Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rio Getaway -- Paraty, Brazil

A four hour bus ride west of Rio brings one to Paraty, Brazil. It is an old colonial town that first boomed due to gold, then coffee. Now it's main business is tourism.

Debora and I were there last weekend and it's a lovely, charming town that's great for a weekend. It's quite photogenic, too.

In one sense it's very walkable -- no motorized vehicles are allowed in the historic part of town. But the cobblestones are large and old and it can be dangerous to take one's eyes off of one's next step, lest one turn an ankle.

This house is owned by the Brazilian royal family. I didn't realize Brazil had a royal family, but when it was run by the Portugeuse it had an emperor until the mid-19th century. They switched to a democracy, but the lineage of the royal family lives on. They have zero power and are not in the tabloids like in the UK, but they are still quite wealthy and are apparently trying to regain the throne.

Rusty bicycle still in use

On Saturday we went on a jeep tour to visit four waterfalls and two cachaca distilleries. Cachaca is the national hooch that they make from sugar cane. It is the basis for the caipirinha, my new favorite summertime cocktail. Here's our tour guide showing us a distillery. They grow the sugar cane right outside this building.

Some monkeys were hanging out near one of the waterfalls. Note the long tail and crazy white plumes of hair on its head. Kind of an Einstein look.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rio Getaway - Niteroi & Itacoatiara

Rio de Janeiro sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay and Ipanema beach faces south on the Atlantic ocean. Directly east across the bay from downtown Rio sits the city of Niteroi. It is full of towering beach condos, just like Rio, and has the added benefit of enjoying a beautiful view of Rio. Beyond Niteroi are many more beaches separated by jutting mountains that rise several hundred feed above the sand.

Some of these beaches access relatively clean water and some of them look just as beautiful but are never used because the water is too polluted. During the 2016 Olympics you will hear a lot about the polluted water conditions here. It's quite sad. Rio has this amazing resource of beaches and ocean, but they've been pouring sewage directly into it for years and the health hazard is now quite high. It's weird to see these huge, long, beautiful beaches right in the city with zero people using them.

Last week Debora and I took a few days to visit friends of hers who own a Bed & Breakfast in the charming beach community of Itacoatiara. The scenic route took us about 90 minutes to drive in light traffic from Ipanema (the blue dot on the map) to the red pin placed at Itacoatiara.

Niteroi, Brazil

Me enjoying the view of Niteroi from the plaza of the contemporary art museum.

Debora and I outside the museum

The surf was quite strong and turbulent when we arrived at Itacoatiara. I've seen bigger waves before (north shore of Oahu, Hawaii), but have never seen waves this intense. I felt like I could have sat and watched/listened to them all day long. This photo is Itacoatiara beach. You can hike to the top of the mountain or rock formation on the right.

Here's a photo from on top of that mountain/rock formation. Just as I got up there this paraglider was getting ready to take off. That's Itacoatiara beach below.

It was a chill coupla days for Debora and I -- lounging at the beach, walking along the beach, checking out a couple other beaches nearby, and hanging out with our wonderful hosts, Laura and Rodrigo. Alas, I forgot to get a photo of them or their nice B&B. This is the next beach over, a fishing beach.

Beyond the fishing beach is another beach that's more built up with fancy houses and small beach-side restaurants. It was also very enjoyable to walk along and just sit and watch the waves roll in. Does it ever get old to stare at the surf?

Tomorrow Debora and I are heading for another weekend getaway, this time to Paraty, Brazil. Paraty is a cool, colonial city four hours from Rio by bus. 
And in two weeks the Olympics will be here. I have tickets for table tennis and track & field (the day when they do the 4x100 finals for both men and women). Once the schedules come out and I know what teams are actually playing on what days, I'll probably also go see some volleyball and maybe some cycling. It turns out I'm really not that interested in the actual contests of the summer games. Winter Olympics are more my style and I had the pleasure of witnessing them in Salt Lake City in 2002. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

One Night in Rio: Bip Bip

There were only six chairs in the tiny establishment, each filled by one of the six women playing music -- two acoustic guitars, two tambourines, one bongo drum and one Garfunkel. They were playing mellow Brazilian samba songs which I didn't know, but enjoyed. After a song the people listening snapped their fingers to show their appreciation. Do the neighbors get pissed if there's too much noise? That would seem odd for Rio.

If you wanted to listen you grabbed a chair outside or stood on the sidewalk (the empty chair you see on the right of the photo was, along with me, on the sidewalk). The musicians didn't give a shit if there were people there or not, never looking out at the audience of 10-20 people while I was there. They were there for themselves. They were there for the music.

If you wanted a beer, you could help yourself to the selection of five different local swill brews in the fridge back behind the counter. Just make sure to let the owner know -- he's the chubby short guy with the grey beard and the unbuttoned shirt sitting just outside the bar next to the adding machine and the baskets of change.

