Medellín – a symbol of transformation

I almost skipped visiting Medellin, and that would have been a major fail on my part, as it has actually been one of my favorite places! Not only is it a beautiful city, it has an incredibly rich and inspiring history.

Unfortunately, Medellin (and Colombia in general) is more commonly known internationally for parts of its tragic history when it was the home of the drug lord Pablo Escobar (romanticized by certain tv series) and was the most dangerous city in the world.

But today, part of the beauty of the city is that has transformed itself into a much safer city, visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, with beautiful public spaces enjoyed by its citizens.

Medellin has a lot going for it – it has a beautifully warm climate (akin to southern California), is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and is a perfect climate for producing the cash crops of coffee, cocoa, and of course the other stimulant for which it became infamous, coca.)

It originally became a wealthy region for its railroad and illegal smuggling routes of cheap goods INTO the country. Those same smuggling routes later were used in the opposite direction to export coca by mafia-type groups that got richer and more powerful each year, fueled by the growing demand from North America. Add into the mix the armed extreme leftists and rights, and you have the molotov coctail for creating the most dangerous city in the world.

Through a complicated history that I will oversimplify by saying that through peace accords and urban revitalization, neighborhoods became safer and a beautiful culture began to emerge into public spaces. Once dangerous squares filled with drug addicts and homeless people, many parks are now filled with statues by the famous Paisa artist Botero and people strolling along enjoying the nice weather.

Services became available for those previously occupying those public spaces and the spaces themselves were transformed to be more hospitable. Buildings were transformed into libraries – designed as cool and interesting places to hang out, and they provided access social programs. And the metro was built, not only helping people get around, but as a symbol of pride for Paisas (people from the Medellin region).

The city is divided into large communities called Comunas, and Comuna 13 was a war zone between the different factions in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Our guide through Comuna 13 lived there through the violence. Her neighbors were armed members of the guerrilla groups, who used intimidation to get what they wanted. The area was notorious for drug trafficking and it was common to hear shots and helicopters passing above. One couldn’t freely leave and enter the neighborhood.

Then there was a hugely controversial government siege in 2002 to oust the guerrilla groups. For our guide, this marked a turning point, where within 2 years, the neighborhood started to turn itself around – it started to be safe to walk in the streets, and the beginnings of a transformation could be felt. (It was controversial because it also resulted in the disappearance and death of many people’s family members.)

Now, what were provisional shack/like houses have been transformed especially by the street art decorating their walls. As Lina guided us through the streets, she explained the meaning behind each work of graffiti, most of which depict this transformation – the suffering, the death, the injustice, the pain of a few decades ago, as well as the hope, the strength of the people, and the power of love to transform.

As a resident, Lina knew each artist and she explained that the neighborhood gets together to decide what areas will be painted and to assign areas to each of the artists that would like to do a piece.

Another big impact for the revitalization was the installation of outdoors, covered escalators in the neighborhood (sorry, I don’t have a photo). It may seem strange, but since the neighborhood is built on the side of a mountain, these escalators first helped people (especially the elderly) be able to get around better, and now are an added tourist attraction too.

For me, it was unbelievable that this sweet, humble, intelligent person standing before me had lived her young adulthood in the middle of a conflict zone, with neighbors as armed guerrilla members. For her, she said, it was unbelievable that she now not only walks freely in the streets, but that tourists from all over the world come to visit her neighborhood. It is something she never could have even imagined before; it is like a dream, she said.

Our guide, standing below the house she lived in for decades.

Standing in the street corner, waiting for the bus to leave Comuna 13, a restaurant had the music loud (nothing unusual there for Colombia), and I noticed that 2 couples got up and started dancing salsa in the tiny space between tables on the sidewalk. Along with the break dancers and rappers we had passed earlier, I was moved by this casual, appreciation for life, a celebration of self-expression and the simple joy of being able to safely be out in the streets in their communities, something they didn’t enjoy a few decades ago here.

A statue destroyed by a bomb remains to remind Paisas of the history, but stands next to a new and in-tact statue symbolizing a new era for Medellín.

Sites of Sucre

Sucre is a colorful city, full of signs of its colonial history and teeming with life. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the capital of Bolivia, and the seat of the judicial power*, to me it felt strangely like a big city with a small town feel.

People from Sucre call themselves Chuquisaqueños because Sucre used to be called Chuquisaca and is the capital of the department Chuquisaca. During colonial times, the Spanish called the city “la plata” and it was the center of the region of Spanish rule called Los Charcas.

It bears the nickname “ciudad blanca” because of the traditional Spanish style white houses (not to be confused with Arequipa, Peru which has the same nickname but for the white stone of the region used in construction there.)

I only barely scratched the surface of this little gem (multiple other tourists had told me they had planned to stay only 2 days and had ended up staying a week or more), but I was just there a couple of days.

The best way to bring the city to life is to visit the “casa de la libertad” in the main plaza de armas, which is one of the best museums I’ve been to, and where you can see the original Declaration of Independence and get an excellent primer on the colonial history of the city…actually of all of Bolivia – and most of South America!

