A New Adventure

A group of backpackers were on a multi-day hike through the wilderness with some local guides. They woke up in their campsite one morning after a long, tough day of hiking at a good clip the day before. They quickly prepared their things to get an early start on the day. As they approached their guides to let them know they were ready, to their surprise, they found their guides sitting quietly and relaxing. When they asked what was wrong, the guides said, “We walked fast yesterday. We’re waiting for our souls to catch up. If we continue on now, we will have left our souls behind and we will have to come back to fetch them later.”

My last full day in Bariloche, I crossed the stream one last time and said my goodbyes to the forest and that majestic lake that always brought me a sense of tranquility.

With friends, we harvested those bright red fruits of the Rosa Mosqueta, and that night we drank Rosa Mosqueta tea and ate apple crisp from apples Tomás harvested off a nearby tree. Walking back to my cabin, I said my farewell to the night sky (specifically to the southern cross which is only visible in the southern hemisphere).

 

Jess, my sitemate in Peace Corps, had told me that story of “waiting for your soul to catch up” before leaving a place so that you don’t leave your soul behind. It was going to be a long wait since my soul was still off frolicking in the hills. And when it did return, it would be quite a challenge to convince it to come along with me. But I was trying, as I said my “Goodnight Moon” style farewells.

In these time of uncertainty, when international travel is not expected to be readily available for months, and as each country hunkers down and manages the pandemic according to its own reality, I had made the tough decision to leave this comfortable paradise to be close to family and to see if I could be more helpful from the US. It was a decision that had been coming up again and again for the last month, and I had always decided to stay. Until now.

I had had 24 hours to decide and one full day to prepare to leave on the 23-hour van ride that would take me and some other Americans in Bariloche to Buenos Aires to catch a repatriation flight.

Before sunrise the next morning, a nice guy in a van came to pick me up. I said goodbye to Tomás, leaving my tent and my well-traveled yoga mat, along with a promise to return.

– – – – –

I arrived at the strangely quiet and empty bus terminal where there was a 15-passenger van parked. There were four people standing around outside conversing and three women inside the van, along with 3 young kids. The drivers explained that were waiting for a doctor to come take our temperatures and give us the necessary paperwork* that would allow us to leave the city and travel the 24 hours across multiple provinces to the capital.

I was grateful for the wait because it gave me a little more time to say my farewell to Bariloche, and I stared into the hills with teary eyes. What had started as a small and brilliant point of light beaming from the crest of the hill, was beginning to transform into a complete disc rising out of the hills.

I thought about how many farewells I had said in the last few months and how many times I had stepped into the exciting and scary unknown of the next adventure.

Often I had left a place sooner than I would have liked. Often I had left behind friends that had become my community, giving me a sense of home and family. The fact that I do a lot of leaving doesn’t make the leaving easier. I always feel sad and nostalgic to leave people and places that I have connected with on a deep level. Tears shed are inspired by an indescribable sense of gratitude as much as by a sadness for parting with something beautiful.

As the sun broke free from the hills and shone in its full brilliance, beginning its solo journey across the sky, I accepted this unexpected detour in my journey, just as I had accepted countless other unexpected detours, every one of which had led me to some incredible and unique experience. **

– – – – –

I climbed into the van a little overwhelmed with all my emotions, thinking about those loved ones that I was headed towards and those that I was headed away from, and the place – the lake, the stream, the forest, the waterfalls, the hills – that I had briefly called home.

The others in the van were also pretty quiet and lost in their own thoughts. A mom and her 3 kids. A tall guy with his girlfriend and an older woman. Another guy who had said goodbye to his girlfriend, leaving her behind as he climbed into the van. An older woman traveling alone. And me.

Tomás had told me to enjoy the landscapes on the ride, especially “valle encantado” (enchanted valley) and “dedo de dios” (god’s finger), and he was right.

dedo de dios

The whole day we traveled alongside a river, and the landscapes transformed from rocky cliffs that make rock climbers salivate, to rolling hills offset from the river, to lakes, and even plains. Katherine (the mother of the three kids who had spent the last year traveling through the continental US with her family) commented that it kind of felt like we were traveling through the US, especially Nevada and Utah.

Miles, the 7-year-old, had that special way of commenting frankly about things, and a few hours into the ride, he said, “I wanna go out in the field and run around!” We all laughed because that was exactly how we all felt.

I wanna go out in the field and run around!

Fairly soon after that, the whole van started to become friends and share stories. Interestingly, just about everyone had been staying with an Argentine family.

It quickly became apparent that I was not the only person sad about having decided to make this journey. Almost everyone was questioning if it had been the right decision for them. Everyone was sad about having left a wonderful place and wonderful people behind. We all found solace in knowing that the others understood the complicated emotions we were going through and the crazy back-and-forth that we had gone through in the last few days.

The young guy was a nurse who had come to Argentina to do alpine climbing, and along the way he had found a community where he felt at home, had fallen in love, and was thinking of starting a life there with his girlfriend. But with the possibility of not being able to return to the US for many months, he had made the tough decision to go back to tie up loose ends. He had wonderful stories of the people he had met and was especially impacted by what a deep connection he had felt talking to people, even strangers, noting how people looked you in the eye and weren’t afraid to be vulnerable and connect, that people were really in touch with their emotions.

Katherine (the woman with the three kids) is a pediatrician and former Air Force. With her husband and kids, they had spent the last year traveling through the US in a camper van. They had recently decided to move to Bariloche to live for at least a few months here. Her husband traveled regularly back to the US for work, and in March he had gotten stranded there, unable to return to Argentina. Finally, she had had to make the decision to pack up everything and head back to the US since it was uncertain when he’d be able to come back to Argentina.

The tall guy with his girlfriend was a rafting guide from Colorado and had been working for a few months in the Patagonia during their high season. His girlfriend, a librarian, had come down with her mom (an artist), to visit and explore the Patagonia together. Unfortunately, that trip got interrupted by the quarantine, but they had found a good place to stay. With their host family, they had made all kinds of homemade foods and baked goods from fruits and vegetables they had harvested themselves.

The older woman who was traveling alone explained that she had regularly made the trip between the US and Argentina for decades because her husband is Argentine. This time she was heading back to the US without him. They had come to visit his father, but because of the quarantine, his father’s caretakers had gone back to be with family, so he staying to take care of him. Since her home and work (she volunteers at the Missouri Botanic gardens, which ironically does work in Oxapampa) were back in the States, she had decided to head back alone. She commented to us ironically that she had been a flight attendant on Eastern Airlines, the same airline (well same name anyway) that would take us all back to the US.

