ON THE ROAD: Starting off the Journey, May – June 2016:
After this introduction, our travel posts are arranged chronologically and by distinct parts (Part One; Puerto Vallarta Mexico, Part Two; Western States Road Trip, etc.). We’ll update this page throughout 2016 with new Parts as we travel through different regions. But first, our introduction followed by a table of contents so you can scroll down to the posts you’re interested in:
Sonia and I had been planning on long-term travel for many years. In fact one of the things we had in common when we first met was our desire to explore the world. So two or three years ago we started saving money, researching how to travel inexpensively, and where we wanted to go. Neither one of us have children, but like most middle-age Americans, we were working full time jobs and paying a mortgage. So far our traveling was limited to one to three week trips, mostly to Mexico, and exploring the magnificent Pacific Northwest of the United States. We were ready for more.
We knew that we couldn’t afford to maintain the home we had come to love in Mukilteo, Washington and also travel extensively. We had to choose one or the other. In the end we realized that though we were healthy now, the clock was ticking and to pursue our passion we would have to leave the comfort and security of our conventional life. As a friend said, to follow your passions sometimes you just have to make the jump.
We also knew before we left that a nomadic life of travel without a place to call home was a great unknown. Would we get homesick? Would we have enough money? What if we got sick? Were we too old for such a dramatic shift in our lives (Sonia is 55, I’m 66), but we’re healthy and without any medical conditions to maintain. Would we even like traveling for an undetermined amount of time? And what can’t be planned for; how would we hold up emotionally?
We planned and re-planned, researched and then researched some more. Sonia was working full time at Boeing while I was semi-retired and collecting a modest social security disbursement and a small pension from the State of Washington. Both of us are comfortable with travel and have experience in planning our own trips and figuring problems out as we go. That’s important. We both speak Spanish (Sonia far better than me) and are willing to take reasonable risks.
So we planned to exit in the spring of 2017. We would sell our house and most of our belongings and set out into the world. About two years ago we started saving as much as we could in a travel fund. We decided to start our explorations in South America, a place we both wanted to visit, but also a place where entry permits are simple and where we both speak the language. On the way we would make a quick sweep through the western U.S. and spend some time in Mexico visiting family and friends.
We also knew we would travel slowly to avoid burnout. Our plan had to be flexible and based on one to three week long rentals in central areas of each country where we could cook our own food and explore the region from a base. Sonia is a city girl while I’m more of a wilderness trekker, so we would also plan on a mix of places to visit from major urban centers to remote jungle camps. I would probably take some more remote treks on my own.
We planned to travel on a day-to-day budget of $100 per day ONCE IN COUNTRY ($100/day to cover food, housing and local transportation). That would of course vary from country to country with some areas exceeding that budget while others would be under budget. Other expenses, like international airfare, guided treks, occasional resort stays, and a reserve emergency fund would come from a special savings account for that purpose. Also there would be one time “start-up” costs (international health insurance, storage unit for some possessions, establishing an on-line mail service, buying some equipment and clothes). We’ve summarized all of these preparations and their costs in the post, By The Numbers, in our Tips & Travelling section.
Then, in January 2016, things started to change. Management changes at Boeing made Sonia’s job a little less desirable. We noticed houses in our neighborhood were selling fast and at unusually high prices. And then in February Boeing announced there would be a large workforce layoff in May and the company was looking for volunteers to accept a voluntary layoff which would provide a modest severance pay and health insurance. It seemed obvious that “the universe” was giving us a big sign that now was the time for us to go.
So in February 2016 we put the house on the market and sold it within two days. We sold or gave away most of our possessions and put the rest in a 5’ x 10’ storage unit. We bought travel clothes, backpacks’, tablet computers and other gear for traveling. Sonia’s last day of work would fall on May 20th, the same day we would have to vacate the house.
After considering a number of travel plans we decided we would start easy with a two-week, all-inclusive stay in a resort in Puerto Vallarta Mexico. Even though that would exceed our travel budget we thought it would make the transition into our “new life” easier, especially since the transition was so abrupt (Sonia’s last day of work and our last day in our house fell on the same day).
After that we would move on to Chihuahua Mexico to visit with Sonia’s family before flying on to South America for the rest of 2016. We decided to hold onto our old 1993 Oldsmobile and drive it from Seattle to Chihuahua. That would allow us to bring a load of household goods to friends and family in Mexico, provide us a car to use while in Mexico, and give us a road trip through the western United States on the way. This was risky since car was old with high mileage, but it was in good operating condition and if it broke down we would sell or donate it on the spot and ship our gear on to El Paso Texas while we flew on. If it survived the trip we could sell or store the car when we left for South America.
May 20th arrived and Sonia’s last day of work. The car was packed full. We said a tearful goodbye to Mukilteo and our house and drove to Seattle putting the car long-term parking at the hotel. The next day we would fly off to Puerto Vallarta, return in two weeks to pick up the car, and then drive off for Chihuahua Mexico. The following Parts describe those travels.
Part One; Puerto Vallarta Mexico, May 2016
Part Two; Road Trip, Seattle to Santa Fe, June 2016
Part Three; The Oldsmobile Diaries; Chihuahua, Ajijic & Central Mexico, July – August 2016
Part Four; Ecuador, September 2016
Part Five; Colombia, September 2016
Part Six; Peru & Machu Picchu, October 2016
Part Seven, Argentina/Chile & Southern Patagonia, October 2016
Part Eight, Return to Mexico; Oaxaca, Chiapas & Caribbean Coast, November-December 2016
Part Nine, Summary & Lessons Learned
PART ONE; PUERTO VALLARTA MEXICO, May 2016:
We usually don’t go to large tourist areas, but since the start of our “new life” was so abrupt we decided to start off easy in an all-inclusive resort. We were also interested in researching the area for possible relocation later on when our backpacking travels were done. So, we booked a two-week stay through Delta Vacations at the all-inclusive Fiesta Americana hotel in Puerto Vallarta.
At $3,400 for both of us including round trip flights from Seattle and all food and drinks included it was a good deal even though it exceeded our planned travel budget of $100/day. Besides, we had already planned for occasional extravagances like this so when Sonia returned from her last day of work on May 20th we said a tearful goodbye to our house and drove to Seattle in the old Oldsmobile knowing we wouldn’t be returning to Mukilteo.
Since we would be driving back into Mexico from Seattle when we returned from Vallarta, I had equipped the car with a roof-mounted cargo carrier and now the back seat, trunk and cargo carrier were full of camping gear, suitcases, our long term travel backpacks, and bags of goods we were taking to Mexico. The car was badly overloaded, but we knew we’d lighten the load once in Mexico. For now; on to Vallarta.
We arrived in the Puerto Vallarta airport and waded through the phalanx of time-share salesmen strategically stationed along the corridor to baggage claim and hawking free dinners or cruises if you attended a promotional sales meeting. We had encountered this before and brusquely waved them off (sometimes you have to be assertive). We had brought only carry-on backpacks and so escaped the delays at baggage claim and hopped the shuttle to the Fiesta Americana.
Puerto Vallarta is located on gigantic Banderas Bay, a massive inlet on the Mexican Pacific coast. Since it is on a bay, the surf is gentle and the water warm. Far to the south the bay curves up into a rough, mountainous point at Cabo Corrientes with some small fishing village there. To the north the bay ends at another point, Punta de Mita. Puerto Vallarta is centrally located between these points with many small beach towns along the way in either direction.
The Fiesta Americana is one of the older hotel complexes and we immediately liked it. It’s not a huge complex and felt more intimate with a small beach area on the warm Pacific and a swimming pool in the middle of the patio. It was never crowded and most of the guests were Mexican families from Guadalajara.
I was afraid the weather would be too hot and humid for me since late May and June is the beginning of “hot season”, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared and as soon as we checked into our room we headed for the beach for a cold beer and a swim in the ocean. By the end of our two-week stay the staff all knew the Spanish-speaking gringo and his fun-loving wife and we would make friends with some of them.
After a day or two of lounging on the beach we contacted some local realtors and explored property for sale n Puerto Vallarta and south of the city along the coastline of Banderas Bay (Mismolaya, Boca de Tomatlan, and above the Zona Romantica. We found that even tiny lots on steep land was over $100,000 usd with building costs ranging from $80 – $110 usd per square foot which we felt wasn’t worth the cost.
Then we rented a car for a week and explored the coastline northward to Punta de Mita and south to Cabo Corrientes (this covered the entire coastline of the huge Banderas Bay). We explored colonial towns in the mountains and tiny fishing villages along the coast. We took a snorkeling tours and ate in local neighborhood seafood restaurants. Soon I had a ritual of waking up and swimming in the warm Pacific before heading out for our daily excursions.
Banderas Bay and Puerto Vallarta must have been a beautiful place thirty, even twenty years ago, but now we found that the whole area was developed, or being developed, and the natural resources of the area were paying the price for it. North of Puerto Vallarta the Marietas Islands off of Punta de Mita were mobbed with so many snorkeling tours that that the coral was being destroyed while droves of sunburned tourists bobbed around in the surf amongst the flotilla of boats that brought them there. The little town of Sayulita was a new-age boutique full of fusion restaurants and psychic healing centers more reminiscent of Southern California than of Mexico and the scuba-diving town of Bucerias was a dirty, grubby place.
South of Puerto Vallarta highway 200 is the only roadway through the steep mountains that drop into the ocean. It takes you past the communities of Mismolaya, Boca de Tomatlan and onward along the Pacific coast. But it was lined with upscale condominiums, gated communities and adventure parks which not only locked up every square meter of land in private property, but ensured the road was snarled in a perpetual traffic jam. Even the once remote town of Yelapa, reachable only by boat, was polluted and swarming with tourists being herded by their guides to pre-determined beachside lounges to drink cheap beer on the super-crowded beach.
Still there were a few hidden gems. To the north, a few miles past Sayulita, is the small town of San Pancho, or San Francisco as shown on maps. Quiet, clean and laid back this is what Vallarta must have been like in days gone by. To the south is the clean, small town of El Tuito and the tiny seaside villages beyond it at Cabo Corrientes, the point forming the southern boundary of Banderas Bay. High in the mountains behind Vallarta we visited the pretty colonial towns of San Sabastian and Mascota and in Puerto Vallarta itself we found a valley of quiet villages in the jungle along the Cuales River, the last holdouts against the relentless mega-tourist development pressing in against them.
Although we liked the Fiesta Americana, the food was very poor and the drinks watered down; they even found a way to water down the beer. I’m sure preparing food for hundreds of tourists every day is challenging and the watered down drinks necessary to prevent droves of drunkards, but the price paid is bad food and tasteless drinks. After a few days we started going out to eat and found inexpensive, fresh seafood at the restaurants in town.
While walking around the Zona Romantica in downtown Puerto Vallarta we found many local hotels and condominiums offering weekly or even monthly rates far below the cost of the all-inclusive resorts. Near the beach, equipped with kitchens and surrounded by excellent restaurants we could see that if we were to go to a large tourist area like Puerto Vallarta again, renting one of these condominiums or hotels would be a much better way to go. Besides being less expensive we wouldn’t be sequestered in a hotel complex; we would be in the middle of the local action with live music in the bars, the local beaches nearby, and we would eat much better considering that the local markets are full of fresh tropical fruit, seafood and bakeries.
Overall we had a good time in Puerto Vallarta, but after two weeks we were ready to start our real travels. So we flew back to Seattle, picked up the faithful Oldsmobile, and drove off towards eastern Oregon, Utah, Colorado and on to Santa Fe New Mexico where we would stay with friends for a few days before re-entering Mexico, this time into the high deserts of Chihuahua.
PART TWO; ROAD TRIP, SEATTLE TO SANTA FE, June 2016:
We arrived in Seattle from Puerto Vallarta on June 4th finding in hotter there than in Mexico. We had a day of business to take care of before leaving. The new Microsoft Surface 3 tablet computer I had bought for the trip didn’t function correctly and I had to get it fixed. We had returned Sonia’s Surface 3 for a full refund before we left for Puerto Vallarta, but the thirty-day grace period had expired for mine, so I was stuck with it now. After the Microsoft technician battled with it for half an hour, he exchanged it for a new one which finally worked well after uploading four hours of updates. That, and some other shopping took all day and we spent the first night in Olympia, Washington’s funky state capital and one of our favorite small cities (compete with marijuana tours similar to wine tasting). Up early the next day and off to Bend, Oregon.
So, was driving a twenty three year-old car halfway across the United States a good idea? Maybe. This was an idea we came up with just a few weeks before leaving. The car was old with high miles, but in good mechanical condition. It would provide us with transportation once in Mexico saving us car-rental costs there and we could transport gifts and household goods for family and friends in Mexico. We could also have a road trip through some of the national parks in the western U.S. by car-camping on the way. If it died, we could dispose of it and ship our cargo onward. The downside was that it was packed full of suitcases, camping gear, and our backpacks. That made camping along the way all the more difficult. When we left Mexico for South America we would store it in Mexico or sell it in the U.S. We decided it was worth the risk.
Due to some family events scheduled in Mexico for late June we only had three weeks to make the 1,500 mile drive from Seattle to Santa Fe. That meant that in order to keep the trip from being too rushed we would have to take a direct route towards Santa Fe. And, since it was now early June, we would avoid the national parks of southern Utah which were a high priority for me, but it was just too hot there now. Instead we drove off from Olympia towards the high deserts of eastern Oregon. It turned out to be a good decision and besides – we’d be back to explore the canyons and deserts of Utah later.
Back to the road trip. We arrived in Bend Oregon and our friends’ Gary and Sally house on a hot afternoon after getting lost in Portland Oregon. The first day of the road trip and we were already exhausted, but their house was a sanctuary set on a low bluff overlooking the sage and pine forests of the Deschutes National Forest to the snow-capped peaks of Mt Bachelor and The Sisters in the distance. For the next day and night we strolled around Bend and relaxed on their patio listening to coyotes howl in the morning and were fully recharged by the time we left.
But before we left Bend we had to do something about the overloaded car. It was so badly overloaded that we were not only digging through suitcases and bags full of stuff to find things; now were losing things too and we arrived in Bend I discovered I had left our point-and-shoot digital camera in Olympia (later I called the hotel and they found it and sent it to us in Santa Fe). So, we unloaded a large suitcase and duffel bag from the back seat which Gary and Sally agreed to ship on to El Paso Texas for us. That cost $100, but relieved us a great deal and we’d pick that stuff up later at the UPS office in El Paso instead of dragging all this stuff across the country for the next three weeks (we probably should have known better, but we knew we’d make some mistakes along the way)
With our load lightened somewhat we drove the two and a half hours from Bend to Crater Lake National Park and our first couple of nights of “car camping.” Crater Lake is surprising. Driving up through hot and sunny pine and fir forests you can feel the air getting cooler, then downright chilly. Then, suddenly, you reach the brink of the 6-mile wide caldera (a collapsed volcano) and see the deep blue water filling the perfectly round crater of ancient Mt Mazama (now called Crater Lake). It’s a stunning sight.
We drove across the park to the Mazama Campground. I usually don’t like national park campgrounds; too noisy and crowded. But Mazama was nice with patches of snow lingering in the shade of tall fir trees, not many people, and, . . . mosquitos – lots of them. Setting up our camp took more time than normal digging through the overloaded car to find things, but soon we had our large tent filled with a comfortable queen-size inflatable mattress with our sheets, blankets and pillows – just like home.
It was afternoon so we walked around the campground before cooking our meal of steaks and salad while fighting off the ever-present mosquitos. Tired and happy we went to bed only to wake up shivering in the 34 degree morning. Our comforter was barely enough to keep us warm.
We spent the day hiking around the lake and relaxing in camp for the rest of the warm afternoon. But when the sun set the temperature dropped immediately and we retreated to our tent, this time wearing our fleece pants to keep us warm and slept soundly. Tomorrow we’d drive down off of the mountain and into the vast, high deserts of southeastern Oregon where the states of Oregon, Idaho and Nevada come together and one of the wildest areas left in the conterminous United States.
The high desert of south eastern Oregon to a very special place and Malhuer National Wildlife Refuge is the heart of it all. Malhuer has always been a special place for me. It’s a gigantic area of desert and marshes with Steens Mountain rising up to 9,000 feet in the middle of it all. The remote Pueblo Mountains stretch off into the southern horizon with their hidden hot springs and wilderness while to the east are the even more remote Owyhee Canyon Lands where the Owyhee River roars through deep volcanic canyons. It’s one of the wildest areas remaining in the conterminous United States.
It’s also a bird watchers’ paradise and important wintering area along the Pacific Flyway, a major bird migration route. As we drove through the refuge we saw white-fronted Ibis, curlews, avocets and many other unusual birds. Not only that, but the area supports healthy populations of cougar, bear and a herd of wild horses called the Kiger Mustangs. We had reservations in one of the few places to stay; a 19th century hotel set deep in a remote valley, the Hotel Diamond.
Old, creaky and funky the Hotel Diamond was just our kind of place. Not cheap at $90/night, but clean with large rooms. For an addition $26 per person we would have a “family style” dinner where all the guests sit at a large table to dine together on hearty meals of chicken and salad. At the table we met some interesting people that we would stay in contact with; a retired professor and his wife living in the remote “lost coast” of northern California and an older couple of women that had been everywhere. We laughed and exchanged e-mail with them.
The next day we drove off to explore the area and found a dirt side road posted “Kiger Mustang Viewpoint” and “Passenger Vehicles Not Recommended.” We of course set off down the rutted dirt track in the Oldsmobile, straddling the deep ruts and soft sand and surprising pronghorn antelope along the way. We reached the viewpoint an hour and a half later; no wild horses, but a spectacular view across the mesas and canyons with Steens Mountain rising in the background still white in early summer snow.
We used up the morning on that exploration and spent the rest of the day touring through the refuge and visiting the famous round barn of early pioneer Pete French before returning to the Hotel Diamond and another family dinner. We could spend the whole summer at Malhuer, but we had to move on so the following morning we packed up and drove off towards Bose Idaho and another one of our scheduled “hotel nights.”
Along the way we stopped for lunch in Jordan Valley, a tiny town deep in the remote ranching country of southeastern Oregon. As we ate our buffalo burgers in the combination restaurant and cowboy bar we watched an elder from the Mormon church arranging a marriage between a young rancher with three young children and a primly dressed woman in pressed jeans and impeccable straw hat at the table next to ours. It was like something out of a Spielberg movie as we listened to the elder negotiating the virtues of the rancher and the dowry of the woman to each other. But we were wary of taking any pictures. Sometimes you need to exercise some discretion. Still, it reminded us once again that you never know what you’ll run into out there on the road.