The guided tour of the museum explained the history of Spanish colonial rule, from the robbery of precious metals and the brutal treatment of the natives and African slaves, to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule – a history that is shared by the majority of South American countries, with heroes such as Sucre, Simon Bolivar, and Juana Azurduy.

Later I wandered into an art museum that gave a modern history lesson, told through alasitas – miniatures of everything. One day every year in Bolivia, vendors in the street sell everything in miniature, and this miniature version of things are called alasitas. I know, I didn’t get it either. But it’s a real thing. One day a year you can buy a doll-house sized version of just about every normal thing you might buy (toilet paper, detergent, clothes, everything!)

This little exhibit in the museum had collected alasitas throughout the years and told the history of the 70s, 80s, and 90s in Bolivia (mostly La Paz) through alasitas.

To my surprise, everyone I talked to told me I had to visit the cemetery. Finally, a French friend I made convinced me, and I have to say it was quite an experience. Not a Halloween-type experience. More like visiting a huge, beautiful, sacred park.

The entrance was as grand as the entrance to a palace, and it opened up to a huge manicured park with walkways lined with trees. It was so expansive it would have literally taken hours to walk all the different walkways to see all the different graves and mausoleums.

The walkways were lined with trees, and the air was filled with the sound of birds chirping on top of a very peaceful silence, the smell of flowers and cypress, and a mix of warmth from the sun and cool air in the shade. Workers were tending the grounds and planting flowers, and a few visitors were trending to their loved ones’ graves. At one point, in the distance I heard a woman sobbing loudly (wailing, really), and I felt the sadness of her loss, reminding me of the solemnity of the place.

The main walkway was lined with massive family mausoleums, and the other paths led to walls and walls of graves with locker-sized boxes decorated with memorabilia.

Interspersed were a few grave plots, and a few more large family mausoleums. There were large buildings dedicated to specific groups like rural teachers, union workers or people who had constructed certain roads.

The differences between the family mausoleums and the walls of hundreds of graves was both artistically interesting and also a distinct reminder of the huge class, power, and wealth divisions put in place by Spanish colonialism. (Not to say that previous societies didn’t have class divisions, just saying that in this particular place those divisions created by colonial rule are what are evident.)

I couldn’t have visited Sucre without some kind of outdoors adventure, so I went looking for the “7 cascadas” that the military guy in the taxi had told me about. It was an hour bus ride leaving the city, and from there I asked the locals to point me in the right direction. “It’s straight ahead, just follow the path”, they all said. And that’s when I realized I’m not as outdoors-expert as I thought I was, even after living in a rural place for three years, because I kept losing what they claimed was a clear path. Some young teenage girls trending a flock of sheep helped me find my way (after first laughing at me).

But I did eventually find all 7 of the waterfalls and was rewarded with a delightful swim in a pool beneath a waterfall.

On the way back (after getting lost one or twice), I ran into a group of Spanish, Germans, and Argentines also coming back from the falls, and we made our way back together, just catching the last bus back to the city and then exploring one of the markets together. This is why traveling alone never really feels like traveling alone.

Famous Footnotes

*La Paz holds the seat of the executive and legislative powers, which is why many call La Paz the capital, though Sucre is the constitutional capital of Bolivia

**The hostel I stayed in, Villa Oropeza, had a lovely garden area, good WiFi, and a super friendly staff, definitely one of my favorites so far!

Bolivian Andes (Part II)- Glacier Lake and Spanish Gold Trail, Sorata

After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.

If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).

Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.

We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!

We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.

As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.

The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).

At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.

The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.

Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.

The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!

We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!

The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.

We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)

Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.

Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.

Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.

Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.

As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.

Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.

(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).

Sorata to Lago Chillata – Adventures in the Bolivian Andes

As I was walking on Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca, I caught my breath as I looked across the lake and saw grand white peaks rising out of the horizon.

If you know me, you know that I have a love affair with mountains, and especially those majestic white, snow-covered mountains (“nevadas”). The mountains seductively said to me “You’ve hiked in the Peruvian Andes, are you up for the Bolivian Andes?”

So after leaving Copacabana, instead of taking the usual route to La Paz, I got off the bus early and caught a few cars to get to Sorata, a small mining town of about 4,000 people about 3 hours from La Paz and a starting and ending point for a few different treks through the Bolivian Andes.

I had heard that Sorata was a mining town, but I was still blown away when I saw a sign in a store off the main plaza that said “I buy gold. I sell mercury.”

I had laughed when my uncle heard I was going to Bolivia and told me to take a metal detector and to look for gold…but turns out he knew what he was talking about!

Other than the sign about gold, the town reminded me of any small mountain town in Peru. With a nice plaza in the center,* the main church and municipality building off the plaza, and shops filling the streets around the plaza. And because the town is on the side of a mountain, the streets off of one side of the plaza were an incredibly steep climb up, while the streets off the other side were a steep descent.