– – – – –

As we entered the city of Buenos Aires, 23 hours after boarding the van, we stopped at one last gas station, a chain called “Full”. Ironically, 2 months ago when I had crossed the border into Argentina on foot, I had been greeted by a Full gas station; a funny thing to mark my entrance and exit to the country.

Our flight wasn’t until the next day, so we had 24 hours to rest and prepare. Katherine and the kids adopted me into their family and we spent the day at a comfortable little place called “Bernie’s”, right near the airport. Despite its location, during the whole 24 hours, I only heard one play fly in – at about 11pm – a plane with Argentines returning from the US, and the same plane that would be taking us back the next day. And the only airplane that flew into that international airport that day.

Have you ever seen a Departures and Arrivals board so empty at an international airport in a capital city?

What could have been some of the toughest days turned out to be some of the most fun, thanks to being surrounded by great people.

Eating apples Tomás had harvested from the apple tree

With Katherine and her kids, we played games and joked around. Surrounded by our van support crew, we were able to make light of the situation and enjoy each other’s company.

My backpack has served me in so many ways along my journey. This time as a sled.

On the plane, I met another traveler who had been traveling for more than a year and mostly sleeping in her tent. She had learned to build mud, adobe, and super adobe houses and had traveled to different sites helping people build their houses.

Leaving Buenos Aires

As I have found over and over again in my journeys, being surrounding by the right people can make the toughest situations not only bearable, but truly positive, memorable experiences.

And so, (completely coincidentally) exactly four years (to the date) after leaving the US to fly to Peru to begin this South American adventure as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was now returning to the US.

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Since Argentina was under a mandatory quarantine, travel was not allowed except for a few specific circumstances, like delivering food products or catching an international flight – but even then documentation approved by the government was needed.

**That was the first of many times I would have to repeat that acceptance process. Sometimes someone has a magical experience where some great internal struggle is resolved and they never have to face it again. More often, that first magical moment of resolve is only the first, because the same challenge surfaces again later, once, twice, tens, or sometimes hundreds of times. But the memory of that first magical moment of resolve can help us overcome the subsequent struggles.

Home in Barlioche

I certainly hadn’t planned on being in Bariloche for more than a month, but then, some of the best experiences of my travels have been unplanned. While most people can’t say that they’ve had some of their best experiences during these last few months, I have been so fortunate to be in great company in one of the most beautiful places on earth – a place that truly feels like home.

During my extended stay here, I have gotten the opportunity to explore one little nook of this beautiful corner of the world on a more personal level.

Thanks to my brilliant and fun roommate, host, and friend (Tomás), I found “home” in a safe, comfortable, eco-friendly, and gorgeous place, surrounded by good people.

Tomás has been my trail guide, my belay (while rock climbing and in life in general), slack line guru, the guitar and trombone in our 2-person house band (not sure what my role is…I guess back-up vocals), and really great company during 30+ days of lock-down.

Tomás has succeeded in (and shared with me) living a comfortable life connected to nature – close to great hikes, buying vegetables from the local vegetable vendors, eating greens from the garden, composting organic waste, and generating such a small amount of trash that we first took out the trash (a small bag) after I had been there nearly a month.

Taking turns cooking we shared vegetarian recipes and I learned a few secrets like how to cook dry beans and the magic of beer yeast as a condiment. I shared a couple of tricks I had learned in Peru (the amazing “ensalada rusa” and the power of adding ginger to a stir fry), and I almost …almost… got to a point where I enjoyed cooking.

Here, the backyard is a natural playground. There is the stream that you have to cross, hopping from rock to rock, carefully choosing your path so you don’t get stranded in the middle or foolishly land on a loose or slippery rock that pitches you into the water.

Crossing the stream opens up a whole new world. You can wander through trails parallel to the rising hills and rock faces in the south and ultimately find yourself on the lakeshore. Meandering along the lakeshore, you see where the stream you crossed earlier empties into the lake.

The beauty and serenity of the lake is like no other. Some times there is a strong wind that nearly blows you over and creates ocean-like waves on the lake. Other times, there is no wind and the lake is as still as glass.

Heading towards the mountain-like hills to the south is a network of trails that meander through the forest and hills. There are hidden waterfalls, rock faces for climbing, and trails taking you up to the peaks of the hills.

As you climb, every now and then you are rewarded with indescribable views of the lakes below.

View of the neighborhood from above. Tomas lives near the red tree along the visible road.

Walking through the forest there is a constant background sound of buzzing. At first I thought I was crazy but later I realized that it was the sound of yellow jackets. I saw a few buzzing around when we stopped in a clearing to rest on a log and do acro-yoga, looking out over the lake. But mostly they stay hidden and are heard but not seen, swarming in the trees. Except for that time that one stung me in the foot.* And that other time that one stung Tomás. A small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

One spiny and annoying bush grabbed my attention (and my pants leg) ever since my first hike in the area.  It has a strange pear-apple-shaped red fruit that has nothing but seeds inside. I learned that this is the Rosa Mosqueta. An invasive weed that is really hard to get rid of.

One day my roommate and I had the bright idea to harvest the fruit and make tea. It turned out to be the best tea I’ve ever had in my life – and I’m not exaggerating! As it boiled, it put off an intense sugary sweet smell and the tea had a delicious apple-cinnamon flavor.

Speaking of harvesting fruits…you can find apple trees to provide an afternoon snack on the hike (or a week’s worth of delicious apple treats if you get serious about harvesting them).

Sometimes, walking through the forest, I smell Christmas trees. Though the pines are an invasive species here, the smell is lovely. Riding a borrowed bicycle through neighborhoods towards the main road, there are two spots where I smell that delightful smell of eucalyptus – one of my favorite smells in the world (but also an invasive). (Makes me wonder: Do all invasive trees have good smells?)

Speaking of the trees, the old Coihues are the best (and native, not invasive!) When we stumbled across a great Coihue towering above us, it felt like a guardian tree that could protect us from anything. It took three and a half people to hug that tree all the way around.

Then there are the cypress. Huge cypress trees tower above, painting the sky with a deep green on a deep blue sky backdrop. The hilltops are full of cypress, giving their rocky faces a green coat.

I’m not sure which trees change their colors in the autumn, but I was lucky enough to watch the hilltops change colors from pure green to a burnt-orange and red tint as autumn creeped in.

 

The trails in this area have provided a unique life lesson. My first time going for a trail run, I was filled with a mixture of nervousness about getting lost, but at the same time a sense of adventure, ready to explore my new “backyard”.

