October 22, 2016


As I mentioned in a previous post, flights into Colombia was, the first time for us, in South America, where things started totally sliding into pseudo chaos on this trip.  Nothing that couldn't be managed, but a way of existence that requires more flexibility and less commitment to our US perspectives.  Turns out, in South America, plans are more like dreams.

Very poor photo of Montserrat, Bogota and the funicular up.
They may or may not happen as you wish, but only time will tell.  This sounds very metaphysical, but in reality, it's much more practical.  Like laundry, hot water, electricity, the ride to the transit you need, these are the things that may happen "Ahora" which, I learned in my most recent Spanish school does *not* mean "now" here.  Instead it means something more like "sometime," and at least in Medellin, if you mean now, you must say "Ya" which means "already" as in, "Necesito mi cafe ya, tengo que irme" or "I need my coffee already, because I"m leaving now, not, in 30 minutes, which is apparently the normal local interpretation of 'now'".  I agree with the young woman who interrupted our lesson to say, "Excuse my language, but this is mind-fuck!"

In Bogota, the first night, sleeping in a Western business hotel on points, I started to get very uncomfortable when I realized that our plan to get to Panama had some serious flaws.

This weather forecast did not bode well for 5 days of sailing in a small single-hull vessel.
Flaw #1 -- E doesn't handle heat and humidity well, and the weather in Cartagena didn't look great, nor would the boat from Cartagena to Panama have air conditioning.  Flaw #2 -- sailing in thunderstorms and rain sounds like the kind of thing that was going to be a bit hard to endure and would probably burn through a *ton* of wife points.  I'm already running a bit low with this whole year of travel where much of it involves too much unpacking and re-packing, moving, chaos, laundry, and cultures, and other difficulties in foreign languages that E'd just as soon avoid (to be clear, he's totally doing it and enjoying it (toughing it out?) with me, but I do have to acknowledge that much of this year is about us following my dreams and him being a very supportive partner rather than him checking off items on his bucket list).  Flaw #3 -- both getting to Cartagena on late notice and getting back from Panama to South America was looking *very* expensive from my flight searches.

One of many breathtaking murals from the Bogota graffiti tour.

Initially, I figured, hey, let's just skip Panama, problem solved.  But, turns out, one of the things E *really* wants to do on this trip is see the Panama Canal, in action, so that option was off the table.

Bogota graffiti

After a bunch of late night searching on gloriously dependably functional Wi-Fi (oh, Western hotel chains, how I do love thee), I finally found some budget fares direct to Panama City from Medellin on VivaColombia to a random US-military base in Panama City (Howard AFB) and we agreed to put off Cartagena for another trip.  I was disappointed to eliminate Cartagena as we'd heard so many wonderful things about it, but since arriving in South America, we'd heard nothing but absolute raves for Medellin from other travelers we'd met (several admitted to spending way more time than they intended), and the Toucan Spanish School looked like it would be a good fit for me to do a week of intensive study while E chilled out in a relatively modern well-appointed city.

Bogota/US cultural center commissioned piece -- gorgeous.
So, for the first time (but no doubt, not the last) we dropped some of our plan.  Bye-Bye Cartagena.  We'll have to visit another time (hopefully with the sail to Panama and the San Blas Islands, too).  I was sad to let it go, but also relieved.  After the chaos just of our flights into Bogota (a large international airport) I'd started to opt into my other travel-self.  The one that just sort of goes with the flow and assumes that at least 50% of stuff probably won't work (the self I'd developed living in rural Italy.)

My absolute favorite Bogota graffiti piece
We loved Bogota -- it felt like a real city with a functional economy that was more amused at us as tourists rather than dependent on us.  Emboldened by how comfortable we felt in Bogota, we got over the sting of our last AirBNB failure (with the bad review) and applied for and got accepted as guests at an apartment in Medellin for a week, near the Aguacatala metro station as recommended by several bay area travelers (all Cal alumni or students, oddly) that we met in Bogota.  We arrived without incident and found it to be perfectly functional after a bit of investigation and experimentation.
Medellin apt hot water heater -- runs on 2 D batteries.

Gas switches in the apt -- if off, no hot water, nor gas for cooking.

The centrifuge on our Medellin apt washer -- multiple spin runs per wash load.

