blue sky…awesome.

This flower market was open every day that we were there. The stalls were all run by local women.

The local market where we bought most of our food. As usual we had to shop around and negotiate a bit to get the best prices. It had two levels and had pretty much everything you need. What’s interesting is that many of the towns we visit have local markets like this as well as more modern grocery stores. I wonder how long these markets will hang in there.

The Pumppungo site was created and occupied by groups that were part of the Incan empire. I believe the site construction dates back to the late 15th century and was later destroyed by the Spanish.

Our last night in Cuenca. This was the view from one of the balconies at our hostel.

 

Categories: Architecture, South America, Traveling | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

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