Posted by: Patrick | June 2, 2010

pura peru

As the clouds parted, all was revealed.

On May 20th our Viaje al Sur (Journey South) officially changed directions to the north as we started the long journey towards home.  We boarded a flight from BA to Cusco, Peru and changed our worlds from developed to developing once again.  Don’t put that toothbrush under the faucet! We had a fantastic time in modern and busy Buenos Aires, but were both looking forward to getting out of the ‘big smoke’ and having some more adventures and challenges in the mountains again.

More importantly, my best bud Andrew and his wife Vicki agreed to come down and meet us in Cusco for their own Andean adventure.  Also, this was a celebration of Vicki’s recent graduation from Vet school!  It was great to see them again, and it continued the tradition of Andrew and me meeting in far off places for fun in the mountains.  Before arriving in Cusco, we had worked with a Peruvian guide named Wilson aka the “Inka Prince” to set up the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu and some tours around the Sacred Valley.

Wilson also arranged our accommodation in a nice little hostel right on the main square, in Plaza de Armas.  On our first full day we set off on a tour of the surrounding area, called the Sacred Valley.  Cusco was the heart of the impressive Incan empire, and almost every town nearby has enormous terraces and remains of their civilization.

Andrew & Vicki on the Sacred Valley tour at the Pisaq site.

'Twin Brothers from different Mothers.'

We had a beautiful day touring the Sacred Valley, here we are above the ruins of Ollantaytambo.

Vicki & Caroline hiking around Ollantaytambo.

Originally we had all planned to do the challenging five day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, but a few weeks ago we found out that mules would be used to help carry some of the gear for that trek.  This is pretty common on guided treks, because of the need for group cooking gear, food, tents, etc.   Unfortunately, Vicki has a very strong allergy to horses, which mules are obviously closely related to.  This could have been a disaster, however Wilson saved the day by organizing an alternative bike/trek to Machu Picchu for Andrew and Vicki to do that was horse/mule free.  This alternative also allowed us to meet up in Aguas Calientes on our fourth day and share the trek up to Machu Picchu together the following morning.  Our five day trek left the day after the Sacred Valley tour at 5am, but A & V didn’t have to leave until the following day, which gave them a chance to explore more of Cusco.  It was logistically a little tricky, but everything worked out perfectly in the end.

Day one on the Salkantay trek. Starting low in the valley, we ended the day at camp 1 high up in a cold mountain valley.

Our Crew: (left to right) Yanel (Israel), Juang(Hong Kong), Catarina (Germany), Shaun (US), Jess (US), Caro, Pat, Natalie (France), Mike (UK), Paul (UK), and Mora (Israel). Heading up the Salkantay pass on day 2.

Making it to the top of beautiful Salkantay Pass at 15,000ft.

We were completely beat at this point, but still had a long way to go to camp that night. It was a big day, up at 5am - got to camp at 5pm. An elevation change of 3000ft up and about 5000ft down.

Wilson was a pro with the cameras for the group shots.

These beasts carried our tents, food & gear, but sadly prevented Andrew & Vicki from joining us. They had a great time on their trek too which went a different route.

We got very lucky with the weather. This is my favorite shot from the trail. We were always surrounded by steep unclimbed (mostly) peaks.

Wilson's not camera shy.

The trek went from low to high and back to low again, going around Salkantay and the surrounding mountains before terminating at Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.  Our first two camps were in very primitive villages with just an outhouse and a garden hose bringing water down from the mountains.  On our third night, we camped in a bigger village that actually had electricity, running water and pigs.   Wilson had been talking up a ‘pachamanca‘ which is a traditional Peruvian method of cooking pig (and other meat) in a hot stone oven buried in the ground.   Everyone was super keen to give it a try, so we all set out to find a suitable hog to slaughter that night.

Well, that was our first mistake…  Apparently, when a Peruvian pig farmer sees as a group of wide-eyed, blood thirsty gringos show up, they see an opportunity for price gouging.  After being quoted 5,000 soles ($1,757.78 USD) for one giant hog, we all knew we had to change our strategy.  So, with far fewer gringos we sent Wilson on the pig hunt and he got us a medium sized piggy for 270 soles ($94.92 USD).  Well done!  We had agreed with the other group of about 1o at our camp to share the cost and meat, it turned out to be just enough for twenty people.

