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 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.)

 

Tatacoa Desert – Huila, Colombia

The diversity of landscapes in Colombia is amazing, and one of those unique gems is the Tatacoa Desert, not too far from Bogotá, in Huila.

All within 32,000 hectares, the desert-like landscapes are filled with more than 100 varieties of cactus, petrified wood, and other-worldly rock formations.

While the majority of the area is dominated by grey-ish colored rock formations, the Tatacoa makes a sudden drastic change to red rock formations, and so is referred to by its two parts – the red desert and the grey desert.

Desierto Gris (Grey Desert)

Desierto Rojo (Red Desert)

The intense sun and extreme heat is something that the locals try to avoid by relaxing in the shade at mid day, and with long sleeves and brimmed hats the rest of the day.

Fun fact: Despite it’s heat, sand, and cactus, the Tatacoa Desert isn’t actually categorized as a desert; it’s technically a “dry forest” climate zone. (Though it’s what a lay person would call a “desert”.)

It was here in the Tatacoa desert that I discovered my favorite berry in the world – the Chichatop. I have never tasted a more delicious fruit (and I LOVE strawberries and blueberries… but this one topped them all!)
Sorry, I didn’t get a photo of my favorite berry, but I did get a photo of this edible fruit that grows in a cactus.

The desert is just a few minutes drive from the nice little town of Villavieja.* You can stay in the town and do a day trip to the desert, or you can spend the night at one of the hospedajes in the desert.

Many of them have pools (and even if you don’t stay in the desert, you an always pay to enter one of the pools for a much-needed cool-off).

On clear days you can see the faraway snow-capped mountains near Manizales, but these days you can’t see the white peaks. Due to global warming, the size of the snow caps has been diminishing over the years and they are too small to see now.

While a guide isn’t necessary to appreciate the desert, it is quite helpful to not get lost in the heat and to maximize your time seeing some of the highlights. I would recommend it especially in support of eco-tourism…it supports the local economy in a positive way, giving value to the preservation of the land and creating green jobs for the locals. Our guide specifically mentioned that he really loved the training he received to be a guide, learning about the landscapes and the history, and he hoped that he could continue to learn more to continue getting better at his job.

The Tatacoa is home to two observatories and they give viewing sessions every night where you can learn a few night sky fun facts and see a few highlights through a telescope and binoculars. I was super impressed to learn that the half moon is a C or a D shape in the US, but it’s more like a smile or frown shape here. (In other words, the we see the lit-up side from different angles so it seems to be rotated between the two hemispheres). Similarly, Casiopia is a “W” in the US but an “M” here (something I had noticed but just thought it was related to the time of the year I was looking at it!)

We looked at stars being born (in the Orion Nebula). And looking at the cloud of the andromeda galaxy, we saw more stars at one time than one sees in the entire sky. With a basic high powered telescope, binoculars, and a really knowledgeable star guide, it was interesting and entertaining, and I loved it! It was a perfect way to appreciate the desert night.

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content:

*On the way back to Neiva, the largest city near Villavieja, I took a colectivo, which is like a taxi van that waits until all the seats are filled to leave. (I got lucky and was the last one so didn’t have to wait.) In the colectivo there was a couple from Bogotá, another backpacker from Europe, and two women from Villavieja. The women were quiet at first, but as we started chatting, they each had a fun sense of humor, and were very chill and friendly. They confirmed that the town is a pretty quiet and relaxed town, that lives off tourism and some farming and raising animals. That weekend was going to be less quiet than usual – the town was going to have a big celebration all weekend with a concert sponsored by the mayor.

Coffee Tour in the Eje Cafetero

Besides the Cocora Valley, the thing to do in Salento is a Coffee tour. There are all kinds of coffee tours, including where you help harvest the coffee and/or you can stay in a guesthouse on some coffee “fincas” (farms). I just chose to do a quick tour during the day, and I happened upon one of the few coffee fincas trying to promote biodiversity and move away from the pure “monoculture” model.

The owner of the finca “The Recuerdo”, Carlos, grew up in the city of Armenia (the other major city in the “eje cefetero”, nearest to Salento). He got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and worked with a coffee company for years. He then went back to school to get a post-graduate degree in environmental studies, where he decided that merging some of the practices of his ancestors with modern technology was the way of the future, stressing the importance of thinking about environmental sustainability along with economic sustainability, and social impacts.*

The result of these ideas was the coffee finca (farm) in Salento where I was standing 24 years later: an agro-forest, or coffee plantation mixed in with native and endangered species of trees and bushes. The leaves of the trees provide natural compost to the soil. Thanks to the plant biodiversity (over 1000 different species including weeds), the animal biodiversity also much higher than in a monoculture setting. The trees provide homes for natural predators to pests, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides.

