Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Good Day in San Telmo

We are in a rented apartment in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires. Sundays in this neighborhood are something special. We spent the morning wandering the Puerto
Madero area and then went back to our apartment.

The street we are on --- Defensa -- is the main thoroughfare for the Sunday market/festival in San Telmo. We wandered around a bit, but it's been best from our balcony.

Let me describe the scene...

An amazing gypsy jazz guitar duo set up right below our balcony and we have been blessed with their music all day. The duo is called Guitarras Fussion and it's the best concert I've heard in a long time. I bought a CD that is sure to get a lot of play, even though we don't even have a CD player with us!

Across the street on another balcony is a nice older couple also admiring the scene below. They come out every now and then and sometimes have their pet parrot with them.

Down below on the street, we get just a snippet of the all the mayhem below. The festivities stretch for many blocks. Every now and then some drum circles move slowly down the street and there are many artists selling their wares stretched over tapestries on the cobblestone street.

Leslie is making bruchetta and preparing cheese dishes (one of the cheeses is called "Veronica Cheese"... how could Leslie resist!?!) as we are having company tonight. I can't get enough of the jazz emanating from the street below. Occasionally a couple comes by performing a beautiful tango to complete the scene.

It is incredibly special and we're only halfway through the day!


Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from Buenos Aires

We're excited to be in Buenos Aires with our own apartment for the holidays. However, this time of year especially makes us homesick for our friends and family. We have a nice Christmas dinner planned of Argentinian steaks with a malbec/shallot glaze, creamed spinach, mashed sweet potatoes, and roasted peaches and ice cream for dessert.

Here is our best attempt at a Christmas card (the best we can do for a tree is the tree on the card Jim's parents sent us):

Christmas so far has been interesting. It began at midnight with several hours of fireworks going off in the streets of our neighborhood. Then at 5:00 AM a drum circle formed right outside our balcony complete with dozens of dancers. It is quiet now, though, and it seems like everything is shut down so we'll be in for most of the day and hope to have a chance to Skype with our families!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Nevado Chachani and 6000 Meters

When we arrived in Arequipa we pretty quickly decided we wanted to do a peak. There are two prominent volcanoes just outside the city - the cone-shaped Misti and the 6000M Chachani. Misti is the more popular climb due to its classic cone shape and the fact that it is an easier, less technical climb. We opted for the challenge of Chachani.

We were picked up at our hostel by the guide service at 8:30 AM and brought to their headquarters where we were outfitted with a tent, sleeping bags, ice axes and trekking poles. Initially we thought we would also need crampons, but in recent years the glaciers have completely receded andd there was very little snow on the peak that day. This came as a smal disappointment to us as we were hoping for some technical climbing. Arequipa's extremely dry climate means Chachani is one of the few 6000M peaks in the world to not have glaciers. Therefore it is also one of the easiest 6000M peaks in the world.

We loaded into an old Landcruiser and started the two hour drive to our drop-off point. Only the first half hour of the drive was on paved roads. The dirt 4x4 road was very dusty but provided spectacular views of neighboring Misti.

We were dropped off at about 4800M of elevation and hiked up to base camp at about 5100M. It was a relatively easy hike even at that elevation.

We set up our tents and then, as a group, set up the communal kitchen tent. Our guide, Ivan, then made us a very nice checken, vegetable, rice and fried potato dinner and described what the rest of the trek would entail.

At around 4:30 in the afternoon, we retired to our respective tents to try to get some sleep before our 1:00 AM wake-up call. At over 5000M of elevation, however, no one really slept.

We "woke" at 1:00 AM, had a light breakfast and some tea, packed up and started our climb at 2:00 AM. The first stretch was straight uphill, but we all fared very well with only our headlamps to show the way under the moonless sky.

A traverse across a col provided the crux of the climb. It was, in fact, very straightforward scrambling and not technical at all. There was a steep drop-off to our left though and Ivan had us break out our ice axes in case of a misstep.

