11-20-2016 – Paradise Marina, El Salvador

Again a long time since the last post, and again mostly boat work, which although engaging to us doesn’t seem like it would be of much interest to readers. (Please let me know if I’m mistaken!)

We had another family visit, this time with Dan’s family in New York. We spent the weekend spanning September and October along with 15 others in Maine, staying near Acadia National Park in a small group of cabins. For us this trip will serve in place of the Thanksgiving gathering that we have been attending for the last several years, so on the way up we spent the night at Dan’s Aunt Nancy’s farmhouse, where that gathering happens. We initially thought that this would break up the journey into two smaller segments, but when Dan’s sister Beth said “look at a map” we realized that it took us far enough west that it cancelled out the gains made by being further north. Hmmm, how’d that happen? :-) So we turned our one day’s drive into two! But it was nice to see Nancy, if only for one night. The gathering was partially a celebration of the life of Dan’s father David, and it was great to see his wife Shlomit again. She organized the event, remembering a previous trip there that happened during the New England Fall. Although the colors this year were not at their peak, we did nonetheless keep an eye out for all of the lovely displays of red, orange, salmon, gold and yellow – and were not disappointed! We all enjoyed some hikes and strolls, wandering the spectacular coastlines of this island park. A few people got up very early one morning to watch the sunrise over the fog, but we chose to stay snuggled deep under the heavy covers of our bed. :-) I think our blood has gotten a bit thinner after spending 5 years south of the border! We enjoyed meeting Davis, the (no longer so) new partner to Dan’s youngest sister Aria who, some long-term readers may remember, was with us when we first left Oregon in 2011 on our way to Alaska. They are threatening – but not yet promising – to join us on the next big passage, when we cross the Pacific next spring. But she is also whining about being busy as she works on a PhD at MIT. Sheesh! It was also a treat to see Eve, the sister from Washington (State) that we can never get enough time with, and both of Dan’s sons Jesse and Evan – at the same time! The winner of the (non-existant) photography competition was of Jesse on the coast (sorry it’s small here; it’s the only copy we have!). In addition to the 5 days in Maine, we spent another 10 days in New Jersey staying with Dan’s mom. We popped into New York City once or twice to get some culture, but it also served to remind us just how much we enjoy the quieter life on the water. We came home again with full bags and a renewed energy for tackling our many projects that will help us get across the ocean.

Acadia Vista  Highway Fall Color  Jesse at Acadia

Back in El Salvador, we began laying the groundwork for another fairly major project. Our rudder, which we built in 2011 before leaving Oregon, has developed a number of holes (we have several inconclusive ideas about just what caused them). We found a tiny marina nearby which has a space that was suitable for doing the sort of welding work we needed, and we purchased some sheetmetal in town. Two days before we planned to move down there – for a week of hard work (how naive! :-) ) – our generator stopped, and in what turned out to be a dramatic manner. So we moved in a day early – and negotiated a monthly rate instead of daily. The marina’s staff disassembled the generator for diagnosis and found that a valve stem had broken, causing the valve to get caught in the cylinder and get crushed into the piston. None of those parts were better for the experience. :-) Given the high costs of repair parts for Westerbeke generators, we are now in the process of buying a replacement. We will have it shipped down from Florida by a local man named Pablo, who we worked with last February. As long as we have that shipment coming, we are coming up with lots of other large (and small) items that we need at the same time. It turns out that our (spare) outboard motor was stolen off of Lungta while we were in New York. Shortly before that trip, we damaged one of our solar panels when something unbelievably small fell while we were working up the mizzen mast. :-( And our freezer keeps acting up, making us think that it is a good time to change out the 50 year old motor. We began work on our rudder, but quickly ran into troubles with our welding system because a number of the accessories were damaged in May when they got covered in salt-water. Although we were able to find a few items in San Salvador, the cost and ability to work with the welder we already own (rather than buying a whole new one!) inspired us to order parts from the States and have them shipped – delaying our rudder project by maybe as much as a month. Yikes – these are some big-dollar items for our budget!

Getting the rudder off the boat was a project of its own. Kathy dove three or four days in a row, whenever the current was slack, first tying a rope securely around it and then trying to remove the boot that holds the rudder’s shaft to the skeg of the boat, a finger of cement-encased stainless steel which extends from the trailing edge of the keel. It’s been a bit more than 5 years since it was last removed, but the marine growth added a lot more work separating it. Once it came apart, Dan hauled it up on the halyard and deposited it on the dock. Then 6 men from the marina tied it to a long pipe and scraped/hauled it down the length of the dock and up onto the main pier – fortunately it was high tide and they only had to negotiate 3 or 4 stairs! They left it for us in a small covered workspace, where we’ve spent a number of hours cleaning it up and fitting a new skin. We’ve amassed quite an assortment of tools up there, which they’ve allowed us to keep in their storeroom so we don’t have to lug them to and fro every day. The work is coming along nicely, and is now essentially on hold until our freight shipment comes in with the TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding parts.

Moving the Rudder

It will probably be another three weeks before this shipment arrives, but in the meantime we have a number of “smaller” projects that we can make progress on. We removed a portion of our main engine’s exhaust stack and had a local machine shop build a stainless steel water jacket around it. The idea is that this will channel *much* more of the engine’s heat out of the boat, which would be a welcome relief whenever we have to motor. We also replaced a very rusty bow roller, which directs the anchor chain out to the point on the bowsprit where it goes down. We made it from ultra-high molecular weight (UMHW, or something like that :-) ) plastic, which is super slippery and easy to machine. We had a carpenter install some brass latches into most of the floorboards on Lungta, each of which has a finger that hooks under the joists to hold the board in place even if turned upside down. We bought these before we left Portland in 2011, but weren’t able to do a nice enough job ourselves to want to make a permanent installation to the boat. Once we heard about this carpenter we took advantage of the situation to have the work done. The price was great (we paid him double and were still pleased), and he turned around 16 boards in 3 days. (He would have done them all in one day if we’d agreed to being without a floor for the whole time!) We installed a water-level sensor in our tanks and wrote up a new program for an Arduino computer, like we have monitoring the power consumption from our fridge and freezer. We’re becoming quite enthusiastic advocates of this gadget, and have envisioned half a dozen more projects that could use them – whenever we find the time…

