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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