After the col we came to a saddle and switchbacked up a secondary peak. We had a great group. In addition to Leslie and me and Ivan, our group consisted of two others. Jasmine is from Switzerland but living in Peru. John is from New Jersey, but is working with the Peace Corps in Lima. We were all in pretty good shape and, of everyone, I was probably the most effected by the altitude. Still, we made great time! Ivan has been guiding this peak for 15 years and his all-time record from base camp to the summit is four hours 15 minutes. Our group did it in 4:45. Ivan says most groups take six to seven hours.

Near the top of the secondary peak we traversed across and down to another saddle below the principle peak. Another set of switchbacks and we crested the summit - 6075 meters (19,977 feet)!

The sun hadn't been up for long at this point but we stood admiring the beautiful views for a while, snapping pictures before starting our descent.

Many sections of the descent consisted of practically skiing straight down on the volcanic sand. It was actually quite fun, if a bit grueling on my knees. After a nearly five hour climb, the descent took only two hours. Back at base camp we rested for a bit with some hot tea and waited for our ride.

Although the 6000M of elevation should not be taken lightly, it was one of the easiest peaks I've ever done. Still, it was a lot of fun and pretty cool to have cracked the 6000 meter mark!


Thursday, December 17, 2009


We made it to Arequipa about 11pm after crossing the border from Bolivia. Arequipa is high desert, and the scenery in the dark outside of the bus looked barren with white sand and cactus. The locals say "when the moon separated from the Earth, it forgot to take Arequipa."

It is called the "white city" as many of the buildings are built out of the white volcanic rock called sillar that is abundant in the area.

We had another great hostel, Tembo Viejo. Tembo Viejo was quiet and family run, and seemed more like a bed and breakfast than a typical hostel. The hostel was recommended to us by, Gregg, Jim's brother Todd's roommate in New York City who runs a charity that sets up primary schools in Arequipa. We had hoped to do some volunteer work for the schools, but unfortunately the schools were on break for Christmas and the timing just didn't work out.

We ventured out to the Plaza de Armas where there was a bustling and beautiful central park, Arequipa's Plaza de Armas, with balcony restaurants surrounding it. As we were getting closer to the coast, we went out and tried the ceviche.

I have loved the food in Peru. We have tried everything from cow heart skewers grilled on the street corner to grilled alpaca. One of my favorite Peruvian dishes is aji de gallina which is chicken in a creamy/spicy/peanut sauce with boiled eggs and black olives.

Grilled alpaca

We were not able to totally explore the city as we decided to go to climb Chachani, and then had to head back to Cusco for our flight to Lima.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

La Paz

After making the decision to go to Bolivia, it was easy enough to decide to check out La Paz. A mere five hour bus ride from Copacabana, it seemed like an easy side trip. However, as seems to be the rule in Bolivia, nothing is really as simple as it appears.

We knew that the tourist buses filled up quickly, so we bought our tickets a day in advance. The tourists buses aren't that much more expensive than the local buses, but allow you to put bags in underneath storage rather than strapped to the roof and ensure that you have a seat and don't have to stand in the aisle for the duration of the ride. Also, it drops you off at the bus terminal in central La Paz, rather than the outskirts of town. We even showed up to the bus stop an hour early! Unfortunately, our pre-planning was all for naught. The bus company that we bought our ticket from apparently didn't fill their bus enough and sold their tickets to a tour operator. A tour group showed up just before we were scheduled to leave and we were not the priority. Our tickets were sold once again; this time to a local bus. So we ended up paying tourist bus prices and still riding the local bus. There were several others in our same situation and no one was happy about it. However, there was little any of us could do but complain.

The bus ride itself was interesting too. A short ways into the trip, you reach the end of the road... literally. Everyone off the bus! The bus then drives onto a ferry that transports it across the lake to the road that will eventually take us to La Paz. The passengers all take a different ferry which costs us one and half Bolivianos. This is a tiny amount, but we were perplexed as to why it is not included in the bus ticket as tolls are. Still the ferry experience was kind of cool.