We specifically saw a woodpecker, (other birds whose names I don’t remember), two humming bird nests, and many bumble bees buzzing around.

Our guide was a biology student at the university in the nearby city of Armenia (the southernmost major city in the eje cafetero). He had grown up working on his parents’ coffee farm and really enjoyed the chance to unite his childhood experiences with his current studies.**

We learned that the variety of coffee produced in Colombia originated from Ethiopia and came to South America with the Spanish colonists. It has evolved over time, and hybrid, fungus-resistant plants are now commonly used, especially as a key strategy in reducing chemical use. (The plant used on this farm is a hybrid with a Sri Lankan plant.)

The guide showed us some native plants and birds, including the coca plant, which has a really bad reputation in Colombia and in the world because of its use in making cocaine, but as he pointed out, the plant itself before being processed, does not have the drug-like effects and has been used for centuries for multiple purposes (including preventing altitude sickness).

The finca bags the coffee using bags made of fique, which is the fiber of a plant common throughout Colombia, used for centuries by the land’s inhabitants. The guide explained that it has been scientifically proven that bags made from fique have a natural insecticide property that helps preserve the coffee without the addition of synthetic chemicals.

The finca I visited is not a fully organic operation but it is also not the conventional monoculture that requires more synthetic chemical inputs, like the majority of coffee produced in Colombia and in the world. I was really happy to have a peek into the steps people in Colombia are taking towards more sustainable land management!

Bonus Content:

After leaving the coffee finca, I headed off on my bike to explore the valley. And I got rained on. While taking cover under a porch, another cyclist pulled up and we chatted while the rain died down. I have seen quite a few cyclists in Colombia, and as a cyclist, it warms my heart to see so many  fellow bicycle-lovers. This guy was in his late 40s and was training to do a bike trip with a group of 5 friends (4 men and 1 woman), to bike from Armenia to Quito!

This was actually the second time that day that I found myself scurrying to a porch to wait for rain to pass. The first time, I was waiting on a porch and a man on a motorcycle pulled up and began to put on rain suit while we chatted. Before he left, I said I hoped it wouldn’t rain again, and he responded saying that he didn’t think it would keep raining (as he finished putting on his rain suit and climbing back on his motorcycle!)

I have met many Latin Americans who have said to me that “they don’t think “x” (something bad) will happen”, and it turns out that it was their way of saying that they really hope it won’t happen. This is a cultural translation that I’ve taken a while to learn. By saying they don’t think it will happen, it is as if they are willing it not to happen by thinking positively. While sometimes frustrating for a foreigner who wants a real assessment of the probability that something will/will not happen, it is actually meant to be a nice gesture that they wish from the bottom of their heart that things will turn out well for you!

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Without using the term “triple bottom line”, Carlos explained his adoption of the model.

**Our guide noted that while he grew up helping on his family’s coffee farm, he didn’t still work on the farm when he visited because now they hired people to work on the farm.

 

Salento and the Cocora Valley

I kept hearing and reading that Salento and the Cocora Valley are “the place(s) to go” in the Eje Cafetero, (coffee region) of Colombia.  Was Salento in the Cocora valley? Or nearby? I wasn’t really sure so I headed there to find out.

The bus trip to Salento from Manizales was captivating as we wound through the beautiful green mountains. Nearing the other major city of the “eje cafetera”, Pereira, I took in the spectacular view looking down on the highway carved along the side of the majestic verdant mountains, leading to the city below. While to some extent it reminded me of traveling to Oxapampa, (Peru) it had a slightly different feel because of the shapes of the hills. (Sorry couldn’t get a good photo op!)

From Pereira I caught a van to Salento, which turns out to be a cute, tiny town (Colombia is full of them!)  that has the steepest streets I’ve ever seen – more so than Manizales or La Paz! Or was it an optical illusion because Salento is so small – only about 10 blocks long in either direction? Like Guatapé, almost every house was painted a beautiful combination of two or three colors.

I learned that Cocora is another town – even smaller and more rural than Salento, located about 13km from Salento – and it is the starting point for exploring the Cocora valley. I decided to bike from Salento to Cocora and then hike around when I got there.