Juang, from Hong Kong, got to do the honors of cutting the pig’s throat while Shaun, Paul and Mike held the squealing beast down.  After that it took a while for the skinning and gutting to be completed, in the rain and dark, by Wilson and Eddy (the other groups guide).  This was a fascinating process that we all got a chance to watch, intestines are so long!  Definitely not for the faint of heart though, but super tasty.

Pig shoppin' at the last village we camped in.

And this little piggy got eaten by twenty gringos.

Building the 'Pachamanca'. It goes: layer of - hot rocks, pig, hot rocks, pig, hot rocks, potatoes, hot rocks, pig... Cover with Banana leaves, a plastic tarp, and dirt, and let cook for 1.5 hours.

From running around the pen to in our bellies just 3 hours later.

Satisfied customers.

Our fourth and final day of hiking was spectacular. We followed a lush valley with a swift river for most of the day before climbing up and over the mountains to the next valley.  At the top of this thick jungle pass we heard some scrambling and the guys in the lead swore they saw two small bear run across the trail!  We were pretty skeptical that the guys actually saw bear, and Wilson (the guide and authority on the matter) was a few minutes behind.  Just then, one of the bear cubs climbed a tree and hung out there, case closed!  We had no idea there were bear in Peru, but indeed, the black Inca bear is common in the area.

Two Inca Bear cubs crossed the trail on the last day, then one climbed a tree to check us out. Very glad big mama was not nearby. We didn't even know there were bear around!

On our final decent to the last valley we caught a glimpse of Machu Picchu for the first time, nestled in the saddle of a ridge with tall cloud covered mountains all around.  Truly, a breathtaking sight!  My first thought, after hard hiking for days and days, was: “$#@%, it’s still so far away!”  Though, it was relatively easy hiking down then up the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base on the other side.  Click on the picture below to see what I mean.

Our first view of Machu Picchu, right in the saddle of the mountain (middle).

Last lunch break before arriving at Aguas Calientes/MC.

Hiking below the outflow from HidroElectrica.

When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we immediately met up with Andrew and Vicki at our hotel on the river.  It was great to see them and impressive that our separate treks actually got us there within about an hour of each other.  We all went out to dinner with the whole crew from our trek that night to celebrate.  It wasn’t a late night, since everyone was planning to get up at 4am the next day to start the final climb up the stairs to Machu Picchu.

Sadly, the weather didn’t cooperate with us and we woke up to a steady rain that morning.  So, our hopes of watching the sunrise over the mountains and magically illuminate the lost city were dashed.  We still hiked all the way in the rain and got there just in time to watch the first completely dry tourists arrive in the shuttle buses from town.  Wimps!

So we all explored the city with Wilson for a while as he showed us all the notable buildings and areas of this massive and impressive complex.  I started to feel ill when we completed the stair climb, not sure what it was from. So after a few hours of touring around, I went back to the entrance to chill out, while the others went on to explore more of the city.

The fog and rain actually added to the mystical feel of the place. I could have done without the 3:30am start though.

The famous Lost City was a huge landmark for us. It was everything I hoped it would be, massive and intricate, a true engineering wonder.

With just one full day left in Cusco before Andrew and Vicki departed, we all relaxed and recovered from our treks.  That night we went out for another Peruvian specialty, Cuy or as we know it: Guinea Pig.  It was an interesting flavor, not sure I’ll get it again, but glad I tried it.

The next morning A&V took off back to Lima and then home later that night.  We said our goodbyes and were glad to have had great friends join us once again on this long journey.  It really makes it so much more fun when we can share these good times with good friends.  Thanks again guys!

