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.