La Paz itself is best described as frenetic. After getting a taxi from our "outskirts" bus stop to central La Paz. We were dropped off at the Plaza de San Francisco and made our way into the so-called Witches Market. We have been to a lot of crazy places and crowded cities, but this put them all to shame. Just trying to navigate the sidewalks (every one lined with both storefronts and street vendors, at least two deep) with our backpacks was difficult. We had taken a taxi with an Australian couple from our bus and we walked with them to find a hostel. We ended up staying just the one night in the Witches Market before moving to a (slightly) calmer part of the city.

We moved to a hostel called Adventure Brew that was started by the same people that started Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the most well-respected outfitter for rides down the World's Most Dangerous Road. While we didn't plan to do the ride, the lure of an on-site brewery (for Jim) and wifi (for Leslie), made this an attractive choice.

We spent the day wandering the city streets. Again, a pretty crazy place. We have become used to the lack of traffic signals and signs and drivers' use of horns to warn other drivers as they approach intersections. But in La Paz, there was also the addition of car alarm type sirens that have become popular for the same purposes, presumably because the car horns just blend into the din at this point. Also, the collectivos all have someone leaning out of the open side door yelling the destination and cost. Hey, it's just a warm-up for SE Asia!

In central La Paz all the streets are essentially on big market. The markets not only sell the traditional wares and local foods, but your everyday items as well. There are sections with stalls that sell pants, another with blouses, and then another with toothpaste, soap and razors. Then there are the stalls that sell herbs, exotic tinctures and even llama fetuses. Yes, llama fetuses. We have been told that an estimated 99% of Bolivian families have a dried llama fetus thrown under the foundations of their house for luck.

We do not have a lot of photos of La Paz because the streets were so hectic and we were warned that there is a lot of theft. At one of the markets someone did try and open our backpack while it was on Jim's back!

That night we went to the backyard bar at the hostel and met some nice folks and enjoyed the on-site brewery. The place is literally built into the side of the valley, so the back yard is four stories above the street in the front. At one point the keg ran dry and my beautiful wife volunteered me to bring a new one up... four stories! In her defense, she was didn't really know what she was volunteering me for, only that the task came with the reward of a free beer. We had a lot of fun, but called it an early night, at least by the hostel's standards.

We spent the next day wandering the city again. It was Sunday and a lot of stores were closed, but that is more than made up by the traditional Sunday festivities almost everywhere you turn.

We were only in La Paz a short time. Overall we enjoyed the city, but wish we could have had more time to use the city as a base for some of the outdoor activities in the area. That seems to be what most travelers do. One of the biggest highlights of the city is the setting itself. Literally nestled in a valley with Illimani mountain (21,200 feet) as a backdrop.

From Wikipedia:

Located at an elevation of 3660 meters, it is the world's highest capital city. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by the high altiplano. As it grows, La Paz climbs the hills, resulting in varying elevations from 3000 meters to 4100 meters (9,840 ft to 13,450 ft). Overlooking the city is towering triple-peaked Illimani, always snow-covered and majestic.

Riding the bus in and out of the city provides some amazing views!


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol

Originally we had decided that from Cusco we were going to head to Arequipa which is in southwest Peru. Numerous buses from Cusco get to Arequipa by going through Juliaca and Puno. We were trying to get a bus that went directly to Arequipa, saving five hours. After asking around, we spoke to a woman from the bus company "Libertad." She assured us it was a direct bus and that it did not go through Puno. We got a ridiculously cheap ticket, but you do get what you pay for with the buses. The bus stopped multiple times to pick up other people, and it was packed in so that there were people standing in the aisle hovering over all the seated passengers.