Caroline and I spent a few days in Cusco exploring the back alleys and side streets, it’s really a cool town.  Then we were off on a 20 hour bus trip to Lima, on our favorite line: Cruz del Sur.  The ride wasn’t too bad, we booked the nicer bus with the super comfy seats that almost fully recline.  Almost like business class on a plane, almost…

Cuy aka Guinea Pig. Turkey-ish flavor, very gamey.

Presentation is everything!

A really pretty day in Cusco, Peru. Plaza de Armas.

Overlooking the city before our 20 hour bus ride to Lima.

Final moments of freedom before hopping on the bus.

The kissing couple on the coast in Miraflores, Lima, Peru.

We’re now in Huaraz, Peru heading up to an eco lodge high up in the Cordillera Blanca mountains at 12,00oft.  We’ll spend about 5 days there and then make our way to the coast before heading back to the USA on June 19th.  But don’t worry, the trip is far from over 🙂

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Posted by: carogouin | May 19, 2010

goodbye, Argentina

Arching rainbow over the thunderous Iguazu Falls.

Having been in Argentina for almost 3 months already and scheduled to leave the country shortly, we couldn’t possibly miss seeing one of the greatest natural wonders the country has to offer – Iguazu Falls.  And considering it takes 17 hours by bus to get there from Buenos Aires, we were thrilled that Louise and Bill wanted to catch a flight up there with us.  So we left the city for a couple days and headed north into the jungle.  As we were landing, in the distance we could see clouds of mist hovering above the river – a clear sign of some powerful falls.

On the catwalks overlooking the falls.

On our first day we visited Iguazu National Park, where, sadly, we found out that the largest and reportedly most impressive section – aptly named the Devil’s Throat – was closed due to high water level.  Apparently Brazil had received a lot of rain recently, which flooded the catwalks leading up to the view point of the Devils Throat. We were a bit bummed, but still excited to see the other set of falls.  We made our way to the catwalks – a network of upper and lower walkways that take you right on top and right below the falls.  It was truly spectacular!  And because the water level was so high, these set of falls were even more impressive than usual.  The panoramic view was breathtaking and the constant rainbows piercing through the mist made it that much more magical.  Although the Brazilian side has a more panoramic view, the Argentine side gives you a closer and more dramatic experience of the water pouring over. The viewing platforms are built right to the edge of the waterfalls, where you see the rushing water plunge down into the roaring pit.

The falls were especially impressive due to recent rainfall.

Always a perfect rainbow.

Pat’s dangling foot - we were right at the edge of the falls, but still safe.

The water was so loud here you had to yell to be heard.

Caro, Louise and Bill in front of one of the many drops.

Check out the catwalks below.

We lucked out with weather and water level, the pictures don't do it justice.

A 'Plush-crested Jay' perched on a tree above the waterfalls.

A coati lurking nearby with his eye on the bird nest.

A magical place.

Due to the high water level, the end of this lower catwalk was closed off.

Bill and Louise in front of a smaller fall.

Our lovely hotel.

The next day we decided to go back into the park and get an even closer view of the falls.  We signed up for the “Adventure Tour” which takes you through a bit of the jungle by truck and sends you off on a boat upriver to cheat death as you enter the foot of the falls.  We thought it would be a tame boat ride, but with the high water it was crazy and a little scary.  They really brought us in there, enough that we got completely drenched (Pat even lost a contact) and terrified the boat would lose control, but it was fine.  Which reminds me – we read that in the early days of tourism here, they used to take passengers by row boat to the top of the falls and paddle like crazy so they wouldn’t go off the edge while the happy people took pictures leaning over.  They’ve since stopped doing that after one boat full of German tourists finally did go over the edge in 1936, Oops!  There were no survivors.

We boarded an ‘adventure boat ride’ to check out the falls up close.

Covered up as much as possible – it was useless.

We got drenched on the boat but dried off pretty fast.

We spent our evenings at a nice little Italian owned hotel in Puerto Iguazu lounging around, playing cards (Hearts to be exact – we’ve grown a bit addicted), drinking wine, and eating the delicious Italian food at their new restaurant.  Before we left, we took a blazing hot stroll in town up to the Three Frontiers viewpoint – standing in Argentina and gazing across the river at Brazil to the right and Paraguay to the left: two countries that we will miss on this trip.  It’s hard to believe that although Brazil makes up 43% of the continent, we won’t visit it this time.  We will just have to save it for another trip in the future!

