After 2 fun months in Bolivia, we headed North West into Peru to meet up with our second visitor for the trip, Jeff, and explore the Inca ruins around Cusco.  Jeff was scheduled to arrive on a Friday, so we made our way into town a few days ahead of him to sort out our trek details and get a start on visiting ruins.

Our first stops were the Wari ruins and the Tipon Inca gardens both on the road in from Puno.  The Wari, a pre-incan civilization had a huge complex of relatively crude stonework.  This was in stark contrast to Tipon, a former imperial garden for the Inca elite to relax, that was filled with precisely cut stones and very intricate irrigation channels including a number of fountains.

Our actual arrival in Cusco was a 2 hour nightmare of finding the campsite, which we had a GPS point for but did not have a sign, leading to much stress and driving in circles through city streets before finally getting directions from the tourist office.  We spent the next day exploring town and investigating Machu Picchu treking options, talking to a number of agencies and the South American Explores Club, before deciding to hire a solo guide and carry our own gear on the Salkantay route.

This sorted out we had a couple more free days to explore before Jeff’s arrival, and plenty more ruins to see.  We spent the first day at Pisac, a very impressive military, religious and agricultural site that featured extensive terracing on a step hillside as well as a number of temples.  That evening after our planned campsite failed, we found the Melissa Wasi B&B where the gracious owner let us stay in our truck and hang out by his fireplace.  The next day, we headed into the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo to explore the ruins there.  At this site we learned more Inca history and were able to see the process used to move giant stones, as the sun temple was abandoned in construction when the Spanish arrived.  In the afternoon we headed to the agricultural laboratory of Moray consisting of three depressions that were terraced and supposedly used for experimenting with crops, with up to 5 degree temperature differences between levels.  We also made a quick stop at the site known as Salinas, where a salty spring is fed into a hillside worth of evaporating pools to harvest salt, a quite unique and impressive view.

We then returned to Cusco and to our now “location known” campsite to prepare for Jeff’s arrival.  Friday morning we headed to the airport and met him with the truck, then headed to camp where he witnessed our first class living arrangements.  We then spent the afternoon exploring Cusco and watching one of the almost daily festivals.  On Saturday after Jeff had some much needed rest from days of travel, we visited the Qorikancha, formally one of the most important Inca religious sites and now an interesting combination of catholic church on top of a well preserved ruin and Sacsayhuamán a former temple where the Incas almost defeated the Spanish in the final battle for control of Cusco.  That evening we went out on the town for the fanciest dinner in months and a few drinks in celebration of Jeff’s birthday (he had cuy). Sunday was spent finding food for our trek coupled with a visit to the Inca museum and a couple other small ruins in the area.

Monday morning, we awoke before dawn to meet our guide and catch the Combi to Mollepata to begin our trek with a long day working our way up a senic dirt road toward the first camp.  Going was slow with heavy packs, but the views upon arrival of Nevado Salkanty did not disappoint.  Day two was the big one, we slowly worked our way up to a 4600m pass next to Nevado Salkanty,  motivated by the spectacular view.  At the top we performed a small apu ceremony and reseted for the long descent, and long it was taking 7+ hours to the next campsite.  At the end of the day, Jeff and I split off the front eager to be done with the day, while Heather held back.  Unfortunately the descent proved to be too much for her knees and she barely made it into camp with another guide’s help, barely able to walk.  Fortunately we were able to salvage the trip the next day with Heather taking a mule and combi ride to the next campsite, while Jeff and I walked with the guide through a lush river valley.  That afternoon we layed low and rested, playing with some local children in the village and eating to regain our energy.  For the last day of trekking, Heather went by combi to Hydro-Electric with some other tired trekkers from a differenet group, while Jeff and I made a sprint hike with the guide to the ruins of Llactapata.  From here, Machu Picchu is across the valley, perfectly aligned on the winter solstice line with the sun temple we were in, making for a very cool first sighting.  We dropped another steep descent, happy our big packs were with Heather in the combi, enjoying the views of jungle encrusted Andean peaks and stopping to snack on sugar cane, before meeting back up with Heather at the Hydro-electric train station.  From here we had the option of a 3 hour hike along the tracks or a short train ride, and the arrival of an afternoon rainshower made for an easy decision to take the train.  On our arrival to Aguas Calientes, we enjoyed a nice meal not cooked by me on the camp stove, and some of the best showers we have had in South America in our hotel.