The washing compartment of the washer.
The dryer.
I definitely love Colombia and am looking forward to the next trip when we do Cartagena.  Medellin is a wonderfully livable city and we very much enjoyed our time here.  I did 26 hours of teacher-led Spanish study in 4 days at Toucan School and while my brain is fried, I can finally speak reasonably in the past tense, which is much more important and useful than you'd realize unless you are stuck without it.

View of Medellin from the Metrocable.
We tried to go to the Bolivian embassy in Medellin, but the address we found was a mechanic shop.  This is one sentence to describe, but it took several hours.  This, plus "Ahora" not meaning "now" and delicious cheap food with friendly people is our experience of South America thus far in a nutshell.

Initially, we figured we could just go get our Bolivian visas at the embassy in Panama.  But when we started researching flights to La Paz, we were shocked out how expensive they were.  Again, after much investigation and soul searching (should we go through Peru and across lake Titicaca or some other bizarre route?) we decided to cut out yet another part of the trip.  Bolivia will also have to wait until another time. 

Bandeja paisa (typical Medellin meal for BT) and buffalo steak for E - $14 total, with beers.
Finally, after several hours of travel hacking we booked multi-city flights from Medellin to Panama, to Rosario (Argentina), and then to Cordoba (Argentina).  From Cordoba, it's a short hop to Santiago, from where we fly back to Atlanta.

You may note that I'd mentioned earlier that we'd already booked reasonably priced flights from Medellin to Panama before we booked the AirBNB in Medellin.  Turns out, due to travel ridiculousness, it was cheaper (like even after throwing away the Panama one-way flights, we saved $400 US per person) to do the multi-city flights from Medellin to Panama and back including the additional Argentina stop than it would have been just to do the one-way flight from Panama to Argentina (or pretty much anywhere in South America), so we have 2 flights to Panama today, but we'll just not be showing up for one of them.  (Travel tip -- Copa Airlines subsidizes the hell out of flights that include a stay in Panama.) 

October 16, 2016

The Galapagos Islands

So, if you're taking a year off to travel, you are probably on a budget. The Galapagos Islands, while an awesome and amazing site to see, are *very* expensive.

At many points, I found myself feeling like the Galapagos reminded me of Hawaii -- except of course, they don't at all because in the Galapagos development and agricultural use of the land is extremely restricted, as is immigration and tourism.  This translates to a very high demand for access to the islands themselves as well as resources on them, and, unsurprisingly, a much higher cost.  This is also one of the main reasons why the Galapagos are so pristine.  

Giant Galapagos Tortoises are Giant.

After discussing it on the hike in Peru, we decided that we were going to bite the bullet and spend the money to get there on the flights (available only from Ecuador's mainland, and like most flights in South America, expensive by US standards) and the national park entrance fee ($100 per person) and the Transit Control Card (required, a unique identifier issued by the INGALA to track your stay in the Galapagos - $20 per person).  Mainly, we decided this because we weren't certain when we'd have the time/opportunity to ever go again.

Marine Iguana

What we hadn't decided was, what and how we were going to see the sites.  The Galapagos National Park requires that all visits to the park be accompanied by a licensed guide.  This means that even if you are trying to do-it-yourself, you aren't, really.  There are several different islands, with public inter-island transfer boats between the inhabited ones (whose towns and developed areas and associated sites you can visit without a guide).  If you want to visit any of the uninhabited islands, you have to go on a boat that is certified by the government to go there, and of course, you must go with a local guide.

These colorful crabs were *everywhere*.

We'd read that it was possible to get last-minute discounts on all-inclusive cruises (all of which follow one of the prescribed routes approved and regulated by the government).  If you wanted to get off of the boat and actually walk around on many of the islands, you needed to be on a small enough boat that it had secured permits (along with the requisite licensed guide, of course) for all of the passengers to actually walk around.

Our cabin on the boat, complete with Balcony view.
From the last few days of the Salkantay hike (about 1 week before departure), we emailed an Ecuadorian travel agency (Happy Gringo), and asked about any last minute deals that were available on cruises.  There were 4 or 5 options, at 30-60% off the advertised price, leaving in the 2-3 day period we asked about (early October, so shoulder season).  We opted into an 8 day cruise on the Millennium.  We were very certain it would be primarily retirees, and were pleasantly surprised to find it a mix of singles and couples from 20-40 as well as two different families traveling with older teenagers or their 20-something children/partners.  It sounded like almost everyone booked a last minute deal on this particular cruise -- everyone I discussed it with booked within the last month or so prior to the cruise.

