Lakes, Frey and a Bonanza

Parrott on one of the pineballs

Parrott on one of the pineballs

Tall pine trees, to the likes of which we had never seen, that stood long and straight wrapped in a thick spiky bark under an umbrella of drooping cylinder branches covered in hard green triangular leaves with softball sized cones tucked inside, and looming with the threat of a fall, within their depths; this was the first image that struck us we turned our cars on to the route of the seven lakes.

crazy monkey trees

crazy monkey trees

tree hugger

tree hugger

Scarcely seeing trees, other than those put there by man, for the last month or more, there couldn’t have been a more dramatic creature to welcome us in to the lakes district.  They sprang up from the green hillsides, shaded the banks of the sparkling trout filled rivers and framed the snow covered volcanoes set in the backdrop.  Originally planning to drive to the first lake and camp we had to deviate from our plans and spend two days amongst them camped on the banks of the river.camping in monkey trees

One of my favorite camping spots of the trip, we basked in the perfect 70 degrees sun, hiked to the top of a hillside to get a better look at the volcanoes in the distance, bathed in the cool mountain waters of the river that also provided us with fresh trout, and, of course, drank wine by firelight.

the view from the top of our hike at camp

the view from the top of our hike at camp

As we slowly made our way down the rest of the ruta of the 7 lakes towards Barilloche, we stopped often and drove very little every day.  All our camps were lakeside or riverside and all typically involved a quick dip (a.k.a shower) or a long swim.

camping at a private lake beach

camping at a private lake beach

In the summers growing up in upstate South Carolina I spent almost every weekend at one of the nearby lakes.  As a kid it was always my favorite place to be and to this day emerging myself in cool, clean lake water evokes the same feelings as back then; I can’t get enough!

One of the many beautiful lakes

One of the many beautiful lakes

Once we reached Barilloche all Jed and I could think of was throwing on our backpacks and getting up to Frey.  Frey, an area well-renowned for rock climbing, was one of the spots we had dreamed of since beginning our journey.

evening at our camp at Frey

evening at our camp at Frey

The approach was about a three hour hike up from the local ski resort to the refugio which sat at the mouth of a horseshoe shaped canyon whose sides were made up of layers of granite domes and towers all funneling down to the lake at it’s center.???????????????????????????????

A cracktastic day

A cracktastic day

We spent three great days climbing and exploring up there and on the fourth morning woke up in the clouds and rain and decided it was time to head back down and meet up with the others for the Badass Bariloche Bovine Bonanza!

Such a great group of people and a great time!!

Such a great group of people and a great time!!

The Bonanza was a possible once in a lifetime event where 9 groups of overlanders accounting for a total of 22 people all happened to be near the same area at the same time, whether heading north or south, and met up for a three day feast including the roasting of one small pig, a lamb and a large rack of ribs, not to mention copious amounts of alcohol.  A scene best described by simply watching this time lapsed video of dia de bonanza. (courtesy of LifeRemotely.org)

Hanging out and getting to know this large group of travelers was a great experience for Jed and I. Much time was spent on the examining of rigs and organizational skills.  Current and future ideas of travel were cropped up and bounced around.  it was fun to hang out with very different and yet also like-minded people.

And all the swapping of stories and ideas helped to re-energize my efforts for moving along with this blog.  It had been over two months since the events and Peru and we had moved on with our lives and our travels but let our blog fall behind.  I knew I wanted to document the rest of our trip but I was intimidated about how to start again.

With all the attention the events in Peru had generated, I felt I needed to address the going-ons since then and associated with the event, but mentally, I could still not wrap my head around doing so, and so I had just let it go. Being around these great people, whom, many of, also write blogs, brought in to focus the real reason we were traveling in the first place.  It was for ourselves.  Documenting and sharing our story was something we wanted to do but it was also mainly for us and those who loved us.  I needed to start again where I wanted to put my energy, and so at the end of the three days of Bonanza, was when I finally sat down and wrote the short and sweet, Moving On, because that is exactly what I realized we had successfully done!

Check out some of these other great blogs of fellow travelers at the Bonanza:

LifeRemotely
http://www.anywherethatswild.org/
http://www.a2aexpedition.com/
http://capitolsouthbound.com/
http://lostworldexpedition.com/
http://homeonthehighway.com/

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A Dose of Mendoza

We rolled in to Mendoza like we had almost every other big city on the trip, in need of a few auto parts and maintenance; in particular a new car battery.  The past couple weeks of traveling with Home on the Highway, who was also (and still is) in dire need of a new car battery had been an amusing parade of trading jumps.  It was only by pure luck that not both of our batteries died in the middle of the desert.

camping in Mendoza Rolling in to Mendoza on a Thursday right before a big holiday weekend was not the best plan.  We spent two nights at a campground outside of town, just enough time to find out everything was closing until the following Tuesday.

In the past when I had heard tales of Mendoza, it was of massive snow covered mountains and ripe green vineyards as far as the eye can see, and while both of these features do exist in the outskirts, the city itself is set where the long expanse of desert to the northeast rolls in to the foothills of the mountains; a locale that seems to suck in all the desert heat, mix it with some mountain moisture and sit there with it like a simmering pot.  It was hot!

With nothing getting done until Wednesday and to escape the heat we rallied the troops; and in troops I mean the makings of our self proclaimed “Team America”, including Jed and I, Home on the Highway and Capitol Southbound, new friends whom we picked up in the Mendoza campground; and headed southwest in to the nearby mountains.

camping in Arenalles

camping in Arenalles

In the canyon of Arenalles we found the cooler weather we were looking for.  In fact it was freezing and raining, but you can’t always win, and we came to find out that though the nights were cold, the days were a perfect 70 F.  We also found some of the great rock climbing we had been looking for.  We spent the first day playing around on the fun sport routes and providing some rides on top rope.???????????????????????????????

James on top-rope

James on top-rope

The second day Jed and I climbed a really great 6 pitch route to the top of the wall that provided a little bit of everything; splitter cracks, scary run-out traverses, chimneys, crimpy face moves.  It was a good feeling to get off the ground again.

top of the wall in Arenalles

top of the wall in Arenalles

During the cold evenings we would gather around a campfire and gorge ourselves on crackers and cheese and Capitol Southbound’s perfected bruchetta while we waited for our grilled veggies and steaks to be ready.  We had gone a little overboard with roasting veggies one night, when some Argentineans stopped by and were perplexed that we would take up all our grill space with such things as vegetables.  James, who had been trying almost nightly for weeks now to learn the art of the Argentinean grilled steak, was shamed.

After two great days of feeling good being back in the mountains, we decided to dedicate our Tuesday afternoon to one of the recommended wineries close by.  So we put on our finest attire, tried to present ourselves as if we had showered sometime in the last week and headed down to the valley.

All dressed up

All dressed up

grapesThe Salentein winery was beautiful and we had a great tour by a 22 year old American tour guide, who told us he had moved to Argentina on his own 8 years ago.  Yes, that would be 14 years old!  He was an interesting guy to say the least and we quickly made friends with him.  Henceforth, the free wine kept coming.  Suddenly, or a couple hours later, we were told the winery was closing.  Our new friend\guide was leaving, possibly in a bit of trouble, and we needed to leave as well.  Solely to make amends we decided a few bottles of wine, or 13, should be purchased.

Salentein winery

Salentein winery

Now the dilemma of all being a little intoxicated and still needing to find a place to stay for night was coming in to light.  Luckily while the women sat at the bar solving all life’s important problems like needing more skirts with pockets, the men had been outside making friends with a local who happened to own a pear farm nearby.  He extended the offer for us to come and camp there for the night.  There’s rumor the exchange of an excited cheek-to-cheek man kiss and that was it.  The offer was accepted.

bottles purchased and moving on

bottles purchased and moving on

“We’ll follow you”, we tell our new Fidel Castro look-a-like friend, Negro.  Excited we all pile in to our cars. “Ok, we are ready”
“Oh, wait.  Home on the Highway needs a jump”
“Ok, now we are ready”
We drive down the road where Negro quickly runs in to a little tienda for  couple items.  In and out.
“Just a little bit further”, says Negro.
“Ok, let’s go”
“Um, wait we need a jump now”

Finally we arrive.  If Negro and his girlfriend are already regretting asking us over they are doing a great job of hiding it.  A few more bottles of wine are opened and a parilla (grill) is lit up.  The majority of the rest of the night is spent drinking wine and eating expertly cooked steaks.   The other portion of the night was spent trying to sleep through the chorus of howling hunting dogs we parked next to.   Apparently, they usually get picked up to go hunting in a truck that looks like ours, and so in excited anticipation of a hunt that would never happen they barked and howled the night away.

The Parilla at the pear farm

The Parilla at the pear farm

pearsFeeling a bit rough the next morning, it was nice to have cool spring fed pool to jump in and a relaxing tour, strolling through the rows of tall, shady pear trees before heading back in to the city.

The next couple days consisted of navigating the maze of streets that make up Mendoza in search of a new front axle seal, car battery and a passenger side window.

boys and their cars

boys and their cars

As we spent the days, we grew to enjoy the shaded lively streets of the inner city and the numerous green parks scattered throughout, but once fixed up (all except the window, to which we officially gave up and fastened in the sheet of plastic to the mechanical controls) we could only hear the call of the south offering tall pine forests and crystal clear lakes.

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Ruta 40 Norte and the Land of Lunch

The whole way down, as we have met and talked to other northbound travelers, everyone raved about the Ruta 40 through Argentina. Ourselves, finally in to Argentina,  we were excited to see what all the hype was about.  We winded our way through the Altiplano, skipping the cities to the north, until we could meet up with Ruta 40.

Inevitably, as with all things you are eagerly looking forward to, a little glitch has to be thrown in.  Ours was in the form a “Closed for Snow” sign sitting right in the middle of the Ruta 40 turnoff.  We stopped to discuss our situation with our fellow travelers, Home on the Highway, and as we all longingly stared at the dirt road laid out in front of us we came to the uneducated decision that, “Aaah, there can’t be that much snow up there!”closed for snow

mountain passLuckily sometimes uneducated decisions turn out for the best.  I don’t think our tires crunched a piece of snow the whole way over the pass, but that is not to say there wasn’t reason for the road to be closed to regular traffic.  There were several hairy river crossings in addition to places where the road had been almost completely washed away and I would find myself drawing in my breath as we tried to squeeze our four tires between the landslide run in to the road and the newly formed crevasse to the other side, as if making myself physically smaller would somehow help us squeeze through.skinny road

river crossing ArgentinaThe payoff for taking this road, besides the excitement, was the amazing scenery and the feeling of having the place all to ourselves.  Once we crossed over the mountain pass and started working our way down in to the valley more and more greenery began to appear as well as more brilliantly red rock.road into the valley

Ruta 40 NorthAt the end of this closed section of road was where after two days of being in Argentina we came upon our first town, Cachi.  In this quaint, cobble-stoned street, town was where we discovered two wonderful things that would come to build our days for the next couple weeks; cheap good food and cheap good wine! After a very long time traveling with a consistent diet of rice and this or rice and that, it was wonderful to find that not only could we afford to eat out, but it was enjoyable to do so.Land of Lunch

jug wineAnd so it came to pass that we established a routine as we made our way south.  We would wake up, not too early, go for a hike or run and enjoy our beautiful surroundings.  Then we would pack up our cars, drive south a couple hours to the nearest town, sit down to a nice table-clothed lunch of giant mouthwatering steaks or homemade pasta dishes or deep dish buttery crusted pizzas and fresh salads, all complemented by a bottle of Torrontes white wine (the best of the region).  Afterwards, with our bellies full, we would head off down the road, put a couple more hours under our belt and set up camp at another remarkably beautiful location.  In the evenings we would hang out by a camp fire and sip out of our gallon jugs of wine.  This is how Northern Argentina so became the Land of Lunch!Ruta 40 Nortewine and camping

The ability to bush camp every night helped us to justify splurging on nice lunches all the time.  This came back to bite us one night outside of the town of Cafayate when instead of spending the money to camp in the overcrowded, noisy campgrounds we decided to take the dirt road down adjacent to the campgrounds, cross the small river and camp on it’s banks.  We had just settled in for a nice, quiet night of sleep with nothing around to disturb us but the trickling of the creek outside our camper door.  This is when the pitter patter began to tap on our roof top.  Slowly at first but then harder and harder, until after about a couple hours of fitful rest, waiting for it to stop and knowing that we were pushing luck, parked in a riverbed in  the middle of a rainstorm, we made the call to get out.

Jad napping in the park the next day

Jad napping in the park the next day

Jed calls from the camper window, “James, think maybe we should make a run for it”
James’ timely reply of “think that’s probably a good idea” indicates not much sleep was going on in the 4 Runner either.

There’s nothing like throwing together camp in the middle of the night, in the middle of a downpour and four-wheeling it through a river that had risen remarkably fast, all while in your soaking wet underwear.  We high-tailed it to higher ground at the beginning of the dirt road where we parked outside of the earlier avoided, noisy campgrounds only to soon find that we were instead going to spend the night in the town’s late night party lot.  Not the best night of sleep.

plus avoiding campgrounds allows for great stream bathing

plus avoiding campgrounds allows for great stream bathing

Our favorite campsite, we happened upon after a missed turn.  When turning around we noticed a sign for a hot spring and decided to go check it out.  At the end of this rugged, washed out, dirt road we found abandoned old bath houses tucked in the red hills.  The next morning we first worked up a sweat, scrambling up in to the red cliffs above and then returned to bathe in our private bath houses.  Not a bad way to start the day!

scrambling on the cliffs above the hot springs

scrambling on the cliffs above the hot springs

blooming cactusThe road we had missed the night before, we then caught up with that afternoon.  This “shortcut” through the desert ended up taking a day and a half, adding to the weeks it was taking us to reach Mendoza; a trip originally planned to only take us three days from the border.  However, when the wine runs like water and the landscape bursts from the ground all around you in rich reds and greens, some plans are just made to broken.

short cut road

short cut road

Sunrise on the red hills
Sunrise on the red hills

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To The Final One

After finishing our journey south through the beautiful, but cold and wet, Luaca National Park with a surprise 30 minute jaunt in to Bolivia and a couple bolts shaken loose, we made the two hour drive down 13,000ft back to sea level.

???????????????????????????????one shock down We spent a few days soaking up some coastal sun and running errands in the duty free zone of the Port town, Iquique. Our truck was still in need of a couple repairs, after Peru, including a passenger side window, new front brakes and, of course, the two front wheel bearings (making it our seventh bearing replacement of the trip). Unfortunately, nowhere in the massive shopping district were we able to find parts for our Tacoma. So we decided to head towards the next biggest town on the map, Calama, and try our luck there.

We took the coastal road south and were surprised to find the overwhelming amount of tent camps set up all along the coastline. Chileans sure do love to camp! We were lucky to find a semi remote beach and set up an early camp to enjoy what we knew would be our last view of the ocean for a while.chile beach camp

Set a couple hours inland, Calama is a dusty mining town in the middle of the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. There is literally no life outside of the town for as far as the eye can see. It is oppressively hot in the day and cold and windy at night. It is not the ideal location to have a shady mechanic, who claimed he could fix the whole front end in 90 minutes, smash it apart only to find that he didn’t actually have the right part, nor does any store in town, and he is unable to put it back together until he does.

Fortunately, after talking to nearly every shop in town, we found one that could get the part shipped in by the next afternoon. Home on the highway was nice enough to hang around and each night we would grab our tent and sleeping bags and all crawl on to the platform in the back of their already packed 4 Runner and get tossed around for a bit as we 4-wheeled it out in to the desert to camp.

waiting in CalamaEach morning we would return thinking this was the day we would surely be done and move on, however we were getting our first taste of the Chilean work day. Nothing opened before 10am and then everything closed at 12:30pm for siesta and opened back up somewhere between 4 and 6pm and then they would work till about 8pm; not very productive. Finally, on day four our truck was back together, sans window, and we were able to head out of town towards San Pedro de Atacama and the Argentina border.

We put a couple hours of driving in that evening until we could see the volcanic mountains popping up in the distance. Then made camp in a dry river bed, where we celebrated our departure from Calama by drinking wine and trying to figure out the southern constellations as we watched the full moon slowly erupt in to the sky from behind the cone of tallest volcano.camp in the Atacama outside of San Pedro

Feeling a little tired of the desert and ready to see some green, I was not expecting much of our drive the next day towards the border of Argentina. Thoughts of the happenings in Peru, which sat constant and heavy in the back of my mind, shadowing my experiences, were pouring forward this morning causing me to ponder whether I was still in to the traveling life at the moment. The patience and ability to shrug off the little things that every traveler needs, and we once had (for example, dealing with shady mechanics who want to overcharge) was now non-existent.

Regardless of my feelings as we set out down the road, it would have been impossible to deny the beauty of this stretch of land with vibrant red rolling hills, tall snow covered peaks and white salt flats with a scattering of crazy rock formations.

rock towers crazy rock formations salt flats

We officially stamped out of Chile in San Pedro de Atacama, and what was said to be a three hour drive to the next border in to Argentina ended up taking us all day due to the many stops to take it all in. My negative thoughts were being constantly cut off as we stopped and jumped from the car to catch better looks at our surroundings. At one such stop, a motorcyclist from Brazil that we had been playing leap frog with, stopped to ask us about our trip and offered to share a gourd of mate with us.Brazilian buddy

view from roadWe happily obliged and it was just the right buzz of kindness to squash my pondering of retreat for the day and turn my thoughts toward brighter ideas, like the magnitude of the fact that we were entering in to our FINAL COUNTRY!! We had officially driven from the US to Argentina!

Argentina!!

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Moving on

It has been about two months since our last post and the unfortunate events that happened to us in Peru.  Combined, Jed and I have about ten word documents saved on this computer, all attempts at trying to piece together our feelings of the attack and the events of the weeks following.  Neither one of us can quite grasp the words to do so at this point, and furthermore our personal preference has become to concentrate on recovering and moving on.

