Tuesday, December 23, 2003

In the footsteps of the Incas

We know it has been a while but we have been moving around so much lately.

We are finally getting the time to write in our journals and get some postings out. We are currently taking a vacation from our vacation and just hanging out in a small beach town south of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Hope everyone has a great holiday season.

The city of Cusco, Peru was the center of the Inca empire. Its original layout was in the shape of a puma with its head being the fortress on the mountainside above and its body the town below. Cusco is city that is easy to lose time in. We called it gringolandia. It has everything a gringo can want and then some all centered around a beautiful main square. Restaurants and shops are everywhere and even small movie theaters. The foundations of most of the buildings near the square are the remains of the Inca buildings and temples. The stonework is incredibly intricate with the huge blocks fitting so tightly together that no mortar was needed. It is still impossible to slip even a sheet of paper in between their joints. The task seems even more impossible when you realize that the Incas did not have metal tools or chisels.

We spent our first few days exploring the town and lining up a guide service to take us on the Inca Trail. On some streets, you can’t walk more than 5 feet without seeing a guide agency. They all offer basically the same package but at an amazingly varied range of prices. We have been burned a few times by agencies not providing what we were promised and so we were trying to be very picky about it. We made sure we got everything in writing and have found that in South America, if it is written down on the receipt, you might get it, but if it is not, tough luck.

Inca footpaths are all over Peru but the section from Cusco to Machu Picchu is the one most commonly referred to as the "Inca Trail". Once on the trail, the real Inca trail does not start until after you have crested the highest pass on the second day. It is on average 4 or 5 feet wide and lined with thick interlocking blocks of stone. It was designed for use by people and llamas and it would be impossible to use a wagon on it as it can be very steep with large steps. They were OK for me but hard on Cindy’s shorter legs. The Incas also seemed to have no concept of switchbacks and the trail often climbs at quite a steep slope.

Unlike our previous hiking experience, this one was supposed to be easier. We would have a guide and porters. We had originally thought that we would do it self supported but found out that this was no longer allowed. We would still have to carry our clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and any other personal item we thought we might need. I left the nose hair trimmer in the hotel. The porters would carry the food, tents and cooking equipment. The hike options are for 4 days - 3 nights, 2 days - one night, or "forget that pain, I am taking the train". True to our newfound masochistic tendencies, we chose the first option. The reward at the end of the journey is the ruins of Machu Picchu. It was rediscovered in 1911 and theories abound as to why it was never found by the Spaniards after their "conquest" of the Incas in the 1560s. It remains the most perfect surviving example of Inca architecture and planning because it was never looted and destroyed. The more plausible theory is that it had been abandoned even before the time of the conquest and was therefore forgotten about.

In recent years the government has finally imposed weight restrictions on how much the porter could carry and there were actually a few weight check stations along the trail. I think the limit was something like 20 kilos. In the past the conditions for the porters were horrible and unchecked. They could often be required to carry double that amount. As the conditions have improved the number of porters has increased from a few thousand to over 5000 employed in any given season. The guide agencies have then used this as an excuse to dramatically increase the price of the trip while still paying the porters a substandard wage. The government has also decided to increase the price of the park entrance itself. In 1999 the park entrance fee was $17 and today it is $50.

Three days later we were on the train heading toward mile marker 88, the jumping off point for the trail. It takes a few days for the agencies to get the trail permits and we spent them exploring the many ruins around Cusco. Most of the first day was spent in transit and it was an easy 1/2 days hike after that. The porters would hurry on ahead of us and set up camp before we got there. I was surprised to find out that the campsites were not rustic at all. Most were areas of land set around a few houses and an outhouse. We were obviously going to living in style on this trip. The cook woke us up early with a cup of hot tea and then a leisurely breakfast of boiled starch. Of course it was on the second day that the real hell of the trail began. There are 3 passes on the train over 3700 meters or 12000 feet, with the largest being over 13000 feet. Cusco is quite high but we had lost much of that altitude on our way to the trail start. I figured that the passes would be a piece of cake after what we had been through the week before. Say the word with me now. "Stupid"... Yes the climb really sucked. 5 hours of suck to be exact. It was beautiful scenery but much of the time was spent just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Amazingly we were constantly being passed by porters from one group or another as they raced to get ahead of us to set the evenings camp. Even though we were traveling at the end of high season, there were plenty of people on the trail and at times you got into a traffic jam of puffing, red faced gringos all wondering just what the hell they were thinking when they signed up for this.

On the third day, I got sick. I’m pretty sure it was from something that I had eaten the day before. The food they cooked was not that bad but the hygiene of the porters and cook was not great. I found out later that many people from many other groups also got sick on the trail. Seems to be a regular occurrence. We only had one pass that day and it should have been easier than it was to climb it but all I could do was just put my head down and keep walking. For Cindy and most of the others I talked to, it was the best day, with beautiful views all around of the Andes. I just endured it as best as I could. Dinner was not an option that night and I missed out on the wine the porters had brought. Needless to say, the thought of missing out on booze still has me distraught.

The next day was short with a few hours of walking to a spot called the sun gate, where you can watch the sun rise on Machu Picchu. We were late and missed it. And then it was just another hour down to the ruins which even seen the second time for me were great. All in all I would say that the hike is not worth it though. Machu Picchu is easily accessible by train and if anyone is considering a visit, my advice is to take that option and spend more time exploring the wonderful ruins all around Cusco and accessible by bus.

Dynamite, Amonium Nitrate and Detonation Caps in Potosí

Wow it has been over a month since we have posted anything on this site. Truth is that travel is as exhausting as it is fascinating. Geoff and I became a little run down during the later part of South America and just never found the motivation to site down and write. But after relaxing by the beach in Mar Azual, Argentina, we are ready to hit the road to New Zealand.

I doubt we will get around to writing much about our recent travels. Sooo much happened, but we will probably get some pictures out.

This is what happened to us during a trip into a silver mine Potosí, Bolivia. Definitely an adrenaline peak for Bolivia (I will never be able to explain what it was like to be in the mine when the dynamite went off), and a caricature of just how poor and sad life can be here.

Feliz Navidad,


After some time and a half-a-mile walk, Edwine succeeds in finding us transportation: a small white panel van that has seen better days. I count enough seats for 17 passengers, but the van is really only big enough for 10. This has become our usual mode of transportation in South America, and we are thankful that there are only 5 of us riding to the silver mine. Geoff, if he contorts himself a little, will be able to find some leg room.

A bus would have picked us up at the tour office, but, like any other day in Bolivia, there is a protest today. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, any drivers at all had blockaded the main streets of Potosí with their hodgepodge of vehicles to demand relief on the price of gas. As I had walked passed the destitute Quechua woman begging for food, noticed the filthy 8 year old boy running barefoot in the street, and squeezed between two towering buses participating in the blockade, I tried to imagine what life was like 450 years ago when the richest city in the world celebrated Corpus Christy by paving the street with ingots of silver drawn from Cerro Rico: the largest silver deposit the world has ever known. The Spaniards made rich by the mine are long since gone. The cold, rough, fatalistic atmosphere of the city is created by the descendants of the laborers who were forced to work and die in the mines, and who remained after the Spaniards left with their fortunes.

Our first stop is the gear house. Here we receive out safety equipment for touring the mine: a yellow hard hat, an yellow oversized light-cotton zip-up jacket, an yellow oversized light-cotton elastic-waistband pair of pants, a pair of white rubber boots, and headlamp with a 5lb battery pack on a 2″ leather belt. All geared up I looked very yellow and very puffy. Awkward and hot in my new outfit, I bang my hardhat against the door jam as I enter the van, my headlamp falls, I step on the cord that attaches the headlamp to the battery pack, which tugs firmly on my waistband and I almost face plant onto the floor. (Note to self: don’t be such a klutz in the mine).

Back into the van we are off to the Miner’s Market. The entrance into the mine, paid to the miners cooperative, is 3 Bolivians ($0.38USD) per extranjero; hardly enough to gain the cooperation of the miners working today. The goods we buy here will grease the wheel when we get into the mine.

At the market, which turns out to be just one shop, a 40 year old, 200lbs Andean women sit on a stoop in the front of the shop. She’s wearing the same highland fashion that I have seen from Ecuador, throughout Peru, and now in Bolivia. Her hair is jet black, despite her age, and hangs in two long, thin braids down her back. She wears a man’s brown felt bowler hat. Her white cotton shirt blouses at the ornately embroidered sleeves. Despite the heat, she wears several layers of dark knee-length skirts made of heavy, hand woven wool gabardine; gathered at the waist they fluff out like a 1950’s poodle skirt. On her feet are cheap clear plastic sandals that have turned yellow with age. Her toes and toenails bare the mangled, dirt-encrusted signs of never having been protected by anything more. Her hard, heavily wrinkled face shows the signs of a difficult life spent in the arid, cold highland.

Pouring out from the shop door and encroaching on the street are piles of white, foot-long dynamite sticks, boxes of detonator caps, 2ft tall wooden spools of fuses, white plastic buckets of ammonium nitrate to amplify the explosive power of the dynamite, and an assortment soft drinks, pure black tobacco and 98 proof cane alcohol. Sitting directly in front of the old women is a giant 2ft tall, 2ft wide bag of dried coca leaves. She dips into it and weighs out a pound on a hand-held scale for a customer. The small sticks of limestone sitting by the coca leaf bag are chewed as a catalyst with the coca to extract its maximum benefit.

Not knowing what to buy, Geoff and I give Edwine 20 Bolivianos ($2.50 USD) which he spends on 3 one pound bags of coca leaves, 1 pair of gloves, and 1 two litre bottle of orange soft drink.

It’s only a ten minute drive to the base of Cerro Rico. The almost perfect cone shape of the mountain starts at 4000m (13,000ft) and peaks at 4600m(15,100ft). It can be seen from almost anywhere in Potosí. Four-hundred-and-fifty years have stripped the surface of any life. It stands barren. Alone. The surface covered in red, yellow and brown swirls of mining waste. It looks the perfect setting for a science fiction movie.

