Ecuador: Cuenca/Parque Nacional Cajas and Latacunga/Volcan Cotopaxi/Quilatoa Loop (June 23 to July 4, 2015)

After hiking the amazing Santa Cruz trek in Peru (see previous post), I took an overnight bus, an all day bus, and another overnight bus to Cuenca, Ecuador.

Per Wikipedia, Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador (population ~400,000) located in the Andean highlands at about 8,200 ft (2500 m). It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 for its charming historical center, its 52 churches, the small cobbled streets and colonial houses with noble facades, wrought iron balconies and red tiled roofs. Besides being a center for culture and art, Cuenca is also the gateway to Parque Nacional Cajas, a high-elevation area [10,170 to 14,600 ft (3100 to 4450 m) which contains about 270 lakes and lagoons surrounded by tundra with jagged peaks, gnarled red Quenua trees and cloud forest.

So how did I spend 5 days in a UNESCO World Heritage city and the nearby national park? Exploring and trekking of course!

In Cuenca, I reconnected with Renata and Gabriela (Czech Republic) who I’d met in Cusco (Peru) and with who I hiked the Santa Cruz trek. We spent a few days exploring the quint, beautiful city of Cuenca, enjoying the lovely plazas and churches and the delicious food at the local markets. After a few days in the city, we decided to do a 3-day trek in Parque Nacional Cajas. Unfortunately due to high winds, rain, and cold temperatures, we instead did a day hike that while beautiful was very wet and muddy, then spent the night at a refugio (instead of camping), and returned to Cuenca the next day. Back in town, we spent the day washing our muddy gear and deciding where to go next. I said farewell to Renata and Gabriela who headed to the coast for some sun and beach time, and I headed further north in Ecuador for more trekking.

After an overnight bus from Cuenca, I arrived in Latacunga (population 98,355), located on a plateau at about 9,200 ft (2,800 m) which serves as the gateway to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, home of Volcan Cotopaxi. The active Cotopaxi volcano, the second highest summit in Ecuador at 19,347 ft (5,897 m), is only about 15 mi (25 km) from Latacunga. Per Wikipedia, “Volcan Cotopaxi erupted violently in 1742 and again in 1768, destroying much of Latacunga both times. The indomitable (or foolhardy) survivors rebuilt, only to have an immense eruption in 1877 wreak havoc a third time. Not to be outdone by Mother Nature, the townspeople were compelled to try again, and they have been spared Cotopaxi’s wrath ever since.” Until recently, the last eruption occurred in 1940. However, on August 14, 2015, about 6 weeks after I was there, the volcano erupted “with a series of six very strong explosions that produced ash plumes and some pyroclastic flows. In response, the Ecuadorian government declared a state of emergency for the area around the volcano and ordered more than 400 people to evacuate from the village on the northern foot of the volcano.” As far as I can tell, no one was hurt and no property was damaged by the eruptions. Too bad I missed it, it would have been exciting to see the volcano erupt!

Along with Volcan Cotopaxi, Latacunga is also the gateway to the Quilatoa Loop, a 3-day trek through several Andean villages that allows a glimpse into rural, indigenous life while enjoying majestic canyons, lagunas, and volcanoes. The trek is made famous by the Quilotoa crater lake. Per Wikipedia, the 2 mi (~3 km) wide caldera was formed by the collapse of the volcano following a catastrophic eruption about 800 years ago.

So how did I spend 7 days in an area of large volcanoes, deep canyons, and indigenous villages? Exploring and trekking of course!

I started with a day-hike on Volcan Cotopaxi with my hiking partners, Benjamin and Jasmin (Germany) and Jason (Canada) who I’d met at the hostel in Latacunga. We took a bus to the national park where we hired a guide to take us to the foot of the glacier (the furthest point before technical climbing gear is required). While the trek to the glacier is steep, it’s short (about 45 minutes) and not technical, requiring only willpower to complete. However, the national park requires hikers to hire a guide to accompany them at least to/from the trailhead. Our guide, Patricio, was fantastic, sharing information about the geology and natural history of the area and the volcano. He seemed to genuinely enjoy hiking and talking with us as much as we did with him. Amazingly, he hikes the trail almost daily, guiding tourists to the glacier, and still loves it each time. A true hiker. The views of the surrounding landscape were stunning from the edge of the glacier located at 16,732 ft (5100 m). It was a great day-hike up a majestic volcano with fun people, including our guide, Patricio.

Next up, the Quilatoa Loop. With my legs warmed up from the volcano hike the day before, I packed my gear and headed to the trailhead with Alex (England), whom I’d met at the hostel that morning, and Benjamin. After a 2.5-hour bus ride, we started the 3-day, roughly 25-mi (41-km) trek. The loop is typically done starting from the village of Quilatoa, adjacent to Quilatoa crater lake. However, we opted to hike the reverse direction from Sigchos so we’d be rewarded with views of the stunning crater lake at the end of our trek. We hiked through wide canyons, pasturelands dotted with cows and sheep, and up and over several steep ridges. On the first night, we stayed at a lovely hostel in the village of Isinlivi which, along with a gorgeous view, comfortable beds, and hot showers, included a delicious home-cooked dinner and breakfast. This was luxury trekking for sure!

The next day we hiked to the village of Chugchilan. There, we said farewell to Benjamin who was meeting Jasmin and staying the night before they continued on to Quilatoa. Alex and I planned to hike to the crater that day and stay in Quilatoa that evening. However, later that afternoon, we ended up hiking with Eduardo and his younger sister, Yolanda, who were moving a small herd of cattle to higher pasture. After chatting for awhile, Eduardo invited us to stay at his family’s home located just below the crater. While there was no toilet or shower, for $5 each, we would have our own rooms, dinner, breakfast, and best of all, the company of a local family. We accepted the invitation and continued our hike to the Quilatoa crater. While less than half the width of Crater Lake in Oregon (5 mi (8 km) wide), the Quilotoa crater and its sparkling blue lake was an equally impressive sight.

After enjoying the late afternoon views of the lake and surrounding mountains and valleys, we hiked the short distance back down the hill to Eduardo’s house. Besides Eduardo (age 26) and Yolanda (12), the small three-bedroom house was shared by their mom Manuela, dad Espirtu, grandmother Josephina, grandfather, little sister Priscilla (3), and little brother Moses (2). Three other siblings, ages 19, 21, and 30, lived in Latacunga. Like most households, the kitchen was the central gathering place. The simple room consisted of several small stools and a table positioned around an open fire on the dirt floor. There were pots and pans of various sizes stored on the floor below a few shelves holding bowls, plates, cups, and silverware. In the corner, there was a small cabinet containing dried herbs and teas and other pantry staples. The only kitchen gadget I could see was a hand grinder mounted on a small table used to grind grains for cooking. While the family was Quechua, Spanish was our common language. Alex and I spent the evening talking and laughing with the family. I noticed immediately that they were all very affectionate with each other and laughed and smiled a lot. They all seemed to like having us there and laughed warmly as we played with the little kids and fumbled through our Spanish. They really had a good laugh as Alex helped Eduardo cut up a cow leg with a hacksaw. It was harder than it looked! For dinner, we were served large bowls of hot sopa de avena y leche (soup of oats and milk) with boiled potatoes on the side. The soup was creamy and delicious. After dinner, I retired to my room (which was Eduardo’s bedroom) and slept well after a long day of hiking and a wonderful evening amongst new friends.