After a drawn out process, Jed and I finally received our truck back from the police in Cusco, and made the tenuous decision to try out life on the road again.  There were several reasons for this decision, including, but not limited to;

1. 95% of the people we have met on this trip have been wonderful
2. with all our previous amazing travel experiences it seemed a shame to let it end on a bad note.
3. after living in it for almost a year, our car was our home. Life on the road was our life.  We couldn’t just leave it behind without another try.

We figured we would get back to life and see how we felt.  We could always drive straight to Buenous Aires and ship home if that is what we decided we needed.

So fast forward through all the rest of the bullshit, for lack of a better word, and here we are ecstatic to be crossing the border with our truck and camper out of Peru and in to Chile!  A day we at times during the past few weeks thought was never going to come.

Chi Chi Chi- Le Le LeChi-Le! Chi-Le!

Chi Chi Chi- Le Le Le
Chi-Le! Chi-Le!

We were happy to be joining our new friends, Home on the Highway  as we continued south.  And in true Chilean fashion, we celebrated our lives that night with a couple bottles of cheap wine, while camping on a beautiful beach.DSC06587

From there we decided to head inland towards Luaca National Park, the Altiplano in Northern Chile bordering Bolivia, an area we had heard held promise of long deserted dirt roads with spectacular views and lots of wildlife.

Two hours and several thousand feet after departing from the coast, we found ourselves just before sunset at a small developed hot spring fed pool off the side of the road. We met the friendly Chilean attendant just as he was closing up shop for the evening, BUT he quickly informed us that were in fact free to use the pools after hours and camp in the parking area.  Well… okay, if you insist!

A few more bottles of wine, my own self-proclaimed healing volcanic mud bath, and a spectacular sunset later we couldn’t help but start to think that a road trip through Chile and Argentina was going to be just what the doctor ordered.mud bath hot spring sunsetEntering in to Luaca National Park the following day, even though cold and rainy, was no less magical for us.  We spent the day driving by beautiful snow capped volcanoes and crystal clear lakes.snowy volcano in Luacaclear lake in LuacaWe spotted tons of wildlife, including thousands of pink flamingos,  giant ostriches, a condor with a wing span longer than I am tall, wild vicunas and the more domesticated, fluffy llamas.

ostriches and llamas

ostriches and llamas

flamingos and vicunas

flamingos and vicunas

The day would have been beautiful enough, even if we hadn’t got to camp right next to another hot spring while witnessing another beautiful sunset.camp in Luaca

sunset camp hot spring

We were four days in to Chile, out there giving this wild world of ours another traveler’s try and her response to us was loud and clear;

The beauty will outweigh ugliness if you allow it.

Cheers to that!

Cheers to that!

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Peru Update and Gratitude

I want to thank everyone for the amazing amount of support we have received over the last 24 hours!  The money that has been donated towards our recovery and safe return is more than we could have asked for.  The calls to government officials and to the American Embassy in Peru have been a tremendous help to get things moving on our end.  They are kicking ass trying to take care of our needs right now.  We have received wonderful contacts within the country for medical and legal services.  Any future help is best received by keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.

We have also received a great amount of support and disbelief from Peruvians over this incident taking place in their country.  We would like to express that we too are in disbelief.  We have spent two amazing months in this country before this incident and cannot say we met a single other sole that wasn’t warm and welcoming to us.  There are bad people everywhere in the world, in every country, just as there is good everywhere in the world.  We just happened to enter in to the wrong place at the wrong time.  We in no way reflect this situation on the country as a whole and hope that others will react in the same manner.

Right now we are all working towards several goals, with the highest priority being on our safety and health.  Jenny will be on a return flight home as soon as possible, and Jed and I too are looking to leave the country as soon as possible. We have yet to decide by what means this will be, but we will in no way go in a direction that we feel will jeopardize our safety.  There are many hoops we need to jump through before we get to that point.  I can say though, that we will be home sooner rather than later as originally planned.

Again we appreciate everyone’s tremendous support and concern for us.  We feel truly blessed by all of it.  Just knowing that there are so many out there who care has helped us come a long way mentally.  We can feel your strength behind us and it has provided us with a renewed strength, pushing us through this situation.  For this we cannot express our gratitude enough.

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Mud to Sand in Peru

mudTwo days on an extremely muddy dirt road through the Ecuadorian highland jungle and we were finally there; the most remote, laid back and just flat out laziest border crossing we had been to yet.  The exit out of Ecuador was easy enough and the palm tree gate blocking the bridge across the river, the only sign that this was the border, was quickly lifted for us.  We drove across the bridge to where we met another hand-built stick gate blocking our passage into Peru.  We stopped and waited for someone to come lift the gate for us or ask for our passports or something, but 15 minutes and several honked horns later we realized this wasn’t going to happen.  There were no signs directing us to go anywhere and no names on any of the dilapidated shacks in front of us.  We spotted two men sitting out front on a porch, who had been sitting there watching us, and decided to go and ask them if they knew where the immigration building was.  This is when they begrudgingly got up and told us to follow them in to one of the little shacks, and this is where we learned that they were both, in fact, the immigration and Aduana officers. Who knows how long they would have let us sit there on the bridge or wander around the seemingly deserted town before they told us who they were.  The rest of it was pretty simple after we got them working.  They didn’t want to ask us any questions.  They just wanted to fill out the paper work so they could get back to their front porch sitting.  The hardest part was breaking up the afternoon soccer game to get the police officer to come check us in.  We liked Peru’s work ethics already!

The border of Peru/ Ecuador

The border of Peru/ Ecuador

We spent the next few days exploring Peru’s Northern highlands, picked up a spectacularly bad bottle of homemade liquor being filtered right off the side of the road, and then decided to make a b-line for the desert and the coast..

The Northern Highlands of Peru

The Northern Highlands of Peru

roadside distillery

roadside distillery

This turned out to be a great decision.  Jed and I hold a fondness for the desert and it had been more than six months since we were last in it, in Baja.  Out our car windows the thick green, steep rolling hills we had become accustomed to seeing over the last week began to thin out while crumbly rock walls and cactuses took their place.  The closer we got to the coast the less and less vegetation there was until eventually all we saw was wide open nothingness, tall rolling sand dunes and, weirdly enough, miles and miles of rice plantations along the riverside.

The thought of how rice had become such a staple in the Latin American diet had crossed our minds a few times throughout our journey.  Everything else on their plates we pass by regularly; fruit plantations, corn fields, yuccas, potatoes, chickens, pigs, cows, gunuiea pigs, you name it.  But rice, the one thing guaranteed to be on every plate ordered; we had not seen anywhere. The last place we expected to find it was in the desert of Peru.

We spotted two owls hanging out by the beach

We spotted two owls hanging out by the beach

We hit the coastline, and after a couple months away from it, it was really good to see the ocean again.  There is just something calming about watching the ocean, something, more than anything else that promotes relaxation.  Jed and I have spent countless hours on this trip just staring out to sea.open beach

beach timereed boatWe found some great, secluded beach camping spots as we tried to piece our way down the coast by solely driving on the beach and through the sand dunes.  We were practically out there alone for three days, only occasionally bumping in to fishermen heading out to sea in their tiny reed boats.  Once a day we would typically come across a small, dumpy fisherman’s village where it was hard to believe that one could live and survive.

Women feeding the flock in a beachside village in Peru

Women feeding the flock in a beachside village in Peru

Traveling through Colombia and Ecuador we had become used to seeing small towns with clean streets and people who obviously had pride in the place they called home. So it was definitely a noticeable difference to find the towns of Peru, who’s houses themselves were hardly distinguishable between those of nearby Inca ruins and people who just threw their trash to wind from their front door.

Tons of trash around every little town

Tons of trash around every little town

We made it to about 150km north of Huanchaco before having to hit the pavement again.  Sand covered and out of propane, we took the Panamerican highway to meet up with our first ever internet friends, Home on the Highway.  James and Lauren are another couple currently on the same trip as us but about 5 months ahead.  We had followed their blog from the beginning and often conversed with them over the internet.  Lucky for us they had stopped to work for a few months in Huanchaco, Peru and we were able to meet up with them.

Yum Yum

Yum Yum

It is always easy going meeting other overland travelers and this time was no different.  We spent a fun couple days together. James and Jed spent a male bonding morning out tinkering over the Toyotas, of course.  I checked out the surf and found it to be some of the most fun waves since Baja. They showed us to the best restaurants in town and we also cooked some good ol’ American food, chili and nachos.  Plus the consumption of lot’s of beer and wine, a beautiful beach just out the doorstep and a crazy kitten to laugh at makes it hard not to have a good time.

boys and their Yotas

boys and their Yotas

DSC05915

Jed and I had very much enjoyed being back on the coast and making new friends, but we were also anxious to move on towards the big mountains of Huaraz, Peru, which we had been dreaming about since we left the US.  So with the promise to try and meet up again somewhere down the road we said our goodbyes and headed southeast towards the infamous Canon del Pato.

wheeeeee

wheeeeee

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Same Same but different, a journey of food in Latin America.

Each winter for a number of years Meg and I would get the “Itch” and throw down our heavily used ski poles, sift through our dressers until we found our shorts and dig out our rock climbing gear from the back of the closet.  Maybe it was the pain of looking in the mirror day after day in those long cold Wyoming winter months and seeing an alien like pale, cold body staring back at you crying for some Mexican sun.  Or perhaps  it was skiing deep Jackson hole powder day after day had lost its thrill and we needed some new excitement in life in the form of surfing or rock climbing.  For whatever reason we made the transition from entrenched winter mountain folk to free wheeling, sun soaking,  Mexico lovers for a couple of months  each winter for a number of years.

It was these travel escapades into Mexico that I truly began to feel what travel had to offer; Exotic rock climbing locations, culture, open and happy people in every new town, endless vacant beaches and of course the food.  Yes the food, these people knew how to cook.  Every little town had its special dish and exciting road side dessert treats.  Tables lined with vibrantly colored, homemade sauces, each one capable of offering the mouth a different flavor sensation.  The cook typically giving a friendly warning of the sauces capable of scorching our soft gringo tongues.   Fresh tortillas made in front of you while generous helpings of stripped barbecue beef or succulent chicken, cooked with pride in order to make a beautifully garnished , heaping 50 cent taco.   Yes the food, maybe this was truly the reason we left our winter play ground and migrated to our great southern sister Mexico.

Fruit stand in Mexico

Fruit stand in Mexico

When starting this journey towards the southern tip of South America I had great expectations of exotic food exploration.  A new country meant a new exciting array of food dishes for me to over indulge in.  I thought surely if the Mexicans can create such wonderful dishes of tasty treats then their Latino neighbors must follow suit, it’s in their blood right.  It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know the full extent of my foolish beliefs in Latinos diets or I may have never left Mexico.

It was about an hour after we crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala that we pulled off the “highway” into our first Guatemalan restaurant.   I was excited; what exotic food do they eat here?  Will I be grilled up an odd tropical forest beast I have never heard of.  Maybe some sort of strange yak milk vodka, or Monkey brains.  Whatever it was I was hungry and had an open mind for some weird food.

Choose your Guinea Pig!

Choose your Guinea Pig!

The mountain of rice and thinly sliced, leathery, steak  void of colorful garnish that was served to us seemed bleak at best.  Surly we could spice up the dish with our array of sauces we had become accustomed to.  Our quick scan of the restaurant reveled no sauce, where are my HOME MADE SAUCES?  I asked our “waitress” for our sauces and was given a blind, life less stare in return.  After an intense session of spanglish and cave man like hand gestures she gets the idea and returns to the kitchen.  Ah sauces everything is ok, deep breaths.  I am handed a solitary, generic ketchup bottle.   After finishing the saltiest meal I have ever consumed, were talking tongue burning salty, we decide we just picked a bad restaurant, it happens, the next will surely be better.  Right?

First fried chicken in Guatemala, when we thought it was new and exciting.

First fried chicken in Guatemala, when we thought it was new and exciting.

I curse the person who brought the processing of frying food to Central America.  Our luscious taco joints of Mexico have been replaced by streets lined with overly fried chicken stands.  One after another, restaurants with a sol menu of two things, sad pieces of chicken flesh dropped into a vat of dirty fry oil called Pollo frito [fried chicken] or Papas fritas, [ pathetically soggy and typically cold French fries].  I can’t claim to be a man scared to eat fried food,  I love a good piece of fried chicken,  every once in a while.  Sure, chicken fried steak, bring it on.  Wendy’s french fries, I aint scared.  But really these folks love this crap and eat it every day all day.  Good thing Meg is a fantastic cook.   However, there are only so many ways to cook beans, rice and vegetables before even the best cooks give up in sheer cooking boredom.

It was in beautiful San Pedro, Guatemala that we fully experienced our first Central American Mercado.  This is where we found food solace and completely gave up the idea of eating at a restaurants.  A Mercado is a large outdoor market with a vast array of products and services offered.   The mercado is where local farmers and villagers come to buy and sell all of their earthly needs.  There are fresh veggies, amazing and exotic local fruits and my favorite, delicious traditional cooking.  This is real food with dirt still on the carrots and none of the apples have little stickers that say “grown in Chile”.  All the little sheik hippy markets of the states  with the 5 dollar organic red peppers and dread locks have nothing on these folks, this is the real deal, eating localDSC03651

Every little town we rolled into we would search out the Mercado and see what interesting and sometimes delicious traditional fair was offered up.  Incredibly small and typically toothless, smiling women with tables over loaded with large pots of bubbling and simmering food.  Plentiful amounts of diverse meat and spices forming a cloud of euphoric food smells would lour us in for a meal that was sure to please our traveling souls.  With our plates piled high we would make our way to a typically fly covered over crowded communal table.  The locals all excited to see us happily make room so we can sit and eat as friends.   It was at these dirt floored, fly infested non refrigerated meat, mercados that I have had some of the best food and people interactions of my life.

Pork anyone?

Pork anyone?

Chicken - the feet are the best part ;)

Chicken – the feet are the best part ;)

We enjoyed the Mercado through many countries and became completely dependent upon them for all of our food needs.  We didn’t visit a “grocery store” for months.   Unfortunately the Mercado soul was lost when we entered Costa Rica.  Instead of local traditional food and useful goods we found hordes of gringos and traditional handmade [in china] tourist crap.  This was a new breed of Mercado that offered no use to us.  It is sad to see what the tourist dollar can do to the traditions of a country, Pura Vida right!

The journey around the Darien gap had been exhausting to say the least and after three days of not eating anything and throwing up over the side of a boat we were hungry.  We had heard rumors of Colombian food from fellow travelers and it sounded like our diet was to about to be on the up and up.

Our first meal was in a small Colombian costal town at the end of the Darien gap.  There were about 3 large black women singing and whipping up some delicious stuff in that kitchen.  I ordered a carne almuerzo witch simply means “meat lunch”.  I typically never know exactly what I am going to get when I order so when the large bowl of soup showed up I was a little disappointed.  I like soup but I never call it a meal and I was hungry.   I inquired about my order in my typical perfect Spanish and the smiling toothy waitress insured me not to worry there was more to come.    The next plate was enormous, piled high with rice, beans, yucca, salad greens and steak.  It even came with a large glass of cold fruit juice which is a rarity in such punishing, tropical heat.    I finished the meal feeling extremely full and satisfied especially when I paid the 2 dollar bill, Colombia was going to be a great country.

Lomo Saltado, typical Peruvian dish of beef, french fries, onions and tomatoes.  And don't forget the rice!

Lomo Saltado, typical Peruvian dish of beef, french fries, onions and tomatoes. And don’t forget the rice!

A week down the road in Colombia I had eaten almost that exact meal in every restaurant and I was becoming extremely bored.  There was never anything different offered.   They don’t even have menus in restaurants because well in Colombia there is only one meal that exists. Each plate contained a grotesque amount of white rice followed by even more starch of the potato or yucca or both and a small poorly grilled rubbery steak or fried/grilled chicken.  Every town we drove through offered the exact same meal.  A restaurant cook in Colombia has a very easy life; just memorize one plate and you’re good for a life time.  Meg and I started splitting a plate because there is no reason for one person to eat that much rice at one meal.

Typical Ecuadorian plate

Typical Ecuadorian plate

By the time we entered Ecuador I had had enough.  The South American’s diet was worse than Central American’s.  It was time for something drastic to happen or I wasn’t going to make it much longer.  Quito was our savior.  We found a grocery store that could come close to being something that you would find in the states. We joyfully cruised down the aisles seeing such delicacies as chips and salsa, mac and cheese, mushrooms, spinach and my favorite cheddar cheese.   It was like being a kid in a candy store.  We filled up a grocery cart with all these glorious old familiar staples and spent more than we ever had on groceries on this entire trip, however I did have 4 bags of glorious tortilla chips and 5 cans of salsa so I felt it was entirely justified.

Our good food luck continued during our second day in Quito when we found a little gringo restaurant that actually had a menu which meant it had more than one food option.   They served up some awesome food and I fell in love with their hamburger.  It was like the cook actually cared how the food turned out. They used such exotic ingredients as spinach, tomato, avocado, mustard and real whole grain bread, things that I hadn’t seen used in a restaurant since Mexico.  I ate a sandwich every day for a week at that fantastic little place.  We were surrounded by restaurants in Quito but I was too scared to stray from my joint, I knew it was only a matter of time before I was eating lots of rice again.

We were excited to find Cream cheese, butter and decent bread in Quito.

We were excited to find Cream cheese, butter and decent bread in Quito.

It was In Quito that I realized I had gone full circle in my travel diet.  Instead of searching out crazy different local foods like I had in the beginning of the trip, I was in search of familiar good old American fair.  When traveling in Asia for two months I would eat anything new and different like bugs and rodents, even though it was typically gross.  Now after 6 months of travel I would rather eat a good hamburger then try guinea pig, a supposed delicacy.   Was I becoming soft, less adventurous or was it the fact that the food had continually proven it’s self to be dull and poorly cooked?  Or maybe, I am just in search of some familiarity in my world of constant change and perpetual travel.  Whatever it is I know that I am still a sucker for a really good hamburger, I guess that just another reason I love being an Americano.

Cooking breakfast in the camper - the only way!

Cooking breakfast in the camper – the only way!

P.S  I hear rumors from other travelers that the food in Chile and Argentina is amazing.  I hope they don’t have rice or pollo frito!!!

