Emails from Abroad #15: Holidays in Cusco

Holiday season in Peru, 5 months of South American travel behind me; written from my “home base” of Cusco, December 13, 2013.  

“I’ve been in Peru for nearly 2 months and even more time has passed since my last email.  I’m sure with facebook at least most of you can rest assured knowing I’m alive if not a little sunburnt or hungover (or both).

“As it turns out, there is an outright plethora of things to do and see in this enormous country…who’da thought?  Peru is composed of desert, impressive mountain ranges, and amazonian jungle.  The landscape and climate change as quickly and drastically as the regional food and culture from one place to the next, and it has all proven beautiful and captivating…in every case worthy of the time spent there if not a little more.

“My friends and I ventured into Peru overland from Ecuador, stopping first in a northern beach town called Máncora.  At that point, I had roughly one week to get through the northern part of the country and all the way to Cusco in the Andes where I had a hostel and Inca trail adventure awaiting me.  It was a tall order, but I prioritized my activities and, to save a little time, booked a short flight from Lima to Cusco (a one-hour trip versus 21 hours on a bus).  After a whirlwind 10 days in Ecuador and plenty of beach time and parties, I decided to move on a few days ahead of some of my travel buddies to do a little hiking in La Cordillera Blanca, one of the aforementioned stunning mountain ranges.  Two days in Máncora was more than enough for me.

“Two friends accompanied me to Huaraz, the little town at the base of the mountains that serves as the jumping-off point for all the hiking in the region.  Located at about 3050m elevation (about 10,140 feet) it was a rude awakening after more than a week at sea level.  I’m not usually particularly susceptible to altitude sickness but this time around I definitely felt the effects, most notably punishing headaches that bordered on migraine-level pain.  However, due to our (my) time constraint, we had to make good use of our two full days and so decided to book two back-to-back day trips (my friends selflessly decided to keep pace with me, at least to Lima, and since it was quite rainy at the time nobody was very keen on doing the more demanding 4- or 8-day hikes in such miserable weather).

“Our first excursion was to a glacier named Pastoruri (a Quechua name…Quechua = Inca).  This trip only required about 1 hr 45 minutes of hiking, but since we STARTED this little hike at an elevation of 5000 meters (16,404 feet) and would top out at 5400m (17,716 ft) it was nevertheless a challenge.  I found myself dizzy and lightheaded, even seeing auras on occasion, more than this “strong, independent,” and proud little woman would like to admit.  And this was just our “warm-up” hike to prepare us for the longer day that followed.  In any case, we made it up to the glacier, snapped a load of silly photos and ate our sack lunches while admiring its grandeur and thanking the universe for the lovely sunny day.  The next day another travel buddy joined us for a longer hike that would lead us to one of the most stunning glacial lagoons I’ve ever seen.  This hike lasted about 5 hours round-trip and lead us through a much more varied landscape; green pastures, tall waterfalls and snowy mountain peaks were all around for our eyes to feast on.  Weather didn’t cooperate as well this day, however…upon arrival at our gorgeous turquoise-hued desination, Laguna 69 (numbered in the order they were discovered, so they say) we were greeted with a nasty hail storm.  Once it passed, the sun peeped out for a bit, we took our requisite million photos and started our descent.  A thunderstorm made the return trip interesting if not slightly terrifying, but we made it back to the van reeking of wet dog and self-satisfaction.

“One overnight bus later, we arrived at some insanely early-morning hour to the capital city of Lima.  An afternoon of wandering around the touristic area of Miraflores is all I could muster.  I put myself to bed early in order to wake up for my flight to Cusco the next day.  The flight went smoother than I could have hoped for, and I arrived at my hostel with 3 days to get my bearings and acclimate once again to the altitude of the city (3400 meters) before I started off on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

“Since I could write a veritable novel about my experience on the Inca trail, I will instead highlight the most important aspects, in list form:

1) The hike was much more challenging than I thought it would be, and if I had to do it over, I would hire the help of an extra porter.  It was a great accomplishment but I’m sure my body would thank me next time for not overestimating its abilities.
2) Weather was easily the most important factor in the “enjoyability” of this hike.  Not much to enjoy about a wall of fog in your face or rain soaking you to the bone for hours on end…some days were amazing, others were miserable.
3) The ruins at Machu Picchu were NOT in fact the best part of the trip for me.  I got much more satisfaction from completing the 4-day hike, building camaraderie with my hiking group and guides, and seeing the lesser-known ruins and stunning views along the trail (only 200 tourists are allowed on this particular trail per day…there is no limit to the number of people allowed at Machu Picchu).
4) If you ever have the opportunity to experience this, I highly recommend it (just avoid the rainy months of November-Feb if possible) and do plenty of research before choosing a tour company.

“Naturally, a much-needed rest period immediately followed the hike.  My friends had zipped around to other places in Southern Peru and made their way to Cusco so we could all spend Halloween together.  Cusco is a wonderfully lively little city with loads of culture and things to do…some may complain that it’s too touristy but there are plenty of ways to avoid that if you try.  For me, it’s no more touristy than, say, Chiang Mai.  Around the main Plaza de Armas, you will be constantly implored to spend your money on artisenal goods, services (massage, Miss?  manicure?) 5-course lunch menus or tours; on the other hand, walk 10 minutes in the opposite direction to encounter local food markets devoid of a single other gringo and replete with delicacies I’m far too weak stomached to ever try, much less look at/smell for long periods of time (think: chicken feet, any organ meat you can imagine, whole goat heads still containing teeth and tongues) or lunch menus costing a whopping 3 soles ($1 US).  I’ve come to know Cusco better than most places on my travels thus far and it was an easy choice when some of my Colombian traveling family suggested I ring in the new year in this Andean city.