Within the first hundred meters, the trail divided into three forks and I had to choose which way to go. Shortly thereafter, it divided again. I took note of my choices so I could trace my way back and try the other options if I got lost or stuck. But the trail continued to divide, two and three and sometimes four forks every few hundred meters, like a maze, presenting me with countless choose-your-own-adventure-like decisions. With so many forks along the way, I quickly lost track.

Some trails were narrower and I did a lot of ducking under low-hanging trees and bushes while others were wide open rocky trails, and I even encountered a road-like trail that seemed accessible for vehicles. A few times I passed through clearings that had been used as campsites, evidenced by the fire rings. And sometimes the trail spit me out along the stream bank. With the stream as a reference point, I knew I couldn’t get completely lost because I could always follow the stream back to the point behind my house.

As I continued to somewhat randomly choose my path forward at every fork, I realized that there seemed to be a great web of trails, most of them probably all connected eventually in some way. As long as I kept the stream on my right and headed away from the setting sun, I would be able to find my way. Sometimes I had to cut through some heavy brush, and sometimes I decided to retrace my steps and find a cleaner trail or to take a more scenic trail, but I was no longer worried about going in the “wrong direction”.

Famous Footnotes:

*That was my first time being stung by any type of wasp or bee. I couldn’t believe how much it felt like stepping on a nail. I’ve never stepped on a nail either, but I imagine that’s what it feels like. But it was a small price to pay for a beautiful day outdoors.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part III: Mendoza’s Patagonia

I was heading south through “Mendoza’s Patagonia,” – the part of Argentina in the province of Mendoza that is located just north of the “official” Patagonia, which starts in the province of Neuquen. (I may have made up the term “Mendoza’s Patagonia” but it works.)

I had heard that the Patagonia is known for being more expensive than the north of Argentina, except for gas prices, because it is the major fossil fuel production region of Argentina. So it wasn’t so surprising that one of my first encounters was a guy about my age that worked in oil and gas. Martín lived in Buenos Aires but worked for an oil and gas company that was paying for him and his family to live in Malargüe, and they had been there for about a year. Those perks came at a price though because he said that weekend was going to be the first weekend he had off of work in the whole month.

Later I met Claudia, one of those unique and wonderful people that I connected with in a special way despite the fact that we were very different. I immediately recognized that she had a kind spirit, complemented by a strong personality, with a subtle hint of underlying anxiety.

She is a teacher in the tiny town of Ranquil Norte but lives in Malargüe (about 3-4 hours away). During the school year she stays the week in Ranquil Norte, living with a family there, and then takes the bus to be in Malargüe with her husband for the weekends.

Her husband just retired and didn’t know what to do with himself since she’s still working, so was coaching him through it (“you can visit your kids, go see new places, and when I retire we’ll go see new places, and sometimes just go to the park and drink mate”). Because she’s a teacher in a rural area, she’ll get to retire in a couple of years too. In Argentina, men retire at 65 and women at 60, but for teaching in a rural area one can retire a few years early.

Claudia taught me the proper way to pour hot water into the mate (“mah-tay“), because there is a technique that seems to be common across all of Argentina, and as her co-pilot, I was responsible for keeping the mate filled. She had a special electric mate that I had never seen before – it could be kept warm by plugging it in to the cigarette lighter in the car.

As we got to know each other, Claudia shared some personal stories about a rough and abusive young adulthood that she had ultimately overcome to find a peaceful and healthy life with her current husband. However, she confided in me, something had recently triggered some of her past traumas to resurface and she was working through them now (which might have explained the nervousness I sensed in her). She used a really great analogy that stuck with me. “Sometimes we do a good job of cleaning up the house and keeping it well maintained, but we left that one room in the back of the house with all the junk in it, locked up. Well, now is the time where I have to open up that room and start cleaning it out.”

One of the reasons we connected well was because we both really love writing, and she is the second person in my life that has told me that everyone should write a book in their life.*

We passed incredible landscapes of mountains, hills, and volcanoes. In fact, I couldn’t believe the number of volcanoes I saw off off to the left as we were heading south! I pulled out my map and realized that we were in fact passing through the Land of the Volcanoes. (I made that term up. If you look on a map, there is one area along the highway teeming with volcanoes, so it seems appropriate.)

The volcanoes are located in an area that has been named a provincial reserve called La Payunia, and includes more than 800 volcanic cones. (As a traveler one learns that there is no possible way that you can see everything that you want to see, and so this one was one of those places added to the list for future exploration.) But along the road, we could see huge black rocks – clearly dried lava from a past eruption, and even a canyon made of black lava rock.

 

In Ranquil Norte, the only place to get wifi was in the municipality building, so I headed there to log my whereabouts. The municipal building was basically a house – with kitchen, rooms with bunk beds, and a reception area. Since it is such a small town, people from the district municipality often come through and spend the night there as they make their way around the different rural towns administering services. I had arrived just as a group of three guys from the district municipality had grilled out for lunch and they invited me to share the “asado” (sausage and steak cooked on the grill) with them.

 

Along the highway I had seen quite a few bikers, and when I got to Chos Malal, I actually got the pleasure of meeting one of them. Dario is from Rosario and works with water pumps in high-rise buildings and had taken a month-long vacation on his motorcycle to explore the south. He had hesitated about doing something so “selfish”, but his (grown) children had encouraged him to do it. He said he was glad he had listened to them because it had been an incredible experience. Although he had had his moments of doubts that very same day.

That day we had passed a long section (more than an hour) of road that was not paved. Even Claudia in her pickup truck was really nervous about driving on that part, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that on a motorcycle it was tough. Apparently, it was so tough that Dario even asked himself a multiple times what he had been thinking and doubted if he would make it through. But he got through it and at the end of the day he was glad he had survived it and had overcome the challenge to be able to continue his journey and arrive in that cute little town of Chos Malal.

Chos Malal is located where “Neuquen” is written on the map. (Source: Wikipedia)

 

In addition to being a cute town, Chos Malal is the half-way point along La Ruta 40, which connects the northern border of Argentina (in the city of La Quiaca) with the southern-most part of Argentina to el Cabo Virgenes.

Most travelers who want to visit the Argentinian Patagonia take a flight to Bariloche, El Califate, or Ushuaia. After-all, the distances in Argentina are long – crossing Argentina from north to south is about the same distance as crossing the length of the US from east to west. (The journey I was taking, from Jujuy in the north to Ushuaia in the south, along La Ruta 40, is about 5,000 km or 3,100 mi – the equivalent of driving from Augusta, Maine to Los Angeles, CA.)

