Home from the Jungle

On Monday we flew to Coca, about 30 minutes by plane from Quito; about 6 hours by car.  There are at least 3 flights a day ferrying many oil workers and some tourists back and forth.  When you exit the terminal there is a disjointed combination of tour buses, taxis and trucks with logos for Halliburton, Petroecuador and other related energy companies.  After a short taxi ride to the port, we climbed into our motorized canoe and headed two and half hours up the Napo River to Yachana Lodge and Institute. WP_20140609_10_58_00_Pro20140613030738WP_20140609_11_14_11_Pro20140613030856imageimageWP_20140609_13_52_41_Pro20140613025805imageimage

“Yachana” in Kichwa means a “place for learning”.  Not only does it teach people like ourselves about the jungle, but also provides education opportunities for people living in the jungle.   Opportunities for education in the jungle are limited to “Distance Learning” where students only attend school 2 days a week.  Currently, at Yachana they have a pilot program providing another day every 2 weeks of practical education in a variety of subjects including english, computers, health and nutrition, science, guiding and very basic accounting.  Our friends,  Bob and Marcia, have been involved with the organization for a number of years.

In the 2 to 3 days we were there, we went out birding, walked in the jungle, visited a farm, did a bit of cooking, provided some design advice and were cleansed by a  Kichwa Healer – a great ending to our almost 5 months of traveling.  Tonight we head home!


Vilcabamba – Another Sacred Valley

Throughout our trip, we’ve made a point of balancing city and country.  Keeps us both happy! So it only made sense after taking in the Bienal in Cuenca, taking some more spanish lessons and enjoying city life it was time to head for a sacred valley.  Just the same pattern we did in Cusco when we headed out to Urubamba.  This time, we headed down to Vilcabamba (literally means sacred valley in Quechua) about 5 hours south of Cuenca.  Evidently, like Urubamba, it is place where the Incas stopped in their travels between Cusco and Quito.   Nice lush spot they chose.

Vilcabamba’s other claim to fame is its reputation for longevity.  In 1955, Reader’s Digest did a story on the high number of centenarians.  Perhaps this article was what kicked off the influx of expats both young and old all searching for the fountain of youth.  All of this searching is happening in a small town with what appears to be a robust local population.  The combination made for great eaves-dropping and people watching, both of which we did plenty of while hanging out in the public square.

Each day, we headed out for a hike – some more successful than others….  We took the “Ridge Hike” one day, which Bill has renamed the “Ridge of Death”.   There were a few spots that fell off percipitously from what was, at times, a very narrow “bridge” of crumbling soil.  The next day, he went to the gym in town …. while I headed off on a hike up to a waterfall.

We are now back in  Quito – relaxing before we head out to our final adventure in the Amazon.

South of the Equator to the Southern Highlands

After a long and, due to fog and twisting roads, harrowing 9 hour bus ride, we made it from Latacunga to Cuenca.  (We’re staying off of long bus rides the rest of this trip!)

Cuenca is quieter than we expected, but we lucked into coinciding with the 12th Bienal de Cuenca.  We’ve now managed to hit two Bienals, one in Cartagena and here in Cuenca.  Probably, given the location, the artwork in Cartagena was a bit stronger than in Cuenca .  However, here, in Cuenca, the theme “Ir para volver” or “Leaving to Return” inspired some interesting pieces.  Plus, it has given us an opportunity to explore neighborhoods and buildings we wouldn’t normally see visiting a city for a few days.

Prior to the Spanish arriving in the 1500s, the Cuenca area was home to Inca and Canari cultures.  However, there is very little left of the indigenous cultures. Today, the architecture is an eclectic mix of brick, stone, metal and stucco buildings interconnected by many plazas and, of course, lots of churches. The streets are paved in large cobblestones and some of the blank building walls are painted with street art.

One rainy day (we’ve had very few this trip), we headed up to Cajas National Park 30 km outside of Cuenca. The park is high Andes grasslands dotted with hundreds of lakes at around 12,500 feet. It was cold and windy, but beautiful with llamas roaming wild, numerous waterfalls and colorful flora species. Our guide (good to have a guide because of fog, cold and lost hikers), Julio, brought us to an excellent restaurant that was also a trout farm where we found several dogs, one of them stuffed.

After five days in Cuenca we head tomorrow to Vilcabamba, a five hour drive south of Cuenca and from 7600 feet to a warmer, dryer 4500 feet.

