Monday, December 18, 2006

Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

Written by Lynn

I have a book at home that is packed away in a box (meaning that is it either in Edmonton, North Bay, Hamilton or Ottawa) entitled ¨The World´s Greatest Treks¨. Someday I plan to do them all. But we decided to start with the most well known - The Inca Trail.

It´s definitely not for the faint hearted or the out of shape (though the altitude makes everyone feel a little breathless). Day 1 starts out pretty easy, leaving from Cusco where you just spent several days of enforced rest at 7500 ft altitude in an attempt to get used to it. Cusco itself is a great little town with lots of shops and restaurants, and hotels ranging from the dirt cheap to the vastly overpriced. The city of Cusco, founded in 1100AD, was the centre of the Inca Empire in the 12th to 16th century. The empire itself was spread out in 4 distinct directions (north, south, east and west) called TAHUANTINSUYUS and connected by paved pathways along which runners, called CHASQUIS, travelled immense distances to deliver orders and information - ie. the infamous Inca Trail.

To start our small section of the trail, we rode out to a town called Ollantaytambo, where you can still find some intact Inca ruins. This is one of the few Inca fortresses that was successfully defended against the Spanish invasion. You can appreciate the trapazoidal shaping of the buildings, all of which are built with the walls slanting inwards in order to with stand earthquakes. In this area there is supposedly a devestating earthquake once every 50 years or so, the last one being in 1984. This one was mild in comparison to the 1650 earthquake which levelled the town of Cusco.

We were blessed with a great group of 10, along with 2 guides (Balario and Duska) and 11 porters. We had people from USA (Chip and Drew, who were kind enough to carry enough candy to support all of our sugar cravings), Spain (Carlos and Eva), Belgium (Stinj and Nikolas) and Australia (Drew 2 - note the stunning wool sweater vest - and Jess), as well as the 2 honourary Canucks, which made it permissable to sing several renditions of the South Park song ¨Blame Canada¨ over the next 4 days. Interestingly (and those of you who are thinking of doing this trek, take note) there was a WIDE range in what we paid for this tour. The cheapest prices were fenagled by the Australians who went to Cusco first and then negotiated for last minute deals. The highest were paid by those who booked on line months ahead of time (you know who you are!). Costs ranged from $220US to $450US for the EXACT same tour (we were happily just below the median cost). Price shopping in Cusco won´t usually work in the high season (from May until August) as the tours book up months in advance, but negotiating is always possible. The number of people to start the Inca Trail is limited to 500 a day, including porters and guides. This number was dropped from 700 a day four years ago because of the concern that over use was ruining the trail. It is quite likely, even in the rainy season we were trekking in, that the numbers are maxxed out daily, as there were LOTS of people everywhere you turned. There has been a major push in recent years by indigenous groups as well as UNESCO to force the Peruvian government to take more drastic measures to protect Machu Picchu and other Inca historical sites. As a result, in 1999 a plan to install a cable car to Machu Picchu was put on hold, but not official shelved. But in the past 10 years the number of tourists visiting the site have climbed drastically from 200,000 a year up to 500,000 and there is no end in sight. The costs associated with visiting Machu Picchu are obviously aimed at tourists, which makes the site inaccessible to the Inca's descendants, thereby disconnecting the region's indigenous people from an important spiritural and cultural centre. Recently a group called the YACHAY WASI was formed to try and push for an indigenous voice in the determination of management policies for this and other historical sites. This didn{t stop the Peruvian government from allowing a company to film a beer commercial at one of the sacred temple sites in Machu Picchu. During the filming one of the cranes being used to hold the cameras went out of control and chipped a rock altar.....oops.

Day 1 was a deceptively easy hike up to the first camp site. Even though it was raining, the views were already impressive of the surrounding mountains and the gorge we were hiking along the edge of. That night we camped in a soft, grassy field surrounded by mountains after a simple but tasty meal of rice and chicken.