Frigate birds, hunting from the boat.
 The boat was clearly the height of luxury when it was built (just ask yourself, when was the last possible date when you'd build and name a brand new vessel "The Millenium?") but it had been maintained in a state of functional disrepair for quite some time.  This mix of ghetto and former glory was fine (and even amusing) for us, but I could see how some people might find it difficult to enjoy given how darn expensive the whole experience is.  For example, the on-board fresh water supply seemed to have a hint of rust to it -- we just showered and washed faces in it anyways, figuring it was better than the salt water we were washing off.  The filtered drinking water was obviously fine -- it tasted normal and we didn't get sick.  So, despite the negatives, I just kept reminding myself that we were here for the nature, and that it would have been much more expensive for a nicer boat with exactly the same experience in nature.

Time for some lounging in the mud pit.
On the overnight passages, there were a couple of nights where the sea was rough enough to wake us up even while sleeping on our backs or stomachs (on those nights, sleeping on your side was impossible as you'd roll over with the rocking).  During the day, there were a few anchorages where the sea was a bit rough and some people did find it difficult to eat on those days.

The best part, of course, was the nature.  The first day included a trip to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve and the Los Gemelos -- twin gigantic volcanic sink holes.  We'd arrived the night before and stayed the night in Puerto Ayora because the day of the cruise there were no available flights that would get us to the airport in time.  With half a day to spare, we took a tour of the El Chato Reserve and Los Gemelos on the way to the airport to meet the guide -- if the itinerary had been more specific (it just said, "Santa Cruz Island") we would have opted for something else so as not to repeat the experience, but we love tortoises, so going twice wasn't a big deal.
Male blue footed booby, tending to its eggs (his mate was nearby watching).

The boat's itinerary was gloriously mellow.  A few activities a day, plus some bells ringing to let us know it was time to eat or get a briefing.  Other than that, nothing but relaxation (including showering next to a sliding glass full-size window that opened to the sea -- I will *never* forget showering by the clear water, rocking slightly, looking out at the islands, and being greeted by a sea turtle below my window who came up for air -- MAGICAL.)
Yup, their feet are very blue.

Every day after the first day, after breakfast at some point we'd board the Zodiacs to be ferried to shore to do very short slow hikes on the various islands enjoying the landscape, views, lava lizards, marine iguanas, sea lions, and birds.  At some point we'd come back to the boat for lunch.  Every day after the first day involved at least one snorkeling expedition in addition to the hikes.  The boat's snorkeling equipment was in okay condition, but the wetsuits were almost threadbare.  If there is one thing I would have negotiated harder for, it would be to have the snorkeling and wetsuit included in the price we paid -- it just felt annoying to shell out cash on the boat for such dilapidated stuff.

But, oh, the snorkeling!  We swam with sea turtles, sea lions, schools of beautiful fish, groups of sharks, spotted eagle rays, sting rays (keeping a distance, of course), and through pods of non-stinging phosphorescent miniature jellyfish.  This trip convinced me to get certified for scuba diving -- that's how much I loved the snorkeling.  It was so peaceful and amazing to co-exist with all of these wonderful beings in the water.  I want to do it more, and more often.
The even more rare red footed booby.

The bird nerd on our cruise counted 40 species (not including sub-species) just before we departed and then he helped me count reptile species, which numbered 19.  Overall, it was an amazing experience and I feel so privileged to have been able to enjoy it.

Galapagos Flamingos on Floriana.

October 13, 2016

Colombian Ridiculousness (with Ecuadorian photo support)

So, I have plans to post more with better photos and explanations from the Galapagos (which was an amazing experience) soon, but in the meantime, I think today's travel ridiculousness is entertaining enough to get its own post.

Gratuitous Quito 800m track photo.  Ecuador has 1 Olympic gold medal.  In speedwalking. 
Won by this guy: Jefferson Perez, in Atlanta, in 1996.