The next morning, the family was up early. There was a huge pot of boiling water on the fire to which mom Manuela added onions, potatoes, spices, and the pieces of cow leg and feet that Alex helped cut up the night before. While the soup was cooking, Alex and I joined the family in de-kerneling raw corn. Eduardo’s family grew corn and sold the kernels at the markets in nearby villages. The husks and other food scraps were fed to the family pig. After simmering for a bit, we were served the soup for breakfast. I thought that perhaps the cow leg and feet were added to the soup to provide flavoring. Nope, they were part of the dish. I’ll admit I got a little anxious as I was served a huge bowl of soup with a giant cow foot in it. I sipped the rich broth and ate the potatoes and onions for awhile while I watched how the family tackled the feet. Okay, so you pick it up, eat the “meat” off the bone, then suck out the bone marrow. Given that it was the foot, the “meat” seemed to consist of the skin (hair removed), tendons, and cartilage. All eyes were on Alex and I as we picked up our cow feet, ate the “meat”, and sucked out the marrow. They found our efforts very amusing. I ate all of the broth, veggies, and bone marrow but got out of eating the rest of the “meat” by saying I was full and giving the rest of my foot to Eduardo. After breakfast, Alex and I packed our bags, took pictures, and said farewell to our host family. It had been an wonderful and unforgettable experience. We hiked back up to the crater, enjoying the amazing lake views from the rim trail. Once in Quilatoa, we had a snack, reminisced about our trek, particularly about our evening with Eduardo and his family, and caught the bus back to Latacunga. It had been another wonderful trek with fun people!

Exploring and trekking in Ecuador was a fantastic experience made even more special by the new friends with whom I shared the experience, including the wonderful family that welcomed me into their happy home.

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

Cuenca & Parque Nacional Cajas:  https://goo.gl/photos/AZ24aDZtyvYfMxAb6

Latacunga & Volcan Cotopaxi/Quilatoa Loop:  https://goo.gl/photos/VSptsZtT8tKAs5r69

Enjoy!

IMGP0051
Hiking up Volcan Cotopaxi.
IMGP0091
View of Volcan Cotopaxi from the hostel in Latacunga.
IMGP0064
With Jason, Patricio, Jasmin, and Benjamin at the edge of the Volcan Cotopaxi glacier at 16,732 ft.
IMGP0146
With Benjamin and Alex on the Quilatoa Loop.
IMGP0238
With Moses and Yolanda in our host family’s home below the Quilatoa crater.
IMGP0231
With Alex enjoying sopa de avena y leche.
IMGP0216
At the Quilatoa crater lake.
IMGP0033
Trying new fruits with Gabriela and Renata at a market in Cuenca.
IMGP0042
With Gabriela and Renata at Parque Nacional Cajas.

Travel notes: recommend Hostal Santa Fe, Cuenca (nice owners, good wifi, cheap, no shared kitchen), Hostal Tiana in Latacunga (friendly staff, good wifi, good shared kitchen and patio), and Hostal Taita Cristobal in Isinlivi (on the Quilator Loop); tap water in Ecuador is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Advertisements

Peru: Huaraz/Parque Nacional Huarascan (June 13 to 20, 2015)

After almost 8 weeks in Bolivia (see previous posts for Cochabamba, Salar de Uyuni, Parque Nacional Madidi, and Lake Titicaca), it was time to cross the border into Peru. From Copacabana, Bolivia, I took an overnight bus to Cusco, Peru, where I stayed for two nights. Since I’d visited Cusco three years earlier, I spent my time relaxing, journaling, and talking to people at my hostel, only venturing out to get food at a nearby local restaurant or at the local market. At the hostel, I again ran into Mathieu (France) who I’d met in Bariloche (Argentina) then ran into in Copacabana. That’s what happens on the travelers circuit. While at the hostel, I also met Renata and Gabriela (Czech Republic) who were on their way to Huaraz, Peru to do the Santa Cruz trek. After talking to them, I recalled that this trek was featured in an article in Backpacker magazine that I’d been carrying around with me all over South America. I’d planned to move quickly through Peru in order to get to Ecuador, but after more research, I changed my plan and decided I had to do the Santa Cruz trek. So, after an overnight bus from Cusco to Lima, where I stayed for a night, and another overnight bus from Lima, I arrived in Huaraz, Peru.

Per Wikipedia, Huaraz (population 100,000+; elevation 10,013 feet) is the main point of entry for climbers and hikers wanting to tackle the glaciers and mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain range, located almost entirely in Parque Nacional Huascaran, a UNESCO nature world heritage site. The Cordillera Blanca range contains 722 individual glaciers and 33 major peaks over 18,040 feet high, including Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran which is 22,205 feet high.

So how did I spend 8 days amongst glaciers and high mountain peaks? Trekking of course!

During the first three days in Huaraz, I reconnected with Renata and Gabriela, and befriended Peter and Dustin (Canada), who’d I’d met at the bus station in Lima. Together, we ate local Peruvian food and explored the local markets. As a warm up, Renata, Peter, Dustin, and I day hiked to Laguna Churup, a gorgeous glacial lake at 14,600 feet. Then after a day to rest and stock up on supplies, all five of us headed to Parque Nacional Huascaran, Peter and Dustin to do some climbing and Renata, Gabriela, and I to do a 5-day trek, four days on the Santa Cruz trail and one day hiking to Laguna 69, a gorgeous glacial lake.

We started the roughly 30-mile Santa Cruz trek in the village of Cashapampa (population 3,058; elevation 11,200+ feet) hiking through a narrow river valley. Eventually, the valley widened and we were surrounded by glaciated peaks. On day 3, we hiked up and over Punta Union Pass, our highest point at 15,580 feet. The scenery along the trek changed as we went, becoming more stunning with each mile. Then for the last several miles, the trek passes through small Andean villages, providing a glimpse into the rural, farming lifestyle. Besides being featured in Backpacker magazine, the Santa Cruz trek is listed among the top 20 epic trails in the world by National Geographic magazine (http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/best-trails/worlds-best-grail-trails/#/cordillera-blanca-santa-cruz-trek_56333_600x450.jpg). And Laguna 69, which we hiked to on day 5, is named by National Geographic magazine as one of the best one-day treks in South America. And with good reason as it is a gorgeous turquoise lake surrounded by snowy mountain peaks at 15,090 feet. Stunning, all very stunning!