The next day was the highlight, were were actually headed to Machu Picchu.  Jeff and I took the stairs up from town, supposedly an hour at a good pace, for a more dramatic arrival.  Heather and the guide wisely took the bus and were waiting when we arrived after 1:15 shirts off and dripping sweat.  After a brief cool off we headed into the ruins along with 2000 other people.  We spent the morning exploring with the guide learning about all the different buildings and history, before heading up another steep path to Huaynapicchu, where we viewed more temples and ate lunch with a spectacular view of the whole site.  At this point our guide took off to return to Cusco and we spent the afternoon wandering through the maze of buildings and exploring every corner.  We ended the day by walking out to an Inca drawbridge on a path cut into a shear cliffside- another amazing example of that civilization, before heading back to town exhausted and feeling like we had fully experienced the site.

The next day we took the train back to Ollantaytambo to show Jeff the town that still sits on the original site and do some craft shopping for Jeff’s family, before returning to Cusco.  We relaxed and reflected on the trip then retired for an early evening before sending Jeff back to the states after a final farewell the next morning.  It was great to have the company to share one of the highlights of South America.

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November 22nd

Today is Thanksgiving Day- I suppose it’s as suitable as any day to reflect on our trip as we speed through the deserts of northern Chile- day 12 of the fast-paced long-haul from Ecuador to southern Argentina.

What has this trip meant to me? I’ve experienced all emotions- love, hate, sadness, despair, happiness, gratitude, wonder and amazement. As we retrace our steps on this last drive I feel a finalization of my own return back to my younger, more determined and inspired self of my early 20s- a time when I was physically and mentally fit with a mission to be happy, fix problems in the world and make others around me happy as well. I left the sadness of my brother’s death high on the ridge of Mt. Salkantay in a ceremony with the Apus. My physical ailments have been slowly overcome during battles of water and food contamination, trekking through wilderness and long periods in busses and cars. With rest and the determination to start anew several times I feel as though my body is responding and growing stronger- I’m excited to rip it up on the ski slopes when we get home, start running again and enjoy cycling after the snow thaws.

I began this trip with several goals:

  • Healing my body;
  • Removing myself from my mindset of work, eat, sleep;
  • Getting to know Carl better;
  • Getting to re-know me;
  • Volunteering;
  • Taking a look at the world of microfinance/non-profits down here;
  • Practice Spanish; and
  • Decide how I want to live my life going forward.

During this trip I’ve accomplished all my goals. I’m physically better, I have ideas on the work-life balance I want in my life, I know Carl probably too well, I’ve re-kindled the younger, happier person inside me and know what I need to keep that going, I have my next goals in life in mind, we found fulfilling volunteer work that let me learn about non-profits in South America, I speak more Spanish again, and I know what I want out of life- health, love, happiness and making a difference in the world- no matter how small it may seem.

From the great people I’ve met to the beautiful places I’ve seen and everything in between, I feel like I’ve really experienced some insightful moments (whether painful or wonderful) that have helped me hone my thoughts on life and shape my mindset for the future. I am so thankful that Carl and I made the sacrifices needed to embark and remain on a trip like this and “take life by the balls.” We are ready to go back to the U.S. and are excited to start life anew there.