The next two days were driving days. We wanted to get through the extensive farm and ranchlands of southern Idaho and northern Utah in order to spend more time in the national parks of Colorado. So gritting our teeth for a couple long days of driving we left the serenity of Malhuer and headed for the interstate highway. We spent the first night in Boise Idaho and the next n Salt Lake City Utah.
By now we were becoming aficionados of cheap, off-the-beaten-track hotels and the places in Boise and Salt Lake were no exceptions. But, in Boise we celebrated Sonia’s birthday by splurging on a nice meal at the Cucina Toscana, which turned out to be one of the best Italian restaurants we’ve eaten in – anywhere. We found a Best Buy store in Boise and bought an inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camera to replace the one I’d left in Olympia over a week ago.
The long driving days gave us time to contemplate our future. Oddly, we didn’t miss our home in Mukilteo which we had left only three weeks ago and already had fallen into a rhythm of moving through the country, not in any big hurry or with a firm destination. It was an exhilarating feeling.
I had forgotten how vast and beautiful the Rocky Mountain West was and as we rode along we talked about abandoning our plans to backpack through South America and instead buying a truck and travel trailer to explore North America. We talked about re-establishing a home base, probably outside of Seattle, from which to take long-term international trips during the long, dark, and wet Washington winters while saving the summers to travel from Alaska to Mexico in the comfort of a truck and trailer.
It all sounded very appealing, but in the end we decided to stick with our plans to backpack through South America for the rest of 2016. After that, we’d see if we wanted to invest in a truck and trailer and to re-establish a home-base. But now it was time to leave Salt Lake City and resume camping, this time at Dinosaur National Monument in the canyon lands on the Utah/Colorado border.
But, we wouldn’t make it to Dinosaur before a flat tire stalled us twenty miles outside of Roosevelt Utah, about as far out in the middle of nowhere as you could get. We limped into the local ranch repair shop on the spare and found that both rear tires were shot. We spent the next two hours buying two new tires and having a great time talking to the ranchers coming into the shop. After that it was an uneventful drive on to Dinosaur National Monument.
Dinosaur National Monument is a hidden gem often passed over by tourists driving from Yellowstone National Park to Salt Lake City and we were glad we stopped there. Besides the fossils for which the national monument is known; it has extensive areas of backcountry full of badlands and high plateaus, canyons with ancient petroglyphs scratched into the rock, and old settlers’ cabins tucked away in the desert. We camped for two nights at the crowded Green River campground, took long hikes through the twisted sandstone canyons, drank Polygamy Porter beers at night (in Utah, what else to drink?), and of course toured the mountainside packed full of dinosaur fossils that made the area famous.
On the third day we drove off for Steamboat Springs Colorado where we planned to spend a hotel night before resuming car camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. On the way we re-entered Dinosaur National Monument on its remote eastern side and drove up to high canyon overlooks where the Green River had cut a massive gorge. It was magnificent, high, lonely country and I swore I’d be back to trek into the wilderness and raft the wild river there. But for now; on to Steamboat Springs.
But, our car troubles weren’t quite over yet and sixty miles outside of Steamboat the engine starting making a loud rattling noise. Thinking that it was the bearings going out in the air conditioning compressor we drove on to Steamboat, checked into the Nordic Hotel, and immediately started calling local repair shops. But it was Friday afternoon and the rodeo was in town. And, no one seemed to want to work on a 1993 Oldsmobile. I finally found a mechanic willing to look at it and drove to the repair shop leaving it there until the mechanic could check it out. Looks like we’d be in Steamboat Springs for a while – maybe a long while.
But what a place to break down! Steamboat Springs is a world class ski resort full of restaurants and bars. No skiing in summer, but the area is surrounded by ten wilderness areas and is a mountain biker’s paradise. There’s whitewater rafting on nearby rivers and the Yampa River flowing through town was beautiful.
Knowing we’d be in town for at least four days we moved from the relatively posh, but expensive Nordic Hotel to the decidedly funky Western Lodge on the end of town (lowest rates available). The place was old and operated by an old hippy woman and her Swiss husband that played Swiss polkas on his accordion every night. It rated high on our “funky meter”, but it was clean and quiet and that’s all we need.
We discussed the car. We knew when we left Seattle that driving the old car across the west was risky and now we considered selling or donating it if the repair costs were too high. We could dump our cargo in the local Goodwill store and taking only our travel packs fly on to Santa Fe. But then the mechanic called saying the harmonic balancer was bad (a housing that fits on the end of the engine to keep it balanced) and would cost less than $350 to repair. Unfortunately, the part wouldn’t arrive until Monday or Tuesday, three or four days away. We decided to have it repaired and settled into a long stay at Steamboat Springs.
As it turned out we had a great time in Steamboat. We rode the chairlift to the top of Warner Mountain for cold beers and live music. We ate barbeque ribs at the rodeo, rented mountain bikes and spent a day peddling up the trails along the Yampa River. We spent a half-day whitewater rafting on the upper Colorado River and the night in a local bar watching Mexico lose the America Cup to Chile (seven to zero which in soccer is a disaster). A Ford Mustang rally was in town and we drooled over the classic cars lined up along main street (although my favorite was an impeccably restored 1955 Ford pickup truck).
Finally, on Monday, the car was ready and we packed it up to leave early the next morning. By then most people in town knew us. We had become locals, stopping to chat with people as we walked through town. But it was time to go.
Since we had used up so much time in Steamboat Springs, we decided to start heading south towards Santa Fe instead of camping in Rocky Mountain and Gunnison National Parks. From here on out we’d stay in hotels until we reached Santa Fe and our friends Jaime and Betty’s house. But that was alright too – we’d see some spectacular country along the way with our first stop being the historical mining town of Leadville Colorado, 10,000 feet high in the Rockies.
I had heard about Leadville before, but still didn’t know what to expect. As we left Steamboat Springs we immediately climbed out of the valley and into the Colorado high country; a series of high sage-covered plateaus surrounded by forests and even higher mountains. As we approached Leadville two and a half hours later we climbed even higher until we drove into what looked like a set from an old western movie; Leadville.
Gold was discovered in Leadville in the 1870s, but the mines soon closed. Then silver and lead were discovered and in the late 1800s the town became a Victorian city of 50,000. These mines finally closed as well but the town remained. The main street was lined with three-story high brick Victorian buildings set against a backdrop of Colorado’s highest peaks; Mt Elbert, Mt Massif and other peaks over 14,000 feet high and still covered in winter snow.
We toured historic old houses and strolled the wide main street until we reached the Silver Dollar Saloon, the oldest operating bar in the Rocky Mountain west. Stepping into the gloomy interior for a well-earned beer, we found that the Silver Dollar wasn’t a re-created tourist trap like many old west towns; instead it was a real operating bar with stools facing an enormous wood and mirrored bar front, poker tables in the back room, and attended by an eclectic collection of patrons ranging from local bikers to international tourists. In other words, it was our kind of place.
A couple sitting at the table next to us offered to take our picture and as we talked to them we discovered that the woman was a representative of the Ecuadorian Consulate. When she heard of our plans to travel through South America she told us about all sorts of places to visit there and we exchanged e mail addresses. This contact would come in handy later on.
As we ate our pizza lunch (excellent) we discussed whether to stay in Leadville for the night or move on towards Santa Fe. Since we felt rested and awake we decided to drive on to southern Colorado, but I knew we’d be back to Leadville in the future to climb the high peaks and camp in the wilderness surrounding the town. So we picked a town on the map that we could reach within a two to three-hour drive from Leadville and from which we could reach Santa Fe the next day. With nothing other than that to recommend it, we drove on to Monte Vista Colorado, a small agricultural community near the border with New Mexico.
We arrived in Monte Vista in late afternoon and found the Monte Villa Hotel in “downtown” Monte Vista. This place must have been the inspiration for The Eagles famous song, Hotel California. A dark cavernous place it was a luxury hotel in its time eighty years ago, but now had fallen into disrepair, its massive ballroom now a dark and spooky place capped by a spectacular Tiffany skylight. Outside, the hotel was surrounded by railroad junk yards and abandoned houses. We rode the creaky old-time elevator with its bronze slide-open cage door to our room which we found to be clean and large.
Once we settled into our room I walked around the neighborhood behind the hotel and couldn’t believe what I saw. On a weed-grown rail road siding was a string of 1930s Pullman rail road passenger cars and an ancient steam locomotive complete with its coal tender. Next to that a three story Victorian house, once a luxury home to some local potato tycoon but now boarded up and falling into ruin. Once again, you never know what you’ll find in the backwaters of the American west.
The owner of the hotel told me there was a vintage railroad restoration center in nearby Alamosa, and when we left the next day for our final push into Santa Fe we stopped there and walked around these historical artifacts. It was fascinating. From Alamosa it was an uneventful but beautiful four-hour drive into Santa Fe and the sanctuary of our friends’ house where we would stay for four days before moving on into Mexico.
Santa Fe New Mexico, Land of Enchantment as the state slogan goes, and it is. And for us, a chance to rest up after our long road trip and visit with our friends, Jaime and Betty.
We spent the next four days exploring around Santa Fe. The day after we arrived Betty took us to the posh hot springs of Ojo Caliente to relax in the thermal waters, coat ourselves in mud from the hot mud fountain and lounge around the hot springs to the sound of ethereal flute music wafting through the area (speak in whispers only please).
We hiked the slot canyons and strange pinnacles of Tent Rocks National Monument just an hour out of town and hiked through La Cieneguilla, a local petroglyph site.
We spent our last day hiking through Bandelier National Monument, a major archeological area where the Pueblo Indians built spectacular cave homes into the volcanic rock along the cliff faces there.
Rested and relaxed, it was time to leave. But Jaime and Betty were interested in visiting us once we arrived in Chihuahua Mexico, so we made plans for them to stay with us in the two-bedroom apartment we had reserved there. We drove on into Mexico, first staying in Juarez to visit Sonia’s sister and some friends there, and then, on to Northern Mexico. Our old Oldsmobile kept rolling along, thank god, and on July 2 we arrived in Chihuahua Mexico after a four-hour drive south from El Paso Texas through the magnificent high deserts and mountains of Chihuahua. We didn’t know it then, but there were some adventures waiting for us there.
PART THREE; THE OLDSMOBILE DIARIES, Chihuahua, Ajijic & Central Mexico, July 2016:
We call this section The Oldsmobile Diaries since along our way so many people marveled at our old car; some amazed that we had driven it from Seattle, others admiring the condition it was in. Either way, we were going to take a road trip through central Mexico in it. But first we had some business to attend to in Chihuahua and the small town of Ajijic (ah-hee-HEEK) south of Guadalajara.
Sonia wanted to visit family and friends in Chihuahua. Her father was getting older, there were new grand-nieces and nephews to see, and since we didn’t know when we’d be back, now was the time to check in. Also, some friends from the U.S. were coming to visit us in Chihuahua and had planned a couple of excursions with them. So, we’d be pretty busy in Chihuahua.
Then, we wanted to check the small town of Ajijic as a possible relocation area once we finished traveling. Ajijic is a small colonial town on the shores of gigantic Lake Chapala and forty-five minutes south by bus or car from the sprawling megalopolis of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco far to the south of Chihuahua. It has a large population of expat Americans and Canadians and famous for its mild climate; not too hot, not too cold.
After Ajijic we would loop back north to Chihuahua and on to El Paso Texas to fly on to South America. We would take that opportunity to visit other colonial cities in Mexico on the way. The road trip would take all of July and August (or as long as the Oldsmobile held up).
CHIHUAHUA: Chihuahua doesn’t appear on most people’s itinerary of Mexico. A large, industrial city of 600,000 and set in the high deserts of north-central Mexico it’s a rough, gritty place; hot in summer, cold in winter. It’s the state capital for the state of the same name; Chihuahua. And, it is situated between the drug-growing areas in the Sierra Madre Mountains and the smuggling route to the United States, so it has seen its share of narco-related violence in the past ten years. But there are some interesting things in and around the city and it’s safe enough as long as you stay aware.
NOTE: All conversions of pesos to dollars in this report use a rate of 18 pesos per U.S. dollar.
But, there are some fascinating sights and historical artifacts in Chihuahua. The famous Copper Canyons aren’t far away and historically, Chihuahua played a major role in the Mexican War of Independence (from Spain), the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa, and Chihuahua even served as the nation’s capital when the French invaded Mexico in the mid-1800s. Besides, for us it was a perfect place to rest up for a month after our long road trip through the western U.S. and a good place to plan out our next move; on to South America. And, we had some explorations to do there.
We arrived at the apartments we had reserved a month before, the Departmentos Mision, in a quiet, clean neighborhood and walking distance to downtown and Sonia’s sister’s and nephew’s houses. We were hoping it would be a comfortable, affordable, quiet place to rest up in, and we were pleasantly surprised. A small complex of about twenty apartments it was a place where visiting businessmen stay and we had a roomy two-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, hotel-style linen and towel service, a small pool outside and WiFi. At $14,500 pesos per month it was within our budget (about $800 dollars per month, or $29 per night). We had found our home for the next month or so.
After a couple days of visiting friends and family and stocking the apartment with groceries I prepared to camp in the Barrancas de Cobre (the Copper Canyons) with my brother-in-law Randy, the other gringo in the family. We loaded up his 1996 Chevy Suburban with sleeping bags, tents, 15-liter jugs of water, coolers full of groceries and beer and headed out of Chihuahua for three nights of camping in the pine forests in Mogotavo, a small Tarahumara indian community on a mesa above the tourist stop of Divisidero almost 8,0000 feet high in the pine forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
NOTE: The Copper Canyons are a maze of gigantic canyons that cut through the Sierra Madre Mountains in north-central Mexico. They are the deepest canyons in North America with the Sinfarosa Canyon alone almost twice the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. These canyons are the home of the Tarahumara people; world famous long-distance runners that routinely descend in and out of the canyons in a single day wearing sandals made from old tires and strapped onto their feet with rawhide. There are approximately 80,0000 Tarahumara living across the Sierra Madre, many still practicing ancient traditions and living in dirt floored log cabins, or sometimes in caves, far out in the canyons. Most speak Spanish, but many don’t and speak only their native tongue, Raramuri. Randy is the Executive Director of a non-profit organization called Tierra Nativa that works to secure land rights and protect the indigenous Tarahumara people from encroachments into their lands by tourism developers, mining companies, and drug traffickers many of which are aided by corrupt government officials. You can read more at tierranativa.com
Randy was overseeing an eco-tourism project that the Tarahumara community in Mogotavo had started. They were building hiking trails through their area with hopes to open in 2017 to visitors arriving at the major tourist stop of Divisidero by train, the famous Copper Canyon Express. So, after setting up camp we walked along some of the newly built trails finally finding the trail-building crew along the way. Whole families were working on the trail with the men splitting rocks with sledge hammers while the women and girls in their brightly colored skirts lined the trails with the rocks and raked the dirt trail level. The men greeted us with the traditional Tarahumara handshake (lightly brushing the inside of each other’s fingers) while the women avoided eye contact and just quietly responded to our salutations of “queelava” or “hello”.
But it was rainy season and when the afternoon thunderstorms arrived we retreated to our camp for dinner and beers. We relaxed around camp during the rainy evening relishing the cool mountain air after the hot desert of Chihuahua.
The following day we took a much longer hike deep into the canyons following Tarahumara goat herders’ trails and finding a series of pre-Columbian caves along a cliff face, some still being used as temporary housing for Tarahumara herders as evidenced by the hand-woven blankets, baskets and clay cooking bowls that we found inside of them. As evening the thunderstorms) we left the trails and climbed straight up out of the canyons. It was hot, exhausting work and we were ready to relax by the time we made it back to camp.
The last day I hiked around Mogotavo while Randy met with community leaders to discuss their trail-building project. Afterward we loaded up our camping gear and gave a Tarahumara girl and her grandmother a ride to Juanito, a small town fifty miles away. After that, the long, six-hour drive back to Chihuahua where I was meeting Sonia for dinner along with our friends Martha and Pepe that were flying into Chihuahua from Washington State.
Pepe and Martha were coming for a specific purpose; Martha had been born in the Mennonite community of Cuauhtemoc (kwa-TAY-mook), a small city an hour and a half drive from Chihuahua. But she had been adopted out of the community as young girl over forty years ago and now she was hoping to find her birth family; a tough task in the somewhat closed and private Mennonite community. So, the next morning we loaded up the old Oldsmobile and drove off to Cuahutemoc for the next two nights.
NOTE: The Mennonite communities in Mexico were established in the 1920s with Cuahutemoc being the largest. The medium-size city is surrounded by massive apple orchards and corn fields tended by Mennonite families; blue-eyed and blond-haired with the men and boys in coveralls and straw cowboy hats, the women and girls in long prairie skirts and black head scarves. Most of the men speak Spanish, but many of the women speak only an antiquated form of old German. Cuahutemoc is famous for a mild cheddar cheese made by the Mennonites there known locally as “queso menonita” (Mennonite cheese).
Martha brought had her birth certificate with a few names on it, but didn’t identify her father. So, we drove through the farmlands stopping at a Mennonite community center, a local Mennonite bazaar (kind of a Mennonite Goodwill store), and a cheese store asking if anyone knew the people on Martha’s document. The Mennonites were suspicious of us at first, but we finally gained their trust and I finally befriended an old Mennonite farmer in his eighties at a local department store by sharing a bag of caramel popcorn with him. This was Johan and he knew Martha’s great aunt and saying she lived in a building next door. It was a Mennonite social center, an elderly housing unit actually.
There we met an older woman, Helen Janzen de Klassen – Martha’s great aunt, who spoke perfect Spanish and a little English. She said Martha’s mother had died a few years ago, but she knew Martha’s father who had a store in Cuahutemoc and said she would lead there the following day.
The next day we picked up Helen at the social center and drove into Cuahutemoc and sure enough, she led us to a ranch supply store owned by Martha’s father, Sergio. Amazed and surprised we spent the afternoon meeting him and Martha’s half-sisters (Sergio’s daughters by different mother).
Mission accomplished, we drove back to Chihuahua the next day exhausted from our investigations. But we had entered into the private Mennonite community in Mexico and found them to be friendly, kind people.