About a half hour into the ride, the road split to go to Puno or Arequipa.... and our bus went to Puno. So we once again found out there is no real good definition of "direct bus." We had, in fact, purchased a ticket that went to Juliaca and then to Arequipa. But, as it would have been another five and a half hours to Arequipa or a half hour to Puno, we made an executive travel decision and went to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia.

We got into Puno and in a hostel, and started reading about Lake Titicaca on the Peru side. We had read from multiple sources that the tours to the floating islands in the Peruvian side were exploitative of the local population and super touristy, so we decided to check out Isla del Sol in Bolivia.

we headed to the Bolivian embassy in Puno and tried to apply for our visa, but the embassy had run out of visa stamps! The embassy officer told us simply to apply for one at the border, but told us of the barrage of paperwork and $135 a person fee we would need to bring. We took a bus from Puno to Copacabana, Bolivia, and the border crossing was pretty simple as we had the paperwork. Bolivia does not require most countries' citizens to purchase a visa, but US citizens must. We saw several US citizens frantically trying to get cash and show the right documents at the border who did not know about the visa requirement.

We got into Copacabana and found a great cheap Hostel called Hostal Sonia. (It was only 50 Bolivianos or about $7 for the both of us). The town can feel a little touristy, but it was not pushy like a lot of places we had been (meaning no one was constantly dogging you to buy something) and it has a lot of good cheap restaurants that look over Lake Titicaca.

The next morning we took an 8:30 boat out to Isla del Sol. Most of the boats that go over are old lake cruisers which can be pretty slow, but the scenery was great from where we were sitting on top of the boat. The boat heads to the south part of the island to the town of Yumani first to drop off some people, then heads over to the north part of the island to the town of Cha'llapampa. The trip to the north takes about 2 hours. We decided to stay in Cha'llapampa for a night, then hike over to the south the next day.

We loved to north part of Isla del Sol. It was very mellow, and besides a few small hostels and restaurants just seems like a small Bolivian town where people are going about their daily lives. We asked some girls who were leaving on the boat back about the Hostel they stayed at, and they told us they loved a small place called Hostel Cultural. The town is super small, so we found it right away. It was pretty funny because the parents were off somewhere else on the island, so we were negotiating with their six year old daughter regarding the price! We were surprised how cheap it was, as most islands have higher prices than the closest coastal city. Our private room with shared bath was 30 Bolivianos (about $4.28) and we had a great dinner of soup, spaghetti and trout with a bottle of wine for about 50 Bolivianos (about $7).

We spent first day in Cha'llapampa by hiking over to nearby Cha'lla and checking out the numerous animals that live on the beach including a ton of pigs and their piglets who live on a diet of lake weeds.

Then while watching the Lake, we saw a group of island kids who lost their ball, and were trying to get it off a thatched roof. Seeing the kids trying to climb up to try and retrieve it and almost falling compelled Jim to assist. The kids were super appreciative, and enthusiastically thanked Jim for the help!

That night and into the morning there were torrential rains, so we waited the rain out a little before making the trek to the south. When heading up the trail, there is a 10 Boliviano per person trail fee which we paid and went to the Inca ruins. The north side has the Rock of Creation which is the legendary Inca creation site and birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology.

We then headed the six kilometers, which went up and down the hills to the south. About a kilometer before the town of Yumani there was another ticket station! It was only 10 Bolivianos a person, but it got us a little annoyed as we thought we had already paid to be on the trail. But we paid it and kept going. What really got us was the THIRD place you had to pay to just get into the town of Yumani. An Argentinean couple almost got in a fight with guy at the third ticket station because it just seemed like we were getting constantly nickled and dimed, and that we had already paid for the trail. It was not much to pay, but everyone we met was annoyed with the system of three different places where you have to pay for one trail.