“I’m back in Cusco now, getting comfortable and feeling incredibly thankful for the opportunity to lay low for awhile and not feel so rushed to cram every day full of activities.

“Hope your Thanksgiving holidays were wonderful, I’m really missing the holiday cheer of Christmas…Peru just isn’t as enthusiastic (over the top?) with the holiday decorations…gotta hand it to America on that one.”

SUP Mancora PeruStand-up paddling in Mancora, Peru!
IMG_5906Pretending to be energetic at 17,000ft.
IMG_6057 Laguna 69 near Huaraz, Peru.  Amazing hike!
DSC04102What it looks like when you don’t hire an extra porter on the Inca Trail!
IMG_6148Day three on the Inca Trail – the town of Aguas Calientes visible in the distance.
DSC04129We survived the Inca Trail!
DSC04049Cusco’s main plaza on a beautiful day.  A great place to call home for a few months.
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9 Little Essentials I’ll Never Travel Without Again

Compact.  Lightweight.  Versatile.

If every item I packed for my travels could be described using these exact three words, I’d be the World’s Most Efficient Packer and no doubt collect my Nobel Prize shortly thereafter.  They’d have to create a new category especially for me, but hey, I’d be worth it.

Unfortunately, ahem, packing hasn’t historically been my strong suit; with each new trip come new challenges, and I tweak and experiment even though I’m fairly sure I’ll never get it exactly right.  But learning from my past mistakes is inching me ever closer to packing nirvana, if such a thing exists.

In this process, I’ve discovered a handful of items I just can’t live without when I travel. Each one perfectly fits the bill of easy-to-pack and ultra-useful.  Some of these were ascertained through trial and error, others are suggestions from other travelers that make perfect sense to me, too. When I hit the road this September, you can be sure I’ll have each of these 9 tiny, practical items in tow.

1. Travel Journals
This may seem like a no-brainer to most people, but writing things down while traveling isn’t a habit I’ve cultivated to perfection yet, and I plan to change that.  All the little details that really bring travel stories to life will finally have a place to live that’s infinitely more reliable than my brain, which will certainly make this blogging business a lot smoother.  I like having different sizes for different occasions–the smaller one will come with me everywhere.
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2. Pocket Knife
Oh, the kilos upon kilos of fresh fruit I would have purchased if I’d only had the right utensil to prepare it!  Hostels cannot be relied upon to provide such necessities.  I won’t even mention the million other things a knife could come in handy for–I’m sure you can use your imagination–but I’d say fresh produce is easily my main concern.
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3. Corkscrew
Yes, I am THAT much of a wine-o that I’ve decided traveling with my own personal corkscrew is the only way to go.  I can no longer count with two hands the number of times I wish I’d had one of these babies (yes, many of those times were in Argentina), and again, hostels aren’t always prepared for this type of emergency.
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4. Handkerchief
This little cloth is the stuff of MacGyver’s dreams!  The uses for a handkerchief are absolutely endless.  Some ways I personally plan to use mine: lens cleaner for sunglasses, sweat towel, unwashed hair cover, face mask (when it’s dusty or polluted), fashion accessory.  MacGyver would probably make a time machine or something, that guy’s such a show-off.
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5. Folding Sun Hat
Let’s face it, hats are a bitch to travel with.

“Where do I put it?  Do I have to wear it ALL THE TIME?  In the airport?  On the bus?  It doesn’t stay on my head, or in my lap, and I can’t put it on the FLOOR!  It’ll get crushed in my bag!  Ahh fuck it, I’ll just leave it behind.”

                                                             -Me, last year (RIP fedora)

I’ve been searching high and low for a solution to this problem, because if there’s anything I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, it’s that SUN DAMAGE is REAL!  Protecting my face from damaging UV rays has become a top priority, so you can imagine the joy I felt when I stumbled upon this reversible, crushable, indestructible sun hat!  I can enjoy my time in the sun, then casually cram the hat back into my bag without worry (although this one came with a nice mesh bag to store it in).  And it’s not hideous! Win-win-win!
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6. Slippers
My long flights and bus rides are about to get soo much more comfortable with the addition of these soft and fuzzy slippers.  The pliable fabric means they’ll pack snugly pretty much anywhere, and on chilly nights and mornings my feet will stay toasty warm.
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7. Eye Mask
Fall asleep easily just about anywhere at any time of day with the help of this little accessory.  Blinded by the movie that’s playing on your bus?  Need an afternoon nap?  Obnoxious dorm roomies turning all the lights on when they get back to the hostel at 3am?  An eye mask is your new best friend.  A tiny investment in both price and space.
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8. Insulated Water Bottle
A water bottle is essential on the road, and this time I’m going to do it right.  The Hydro Flask company, which was launched right here in the Pacific Northwest (Bend, Oregon to be exact) has created a beautiful high-performance water bottle with double-walled vacuum insulation to keep your hot drinks hot (for 12 hours!) and your cold drinks cold (for 24 hours!).  Ya’ll know how I love my coffee and there’s nothing worse than a cold cup of joe–with my new Hydro Flask, I could make coffee at night and have it hot the next morning!  That’d be cool and gross at the same time.

What’s more, Hydro Flasks are BPA-free, and with their 5% Back program, a portion of your purchase can be donated to the charity of your choice.  Products that give back always get my vote.
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9. Joey
I fell in love with Joey, my little llama covered in 100% baby alpaca wool, when I was traveling through Arequipa, Peru.  Joey’s not one of those travel souvenirs that’s resigned to collecting dust on my shelf at home; he’s become my nightly bed buddy and I couldn’t imagine being on the road without him.  We all need that little something that comforts us during moments of homesickness, and for me, that’s Joey.  He may not be the most versatile item on this list, but could YOU say no to that face?
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What are your travel essentials?