Spoiler alert: I only ever made it into northern Patagonia, but I don’t regret any minute of it! Stay tuned for the last chapter of my journeys along La Ruta 40.

Famous Footnotes

*Maybe this will one day turn into a book, but for now, here is my story in bite-sized pieces.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part II: Malargüe

Heading south from Mendoza along “La Ruta 40”, one passes through Malargüe, which is a small, enchanting little town, where I met some really wonderful people.

Guillermo is an agricultural engineer that lives in Malargüe and runs a farm that grows potatoes and garlic. He is involved in the Workaway program and hosts travelers from all over the world that help out on the farm and stay for free at his place. He also happens to teach at one of the rural schools and is doing a project with his students where they make potable water by evaporating water in a green-house-like system, capturing and condensing the vapor.

Headed south towards Malargüe, we travel parallel to the cordillera (mountain range) that divides Argentina and Chile, with an amazing view of those majestic mountains out the passenger side window.

For some reason, the movie “Alive” about the rugby team whose airplane crashed into the snowy mountains came to mind. Moments later, Guillermo pointed to one of the peaks saying that it was the mountain where the Uruguay rugby team crashed! (I have no idea how my brain made that association; the subconscious is a powerful thing!) He went on to explain that if they had walked towards the Argentine side of the mountain, it would have actually been a shorter and easier hike to salvation, but they had no idea from where they were and they hiked through the toughest and longest part towards Chile.

That afternoon, I came across this great little spot along the highway, kind of in the middle of nowhere, called Manqui Malal. I went to investigate and found that it was a privately-owned conservation area. There was a restaurant, a campsite, and a few cabins, and they offered guided tours of the surrounding canyon-like area. And there were dogs, sheep, and chickens wandering around. Exactly the type of place where I wanted to stay! #eco-tourism!

Luckily, I had arrived just in time for the afternoon guided tour! I didn’t have time to store my things in the cabin, but they assured me it was safe to just leave them there in the restaurant. It may seem like a crazy thing to do – to trust strangers in the middle of place where you’ve never been before. But I got such a good vibe from the staff and the family eating there in the restaurant, and having had such good experiences in all the small, rural towns I’d been through, I actually felt completely comfortable trusting people here.

The guide was a young woman who did an awesome job explaining the different rock formations we saw – how they were formed and where they fit into the history of the Earth.

 

I was not the only participant on the tour – there was a woman and a man about my age and three kids between 5 and 10 years old. I could not believe it when I learned that the woman was an American from Minnesota! She had lived in Argentina for about 7 years, married an Argentine man and they were currently living in MN but visiting Argentina for about a month. I could not believe that I had run into another American in this tiny little spot on the side of the highway (not even a major tourist attraction) in the middle of Argentina!

As we explored the area and hiked to a waterfall, I chatted with the American woman. Her kids were growing up speaking Spanish and English and they were doing homeschool. (In retrospect, I realize that the social distancing measures must not be impacting their lessons!) She explained that she really loved the experience of home schooling so far, especially because they found that they had quite a lot of free time to do more active things after the lessons – which both she and the kids liked. She was really proud that her kids had scored really well on the state tests they take every year, and her 10-ish year-old daughter interjected, explaining that she had scored really well in math and science and less in English, and then continued to talk about her lessons. It was pretty cute to see her interest in her education and her ability to talk easily and confidently with adults.

After enjoying the refreshing waterfall, I hiked through the canyon where I met a couple my age from Buenos Aires sitting on a large boulder and drinking mate.

The sky had clouded up and the guide had warned me that if it started raining I should immediately start heading back because the canyon is prone to flash floods. So I headed quickly to the end of the canyon, and as it started to drizzle I hurried back, leaping from boulder to boulder, until I arrived at the base camp.

Having arrived here after spending a few days in the city (Mendoza), I was amazed by the absolute, complete silence (except for once every hour when a car passed on the highway). I had one of the best night’s sleep of my whole journey that night – which was much-needed to prepare me for my long journey ahead.

The Heart of “La Ruta 40” – Part I: Salta

My journey on “La Ruta 40” has been a unique adventure that I will never forget and that is impossible to describe in detail unless I write a book (which I might.) What really marked my journey, even more than the amazing landscapes, were the people I met along the way.

It was an unforgettable experience of connecting and sharing with so many different people, and just being overwhelmed by the generosity of people. In some ways, this has been the heart of my journey – where I’ve really had the opportunity to do what I came to do – connect with people and share experiences, getting a glimpse into the lives and hearts of people here.

In the next few posts, I’ll try to share some of those encounters (as well as the landscapes behind the conversations).

Part I – Salta
Salta is a city in northern Argentina, just south of Jujuy. In Spanish, “salta” means jump. So I did.

And in so doing, I met a French traveler, Thierry, and we became travel buddies for the day.

We explored the city parks together, tasted some ham and cheese empanadas, and people-watched, as the parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful weekend day.

In Salta, I stayed with Facundo, or “Facu” (a common name here). From the moment we met, we had some incredible conversations, so much so that we chatted into the night even though we were both running on very little sleep. But this is why I couchsurf – it’s a chance to meet someone from a different city, a different country, a different reality, and share experiences.

Facu is a super sharp guy around my age, studying biology because, he explained, that any job he got would require him to work a lot of hours and probably still not pay great, so he’d rather study something he really loves so that he can at least be doing something he’s passionate about. He’s a realist. He said I left him feeling more inspired and empowered that he could have a positive impact on the world. Which was incredibly flattering and in turn made me feel inspired!

In the grocery store line, I met the nicest woman. You know how the grocery lines can be pretty savagely competitive – everyone wants to be first in line and find the shortest line, especially when the wait is long. Well, this woman went out of her way to try to find the shortest line for me since I only had 2 items. (And I wasn’t even in a hurry, she was just being incredibly thoughtful.) We started chatting and it turns out that she’s an accountant that works in a government agency looking at the economic side of the “triple bottom line” (economics-environment-social impacts) for projects – coincidentally, my line of work and my passion!

On my way out of Salta, I met Valentina who is my age, and a lawyer from Buenos Aires. She had quit her job and before moving to the next one, was taking a vacation with her partner (who was from Paraguay and was traveling through South America). They had been to Patagonia together and invited me to join them exploring a beautiful part of “La Ruta 40” as they headed to Califate, a tiny town in the wine region.

They also spoke English so we ended up speaking a mix of English and Spanish, conversing the whole way and stopping to see a few of the most interesting spots – Garganta del Diablo and El Anfiteatro (which happened to be filled with tourists at this time of year*).