I paid three dollars for two cans of beer and one hour of sweet music in a kickass local setting. I guess this sorta thing happens at the Bip Bip most weekend nights. I shall return.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Rio Redux

If you've been following along with my travels in South America than you may remember that I visited Rio de Janeiro, Brazil back in May. 

Well, I'm back in Rio for the next couple months, and not just for the caipirinhas or the Olympics.

I'm back for a girl. We met the last night I was here in May and only had time for a few drinks. But we really hit it off and now I'm back so we can get to know each other a little better (if you know what I mean). She's smart and funny and beautiful, just like me. 

Last week we spent three nights down at Ilha Grande, an island a few hours southwest of Rio. It's a fun getaway island that has one small town with sand streets and maybe 1,000 residents. There are nice hiking trails that climb over the mountainous interior to beaches and waterfalls.

Me at the beach after a few caipirinhas:

Me at the waterfall, eagerly anticipating my next caipirinha:

Debora, my new special lady friend, at happy hour one afternoon:

My plan right now is to stay in Rio with Debora at her condo near famous Ipanema beach through the Olympics in August. Then I'll go back to travel in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia for a few months and we'll connect again for a time either back in Rio or maybe she will join me elsewhere. We shall see.

Obligatory "Girl from Ipanema" reference

Friday, June 24, 2016

Arequipa, Peru

When most people think of Peru they think of Machu Picchu. It turns out that Peru has much more to offer the traveler -- from many more Inca ruins to the deepest canyons in the world (over 4,000 meters deep) to a mountain range second only to the Himalayas.

I recently spent a week and a half in and around Arequipa, Peru. Arequipa is in southern Peru, just west of Lake Titicaca and south of Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Highlights of the area include Colca Canyon, some 6,000 meter high volcanoes, and the city of Arequipa, which is built in a Spanish colonial style and many of the buildings are made out of petrified volcanic ash. There are many volcanoes here.

Here's a photo of the beautiful main plaza in the center of Arequipa.

Just north of Arequipa a couple volcanoes loom over the city. One has the iconic form that we think of when we picture a volcano in our head. The other is not as iconic looking, but is one of the easiest 6,000 meter (19,900') mountains to climb -- you can drive on a road up to 15,000'. The highest peak you see in the photo below is Chachani. It doesn't look like much but it is the 6,000 meter peak that I climbed in a two-day outing from Arequipa.

The first day we drove up a 4x4 road to 15,000'. When I put on my pack at this altitude it was already the highest I had ever been on earth. We had a group of 9 hikers and 3 guides and we hiked in for about two hours to reach our campsite.

After 6pm dinner we went to bed so we could get up at 12:30am and be on the trail a little after 1am.

Lit only by stars and headlamps, we began our ascent to the peak, expected to take about 6 hours. The trail was full of switchbacks almost all the way -- not technically challenging but steep and at this altitude it was difficult. Any time I tried to gaze up at the stars or to look back down the mountain at the trailing headlamps of other hikers, I got a little dizzy. I could definitely feel the lack of oxygen and was light-headed all the way up.

Just after sunset we arrived at the summit.

Of the 9 hikers who started in my group, only 6 of us made it to the summit. The others succumbed to either the cold or the altitude. The temperature ranged from 20-30 degrees fahrenheit. I was comfortable when hiking, but we often had to stop and wait for the rest of our group to catch up, and then I got cold. Because I'm backpacking through South America I have not been carrying my full complement of winter clothing, but the tour agency had some layers we could use.

6,000 meters. Almost 20,000 feet. It felt good to know that my body can be relatively comfortable at that altitude.

After getting back to Arequipa on Sunday evening, Monday morning at 3am I was picked up by a van to go on a 3-day backpacking trip in Colca Canyon.

This photo was taken at the end of the 3-day trek after we had climbed back out of the canyon. It is the crew that I hiked with (2 Brits, 2 Canucks, 2 Amerks, 2 Swiss, 1 Francais + Peruvian guide):

Since the time of the Incas this canyon has been used for agriculture. The rest of the region is mostly a desert, but there are glaciers in the mountains above the canyon that help keep it arable. However, at one place we saw a section that had been abandoned because the receding glacier was no longer feeding a stream that accessed its patch of land.

Our crew hiking down to the little pueblo where we spent the first night.

Second night was spent at this oasis, a lush spot down near the river. There was natural spring water that fed five gorgeous swimming pools. If this were in California it would go for $500/night. In Peru the rooms were spartan with no electricity and we paid about $10 for the night here. It was great.

After beers with new friends that night I ended up last man standing when they cut out all the power to the facility around 10pm. I noticed the amazing stars and laid down in the grass, face up, listening to Golden Smog's version of Bowie's "Starman" on repead in my earbuds. Heavenly.