One can hike in (a multi-hour hike) and spend the night in the valley, or one can explore parts of the valley on horse-back or hiking during a day trip. Chatting with a local woman selling artisan  goods (and access to bathrooms), I learned that the “palmera de cera” (wax palm) – a tall, skinny palm that rises so tall it stands out among all the other trees in the landscape – is unique to the region and one of the main reasons the area is a (mixed use) protected area.

Though you can see from the landscapes, that the land is also used for grazing, (for milk and cheese production),** the main economic activity in Cocora is tourism (which has been big for about 30 years!) The town sees more international tourists than Colombians (probably because many tourist companies sell packages for tours through Colombia including a stop in Cocora.) Most of the guides and vendors are from Cocora, with a few from Salento, and the woman I was chatting with opined that while tourism helped the economy in some ways, it wasn’t a magic bullet making everyone wealthy because it also caused the price of land and goods to rise.

I didn’t hike in to spend the night in the Cocora Valley and I also didn’t stay in the town of Salento. Instead, I stayed a 20-minute walk  from Salento for a countryside experience in a chill hostel called Yambolombio that I had found on the interwebs. I arrived at night and was greeted by a family home-like atmosphere, with travelers from Europe and Australia chatting in the living room, eating at the dining room table, and the owner preparing his dinner in the kitchen. I was introduced to the finca’s two dogs and the horse while I was shown to the shared dorm space out back.

The property was on the side of a tall, steep hill, and the only flat space was found climbing up to the top of the hill, where there was a fire ring for campfires and perfect small, open space for doing yoga. Every night I fell asleep to the sounds of night insects on the background of a peaceful silence, and every morning I climbed to the top of the hill to greet the sunrise while doing yoga and listening to the river in the valley below. I can see why this is a popular stop for both international tourists and Bogatanos looking to escape city life.

Famous Footnotes:

*There are actually a ton of cute little towns around the area, and any one of them is worth checking out or staying in.

**The local woman explained to me that they don’t produce a lot of cheese there in Cocora, rather the surrounding areas produce more. There are some cheeses that they can only buy once a month because the producers live so deep in the hills that it takes a whole day by mule on dirt paths to get into Cocora to sell their products.

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.

Torotoro – Ecotourism Adventure in the Middle of Bolivia

Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.

I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.

I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*

Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.


Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.

In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):

First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.

The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)

Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.

The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).

Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)

The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)

That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?

Many businesses use the dinosaur tracks for their marketing strategy

The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks  and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.

Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.

We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.

What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!

The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.

We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.

The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.

Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.

Do you see the llama?

We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)

Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called  “Tcha’lla”.

We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.

After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!

Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).

This image is on the 10-boliviano bill

However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).

I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***

 

Famous Footnotes

*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.

** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!

***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)

Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).

Isla de la Luna

Every morning at 8:30am, boats full of tourists leave Copacabana heading to Isla del Sol, with an option of stopping for an hour at Isla de la Luna. Planning just to go to Isla del Sol and stay the night, I boarded a boat and met up with the two traveler friends from London and Italy that I had met in my hostel.

It was a beautiful 2 hour boat ride and I even saw some little fish swimming along side of the boat. Instead of getting off at the first stop at the Isla del Sol, I stayed on with my new friends to go to the Isla de la Luna.

The boat only stops for an hour at Isla de la Luna and the guide on the boat says there’s not much to see there and you can do it in an hour…and they only give you an hour before the boat leaves to go to the Isla del Sol. And if the boat leaves without you, you’re stuck in the island until the next day because the boats only come once a day for an hour.*

Entering the island the smell of muña caught me by surprise and reminded me of my stay in Amantaní, the island in the north part of the lake. As I was walking up the stairs to enter the island with the other tourists, I passed a little 4-year-old boy who, without prompting, greeted me saying “Hi, my name is Miguel Ángel”! It was so adorable!

I started exploring late because I chatted for about 10 minutes with the guy who was charging for bathroom use, geeking out about the water and electricity access on the island. (Islands have always fascinated me because they present unique infrastructure challenges ripe for alternative energies and exploring the idea of sustainability.)

Geek out about the island’s infrastructure:

They used to not have power but now they use solar panels (“because the kids want their cell phones. And also tv.”) He said the panels are great but the batteries only last a couple of years and they have to be careful not to let them drain to zero or they stop working well. They use what look like basic car batteries that charge during the day.

