Tuesday 12 May 2015

Pit Stop in Costa Rica

We'd decided to finish our time in Latin America with a stop in Costa Rica as a bit of a “vacation” from our sometimes hectic and strenuous South America backpacking. On April 21st, almost six months after arriving in Santiago Chile, we hopped on a flight from Lima Peru to San Jose Costa Rica.

We had a rental car waiting for us at the airport, and quickly headed southwest to Dominical on the Pacific coast. About 18 months earlier we had visited Dominical and purchased a small piece of property. It was just an empty lot and would be for some time, but we were looking forward to getting back and visiting what would someday be our getaway from the long Yukon winters.

Sunset over the Pacific near Dominical.

Friday 17 April 2015

Peru - Ausangate Trek

The final big trek of our year off was the one that had been on our wish list the longest – Ausangate. The trek winds around the mountain of the same name. Ausangate is the highest mountain in southern Peru at  20,945’ and is a sacred mountain or Apu, in Incan mythology.  When we visited Peru back in 2008 we heard about the hike just southeast of Cusco, but didn’t have the time to do it. We brought home a topo map though, and finally made it there in 2015.

We were rapidly running out of time, so we caught a flight from Huaraz to Lima, then another onto Cusco. We spent a day in Cusco buying food for the hike, then were up early the next morning to catch the 6:15 bus to the small town of Tinki, just over three hours away. This was the lowest point on the trek at 12,437’.

As the dirt road gently climbed out of Tinki, the houses thinned out and the rain started. A black dog hanging around the back of a house spotted us and began following us, then shortly after that, another dog joined us. Despite out best attempts to shoo them both away, we remained a foursome for the rest of the day.

We enjoyed a bit of sun in the afternoon, and managed to get our tent set up and cook dinner near the tiny village of Upis before the rain and darkness arrived. We completely ignored the two dogs’ hungry looks and figured the lack of food combined with the cold rain would discourage them from sticking around. We were half right.

The little village of Upis, with Nevado Ausangate in the distance.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Peru - Alpamayo Trek

 After completing the Santa Cruz trek we took a few days to clean up and relax before heading out again. It was also an opportunity to plan our last three weeks in Peru. Losing ten days to illness meant we wouldn’t be able to fit in everything we hoped to do, and in the end we decided to focus on trekking. This meant cutting out a second visit to Machu Picchu (we were there in 2008) as well as several other destinations. But given we were already fully acclimatized to the high elevation and in good hiking shape, and the undeniable fact that we weren’t getting any younger, this seemed like a good time to knock off two very difficult hikes we’d been talking about for years.

First up was the Alpamayo Base Camp trek. This is actually just north of the Santa Cruz trek we’d just completed, and is sometimes done in combination with it. We left Huaraz on the 7:00 AM bus and after an eight hour death defying ride back over to the east side of the Cordillera Blanca, we arrived in Pomabamba where we found a hostel and a good roast chicken dinner. The next morning we were up early again for a 6:00 AM collectivo ride up to the tiny village of Jancapampa where we started our hike. Just like the Santa Cruz trek, the Alpamayo runs west across the width of the Cordillera Blanca to Hualcayan, just north of the Santa Cruz endpoint of Cashapampa. It’s a much more difficult hike though.

Almost twice as long at about 90 kms, Alpamayo also includes five passes over 14,700’. Our starting point in Jancapampa was 11,500’ and this would be the lowest we’d be until we approached Hualcayan at the other end. From Jancapampa we wandered up the valley of the same name for a couple of hours until we reached the start of the serious climbing towards the Yanacon Pass at just over 15,000’. We stopped a couple of hours short of the pass as the inevitable afternoon rains came. We’d scheduled six days of hiking and an off day to cover the 90 kms, and our decision to finish the day shy of the pass meant we’d have to do two passes in one of our remaining days, or sacrifice our off day.
Looking up the Jancapampa valley.

Monday 30 March 2015

Peru - Santa Cruz Trek

After our visit to the Ecuadorian cloud forest, the next item on our itinerary was way down in Huaraz Peru, reputedly the home of the best trekking in the world outside of the Himalayas. We had plans to meet our friend Ron in Huaraz and do some hiking together. We'd already spent a fair bit of time travelling north through Ecuador up to Quito, so we decided to head south as quickly as possible to maximize our trekking time in Peru. This did not end well.