Day 2 dawned clear and very cold, though this quickly changed as the tempurature rose steadily, having us all strip down to shorts and tank tops. After a breakfast with lots of coca tea (coca helps to prevent altitude sickness, as well as being energizing and suppressing hunger; most of the porters walks with a ball of coca leaves stuffed in their cheek for these reasons) we started the hardest day of the trek. In the first 4 hours we went from about 7500 ft up to almost 12,500 ft to cross the first pass called WARMIWANUSKA (Dead Woman´s Pass). At the top we waited for the team to regroup (except for the porters who RUN to the next stop in order to set up the tents and prepare for dinner). It was cold enough that it we had to put on basically every peice of clothing we brought with us (the only time we would use our fleeces and gloves, though thank god we had them). Unfortunately, the higher we got, the mistier it became, until we were basically standing in the middle of a cloud. The last 500m up to the pass were breath taking, mostly because the altitude forced you to stop every 10-15 steps to try and force some oxygen to your leg muscles and slow your heart rate.

After a short break for picture taking, we walked down for about 2km on stone steps that were put in place about 500 years ago as part of the original Inca Trail. Our second night we were so tired that no one objected to the 8PM bedtime. We usually ate at 7PM, then had to clear out the dinner tent shortly after since the porters used it as their sleeping area, a fact the guide forgot to tell us the first night, which made us feel terrible for hanging out in the tent until 9PM.

These porters are unbelievalbe! Most of them weight about 120 lbs and stand at only about 5´4¨. About 10 years ago a porter´s guild was formed to improve their working conditions. Now they are only (!!) allowed to carry 25kg each and have a weigh in station at the beginning of Day 2 to make sure this is not exceeded. One of our porters had been doing this job for about 15 years, and can remember when he used to carry upwards of 45kg! We were carrying our own sleeping bags and mats, along with a change of clothes and could barely make it. The porters carry everything from the food, to the tents, tables and chairs, eating and kitchen tent, cooking supplies and even a propane tank. And they RUN! It´s their responsibility to make it to the lunch site and the camping ground before us ¨touristicas¨ and to have everything set up and ready to go. They are wearing sandals made out of recycled tires, and in most cases only eat whatever is left over after we scarf our dinners down. Once our group realized this we were a little more careful to not overeat, just taking enough to feel full. On the bright side, the porters get paid decently for the area, earning 145 soles (about $45 US) for the 4 days, and our group tipped each of them an additional 40 soles each. Doesn´t sound like much (mostly because it isn´t) but men are fighting for these jobs. Most of them are subsitance farmers in the area surrounding Ollantaytambo, and acting as a porter 3-4 times a month will often elevate them into the middle class, allowing them to buy decent clothes for their families and furnish their homes. I guarantee it is not a job many of us could do! It is most important to question the company you book with regarding the treatment of their porters. The easiest and most invisible way of cutting costs on a tour are by shorting the porters - not feeding them properly, making them sleep in the open, maxing out the weight they are carrying to cut down on the numbers of porters (one trick they will use is to get the trekkers to carry their own packs past the weigh in station, then give them to the already overloaded porters; everyone in our group decided to just carry their own).

Anyways, the porters are up at 4:30AM preparing our breakfast and wake the group up on Day 3 at 5AM. Today we have to go over one more pass, then down 2000 (!!) steps to the next campsite. While not as hard on the lungs, the knees do start to ache from the strain. During this day we pass several archeological sites and stop at each to explore and appreciate the fine craftmanship that went into the building of each. Often they are TAMBOS, or resting places along the Inca Trail for the messengers. These are generally built with what the Inca would consider shoddy workmanship - small stones mortared together and covered over with mud to hide the imprecision. We do go to WINAY-WAYNA, a religious site, that shows more of the intricate stonework the Inca are famous for called ASHLAR. Enormous stones are carved with bronze or stone tools and rubbed smooth until they fitted together without mortar so carefully that a knife can´t be passed between two blocks. Some of the ashlar in Machu Picchu has as many as 30 corners on them, all precisely fitted. A site we visited just outside Cusco before we started the trek is called SACSAYHUAMAN and is one of the finest surviving examples of this stonework. Some of the stones are estimated to weigh over 130 tons and are used to make up 3 parallel walls that go on for 360metres. This site is believed to have been a sanctuary and temple of the sun, hence its intricate stonework. One of the big mysteries remains how the Incas could have moved such massive peices of stones as they had not developed the use of wheels. Unfortunately, because they had no written history, there remains nothing to answer these questions.