Martha and Pepe left the following morning, but no rest for us. Another couple was coming to stay with us in our apartment that afternoon; Jaime and Betty from Santa Fe New Mexico. They wanted to visit the famous Copper Canyons in the high sierra outside of Chihuahua where I had been camping with Randy just three days ago. So after a brief nap we drove to the bus station in Chihuahua to pick them up.
After dropping their luggage off at the apartments we toured the historical center of Chihuahua (cathedral and government palaces). We stopped into a local bar specializing in pulque (POOL-kay), a pre-hispanic, mildly alcoholic drink fermented from the mash of the maguey plant. Of course we had to have a bowl of chapulines with our mugs of pulque while Sonia and Betty wrinkled their noses at us (chap-uu-LEEN-ays; dried grasshoppers, another indigenous food).
We got up early the next morning to catch the Copper Canyon Express, the famous train from Chihuahua to the Pacific coast. We were riding halfway to Divisidero, a tourist stop on the edge of the canyons high up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. We opted for the first class train, expensive at $80 usd each. The train ride was relaxing, cruising through the ranchlands of Chihuahua before climbing up into the pine forests of the Sierra Madre and even the breakfast we bought onboard was surprisingly good (scrambled eggs with chorizo and potatoes), though spendy at 150 pesos per plate.
We checked into our hotel near Divisidero, the funky Mansion Tarahumara, built to resemble a faux medieval castle. The rooms were clean enough, but the food was terrible and the tap water cloudy and yellowish.
The next day we hired Jonathan, a 20-year old local guy and his jeep, to drive us around the area. He took us to a cave occupied by a Tarahumara family, to the waterfalls on the river Cusarare, an old mission inside the traditional Tarahumara lands at San Ignacio, and through the strange rock formations of the valley of the frogs and mushrooms.
We stopped for a refreshing lunch of skirt steak and chiles in the mountain town of Creel before returning to the Mansion Tarahumara to face another barely edible dinner. Luckily, Jaime had bought a bottle of sotol to wash down the meal (a tequila-like liquor except made from another desert plant, stool, instead of the agave plant like tequila).
We woke up early the following day and met Jonathan again, this time to take us to the cable car that spans across the canyons from Divisidero. After the cable car ride we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the canyon rim and finally had a decent meal of quesadillas and jamaica (ha-MY-kah – hibiscus flower tea) in the food stalls by the train station. While walking through the open air market there I spotted a small stand selling jars of salve containing peyote and marijuana and supposedly good for sore muscles. Jaime bought a jar to take back to Santa Fe. Was it legal? – Quien sabe.
We located a bus heading back to Chihuahua, bought tickets, and made the six-hour ride back to Chihuahua arriving exhausted, but happy. Before returning to the apartment to rest we toured the Pancho Villa museum in Chihuahua and then, finally, got back to the apartment and went to bed.
Jaime and Betty left the next morning and we spent the next couple of days resting up in our comfortable apartment, having friends over for dinner and relaxing. I had spotted a house across the street with a Lebanese flag hanging in front of it. It turned out to be a Lebanese restaurant run by an old Lebanese woman; just ring the bell and she lets you into her house. So we invited Randy and Sagrario to dinner there enjoying a fine last meal in Chihuahua of tabouli and and fish.
And then it was July 31st and time to leave. From Chihuahua we had decided to take a road trip into south-central Mexico, so we loaded up the old Oldsmobile and gave Sonia’s old friend Susana a ride to Torreon in the neighboring state of Coahuila. Then we drove south towards the town of Ajijic outside of the huge city of Guadalajara. We were interested in investigating Ajijic as a potential place to relocate whenever we finished traveling.
NOTE: Ajijic (ah-hee-HEEK) is a small colonial town about a half hour drive south of the sprawling megalopolis of Guadalajara on the shores of gigantic Lake Chapala and surrounded by sub-tropical mountains. It has a large expat community of Americans and Canadians attracted by the sub-tropical climate where temperatures rarely rising above the low 80s F. After the hot, humid Pacific coast and dry hot deserts of central Mexico we found it refreshing. We also found that even with the large presence of American and Canadian expats the town was still very Mexican with local folks riding horses through town and local markets selling fresh tropical fruit. The large expat population had a positive influence too and there was an unusually large selection of excellent restaurants and other services not usually found in small Mexican towns.
While we relaxing for a couple nights at Susana’s house in Torreon, she and her sons warned us that the areas south of Torreon and the Pacific coast in Michoacan were unsafe to travel through due to heavy narco-trafficking activity. So we decided to drive west on the new federal highway 40 to the resort town of Mazatlan on the Pacific coast and then south to Guadalajara instead; a longer but safer route. Besides, this route was famous for its scenery as it crossed over the Sierra Madre Occidental, a high mountain range separating the interior deserts from the tropical Pacific coast.
NOTE: The mountain range, Sierra Madre Occidental, is actually a southern extension of what is called the Rocky Mountains in the United States except here they’re covered in subtropical cloud forest, and, they’re big. Before the new highway was completed about three years ago, the drive from Durango to the Pacific coast took days on a narrow, windy mountain road choked with truck traffic and through dangerous drug-trafficking areas where car jackings were uncomfortably common. Now, although the drug traffickers still infest the surrounding mountains, the new highway is safe and cuts through the mountains in four or five hours on a high-speed highway reaching the high point at the spectacular Espinazo del Diablo (Devil’s backbone). Then the highway descends through the canyons and sub-tropical forests of Sinaloa while crossing over 115 bridges, through 63 tunnels and over the Baluarte Bridge (at 1,300 feet above the canyon below it’s the highest suspension bridge in the world). Finally the road reaches the tropical flatlands and and on to Mazatlan on the Pacific coast.
But, all this comes at a cost. Highway 40 is a toll road and it cost us 1,162 pesos in tolls alone to drive from Torreon to Mazatlan ($65 usd). Gasoline is expensive in Mexico and even though the Oldsmobile got 20 mpg we burned twenty-five gallons of gas between Torreon and Mazatlan (converting liters and pesos to gallons and dollars, gas = $3.34/gallon). And, highway 40 is a two-way road, not a divided highway. Each side is one and a half lanes wide; the half lane provided to allow barely enough room for passing which you do often since there is a lot of slow truck traffic sharing the road. This makes driving quite exciting since you have to squeeze between the slow moving vehicle that you are passing and the centerline while the oncoming traffic is doing the same. There are long stretches in the high country that are infested with potholes which aren’t fun to hit at 110 kilometers per hour (70 mph, the speed limit, but most people drive faster). And, though you are passing through some of the most magnificent scenery in North America, there are very few places to pull over to enjoy it as there is no shoulder, just a three-foot deep drainage ditch paralleling the roadway.
After an exhausting seven-hour from drive from Torreon we arrived in in the kitchy seaside tourist town of Mazatlan late in the afternoon and found a hotel room for 1,900 pesos ($105 usd); expensive, but at least it was clean and had working air conditioning. The next morning was another seven-hour drive, this time southward along the beautiful tropical coast on highway 15 (another toll road) and over the mountains through blue agave plantations above the town of Tequila (where the famous Mexican liquor of the same name is produced).
We hit the hectic, heavy traffic around Guadalajara but soon took the turnoff towards Ajijic and descended into the quiet valley around Lake Chapala and found the air bnb house that we had reserved for the next five days. We parked the Oldsmobile behind our rental house ready to walk instead of ride for the next week.
NOTE: Airbnb is a worldwide, web-based organization for rental houses, apartments or just a room with descriptions, reviews and an efficient reservation system. It is oriented towards longer-term stays of a week or more, but most hosts allow shorter stays of a night or two. It is far less expensive than even budget hotels in the same areas and you can get much larger places, even houses, with full kitchens and extra rooms.
We had reserved the airbnb rental house in Ajijic for five nights, but Sonia liked the area so much that we extended our stay another week after that. The original five-night stay cost us 3,000 pesos plus a cleaning fee which equaled about $166 usd, or $37 usd per night. The additional seven days cost another 3,000 pesos ($167 usd), or $24/night). It was a great deal and we had an entire small house within a gated compound within walking distance to Ajijic, Lake Chapala, stores, restaurants and the nearby mountains.
As we walked around the area we liked the relaxed pace of the place with its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial era buildings. With the large population of American and Canadian expats came security and more services than you usually find in Mexican towns and the area was safe and laid back. There was a wide selection of good restaurants and I found the best beer I’d tasted since leaving Washington State (Corazon de Malta – heart of the malt – brewed in Ajijic). We met some realtors and found houses and land for sale at reasonable prices (3 bed/2 bath homes in good neighborhoods for $200K – $250K usd and 1,000 square meter lots (10,000 square feet) for $80K usd).
And, we found time for fun. One realtor invited us to his office party at a local restaurant and we gorged on whole roasted suckling pig. Another day we drove up into the Sierra del Tigre mountains on the south side of Lake Chapala to Mazamitla, a colonial ranching town 7,000 feet high in a pine-forested valley.
We rented horses one day and rode into the hills behind Ajijic. Later, I hiked deeper into the surrounding mountains finding waterfalls in the cloud forest and lots of sub-tropical birds. We visited the nearby towns of Chapala and Jacotepec (hah-coe-teh-PECK) and tried driving into Guadalajara one day, but the frenetic traffic turned us back.
We met interesting people, both locals and expats, and found that the expat Americans and Canadians blended together well with the local Mexican population instead of remaining separate as in other expat communities in Mexico.
By the time our twelve-day stay ended we had become friends with Michele, our Airbnb host. But it was time to start heading back north, this time to a famous Spanish colonial mining city of Zacatecas high in the desert mountains in the state with the same name; Zacatecas. Sadly, we would miss the luche libre show (professional wrestling) coming to town the next day featuring midget wrestlers, but we pointed the Oldsmobile northward anyway and left the green sub-tropics of Ajijic behind as we drove into the magnificent high deserts of Zacatecas.
ZACATECAS: Today Zacatecas is busy modern city, but it started as a remote Spanish silver mining town in the 16th century. At 2,440 meters (8,010 feet) up in the desert mountains the air is cool and clear. The modern city has preserved its historical city center and it is one of the largest and best preserved Spanish colonial cities in Mexico if not all of North America and is a United Nations World Heritage Site.
We checked into our hotel, the Finca del Minero, in the historical city center and spent the late evening strolling through the streets and winding alleyways of the centuries old mining town. Centuries old luxury hotels and mansions lined the streets while small shops built from the native cnatgera roack were tucked away in the alleyways. The historical center is anchored by a plaza de armas and a massive 16th century cathedral. Other gothic temples peek up from behind the ornate Stone buildings lining the main streets. Clearly Zacatecas was a very rich place in its day.
The following day we explored the city starting with the ruins of the 17th century exconvent San Francisco just a block from our hotel. The place was spectacular. An immense Franciscan convent that had been destroyed during the Mexican Cristero War of the 1920s and then partially rebuilt to restore some of its former splendor and as a museum dedicated to the works of Mexican surrealist artist Rafael Coronel. Unfortunately the old convent was too humid and windy to protect his paintings which were removed to other museums, but his bizarre bronze statues remained and were strategically placed around the grounds amidst the ruins and gardens of the massive exconvent.
NOTE: The Cristero War (Christian War) was sparked in the 1920s barely a decade after the Mexican Revolution when the new revolutionary government of Mexico enforced the strict separation of church and state provisions of the new Mexican constitution. The government started confiscating Catholic Church properties and otherwise limiting the overbearing power that the church had held over all of Mexico for centuries. Devout church followers, many financially connected with the church, rebelled and the church tacitly supported the rebellion. A bloody three-year war broke out across much of Mexico and many Catholic institutions, like the convent of San Francisco in Zacatecas, were destroyed.
The rebuilt portions of the exconvent housed excellent displays of Mexican folk art and prehispanic artifacts (masks, marionettes and pre-hispanic clay figures). The whole place had surprise after surprise around every corner and we spent the whole morning there. It is a place not to be missed by anyone visiting Zacatecas.
Afterward we rode the tramway that floats over the city to the famous mountain top above town; La Bufa. Then we entered the mine that made Zacatecas so rich, El Eden. The sheer immensity of the tunneling, cobblestone roadways and ornate buildings that were constructed during the Spanish mining days was amazing, especially considering this was all built by hand, mostly slave labor forced onto the local indigenous people by the Spanish conquistadors. The mines closed in the 1960s and today El Eden even has a nightclub in it.
We walked all over the hilly historical center, marvelling at the cathedral’s intricate boroque facade but also knowing that that heretics were burned alive in its plaza during the inquisitions of the16th and 17th centuries. While we there the Mexican Army set up a tent with military bands playing to celebrate the destruction of weapons collected from raids of organized crime (still a big problema in southern and central Mexico). When nightime arrived the historical city cam alive with lights and was even more beautiful.
Zacatecas was spectacular, but it was time for us to head further north into the state of San Luis Potosi and the even higher and more remote mining town of Real de Catorce. So, the following morning we loaded up the old Oldsmobile and started the six-hour drive to Real de Catorce.
REAL DE CATORCE: Real de Catorce (ray-al day kah-TOR-say) is truly remote; a small city of super-steep cobblestone streets and 16th century stone buildings clinging to the side of cactus-covered mountains, all at 2,700 meters high (8,900 feet) in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. It is probably most famous as the setting for the Brad Pitt/Julia Roberts movie, The Mexican.
The name, Real de Catorce (the real, or royal, fourteen) is subject to debate. The town is either named for fourteen Spanish soldiers ambushed by bandits, or for the fourteen bandits themselves that were executed there. Sonia’s explanation is the most probable; she says it was named for fourteen carat gold.
Just getting there is an adventure. First is finding the turnoff onto the access road from highway 54 (the sign for it blew down weeks before we arrived, but we found it anyway). Then there’s the 90 kilometer drive down the narrow access highway through magnificent forests of Joshua Trees (a tall yucca) and cholo cactus. Then you reach the turnoff to Real de Catorce, a 24 kilometer-long cobblestone road that takes you up into the mountains until you finally reach a 2.4 kilometer (1.5 mile) long tunnel, also paved in cobblestone, which is the only way into town (not for the claustrphobic). There’s one ATM in town, which doesn’t work much of the time, and no banks. Although hotels will accept credt cards local vendors don’t, so bring cash to Real de Catorce.
Once you exit the tunnel into town you have entered another world. There are 17th century Spanish ruins spreading away across the mountains. In town, burros bray and horse neigh as you walk through the small town of 3,000 inhabitants. And, it’s cold. It seems the wind never stops blowing at this high elevation and there is no forest cover to stop it – just cactus-covered mountains cut by deep canyons stretching away into the distance.
This is the land of the Huichol people and they have peyote ceremonies high in the mountains behind Real de Catorce. In fact, peyote grows abundantly throughout the area which attracts a variety of new-age spiritualists and others who just want to experience the hallucinogenic high produced by the plant.
Real de Catorce seemed like the wild west after the sophisticated city of Zacatecas, but we soon found everyone was friendly; an interesting mix of local residents and foreign tourists and expats, mostly European. In fact many of the businesses in town are operated by Swiss and Italian expats living there.
We spent just two nights in Real but did a lot and we’ll be back to spend more time later. We had reserved a the Hotel Real 1, but at 1,450 pesos/night ($81 usd) found it too expensive for what you got and after the first night moved to the much larger and nicer Ruinas de Real for 900 pesos. Once again we re-learned the lesson that there are always more and better hotels than you can find online.
For 200 pesos ($11) I rented a horse with a guide for a two-hour ride to see the Pueblo de los Fantasmos (city of ghosts), the original Spanish mine and town high in the mountains above Real de Catorce. It was a fascinating collection of ruins made even more surreal by the cold, swirling mist that was blowing across the mountains and through the abandoned buildings.
Later that afternoon Sonia and I met Emilio, the manager of Ruinas de Real, and for 200 pesos each he gave us a three-hour tour around town telling us stories and history of the place, stopping at a local house for pulque (a slightly alcoholic mash made from agave), and later at a local bar for locally made mezcal (a strong, distilled spirit made from agave).
We ended the day with a fine meal at the classy restaurant in town, El Meson de Abundancia, which was a bargain at 400 pesos ($22 for dinner for two with drinks and dessert). After such a full day we slept soundly in the funky, but quiet and comfortable Ruinas de Real. Next day we had to leave, but first we ha done more exploration.
The next morning after we drove back out the tunnel from Real de Catorce and stopped at the smalller, but just as old town of La Luz just four kilometers down the road from Real. Here is the hacienda and mine of Santa Ana. We met a volunteer guide there and she walked us through the mining town, into the mine and through the buildings. This place was as fascinating as Real de Catorce, but often passed by. Again, 400-year old ruins could be seen on the surrounding mountains and I could see a hiking route from La Luz over the mountains to Real de Catorce. I’ll be back to do that.
Real de Catorce is a magical, special place and we barely scratched the surface. But our time was getting short since we had to be in El Paso Texas the following week to fly out to South America. So, reluctantly, we drove back out the long access road to highway 54, on to Saltillo, and then to the small colonial city of Parras del Fuente famous as the site of the oldest winery in North America, the Casa Madero.
Parras del Fuente: Parras del Fuente is known as the home of revolutionary president Francisco Madero, a wealthy but idealistic hacienda owner that supported the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and became its president for a short while before being executed by revolutionary forces when he failed to fulfill his promises of reform. But his mansion and estate survived including the vineyards and wineries that were established by the Spanish in 1597.
We drove into the 16th century colonial city center and immediately found a small hotel, the Posada Mi Pueblito, for 700 pesos/night ($39 usd). Funky and small, but clean and with hot water, we moved in and then walked through the colonial city center. But the colonial city center was disappointing, only a few blocks long, and poorly preserved; the streets noisy and uninteresting.
We left the next morning and stopped at the Casa Morelos on the way out; the large hacienda and winery for which Parras is famous. But the mansion had been converted into a hotel and couldn’t be toured and the wine center was only a store; no tasting provided.
Disappointed again we left and made the long, grueling drive across the deserts of Coahuila into the deserts of Chihuahua and finally arrived at Randy and Sagrario’s house by early evening, exhuasted but happy to be in the sancuary of their home. Here we would rest up for three days before driving back out of Mexico to El Paso Texas where we needed to do some shopping for our South American travels and either store or sell the car.