I am very thankful that I didn’t cruise through Peru without stopping as previously planned because trekking in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range and doing the Santa Cruz trek was an amazing and breathtaking experience (literally and figuratively), made even more amazing by the fun people with whom I shared the experience.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/NFpGrsNQz82nUM5E6

Enjoy!

IMGP0340
At Punta Union Pass, on the Santa Cruz Trek (15,580 feet).
IMGP0297
On the Santa Cruz trek.
IMGP0144
Laguna Churup day hike with Peter, Renata, and Dustin (14,600 feet)
IMGP0410
Laguna 69 with Gabriela and Renata (15,090 feet).

Travel notes: recommend Akilpo Hostel, Huaraz (nice staff, good wifi, good shared kitchen and rooftop patio); tap water in Peru is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Bolivia allows Americans to stay for 90 days, but you must extend the visa after 30 days or pay 20 bolivianos/day for each day past 30. I didn’t read the date on my entry stamp and overstayed my 30-day visa by 24 days. So, I had to pay 480 bolivianos (~$70) upon leaving Bolivia. Darn!

Bolivia: Lake Titicaca, Copacabana/Isla del Sol (June 5 to 7, 2015)

After exploring Bolivia’s portion of the Amazon (see previous post), I took a 4-hour bus from La Paz to Copacabana to see Bolivia’s portion of Lake Titicaca. Per Wikipedia, Titicaca (or Titiqaqa in Quechuan) is a large, deep lake in the Andes mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. By volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America with a surface area of 3,232 square miles. Located at 12,507 feet, and with a maximum depth of 922 feet, it is considered the highest, deepest navigable lake in the world.

So how did I spend three days on Lake Titicaca, exploring and trekking, of course.

I arrived to the small town of Copacabana (population 6,000+), on the shores of the lake, in the evening. After walking around the lively plaza for a bit, I unexpectedly ran into my friend, Mathieu (France) at my hostel. We’d met in Bariloche (Argentina) in early April. It was great to catch up with him and hear about the adventures on his motorbike journey through South America since we’d last hung out.

The next morning, I was treated to a celebration in the plaza, that based on the banners, appeared to be celebrating education. There were kids of all ages marching in the parade, as well as elegantly dressed cholitas, presumably representing the local Quechuan community. As with the parades I’d seen in other South American cities, it was colorful and lively. Later, I took a 2.5-hour ferry to Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Incan sun god, located in the southern part of Lake Titicaca. It’s a rocky, hilly, scrubby island with lots of eucalyptus trees and no motor vehicles or paved roads. Per Wikipedia, the main economic activity of the approximately 800 families on the island is farming, with fishing and tourism augmenting the subsistence economy. The boat dropped me off at the very tiny village of Ch’allapampa (population 435) where I enjoyed sunset views of the distant snow-covered mountains across the lake. While wondering around the village, I befriended a group of three girls (Canada and Germany) whom I joined for dinner at one of the few restaurants in this village of only 5 or so blocks.

Early the next morning, I started the approximately 5-mile trek across the island from Ch’allapampa south to the village of Yumani. The trek takes you past Incan ruins and farming villages, and over the high point of the island at 13,000+ feet. While the trek is at high elevation, it’s fairly easy since, other than getting up to the high point, there’s not much elevation gain/loss. Throughout the trek, you’re treated to views across the glittering, blue lake of snow-covered Andean peaks of the Cordilera Real. Gorgeous! During the hike, I met and hiked with Paula and Gabriel (Columbia and Uruguay) who live in New York. It was nice to enjoy the 3-hour hike with new friends. The hike finished in Yumani, a larger (population 2,500), more touristy village (aka a few more hostels, restaurants, and shops). At the dock, we caught the ferry back to Copacabana, enjoying the lovey blue waters of the lake and more views of the distant mountains along the way. It was a nice way to enjoy the famous Lake Titicaca.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link for the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/WWte4rHP5WtWqsT77 

Enjoy!

IMGP0091
At Isla del Sol’s high point 13,000+feet.
IMGP0079
Views across Lake Titicaca of the mountains of the Cordilera Real.

Travel notes: recommend Hostal Sonia, Copacabana (cheap, hot shower, ok wifi) and Hostal Cultura, Ch’allapampa (nice private rooms, cheap); no ATMs or wifi in Ch’allapampa, bring small bills, difficult to get change; tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Bolivia: La Paz/Parque Nacional Madidi (May 28 to June 4, 2015)

After my amazing tour of the world’s largest salt flats (see previous post), I headed north to visit Bolivia’s portion of the Amazon rainforest. After an overnight bus from Uyuni (Bolivia), I arrived in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia (population 789,000+), where I spent the night, awaking the next morning to the parades and music of El Festival Gran Poder:

“Festival of the Great Power, a religious celebration paying homage to El Señor del Gran Poder or Jesus Christ. Every year, more than 30,000 dancers representing La Paz’s neighborhoods and folkloric groups, dance along a 6 kilometer route through the city’s streets. showcasing the rich and diverse Bolivian culture. Inspired by historic events, the conquistador, Inca, slave and Indigenous costumes are bright and beautiful featuring voluminous skirts, hats strewn with ribbons and elaborate masks. The extravagant handmade costumes take around two or three months to make with seamstresses importing fine fabrics, sequins and threads from overseas.” (http://www.lapazlife.com/fiesta-del-gran-poder)

It was an amazing spectacle that I enjoyed for several hours before heading to the airport for my short 45-minute flight over snow-covered mountains to the small town of Rurrenabaque (population 8,400+), the gateway to Parque Nacional Madidi. Stepping onto the tarmac, I immediately felt the heat and humidity of the jungle. Wow, what a change from the cool temperatures of La Paz, the highest national capital in the world (13,313 feet).

Per Wikipedia:  “Madidi is a national park in the upper Amazon river basin in Bolivia. Established in 1995, it has an area of 7,320+ square miles, and, along with the nearby protected (though not necessarily contiguous) areas Manuripi-Heath, Apolobamba, and (across the border in Peru) the Manu Biosphere Reserve, Madidi is part of one of the largest protected areas in the world. Ranging from the glacier-covered peaks of the high Andes Mountains to the tropical rainforests of the Tuichi River, Madidi and its neighbors are recognized as one of the planet’s most biologically diverse regions. In particular, Madidi protects parts of the Bolivian Yungas and Bolivian montane dry forests ecoregions. Madidi is home to more than seven hundred species of animal and some 860 species of bird, more than in the whole of North America. There are also more than five thousand species of flowering plant.”

So how did I spend four days in the plant’s most biologically diverse region? Checking out lots of amazing plants and animals of course! I took an organized 4-day tour with four other travelers:  Carole and Josh (England and Australia) and Kathi and Valentin (Germany).