First we caught a bus from Quito all the way down to Trujillo Peru. We left Quito at 6:00 PM on March 12th, and finally arrived in Trujillo at 2:00 AM on March 14th - thirty two hours later. After five hours sleep, we hung around Trujillo for the day before catching the first available bus to Huaraz leaving at 10:00 PM and arriving at 5:30 AM the next morning. A couple of hours later we were sharing coffee and breakfast with Ron with amazing views of the Cordillera Blanca, the world's highest tropical mountain range. This was the high point of our first ten days in Huaraz.

All that time on buses with very little sleep caught up to us. By that evening, I had a very sore throat. The next day a painful cough, fever and intermittent chills kicked in. The first three days were the worst, by which time Cyd began experiencing the same symptoms. We spent ten days in Huaraz before we both felt good enough to actually start hiking. With the patience of Buddha, Ron hung around the hostel day after day and ventured out for a meal with whoever felt up to it. He enquired about our health regularly, and never once checked the date on his watch while doing so. With only six weeks for his entire visit to Peru, Ron finally gave up after a full week of waiting, and miraculously made it out of town without catching our bug.

When we finally felt up to it, Cyd and I started by doing the Santa Cruz trek. It's the most popular trek in the area and being only a four day hike, was a relatively easy start after being sick. On the bright side, we were well prepared for the high elevations after acclimatising for ten days before starting to hike. The Santa Cruz trek is in the Parque Nacional Huascaran, about 50 kms long, with only one major pass to climb.

We caught two collectivos (minivans that in Canada would hold twelve passengers, but in South America hold an unlimited number), first to Yungay, then over the mountains to Vaqueria. By 10:30 AM, we were on the trail heading back in the direction we came. While parks in Peru prohibit industrial development, they continue to allow local residents to use the land. Every area we hiked in Peru was populated by horses, cows, and alpacas grazing in the alpine meadows.
After a short standoff, Cyd decided to take a detour off the trail.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Ecuador - Quito and the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest

Quito is the highest official capital city in the world at 2,800 metres and it's historic centre was one of the first two World Cultural Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO in 1978. It’s full of cobblestone streets, beautiful old churches, and historic squares that are still the social centres of the city. Due to our slightly convoluted itinerary, we ended up in Quito three different times - before and after our Galapagos trip, and then after our visit to the Ecuadorian cloud forest north of the city.

We stayed close to the historic centre each time, allowing us to hang out among the beautiful old buildings that make up what UNESCO considers the "largest, least-altered, and best-preserved historic center in the Americas." Many Latin American cities have beautiful colonial centres, but Quito's really tops the rest.

The Basilica del Vota Nacional.
460' long, 150' wide, and 377' high.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Ecuador - The Galapagos Islands

After a brief stopover in Quito, we caught a flight to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, then another to the Galapagos Islands, 1000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Many people chose to travel between the islands on small but expensive cruise boats as this is the most efficient way to see all the sites. We had only booked one night's stay in the largest town of Puerto Ayora - population 18,000 - to maintain our flexibility.

 Galapagos sea lions catching some rays.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Ecuador - Cuenca and the Quilotoa Loop

After Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, we wanted to skip over Peru and head to Ecuador. We have plans to do some big hikes in Peru, but wanted to leave them until later after the worst of the rainy season. In-country flights in South America are relatively cheap, but as soon as you start crossing borders the price rises quickly. So to save some money, we bussed just across the border to Juliaca Peru, caught a flight to Lima, then another flight the next morning to Tumbes in northern Peru before walking across the border into Ecuador. We then jumped on two more busses to make our way to Cuenca Ecuador. We had lunch in Copacabana Bolivia and three bus trips, three taxi rides, two flights, two border crossings and thirty six hours later we had a late night drink in Cuenca.

We had signed up for another week of Spanish lessons in Cuenca. Unfortunately, unlike our teacher in Chile, our Cuenca instructor left a lot to be desired, and the lessons were a waste of time and money. On the other hand, we had a great homestay arranged through the language school and really enjoyed staying with Elena in her lovely home overlooking the city. She pampered us during our time there and was very good at engaging us in conversations in clear and slowly spoken Spanish.

View over Cuenca from our homestay at Elena's.