Just before the end of Day 3 we also had a chance to visit an ancient agricultural site. The Inca farmed on terraces that covered the hillsides. The lower terraces were used for crops such as maize and other vegetables, while the higher ones grew potatoes. In Inca society all the land was communally owned. 50% of the produce from the farmed land went to the community responsible for it, 25% went to the government (who stored food in large structures called COLLPAS for times of shortage and famine) and 25% was for the gods. Terraces surrounding the temples, traditionally set at the highest point of land, were used to grow aromatic plants and colourful flowers.

Gilles missed these terraces as he met up with a Norweigan who was slightly crazy (and it was apparently contagious). The two of them decided they were going to try and race the porters for the last 6km downhill to the campsites. They were apparently doing just fine, keeping up anyways, until the porters (wise to what the gringos were up to) veered off the Inca Trail onto ¨porter only¨ paths. Being the smart (and possibly over competative) fellas that they are, they followed the giggling porters down a series of vertical inclines that cut across the switchbacks the rest of us sane folk were using. The end result - they got the the last campsite 2 hours ahead of the rest of us, but still miles behind the porters, who had themselves a good laugh and a story to tell that night.

When the rest of the group caught up with these guys we were greeted with a wondorous sight - hot showers and cold beers! This was surely the ugliest campsite of the 3 we stayed at, but it did have the advantage of running water. Keeping in mind the number of people who use the Inca Trail daily, combined with the fact that there must be a lot of people with upset digestive tracts from a combination of unrefrigerated food, high altitude and extreme exertion, the toilet facilities are easily the LEAST attractive feature of the Inca Trail.

Day 4 started extra early as our group was determined to be the first through the gate to get to Macchu Picchu. So at 4:45AM we had our packs strapped on and were at the locked gates ready to go. The gates themselves opened at 5:30AM, and then we had another hour of uphill hiking to get to INTIPUNKU (the sun gates) but boy was it worth it. Because of the time of year, the sun is up much too early for us to catch sunrise over Macchu Picchu, but as you crest the hill and go through the ancient stone gates you see spread before you an ancient city that must appear almost exactly as it did 500 years ago. Ringed on all sides by mountains with the HUAYNA PICCHU towering over it, and the URABAMBA river flowing below it, you are blessed with the sight of the last Inca stronghold. It is awe inspiring enough to make the last 4 days worth all the sweat and burning leg muscles.

It is believed that this site was chosen for its geographical features, which show the side view of a face of an Inca gazing at the sky, the highest point being the silohuette of his nose. One of the most amazing aspects of this site is how the architectrue is integrated into the surrounding landscape buildings melding with hillsides and huge rock features incorporated into temples and walls. Macchu Picchu, or "old mountain", was believed to have been built by Sapa Inca Pachacuti starting in 1440 as a country get away for the Inca nobility. It is composed of over 140 structures, including staircases, terraces, temples, palaces and towers, along with its most infamous structure, the INTIHUATANA, or hitching post of the sun. Here on winter solstice (June 21st) a priest would tie the sun to the earth to ensure its return. The 2metre high block of stone, it also has 4 points showing north, south, east and west, and was used as a calendar of sorts and to help keep track of seasons. The highly advanced irrigation system is believed to have carried water from a sacred spring to all the individual dwellings in town. The remote location of this town is one of the few reasons that it survived the Spanish invasion, while many other structures, and most intihuatanas were destroyed.

After about 1/2 an hour, the rest of the groups started to catch up with us, so we moved on to Machu Picchu itself. It is impossible to get to the site prior to others as there are buses and trains arriving from the near by town of Aguas Calientes as soon as the gates open, but getting there prior to noon will ensure relative privacy. After a brief history lesson our guides gave us a tour of the main sites within Machu Picchu including the Temple of the Condor, the Sacred Rock, the Sun Temple, the Funerary Rock and the Temple of the Three Windows. After this we were free for a few hours to explore prior to catching our train back to Ollantaytambo at 4pm. We chose, along with 4 others, to climb HUAYNA PICCHU to a secondary set of ruins that overlook Machu Picchu and give you an amazing panoramic view of the valley. The trail up to HUAYNA PICCHU is steep and narrow, with drop offs on one side and an unforgiving cliff face on the other. Once you get to the top there is a series of about 100 steps that are only about 50cm X 15cm (ie. only about the size of your foot fit sideways on them) to get to the temple. There are NO handrails or any other form of safety. This is about where I turned back, my fear of heights being justified by the sight of several guys sliding down these stairs on their backsides, too afraid to look down. Afterwards we found out that about 4-7 people a year fall and die off of this peak every year - too bad our guide forgot to tell us about this!