When I told Valentina about my Peace Corps work in Peru with water systems, she told me that she has been doing a volunteer project for eight years, working with a small community called Arbol Blanco in the province of Santiago de Estero. With an NGO from Buenos Aires, they work to empower the youth and help them take advantage of educational opportunities that could give them more professional options as they become adults.

We completely geeked out about sustainable community development work, really connecting with some of the similar experiences we’ve had. Similar to my experience working with Engineers Without Borders, she has witnessed the importance of being a long-term community partner and facilitator – focusing on cultural exchange and helping the community achieve its own stated goals, (rather than trying to do short-term projects based on funder priorities, which have a high failure rate). As we parted ways, I was excited to have met another kind and kindred spirit, (and also excited about the possibility of lending a hand if they needed any WASH (Water And Sanitation & Hygiene) expertise).

As if I hadn’t met enough wonderful people, I finally met Gabriela who went out of her way to drive me to meet up with my friends. A fellow lover of the night sky, she pointed out the observatory nearby and we made plans to go if we ever crossed paths again in the future. As we went our separate ways, I didn’t hear from her again, until one day, a month later when Argentina enforced the mandatory isolation measures, she messaged me to check in and offered me a place to stay if I should need it.

The beginnings of my journey along “La Ruta 40” were renewing my faith in the good of humanity and showing me the power of human connection and cultural exchange.** I was excited to see what lie ahead and only hoped that I hadn’t used up all my good luck.

 

Famous Footnotes

*This was during Carnaval season, which happens while school is out and is when the majority of people take vacations in Argentina.

**”Se que hay mucha mas gente buena que mala. Pasa que los malos hacen mas ruido.” – Dany Reimer
(“I’m certain there are more good people in this world than bad. The thing is that the bad ones make more noise.”) – Dany Reimer (Police officer in one of the toughest areas of Buenos Aires)

National Park Talampaya

The scenery on the way to the National Park Talampaya was enough to assure me that the detour to visit these parks was going to be worthwhile.

My plan was to enjoy the park all day today, and then find some nice people to give me a ride to the small town, “Baldecitos”, near the provincial park of Ischigualasto about an hour away.*

I arrived early to the park to figure out options for excursions through the park, and I opted for a group hike through a part of the canyon only accessible by foot. (If we returned early enough, I might be able to also do one of the more popular jeep rides that takes you all the way through the canyon to the other side).** Unfortunately, our hike kept getting delayed because a few of the group members that had reserved were apparently on their way but stuck in traffic.

While I was sitting at a table, trying really hard not to be impatient (I guess I had used all my patience the day before waiting in the shade of the fig tree), I overheard a group speaking in American English. My ears perked up because I haven’t met many American tourists during my travels. And while American tourists in Patagonia are fairly common, here in the middle of northern Argentina, it is not nearly as common to encounter other Americans.

I hesitated to introduce myself because they were all deeply engaged in their conversation, (and while in Latin America it would be rude NOT TO interrupt and greet someone, these were US Americans so it could be considered rude to interrupt.) I finally decided to introduce myself and I’m glad I did!

They were two couples (older than me but young at heart!) that love traveling and seeing new places around the world. They found themselves there all because American Airlines was going to stop running their route to Cordoba, Argentina, and one of the guys decided he wanted to take advantage of it before it was discontinued. And from there, things just started coming together for the two couples – who hadn’t seen each other in a long time (hence their deeply engaged conversation) – to be able to meet up there in Parque Talampaya.

It was so great to share travel stories and hear about some of their unique experiences (like Nude Zealand!), especially since they have been traveling for decades – (they gave me a few pro tips)! I was surprised to hear that their grown children were somewhat indignant about their decision to travel around the world instead of staying close by, near the grandchildren. (I don’t have children so maybe I don’t understand, but, Mom and Dad, you did your time – thank you! Now, get out and go see the world!)

When it was finally time to head out for my hike, I admit I was a little skeptical. We left at noon under the hot desert sun, and I was pretty sure we were going to shrivel up and dehydrate. But it turns out the wind picks up mid-day, and we took it slow, took advantage of shade spots, and stopped frequently, so it was actually didn’t feel like I was walking in the desert at the hottest part of the day.

The hike was all I had hoped for and more. Amazing landscapes.

Rock formations from the Triassic period (250 million years ago) – that’s before the formation of the Andes.

More recent dune formations where vegetation can grow.

 

Even ancient rock paintings from thousands of years ago.

The coolest part was when we came upon a herd of guanaco. Not only was it the first guanaco that I see in the wild, we were right there close to them, in their natural habitat! They let us get about 20 feet away before they finally ran off.

I think the thing that impressed me the most was that we could see where a fault line passed because there was a huge diagonal crack in the walls of the canyon on both sides.

Our guide drew a 24-hour clock in the sand and explained that if the history of the Earth were compared to one day, where the Earth formed at midnight, life appeared at about 3-4am, and the rock formations in the park (that formed 250 million years ago) formed at just one minute and 30 seconds until midnight at the end of the day! (We humans appeared at about 6-10 seconds until the end of the day!)

 

 

I stood in awe, with the beautiful, 250 milion-year-old canyon walls towering above me. I felt so tiny and at the same time I felt that I was traveling time, and through that time travel I was connecting to the extensive history of this planet, and somehow that made me both tiny and as big and as old as the planet, all at the same time.

 

When I got back from the hike that afternoon, it was time for that character-building activity of asking for a lift to Baldecitos, the little town near the entrance to the provincial park Ischicualasto. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but for a person raised in the US and raised to be self-sufficient and independent, it is a bit of a psychological challenge. One has to overcome embarrassment, shyness, and fear of rejection, all at once. So I set myself up near the parking lot and asked all the people who drove up where they were headed, and if they were going my direction if they would have room for one more person. About 5 different cars arrived and everyone was very friendly in their rejection, but they were not going my direction.

As one of the excursions returned, I found an older couple that was headed that direction and they were happy to give me a ride. The woman, Ana, was in her 60’s and she is a psychologist in Buenos Aires. They were at the end of their vacation and she had to get back to work after the holidays. She had a private practice and then also worked with the government to do psychological evaluations for people applying for commercial drivers’ licenses. She talked about how she had backpacked through Europe when she was younger and continued to travel as much as possible. They were then kind enough to go a few minutes out of their way to drop me off in Baldecitos, waiting to make sure I found a place to stay.

The woman who owned the hospedaje en Baldecitos was about my age and she lived next door with her little boy of about 12-13 years old. After I got settled in, I saw she was outside spraying the ground with a water hose to control the dust, and I came out and asked her about life in Baldecitos. She was a farmer, with milk and beef cows and also received some extra income from tourists passing through for the park. She was born and raised there in Baldecitos, which has just about 10-15 families living there permanently, with maybe up to 25-20 houses total! (Definitely the smallest town I’ve been in so far.)

