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. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil

The hamlet of Vale do Capao, Brazil sits cradled inside a western arm of Chapada Diamantina National Park. 2,000 people live there, most of them hippies and environmentalists and tour guides for the park. 

The park was created in 1985 when an American fought to save this gorgeous land from resource development. It has many trails, but few signs so guides are necessary to find some of the most incredible waterfalls and caves and swimming holes.

One of the business owners in Vale do Capao is Sylvia. Sylvia lived in Mankato, MN from 1975-85 and said she had yet to meet a Minnesotan visiting her lovely hostel. She helped arrange my hikes and tours, based on the fact that it is the low water season so some of the waterfalls are less impressive than others.

For instance, this is the highest waterfall in Brazil. It tumbles 1,400' over this ledge down to the valley floor below. But it holds no water right now as the river is only flowing after rain. It has barely rained in the past 3 months.

 Chapada Diamantina National Park used to be full of diamond mines. But the diamonds they could excavate were of lower and lower quality and not worthy of an international market. The park is still full of caves, however. This is Alice, Jiselle & Justin who joined me on a cave tour one day. Alice is from London. She's here visiting Jiselle who is from London but now living in Rio. Justin is from Lithuania.

This next picture is a lie. I used photo filters to gain the same image that I had seen on all the posters. 
 It is a cave where at certain times of the day (and the year) the sun shines in to the crystal clear water. There is no swimming in this pool because any disturbance would stir up the long-settled sediment and ruin the view. In reality, the extra blue glow in the pool was barely visible. But through the process I learned how they make marketing photos.

This is me falling backwards off a cliff and nearly dying.
Kidding, of course. I'm floating in clear water that is actually 50' deep. This is another pool with a beam of light shooting into it (see glow to the right of the frame). We were able to snorkel in this one which was super cool.

A small sampling of beautiful flowers I've seen along the way...

What's Next
I'm writing this from Rio de Janeiro and it's a phenomenal city. I wasn't sure what I would think of it, but I'm very impressed. More to share later.

Next week I'm excited to shoot up to Costa Rica to meet two college buddies, John & Mitch. It'll be great to hang out with longtime friends. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Photo Dump: Amazon + Salvador, Brazil

I spent a few more days in the Amazon in Tres Fronteras region -- the border where Peru, Colombia and Brazil all come together along the Amazon river. 

It's not that easy to see animals in the wild, even though there are many. I opted to take a day tour, but part of it felt like a petting zoo. It was a little sad, but still fun to get to interact with some animals.

At Monkey Island
 No, I didn't get pooped on, but a lady next to me did.

The real one on the right was quite cute and cuddly. I didn't get quite as intimate with the one on the left, but I'm sure he/she is a wonderful creature, also.

Here's one of Pablo Escobar's old cocaine planes. Colombia has done a fantastic job of cleaning up the drug criminals. They're not totally wiped out, but are much more passive and no longer active in any of the main cities.

A typical eatery in the region. Lots of fried food around here.

Rush hour on the Amazon river.

This bird welcomed our group to Puerto Narino, Colombia. It is a super cool little village on the Amazon that's pedestrians only. Very charming. Wish I spent more time there. This bird escorted our group for about 1/4 mile as we walked into town from the boat. It would fly ahead 100' then wait for us. Then fly ahead again.

Then I flew to Salvador, Brazil. Salvador is considered the African heart and soul of Brazil. It is where more than 4 million slaves were brought. For comparison, the United States received 500,000 slaves.

It is a city of almost 3 million people on a peninsula jutting south into the Atlantic ocean.

Here's a shot of one of the beach areas. My hostel for $11/night was 2 blocks away from the beach here.

The Pelourinho neighborhood is the classic central part of the city, full of gorgeous colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.

This is the plaza where they auctioned off more than 4 million slaves...

Lots of music at night and pretty much all the seating for the many bars is right out on the streets.

Ridiculous waste of money by the Catholic church -- gold leaf covers 99% of the interior of this church and was applied by slaves. Felt much more evil than god-like to me.

View of Salvador from across the bay during rain and fog.

There are many old forts around the city and the nearby coastline. They were built by the Portugeuse who settled here in the 16th century. In about 1825 the Brazilians revolted and took control of their country. This is the first lighthouse built in South America.

What's Next
Tomorrow morning I leave for a week in Chapada Diamantina National Park. It is about a 6 or 7 hour bus ride from here and is supposed to be full of amazing hikes -- canyons, caves, waterfalls. I should have more good pics and stories to share when I get back.