"Pregnant" Exhaust Stack  UHMW Bow Roller

The move to this marina has been a little bit of culture shock, in that our “regular” place is much more developed and this place is much sleepier. We moved from a mooring ball where we were totally self-sufficient, to living on a dock where we have all the power we need from shore and a hose that dispenses (brackish) water at the turn of a knob. All of our friends (which at the moment only means three boats) are at the other marina, so our social life has changed dramatically. There’s a cool stretch of mangroves immediately next to the marina where a large number of egrets congregate every evening. We had no idea that egrets were social animals, since you always see them standing still and solitary along the shore. They gather together with a lot of squawks and cackles, somewhat reminiscent of a coffee-clatsch, and sometimes sounding like squabbling children. They are easily spooked by people make noise on the docks and a dozen or more may take flight, only to circle back around to find a new perch. The manager here called them their “avian watchdogs”.

Egrets of Paradise

We have the sense that we’ve entered the “chute” in preparing for our next passage. Much of the work we’re doing now is to make Lungta sea-worthy again, after being stationary for almost two years. We’re both excited at what’s coming up and daunted at the long to-do list. We’ve updated our web-site and started actively looking for boatmates to join us. While the timing is related to having company during the 30 day crossing of the sea, we are really hoping for people who become family and end up staying for several months or even years. If this sounds like someone you know, please point them at our web-site, www.lungtalife.com. We’re enthusiastic about communicating with anyone who expresses interest!

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09-05-2016 – Bahia del Sol, El Salvador

The last few months have been fairly quiet for us; we’ve spent a lot of time working on the boat. But we’ve also had a few small diversions from being too single-focused. :-) It seems appropriate that I get this update posted on Labor Day!

Last month we took a trip to Texas to visit Kathy’s family. Her mom Marilyn made arrangements to get two time-share condos in the same complex for the week of July 4th, and all 4 siblings plus spouses and children attended. It’s been more than 5 years since we’ve all been together, and it was great to spend time together! The condos were a bit north of San Antonio, a 4-hour drive from Marilyn’s place. Kathy’s sister Maggie and her husband Frank, live in San Antonio and are planning a dream-home on a lake nearby. On Saturday night the developer of their neighborhood hosted a barbecue & fireworks event, which was a fun way to kick off our time together. We enjoyed a morning walk/swim in the small river behind the condo, watching wildlife foraging at dusk from the back balconies, and catching up with the family. In addition we spent nearly a week with Marilyn in her new apartment, but spent much of our time running errands. We’re moving our “official” residence to Texas, to establish a clear location for tax and legal purposes. We’ve been somewhat inconsistent about our address, between Oregon, Washington and Colorado. We now have a Texas mailing address, drivers licenses and are registered to vote there. Also, we got the boat’s titling updated to reflect Kathy’s name instead of Dan’s father who had co-signed the loan more than a decade ago. And, as usual whenever we visit the States, we came home with some *heavy* suitcases full of stuff for our boat, our kitchen and our closet.

The most important project on our list is (of course!) our engine, which we are thrilled to report now seems to be doing just fine. We brought back a new starter motor from Texas and it quite handily starts the engine right up. After installing it, Dan was able to bleed the injectors pretty quickly, and we’ve now run the engine several times for a total of 2 or 3 hours. We’re essentially ready to call the project a success. We do still have a few odds and ends, though. The tachometer stopped working and is of an old design which is primarily purchased these days by vintage car enthusiasts (can you spell “$$$”?). We’re going to replace it with a digital device, since the joys of sailing Lungta do not require “vintage” instrumentation. We’ll probably change the oil one more time just to be cautious, but we’re pleased as punch.

During this time, a project “volunteered” itself; Dan noticed a crack in a turnbuckle that attaches the bobstays (chains) to the bowsprit, forming part of the entire circle of supports that keep our masts where they should be! We rummaged around in our bins of duplicate parts and came up with a replacement. Removing the old one was no small feat, but since it was already damaged we were able to cut it off with a grinder. Then we replaced the chains as well, which had been on our to-do list anyhow.

Cracked Bobstay Turnbuckle

The biggest project we’re working on now is to replace the skylight in the middle room of the boat (the room we call the Office, where the Nest is located, for those who know Lungta). This light is roughly 4′ by 4.5′, so it’s no trivial undertaking to build. We purchased a 4′ x 8′ sheet of Lexan several months ago, had it delivered from Miami by Pablo, a local frieght forwarder, and have been waiting for the right time to begin this project. We had a lineup of projects that required one to be completed before the next could begin, which is not an unusual thing in boats and other small(-ish) spaces. So we now have new chains on 4 of our shrouds (side-load-bearing cables for the mast), PVC conduits on another section of the wiring for our solar panels, and a refurbished hard dinghy (including new lifting eyes, fresh paint inside and a couple of new corners of teak trim)! Eventually though we got to begin the skylight project! We purchased some local wood called “almendra” (almond) to build the exterior frame and wall-extensions; apparently this is not the same tree that produces the almonds that are eaten, but probably a close relative. For the interior flashing of the trunk, we’re using more of the jatoba flooring that we bought before leaving Portland five years ago – when we thought we were going to replace all of the floors. Plans change; what more can I say? In addition to building the window, we’ll add a couple of new features: a step on either side to make it easier to get on top of the galley trunk without stepping on our new window, and a set of chocks, or cradles, to hold the dinghy secure when we’re underway. This area of the boat will be more functional as well as more beautiful!

The Old Skylight The New Skylight  DSCN3916

There has been lots of planing, sanding and varnishing of the various pieces of wood, which has largely been done by Dan, while Kathy works on other projects, primarily sewing. During the last month, Kathy has replaced two of the sail covers and made covers for the hard dinghy, the liferaft, a gas can and a stack of buckets. The sail covers have been changed from the navy that was the trim color from “the previous decade” to the burgundy that we are using for the next decade or so. She still has plans to replace the fabric trim that functions as a sun-shield on the three sails that have roller furling before the year is over – but the skylight project is in the way of the work-space! (Oops: no photos yet, but I’ll try to add one in the next day or so.)