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Emails from Abroad #14: Colombia to Ecuador

Letter to friends and family, two-and-a-half months into my South America trip; written from Quito, Ecuador, October 7th, 2013.

“It’s been just about 6 weeks since I left Venezuela.  I flew to Colombia with just a little trouble from the airline in Caracas…I didn’t have an onward or return ticket as I was planning to head over land to Ecuador, but was able to talk my way onto the flight anyway, promising I wouldn’t overstay my welcome in Colombia since I had to be in Peru by a certain date, etc.  I’m getting better at this.

“I flew into Cartagena, a lovely colonial city on the Caribbean, to find my friend Allison from Berkeley.  We got lucky and met some other really cool people in our respective hostels and ended up traveling as a group of 5 for the majority of my time in Colombia.  We spent 2 weeks on the coast, visiting the amazingly beautiful Tayrona National park and a few other little towns with gorgeous beaches.

From the coast, we bussed to Medellin, a beautiful city in a deep valley of the Northern Andes.  The bus journey was even colder than I could have ever imagined…worse than any bus I experienced in Venezuela.  The bus drivers claim they have no control over the air conditioning.  And of course they had a never-ending supply of horribly violent movies to show on the way.  These are the common themes of South American buses as far as I can tell.  The journey was worth it though, we loved Medellin and found it very difficult to leave.  We went there not knowing what to expect and ended up staying for nearly 2 weeks.  Great coffee, museums, parks, nightlife, amazing weather (it is known as ‘the city of eternal spring’)…Medellin has it all.  It was easily my favorite city in Colombia.

“After Medellin, we relaxed for a few days in Salento, a cute town in the coffee-growing region further south.  I went on a tour of a small family-owned coffee farm and learned a little about the production process from an adorable old man named Elias.  Allison was the first to leave the group from Salento, heading back north to catch a boat to the San Blas islands of Panama on her way back to the states.  Another group member went south to Cali, Colombia’s salsa capital, and me and the other 2 headed to Bogotá to stay with our Colombian friend Silvia, whom we met in Santa Marta on the coast.

“Staying with Silvia’s family in Bogota was amazing.  They were so welcoming and friendly, and genuinely interested in learning about us, where we come from and our experiences.  They put us up for 4 days over the weekend and Silvia showed us some great parts of the city.

“The last two in the group I had been traveling with, a pair of twins that coincidentally grew up in Berkeley, headed back to the states after Bogota.  I hopped on a bus to Cali for a few nights on my way to Ecuador.  I took a salsa class at the hostel, then headed to a nearby salsa club to be thrown around by a few guys who were much better dancers than me.  It was a good laugh anyway.

“I think this email is already unreasonably long so I’ll save the rest for the next one!  I’m currently in Ecuador and enjoying it a lot more than I expected, in part because I’ve run into a bunch of people I met in Colombia, including my travel buddy Katie.”

The start of some beautiful friendships in Cartagena. 
The dream team in Palomino on the Caribbean coast.
The dream team in Palomino on the Caribbean coast.
I left my heart in Medellin!I left my heart in Medellin!
Hiking through the coffee region of Salento.Hiking through the coffee region near Salento. 
Con la hermosa Silvia en Bogota!Con la hermosa Silvia en Bogota! 
Cali, the salsa capital.Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia.
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My Favorite (Free) Language Resources

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As you may know, a major life goal of mine is to one day be multi-lingual.  I have varying levels of proficiency in Spanish and Thai (much more Spanish than Thai) and the very basics in a few others, but I’m still far from fluent in any language but my own.

When you’re not fully immersed in the language, it’s not always easy to maintain the skills you already have, much less make improvements.  I’ve been home for four months now since leaving South America, so I’ve been forced to seek new ways to incorporate Spanish into my daily life.

And of course, as a traveler, I prefer to save my precious money for flights, buses, hotels, and other travel-related expenses, which is why I’ve gone to great lengths to find language learning resources that don’t cost me a dime.

I’ve listed my favorite free language resources here, and they’re great no matter what language you’re aiming to improve.

Duolingo – I haven’t been a Duolingo user for long, but I love the features it offers.  You simply choose the language you’d like to study from their extensive list, and get started on lessons that introduce you to new vocabulary, grammatical rules and structures, and useful phrases.  It quizzes you on the concepts you learn using multiple choice questions or by asking you to translate after reading or hearing a word or phrase.  If you’ve already studied a language and want to skip the basics, you can take a placement test before you begin.  They also employ spaced repetition, re-introducing vocabulary and concepts you haven’t seen in awhile to enhance your retention.  For a real challenge, you can study multiple languages simultaneously.

Anki – Anki is a very simple flashcard app.  Once downloaded to your computer, you create your own decks of flashcards and quiz yourself at your leisure.  Once you flip a card to reveal the answer (or translation) you can then choose how difficult the card was and the app will decide how soon you need to see it again.  If a card is very difficult, you’ll see it again before you’ve completed the deck.  Add as many cards and decks as you like, and the app will take care of the scheduling, i.e. how soon to introduce new cards and when to review those you’ve already seen.  Pretty nifty if you learn well with flashcards.

News publications – Reading the news in the language you want to learn is a fantastic way to expose yourself to useful new vocabulary.  Since you’ve probably heard many of the stories in your own language, you’ll be able to ascertain the meaning of many new words simply from context. Reading anything in another language is a great way to learn, but I personally don’t have many Spanish books lying around at home; news sites are available to me anytime (for free).  My preferred online news source for practicing Spanish is Reuters América Latina.