“Shout outs” to some of our ex-pat and traveling friends (in order of meeting): Joris from Beligum, Jeremy, Tom, Betsy & Megan from the U.S., Ricky and Nadine from Germany, Shaun from Montana, Paul & Konomi now of La Junta, Chile, Matt “Trogdor” from Indiana, Lorraine of La Ballena Santiago, Sara from Portugal, Laura from Seattle, Paul and Helen from the U.K., Will “Smith” from D.C., David from Colorado, Petar of Croatia, and Charlie and Stephen from the U.K. Thanks for the memories and looking forward to meeting again!

Also, many thanks to our visitors from the U.S.! Both mothers made it down as well as Jeff Roesner!

After enjoying the south west of Bolivia for a bit, we headed down to the warm valley of Cochabamba to spend some time volunteering. We spent our first night in a hostel in town then made our way to CECAM / Biosol after a number of phone calls in Spanish. Upon arrival, we meet Freddie, the stove designer and builder, and Rosio, the office manager. Together the two made up the entire organizational staff.

Seated in the office, Freddie and Rosio gave us a general overview of CECAM / Biosol, and what they were hoping we could help them with.  Essentially we learned over the next weeks that the two of them started their organization by finding neighborhoods and pueblos that didn’t have basic infrastructure such as running water, electricity, etc.  Also, they were looking to help people that had low and irregular income due to the nature of the jobs available.  Rosio and Freddie asked the residents what they needed.  The resounding answers were food and a way to cook food.  From there Rosio and Freddie started CECAM- providing solar and efficient wood-powered stoves at below-cost prices (subsidized by their own pockets and donations).  Later they introduced a food program whereby they would let families pay them in installments for a month’s worth of food so that the families wouldn’t go hungry if there wasn’t enough money for food one week.

But there was a problem with their operation- Freddie and Rosio were running low on funds which they were primarily fronting themselves.  Freddie had just come up with a possible solution- he designed and built an efficient wood-burning oven topped with a 2-burner stove that he felt they could sell for a profit and have the profits fund their efforts at CECAM.

Initially Freddie was hoping that I could help him with the design of his stoves and improve the general construction process, but with the arrival of Heather with her business experience the two of us ended up helping not only with stove design, but also helping Freddie and Rosio grasp their financial picture and help provide them with the tools and knowledge needed to keep themselves afloat.

After the general overview and during lunch we discussed options for places for us to live for the month.  Since CECAM is located quite a way from downtown and hostels and we received an open invitation to stay with Freddie and his family at CECAM, we decided the best option for living was to park the camper in the front yard and share bathroom facilities with Freddie and his family. There was a minor problem with this plan in that the camper did not fit through the gate, but this was easily fixed with a machete and a couple hours work. By the evening we were settled in and ready to start work the next day. This afforded us the opportunity not only to have no commute and an inexpensive place to stay, but also to really become part of the family and get to know Freddie quite well. It also meant we were able to experience the joys of Bolivian living including using buckets to flush the toilet, the water shutting off at 4pm for the night and washing dishes in buckets due to no plumbing in the kitchen. It also afforded the most disgusting experience of my life- empty the septic tank into the surrounding field with a bucket and a rope.  As to why the septic tank was installed in the first place I will never understand.

The next morning I met Sarah, a Portuguese woman who would be helping Heather in the office, along with 4 Northwestern students working on a rocket stove project through FSD.  Heather spent the day in bed fighting the first round of Bolivian sickness.

I spent the first week tinkering with a prototype stove and was able to significantly increase the temperature of both the burners and the oven with a few minor changes. After working on the performance I helped construct a few stoves and implemented some further changes to make them easier to construct.

Heather spent the month working with Sarah and Rosio in the office, reviewing the finances, building financial statements and creating a new business model so the organization can sustain itself through the combination of the sale of correctly priced stoves and donations.