As we walk towards on of the hundreds of entrances to the mine’s thousands of shafts we pass several men. Dirty, dripping with sweet, they handle the mound in front of them one stone at the time to separate the useless rock from the saleable ore that has been brought out of the mine. Each man’s cheek bulges with a wad of coca leaves, like a baseball player chewing tobacco. A miner will start chewing his wad of coca about an hour before he goes to work, and we will chew coca continuously until his shift is over. His shift can be as long as 12 hours and he will work 6 days a week. During his shift he will not surface, not even to eat. No one takes food into the mine. He will stop only to smoke pure black tobacco, swig straight cane alcohol, drink syrupy warm soft drinks or make offerings of the same to the statues of El Tío--the god of the underworld that is the miner’s lucky charm. The miners are tired and spiritless. They know Edwine, but even as they make idle chit-chat with him, they never smile. They keep their heads down and continue to work, stopping only to walk over listlessly and take to new gloves that Edwine has offered. The miner thanks him without taking his eyes off the ground.

The mouth of the mine is a jagged 6ft tall, 4ft wide opening into total darkness. As I cross the threshold there is a sweet, rancid smell. The walls are covered in the thick, sticky, dried, brown blood of the llamas that have been sacrificed to satisfy El Tío’s desire for blood.

The light from the entrance fades until all that is left is the 2ft circles of light cast by our headlamp and total darkness. My field of vision is very limited so it’s hard to watch for of the obstacles that come from below, above and on both sides: don’t trip on the trolley ties on the ground, don’t slip in the mud puddles, duck for low ceilings, beams and cables, watch for the rock chutes that jut out of the walls. I’m paying very close attention to getting proper footing in a puddle when I soundly bump my head on the ceiling which chose this exact point to become abruptly much lower. I’m grateful for my hardhat, and I am sure it will come in handy a few more times before the tour is over.

The air is already very thin at 4000m (13,000ft) and the powerful mixture of fumes makes it hard to breath. I noticed it almost immediately when we entered and it’s getting worst the further we move into the mountain. I read that ¼ of all visitors have to leave the tour early, but I’m still surprised by how fast this is hitting me. I resolve to take deep, slow breaths—a strategy I take up only half-heartedly because each deep breath is filled with the acrid smell of silicon dust.

Edwine stops abruptly and motions for silence. We stand in the 2″ puddle of water between the narrow trolley tracks and wait. Far off in the distance there is a rumble. This is not a tourist attraction, it is a working mine in the third-world where safety is generally the responsibly of the supernatural. Just for a second my paranoia indulges the idea of a cave-in, but Edwine explains that we need to get off the track. An ore cart is coming. We quickly dodge rocks, tracks, and pipes to make our way into a large nook in the wall.

I’m starting to feel light-headed and I’m damned hot. The further we move into the mountain the hotter it gets. I welcome the break. My shirt sticks uncomfortably to my back and I pull my clinging shirt off my chest as though that will make it easier to breath. My imaginary rock slide slowly rumbles closer. For the first time I am stopped, and I can divert my attention to something other that avoiding injury. The rough, unbraced, slate grey walls are covered with white, slightly shimmery ‘stuff’. At first I only notice it on the wall across from me, and it looks like chips of mica. I see some on the wall next to me, too fibrous for mica. I lean into the wall to get my face up close for a better look when it dawns on me that it’s asbestos particles. I jerk my face away quickly. The trolley has almost arrived and my imaginary cave-in is so loud that I have to yell at Geoff as I point and say, “ASBESTOS FIBERS”. We look around and it’s everywhere. The walls glint with it as far as I can see in both directions of the shaft. Finally the trolley arrives, and I understand why it has taken so long. The ½ ton cart, overflowing with rock, is being pushed up to the surface by two skinny, sweaty, panting miners; cheeks budging with coca leaves. They seize the opportunity for a break and start a conversion with Edwine—no doubt in the hopes that they will get some of the goods we bought at the miner’s store. Eventually Edwine hands over a bag of coca leaves, which they accept with the same flatness and exhaustion that has marked the entire conversation. They reach for the edge of the trolley, strain hard and grunt to coax the trolley slowly underway again.

As we continue to walk I ask Edwine if what I’ve noticed on the walls is asbestos because I am in a bit of denial that these men work here without any protection. “Yes. Naturally occurring asbestos” is the response. “Oh! Naturally occurring asbestos. Nothing to worry about then” I think sarcastically to myself.

Edwine has been chewing coca since before we entered the mine. He must have noticed I was short of breath because he offers me a handful. What the hell. It can’t hurt to try. I’m given instruction to suck on the leaf—don’t chew. It will be to bitter. I pluck the stem off a few leaves and stick them in the side of my cheek.

We go left or right at a few forks in the shaft, and I am quite certain that under absolutely no circumstance could I find my way out of the mine.

There is a new thundering at the end of the shaft, but Edwine does not stop this time. Having passed a few trolleys by now, this sound seems different to me also. This is no rolling rumble. This is a short rapid pounding that reverberates down the claustrophobic, pitch passage against the walls. We stop a little further on and Edwine asks us if we have any toilette paper to put in out ears to block out the noise—not exactly OSHA approved, but better than nothing. We comply and he rips off two pieces from his green plastic coca leaf bag and stuffs them into his ears.

I’ve been sucking on my coca leaves for about 10 minutes now, and I am surprise to notice that the shortness of breath is almost gone. The miners claim that the coca can make you feel stronger and more alert, but I don’t feel any of that. I feel no intoxication either. It’s just much easier to breath. Maybe after centuries of mining they have learned a trick or two. Or maybe it’s just psychological. Truth is it worked either way and I’m happy about that.

Edwine motions for us to wait for him and he walks on in to the cave until the light from his headlamp vanishes. We are close now. It’s so loud that I can feel noise as much as I can hear it. It’s impossible to speak, so I stand there in the narrow darkness with Geoff as the vibration from the pounding resonates through my arms and chest. Abruptly the sound stops and the shaft falls into total silence. Somehow the cave seems to get darker without the distraction of the sound. My ears are ringing. The sound resumes and no more than a minute later Edwine’s light reappears. He has successfully negotiated permission for us to take a closer look. He motions and we follow him to the blunt dead-end of the shaft. Two men are using a 5ft long, 4ft tall drill to make blast holes in the rock-face. Our orange soft drink bottle and bag of coca sit on the side, payment no doubt. Nearby sits a white plastic pail of ammonium nitrate on top of which sits 12 sticks of dynamite that had been cut down to 6″, 12 one-foot lengths of fuse, and 12 detonator caps. The miners wear yellow hardhats and are dripping in the muddy water that splashes from the water cooled drill bit. Rock chips and mud fly by as one man guides the 3ft long drill bit with his bare hands. The other man shakes from hardhat to boots as he fights to control the twisting, pounding motion of the drill. The air is so thick with dust that I have a muddy past in my mouth. The miners wear no foam ear plugs, no safety glasses. A filthy, muds soaked square of jersey knit cloth covers the mouth of the drill operator. Like Edwine, they have stuffed pieces from coca leave bags into their ears. There life expectancy is 50 years. They will almost all die gasping for air and coughing up blood from the various diseases caused by silicoses, but not until they have lived at poverty levels with their families. They earn at most 1800 to 900 Bolivianos per month ($225 - $112 USD).

It takes 20 minutes before the massive drill is moved to a nearby alcove, and we all move up for a closer look. Completely disinterested and unwilling to engage in conversation, one of the miners goes about pushing the fuses and detonator caps into the sticks of dynamite. The sticks are then placed deep into blast holes which are then packed with ammonium nitrate. Without speaking, without making eye contact, without fanfare of any kind, a match is struck and the first fuse is light. The fuse crackles and spit sparks like a Fourth of July ‘sparkler’. “What the hell am I doing here” crosses my mind, and the three of us turn in unison towards our guide and state quite firmly! vamos! And with that we followed Edwine back the way we came. There are twelve sticks of dynamite embedded in ammonium nitrate about to explode behind me. My instinct is to run down the shaft, or at least walk real damned fast, but I look around and Edwine and all the other miners are slowly sauntering away. Quite positive that they have no death wish, I make myself do the same. So we walk for two minutes at the most—we haven’t gotten very far—when it happens. I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared. First a light breeze blows by, then a concussion of air hits. Bang! The sound of the blast is unimpressive compared to sensation of the concussion of air hitting compressing my body from all directions. Suddenly I am not thinking of anything else, I'm just waiting for the next explosion to hit. Consecutively eleven other concussions come with the same exhilarating effect. In between each blast Geoff and I laugh and carry on about what an incredible sensation this is. In sharp contrast are the nearby miners for whom this is very much an everyday experience.

For us what could possibly top that? We made our way back to the surface with only a short stop to make an offering to El Tío as thanks for safe passage. We broke into the sunshine still talking excitedly about our experience with exclamation of “That was much more than I expected” and “That was worth the price of admission”.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Galapagos Dive II

…over to take a better look. Its black thick shell is at least 3 ft across. Its head is comical. It reminds me of a sock puppet. We both take the opportunity to touch one of its fin like legs. The turtle doesn’t move. He doesn’t even turn his head. I look up and another marine turtle is swimming 10 ft away. On land marine turtles look ancient, scaly. Their slow, awkward movements make them seem like clumsy stupid creatures. Under water they are calm and graceful. They swim and maneuver with little effort. Here everything, including me, is more graceful.
Geoff had been lagging behind, and he is now motioning us to come over. A sea lion is swimming near by. After days of snorkeling I’ve played with dozens of sea lion, but I never tire of it. With their front fins tucked closely at their side they move swiftly and sharply. Their oily chestnut fur shimmers underwater. Their eyes are the most memorable: large, perfectly round, and jet black. On land their eyes are always covered with a thick, glassy coat of water that makes them look like they are always on the verge of tears, and I just want to give them a hug. It takes me a second to realize that she’s fishing. She’s in pursuit of a yellowtail surgeonfish. She darts down and nips at its tail, but then sets it free. The fish tries to evade by swimming up and to the right, but without the slightest effort she matches its moves and nips at its tail again. Her speed and agility far outrank her prey’s, but she continues nipping at it until she’s bored with her game, then swallows it in one gulp and swims off.