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Feeling the lure of Ecuador

Usually Jed and I avoid large cities.  We tend to think of ourselves as small town folk and prefer not to deal with the traffic and herds of people that come along with city life. Luckily though, we were sucked into Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, because it was the most logical place for us to re-acquire mountaineering gear.  Otherwise we may have never spent so much time in and around this little gem of a city.

Wandering in to the streets the Sunday morning after the soccer game we found another great surprise waiting for us.  Every Sunday Quito closes down the main streets through the city to cars and opens them solely to bicycles and pedestrians.  Jed and I quickly abandoned our plans of beginning to check out the gear shops for the day and rented bikes to do some exploring instead.

Beautiful Cathedral in Old Town Quito

Biking through the streets of Quito

The city of Quito proper is basically a long strip, running north to south, split in to three districts; the old town, the new town (Mariscal district) and the south (residential district).  And scattered throughout the strip of the city are several parks, little and large. We set off on our bikes towards the old town to check out the old Spanish colonial architecture and found that in every one of the parks along the way there was a different form of entertainment going on.  There was live music, theatre, comedians, traditional dancing, artists, clowns on stilts and more.  Plus there were food vendors everywhere.  We skirted through the city that day biking from one park to the next.  It was such a wonderful way to see the city and to spend the day.

Traditional dances

making pizza in our penthouse oven

Plus with the freedom of being on a bike it saved us from the overwhelming head game of trying to navigate a truck and camper through the maze of one way streets that is Quito.  We even checked out a few of the off-the-beaten-path hotels and found an amazing pent house apartment that we rented for $16 a night.

The next day we began our search for mountaineering gear.  We had looked in to shipping all of ours over from the states, but the best price we received was over $600 solely for shipping.  This price didn’t even include the 110% tax on the price of our own gear that we would have pay customs when we picked it up.  We decided it was going to be cheaper just to replace most of it.  We scoured the city for the best deals and somehow managed to spend five days doing it.  However it was an enjoyable time.  We parked the car for the week and either walked or rode the extremely overpacked buses everywhere.  We found some great resturaunts and even a grocery store with amazing things like granola bars and cheddar cheese!  Unfortunately, nowhere in the city could we find boots to fit Jed’s gringo feet.

With a little more research Jed discovered that we could send a package under 8.8lbs through the Ecuadorian and US postal service and you supposedly wouldn’t have to pay taxes on it.  We set up to have a package sent over and then with our best guess that it would take at least a full week, maybe two, and with nothing more to do but wait for the mail we left the city to explore the mountains.

We first headed back up north towards the Colombian border.  We had already been up this way, but to us it was as if it was the first time because on our original drive through, the clouds were so low we were not even aware of the giant mountains merely hundreds of feet away.  Our plan was to test our lungs on one of the lower peaks in the area,Volcan Imbambura, at 15,190ft.

On the false summit

With all the temperamental weather we had encountered since entering Ecuador, we couldn’t believe our luck.  Blue skies abound, we enjoyed a great climb with beautiful views of Volcan Cayambe and the surrounding towns and lakes below.  The climb was basically a long hike with some scrambling up to a false summit, which is where most parties turn back.  Following the false summit there was a long skinny ridge line with sheer cliffs or steep scree to each side.  This took us to a final scramble up loose rock to the real summit.  The mountain really waits until the last 30ft to get your adrenaline pumping but it doesn’t hold back then.

the beginning of the last 30ft to summit

The ridgeline

Jungle trees

We set out the next morning towards Illiniza Norte, our second object on our peak quest.  This was south of Quito and to get there we decided to take the eastern roads around the city and try to find this climbing area we had been told about.  And thought we didn’t find exactly what we were looking for, we were not complaining with the canyon it led us through.  Stunned by the beauty of this area, and with gas prices practically egging us on, we ended up detouring through the rock filled canyon, past the tall reaching peaks of the Cayambe-Coco reserve,  past Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, skirting an ever intensifying rushing river all the way in to the outskirts of the Amazon jungle.

Cayambe-Coco National Park

And out of pure luck we did happen upon a different climbing area where we spent the following morning playing around on the sloped, awkward, but fun enough for a day, climbs.

That evening we put ourselves back on track towards Illiniza Norte and made a late camp only to find ourselves upon daybreak under the shadow the grandiose Cotopaxi.  This textbook glaciated volcano that seems to just suddenly erupt from a valley floor demands your attention, and we obviously had no choice but to stop for an obnoxiously long photo shoot before venturing on.

Cotopaxi campsite

Aha, Illiniza Norte at last!  Or so we thought.  We were turned back at the first manned gate we had encountered in all of South America thus far.  The man told us we needed a guide.  We argued that Jed was a guide.  He wanted to see a card.   Well okay, I think I know where one of those can be created.

View of Illiniza Norte from Cotopaxi Park

We went to the closest town to use the internet and found a message that our package had arrived and cleared customs.  This was only 3 business days since it had been sent.  And after all the nightmares we had read on the internet about shipping to Ecuador we couldn’t believe it was true, but decided we better head back to Quito and check in anyway.

We went to check back in to our pent house apartment, only to find two very familiar motor bikes parked in the garage.  The Australians had snagged our spot.  So much for sharing friendly info. Out of the kindness of our hearts we let them keep it ;) and checked in to another basic room in the building.

The next day we went to retrieve our package and we couldn’t believe how easy it was.  We filled out a couple papers, gave them five dollars and they handed it over.

We ended up spending a couple more days in the city taking care of some car maintenance and important things such as creating a “guide’s license”.  Then we were off to mountains again.   And after all that trouble, this time there was no one at the gate to Illiniza and we drove right in.

Early morning from camp in  the Iliiniza parking lot

Early morning from camp in the Iliiniza parking lot

This mountain again was a long walk with some fun exposed scrambling at the top.  We summited at 16,919ft and lucked out with another beautiful day.DSC05441

Scambling up to the top of Illiniza Norte

Scambling up to the top of Illiniza Norte

Above the clouds... the view of Cotopaxi from Illiniza

Above the clouds… the view of Cotopaxi from Illiniza

With two mountains under our belt and all our gear re-aquired, we decided it was time to attempt the glacier covered Cotopaxi.  We headed in to the park and drove up to the parking lot at 15,000ft.  The climber’s refugio is a 45 minute walk up from the parking lot, but being the cheap travelers we are, we decided that it would be fine if we just slept in our camper and started out from there in the morning instead of paying to sleep in the Refugio.

We arrived in the parking lot around 6pm in a snow and hail storm.  We packed up our gear anyways in the hope that it would clear up by 1am, our planned departure time.  After about 3 hours of anxious sleep we awoke to a thick fog, but no precipitation.  So we threw our packs on and headed up.

We arrived to the glacier line in about 2 hours, at 3am.  There had been some spitting rain during the approach, but the weather seemed to be clearing as we threw on our crampons and tied in to the rope.  With high hopes we set out.  After winding our way around the crevasses for about two hours we encountered a guide and his clients retreating from the mountain.  The guide told us “There is weather coming in from the east. You have about three more hours to the top. Be smart.” as he scurried past.

We continued on for another half hour, but this information was turning over and over in my brain killing my psyche. Just below the black rock headwall, supposedly the crux, we made the decision to be safe rather then sorry.

Crevasses on Cotopaxi

Crevasses on Cotopaxi

Looking back it was still probably the best call.  The weather stayed clear for a bit but came in strong in the late morning.  However, there is just something about not finishing an attempted summit that really eats away at you.  We even spent another night in the parking lot with the plan for a second attempt, but again were greeted with sleet and snow.

Reluctantly we packed it off further south, still toying with the idea of returning in a couple days, but needing at this point to dry out a bit; not to mention wash up after four days of hiking and camping.

Jed washing some of our clothes at the spring fed washing station outside the bathhouse

Jed washing some of our clothes at the spring fed washing station outside the bathhouse

On this end of things our luck returned.  In the town of Banos, Ecuador we found a local hot springs bathhouse.  Where for two dollars each we indulged in the hottest showers in months and thoroughly soaked and stretched our muscles in the spring fed pools.  And afterwards we found the local market where for 75 cents each we nourished our insides with tall glasses of fresh squeezed alfalfa, carrot, banana and strawberry juice.

Ahhh yes…Just another high class spa day for Jed an I!

The town of Banos

The town of Banos

A resurrection of the old bridge to escape formt he volcano..

A resurrection of the old bridge used to escape form the erupting volcano.

We spent the rest of the day exploring this little town, which is nestled at the foothill of one of the world’s most active volcanoes.  Inside the town’s cathedral there were several drastically detailed paintings from which we learned many stories of the history of this little town’s epic entanglements with this mountain of death that occasionally sends downs rivers of fire in to their town.  Back in the day there was only one tiny bridge for which the townspeople could cross the river to escape the burning.

Banos is a beautiful town with and interesting past! It was great to enjoy for a day, but the lure of the mountains was too strong.

Cotopaxi was still taunting us, but we decided we had spent enough time up around there and we should just keep heading south.  We researched and found Volcan Carihuarizo, neighbor to Volcan Chimborazzo, Ecuador’s highest peak, along our immediate way south.

summit  of Carihuairazo

summit of Carihuairazo

This Volcano was very fun. It was the only we had done thus far where there were no other parties.  In fact there wasn’t even a trail.  We drove the car up as far as we could where we followed a series of ridgelines up to gain the quickly melting glacier to the top.  There were wild llamas running all through the hills.  It was amazing to watch how quickly and gracefully they could move along the rugged terrain and it was also surprising to us to hear their sounds, which we at first thought were chirping birds.llama

melting glacier of Carihairazo

melting glacier of Carihairazo

We were back down from the mountain by 9am that morning and decided to continue south.  We found a gorgeous and quiet camp spot that night and planned to sleep late and enjoy a relaxing morning.  However at 8am when we were descended upon by a large group of over-aged scouts we realised this wasn’t going to happen.scout camp

We did learn from one of the counselors who was questioning us about our trip that that day in Cuenca, our next destination, was a big festival. This got us really excited, because through out our trip we always seemed to be either a week early or a week late for local festivals, but this one we were going to hit right on!

In Cuenca, we decided to find a parking garage and ask to stay in our car, instead of paying for a hotel.  We easily found a family owned garage who, of course, was happy to let us stay in our car.  The problem came when they informed us that they, as well, were going to be joining the festivities and that to get back to our car we either had to come back before 8pm or after 1am.

After living in out car for the last 7 months, with the sun going down at six o’clock, Jed and I had adopted a typical bed time of 9.  It was a sad conversation arguing with a this couple at least two generations older than us that 1am was just too late.  So we decided, if they can do it so can we.  The party must be that good!

However, come 11am we must have missed the invitation that told us where to go next, because the bands packed up and the streets started clearing and we still had two more hours to go.  To stay awake we invoked the theory of “just keep walking”.  We scoured the city streets and when were finally allowed back in to our car we felt like we had just climbed our hardest mountain yet.  It’s official, we have become pathetic partiers, but we did manage to stay up longer than the security guard.

First class security

First class security

Jed rappelling off first pitch of jungle climbing

Jed rappelling off first pitch of jungle climbing

The next day we decided to check out what was said to be the best rock climbing area in Ecuador, just north of Cuenca.  Well, it’s possible we just picked the wrong route, but after tunneling our way through spiny jungle for 20 minutes to reach the route we found that the jungle didn’t stop there but continued up and out of every crack and crevasse in the wall.  We climbed the first pitch before reaching the conclusion that in Ecuador it’s better to stick to the mountains.

It was time to move on to Peru.  Ecuador was amazing!  It completely fueled our fire and we hope to return someday (primarily for Cotopaxi) but at this time Peru was calling our name.

So until next time Ecuador, please don’t change a thing!

Gas prices in Ecuador

Gas prices in Ecuador

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Crossing over the Hump

Living around the drastic scenery of the places we call home, Moab, Utah and Jackson, Wyoming you begin to take for granted the striking image of the rugged pine green, snow white and granite mountains or the tall sandstone towers protruding against the blue sky in the distance.   It is only upon leaving that you again begin to look upon these images through the awed eyes of a first time visitor.

Jed and I entered Ecuador feeling a little road weary. After more than six months on the road, we were tired of eating rice and were feeling the pangs of hunger for some good ole’ American food.  We were missing our family and friends and the familiar playgrounds of the Teton Mountains and the towers, buttes and canyons of the Utah desert.

It is somewhat unfair when comparing other locations to these places, but in truth I feel that anyone must feel this way about their home after they have left there for a while because it is not just scenery, it’s the way of life that brought you to live there in the first place; it is the ease of hopping on your bike at your front door and riding first class trails on your lunch break;  it’s the little hole in the wall restaurants that you know and love; it’s the yearly events held in your town that you look forward to every year.

Be it the beginning of the holiday season , the nuances of the road finally taking their toll, or the gray clouds hanging low in the sky when we first ventured in to Ecuador, we found ourselves in need of a refresher.

Jed taking solace in a Budweiser

It was on this one said gray morning, two days in to Ecuador, on our way in to Quito, that we were feeling the stronghold of these longings of familiarity when we, without even realizing it, crossed over in to the southern hemishphere.  We double backed on the instinct that we may have just missed something, only to find ourselves directly in the middle of the world.

Middle of the world

There was a huge sun dial recently built in this location of an old Inca ruin, by who’s shadow you could read the time of day and year.  It was established by a non-profit group on the basis of educating visitors of it’s importance in the astronomical studies of the earth.  Those Incas were pretty smart people, but as it turns out they had the best tools for their studies, the Andes Mountains.

The sundial on the equator

If you took a globe and traced your finger around the equator, all the land you would hit would be flat except for the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.  These Mountians provided exact points of reference for the movement of the sun and stars as seen from earth throughout the year.  The Incas had built ceremonial grounds at each point in the mountains where the sun would first rise and set on the summer and winter solstice.

It was an interesting peak in to the complexity of this old culture surrounding us and in to the complexity of the same world we live in today.

After our equatorial lesson we continued on towards Quito, the capital of Ecuador; our thoughts faded from the home town burrito shop to the pondering of earth and the stars and the civilizations before us.   We reached Quito ready to fulfill our quest of acquiring the tools needed to play in the Inca’s astronomical tool, the Andes.  Directly after entering the city we derived from the large percentage of people in yellow uniforms and the billboards outside of bars boasting the large televisions and drink specials that Ecuador had a big futbol game that day.  However it was only after the fifth hotel that we had inquired in, asked if Jed was Chilean, that we came to the realization that the game was actually here in town!

Playing soccer competitively for a large portion of my life, you could say that attending a famously large South American soccer match was on the top of my tick list for this trip.  I had planned to seek the games out and guide our travels towards them, yet here we were, stumbled unknowingly upon a world cup qualifier between Chile and Ecuador.

With no time to spare, we threw our bags in the hotel, and not having any yellow, threw on our blue hoodies (Ecaudor’s second color), hailed a taxi under the looming glare of the hotel clerk who had told us we had no chance of getting tickets today and headed off towards the stadium.  I mentioned to the cab driver that we were looking for tickets whom met this statement with the same positivity as the hotel clerk.  Yet ten minutes later, standing in the middle of traffic, was a man scalping two tickets, two seats side by side, for $8 over the entry rate.  Sold!

Crowds before the stadium

At this point the taxi driver told us that we would be better off walking than sitting with him in traffic so we gave the man his $2 and joined the hourdes of yellow shirts descending upon the stadium.  After entering and finding our seats, just in time for the game to start, we took a look around and were instantly glad that we didn’t own any bright yellow shirts as we were smack dab in the middle of the Chilean section.  Lucky for us, blue is also their second color!

Whether his pleasing personality or his new fascination with looking Chilean, Jed switched hats all too easily, joining in with the Chilean crowd.  I held steadfast, feeling some loyalty to our surrounding city of luck, only maybe cheering a little quieter than I would have otherwise.  It was an exciting game, dominated by the Ecaudorians, clearly the better team, whom came out on top, 3-1. This didn’t cause any of the Chilean fan’s to hold back on their taunting and cheering though, and by the time the game was over the Chilean section was blocked off by cops who weren’t letting anyone through until all Ecaudorians had left the building.  Nevertheless, the Chileans, still loyally unfazed by their loss, continued  on with their chants, Chi Chi Chi – Le Le Le, Chi-Le, Chi-Le, inticing the the throwing of beers and other unanimous objects by the yellow shirts.  When one yellow shirt jumped threw the cops right in front of us to have his go at one of the Chileans and then was pulled out of the crowd and tackled to the pavement, all our loyalties were quickly lost except for one.  Jed pleads to the cop blocking our way, “We are Americans!  We are not Chileans! Please let us out!”  He listened to our pleas and let us duck out and run from the erupting crowd.

Ecuador celebrating

Out of the stadium, we were safe to reclaim our un-wavering passion for Ecuador and joined the city for some celebratory drinks in what we thought was our quiet little hotel neighborhood now turned madhouse.

Crawling in to bed that night, thouroughly exhausted with big grins on our faces, we looked back on our day and realized that it was exactly for days like today that we love to travel.  We wake up every day never knowing what exactly lays in store for us.  We can start off pouting over a breakfast of rice and Nescafe and be dancing with the locals in the streets by nightfall.

We emerged from our hotel that next afternoon, the clouds had finally lifted and the snow capped peak of Volcan Cotopaxi loomed in the distance over the ancient city streets like an open invitation, inviting us explore!

Volcan Cotopaxi

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Cruising and Climbing in Colombia

Our climbing tour of Colombia started in a place called La Mojarra, located just south of Bucamaranga on the Mesa de los Santos.  We had read about this place on the internet and had seen pictures but when we followed the directions there, we were at first thoroughly confused because all we could initially see were lots of tobacco farms, no rock walls.  Because it was getting dark and we could not find what we thought we were looking for, we decided it was best to just look for a place to sleep and continue our search in the morning.  After several unsuccessful dirt road camp spot missions we decided to just ask the guy at the gas station if it was alright if we parked out back.  “Of course” was the reply.  We have found, through the help of our Australian friends, that out back of gas stations are a great option for camping for a night.  They are generally run by families, who live there as well,  they have bathrooms, it is free and they typically have all night security.