I arrived on Sunday when they had their “feria”, or market day, when people from the surrounding areas bring their products to sell – potatoes, acacha (a long, skinny, knobby potato), habas (a big, protein-filled bean), snap peas, herbs, carrots, green beans. Similar to Peru, they would bring their big colorful “manta”, spread it out on the ground and neatly arrange their products to sell. Common to all markets I’ve ever seen in Peru and Bolivia, there were many different vendors, all selling the same things.

I had sought out a local, Sorata-based guide association and “Eduardo”, a local guide met me in the plaza when I arrived and introduced me to his wife and daughter who were enjoying a Sunday walking in the plaza.

I was fascinated with the option of doing an 11-day trek through the Andes that included climbing a snow-capped peak and ending in the “Yungus” (the lower altitude, warm climate of the jungle on the other side (east) of the Andes, but I wasn’t able to pull together a group to do it with. Since it would be just me and the guide, I decided to do a 3-4-day trek to a glacier lake between two snow-capped peaks, “Illampu” (Aymará for “fat of the llama”) and “Ancouma” (Aymará for “white snow”).

 That evening we bought food and supplies and the next morning we started off from the town’s center, which is located low in the hills at 2,600 meters above sea level (8,500 ft). Eduardo pointed to the mountains in the far distance. I could not believe that we were going to arrive all the way there walking, (and with 15-20 kilos in my backpack) within a day. But he confirmed that we would do it. So I just put one foot in front of the other and waited to see what would happen.

It happened to be “Día del peatón”, or “Pedestrian Day”, the one day of the year in Bolivia where cars weren’t permitted to drive, which was lucky for us because our hike started along a dirt road, and when cars (illegally driving that day) did pass by, they kicked up a ton of dust which didn’t help breathing through the uphill climb.

Finally we got off the road and the smell of eucalyptus (one of my favorite smells of all time) filled the air and I realized we were walking through a eucalyptus forest.

Fun fact: Eucalyptus is an invasive from Australia that sucks the water and nutrients out of the soil…. But it produces wood quickly so people keep it around.

Later, the climb got steeper and the smell changed to muña. Another smell that I love, and this time there’s no worry about it being an invasive species. Muña is native here, it’s used in tea and is helpful preventing and alleviating the effects of altitude.

The first day was pure steep, uphill climb, like climbing stairs for 6 hours, without any flat parts to rest, so we took breaks every 30 minutes or so. It reminded me of the constant climb up Volcán Misti in Arequipa, including the burning glutes with every step (yep, for 6 hours).

My guide is a really nice guy who’s been a guide since 1993. He started as the front desk staff at a hostel that did tours. Trekking tourism started to boom in Sorata and one day they needed a guide so he went out with a group, and he loved it, and they loved him. He knew his way through the mountains because as a kid he used to take sheep out to graze through the mountains to make cash and as a curious spirit, he would go exploring new parts every time.

As more and more tourists flooded to Sorata to do treks, he formed the Association of Guides in Sorata, which ultimately had 30 guides and 20 arrieros (donkey handlers), all professionally trained. He loved meeting people from all over the world, learning from them, and exploring with them. He especially loved learning about new foods and ways to cook in the mountains. He picked up English and even a little French and Hebrew.

Everything was great until 2003. That’s when the Bolivian gas conflict exploded, with the country divided between plans to build a gas pipeline to export gas to the US and Mexico and a growing movement calling for Bolivia to build a local processing plant to get more value from their product and to meet internal gas needs before exporting. Between internal protests and international relationship problems, the booming tourism suddenly halted.

Since then, tourism in Sorata is starting to pick back up, but now most of the tours are dominated by agencies out of La Paz that charge double or more and often contract local guides anyway. When Eduardo goes out with big groups, his wife sometimes comes along to help, and his sons had come along a few times too, (but they didn’t enjoy it as much).

We ate lunch at 3,800 meters (12,500 ft), (the same altura as lago Titicaca), and then after about 3 more hours of climbing, we arrived at our campsite at at 4,200 meters (13,800 ft), a mountain lake “Lago Chillata”.

“Chillata” is Aymará for “the sacred lake where people go to pray, sobbing for help from the divine”). Or, to the Incas before Catholicism, the lake was called “Kotaato” – Aymará for “the lake in the middle of the rocks”.

Here, the clouds roll in thick around 4pm every afternoon and the fog hangs around until the middle of the night, where it clears up and the temperature drops below freezing.

As the clouds are rolling past, visibility sometimes would clear for just a few seconds, leaving an incredible view of the sun setting on the great white peaks of Illampu and Ancouma. (Many times I ran to a high point to get a photo, and within 10 seconds it was already covered in fog again by the time I got there.)

 

Tomorrow we’ll be able to leave the heavy stuff at the campsite as we head towards the great peaks to find the glacier lake that is tucked between them.

*Famous Footnote/Bonus content:

While wandering around the plaza the night before the trek, I saw a group of people speaking English in the plaza. I approached them and learned they were a chapter of Engineers Without Borders doing an Eco-bathroom project in a nearby rural town! I find my people all over the world!

Travelogue: Adventures in Arequipa

Co-written by Miluska Pachas Moron

Haz click aqui para la versión en español.