We continue along the reef wall further. I am still struggling with my weight, but I am keeping up with Washington. Excited by what I’ve seen I use the break to remind myself to relax and slow my breath.
A little further on, Washington stops and abruptly sticks his hand through some thick plants and into a crevasse of the reef (Crazy! I wouldn’t do that). He pulls out a fully inflated black and white balloon fish. He’s holding the panicked fish at the narrow juncture between its tail and body. It fights to escape with frenzied wiggles in my direction. It’s about 1 1/2ft long and 6′ across. It’s only about 12′ away from my face when it slowly opens its round mouth and closes it again in that way that only a fish does, and I laugh into my regulator. Washington puts the poor fish back into its crevasse once we’ve all had a look, and to my surprise it chooses to stay there instead of darting off.
We go only a little farther, and he fishes something else out of the reef. “What the hell is that?” It’s some kind of comma-shaped crustacean. I can’t see a head. Washington signs that it’s a lobster. Now I can see it. The lobster’s head and claws are wrapped in on themselves and the comma shape is formed by the tail. Washington lets is go and it starts swims; strangest damned thing. Without unfolding its head or claws it convulses its tail back and forth to create thrust. It’s not going anywhere fast, unlike everything else I’ve seen, this lobster lacks ease or grace in all respects.
We continue to travel again, a good time to check my air. Doing all right, while I’m at it I look at my depth gauge. 90ft! That seems like a lot. I’ll have to ask Geoff about it.
A school of hundreds—but it feels like thousands—of yellowtail surgeonfish swim all around us. I’ve seen lots of these beautiful fish snorkeling. They are about 4′ long with coal grey bodies and lemon yellow tails. Being surrounded by them is like being in a swarm of butterflies. I reach out to touch one as they swim in the opposite direction as me. Not long after the school passes I see Washington gesture for us to look behind. He grabs my arm. I turn around just in time to see a 10 foot Galapagos shark! It cuts the same silhouette as a great white shark, but half the size. My eyes are immediately drawn to the gills, which are the only marks on the otherwise perfectly smooth body. I thought I’d be scared out of my mind the first time I saw a shark, but as it swims on I feel calm.
When Washington grabbed my arm, he grabbed it hard, and I could tell that he was not about to let go. He still seemed very unsure of me, so I decide that if the dive master feels better with a firm grip on the newbie then so be it.
The reef is changing now. There are not as many fish and almost no plant life. As we move along we leave the reef behind for a sandy bottom. Overhead a hug school of fish casts a shadow over us. When Washington signals that they are barracuda I can’t believe it. I’ve seen individual barracuda scuba diving and swimming as a child in the Saint Laurence River, but never a school of hundreds of them! Usually I am very uncomfortable getting too close to the tooth filled fish, but as the long, sleek, silver fish pass us by I’m not unnerved at all. Like the shark, they seem completely disinterested in us, and that is reassuring.
It’s hard for me to swim. Washington’s grip on my arm has me off balance, and I have to work a lot harder to navigate along with him. I consider gently pulling away, but I decide against it. Just then he jerks me over to the right and points at a 20ft Hammerhead shark!!! What an absurd looking creature. From its neck to its tail it has the elegance of a shark, but then the head looks like one of George Lucas’ Star Wars creation. It swims passed us quickly without effort and tilts slightly as it goes into the darkness, leaving us with a perfect silhouette of its nonsensical head.
We swim for a little longer without seeing anything, so I check my air gauge: 20 bars. Crap! I don’t want to leave yet. I consider keeping this to myself and pushing it to 15 bars. I decide I’ve bent enough rules for one day.

Friday, October 31, 2003

15,000 Feet of Altitude and Wet

Hey all,
Time keeps flying by and we keep getting into more than we bargained for with our adventures. Here is the latest from Geoff’s journal on Oct. 29
We are 3 days into a 5 day hike near the town of Huaraz in Peru. Right now it is raining again. Our tent leaks very badly. We rented it in town for $6 a day with the guarantee that it was a 3 season tent and that it would handle the rain just fine. We have entered the rainy season for this area so the weather is a crap shoot. For the last day and half it’s been the crap part of the shoot.
We wanted to take this trek to help get acclimatized the altitude and to get into shape for trekking the Inca Trail outside of Cusco. Huaraz is about 10,000 feet. If we decide to climb the pass tomorrow we will get to 15,400 feet.
We are having a great time. The first day kicked our asses with a 2,000 ft. climb in just a few miles. We started at 9,500 ft or so. We only got about half as far as we thought we were going to go. We were just so damn tired and light-headed. The guide book says to fully acclimatize for a few days or more in Huaraz before attempting the trek, but of course we did not. We took a night bus there, got situated, bought all the food, (the lightweight just add hot water, oh your vegetarian, we have only vegetable risotto and muesli kind), rented this crappy tent, a headlamp (yes I still have not replaced the one lost in a panic in the cave), a stove and a pot to cook in. We went for a short hike the next day up to 12,000 ft. and called it good. We were ready for 5 days and 4 nights of abuse. Truthfully I don’t think I have ever been out backpacking this long before. Let’s just say that Advil has been very very good to me.
So as I was saying, today is day 3 and we are only at the campsite we thought we would be at on day 2. When I first put on my backpack back in town I thought, “Wow, this isn’t so bad. I will be able to do this no problem.” Well it was damn heavy on day 1, still damn heavy on day 2, and just a bit less than damn heavy on day 3. The tent is a complete pig and weighs a ton. It’s a 3 man tent and we thought that it was a bit of overkill but could not find a lighter one.
The first night it only rained a very little bit in the middle of the night and a little in the morning. No problem for said tent. Last night it started to rain just as we were setting it up at about 4:30 in the afternoon. By 6:00 the water had soaked through the rain fly and was dripping on the tent itself. Cindy lost at rocks, paper, scissors and went out in the rain to attempt to dig a trench around the uphill side of the tent to stop us from getting completely soaked. While she did a great job, it was no match for the amount of rain we were getting and soon water was starting to run under the tent as well. With the bottom of the tent completely soaked, we realized that we could use the square rain ponchos as a false bottom on the floor. We could then put our therma-rest pads on top of that (yes Jonathan we have needed them), and then the sleeping bags. It worked out great and we stayed dry as a bone, at least from the bottom for the rest of the night. The rain continued on and off until 7 this morning. Being true Portlanders, we took it all in stride. By 10:00 this morning we were on the trail again, having dried everything out. The rain started again as we walked. We are smarter this evening and started out with the ponchos on the floor and the trenches dug before the big rain hit this evening.
We keep looking at each other and laughing about what a great time we are having. The food has been good (actually better than most of the crap we have been eating for some time), we are quickly becoming used to the altitude, and we are getting in better shape. Tomorrow we decide if we are going to tackle the pass or just head back down the valley. Either way it’s been well worth the trip. Of course, when we get back, we will ask for a refund for this lovely tent.
Oh yes, one more thing. I am starting to get used to wearing wonderful color of royal purple. I lost my fleece the other day on and the only thing I could find that fit me in this town was that color. I think I look quite regal

Rain and Donkey crap dont mix

Well the next morning started out as a beautiful clear day and we decided to go for the summit after a coin toss said that we should. I had my reservations, but the coin does not lie. The campground had filled up the night before with a few other groups of guided trekkers. You know, the ones smart enough to not carry all there gear up the side of a mountain themselves and the ones whose tents probably don’t leak. The trail started straight up the mountain and then got worse. We were very quickly fatigued and had not gone very far. To say it delicately, Cindy was not at her best because of a certain reoccurring visit from a friend of hers who was sapping all her energy. I toyed with the idea of turning back but Cindy would have none of it. We walked up and up only to see more switchbacks and no end in sight. We finally crested the pass 3 hours later in the snow and mud. Our shoes are light weight hiking shoes, not water proof and were soaked. But we were higher than either of us had ever been without the use of chemicals.
The clouds where so dense that we could barely see the path down the other side of the pass. Lucky for us the weather turned evil and started to hail. Cindy did not believe me when I said that at least it was better than rain. The rest of the hike down was pretty uneventful. Slipping and sliding down a wet hail covered rocky moraine. It got better once we got to the valley floor and were able to walk on the trail / river. Did I mention that our shoes are not water proof? The mixture of mud, rain, donkey, and cow shit was treacherous. Falling and landing in the muck was not an option. After a brief lunch of more vegetable risotto, we walked on endlessly for 3 more hours until we had had enough. The tent was pitched, ponchos laid out and ditches dug. It was a good day. Or at least now that it is over and I have my rose colored glasses on it was. Later that night listening to a cows tail swish up against the tent we were happy. I thought it was Cindy making the noise and she thought it was I. We poked our heads out of the tent and saw Betsy happily chewing her cud and attempting to crap at our front door.
We were not sure how long the last day of hiking would be but knew that the hike ended on an uphill somewhere down the valley. What we did not know was that the end was another 1,000 to 1,500 ft. straight up from the valley floor. When we got to the top, all of the hikers were there waiting for a bus that never showed. Some had been there for three hours. When a mini bus finally did show, we crammed the prerequisite 20 people into a vehicle designed for 12 or less and headed home.
Tonight we take a night bus to Lima and then are off to Cusco for more abuse. Let you all know how it goes.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Galapagos Islands Dive - Part 1