First, we arrived at the Galapagos airport 3+ hours before our flight.  There was no-one at the Avianca check-in counters.  Fine.  We watched our 8-days'-new 24-hour-bonded boat-friends check in easily for their flights, but kept our luggage and waited with them in the food court.  At 2 hours before the flight, there was still no one at the counters.  In other news, oddly, more people in Ecuador know where Atlanta is than California.  It's because their one and only Olympic Gold medal was won there.  Deep breath, let go my shock at California not being well-known, I can get behind this.

I made our Taxi driver stop so I could get this photo.  GIANT TORTOISES!
At 1h45 minutes before our flight out of the Galapagos, I insisted that we go stand in "line" even though there were no other passengers in the Avianca line (despite the departures sign -- oh so inconveniently not located anywhere near the check-in desk -- claiming our 12h45 flight was on time).  We watched a few people get addressed by the folks in the "ejecutiva classe" line and eventually, the professionals servicing that line took pity on us and waived us lonesome, sole, economy folks forward with the standard, "Siga!"

Who doesn't want an Iguana photo?
I must say, this is the first time when my (still developing, but somewhat useful) Spanish has come in as obviously more handy than English.  We tried to check in.  We were informed that the plane was 2h30 minutes late.  This was not unusual (we'd already experienced a similar delay on another flight whereupon we'd just owned it and enjoyed Top Gun from start to finish at the airport bar, en Español).  The problem this time was that we had a connection in Quito to Bogotá on a different airline and the delay was going to make it much too tight to make it on South American timelines.

One of many Galapagos Island otherworldly landscapes.
Oddly, this is where things got *more* useful than they would have been at home (as a general rule, I've found that South America is generally *less* useful when trying to accomplish things than the United States.  This isn't a value judgment, I think the pace of life in South America is probably better.  But it is a personal observation that was proven wrong today.)

Did we rave about the ceviche, humitas, or empanadas?  We should have (also the corn-nuts!)
I explained to the woman at the counter that we had a connection to Bogota from Quito.  She asked when.  I said around 5 or 6 but I wasn't sure because we didn't have Internet on the boat and the Internet didn't work in the terminal despite many claims to the contrary, so I didn't have specifics.  She then waived me behind the counters, past security, into the office of the airline where they let me login to my personal email on their computers and print my itinerary, whereupon they confirmed that yes, we did not have enough time to make our connection, so they would just put us on the Tame flight (the one our friends had checked into almost 2 hours ago at this point, not to mention a competitor airline).  She then stood behind the Tame agent (mind you, this is an Avianca agent) and waited for almost 30 minutes to ensure we got our tickets (which was very touch and go, but eventually it all worked out, just in time for our luggage to get going and for us to board).

Ecuadorian Dinghy Rules: Lifejacket if you are not carrying snorkeling gear.  Otherwise, no lifejacket required.
So, we arrived in Quito, grabbed our luggage (my bag was the second to last bag on the carousel) and headed to the international terminal.  Then we tried to check into our VivaColombia Flights.  Turns out, we had a reservation, but online checkin was required.  If you hadn't done it (which we couldn't from the ocean in the Galapagos), you had to pay a $15 per person fee.  Also, they wouldn't let you check in without a printed outbound (from Colombia) itinerary.

Check out that Marine Iguana!  (They swim!)
This is where I learned that my Spanish is now good enough that I can actually get coherently mad at someone in Spanish.  I started nicely but eventually got more and more agitated and finally yelled at the guy doing his job for VivaColombia asking him why this was the first we'd heard that we had to have a booked ticket out of the country when he was *not* immigration, and we were planning on taking an open spot on a sailboat from Cartagena, which is super common and *not* subject to formal itineraries, just like buses, which we (and any other number of airline passengers) could also be taking out of the country.  To his credit, I was clearly not the first crazy gringa to partially lose my shit at him, and he did not find me remotely intimidating or concerning (he also didn't change his position, so clearly my language studies need work).  Eventually, while E asked me if we could just book cancelable flights in English, Mr. VivaColombia told us where to find the business center and we headed there to print our boarding passes and book flights from Colombia to Panama at a reasonable departure date, print the itineraries, and then cancel the flights (thanks Expedia and your 24-hour termination clause!).  This was more than sufficient for the purposes of VivaColombia, and finally we made it onto our flight.  A big thanks to Avianca for re-booking us on the Tame flight or we would have never had enough time to deal with all of this in Quito and we would have missed our flight for certain.