A few months prior, they had constructed a cell tower in the town that was also supposed to also bring wi-fi for the community, but it was really spotty, with some of my whatsapp messages delaying a few hours to send.

I feel at home anywhere if I can do yoga with the sunset.

There was a “comedor” (small, simple, family-style restaurant) near my hospedaje where I went to see if I could get something to eat. While there, an older French couple came in also asking about dinner and about logistics for going to the park the next day. The man and older woman in the comedor told us they would serve dinner at 9pm, and that the park opened at 8am and was about 12km down the road.***

This park – Ischigualasto – is the park that you visit by driving through, caravan style, with a guide, stopping along the way to see certain parts. (I had read on blogs that many people without their own transportation look for other people to give them a lift through the park.) The couple seemed really nice and friendly, so I took that opportunity to ask if they had room for one more person, and they assented and said we could chat over dinner.

Over dinner I learned that they had rented a car and were driving down La Ruta 40, with destination Bariloche, but looking for cute little towns and beautiful, hidden gems along the way, just like me (except with a car). They already have grown kids, but they also have this beautiful child-like energy, getting really excited about the places they’ve seen and what there is to see ahead. My kind of people. We hit it off immediately and agreed to meet at 8am the next morning to go explore the Parque Ischigualasto together.

 

Footnotes:

* Dario (the park guide whose house I had stayed at in Pagancillo the night before) had assured me that many people go between the two parks and that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a ride from Talampaya to Ischigualasto. Since that was consistent with the blogs I’d read on the internet, I felt good about the plan.

**I like to know all the options before I make a choice, and here it took me about an hour to understand how it all works (and that’s after having done research online!) It turns out that this is only one of two different park entrances for the National Park Talampaya. At this entrance, there are two companies – one that offers excursions in jeep that leave on a set schedule every few hours, and another that offers hiking or biking excursions. It is all very confusing because the company that offers jeep excursions is also in charge of selling the Park Entrance fee, which makes it seem like their excursions are the only options. But if you ask around, you find that there’s a small office around the corner that offers hikes and bike rides if enough people are interested in forming a group. As a third option for exploring the park, there is another park entrance about 10km down the road, where a different company offers an excursion in jeep to see another part of the park called “Cañon Arco Iris” (Rainbow Canyon) and “La Ciudad Perdida” (Lost City). I also heard that there is another company forming that will do excursions to another part of the park next year.

***I chatted for a while with the couple in the comedor in Baldecitos asking them about life in Baledcitos. They presented another point of view about the park. They said that while they weren’t completely opposed to the park and tourism from the park did bring some income, they were kind of frustrated that it put restrictions on their ability to raise animals because it was a protected area (and to prevent accidents with the passing cars). They mentioned that would have liked to maintain the practices of their ancestors in the raising of guanaco and cattle in the wide open spaces. They also said that this provincially-managed park doesn’t provide the same job opportunities for people in the community of Baldecitos, like the nearby national park Talampaya which provides jobs for many people of the nearby town Pagancillo. They did mention that a consultation process was used to create the park, but they felt that their opinion was not considered. (The complexity of the situation was not lost on me, since I am reading about Latin American history during my travels. For example, I confirmed that they were specifically referring to their European ancestors who have inhabited those lands for hundreds of years. If you keep going back in time, you come to a point in time where their ancestors usurped the lands of the indigenous people living there. And maybe those indigenous people usurped the lands from someone before them.)

 

On the Road (Santa Maria)

From San Pedro de Atacama to the Patagonia in Argentina, I have been traveling the road of generosity and cultural exchange. In the US, the South is known for its hospitality, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it many times living there. But in my first weeks in Argentina, the culture of generosity that I’ve experienced has outdone even Southern Hospitality.

From hosts who offer me a place to stay (Couchsurfing), kind souls who offer me rides along the way, families who invite me into their homes or along on their vacations, and people who invite me to hang out with their friends and to show me around, the openness and willingness to share, to not only invite me in but to make me feel at home, has been a constant here in northern Argentina.

And it comes at a time in my journey when I most needed it. In northern Chile I almost had my bag stolen so I’ve been a little on edge and extra cautious. After 5 months of traveling I have also started to experience those feelings of loneliness, missing people, and most surprisingly, missing stability, structure, and routine.

So having people be so welcoming and concerned not only about my physical well being but also making sure I feel welcome, included, and at home, has meant the world to me. Interestingly, I don’t get the feeling that people are going out of their way to do it; rather, it seems a very natural part of the culture.

Similar to my last post about Chumbicha, I will continue to share some of my experiences with some the people I’ve met. Today, here’s a little tid-bit from a day in the pueblo of Santa Maria.

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting around a kitchen table eating homemade pizza at 1am in a small town (Santa Maria), chatting with four locals and an Argentine-American couple that I met in Jujuy. It was everything I had hoped for in my travels – a chance to make friends and get a glimpse of not only big cities or tourist hot spots, but also to chat with people from different smaller, less-known-to-tourists towns.

So here I found myself in the middle of a cousin reunion – the friend from Jujuy was visiting his parent’s home after being away for years and all the cousins were catching up. The amazing thing was that I had just met everyone there and yet I felt at home, like just another cousin or a close friend of the cousin.

In fact, we had just met a few days earlier at a birthday party that my couchsurfing host had invited me to tag along to, giving me the opportunity to meet his (really awesome) friends. The next thing you know, we are both in this small town of Santa María, and I’m staying with his family and girlfriend in the family house and hanging out with his cousins.

For me, it was really cool to meet some people who live in a smaller town and hear a little about their experiences and also the contrasting perspectives about life in small town Argentina, the health care system (free for all but not good in the rural areas), education (free universities), crime (not much-drug use was the biggest problem), and even immigration.

For example, I learned that there is ONE black person in Santa Maria. He is from Senegal and everyone knows his name. We just happened to see a black guy in the bus terminal when I was leaving, and we thought, “Hey, that must be Bubba!” (I forgot his real name but it was something like that.) And then we heard someone call his name and sure enough it was “Bubba”.

Everyone at the table had attended university because university is free for everyone. Among the locals was a teacher, an agronomist, a store owner, and and one that works as a kind of notary public or justice of the peace type work (we don’t have the equivalent in the US). They explained that the town didn’t really have problems with security but there were problems with drug use. They were also really interested to hear about me and my travels and it was really nice to share my experiences with them.