It’s 11 AM. We have spent the morning walking the soft sandy shores of Floreana Island watching the day old sea lion pups playing in the surf and snorkeling with marine turtles and schools of hundreds of Yellowtail Surgeonfish. I feel relaxed and up-beat even though a good night sleep has been hard to come by the last 4 nights as the boat pitches hard enough to lift us out of our bed at night.
I’m sitting at one of the three linoleum tables that make up the dinning room of the Guantanamera. As is always the case in South America, music is playing in the background. Washington, a 30 something wildlife guide and dive master, is going over our dive plan. Washington is perfectly cast for this role. His short thick jet black hair is always windblown and his loose fitting boat-collar shirt, baggy shorts and bear feet make him look every bit a sailor. His barrel chest and fit build mark him as a man who spends his days snorkeling, diving, and walking island beaches. And his dark skin and strong nose make him look typically Ecuadorian. Geoff, a Dutch girl I’ll call Holly, and I look on as Washington draws out a diagram of Devil’s Rock; which sits about a mile of the shore of Floreana. The dingy will drop us off on the South West side of the rock. We will swim against the current along a reef that drops off like a cliff. At the end of the reef we will swim with the current along the shallower North East side of Devil’s Rock. Twenty bars is our stopping point. The first person to get down to 20 pounds of air pressure is to signal Washington by raising two fingers (one for each ten bars) and we will all surface.
Instruction received, we are about to wrap-up the briefing and head for our equipment when Holly asks "Do you need to see my dive certificate?" Holly just got her PADI certification a few weeks ago and has interrupted Washington a few times by interjecting some of her new found knowledge. Geoff and I flinch. Officially everyone who dives off a tourism boat in the Galapagos is supposed to have at least their Open Water certification from PADI. I’ve never been certified. I took a short resort course in Mexico that was just a few hours, then I did a few dives, but that’s it. If you dive with a dive master, I reasoned, they control your rate of decent and ascent as well as how long you are down. All I have to do is to breath and not panic. This I can do. Washington has asked us how many dives we had each done, I said three. He pegged me right away as completely green, but he never asked about a PADI certifications. Geoff and I had predicted that no one would ask to see my dive certification. There are no rampant cases of lawsuits here. People are responsible for their own actions. If you choose to take the risk of diving without certification that is unofficially your business. Besides, people are much more comfortable with physical risk here. But although almost every rule in Ecuador is considered more of a guideline, there is still a different between bending a rule and breaking a rule. Bending the rule is letting me diving without asking for my certification. Breaking the rule is diving with me and knowing that I am uncertified. I’m worried that Holly is going to press the point. Washington knowingly dismisses the question by saying that he will ask for them later. I doubt strongly that he will.
Briefing terminated we move up to the open-air second deck to be fitted with wetsuits. The equipment is first rate. We are giving full body 2 piece 1/4" wetsuits, gloves and fins. We all look like women trying to get into pantyhose that are much, much to small. It takes about 20 minutes of tugging, walking like a penguin while tugging, and tugging some more before we return to the first deck to get our tanks. Washington hands me a BCD and an intimidating octopus of tubes and regulators, then he pushes an air tank in my direction. Shit! Now what. I need to keep up the charade, but I have no idea how to put this together. If Washington had any doubt about whether I am certified he is about to find out for sure. I’m not about the guess at how to put together what’s going to be my only source of oxygen. I try to quietly get Geoff’s attention for a little help, but Washington sees me. He walks over and assembles my equipment without making eye contact. Excellent! I guess that he doesn’t want to loose the $60 dollars he will earn for my dive.
I watch as we all struggle to the dingy. The wet suits are tight and we all have to put a little extra effort to move our arms and legs. We don’t have enough hands to bring the tanks, fins, and masks in one trip, but we try awkwardly anyhow. Its overcast, but the wetsuits are thick so we are all getting hot. We take turns absent mindedly tugging at the collar of our wetsuits.
My mind wanders on the way to the dive spot. "There is no reason to need a dive certificate if there is a dive master running the dive. It’s just a racket. It’s PADI’s way of guarantying business. There can’t really be anything to the certification course. I’ve gone on dives already without being certified. I know how to clear my mask and regulator if something goes wrong. What else is there to know? Breathe deeply and slowly and you will be fine. Ya, breathe slowly. Don’t screw this up for everyone else by being the newbie that wastes all her air in the first few minutes and forces everyone to surface early. Relax. Breathe and don’t panic - easy. Test your regulator. It sounds funny when I breathe in. Don’t be stupid. It’s fine. You’re just being antsy. Better check with Geoff, just in case. Geoff says it’s fine. It must be fine. But this thing is making a funny sound." Finally I’m rescued from my thoughts when Washington signals that it’s time to get into the water.
After struggling with my BCD to get the air out I start to descend. I feel the pores of my wetsuit slowly filling with sea water. It’s slightly cool and wonderfully refreshing. My suit moves easily against my skin now. I continue to descend. All feeling of weight and constriction are gone. My body softens as my muscles relax. I feel more agile than I ever could on land. The ocean has a sound that is much more quite than silence. Complete silence can make my ears ring. It’s a deprivation. But the ocean has a very distant sound. A perfect sound made up of the subtle noises made over millions miles by voiceless inhabitants. The water is the palest possible shade of green, saturated with miniscule particles to give it depth and a soft twinkling texture. The light is soft but clear. Not assaulting like the sun or depriving like the dark. This density of the particles converge on one point in my horizon to let me judge the distance from where I am to the absolute darkness ahead. There are no physical discomforts here. Just neutrality and my mind feels more focused and clear when I dive then when I am doing anything else.
I’ve descended to 60ft when we level off. The reef before me is almost an absolute cliff and continues passed me at a 20 degree angle into the darkness. The coral is white but is almost totally obscured with life: sea anemone, start fish, fans, and more plants than I could ever hope to identify. I look up and my vision is completely filled with the black silhouette of thousands of back light tropical fish, but I can’t see the surface. It’s a breath taking sight.
Washington makes his way along the reef. I follow closely. None of my other dives have been against the current, and this requires a lot more effort. I’m also a little too heavy. I added some air to my BCD, but I’m afraid of adding too much and floating up before I can get the air out again because I had some trouble with that at the beginning of the dive. The rhythmic sound from my regulator is constant and reminds me always to breathe deeply and slowly.
Washington grabs my arm and pulls me to a crevasse in the coral. At first I can’t see what’s inside because of the vines flowing back and forth across the opening like small green feather boas, so I think he is kidding himself when he motions for me to stick my hand inside. Then he brushes aside the vines and I see the three big clams on the coral wall. Their rough undulating white shells are about 1 1/2 feet across and are open to reveal their soft fleshy interior. Washington sticks his hand inside one of the clams and it closes. I do the same. I’m surprised at how tough the muscular flesh is.
Holly is on her way over to see the clams, but she stops short and motions for us to look