To celebrate Independence Day of Peru, 28 of July, we headed to the 2nd most populated city in Peru – Arequipa. But, crazy as we are, we didn’t choose a relaxing vacation with umbrella drinks, enjoying the city…no, we chose the adventure vacation: 2 overnight hikes, first in the heat of Colca Canyon, and then in the freezing cold of the snow-capped volcano Misti.

In fact, the very day we arrived in Arequipa (a 16-hour bus ride from Lima), we headed straight towards the Canyon to get started on our trek down into the canyon the next morning, so we could return to Arequipa and climb Misti Volcano all within the 7 days we had in Arequipa.

Hiking Colca Canyon (without a guide)

Encouraged by a blog we read, we decided to do a 2-day Colca Canyon hike on our own, to enjoy leaving on our own schedule, hiking at our own pace, and hoping to do it cheaper than if we had paid a guide. It turned out well, and we share our experience here.

Our bus arrived in Arequipa en the early afternoon, and we headed directly to the “empresa” Centella to take a minivan to Chivay (15 soles), where we would spend the night and get a good night’s rest before starting the hike the next morning. At 3,650 meters above sea level, Chivay is a pueblo about 1.5 hours from the start of the hike down into the canyon. At night, the temperature got down to the low 30’s, just below freezing.

We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Rumi Wasi (22 soles), and coordinated to leave the next morning at 6:30am with a minivan that was giving a guided tour for a group of tourists and agreed to drop us off at the trailhead for the Colca hike, near Cabanaconde, for 30 soles. On the way to the trailhead, our driver explained some of the history of the area, including the two indigenous cultures that had lived in the different parts of the canyon, and the sophisticated canals they used to carry water from one part of the canyon to another.

We stopped in the plaza of a pueblo called Yanque where some children were doing traditional dances in traditional clothing for the tourists. In the distance, you could see Volcano Sabancaya smoking like a chimney (they said it was normal.) After about 25 minutes in Yanque, we stopped for 30 minutes in Cruz del Condor, a part of the canyon 130 meters higher than Chivay, where the huge condors can be seen flying above the rising walls of the canyon, with the backdrop of the majestic mountains on the other side of the canyon.

   

When we arrived at the trailhead for the Colca Canyon descent, there were a few different guided tour groups and a handful of people also doing the hike on their own. Our first day was a hike of about 7 km to spend the night in the canyon at “Sangalle”, where there is a group of hostels referred to as the “Oasis”, and the second day would be an early morning for a day of pure climbing back up to the rim of the canyon.

The starting descent was fun, like a trail run, with some tough parts, but mostly a smooth descent. We noticed that there are many different settlements, or pueblos within the canyon, in the walls of the canyon and below.

We arrived at the bottom of the canyon (2,200 meters above sea level) to a wooden bridge in a district in the canyon called Tapay, where there was an outhouse and a place to rest.

After crossing the bridge, we took a switch-back to the left – a steep ascent that was said to save about 40 minutes. After about a half hour, we arrived to a pueblo, “San Juan,” where the tour groups stopped to eat a 15-soles “menu” (soup and “segundo”, which is rice and a typical plate defined by the restaurant offering the “menu”), and where you could buy a bottle of beer for 10 soles – more expensive than in a night club in Lima!

After San Juan, we continued towards the pueblo “Cosñirjua,”, which was about an hour and a half, with the last half hour being a fairly tough climb, and arriving at a restaurant/hostel that has snacks, drinks, and a bathroom, all for a higher price than anywhere else in Peru…but not surprising considering there are no other options in the area and it’s not exactly easy to import things to the site. We bought a Gatorade that looked like it had been brought there about 100 years ago, took advantage of the bathroom and a short rest, and then continued the route towards Sangalle, where we would find the Oasis lodges.

We had heard that it would take about 2 hours, or 1.5 hours at a good pace, to arrive at the lodges so we opted to walk-run so we could rest in the horizontal position as soon as possible. The first part of the trail was a dirt road wide enough for trucks, and as we continued we didn’t see any signs, nor the pronounced descent that the blog had mentioned. We passed a woman outside her house washing clothes, and she pointed us to a turnoff to the left that we had missed a few hundred meters back.

Descending, we came to an overlook with a gazebo-like structure, took some fun photos, and continued the descent back to the base of the canyon. After about an hour, we came to another bridge, where we would cross back to side of the canyon we entered (though further down), and where we would find the lodges after 30 minutes of a steep ascent.

Caught up in the adventure, we hadn’t thought to try to reserve a space in one of the lodges, and almost all of the spaces were reserved when we arrived. Luckily, there was a room with 3 beds and its own bathroom with hot water that we got to ourselves for 30 soles each, in a lodge with a pool fed by naturally warm water from the canyon. The lodge also provided dinner for 15 soles – prices that are reasonable for most travelers, but quite high for the area, but again understandable that they are taking advantage of the limited options available.

We had read that we could buy snacks along the way, but we recommend that you bring all the snacks you need for the two days, and a way to treat water, because the snacks they offered in the lodge were limited supply and exorbitant prices – a bottle of 2.5L of water was more expensive than the room! Ok, not really, but it was half the price of the habitation – or 5 times the normal price of a bottle of water this size!