After wandering around the site for another hour or so we caught the bus down to Aguas Caliente for dinner before the trains left for Ollantaytambo. A collectivo, full to the brim with tourist, locals and drunk farmers, managed to get into Cusco by 8:30 that night, just in time for us to regroup at a local restaurant for beer and a bite eat.

All in all we had an amazing experience here and would strongly recommend that anyone who has a chance come to see Machu Picchu. If the idea of 4 days of hiking, camping out on rocky ground and a lack of showers does not appeal to everyone, there is always the option of staying overnight in Aguas Caliente and riding the bus up to Machu Picchu in the morning. But I would warn you that part of the whole experience was the Inca Trail. Somehow having to work so hard to get to the Sun Gate, and that first sight you get of Machu Picchu spread out before you eliminates 500 years of history in the blink of an eye. I can easily imagine what a sense of awe Henry Bingham must have felt on July 24 1911, when he crested that hill and finally discovered his long sought after Machu Picchu.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ecuador to Peru Gringo Style

Written by Lynn

So we basically blew through Ecuador in a mad rush to get to Macchu Picchu. We did spend 3 days in Otavalo, Ecuador just 2 hours north of Quito. This town is reknowned for its indigenous craft market, which is the largest in South America. Most of the people who live in the surrounding area still wear indigenous clothes, which makes for a colourful display. The men have long hair worn in braided pony tails and dress in white pants and collared shirts covered with woven ponchos. The women are dressed in embroidered blouses, dark coloured ankle length skirts and colorful shoulder wraps with multiple strings of gold beads around their necks. It is almost impossible to resist buying some of the amazing hand woven blankets, rugs and ponchos displayed here, or maybe the jewellry and pottery are more your style. There is also a wide selection of hand carved wood and stone statues, alpaca scarves, water colour paintings, hammocks and traditional clothing. Only the lack of room in my tiny backpack and the extreme expense of mailing things to North America prevented me from breaking open my bank account right there. We did buy a travel chess set (made up of Spanish vs. Inca peices), a bag and some jewellry, but limited ourselves after that.

While we were in town we also attempted to go on another trek to see the Imbabur volcano, but the weather and our lack of planning were against us. We didn´t get out of town until the afternoon, and got caught in a huge rainstorm that (of course) cleared up right after we slogged our way back to the hostel. We made it to the base of the volcano, but didn´t get a chance to attempt ascending it.

After this brief rest we put our heads down and set out for Lima where we were catching a plane to Cusco to begin our Macchu Picchu trek. We grabbed a bus to Quito, then immediately got on another bus for Machala, a town on the Ecuadorian side of the Peru border, with the plans of doing the whole passport thing the following morning. The down side of our bus trip from Quito to Machala, which should be about 8 hours straight south on the Pan American highway, is that in our ¨gringo-ness¨ we didn´t ask the right questions, so were put on a bus that made many side stops, and took a grand total of 13 hours to reach our destination.

In our defense one needs to understand the South American bus system. When you walk into a bus station, particularly a big one like Quito, there are at least 20 different companies to choose from. They can have anything from luxury ¨cama¨ buses (with reclining seats, air conditioning, an attendant serving you food and movies playing) to overcrowded collectivos, to private taxis that you pay a premium to take, and everything in between. The up side of this is that it is rare that you have to wait more than an hour for tranportation anywhere. The down side is the mass chaos backpackers attract when they walk into the station. There are multiple ¨representatives¨ who come running up to you when you enter who try to rush you onto a bus that is ¨leaving in 5 minutes, hurry, hurry¨ What you have to remember to do is to pause, look around, ask the all important questions (eg. ¨Is it a big bus or a collectivo?¨, ¨Is there a bathroom on board?¨, ¨Is there air conditioning?¨, followed by ¨Does the bus actually turn on the air conditioning?¨, ¨How long will it take to reach our destination?¨, ¨Will we get seats?¨, and most importantly ¨How much?¨) Never assume the price they are telling you is what you should pay, and never assume they are telling the truth, just hope that it´s as close to true as possible. We forgot to ask how long the bus ride was until we were on board, whoops...........