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Topping the Andes

Gavin is a New Zealander who came to Villcabamba 20 years ago; before there was a paved road from the provincial capital of Loja. Back then it took 5 hours to make the trip. When he first arrived, the village had just installed a generator that was turned on from 7PM to 10PM daily, unless there was a fiesta in which case it would stay on until 1AM. After traveling the world for 10 years, Gavin had found his home in this small village nestled in an Andean valley 1000m above sea level.
The trip from Loja only takes one hour now. The road improvement has drastically changed Villcabamba by bringing more tourists and foreign settlers—to mixed reviews by the locals. But it remains a small town with mostly dirt roads; more sophisticated cobblestones are reserved for the town’s four main roads that surround the plaza.
Gavin looks every day of his 50 years, but the spark in his eyes and easy smile allow him wear his age well. He uses all of his 6ft; carrying himself straight and tall; walking with comfortable long strides. He wears Jeans, a button-down, long-sleeve shirt and white cowboy hat—he’s a good guy. His strong jaw line and gray-black moustache make him look like McCloud from the old 1970s TV show.
Geoff and Gavin stuck up a conversation one day as we passed by Gavin’s office. Geoff took an immediate liking to the man’s slow drawl and quite, but outgoing demeanor. So much so that he put his powerful hatred of horses aside and suggested that we take the two-day horseback trip to the top of one of the Andean peak near the village.
The day starts at 9AM. We cross the small cobblestone street that our hotel is on to met Gavin at his office. The sign above his door reads “The Guy From New Zealand—Horse back rides into the Andes.” We are only one block from the main square at the center of town, but the road is deserted. Cars are rarely seen here, horses are still the prime choice of transportation for the mainly dirt roads and narrow paths that crisscross the valley and mountains around town.
Eight saddled horse are meandering unsupervised in the street in front of Gavin’s office. The horses are small, standing only 5 ft at the shoulder, but they look healthy and well feed, unlike many of the horses in town whose ribs show through their loose skin and go unshod.
Here we meet Aster and Nadine. Aster is a gentle, very soft spoken German girl in her late 20s with shocking black hair and a soft round face. Nadine is a 29-year-old tall woman of almost 6ft, but her movements are casual and lanky.
As is typical in Ecuador, our 9AM departure doesn’t actually arrive until 9:30AM. Gavin and our second guide Jose help us mount our horses. There are six of us, and none of us knows how to ride. We are a tangle of horses and people spread across the width of the street fumbling and flailing. Gavin comes over to help me. I will ride Mandango, a chestnut male standing about 4ft with a dark black mane that has been cut short and stands on end like a punk Mohawk. I’ve only mounted a couple horses in my life, so Gavin give me some pointers: stand to the left of the horse, grab the mane with my left hand, put my right hand on the opposite side of the saddle and push hard with my left foot in the stirrup. Sounds straightforward. I bounce up and down a little to get some momentum and count 1-2-3 in my head. I hoist myself up and promptly get myself wedged with my torso collapsed across the back of the horse, my fingers desperately gripping their hold, my butt stuck in Gavin’s face, and my right leg caught on the protruding saddlebag which is the source of my problems. It takes my a couple of seconds, but I finally get my leg free. If at first you don’t succeed… Adding a little extra “oomph” and a shove from Gavin, my second try lands my rump in the saddle. There are several other failed attempts like mine, but we finally all end up on our horse and Gavin leads us out of town. Our well-trained horse move into single file without prompting as we make our way down the four blocks that bring us to the outskirts of town.
Mandango has a smooth gate when walking, and I enjoy my elevated view of the town. I think to myself that horseback is a very pleasant way to travel. As we leave town Mandango quickens his pace and moves into a trot. With each of Mandango’s steps I am bounced squarely off the saddle only to come crashing back down again. Where is the user manual for this thing? Gavin didn’t say anything about how to do this. There has got to be a much better position that the butt bruising one that I am in. Why in the hell would anyone want to get around on one of these? This carries on for about 10 min before we got far enough out of town for Gavin to pick up the pace. The caravan of horses follows suit and Mandango begins to gallop. What a singularly magnificent experience. Each long striding step is smooth. Naturally I matched the rocking of my body to the rocking motion of the horse. I wasn’t riding the horse anymore. Mandango and I were ridding together. The speed, the power, the rhythm was completely exhilarating. This must truly be why people ride horses.
The rush was short lived. Soon we approached a narrow passage; Gavin slowed and Mandango changed to a trot. The next 20 minutes are spent alternating from painful trot to sublime gallop until we reach the Rio Uchima.
As the procession of horses crosses the water I think that from a distance we look like cowboys in a wild-west movie—close up we look like a bunch of gringos wearing hiking shoes, zip off nylon pants and ball caps trying not to fall off the horses wading through the water.
After the river we start our 1500m climb to the refuge where we will spend the night. Mandango is named after a local mountain because he loves to climb. The steeper the incline, the harder and faster he pulls. He rocks his head back and forth engaging his whole body to carry me up. He seems to enjoy the strain like a great athlete would.
As I climb I look at the expansive view. The path we are on is only eight inches wide, which doesn’t concern Mandango in the least but worries me when I stare down the steep bush covered slop to my right. Down the slop and across the valley I see miles and miles of the Andes never-ending peaks stacked one behind the other. The closer peaks end abruptly in a ravine that carries the Rio Uchima back to Villcabamba.
Each mountain is covered in short burnt-red and golden-brown shrubs drying under the blazing sun. The sparseness of the growth allows each small ravine, gully and cliff to stand out. It’s beautiful in the way the high desert in Oregon is.
For five hours we climb the mountain. The periodic flats are an opportunity for the horses to catch their breath. Each time we breach a flat I feel Mandango’s massive rib cage expand to its fullest between my legs as he takes a deep breath. He’s sweating from the strain. I wonder if it’s cruel to work him this hard, then he charges for the next hill. I pull on the reins to slow him down, but he resists. He wants to climb.
Almost to the top, Geoff is given another reason to hate horses. His skittish horse is poorly fitted with its saddle. When the horse is spooked by its own shadow it rears up and sends Geoff flying through the air and crashing to the ground. After mumbling several X-rated sentences he dusts himself off and focuses on the conditions of the camera that was tied to his waist. Man and camera are intact, so Geoff puts his misgivings aside, mounts his horse, and we continue up the mountain.
We reach the final flat area and I can see the A-frame of the refuge. Mandango knows he has arrived and he breaks into a full gallop—this after a 1500m climb. Once we arrive we unsaddle to horses and they immediately go to the meadow, flop on their backs and roll around for a good scratch.
The refuge is set on Gavin’s 80 acre farm. He purchased the farm 5 years ago. After much negotiation over several bottles of vodka, Gavin agreed to pay $3,500 USD for the farm as long as the seller threw in 3 cows, 2 horses, a donkey and a bull.
A little stiff and sore we all walk around to stretch our cramped legs and battered bottoms.
Our galley is a small A-Frame that sits about 100m from the summit. Threadbare hammocks hang outside a small secondary building made from gaping wooden planks. This is where we will sleep. The dark, windowless rooms are filled with plank beds covered by 1" of foam that have all turned coffee brown with age and use. A sprawling meadow opens out in front of the building. The grass has been chewed to its roots by the horses. From the picnic table in from of the A-Frame I can see past the meadow and down the valley all the way back to Villcabamba. This will also be my inspired view when using the three-sided outhouse 100ft away from the refuge.
We are treated with ruffles potato chips and guacamole sandwiches for lunch. Geoff is the oldest in our crew, but young or old we all ready for a siesta after lunch. Gavin is just getting started though. He rounds us up and we set out from the refuge for a hike through the Podocarpus National Park, which borders Gavin’s property. The land in the park was set aside and protected in 1982, just after the paved road arrived to Villcabamba.
It’s a short but steep 15-minute hike to Podocarpus. We quickly transition from the 2ft tall, dry brush at the back of the refuge to taller bushes and finally to the jungle. I am stunned by the sudden change. Fifteen minutes ago I was in a highland desert, now I am pushing my way through lush vines and dense ferns to make my way down the narrow trail. The parched brown dirt has given way to deep, black, rich, fertile soil. The trees climb to over 100ft and are covered with orchids and bromelia, moss and vines. Everywhere there are tropical plants that I’ve seen commonly grown in North American homes: arrowheads, purple ivy, ficus trees; many more than I can name. The most exotic are the 50ft tall fern trees. Gavin tries to make us believe that they are 800 years old, but he also showed us some poop that he said came from a puma, but looked more like K-9 leftovers to me. I’ll just chalk Gavin up to being a good storyteller. Several times Jose stops to explain the medicinal values of a bark, root or flower as the others move ahead with Gavin. Jose had to study two years before he could be certified as a park naturalist, so Geoff and I decide to hang back with him and his educated opinion.
The air has gone from arid and dusty to humid with the clean scent of an arboretum. When the paved road arrived to Villcabama the local economy was transformed. It was now possible to ship fruits and vegetables out of the valley. This is when the village took to slashing and burning the jungle to plant banana trees and later sugar cane. But most of the organic matter in the jungle is captive in the existing plant life. Cutting and burning it down leaves only a thin layer of topsoil that is completely exhausted within two planting seasons. Which is, of course, when the farmers move on to slash and burn the next parcel of land. Once they realized that it was impossible to grow crops in the jungle, they filled the dead brown fields with cattle and horses whose grazing make it completely impossible for the jungle to take root again. The brown and gold valley that I though was beautiful high desert is just a sad example of jungle depletion in South America. Sure, this is nothing new to anyone reading this posting. We all know “slash and burn”—bad, “preserve the jungle”—good. Some of us probably even donate the occasional President Jackson to the cause. But to see it made me as sad as to see poor children begging in the streets. For as far as I could see, in all directions, perched atop an Andean peek is a desert that used to be a jungle. A jungle that took 20 years to destroy and that would take 100 to reclaim—that is if you could get the cows out of there. I try to picture thick green peaks and valleys filled with birds, tree ferns, and pumas, but it is too far removed from what the area is today. We head back to the refuge to watch the sun set. I am glad when the darkness comes and I don’t have to look or think about it anymore.
The 8 of us spend the evening at the refuge drinking too many of Gavin’s “Sundowners” (vodka, passion fruit juice, and orange juice). We all trade tall tales from our travels and swap travel advice based on where we’ve been and where we are going.
The next day it’s an early breakfast and a four-hour descent back to Villcabamba. Gavin explains “a horse isn’t a horse if he can’t carry a man up a mountain, and a man isn’t a man if he rides a horse down a mountain”. So we dismount our horses for the steepest parts of our descent—which is a relief to me because it seems like such a struggle for Mandango.
By the time we get to town, we are thoroughly bruised and stiff. I am sure it will feel a lot worse tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Crossing from Ecuador to Peru

This is something I put together to go onto a travelers’ web site. It’s not super interesting, but it’s information on how we’ve spent the last week.
I just crossed into Northern Peru from Ecuador Via Zumba to take a boat down the Amazon to Iquitos. Before I left I tried to gather some info, but I couldn’t really find much. Almost everyone stays on the tourist trail and crosses in Tumbes. So here is a very brief account of my experience. To anyone out there who’s done this also, please add on to what I have here. The more info the better.
This route isn’t going to be for everyone. It takes a lot of time and a lot of it is pretty uncomfortable. If you are pressed for time and want to concentrate on the highlights of Peru you will likely be disappointed. If you have the time and want to get off the beaten path to see the non-touristy Peru it’s great. I really enjoyed it. The highlights for me:

Great scenery on all the drives. The Andeas and the jungle are amazing
Getting to see average life in Peru
The ruins at Kuelap
Soaking up the relaxing pace of life in the Amazon during the two day boat ride to Iquitos
A warning to vegetarians. It is difficult to find vegeterian fare off the beaten path, so be prepared to stock up at the markets. You’ll need to make your own. You might even have to try a few restaurants before you succeed in placing a custom order.
I’ve included the time is took to get from place to place, but this is South America so they should be taken as rough estimates. Prices are per person unless I mention otherwise. Bargain away. Hopefully you can get things even cheaper than I did.
I started in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. This is a beautiful little hippy town that I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to chill out for a few day. Good hotels and foods. A little pricy by Ecuador standards ($5-$8 p.p-night for rooms) Activities include great hikes into the Andes (especially in the Podocarpus National Reserve), horseback rides into the Andes and retreats with local shaman. I took a 2 day horseback trip with “Gavin the Guy from New Zealand” (That is exactly how the sign to his office reads) and I had a great time, but expect very, very basic accommodation during your trip.