Podcasts – This is my most recently acquired resource and probably my favorite.  My listening comprehension is reprehensible, so listening to people speaking and explaining in thorough detail the use of idioms and colloquial phrases is exactly what I need.  The free podcasts available on iTunes are very basic and not quite what I was looking for, but after a quick Google search I stumbled upon Spanishpodcast.org.  There are nearly 200 audio lessons, each with a different topic.  A woman introduces the topic and a short dialogue between two people, then spends 20-30 minutes breaking down the conversation piece by piece.  For me, it is the perfect level.  Podcasts in your language are our there, too!

Google Translate – Though not always accurate when translating long phrases or complex tenses, Google Translate is super handy in a pinch when you just need to translate one or a few words.  I keep it open in a separate tab when I’m reading Reuters, for instance, instead of wasting time flipping through a bulky dictionary to look up words.

Native speakers – Conversations with native speakers will always be my preferred method of practicing a language, but if you’re not in the country where the language you’re trying to learn is spoken, native speakers can be hard to come by.  I’m lucky to live in an area with a huge Latino population, I just need to get out of my comfort zone more often and default to Spanish whenever possible.  If the language you’re learning is less common, try eavesdropping more often when you’re out and about and when you overhear someone speaking it, politely explain that you’re trying to practice and they’ll more than likely be happy to converse with you a bit.  (That’s a little tip from one of my idols, a guy called Benny the Irish Polyglot–the man speaks 10 languages fluently and didn’t even start learning them until he was 21–he knows what he’s talking about!  Pun intended.)

How do you practice foreign languages?  What are some other free resources I haven’t mentioned?

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Climbing Venezuela’s Mount Roraima – Part 2

When we left off in Part 1, our group of five along with our guides Jose and Roni, had just summited Mount Roraima after a grueling battle with the Trail of Tears on day 3 of our 6-day trek.  We were sure the physical exertion was over for that day.  We were wrong.

Day 3, Continued: Oh yes please!  Let’s walk some more!  I’m not half dead or anything.

We reached the summit of Roraima at around lunch time, so we had the entire afternoon…to continue exploring.  We headed to our nearby campsite, one of many “hotels” near the summit entrance that would provide us with natural protection from the elements.  The top of Roraima is prone to harsh weather conditions, so we needed a place to shield us from rain and wind that could set in at a moment’s notice.  Ours, named Hotel Indio, was a shallow cave that faced southwest and provided us with a fabulous view of Tepui Kukenan.

Hotel Indio

Hotel Indio

Our guides deftly threw together our camp in a matter of minutes and then asked if we’d like to spend the rest of the afternoon walking to some pools where we’d be able to swim and bathe–a roughly two-hour trip.  My legs screamed no, but my body odor screamed yes.  The rest of the group was enthusiastic about this idea, so off we went.

Mount Roraima and the other tepuis of South America are some of the world’s oldest geological formations, dating back some 2 billion years.  Only a small number of plants and animals have been able to survive the summit’s harsh conditions–wind and rain easily sweep soil over the cliffs, so plants are forced to cling to life in cracks and crevices where a small amount remains–and because the summit is so difficult to reach, new species are rarely introduced.  A species of amphibian endemic to the tepuis, el sapito negro (black toad) has hardly evolved over the years; the toad is roughly the size of a thumbnail and crawls awkwardly instead of hopping like his contemporary counterparts.  Many of the plants have a rather prehistoric look about them as well.  We encountered many of these fascinating creatures on our walk to the pools.

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The crystalline pools, while a beautiful sight to behold, contained the coldest water I’ve ever dared enter.  I’m not a fan of cold showers, so you can imagine that immersing myself completely in freezing water wasn’t the most enjoyable activity.  Others in the group plunged enthusiastically as soon as we arrived.  On the bright side, the sun was out which made for relatively quick drying.

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Once back at the campsite and with the excitement of the day officially over, we admired our scenery as the sun sank and whispered encouragements to our throbbing legs. Bedtime was even earlier now that we were on the summit; the temperature plunged as soon as daylight hours ended and we had no choice but to take refuge in our tents.

Day 4: Finding Punto Triple

On day 4, I woke up to the greatest surprise of the whole trip…COFFEE!  No more hot chocolate or herbal infusions parading around as caffeinated beverages.  They finally made me REALLL COFFEEEE and I sucked it down greedily, then asked for more. I immediately felt a new rush of energy that I knew I’d need to make it through the day. The beautiful weather we were dealt once again was a nice treat, too.

Morning on the summit.

Morning on the summit.

The goal of day 4 was to make the long trek–8 hours round-trip–to Punto Triple, or the exact spot on Roraima where the borders of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil meet.  Of course there would be plenty to see on the route there and back, but this was the main goal.

As we set out, a light breeze and heavy fog rolled in and obscured our views giving the mountain that mysterious, otherworldly look the makers of Up so masterfully recreated. We weaved our way between strange, towering rock formations, many of which bear striking resemblance to familiar shapes and have been giving identifying names. The only ones I can remember now are the Flying Turtle and the Valley of Penises, the latter we unfortunately didn’t get to see (womp womp).

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The Flying Turtle.

The Flying Turtle.

We walked for what felt like an eternity to my tired legs, up and over hills, down through expansive valleys, stopping occasionally for water and snacks.  I remained cold for most of the day despite the vigorous activity.  Another attraction on our way to Punto Triple was a valley overflowing with quartz crystals, aptly named Crystal Valley. We stopped for an early lunch in this valley to find shelter from the relentless wind.