View from our balcony over the Galapagos...
And now, for the first time in over 10 nights, we're in a western business hotel that we arrived at via a shuttle complete with non-insane driver and seatbelts and doors that closed fully.  Bonus, points = complimentary glasses of wine at the bar.

I tried to book us an AirBNB for Bogota for the next 2 nights, only to login and learn that we got a negative review from the last host we had because while we followed the instructions and left the keys under their doormat, the keys disappeared (also, apparently we were difficult because we expected the laundry facilities to actually, you know, work).  We actually considered taking a picture of the keys under the mat because it seemed so sketchy to leave the keys as requested, but we didn't.


Also, after poking around at Bogota AirBNB options we decided we were too exhausted to deal with another super-authentic experience, so that is how we booked the next 2 nights on Starwood points.

Tomorrow?  Laundry.

October 3, 2016

Last words, pre-Galapagos

I feel some pressure to get some blogging done before we head off to the Galapagos and don't have connectivity for 8+ days (the longest for both of us in something like 2 decades).

Something impressive happened in the Plaza Independencia in Quito.
Part of me feels guilty about the blogs I haven't posted.  The awesomeness that needs to be celebrated, that *would* be celebrated, *instantly* in my home culture, but here it's more complicated.  For example, today, we simply wanted to go to old-town, but it was shut down and there was some *very* important stuff happening.  We stayed for it.  Despite at least 2+ hours of crazy waiting, nobody official spoke (which was weird for us).  But there were lots of horses, official bands/marching, people in uniforms, gates, security, and stuff... I could spend a whole post talking about this and the people we interacted with in this environment.  But instead, I must own that we don't have time.  We're preparing to go to the Galapagos and we're just generally dealing with day-to-day life -- like packing a bag full of clean laundry (which, did you know, is less easy to cram into pockets than dirty laundry).

I mean, we are happy we got into our AirBNB at close to midnight in Quito without any major security issues a few days ago and that our laundry is finally done... It took all day yesterday, multiple trips upstairs to a secret *pad-locked* AirBNB laundry facility where things were *not* *remotely* *electronically* *kosher* plus emails and texts and South American levels of patience (which we just aren't qualified to deliver).  At one point, our laundry was covered in water and the high voltage electricity to the laundry facility was dead -- no rinse, no spin, no dryer.  But the lights worked.  Thankfully, after bothering our hosts yet again, we said "F This," and left the mess to enjoy a delicious 2-hour lunch.  Clearly, this was the proper South American response, because when we got back, the power was on and our laundry had drained and spun, finally ready for the dryer.
240V splits to 2 separate 120V circuits via simple cords without chaos,  right?

I called to reserve a taxi to the airport today -- I think it went okay, but my Spanish is still pretty spotty, so if we don't re-emerge, you can start your search in Quito, near the Superfines, waiting for a taxi to the aeropuerto that we thought we reserved...

In the meantime, I'm definitely getting up early to run some laps at the huge track in Parque Carolina -- I can't find the total distance on the Internet, so I will report back when I can as a public service.

October 1, 2016

Hiking in the Andes (Part II -- The Salkantay Trail)

First, our guide had to stop at this local market to buy some coca leaves.
Our first day involved a drive up a mountain with a few local stops, and then hopping on the trail to climb from 12,000 ft to 12,500 ft in a mile in the rain and then another 3ish miles of rolling along the water canal under clear skies until we arrived at our lodge.

Mollepata lunch stop - Traditional kitchen complete with guinea pigs.

Our first mile was under some serious rain.

But then it stopped and we had a rainbow for our coca leaves offering ceremony.

Even when it was flat, it was technical.

And here we are -- 12,650ish feet and home for 2 nights.
We were a hiking group of 5 with our own guide and we shared the lodges each night with an equestrian group of 5 with their own guide, plus a doctor, and a horse caretaker.  Our hiking group was very compatible and we all were in great shape.  Our guide was very pleased at our ability to keep up a solid pace without needing lots of breaks.