But luckily, the Girl Scout/Peace Corps WASH volunteer in me had brought everything I needed to treat water (Iodine pills and a Steri Pen) to have potable water for the next day.

The area is known as the Oasis because while most of the canyon is rocky, with desert-like plants, common in the “sierra”, this part had green grass (probably planted for the lodges, though we did see another naturally green part of the canyon where there was a waterfall, near where we had crossed the bridge.) We took advantage of the grass to stretch for about 15 minutes so our bodies could recover from the day’s hike and be ready for the next day’s ascent.

The hot shower, eating even the last grain of rice on our plates, looking for constellations (Scorpio dominating the sky in our case), and resting under the starlight in this corner of paradise, was the best way to recharge for the tough day ahead.

(Side note: At 8pm they turned off the power for the hostal, so if you need to charge phones or use the light, it’s important to do it before hand, and always good to bring a portable charger if possible.)

We had planned to start the ascent at 5:30am, as recommended by everyone, to avoid the heat of the day during the tough ascent, but our alarm didn’t go off, so we got a late start (story of my life…surely the fault of my late curse)! So we ate breakfast at 6am – the breakfast of gold – the most expensive breakfast ever: 10 soles for two pieces of bread with butter and jam, with a cup of tea/coffee, but also very necessary for the day ahead.

We hit the trail at 6:30am, and the scenery was incredible, as we ascended along with the sun, which painted the canyon walls more and more throughout the ascent. The first hour was peaceful, silent, like a walking meditation. During the second hour, the ascent got more intense, like a never-ending rocky stairway that made the quads and glutes burn with every step, not only carrying our own bodyweight, but also the weight of the backpack of water and supplies. A great workout in an incredible and peaceful corner of paradise!

Towards the end, it can be discouraging to look up because there are many “false peaks” where you think you are close to the rim, but it turns out you still have a ways to go. As the sun comes out, the heat intensifies, so it is important to have enough water and snacks to power you through, as well as sunblock, hat and sunglasses…and toilet paper just in case (and a bag to put used toilet paper to throw it away afterwards and not add trash to the trail.)

Almost 3 hours had passed and we didn’t see any sign of the rim, but suddenly a group of hikers appeared, descending from the top, and they told us we were just 10 minutes from the rim…just the words of hope we needed to awaken the surge of energy that carried us almost running to the top! We arrived 10 minutes before our planned arrival time, thanking our legs of steel and celebrating that we made it out alive and strong, even if exhausted!

After celebrating, we realized that we still had a 15-minute hike to the plaza of Cabanaconde, where we would be able to catch a bus back to Arequipa…but at least it was a flat 15-minute walk!

We were able to catch bus that left at 11:30am – just enough time to eat lunch before the 5-hour ride. And luckily, the bus stopped in the pueblos along the way, so we were able to pick up our gear that we had left in the hostel in Chivay.

 

Volcano Misti (5,825 meters) (Only for the strong-of-heart! Have you seen the movie Everest?)

Returning to Arequipa, we took a day to rest, try some of the delicious food in Arequipa, and to find a guide to climb the volcano Misti the following day.

To climb Misti, we went with a tour company that offers “pool service”, (puts you with a group of around 5-15 people), for a trek of 2 days and one night, and we paid 250 soles each. They also provided the warm gear (pants, jackets, gloves) needed for the extreme temperatures in the night and at the higher altitudes, tents, main meals, and sleeping bags.

We only had to bring a few basics: a hiking backpack, boots, (they rented the backpack and boots if you didn’t have them), light clothing for the first day of ascent (which would be hot), warm clothing for the night (which would be ridiculously freezing cold), snacks, and 5.5 liters of water – 4 to drink during the 2 days and 1.5 for the guides to cook with.

We rented hiking poles from them too because the ascent is steep and the descent even more tricky. And I heard that hiking poles eliminate about 25% of the strain on knees on the ascent, and 75% on the descent…so I was happy to pay to rent hiking poles now to gain a few years before I will need knee replacements!

It is recommended to climb Misti with a guide because it’s easy to get lost, and the altitude and cold really do affect the human body and its ability to think well, (and there are plenty of stories of people getting lost and dying).

The guide company picked us up from the hotel at 8am and we met up with the rest of the group to outfit our gear and head to the trailhead. A 4×4 brought us out of the city, to the base of the volcano, where we would start the ascent at about 3400 meters.

Between the hot sierra sun and the constant climb, with backpacks of more than 5 kilos, the sweat was pouring, and we tired quickly, with aching legs, hips, and shoulders. But like all marathon challenges, we took it step by step, advancing little by little, resting every 30 minutes to drink water and eat fruit to refuel.

Finally, after about 5 hours of hiking, we arrived at 4,600 meters, where we set up camp.

We were lucky enough to experience an unbelievable sight – the contrast of the awesome sunset in the west and the incredible full moon rising in the east – which made the intense cold that came with the setting sun, slightly more bearable.

setting sun
rising moon

We ate dinner as quickly as possible and immediately climbed into the tents to escape the cold and try to sleep 7pm-1am: our wake-up call to eat breakfast and start the climb before 2am.