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Just after lunch, we walked another 20 minutes or so to finally reach our destination, Punto Triple.  A tall white structure stands at the location, designated BV-0 (the Brazil/Venezuela boundary code) and each side is adorned with the name of the country it faces.  The Guyana side was in poor repair, but Brazil and Venezuela were easily identifiable.  The point was established by the border commissions of each country over the course of several expeditions to the mountain in the early 1900s; the point as it stands now was officially established in 1935.

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Our final stop before making the long trek back to camp was a large sinkhole nearby, El Foso (The Pit).  The brave ones took the 20-ft plunge into the chilly water at the bottom of the pit (everyone but me and the guides) as I wandered and snapped photos.

El Foso.

El Foso.

We hopped streams and performed various gymnastic stunts over the remaining obstacles on the way back to camp.  Exploring Roraima without a guide would be certain suicide; there are no clear trails and with the constant fog it is easy to become disoriented and deep valleys sometimes appear out of nowhere.  Many a misstep and stumble were had by all of us, and sustaining a serious injury on top of this isolated mountain would be disastrous.

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We made it through four days uninjured, and our last night on top of Roraima was beautiful and serene.  Only wispy clouds drifted in and out of view, and our sunset remained mostly unobscured.  We were excited to begin our descent the next day, and after a hearty and impressive-considering-the-circumstances dinner of steaming lentil soup, we each drifted off into our own deep slumber, exhausted from the day’s activities.

Day 5: The Descent

To be honest, day 5 was a bit of a blur.  We would be descending all the way to our very first camp, leaving only 3 hours of walking for day 6.  We were less enthusiastic about stopping for photos, but I did get one final shot from La Puerta de Roraima (Roraima’s door).

La Puerta de Roraima.

La Puerta de Roraima.

We quickly stopped for lunch at base camp and powered through the afternoon to reach camp number one next to the river Tok.  Luckily, the rivers were considerably lower on our return making the crossings much easier.

The view we didn't have on the hike up.

Saying goodbye to Roraima and the view we didn’t have on the hike up.

The two tepuis, Kukenán on the left, Roraima on the right.

The two tepuis, Kukenán on the left, Roraima on the right.

We made it to our final camp in the middle of the afternoon and spent a bit of time playing around in the river and washing what we could of our filthy clothes.  John and I purchased some warm beers from the one of the little mud huts and toasted our successful journey.

Looking GOOOOD after 5 days of hiking.

Looking GOOOOD after 5 days of hiking.

Later that night, our guides surprised us one final time by presenting us with a bottle of local whiskey (the stop at the liquor store finally made sense) and we spent the whole evening celebrating together and sharing stories of our travels.

Day 6: The Real Hardest Day

I know what you’re thinking: Day 6 was just a few hours walking over mostly flat ground, right?  How could it have possibly been the hardest?

The challenge of day 6 was 100% mental.  I knew we only had about 3 hours of hiking to reach our final destination, but the screaming pain in my legs was no longer so easy to ignore.  I wanted it to be over before it had even begun.  I lagged behind the group by several strides for much of the walk.  The sun was beating, I was sweating profusely and refused to speak to anyone.  At the halfway point, I popped my headphones in, put my head down and powered on as fast as my little legs would carry me.

When we could finally see our end-point of Paraitepui in the distance, we became hysterical with joy and practically skipped up and down the last few hills.  We reached town and collapsed into a worthless sweaty pile of bodies on the cold cement floor of the park ranger’s office.  We stretched and massaged every possible muscle as they checked our bags to make sure we hadn’t removed any precious stones from Roraima.

Just as we were given the all-clear, the driver from the tour agency appeared from nowhere with a case of COLD BEER and fresh watermelon, and a fresh round of happy sobs ensued.

Upon arrival back in Santa Elena, we profusely thanked our incredible guide and porter and presented them a generous tip, then exchanged many hugs and said our goodbyes. Though we were glad it had come to an end, we were in awe of our accomplishment and the incredible beauty of Mount Roraima; it was worth every ounce of pain and an experience none of us would ever forget.

Have I convinced you to climb Mount Roraima?  What’s the best trek you’ve ever done?

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Climbing Venezuela’s Mount Roraima – Part 1

In August of 2013, upon completing four weeks of a volunteer placement with La Fundacion Aldeas de Paz in Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela, I was presented with a unique opportunity to visit one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks.

I had two options: I could either brave rickety planes, tiny river boats, and a hike through the jungle on a 3-day trip to Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, or put my hiking prowess to the test on a brutal 6-day trek to the top of Mount Roraima, the country’s largest table mountain.

Because Venezuela doesn’t usually find itself on travelers’ lists of must-see countries in Latin America (the relative political instability and unfavorable statistics of crime and violence compared to the rest of the continent may have something to do with this), I was excited by both of my prospects because either one would be an experience not everyone and their mother would be boasting about when I hopped on the Gringo Trail later that month.

I’d gone to Venezuela thinking with utmost certainty that Angel Falls would be THE tourist destination I’d squeeze in after volunteering and, initially, didn’t even know Mount Roraima existed as an option.  I didn’t have time for more than one trip before my flight to Colombia, so after learning of Roraima and a few other options (including the Orinoco River Delta and Los Llanos, both excellent for wildlife spotting), I suddenly had a tough decision to make.

The Orinoco River Delta was a fleeting thought when I learned it was home to pink river dolphins, but being so far from where I was based made it a less realistic option.  I easily narrowed my choices back down to Angel Falls or Mount Roraima.

I soon realized that for most of the other volunteers, if seeing these natural wonders was a matter of choosing one or the other, Roraima nearly always won.  I watched several groups stumble back to the foundation grounds after the trek looking like they’d just been to war (and lost) and wondered to myself what could possibly be so appealing about this tepui, this table mountain named Roraima.