On Argentine soil with Brazil to the right and Paraguay to the left.

Louise and Bill at the viewpoint over the 3 countries.

We made it back to Buenos Aires just in time for another set of guests to arrive – my parents!  Bernard and Denise landed on a Friday morning and quickly adjusted to the vacation schedule.  It was great having them with us and we had a wonderful time together. I was also very lucky to have my mom here on Mother’s Day! After missing a slew of birthdays and anniversaries this past year, it made me happy to share at least one during our travels. For the next few days, we went on long walks through the city, visited the Recoleta cemetery, toured the upscale Puerto Madero, and went to see tango dancers in San Telmo.  Pat’s Uncle Bill and Aunt Louise still had a couple of days left in the city, so we shared a few dinners together and on one night attended a bizarre acrobatics show in the middle of Plaza San Martin.  Using cables strewn between buildings, performers zip-lined across wearing angel costumes and releasing feathers into the crowd below.  At one point a large inflatable angel creature was guided through the crowd.  A bit odd, but interesting – we left early as the feathers were getting to us.

Caro, Bernard and Denise enjoying a beautiful plaza in BA.

A massive gum tree at the heart of the plaza.

Another fine day in the Recoleta cemetery.

A unique acrobatics show in San Martin plaza – they were dropping feathers on the crowd. We didn't really understand what it was all about.

Walking around the modern Puerto Madero neighborhood.

An old Argentina Navy ship turned into a museum on the canal. Reminded us of the Winfli!

Bernard and Pat on board.

On Wednesday we decided to get out of the city for a while and do like most Porteños on the weekend: head over to the waterfront town of Tigre, where many families have summer homes along the rivers and inlets.  Only 35 km outside of BA, we took the train up and enjoyed a delightful afternoon roaming through the sleepy coastal town with Amsterdam-style canals cutting through.  We jumped on a ferry boat and got to see the “mansions” lining the river.  They were definitely not American-standard mansions by any means, but cute and lovely summer homes nonetheless.

The latte-colored canal of Tigre.

At lunch in Tigre.

Thanks Mom and Dad for making the trip down!

A passenger boat cruising down the river in Tigre.

We spent the last few days of their visit walking around and doing a little shopping.  Buenos Aires is a prime shopping center for leather goods – wallets, belts, shoes, etc.  I had to live vicariously through my mom as we looked for a perfect pair of boots for her at almost half the US price – not something I can easily stick in my backpack, oh well.  After a wonderful week together, we had to bid farewell to Bernard and Denise.  Although knowing I will see them again soon made it easier to say goodbye this time.  Our apartment also felt a bit empty after hosting family for 3 weeks, but we spent this time organizing, packing and gearing up for our next adventure coming up in Peru!

Our last day being tourists in the city – on the BA bus tour, it was freezing!

Colorful facades in La Boca neighborhood.

We'll miss you Argentina.

Thank you to our parents and Bill and Louise for coming down and sharing part of our journey through South America!  And thank you to Leslie and Tim for meeting us for dinner last week, before wrapping up their own South American adventure! It always makes it more special to be able to share these experiences with family and friends and we are deeply grateful for it!

Posted by: Patrick | May 4, 2010

BA break

Welcome to Buenos Aires.

We made it to Buenos Aires!  Well, actually, we’ve been here for almost two weeks now. We moved into an apartment on April 19th, and will be here for the next month.  So far my parent’s have come down for a visit, and Caroline’s will be heading down soon.  Also, my Aunt Louise and Uncle Bill have joined us too.  So it’s been lots of fun with my parents and family touring the city.  But before we got to the big smoke, we made a quick stop for two nights in country before the long city break.