When we arrived in Yumani we had planned on staying the night there too. However Yumani is a lot different than Cha'llapampa as it is much more touristy with hostels everywhere. It was quite expensive too and was about quadruple what we paid for our room in Cha'llapampa for just a dorm bed! So we decided to head back to Copacabana on the 3:30 boat. The Lonely Planet states that it is easiest to buy a one way ticket to the island and then another one way back as you may not find your boat company. However, we found that it would actually be more advantageous to buy both with the same company as the way back is double the price when you are on the island than if you had bought the round trip. Finding your boat company would not have been a problem at all.

Overall, Copacabana and Cha'llapampa were great spots to start our Bolivian adventure.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

"Okay, maybe later?"

"Okay, maybe later?"

This is probably the most common phrase we have heard while in Cusco. Let me explain. While you are on the Plaza de Armas many of the restaurants, shops and (oddly) massage parlors send people out to the plaza to try to bring people in. They are always very nice and almost always speak to you in Spanish. Until, that is, you politely decline. Then, they shift to English for the requisite, "okay, maybe later?" We aren't sure of the origins but everyone says it. We guess that over the years as English speaking tourists have tried to politely decline they have themselves used this phrase and now the locals have adopted the phrase as their own.

Please don't misunderstand. We actually find this endearing and Cusco has been great. This is how local businesses drum up business in many places in South America and the folks in Cusco have been amongst the nicest and least pushy. There are a lot of tourists here, but it doesn't feel obnoxious. After all, we're tourists too!


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

We are in Peru... we are in Cusco... So we have to go to Machu Picchu, right? There are not many options for getting to Machu Picchu. The two most popular ways are a simple day trip by train or the classic Inca Trail. The Inca trail, however, is expensive, overrun by tourists and requires a permit and guide. Neither of these options were particularly attractive to us. An alternative trek to the Inca Trail is the Salkantay trek. During the high season (April - September) there are guided treks but it still does not get the traffic of the Inca Trail. At this time of year (beginning of December) it is pretty much empty. It also does not require a guide or a permit, so it seemed like the perfect option to us. Very few people do this trek without a guide, so finding reliable route information was difficult and the best map we could find was poor at best. Guided treks use pack horses or alpacas and take five to six days. Without horses and during the wet season, we anticipated a six day trek. With the trek selected, we were able to inexpensively rent gear in Cusco. Geared up, we got to bed early for a 4:00 a.m. wake up call.

Day One

We took a 4:30 a.m. collectivo to the small town of Mollepata which took about two hours. we got dropped off in the middle of the town and started asking locals the way to Salkantay. Everyone was helpful but simply pointed north, which made route finding a bit difficult. Essentially the trail is not marked at all. Adding to the route finding difficulties, heavy fog limited the visibility all day. At times it required strict compass navigation. This difficulty was compounded by the trail often being cris-crossed by cattle trails that were indistinguishable from the actual trail.

Luckily at key moments we came upon locals who pointed the way. At other times, however, were were not so fortunate and simply headed in the direction the compass pointed. One such helpful local came up the trail on horseback and was excited that we were heading to Soray that day as he lives there. He was also at the river crossing at Soray to greet us as we arrived. He wanted to rent us his horse but we politely told him that we prefer caminar.

Soray is the first little village on the trail but as it was low season almost everything was quiet. The trail, during the high season, has presented opportunity for the local farmers and ranchers to set up small snack bars. However, as it was the low season, most were shuttered. As we approached one of these small small snack bars, we witnessed an Andean woman who saw us coming run inside to open her snack bar and don her Machu Picchu floppy hat. We purchased a Snickers bar in exchange for some small talk and route finding information. Two more hours of hiking we came upon a beautiful valley called Salkantaypampa just below the Salkantay pass. With a water source and already at 4280 meters (14,042 feet), it seemed like a good place to make camp. We estimate that we covered about 25 kilometers the first day with a mile elevation gain. Essentially we climbed a 14er!