After a night in Rurrenabaque, our group was taken via boat up the Beni River to the Madidi Ecolodge. Our very knowledgeable and personable guide, Simon, pointed out the various birds we saw during our 3-hour trip up river to the ecolodge. After settling in to our private rooms, the five of us and Simon spent each of the 4 days together taking hikes through the jungle and/or boat rides along the river, rain or shine, in search of critters and to learn about the amazing variety of plants that make up the jungle ecosystem. Along with teaching us about the flora and fauna of the area, Simon, a native to the area, taught us about the native communities living in and making a living from the jungle, and pointed out the many plants used by locals for medicinal purposes.

So what animals did we see? Many, including (but not limited to):  monkeys (squirrel, tamarin, red howler), capybara, tapir, peccary, caiman, turtles, piranah, macaws (red-and-green and chestnut-fronted), white-throated toucan, red-necked woodpecker, hawks, vultures, shorebirds (i.e., wood stork, roseate spoonbill, cocoi heron, yellow-billed tern, snowy egret), an array of gorgeous butterflies, and insects, including long trails of fast-moving leaf cutter ants. While we didn’t see a jaguar, we did see jaguar tracks on the trail. Exciting! We also got to bond with Tonito, a cute orphaned tapir who visited the dining cabin at least once a day for fruit. And of course, we were surrounded by a large variety of flora, including many species of flowering plants and mushrooms. Amazing!

Visiting the Amazon was an amazing experience, made even more amazing by the fun people, including our guide Simon, who I got to share the experience with.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/JHWEjFCx7qF1nzYPA

Enjoy!

IMGP1764
With Tonito.
IMGP1590
With Valentin, Kathia, Carole, and Josh.
IMGP1619
Capuchin monkey.
Roseate spoonbills. Photo: Valentin Lauther
DSC01682
Red-necked woodpecker. Photo: Valentin Lauther
DSC01816
Red-and-green macaw. Photo: Valentin Lauther
DSC01841
Hoatzin. Photo: Valentin Lauther
DSC01731
Capybara. Photo: Valentin Lauther
DSC01763
Peccary. Photo: Valentin Lauther

Travel notes: recommend Madidi Ecolodge (lovely private rooms, great local food, very knowledgeable, friendly guides and staff), Arthy’s Guesthouse, La Paz (good common areas & kitchen, very nice owners, close to bus station), and Hotel Oriental, Rurrenabaque (lovely garden, good location on plaza); tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni (May 25 to 28, 2015)

After staying put for almost 6 weeks in Cochabamba, Bolivia (see previous post), it was time to hit the road to Uyuni, Bolivia, about 13 hours southwest of Cochabamba via Potosi. Coincidentally, Magda’s sisters, Celia and Kathia, were heading to Potosi the same night. So, I had an enjoyable overnight bus ride with friends. After another 5-hour bus, I arrived in Uyuni (population 10,500+), the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 4,086 square miles. Besides being massive, the salt flats are also high, with an elevation of 11,995 ft (3,656 meters).

According to Wikipedia, “The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted. The large area, clear skies, and the exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites.” The area also serves as a major breeding ground for flamingos (Chilean, Andean, and James’). Super cool place.

So how did I spend three days on the Salar de Uyuni? Checking out the world’s largest salt flats of course! I took an organized 3-day tour with Morgane (Switzerland) and Yoann (France), who’d I’d met at the bus station in Potosi, and Camilla (Sweden), Fredrik (Sweden), and Vince (Canada) who were part of our tour group.

The morning of our tour was cold, windy, and cloudy. Not the best weather to visit the salt flats, at least that’s what we thought. While it did snow on us for the first part of the day, it stopped by the time we reached the flats, allowing us to take fun perspective pictures that the flats are renowned for. Besides perspective pictures, the flats are also renowned for amazing reflection pictures only possible when a thin layer of water covers the area. As luck would have it, the snow melted and we were also able to take some amazing reflection pictures. Cheers to crazy weather!

Besides the salt flats, the other gems of the tour (for me) included exploring Incahuasi Island (fish island), a 61-acre island formed on top of an ancient volcano covered by giant cactus; visiting gorgeous mineral-laden lagoons of various colors; seeing pink flamingos; soaking in hot springs, staying in a hotel made entirely of salt, and driving through valleys surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The tour was even more special because of the fun group I shared it with. The six of us spent the entire three days together, along with our guide, touring around the Salar in a 7-passenger Land Cruiser. We had a great time learning about the history, geology, and ecology of the area from our guide, chatting, taking tons of photos, taking turns playing DJ with music from our phones/iPod, and enjoying the amazing natural wonders. It was a fun and breathtaking experience with a wonderful group of people.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/UgwGLWp6N3M8Vbrw5

Enjoy!

IMGP1263

IMGP1266

IMGP1276

IMGP1424

IMGP1405

Travel notes: recommend Andes Salt Expeditions; tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Bolivia: Cochabamba (April 15 to May 24, 2015)

After a 2+ hr flight from Buenos Aires (see previous post) to Salta, Argentina, an overnight bus from Salta to the Bolivian border town of Villazon, an 8-hr bus from Villazon to Potosi, Bolivia, and another overnight bus from Potosi, I finally made it to Cochabamba, Bolivia, a city known for good weather and great food.

What did I do for just over 5 weeks in Cochabamba, the gastronomic capital of Bolivia? I made some wonderful new friends, improved my Spanish, explored the city some, trekked a little, and ate lots of delicious Bolivian food.

I arrived in town in time to hang out with Milena and Eric (friends from San Diego) for a few days. They were in town to visit Milena’s family whom I also met. After they left, Milena’s parents, Kato and Steve, graciously hosted me for about a week afterwhich I started a 5-week homestay set up by Milena’s sister, Daniela. My homestay hostess, Magda, a Cochabamba native, provided me with a lovely room overlooking the garden and three meals a day, including delicious lunches (the primary meal of the day). Along with providing room and board, Magda helped me improve my Spanish, as it was our only common language, and in the process, we became good friends. She also introduced me to her wonderful family:  her mom Celia, her four sisters, Celia, Kathia, Magaly, and Elia, and their families. I got to know this wonderful family during the weekly lunch held at Senora Celia’s house each Thursday. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and made me feel like part of their family.

In addition to practicing Spanish with Magda and her family, I also took private Spanish classes with Ester, also a friend of Daniela’s. Ester is an excellent teacher. As part of my language lessons, she also taught me about Bolivia’s various indigenous communities and about some of the events that shaped Bolivia (i.e., the War of the Pacific in the late 1800’s during which Bolivia lost its coastal territory to Peru) and Cochabamba (i.e., the water war of 2000 protesting the attempt to privatize municipal water). And as if to provide additional subject matter for my education about Cochabamba, she also explained the history resulting in the student protests that occurred while I was there, one of which we watched from her apartment during class. While commonplace for the residents, this was the second protest I’d witnessed since arriving in town (the first being on the day I arrived) and I was a bit unnerved by the constant sounds of fire works and shouts from the marching protesters, the police presence, and the use of tear gas to disperse the march. Of course, protest as a means to call attention to an issue occurs worldwide but this was my first experience witnessing a protest in a foreign country. All of this made Spanish lessons with Ester even more interesting and educational, and overtime, my ability to speak and understand the language improved. And as an added bonus, Ester and I had fun during class and became friends.