From Mendoza we took a quick bus ride to the town of San Luis.  There’s not much to see in old San Luis, but it was a convenient place to visit an Estancia (Ranch) from.  After a day of figuring out the transportation logistics, we made it out to a beautiful place in the hilly countryside nearby.  We were the only guests staying at the place, at times a bit creapy, but really relaxing and there was plenty of good food.  We had ample time to walk the property, breathe in the clean air and enjoy the peaceful landscape.  In other words, it was a little boring with no other guests!  I think we both were too excited to get to BA and finally move into a place of our own for a while.

Walking around the Estancia grounds.

Followed by random horses again!

Getting close to sunset on the Estancia near San Luis.

From San Luis we had to take a long overnight bus to Buenos Aires, our last for quite a while we hope!  It wasn’t so bad though and the following day we met our landlord/agency rep and she said “Welcome Home!”

It’s really been so nice to just relax in a place of our own for a while.  The “road” had been wearing us down a bit and we were both looking forward to suspending our perpetual motion for a while.   The city is wonderful, very modern, excellent restaurants, shopping, shows, theaters – it has tons to offer.  Sometimes I’ll stop and think: Is this still South America?  Just then a bus will scream by spewing dark smoke, there will be a couple full-on making out on the street corner and I’ll just barely step over another heaping pile of dog poop.  Yep, definitely South America.  One of my favorite parts of the day is afternoon siesta back at the tranquil apartment.  We usually head out for dinner around 9pm, still early by BA standards, and don’t make it to bed until after midnight.  It’s a slow & easy lifestyle down here.

We had a few days before my folks arrived so we did our best to get acquainted with the neighborhood.  On day 1 we signed up for one month gym memberships down the street, found the grocery store and stocked up on everything.  We also gave both our backpacks a well deserved cleaning in the bathtub too.

Our home for the next month. Across from Plaza Libertad.

Temptation Shelf.

We went out to the airport to meet my folks when they arrived, it was a fantastic reunion after so much time apart! Since August 5th 2009!  Caro and I hadn’t really done any of the touristy stuff in Buenos Aires yet, so we set out each day to see a different neighborhood.  San Telmo, Palermo, Puerto Madero, Recoleta and the City Center were all beautiful and unique places around the city.  Once my Aunt and Uncle arrived, we all took the high speed ferry for a day in Colonia, Uruguay.

Around the famous Recoleta Cemetary.

Kathy and Jim loved the city.

We took to the metro quickly. 10 trips for $2.50!

Down on the waterfront looking across to Puerto Madero.

It's a rare Caroline AND Patrick photo.

Colonia is a short hour ferry ride from BA, definitely worth the trip.  It’s a very well kept old colonial port filled with charming restaurants along cobblestone streets.  The weather was perfect and we all enjoyed a huge lunch with a few too many bottles of wine.

The days flew by and before I knew it, it was time for Jim and Kathy to fly home.  I was sad to see them go, but I know they had a great time.  Thank you for everything!  See you again soon.

Louise and Bill moved into the apartment after my folks left, and we’ve continued the tour & siesta tradition with them.  Tomorrow we’re leaving the city for a little while to fly up to Iguazu Falls.  So don’t worry, the adventures continue!

Walking the cobblestone streets of Colonia, Uruguay.

Kathy and Caro at the top of the windy light house in Colonia.

A fine day in Colonia, Uruguay.

All of us on the waterfront in Colonia. Yeah self timer.

We took this futuristic high speed ferry back and forth.

Sunset from Colonia.

Dad, Mom, Me, Caroline, and Uncle Bill at the waterfront.

Here’s a couple shots of the apartment from the rental agency’s website.  It’s quite popular for travelers to rent apartments in BA and they are actually a bargin if you’re staying for more than a week.  We were able to get a higher end, two bedroom place since all the parents were helping out, thanks guys!  Definitely worth it.

Home sweet home.

It's great to have a real kitchen again.

We could get used to this!

Posted by: Patrick | April 29, 2010

while you wait…

We moved into our apartment in Buenos Aires!  We’ll be here for the next month entertaining visitors and exploring the metropolis.  I’m working on the next blog post, but in the meantime, please enjoy this video of a Tango show we saw at the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires on Sunday.

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