After sweltering away on the Caribbean coast, and experiencing some warm weather even in San Gil, Villa de Leyva and Sogamoso have felt nice and fresh. I suppose the Seattle in us just can’t handle the heat too well.
Sogamoso isn’t a very pretty city, but it’s next to the El Cocuy national park and the Páramo de Ocetá, a type of moorland that is only found in South America. We haven’t done much nature stuff since we arrived in Colombia, so Craig and I decided to bust out our hiking boots (which are always packed at the very bottom of our backpacks–such a pain) and get into nature.
But first! A trip to Lago Tota, the largest and highest lake in Colombia. Mostly surrounded by small villages and green onion farms, it also boasts a white sand beach and a MONSTER! I’m sorry to report that we weren’t able to glimpse this awesome creature, but the lake was very pretty.
We then headed towards Iza to partake in some thermal baths–our fifth hot springs of the trip. Piscina Erika wasn’t the best so far, but it wasn’t bad, as long as you don’t mind smelling like rotten egg for awhile afterwards. We closed our day with some delicious pudding from one of several vendors in the town square. When I asked what they were called, the woman answered, “Deliciosos postres,” which just translates into “Delicious desserts”. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but they were very yummy.
The next day, we set out on a hike with our very own guide–a first for us. Miguel was also the owner of our hostel and I’d guess in his fifties. We panted up to about 3,800 m (12,400 ft), but this time at least, we didn’t feel the effects of the altitude much. Not sure what the difference was between this and other, not so great times we’ve had with altitude, but we were thankful. Despite being twice our age, Miguel set a pretty blistering pace with almost no breaks. When we finally reached the viewpoint, everything was completely fogged in and there wasn’t much to see. Miguel looked at his watch and exclaimed, “Wow, we’re early!” Craig and I wished we hadn’t woken up at 5:45am when he said that.
The fog cleared for a nanosecond–enough to glimpse Lago Negro way down below, but the weather decided to take a turn for the worse then and we hiked back to Monguí in almost a steady drizzle. Craig and I have definitely gotten our fill of Seattle-like weather now, and I’ve also become aware that my boots are no longer waterproof. (Hiking through rain in a marshy wetland is a good way to test this if you’re unsure, by the way.) Still, the Páramo was very beautiful when the fog lifted enough for us to see it. It’s filled with Frailejón, a funny-looking species of plant that only grows 1 cm per year, according to Miguel. Thus, some of the frailejón we saw would have been 300+ years old.
We’ve been on several hikes this trip where guides have seemed completely unnecessary (Glacier, Colca, Salkantay), but the Páramo is not very well-marked. It would also be a desolate place to get lost in. It’s doable without a guide, but I would say only for very experienced trekkers and maybe if you have a GPS. The trail gets lost several times on the way, and if you go the wrong way, rivers have to be forded, etc. Not much fun. It’s not the most difficult hike we’ve done, but it was definitely the wettest. I’m glad for our cozy hostel (Cazihita), since the rain is still pouring down outside.
Our next stop is Bogotá, where the forecast is for lots of rain as well. After six soggy days there, we’ll fly to Buenos Aires–yahoo! It looks like it’ll be nice, spring weather when we get there. We’re looking forward to Bogotá nonetheless… but I sure wish I had my rain boots here!
Eager to stretch our legs (or at least I was), we took our guidebook’s recommendation and started off on the Quilotoa Circuit from Latacunga. Very similar to Colca Canyon in southern Peru, this circuit involves hiking relatively short distances (10-12 km) between small towns in the gorgeous Rio Toachi Valley. In typical fashion, our trip started off with a hitch, as it appeared that the 9:30 am bus to Quilotoa Crater left about 20 minutes early… after waiting an extra hour, and meeting a super nice Colombian couple, we were off. Even though our bus was very clearly labeled “quilotoa”, we were unceremoniously kicked off at Zumbahua, and told to get into a pick up truck which would take us the remaining 20 minutes. It was a tough squeeze, but we managed to get about 20 people into this truck. Victor, one half of the Colombian couple, laughed it off as typical “latin disorganization.” He informed us that we wouldn’t get a break from it further north either.