Other than the trip to Texas and our slowly shrinking project list, the things going on are fairly short-lived. We have had some nice lightning storms, typically starting from huge clouds that build up in the afternoons over a nearby volcano. We saw nothing of the Perseid meteor shower because of these clouds. :-) One day we had a very unusual weather pattern – heavy clouds early in the day, winds from completely the wrong direction – that turned out to be the fringes of a hurricane in the Atlantic that came ashore in Belize. Even though Belize is two countries away, it’s only 200 miles from here! It happened during the national holiday week, and the locals didn’t let the dark weather deter their merry-making. We watched all sorts of water antics as the clouds were building up. Then the navy boat went around and shut things down before the winds got too rough.

DSCN3875 DSCN3900

The morning after a different storm, we awoke to see a black plume of smoke rising from the water about half a mile away from us. Our trusty binoculars helped us realize that a sailboat was on fire, and we could see the huge flames. It turns out that it had been hit by lightning the night before and smoldered all night. In the morning the flames finally broke through the deck and were not manageable. The boat was towed away from the other boats and deposited on a sandbar to burn itself out. The owners were away filling the cruising kitty, and we can only imagine what it felt like for them to learn that their boat was a total loss. :-(

We’ve developed a rhythm of getting up early to work outside, moving inside during the middle of the day, and heading for the swimming pool at 4 in the afternoon. It’s a nice life!

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04-28-2016 – Peruvian Amazon Tour

The Amazon River is the stuff of legends, and we were excited to have a chance to experience a bit of it while we were in South America. In the Atacama Desert we experienced one of the driest environments on Earth: thousands of square miles virtually devoid of life. In a startling contrast, the Amazon has to be one of the most varied and densely packed biosystems on the planet.

We started researching options to visit there soon after entering Peru, and even considered an Amazon trip while we were in Ecuador a month later. It can be challenging to get to the Amazon basin from the population centers of Peru and Ecuador, which is both a blessing and a curse. There are few roads and fewer airports, though there are an increasing number of eco-resorts, some of them quite luxurious, and most quite pricey. Since we were traveling on the cheap, we continued to look for other options. :-) We decided to try to arrange a tour guide from a small town in northern Peru (rather than pre-booking), and spent the better part of a week getting there.

We had been communicating with our German friends whom we had met in Colca Canyon, Alex & Maria, and it turned out that their trajectory was almost identical to ours. We ended up in Yurimaguas within 36 hours of each other. We had each done some research into local tour options, and came to an agreement over lunch at a great deli that even had Black Forest cake for dessert! We booked our tour together that afternoon and the next day hopped on a “fast boat” down the Huallaga River (pronounced something like “wa-YA-ga”) to the smaller town of Lagunas, on the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The fast boats are covered boats perhaps 80 feet long, but only about 8 feet wide. They are set up similar to an airplane, with maybe 30 rows of seats, 2 on each side (at the widest). We left just before dawn and traveled about 60 km as the crow flies, but with the twists and turns of the river it took roughly 5 hours. When we arrived, we noticed that the town’s waterfront was flooded (a good indication of the water levels that awaited us), and we had to hop from one rock or shaky board to the next for 25 yards, to get far enough up the main road to reach dry ground. There we met up with one of our tour guides. He took us to our hostel for the night and told us where to meet in the morning.

Inside the Fast Boat  Flooded Streets in Lagunas

We had dinner at a family restaurant a few blocks away that had a couple of monkeys for pets. The littlest one (that they called Pancho), had a 4′ harness which kept him leashed to a small shelf that was his home. He was very active and playful, and kept moving from the shelf to the nearby door frame to another space in the next room and back again. Sometimes he would climb up on one of our shoulders and enjoy a bite or two of bread from our lunch. Although we were enamored with Pancho, we were also saddened by his limited circumstances. After dinner we took a stroll around the town – and found that there really wasn’t much town to stroll! There is one main paved road, with a dozen short crossroads that might have been paved once but are clearly not maintained. :-) The locals live in very simple houses and get around by walking or taking a motorcycle taxi. We were surprised to learn that the town’s power is supplied by diesel generator, and is only on for a few hours in the morning and a few more at night. It seemed like there should be a better way to generate power from the river, but we were visiting during the rainy season, when the river was in flood, and there is far less water during the dry half of the year.

Pancho

Although we’d booked a tour for four of us, there were actually six of us, because another American couple, Leslie & Matt, started at the same time as us. They had booked a 7 day excursion and we had booked 6, though, so we traveled together until the halfway point. Our guides met us at the hostel along with two moto-taxis which were loaded to the brim with gear. We traveled maybe 45 minutes over a very bumpy dirt road and then stopped at a beautiful grassy property along a small river with a ramp and dock that we used to load all the gear into three hand-made dugout canoes. Matt & Leslie had their own canoe and two guides, we had a canoe with one guide (Rainer), and Marie & Alex had a larger boat with two guides and most of our gear and provisions. Each canoe had an extra paddle, and one guest in each boat was usually paddling along with the guide(s) – although the guides all insisted that it was unnecessary.

Loading Up the Dugouts

From the moment we entered the dugouts we entered an strange scene in which the river was indistiguishable from the land. There was water everywhere and the dense verdant jungle rose out of it teeming with life. Frequently our guide would steer us directly into the jungle into an almost imperceptable gap in the trees and we would be surrounded by the jungle only to emerge minutes later into an area where the blue sky was again visible. In drier times this must have been a river.

The first day we traveled downstream on a small river which was moving rapidly, so we barely had to paddle. (Isn’t there an old adage, “What goes down must come up” or some such?). There were many twists and turns and it was impossible to get a good sense of what direction we’d traveled or how far. At some point we joined up with a larger river, perhaps 30 feet across, called the Marañon (which means “cashew”) which moved a bit slower. We were on the water nearly all day, with only one break for lunch. The river was brown and murky with dirt picked up along the way, but it was clean enough that the guides used the water for cooking and washing. Most of the time we had trees overhead.