El Paso, TX:
Deciding what to do with the Olds was a surprisingly emotional decision for us. We loved the old car, but it now had over 200,000 miles, the seats were starting to collapse, and a few things were starting to act up. It would cost us $60/month to store it and storing it would leave us a responsibility that we would have to deal with later (returning to El Paso to pick it up). Finally we realized that we were just clinging on to one of the last possessions from our past, our car, and we decided to either donate it to Public Television or just sell it.
Strangely, as we were driving through El Paso on our errands, we saw a billboard sign for Carmax, “we’ll buy your car today.” Since we had to fly out the day after next we didn’t have much time, so we scheduled an appraisal with Carmax as well as a donation pick up with Public Television for the next morning. Whoever came thorugh first would get the car.
Carmax came through first. They would give us just $200 for our old Oldsmobile which we at first refused and walked back to our car. Luckily the Olds had run perfectly for the Carmax apaisar, but when I turned the key it growled lowly, wouldn’t start, and the smell of burnt wiring came from the engine compartment. The Oldsmobile had made the decisión for us. We walked back to the Carmax office and accepted the $200. As we rode away in a taxi we could see the Oldsmobile being towed into their repair shop.
And so ends the Oldsmobile Diaries. The next day we flew out of El Paso to Miami where we spent a day exploring Little Havana before flying on to Quito Ecuador feeling a bit odd to be without a car and with only our carry-on size backpacks. Now we had let go of almost everything, and South America was calling.
PART FOUR; ECUADOR, Sept 2016:
We started our South American travels in Ecuador in order to take advantage of the South American climate and because it was relatively inexpensive to fly into from the U.S. Our plan was to follow the good weather in South America from Ecuador southward while the Andes mountains were moving from spring towards summer and the Amazon Basin still in “dry” season (somewhat less rainy than “wet” season). As a bonus, the currency used in Ecuador is the U.S. dollar, so we wouldn’t have to struggle with money conversions at first. So, we reserved an Airbnb apartment in Quito Ecuador for eleven days to give us time to rest up and take some short excursions out of the city to the surrounding mountains.
QUITO: At 2,850 meters (9,300 feet) high in the Andes mountains, Ecuador’s capital, Quito, is cool and cloudy, but since the equator passes through Quito it’s relatively mild despite its high elevation. Founded in 1534 by Spanish conquistadors. Today the city is a modern, sprawling megalopolis of 2-million perched in a hanging valley on the slopes of the 4,800 meter (15,800 feet) Pinchincha volcano that towers over the city and erupts from time to time (a short mountain by Andean standards). Quito has a large historic city center full of four hundred year old churches, plazas and buildings. Ecuador is in the northern part of the Kichwa area (indigenous descendants of the Inca) and there are many Kichwa-speaking people in traditional dress in Ecuador (mostly in smaller towns).
After easily passing through Ecuadorian customs at the airport we took the forty-minute long cab ride ($25) to Quito and found our Airbnb rental apartment. It was old and creaky, but spacious and in a quiet neighborhood near public transportation and stores. And, it was inexpensive at $27/night which turned out to be important as we found that Quito was rather expensive with costs such as groceries or dining out equaling U.S. prices (although getting around in taxis and buses are very inexpensive). Overall, it was perfect for our introduction into South America.
Within the first few days we toured the historic city center, but then Sonia caught a vicious cold and was laid up in the apartment for the next four days. While she recovered I spent the days planning out our travels through Ecuador and into Peru. I was finding out that long-term traveling is a full time job and it took many hours each day to investigate, reserve and pay deposits on Airbnb’s, tours, domestic air travel, and check reviews on them all to ensure we were going to good places. Writing blog articles and organizing our photos took hours more, so the time in Quito wasn’t wasted.
As the days went by we realized we had made a mistake booking eleven days in Quito. This was too long a time for us in one place, especially in Quito which we found to be cloudy, cool, trafficky, expensive and boring. Still, I took long walks around the city discovering its parks and neighborhoods. One day I took the cable car to 13,500 feet on the slopes of the Pinchincha volcano and climbed the rest of the way to its summit on a 2-mile long obvious trail (15,500 ft).
We cooked dinners in the apartment and found local lunch spots where we could eat “almuerzo ejucutiva” (businessman’s lunch) for $2 – $3 each in order to cut down on spending in the expensive restaurants in Quito. One night at seven o’clock a 4.6 earthquake rocked the apartment with a loud groaning, creaking sound and we ran into the hallway with the other neighbors (Sonia’s first earthquake and she was impressed). We filled the nights with watching movies n Spanish on the cable TV or Netflix movies on our tablet computers while I continued to plan and reserve places for our next two months of traveling. Finally, Sonia recovered and we took an overnight trip to the Kichwa market town of Otavalo, a two hour bus ride to the north of Quito.
OTAVALO & COTACACHI: The bus ride was ridiculously inexpensive, just $1.75 each for the two-hour ride to Otavalo. We checked into our odd little hotel, Riviera Sucre, for $35/night and walked around the town. Otavalo is famous for its Kichwa market on weekends and the town had a much larger indigenous presence with women dressed in their traditional skirts and head scarves or fedora hats designating which village they were from and the men wearing long braided ponytails. The most common language on the streets was Kichwa and we struggled to understand the Spanish spoken in Ecuador (many different words).
We walked through the plaza de armas and on to the main market in town, a huge warren of fruit and butcher stands winding through a nest of old buildings and alleyways. We ate Ecuadorian foods in local restaurants, (lots of potato and banana) but missed the rich, spicy tastes of Mexico. We found the quality of the food so far was low; tough meat, tasteless vegetables, but the fresh tropical fruit juices were excellent.
The next day we hired a cab to take us to the local condor park in Otavalo, but it was closed and we returned to the hotel for lunch. Afterward we rode the bus to nearby Cotacachi, a smaller even more indigenous town ($0.75 bus ride). Here we hired a cab to take us to the Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve on the slopes of the Cotacachi volcano that rose high over the town. There we walked around the lake formed in a volcanic crater on the slopes of the semi-active volcano and returned to town for lunch eating in a local lunch spot with a group of Kichwa.
In the afternoon we returned to Otavalo and had a beer in a local tavern before going to bed early. We returned to Quito and our apartment by bus the next morning. Otavalo and Cotacachi were interesting, but overall we were disappointed with the overcast days and over-developed land in northern Ecuador and were anxious to leave Quito. So, for our last day in Quito we prepared for jungle weather and packed our hot weather gear into one backpack and made reservations for our hotel near the Quito airport to store our other packs with our other clothes nd gear in them. We did laundry in the apartment, got more cash from the ATM, and prepared to leave.
We were excited about our next stop, Yasuni National Park in the upper Amazon Basin, but we were getting worried that we had planned too much time in Ecuador. Nice country, but expensive and boring so far and we even considered cutting our time in Ecuador short and heading south into Peru. We hoped Yasuni would be better, and if we knew then what awaited us in Yasuni we wouldn’t have been worried at all.
YASUNI NATIONAL PARK: Yasuni in the Ecuadorian Amazon was one of our extravagances; expensive and outside our travel budget. But after investigating it we decided to go; hoping for the best, but prepared for disappointment. We had booked a three night/four day stay at the Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge inside the national park. At $1,324 for both of us it was expensive, but included all meals, guides, tours, a private cabin, and transportation by motor canoe two hours down the Napo river from the jungle town of Coca where we flew in from Quito (a half hour flight at $75 each).
NOTE: Yasuni National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. At 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) it is immense and protects huge áreas of untouched primal jungle where new species of animals and fish are being discovered even today (like the newly discovered Titi monkey). The Napo River flows for 668 miles from the high Andes through Coca to the Amazon. Although the Napo River itself is a heavily used comercial corridor, the Yasuni National Park and Napo Wildlife Center to the west is a vast wilderness of primal jungle with gigantic old-growth sable trees where over five species of monkeys live along with parrots, macaws, toucans, harpy eagles, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, spectecled bears, caimán, giant river otters, giant anteaters, tapir, peccary, pink dolphins, pirana, and manatees to mention just a few of the thousands of species found here.
Yasuni is also unique in that it was established through the efforts of the indigenous Kichwa people living there. They had become alarmed at the destruction and pollution from oil companies, poachers and Ecuador’s own military and sued the government for protection. After a decades long battle the Kichwa won some major court battles and though the area remains threatened by oil exploration they organized an eco-tourism project to sustain the park as an alternative to destructive logging and oil extraction. The Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge that we were staying in is a result of that effort and deep in the interior of the park are other groups of indigenous people other than the Kichwa communities that remain uncontacted by the outside world.
After landing in Coca we took a short taxi ride to the Mision Hotel, the major embarcation point for river traffic, where our guide Eladio met us. Eladio, a local Kichwa resident but fluent in Spanish, would be our personal guide for the next four days. We boarded the long motor canoe with other tourists and locals making the journey down river and as we settled in for the two-hour ride were surprised at the luxurious, comfortable seats in the launch.
The Napo River is huge, a half mile wide in places, yet it isn’t even considered a major tributary to the Amazon. As we motored down river I was at first disappointed with the heavy barge traffic, oil extraction operations, and general commercialization along the river shores. The boat driver dodged hundreds of snags and sandbars in the fast-flowing river as we motored downriver but we made it without a problem. And as we got off the launch and stepped onto the muddy riverbank of Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge all our fears disappeared.
The ecolodge is set within the Kichwa community of Yanunga and we walked through the village to the dining hall, a large wooden structure with palm frond roof. Inside was a bar and large seating área with hand carved tables and chairs. We were greeted with a porter handing us cool, moist towels to freshen ourselves and a glass of cold tropical fruit juice while tropical birds and butterflies swirled around in front of us.
Eladio escorted us to our cabin set in the jungle behind the dining hall where our pack was waiting for us. The cabin was a four-plex under a huge palm frond roof, but completely private with our own bathroom and a comfortable California king-size bed inside a mosquito net and a ceiling fan overhead. It was the most comfortable bed we’d slept in since leaving Seattle over three months ago.
Another surprise was the weather – it wasn’t as hot as we feared. In fact it was pleasant; warm and humid, but mild. Our other fear was mosquitos, but there weren’t any. We had planned well. It was “dry” season and there were almost no biting insects at all. It turns out that September and October are the best months to visit the Yasuni.
After settling into our cabin we met Eladio and walked a ¼ mile trail behind the lodge to a steel wildlife observation tower built into a gigantic sable tree. We climbed the 42 meter high tower (136 feet) to a platform above the treetops where we could see far out across the jungle. Eladio had a spotting scope and pointed out toucans, parrots, macaws and red howler monkeys to us. As the sun set across the jungle we could see how immense the area was – nothing but unbroken jungle from horizon to horizon and full of noises; birds calling, frogs croaking, monkeys howling.
We returned from the tower to the lodge for dinner and enjoyed the best meal of our trip in Ecuador; rice and beef with steamed yucca and banana and fresh guava juice (the meals at Yasuni Kichwa Ecolodge were excellent and cooked with fresh, local foods). As the fireflies started flashing in the dark jungle around us we went to bed to the sound of the jungle; a chorus of screeching, hooting and grunting birds and animals.
The following morning we were up a 5:30 for breakfast and off with Eladio by canoe to watch green parrots land in a salt lick on the banks of the river while some spider monkeys swung from nearby trees. After a hour or so of watching we returned to the lodge for lunch and visited the women’s houses in the community surrounding the lodge where they danced for us and explained the Kichwa way of life. We danced with them and drank chicha tea (fermented yucca juice). After dinner we walked back to our cabin where I saw a group of tiny red tamarins peering at me from the trees behind our cabin (tamarins are monkey-like animals, something between a monkey and a squirrel)
After that we took another canoe ride and short hike to another salt lick in the jungle where macaws congregate. A group of red howler monkeys noisily crossed over the trail above us as we walked to the concrete viewing blind where we waited for a hour, entertaining ourselves by watching a green tree snake crawling up a nearby tree, before we heard the loud, raucous calls of scarlet macaws flying in through the jungle. Seven or eight of the brilliantly colored birds landed in the trees around us, but only one came in to take the salt from the small pool in front of us. Even so, the bright reds, blues and yellows of the bird were an amazing thing to see.
Our last day in the lodge, we would leave the following morning, but Eladio had a full day planned. I had asked for a long hike into the surrounding hills and Eladio obliged us. Again we were up by 5:30 for breakfast with Eladio, then a canoe ride to hike up to another viewing tower on a hill downriver. The jungle was shrouded in fog, but as it lifted we could see toucans and monkeys in the trees. As we walked down the tower we saw a group of Titi monkeys very close to us at the base of the tower and watched them for a while. After that; the hike I had requested.
We took the canoe to a nearby hillside and walked to an abandoned Kichwa settlement. An old, abandoned trail led from there into the surrounding hills. We hacked our way through fallen trees and vines finding the trail and climbing up steep, muddy hillsides to the ridge of the hill, seeing toucans and spider monkeys very close as we walked. Eladio pointed out medicinal plants and we ate handfuls of tiny lime ants that he showed us in a tree (yep, taste just like lime). We only walked 4 or 5 kilometers, but it was rough going up muddy hillsides and through the jungle. Finally we reached the river again and rode back to the lodge in the canoe, exhausted but glad we’d taken the hike.
After a late lunch we boarded the canoe once again, this time downriver to a tributary of coffe-colored water where caimans and pirañas live. Eladio paddle us up the small stream in a smaller canoe and we saw monkeys, parrots and the turkey-like hoatzin birds crossing over us within reach. Unfortunately the water was too high to see caimán and sting rays that inhabit the stream, but as we returned down the stream at dark we saw a caimán like iguana resting in the dark as flocks of bats flew around us.
We went to bed exhausted again knowing we had to leave in the morning. Eladio had been our constant comapnion and we’d become friendly with him. He told me about the interior of the Yasuni where so few humans go that jaguars lounge in the trees as you pass by in canoes and bears and monkeys lounge on the roofs of the huts there. He said there was a Kichwa community far up the Tipucini River (tributary of the Napo) where his brother worked at a university research center and I got Eladio’s contact information hoping to take a trip into the depths of the Yasuni in the future. He said he would be waiting for me.
The next day was travel day; back to Coca and then Quito and then on to Puerto Lopez on the Pacific coast. But Eladio had more planned for us before we left and woke us as agreed at 4:30 to meet with the community leader, Salverio Yunga, and his wife Maria. We entered their hut in the dark and quietly sipped chicha tea around an open fire with Maria until Silverio arrived. He asked us what we dreamnt about last night and interpreted our dreams. Then he told us about the decades-long struggle that he and a few others endured to get the Yasuni protected. This reminded me of my own environmental activism to get areas protected in the U.S. and it was fascinating to hear his stories. We thanked him, boarded the canoes, and took the 2-hour ride back to Coca.
The Yasuni had exceded our expectations and I hoped I could get back someday, and now I had a contact with Eladio. But for now it was time to move on – to the Pacific coast and Puerto Lopez where we were going to the nearby Isla de Plata (island of silver), called the “poor man’s Galapagos”, where humpback whales were breeding, giant manta rays swam, and blue-footed booby birds sit quietly as you walk by them.
PUERTO LOPEZ: From the Yasuni we flew out of Coca to the Quito airport to spend the night in a budget hotel, La Mercedes, where we had stored our other packs four days ago. The next morning early we flew to Manta, a rough n tumble fishing town on the coast, and then took a 1 ½ hour taxi ride south to Puerto Lopez (taxi $40).
The Lonely Planet guidebook says there is nothing to distinguish Puerto Lopez; a ramshackle fishing town with dusty streets. Pretty accurate discription. So, why go there? Well, Puerto Lopez is located within Machalilla National Park and offshore from Puerto Lopez is the Isla de Plata, a desert island with good diving and snorkeling and refuge for blue-footed booby birds, sea turtles, giant manta rays and humpback whales. And, since it was breeding season for the whales, we decided to go.
We arrived at our hotel, the Hotel Pacifico in downtown Puerto Lopez, and immediately thought we’d made a mistake coming here. The town was ramshackle as describd in the guidebook alright, but also under construction with the whole main street being repaved; dump trucks and construction workers kicking up clouds of dust and the whole town reeked of exhuast fumes. At $44/night the Hotel Pacifico was one of the more affordable mid-range options in Puerto Lopez; but it was basic with a large, sterile room with no charm to offset its utilitarianism except a small swimming pool and lounging area with hammocks behind the hotel. The side streets in town were mostly dirt with a fetid, open canal running through them. As we entered the hotel a cold drizzle started while a pair of black-faced vultures watched us from their perch on the lamp post in front of the hotel. We looked a each other and hoped the whales and the snorkeling would be worth the time we’d invested here.
We checked in to the hotel, booked a tour to Isla de Plata at the tour company next door for the following day for $35 each, and went to a local restaurant that served camalillo, the fish recommended by our airbnb host Bernardo in Quito. But the camalillo was bland and soft and we wondered how fish freshly caught from the ocean could be so tasteless. We left dissatisfied and were now giving up hope of finding good food in Ecuador.
The next day arrived cool, foggy and raining. We met our tour tour guide along with the rest of the tourists going on the trip (three Spanish women and a Spanish guy, two Germans, a Canadian woman and us). We boarded the 30’ launch that would be taking us the hour and a half ride (24 miles) across the ocean to the Isla de Plata. The boat reeked fo raw gasolina fumes and exhausat and it was a rough, wet ride but along the way we came close to a group of humpback whales that were surfacing nearby. On the island we hiked 3 or 4 kilometers through the dry tropical brush and nesting colonies of blue-footed booby birds that sat on their nests unafraid as we passed by.
Once back in the boat, a group of large, green sea turtles swam up to us accompanied by a school of bright blue and yellow fish. In the bay manta rays jumped from the water 15 or 20 feet into the air. We motored around to a point where we snorkeled for an hour amongst schools of brightly colored tropical fish and coral reefs.
Finally we set off on the return trip to Puerto Lopez, but the seas had risen and now fifteen foot high breakers rocked our small lunch violently. We stopped along the way to observe a mother and baby humpback whale playing near our boat, but by then Sonia and some of the guests were seasick, as much from the gasoline and exhaust fumes as from the rough seas, and I was coming down with “la touirsta” (diarhea) probably from the bad food we’d been eating. Back in Puerto Lopez we were all glad to reach shore; the ride back had been far rougher than the ride out.