So what did my typical day in Cochabamba consist of? Waking up early, writing in my personal journal (English) and my Spanish journal, finishing my Spanish homework from the day before (if needed), having breakfast with Magda, going to Ester’s house for a 2-hr Spanish class, returning home for lunch with Magda (and on Thursdays, with her family), taking a siesta, working out in the garden, working on my Spanish homework for the day, chatting with Magda, playing with Frederico (her cute dog), chatting and texting with friends and family back home, then chilling for the night. On several occasions, Magda and I did morning yoga together in the living room (following a Spanish video on YouTube). Magda also introduced me to “Las mil y una Noches”, her favorite evening novela (soap opera). So, many nights, we were two ladies absorbed in the latest drama unfolding on the small screen. Classic! I couldn’t understand all that was said during the novela, but with the dramatic music, the hand gestures and facial expressions, and Magda’s explanation, I got the jist. I was amazed at how tired I was at the end of the day, especially for the first two weeks or so. Total immersion into the Spanish-speaking world takes a lot of brain power and energy. Thankfully, afternoon siestas are a normal part of the culture, because I took a lot of them!

Thankfully too, eating good food is also part of the culture, because I ate a lot! As Milena explained to me, Cochabambinos don’t eat to live, they live to eat. So, to embrace the culture, I tried as much of Bolivia’s delicious food as possible, including (but not limited to):  humintas (like a tamale), saltenas (like an empanada filled with beef, potato, peas, and spices), anticucho (grilled beef heart on a stick), silpancho (thinly sliced beef steak topped with a fried egg served over rice and potato), pata de vaca (cow foot), sopa de mani (peanut soup), sopa de chuno (soup with freeze-dried potato), pastel (a fried, cheese-filled, puffed pastry topped with powdered sugar), boiled and baked banana, api (a sweet warm corn drink), mocochinchi (a sweet dehydrated peach drink), monja (a sweet toasted corn drink), and………cunape (a delicious “bread” made of yucca flour and cheese). I also enjoyed delicious local fruits including pacay, chirimoya, and the sweetest papaya ever!

Along with practicing Spanish and eating, I did get out of the house some and explore the city. I went on a couple of fun bike rides with Daniela and her friends, including a Critical Mass ride to raise awareness of biking as a healthier, cleaner mode of transportation in the city and an adventurous roughly 15-mile night ride to a small town outside of Cochabamba. I also visited Kato and Steve several times and joined Kato’s family to celebrate a family member’s birthday. I enjoyed some local music too. Magda took me to a classical piano concert and Magda’s friend, Freddy, took me to an acoustic guitar concert. On several occasions, Magda and I went to La Cancha, one of the largest markets in Latin America. It’s a fantastic place to walk around as you can buy almost anything imaginable and eat a variety of interesting foods. There are whole sections of gorgeous fresh fruits and veggies, breads, cheeses, raw meats, cooked foods, homemade ice cream (yes, a whole section of just ice cream), fresh flowers, household goods, clothes and shoes, etc. It’s simply amazing. I also got to hang out for a day with my friend, Chris (England), who’d I’d trekked with in Torres del Paine (Chile). He had a stopover in Cochabamba in route further north. We had a great time walking around the city, riding the teleferico (gondola) up to and walking the 1,250+ steps down from the Cristo de la Concordia, the tallest Christ statue in the world (44 cm taller than Rio’s), and eating Bolivian food.

On my last weekend in town, I finally ventured outside of Cochabamba and went to Parque Nacional Toro Toro with Ester’s friends, Delphine (France), Violeta and Benjamin (Cochabamba), and Carlos (Brazil). Toro Toro is Bolivia’s smallest national park but encompasses “high valleys ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils and dinosaur footprints.” The park also contains the Umajalanta Cavern, part of the largest cave system in Bolivia and home of blind fish; Toro Toro Canyon; and pre-Incan ruins. Our tour guide, Gregory was very knowledgeable of the geology, ecology, and history of the area. He also treated us to several traditional songs accompanied by flute-like instruments, adding to the mystique of the beautiful landscape surrounding us. We spent two full days exploring the park, enjoying interesting rock formations, dinosaur prints, the caverns, and the deeply-cut canyon. Along with great memories of the park, I also unfortunately brought back a bad stomach, perhaps due to the egg sandwiches I had from a market stall or the untreated water I drank from a waterfall (the guide said it was ok!). Whatever the cause, I was laid up for several days, delaying my departure from Cochabamba. Magda was a saint and took great care of me, taking me to the doctor for antibiotics, making me stomach-friendly food, and making sure I didn’t run out of crackers. After 4+ months of traveling, I guess it was time, and thankfully I was “home” and not on a bus. I lucked out!

On the day of my departure, Magda and I went to La Cancha one last time then to an Argentinean restaurant where they were celebrating a national holiday with music, dance, and traditional Argentinean food. It was kind of a funny way to spend my last day in Bolivia, celebrating the Argentinean holiday, but also the perfect way to spend my last day in Bolivia, hanging out with my hostess of 5 weeks and friend, Magda.

Cochabamba is a large, modern city (population 630,000+) located in a valley in the beautiful Andes mountains. Unfortunately due to its location in a valley and the large number of cars & buses in town, Cochabamba’s air quality is poor. However, this is overshadowed by the lovely natural surroundings, delicious food, amazing shopping, and wonderful people. For me, Cochabamba will always be a special place because of the wonderful new friends I made while there and the experiences we shared. It’ll also always be in my memories for all of the delicious food I ate while there, including my new favorite fruit, chirimoya! Thanks Cochabamba, from now on, I will live to eat good food!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link too see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/Tf2KFHpNvGN7C95A6

Enjoy!

IMGP0825
Enjoying api and pastel.
Helado with Eric, Milena, and Daniela.
Helado with Milena, Eric, and Daniela.
IMG_1711
A moment of love from Kato and Steve’s cat. (The calm before the storm for this crazy gata).
IMGP0927
Enjoying pata de vaca (cow foot) at La Cancha market with Magda.
IMGP0945
My lovely room at Magda’s house.
IMGP0967
Magda’s wonderful family.
IMG_1791 (1)
Chilling wih Frederico.
IMGP0965
Spanish class with Ester.
IMGP0847
Cristo with Chris. Ha!
IMGP1093
Exploring Toro Canyon with friends.
IMGP1163
Hanging out with Magda – last day in town. So fun!
IMGP0879
Chirimoya, my new fav fruit!