Ducks and Dried Tobacco

In the morning we asked the woman in the gas station about the climbing nearby.  She gave us the first of many directions she would explain to us over the next week as Jed would continuously return to ask her questions, insistent that she had a crush on him.

Our problem with finding the place the night before was; one, that we had not gone far enough and two, that we were up on top of the mesa already above the cliff.  We spotted a hostel, El Refugio de La Roca, a little ways down the road and stopped to check it out hoping to find some information on the climbing.

The view from the Refugio La Roca

This place was recently purchased by a young Colombian couple and is a working progress, but the location and the work they have done so far is amazing.  It is located right on the cliff line above the climbing and the beautiful valley below.

Our plan for La Mojarra, a sport climbing crag with only about 130 routes was to spend a week or more there and get some strength back before heading off to the big mountains of El Cocuy.  Unfortunately, after only two days of climbing we both caught a bug that knocked us on our arses.  Jed caught it first and had a long night of the feverish haze, but mine hit me hard and took me out for three days. Lucky for Jed, it was now the weekend and local climbers had arrived so he was able to still climb and make some new friends.

Looking down on La Mojarra

We met one couple, Giovanni from Colombia and Christine from New Hampshire, who were living nearby, just below the mesa. In a friendly gesture they invited us to stay the night with them on our way down from La Mojarra.  I think they were a little surprised when we actually called them up three days later and asked if we could take them up on their offer.  After being on the road for six months I think we have lost all bashfulness when it comes to offers of hot showers, internet and beds.

Christine is a botanist for the Smithsonian and collects orchids. Her house was surrounded with them!

I am glad we did take them up on their offer though, because it led to getting to know some great people.  And with a sudden change to our immediate plans of heading out to Cocuy the next day, turned to waiting for the Australians to arrive so we could all go together, we had the weekend to kill.  Giovanni and Christine had heard word of a new climbing area, La Florian, being established approximately 5 hours south of us and had been wanting to check it out.  The pictures we had seen were amazing.  We were in!

We parked the truck and camper for the weekend and hopped in with them.   What was supposed to be a five hour drive ended up being around ten and we didn’t actually arrive in the town of La Florian until midnight.  We rolled in to the small town, found a hotel and went straight to bed.  Nevertheless, somehow word got out that “Gringos” were in town and by 7:30 the following morning the mayor of Florian and entourage were downstairs to welcome us to town.  We were officially the first gringos in Florian!

view out of the cave at La Florian

As it was dark on our way in, we hadn’t seen anything of the climbing area the night before, so we were blown away when two minutes out of town we looked up and saw a tall limestone wall with a cave in the middle of it and a two tier waterfall flowing from the cave.  It was beautiful!  It would have been worth the visit even without the climbing.  But the climbing was spectacular as well, albeit hard.  All the routes that have been put up so far are 5.11 or above running along the stalactites on the overhanging walls along the inside of the cave.

The waterfall from the cave at La Florian

cave climbing

the inside of the cave

It was a great weekend and we were glad we got the opportunity to check out this amazing spot that we may have never otherwise found.  And to meet a great group of Colombian Climbers.

The crew at La Florian

Our camp off the road right next to a landslide

Back in Bucamaranga we met up with the Australians in order to partake in our typical back roads caravan out to Parque Nacional El Cocuy.  The roads took us through a maze of elevation and landscape changes, ranging from sweltering cactus strewn hills to freezing mountain passes.

Being so close to the equator Colombia has little for seasonal temperature changes.  You pretty much know what you are going to get every day, but dependent on your elevation this could mean year around cold, year around hot, or year around spring!  We traveled through a mixture of all three on the road to Cocuy.

notice that they are so certain of the temperature they put it on permanent park signs

Finally arriving at nightfall at the beautiful national park, we set up camp right at our trailhead. We were already over 12,oooft, and the plan was to hike approximately 3,000 ft more the following day up to our climb, the Pulpito de Diablo (Devil’s pulpit).  We packed to spend four nights up in the mountains.   The hike in was shorter than we had heard, but nevertheless with gaining elevation that quickly it was a struggle.  We set up camp in the designated camping zone about 500ft below the Pulpit.

The trail head

High Camp in Cocuy

view from camp

Wheee, this is FUN!!

It was beautiful!  However, after five months at sea level in Central America, driving up to elevation in one day and hiking in and setting up base camp at around 15,000ft turned out to not be our most brilliant idea.  After a night and most of the following day spent combating fierce to debilitating  headaches and nausea, not to mention freezing cold weather with spurts of rain, we decided around 3pm the second day that retreat to the lower elevation was critical.

Another time Pulpit de Diablo…

This was my first ever taste of elevation sickness and it is definatley nothing to mess around with!  Luckily it was nothing that a walk down, a warm camper, hot tea and some mac & cheese couldn’t fix.

Waking up the next morning to more inclement weather, we decided that a second attempt was an unnecessary endeavor and chose to head off towards our next destination, Suesca.

Can you see the road cut in to the cliff? This is the road we took from Cocuy.

But first a warm camp next to a cool river was in order.  “Puffies to bikinis”  was the order of the day as Jed so eloquently put it.

Jed thinking he is going to take up cigar smoking

The road to Suesca was surprisingly beautiful!   We hadn’t heard much of anything about this area and we were blown away by the landscape.  (If you can’t tell we are loving being back in the mountians!)

We arrived in Suesca, a place we had heard to have some of the best climbing in the country, a label that usually implies gorgeous scenery, and were at first dissapointed by the dumpy town that greeted us with the backdrop of a huge cement factory.  A local, when asked, pointed us to a free place to camp up on top of the cliffs outside of town, which we learned was a lucky invite as they usually don’t like people to camp there.  The next morning, waking again to a dreary drizzle, we decided to direct our efforts towards acquiring clean clothes instead of climbing.  In town for merely half an hour and the Australians, with their cute accents, had us adopted by a lovely family they had met on the streets and asked about a laundry mat.

The family invited us back to their finca (farm) to do a couple loads of laundry.  We sadly learned that the large Colombian family of 5 children all now grown with families of their own,  located all over the world, had gathered back home because of the recent passing of their mother.  Despite the circumstances, they we very welcoming to us and interested in our journey   We spent the afternoon with them, were treated to a wonderful lunch and exchanged stories of our travels with their lives growing up on this farm, originally dedicated to growing flowers for export.  It was a wonderful experience to get to know such an interesting and widely diverse family.  I can only imagine that the mother was an amazing woman to have raised such.

The walk to climbing in Suesca

We finally got around to climbing the next afternoon, getting to reimburse the  Australians for all the over our head surf spots they treated us to throughout Central America. :)

With the fun climbing and the great locals we met, the town was quickly redeeming itself from our first impressions. After a week there we had grown to quite enjoy it and if you just looked out from town in the opposite direction of the factory towards the green valley and the cliff faces it actually was a beautiful place.

We spent one day climbing with a friendly local we met,  whom in conversation on our walk back to town humbly mentioned in response to a question of work that he holds conferences.  Confused, we asked what kind of conferences.  “Oh, I show pictures and talk about climbing Everest without Oxygen”

You know just typical work… for maybe a handful of people on earth!

Jed showing off his gobies after slipping out of a slimy but sharp roof crack.

After our time in Suesca we spent about a week more cruising through the rest of Colombia.  The National Park de Nevados, our next planned stop was unfortunately closed due to volcanic activity, but in skirting around it we drove of Colombia’s scenic coffee region and picked up a bag of the best coffee so far on this trip!

We stopped for a day in the Valley de Corcora, on a tip from our new botanist friend, and we knew instantly why she recommended this place.  Towering through this beautiful valley were hundreds of wax palms, Colombia’s national tree.

Cocora Valley

Hiking in Cocora Valley

Colombia was definitely one of my favorite countries thus far.  It is chock full of wonderful people and beautiful landscapes.  It has us very excited for the rest of South America!

Not to mention the fact that Jed finally found a country where he is in style!

This guy was in front of us at the gas station we stopped at. Classic!

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Coooolombia

We took off from Cartagena with one thing on our minds, the cool air of the mountains!  We studied the map and found the quickest route to gain some elevation.  Our shipping partners, in their supped up Jeep Cherokee, joined us on the road.  We had a three or four day plan.  We thought we would reach the mountains the first day, the second we would reach a back road trail which we would take the following few days, putting in some off-road time in the mountains.  However, by day two, when we still had not reached where we thought we would make it the first day we realized we had vastly underestimated the time it would take us to travel through Colombia.

we are in a stand off

And once we did reach the curving mountain roads our distances covered diminished even more.  In fact at the end of what seemed like one long day of driving I counted back over the distance we had covered and it was only a whopping 97km.  Of course it probably didn’t help that the truck would sometimes just completely shut off in the middle of driving.

mountain folk love their wool panchos

Bumping along slowly and spending some time in the small mountain towns trying to diagnose to the problem with the truck really ended up being a blessing in disguise.  It gave us time to get to know the Colombian people, whom I have deemed the nicest people in the world.  Everywhere we stopped the people we very friendly and wanted to help, but not because they wanted to make a buck off of us.  They truly just wanted to make sure that we were enjoying their country and their town.

ahhhh mountains

If we stopped to ask to directions, more times than not, someone would just hop on their moto and show us the way.  If we asked about camping in the area we either got brought back to their own land, or to a local swimming hole on the river, or to a hilltop with a beautiful vista.

local boys came to visit the gringos at their campsite

our host`s dog was named Michael Jordon!

In one small town we were asking about camping at the nearby lake because we wanted to swim and one of the men hopped on his bike.  We thought he was going to show us the way to the lake, but instead he took us back to his farm which had a stream running through the back yard.  He pointed to the stream and asked if we wanted to swim.  I was a little confused because the water barely came up to make ankles, but expressed interest in swimming anyhow.  This is when I realized that he was going to build up a damn and create a swimming hole for us to swim in.

The pool that was damned for us

celebrity lunch

We received a lot of attention everywhere we went.  I am pretty sure that a most of these towns hadn’t hosted very many gringos, if any at all.  For instance when we stopped for lunch in one town, the owner of the restaurant eventually ended up having to kick out the crowd of people that had trickled in off the streets to stare at us eat. And while stopping at a mechanic in another small town I was conversing with a teenager in the crowd of people who had been called over to meet the gringos.  He told me I had pretty blue eyes (I do not have blue eyes).  Thinking this was funny I tried to clarify that my eyes were not blue and I compared them to Jed’s blue eyes. He looked at me confused and told me we both had blue eyes and blond hair, we were gringos!

friendly mechanics and their wheelbarrow full of tools

sometimes you gotta have it

We eventually did narrow down the problem with the truck to the fuel pump, and realizing that none of these small towns along our originally planned “off the beaten path” plan were going to have what we needed, we had to deviate to Cucuta, a  city on the border with Venezuela.  We were not excited about having to go in to a city and go on the typical ever-spanning scavenger hunt for car parts. Thankfully though, it seemed that this time luck was with us.  Cucuta had a whole section of it’s city that was solely auto parts stores.  We were able to park and search by foot, and we were quickly directed to a tienda which sold only gas pumps. We were in and out of the city within an hour or so.

the ‘main’ road ahead

We toyed with the idea of hopping back on another backroad south, but after learning in the first town that the next town located less than a quarter inch from that town on our map would take us 6 hours to reach we decided that the “main” roads were beautiful and adventurous enough.  Besides Jed and I were ready to get out of the car, and after 5 months of beach time, to finally get to do some rock climbing!

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Only first class for Yota

We entered Panama with pretty much one thing on our mind; shipping our car to Colombia. So we headed directly to Panama City to start figuring out the process.  Arriving on a Thursday we sent out a lot of emails and made some calls asking for pricing and departure dates.  However by Friday we had only received one response and they didn’t seem to have any answers.  We feared we were looking at a long drawn out process, in fact the only helpful thing that got done in our first two days was to meet with a possible shipping partner on Friday evening. Saturday and Sunday everything shut down for the weekend so there was nothing more to for us to do there was no point in hanging around the city. We, us and our shipping partner, decided we would show up at the shipping agency office at 9:00am on Monday whether or not we had finally heard back from the company or not.  Okay, we have a plan!

We left the city to meet up with the Australians  and go in search of somewhere to camp outside of the city.  After two hours of stand still traffic leaving the city on a Friday night in the pouring rain we finally made it to this peninsula about an hour away and found this little dirt road that took us out to a beautiful bay with an abandoned cabana.  Jackpot!   Or so we thought, until the bugs came out!  Typically when the bugs get bad we can hide in our camper, but not from these viscous miniatures.  They could fly right through.  We somehow made it through the night with fits of sleep and ran from the place in the morning looking like we had just survived an epic case of the chicken pox.

This bird was posing for Jed right near our camp

Lucky for us Caitlin was signed up to do a student teaching gig in Panama for the next two weeks and with the gig came an apartment with two bedrooms!  They checked in as early as they could and we spent the day in the cool indoors cooking, playing on the internet, watching movies and showering.  Ahhh luxury!

Our luxury beach apartment

Come Monday morning we awoke at 5:30 am to get ready to head towards Colon and meet our shipping partner. Luckily I checked the internet right before we walked out the door and we had an email from our “shipping partner” that he had been talking with another couple and that he felt he had to share the container with them.  Damnit, down by one!  However he also told us that he had heard back from a shipping agency with a great offer and gave us their contact info.  We quickly emailed them and…

I will spare you all the details of arranging our shipping to Panama (as there are plenty out there on the internet).  I will tell you that the shipping agency was quick to answer emails, hooked us up with a shipping partner, and always showed up to meet us when they said they would.  They made the whole process rather easy.  This seems to be contradictory to many other’s accounts.

The lovely Aduana inspection lot

All loaded up and ready to go

It turned out there was a whole group of us shipping our cars at the same time, and yet none of us knew how we were going to get ourselves to Panama, but we all had one common goal… to do it cheaply.  We decided that as a group we would have higher bargaining power and more ability to hire a boat right away.  So the plan was made that after we loaded our cars on our containers the seven of us (plus one dog) would all hop on a bus to a little port town, Portobello, an hour south of Colon.

Once in Portobello we met up with four more backpackers who were going to be making the journey with us, bringing our group to eleven.  They had already spent the day inquiring about sail boats or coconut ships heading to Colombia and had found two potential options.

Old Fort to fight off pirates in Portobello

One was a coconut ship (ie. small cargo ship carrying coconuts) offering $80 per person and taking us directly to Cartagena, Colombia, where we were to meet our cars.  The other was a sail boat who offered to take us to the border of Colombia and Panama with a stop at the San Blas Islands for $150 per person including food.  From the border we would have to make our own way to Cartagena which meant more boats and buses.

Cristo Negro, Portobello’s main attraction

This was a tough decision so went to discuss our options with the Cristo Negro, located conveniently in Portobello, and asked for his guidance…

Of course, we were all initially leaning towards the coconut ship as it was half the cost.  However after discussing it further with the captain we learned that it was going to take this ship 7 to 10 days to reach Cartagena because it had to stop along the way and pick up coconuts.  This wouldn’t work for us.  It was Friday and our car was going to arrive in Cartagena on Monday and we only had three days to pick it up before we had to start paying storage fees.

The captain of the sailboat came to talk with us about his offer.  He laid out the plan of leaving Friday evening and sailing through the night and arriving in the San Blas Islands early morning.  We would spend approximately 6 hours in San Blas, snorkeling and exploring the islands and leave to sail again through the night around 4pm.  From there we were to sail for 24+ hours straight to where he would drop us at a beach just above the border and there would be another boat that he had called ahead and arranged to take us directly to the borders.  Then we could spend the night in the beachside village/border and catch the early morning bus (which only leaves in the morning) to the mainland where we would catch a 6 hour bus to a town, spend the night and then catch another 6hr bus the next morning to Cartagena.  This put us in town Tuesday.  Perfect timing to get started on the process of retrieving our car which we were told took two days and had to be done by Thursday.  It would cost $50 a day for our cars to be at port after that.

This sounded pretty good and it was cheap for sailing to Colombia.  We asked a couple more questions of the captain;
“Was there space for eleven people to sleep on the boat?”
“Yes, there are eleven beds”
“Was there enough lifejackets for everyone?”
“Yes”

We negotiated a deal of $130 per person to compensate for having to pay for the other boats and buses and we were ready to set sail come 6pm that evening.  I was excited!  I had never been sailing before.

Native handcrafts for sale in Portobello

Little did we know we had willingly thrown ourselves in to the making of a bad reality tv show…

Eleven seasoned travelers (four Germans, two Argentineans, two Canadians, two Americans, and an Italian with a Spanish dog) who are used to doing and going wherever they please, whenever they please are stripped of their cars and forced to travel 40 hours by sailboat.  But not just any sailboat, a sailboat with a maximum capacity for 6 people, a Brazilian captain who is on his own schedule, and a cabin full of bugs.

But the fun doesn’t stop there!  After the sail boat drops them off on an empty beach on the southern end of the Darien Gap with no roads in site, these ‘life on a whim’ travelers must make a series of group decisions in order find their way across the borders and all the way to Cartagena within a day and a half to receive their cars back.  Will they make it??

Okay, I may be being a bit dramatic.  Maybe.

We set sail around 8pm Friday evening, realizing once I set foot on the boat that there was definitely not room for eleven people to sleep.   We all commented on how we would have to take turns with the beds so it wouldn’t become a problem, and then too excited to grab one right away we all took seats on the deck.

I think we made it about an hour out before the rocking sea claimed it’s first victim.  The sounds of vomiting only instigated others and choir of gags pursued throughout the night from all various corners of the boat deck.  I somehow managed to control myself and Jed and I even made it down to one of the (all) unoccupied beds to try and claim a good night’s sleep.