They also have solar hot water heaters in most of the houses.

They use water from the lake but have to buy gas to power the pumps that pump the water up from the lake. (They charge for the bathroom in part to cover costs of the gas).

End Geek-out.

Finally, I headed up the hill to the ruins of the “temple of the virgins”, which was supposedly a type of boarding school for young women to learn to do womenly things in the Incan times.

There, I met an older woman from the island who explained that life living on Isla de la Luna is really calm and peaceful, and she liked it much better than the city (La Paz) where she lived for a few years. Here they grow their food, have a few animals- (llamas, pigs, chickens, sheep), they have fish farms within the lake, they and buy what they don’t have on the island from Copacabana. There’s a primary school and a church and a football field – everything they need, she said.

As I started to hike the hill from the temple to see what was on the other side of the island, I passed a woman knitting in the shade who asked if I was going to stay the night in the island.

“That’s an option?” I asked her.

Part of my travel purpose is to go off the beaten path and get to know some places and the people that live there… so when she said that her mother owned a hospedaje, I negotiated a price to include my meals, and I decided to stay the night instead of going back with the boat to Isla del Sol.

The boat companies from copacabana don’t promote the fact that there are hospedajes on the island, (maybe because it’s a tiny island and most tourists want more entertainment and conveniences? I don’t know.)

But if you are looking for a quiet and incredibly beautiful place to pass 24 hours (or more), where you can chat with one (or a few) of the 27 families that live on the island, learn about their daily lives, and walk along the perimeter of the 1-square-km island in the afternoon sun…then it’s worth the stay.

The tourists only come one hour per day, at the same time every day, and the community rotates selling things, collecting the entrance fee, collecting bathroom fees, and helping/keeping an eye on the tourists.

On the other side of the hill, and down the length of the island are the houses where the community (called Coati) lives…So the tourists only see the ruins and a view of both sides of the island from the top of the hill, but don’t see or go into the community, unless they stay the night.

The community of Coati, Isla de la Luna

The hospedaje where I stayed overlooks the lake, with a little pier extending into the lake. In the patio between the rooms are beautiful plants with flowers and the constant buzz of bees that I even hear from inside he room.

The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore can also be heard from inside if you listen closely.

This half of the island, the opposite side from where the tourists land, smells of muña for parts and eucalyptus for other parts.

I loved chatting with the woman who owned the hospedaje. It challenged my conversation skills a little because she wasn’t super talkative, but every time I asked her a question I saw her face light up a little and I felt her open up a little more, like she viewed me with a little less skepticism each time.

She commented that the president/government built part of the hospedaje last year (or at least convinced them that he did so they’ll vote for him at the end of this year), and the alcalde bought the water pump. The entrance fee to the island goes towards paying the locals to do restoration of the ruins or other community-based things.

The woman has 5 kids, one still living here on the island, a few in Copacabana and a few in other cities, but she’s content because they talk on the phone. When she first moved here with her husband (who is from here), there wasn’t running water or electricity so it was a rough adjustment for her, but she adapted, and now it is much easier with the solar power and pumped water. She feels at home now and likes that it’s quieter with less people than where she grew up, (in a community on the peninsula).

We chatted as the sun set over the pier, and she told me that tomorrow would be her turn to sell her artesanías in the temple so I would see her there when I leave.

In the morning, heading back over the hill to the other side of the island, I saw the little boy from the previous day, Miguel Ángel, walking with his mother, taking their sheep out to graze. She had a few of them on a leash, and the similarity to people walking their dogs in the morning made me smile. A few loose sheep stopped to eat and wouldn’t follow her so she sent Miguel Ángel to collect them, and I went to help herd sheep, while the talkative, friendly boy told me stories of his sheep.

This visit had a different feel than my stays on Ccotos and Amantaní, mostly because the business arrangement is different. Here, they are following a more traditional hotel-type tourism model, where the host is simply providing a space to stay, and doesn’t even live in the same area where the guest rooms are. Whereas in Amantaní and Ccotos they are following a homestay model where the tourist is a little more integrated into the daily life with the host – through sharing meals and sometimes community events, in addition to the guest rooms being more physically close to where the family lives and considered part of the family’s house.

While I personally preferred the homestay model and the culture-sharing atmosphere it fosters, I still greatly enjoyed my stay here. There aren’t many words to describe the peacefulness and beauty of this place, but hopefully you can catch a glimpse of it through the photos!