In our 13 hour tour of the Ecuador country side there was one stop for food at a road side stand, where Gilles had the chicken and rice, and I had soup. Sadly I didn´t realize until after I got my bowl that the soup consisted of watery broth with chicken feet, hearts and livers floating in it - not my finest dining experience.

That´s ok, one bad day of travelling, just shake it off. We managed to find a decent hotel with air conditioning, which was necessary in this town. Machala, a provincial capital, sits right on the equator. It main claim to economic fame is its banana exports, of which it does over 3,000,000 tons a year. Dole seems to control much of the plantations, which stretch for MILES on either side of the roads we were on. Interesting factoid - did you know that bananas do not start to turn yellow until they are cut off the tree (ie. when they begin to rot)?

The next day we caught a ride in the back of a truck to get to the Ecuadorian passport office as the driver promised it would be ¨muy rapido¨ (very fast) which it was, though a bit cold and breezy at 7AM. This particular Ecuadorian-Peru border is poorly set up as the passport offices are about 6km apart, rather than within walking distance of each other. Travelling across borders in South America in general is always a bit of a pain in the ass as you have to go to the border of the coutry you are leaving, get an exit stamp (and possibly pay an exit tax), walk across the border (usually an overcrowded bridge congested with diesel fumes), then go into the next country´s passport office to wait in line and get an entry stamp. You often have to argue over how many days they should allow you in the country (the government officials here being just as efficient as anywhere will give you 15 to 90 days depending upon the phase of the moon, the colour shirt you are wearing or possibly what they had for breakfast, and don´t think just because you´re travelling together you´ll get the same amount of alloted time).

This border is well known for cheating government officials and general trouble for tourists. We were warned by a fellow traveller that we should use another border, but it would have added an extra 5 hours of bus travel to our already constricted time line so we decided to chance it. We got dropped off at the Ecuador office and managed to get our exit stamps without having to pay a bribe (small miracle apparently, but it was early in the morning) then caught a cab to the border. After this things started to go down hill.

Our cab driver dropped us off around the corner from the border. This border is incredibly hot, crowed, noisy and dirty with litter everywhere, carts blocking cars from driving down the street and what seems like thousands of vendors trying to sell you everything under the sun. As soon as we stepped out of the cab we were mobbed by people shouting at us. We exchanged our Ecudorian money for Peruvian soles from a guy wearing an official ¨cambio¨vest, only to find out 70 km later that he gave us fake money (see the picture, can you tell the difference? One is real, one is fake. God knows we couldn´t tell. Hint: check out the zeros, on the very expensive souvenir we now own, the zeros don´t line up). We got a guy, Jonathan, who had a collectivo (turned out to be a shitty little station wagon) walk us across the border and drive us to the passport office and then into Tumbes, the closest town, about 30km away. At the passport office we were escorted into the building by some helpful young gentlemen who filled out our paperwork and led us to the appropriate desk. The government official, who spoke very little english, looked at us and said very clearly, ¨There is no charge for getting a passport stamp here, do you understand?¨which we thought was kind of strange until our little helpers tried to charge us 20 soles (about $7) for filling out our paper work. We gave them some change as they were hanging onto the doors of our cab, preventing it from leaving. Jonathan then drove us to Tumbes, where he insisted that we could get a much nicer overnight bus to Lima a bit further down the road. This more than doubled our cab fare, but he swore he had reserved first class seats for us on a ¨luxury¨bus line. Of course we figured out later that this was untrue and that the bus line he put us on we could have caught from Tumbes anyways, but live and learn. Our little lesson at the Peruvian border ended up costing us about $75 US, not too bad, but it was not our best travelling experience so far!

On the bright side we were now in a little coastal town called Zarillos, where we spent about 5 hours wandering the beach until our bus came. We found a great little seaside restaurant where I had a huge pile of fresh shrimp and we both had a cold beer. After chatting with the owner of the restaurant (we were his only patrons that afternoon) for an hour or more and telling him what had happened, even managing to laugh at our own stupidity a bit (must have been the beer) we felt much better.

We did end up on a decent bus with reclining ¨cama¨chairs (a must for overnight travel) and knocked off the 18 hours to Lima in relative comfort listening to Hollywood movies (¨Mission Impossible III¨, ¨Me, You and Dupree¨, ¨The Girl Next Door¨) with spanish dubbed over the english voices (meaning I didn´t understand a word).