On the Equator

We spent our first week in Ecuador with an advantage – our friends Marcia and Bob.  They moved down here 2 years ago.  They have graciously hosted us on the last leg of our trip and let us use their house as home base.  The first week  we toured Quito and headed out to Mindo for a few days, about 2 hours northwest of Quito. The next two weeks we are headed south out of Quito, making our way to Cuenca and Vilcabamba.  Then we’ll return to Quito for a few days , before heading to the Amazon for our last week before we head home.

Our first week was a week of contrasts.  Quito is up at 9,300 feet, the same area as Seattle but 3 times the population all draped between volcanoes. Mindo is a ramshackle town of about 2,000 people.  It survives on tourism due to its physical setting in the cloud forest at 4,000 feet with a rich diversity of flora and fauna.  All of this is right on the equator…..0 degrees 0′ 0″.

After our first week, we headed south to Chugchilan, a very small town in the province of Cotopaxi.  We are staying at a great  place called the Black Sheep Inn where we’re meeting interesting people and doing some hiking before heading to Cuenca.

We’ll be back in Seattle by the middle of June.  So far it has been a fun filled, incredible 4 months.  We are relishing these last few weeks.

Another taste of Lima

On May 11th, Mother’s Day, we flew back to Lima.  We’ve enjoyed 2 days of clear blue skies and then a couple of days of Lima’s famous white skies – not bad, though, because it’s warm.  Comparing Mexico City and Lima, we’ve decided Mexico City wins.  Although the food is as good as Mexico City (many would say it is better) and the seafood IS significantly better, Lima’s neighborhoods are VERY spread-out. Lima’s density is half that of Mexico City.  Except for Barranco, where we are staying, the other neighborhoods blend into each other and don’t seem to have as many unique people places as  Mexico City.  Of course, we’ve made good use of our time here – lots of walking, looking and eating.

While we’ve been traveling, we’ve been reading.  Bill read Che Guevara’s “The Motorcycle Diaries”.  Che’s take on the South America of 1952 as well as the impact of both Spain and the U.S. on the continent have provided a counterpoint to the book I just finished, Niall Ferguson’s book “Civilization: The West and the Rest”.  It includes a fascinating discussion of the development of South America compared to North America.  (Just think what could have happened if the Spanish had gone north and the British gone south).  His thoughts on why civilizations thrive and fall provide food for thought as we explore both the ancient and current cultures, here.

Just walking the streets and stopping into random places provides lots to think about and enjoy.

In addition to seeing Lima, we’ve been preparing for our final country, Ecuador.  We leave tomorrow for Quito where our friends, Marcia and Bob, will point us in the right direction.

Sillar City

The guidebooks call Arequipa the White City, but we have rebranded it Sillar City.  We think the alliteration gives it some deserved cachet. It is Sillar City to us because it is built largely of sillar, the beautiful white volcanic stone found in the region.

After Cusco and the Andes, we headed south and west to Arequipa,  where we found a warm, dry city at 8,000 feet – delightful change after the relative cold of Cusco.  The city is surrounded by 3 volcanoes, ranging from 18,000 – 20,000 feet.  It has been wracked by earthquakes over the centuries so the majority of buildings are only one or two stories, except, of course, the churches.

(Click on the images to get a slide show.)

The historic architecture of Arequipa is classified as Meztizo Baroque, a combination of Spanish and native design and craftsmanship. The colors are vibrant inside the white walls.  The floral and animal images reflect the influence of the indigenous people doing the construction.

The city prides itself on its food, which we agree is great and reasonably priced, and the city seems to like showing off its sophistication in comparison to Lima, a city 10 times larger.  I found a fantastic spanish teacher and Bill, of course, found plenty of great visuals and another unusual place to work-out where he was the only gringo.  One afternoon we took a chocolate class where we made stone ground organic chocolate bars – from the cacao bean to the finished product.

Next, we are back to Lima to really sink ourselves into that city after only getting a taste of it a month ago.


In, Out and Above our Comfort Zone

On Sunday April 27th, we set off from Cusco with 11 others for our 7 day, 6 night hike with Mountain Lodges of Peru.  Instead of doing the traditional 4-day, 25 mile section of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, this hike goes 40 miles over the Salkantay Pass with the added benefit of nice lodges to stay in each night in lieu of camping.  Along the way, we  hiked other parts of the Inca trails that crisscross Chile,  Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.