As I left the island in the morning for Isla del Sol, I saw the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, a reminder that I was on a lake in the middle of the Andes, not the ocean, and a foreshadowing of my future travels through Bolivia.

Famous Footnotes

*If you really needed to leave the island, you could pay a local a very high price to take you in a private boat to Isla del Sol or the mainland.

Island Life (Amantaní)

Sometimes we travel long and hard to arrive at our destination. And then sometimes the journey itself is so beautiful and interesting that it is part of the destination.

Getting to Amantaní is one of the latter. The hour-long motorboat ride through the lake was was both fascinating and relaxing at the same time. A vast expanse like the ocean, but calm, with only minuscule waves, passing islands along the way that I had seen from the shore just a day before…and passing the shore that I had been on just the day before, staring out to where I now was in a boat!

When I arrived at the dock, I was greeted by a smiley and warm, short and round woman who introduced herself as Silveria, the wife of Romulo, with whom I had organized the stay. She led me up a steep sidewalk with many stairs along the way, and after just 5 minutes I was huffing and puffing with my 15 kilos of backpacks and just my second day in the altitude. But luckily, we had already arrived!

Their house is located close to the dock, and my room had big windows with an incredible view of the lake!

Just like in Ccotos, in the shade it’s cold and I need my 2-3 layers, but sitting in the sun for a few minutes I could wear just a long-sleeve or sometimes short sleeve t-shirt, so I sat in the sun while Silveria prepared lunch.

Chatting over a delicious lunch of local varieties of potatoes, an assortment of vegetables, and local bread, I learned that Silveria had run from one side of the island to the other in the morning, first helping her step-mom on her farm, then working on her own farm on the other side of the island, and then running to the dock to meet me. She said it took her about 30-45 minutes to run from each side of the island to the other.

Over lunch, we shared stories, getting along so well that we even began sharing about our childhoods and a summary version of our life stories! After a rough childhood, she was very happy to have a peaceful life with a nice house and a nice husband, living a good life without want. She reminded me of a sweet and hospitable southern woman, someone who had grown up in a machista culture and had a rough childhood but had made a better adult life for herself and lived constantly thankful for what she has now, moving and speaking in a manner that was both self conscious and humble, yet confident in its own way.

In Amantaní, similar to Ccotos and the surrounding areas, people’s first language is Quechua because that is what is spoken in the home. I asked if Quechua was taught in school, and the response I got was, “No, everyone knows Quechua so they don’t need to study it in school.” I was told that typically children speak only Quechua until age 5 when they begin going to school, where they start learning Spanish and school is pure Spanish.

It was interesting to me that, while speaking to Silveria, she was quite self conscious of her Spanish, even commenting that my Spanish was better than hers (though as we talked more and became more comfortable talking, her Spanish flowed more and more fluidly.)

In the late afternoon, Silveria walked me up to the path that led to the highest points on the island-two hills close together, each with a sanctuary to Pachamama* and Pachatata, respectively.

She left me and I continued to climb, slowly, step by step…up to 4,200 meters, my lungs wondering where all the oxygen went, and the temperature dropping rapidly. I was surprised as the land and hills began to give way to water on either side (apparently I had forgotten I was on an island).

My plan was to watch the sunset from there, but the clouds rolled in cutting it short. What I did find as I got closer to the sanctuaries was a ton of tourists! (And a ton of local women selling chullos* and sweaters and crafts and souvenirs all along the paths)! The tourists had all come out from hiding wherever they were staying on the island, and everyone had come to watch the sunset up here.

I got a little confused getting back to the house, and as I asked an older man who was walking with a child, he sent the little girl to walk me to the corner where I needed to turn. I found this simple reaction to be so strange and so kind – but very different from most places where everyone is in a hurry and busy with their own things and also worried about sending kids off alone, even for a few blocks.

That night over dinner, speaking with Romulo, I learned that the island is actually quite organized around the home-stay tourism and they usually partner with tour companies who bring in large groups of tourists at a time. The community is divided into 10 communities, and each community rotates being the host of a group of tourists, with each family in the community offering space in their house and meals to the visitors. Each community also has a community center where they perform traditional dances and have a party with the group of tourists. (I had bypassed this system, contacting Romulo directly, and he said this was a much better deal because he directly receives the payment, and they even have a problem with one tour company that never paid the island for hosting a group.)