Vilcabamba to Zumba
From Vilcabamba catch a bus to Zumba. Take the 7AM bus because if you take a later bus you will not make it to the border before the immigration office closes and you will be stuck in La Balsa overnight. The view of the Andes is fantastic, but the road is in poor condition.
Travel time: 5.5 hours
Cost $6.50 USD
Road: Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Zumba to La Balsa
We arrived in Zumba at 12:30PM and had to wait until 2:30 to catch a bus to La Balsa. They get very few tourists in Zumba so be prepared for a lot of attention. This isn’t the kind of aggressive attention you get on the tourist trail. They aren’t trying to sell you anything. They just want to know a little about the unusual strangers that have come into town. They are genuine and welcoming. We had a couple dozen people come sit with us in the central plaza while we made sandwiches for lunch, and I enjoyed their company very much. The bus that you will take isn’t really a bus. It is a flat bed truck with a wooden structure on the back that forms a covered sitting area. The bus is usually overfilled, so if you want a little extra adventure let the interior fill up and climb on the roof for your journey. The view of the Andes is the best of the trip at this point and the view from the roof will be great. About half way to the border the bus will have emptied out enough so that you can switch to the interior seating, if you’ve had enough of the roof.
Travel time: 2 hours
Cost $1.75 USD
Road: Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Border Crossing
It was a no hastle border crossing, but they close around 4PM or 5PM, so don’t delay getting there. Make sure you have the tourist card you’ve received when you entered Ecuador, and it should be a piece of cake. On the Ecuador side two stone faced officials stamped my passport with an exit stamp (very important to get the exit stamp). Then I walked across the bridge to Peru where two very friendly officials granted me a 90 day visa. It was a very casual affair. The officials were really bummed that they couldn’t watch any movies because the CD ROM on their computer was broken, so when they found out that I work with computers they had me try to fix it. Super nice guys. You’ll get a stamp in your passport and a tourist card. Don’t loose the tourist card or you will need to pay for a new one when you leave the country.
Time: 30min
Cost: nada

From the Peru Border to San Ignacio
Catch a collectivo taxi from the border station to San Ignacio. Collectivos are all over South America. If you haven’t used one before, they are taxis or minivans that charge a fixed rate to get you from point A to point B. Sometimes they will not depart until they are full, sometimes they depart before they are full but they will try to pick up other passagers on the way. Full means overfull to most of us westerners. There are people who will exchange your dollars into soles here, but the exchange rate is really bad. We waited. The view along this stretch is nice.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost:$3.00 USD or 10 Soles
Roads: Very bad. Dusty. Loads of pot holes
San Ignacio
By the time we reached San Ignacio it was about 7PM and that was enough travel for us for the day so we stayed the night. The town is a good size, but not really set up for tourists. We saw at least 3 hotels and several restaurants. We stayed at Posada Hostelria: clean rooms, TV, cold shower, very friendly, 20 soles for a double. There is no where to exchange money between the border and San Ignacio that we found, but with a little proding we were able to get the restaurant and hotel to accept dollars. The hotel gave a really fair exchange rate. Bring small US bills if you can. You will find them easier to use.

San Ignacio to Jaen
We took a very overcrowded minivan from S.I. to Jaen. The terminal is within walking distance from the hotel we stayed at. Ask at the front desk for directions. The driver also accepted USD, but we got a very bad exchange rate. We left around 6AM, but you can leave later. Ask around.
Travel time: 3.5 hours
Cost:12 soles
Road:Very bad. Dusty. Loads of pot holes
In Jaen
The minivan will take you to something like a bus station. It’s a bit of a walk to the center of town, so we took a motokar (They are everywhere and very loud. They are a cross between a rickshaw and a motorcycle. You can’t miss them) It costs only 1 sol. Prepare to be mobbed when you arrive at the bus station. There are several banks in Jaen, so this is were we exchanged money. Banco Del Nacion was the one we used. We had breakfast here. There were way more restaurants to choose from here than S.I.

Jaen to Pedro Ruiz

There are lots and lots of small ruins in Northern Peru, so you can really head out in many directions from here, but we wanted to head to Iquitos, so we made off for Pedro Ruiz. We asked a motokar driver and he took us to a bus station to catch a bus to Pedro Ruiz. The bus was suposed to leave at 12PM, but we actually took off at about 1PM, so we waited 2 hours in the bus station. Alternatively you can take a direct night bus to Tarapoto, but we wanted to stop in Chachapoyas to see some ruins and to break up the trip.
Travel time: 3.5 hours
Cost: 15 soles
Road: blissful smooth pavment
Pedro Ruiz to Chachapoyas
Wait around in Pedro Ruis to catch a bus or minivan, or better yet take a collectivo taxi. The cost is about the same and the taxi will get you there a lot faster.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost: 10soles
Road: Dusty, pot holes, lots of sheer drop offs.

DAY 3, DAY 4
In Chachapoyas
There are a lot of small ruins near Chacha. Any hotel can make arrangements for you to see them. After two days of solid and difficult travel we decided to stay here a couple of days to break up the trip. You could easily stay longer if you are a fan of pre-Columbian ruins. Don’t expect too much though. These are not Machu Picchu. Most of the sites are very, very, very small with only one or two things to see. There is very little information about them because they have not really been studied. It is also a long haul to get around to see them. They are several hours apart by car on really bad roads, so you can drive 2 hours to spend 15 min at a site. The one place that is really worth seeing in Kuelap. We did that the first day. Most guide books will cover it, so I won’t go into it here. I’d recommend getting a good guide for Kuelap if you like information on what you are seeing. Cafe Guia is a good place to arrange for a competent English speaking guide. Expect to pay about $8.00 per person for the guide and another $10 for transportation. It’s a 3 hour drive to the ruins each way along some pretty scary cliffs. You will spend about 1.5 hours there.
For the other sites in the area I really wouldn’t bother to get a guide. There is hardly anything known about the ruins, so there isn’t much for them to say. You can hire a taxi to take you to any of the sites you want to see. The whole taxi will cost about 100 soles which you can split with as many people as you want to fit in. You will need to walk a small distance from where the cab drops you off to where the ruins are, so if you want a guide to show you exactly were to go get the cheapest one possible. There are signs that point the way to most sites.
All in all we spent about 12 hours traveling to see 2 hours worth of ruins. We enjoyed the experience, but it won’t be for everybody.

Day 5
From Chachapoyas back to Pedro Ruiz
The next stop on the way to Iquitos is Tarapoto. To get there you need to go back to Pedro Ruiz or catch a night bus from Chacha to Tarapoto. We wanted to leave in the morning, so we took a taxi back to Pedro Ruiz.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost: 10soles
Road: Dusty, pot holes, lots of sheer drop offs.
From Pedro Ruiz to Tarapoto
From were the taxi dropped us off it was 4 blocks to the main road where all the bus companies have their offices. We took a motokar there, but it was only because we didn’t know what we were doing. Don’t bother, just ask for directions. We ended up buying a ticket with Parades Estrellas, but that was a mistake. The bus was in poor condition, it stopped all the time so it took forever to get to Tarapoto, and it left 2.5 hours late (which is a lot even for Peru). Even locals on the bus were complaining about the service. There are offices for a company called Sol and one called Movil that we have since heard are better. I’d give one of those a try. Buses to Tarapoto only leave from Pedro Ruiz after noon, so don’t plan on getting into town too early.
It was late when we arrived in Tarapoto, so we stayed overnight. This is a crappy little town. The bus station is on the outskirts of town so catch a motokar to a hotel unless you are going to push on. The hotels are dirty and bland. The motokar driver was helpful in finding a reasonble place to stay in our price range. The motorkar was 1.5 sol
Travel time: 7.5 hours (normally 5)
Cost: 25soles
Roads: mostly paved

Day 6
Tarapoto to Yurimaguas
The next day we caught a motokar to the part of town that has the taxis to Yurimaguas. It’s far from the town center, so I wouldn’t try walking. The motokar was 1.5 sol. When you arrive prepare to be mobbed again. We picked a cab and we were on our way.
Travel time: 4 hours
Cost: 20soles
Roads:Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Day 7, Day 8, Day 9
Yurimaguas to Iquitos
We arrived in Yurimaguas at about noon. We made arrangements that day to leave on a boat down the Amazon to Iquitos the following day. A good company to go with is Eduardo. We were on the Eduardo III. They leave Iquitos every other day. It was easy to find a hotel here. The taxi driver we had was very friendly. He helped us find a nice hotel in our price range.
Travel time: 2 days
Cost: 60soles(1st class including meals, see below)
Great ride!!!!

Tips About the Boat
First class on the boat means you get to ride on the third deck. It is worth it unless you want to travel in the very overcrowded second desk that smells like chicken and pig poop. The meals are better too.
You can get a cabin on the boat, but it’s a lot more fun to sling a hammock with everyone else. You can buy your hammock in Yurimaguas. We paid 13 soles each - a bargain.
Look at the tarp that serves as a roof. Avoid the seams. It rains often at night and the seams leak.
Avoid the lights. Bugs can gather around them at night. If you are vegetarian bring enough food for the 2 day trip. There will be nothing for you to eat except rice and bread.
The boat operator told us it would be a one night trip. Don’t believe him it is a 2 night, 2 day trip.
The boat was scheduled to leave at 2PM, but we got there around noon to get a good spot. This was a little overkill for us. There weren’t that many people traveling first class, but that changes from day to day. Don’t expect the boat to leave on time. Like most modes of transportation in South America they leave when they are full, not when they are scheduled to.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Jungle Canopies and Leaky Boats

The boat ride up the river to the cabanas was fantastic. The boats are long dugout canoes with a small motor on the back. The local people have been using them to get around forever. There has been a recent push to teach the locals how to use fiberglass to make the dugouts instead of wood. The trees they use to make the boats are very tall and wide, and are hundreds of years old. Each boat lasts only about 10 years so they are cutting down old growth forest at a very fast rate. Just another part of the deforestation of the rain forest. The tourist boats are still made the old way to add “authenticity” to our tours. Hopefully some day soon that will also change.
They are about 20 feet long, wide in the middle and narrow at the ends. They sit very low in the water and leak massively whenever the boat leans to one side or the other. The river curves constantly so of course that happens often. I was in the back seat on the ride in and was soon scooping water out of the canoe.
Riding on the river was like something you see in a movie. A dark dense jungle was on either side and it is filled with an enormous array of plants, all fighting for space and sunshine. The jungle is so thick that the plants all twist and wind around each other. Many plants taking root in the branches of other plants. Orchids were growing everywhere, balanced precariously on the branches of many of the trees. The water was lined with thick vines dangling down into the water. I was surprised to see that they were just an extended root system for the trees. Tarzan would have been very very happy here. Just beyond the edge of site, you could hear birds screaming by the dozens. Funny, but the tour groups sell you the tour promising that you will see all sorts of wildlife and there is really not much of it near the waters’ edge. The boats are so loud that the birds all move farther inland when they hear you coming. Whenever we did see something, it was always a big deal. “Look, a bird”. Funny.
The river opens to a large lagoon that floods around this time every year. Actually, it is on its way down right now. In the dry season there is no water here. The lagoon bed, some 10 to 30 feet below you, becomes the jungle floor. The current effect is that you are cruising around the top of the jungle canopy. It was a very cool sight to see.
The camp was on the edge of the lagoon and at first glance I could not believe that the boat driver knew the exact spot to steer the boat into. Bit within days I was able to pick out the area as I got to know the lagoon better. In the dry season, the dugout stops a big distance away and the tourists have about an hours walk through the jungle into the camp.
The days were spent walking in rubber boots on guided jungle tours learning about plants and animals in the region, fishing for piranha, canoeing from lagoon to lagoon, cruising the river in search of non-existant birds and monkeys, swimming (yes in the same river we caught piranhas in) and watching sunsets from the middle of the lagoon.
Since then, we have been to the Galapagos Islands, spent way too much time on more buses, and had more adventures in the south of Ecuador and now in northern Peru. Hopefully more stories about that to come.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Finca Ixobel - Part III The End