Paddling our Dugout  Tropical FlowersLook Up!

We saw lots of birds, including parrots and macaws, eagles and ospreys, egrets and storks, and lots and lots of song-birds. For Kathy, the big sighting of the first day was the plethora of blue-and-yellow macaws flying overhead in small flocks and perched noisily high up in the trees. Our guide, Rainer, who grew up in that jungle, pointed out a group of small bats sleeping underneath some bare branches over the water, by shooing them away in a cloud. Lunch was held in a lodge on stilts over the water. During the dry season it would be high and dry, but for us almost all of our stops involved getting out of the canoe onto a set of stairs rather than stepping onto ground. The meals were simple fare, but plenty of it. Most days one or another of the guides would go fishing in the evenings, and although they caught a variety of (mostly unfamiliar) fish, we were most intrigued at the idea of eating piranha! There are a number of varieties of piranha, but our favorite, the red piranha, was about 9″ long and had a tomato-red patch on its belly. The teeth are incredibly sharp! Piranha have such a fearsome reputation from the movies that we were all a bit nervous at the thought of swimming in the same river where they were caught, but the guides did so we all joined in each day at our midday and evening stops. It was so refreshing! We only saw a few fish while we were swimming, and never a piranha, but when the table scraps were thrown into the river after a meal the water would almost immediately roil with activity.

Hyacinth Macaws Overhead  Butterflied Piranhas

We slept in a different place each night, but always in a building with space for sleeping pads and mosquito nets. Sometimes there were raised bed-frames, sometimes not; sometimes there were room dividers, sometimes not; usually there were other parties in the same building. It was fun to see other parties at our stops along the way, but the meals were always prepared by one’s own guides without much sharing between groups. The guides personally pay for all of the provisions and equipment, and get paid a flat fee for their services. I think the tour agencies make a good bit on these tours, and for the guides it’s a good job but they’re definitely not getting rich! The guides would typically socialize amongst themselves in the evenings, rather than mixing with the guests (we were told that some guests would be horrified to have the guides eat at the same table with them!). The guides are often a couple, as was the case in our two-guide boat. They complete some coursework in tourism and the environment, and have to spend a year as an apprentice. They have to provide the bedding, the pots and pans and plates and silverware, and often even the canoe. But they get to meet people from all around the world, develop a deep knowledge of this ecosystem and its inhabitants, and spend the majority of their time doing what they love. None of them spoke (much) English.

An Evenings Lodge  Cooking the Evening Meal

We saw lots of wildlife on this trip, some of it fairly close-up, but also some of it waaay off in the tops of the trees (like the sloths, who are solitary and reclusive) and some “drive-by” sightings where you mostly just get a sense that something moved by quickly. Nature television has spoiled us! :-) According to Rainer, there are six kinds of monkeys in this area, and we saw five of them. At the time we knew all of the names, but I’m sorry to report that those names have slipped away when no one was watching. Our presence tended to spook the monkeys and they would generally move deeper into the jungle when they saw us. Photography is a real challenge! We saw dozens if not hundreds of monkeys swinging through the trees and leaping from one branch to another. We have little photographic evidence, however. One of the largest of the species is the howler monkeys, which we’ve seen in a couple of locations in Central America, but I’m not certain they are the exact same species. Here they are called “monos rojos”, which just means “red monkeys”. We enjoyed their surreal sounds at dusk and dawn every night, surging like a big wind in the canopy, and during the daytime we heard territorial “conversations” between troops of howlers. We never tired of these guys. There’s a kind of lizard with a red head that lives in this area that can skitter across the water using its tail, moving at an unbelievable speed. We saw 2 or 3 of these, but it’s one of those shooting star experiences where as soon as you notice it, it’s over.

A Sloth above the Canopy  Monos Rojos

The third day out, we took a side-trip to a magical place that had a unique plant, a huge lily-pad roughly 10 feet in diameter. It had thorns on its perimeter that were very sharp, and new leaves that hadn’t yet rolled out were like a porcupine! They are found nowhere else on the planet. The area they were in was very still, and the waters offered beautiful reflection images. The place had the air of being in a sacred space, a cathedral, a scene directly out of the Jurassic lost in time, and it was easy to imagine that we were the first people to ever be there and a Tyranosaurus might appear any moment. In this same area we had several very brief encounters with the pink Amazonian freshwater dolphin. We never got a good look, but we got the sense that they were playing with us, popping up just out of sight or an instant after we had turned away.

Giant Lily Pads  Turning a New Leaf  Tranquil & Reflective

The next night they took us on a night paddle just after it got dark. Rainer started out specifically looking for crocodiles and caimans, and managed to catch a small one. Don’t ask us how – he just reached into a bush, wrestled around for a minute and came back with this two-foot-long baby caiman in his hand! We had gotten separated from the other boat, and he handed the caiman to Kathy to hold for a few minutes while he paddled back in the direction where he thought they might be. (We never did catch up to them.) He was amazing at spotting wildlife at night, with a single small flashlight which he strapped to his forehead with an elastic band. And once he found something, he always had an interesting anecdote or factoid to share. One owl he found sitting on a nest, and he told us a local legend that struck similar chords to Snow White or Hansel & Gretel. There were two kids whose mother died, and when their father later remarried the new wife didn’t want them around. The father took them into the woods and left them. Later they returned as this owl which has a long sad call. He found a snake in the bushes, and a few very tiny frogs with huge voices, and perhaps most remarkable of all, he found our way back to the lodge again at the end of the tour! :-)