Our group was international – a family of 4 from Russia, a mother and her 2 daughters from Ireland, a couple from England, a couple from Park City, Utah and ourselves plus two guides and a Russian translator who spoke both English and Spanish.  In addition, we regularly had two horses and, separately, a pack of about 10 horses that moved our luggage, food and fuel.

The first day we covered 5 miles and gained about 1,700 feet – piece of cake and well within our comfort zone.  We started hiking at 11,000 feet and finished up at 12,700 feet.

Day two we woke up to sunny skies and had a day hike from Salkantay Lodge up to a glacier lake at 13,900 feet at the base of the 19,000 foot Nevado Humantay.  Of course, we took a swim.  I loved it.  Bill found it a little chilly.  By the time we got back to the lodge, the clouds had rolled in.

Day three was a “big” day – 9 miles total with the first 5 miles gaining 2,500 feet to Salkantay Pass at 15,213 feet and the next 4 miles dropping 2,400 feet.  The elevation gain was not an issue, the weather was.  We were woefully unprepared when it started raining and then turned to snow.  There are no pictures of us at the top of the pass.  We were focused on getting to someplace warm and dry as fast as we could! Lunch was in a tent on the way down.  After lunch, we moved quickly to Wayra Lodge arriving about 2 to 3 hours sooner than a group normally takes when the weather is pleasant.

That night we listened to it rain the entire night.  Needless to say, I tossed and turned wondering why I hadn’t packed more appropriate clothing.  Thankfully, by daybreak the rain stopped.  We headed down the pass loosing 3,400 feet over 6 miles and watching the landscape change from high mountain to jungle.  We arrived at Colpa Lodge in the early afternoon where they prepared a Pachamanca, a Peruvian barbecue cooked under hot rocks.  Of course, it included quinea pig.

Day 5, we needed to cover 14 miles and dropping only 2,400 feet.   Because the recent rains had washed out some of the trails on the steeper slopes,  in lieu of walking on a dirt road all day, the group opted to take the section of trail that was still open and cross the river using a 2-person platform suspended from a cable that is hand pulled over the river.  The contraption looks a bit fragile, complete with frayed rope.  However, it is how the locals cross the river and  we all made it with smiles on our faces.  From the other side of the river, some of us walked to the last lodge, Lucma Lodge, on another dirt road, while others got in a van.

Day 6, we went about 3 miles up 2,000 feet from 7,000 to 9,000 feet at Llactapata Pass in the morning. At lunch, we had a great view of Machu Picchu from another series of ruins from the west.  After lunch, we went down 3,000 feet over 4 miles.   We arrived at a small train station where we got on a train for Aquas Calientes, 6 miles away.


Day 7 was all about Machu Picchu and getting back to Cusco.  After an early breakfast. we boarded a bus, along with many others, to get up the very steep hair-pin road to Machu Picchu.  We lucked out with the weather.  It had rained most of the night (cause for more tossing and turning), but the clouds parted in the morning and stayed clear until we got back into Aguas Caliente about 2:00.

Machu Picchu, itself, looks like the pictures we’ve all seen.  What we didn’t realize is how magnificent the setting is.  There are layers of steep mountains surrounding it and the ruins themselves are constructed on much steeper cliffs than we had realized.

To add to the drama, our tour included what we learned were coveted tickets up Waynu Picchu, the triangular peak often shown as the backdrop to Machu Picchu.  Just below the top of the peak is another temple, purported to be a sacred residence for the highest priest.  It looked steep, but our guide said he’s had all types of clients make it up and back.  So up we went.

Had either of us known that the hike is known as the “Stairs of Death” or that Outside Magazine rated it as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes we never would have done it. As we were coming down, a 55 year old man collapsed in front of us on the way up and fell on a ledge.  Other climbers tried to save him with CPR, but he didn’t make it.  It made the climb down sobering.  How the Incas or one of their subjects even built the temple on top is very difficult to comprehend.  Needless to say, we were relieved to get down, count our blessings and head back to Cusco.


We got back into Cusco about 8:00 on Saturday the 3rd, after a long and emotional day, thankful for our family and friends.  We were thrilled to be able to settle into our same apartment for 2 nights before heading off to Arequipa.  We are now enjoying the warm dry weather in Arequipa.

More later!