In Lima we stayed at a wonderful hotel right on the Plaza San Martin, for which our nice cab driver negotiated a very good price for us, in exchange for a promise to use his service to get to the airport the next morning. We visited the Museo Banco Central de la Reserva, where a young man practicing his English toured us around at no charge explaining a lot about the various collections of pottery and gold from about 100 to 600 A.D. At the airport we had the unexpected pleasure of a MacDonald´s breakfast (hate to admit it, but I was definitely drooling for an egg Mcmuffin), then off to Cusco.

Here in Cusco all has been good if expensive. The tour operater we went with, David, met us at the airport and drove us to a hotel he had booked and negotiated a good price for us. He´s been nothing short of helpful, recommending restaurants and things to do. He even drove us out to see some ruins around Cusco at no charge. Cusco itself is a tourist trap extrodinaire. You MUST spend at least 2 days here before attempting the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu to help yourself acclimatize to the altitude. In June, July, August when all the hotels are full and it is a line of people from one end of the trail all the way to the Macchu Picchu ruins, it must be a nightmare. You are constantly being bombarded by people trying to sell you things, pull you into restaurants or give you ad pamphlets. Right now things are a little less aggressive as there are hardly any tourists in town. The restaurants here a great, if a little expensive and our hotel is clean and comfortable, a fine way to spend a few days of enforced rest. Tomorrow it´s on the road to Macchu Picchu, what we hope will be one of the highlights of our trip.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Venezuela vs. Colombia

Written by Gilles

So far..Lots of chicken and rice, horrible Spanish (on our part), mucho buses and of course what seems like a thousand different police, military, para military, narcotic enforcement agency and maybe some guerrilla check points...who can tell them apart really..they all have big guns!!

Grandma´s Special Recipe


I had high hopes for the Chavez led country and I did manage to meet a lot of supporters for his cause especially in Puerto La Cruz where they were holding a huge rally in support of the Presidente. The party supporters could tell I was sympathetic to the socialist cause by the Castro military hat and the Che shirt that I was wearing so it was all thumbs up for me, so much so that one of the supporters gave me a souvenir Chavez political party hat which I accepted with a smile!. Unfortunately most of the locals didn´t care too much for us one way or another, perhaps they thought we were Americans.

Other than that I was happy to say I´ve been to Venezuela in the midst of their socialist movement and in the middle of the elections of 2006.

Next important stop on the political scene is Bolivia where they´ve elected the first ever Indigenous President to the country Evo Morales.

All this political stuff goes hand in hand with the book I´m reading on the CIA´s dealings in South America. The South Americans are quite wise to the dirty tricks being played down here on behalf of the US government and the multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola paying paramilitaries to assasinate Union leaders or union agitators from the Coca-Cola plant here in Columbia. It´s been such a problem down here that human rights activists come from all over the world (we met an American human shield) to shadow employees and union members to offer protection and to record the activities of the company. Apparently in the last 7 yrs the Coca Cola plant went from 1400 union members to 400 with many killed or missing! Nice work Coke!


Crossing the Colombian border was like night and day, the people, the attitudes towards "Gringos" and the awesome landscape.

Columbia's country side is never boring to the eyes and is so full of beautiful sights that you take them for granted. It´s a cyclists paradise and we all (as cyclist) should have an annual pilgrimage to ride these mountains. It doesn´t matter, road, or mountain biking, it will keep you smiling for ever and it doesn´t hurt that Columbians really love cycling as well and show you the respect on the roads to help make your riding even more enjoyable.

Come on down and bring your bike!!


One constant between the two countries have been the girls. Some pretty, and some...well not so much. But what they have in common is a love for tight clothing!!! It´s an interesting phenomenon to say the least, welcomed on some girls but for others it´s a looming National Disaster waiting to happen when the seams of their pastel blue, orange, pink or yellow polyester pants or tops finally give way. You can actually see the seams struggling to hold together on some of the more "voluptuous" girls.

You have to admire their confidence!!


Some good, some bad, some big and some small. A couple of secrets of life have revealed themselves to us, the first being how they stuff so many Sardines into those tiny cans and the other is that in foreign countries we are very similar to cattle being led to market.
We´re dirty, stinky and don´t know what is being said, just guided along by our "Ranch Hands" or ticket agents to our eventual cargo hold. Although they don´t use whips, sticks or horses to herd us along, they do it in a semi chaotic, semi organized fashion with smiles on their faces and the strong belief that everything is going to be just fine...just get on the bus please!!!