Another shot of lodging at the oasis down in the bottom of the canyon. Note that this place where we were hiking was not the part of the canyon that is over 12,000' deep. That part is farther downstream and I did not actually see it. This part is about 4,000' deep and we climbed out the next day.

If you find yourself in Peru, be sure to explore beyond Machu Picchu. Peru is full of spectacular sights and I will share more with you in a couple weeks after I go backpacking in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Teaser photo of the Cordillera Huayhuah where I will be soon:

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Week in Costa Rica

After seeing neither friends nor family for over six months, I was honored last week to meet up in Costa Rica with two great friends from the States. Here we are looking shady after swimming in a volcano crater lake four hours northwest of San Jose, Costa Rica. John is on the left and Mitch is in the center.

We spent the week at Rancho Margot ecolodge near the Arenal Volcano.

Rancho Margot is quite an impressive operation. With 400 acres, 50 staff and up to 100 visitors they are virtually entirely off the grid for not just electricity but food as well. Hydro power fuels the energy needs and the waste from the cows, chickens and pigs helps fuel the fruits and vegetables. They even use methane gas from the animals waste in the kitchen. Did you know that a banana tree produces only one bunch of bananas? It's true. So at Rancho Margot they cut up a banana tree after it produces bananas and feed it to the cows and pigs.
Here's one of the pig farmers with future visitors' dinner.

The big draw around these parts is the Arenal volcano. Costa Rica is full of volcanoes and beaches and ecolodges. Eco-tourism is big industry here. This picture is Arenal on the left and Cerro Chato on the right. You can't climb to the top of Arenal anymore, but Cerro Chato (on the right in photo below) rewards a very steep and muddy couple hour hike with a refreshing swim in a crater lake (see above). 

Costa Rica did not disappoint when it came to wildlife. First one notices the voices of the critters of the rain forest -- chirps and croaks and chickawhirlydoos that you can only hear in the tropics. A howler monkey serenaded us as we descended from Cerro Chato.

The next day we were hiking along a trail on the ecolodge property and noticed some monkeys high in the trees. There were maybe 6 or 8 of them off to our right and 20-30' overheard. They were kind of normal monkey size, like a 3-year old human with long arms and legs. A couple of them crossed over to the other side of the trail, still in the treetops and I made a joke about it being a military-like flanking maneuver. They were making a lot of noise and upon closer study they did not appear to be enjoying our company. Some of them were splayed out between branches loudly screaming at us and shaking the branches attached to all four limbs.

But this was a cool experience so we just kept watching. Then something fell through the canopy and landed on the ground about 10' away from me. It was a branch about 12" long and 1.5" thick. I think they threw it at us! We kept our eyes up and there were enough leaves and branches in between us that we weren't too afraid of falling sticks. A minute later a much larger branch came down, maybe 8' long and 8" thick, but it missed us by 20'.

And then, was it raining? It sounded like a light rain on the leaves over there by Mitch. But Mitch knew it was something else. Mitch had been peed on and that was our cue to get out of there. Because we all know what comes after number one.

Mitch and John after surviving the spider monkey attack

It was later that we learned they were spider monkeys, brown in color, after sharing our story with the staff.

Mitch is afraid of snakes so it's a good thing he left a day earlier than John and I and was unable to join us on another hike within the ecolodge property. John and I were hiking up to a ridge clearing that had a great view of the lake and volcano. After our monkey experience a few days prior, I was looking up in the trees as I walked ahead of John up the four-foot wide trail.

John jumped and eeked when he saw a snake close to my left foot squirm away from us. There was a steep hill on the left side of the trail and we were able to capture an action photo as it slowly worked its way up the hill to safety.

The color scheme is red-yellow-black and if you know your snakes, you may know the saying "red to yellow, kill a fellow".

This was a deadly coral snake. Coral snake venom is a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes breathing muscles. Respiratory failure can occur within hours. Fortunately, like bears and most other animals people are afraid of, they're more afraid of us and would rather run away than confront us. I'm proud to say that this was my second close encounter with a deadly snake (you may remember reading about this one).

I have never been a coffee drinker. When I was a kid there were no coffee shops and parents didn't give coffee to their 10-year old children. Drinking coffee was for old people. My peers began drinking coffee in college to help them stay up late to cram for a test or write a paper. Alas, I never cared enough about my grades to stay up that late, so I just never got into coffee.

Later in life, it seemed to me that almost everyone I know who drinks coffee is addicted to it. I never wanted to get addicted to anything so I've never drank coffee. I've never drank even one single cup of coffee.

Until now.

We visited a coffee farm in Costa Rica for a tour. Actually, it was just a small operation designed for tourists, but it was still a fully functioning coffee farm. First, they showed us the coffee plants and even allowed us to plant one and give it a name. The farm will email me updates of our plant, named Um Ya Ya, every few months.