They were sore, they were exhausted, they were battered, bruised, and blistered; they developed bulging elephant legs and feet from the severe edema that resulted from walking, hiking and climbing for up to 7 hours a day for six straight days.

Equal parts alarmed and intrigued, I asked a fellow volunteer for some final clarification. “Angel Falls or Roraima?”  The answer I received was simple enough:  “Roraima.  There’s absolutely nothing like it.”

Then, he showed me some photos.  The discussion ended right then and there; my decision was made–I was climbing Mount Roraima.

With some luck, three others from the foundation were willing and able to do the trek at the same time as me, so we arranged it in town with a man from Caracas named Francisco who ran a tourism agency and gave discounts to volunteers from Aldeas de Paz.  We got an incredible price for the tour, and after hammering out some details with him (one of our members, John, is a vegetarian and had to make sure he’d be fed adequately, and I had to make sure we’d have plenty of coffee every day of the trek; he assured us both would be taken care of) the day of our departure arrived before we knew it.

Day 1: The Easy Day

The morning we began our trek, we met Francisco and our guides in Santa Elena around 9am.  I’d packed my bag with the bare essentials since we’d each be carrying our own clothing, snacks, water, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.  The advice I’d been given from other volunteers was to bring enough clothes to always have something dry to put on in the morning (most importantly dry socks) and plenty of warm clothes to sleep in, as nights on the summit could be downright freezing in stark contrast to the heat of the days.

We loaded our things onto the Land Rover as we made acquaintance with our guide and porter, two locals and native Pemón (a people indigenous to Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana) and also brothers.  The older of the two and the official guide, José, was 21; the younger of the two, our porter Roni (who’d be carrying six days’ worth of food and and all necessary cooking gear and tents) was a mere 15 years old.  We greeted our 5th hiking companion as well, a tall, amicable, and permanently-grinning Brazilian named Eloir.

On our way out of town, we made a final brief pit stop at a liquor store which befuddled us at the time, but hey, we were just along for the ride.  Francisco handed us each a cold beer through the window (even the 15-year-old porter, who politely declined) and bid us farewell.

The Aldeas de Paz crew: Juliet, John, me, Josh.  Ready for ADVENTURE!

The Aldeas de Paz crew: Juliet, John, me, Josh. Ready for ADVENTURE!

Finally on our way to the Pemón village of Paraitepui, our starting point, we cracked open our 10am beers and shouted a collective “Salud!”  One of us may or may not have laughed nervously and wondered what she had just gotten herself into, but the feeling may or may not have passed with a few sips of Polar Ice.

Salud!

Salud!

Upon arrival at Paraitepui, we had our first in a series of basic-but-impressive-considering-the-circumstances meals, signed in as guests of the National Park, and were informed of the strict rules prohibiting the removal of ANYTHING from the park.  Not only would we receive a large fine if we tried to lift even the tiniest stone, but the guide would be personally responsible for carrying it all the way back to its place of origin.  Our guide implored us to respect the rule.

The first day of the hike would only require 3-4 hours of walking, depending on our pace, to reach the first campsite.  The overcast weather as we set out was rather favorable, as we were crossing nothing but open savannah that would otherwise provide no reprieve from the beating sun.  The only unfortunate part was that we could not see Roraima in the distance as the mountain was entirely covered by rain clouds.

The start of our relatively easy day of hiking.

Leaving Paraitepui at the start of our relatively easy day of hiking.

The whole group in front of a cloud-shrouded Roraima.

The whole group in front of a cloud-shrouded Roraima.

The sun came and went, light rain came and went.  We stopped at the halfway point and our guide provided a snack of creme-filled cookies, which we happily devoured.

We reached the camp in precisely the amount of time estimated, about 3.5 hours.  We wandered to the nearby river to fill up our water bottles and attempt a quick “shower.”  The water was too cold for me and the sun was going down which meant the temperature would soon drop, so I gave my face and armpits a splash and called it a day.

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Our first camp site, the only one we shared with other hiking groups.

Our camp was very basic, nothing more than a clearing and a handful of mud huts.  There was no electricity after a certain hour, so we relied on our headlamps to illuminate our pre-dinner conversations.  After a filling spaghetti dinner, we watched fireflies dance all around us and a lightning show that indicated an oncoming storm.  We crawled into our tents no later than 10 or so, knowing full well the physical exertion would only get more intense in the days that followed.

Day 2: Uphill From Here

We awoke on day 2 as the first rays of sun began warming the tent around 6am.  A glorious breakfast of fried arepas with cheese was served at 6:45 along with hot chocolate, NOT coffee as I had very specifically requested.  I decided against saying something but a small part of me died in anticipation of the caffeine withdrawal headaches that would set in later that day.  We packed up the last of our things after breakfast and started our hike by a very respectable 7:15.

In less than 5 minutes we approached our first obstacle, the first of two rivers we’d have to cross that day where we had “bathed” the night before.  The Río Tok wasn’t the mightiest of rivers, but it was just fast enough to look a bit daunting, especially while carrying a large pack.  We removed our shoes but kept our socks on for traction as instructed, shimmied our pants up as high as they’d allow (mine didn’t go quite high enough) and teetered through the water one-by-one, our guides effortlessly prancing from rock to rock to provide support along the way.  I tossed my shoes to the opposite bank to free up both hands in case of a fall, but made it across without incident.  Since we’d be crossing a second river within the hour, we stuffed our drenched feet back into our shoes and continued on.

Crossing el Río Tok.

Crossing el Río Tok.