At this point I am barely holding on to my dinner.  My only hope is if I can remain very still.  So it wasn’t very helpful that soon after falling asleep we were slowly awoken to the fact that the mattress we were sleeping on was crawling with bugs, and they were biting.  I swatted them off, which involved movement, which in turn involved choking back my vomit and lied back down. And so our night continued; pass out, wake up, swat bugs, get nauseous, lie back down, pass out…

Somehow when the sky began to grow light I woke feeling pretty well.  My nausea level was down.  I had slept some.  So I decided that I would go and watch the sun rise over the ocean.  But first, I had held my pee long enough and I felt I could now handle going to the bathroom.  The bathroom was tiny, foul and rank, not a place you wanted to be for long.  Lucky for me, while inside it, the sails caught wind and turned the boat on it’s side, bathroom side down.  You have to understand that walking in general on this boat was laborious, but trying to climb from a tiolet, dress yourself, open a latched door and crawl your way out of a foul bathroom and around the door in to the two foot hallway while the boat was rocking on it’s side was more than I could handle.  I was done.  I spent the final hours of our trip to San Blas Islands curled up in a ball with my head over the edge.

Jed, of course, was fine.

At last….San Blas

We reached the San Blas Islands around 7:30am and we were all anxious to get off the boat for a bit. We dove into the crystal blue waters to swim for the nearest island with the promise to return to the boat in an hour for the breakfast our captain was making us (the one and only meal he would make us).

We swam around and explored the shores.  The sand was sun bleached white and just off shore the ocean bottom was littered with the biggest star fish I have ever seen.  There were a couple indigenous families still that lived on the islands in little hand built camps under the palm trees.  As you looked out over the ocean you could see some of the hundred or so other tiny islands scattered in the distance.  It was truly a remarkable place.

swimming to shore

Back on the boat the captain dished out our egg sandwiches and told us that there would be a change in plans.  He was too exhausted to continue on that day and needed to rest.  Instead of leaving that afternoon we would stay the night, get a good night’s rest and leave a 5am the next morning.  This wasn’t optimal as we were on a tight time schedule to reach our cars and a little frustration was expressed, but what could we do really?  We were on this man’s boat, anchored offshore of a tiny island, miles off the Panama coast in the Atlantic ocean and he was tired!

Leaving at 5 am made the schedule tight but still possible. We should arrive around 5am the next morning and as long as the borders were open we could cross and still make the 8am boat across the bay.  Otherwise we would be potentially stuck there until the following morning putting us a day behind and $50 in debt to the docks   Either way there was no point worrying about it then, we were there for the day so we might as well enjoy it.

Everyone was exhausted from the long night and spent most of the day relaxing under the, thankfully, cloud covered sky.  Jed and I swam to the island, found a nice little nook under a palm tree and laid down for a nap in the sand.  Just about the time we were dozing off a private helicopter decided the open beach right next to us would make a nice landing spot, in turn flinging sand in to every orifice of our body.

Fully awake then, after our mad dash from the sand pellets, we swam back to the boat for some lunch and to see if we could scrounge up some more snorkeling gear.  Zee Germans agreed to let us borrow their mask and Jed and I set out with Hawaiian sling/spear in hand in search of some dinner.  We only spotted a couple fish worthy of killing, but had no luck at chasing them down.  Nevertheless swimming around and hunting with a spear just makes you feel like a badass, and we did find live reef off the northern tip of the island so the snorkeling in itself was amazing.  There was even a sunken ship that had crashed into the reef to explore.

Back to the boat just before sunset, we rinsed off and joined the group for a delicious spaghetti dinner nicely prepared by Cecelia, our new Argentinean friend.  Jed dug the box of wine out of his backpack, which we realized had half exploded throughout the bag, and we shared with the rest with the group.  We all sat around and enjoyed each other’s company, attempting conversations in broken Spanish and English. It was a nice day!

Since we would be sailing out at 5am we all chose to sleep on the boat instead of the island, besides without the dingy our captain had chosen to leave behind it was hard to make it to shore with anything dry.  We settled in to various corners of the boat as the captain set out to hang out with some friends and sleep comfortably on their boat.  He told us we should be ready at 4:30 to leave.

Jed and I grabbed some pads from the cabin, beat the bugs off them, and laid them out at the nose of the boat where there was just enough room for each of us to fit with our heads together and our bodies down opposite sides of the boat like an upside down V.   There were no blankets for us to use, but Jed found one small tarp that he lovingly gave to me to cover up with while he went without.  The tarp wasn’t necessary until the wind picked up and it began to spit rain on us.  Sure that the cabin space had already been claimed, I invited Jed to try to squeeze in with me under the tarp. And so we attempted more sleep in the remarkably small space for two people, pinned on our sides between the uplifted cabin and the thin rails preventing us from falling in to the ocean.  It was one of those moments where it wasn’t that funny at the time but we wish someone had taken a picture.

Waking up at 4:30 wasn’t all that hard, maybe because we weren’t really sleeping anyway, and we went straight to preparing to leave, packing away our bed and securing everything. Ready to go by 5, there was no sign of the captain.  6:00, no sign. Finally at 7:00, Jed swam over to the boat he was sleeping on and told him we were ready to leave.  “One more hour” was the gist of what he got from the Spanish flung at him.  So we all sat on his sailboat peering over the sea towards the other sailboat where our captain sat seeming to be studying navigational courses or a book on “how to sail for dummies” , who knows?

In about an hour his buddy finally picks him up in a dingy.  “Finally!”, we all thought.  However this guy only takes him to another boat right next to ours where he sits and has breakfast with some friends.  “Well, at least he’s getting closer.”, someone joked.  He yells over that we should go ahead and make some breakfast and that we will leave soon.  “Hey, good idea! Only we already made breakfast two hours ago.”

When he finally does make it to the boat and gets everything settled, he goes to get the motor running and it doesn’t turn over.  Awesome!  Some of his buddies come to help and they get eventually get it going.  I am told the problem was just with the starter so it will be fine as long as we don’t turn it off.  So here is to hoping we don’t stall!

We also learned a few other tidbits at this time.  His friends couldn’t believe that he had sailed us into San Blas through the night in the reef filled waters and that he was initially planning to sail us out of there through the worst section again at night without ever having done it before.  And so it seemed that the two real reasons for our delayed departure were;  There was a issue with the ruder, which he had worked on and hopefully fixed yesterday.  And he needed to wait until full light to better navigate the scattered reefs ahead.

These two reasons made a lot more sense to me than “I need to rest”. I repeat…more sense, but not necessarily more secure.  But again, on a boat with no other options we settled in to our nooks as the captain set sail. Luckily this go-round would begin with a nice dosing of dramamine!

Dramamine bliss

Even after the sleapiness of the dramamine wore off I continued to try and nap as much as possible.  Unable to read, or walk around, or eat, or well really do much of anything at all I decided that sleep was what made the time go by fastest.  Plus it was better than sitting out in this..

When night came around, the sky had cleared and with high hopes Jed and I again set up a bed on the deck.  Only, as it turns out, stubbornness and high hopes only get you thoroughly soaked in a torrential down pour and an extremely stiff neck from trying to sleep on a pile of backpacks inside the cabin from 2 am on.

Land! Land! Land!

With the storm, we had made good time through the night and the captain dropped us off at a beach at 7am.  What beach?  I am still not sure, but it was land and I wasn’t asking questions.  There was a fishing village and we could hire a boat and make our own way from there.  Of course, there was no pre-organized boat, called ahead by the captain, to deliver us to the borders as promised.

It was a bonding experience

A quick goodbye and the captain was off, back to Panama to pick up his next crew of lucky guests.

Adios Amigo!

Luckily the bargaining power of our group of eleven continued to pay off and we were able to hire a boat with in the hour to take us to the Panama border to check out and then on to the Colombia border to check in.  We arrived at the Colombia border around 12pm, only a little late for the 8am boat to the mainland we needed.  After grabbing lunch, the first thing most of us had ate in over 24 hours, we contemplated our next step.

Jed, a little strung out, at the border town in Colombia

Our options were to stay there for the night, enjoy the cute little town and the beautiful blue waters for the afternoon and catch the boat the next morning.  This would be nice but it would probably put us behind schedule for picking up our cars. Or we could try to hire a boat for a little bit more money that afternoon and possibly catch another bus to Monteria, halfway to Cartagena, that evening, which would put us back on schedule for our car pick up.

In typical cheap fashion, we chose the second option.  We hopped on another three hour boat ride across the bay, followed by a six hour bus ride to Monteria, dropping us off at the bus station at 10:30pm to find out the next bus to Cartagena would leave at 5:00 am.  Caught a cab to a hotel, showered for the first time in days, slept for about 4 hours, caught a cab back to the bus station at 4:30 and took another death defying 7 hour Clombian bus ride to Cartagena.

Whew!  We couldn’t believe we actually made it there by Tuesday afternoon after all the changes and set-backs.  It wasn’t easy, 40+ hours on a sailboat, 4+ hours on boats, 13 hours on buses, all with only a few hours break, but we did it!  We were ready to get our cars.  We called the shipping agency to find out what our first step should be only to find out OUR CARS HAD NOT ARRIVED YET!

Retreiving our cars involved a lot of waiting!

At least Cartagena was a sweet city to hang out in and unwind for a couple days while we waited for our cars and did paperwork.  And the extremely hot afternoons gave me time to do things like wash the molded wine out of the one backpack and wash the bugs out of the other infested backpack.

A street in Cartagena

Yota Love!

Two days later and we were FREE!!   We had our home back!  We joked that we had treated Yota better than we treated ourselves, giving her a first class ride while we took the cheap seats.

Yippeee!

… And she repaid us with the final blown wheel bearing!

The final bearing change!

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One Morning

Leaving Central America behind, we had lot´s of moments and places that we consider to be our favorites.  Rather than list them out for you I wanted to share a writing of Jed´s that I think sum´s up our feelings:

Sunrise from bed

The day starts with my morning surf session that allows me to watch the sun rise slowly between two volcanoes, turning the sky a beautiful pink then purple hue.  The waves slowly rise and fall like the belly of a sleeping giant.  The sunrise itself makes the early day perfect.  I catch a wave to shore and slowly walk back to the shade of our surf camp.  I gently wake Meg with the dank smell of fresh El Salvadoran coffee and apple banana pancakes.  She is slow to rise, but does it with a beautiful smile.  After a kiss and a good hug we settle in to a rich and delicious breakfast beneath the swinging palm trees.

 The cooler morning temps invite us for a run along a hilly dirt road bordered by the ocean and fields of lazy cows.  We soon fall into a sweaty rhythm set by our breathing and drifting thoughts.  The occasional large lizard is the only thing that interrupts our path.  Volcanoes and floating clouds loom over the extravagantly green landscape of hilly cow pastures and dense jungle.  The heat soon builds and the lure of our shady camp is too great so we turn around as the sun looms over head.

A quick cold shower and some water sets us up for the rest of the morning.  Meg grabs her yoga pad and finds a peaceful nook in the sand beneath the palms.  Breathing the salty air and bending with the trees, she flows into herself and feels her thoughts simplify with each movement.

I pull my 3 different tool boxes out of various cubbies in the camper. Taking a minute to make a mental list of various vehicular up keep that is necessary to keep the rig running smooth.  The unlocking of doors, unlatching of the hood and the familiar inner workings of my truck eases my mind into the simple tasks at hand; checking various fluids, wiggling wires, tightening the occasional loose nut.  This is my yoga.

After an hour or so of crawling under and around my dirt covered truck I pack my tools, bandage my busted knuckle from a slipped wrench and stare at our home.  It will make it to the next country.

Meg pulls her board from the truck and slips into the sea in search of some waves.  A few seconds of gliding harmony with the ocean is all surfing really comes down to.  I ease into my chair and unfold our maps, flipping through a guide book in search of our next move in this slow drive through the Americas.  The wind picks up and flutters my map.  The pages in the book freely spin with the breeze until my hand abruptly stops them.  After a moment I look down to the page under my hand.  Volcan Cosiguina catches my eye.  Our next destination has been found.

I look to the ocean as my amazing wife slowly walks up the dark beach towards me grasping her surf board.  Remnants of the sea drip from her glowing red pony tail as she smiles. It’s going to be another great day.

We settle in to our hammocks as the bright blue ocean pounds the dark volcanic sand sending us a rhythm to sway to.  The palm trees loom above, vaguely threatening to drop their coconuts on us.  The breeze is perfect, not stiff enough to send the beach sand flying, but strong enough to offer relief from the oppressive heat.  Meg sits in her hammock typing the blog while playing some relaxing music.  The mood is set, total tranquil.

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A Vacation from Vacation

We picked my mom up from the airport just outside San Jose with the intention of heading out to Lago Arenal, a beautiful lake just below one of the world’s most active

Our Lago Arenal Jungle Bungalow

volcanoes, Volcan Arenal.  We had found a great little cabin to rent starting the following day and decided that we should go ahead and buy groceries while in the city and head that way.  So for my mom’s first cultural experience in Costa Rica we took her to a very unique market just down the road called Wal-Mart.

Once stocked up we took the winding roads westward out of the city.  Now before booking this trip my mom kept asking me about  whether she would want to be there in the rainy season.  Our reply was that it was fine.  We couldn’t see what the big deal was about rainy season.  In our experience thus far, as we had technically spent our whole time in Central America in the rainy season, was that a rainy day would be a few thirty minute showers here and there.  However on our drive out to the lake that night the world seemed determined to show me what rainy season was all about.  About an hour and half out, just about the time it was getting dark, it started pouring, and when I say pouring I mean there wasn’t a fast enough speed on our wind shield wipers.  After close to two hours of driving in rain, we sought out the closest hotel we could find.  The rain didn’t stop until the next morning.

Waking up the next morning, not really knowing where we were, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves at the base of the looming Arenal Volcano.  We relaxed with a nice breakfast before heading down the road to our new jungle bungalow.

our view from the bungalow

Green Parrots in our yard

This was a great little cabin and we spent the first day just relaxing and mellowing in to our vacation from vacation.  We hung out, drank some wine, read some books, spotted some exotic birds (Parrots and a Toucan),  and even managed to get a few chores done. Jed and I were especially excited about the use of a washer and dryer after hand washing clothes for the last couple months!

Thoroughly relaxed, we spent the next couple days exploring the area around us.  We went on beautiful hikes through the secondary forests/jungle surrounding the Volcano, we bathed in thermal rivers (outside the gates of the $70 Thermal pools) and according the the museum at the the Arenal Observatory lodge we took part in one of the most exptreme sports possible…Volcano watching.

The most EXTREME!

Volcano Arenal

Get back in your cage Jed!

After four days,we decided it was time to head to the coast and to get there we would take the scenic drive through the Monte Verde Cloud Forest.  Scenic drive of course meant some good dirt road time, and because Jed and I had refused to leave our car behind in exchange for a rental with enough seats for all, Jed and I took turns being tossed around in the camper.

On our way to Monte Verde

The ferry over to the Nicoya Peninsula that evening was a nice reprieve from being in the truck and we all got to hang out together and take in the views before reaching the Peninsula at dusk and driving the hour or so more in the dark to tip to find a place to stay for the night.

View of the Nicoya Peninsula from the ferry

The next day we decided we wanted to  stay in the little town of Santa Teresa for the remainder of the time.  We found a complex owned by a Israeli ex-pat with small cabin rentals that served as our hidden oasis for the week and settled in to our beach living.

Yeah new slackline!

We spent a couple relaxing days at the beach simply hanging out in hammocks and reading books, going for swims and walks, and playing on our new slackline freshly delivered to us from the States.

Big Iguana on the beach!

Momma D relaxing in the hammock

Yummy! Red Snapper!

We had a day of playing in the mud after we mistakenly  chose the morning after an all night rain to drive over and hike to a nearby waterfall. This proved to be a treacherous approach in the muddy, rocky river and slick, steep, wet, root filled trail.   And when we got lost and took a hardly traveled road on the way back to Santa Teresa we got to take my mom on a good four wheeling adventure, but lucky for us she was there to point out all the holes and rocks. ;)

We dined at beach side restaurants for lunch and upon the advice of a local, who came by to try our slackline, we drove to the end of the road bought fresh fish, barely off the boats, for our dinners.

Sunset walk on the beach with mom

On our last day on the peninsula we decided to do the organized snorkeling trip that was being offered by various outfitters all over town.  This being touristy Costa Rica I suppose I was imagining that this tour would be a little more organized  than you would expect if you took a tour in the rest of Central America.  However while we were standing on the beach watching the boats try to race the crashing waves in and out of the cove in an effort to pick us up with out getting smashed, I realised that, “Yes, this is still a Central American operation”.

They took us to a beautiful island surrounded by very blue sea and dropped us off.  About 10 minutes after arrival the rest of the snorkeling tours in the country arrived.  There was no snorkeling directly around this island.  They were going to split up up and take us in turns out to another island.  So after we hung out on the beach and people watched for about two hours it was our turn.  We hopped back on the boat and they took us near a small rock island and told us we had 30 minutes.  At first I was upset that we were only going to get thirty minutes after paying for a full-day snorkeling trip, but after 15 minutes of being in the water following around the same school of fish and trying to avoind being slammed in to the rock island I (and the rest of the group) were back on the boat.

The small one on the left was the snorkeling island

So, the snorkeling trip didn’t turn out to be much of a snorkeling trip, but it was a nice day in a beautiful spot and on the ride back to the Peninsula we spotted two humpback whales.  This alone made the whole tour worth it.  I had never been that close to whales in the wild before.  You know that they are huge, but when you see one in that setting and it’s truly grandeur size, it still blows you away.

Our two weeks together had come to an end. It was a wonderful break from our dirtbag traveling, but most of all it was wonderful to spend time with family after 5 months of traveling .  Through out our trip, while witnessing other’s cultures, we spend a lot of time looking at our own lives and evaluating what matters most and getting to spend quality time with family couldn’t be higher on the list.

We dropped my mom off at the airport with tears in our eyes mostly for knowing we wouldn’t see each other again for a while, but also partly for knowing we were directly heading towards our only dreaded adventure of the trip… shipping our car to Colombia!

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Obnoxiously Cheap in the Rich Coast (Costa Rica)

After finally finding a place to refill our propane tank outside of Granada, Nicaragua, Jed and I decided to head back out to the coast to a well known surf destination named Popoyo.  We were at first discouraged by all the people in this area after primarily camping on empty beaches the past two weeks, however we decided to give it a chance.