Day 2

We woke up at dawn (about 5:00 a.m.) and unzipped the tent to see that the fog had cleared to reveal the incredible Nevado Salkantay Peak. Already at 14,000 feet, the 20,574 foot peak towered over us. We stood silently admiring the peak and the valleys, occasionally snapping pictures. We both later agreed that moment was the highlight of the entire trek.

Soon enough, however, the clouds rolled up the valley and we were once again enveloped in fog. So we brewed up a pot of Starbucks instant coffee (thanks Justin & Laura!) and hit the trail. We reached the top of the Nevado Salkantay pass in about an hour and a half and were at 15,420 feet, a new elevation record for us both.

After the pass the trail follows the river down the valley and into the cloud forest and jungle, eventually reaching the town of Collpapamba.

Right outside of the town, it appears as though they tried to build a road which has been washed out by the river and seems to have taken the trail with it. In its place, a makeshift, foot-wide trail has been carved into the mud cliff. This made for one of the sketchiest sections of the entire trek.

We did, however, eventually make it past the river and made camp about halfway between Collpapamba and Playa where we were fortunate to find a family farm that allowed us to camp on their property, complete with an odd assortment of animals including few dogs, a lamb, a turkey and a pig and her piglet.

Day 3

We woke to torrential rain, packed up and continued hiking towards Playa. After Playa the trail crosses a river once more and starts to head up a more defined Incan trail with occasional cobblestones and steps. The initial ascent winded through coffee fincas near Lucmabamba. Our (crappy) map indicated only about 200m of elevation gain which had us optimistic for an easy day. No such luck! It actually climbed more than 1000 meters (or over 3280 feet).

Near the top of the pass we encountered the ruins of a small Incan village. Another steep descent would take us to the river below and the hydro-electric plant where we would catch the train. However, about halfway down, a clearing in the trees allowed us a view across the valley to our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in the distance. It was yet another spectacular sight.

Back in the relative civilization of the hydro-electric plant things got a bit more frustrating. This spot, called Hidroelectrica locally, is the end of the line for the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu. We were surprised to find that train tickets are not sold on the train or even at the station. They are only sold a half hour taxi ride away in the town of Santa Theresa. We were able to get a taxi round trip to hopefully make our 4:30 train. The driver, understanding our situation, must have set some sort of ground-speed record and got us to the train just in time.

We got a hostel in the town of Aguas Calientes (the portal town to Machu Picchu) and enjoyed a well-earned shower and an early night's sleep for the 5:30 a.m. bus ride to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

We arrived at Machu Picchu at 6 a.m. before the crowds descended. We enjoyed this time of relative quiet to take pictures and absorb the site before the tour groups were visible. In the early morning it was easier to imagine life as it must have been for the Incans who lived there.

We made the hike up to the Sun Gate, but the fog limited our view. We wandered around the site for a while and then hiked the Inca bridge which is currently being restored. The meter wide trail clings to the side of a cliff that drops off hundreds of feet. The clouds below obscured our view of the bottom of the valley, but made for a unique view straight down for a hundred or more feet before seeing the only tops of the clouds.

After the long long trek of the previous few days, we could be forgiven if we did not hike to the top of the Huayna Picchu (2,720 meters or 8,900 ft; about 360 meters or 1,200 ft higher than the city)... But we did it anyway. We could not come this far and not do it. The climb up, though complete with irregular Incan stairs, was still certainly steep. The view of the city and the surrounding valleys and mountains made the climb worthwhile.

Another hour wandering around the city and we made our way back to Aguas Calientes to catch the train back to Cusco. All in all, we spent seven hours at the site. The train ride brought us - tired and smelly - back to Cusco by 9:30 p.m. We are now enjoying a few days of rest and plotting our course for the next stop... wherever that may be.

If you are considering doing the Salkantay Trail, please feel free to contact us for more information. During the low season, you are pretty much on your own and it should not be attempted by those without a good deal of backcountry experience. It seems as though it would be easier to follow groups and get directions from locals during the high season, however.