After planting a coffee plant, shucking the seed out from the bean, roasting the beans and then grinding them, I decided it was high time I finally drink a cup of coffee. I put a healthy pour of milk into it and it tasted alright. Drinkable, at least. Sociable, for sure. In the future perhaps I can seem less like the oddball when offered a cup of coffee. After all, conforming to society is what is best for all of us, right?

On our drive from the San Jose, Costa Rica airport up to the ecolodge, we ended up taking the scenic route due to blindly following our GPS. The GPS said that an alternate route to the one suggested by the ecolodge was one hour faster. When I asked the receptionist at our hostel she commented that yes, there's a new highway over there now.

It turned out that the faster direction required a river crossing as there was no bridge.

As often happens, getting lost turned out to be a highlight of the trip. We had to drive all the way around this large lake, but it was on a gorgeous sunny day and was quite pleasant. Here's John and I bitching about the misfortune.

Hot Springs Spa Day
There are natural hot springs all around the volcano and we decided to check them out. Across the street from the natural pools where the locals go was this super fancy resort with an amazingly gorgeous array of streams and rivers and pools and waterfalls of both hot spring water and cool water. So lush and beautiful and well-designed. Here's Mitch (in the background) declaring his love for a spa day to a thoughtful John (foreground).

We also went swimming beneath a 100' waterfall, saw toucans flying across a verdant green valley, did yoga once or twice a day at the ecolodge, and drank more than our share of the local booze made from sugar cane...Good times.

Monday, May 23, 2016


Rio scared me.
From what little I knew of the city, it seemed like the polar opposite of what I grew up with. In Minnesota we don't shake our big booties on the beach, we don't kiss strangers on both cheeks upon meeting, and our ideas of carnival are slightly different.
Left: Rio's Carnaval                                     Right: St. Paul's Winter Carnival
Thanks for the photo

But wow. What a city! The geography for a major city is unparalleled. Venice has its canals and Stockholm its archipelago, but Rio has ocean and mountains and lakes and beaches and jungles all butting up to each other like dancers at a saucy nightclub.

It was rainy my first few days here so I hit some museums and rented a bicycle from my hostel to bike around and introduce myself to the city.

You've probably heard of the two famous beaches, maybe the most famous in the world -- Copacabana and Ipanema. Copacabana is almost 3 miles long and Ipanema a little shorter.
Copacabana beach

Ipanema Beach

They inspire song, most famously by Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim. Here's me and him hanging out waiting for the Girl from Ipanema to walk by. Dark and tan and young and lovely...

Then I biked to this beautiful botanical garden.

After three days the weather finally cleared up enough. I had seen hang gliding and paragliding advertised at several places in Chile and Argentina. But I knew if I was going to do this I wanted to do it over Rio. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Here is a shot of the runway I ran down with my pilot/guide Roberto to launch over the city.

Despite the deer in the headlights look, this was all very professionally run and I felt completely safe. That's Roberto in the helmet clipping me in and checking for safety.

Hell yeah.
The flight lasted about 10 minutes and was great. We landed smoothly down on a beach after soaring with the birds.

Another famous landmark in Rio is the big Jesus statue up on one of the hills that you've likely seen in photos. We like to call him Unsportsmanlike Jesus in reference to the Touchdown Jesus that graces the University of Notre Dame. Jesus makes more sense to many of us when compared to a referee in American Football. Touchdown Jesus has his hands up in the air like he's signaling a touchdown. Unsportsmanlike Jesus has them spread out to the side like he's an NFL referee signaling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Here Jesus is being worshiped by throngs of citizens who praise him by taking selfies with pouty faces that they think make them look sexy when they share them with friends online.

On the right of this photo you can barely see Unsportsmanlike Jesus on top of the mountain in the background. This photo was taken from Sugar Loaf, one of the other popular Rio mountains that you can visit. I hiked up Corcovado to see Unsportsmanlike Jesus, but rode a tram up Sugar Loaf.

Sugar Loaf is a wonderful spot in a charming neighborhood. I spent the day around here yesterday first walking around the neighborhood, then going for a swim at a little beach, then hanging out up on Sugar Loaf for a few hours admiring all the amazing views and waiting to watch the sun set.

What's Next
Tomorrow I bid farewell to Rio and I leave with a love for this city that I did not expect to achieve. It really is a special place. Perhaps I will actually come back for Carnaval some year.

Next week I'll be in Costa Rica and then it's back to Peru. Plan is to work my up Peru, then hit the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, then spend maybe 2 months or more in Colombia. I've been traveling now for 6 months and am getting ready to chill out in one place for a month or more again.

And I had an interview for a job in Antarctica, so that's a possibility for October through February.