On the truck ride we met an 18-year old German girl who didn’t know much about Quilotoa, she just thought it sounded like a nice destination. Not at all prepared for the freezing temperatures up at the crater (4,000 meters) she was easily convinced that it was a poor idea to stay the night at the top… we invited her to join us on the hike down to Chugchilán, but not without a sense of foreboding (see the infamous ‘bob’ episode). Merit turned out to be pleasant company for most of the time we were together, but we did have to make certain “allowances” for her age.. would we have been like this traveling at 18? Honestly, I can’t imagine undertaking a trip like hers at that age.
The route to Chugchilán wasn’t clearly marked, but with the end destination mostly in view, we managed to get ourselves to the Cloud Forest Hostel before dark. The hot shower and filling meal were amazing, but really the accommodation on the whole was way above expectations. You don’t expect to have a private bathroom, dinner and breakfast for only $12 per person, even in middle-of-nowhere Ecuador, but that’s exactly what we got!
Merit caught a 4 am bus back to Latacunga, so we were on our own for the second day of hiking. Another 11+ km to reach Isinliví, and another descent and ascent into the Rio Toachi valley. The weather was nearly perfect on this day and we really took our time, stopping often to soak in the scenery. The general feel of the trek had us thinking of Colca Canyon a lot, but the countryside was more similar to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. In Baños, we had met a Catalan/French couple who called off extra days on the circuit after hiking this portion, because “the scenery was too similar to Colombia and we were tired of it.” As baffling as that is, I guess it makes me pretty excited for Colombia!
With plans to stay in a certain hostel in Isinliví, we were told en route that the Tiata Cristobal was equally great and much cheaper ($13 per person), which made our decision to switch pretty easy. We ended up being the only guests that night, and enjoyed an incredibly nice dinner and evening next to the wood burning stove, a private room and bathroom and an equally great breakfast. Since no one was there (and the town seemed pretty quiet in general), we asked if it was low season. Our host said no, that tourism in general had been down this summer, and that she blames the World Cup in Brazil.
The best news we received in Isinliví was that the bus back to Latacunga on Wednesdays left at 7 am! We had been told it would be a 4:30 am departure so this was just perfect news. The bus ride also turned out to be one of the most scenic I’ve ever been on. We climbed for 45 minutes to reach the Paso de Guingopana, leaving the morning sun-soaked Rio Toachi valley, and were greeted with stunning views of Volcan Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi. No pictures of that journey here (the camera was under the bus), but I’ll leave you with one from the previous night.
On our last day in Huaraz, we decided to hike up to Lake Wilkacocha. In retrospect, we should have done this one earlier, as it was much better suited for acclimatization than our other choice. I guess now we know a little better and will be better prepared next time.
After two nights in Huaraz (10,000 ft in elevation), I thought we were acclimatized enough to attempt a day hike to nearby Laguna Churup (14,600 feet). Surely all of that time in Cusco would help us get used to the elevation quicker, right? We took a combi to the village of Llupa (11,800 feet), and begin to hike towards Pitec and the entrance to the Huascaran National Park.
The hike between Llupa and Pitec was stunning. The peaks of the Cordillera Blanca loom overhead and I was overflowing with happiness to be in such a beautiful place. We passed by families harvesting potatoes, and others shepherding their small herds of cows and sheep up and down the road. After a short break at the entrance to the national park (12,450 feet), we started the real climbing, and it was only shortly after we had payed our S./20 ($7.50 USD) entrance fee that I began to think I wasn’t going to make it.