It was also really interesting to hear different perspectives on how politics impacts their lives and their situations. One perspective was that the socialist government policies were the driving force for the economic strengths of the country, like a variety of products produced in-country, as well as access to health care and education. Meanwhile, another perspective seemed to blame the socialist policies for problems such as population growth and drug use.

Santa Maria was indeed a very calm and quiet town. Maybe it was because the majority of the people were celebrating Carnaval one town over, Amaicha. (We drove through Amaicha and saw people walking around covered in paint, singing gleefully, and already/still drinking at 5pm. They really enjoy Carnaval in the north!) But I understand that Santa Maria is actually usually fairly quite. When I first arrived to the park and was waiting to meet up with my friends, I started chatting with a random couple in the park and they offered me a tea.

Later, with my friends we walked around and bought a few local products. First was a block of carob paste (“patay”) from a local – the area is full of carob trees, so there are many different carob products available.

I was also introduced to “tortillas” which in Argentina are a nan-type bread (that also comes in sweet or savory).

tortilla normal (savory)
tortilla dulce (sweet)

And we ate “humitas”, which are a type of tamale that come in either savory or sweet flavors. (Not to be confused with humitas in Peru which are only the sweet corn tamales.)

In the garden in the back of the family house where we stayed, there were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

In less than 24 hours I was so lucky to get a taste of this great little town and not just peek into the lives of some of the locals, but actually feel a part of it.

 

Famous footnotes:

If I had had more time (or if I ever go back to the area), I would definitely visit the museum at the town entrance and the nearby Quilmes Ruins.

In the garden in the back of the house, were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

Journey to Argentina

I am in the back seat of a car, listening to Argentinian rock and reggae, on the way from Chile to Argentina, watching breath-taking landscapes pass by. In part, they are breath-taking because we are at 4,200 meters above sea level. But the beauty is what is really awe inspiring. I am surprised by the variety, and especially the colors, of the desert landscapes.

Flat plains extend for miles, with just a few random large rocks scattered here and there, making the landscape feel like a photo of the moon or mars.

The seemingly deserted and very flat plains extend to the horizon where they turn red and strangely tilt diagonally upwards to the base of a majestic snow-capped volcano and its neighboring hills on the horizon. (I tried to capture this with the camera and couldn’t).

A few miles later massive sand dunes emerge and later dunes of black lava rock. Then, the hills begin to be dotted with green spots – “pasta brava”, a little bush that can withstand harsh environments like the altitude, cold, strong sun, and droughts here, and the primary food for the vicuñas that live here.

We pass lake after lake, none of them just a normal lake – all salt lakes, covered in or surrounded by white. In one lake I saw flamingos feasting on crustaceans- (they eat for 18 hours per day to be able to get enough food since the crustaceans they feed on are so small.)*

Another laguna with a salt flat behind it, “Laguna calientes I”, near the border, lives up to its name as we can just make out vapor rising out of the lake. The lake is fed by an underground aquifer, which sits on top of a layer of magma making the water hot.*

And then we had to slow down for the llama to cross the road, taking his time, making sure we know we are guests in his territory.

 

No one has eaten breakfast, but luckily I have 2 bananas and a huge empanada (literally a foot-long empanada!) that I bought for the journey the night before, so we share them.

The driver is around my age, a Peruvian from Trujillo living in Buenos Aires, and his best friend and brother-in-law is from Argentina. They are heading back to Buenos Aires after a road trip to Peru to visit family and, well to road trip and see the sites along the way. The other passenger is an older man, a Venezuelan who lives in Bogotá, Colombia and is traveling to Uruguay. His wife was in an accident and needs an expensive operation and he heard that in Uruguay he could get good work without papers. He has no money and has been traveling from Colombia – a couple of days walking all day, and other days with the help of good samaritans that give him rides.

The driver, one of those good samaritans, buys us all a coffee and croissants in the gas station after we all successfully cross the border, and I am taken aback by his natural generosity. This is one of those life-changing moments where I am so grateful that I live in a world where people are still generous, treating each other like one human family, and I hope I can be as naturally generous in my daily interactions.

The brother-in-laws are actually a little behind schedule because the car had broken down in Nazca, Peru and they had to wait a week to get it repaired. Because Nazca is such a touristy place, they said they spent a lot on accommodations, in addition to paying for repairs. But they took everything in stride and noted that, on the other hand, Nazca was a really beautiful place and they got a chance to see a lot there.

Because they’re a little behind, we don’t stop a lot, but we do take a few minutes at some great overlook points, and we also stopped to see the salt flats in Argentina.

Playing in the salt flats. Our feet and pants were marked with white for the rest of the day!

Sharing stories, crossing the Chile-Argentina border together, stopping to see a few incredible views of nature along the way, sharing breakfast together, putting all our heads together to fix the radiator cap when it had problems – all these shared experiences within just 9 hours one day makes us feel like friends rather than strangers. When we arrive to Jujuy where I will be staying as they continue their journey, I realize I’m actually kind of nostalgic as I say bye and we all wish each other luck on our respective journeys.

 

Ciudad Perdida

If there was one thing I wanted to see in Colombia, (besides my good friends Adam and Adrienne), it was la Ciudad Perdida (“the lost city”). To describe the impact and significance of this archaeological site, many call it the Machu Picchu of Colombia. But unlike Machu Picchu, the only way to arrive to la Ciudad Perdida is a multi-day (4-7 days) hike through the hot, humid jungle of the Sierra Nevada, Colombia.

Translated as “The Lost City”, it was found overgrown by the jungle and being looted for precious stones (like most archeological sites in the world). In the 1970s, the Colombian government and archeologists were able to protect it and begin “recovering” it, (cutting the jungle back). This revealed the historic city – neighborhoods (terraces where houses once stood and walking paths that connected the at least 500 houses of the city) and ceremonial areas overlooking the surrounding mountainside.

In the 1980’s it was opened for visitors, and now you can access this unique site by trekking through the jungle with one of the 7 authorized tour companies. (And you can ONLY access it by trekking with one of these authorized companies). During the trek, you pass through two national park reserves (parques nacionales naturales), which are protected areas.

Since all the companies by law have to charge the same price, I chose to go with Wiwa Tours, which hires guides from the four native communities whose ancestors founded Ciudad Perdida and who still live there and in the surrounding lands, still practicing many of their traditional customs.

Our guide, Juan Daza, in Ciudad Perdida, explains a traditional process of making pots

Our guide explained that the site of Ciudad Perdida was home to the Tayrona (also “Tairuna” or “Teyuna”) culture, the ancestral culture of the four present-day, distinct but connected communities of the Sierra Nevada – the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Each has their own language, customs and leaders, but they share this sacred site.