We came to the second river crossing, el Río Kukenan.  This river was easily four times as wide as the last and twice as deep at some parts.  I silently thanked Francisco for the plastic bag liners he’d given us to keep our belongings dry inside our backpacks and attempted to pump myself up for the task at hand.  Finding the largest and most stable rocks to walk across was no easy feat.  Our guides once again pranced across the river nimbly to drop off what they were carrying and came back to assist the rest of us.  I ended up waist-deep in the rapid current and at several times was nearly pulled backward by the weight of my pack.  I managed to keep from panicking just long enough to reach the opposite shore where I became acutely aware of my heightened pulse and rapid breathing; adrenaline was coursing through my veins.  Having had a few scary experiences in rivers as a teenager, rivers and I are not exactly on great terms.  I was ecstatic to have completed this part of the trek and to leave it behind.

The second river crossing, el Río Kukenán.

The second river crossing, el Río Kukenán.

Soaked and victorious!

Soaked and victorious!

Up, up and up through savannah we went as we inched closer to the base of Roraima where we’d find camp number two.  We attempted to take our minds off the burning we were now feeling in our legs as we ascended by playing various word games; it provided entertainment, but relief, not so much.  The weather was still overcast and Roraima was still hidden except for the very bottom of the limestone cliffs that sprung up from the base.  The immense size of the mountain was becoming apparent and our excitement grew accordingly.

Nearly to base camp and still no clear view of the mountain.

Nearly to base camp and still no clear view of the mountain.

We arrived at “base camp” after about 5 hours of climbing.  Since we’d gotten such an early start on the day, it was only lunch time and the rest of the afternoon we were free to relax and take in the beauty of the mountain as the rain finally relented and we were given our first glimpse of the impressive beast we were going to attempt to summit the next day.

The big reveal!  My friend was right, I sure as hell had never seen anything like this.

The big reveal! My friend was right, I sure as hell had never seen anything like this.

The weather couldn't have been better.

The weather couldn’t have been better.

The views from base camp were absolutely breathtaking.  The rain created several temporary waterfalls that spilled over the sides of the mountain creating a look very similar to Angel Falls.  We were also right next to another large tepui, Kukenán (like the river) which was stunning in its own right.  Everywhere we looked there was beauty.

Breathtaking.

Breathtaking.

Tepui Kukenán to the west.

Tepui Kukenán to the west.

After bathing in a river so cold it caused instant numbness, we warmed ourselves in the sun and prepared for an early bedtime.  We bundled up for the cold night that was settling in and ate another lovely dinner around 8pm.  With the disappearance of the sun came the emergence of dinosaur-sized mosquitos, but luckily the only exposed skin I had to defend was my face, as I was swaddled head-to-toe like a newborn to keep warm.  We retired to our tents after a few short stories kindly read aloud to us by John, the only one with enough foresight to bring a Kindle.  I fell asleep that night wearing every last piece of dry clothing I had.

Day 3: Reaching The Summit

The third day of the trek was widely regarded by Roraima veterans as the most difficult day of all.  That day, we would have to hike through dense jungle to reach the entrance to La Rampa, a natural ramp up the side of the mountain that serves as the only non-technical access route to the summit.  The path to La Rampa and La Rampa itself were much steeper than anything we’d climbed so far.

Luckily, we awoke that day to the most beautiful clear blue skies we’d had yet, providing us with unbelievable views of the mountains and of La Gran Sabana (the great savannah) down below.

Clear blue skies!

Clear blue skies!

Recovering from the freezing overnight temps in the morning sunshine and ready to take on the day!

Recovering from the freezing overnight temps in the morning sunshine and ready to take on the day!

As we ascended, we clamored over rocks, streams, branches and roots, while the view of the savannah got more and more impressive.  We stopped often for breaks and creme-filled cookies to keep morale high.  We emphatically quoted various parts of the Pixar movie Up (which was based on Mount Roraima and Angel Falls), doing our best snipe impressions in between shouts of “Adventure is out there!”

A jungly ascent.

A jungly ascent.

Our first encounter with Roraima's limestone face was exhilarating!

Our first encounter with Roraima’s limestone face was exhilarating!

The view!

The view!

Our climb was definitely slowed further by the constant need to pause for photos.  We just couldn’t believe what we were seeing, so it seemed necessary to bring back proof of our journey to convince family and friends it actually happened.

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But seriously, is this real life?

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The weather gods were so good to us!

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Smiling through the soreness.

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It’s really remarkable that I looked so sweat-free.  Don’t be fooled.

We exchanged apprehensive glances as we surveyed our final steep ascent, aptly named “El Camino de Lágrimas” (the Trail of Tears), and rallied for the last push to the summit.

The dreaded Trail of Tears.

The dreaded Trail of Tears.

My knees ached, I was drenched in sweat, and my caffeine headache had progressed to near migraine-level pain (still no coffee).  The last ascent took every ounce of determination I could muster.  It was more climbing at this point than hiking and required use of my arms as much as my legs.  I began using physics to my advantage and allowed the momentum of my backpack to carry my upper body up and over the towering boulders.

Light clouds rolled in and a light breeze picked up as I hoisted myself up to the flat, barren top of the mountain.  Freeing myself from my sweat-drenched backpack as fast as my shaking hands would allow, I tossed it down and walked gingerly to the edge of the beast I had just conquered and surveyed my kingdom below.  A maniacal laugh bubbled up from inside me and eventually gave way to a triumphant howl.  I felt equal parts victorious and incredulous.

First view from the summit.

First view from the summit.

As the rest of the group summited, we gathered to congratulate each other on our accomplishment.  Our guides provided us with a welcome lunch and we were left to recuperate and marvel at our unbelievable surroundings for a bit before heading to camp.

Victorious.

Victorious.

Incredulous.

Incredulous.