Altitude sickness has a way of sneaking up on you. Initially, I just felt very lightheaded, and short of breath. Both of these things are pretty normal when hiking at altitude, and they were things we experienced while on the Salkantay trek. But at some point I had some pretty extreme muscle fatigue set in, and then my lightheaded-ness started to turn into a headache. The elephant sitting on my chest was only growing heavier. We passed some other trekkers at about 13,600 feet and were encouraged to learn that we only had about one hour and 1,000 more feet of elevation to go! It was shortly after this that I sat down on a rock and knew I could go no further.
Sheena decided to continue up the trail a bit further, hoping to get a closer shot of Nevado Churup. She was tired, but not feeling any of the affects of altitude sickness that I was. As I tried to wait for her to return, sitting in the middle of the trail, I realized that my symptoms were only getting worse. I quickly wrote a note for her, built a little cairn so that she wouldn’t miss it, and started descending as fast as I could.
On the descent, we were fortunate to run across a taxi (or colectivo, since others would get in too) which could take us all the way back to Huaraz, thus avoiding the wait for a combi in Llupa. It turned out to be the loudest vehicle I have ever ridden in. The whole body shook violently with every ridge and pothole the road presented. The driver stuffed newspaper between the window glass and the car door to minimize the rattling. And even though this trip most likely resulted in my continued headache through the night, I sort of loved the randomness and uniqueness of the experience. Sheena waved back to every child we passed and we laughed at the small chickens, ducks, and dogs that ran for cover in front of us.
Altitude sickness can linger too, and I’m still feeling much less than 100% today. Sheena is actually feeling pretty sick as well. Perhaps the effects were only just delayed for her. Our only hope is that we can get over it, and plan some more hikes in the near future. The landscape is calling for me, and I badly want to go exploring.
Reaching Machu Picchu wasn’t easy. Our Salkantay trek was more of a mixed-bag than we had hoped for, but there were still some great things seen along the way. Sheena provided the gory details, so here are some pretty pictures for your enjoyment.
This is the completely true story of how, after three and a half days of trekking, it came to be that I, a self-possessed, emotionally stable 30-year-old, could be found standing in the middle of a crowded trail, bawling my eyes out on Craig’s shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably, “I just want to go home!”
As Craig explained in an earlier post, our revised plan for Machu Picchu, one of the “new seven wonders of the world”, was to do a four-day trek to Aguas Calientes, the entry point for the national park.
There are only two ways to arrive in Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo, a town outside of Cusco. The first option is a 1.5 hour train ride (lowest price is $54 USD one-way). The second option is to first take a 6-hour bus ride along narrow cliff roads to Santa Teresa, followed by a 30-minute taxi ride to Hydro Electrico, and then hike 7.5 miles to Aguas Calientes along the Rio Urubamba (as low as $8-12 USD). The Salkantay trek would end in Santa Teresa, where we could then combine it with this second option to enter Aguas Calientes. Our plan was to also hike and bus our way back to Ollanta after Machu Picchu, in order to avoid paying for even a one-way ticket on the ridiculously high-priced train.
I was very excited to do the trek since in its preceding days, as we were volunteering for the SAE, we got to see a lot of people come back from it, and they all had extremely positive things to say. It seemed within the range of difficulty that was acceptable to me, and we would be “glamping” again; staying in cabins along the way and having our meals provided to us, instead of having to carry tent, gear, and food. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Our first misstep was to agree to a third person joining us on the trek. We will call her Bob, since an apt analogy would be to compare her to the titular character of the classic Bill Murray film, “What About Bob?” I don’t remember much about that movie except for the unrelenting frustration and annoyance that Richard Dreyfuss felt, so that’s really the heart of the comparison… it obviously wasn’t physical!
Bob was female, an American, and a recent college grad traveling on her own who was going to do the trek through the same company as us. Since she didn’t want to do the hike by herself, she asked if she could join us and we, being nice, sympathetic people, agreed (to our ultimate regret… why do we Americans have to be so polite??). Unfortunately, Bob turned out to be one of that miserable variety of people who don’t appreciate the beauty of silence. No matter what was happening, she had to fill in the moment with conversation and pesky questions. “What do you think about this?” “Why are you doing that?” And my very least favorite of all: “What are you reading?”