Grandma´s Special Recipe

A little bit of hell on earth!!

1-Take one Full size ford van that seats 15 passengers and put 23 passengers in it! add 1 rooster for color.

2-Let the sound of the Van´s frame sagging and creaking settle in your ears for a couple of minutes.

3-Find the worst 120km stretch of potholed unpaved road you can find anywhere in the world.

4-Add one skeleton with leathery skin barely hanging on (compliments of a 100 yr old Colombian man) with it´s elbow dug into your
side for the whole trip.

5-Take an hour time out for some well deserved confidence building. (By watching a bus getting pulled out from the cliff it drove over!)

6-Combine some cold weather, some rain, a little bit of heat and humidity and let simmer for 5 hours.

7-Finally, get dropped off 26 km´s passed your intended destination and get a ride back to the intended destination standing up on the back of a trucks tailgate for 4$!! Thank You bus driver!!

With all that said, riding a bull for 8 seconds is child´s play considering we held on to our seats for 5hrs with one hand going left, then right, up and down, kicking and bucking!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Adios Colombia!

Written by Lynn

Today we crossed over the border into Ecuador and have bid a sad farewell to a great country. If Ecuador and beyond are even half as beautiful as Colombia the next 2 months in South America will continue to delight us.
After our prolonged stay in San Gil we went to the town of Villa de Leyva (pronounced ¨ve-ya da lay-ba¨). Villa de Leyva is a declared national monument, a colonial town that dates back to 1572 and the early days of Spanish rule. It boasts one of the
largest central plazas in all of South America. It should be noted that ALL towns, no matter how small, have a central plaza where people congregate and buses will drop you off so that you can orientate yourself. A rather sensible system really. The plaza in Villa de Leyva, while quite large, was actually not very interesting as it is just a big, cobbled square. But it is surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings filled with cafes, restaurants and over priced shops. As mentioned before, one of our big draws to the town was a REAL french bakery, and was it ever worth it. Pastries and cappuchinos every morning, followed by baguettes with cheese and avacodos for lunch (makes me salivate just thinking about it - yum!). We also stayed in what is probably one of the nicest hostels we´ve ever seen, called the Colombian Highlands, which was about 1km outside of town (those backpacks are just getting heavier and heavier!). Being outside of town, it was nice and quiet, just us Canadians and a German, Gunther, who accompanied us from San Gil, to Villa de Leyva and on to Bogata. Just behind the hostal was a trail that led up into and over the mountain range surrounding the town. We took a hike there one day, and though we didn´t quite make it to the summit where there is supposedly a small potato farm (the trail exists for the farmers to bring their produce to the market on the weekends), we were well over 8000 ft before we gave up. We did managed during one of our rest breaks to build an Inuksuk, my first ever. I´m sure that the local farmers won´t get the significance of it as a ¨sign post¨(they probably know the way home anyways), but hopefully other trekkers may get a kick out of it.
After a few days of rest and hot showers (and by this we mean real showers, most hostels advertising hot showers have the electric heaters attached to the tap, where if you put the water pressure on to a trickle the water is ¨not cold¨anyways) we moved on to Bogata. Here we stayed at what may be arguably Colombia´s busiest hostel, the Platypus, run by a European called Hermeon for the last 10 years. He now has 3 houses on the same road, and is still turning away people. It is a shabby, run down building with small and dark rooms, but has the advantage of being a great meeting place for other travellers, who provide a wealth of knowledge regarding the road ahead - where to go, where to stay, where to definitely NOT go and how to try and avoid getting robbed, tricked out of your money and even mugged. As previously stated, there is very little of this kind of petty crime in Colombia, but it is much more of a concern in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, our next destinations.
Bogata turned out to be a pleasant surprise in comparison to Caracas - a very clean, modern city, with lots of things to do for tourists. Since we were only there for a day and a half, all we really did was go to the Museo de Oro to see the world´s largest collection of pre-Colombian gold artifacts. We did get some shopping in for some amenities that it turns out we really needed, or had lost already (it´s that cursed poor memory of mine, going to cost me a mint).
At Hermeon´s suggestion, our next stop was the tiny town of Salento, in the heart of Colombia´s coffee growing region. We lucked out again with a hostel, staying at the Plantation House, run by an Englishman turned Colombian who is passionate about his new country. He sent us to a local farm run by the family of Don Elias to see where coffee comes from. Don Elias´grandson took us and 4 other people from the hostel on the grand tour of the farm, explaining the process of coffee growing from start to finish. At this particular farm they have 3000 coffee tree plants, a mixture of colombian and arabica. They also grow plantain, oranges, sugar cane, maize, yucca and pineapples, mostly for their own consumption. The two main months for harvesting coffee are May, and to a lesser extent, November, though they pick all year round. In the month of May, when they do most of their harvesting, they collect about a 1000 lbs of coffee beans. Now considering that they get about $1/lb we figured this family of about 6 people was living on less than $5000/year, a bit sobering and it really brings home the reality that 60% of Colombians are living in poverty. After they hand pick the individual beans (which are ripe when they turn a brilliant red on the tree) they remove the outer shell leaving a slimy, tan coloured bean that has to be washed and rinsed over the next 24 hours. The beans are then dried in a plastic tent over the next 5-10 days, bagged and finally sold to a wholesaler in town who exports them for consumption in other countries. Colombians almost never drink colombian coffee, but instead get freeze dried Sanka-like products, unable to afford the real deal. Don Elias, being an upstanding kinda guy, did roast some beans for us on their family stove and then ground them (actually made Gilles grind them, see pic) to make us tinto (small, strong cups of coffee with tons of sugar cane syrup lacing it). For this 2 hour tour we each paid 3000 pesos (about $1.50), a pittance for us, but a fortune to this family.