The morning cold was like no other I have experienced, but luckily, the full moon was a huge light in the sky, illuminating our way through the snow. We learned that the secret was to move at a pace fast enough to stay warm and not die of cold, but slow enough so that the lungs could deal with the low levels of oxygen at that altitude.

The trek was like no other I’ve ever done – freezing cold, in the middle of the night – dark, but illuminated beautifully by the full moon, a steep ascent through the beautiful rocks and snow, at altitude. It was incredible. It was difficult – physically and psychologically. Our heads were hurting from lack of oxygen. Hearts pounding. Loving and hating every minute of it, all at the same time.

We were in a group of 7, and the majority didn’t make it to the peak because there were two different paces in the group but one guide stayed behind babysitting someone who had never been on a hike before, much less in the altitude, and kind of ruined it for the rest of the group.

I definitely recommend this trek (especially if you can time it with a full moon!), always remembering:

1. If you haven’t climbed a mountain or done a hike at altitude in the last few months and aren’t in shape, this is not a good hike to start with. Do easier hikes at lower altitudes, and work your way up to this one. Also, if you can do work-outs in the altitude in the week before the hike (without exhausting yourself), it will help immensely.

2. When going on hikes, take some plastic bags for trash, including bags for your used toilet paper, and don’t leave trash on the trail. Respect nature and leave it beautiful for the next person!

Travel Blog: Chachapoyas, Amazonas – Kuelap, Gocta, and more

I have had the great fortune to have found some incredible friends in my site, and not one day passes that I am not thankful for them! With two of my best friends, we had been talking about escaping Oxapampa and traveling together…and this year we finally made it a reality! We left the high jungle, or “ceja de selva” (eybrow of the jungle) of Oxapampa and we headed north to the other side of the country, to the “ceja de selva” of Chachapoyas, in the department of Amazonas.

The arrow points to Chachapoyas, and the red dot is Oxapampa.

Chachapoyas hosts tons of international tourists who come to see Kuelap (sometimes referred to as the Machu Picchu of the north), the grand waterfall Gocta, and tons of other ruins, artefacts, and beautiful natural sites, all a day trip from the city of Chachapoyas, where there are plenty of accommodations.

We were lucky to find a special and got a cheap flight from Lima to Jaen, Cajamarca, and from Jaen, we took a 4-hour bus ride (MovilTours) to Chachapoyas. (Some people fly into Tarapoto and get a car to Chachapoyas, which is about 8 hours in car. Or, there is always the option to take a bus from Lima to Chachapoyas, which is about 20 hours, and worth paying for the more expensive seats on a luxury bus like Cruz del Sur.)

In Chachapoyas, we stayed in Backpackers Hostel, and each day we did a day trip from Chachapoyas. Our itinerary included:

  • Day 1: Rodriguez de Mendoza – Leo’s cave (Caverna de Leo) and hot sulfur springs (Aguas Termales)
  • Day 2: Kuelap
  • Day 3: Gocta (waterfall)
  • Day 4: Karajía

We wish we had had about 2-3 more days to be able to visit Leymebamba, which is 3 hours from Chacha and home to the Laguna de Los Condores and a museum with bones, mummies, and artefacts found around the laguna and in the area.

Day 1 Rodriguez de Mendoza. After eating breakfast in a small restaurant (and laughing until we cried when the waitress took Carolina (who is Argentinian) for a non-Spanish speaking tourist and spoke really loudly and slowly and simply to her in Spanish), we headed to the terminal, where we caught a car to go to Rodriguez de Mendoza (S/20). It was a beautiful 2-hour drive through the majestic, green, rolling hills. There were also palm trees, which we were told were brought in by an outside organization to cultivate, but they didn’t really turn into a big venture so they aren’t really maintained, but they remain an interesting feature in the landscape.

In Rodriguez de Mendoza, we took a 20 minute car ride (S/5) to where a man named Leo gives tours of a cave on his property (S/20). (Slightly less sketchy than it sounds, but worth it!) Leo is about in his 60s and he led us up a hill, through his beautiful property, filled with native plants, coffee plants, and fruit trees, to the opening of a cave. He gave us all flashlights and led us down into the cave, which was many stories deep, with different levels and tons of great formations. He claimed it was incredibly extensive and that he could lead a 6-hour hike through the cave and still not see everything, but since we only had one hour, he proceeded to tell us what he thought each formation resembled (Biblical figures, animals, etc.) We were a little disappointed because we would have much preferred to walk around and see more of the cave, but overall, it was a really cool cave (and a great hike to and from the cave), so I’m glad we did it, and I would recommend it.

We then took a car about 15 minutes (S/5) to a site with a natural spring feeding thermal baths (S/3). This was my first time in thermal baths and I was enchanted by the experience. There were two pools of turquoise water, in the middle of nature, surrounded beautiful scenery on all sides. I don’t think I’ve ever swam surrounded by mountains on all sides, a tiny drop in the middle of paradise. The sulfur smell took a while to wash out of our hair, but it was well-worth it. We ate at a restaurant just above the springs, on the same property, and were lucky enough that two different cars gave us rides back to Rodriguez de Mendoza, where we caught a combi (van) back to Chachapoyas (S/15), just in time to be able to arrive before dark.