About halfway through the month my friend Matt arrived in Cochabamba to explore the area and help out on the shop.
We took the first weekend as an opportunity for a break and headed to Toro Toro park to check out the dinosaur footprints with Matt and his friend Suzi . This turned into quite the adventure- after 100km of cobbled road we were stopped by a road block of large rocks in the road set up by local campesinos upset by the rising bus prices. We decided to make the best of it and set up camp and cooked dinner, but soon after dark some of the other stuck cars went through so we popped down and headed down the road to find another site for the night. The next day we spent exploring the cool landscape with a local guide including a trip into a cave with a few tight spots that triggered Heather’s claustrophobia. The next morning, we set off to see the dinosaur footprints we came for and made a trip down a deep canyon to a pretty oasis before hitting the road back to Cochabamba.

While on the road back we decided to look for some food, but being siesta nothing was open. After a while we happened upon a large gathering of people eating so we stopped and sent Suzi to check it out. She returned to the car and informed us that it was a funeral, but we were invited for some soup. It being the polite thing to do, we accepted the offer and enjoyed mystery meat soup and some homemade chicha (corn beer) out of a paint bucket (Heather of course being a vegetarian politely abstained). Decorations included flowers in USAID cans in front of the coffin and entertainment was provided by a cholita chopping a goat head with an axe. We each hugged the widow and Matt made a tactful donation of a few dollars, then after a last round of chicha we made our exit, glad to be away from the awkward situation. We made it back to Cochabamba in the evening to prepare to go back to work the next day.
Over the next couple weeks, Matt and I fabricated a number of tools, the largest being a metal bending brake made from beefy angle iron. We also worked on Freddie’s car and Matt’s motor and had a few celebratory lunches that involved spending all morning cooking instead of working.

At the end of the month, we all said our goodbyes and headed north, Matt to Cuzco to meet his mom and us to Puno to meet up with Heather’s mom. All in all it was a rewarding time and we enjoyed getting off the road, experiencing real Bolivian living and helping out a great organization.

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After saying goodbye to Freddie and Rosio of Biosol and Trog Dor, we left Cochabamba to head north and meet Heather’s mom, Melodee in the Lago Titicaca area.  After two long days of driving, we meet Melodee at Juliaca airport for her two week visit.

Our first stop was to head out to the town of Llachon on the Capachica peninsula for a couple days of homestay with a local peruvian family.  Here, we relaxed with great views of the lake, hiked to a local sacred site, played with the kids and enjoyed some home cooked meals.

On the road to Puno, we stopped at the Chullpas of Sillustani to view the funerary towers from the incas, a brief but interesting diversion.

Upon arrival in Puno, we set out to the Uros floating reed islands for an afternoon tour.  We learned about the construction of the islands from the local president and took a ride on a large reed boat, but were glad not to be spending the night sneezing from the reeds.  While a very touristy stop, it was very cool to see the only floating islands I know of in the world.

From Puno, we headed across into Bolivia towards Copacabana, accompanied by thousands of Peruvians making a pilgrimage to the festival of the virgin.  Melodee was feeling a bit sick, so we spent the first couple days hanging out at our cool hillside hotel and soaking up the festival atmosphere while eating trout by the lake.  The Peruvians were mostly focused on climbing the hill to kiss the virgin, getting drunk and setting off small fireworks, making for quite a show.  Once all were well, we took the boat out to Isla del Sol, where according to legend the sun was born.  Here we hiked to a few Inca ruins and enjoyed spectacular views of the worlds highest navigable lake and the surrounding snow covered peaks.  We spent the night at a relaxing little spot and heading back to Cobacabana the next morning.

After the boat ride and some lunch we departed Cobacabana towards La Paz, along a scenic winding road above the lake.  We cross the narrow section of the lake in a small, questionably lake-worthy vessel that held 2 cars.  Upon reaching the far side, our driver was unable to land his vessel until we all got up and helped pull it to a slightly deeper section of the landing to drive off, despite our work we still paid the gringo surcharge for the ride.  With sunset fast approaching we spent one last night lakeside in a hotel catering to mostly wealthy locals and enjoyed the sunset over the lake before heading into La Paz to fly to the jungle.

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While we have several more events that we need to catch everyone up on we do have our pictures from our most recent adventure- a tour with Carl, my mother and me through the jungle and pampas in the Rurrenabaque, Bolivia area.