A Hole in a Roll  The Circle of Life

The fourth day we turned around and began retracing our steps (?) back towards where we had launched, but Leslie and Matt continued on for a bit longer. As we said our goodbyes that morning, we didn’t really expect to see them again. We were now only two canoes heading back upstream, and the paddling was notably more difficult. Rainer was a master at taking short-cuts whenever the river made a sharp turn. This not only made the trip a little shorter, but also got us out of the current and provided opportunities to see different scenery. Often it felt like we were entering a tunnel or cave, built from foliage, but usually it would open back up again quickly. The other boat had a somewhat more difficult time following through the narrow passages that he discovered, however, since it was larger and couldn’t turn quite as nimbly. These shortcuts probably only exist for the few months of the rainy season, and become land during the dry season. While we were eating lunch on this day, it began to rain. The lodge we were in (a misnomer if a lodge implies actual walls :-) ) was not in good repair, and we dodged numerous leaks in the roof. It poured buckets! It slackened off just about the time we were ready to move on, but didn’t really stop for the rest of the day, and it also rained most of the next day, although not as hard. We were visiting during the rainy season, so we had actually been quite lucky to have a string of dry days at the beginning of our trip. We were all dripping wet when we stopped for the night and actually went to bed chilly. Our clothes were all still wet (although no longer dripping) in the morning.

Alex & Maria in the Large Canoe  Bailing a Canoe

The last day of the trip the rain had spent itself. We didn’t have far to go. At one point Rainer stopped and looked puzzled, as did the other guides, as if they’d lost their way. A tree had fallen across the river and completely blocked our way. It must have been 18″ in diameter and hard as nails, so hacking through it with their machetes was not a practical solution. Eventually they figured out a way to lift the bow of one dugout up on top of the log, shift it along in bursts, and drop it in the water on the other side. Things got a little easier when another party arrived and the extra people helped lift and tug the three heavy boats up and over the log. Shortly after that we stopped for lunch at a “wide spot in the road”, a small beachy area. Two or three other parties also stopped at this place with us, some just beginning and some concluding their tours, so there was lots of conversation. An archaic motorized dugout went by with a couple of park rangers. Apparently a guest had gotten ill and they were heading out to retrieve him more quickly. (No motors are allowed in the park except for the park rangers.) When we told them about the fallen log they turned around and headed back to their headquarters for a new game-plan; a short time later they passed us by again with a huge chainsaw and we didn’t see them again. Our friend Leslie had been feeling poorly when we went separate ways and we worried a bit that it might be her who they were evacuating.

Crossing the Log

We finished up our trip by paddling a very short distance to the launching place. We helped pack all of the gear back up into two of the motor-taxis that were waiting, and we spent a few minutes saying goodbye to the guides who had made our trip so memorable but whom we would never see again. It’s always a bit inconceivable to realize just how different our lives are from local people in these less developed countries. They live so close to the bone and have so few opportunities compared to us. It’s humbling. We had been tickled to see the guides (Rainer in particular) showing interest in our game of chess a couple of nights earlier. None of them knew how to play, but there were three or four pairs of eyes watching. We gave them a basic intro to the game, and then later gave our travel set to Rainer. Perhaps we have touched his life in a little way as he has touched ours.

Back in town we checked back into our hostel, hung our still-wet clothes out to dry and took a nap before dinner. We had a very early morning departure on our fast boat, so we didn’t stay out late. When we got on the boat we ran into our friends Matt and Leslie, and we asked them about their return trip. It turns out that it was Matt who had been sick, although it wasn’t dire. He was suffering the symptoms of a kidney stone and wanted to be somewhere away from the middle of nowhere if he was going to have to deal with that situation. The guides and rangers had responded quickly and effectively, whisked them back to town, and got them situated in a nicer hotel for the night.

The six of us enjoyed an afternoon together in Lagunas. We had a running joke out in the jungle about ordering a strawberry milkshake, and so we were tickled to find an ice cream shop that could make that very confection. :-) We were all heading towards Ecuador, but had slightly different schedules. We traveled together that day to Tarapoto (via Yurimaguas – none of this is straightforward!), and then made separate plans. We got tickets to the town nearest Chachapoyas (called Pedro Ruiz Gallo, for those who are playing along) and the others went on to the next stop. We were told to be sure that we go to the municipal bus station across from a particular cemetery – to distinguish it from the older municipal bus station across from a different cemetery! This is where our previous blog posting picked up, and we will now resume our “normal” chronological postings.

Strawberry Milkshakes - Mmmmmm!

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06-24-2016 – Ecuador & Costa del Sol, El Salvador

After we left our fabulous expedition in the Amazon Basin, we decided it was time to move on. Peru was an amazing place to visit, but we still had quite a ways left to travel before getting back to El Salvador – and we had airline tickets to visit Kathy’s family in Texas in late June. So we headed for the next country north, which is Ecuador. But there was one more spot worth stopping on the way. :-)

The town of Chachapoyas is situated in another really beautiful area, and the drive included a long stretch in a striking canyon along the Utcabamba River. For several miles, there are sheer cliffs right up against the road and for a few short stretches the road goes through an undercut section of the cliff. Beyond the canyon the road winds up again and the town is actually located up in the mountains with a great view in all directions. It’s the capital of the Amazonas Region, but due to its location off of the highway it feels a lot sleepier than that would imply. It turns out that this region is jam-packed with relatively undeveloped archaeological sites. We heard a story about an archaeologist who came here a few years ago to document the area’s potential, and left two years later having identified over 200 different sites worth investigating! The only site that we visited in the region is the best-known, the fortress-town of Kuelap. Kuelap was built in the 7th century, but little else seems to really be known about it. The culture came to an end as the Incas came to power. The city is built up on a high mountain with a double wall around it. There are dozens of round structures inside, most of which look quite similar and are presumed to be single-family houses. The thinking is that they had storage below (including pens for the guinea pigs that they ate) and tall thatch roofs above. A number of the buildings are decorated with zigzag patterns of flat stone. There is also a section which is enclosed in yet another wall and which has a number of buildings with other purposes, mostly assumed to be religious and governmental. The most distinctive of the buildings has been called “The Inkwell” because of its odd shape. Many theories have been floated about its use, from water storage to prison to religious ritual. Recent thinking is that it was related to astrological time-keeping, because it has the ability to show precisely when the spring and fall equinoxes occur, similar to other structures across the ancient world. We saw lots of orchids and bromeliads growing in the trees, and llamas grazing near the entrance. Oh, and the entrance was really cool! You come from below looking up this very tall and imposing stone wall, and come across a skinny slit about 40′ long which narrows down until it’s just wide enough for one person to get through at a time. For many years this has been assumed to be a way to prevent invaders from coming in, but a recent theory is that the walls have just settled closer together over time. There’s so much more to figure out!