We spent the next day in the hotel, relaxing the in the hammocks behind the pool and not daring to be more than quick running distance from a bathroom. But by the following morning we had recovered and hired a taxi for a half day ($25) to take us to the Playa de los Failes (the friar’s beach), a beach inside Machalilla National Park a few kilometers north of Puerto Lopez, and then to a small fishing town, Salango, a few kilometers south of Puerto Lopez. The Playa de los Frailes is supposedly one of Ecuadors nicest beaches and we spent the next three hours hiking through the nearly lifeless dry tropical brush to the unimpressive Playa Grande where I swam in the ocean before we met our taxi to continue on to Salango.
Salango is a small fishing town, but clean and fresh, and there is an island by the same name just a ½ mile offshore. We went to the Happy Dolphin restaurant recommended by our cab driver and had a fine meal of fresh squid in garlic sauce and fried fish (finally a decent meal). We walked around the village watching fishermen repair their nets and found that we could take a local boat out to the island where there is a beach and reef to snorkeling around. The next day was our last in Puerto Lopez, so we made plans to spend it in Salango and the nearby island instead of the noise and pollution of Puerto Lopez.
The following day Sonia didn’t want to risk getting seasick again, so I took a three hour poat tour to Slalango Island ($25) seeing two female humpback whales and a baby very close up, then snorkeled for a half hour over a reef outside of Puerto Lopez, and returned. Again the boat reeked of raw gasoline and exhaust fumes, but this time I found out why. A crew member opened the rear seat near the outboard motors to unclog a fuel line and I saw that the fuel supply was a series of open plastic jugs full of gasoline connected by a plastic tube. No wonder the boats reeked of fumes and now I realized how unsafe they were to boot.
We spent the rest of the day getting ready to leave, glad to go, and gratefully met our taxi at 9 am the next morning for the 1 ½ ride beck to Manta and our flight on to Quito where we had a ride arranged to Cotopaxi National Park. On the way we stopped at the fish market in Manta and the shipyard next door where wooden hulled trawlers and old yachts were being built or overhauled. A Norwegian family was rebuilding an ancient wooden motor-sailer there and the shipyard was fascinating. This was well worth the stop, probably the most interesting sight of our stay on the Ecuadorian coast.
We flew out of the tiny Manta airport to the Quito airport where we had aranged for a pickup by our next stop; the Cuello de Luna B&B near Cotopaxi National Park.
COTOPAXI NATIONAL PARK: Cotopaxi is 19,000 foot high volcano southeast of Quito. It is the highest active volcano in the world and last erupted in 2015 spewing ash over th área we were now visiting. The área around it is an Ecuadorian national park.
Ishmeal, the manager of the Cuello de Luna B&B we had reserved near Cotopaxi National Park picked us up at the airport. He was an interested character; a Swiss expat and anthropogist as well as a mountain climbing guide. But when we arrived at the Cuello de Luna we found it to be a dreary collecdtion of rooms lined up along an alfalfa field within listening distance to the noisy Pan American Highway. Our room was small and smelled of wet firewood. Then it started raining. But, the dinner was good – at last a decent meal.
We discussed hiking in the park with Ishmael and found that transportaton to the park was very expensive, $100 or more to access hiking trails. And, the trails didn’t sound very interesting, with cows and agricultural fields surrounding them and guides required to hike into the high country at additional expense. It was becoming apparent that all the trekking areas in Ecuador were like this and I was becoming disillusioned with Ecuador altogether. But Sonia put on a happy face and we decided to make the best of the rest of the time we had scheduled in Ecuador, so we rented mountain bikes from the hotel the following morning, put on our cold weather gear, and under misty skies rode off down a route recommended by the hotel.
The route turned out to be a trash-lined dirt road through a depresssing agricultural village and past the area dump with stinking garbage trucks rumbling by. Still we rode on passing drunks stumbling down the muddy rural lane and mongrel dogs snapping at our legs until it started raining hard and we turned back. But Sonia’s bike foundered in a large mud puddle and she fell over into a cloudy soup of cow shit and cold water.
That was it. Once we cleaned up from the bike ride we cancelled our reservations for the rest of the time we had planned in Ecuador including the next two days at the Cuello de Luna. We lost money in non-refundable reservations, but we were simply unwilling to invest any more time in Ecuador. Instead we booked flights out of Quito to Bogota Colombia for the following day. We would spend a couple weeks in Colombia before continuing on to Cuzco Peru where we would meet our friend Victoria and take a tour to Machu Picchu. Ecuador just wasn’t working out for us, so time to move on.
Moving Too Slow: One of our goals in traveling was to move slow. But in Ecuador we moved too slow. We found that a few days in most destinations was plenty plus we didn’t anticípate that we would dislike some places so much that we wanted to leave immediately. So, booking airbnb apartments for a week or so, though inexpensive, tended to trap us in places we wanted to leave. After Ecuador we changed our strategy and started reserving places for just one night and extending our stay if we liked it; leaving if we didn’t.
Taxes: Ecuador (and Colombia) have high taxes on everything (14% – 16%) and this can add considerably to your costs. But we found out that foreigners don’t have to pay this tax. Most hotels and airlines don’t tell you this, but if you ask they will make photo-copies of your passport and delete the tax from your bill (passport copies needed to prove to the government they don’t owe taxes).
Cell Phone: We decided not to take a cell phone with us; only our tablet computers. That was a mistake. It turns out mobile phones are almost essential for traveling nowadays. Not only for emergencies or for calling cabs and hotels, but all hotels, airlines and online reservation systems use your mobile phone number as a means of identification. Also you can receive alerts from your bank for unauthorized charges and many other services that make your traveling life much easier.
Relying on Online Reviews: Most booking systems like TripAdvisor or booking.com include reviews of hotels or destinations that you may visit. We found that the reviews are not too accurate – you have to “read between the lines.” In fact the most helpful is to read the negative comments.
Scams and Ripoffs: As tourists we expected to be targeted to some degree, so we were on guard for scams and ripoffs. But we still got tricked a couple times. Minor, but annoying, we were overcharged for tours or meals. You have to ask the cost for everything, even things that seem obvious (do the large shrimp cost the same as the small shrimp)? Never take a cab anywhere without settling on the price first.
Tours: We started off in Ecuador trying to travel on our own without booking tours (except for the Yasuni Lodge in the jungle which was the only Ecuadorian destination we liked). If you have unlimited time (and patience) figuring out how to get around on your own may pay off, but for us it didn’t. In fact, we ended up paying the same or more to reach remote areas than if we had just taken a tour. After Ecuador we started taking more tours.
Getting Around: Another one of our goals for traveling was to stay on the ground and avoid air travel. This was another mistake. Although busses are far cheaper, we just didn’t want to take exhuasting, 14-hour bus rides to various destinations and ended up flying regionally much more than we planned. You HAVE to fly to some destinations like the upper Amazon. But be aware; the airports are full of tricks and scams too. We paid $55 per checked bag to fly on budget airline VivaColombia (a cost they don’t tell you until AFTER you buy your tickets). We could have flown cheaper on the much more comfortable Avianca or LAM Airlines (and did after that). We consdered geting our bulky backpacks shrink-wrapped by the attendants near the check-in lines thinking it was an airline service, but it wasn’t. It was a private company posing as an official service (wearing uniforms and everything) that charged you $15 per bag for their wraps (luckily we figured that one out before getting our stuff wrapped). Oh, and a hamburger in the Quito airport is $20 usd ($24 with fries) so bring your own snacks.
PART FIVE, Colombia, September 2016:
BOGOTA: Colombia’s capital city is as high in the Andes as Quito Ecuador, but much more polluted which is saying a lot considering the clouds of black exhuast in Quito. We knew that before we came and just planned on using Bogota as a staging point to move on through Colombia. We stayed at the Golden Hotel near the airport for $55/night, a bare-minimum spartan hotel in an exhaust filled working class neighborhood.
We had specific goals in Colombia; to visit the colonial city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast and explore the Caribbean coastline from there, and to see if we could get into the Macarena National Park to see the Cano Cristales, a spectacularly colored river. If time permitted, we might get into the upper Amazon at Leticia in the far southeastern corner of Colombia.
NOTE: Throughout this article we used the average exchange rate for October 2016 of 2,700 Colombian Pesos (COP) to one U.S. dollar (USD).
We spent the next day in Bogota riding the cable car to a view point over the city, touring the mansion of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century “librador” (liberator) of South America, and then walking through La Candelaria (the colonial city center of Bogota). We ate ajiaco (ah-hee-AH-coe; a soup of corn, vegetables and chicken) in a local restaurant. We toured the Fernando Botero museum and appreciated the humor of his famous paintings and sculptures of exagerated fat people and animals, later laughing when we saw people on the street that resembled his paintings.
We stopped at a tourist information office on the main plaza in La Candelaria and found that tours to Macarena National Park and the colorful Cano Cristales were expensive; over $1,500 for us both, and required a small plane flight to the area. We were now aware that national parks in South America were generally disappointing, so we decided to pass on Cano Cristales. But, tours out of Cartagena into the mountains, beaches and deserts of the Caribbean sounded much more interesting and affordable. The tourist information representative said we could go to the coast and find anything we wanted.
We thanked her and took a death-defying taxi ride back to the hotel, the driver speeding down streets on the wrong side of the road, hopping over curbs and through potholes, and squeezing through traffic where it seemed imposible to pass with me cheering him on the whole way.
As polluted, hectic and huge as Bogota is, we still had fun there; but the exhuast fumes reached us even on the sixth floor of the hotel and, at $55/night, the Hotel Golden was overpriced, basic and rough. We flew out of Bogota the next day to the colonial city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.
CARTAGENA: Hot and humid, but with a well preserved colonial center; Cartagena is Colombia’s party town. It is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in South America founded in the early 1500’s and the Caribbean vibe is strong here with fresh ceviche, winding narrow streets, and live caribe music in the little plazas at night. At $46/night the Casa de las Palmas was spendy by Colombian standards, but it was a comfortable place with hammocks in the courtyard, a good restaurant, just a couple blocks from the lively Plaza Trinidad and best of all, located in the quiet Getsemani district of old town.
After a lunch of ceviche and cold beer in the hotel (excellent) we spent our first afternoon walking around the Getsemani district, a 17th century suburb within the stone walls of the 16th century town. Sonia stopped at a beauty salón for a facial while I got a massage waiting for her. Refreshed we walked some more, found a tour operator in a local hostal and saw tours to the mountains, towns near Tayrona National Park, and into the remote Guajira Peninsula at very affordable prices (a five day/ four night trek into the Sierra Santa Marta for $350 each including all food, gear and accommodations, and a four day/three night trip into the Guajira Peninsula in 4X4 jeep for $325 each). We were tempted to siogn up for one of the tours, but decided to wait until we reached Santa Marta, much closer to Tayrona Park.
We had planned on moving on to Santa Marta, a city near Tayrona National Park, or to Tagunga, a smaller town outside of Santa Marta, but both places had a reputation for being loud party places. He said Palomino, a small town near Tayrona park, was quiet, clean and had small guest houses. He also had transport in small vans to these places, about four hours from Cartagena. We decided to go to Santa Marta where we could find tours to the Guajira Peninsula and into the nearby mountains and bought tickets for a van ride to Santa Marta the following day (45,000 pesos each – $17 usd).
Walking to the main waterfront and harbor we noticed bumper stickers and signs saying, “vota si para la paz” (vote yes for peace). We discovered that a general election had been held to vote yes or no for an agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC (para-military guerillaas that have been fighting the government for decades). Apparently the vote was in and it was for peace. An official signing ceremony was beng held the following night at the convention center in Cartagena.
NOTE: The FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is a socialist guerilla group that formed in the mid 1950s to counter the repressiver right-wing Colombian government of those times. Over the next four decades the FARC resorted to drug trafficking to fund their operations and kidnapping to recruit new soldiers. Large áreas of Colombia were controlled by the FARC and the government responded with para-military death squads that rampaged across the country murdering citizens suspected of being FARC sympathizers. The country descended into an undeclared civil war where kidnappings, murders and terrorist bombings were common. Colombia became the cocaine trafficking capital of the world while thousands of refugees fled to Central America and beyond. For many years Colombia wasn’t safe to visit. By the turn of the century the people of Colombia were tired of war and the FARC started to weaken. Finally, in 2016, FARC leaders and the government agreed to hold a general vote of the people of Colombia; for peace, or not. The people voted for peace, although the issue of disarmament of the FARC is still contentious. We were in Cartagena at the time this historic agreement was formally signed.
We finished our day with a fresh fish dinner at the hotel and went to bed by 9 pm, exhausted. The next day we walked through Getsemani to the original “old town” along the shores of the Caribbean. It was a series of narrow streets winding through 16th century buildings with balconies covered in bougainvilia and past small plazas where local women in brightly colored dresses were selling mangoes and yucca bread to tourists from all over the world, mostly European.
We returned to our hotel to cool of in the small pool with a couple of beers, then ate a lunch of fish and rice before taking a siesta. That evening we walked back to old town and took a ½ hour horse and buggy ride through the colonial city center. Afterward we walked back through the town and watched a Caribe dancing group in the main plaza.
Then we walked to a restaurant specializing in Caribbean lobster, La Langosta (The Lobster). We had a fine, but expensive meal of lobster in garlic sauce with a bottle of Chilean chardonnay. At $120 usd it was an extravagant meal for us, but we had earned it after our tough trip through Ecuador and Bogota, so we had no complaints. It was Saturday night in old town and every plaza was filled with music and open bistros full of tourists. After dinner we took a taxi back to our hotel and went to bed at midnight, happy to be in our quiet hotel away from the partying and noise. Cartagena had been great, but the next morning we would leave for Santa Marta.
SANTA MARTA & THE GUAJIRA PENINSULA: If Cartagena is the party town of Colombia; then Santa Marta is the adventure backpacker’s capital of Colombia. Santa Marta is rougher around the edges than Cartagena. It’s a hot, humid port town with tramp freighters and container ships in the harbor and prostitutes patrolling the central plaza. Its “old town” isn’t near as nice as Cartagena’s, but was still nice particularly around the touristy Plaza de los Novios (plaza of the lovers). But, Santa Marta is the jump-off point into nearby Tayrona National Park with its Caribbean beaches, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the remote deserts and beaches of the Guajira Peninsula beyond that. For all of that backpackers and adventurers flock to gritty Santa Marta and the hostals are full of bearded and tattooed twenty-somethings from all over the world. And, after a while, Santa Marta grows on you and we came to like it after a few days.
NOTE: Tayrona National Park and the Guajira Peninsula are on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia. Here the tropical lowlands collide with the Sierra Santa de Marta; an isolated mountain range at the end of the Andes. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rises abruptly from the Caribbean shore, climbing through cloud forests and jungle to the snow and glaciers of the high peaks that stand over 5,700 meters (19,000 ft) above the tropical lowlands surrounding.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the highest coastal mountain range in the world and populated by indigenous groups like the Wiwa and others. Below the mountains and westward along the Caribbean shore toward the city of Santa Marta are palm lined tropical beaches while east of the mountains the deserts of the Guajira Peninsula (wah-HEAR-ah) sweep to the north ending in Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point in the continent of South America.
The Guajira Peninsula is an autonomous region within Colombia, governed by the Wayuu people. The Sierra de Santa Marta forms a rain shadow over the Guajira Peninsula making it a hot, sand-dune filled desert while southward from the Sierra is jungle and cloud forests that stretch along the Caribbean coast from Santa Marta to Cartagena and beyond. The whole area is a remarkably unique with deserts, lush tropical forests and glacier covered high peaks all packed close together.
From Cartagena we took the SolMar bus, a 16 passenger van, for the four hour ride to Santa Marta ($16 each one way). In proper Caribbean style the van was crammed full of passengers and the side sliding door wouldn’t close. But the driver tied the door shut with some nylon clothesline while Sonia and I talked him into letting us sit up front with him and off we went. We drove through the Caribbean coast, passed the sprawling shanty-town slums of La Cienega, sweltering and stinking in the mangrove swamps outside of Santa Marta. We arrived in Santa Marta to find that there was no power or water in the whole city (a failure at the main electrucal substation).
We checked into out hotel, the Hotel Salamandra (the salamander hotel), located a half block from the harbor in a local, workingclass neighborhood, but on the edge of the tourist area of “old town.” At 103,000 pesos ($40 usd) it was a reasonably decent deal. Then the power and water were restored and it turned out we had chosen well; the hotel was off the noisy main streets, but walking distance to the restaurants and bars of the Plaza de los Novios. It had a small pool which we were finding invaluable to escape the incesssant hot, humid tropical heat. As I relaxed on the tiny roof deck that evening a huge flock of fifty or more green parrots flew into a large catalpa tree behind the hotel. It looked like this place was going to work out.
We immediately went to work finding tour operators for trips into the mountains, along the beaches of Tayrona and into the remote Guajira Peninsula. The hotel manager Lisa contacted ExpoTurs and we found a 3 day/2 night tour into the Guajira for $350 for us both (including transport by 4X4, food and sleeping in hammocks along the way). It wouldn’t leave for another two days, but we booked it anyway and our hotel said we could store our extra backpacks with them while on the trip. Since we had a couple days before the Guajira trip we booked another trip; a one-day tour to the tiny coffee-growing town of Minca, about an hour and a half drive into the mountains behind Santa Marta. That was enough planning for now, we’d figure out what we wanted to do after that later on.
Having that business taken care of we turned our attention to more immediate problems: cold beer and dinner. We walked through the alleyways with boulvvards where a meter-long green ignuana startled Sonia as it ran up a nearby tree in the park and found the tourist area around the Plaza de los Novios (plaza of the lovers). This would become our center of activities for the rest of the time we were in Santa Marta and we had fine meals of pork chops in passion fruit sauce or plates of fresh shrimp. I found Club Colombia Dorada (dark, or golden beer), fairly full-bodied and refreshing after the disappointingly limpid and tasteless Pilsner beers of Ecuador.
The following day we got up early for our taxi ride up into the cloud forests and mountains to tiny Minca where we met Joe of Joe’s Tours and his daughter Andrea. The rest of our group arrived; a young English woman and a French-Canadian couple. With Andrea leading us we walked three kilometers up a muddy road to a beautiful waterfall in the cloud forest. After a refreshing swim in the pool under the waterfall we walked back to Minca and then along a back road and footpath to Joe’s house where he fed us a delicious lunch (turns out Joe is a chef).