I was really impressed by how organized the island of 500 families was. They meet every Sunday, first the whole island, and then they break into meetings just for each community. Romulo explained that it was their only way to get news since there wasn’t a radio station on the island just for news about the island (though they do get regional radio stations from Puno and Juliaca).

They also coordinate which communities plant which crops when, and they rotate, making sure the land has time to rest. Because of the population and limited amount of land, the island is not self-sustainable and the crops produced are not enough to feed everyone so they do have to buy food from the mainland in addition to what they produce. Because of this, the money brought by tourism is crucial for the residents.

The night was so quiet and peaceful and the stars so incredible!! And it was cold. I didn’t dare shower and I slept under about 6 heavy blankets. Before going to bed, they told me if I had to use the restroom to use the “pee bucket” under my bed instead of trying to brave the cold and go to the bathroom. I had heard of these “pee buckets” from other Peace Corps volunteers that lived in the mountains, but I had never seen them for myself. (Turns out it was just a plastic tub.)

The next morning I took a stroll along the shore…

And then we all had a crepe-like “pancake” breakfast, learning about each other’s families.

Later, Silveria walked me to another spot on the island that the tourists often like to visit, the Inca’s chair. To walk there, I noticed that she took time to put on a nice shawl, and she also brought along her knitting…and continued to knit as we walked there! (I was highly impressed.)

Everything on the island is somewhat of a climb…at this point I realized that as an island, it’s really just a big hill or mountain jutting out of the middle of the lake, with the middle of the island being the high points and the shore the low points, so you really have to climb to get anywhere unless you are literally just walking along the water.

I really fell in love with the island, with its stone paths connecting the 10 different communities. I saw the island to be filled with with trees, houses and farm plots. There are no vehicles – everyone walks. (Though I did see one motorcycle in the two days I was there.)

The Inca’s chair was a beautiful spot on the beach and I camped out there until lunch, writing, and then returned after lunch to watch the sunset.

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Dinner was delicious and a really great conversation, including Romulo showing me a photo of Silveria and complimenting her to me (with her sitting there in the kitchen) saying what a beautiful wife he had and what a great cook she was. I practiced a few of the Quechua words they had taught me, commenting that the food was delicious and thanking them for it:

“Sumaq micqvi” – delicious food!
“Yoshparasonki” – Thank you!

(My Quechua spelling is surely not correct, but that’s how I remembered to pronounce it.)

Muña- the minty-smelling herb that helps with the altitude and stomach problems. We had fresh muña tea every meal!

Before daylight broke the next morning, I left the warmth of the 6 heavy blankets and headed out to run/walk up to the highest point of the island, the sanctuaries to Pachamama and Pachatata, to watch the sun rise and start the day with some yoga and meditation at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

Starting at 3,800m, and climbing to 4,200m (13,000 feet) was not a walk in the park and I had to stop to breathe a few times and also take off some layers, but in about 45 minutes I reached the sanctuary and did a few sun salutations because, well, for obvious reasons.

While I was meditating I heard what sounded like a fan motor off to my left. Then I suddenly heard it in my my right ear, I opened my eyes and was amazed to see a hummingbird (“luli”) floating just one foot from my face, checking me out and whispering (quite loudly) in my ear, with its thousands-of-beats-per-minute wing-flapping motor. After 3 seconds it flew away, but left me feeling like I had just received a message from Pachamama delivered by a Chaski* in the form of a hummingbird.

After breakfast, I had to say goodbye, and I mentioned that I was sad to be leaving because I really felt at home with them and was so thankful for their hospitality, and as I saw their faces light up with genuine happiness, I was really touched to have met such kind people that opened their homes and lives to me for a couple of days!

When I had arrived, I had greeted them with the handshake, hug and air kiss that I was used to in Peru, but awkwardly found that they were expecting only the handshake. Out of habit I accidentally made that mistake twice! But upon leaving, they each reached out for a hug, and I felt a special connection to this family and this beautiful island in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world.

Famous Footnotes:

*Pachamama – the Incan word for mother earth, which is revered with a god-like respect and reverence

*Chaskis were the Incan messengers that traveled the Incan roads delivering messages throughout the Incan Empire

*Luli – what Silveria called the hummingbird – maybe the Quechua or a local word for the hummingbird. She said it was a sign of good luck for my journey

*Chullo – the warm hat with ear flaps commonly used in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia. I learned from Romulo that if your ear flaps have dangly balls like mine, you can tie the earflaps back when you are eating so they don’t get in the way!