Now, normally, a very talkative person is not a huge bother. They can usually be dismissed in some casual way or other. But on a hike of this nature, we were forced to spend nearly every minute of the day together–walking together, eating meals together, and sometimes, sharing a room together. You can’t very well relegate one person out of a group of only three to her own solitude, no matter how annoying she is. Because, after all, there is such a thing as manners (ugh!).
And so, because climbing thousands of feet in elevation while gasping for breath due to the thin air was not bad enough, we had to also endure Bob’s inane musings throughout the long miles. Another black mark against Bob was that she thought she knew all there was to know about everything. If there’s anything that makes a Chatty Cathy worse, it’s if she’s also condescending, patronizing and eight years younger than you.
Woe is us!
We managed to make it through the hardest bits of the hike, but arrived in Santa Teresa with a distinct feeling of disappointment. It had rained or was foggy for pretty much the entire time, and although the pass went through two glaciers, we unfortunately saw neither as our views were blocked by clouds. Aside from the wet and muddy conditions, the weather was also quite cold due to the elevation, despite moving closer to the equator… our first night I’m sure was in the 30s F. Brrr!
The only good things about doing the trek the way we did were 1) it was cheap, 2) mules and horses didn’t have to carry our gear (there were so many overburdened beasts on the trail… very sad), 3) the food was delicious and plentiful, and 4) we never had to pack up a wet tent.
I was really looking forward to the hot springs outside of Santa Teresa, but they were sadly tepid, and full of biting insects–yet another disappointment! I woke up on our fourth morning, muscles sore from the previous three days of difficult hiking, with several welts from whatever found my blood particularly delicious the day before, a tweaked ankle, and a swollen foot. Not having yet resigned myself to my fate as the holy grail of flesh for all insects, I resentfully reached for my pile of clothes only to shriek and drop them on the floor. Peering over the side of the bed, I ascertained that what I thought I saw was, in fact, real: they were covered in a swarm of tiny ants. There have been moments in my life, thankfully few, where I have felt that life is flat, stale, and unprofitable. That morning can be added to the short list.
Therefore, I was not in a good frame of mind for the 7.5 mile walk from Hydro Electrico to Aguas Calientes. In light of my fragile mental state, Craig braved the gods of etiquette and asked Bob if we could separate for the day. She, not being so thick-headed as to be ignorant of my black mood, graciously agreed. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was grateful for the escape! I’ll admit I was not a pleasant person to be around that day.
Of course, it takes all kinds and I don’t usually feel the need to judge people too harshly, but after four days of incessant chattering, I was more than happy to send her on her way. So it was with extreme dismay that an hour into our hike, she somehow met up with us again, and in our subsequent five minute exchange, managed to make me feel even worse.
It’s hard to describe how and why emotions manage to overwhelm us. It was as if 72 hours of pent-up anger suddenly exploded out of me, which then unleashed a watershed of homesickness. I was tired, sore, and in pain. My already tenuous control over my feelings broke, and I found myself wishing for all sorts of impossible things: the hike to be over, to be by myself, to be comfortable…. in short, to be at home. But I don’t have a home anymore, and the estrangement I felt over that realization has still not quite dissipated.
I know that I can go back to the States at any time, but I don’t think I want to. I don’t want to give up on this adventure that was in the making for so long. So I’m crossing my fingers that it’s just a phase that will soon pass and allow me to rediscover the joys of traveling. After all, there will be Bobs and there will be rain and there will be mosquitos. I just hope they don’t all come at once again!
But we are now back in Cusco, settling in comfortably in our old digs at the SAE, laughing with our volunteer friends, and having a tiny bit of that feeling of coming back to something familiar and welcoming. It’s as close to home as I’ll get in a very long time, so for now at least, I’m appreciating life and the small pleasures it can give.