Front porch of the Melting Elephant

We needed to use the internet and stopped at this neat little beachfront restaurant/hotel that drew our eye.  After talking with the owner for a bit he offered for us to camp out back for only $5 a night. This was a great deal as almost every other place we had asked about camping either didn’t allow it or wanted $15 each person.

Our swanky hotel, The Melting Elephant

From our first day in the country we had been continuously asked by almost every local if we were on our way to Playa Colorada.  Apparently there was a worldwide surf competition taking place that was drawing many visitors.  We never bothered to drive there and check it out but we were glad it was happening because it drew the crowd away from the popular break of Popoyo.

Sunset at Popoyo

We had a great 4 or 5 days of surfing and hanging out with the other travelers at our swanky hotel. Word had it though that the crowd would pick up on the weekend and so Jed and I made plans to travel inland for a few days and then return again after the weekend.  On the Friday night before we left we ventured down the beach to this party that a few locals had told us about.  It was the 10th Anniversary of one of the surf camps and they had issued an open invitation for folks to come and celebrate.  Jed and I were not expecting much of a party, just a few local ex-pats hanging out drinking some beer.  Man, were we wrong.  I don’t know where all these people came from but they must have crawled out of the wood work for this bash.  There were hundreds of people there, and with the 5 or more Flor de Cana stands scattered around serving free rum, I would say that nearly half of them could barely stand up.  Besides the rum, there was a live D.J., free food, free beer, a rather extravagant fireworks show, professional (and amateur) pole dancers, and several girls whom I am pretty sure were just paid to walk around in high heels and bikinis.  We were only a mile down the beach yet we had somehow transported ourselves to Cancun, Mexico.

It was entertaining enough though and we stayed for a few hours.  It was only after Jed took it upon himself to de-arm a drunk guy who had found a huge American flag and was obnoxiously waving it around hitting people in the head, that I decided it was time for us to leave.  Someone needed to do it, but I was still surprised by Jed’s abrupt actions of yanking the flag out of this guys hands and telling him that was ENOUGH.  When I expressed my surprise to Jed, I laughed that his reasoning was not that he was going to hurt someone with the long metal flag pole he was swinging around, but simply that he was making American’s look bad waving an American flag at the Nicaraguan party.
Come on Jed….Why shouldn’t we do that?  America…. F*** Yeah!!

We ventured off the next morning towards the island in the middle of Lago Nicaragua.  The island, made up of two volcanoes, protrudes up out of the middle of the lake to a height of 1610m (~4,800ft).   We put our car on the ferry to reach the island.

Within 45 minutes of arriving we spotted the Australians on the side of the road.  We decided to join them at their hostel, which was a neat old jungle farmhouse turned backpacker’s haven named Finca Magdalena, that let us camp for $3 a night.  Our sole plan for the island was to hike the volcanoes; however we woke the following morning to rain that persisted on and off throughout the day.  It wasn’t soo bad though.  It was a beautiful place to relax.  I got in a long yoga session and Jed tinkered with the car, which is what he refers to as his “yoga”.  That afternoon we did get in a hike up to a beautiful waterfall where we saw some exotic birds and the first monkeys of our trip.  It was nice to be out hiking around and we decided that rain or shine we would hike the big volcano the next day.

Our first howler monkey sightings

The trail up the volcano

Well it wasn’t quite raining, but it definitely wasn’t sunny either.  We climbed the very steep trail, gaining an elevation of 4,000+ ft in approximately 3hrs, enshrouded in thick jungle and clouds.  We couldn’t see anything below us or above.  We only knew we were getting close to the top when the vegetation ceased, the ground grew hot below us and the winds grew so strong we couldn’t stand in one place.  We crawled our way to the top of the cone, peered over in to the smoke filled center, took an amazing photo of what the center of a cloud looks like and decided to get the hell down off of there.

The big volcano in Lake Nicaragua

We were back to the car in 5hrs, half of the time the guide book said the hike takes.  It was an amazing experience, but after what Jed & I had been calling exercise over the last month; running rolling dirt roads along the ocean and paddling surfboards around, it was also slightly painful.

Since it was still early enough we decided to park our tired legs on the late ferry back across to the mainland and make our way back to Popoyo that evening.

We spent a few more days stumbling around the Melting Elephant and surfing, but the crowds had picked up from the week before and there were over 30 heads in the water so we didn’t stay long.  The Australians met back up with us (they just can’t get enough) in Popoyo  and we headed south together.  We thought we would slowly bump our way down the rest of the Nicaraguan coast and surf for a few more days before crossing in to Costa Rica, but the further south we went the less surf there was.  We ended up spending just one night camping on the only beach we could get free access to and heading to the border the next morning.

Jed & Ewan asking for directions from a military camp. Clearly, the appropriate place to ask.

At our camp spot we thought we were tucked away in the bushes and far enough down the beach from town that no one would even know we were there.  However, once the sun went down the flashlights came out.  It seemed half the town showed up to search around the beach where we were camped.   They didn’t seem to mind us being there at all as we awkwardly ate our dinner while they creeped around us, but out of curiosity we finally had to ask what they were doing?
“Looking for hermit crabs to sell to Americans” was the answer, of course.  Apparently the people in this little town collect the larger hermit crabs and sell them to someone who sells them to the pet stores in the US.  Hmmm, I thought I might find a new career path while on this trip.

The road to the Costa Rican border

And now on to the infamous and rightfully named COSTA RICA!  We have heard soo much talk from other travelers on this trip about how this country is overpriced and overrun with tourists.  We prepared ourselves as best we could and stocked up on food supplies before leaving Nica.  But we also thought it can’t be that bad.  We usually avoid the overpriced tourist areas anyway.

Point and case, we planned to head out to Witch’s Rock a secluded surf spot in a National Park just across the border and camp there for a few days.  We arrived to the park that evening and found no one at the front gate so we continued on through to the beach.  Arriving at the vacant beach, we initially thought we had hit the jackpot.  No other surfers around, a great wave, beautiful scenery and a nice little camping spot. However only after deciding to stay did we get approached by a park employee who told us it would cost us, per person, $10 to enter, $2 a night to camp and $15 to surf!  Seriously, $15 to SURF!   No thanks.

Since that night the four of us learned that you can in fact travel cheaply in Costa Rica as long as you:

  • avoid going to National parks, preserves or anything containing the word “eco”
  • only camp on deserted beaches
  • buy most of your food before you enter the country
  • cook all your meals and don’t go out to eat
  • steal wi-fi from unlocked connections while cooking your ramen lunch on the side of the road
  • Bathe in rivers undeterred by the perplexed stares of the locals and tourists in passing vehicles
  • fill up your water tank from the hoses outside surf shops
  • and siphon gas from the numerous “turismo” vans you see on the roads

Okay, Okay, we didn’t really siphon gas!  We actually paid for our $100 fill ups, but the rest of it made for a wonderful first 10 days spent in the Rich Coast.  I couldn’t think of a better way to do it!  There are tons of tourists in Costa Rica, but for the most part they stick to the tourist towns and resorts.  You can drive 5 minutes outside of them and you have a beautiful beach all to yourself.   And the beaches truly are beautiful!  The prettiest ones we have seen yet.  Not to mention, the Ticos (natives) are wonderful people, and the jungle, including the plants and animals, is ever present and well reserved.

The colorful rocks on the beach

We camped four nights next to a beach covered with the most beautiful colored rocks, where Jed and Ewan would collect fresh coconuts for us daily.  Knocking them down from the trees safely turned out to be an experiment in the procedures of trial and error.  Jed learned that when launching a giant log above his head in to a tree it is best to stand back and have a forward trajectory instead of directly underneath where the log will quickly return to after bouncing off the tree.

Jed with his soon to be black eye after collecting coconuts.

At another campsite I awoke and walked out to the beach to discover it scattered with red dots.  Upon closer inspection I realized it was thousands of crabs.  It was really neat and I really wanted to get a good picture of it, but I needed to get closer and every time I would move towards them, the crabs would separate in to different groups and run off in different directions.  I must have spent a good half hour running around like an idiot on the beach after these crabs with my camera.  It was fun to run right through the middle of them and watch them part for you.  …but, what is even more amazing is that this is a just a glimpse of all the fantastically stimulating activities I find to fill my days.

A bad picture of the thousands of crabs. The birds thought it was fun to chase them too.

Sunset at “Crab” beach

As always it was an adventure traveling with the Australians, especially now that they own a GPS and can find these wonderful short cuts for us to take.

Ewan’s wonderful short cut

Atleast, they went first.

We were feeling good about the country as we left the Australians and the coast of the Nicoya peninsula behind and headed towards the big city to pick up our first big guest, mi madre, for a two week vacation.

another picture perfect beach

This has nothing to do with what I am writing about, but Jed wanted to introduce everyone to his new surfboard. He has decided we are now good enough to graduate from our 8ft beast master to this small guy. Here’s hoping…

However, we made the mistake of trying to head towards the city, on the only highway in, on a Sunday evening around 5pm.  Hence we hit our first traffic jam and to top it off as we wound our way up the one lane mountain highway at 5mph our front left wheel started thunking and screeching.  How is it that car trouble always knows to happen at the most inopportune times?  There was nothing we could do and nowhere for us to pull off.  Jed knew what it was, as should have I, being the theme of the Toyota’s journey.  The front bearing on the front axle had blown.  It would be fine enough to drive it in to the city but we were left with just one day to get it fixed before we were supposed to pick my mom up from the airport.  Not able to do our usual scour of the city to find the cheapest, yet suitable, accommodations with the truck acting up, we had to choose one of the options closest to the airport with a suitable enough parking lot for Jed to crawl around on.

We splurged on our most expensive hotel yet at $59, but it was a great place that included a hookah lounge in the list of their top amenities.  It was within walking distance to the airport, if need be, and out of pure coincidence also within walking distance to a specialized bearing shop and mechanic with a press.  And as Jed was going to do the work himself he only needed the mechanic in order to borrow a specialized tool for removing the ball joint and then once he returned with the axle, the use of the press.  Simple enough.  Unless, of course, you are trying to explain this to a Tica mechanic in Spanglish.

So after wasting most of our day in translation madness, we were finally introduced to the owner who speaks fluent English.  He translated our request for borrowing the specialized tool to remove our axle to the mechanic who then continued to give us a befuddled look.

After a moment he went and picked up a crow bar and approached the closest truck to show Jed how he does it.
Jed replied,  “Ok… but won’t that ruin the rubber boot?”
Mechanic replies, “Yep”

It seems that maybe it wasn’t our bad Spanish speaking that was holding us up in the first place, but the fact that we assumed that a Central American mechanic would use or even own a “specialized”tool.

Jed decided to go with his own  rubber hammer approach in order to save the rubber boot in replace of the crow bar suggestion and fared well.  Another hour or so in the parking lot and the Yota was back together and ready to pick up my mom the next morning for our family adventure!

We were excited to see her and thinking maybe we would even splurge on things like showers while she was around.

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The lung of the Americas

Couldn’t of said it better myself!

Leaving El Salvador we were up for our biggest day of border crossings to date. We had decided to just drive straight through Honduras in a day as we were on the Pacific coast and all things interesting in Honduras were on the Caribbean coast. Word had it that the Honduras borders are the worst ones on the PanAmerican Highway for people trying to scam you. We woke early to prepare for our long day ahead. Upon reaching the border of El Salvador we found at least a mile of backed up 18 wheeler trucks. We tried to drive around them to the border and then were directed by an officer to go around them on a dirt road. When the dirt road led us back to the border road we realized we had just been directed around the whole border! Back we went.

At the border we were approached by a slew of people all trying to “help” us and we were determined by what we had heard that we were not going to fall for any of it. We relentlessly repeated “No necesito ayudar” to all that approached. In particular there was one guy who had lived in the states and spoke perfect English that would not leave us alone.

However in our determination and while wandering around the scattered shacks that made up the border trying to figure out which one we needed to get our exit stamp from, we learned two things; 1. the El Salvador border had not had power since sometime the afternoon before 2. The mile long line of trucks we mentioned, were so backed up because the border workers had not been paid by the government in some time and were on strike. The border was only allowing tourists through until payment was made.

Without power we had no way of getting the copies requested for our exit unless we drove half an hour back to the last town. The english speaking Honduran man said he had connections and could get us copies on the other side in Honduras. We agreed to this, but only if Jed went with him and kept the documents in his hand at all times. So off they went in a tuc-tuc. Jed would illegally cross into Honduras again to get the papers we needed to legally leave El Salvador. I would stay and guard the car.

The two of them returned 20 minutes later, papers in hand, and all buddy-buddy. Jed’s new friend would continue to help us through the whole process out of El Salvador and into Honduras. I put up a fight for a bit that we didn’t need him, but backed down on the stance once I actually saw the chaos of the Honduras border. He actually was a big help and a nice guy and the time saved by his knowledge was well worth the tip we gave him. So, soo much for our steadfast no help policy. Sometimes it’s just worth it.

Three more hours of dodging car-eating potholes plus one more half hour of dodging crazy border mongers and we were out a there and safe in the arms of peaceful and friendly Nicaragua.

This smoking volcano greeted us upon arriving in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua has become one of our favorite countries in Central America, granted we still have two to go, but this country and it’s people are wonderful and much of the coast line is still vastly undeveloped.  Just the way we like it.

Our first venture in to Nicaragua took us out on to the northern peninsula in search of some waves and to climb a volcano with a sunken lake in the middle.  We struck out on finding the waves the first day and went in search of climbing the volcano instead.  The volcano was supposed to lie near the very tip of the peninsula which jutted out in to the bay shared by El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua scattered with islands to which they all dispute ownership of.

I think they though about building a bridge over the bay, but didn’t make it very far.

This peninsula has a few small fishing villages and nothing more.  We took what we thought was the most logical dirt road to where the volcano was located, but when the road ended half way around the peninsula we realized it was never going to go up towards our destination.  Not all was lost though, the road in itself was a destination and while bumping along it we spotted another car with surfboards atop.  This must be an odd a sight as we thought because they waved us down to talk.  Turned out the passenger in the car was an ex-pat who owned a little resort across the peninsula.  He invited us to come by later and camp there.

Jungle driving around the peninsula

We couldn’t imagine what this place was going to be like because it seemed an odd place for a resort in the middle of nowhere. However, him and his wife have really found a little paradise there.  It is a small place, though they own lots of land around it.  There are about four or five cabins for rent, one little restaurant and private beaches.

We saw that they offered hikes up the volcano we were trying to climb and asked them for directions for the following morning.  We have tried to hike a few other volcanoes on this trip but were always turned away by either having to pay too much money or go with a tour group, neither one of which we are in to.  With this one being free as long as we found the trail and supposedly somewhat technical, we were determined to finally get to the top of one.

Get out of our way tree!

Good thing we got directions because there is no way in hell we would have found this road to the trail either; if you can even call it a road.  We spent about two hours on this overgrown jungle pathway crawling along in four low running over small trees and dodging deep washed out ruts.  In our determination to get there we even took the time to chop down a tree that was obstructing our road.Once we reached what we were told was the parking by a small cement structure the hike up took about 20 minutes.  Hmmm, I guess the technical part was the driving.

It was a beautiful view though, down in to the lake and out to the ocean surrounding all sides.  We bushwhacked our way around most of the rim, Jed finally feeling like a real Central American Man by getting to put his machety to use. We even spotted a flock of bright green wild parrots that nest inside the volcano.

on top of the Volcano looking down to the lake

It’s a bit hectic

After this extremely long and strenuous hike we decided we were deserving of some hotel time so we drove down the mountain and hit the next big town, Chinandega.  Not expecting much but to shower and use the internet, we were really impressed with this busy little city.  It had a huge market and tons of amazing food.  We spent two days here basically walking around and eating.

We took off towards the coast after day two, which took us through the city of Leon.  This was another great city if only even more picturesque with it’s old Spanish architecture and the central century old cathedral.  We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the streets were alive.  We ended up spending the whole afternoon there exploring and listening to a live band in the street.

Mercado in Chinandega

Leon cathedral

Central American love their fireworks! Here is a guy shooting his firework gun int he middle of Leon.

Around 4ish we finally did find our way to the coast near Leon, but deterred by the lack of surfable waves and cheap places to stay we quickly decided to cut back inland and take the dirt road further south.  Not long after turning around, Jed laughed,“Ha, look who it is!”  Coming right towards us were the Australians on the dirt bikes, honking and waving us down.  They were at the end of their day of Honduras border crossings and were heading to the coast.  Knowing that their amazing level of travel cheapness may even surpass Jed’s and my own, we told them of the situation ahead and that we were heading south. We decided to travel as a pack.

Nightfall came before we came upon the coast again and so in finding an empty lot at the end of a dirt road next to the beach we decided to just set up camp.  We popped open some beers and started making dinner, exchanging stories of El Salvador, when a man started shining his flashlight on us.  Assuming he was the owner of the land we thought he might ask us to leave, but instead he welcomed us and told us we were free to camp there as long as we want.  Just another scary Nicaraguan!

The next morning we woke and looked out to the sea and decided there must be some good waves nearby.  Or rather, our newly found Australian surf coaches sensed good waves nearby and we readily agreed.

Driving the beach looking for waves

Being low tide we took our wheels to the beach and within half an hour had found an amazing wave with nobody on it.  We went to park our car and bikes in the town above, looked up and saw that there was a surf camp there.  Of course!  Nevertheless we were the only ones out there for a while and afterwards decided we would find a place to stay nearby.  Jed and Ewan took off on the dirt bikes to scout out some potential camp sites.

Ewan found an abandoned house on the beach and asked the neighbors if they knew who owned it.  He went to talk to the guy about staying there. He was more than willing and we rented the house for $1.50 per person/per night.  The place had electricity, fresh water and a compost toilet out back; all the luxuries we needed. We ended up spending four nights here, cooking by fire, playing in the ocean and lounging around in the hammocks.

The crew at our sweet beach house

our friendly neighbors

There were about 8 or more Nicaraguans who were working a nearby construction project and had all rented the house next door.  They became our buddies and would always offer us to try some of their delicious feasts they were cooking up every day.  We got to practice a lot of Spanish with them as they were also trying to learn English. They told me some interesting things about Nicaragua.  In particular I thought it was cool that they consider their country the “lung of the Americas”  because of it’s location and all of the active volcanoes and lakes within.  This is where the Americas breathe!