We enjoyed the view over the coast and Santa Marta from the deck behind Joe’s house and he gave us a tour of his place, fascinating and built from bamboo. Then he showed us how chocolate is prepared from the raw fruit of the cacao plant through roasting the seeds and finally prepared a thick, sweet drink from the ground, roasted seeds. I liked the nutty, slightly bitter taste of the roasted seeds before being ground into chocolate powder and sweetened with sugar.
After that we walked back through Minca and then above into a coffee plantation where Joe showed us how coffee is grown and prepared. As the sun set over the could-forested mountains we sipped freshly ground coffee from the plantation.
We walked back to Minca and me tour taxi for the ride back down to Santa Marta. The Minca trip had been excellent, far better than we had hoped. But tomorrow we would head into the remote Guajira Peninsula and had to leave early in the morning, so we went to bed early.
Next day up at 4 am to meet out taxi ride to Riohacha where our tour into the Guajira started; a 3 ½ hour ride from Santa Marta. We had signed up for a two night tour into the Guajira so we packed our day packs with a change of underwear, swimming suits and basic toiletries leaving our bigger travel packs and clothes at the Hotel Salamandra where we would return in three days.
Wading through a line of sleeping dogs on the street we loaded the taxi and started the drive northeast towards Riohacha. As we passed tiny Palomino we stopped on a bridge over a pretty jungle river and could see the snow-capped peaks of the high sierra in the morning light. We picked up another passenger at a hostal in Palomino (Liem, an Australian woman traveling alone), who was also going to the Guajira but on a different tour.
We arrived at Riohacha and met our tour guide, Francisco Daza (Franko) and the rest of our tour group; Katrina a young woman from Scotland, Hector from Popayan Colombia and his two friends and twin brothers, Juan and Carlos. In total there were seven of us and since everyone spoke Spanish we soon coalesced into a tight group, joking and talking as we rode along.
We loaded into the 1998 Toyota Land Cruiser that we thought would be our transportation for the next three days (not knowing the mother nature had other plans for us) and headed of towards the Guajira. As we drove along the lush jungel gave way to grassy savannah, then dry savannah, and finally to a harsh cactus desert. And, it got hot – around 40 C (around 100 F). Hot, but still humid making it very uncomfortable and thank god the Land Cruiser had a strong air conditioner.
We stopped at a salt works where water from the Caribbean is evaporated in pools and the salt crystals collected. We passed makeshift stalls along the road where people sold illegal Venezuelan gasoline from any type of container they could find from coke bottles to plastic jugs. Then on to Uribia, the self-proclaimed Indigenous Capital of Colombia where we filled up the Land Cruiser from one of the bootleg gasoline vendors.
Now we were in the the Guajira proper. Uribia had the feel of a frontier town; dirty, hot, hectic and loud. As we left Uribia the sandy ground of the surrounding desert was carpeted in broken glass, plastic bags waved in the hot breeze from every available bush, and the area was devasted by severe overgrazing with half-wild goats everywhere.
As we drove along the graded dirt road we passed local Wayuu people traveling in fantascially overloaded pickup trucks. We passed Wayuu villages of stick and mud houses in the desert where barefoot children in rags would run towards us with outstretched hands hoping for treats (we had been advised before leaving to bring small bottles of water or sweets for the kids). Every so often a kid would have a rope tied off to a bush and pull it across the roadway to stop us hoping for treats. The whole area was gripped in severe poverty and fresh water was in perpetual shortage in this hot, dry desert by the sea.
The graded dirt road we had been traveling on gave way to sandy, muddy two-tracks and finally those gave way to open desert with deep sand and muddy wallows; we were driving in four-wheel mode full time now and it just got hotter. After four hours of grinding through the desert we reached Cabo de la Vela (land’s end at the candle) and our first night’s stop.
We went to a beautiful desert beach near Cabo de la Vela before returning to the Uribi Ranch, a collection of wooden huts on the shores of a shallow bay of the Caribbean, where we found hammocks waiting for us strung up in a open walled palapa (thatch-roofed hut). We swam in the warm Caribbean, had a dinner of fresh red snapper, and as the sun set climbed into our hammocks to sleep though the sultry desert night, each of us with our own resident dog sleeping under our hammocks.
Morning, breakfast and off to our next destination; Punta Gallinas, the northernmost point in continental South America. Now we were driving in low-range four-wheel drive through muddy lowlands or over deep sandy ravines. We stopped at other empty beaches and bays before reaching a huge, golden sand dune where we parked and walked up to see a spectacular rocky shoreline with the Caribbean Sea stretching out beyond it. We ran down the steep dune and jumped into the rough surf for a swim, but it had started raining and we wondered how this would affect the miles and miles of muddy, sandy jeep tracks we had been traveling on.
From there we drove on to Punta Gallinas, a low, rocky point with the concrete ruins of a lighthouse full of half-wild goats and piles of rocks stacked by other visitors to this remote land’s end at the very northern tip of South America. Still raining we turned south (no other way to go) and off across untracked desert to Bahia Hondita, a Wayuu community an hour south of Punta Gallinas, and our last night’s stay in the palapas at the Huespedaje Alexandra (Alexandra guesthouse).
Sonia and I had accepted an offer to upgrade our meal to a lobster dinner (additional 20,000 pesos each – $7 usd) and we ate our tasty spiny lobsters in the elevated, open walled dining hall not knowing that this would soon become our headquarters for the next four days.
Other groups of travelers had arrived at the Huespedaje Alexandra as well; twenty-one in total including a group of Colombians from Bogota, a French couple, a group of young Germans, an Austrian with his Colombian girlfriend, and a fortyish couple from South Africa celebrating their wedding on a round-the-world trip. Altogether there were now twenty-eight tourists; mostly young backpackers that had caught rides to this remote outpost with other travelers while the Germans had a tour, but their guide had left them at Bahia Hondita saying he would meet them back in Riohacha. Franko, our guide, was the only guide left in the area.
As night fell we all retired to our hammocks strung up together in a series of concrete floored palapas. It had been raining on and off all day, but we thought it was just normal tropical thunderstorms, not uncommon in this area. But at 5:30 in the morning the winds and rains increased dramatically and we all got soaked in our hammocks as the rain blew in from the open sides. We assembled in the dining hall and found out that a hurricane was heading our way, Hurricane Matthew, and it would hit us tonight.
Our first thought was to immediately load up the Land Cruiser and make a run for Uribia, but the roads had already become impassable. Franko said the roads would remain impassable for at least a few days and we would be stuck in Bahia Hondita. The buildings around the Wayuu community and the Huespedaje Alexandra were mostly flimsly constructed of wood plank walls with plastic corrugated roofs lightly attached with wire, or just open sided palapas; nothing that would stand up to hurrican force winds. The Wayuu were simply not used to severe weather since no tropical storm had passed the area in almost thrity years.
But a storage building (soon to be known as the bodega) and the kitchen had concrete block walls and heavier roofs attached with screws, so we organized into groups to prepare them for the hurricane; some nailing boards over the open Windows of the bodega, others stockpiling bottles of drinking wáter, and another group stringing up hammocks in the bodega and kitchen until they were packed full of hammocks swinging from hooks in the concrete walls. Local Wayuu residents seemed amused by our efforts; laughing and taking photos of us.
Electrical power was supplied by a large gasoline-powered generator that the Wayuu ran for six or seven hours during the day and there was satellite cell phone service, so we could charge up cell phones and call out. The Huespedaje Alexandra now looked like a refugee camp, but the rains didn’t come – not yet anyway, and we waited out the rest of the muggy day in the dining hall playiing games, making phone calls and talking.
But our group was still on tour and in the calm before the storm we took a local fishing boat out into the Bahia Hondita along with Katrina, Juan, Carlos, and Hector past the mangrove shores to some islands where flocks of pink flamingoes stood in the shallows and roseatte spoonbills roosted in the mangroves. We watched a spectacular sunset from a beach near the mouth of the bay before returning to the settlement to sleep in the now crowded, smelly bodega.
As night fell so did the rains and we found the bodega leaked badly. Water ran down the walls soaking everything on the floor and it was pitch black inside since the generator had been shut down for the night. Luckily, the center of Hurricane Matthew passed 100 kilometers north of us, but we still had 60 mph winds and torrential rains. The roof danced and rattled, but stayed in place. No one slept as the wind and rain pounded the bodega, we all waited in silence, in the dark, waiting for the roof go blow off. But it held and as dawn arrived the wind and rain slacked and finally stopped. It was the eye of the storm; the calm before it all started up again.
But now the whole community of Bahia Hondita was flooded in shallow pools of muddy, polluted water. We assembled in the dining hall, the only elevated building above the mud, and as the generator was started we got the latest news. Franko had been in constant contact with the ExpTurs office and the owners of the Huespedaje Alexandra. He reported that overland travel out of the Guajira wouldn’t be possible for at least a week or more – the four-wheel tracks we had driven in on were flooded. All ports along the Colombian coast had been closed, so no boats could go to sea. Evacuation by air wouldn’t be possible since the winds were still too high for helicopters and military forces were busy with other hurricane related emergencies. And, on top of all that, Colombia was in the midst of national elections to vote whether to accept the peace negotiated between the FARC and the government to end the fifty-year long civil war between them.
Now we knew we were stranded for the long term. Franko said no one would pay attention to a bunch of foreign tourists stuck in the Guajira and suggested we make a video of our situation and send to national Colombian news. He said we should call our respective embassies to have them put pressure on the Colombian government to evacuate us. The theme song to Gilligan’s Island came to mind.
We organized into teams to take inventory of our potable bottled water supplies (all other water at Bahia Hondita was salty water collected for use in bathrooms and general cleaning). We inventoried food and generator fuel. We had two days of supplies left and started a rationing plan – two liters of water per day per person, to be cut back if we were still there after tomorrow. The Wayuu people cooking and supporting us were great; Careneli a young Wayuu woman was the general manager while another local resident, Antonio, was in charge of the supplies. We put all the water in a locked storeroom with Antonio keeping a record of distributing it.
I called the American Embassy in Bogota while the others called their embassies; French, German, South African, Austrian and the United Kingdom (Katrina from Scotland, so the UK). The other embassies were unresponsive, but I talked to Matt Zamary in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota who said he would call the Colombian National Police for help and would call me back later (on Franko’s phone). For the next two days Matt kept in contact with me and though the national police never responded we’re still thankful for his efforts.
We made some videos of us looking pitiful standing around in muddy water and sent it to Colombian national news. After that we felt that we’d done what we could to get ourselves evacuated and so we settled into another long day at Bahia Hondita. As we went to sleep in the now stinking and soaked bodega we could hear, almost feel, the surf pounding the coast two kilometers away.
Day three at Bahia Hondita. The heaviest rains had passed and the ponds of muddy water had receded somewhat, but everyone was wet and tired. The cook quit and Sonia along with some of the Colombian travelers fell in preparing food for the group. We walked out to a viewpoint over the Caribbean to see the surf breaking in twenty foot rollers at the mouth of the bay and the sea churned into a rough chop from the storm surge. Obviously we weren’t getting out that way.
The day passed slowly until evening when Antonio retrieved a television set from somewhere and started the generator so that we could watch the news. They aired our video and then interviewed the governor of the Guajira who responded that we knew the storm was coming and that we were just a bunch of thrill seekers that got stuck and weren’t in any trouble. I think that’s when we knew we’d have to get ourselves out of the Guajira instead of being rescued.
And, the vote was in on ratifying the agreement between the FARC and the government. By a narrow margin the vote was no to the agreement. There would be no peace for now and the Colombian peso immediately dropped from 2,700 pesos to the U.S. dollar to 3,000 per dollar. At least our money would go further if we could escape from Bahia Hondita. The rain and wind had slowed to the point we could move out of the now stinking bodega and kitchen and while we strung up the hammocks outside in under the palapas once again. We went to bed thinking about all of that.
Day four at Bahia Hondita. The salt water reservoirs (plastic tanks) that serviced the bathrooms and provided general cleaning water ran out and the bathrooms soon bacame fetid and foul. We had a day of water and food left before we would have to cut rations in half to stretch them out a few more days. Everyone was still in good spirits, but showers and clean clothes were dim memories by now. And, it was getting hot again and along with the heat came mosquitos and flies. The pools of polluted water all around the compound had receded, but still provided a steady stench and potential disease source while stray dogs, pigs and goats wandered through the compound adding to the pollution.
We were still trying to get the attention of the Colombian National Police, the Colombian military and I was still in contact with the American embassy, but all resources were busy elsewhere attending to emergencies due to the hurricane. I took a walk outside of the compound and noticed that the surf pounding the shoreline had diminished noticeably. That gave me an idea; there were sturdy, fiberglass fishing boats in Bahia Hondita and experienced skippers to operate them. Maybe we could use them to breach the breakers rolling into the shallow mouth of the bay and once at sea, travel southward to a port that had a road link out. It was a risky idea, but voluntary. Those that didn’t want to risk it could stay in Bahia Hondita while those that left would reduce the impact on the remaining food and water at the camp.
Excited about the idea I walked back to the dining hall and found that Franko already had the same thought and was in contact with ExpoTurs in Riohacha and the owner of the Huespedaje Alexandra who owned all the fishing boats there. The word soon came back – we would go for it. I think the owner and ExpoTurs were genuinely concerned for our welfare, but also worried about tourists getting sick and the bad press that would result. Regardless, Franko, me, Sonia and the South African couple, Kate and Eric were the only ones who knew the plan and Franko asked us to keep it quiet since he still had to get permission to enter the industrial port of Punta Bolivar, a coal shipping port two hours by sea south of us.
Later in the day we received permission to land at Punta Bolivar so after a dinner of rice and fish, Franko (in Spanish) and I (in English) announced to the group that we would leave in two open fishing boats at 5:30 the next morning. Everyone’s spirits lifted and we all went off to pack for the trip and go to bed early to rest up for the upcoming journey. Sonia and I spent the night in one of the cockroach infested wooden shack cabins; not a very pleasant place by then.
Day five at Bahia Hondita. The day broke with a spectacular sunrise, but the surf had risen again and we could hear the roar of heavy breakers pounding the beach. Spirits fell, but Franko soon arrived and said we were leaving anyway while Careneli fed us fresh arepas (thick, fried flour tortillas with cheese) and coffee. She had never faltered and always had a smile during the whole ordeal.
We handed out life vests, walked down to the flimsy boat dock in the mangroves and loaded our packs into the open boats; a twenty-two foot and an eighteen foot open launches. But, they were equipped with fifty horsepower outboard motors and built for sea travel out of sturdy fiberglass with high sides and bows. Including the skippers for each boat plus a couple of deck hands each there were thirty four of us making the journey; twenty in the large boat, fourteen in the smaller one.
The whole Wayuu community came down to watch us pack into the boats and motor out through the mangroves into the quiet bay. We hit the first breakers as soon as we reached the mouth of the bay; fifteen foot high, white capped combers and coming in fast with a roaring, hissing sound. At times our boat was airborne; landing in the troughs between waves with a tooth clattering slap; but the skipper knew his stuff and kept our bow into the waves and adjusted the speed to match the rhythm of the incoming breakers. Then our motor stalled and we broached sideways as a large comber washed over us almost washing some of us overboard and nearly capsizing the boat. A deck hand managed to restart the motor before the next wave hit us and we quickly turned to face the next breakers and battled on through the surf to the open sea beyond. Even the open sea was rough, still whipped into fifteen to twenty foot whitecaps from the storm surge and we’d sink down between the huge waves only to bob back up again when we could quickly look around to see where we were.
After a couple hours we could see the loading docks of Punta Bolivar and soon we were heading back to shore and into a quiet mouth of a bay. We motored up the slack waters of the bay and reached a muddy fisherman’s beach where local Wayuu free divers were collecting lobsters. The owner of the Huespedaje Alexandra was there to welcome us and still soaked from the passage we jumped off the boats and walked through the hot, stinking mud of the tidelands and up a rocky hillside to the awaiting Land Cruisers at the top. By then we looked like a group of refugees; wet and muddy, but happy to have escaped.
We drove an hour to Uribia for lunch and another two hours to Riohacha and the ExpoTurs office where local news channels were waiting and interviewed us. Still smelly and mud-covered we said our good-byes to Hector, Juan and Carlos while Katrina rode with us in a taxi the four hours back to Santa Marta. We reached our hotel in Santa Marta at dusk and immediately showered in went to bed, exhausted.
The next day we washed out our muddy sandals and packs in the laundry room of the hotel and sent our filthy clothes out to be washed. Thank god we had left our main packs in the hotel and we had fresh, clean clothes to wear. Then we walked down to the ExpoTurs office to give them a 50,000 peso tip for Franko and another 50,000 pesos to pay for our night in the cabins at Bahia Hondita and the rest for a tip to Careneli and Antonio who took such good care of us there.
We had two or three days left before we had to fly to Peru and we considered going to the colonial city of Villa de Leyva in the mountains outside of Bogota, but we were too tired and spent the rest of our time in Santa Marta instead.
We walked around town, toured the small but fascinating Museo de Oro (museum of gold) that documented local indigenous cultures of the Sierra Santa Marta and the life of Simon Bolivar who died in Santa Marta. We ran into the Australian woman, Leam, who had also been stranded in a different part of Bahia Hondita and was rescued by the Colombian navy. By then we were so familiar with Santa Marta that we recognized all the hookers hanging out in the park by our hotel.
Then it was time to leave and we flew out to Bogota just as Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, was flying in to survey the hurricane damage. We would stay in a hotel near the Bogota airport and fly out to Cusco Peru early the next morning.
We didn’t make it to the beaches of Tayrona National Park, to the colonial cities in the Colombian Andes or to the Amazonian Basin at Leticia. All of that remains to be done. But we did get to know the Colombian people and found them to be friendly, fun and helpful. We like Colombia. I think we’ll come back, without the hurricane next time, but now; on to Peru, Cusco and Machu Picchu.
PART SIX, Peru & Machu Picchu, October 2016:
Our trip to Peru centered on Cusco; the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and now major tourism center. The Inca archeological sites of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are day trips out of Cusco. Within a day travel of Cusco is Lake Titicaca, the highest navagable lake in the world and the immense Colca and Cotahuasi canyons near Arequipa; the deepest in the world. A few hours east and north of Cusco are the remote, high Andes with glacier-covered peaks reaching over 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). And a short flight away is the tropical upper Amazon Basin at Manu. It’s a remarkable place.