 

Day 2. Kuelap – ruins from a fort of the Chachapoyas culture (1100-1400 AD), in the high selva of Amazonas, with a recently-built teleferico (ski-lift type of air transport) over the mountains to arrive at the entrance. (Fun Fact: Machu Picchu is also tucked in a high selva zone, but in Cusco.) We talked to a guide agency in the plaza and secured a day trip to Kuelap, with teleferico, entrance fees and lunch included for S/75. Unfortunately, it was a drizzly, grey day, so we didn’t get quite the spectacular photos that one normally gets at Kuelap, but even through the mist and clouds, it was spectacular…and I would say that the mist and clouds passing through the mountains gave it an enchanting feel in its own right.

The teleferico …getting into a pod with 8 people and crossing green mountains and valleys, from tens of meters above, was an experience in and of itself.

Arriving at Kuelap, we had a light, beautiful (even if foggy) hike up into the mountains, where we began to approach the remainders of watch towers and walls some 900-years old. Approaching the main grounds, the entire settlement was surrounded be a wall, many meters high.

Entering, we saw the outlines and remainders of different parts of a city, living quarters, temples, storage areas.

And a llama. (Not sure if they brought in the llama for show like they do at Machu Picchu, or if llamas actually live in the area, but I’m guessing the former since llamas tend to live at higher altitude…sorry to burst your bubble.)

Our guide explained that Kuelap was used by the Chachapoyas nation independently from 1100-1450AD. Though the Chachapoyas were overtaken by the Incas, the site continued in use and didn’t change much under Inca rule because the Incas tended to let the people they conquered continue with their way of life, implementing certain additional administrative requirements to manage their rule.

In the mid 1500s, the Spaniard conquistadores came, and while the Chachapoyas resisted the conquistadores longer than most, they were finally overcome and forced to leave the site of Kuelap. Our guide was a great storyteller, and I liked that he made a point to distinguish between “assumptions” and “facts backed by evidence” (a difference that is lately getting confused by many popular mass media sources).

 

Day 3. Gocta – The 771-meter (2,530 ft) waterfall with two drops (registered as the 3rd or the 16th largest waterfall in the world, depending on who you ask). We wanted to do the hike to see the whole waterfall – both of the two drops, and we found someone who knew a guide from the village that could take us there and later pick us up for S/60.

The village that is near the waterfall (San Pablo de Valera) has organized themselves well and they require a guide from their village to accompany all visitors to the waterfall. (We paid our guide Maria S/40.) The village you pass through also charges an entrance fee (S/20), and they use the money to maintain and improve the trails to the waterfall, as well as to improve their own community. I really liked the system since it brings jobs and income to the local people while they maintain and conserve the natural area on their property, and also are able to share it with visitors.

The first stop was the pool at the base of the first drop. Unfortunately, we had another cloudy day without sun and with a little bit of rain a few times, but it was still an amazing hike with amazing views.

The second stop was a lookout point, where we could see both the upper and lower drops of the waterfall.

From there, because we had asked to see the lower drop as well, we continued the descent until we arrived at the huge pool at the very base of the fall. Again, it was cloudy, cold, and even rained a little, but that didn’t keep us from diving into the pool; afterall, how often does one get the opportunity to swim in the pool at the base of an incredible 771-meter waterfall? (Ok, I admit, it was way too cold to swim. I jumped in, screamed because it was so cold, and could only stand about 3 more minutes before I got out and hid under my rain poncho to warm up.)

From the pool, we descended about 1 hour to the nearby village where the hike ends. One of the local dogs had followed us from the very beginning, all the way to the village below, and my friends convinced our driver to let us drop the dog off closer to home.

Since we all have that adventurous spirit, we agreed that the all day hike was our favorite day of the whole trip…being surrounded by nature all day, bathing in a grand waterfall, climbing and descending, crossing through the mountains from one village to another, immersed in incredible landscapes…it was a perfect day for us all, one of the best in a lifetime.

Day 4: Karajía. For our last day, we decided on a half-day trip to Karajía (S/30 for a private car), which is where there are sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) high up in a cliff .

It was a beautiful drive (as all the drives had been), that brought us to a little town, and from there, a short 30-minute hike to see the sarcophagi. You can’t get very close to them because they are high in the cliffs, but you can see them from below or from the sides.

Arrow points to the sarcophaguses

We dawdled a while, hiking around and taking photos and goofing off and enjoying the views, until we climbed back up the hill to the village.

Unfortunately, we only had four days to explore the area, but one could easily spend a week or more discovering Chachapoyas and the surrounding areas.

The amazing views, the history, the culture, the adventure….this trip had it all, with the best part being the memories shared, deepening our friendship, and finally traveling together – something we’d been talking about doing together for a year!