Ciudad Perdida was as interesting and mystical as Machu Picchu was for me, though in different ways. One of the most fascinating aspects was its connection to the present – the “mamo” and “saga”, or male and female community leaders from one of the four communities still lives on the grounds of Ciudad Perdida.

Mamo’s or Saga’s house in Ciudad Perdida

The communities still live in and around the surrounding lands and are involved in management of the tourism that comes through, receiving some of the financial benefits from it.* Each September, the four communities still gather at the sacred site of Ciudad Perdida to perform ceremonies (and clean the site of any bad juju that tourists might have brought to the sacred site in their visit). (Yes, I said “juju”. Don’t hate.)

The vistas are also breath-taking. The site is on a high point in the hills, surrounded by 180 degrees of beautiful green mountains and valleys, and even a waterfall cascading down a mountain in the distance.

To arrive at this amazing site, we hiked for about a day and a half up and down through the hills of the jungle, crossing streams and the river. The jungle humidity kept me drenched in sweat the entire day, every day of hiking, and we got rained on twice – which was actually quiet refreshing! (Having done my research I knew to prepare my bag as light as possible and to water-proof it to be able to hike in the rain and cross rivers, and still have dry clothes to wear in the night and the next days.)**

I was surprised to find that these tours and their accommodations are actually a pretty well-functioning machine – they get hundreds of tourists to and from Ciudad Perdida every day of the year! First, the accommodations were surprising. There were well-equipped camp sites along the way, prepared to accommodate multiple groups at a time, some seeming to accommodate up to a hundred through-hikers each day. They had bunk beds with mosquito nets, showers, and flush toilets in every camp where we stayed. There was also a huge kitchen area where the different guide companies prepared meals for their groups – and the meals were delicious and nutritious! Since they provided all the lodging and meals, we only had to carry clothes and a few basic personal items.**

I was impressed by how they’ve scaled up a multi-day trek through the jungle, making it accessible for a wide range of ages and fitness types (there was an 80-year-old man in one of the groups) and also making it accessible for a lot of people at once. On the other hand, I might have been slightly disappointed that the crowds and accommodations did make it less exotic, mystical, and hard-core. But I was also happy to have a shower and delicious meal each night and to meet people from all over the world.

Our group had 19 people from Europe, Colombia, Chile and me, two tour guides (one Wiwa, one Kogui), and an English translator (Venezuelan).

This was actually one of the first guided hikes that I’ve done in South America where there was a good percentage of locals on the tour – nearly half of the group were Colombians, with a group of 3 Chilean women (a few years older than me), and the rest Europeans.

Almost as if to prove our worthiness, the morning of the third day we had to cross a rushing river and then climb a few hundred meters to arrive at the Ciudad Perdida.

There, we learned about some of the current and ancient customs of the Tayrona culture and the current-day communities. Interestingly, there is still disagreement between some archeologists and the current-day communities about the meaning of some of the ruins and artifacts.

One of my favorites of the artifacts were the maps etched in stone – always with the 2 snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a reference. (These two peaks of the Sierra Nevada are very important in the culture and show up in many artifacts, artwork, and architecture of the Tayrona culture.)

“You are here”

While a little more “touristy” and expensive than I typically go for, I wouldn’t have missed this grand adventure. An incredible mix of history, culture, adventure, nature, and incredible landscapes, it embodied what I am seeking in my travels – an opportunity to invest in cultural and natural conservation, while learning and experiencing a great adventure!

 

Bonus Content

A peek into some traditions of the modern-day indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada:

Throughout the 4-day hike, our guides constantly chewed coca leaves and carried a gourd-like thing, always “painting” it with a stick.

Note the bulge in the cheek where he chews his coca leaf, and the gourd and stick he is always wielding.

Finally, after arriving to the Ciudad Perdida, our guides (one Wiwa and one Kogui) explained that gourd for them was a kind of journal or a work of art. They chew the coca leaf and then spit it into the gourd “popora” where they mix it with crushed seashells. They then paint the outside of the popora with this mixture of calcium, coca leaf, and saliva, building up layers of a coating on the outside of the gourd. This coating carries all their thoughts, hopes and ponderings, and so functions as a kind of journal for them.

A tradition that probably dates back centuries before the Spanish arrived (according to archeological evidence of poporas), when men become of age, they go through a ceremony to become official members of the community, and this includes receiving their first “poporo”. When it reaches a certain size, they take it to the mamo (leader) for consultation and then receive another to start on.

The women have a similar tradition in which they weave circular bags using the fibers of the fique plant. (The fique plant is the same plant used to make the coffee sacks I mentioned in a previous blog about a coffee farm in Salento.) The bag contains all of their thoughts and stories and ponderings while making the bag, so that when the gift the bag to someone, they are also gifting them all of their thoughts during the creation of the bag. The circular design is to keep the positive energy in the bag because the energy “runs into the corners and escapes”. This circular style of bag is typically referred to as a “mochila”, or backpack, and is actually fashionable all through Colombia, used by men and women alike throughout the country.

The coca leaf is, and has been, an important part of the indigenous cultures of South America for centuries. One of the most interesting uses I saw was in the greeting. When one person (male) of the Tayrona culture greets another person, each offers the other a handful of coca leaves.

Exchanging coca leaves

Footnotes

*A person that grows up in an indigenous community in the “modern age” inevitably experiences an identity conflict. The person has to reconcile adapting to the modern world without losing key aspects of their cultural identity. That means defining what parts of each world define them – which customs from each culture (traditional and modern) they will adhere to and maintain in their daily life. With the “modern” culture dominating in cultural and economic power, many traditional customs are abandoned in order to be able to survive or to gain more opportunities in the modern world. In my opinion, the “cultural tourism” aspect of visiting Ciudad Perdida was a way to invest in promoting cultural conservation of these traditions. By sharing their traditions with us, the guides were able to keep their cultural memories alive, and they could be inspired to do so both by the interest we have in learning as well as the financial incentive – the fact that they can earn a living through keeping their culture alive.

**Packing for Ciudad Perdida, I recommend: quick-dry towel, flip flops for the evenings, newspapers to stuff in shoes so they will dry at night, carabiners to hang things from your backpack to dry during the day, water-proof backpack cover, multiple plastic bags to store everything you want to keep dry and to line the inside of your backpack, a ziplock to keep your phone dry, just enough shampoo and soap, 1L water bottle, money to buy gatorade or snacks along the way.

 

 

 

 

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.