Travel notes:  try all traditional Bolivian foods, including, but not limited to, those mentioned above; the tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (must be treated).

Argentina: Buenos Aires (Apr 5 to 13, 2015)

After about five and a half weeks exploring Patagonia (see previous posts for Ushuaia, Argentina; Torres del Paine, Chile; El Chalten, El Bolson, and Bariloche, Argentina), it was time to head north to Buenos Aires (Argentina). It was difficult to leave Patagonia (a region that had been on my bucket list for awhile) but I was satisfied with my explorations, at least for now.

Getting to Buenos Aires

On my last day in Bariloche, my friend, Candice (US), who’d I trekked with in Ushuaia and reconnected with in Bariloche, mentioned that she too was heading to Buenos Aires, but she planned to…..gasp…..hitchhike there. Hitchhiking is very common in Patagonia and, according to many travelers, very safe. As I was intrigued by the adventure of hitchhiking and Candice was a seasoned pro, I decided to…..gasp…..go for it. So, I exchanged my last $39 US dollars for Argentinean pesos (the ATMs in Bariloche had run out of money that Easter weekend) and Candice and I said farewell to our friends Carrie (US) and Dave (England). I was going to miss Dave’s laugh and sweet disposition after traveling with him for almost three weeks. Before we left, Carrie took our picture. You know, in case we needed a “last seen” photo. I also promised to check in along the way via my SPOT GPS tracker, which also has a “SOS” button that when pushed alerts rescuers to your exact location (or at least the location of your SPOT). So, with safety precautions completed, loaded with snacks and a cardboard sign, we set out to hitch the 960+ miles to Buenos Aires.

Candice knew the best spot on Ruta 40 for us to set up thanks to Hitchwiki, a website where hitchhikers share info on how to get to/from various points. After a 20 minute bus ride and a 20 minute walk to get to “the spot”, we held up our cardboard sign which read, “Buenas Aires, se habla espanol” and stuck out our thumbs. We expected to wait hours, but were picked up after only 30 minutes by a guy who was going almost all the way to Buenos Aires. What unbelievable luck!

Our driver, Marro (Argentina), was on his way home to his wife and kid in Buenos Aires. He and his wife were expecting their second baby soon. The proud husband/father shared lots of photos of his family with us along the journey. He worked as a bee keeper and had a cool bee hive tattoo on his arm. The scenery was gorgeous for the first several hours, following the Rio Negro as it wound through a wide valley topped with tall peaks and spires. Throughout the day, we all snacked on the food Candice and I had brought, including pieces of the giant chocolate Easter egg from Bariloche, and chatted. Thankfully, Candice speaks Spanish well as Marro spoke no English and my Spanish was basic to say the least. Marro seemed to enjoy our company and was a great tour guide, pointing out various landmarks along the way. At about midnight, we stopped at a hotel for the night and shared a room with three twin beds. We hit the road early the next morning. After about 7 hours, it was time for our journey with Marro to end. He offered to take us to a nearby train station but given our good luck so far, we decided to try hitching the last ~250 miles to Buenos Aires. So, he dropped us off along a wide stretch of dusty road, we said farewell to our very generous host, and up went the cardboard sign.

After only about an hour, we lucked out again! We got picked up by two brothers (Argentina), Sebastian and Luciano, on their way home to Buenos Aires after a weekend of camping and trekking. Their car was tiny and already loaded with their gear but we crammed ourselves and our backpacks in. They were a gregarious pair of 20-somethings who spoke English well so the conversation was lively and fun during the drive. As we neared Buenos Aires, the guys invited us to stay at their house, explaining that they were planning to travel later in the year and wanted to gain some travel karma by picking us up and offering us housing. I love the traveler mentality and need to pay it forward when I’m back home! It was a very nice offer, but I was staying with friends in Buenos Aires so declined. After hugs goodbye to the guys and Candice, who was continuing on with them, I went to see my friends.

In Buenos Aires

At about 10:30 pm, after roughly 16 hours on the road that day, I knocked on the door and finally got to see the smiling faces of my friends, Kelly and Myles! I’d last seen them in 2014 for a fun weekend with our friends, Dave and Nicole, in Scottsdale, Arizona. After a shower to wash the road dirt away, we spent the evening chatting and drinking wine. It felt like home sweet home.

So what did I do for 7 days in Buenos Aires? I relaxed, hung out with my friends, ate, drank, and…….relaxed, hung out with my friends, ate, and drank.

After all the trekking, exploring, and moving from place to place I’d done since leaving home January 27, 2015, it was perfect! I’m not kidding, I was a couch potato for the first 2 days then again on various days throughout my visit. I hope my ass didn’t leave a permanent dent on the side of the couch that I dominated for most of my stay. It was great just hanging out with Kelly and Myles, drinking coffee in the morning, chatting, watching TV while messing around on wifi (emailing, messaging, and calling my peeps) and checking in on Ansel and Petal, the cutest miniature goats ever (see for yourself:  https://instagram.com/anselandpetal). We also ate yummy snacks, including tortilla chips and spicy salsa (nonexistent in Patagonia), drank delicious wine, beer, and cocktails, and watched the sunset from the balcony of their fabulous 12th floor apartment overlooking the Palermo Hollywood area of Buenos Aires. All this and the wifi was strong. Why would I leave the apartment?

But the sights and sounds of Buenos Aires beckoned, and Kelly and Myles got tired of my ass on their couch (not really) so I did get outside. To get my blood flowing, Kelly took me to her spin class to get my ass kicked, in Spanish, by a cute, petite, hardcore (and very nice) spin instructor. After that, I was motivated to use the gym, a few times at least, on the 16th floor of Kelly and Myles’ apartment. (Hello old friend, I’ve missed you.) As for sights, they took me to Boca, a colorful barrio famous for its brightly painted buildings, street art, tango dancing, good food, and for being the home of world renowned football club, Boca Juniors. After walking around awhile, we had lunch at their favorite parrilla (grill) and sipped cold beers. We also went to San Telmo barrio to explore Feria San Telmo, a street fair “composed of 270 stands and visited by 10,000 people every Sunday.” There were stands on both sides of the street for 8? 10? blocks, as far as the eye could see. It was huge! Being Sunday Bloody Sunday, Kelly made us excellent spicy bloodies before we headed into shopping madness. Yum! Along with sight seeing, they also took me to some of their favorite local eateries during my stay:  Fukuro Noodle Bar for a noodle bowl, The Burger Joint for an awesome burger, and Sudestada for scrumptious Asian fusion. I was also treated to Kelly’s delicious homemade fajitas. Muy rico!