NOTE: Cusco is a Spanish translation of the orignal Queshua name, Qusqu. Today it’s a medium sized city of 500,000 set in a high valley in the Andes of south-central Peru and surrounded be even higher mountains. At 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) it’s high, cool and clear with a large historic center focused on the 16th century Plaza de Armas and radiating out from there into the surrounding hillsides in a maze of steep, cobblestone streets and old red-tile roofed houses.
This is where the Spanish conquistadors finally defeated the Inca in the early 1500s and buidings around town are a mix of 16th century Spanish buildings built on top of much older Inca bases; the difference obvious with the rougher stone Spanish churches and houses blended into the finely fitted Inca stonework.
The indigenous presence in Cusco is very strong with Queshua women walking around in traditional dress of full, colorfully embroidered skirts and fedora hats, usually carrying a large bundle on their backs. Short, proud, strong people these descendents of the Inca are the largest indigenous group in the Americas and Queshua is spoken by millions here and though Spanish is the official language, many people speak only Queshua, especially in the countryside.
It takes time to adjust to Cusco. The altitude is unavoidable and newcomers are easy to spot, gasping for breath in the high altitude as they climb the stairs and streets around town. Coca leaves (from the coca plant from which cocaine is made) help dispell the effects of high altitude and coca leaves, teas and candy are available everywhere. Most hotels have a basket of coca leaves in the foyer.
Our introduction to Peru was rough:
First, Avianca Airlines wouldn’t let us board our flight from Bogota to Cusco without showing proof that we had reservations of some sort out of Peru. This is called “proof of onward travel” and many countries including the United States have this rule, though it is rarely enforced. Since we were traveling without definite plans, we had no reservations to leave Peru and we only had an hour and a half before our plane left for Cusco. So we hurriedly went to the Avianca ticket office, bought two one-way tickets from Cusco to Santiago Chile for October 18 for $1,900 usd, and ran back to the check-in area. We were then allowed to board our flight and we checked our bags and made it to the boarding gate just as the plane was loading. The tickets to Santiago were refundable, so we hoped we could change them later since they were so expensive, but at last we wouldn’t lose our current non-refundable flight to Cusco.
Then, immediately upon arriving at the Cusco airport, we withdrew cash in Peruvian Soles from an ATM and tried getting a taxi at the official taxi booth by the airport exit. But the “official” taxi service at the exit gate tried to overcharge us saying that the ride was longer than normal due to road construction. We refused and found another taxi for almost half the price and left disgusted that we had been targeted for a scam within minutes of arriving in Peru (there was no road consruction of course).
When we finally found our airbnb it was a depressing, dark, cold apartment with no heat and no WiFi. We later got the owner to provide a couple of small heaters and the WiFi started working later. At least the apartment was near the central Plaza de Armas and thank god we were only staying in it for one night.
Then, as we walked around the historical center of Cusco, we found many tour operators and discovered we had paid far too much for the tours we had already reserved online (Machu Picchu and my Rainbow Mountain trek). There were many operators over town offering similar trips for much, much less.
Finally, we walked to the Avianca Airlines office near the Plaza de Armas to negotiate a refund for the expensive tickets we had to buy in Bogata in order to get into Peru. We found that if we canceled the tickets it would be over a month before we would receive a refund to our credit card and I didn’t trust that. We decided to think about that and went to a local artesenal market where I bought a belt to replace the one I lost in the Guajira Peninsula during the hurricane and then ate lunch at a local restaurant.
When we returned to the dank apartment the WiFi started working and we spent a few hours checking e mail and looking into tours of Patagonia for later in October. Finally, exhuasted and disgusted, we and went to bed in the cold, dark apartment hoping the next day would be better. Yep, it was a rough start in Cusco for us.
The next day was better; much better. We moved to the next airbnb apartment that we had reserved; high on the hillside overlooking Cusco in the trendy San Blas neighborhood along steep, narrow cobblestone streets. Our friend Victoria from Seattle was arriving in two days to go to Machu Picchu with us (we had made plans to meet her in Cusco a month earlier) and we’re looking forward to seeing her. We walked around the town and had a good meal and then rested in the comfortable airbnb apartment on a sunny, warm day. Yep, things are much better today.
The next morning I got up early and walk up to the nearby Inca ruins of Sasquayhuman which was very nice in the early morning sunrise with just a few joggers running around the site. Then we walk around town, to the San Pedro Mercado, the main market in Cusco; a massive hectic place in a giant warehouse-like building that spills out into the surrounding alleyways with vendors selling everything from handmade clothes to a varieties of potatoes and corn that we had never seen.
After that we walked back though the historic center to the main Plaza de Armas to discover a celebration with a parade going on there. It was the annual celebration of the Virgen del Rosario and the parade was loud and colorful with processions of Catholic saints and Peruvian folklorical figures filing by; every one dancing as Peruvian marching bands played.
Afterward we look at hand made alpaca sweaters and scarves in the many shops around Cusco and though expensive, they’re very nice. We learn that the best clothes are made from baby alpaca wool with a scarf costing about $100 usd, sweaters and coats costing two to four hundred dollars usd. Some shops sell clothes made from vicuna (a wild relative of the llama and alpaca) and these things cost in the thousands of dollars each. Vicuna goods are out of the question for us, but we consider splurging on an alpaca sweater or scarf each, but decide to come back later.
Next day is another nice one in Cusco; warm and sunny after a cool, almost cold night. We spend the morning talking about what we want to do. We agree that as interesting and fun as Cusco is; we were ready to complete our South American journey earlier than we had planned. We were spending more money than we had expected and we were getting uncomfortably close to the end of our travel reserves. We also never stopped thinking about our long-term plans; to buy a truck and travel trailer and continue or journey in North America from Alaska to Mexico, and longed for the comfort of a permanent home (the travel trailer we would buy in our case). And, though we have had some remarkable experiences, we were a bit disappointed in general with South America. Maybe we were just homesick. At any rate we decided to shorten our trip in South America.
Our new plan would limit our travels in Peru to Cusco and surrounding áreas. Then we would get into the Patagonian area of Chile and Argentina for a week or so, and then return to either Mexico or the United States in November. But, we decided we’d finish up in South America with a bang.
Sonia found a cruise online that goes through the remote archeapeligo of Tierra del Fuego and the Sraits of Magellin at the southernmost tip of South America at Cape Horn near Antacrctica. It would cost us $3,000 for us both to take a three night/four day cruise plus the costs of getting to the remote town in the Argentian Patagonia, Ushuaia, where the cruise starts from. In addition to the costs of flying back to Mexico; this cruise would exhaust our financial reserves, but we decided that’s what the money was for. Besides, the cruise would be a unique experience as it sails into the wilderness of the southernmost coast of South America and we decided, what the hell; why not treat ourselves to some luxury after months of airbnbs and cheap hotels. To top it off, the cruise ends in Punta Arenas Chile near Torres del Paine National Park, one of our last, big “must-sees” in South America.
So we decided to do it. Since the cruise starts in Argentina and ends in Chile, we’ll fly into Buenos Aires first before flying on to Ushuai, a small city deep in the Argentinian Patagonia where the cruise ship is based. That decided, I try to book the cruise only to find both our PayPal and our credit card accounts are frozen. In fact we can’t use any of our accounts and we panic for a minute until we realize that we hadn’t updated our travel notifications and the cruise company was trying to bill us from Argentina, not Peru. Once again we learn the value of carrying a cell phone which we could easily use to contact our banks and un-freeze our accounts. Instead we would now have to find some way to call or contact our accounts to restore them.
To top it off my overnight trek to Rainbow Mountain starts early the next morning and, since I’m the primary account holder for both accounts, I either have to cancel the trek to deal witht the accounts, or deal with it when I return in two days. Luckily we have enough cash (in Peruvian Soles) to last until then, so we decide I’ll unfreeze our accounts when I return. I do update the travel notifications for our accounts and try again to pay again, but it still doesn’t work, so I prepare for the trek; we’ll deal with all of this when I return.
Then Victoria arrives in the afternoon and we go to dinner. It’s great to see her and she brought supplies for us (Starbucks instant coffee and some REI wool socks for Sonia). They’re like treasures to us. Then it’s to bed early since we’re all tired and I have to get up early for my trek deep into the Andes and the newly discovered Rainbow Mountain and – I’m coming down with a head cold.
While Sonia sleeps in to tour Cusco with Victoria later in the day, I meet the guide, Alex, for the Rainbow Mountain trek at 4:00 am the next morning at our apartment. We load into a van with the rest of the trekkers; three young Norwegian guys and a Swede traveling together and an American couple from Chicago in their late thirties; I‘m the old man of the crew.
We drove three hours out of Cusco, through small Quechua towns, and finally up a canyon to a field in a Deep valley surrounded by tundra-covered Andes peaks. There we met the rest of our crew, two Quechua men and a woman that would be our cooks and porters; all the tents and gear taken to our campsite for the night by horse while we hiked. After a lunch of pasta and boiled yucca root we started hiking, everyone breathing hard in the thin air at 4,300 meters (14,000 feet).
As we climbed higher it started to snow and by the time we reached a 5,000 meter pass three hours later (16,000 ft) it was almost a whiteout. We were at the base of glacier-covered Auncancaga, one of the major peaks in the área, but couldn’t see it and everyone was starting to get wet and cold. So, we quickly hiked on other hour to our campsite in a protected valley full of grazing alpacas. Our Quechua crew quickly set up our tents and cooked dinner. We ate, got to know each other, and went to bed knowing we had a long, hard hike to Rainbow Mountain the following day.
We woke up early, 4 am. The snow had stopped, but could start again at any minute, so we quickly ate breakfast of arepas and coffee and started up the next pass, a steep climb to 16,500 feet (5,100 meters). As we reached the pass and started down the other side we saw the first wildlife of the trip; some wild llamas, some llama-like vicunas staring down at us from even higher peaks, and a group of raccoon-like chinchillas hopping across the boulders and scree. And, it started snowing again, hard.
Another two hours and we reached Rainbow Mountain just as the snow storm cleared. It was magnificent, but we couldn’t see the surrounding peaks including Auncancga. We rested in a rock shelter at the base of the multi-colored peak admiring the red, purple, yellow and blue stripes covering the ridge in front of us and the surrealistically red mountains behind.
As we rested there a Quechua woman in sandals and carrying a heavy bundle effortlessly walked up to the viewpoint and set down her load beside me, silently spinning alpaca fibers into thread on the ever-present spindle that all Quechua women carry with them. She spoke Spanish and said she was from the village down below, so far away it was out of sight.
Then the snows returned and we quickly descended from the brilliant Rainbow Mountain to the valley below, the snowstorm following us the whole way out. We were walking out by a different route; a more direct route to the road 8 r 9 okilometers away. As we hiked out, hundreds of day-hikers were coming in. Ironically, Victoria signed up for the day-hike to Rainbow Mountain two days later and had a sunny, warm day; the mountain shining in its multi-colors and was back in Cusco in time for dinner at 6:30 pm.
I reached Cusco by early evening in time for dinner with Sonia and Victoria, but by then my head cold had settled into a nagging cough and I was exhausted. But no time to rest; Sonia and Victoria had signed us up for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas at Ollaytatambe the next morning. I showered, we ate dinner and went to bed as early as we could to get ready for the all-day tour the next day.
And, we had good news. Before I slept I tried paying for our cruise through Patagonia one more time and voila – it goes through! Now we are scheduled to go to Buenos Aires for a few days, then on to Ushuaia Argentina (u-SWY-ah) to meet the ship and finish our South American travels with a cruise through the Patagonian fjords and islands to Cape Horn. And, Sonia was able to exchange our unusable airline tickets for flights to Buenos Aires and our flights to Ushuaia. This was all good news indeed.
Up early and off for the three-hour bus ride to Ollatatambe, but first stopping at the spectacular Inca terraces at Pisac. Our guide explains the different crops grown at different levels of the mountain and while Sonia and Victoria visit the tombs near the mountaintop, I take a ½ mile hike along an ancient Inca trail through a natural tunnel through the cliffs to viewpoints across the valley far below. It’s truly an incredible place, but mobbed with tourists and we are herded along through the site. And, this is low season!
Another hour and we arrive at the Sacred Valley, one of the best preserved Inca towns in Peru. It’s located far into the mountains in a small valley where three other canyons come together; too remote to have been pillaged by the Spanish conquistadors.
The place is mobbed and we are herded through the Quechua town of Ollatatambe to the ruins behind it. Crowded or not, the place is magnificent with fifteen foot high terraces stepping up the mountainside to culminate in a small saddle on the mountain top where the temple to the sun is located built from huge and incredibly tightly fitted stone walls. Off in the distance the glacier-covered peak of Mt Veronica gleams in the sun (so named for a mountain climber that died there).
We hike around on part of the ancient Inca Road, a network of paved trails that radiate out from Cusco as far north as Colombia and south to Argentina. We could spend hours at this place, but our tour is moving on and it is getting late. As we drive back towards Cusco we cross over a high pass outside of Chinchero, a Quechua town high in the Andes. We can see the cordillera (mountain range) of high glacier-covered Andes peaks.
We reach Chinchero for a final stop; a Quechua crafts shop. It’s touristy, but interesting as the Quechua woman in charge, dressed in traditional skirts and hat, spoke excellent Spanish and some English. While standing in front of a large cage full of cuy (guinea pigs) she demonstrated how alpaca clothes are woven and dyed with natural colors from minerals and plants. I buy an “alpaca” sweater from her which I later find is mostly nylon and so badly made that it falls apart with days, but what the hell – the show was worth it.
We make the last hour back into Cusco at nightfall, again exhausted, but ready for the trip to our main destination; Machu Picchu. But first we rest up in Cusco for a couple days; discovering winding alleyways lined with massive Inca walls, shopping for locally made alpaca clothes, and watching the mix of European tourists and traditionally dressed Quechua locals in the main plaza. We considered taking another trip to other Inca sites outside of Cusco, but I was still sick and we were just too tired. Even after four days in Cusco, we still huffed and puffed climbing the steep streets and stairways in the high altitude; chewing our coca leaves as we walked along.
Then it was time for our last tour; Machu Picchu. We met our tour guide, Edwin, at Victoria’s hostal in the evening before we left. We went over our plan with him and decided we would hike up to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu the first day, then hike up Waynu Picchu (the peak rising up behind the ancient city) on the following day.
Up early at 4:00 am the next morning to meet the van and Edwin at Victoria’s hotel. I was still struggling with a nasty head cold, but as we boarded the train in Ollatatambe I could see this was going to be a spectacular trip and, I wasn’t disappointed. The train passed through Deep valleys with glacier-covered Andean peaks rising above and ancient Inca terraces on the hillsides. We dropped down from the high, cold, dry, steppes of Cusco into cloud forests of orchids and strangler figs and reached the tourist town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, or Aguas Calientes.
The town was surprisingly striking. Set in the bottom of a deep canyon with impossibly steep mountains rising all around and the train line running right through the middle of the town. We quickly checked into our hotel and went directly to the bus stop for the ride up to the ruins. We paused as we saw the hige line of tourists waiting to ride up to the ruins, but fell into the qeue and after an hour’s wait boarded the bus for the long, winding ride up the mountain to the ruins.
NOTE: There is a hiking trail from town up to the ruins, so you can avoid the crowded busses, but it is a strenuous climb of almost 2,500 feet.
We arrived at Machu Picchu, passed through the entrance gate and immediately set off on the trail to the Sun Gate. This turned out to be a good decision as we missed the majority of the crowds that headed directly to the ruins of the town and there weren’t many people at the Sun gate when we arrived.
NOTE: The Sun Gate is a small ruin, kind of a guard post, high above the ancient city of Machu Picchu where the trekking trail comes in from the network of Inca Trails, or ancient Inca roads that cross through the Andes.
We had a sunny day and spectacular views of Machu Picchu far below and the incredibly steep mountains surrounding it. We walked back down to Machu Picchu itself and entered the town from the top. I had expected it to be an amazing place, but it was overwhelming with massive stones cut perfectly to fit into one another to form peaked roof houses and temples. The whole city was an amazingly complicated complex of temples, houses, and buildings with intricate water drainage systems and fountains.
Then it struck us. The thing that makes Machu Picchu so magnificent isn’t just the ruins themselves; it’s where it is. The city clings to a saddle between Machu Picchu mountain (above the Sun Gate) and the iconic peak of Wayu Picchu on the other side that rises dramatically behind it. And all of this is on a peak isolated by an oxbow turn in the Urubamba River far below. In every direction massive, almost vertical peaks rise thousands of feet, cloaked in cloud forest and giving the whole area an aura of a lost world, even today, even with all the crowds of tourists.
After hiking down from the Sun Gate we walked through the upper part of the city with Edwin explaining the structures to us. We finished the day by standing in line foro ver an hour toride thebus back down to Aguas Calientes and an excellent dinner at the Indio Feliz restaurant and to bed, exhausted.
The next day, back in the bus line and up to the ruins, this time to hike up Waynu Picchu, the famous, iconic peak that rises above Machu Picchu. A special permit is required to hike up this mountain, but Edwin had arranged it for us and we started up the trail at 9:00 am. It was surprisingly steep and strenuous; even dangerous in places with steep stone steps rising above high drop offs. But the summit was spectacular with Machu Picchu far below and the cloud-forested mountains rising above us in every direction.
Descending from Waynu Picchu was almost as challenging as climbing it. When we arrived back at the main ruins we toured the lower part of the town where the temple to the condor is and other amazing structures. Llamas wandered around the terraces and we walked through the sacred sites and houses where ancient visitors used to stay.
Still digesting all that we had seen, we rode the bus back to Aguas Calientes and prepared to leave on the next train back to Cusco. The ride back to Cusco was as spectacular as the ride from it; through deep canyons under high Andean peaks. We arrived back in Cusco around 10 pm, exhausted, and went to our hotels to sleep.
After all our treks and then touring Machu Picchu we were exhuasted. We spent the next few days in Cusco, walking the alleyways, buying alpaca scarves and blankets at artisian markets, and planning our next move; Buenos Aires and the southern Patagonia. Victoria left for Seattle and the next day we boarded our plane to Buenos Aires. Though I was still sick and Sonia tired, we were glad we had made it to Machu Picchu truly a wonder of the man-made world that everyone should see.
After Cusco we flew to Lima Peru to spend a night before flying out to Buenos Aires Argentina. We checked into our airbnb in the trendy Miliflores district of Lima and with teh recommendation of our host went immediately to the Punta Azul, a ceviche restaurant in the center of Miliflores. It was very good, but I still like the Mexican style better (with cilantro and a touch of jalapeno).