Post Salento, we had no real plans, but were convinced by a Swiss couple that we just couldn´t miss San Augustin. San Augustin was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 because of it´s unique proximity to the ¨Valley of the Statues¨. In the area surrounding this town there is hundreds of rough hewn statues in the shapes of gods and animals, that date anywhere from the first to the eighth century. Probably one of the most fascinating facts about these statues is that no one knows who made them. They were made mainly to stand guard over various cairns and tombs, though the people who were buried here apparently did not live in the area, explaining the lack of local history regarding them. Many of the statues have been moved from their site of discovery and are now displayed in the Parque Arqueologico just outside of town, but a lot of the statues can still be viewed in their original locations with some effort. All sounds great. The down side is that San Augustin is a bone jarring, teeth rattling, 6 hour bus ride from a town called Popyan. In 6 hours we managed to cover a grand total of 120 km, just to give you an idea of how tortuous it is (for more on this rather adventurous journey see the next post).
It was worth it, though, because we managed to stay at a wonderful place called Casa del Sol, run by a Colombian lady called Clemencia. She put us in a small cabana on the edge of the gorge overlooking the Rio Magdeline (Magdeline River), truly one of the most impressive views we´ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
On the first day we did the obligatory tour of the archeological park, which was very interesting, but a bit limited in information for us, as nothing was available in English. The following day we joined up with some girls from Denmark and Switzerland and had a local guide, Fabian, take us out on horses to see some of the more distant sites. Just the ride alone was worth the cost of the tour, as we dipped down into the gorge to view La Chaquira, a site where you suddenly come upon figures carved in various rocks you pass. We also visited 3 other sites getting mightily sunburned in the process (that´s just a dig for you Edmontonians, who are experiencing the -30 degree celsius weather I so miss).
That night we got together at another hostel and made a big vegetarian meal to share with a group of locals and us tourists. For entertainment we got the local San Augustin cultural director to give us a big lecture in Spanish on the benefits of smoking marijuana (LOTS of hippies in San Augustin) and the evils of alcohol. Happily for him, none of us would take him up on his offer to share his joint, meaning he had it all to himself, while we stuck with our beers.
Another day of rest, then sadly, back on the mini van to get back to Popyan (´nuff said about that).
This was 2 days ago, and we are barely recovered. But we crossed over the border this morning and are now staying in Otavalo, Ecuador, a pueblo reknowned for its Saturday craft market. All the locals here are indigenous and still wear traditional dress, and weave beautiful carpets, blankets and scarves. Sadly, our stay in Ecuador will likely be very short as we have moved our trek in Macchu Picchu up from December 28th to December 10th in an effort to avoid spending Christmas and New Year´s in Cusco. So some miles are going to have to be made in the next week, which means lots of buses, mini vans and collectivos .............. sigh