For a night on the town, I reconnected with Candice and Florencia, a native of Buenos Aires, who I’d trekked with for a week in Torres del Paine (Chile). Florencia got us tickets to see a band. We met at a brewery for a platter of deep fried everything and craft beer then went to the club, Trastienda, to see Massacre, an Argentinean rock band with a theatrical flare. It was cool to rock out with the locals (far back from the mosh pit of course). Afterwards, Florencia took us to Rey de Copa, a low key, Moroccan-themed bar where the bartenders made cocktails almost too pretty to drink. It was so great hanging out with these two fabulous ladies!

I’m glad that in between my couch potato days, I explored my surroundings a bit. Buenos Aires is a huge (population:  3+ million) modern city with lots to offer (i.e, good food, colorful sights and people, culture, lots of shopping, sports, recreation). But really I didn’t go there to see the city, I went there to chill out and hang out with my friends. So for me, my time in Buenos Aires was perfect.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/rKh5SywraGQsEzhA8

Enjoy!

IMGP0697
At “the spot” outiside Bariloche. Only 960+ miles to go!
With Marro, our host for part 1 of the journey.
Enjoying churipan with Sebastian and Luciano, our hosts for part 2 of the journey.
Made it! Hanging with my good friends, Kelly and Myles, in Buenos Aires!

Travel notes:  recommend all of the restaurants and areas mentioned above; tap water in Buenos Aires is potable (no treatment needed).

Argentina: Bariloche/Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi (Apr 1 to 5, 2015)

How did I spend 5 days in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, the chocolate capitol of Argentina? Hanging with friends, eating chocolate, and……trekking, of course!

Bariloche is only a short, 2-hour, bus ride from El Bolson, Argentina (see previous post). It’s a large town (population 108,000+) located in the lakes district. It’s a destination for tourists and locals given its variety of restaurants, bars, and shops, including numerous chocolate shops, and given its location on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, and its proximity to the mountains which offer skiing, trekking, and climbing.

Once in town, I met up with Dave (England), who I’d been traveling with for the previous two weeks in El Bolson and El Chalten. He’d taken an earlier bus from El Bolson. We enjoyed a very tasty, FREE spaghetti dinner at our hostel (small joys!) then met Kim (US) and Shawna (Canada) at a nearby bar. I’d met Kim at my hostel in Punta Arenas, Chile, in early March. I’d run into her and her friend, Shawna, while waiting for the bus into downtown Bariloche. The four of us met up that night for a few Argentinean beers.

The next day Dave and I changed hostels since the one were at was booked for the night and to join my friends, Carrie, Candice, and Don who I’d trekked and hung out with in Ushuaia (at the tip of Argentina) in February (just before my Antarctica trip). Once settled, Dave and I walked around town and discovered we’d totally lucked out because we happened to be in the chocolate capitol of Argentina for Easter weekend! Every year, to celebrate Easter, various chocolate producers send their students to Bariloche to construct the world’s largest handmade chocolate Easter egg which is cracked apart Easter Sunday and shared with the crowd. Per the internet, this year…”The giant egg fed 50,000 people and was made from 8,000 kilograms of chocolate. The titanic Easter treat stood eight and a half metres high and was six feet across in diameter.” They also construct the world’s longest chocolate bar, spanning two blocks of the main street, which is also shared with crowd. In addition to chocolate-mania, the weekend’s festivities included live music and performances all day Friday and Saturday.

Wow! All of this happening AND there was good trekking nearby. I wanted to eat chocolate (with good red wine, of course) AND go trekking but my time was limited. So, after much deliberation over a few beers, Dave and I devised a plan:  we’d trek for two long days then return to town in time to enjoy the Easter festivities. Later that day, the Ushuaia crew finally showed up at the hostel. It was so great to see them! Candice and Don planned to leave the next day but Carrie was staying in Bariloche for several days so decided to trek with us.

On Day 1 of our trek in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, we woke up super early for the 30-minute bus ride to the trailhead. We planned to hike ~13 mi (20.5 km) to Refugio San Martin. The first part of the trail was along Arroyo Van Titter, so we had lovely views of the river as well as Lago Guiterrez, just south of us. We headed gradually uphill to arrive at Refugio Frey, a wood/stone cabin (similar to those I described in my post about El Bolson, Chile) located on the shores of a glacial lake surrounded by mountains. We watched some climbers make their way up the vertical wall of a nearby spire while we ate. After lunch, we climbed up and over two passes to finally arrive at Refugio San Martin, another wood/stone cabin on the shores of a glacial lake surrounded by mountains. Such gorgeous scenery! And thank goodness because it made it easier to deal with the rain that had begun as we arrived. There was no shelter for the tent campers and cooking in the refugio was not allowed, so we cooked our dinner in the rain then went inside to eat. As we sat there eating our backpacker food (i.e., a cheap packet of soup with pasta), everyone else enjoyed a beautiful-looking paella made by the refugio staff. We didn’t reserve and pay for a meal at the refugio ahead of time, so no paella for us! Oh well, a least we were warm and dry. We began Day 2 by packing up wet tents and starting the roughly 10-mi (16.5-km) hike back in soggy weather. We hiked down a gorgeous valley along Arroyo Casa de Piedra. The trail was steep for the first few hours then became a more gradual descent. Once at the end of the trail, we still a ways to go to get to the bus stop. After ~2 hrs of walking in the heat and dust, we finally caught the bus back to town.

Back at the hostel, we ran into Candice! She’d decided to stay in town for the Easter festivities. So, after a few hours to clean up and rest, Dave, Carrie, Mathieu (France), who’d we’d met at the hostel, and I went to the main plaza to met up with Candice and check out some live music. We didn’t find Candice but the four of us had fun listening to the Argentinean band (who’s name I can’t recall) then having a few beers at a nearby bar. The town was crowded but the vibe was festive and fun. Most of the crowd appeared to be Argentinean and Chilean. The next day was Easter so, Dave, Carrie, Coullaud, and I headed to the main plaza again to taste a piece of the world’s largest chocolate Easter egg. It was only 9am but everyone was out to enjoy a clear, sunny Easter day. The line for chocolate spanned several blocks along the main street, around the corner, down two blocks, around another corner, then along several more blocks along the waterfront. It was a long line. After a while, Coullaud left to go trekking but Candice joined us. During the wait, we chatted, did some good people-watching, and had some matte (traditional Argentinean tea) with our neighbors in line. After an hour and a half, we were rewarded with a large carton of chocolate which we ate sitting under a tree in the plaza. Honestly, the chocolate wasn’t that great (very sugary) but getting it was part of a fun day hanging with great friends and a great end to a fun time in Bariloche!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/zAxuEcfb8NLhRmDZ7

Enjoy!

On the way to Refugio San Martin.
The world’s largest homemade chocolate Easter egg!

Travel notes: recommend Punto Sur Hostel (friendly staff, free dinners on some nights) and The Hostel House (friendly staff, large communal kitchen); tap water in Bariloche and water in the national park is potable (no treatment needed).