Caitlin and I going for a sunset surf

The waves at our newly found break never really lived up to what they were the first day so one morning we decided to take a day trip and try to check out some breaks further south.  As the typical story goes for us, we didn’t find a good wave but we did see some beautiful coastline and got to drive through a lot of rivers.

Nica coastline

Jed and I even got momentarily stuck for the first time on the trip, but we were out on first try and then we even used the river to give our truck it’s first psuedo bath of the trip.

Sticky Icky- going to put rocks under the tires, but made the mistake of wearing my flip flops in the mud.

Truck cleaning…well, sorta

What can I say… I’m super classy

We moved on from our beach house after four days and continued to travel further south together.  We found free camping on the beach every night and with all the money we were saving camping we decided that a bottle of rum was in order.  However, we shortly realized that one bottle wasn’t going to last us very long and so Caitlin and I sent the boys off to town on the motor bikes for more while we fixed ourselves another drink.  While they were gone we decided it was a good idea to play a game to see who could run the furthest on the overhanging sand bank before it gave way and collapsed with you in to the river.  The boys returned and decided we needed to have a big Maine style burn, after all we had 5 gallons of reserve gasoline that was going bad. All I can really tell you from there is the next day required a lot of hammock time!

Jed did manage to come out on top though and spent the afternoon fishing.  He was trying to spear some bait fish in the river-mouth, which wasn’t going so well, when a local guy  came by and offered to run and get his net for him.  When he returned and they had gathered some bait, he showed Jed the sweet spot.  There were huge fish and Jed had his 40 pound line snapped twice, but he eventually outsmarted a fish he got on his line and had Ewan hold the pole while he swam out and speared it on first shot. We feasted that afternoon on the 10lb fish!

Success!

The next day the four us split ways. Ewan & Caitlin went off to meet up with her father who was flying in and Jed I ventured off in search of a refilling station for our propane tank.    It was a lot of fun spending the week together and hopefully we will continue to bump in to each other along our journeys!

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Guatemala- check! El Salvador- check!

After mastering the Spanish language in just two weeks, Jed and I were off to conquer the rest of Guatemala.  First stop was to be the beautiful Chemuc Champay.

Driving in the clouds

We took back roads north from Lago Atitlan and were surprised to find that they were mostly all paved.  Nevertheless, the ride still felt remote, and the views were gorgeous as we wound our way through the highlands, up and down the mountains and in and out of the clouds.  There were times that the clouds were so thick that you literally couldn’t see the road ten feet ahead of you.

The road north

While searching for a place to stop for the night, because our supposed 6 hour drive somehow managed to take us all day (per usual), we came across the biggest landslide we have ever seen.  It was massive, practically the whole side of a mountain!  We had to pay the road crew who were trying to rebuild the road just to let us pass through.

Huge Landslide

Right after crossing the slide it began to rain hard and it didn’t stop until sometime the next morning.  It was definitely the most rain we have seen thus far on our Central American rainy season tour, however it didn’t hinder us at all as we stopped at a hotel for the night.

The following morning, while completing the journey, we got a taste of some good ol’ Guatemalan dirt roads .  The road dropping down in to Chemuc Champay was steep, rocky, narrow and winding.  It made us thankful of two things:

Huge Overlanding rig

1.  That we were in control of our own vehicle and not stuck in the back bed of a Guatemalan’s pick up truck like the rest of the backpackers who venture to Chemuc.
2.  That we were in a relatively small size vehicle with good 4 wheel drive capability… and not driving around something like this…

bridge across the river to Chemuc Champay

The river running underneath

Chemuc Champay and the surrounding area were well worth the journey north from the lake.  Chemuc Champay itself, a Guatemalan National Park, is claimed to be one of the world’s natural wonders.  It is a 300m limestone land bridge with a raging river running underneath and layers of cool crystal blue pools separated by small waterfalls on top. All surrounded by steep walls of rock and dense jungle.  We spent our first afternoon there running up the slippery, steep trails to the overlook, playing in the pools below and taking lots of pictures.  We took great pictures of the area but unfortunately the water was cloudy that day from all the rain the night before.  So just imagine crystal clear water…

One of the pools on the bridge

The water falling from the bridge joining the river below

We camped right outside of the park at a great little backpacker’s hostel with a nice deck sitting on the hill above the river.  We met people from all over the world, but ended up spending most of the afternoon on our second day with a great couple from Boston.  The four of us decided to take the tour of the cave across the river together.  We had heard from others the night before that it was “really cool and unlike most of the other cave tours you go on”.  Well it was definitely that!  Most cave tours you walk in a little ways, look around, the guide points out stalactites and stalagmites and you are done.  This one, however, seemed more about testing your limits than viewing the cave.

We entered the mouth of the cave and into the river running out of it.  The guide lit candles and handed one to each of us.  We followed him by candelight swimming through the deep pools, up through the slippery wet limestone tunnels and back down in to dark pools of water.  We all thought the tour was done when the guide swam up to a waterfall.  I was already thinking “Oh, this was a pretty cool cave tour”.  But as I reached the guide under the waterfall he motioned for me to go up.  I looked and I saw a rope dangling in the waterfall.  I was thinking okay this is a little crazy but it must be pretty easy as they are telling people to do it all the time, so I grabbed the rope and started climbing up the waterfall in the dark.  A few feet up however I found myself clinging hard to the rope unable to breathe and having a hard time finding, or let alone lifting, another foot to boost myself up due to the copious amounts of water rushing down over my head.  My determination (or most likely fear) did take over and I yanked myself to the top.  Once there I couldn’t quite comprehend if that really was that hard and scary or if I just missed something. I decided to keep my mouth shut and just let the others follow, but when Jed’s head popped up out of the waterfall a few minutes later gasping for air and looking a little bewildered.  I thought, “Okay, I am not a wuss.  That was crazy.”  Jed first reaction was to go and check the jangled up mess of the knot that this rope was tied to.  I could just see his mind thinking “What kind of third-world cave touring operation have we gotten ourselves in to?”

After the waterfall,  I imaginied that we would be going quite a bit further in to the cave and maybe coming out through another chamber.  But No!  The tour concluded at the pool right above the waterfall where the guide climbed up the side wall of the cave and jumped 15ft in to the pool below, instructing us to do the same.  Well…. Okay!
I have to say, when all said and done it was the best caving tour I have ever been on.

We  learned on the walk back from the cave that we could jump from the bridge into the river about 30ft below, so we finished off our afternoon with a good jumping and swimming session.  It was a great day!

Hanging out on the deck at the hostal

The next spot on our list for Guatemala was Rio Dulce (Sweet River).  As the bird flies from Chemuc Champay this place was pretty close, but to get there by road we were told we had two main options and either way would take us around the mountain ranges and about 6 hours.  However we noticed on our map a series of “trail roads” through the mountains that would provide a more direct route. Being the rainy season (and Guatemala) we tried to find out about the condition of these roads before we made our decision. We received the gambit of responses from “It’s impassable” to “you’ll be fine”.    We decided to go with the latter response and went for it.

The trail roads south from Chemuc Champay

A clear cut village

We are very glad with our choice as it gave us the chance to see some wonderful views, explore some back country villages, use the four-wheel drive a little bit and shave three hours off our travel time.  We even stopped for a soak in a hot water waterfall that flowed in to a cool pool of the river below and we got to do some more cliff jumping.

Rio Dulce, the town, is located at the point where the river/waterway from the Caribbean sea opens up in to the largest lake in Guatemala.  It has become a popular hangout for those out traveling the world by sailboat.  When leaving Chemuc Champay that morning we met a guy from Texas pulling in on a dirt bike who is running a hotel/dock in Rio Dulce for the season.  He told us we were welcome to park and camp at his place for free. Perfect! We spent the next day around there walking around, swimming in the water and drinking  beer and watching the boats go by. It was nice to have a relaxing day to slow our pace and prep our minds for the border of El Salvador. We had a three hour drive to make from Rio Dulce to the border the following day.

Relaxing day at Rio Dulce

Jed woke the next morning saying that we should just grab some fruit at a roadside stand for breakfast.  Now anyone who knows Jed, knows this boy does not go anywhere without first having a proper breakfast and a full pot of coffee.  So my initial response was, “Are you feeling okay?”  He said he was fine just feeling a little bloated, but by the time we reached the border he was burning up and hardly had the energy to walk around.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, nothing happens quickly at the El Salvador border.  So after a couple hours we finally made it through and then our only mission was to find a place where we could pop-up the camper so Jed could lie down.

The lake on the border

We drove out to a lake splitting the two countries and Jed quickly climbed in bed and slept away the rest of the day.  In the seven years we have been together it was the first time I had ever seen him with more than the sniffles.

After sleeping it off, whatever it was, we drove south in to the country towards the coast and in search of some surfing.  After a month away from the coast we were ready to give it another go and we had heard such great things about the surf in El Salvador.  Apparently though, we were not the only ones to hear such great things.  There were at least thirty people in the lineup of every break we went to down the central part of the coast. We bounced from spot to spot, El Zonte, El Tunco, Sonzato… and they were all beautiful, but still left us feeling a little frustrated because we just wanted to surf without competing for waves and dodging heads.

Some hammock time at El Zonte

A ferocious pet, 4ft iguana, at our hotel in El Zonte. He would chase people if they annoyed him and he was FAST.- made for some good laughs

We caught wind of a developed climbing area called Puerta Diablo (Devil’s Gate) inland towards San Salvador and thought we would leave the surfing behind for a bit.   The area was beautiful, minus all the spray painted rock and strange people. To spare you further details we will just say that the place lives up to it’s name and we didn’t find it a suitable place to stay.

Devil’s Gate

Luckily you could probably drive through all of El Salvador in 3 hours, so our trip back to the coast was only an hour.  We decided that we should head further east and try to put some distance between us and the city.   We found ourselves that evening on a thin peninsula we thought would have some remote beaches.  Man, were we wrong!  The place was lined with resorts and private residences.  Everything was gated.  We couldn’t even get to the beach until the very end.  It was getting dark at this point and we needed a place to stay.  Driving up the beach we spotted a guy walking with his dog and stopped him to ask if he knew a place we could camp.  He, Javier, replied, “Yes, you will camp on my land.”

Javier cutting up some fresh Mahi-Mahi

He showed us to his property which ran from one side of the peninsula all the way through to the other.  Javier, a 22yr old, is in the process of trying to turn this land, previously owned by his grandparents, in to a fishing resort of sorts.  He works as a deep sea fishing guide on his own boat and is also farming fish for guests to catch for dinner on his own property.  Needless to say, he had a freezer full of fish and invited us in to a fresh Mahi-Mahi dinner. We ended up spending a couple of nights camping on the vacant beach at his place and loved getting to know him and his friends.

Our beach camp at Javier’s

Fresh coconut juice delivered to our camper

Further east we finally did beat the crowds a little bit and found a great little surf spot called Los Flores.   We spent four days here and though the crowd did pick up a little more every day along with the swell, it always remained fun and low-agro.

Now I have to mention at this point that there has been this “phrase” that has followed me all my life.  I have realized at this point that it is a small world and that I never quite know where it is going to pop back up.  Nevertheless, it is still always a little surprising, especially when sitting on a wave in El Salvador, when a guy turns to me and says “DJ’s sister!”   He turned out to be an old roommate of my brother’s who was in Los Flores on a weeklong surfing vacation.  Like I said… small world!

Siesta time in Los Flores

Los Flores

It is a small world and yet soo big, and after four days in one spot it was time to move on.  We had completed our tour of El Salvador and had decided to move along to Nicaragua.

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Lago Atitlan, Guatemala

In reaching Guatemala, we officially reached our first real border crossing (Mexico didn’t really count as they simply just waive to you as you drive in to Baja.) and everything went very smooth for the most part.  The whole ordeal took under and hour and the only idiots we had to deal with were ourselves.

Oh yeah… killin it!

Never really knowing what to expect but always kind of expecting to be taken advantage of we approached the border thinking we had everything in order.  To leave we needed our exit stamp from Mexico in our passports, the money back from our visas and proof that we were leaving with the car we came in with.  To enter we needed our passports, title to the car, and money to pay the visa fee.   The money part is where we went wrong, we forgot one little step, checking to see the exchange rate for the currency in the country we were entering vs. the currency in the country we were leaving.

We looked to exchange money before crossing the border, but were told that the only place was at the border itself.  So we proceeded to the “between zone” where you have officially left one country, but are not quite accepted in to the next.  The first thing they did is spray our car down with chemicals in which they asked for money.  We told him we needed to exchange our money first. He immediately called over one of the many guys hanging around with the fanny packs on to exchange our money, telling us that this was our only option.  Of course this automatically set off our scam radar and we refused to exchange with him.

We told him we would come back and pay and the guys didn’t put up much of a fight letting us move on as they knew we couldn’t actually go anywhere else until they lifted the gate for us.  Determined we were not going to fall in to the scam and exchange money with these fannypack guys, we made a big deal out of avoiding them and tried to exchange at the bank and then the customs office and so on.
“You have to use the guys out there”, they all said.
“Well, what’s the exchange rate then?”
“Oh, we don’t know”
“Oh well of course, why would you… you only work at the border?”

Thinking this is all one big scam and they probably all share a portion of the money they make at the end of the day, but left with no other choice, we decided we will just exchange what we need to get across and then go to a bank in the border town for the rest.  Having no basis for bargaining power, without previous research on exchange rate, we had to accept what they gave us.  So we exchanged and moved on, but not without letting them know we weren’t happy about it.  Once in Guatemala we sought out the closest two banks only to find out they were offering less than at the border and that those guys were actually offering today’s rate.  Haha.

We drove our jackass-selves the mile or so back to the border and exchanged the rest of our money with our assumed “fannypack-scammers”.  The lessons learned…

  1. look up exchange rates before you get to a border so you know what you should get
  2. not all people who work at borders are trying to take advantage of you… but most ;)

Now safely in Guatemala we made a b-line for the town of San Pedro on Lago Atitlan only four hours away.  It was a beautiful drive and halfway through it and literally in the middle of my first comment on how nice the roads were in Guatemala we approached this…

Huge Landslide on the Highway

There was a road around it, but it seemed to mark the beginning of the adventurous roads to come.  We were now navigating our way through the Guatemalan highlands, which lie  around 10,000ft+ and then within the last 10 miles making our way down to Lago Atitlan which lies around 5,000ft.  Lucky for us, once we hit the winding narrow road down, it started pouring rain!

The road essentially turned to a small river. Notice the waterfall to the right…this was pouring off the same road winding up above.

However, there always seems to be a rainbow at the end of the road

In San Pedro for merely a minute and we see one of our new Aussie friends.  He saved us from performing our own homework, and immediately gave us the location for the cheapest hotel rooms in town.  There were four hotels lined up in the same alley and we essentially asked the first three about pricing and chose the cheapest one for the night.

UGH!  This was our grossest accommodations yet and the dark, dank bathroom was the worst of it. The bathroom consisted of a concrete cell with nothing more than a toilet and shower head that constantly dripped on you when you were on the toilet.  No sink and no light…the latter of which was probably a blessing.

Yuck! I can just smell it by looking at the picture!

Exhausted from the day of traveling we passed out that evening on our rock hard bed only to be woken up a couple times that night by our drunken neighbor banging around.  Come 5:00am, the day greeted us with the unrelenting, loud, obnoxious beeping of our drunk neighbors alarm clock who was most likely too passed out to hear it in combination with the overwhelming smell of sewage emitting from our bathroom.  Jed was up and out of there quickly.  I tried to hold out a little bit longer as I’m not quite chipper at 5:00am, but about 5:30 it was too much.  Holding my pee, so as not to have to venture in to the depths of the bathroom, I dressed and went to go find Jed only making a minute stop to angrily bang my fist on the neighbors door.

We made breakfast that morning in our camper and talked about how we had grown to hate it when we have to get a hotel room.  We would much rather be in our camper in our own bed!
But thinking we had no other choice and wanting to shower we checked in to the fourth hotel in the alley by 8am that morning.  This one was way nicer and just as cheap.  Guess it’s best to thoroughly check all your options before committing.

We went in search of spanish schools later that morning.  San Pedro is littered with them!  We had previously received a tip from fellow travelers a couple months ahead of us on their own Pan-Am journey about the school they went to and enjoyed, Corazon Maya. And even though I just talked about checking all your options first, we felt like we weren’t going to get a better deal than this.  The wonderful little family that owned the school agreed to let us park our car inside the gate and camp in it for only 100Q ($12.50) a week.  They had a semi-warm shower, bathrooms that were cleaned every day, private access to the lake, a great garden with tons of fruit trees,  a friendly staff, and wireless internet that reached our camper .  Oh, and the school seemed good too. Perfect!   We were in!  School starts tommorow!

Our lakefront at the school

With our only mission of the day done by 10am, we went back to our hotel and spent the rest of the rainy day hanging out with the Aussies and their other friends who were traveling through.  It was a fun and interesting day.  Bottoms up!

Hanging out at the hotel in San Pedro

Jed and I opted to take our classes in the afternoons from 2-6pm when it was more likely to rain, and to keep our sunny mornings free for exploring the area.  The area of Lago Atitlan is adorned by tall lush volcanoes surrounding a beautiful deep lake which in itself is a sunken volcano reaching a depth of 340m.  Little towns, like San Pedro, are sporadically perched along the shore rising steep into the hills like little amphitheatures to the lake, the area’s source of life.

Jed had spent a little time here before about 8 yrs ago, but when we first arrived he wasn’t even sure this was the place he was before.  We later learned from our spanish teachers that 2010 was very strange year for weather including 4 days of consistent hard rain that brought the level of the lake way up, driving families from their homes. (Just 4 Days!)  The rain was followed by long hot dry weather that produced the perfect conditions for these long weed like plants to take over the lake floor close to shore.  Apparently there was even a month during that year that the water from the lake was too full of bacteria to use.  The Mayan inhabitants in this area use this water for everything including washing themselves, their dishes and their clothes, in which, lies part of the problem; the detergents and soaps they now use are full of chemicals.  There seems to be a little push in the area to do better and my teacher said that they are aware of the problem, but unfortunately the cost of natural soaps is more than most can afford.