Fortress Town of KuelapEntrance to Kuelap  Kuelap Neghborhood  Decorative Walls

We didn’t stay long because we were looking forward to hooking up with our friends, David and Joan, who have a house in Ecuador. It took us two full days to get there, using 6 different transport vehicles (we went from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacio to La Balsa to Zumba). It was actually pretty humorous! Several of the vehicles we took were collectivos, where cars or minivans line up to take passengers but only leave when enough people have arrived to fill one up. One of the vehicles we took overfilled when the driver stopped to pick up two women who were by the side of the road along with 5 children. There were 11 people altogether for an hour, 3 with a child in their laps! Another driver was driving so quickly and roughly down twisty mountain roads that one of his passengers, a pregnant woman, got car-sick and had to stop to throw up in the bushes. He conveniently had a roll of plastic bags to offer her so that we wouldn’t have to stop the next time. None of these people spoke English, and most didn’t really speak Spanish very well (better than us :-), just not fluently). They were very tiny, dark-skinned, soft-spoken people. We were intrigued but didn’t really make much of a connection with anyone since we were all in transit. The border crossing at La Balsa was very basic, not a frequently used one at all, and when we arrived there seemed to be no one around. A guy sitting on the stoop of a shop across the street came over to tell us that the border guard would be back in the next hour and to just make ourselves at home. It turned out that the local officials were playing volleyball until the next bus came by, and sure enough, he came back sweaty and in workout clothes, just as the transport pulled up! The transport from there was somewhat unusual: a semi tractor pulling a covered trailer, open on the sides, with a dozen wooden benches. We were initially the only ones aboard, but a few more jumped on in each small town we passed through, and by the time we arrived in Zumba just after dark it was pretty full. There was a flurry of activity as everyone paid the driver and gathered their belongings, and then we were on the street looking for a place to spend the night. We easily found a hostel, but when Dan reached for his wallet it wasn’t where he expected it to be. We checked in and immediately went back to where we had exited the vehicle, but the wallet was nowhere to be found. In the morning we went to the bus station early to try to catch the vehicle and/or the driver before they got out on their rounds. We did manage to talk with him, but no one had turned it in. :-( (Fortunately no one has tried to use any of the cards.)

Andean Hills

Peru-Ecuador Border  Ecuadorian Transport

We took a bus to Vilcabamba, where there was a hostel/resort that our friends from the Amazon (Alex & Maria, Matthew & Leslie) were staying and we’d heard great things about – including that they offer a free yoga class! We were looking forward to seeing our friends, Joan & David, who we met a year previously in Chiapas, Mexico. They own a catamaran that is in the boatyard there, but now live in a house that they have recently built on a hillside near Vilcabamba. We checked in and started to settle in for a relaxing evening. We had been out of touch for a while, so we each pulled out our tablets to check email, news, etc. Dan found it first: an email from some boating friends back in El Salvador that said Lungta was taking on water and they wanted information about pumps, thru-hulls, etc. Yikes! Our boat was sinking! We franticly responded, and began making arrangements to get back home ASAP. We had dinner with our Amazon friends and explained why we couldn’t stay. We contacted our Ecuador friends and told them that we weren’t going to be visiting them after all, after all the build-up. :-) They offered to take us to breakfast, take us to the airport, whatever we needed. We were so touched at their warm-hearted response, and relieved that we would get to spend at least a few hours with them! We arranged to meet up with Joan & David the next morning. We had dinner with our Amazon friends, and were surprised to see that the menu featured German food – our German friends said it was the best spaetzle they’d had in years! We had all been planning to head north into Ecuador, and expected to run into each other several times more, but we had just had a sea change and weren’t on that itinerary anymore. Kathy got up early and enjoyed the sunrise yoga class with our four fellow travellers – the studio was beautiful, and the instructor was really good. Afterwards we all said our goodbyes, and we checked out after only one night. :-(

David & Joan met us at the hotel reception, and after some long-delayed hugs we all piled into their Land Cruiser. We drove into Vilcabamba, which is much smaller than we’d imagined. It’s a sweet town, but quite a destination for Westerners, so it isn’t as “authentic” (whatever that means) as it used to be. Joan & David also shared with us some of the local politics, which made it more real but also less charming. :-) We had a nice breakfast, and visited the post office which also sells airline tickets. We’d been able to research the tickets but not purchase them at such short notice the night before. If we hadn’t been able to purchase them here, then we’d have to take an overnight bus to get to Guayaquil to catch our flight back to San Salvador the next morning. Fortunately the very competent young woman behind the counter was able to get the system to work and produced our tickets with a minimum of difficulty. The bright side to this is that we would be able to spend a few hours with David & Joan and then take a one hour flight to Guayaquil. The ride to their house was more of the same spectacular countryside that we’d been enjoying for the last few days: jungle-covered mountainous terrain with windy roads and sparse human habitation. Their house is perched on a steep lot that wasn’t previously thought to be buildable. :-) They managed to come up with a design and then find and organize local workers to build it into (close to) what they had envisioned. It’s a sweet house with an octagonal floorplan, with a loft bedroom upstairs that has a view all the way to Sunday. We spent a couple of delightfully lazy hours sitting on their porch visiting – in lieu of a week’s visit followed by a road trip through some portion of Ecuador! It would have to do. Then they took us to the airport in Loja, another hour or so north. We spent the night in an AirBnB room, and got a red-eye ride to the airport for a 7am flight back home.