Argentina: Rio Azul Natural Protected Area/El Bolson (Mar 25 to Apr 1, 2015)

How did I spend 7 days in El Bolson, Argentina? Well, after multiple days of amazing hiking but no/crappy wifi in El Chalten, Argentina (see previous post) and a 22+ hr bus ride to get from El Chalten to El Bolson, I spent the first day at my cozy hostel glued to my cell phone and tablet basking in good wifi and catching up with family and friends. But after that, trekking, of course!

El Bolson is a small town (population 13,000+) with a variety of restaurants, cervezarias, and shops. It’s known as a hippie town for the variety of hand-made crafts sold throughout town and at a permanent artisan market held three times a week. Given the lakes and mountains surrounding the town, El Bolson is most well known for fishing, rafting, climbing, and….trekking. While there, I trekked in the Rio Azul Natural Protected Area (part of the world’s largest UNESCO temperate forest biosphere reserve).

For my first trek, Yara (Israel), who I’d met at the hostel the night before, and I dayhiked up Cajon del Azul, located along the crystal-clear waters of the Rio Azul. From the trail, we could see smoke from the arson-set fire in Parque Nacional Los Alerces, south of El Bolson. Fortunately, the winds favored us and we couldn’t smell the smoke. Later that day, Dave (England), who I’d trekked with in Torres del Paine and El Chalten, arrived and we went out for a beer at one of El Bolson’s many cervezarias.

The next day, Dave, Luca (Italy), whom we met at the hostel, and I began a 4-day trek up the Arroyo del Teno river valley to the Hielo Azul glacier, over a steep ridge to Cajon del Azul, over another steep ridge to another river valley (Dedo Gordo?), then to Wharton, a small town north of El Bolson. Along this route, there are refugios, log and/or stone huts offering, at a minimum, a kitchen/common area with a wood-burning stove, bathrooms, drinking water, beds, and a campground. Some even offer hot showers, hot meals, and cerveza casera (home-made beer brewed onsite). On Day 1, we trekked to Refugio Hielo Azul, located in a gorgeous, picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. It was so lovely, we decided to dayhike in the area on Day 2 and stay there a second night. On Day 3, we trekked to Refugio Cajon del Azul where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, Dave and I bid farewell to Luca who was returning to El Bolson, and we continued on to Refugio El Retamal, also in a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. At each refugio, after we set up our tents and ate dinner at camp, we spent the rest of the evening in the warm, cozy hut playing dice games (Farkle and the Argentinean version, Cinco Mil) and drinking cerveza casera. Talk about luxury backpacking! On Day 4, we completed our trek and decided to hitch hike (a first for us both) back to town. With thumbs out, we started walking, stopping periodically to eat wild blackberries growing on the side of the road. Either we looked odd or none of the dozen cars that passed us where going to town because no one stopped or even slowed down. Finally, after an hour and a half of walking (this in addition to the miles of trail we’d walked earlier), we were picked up by a very nice Chilean couple on vacation. Thank goodness because we were still quite a ways from anything (i.e., bus stops, taxis, or phones).

Back in El Bolson, we decided to spend the last night in town at a hostel that also had a campground. It was like camping in a unkept city park (with small bits of trash, cigarette butts, and street dogs everywhere) but it was super cheap (about $8), the showers were hot, and there was good wifi in the reception area. As we walked into the hostel, I was very pleasantly surprised to see Chloe and Toby, an American couple I’d met at my hostel in Puerto Arenas (Chile) and had run into on the Torres del Paine trek (Chile) and in El Chalten (Argentina). They and their dog were on a multi-year road trip from California to the tip of Argentina and back. Later that night, Chloe, Toby, and Luca, came to our campsite and we spent the evening chatting, eating snacks, and drinking lots of good, cheap Argentinean wine. It was good times with good friends in a shitty little campground. Ha! And it was a great last night in El Bolson after trekking in the gorgeous mountains and valleys surrounding town.

Here’s a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/1b4xXkm7cwwfyRFLA

Enjoy!

2015-03-28 17.28.11

Travel notes: recommend La Casa de Arbol Hostel (good communal kitchen, friendly, helpful staff); don’t recommend Patagonia House Hostel (the camping area is trashy); bountiful beautiful veggies and fruit, tap water in El Bolson and river water in the natural area is potable (no treatment needed).

Argentina: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares/El Chalten (Mar 19 to 24, 2015)

How did I spend 6 days in El Chalten, Argentina, the self-proclaimed trekking capitol of the country? Trekking, of course! After a few days of rest in Puerto Natales, Chile, recuperating from the 9-day Torres del Paine trek (see previous post) and a 8-hr bus ride to get to El Chalten, I was ready to hit the trail. It turned out that Dave (UK), who I’d befriended on the Torres del Paine trek, was heading to El Chalten to hike as well, so we took the bus and trekked together. Besides being a charming small town (perm. population 1,100) with a variety of restaurants and cervezarias, El Chalten is located in the Rio de las Vueltas river valley and surrounded by mountains (hence the trekking and climbing reputation). After just a short walk from town, you enter Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (no entry fee and free camping) and have access to multiple trails. For our first hike, Dave and I dayhiked the 6.8-mi (11-km) Loma del Pliegue Tumbado trail, the only trail in the park where you can view the peaks of Las Torres (10,177 ft (3,103 m)) and Fitz Roy (11,171 ft (3,405 m)) together. From the mirador (view point), the panorama of snow-covered peaks, including the two famous peaks, was spectacular, only made better by the sight of Andean condors soaring overhead. The next day, we started a 3-day, ~22 mi (35 km) loop trek where we watched the numerous peaks, including the Las Torres and Fitz Roy peaks, light up with the rays of the rising sun. Spectacular! All this and we enjoyed amazing weather (sun, light wind, and no rain) during the entire stay in El Chalten! It was a much-needed respite from the cold, windy, wet weather we had in Torres del Paine and Puerto Natales. Back from the trek, I enjoyed the best homemade almond tart ever and spent the rest of that day and the next relaxing at my hostel, chatting with fellow travelers, planning my next destination with glasses of more good, cheap Argentinean wine, and enjoying the views surrounding the charming little town. It’s no wonder that El Chalten is a mecca for trekkers and rock climbers (yes, people climb those peaks!).

Here’s a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/jP2VvvThPnxygVUY8

Enjoy!

2015-03-20 16.10.04
View of the Las Torres and Fitz Roy peaks from the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado trail

Travel notes: recommend Travelers Hostel Patagonia (good communal kitchen and spaces, friendly staff, many large windows, great view); the panaderia about a block from the hostel on the opposite side of the street has an amazing almond tort (and other super yummy baked goods); recommend buying groceries, especially produce, elsewhere (cheaper, better selection and quality); tap water and water in El Chalten and in the park is potable (no treatment needed).