The water engulfing some of the town

After all said, the lake and surrounding area is still spectacularly beautiful and we enjoyed spending our mornings running on the trails in the mountains, kayaking in the lake or simply walking through the town on the cobblestone streets.

Fisherman out for their morning catch

Kayaking around the lake looking for rocks to jump off of

The center of the lake is gorgeously clear

Jed hand picked flowers for me the morning of our anniversary! I made him french toast.

This was a wonderful place for us to spend our first anniversary on June 11th!  Although, previously not really realizing the exact day, we had planned this as one of our 8 hour lesson days.  Oops!  But hey, we’re celebrating every day at this point.  We did add some special touches to the day though; Jed picked me a colorful bouquet of flowers in the morning while I made him french toast.  We splurged that night and took ourselves out to a fancy dinner in the “gringolandia” part of town.  The meals were amazingly good, reminiscent of a fancy restaurant I worked in in the past, and we each had rum shakes with fresh fruit to drink.   The best part, our total came out to about $15.

Our favorite part of the town was of course the market.  Every morning the stalls were packed full of fresh fruits and vegetables for sale for cheap.  And feeling pretty sick of tacos at this point we were ecstatic when we found that at lunch time these ladies showed up with pots of home cooked food.  Jed was especially excited about the deep fried chicken!

Yum Yum! It was like a meat and three in the south.

Part of the San Pedro Mercado

En los tardes, Jed y Yo vamos a la escuela. Nosotros nos gusta las maestras y nosotros aprendemos mucho, pero hablamos mucho Spanglish ahora!  Necisitas mas escuela in futuro!
(In the afternoons, Jed and I went to school.  We liked our teachers and we learned a lot, but now we speak a lot of Spanglish.  We need more school in the future!)- loosely translated.

Spanish school was great and we did learn a lot, but there is still soo much more to know! We plan to keep studying.

Our classes were one on one, and probably the best part was just getting to know our teachers and talking to them for four hours every day.  We came to think of school as essentially paying for friends… or rather someone who is forced to sit there and listen to you stutter and stammer your way through sentences!

Jed and I with our teachers.  We’re GIANTS :)

We got to learn a lot about San Pedro and the Mayan culture from our teachers.  It is a very machismo culture and although the town of San Pedro is apparently fairly progressive compared to many other areas in the country, men still very much rule the roost.

Jed has taken to yelling commands at me in jest like, “Wash my clothes, Mujer (woman)” or “Make me dinner, Mujer” – He thinks he is soo funny!

However, in my opinion, the place would completely fall apart if the women someday revolted.  The women wake up at daybreak to cook tortillas and breakfast for the men so they can eat fresh food before work, this is usually followed by working a job themselves, cleaning their clothes and the man’s by hand, cleaning the house and making the rest of the meals that day. The men pretty much work and then do whatever they want. There is a huge drinking problem among the men in this country as well, while women are not even allowed to drink except for maybe a small glass of wine on special occasions.

One of my favorite things about the school we attended is that it was founded by a woman, whose sole purpose of the school is to educate local girls.  Women in this country are often pulled out of school at an early age because they are needed to work in the house and their families can’t afford for them to go to school any more.  Part of the money we paid for classes goes solelytowards the school/education for these local little girls.  It definitely made me feel good!

The group of girls would come to school almost every day and we made friends with some of them.  One afternoon I was sitting in the camper on the computer and someone hopped in.  Assuming it was Jed, I didn’t even turn to look until this little voice started talking to me in spanish.  I was surprised to find this young Mayan girl standing there.  Two other girls hopped right in after her.  The three of them were very intrigued by the camper and had decided they would simply check it out. I was friendly with them and let them look around at our stuff and play with some of our things.  This was fun for a bit, but an hour and a half later I was a little overwhelmed and Jed had disappeared on some “urgent” errand. When I turned around to find one girl with my mascara all over her face I drew the line… okay, not really.  I lied and said Jed and I had to leave right NOW to go to a restaurant (I know- lame, but it was the only thing I could think of to say in Spanish).

Our little friends

Mi maestra camina el volcan. / My teacher cruising the volcano. (Through coffee plants)

In addition to my mention of the machismo culture and the support for women’s education, I do want to mention that not all the men around here carry on the “king of the world” attitude.  We met some really wonderful guys as well, who have moved on with the times and very much respect all the women in their lives.  In fact my teacher invited Jed and I on a hike this past Saturday with her and her husband up the volcano through the land that he works everyday.  We had a great time with them and they seem to have a very loving, respectful relationship.  The land that he worked, harvesting coffee, fruit and corn, straight up the side of the volcano was also very impressive!

“Here I am, just in case you wanted to give me something to eat or invite me in”

All in all, San Pedro and the spanish school was a great experience for us.  We feel more able to communicate now and are ready to move along and study on our own for a bit.  However, in just the two weeks we have spent here we have come to feel at home in this little town and are a little reluctant to leave it.   There is a wonderful, safe and friendly community here and we have very much enjoyed getting to know it.  We even have a cat and dog that adopted us at our school that we now have to say goodbye to.

Our adopted pets

San Pedro above Lago Atitlan

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Nightmare in Peru

As many people are already aware, Jed and I and my sister in law, Jenny have been through a very traumatic experience here in Peru.  I wanted to put this out there to first of all let everyone know that we are safe and recovering in Cusco.  We have suffered injuries, but we will all be able to recover fully physically.  Below is an account of the incident written up by Jenny to an agency who is set up to help travelers who experience violence abroad.  We have yet to hear back from them.  We have had a lot requests from people who want to help.  We have a meeting with the tourist police, Cusco police, Consolate in Cusco and the police from the small town this afternoon.  Based on what we learn from this, we will update you on ways you could help.  Thank you for all your support and please share the story epecially to any travelers.

Hello,

My name is Jennifer Lynne Wolfrom. I am a US citizen, a resident of the state of Wyoming, currently visiting Cuzco, Peru and the surrounding areas and I am a victim of an act of extreme violence towards myself, my brother (Joseph Palmer Wolfrom III), and my sister in law (Meghan Moore Doherty).  Joseph and Meghan have been driving for nine months from the United States through Central and South America, camping almost every night in their truck camper and have not yet experienced any violence or danger until this situation which occurred from December 29 to December 30, 2012. I flew into Cuzco, Peru on December 22, 2012 to meet my brother and his wife for a 10-day vacation. We stayed in Cuzco for a few days and then went into the mountains to hike a portion of the Asungate Mountain trek. We were in the mountains from December 25 to December 29.

On December 29, 2012, we left the mountains to drive back to Cuzco and towards our next destination of Macchu Picchu. It was getting dark and we knew that driving in the dark was dangerous, so we pulled down a dirt road to camp in the camper on the back of their truck. We pulled into a flat spot near a bridge in the village of Pallcca in the region of Ocongate, Peru at about 6:30 PM. We were drinking two beers between the three of us because it was my 30th birthday and we were celebrating. We were almost immediately approached by two village residents, who were friendly and who we asked if it was ok to park and camp where we had. They said yes. Soon, the two men were blowing whistles and using their cell phones to alert their friends of our presence and many more village residents started gathering around us, including the man who they called the Presidente. We recognized that he was the leader of the community and Meghan asked him directly if we could camp there and he said Yes. We were soon surrounded by indigenous village people who started asking us to give them our documents. We refused to show them our documents as they weren´t Policia and we were getting nervous about their pushiness and decided to leave. We told them we would leave and got into the truck. They wouldn´t let my brother shut his door and started picking up rocks. Joseph finally got his door shut and we drove off quickly in the opposite direction of where we came hoping that the road would lead us away.

The road ended at a school about 10 minutes after we started driving. There was a man there and we asked him if we could camp and he said no, so we had to turn around and start driving back towards where we first encountered the mob. Soon we were approached by two motor bikes coming from the village and many people on foot. They started approaching the vehicle and we asked them if we could please leave. They said they would not let us leave and then started throwing rocks at the truck and building a rock blockade on the road in front of us. We drove over the first blockade and there were villagers up on the hill above the road continuing to throw rocks at the truck. They threw a large rock through the passenger window, breaking it and hitting me in the face and cutting my jaw. They also threw a rock through the driver’s side window, hitting my brother. We soon were met with another large road blockade of boulders that we could not drive through. At this blockade they threw rocks at the windshield and destroyed it. We veered off the road to try to drive around the blockade and got stuck in a huge ditch and could not drive anymore. We were being bombarded with rocks and had to escape from the vehicle. We had two cans of bear spray between the three of us so we used that in self-defense to be able to get out of the truck to start running from the village. We got out of the truck and started running and were immediately attacked by villagers who were throwing rocks at our heads and chasing us with blinding flashlights and sticks. It very much seemed like a planned organized attack with each of the villagers blowing whistles signaling other villagers to come out and join the chase. There were at least 30 people chasing us and throwing rocks at us at one point. We were running for our lives for between 30 minutes to an hour through the village hills and rivers. We were each struck multiple times by rocks in the head and all over our bodies. We eventually were surrounded by villagers who continued to beat us until they decided to bring us back to the Presidente of the village. We were forced to walk back to meet the Presidente where we pleaded with him to let us go. At this point we were all bleeding severely from our heads and Joseph´s front teeth were knocked out and his eye blundered shut by a rock. It was raining and freezing and my brother had lost a shoe running through a river. After a long discussion between the villagers and the presidente, he demanded that we be forced to walk about a mile in the freezing rain back up to the village school. We told them that we would just leave and they could have all of our stuff, but they would not let us leave. During that time I was beaten in the head with a large board,  Meghan was kicked in her back extremely hard, and rocks continued to be thrown at us.

At the village school we were initially surrounded by at least 40 of the men, women, and children of the village who all addressed the Presidente with their ideas of what they wanted to do with us. Many of the women and men were screaming that they wanted the village to kill us. We kept apologizing, pleading, and explaining ourselves in Spanish, but they would not listen and started to whip us with the ropes that they use to whip their animals. We were whipped and beaten for a few hours in between sessions of interrogation. They told us that we should have given them our documents, but we explained that typically we did not give non-official policia our documents. Many of the villagers were angry about us using the bear spray (mace), but we explained that it was self-defense and we only used it after being attacked with rocks and barricaded, forcing us to crash the truck. We told them we had been very scared when they attacked us in the truck with rocks and we apologized over and over for the miscommunication. During this time at the school we were forced to separate and they stripped us of our possessions on our persons which included my iPhone 5, my brother and sister in law´s driver´s licenses and debit cards. After a few hours of standing in the freezing rain, being whipped by villagers numerous times, and screamed at in their local language, we continued to plead for our lives, shivering and bleeding, and they eventually shut us inside the school. We again apologized and pleaded to leave without any of our belongings.

After less than an hour of being shut in the school, we were again brought out to circle of villagers of over 33 people (I counted at least 33 people that I could see but there were many in the back ground- including young children). We immediately saw that there were at least three villagers that had at least three guns, one that we know was a 20 or 12 gauge shot gun. We tried to shield ourselves from the guns and again pleaded for them not to kill us. We were forced into the middle of the circle by men holding whips and we were held at gun point while again the villagers addressed the Presidente with their stories and ideas for our lives. At least one gun shot was shot towards us in the circle. The man with the 20 or 12 guage shot gun seemed to be an unofficial police or security guard for the village. We told him our story and spent another few hours in the middle of the circle while they decided what to do with us. It was at this point that lights were shined on our injuries and the villagers could see the extent of their violent acts. There was more discussion between the villagers and we were whipped again, with my brother taking most of the beating while trying to protect us. This last portion of the village gathering was photographed and recorded by many of the villagers. They were shining bright lights in our eyes, blinding us and taking pictures of our bloody faces and bodies, and recording the conversations on their phones. After another period of conversation and pleading, we were led to a table where we saw that they had written up their version of a story that they wanted us to sign for the police. Their accident report, written in Spanish, essentially said that we had been drinking and crashed our car, which is how the car got destroyed and how we got our injuries. However, the extent of our injuries and the condition of the car far surpasses anything that could happen by driving into a grassy ditch. They also pulled out all of our legal documents that they had stolen from the car, showed us they had them, and then confiscated them again. They still possess these documents.

We were convinced that the only way we would survive was to sign the report and assure the villagers that we would tell the police that it was a car accident that caused the damage to the truck and the injuries to our bodies. Once we convinced them that we would go along with their story, they had us sign the document and ink print our fingerprints. At around 5 am, after nearly 11 hours of being attacked, chased, beaten, whipped, and held at gun point without food, sleep, or water, we were led back to the truck. All of the windows and the windshield of the truck had been broken and the camper had been broken into and all of our belongings and documents were either stolen or thrown into the muddy ditch. We were told to wait for the police before we tried to get our truck out of the ditch. There were at least 15 villagers that stood with us at the truck until the police came. These villagers made us keep telling them that we would tell the police that it was an accident. At about 6:00 am, a man came who claimed he was the police and asked us to tell him what happened. He was clearly not a real policeman so we told him the same story that was written in the report to satisfy the villagers who were watching closely over us. This man tried to convince us to go back to the school to use a phone to call the hospital, but we refused because we felt it would bring another attack on our lives. At about 7:30 am four Policia National came to the scene of the accident. We told them the same story about crashing our truck and the policemen very clearly did not believe it. The Policia National took photos of every aspect of the accident, including the condition of the truck, the scene of the accident which very clearly shows the boulder barricade that the village set up to trap us, and close-up photos of our head injuries. The policemen helped us get our truck unstuck and we were escorted out in police vehicles at around 8:00 am. We were met by an ambulance that we were told was going to transport us to the city of Cuzco, which is what we wanted as there is better medical care there and we would feel much safer there as it was further away from the village. The police had told us that they would escort the ambulance to the city of Cuzco and would drive our truck to Cuzco so that we could get it fixed. Meanwhile, on the way out of the village that we were attacked in, the police picked up a truckload of villagers who could have very well been part of our attack and brought them along with them to the same town they were escorting us to. We felt extremely unsafe.

That morning of December 30, 2012, we were brought to the town of Ocongate, Peru and asked to get out of the ambulance. We said no, that we wanted to go to Cuzco and they told us they had to clean our wounds in the Ocongate medical clinic and then we would be brought to Cuzco. While we were being treated in Ocongate, which included about 100 stitches between the three of us (most of these stitches addressing head injuries), we kept requesting to be taken to Cuzco by either the police or the ambulance. The story kept changing and soon it became apparent that we were not going to be taken to Cuzco. We had asked in the clinic to be connected to someone at the US Embassy and finally a member of the policia connected us to Amy Bakal at the US Consulate in Cuzco. We explained our situation to Amy and told her we felt very unsafe in the town that we were in. We then found a translator and had the translator tell the policia our exact account of what happened. Once we had been able to tell our story to the US Consulate and to the policia national, we started getting better treatment and were eventually taken from the medical clinic to the police station where they fed us and allowed us to get clothes out of the truck to change into as we had been sitting in bloody, muddy, wet clothing for almost 24 hours at that point.  We signed an initial police report that was written by the policia national in the Spanish language in the town of Ocongate. We have copies of this police report. We left the town of Ocongate at 6:30 pm and were brought by the policia national to Cuzco.  We were promised by the mayor of the village that our truck would be brought to Cuzco after the investigation by the policia. However, when we met the consulate that night in Cuzco, our policia national escorts told the consulate that they would not be driving the truck to Cuzco.

The past few days, which should have been a time for us to mentally process what happened and regain strength, have been almost as tiring as the attack itself. We have spent at least 10 – 12 hour each day in different medical clinics being examined since we were not brought to the correct medical facility in Cuzco immediately after the attack.  Without the truck we have had to take taxi cabs from each medical clinic, one which we were mandated to visit by the police which was an hour outside of the city we are currently staying in. We have not been able to eat properly as all of our time has been waiting for and meeting with doctors and trying to figure out how to access our money since all but one of our debit cards were stolen. We are staying in an overpriced hotel that is supposed to give us breakfast, but has refused serving us each morning.  With all of our time spent in more important areas we have had not time to look for a different place to stay.

We spent yesterday, December 31, meeting with the Amy at the US Consulate and getting medical treatment at the Clinica San Jose in Cuzco, Peru. This treatment included checking our stitches and bruises, x-rays for my sister in law, and a cat scan for my brother. We were prescribed antibiotics and pain killers by the doctor. My brother will also need extensive dental work as four of his front teeth are either knocked out or severely damaged.

We have an appointment to meet with a legal doctor tomorrow, January 2, 2013, who will examine our injuries in order to be used in court testimonies. We are meeting with the police from Ocongate, the police from Cuzco, and Amy Bakal with the US Consulate on Thursday, January 3, to submit an official statement for the police report.  I was supposed to fly back to the United States tomorrow, January 2, 2013, morning, but my passport, license, and all my money and debit cards were stolen during the attack. After the attack, I do not feel comfortable traveling alone to Lima to get to the Embassy so my brother and sister in law be will be accompanying me up to Lima after we make our statements to the police on Thursday over the weekend so that I can get my emergency passport and fly back to the United States early next week.

This situation has not only been extremely traumatic both mentally and physically, but has also become a huge financial burden for the three of us. We had thousands of dollars of possessions stolen from us during the attack, our medical bills and money spent on prescriptions as well as taxi cab travel and hotel bills are growing, the damage to the truck is extensive and will be costly, the cost of replacing my passport and changing my plane ticket will be in the hundreds of dollars, and I am missing an extra week of work pay because of the need to meet with the police and then the embassy to replace my passport before I can leave the country.

The bottom half of this letter has now been removed.  I posted this letter that Jenny wrote in order to quickly release our story as it was the only written account I had immediate access to and didn’t have the time to write it out myself. The point of posting this letter was to get our story out so that the legal system in Peru would have to do somthing, as before we released it they were all twittling their thumbs hoping we would just go away.  The point was not to ilicit for money just becuase we listed the items which were stolen from us!

 

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