Taking a rest at Humantay Lake
Altitude sickness is worse for those who aren't cardiovascularly fit, but it can strike anyone (see the 25 year old in the group a day ahead of us who ran up the mountain on the second day, but was overtaken by puking and sickness that night).  Typically (according to our guides), if it's going to hit you, it'll be on your 2nd or 3rd night at altitude.   Almost everyone in our group had acclimatized above 8,000 ft for a few nights before starting the trail and we all felt great, so we were hopeful...
Looking down on the switchbacks and Humantay Lake from the summit.

Day 2 is an easy half day hike up to a local lake at around 14,000 ft.   There is an optional addition that takes you up to the Andean cross on a local peak just under 15,000 ft.  Apparently, this option is usually something the Germans and Swiss hikers (those with previous altitude experience) do, but not usually Americans and Australians (our group).

We all made it!
Hah!  We opted in and all made it to the top.  It was a gorgeous hike (7.24 miles with 2,819 ft of total elevation gain).  The last 200 ft of vertical climb were definitely huffing and puffing, but it was a great confidence booster to know that the pass the next day was merely another 200 ft higher (and the climb would be less steep).  The descent was a bit brutal due to the steepness, but it was useful in that it convinced the folks in our group without trekking poles that they would be better off if they used hiking sticks for the remainder of the trip (and we managed all of the steep and slippery descents for the rest of the trip without any major slips or falls).

Rewarding views from the hot-tub after our return to the lodge.
Day 3 was the big one.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate.  But, crossing a 15,200 ft pass on my own feet in the snow is definitely one of the more bad-ass things I've ever done in my life, so at least I get some bragging rights out of it.

First rest stop, not yet too cold.

1 Km to the pass, and we are all bundled up.

Several quick photos at the top and then we headed down the backside.
It was all downhill from there, with a stop at a lunch tent mid-way to the second lodge and more hot-tub time once we arrived.  It was an 8.7 mile day with 2,774 ft of total climb and a descent of almost the same amount (the 2nd lodge is the highest, at approximately 12,800 ft).  While very occasionally some folks have problems sleeping in the second lodge, our group was almost certain we were in the clear, vis-a-vis altitude sickness, which was a great relief.

Traditional saddle room of an Andean ranger family near the 2nd lodge.
Day 4 was a big day of descending (6.5 miles with 153 ft of gain and 3,563 ft of loss).  We re-entered mosquito territory and I learned that South American mosquitoes are big fans of my blood (despite using 100% deet!).

We just kept going down from the cloud forest towards the jungle.

E doing the last descent on the zip-line. Whee!

Me, whizzing across the canyon.

After the zipline, we enjoyed a pachamanca (buried hot stones and coals oven) meal.

Day 5 was a doozy -- a big 3,200 ft+ descent over 4 hours (the mental concentration on footing was exhausting) with some rolling climbs/losses for 6.6 miles, followed by a bus to the base of an original Inca trail and a 1K climb gaining 334 feet to the lodge. It had rained the night before, so much of our descents were muddy and slippery -- many of the folks found this to be the hardest day despite the lack of climb and decreasing altitude. The bugs had also increased in number and severity.

One of many waterfalls.

One of many sketchy bridges.

Another sketchy bridge.

Entrance to one of the many original Inca trails.
Day 6 promised to be tough.  We were all fairly exhausted, and we started out with an ascent to recover much of the elevation we'd lost the day before (4.38 miles to Llactapata and the restaurant below with a total climb of 2,540 ft).  But man, it was worth it.

Entering the Llactapata ruins with our first sight of Macchu Pichu.

There it is!

We were here.  The next day, we'd be in Macchu Pichu.
Lunch was amazing.  Perhaps it was how hungry we all were, but it's hard to argue with soltero, local river trout, fried rice (large chinese influence in Peruvian cuisine), french fries, lentils, tomatoes and cucumbers, and rocoto (my new favorite condiment).  And the views for this hike-in-only restaurant were perhaps the best in the world.
Zoomed in photo of Macchu Pichu across the valley from the restaurant.

The descent from the restaurant to the hydroelectric plant and train station was brutal. 2,773 feet of elevation loss over 3.65 miles in the increasing heat and humidity of the jungle, and the last 0.65 was flat (meaning the descent was even steeper than it sounds).  Switchbacks, mud, and serious footing concentration for almost 2h30 minutes resulted in some very happy hikers when we reached the restaurante touristico at the train station.  We were done!