The adventure doesn’t end there!  To be continued…

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Emails from Abroad #13: Livin’ La Vida Venezolana

First update from South America at the end of a one-month volunteer placement in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela.  Written, miraculously, with the shittiest internet connection I’ve had the misfortune of relying on, August 12th, 2013.

“I’m nearing the close of my first month in South America!  It’s been nothing short of an incredible experience so far and this email will surely not do it justice.

“In contrast to my experience in Thailand, I came to South America looking to do a bit more traveling initially and potentially jump back into teaching English only after I’d played tourist for awhile and if I stumbled upon a place I liked well enough to live for awhile.  I also thought volunteering would be a good way to better get to know a city/culture, so after a bit of research I settled on Venezuela and an organization called Aldeas de Paz as a good jumping-off point for my travels.

“I applied for a volunteer placement with ADP’s Youth Care and Community program and flew to Caracas direct from Miami on July 17th, after a week getting to know Florida a bit with my good friend Jen.  As you probably know, Venezuela and Caracas are not entirely politically stable at the moment following the recent death of Hugo Chavez, however ADP is located as far from Caracas as you can probably get in Venezuela in a border town called Santa Elena de Uairén.  The region is known to be drastically safer than most other parts of the country and I feel quite comfortable here.

“I did have my concerns when I arrived in Caracas, as this is the first time I’m doing all my traveling entirely solo, so I arranged for a pick-up service from the airport and was taken directly to a hotel on the coast for one night and then to the Caracas bus terminal the next day to wait for my 22-hour bus to Santa Elena.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of most of the Venezuelans I’ve met so far.  After about 7 years of latency my Spanish was rusty to say the least, but I managed to make a few friends in my 4-hour wait in the bus station.  The older gentleman taking tickets at the gate kindly watched my giant backpack so I didn’t have to struggle into the bathroom with it; a woman working in one of the cafes gave me my food and coffee for free, taught me the difference between an empanada and a pastelito and the proper way to eat them, and offered to put English subtitles on the movie she was playing so I wouldn’t be bored waiting.  Another friendly guy chatted me up about anything and everything and even showed me the larger-than-life and surprisingly accurate portrait of Che Guevara tattooed on his back. Not everyone had such positive experiences at this bus station so maybe I was just due for some good luck.

“I arrived in Santa Elena more-or-less on schedule and was received by ADP’s German founder, Manfred and his half-Venezolana daughter, Nilaya.  I was given a tour of the foundation grounds and a brief orientation before we all loaded into the car to jump over the Brazilian border to Pacaraima so people could get money out of the ATMs over there. One of the first things I learned here is that there is a huge black market for any foreign currency…the official exchange rate from a Venezuelan bank will give you around 5 or 6 Bolívares Fuertes (BsF) to one USD, but on the street you can get up to 30.  The same is true for Brazilian Real, which makes for regular trips across the border.  Petrol is also a hot commodity here; it is Venezuela‘s primary export and costs exactly 100x less in Santa Elena than it does just across the border in Brazil, so trying to fill your car up usually involves waiting in line at the gas station for several hours in lines of 30 or more cars.

“The primary beneficiaries of ADP are the children and families of some of Santa Elena’s more impoverished neighborhoods.  They are given classes on a variety of topics and extracurricular activities like sports and horseback riding.  I arrived just before the start of a 4-week summer term with about 20 children ranging from 5 to 14 years old.  I teach 1-2 hours from Monday to Thursday, usually with another volunteer, and help with the other activities as needed.  The classes are mostly in Spanish but we teach them English vocabulary where possible.  The kids are very high-energy and have been easy to form relationships with, so I’ve been enjoying myself a lot.

“Outside of volunteer hours, everyone has some daily/weekly tasks to complete (cleaning, cooking, etc), meetings most weekday afternoons and Spanish lessons.  On the weekends (weather permitting) we explore the areas around Santa Elena and usually find a cool hike or waterfall.  Last weekend, a group of volunteers decided to pay a visit to an indigenous village called Chirikayen, which ADP also works with and usually has at least one volunteer living there with a local family.  We got to see a really remote part of the country in the middle of Canaima National Park, and hiked to one of Venezuela‘s famous table mountains (Tepui Chirikayen).

“The summer course will finish this Thursday, and Friday the 16th is the official last day of my volunteer placement.  Me and a few others will leave Saturday to make the 6-day trek to Venezuela‘s biggest and most famous tepui, Mount Roraima (fun fact: the Disney movie ‘Up’ was based on Roraima and Angel Falls, also in VZ and the world’s tallest waterfall).

“The plan after Venezuela is to spend a month or more in Colombia- I fly into Cartagena on August 27th and am hoping to meet up with a friend from Berkeley there.  Looking forward to some quality beach time on the Caribbean coast and would also like to do some diving, maybe get my advanced open water certification.

“Wellll I think that covers it for now!  Missing everyone very much, and even though I’m closer to home this time I feel more homesick than I ever did in Thailand, so please write me and let me know how you’re all doing.”

My first day in South America.  Macuto, Venezuela.

My first day in South America. Macuto, Venezuela.

Cooperative living at Aldeas de Paz.

Cooperative living at Aldeas de Paz.

A night out in Pacaraima, Brazil with fellow volunteers.

A night out in Pacaraima, Brazil with fellow volunteers.

Indigenous village of Chirikayen.

Indigenous village of Chirikayen.

Hiking to Tepui Chirikayen.

Hiking to Tepui Chirikayen.

First time sleeping in a hammock in Chirikayen.

First time sleeping in a hammock in Chirikayen.

A day hike to a river near ADP grounds with our students.

A day hike to a river near ADP grounds with our students.

I probably won’t volunteer again in the future.  Have you been a volunteer in a developing country?  Was your experience good or bad?

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