Our Friends' Ecuadorian Home

Our friends SaM & Dave met us at the airport two hours later in our car, which they had enjoyed and taken care of in our absence (although they’d had some troubles with the alternator and/or battery – there was a new battery sitting in the back floor, in case the car wouldn’t start while they were out and about!). It was wonderful to see their wide smiles as we got off the plane! We jabbered all the way home, both catching up on our various activities while we’d been gone and learning as much as we could about what had happened with Lungta – who was helping and how, what had been done, observations that might be clues as to what had gone wrong. As soon as we got home, we got to work, and we’ve hardly slowed down since! Well, truthfully, we haven’t been that single-minded. We have been working on the boat quite steadily, but we’ve also been living our lives pretty normally; we eat and sleep, we play chess many days, we check our email and FaceBook accounts regularly. :-) Our lives right now are closer to when we had working jobs, in that our days are filled with projects, but we still alternate that with the activities of normal daily life – and some of our projects are boat improvement projects as well.

When we got home, with our expectations set for crisis mode, the boat was oddly peaceful and serene. Just 24 hours earlier, there had been close to a dozen people running all over her pumping out water and looking for leaks, but now the excess water was gone and everything seemed normal – if you didn’t look too hard. :-) There had been water up to the floorboards in both the front and back sections of the boat, with the center portion high and dry, which meant that the main bank of batteries (under the kitchen floor) was just fine. The forward section included the watermaker and the aft section includes the main engine. The first project was to make sure that the pumps were functional – the bilge pumps in both sections were not working, and we spent a day or so putting them back in functional order. The main pump turned out to be just fine, except that its batteries were dead; once we switched it to use the main batteries we had a working bilge pump again. We have since replaced those batteries and rewired the pump to use the main batteries instead of the starter batteries. The main batteries are constantly being charged by our solar and wind generators, but the starter batteries are only topped off when we turn on the chargers. When we are home, the chargers are turned on daily whenever we want 110V AC power for anything (like charging our tablets or using the microwave). We’ve also added a second backup pump in the main bilge, so this should never happen again. In the forward section we had to redo some wiring that had corroded away from being immersed in high water (that was salty). By the end of the first day, we had secured the boat and begun to form a theory about what had gone wrong. Although some of the pieces are still a little murky, here’s what we think happened: something (probably in the watermaker) broke and caused a water leak from our big water tanks; the pump that maintains the water pressure for faucets continued to pump water out that leak until the tanks were empty, which moved roughly 500 gallons of water from the tanks in the low center of the boat to somewhat higher up and in the forward area, causing the boat to bow down; this lowered the head (toilet) to below sea-level which pushed water up through the toilet, constantly flowing into the boat; once the forward bilge pump stopped working that process accelerated. The fuzzy sections include what was the original domino in the chain and how long there was a leak before the bilge pumps stopped working. The catastrophe happened because of several relatively minor failures compounding (a very common observation in risk management circles!), none of which would have been much of a problem if we’d been home.

After assuring that the boat was securely floating, we turned our focus on the main engine. It had been flooded with saltwater, which isn’t generally recommended for diesel motors. :-) There was oil all over the engine hold and the storage areas under the floorboards (including dozens of oil and fuel filters). Although our bilge is normally pretty oily, this was extreme! When we pumped the oil out of the engine (should have been 7 gallons, but we only got about 3), we also removed 15 gallons of water – not a good thing! We also removed 10 gallons of water from our transmission housing. We filled the engine with 5 gallons of “lightly used” oil donated to us by one of the other boaters who had just recently changed his oil. We surmised that water had gotten into the engine through the opening intended for the dipstick; water would have trickled down that hole as the oil floated out. Yuck! The starter motor was also a mess – it turns out that electric motors don’t like swimming in saltwater either. :-) We took that into San Salvador on the first of many trips in to the “big city”, a 90 minute drive that we’ve come to know well! We are so grateful that we have our own car now, rather than depending on the local bus system to get us back and forth! We took our car to a small mechanic shop to have the A/C fixed, and they were able to get the starter going too, by replacing a relay, a simple fix. So we went home again with air conditioning in our car and a step closer to a working engine. This was the first of what turned out to be many short-term successes in a process that has become a bit of a saga! We installed the starter again and were able to start the engine within just a couple of days. If that seems to good to be true, you’re right!

Our plan was to change the oil and start the engine frequently for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, after a couple of days we got less diligent and the engine sat unused for a few more days. When we tried to start it again, it wouldn’t catch. We noticed that there was more water in the oil so we changed it again. Then we turned to the fuel system, which we had previously thought had been spared because the top of it was above the high water level. After a couple of hours of trying to pump fuel through, we found that there was water in its oil as well. Ugh! The high-pressure fuel pump is one of the integral parts of the main motor that is unreplaceable. It’s more than 40 years old and no longer supported. If we couldn’t get this part working, then we would have to replace the entire engine. It took us a few hours to remove it; there are dozens of connections and many were hard to remove because they hadn’t been touched in more than a decade. We also tried to remove the six injectors, but only got one out that first day. We asked around and got a recommendation for a good diesel lab that might be able to rebuild the pump. We brought it in to the shop the next day and promised to bring in the rest of the injectors as soon as we could get them out. That turned out to be an extremely challenging endeavor! We ultimately brought in not one group of professionals, but two, and crafted a custom tool to help pull them – which needed to be beefed up twice and still ended up bending under the load! Ultimately we got all six of them out and the shop did a great job restoring them and the pump to working order. Slightly more than a week later we came home again with our (60 lb) pump and spent a day getting it installed again. Figuring out how to connect it back to the engine in such a way that the timing will work was quite the endeavor, but I won’t bore you with all of those gory details here. :-) The next day we worked on getting the injectors working. The engine would start – hooray! (again :-) ) – but there were leaks. We started the engine perhaps 10 times that day before the starter gave up the ghost again. We’ve spent the last week or so trying to get it sorted out so that we can get back to sorting out the fuel system problems. This project is providing lots of fodder for our emotions – in both directions! :-) It does appear that we’re now working on “peripheral” issues, and that the engine itself will live to take us further down our journey. (We’ve asked for a quote from the only shop locally that could even possibly remove and replace the engine, but they haven’t yet put it together. We expect that it will be a few tens of thousands of dollars!)