We were fortunate enough to have an amazing guide with us in the jungle named Yhovani.  Yhovani specializes in birdwatching and can make calls to birds and animals that are so convincing that the critters came right up to him before they realized he wasn’t a bird, monkey or wild pig.  I have a huge list of some of the animals and birds we saw with him, but in the interest in actually making a post we’ll just share some pictures for now.  We were in the jungle for three days (one night we camped) and in the pampas for two days.  If you ever get a chance it’s an amazing place to visit! 🙂

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Our adventuring has been in full-force since our last blog update- so much so that it’s been two months since our last posting and there are still many stories yet to tell prior to that. It looks like we’ll be stationery for a couple of days, so I’ll give you all a quick update.

Today we really thought we were going to reach Bolivia. After several days of fighting altitude problems including nose bleeds, a vicious sinus infection and collapsed sinus, we’d finally gotten me acclimatized enough to be able to cross over the 5,000 meter pass and stay at a 4,200 meter level without too much concern. So this morning we called and wrote our parents saying we’d be out of touch for a few weeks, we filled up on water, gas, Bolivian currency and said our good-byes to our new friends Paul and Helen. Both of us were feeling very excited about adventuring in a new country, seeing some great sights and getting to Cochabamba to start volunteer work. We left the in-town campsite and headed to the Chilean point of exit, which on our route is on the outskirts of town (San Pedro de Atacama). With all our excitement we really only drove about ½ mile, anxiously hopped out of the car, and after some confusion trying to locate the emigration officer we were told they were “closed.” Well, this is Chile after all we thought, so maybe someone had a family emergency or an odd-hour siesta or something. No, they were closed because all of the roads out of Chile from around here are closed. Apparently a huge snow storm hit yesterday and the roads from here to Bolivia and Argentina are snowed-in. There are border crossings further north of us that we could pay several hundred dollars to drive to that might be open (gas is EXPENSIVE here), but then we’d miss out on the southwest corner of Bolivia which has some of the most pristine, un-touched wilderness area in the Americas. Don’t want to miss that. So, what to do? Well, we drove back to the campsite, said our third good-bye to Paul and Helen, and now we’re in a holding pattern until the weather and roads clear. Carl was positive enough about the situation and remarked that it’s better to be stuck here in town with services than up in the snowy mountains (where we could be forced to burn our car tires to survive).

Below are some photos of the last 10 days in the San Pedro de Atacama area including our trip to Valle de la Luna, the Tatio Geysers, Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques as well as the town of Socaire that we camped outside of during the acclimatization process (where they’re trying to re-introduce terraced farming with aquaduct-water from the mountains) and our San Pedro de Atacama campsite as well as the town square from which we spent hours Skyping with Mom’s geography classes (which was quite fun). 🙂

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P.S. If you don’t get the burning of the car tire joke we can fill you in another time. There are just some places city-folk shouldn’t go.

Cochrane

I LOVE this place! Finally we found a town that has a sense of real community. Families that spend quality time with each other, security guards that greet customers with a kiss on the cheek- it’s truly magical. None of the other smaller towns that we’ve visited have been quite like this. Actually- most have been quite the opposite. It’s curious, but Carl and I have both concluded that from what we’ve witnessed, people in Chile are generally happier and in turn more kind than people in Argentina. Now, we’ve met plenty of great people in Argentina, but as far as the vibe of most towns go, that’s what our perception has been.

What are we doing in Cochrane? Well, after spending the better part of three months in Argentina getting to the major tourist sites and doing the famous as well as not-so-famous treks, we’re starting to explore Chile from as far south as we can go (Villa O’Higgins) back up to the Santiago area where we left off in January. Since Carl and I decided to take a chill-out day to hang in town and wait for a local concert tonight, I will spend some time writing about what we’ve been up to for the past month or so. I have to say it’s nice to finally have a sunny and warm (70 degrees in the sun) day. I’ve got plenty of chickens, a couple of dogs and a cat to keep me company while I sit here on the bench and reflect on our travels. Below describes the last four days.