How can I make a decision right now? I’m much too busy clinging to the wall. Geoff shouts, “I think we can do it.” I give this a few clock cycles and decide that he’s right. We cross the wall in about 10 minutes and I’m so relieved to get to the other side. Waiting on the ledge is a graceful, tall, athletic Israeli in her late twenties wearing a bikini top and shorts. I’ve noticed several times that she is weathering our expedition better than anyone else, and she crossed the rock wall with the confidence of a professional climber; so I call her Rocky. Rocky is waiting because she noticed that Mike and Dutch stayed behind, and she’s sure that we are not coming back this way. I had considered this too when I decided to continue on. We were told that we could leave our packs at the mouth of the cave, but there is no way we are going to come back against this current. I had guessed a while ago that we’d be circling around the outside of the cave, but I really wasn’t sure. Besides, it’s the only reason I can think of that the guide hasn’t turned back. It’s become evident that the rains of the last couple of days have made this much more dangerous than the photos beside the sign-up sheet had made it out to be.
The guide is too far ahead. We can’t find out for sure if we are coming back or not. Rocky makes up her mind to go back and get Mike and Dutch. She’s so agile. She’s back with the boys in two minutes and patiently guides them across in 15 minutes; showing them exactly where to hold and where to stand. As they reach the end I hear her congratulating them on a job well done. Dutch doesn’t seem to think that anything about this is well done. I don’t know how much further we travel. Concentration and exertion make me lose all track of time. We swim a few more times, but it’s getting harder. The water is flowing faster and I have to keep my feet in front to me to fend off protruding rocks, it make it hard to steer myself.
Finally we arrive at the long anticipated jump into the pool. The guide jumps in. One after the other we leap 15 feet to the bubbling water below and swim 20 feet across the pool to a flat rock landing. Geoff is in front of me and jumps without hesitation. I’m tired and shaky. I’m getting cold from waiting my turn to jump. I look down and don’t move. My mind has decided to go, but my body has decided to stay. I’m not having any kind of particularly coherent thoughts about the matter. There is enough adrenaline in me from the trip so far that looking down this small jump is enough to make my heart race. I make an attempt at jumping and sway forward, but it’s a false start. This time the body is willing but the mind vetoes the operation. I sway back falling on my arms completely ungracefully. I step back and let others go. I eventually step to the ledge again. Geoff’s shouting up that I can do it and finally I jump. No rhyme or reason. Pride I guess.
At the bottom of the pool I look around. There is no exit. The river flows out from underground. Shit! There is only one way out. We have to go back the way we came! After 10 minutes or so we all pull ourselves back up the small cliff using a knotted rope and we reluctantly follow the guide back up the river.
We are pushing hard against the rushing water. Chest deep my body creates a lot of resistance, and I have to pull hard with my arms each time I move forward against the current. The guide is alarmed and much more impatient now, and he doesn’t stop for stragglers anymore. I pass candles that were feet above the water when we entered that are partially submerged now. The side we are on has become impassable. It’s too deep to find footing at all and the wall is un-climable. We have to dart across the river 20 feet. The guide pushes off against the wall and swims hard to the other side. He’s been carried back 15 feet by the current. A twenty something American girl goes next. She leaves from the same spot as the guide, but isn’t as strong a swimmer. The guide reaches out his hand to pull her in, but they miss each other. She drifts another 10 feet before she succeeds in grabbing the wall. The guide moved slowly to her and pulls her back. It’s dangerous going and I wonder what the hell will happen if our only guide gets hurt. It’s my turn. I decide to move up stream as much as I possibly can before I cross. I crouch down. Puting my feet against the wall, I push off as hard as I possibly can and swim like hell. The guide catches my hand and pulls me up. I’m breathless from the swim, but also from the adrenaline. We had to do this several times. Each person waiting to catch the other after crossing. It was the only way for us to keep up with the guide, who wasn’t about to be waiting for everyone to get across.
The rest of the trip is a long sequence of difficult river crossings. There is a tense time when the Japenese girl is swept down the river into the darkness. She grabs frantically and finally catches herself on an outcropping in the wall. The raging water pulls her sideways, her legs stretched out behind her and she screams afraid that she is going to loose her grip. We form a long human chain, hand grasped in hand, and finally make our way to her and pull her to safety. The guide is nowhere to be found. He is so afraid of the rising water that he is gunning for the entrance.
Finally I see through the candle light that we have reached the stone wall. One by one we swim against the current to a pool of relatively still water. The small opening that was there earlier is now completely submerged. The guide reaches down 4 feet into the water to lift the rope that we are going to use for the underwater crossing. The guide crosses and we follow one at a time. The third to last person, Ishmael, ducks under water. I don’t know how this happened, but Geoff and I are the last two on this side of the wall. Left just the two of us, we notice how dark it is. It’s unsettling to have lost all contact with the group even if they are just on the other side. I’m holding on to the rope as I tread water. The rope goes slack. I guess that this means Ishmael is safe on the other side and one of us should go. Geoff says, “You go”. I don’t really want to leave him here alone. It’s very creepy. The fewer the people the darker it got and we are both winded. “You sure”, I said. Geoff nods. I’m just wasting time debating this, so I take a breath and duck under. It’s much harder this time swimming against the current. And I have to go down several feet before I find the opening by feeling around. I come up the other side with a gasp of air and choke on some water. I swim to the other wall and wait. I’ll feel a lot better when I see Geoff. It seems like minutes, but it is probably seconds. Geoff comes up, also gasping for air. He swims right past me. He couldn’t get far enough away from that damned underwater hole. He had lost his head lamp. The current had taken it off his head. We’d share mine.
It isn’t much father and we finally reach the mouth of the cave. We all have battle scares: bumps, bruises and scratched, but nothing serious. Dutch’s girlfriend had sat through an hour long down pour watching the water at the mouth of the cave rise 6 feet. The guide was relieved to be the hell out of there and declared that the tour tomorrow would be cancelled. No kidding!
The trek back to the Finca was hot and muddy but uneventful. We all talked about wanting dinner and a shower when we got back. Some of us were Jonesing for a cigarette. The whole trip took 7 1/2 hours.
I’ve described this as quite an ordeal, but I’d do it again (sorry Dad). Some of you will wonder why I’d enjoy such a thing and some of you will understand exactly why.

No Joy in Geoffville

After kicking around Quito for the better part of a week, with a brief sting in the boring city of Otavalo, we have ended up deep in the Amazon basin on the northeast border of Ecuador. We took the night bus last night, 11 1/2 hours then a mini bus 3 hours, then a small motorized boat 2 hours to get to the campsite. Its a series of connected, open air, thatched roofed cabins. They have 1/2 high walls and a small semi enclosed area for a toilet on the back of each one. They all have double beds with mosquito netting that tucks under the bed. There are two outside, cold water showers and no electricity. Privacy is not an option here. We are one American, one Canadian, A French couple, an Israeli couple, a Danish couple and a young single Swiss girl. Quite the multinational group.
The bus trip painfully slow. It left at 10:00 PM and was supposed to get in at 6:30 AM in the town of Lago Agrio. There was a thick fog for most of the drive. So much so that the driver really had to keep his speed in check. A rarity for Ecuador. About :00 AM this morning, we came to a dead stop. I could see the lights of vehicles in front, beside, and behind us. The next 2 hours until daybreak were the only true sleep that I got last night. The roads were so bad that the constant bumping up and down of the bus made for a very fitful rest. The bus seats, although comfortable, are not meant for sleeping.
When daylight finally appeared, we got a chance to see why we were stopped. A river had washed out the road and 2 buses were stuck in the middle of it. Traffic had backed up for 1/2 a mile on both sides while we waited for a bulldozer to arrive from who knows where. One bus had been fortunate enough to almost make it across and all its passengers were able to get out. The other was smack dab in the middle and all the people were stuck inside, looking forlornly out the windows at the crowds that now stood on the river bank. We of course took a picture.
The bulldozer went to work clearing a new path through the river next to the buses and soon all the traffic on the other side of the river was crossing to our side. Some strange Ecuadorian ritual must have been done to decide which side went first. Once that had cleared, we were the second bus to go across. The water came up to the wheel wells but it was a relatively easy crossing. Not sure what happened to the stuck busses, as we roared on up the road at regular breakneck bus speed. I guess the roads wash out all the time in this area.
Finally back on the road we had another 2 1/2 hours to go to reach Lago. Of course, we had no idea how far it was. When we got on the bus, they said that there was a bathroom at the back. They were right, it just did not work and the door was bolted shut. After I don’t think I can adequately explain how badly I had to pee. I tried to go while the buses were stopped but with everyone standing around, a severe case of stage fright set in and there was no joy in Geoffville. Now imagine that condition after 9 hours on a very bumpy bus. I also forgot to mention that I had eaten Indian food the night before and so I was emitting a steady stream of gas all night long and the pressure of it was also pushing on my bladder. Pain, pain, pain. And the ride kept going and going and going.
Currently I am lying in a hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle and conversations in 4 different languages and am damned happy that the last 24 hours are over. We are making friends with the cockroaches, tarantulas and other numerous insects that inhabit our cabana and all is right with the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Finca Ixobel - Part II