Arriba Peru! – Sentiments from a Peruvian

As you know, Peru has made its first World Cup appearance in 35 years, so the country is pretty excited. I have mixed feelings about professional sports in general, but I almost cried when I read this e-mail from one of our Peace Corps Peru doctors, Dr. Jorge Bazan, to all the American Peace Corps Peru volunteers. I wanted to share it here because it gives a personal perspective on the recent history of Peru,  how it impacted his life, and how international sport can be related to domestic issues and can unite a divided country.

(Note that he uses the world “football”, for what most Americans know as “soccer”, as the official name across the world for the sport is football. )

This is only the opinion of one Peruvian, so it doesn’t represent the opinions of all Peruvians, but I am sure that it captures some of the feelings of many. Enjoy.

So why is the Football world cup such a big deal if it’s just a sport competition? What’s going on?

I remember reading once that when France won the world cup in 1998 and the country went crazy with happiness and celebration…that it was only comparable to when world war II was finished. So why did they go so crazy if they won just a sport competition?

The answer is that the football world cup is NOT just a sport competition in which countries send their best football players to see which team has the best team. No. In the case of the World Cup, this is not really about only a competition, it’s about countries all over the world trying to demonstrate that they are present and that they are the best. It’s countries all over the world trying to show who they are and how great they are.

Since World War II finished we haven’t had a world war again, thankfully, but now, every 4 years, there is a “Peaceful World War” in which most countries in the world get super excited and try to demonstrate who they are and that they can be the best. In this “War” there are no weapons, just football, the most popular sport in the world, and it’s used by everyone to show who we are. Everyone is watching, everyone wants to win, everyone wants to show everybody else that that they are the best.

There are no political differences, religious or cultural within each country during the world cup. Everyone is united during the games, all wearing the same t-shirt, one huge group of people wanting to show how great they are. That’s why players play as hard as they do, fight for winning each game as if it was a final, and get so emotional when they hear their national anthem because they know that they are fighting for their country, and their victory is a whole country’s victory and can bring happiness for so many people. And that’s why tears come out when they lose, because they know that there is a whole country sharing their sadness and loss. Every game is like a small battle to see who is the final winner, and there is a whole country waiting to see if they will survive or not.

For Peru, going to the world cup after 36 years is like telling the whole world that we are back after so many years of suffering and sadness. Since the last world cup in which we participated in 1982, everything went horrible for Peru. Huge economic crisis in which it was difficult to have money just for buying food or any basic needs. The el Niño current came in 1983 and destroyed the country in a time when there was no way to send help or money, so everyone had to deal with their family’s death and destruction on their own, and then the el Niño came back in 1998. And worse of all, terrorism appeared. Worst time ever…people being killed every day, being scared every day for so many years, living with curfew…horrible times. The internal war destroyed the country and people’s souls.

There was a time, where I used to say, out of all countries in the world, why was I born here? There was no hope. I felt so unlucky, with a difficult, or no future.

Most of my friends from school and university left Peru to work and study somewhere else, but I decided to stay.

But suddenly terrorism ended, terror stopped, Peru started doing well economically and things got better and better and better. Peace was back and money was back, and people started investing in Peru again. Things got better, Peace Corps came back and I’m here with you working for PC for already 13 years.

So, Peru being back in the world cup after 36 years is for us, telling the world that WE ARE BACK and that We are again part of the world, that we are here, and we want everyone to know that Peru is a Wonderful country with Great People.

Now I’m so happy to be Peruvian and everyone wants to wear a Peruvian T-shirt. Incredible. It’s like a dream, yes, it’s like a dream that once I thought would never happen. Peru being good and healthy again, still with problems such as political issues, corruption, poverty, but we are alive again. We have hope again for a better life.

We are already out of the world cup, but everyone is proud of our team. All the world is talking about Peru and how so many Peruvians went to Russia and cheered so much for our country. We are all again so proud to be Peruvian.

The US is a beautiful, huge country with lots of diversity and great things. Because it’s so big, in a way it has created its own world which includes sports. That’s why Football (soccer for you) is not yet a huge deal as it is for the rest of the world, and you have your own sports such as American Football and others.

So now that you (Peace Corps volunteers) are out of the US, being part of the world cup in Peru, don’t forget to see Peru vs. Australia tomorrow. Since we have already been eliminated, tomorrow’s game won’t be so exciting, but Peru will play for its honor, and Australia which still has a chance, will play to survive. Wear your Peruvian T-shirt, and if you don’t have one yet, ask yourself why and then go buy one.

Many Peruvians don’t like football, but since the world cup is not about football, but about our countries fighting to show who we are, everyone is watching the games. And since you (Peace Corps Volunteers) are here, it doesn’t matter if you like football or hate it, that doesn’t matter. Just enjoy being here, participate in the world cup, and be part of Peru, a country that will be part of you forever.

Take care and

ARRIBA PERU!!!

Here’s another fun perspective on Peru’s World Cup appearance (thanks Dave!): https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/peru-2018-world-cup-why-you-should-root-for-la-blanquirroja.html

And some more fun propaganda for Peru: A letter from Peru to Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yycqyMhr47Q