After that we signed up for a city tour and caught the early afternoon bus into the historical center of Lima. That was pretty fascinating since the central plaza de armas was decorated to celebrate Peruvian Independence. We walked through part of the cathedral and into the catacombs underneath it where thousands of human bones were neatly stacked in crypts (like the catacombs in Paris).
Lima was a huge, sprawling city, but we thought a couple days there could be interesting. Another thing to consider in the future.
As we packed to catch our plane to Buenos Aires we thought about Peru. I think if we return to South America I would start in Cusco. Not only is the city itself fascinating, but it is near the major Inca archeological sites, has treks in the high Andes, and the upper Amazonian Basin at Manu is easily reached from Cusco. But now, time to head south – way south – as far south as you can go within the continent of South America. Time to see southern Patagonia.
PART SEVEN, Argentina/Chile & Southern Patagonia, October 2016:
It’s mid-October – springtime in Patagonia and a good time to go. Since we had to fly to Buenos Aires in order to then fly to Ushuaia (ew-SWI-ah) where our cruise started we decided to stay a few days in Buenos Aires. In Ushuaia we’ll catch the Stella Australis, a small cruise ship that we reserved for a three night/four day cruise through the Straits of Magellen and around Cape Horn, the famous passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the southernmost land in the world before Antarctica.
NOTE: You can enter Argentina and Chile with just your passport; no special entry visas required. But, until recently, Argentina and Chile imposed a $160 per person “reciprocity fee” on American citizens entering their countries. Chile and Argentina charged Americans this fee because the U.S. charged citizens from Chile and Argentina $160 usd each to enter the United States, s the reciprocity fee was sort of a tit for tat (if you charge me, I’ll charge you). Luckily for us, the United States revised its immigration policies in August, just two months before we arrived in Argentina, and repealed the $160 visa fee requirement and so Argentina and Chile responded by repealing their “reciprocity” fees as well. That change saved us $640 usd since both Sonia and I would have had to pay $160 each to enter Argentina, and then another $160 each to enter Chile. Now you can enter Chile or Argentina without having to pay any additional fees.
We hadn’t originally planned to go to Argentina, but as soon as we arrived in Buenos Aires we were glad we did. Famous as the birthplace of the tango, Buenos Aires is a big, sprawling city of three million on the south side the Rio de la Plata (river of silver). The “river” is actually an estuary off of the Atlanic Ocean and is so huge you can’t see the other side, but if you could you would be looking into Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay.
We immediately noticed the air wasn’t contaminated like most other Latin American big cities (later we found that most commerical vehicles run on propane instead of gasoline). The streets were clean and wide with lots of big parks where flocks of parrots flew around in the trees.
We had reserved an efficiency suite through airbnb in the trendy Palermo District, an upscale area with shady, tree-lined boulevards lined with outdoor bistros, bakeries and bars. The apartment was small, but clean and fresh, a dramatic change from the rough, cold and uncomfortable apartments we had been staying in in Cusco. This would be a good place to rest up before flying on to Ushuaia in a few days.
I was still suffering a head cold and now I couldn’t clear the pressure from my ears from the flight from Cusco, but we managed to walk up the street to a nearby delicatessen for an excellent sandwich and a small bottle of a truly great Argentinian malbec. After that we were in bed by 9 pm, exhausted.
At first I was having some trouble understanding the Argentinian Spanish that everyone spoke with its distinct Italian twang, but I soon caught on and everywhere we went people were friendly and helpful. Strangely, most people thought I was from Europe (Germany or Skandinavia) and Sonia from somewhere in South America. They seemed surprised when we told them we were from the United States and Sonia was born in Mexico (after that most people immediately asked us about the elections which were only a few weeks away). Yep, things were looking good for Buenos Aires.
We had two goals for our time in Buenos Aires: eat a good Argentinian steak and see a tango. But first we signed up for a city tour to get oriented to the city.
NOTE: We’ve learned that taking half-day bus tours is an efficient and economical way to quickly get familiar with big cities that we visit. After seeing the highlights from the tour we can go back to áreas we are interested in plus we know how to get to them. We also usually get good advice from the tour guides for good restaurants or points of interest that we can return to on our own later on.
The bus tour took us through the plaza de armas and the Casa Rosada (Pink House, the presidential palace) and we walked through the cathedral where the tomb of Jose de San Martin, hero of the war of independence, was guarded by Argentinian marines. We continued on through the “old town” of San Telmo and the original shanty-town settlement of Boca del Rio, or La Boca, from which Buenos Aires developed and where the tango developed. From that tour we knew we would return to San Telmo and La Boca for further exploration. But first, back to Palermo for our Argentinian steak dinner.
We selected the upscale La Calbrera restaurant in Palermo for our expensive steak dinner and after waiting an hour to get in we ordered a small bottle of Argentinian malbec and anxiously awaited our meals. But though tasty, we were disappointed – I cook a better steak. The following day we tried again at a likely looking place, the Parrilla a Los Bifes in San Telmo, but the steaks were overcooked and tough. In fact, we never did find the legendary tender Argentinian beef while in Buenos Aires.
No matter. After our disappointing meal in San Telmo we took a taxi to La Boca and we settled into a street side bistro where a tango show was going on. And that was worth the effort with tango dancers, singers and musicians playing on a small stage on the street shared by dogs and kids while we sipped a fine Argentinian wine.
NOTE: In the 1880s millions of European immigrants arrived in Uruguay and Argentina bringing their food and music with them. Spanish flamenco and European waltzes mixed with the Afro-Caribe rhythms of freed African slaves in the rough, lower class neighborhoods of Montevideo and Buenos Aires. By the late 1800s the resulting music and dancing had become established in the poor working-class barrios and was called by its African name, Milonga. It was a street dance between only men in a form of competition as they waited for prostitutes to become available. The melancholy lyrics and music of the tango supposedly derives from the desperate living conditions and homesickness of the immigrants living in the poor waterfront barrios. Until the early twentieth century it remained a low class street dance shunned by proper society and found only in the shanty towns of Uruguay and Argentina.
But the music and dance evolved, became more lyrical and complex, and became known as tango, a term thought to derive from the portuguese tanguere (to touch) or from African dialects for “a gathering place.” Either way, by the early twentieth century the orchestrated, melencholy lyrics caught the attention of bohemian Paris while back in Argentina the sensual dance attracted thrill seekers from the upper class. Argentinian composers like Juan de Dios Filiberto and Carlos Gardel wrote classical tangos like the “Caminito” and by the 1920s tango had emerged from the barrios and waterfront shantytowns into mainstream society.
But it remained mostly an Argentinian/Uraguayan cultural phenomon until the musical movies of the 1950s spread it across the world again. Then it died away only to be resurrected in the 1980s in the form we know today with well dressed, sexy dancers performing dramatic steps and dips to the unmistakable tango rhythm usually performed by a small, formal orchestra. In 2009 the United Nations added the tango to its list of mankind’s cultural treasures alongside folk music, dances, crafts and ceremonies from around the world.
After our tango show we explored La Boca. The central área is now a tourist área, but along the side streets many of the tin-sided buildings of the original shanty town still in use. It’s a fun place to visit during the day, but it’s dangerous at night, so as evening arrived we left.
We were getting to like Buenos Aires – a lot. But it was time to move on to Ushuaia in the far south to catch our cruise through the Straits of Magellen. We spent our last day in Paermo eating at our now favorite local deli, I got a haircut, and we went to the nearby Eva Peron museum.
NOTE: Maria Eva Duarte de Peron is considered “Santa Eva” (Saint Eva) or more affectionatly, Evita, by many working class people Argentina even today. She was born in the poor countryside, but was ambitious and rose through Buenos Aires society becoming the second wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron and the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952.
As first lady Eva Peron promoted women’s rights and the rights of the working class. She toured Europe and became famous as an emissary of Argentina. One of her more well known humanitarian works was distributing thousands of sewing machines to rural communities to help women find employment and depictions of Evita and her sewing machines are still a poplur pop culture symbol.
But she was also criticized for living extravagantly and attracted powerful enemies in the military and conservative wings of government and when she ran for vice president of Argentina she couldn’t overcome the conservative opposition. After her death she became a folk hero not only in Argentina but around the world and is still remembered as such today. The streets of Buenos Aires were filled with tens of thousands mourners when she died of cancer in 1952.
The next morning we left Buenos Aires on the three and a half hour flight to Ushuaia, capital of Argentinian Patagonia and known as the Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) since it is the southernmost city in the world and jumping off point for excursions into Antarctica.
After Ushuaia heading southward there is only the unihabited fjords and islands until you hit land’s end at Cape Horn. We planned a couple days in Ushuaia before our ship sailed and settled into what we thought was an airbnb apartment, but turne out to be a bedroom in a local family’s home.
Ushuaia is a strange mix of ramshackle houses climbing up the steep, forested hills above the downtown area that’s full of high-tech hiking and climbing stores and fancy restaurants including a brand new Hard Rock Cafe going up on main street. It is fronted on the Beagle Channel where Charles Darwin once sailed and backed up against the snow-capped and glaciated peaks of Tierra de Fuego (land of fire). It was both trashy and spectacular at the same time reminding me a lot of small town Alaska.
NOTE: Tierra de Fuego is actually a large island at the southern tip of South America and Ushuaia is located at the southern end of the island. The name Tierra de Fuego (land of fire) comes from the indigenous inhabitants that lived on the island and kept fires burning to ward off the cold. European explorers could see these fires as they approached Cape Horn or the Straits of Magellen (which separates Tierra de Fuego from the mainland). The fires became a landmark that early explorers could see from out at sea and so they named the area the Land of Fire (Tierra de Fuego).
We spent the next two days exploring the town, eating crab souffles and going to the local museums where there were excellent displays of Ushuaia’s indigenous people, early explorers including Charles Darwin, Ushuaia’s history as a prison camp, and the epic ordeals of Ernest Shackleton that became marooned in Antarctica in 1912 when his ship was trapped in the ice and hauled life boats of supplies across the ice shelf and then sailed across the Weddel Sea to a whaling station and ultimately saving all of his crew.
On our last day in Ushuaia we took a taxi to the small ski area outside of town and hiked up to the Martial Glacier hanging from a mountain at the edge of town. From there we had magnificent views over Ushuaia and across the Beagle Channel to the remote, saw-toothed Navarino Range of mountains.
I was still suffering a head cold that I’d had since Peru and finally went to the local hospital where I was examined by a doctor, diagnosed with a bronchial infection, and prescribed a strong does of antibiotics. Total cost for all this was $70 usd. By the following morning I was already feeling better. We completed our travel plans and bought air tickets from Punta Arenas Chile to Mexico City for the day we disembarked from our upcoming cruise.
Then it was time to go – to board the ship and head south to Cape Horn. We took our luggage to the Australis office in Ushuaia, filled out our Chilean immigration forms (the cruise starts in Argentina, but ends in Chile) and walked the waterfront until it was time to board ship.
Around the town and especially on the waterfront we noticed many references to English invaders. Even the entrance to the city docks had a large sign proclaiming a city ordinance that read, “Prohibido el Amarre de los Buques Piratas Ingleses” (It is prohibited for English pirate ships to dock here). At first we thought that all these references to English pirates was a joke until we came across a large memorial commemorating the Argentinian sailors that died in the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain. Obviously, in Argentina feelings still run high about this.
NOTE : The Falkland Islands (called the Malvinas Islands by Argentina) are off the Atlantic coast of Argentina. Britain had occupied the islands since the early 1800s, but Argentina continued to claim the islands and in 1982 sent its navy to expel the British residents from them. Britain responded by sending its fleet to the Falklands and in the battles that followed Argentinian warships were sunk, sailors killed, and Britain retains control of the islands to this day.
Then it was time to board ship. We walked down the long pier to the Stella Australis, a sleek cruise ship tied to the pier, and boarded along with groups of German, French, Australian and American tourists. As we prepared to get underway we had magnificent views of Ushuaia and the the mountains all around.
NOTE: We were taking the last “low season” cruise before prices increased in November, the start of the Patagonian summer. At $3,000 usd for both of us it was both a good deal and a luxury expenditure far over our normal travel budget. The cruise was all-inclusive with all meals and an open bar included. And we would stay in a comfortable cabin with two beds, a private bathroom and a large window to watch the fjords and glaciers of Patagonia pass by from the comfort of your own bed. Also included were guided landings in inflatable zodiac boats at glaciers and a penguin colony. And, maybe best of all, the Stella Australis is a small ship with less than 200 passengers, so we would be able to access areas that larger ships couldn’t.
The crew slipped the mooring lines and the ship smoothly glided away from the dock on a sunny, warm afternoon. Our first stop was just across the Beagle Channel in neighboring Chile where the ship stopped while Chilean authorities checked our passports and immigration documents. So, we went below to the dining room for the first of many excellent meals aboard ship. Afterwards we strolled the decks until dark, which was 9:30 at night this far south, and searched the constellations for the Southern Cross. We went to our comfortable cabin to sleep, slightly unbalanced from the gentle rocking of the ship.
The next morning, early, was our first and maybe most iconic stop; Cape Horn. As dawn broke with a spectacular sunrise I could tell we were approaching Cape Horn as the ship started to pitch and roll in the rough seas for which Cape Horn is famous. As first light lit the horizon I looked out of our cabin window to see porpoises jumping alongside the ship, easily keeping up with us. I quickly dressed and went up to the open deck and as we cruised up a wide fjord the famous rock came into view. It was a small, rocky island with a low lighthouse perched on top; almost anticlimatic for being the “end of the world.”
The guides briefed us on the boarding procedures to take the inflatable zodiac boats to the island, but as the ship approached it turned cold, the seas rose into rough swells and the wind picked up. As we waited in the upper deck salon with our life jackets and down coats on, the captain announced that conditions were too rough for us to land on the island – we would have to move on.
We were disappointed of course, but as a consolation the captain navigated the ship around Cape Horn instead of turning back down the fjord we had come up which was the normal route. This took us through magnificent fjords and bays rarely visited by other ships either comercial or recreational. We had passed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean and the ship rolled and bucked in the heavy swells coming in from the west.
Besides, we had another stop to look forward to; Wuaia Bay and a hike into the mountains. We sailed past uninhabited islands, forested near the water but bare rock after a few hundred feet elevation. The landscape became more and more spectacular as we sailed further west down the Beagle Channel until it opened into a wide bay; Wuaia. We loaded into the zodiacs and landed on a gentle sandy shore, the weather still holding; cloudy and cool, but not raining or snowing.
We hiked two kilometers up through the hardwood forests to viewpoints where we could see the ship n the bay far below and the mountains stretching away to the horizon. One of the hikers was a single American woman in her sixties and as we talked I found that she had also sold her house and belongings and set out for long term travel like us. Now she was traveling around the world on her own. That inspired me since I had been wondering lately if we had made a mistake by leaving our comfortable home and setting off on long term travel. I realized that we hadn’t.
As we hiked back our guide stopped at a beaver dam and explained how enterpreneurs in the 1940s had imported beavers from Canada to develop a fur trade in Patagonia. The attempt failed and the beavers were abandoned and now they had spread out across Patagonia destroying forests and becoming pests.
When we returned to the zodiacs the crew meet us with cups of hot chocolate and whiskey. It had been a great stop and we soon forgot our failure to land at Cape Horn earlier in the morning. And, the scenery became more and more spectacular as we continued on through the Beagle Channel towards the Straits of Magellen.
NOTE: Our camera had been functioning erratically since its soaking in the hurricane in Colombia and now it died completely. The rest of the photos in this article were taken with our computer tablets.
I woke early. Today we were landing at Aguila Glacier (Eagle Glacier). Now the landscape was truly fantastic; large glaciers flowing in rivers of ice to the sea from impossibly sharp-peaked mountains. Small icebergs floated in the channel and the water turned from a aqua-marine blue to a milky white from all the ground rock sediment flowing into the sea from the surrounding glaciers.
We boarded the zodiacs again and landed on a cobblestone shore. After a short walk down the beach we turned up a small river and faced the glacier pouring off of the mountain into a small lake. We spent the rest of the morning admiring the river of ice and the blue crevasses cutting through it.
Then back to the ship for another excellent lunch and cruising for the rest of the day to the Straits of Magellen. It seemed as if we had been aboard the ship for a week, but it had only been two days. Tomorrow was our last day.
The last morning aboard ship arrived with a spectacular sunrise as we entered the Straits of Magellen and the gigantic Magdelena Bay. We passed Punta Arenas, our last port, and arrived at the island of Magdelena two hours later. Here was a huge colony of Magellenic penguins and we boarded the zodiacs one more time and landed on the island.
There were penguins everywhere and they waddled past us as we walked up to the lighthouse. At times we had to wait as groups of penguins marched across the trail on their way to the sea. It was a lively place with penguins squaking at each other, skuas (large seagulls) hunting for penguin eggs, and other penguins sitting on their nests in shallow holes dug into the grassy hillsides. It was an excellent way to end the cruise, but it was the end.
We returned to the ship and made the short run back to Punta Arenas Chile. There we disembarked from our comfortable ship, picked up our packs in Chilean customs, and walked to the main plaza in town. We stopped at an ATM for enough Chilean pesos to pay for lunch and a cab ride to the airport and settled into the Cafe Tostada for an excellent chicken ceasar salad. Then we caught a taxi to the airport and flew off to Santiago Chile. And just like that, our South American travels were over.
We flew out of Santiago at 1:30 in the morning arriving in Panama City at 6:30 am. Our connecting flight to Mexico City wasn’t until 7 pm, so we took a taxi tour to the colonial center of Panama City and then to the Panama Canal and watched how giant cargo ships are passed through the surprisingly narrow canal.
It was a grueling flight to Mexico, but we were glad we did it. We finally arrived in Mexico City at 11 pm, took a taxi to our hotel in the trendy Cuahtemoc district and fell into bed exhausted. We didn’t make it to Torres del Paine or other places in Chile – but I think we’ll be back. Meanwhile we were excited about the last part of our travels for the year; a swing through southern Mexico and into Guatemala to see Mayan ruins and to relax and snorkel on the white sand beaches of the Caribbean.
PART EIGHT, Mexico; Oaxaca, Chiapas & Caribbean Coast, Nov-Dec 2016:
We arrived in Mexico at the beginning of November and spent the first wee