We join our muddy, sweaty cavers just as they enter the cave and the water …
That’s when we lose the Dutch girl. She is not a very good swimmer. She turns the corner into total darkness, meets the strong current and decides that this is more than she is prepared to do. She turns around to wait two hours at the mouth of the cave for us to return. Her boyfriend is continuing on. I don’t know his name, but I think of him as Dutch.
We scramble, chest deep in the rushing water, clinging to the left wall of the cave. Fifteen minutes pass and we reach water too deep to walk in. It’s time to swim. This is a welcome break. The hike to the cave has been strenuous and it’s a struggle to stay balanced in the heavy flow of the water. It’s an easy swim with the current. It’s more that enough to propel me forward. I kick and paddle only enough to keep myself away from the porous, jagged, muddy walls of the cave. Most people are struggling with the 3″ flashlights that they bought at the Finca for 18 Quetzals ($2.00 USD). Some are clasping them in their teeth; others are swimming with one hand and holding the flashlight above the black water with the other. Geoff and I have our headlamps. When we put them on at the opening of the cave we were given funny looks by our twenty something companions, but I’m sure they are looking like a great idea to them now. The guide places candles in opportune crevasses in the walls so that any stragglers can find their way. But the light from the candles, just like the light from our flashlights, is consumed by the encompassing darkness. The cave is about 50 ft wide and so high that the beam from our flashlights barely reaches to roof. We swim about 50ft.
There are three rounds of swimming followed by walking waist deep in the cool current. We swim to a dead end. The darkness of the cave makes it hard to tell how fast or how far I’m traveling. It’s very disorienting and I’m losing all sense of time. I’m treading water, then the guides’ points out an opening about 8″ high and 12″ wide - too small to cross without going under water. This must be the one mentioned during our intro. I look up, there are bats hanging upside-down on the ceiling. There are no verbal instructions. I tread water and watch the guide and a few other people go before me. The drill: grab the piece of rope put there for crossing, duck under the water to the other side. My turn comes and I’m not feeling so sure about this. I’m a little winded from swimming and treading water, and it’s so damned dark. I can see some light from the flashlights on the other side coming through the small opening, but I can’t hear anything over the echoing sounds of the rushing water. I take a few seconds to think about this. I can see that I’ll only have to swim for about 3ft, but I’m going to get jostled around - need to be careful to not get scraped up by the rock walls on either side… need to be careful not to come up too soon or I’ll crack my head open on the rocks. I’ve wasted enough time and other people are waiting. I gasp in a winded breath and duck under. I have a white knuckle grip on the rope, nothing is going to make me let go of this thing. I kick with my legs to move forward and us my free hand to keep a safe distance from the rocks all around me. The water rushes even more strongly in the narrow passage and it comes at me from all directions. Even though it’s only a few feet I’d be disoriented without the rope. I rush to pop my head out of the water as soon as I feel with my hand that it’s safe. My heart is racing. I’m gasping for air. It’s only a few feet, but it felt like ten. No time to rest. Geoff crossed before me and we need to catch up to the main group and the guide.
We all swim to the other side and climb unto a flat area. So far we haven’t come out of the water but for this five foot stretch. Back into the water to shimmy waist deep along the wall. The river is turning into rapids. I don’t look around at anything but the wall passing by under the light of my headlamp. I’m not wasting my concentration on anything else. I plan each step carefully along the cave wall: feel around in the dark water for solid footing, find two good hand holds in the crevasses of the rocks (sometimes under water, sometimes above), release my standing leg and balance myself while pulling forward. I’m careful because if I loose my grip I’ll be swept down river into the pitch ahead. I guess I could grab at a wall if I fall, but that would mean serious injury. I can tell by the pattern of the water that their are frequent shallow spots. The rock so jagged and porous that it reminds me of a coral reef. It would cut me up. And grasping at the wall while I was getting swept away wouldn’t be easy. Don’t slip either - there are pointy rocks that could easily impale a knee or calf. “Don’t think about it” I tell myself a few times. “It’s only going to freak you our and you won’t pay attention to what you’re doing”.
The guide stops frequently to let us regroup when we are too spread out. I only lose him completely from sight when we reach a 40ft wide wall that I have to shimmy across above the water. I didn’t see it coming because I am so intent on my current position. Geoff’s in front of me at this point. We climb out of the water and move slowly across the wall on 1″ foot-holds and hand-hold. I realize that I am rock climbing for the first time in my life and there are no ropes, no carabiners, and there are now white water rapids raging below me. That’s why we are climbing the wall. The rapids have turned ugly and it would be impossible to swim or walk along the wall in them. That is where we almost lose Dutch and Mike the 24 year old Canadian we had gone out drinking with the night before. Dutch is a timid guy of small stature that has been struggling to keep has glasses on through all of this. There are so many water drops on his glasses that I wonder if he wouldn’t be better off without them. He gets about five feet and mutters in German, then he shouts over the sound of the rapids that he’s had enough. He will wait here for us to come back. Geoff and I cling to the wall and look at each other. Struggling to be heard above the noise of the rapids, Mike yells “This is a lot more than I expected. I’ll wait here with him”. Geoff shouts at me “What do you think?” I yell back “I don’t know” …

Monday, September 1, 2003

Finca Ixobel Part I

Geoff and I hung out at a Finca (that’s what they call a farm here) for a few days and quite accidentally had a good time putting ourselves in harm’s way. I wrote about it in my journal, and it ended up being quite long, so I’m going to take Geoff’s advice and send it out in a few installments - breaking at the worst possible cliff hangers. Moms, Dads: we swear we didn’t know it would be dangerous…
On August 27th we planned to spend the day on one of Finca Ixobel’s nine guided activities. We stared at the wall of sign-up sheets. Our choices were various trips horse back ridding, trekking the jungle, inner tubing or spelunking through some caves. Quite mundanely we decided to go caving. We had heard from some other guest here, who had heard from some people that he had met on his travels that it was worth while. The journey was supposed to end with the opportunity to jump 15ft into an underground river. Fun, interesting, let’s do it.
The day started out as advertised. Fifteen of us gathered by the Finca’s dinning room armed with drinking water, a flashlight, and lunch, just as the sign-up sheet had advised. Three hours of torrential tropical rain had fallen in sheets the day before causing a main river to overflow and create a secondary stream through the Finca. Every inch of soil was water logged. My feet were prunes from being wet for the last day and the humidity made it impossible to dry out. Geoff and I both opted for our hiking sandals so that we didn’t positively ruin our good hiking shoes. We had been told that the rocks in the cave were sharp so we wore socks for a little added protection.
Before we set out, an English speaking German gave us an overview: We will be following our Spanish speaking guide for a two hour hike to the caves. We will spend two hours hiking in the caves followed by a two hour hike back. There are a couple of places in the cave where we will need to swim 15 ft. or so. There will be a spot to jump into an underground river, but that’s optional. You can climb down a rope if you don’t want to jump. The guide added - with help from the English speaking German - that the rains may have caused the waters to rise so a short duck into the water through an opening in the cave wall might be necessary.
Introductory speech given, injury waiver signed, our disorderly group heads out. Some of us are as old as early fifties and some as young as early twenties. We are Canadian, American, Italian, Dutch and Israeli. What we have in common is a varying command of the English language and our names on the spelunking sign-up sheet.
We start out following a wide grassy path into the jungle that’s marred by deep muddy tire tracks. The sun is bright and the air is humid. We all instinctively hop around the puddles of dirty water and mud, sometimes even using logs as balance beams to make a crossing. One person falls into a puddle here. One person slips in the mud there. Someone fell off a log. An hour into our hike the last of us realized that it was hopeless. We were going to get wet and dirty: very wet and very dirty. After this we all slopped through the mud forgetting all attempts to avoid the dirt. My calves and knees are covered in a brown gritty spray and my feet … my feet are the worst. The sole of each one of my sandals in clinging to 1/4lbs of mud and my socks are soaked through with dirt. There are clumps of mud in my sandals that I try to wash out quickly when I go through a deep enough puddle.
We are a sorry sight against how beautiful the scenery is around us. We are surrounded by lush greenery. Three inch butterflies keep floating by with wings that impersonate the eyes of an owl. Other smaller ones are a mixture of bright yellow, vivid orange and deep red. On several occasions the guide plucks fruits or berries from the jungle and passes them out for tasting.
Two hours later we reach the base of a hill. We are moving slowly, and we are behind schedule. The hill is steep. The downpour from the day before had turned the earth on the trail to a grease and lard. This is going to be tricky. We slip and slid our way up the hill grabbing at rocks and branches to pull ourselves up what would have normally been a 15 minute climb. It took half-an-hour.
Now we need to make our way down the other side which the guide promise will be the entrance to the cave. Going up was tricky. Going down is going to be downright dangerous. I watched each person develop their own technique. Some people stood upright fumbling and grasping for branches when they slipped. Others crouched down with their feet in front of them and their hands on the ground behind them looking like a monstrous debilitated spider. The other Canadian in the group, Mike, decides that to fight gravity is pointless. He crouches down putting all hit weight on one foot and sticks the other out in front of him. Then he launches himself down the hill controlling the direction and speed of his slid with his hands. Geoff and I opt for the slip-fumble-grab-for-a-branch technique. This works out well the time that I slip and catch some bamboo right before I fall off the trail.
Regardless of the technique, we make it to the cave: hot, soaked in sweat and covered from heat to feet in mud - except of course for the guide. His black rain boots, white T-shirt and jeans are spotless, and he hasn’t shed a bead of sweat. The trip has takes 2 1/2 hours.
After a short break at the mouth of the cave for lunch I turn on my flashlight and plunge into the three feet of refreshing running water flowing into the cave. The strength of the current catches my off guard and I’m almost knocked off my feet so I grab for the stalagmites and jagged cracks in rock wall. I move forward chest deep in the water. It takes about 50ft before we turn a corner and loose completely any light coming from the opening of the cave. That’s when we loose the Dutch girl…
Please tune in next season for the conclusion… :-P