Border Crossing to Cochrane

Our entry from Argentina to Chile was an eventful one. After making it through all of the em/immigration and customs hoops we gave each other a high-five for a successful first border crossing on our own since buying the truck. We picked up some supplies in the border town of Chile Chico, Chile and then headed off to intersect the Carretera Austral. About 45 km in we were driving by an Argentinean-plated car that was parked on the side of the road when I recognized the blue eyes and red beard of the man from the border control stations. The man started to get out of his car as if he were going to signal us so I told Carl to stop and back the car up. Long story short, the clutch of Shaun of Montana’s rental car had gone out and no one else had been willing to give a tow. #1, he was 45 km from town, #2 it was a rough gravel road full of steep ascents and descents, #3 it was getting dark and #4 there were locals driving by a million miles an hour. One local that had stopped had even thought he and Shaun might die if he tried to tow Shaun (I think that’s exaggerating a bit, but maybe not the way people drive down here on those roads). We of course weren’t going to leave him stranded, and so began the adventure of towing Shaun about 30 miles back to Chile Chico, crossing the border the next day (including explaining to both Chile and Argentina what the crazy white people were doing), helping him locate a mechanic and then turning back to make it across the border before the Easter festivities began (by now it was the Saturday afternoon before Easter). There was a nice local man that was letting Shaun borrow his phone to make arrangements for the car so we left them together in good company.

After parting ways with Shaun we headed back toward the Carretera Austral. The kind man of Los Antiguos that was helping Shaun had mentioned that there was a nice camping place along the shores of Lago General Carrera (Lago Buenos Aires) about 20 km from Chile Chico. Well, after some exploring from 20km on, at about 50 kilometers we came across a non-gated entrance that looked like it would go to the bush camp we were unable to find a non-gated road to the day before (lucky for Shaun we didn’t find it). It was getting late so we decided to give it a go. We pulled into the driveway of an hacienda, and we stopped the car in front of the house. There we met an extremely kind family. Being so remotely located they love visitors, and they said whenever tourists stop by they always let them stay for free. This was our first introduction to southern Chile beyond the border town and it was a much kinder reception than we’d received from estancia owners in Argentina. We spent the night next to the lake enjoying a beautiful sunset and a hearty dinner.

The next day we discovered on our way out that this must have been where the man of Los Antiguos had intended to send us as we drove past a few estancias with camping signs. We decided that our experience with the kind family and killer camping spot was a better deal anyway. Also, we caught the name for the small town made up of about four estancias- Fachinal.

After leaving Fachinal we continued along the lake through Mallin Grande, Puerto Guadal, El Maiten and Puerto Bertrand. Puerto Bertrand is situated at the birthplace of Rio Baker which is one of the largest rivers in Patagonia and I believe in South America. Along those first few miles before combining with other rivers the river is the most unbelievably beautiful turquoise color you’ve ever seen. It was truly breath-taking. This large, fast-moving river’s flow is about 300 cubic meters of water per second and somehow thousands of salmon migrate up here every year against the current. I’ve told you the amazing part. The sad part is that a hydro-electric company has convinced the Chilean government to let them put in five dams in one of the most spectacular rivers on the continent and destroy some of the most pristine, beautiful and wild land left on the continent. It literally breaks my heart. All of the local people we’ve met are so sad, and of course we will be meeting many people soon that could be losing their homes. With the amount of desert in northern Chile that could easily power large parts of the country on solar power, and with the incredibly consistently strong winds of southern Chile in my opinion it’s a short-sighted, cheap cop-out to dam such a magical place. There is a “Chile Sin Represas” base here in town so we plan to see what else we can learn from them.

Next stops include Reserva Nacional Tamango, Caleta Tortel and Villa O’Higgins. We will update more when we can and will include pictures when I find another camera card reader.

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