In the gaps between working on the engine, we’ve accomplished a few other things. :-) Before we left on our South American adventure, we hired a local man named Reymundo to refinish the cap rail around the boat’s perimeter. Reymundo is a very competent, reliable and pleasant person, and we were thrilled not only with the work he did but also at the chance to get to know him a bit better. We’ve also hired him to clean the bottom of the boat (he’s really thorough, and fast too!), and to keep an eye on Lungta while we were away (he’s the one who sounded the alarm when the “flooding” happened, and saved the day). But I digress. When he was preparing the caprail, he removed the solar panel wires that were secured to the wood to keep them out of sight. Rather than secure them the same way, we decided to install a PVC conduit underneath the shiny caprail. So one of our “bonus” projects this last month has been to install that conduit and run the wiring. It looks so much neater than before! We ended up purchasing quite a bit more PVC than we needed, though, and found another project that used some of it. :-) We have built a “corral” to hold our swim ladder, spare gas cans, buckets, etc. This is in the place where we’ve previously kept the motorcycle and then later our bicycles. As with the motorcycle, we decided that we just weren’t making good use of the bicycles – and were spending more time maintaining them than actually using them! We gave them to Reymundo (to thank him for rescuing our boat) and have already repurposed that space. The deck feels more spacious and organized!

Container Corral

Yesterday something unusual happened. We got a call on the radio, inviting us (and all the other boaters that are still in town) to come to the marina and share in a meal made by the participants in a television cooking competition show. The show, Top Chef, starts with 12 participants and runs for twelve weeks, eliminating one cook each week. Each episode is filmed in a different location, and this was the third in this season. We were told to arrive at 2:30, but when we did we found that they were still setting up. There were many dozens of people involved, and at least 8 cameras – one of them on a huge boom perhaps 20 feet long extending out over the water. We hung out with our friends David and SaM for more than 4 hours, talking with some of the judges (all of whom spoke English quite well!), watching the cooks at work out on the docks, speculating on what the rules were, etc. Somewhere around 6:30 the clock ran out and they participants were told to quit cooking. All of the people in the marina were herded towards a large group of tables, but most of the folks in the resort had already left for the day, so the seating was spotty. One of the contestants passed out from the heat, and the cameras rushed in along with the first-aid respondents. :-) Just as each team was beginning to portion the food out into 50 plates, a cool gust of wind kicked up many of the light-weight plastic plates – the sort of wind that precedes a real downpour! We jumped out of our chairs and rushed for the dinghy. We hadn’t closed up the boat for the evening, because we had no idea we’d be gone all afternoon. :-) We raced home through churned-up water, and arrived with only minutes to spare before the rain began pelting down. There was a good bit of lightning too, but we were safe and sound – and hungry! – back at home after a little adventure. You never know what life will look like when cruising!

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04-20-2016 – Peru

We spent 6 amazing weeks in Peru – and would have spent more time there if we could! We had heard that Peru was a great place to visit, but we didn’t really know what we were getting into. :-)

Border crossings are often chaotic, and the bus station in Arica, Chile was no exception as we tried to figure out how to get to Peru. We had taxis, collectivos and buses all vieing for our attention. The guy who was the pushiest was the driver of a collectivo car (which means that he leaves whenever he is able to fill his car). He already had three people in his small sedan, so we completed the load. The car was crowded tightly (6 adults in a standard size sedan), but the drive was only about an hour so we survived. :-) At the bus station in Tacna, Peru we slowly worked our way out the door but were unable to shake a particular “fly”, as we like to call the persistent vendors or hawkers or “agents” who press for our attention. This guy wanted to get us a taxi, recommend a hostel, help us exchange money, whatever he could think of to earn a tip. We kept declining, telling him that we wanted to stay in a hostel near the bus station so we could move on the next day. He walked across the street with us and pointed to the nicest of the options. We ended up in a huge room with a picture window looking out over a very busy corner. After settling in, we walked back to the bus station, exchanged our Chilean pesos for Peruvian soles, bought tickets for a morning bus to Arequipa, and wandered the nearby mercado. We bought some fruit for the next day, and found some really wonderful food for dinner at a stand in the “food court”. Even our first day in Peru was filled with stimulation!

The next morning we took a bus to Arequipa, a fairly large city about 7 hours northeast. Many of the long-distance buses are double-decker, and we’ve learned that the front row of the upper level has wonderful views of the passing scenery, along with a bit more leg-room. We were in a little bit of a hurry because we realized that Easter weekend was approaching, and in Latin America that is a BIG deal! We didn’t want to be searching for a bus or hostel late on Thursday, because we’d be fighting the crowds. We arrived in Arequipa mid-afternoon and took the first hostel we could find, shown to us by a friendly young “fly” who told us it would meet all of our needs. Unfortunately the bed turned out to be quite uncomfortable, so we quickly relocated the next morning, and then again the third morning. Ugh!

The historical city center is geared toward tourists; it’s full of boutiques, restaurants, tour agencies, and hostels. There were indeed big crowds in the city, and we saw a few events focused on the Easter holiday. Surprisingly Thursday had the most – or at least the most obvious. :-) We saw a procession at the tail end of a reenactment of the Passion of Christ, where a number of men were carrying a limp body on a platform and they disappeared into the cathedral. There was a young woman sobbing passionately on a loudspeaker and three wooden crosses standing in the corner of the square. Later that night, huge crowds circled the square and poured in and out of several of the nearby churches and convents. We had a delightful dinner in a restaurant across the street from one of them, and enjoyed the view through the front windows. We expected that we would see the same on the following nights, but Thursday was the only night that these buildings were open to large crowds. Of course there were Easter masses held in the cathedral on Sunday, and we saw another procession on Saturday night where a parade float of Mary (?) was carried around the streets accompanied by a marching band and a crowd of women with scarves over their heads carrying incense and candles. It was an interesting time to be in the city! Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city with great views of a couple of nearby volcanoes, but we were ready to move on.

Arequipa Cathedral  Semana Santa Crowds

After the Semana Santa festivities, we hopped on a bus to a nearby canyon which provides lots of recreational opportunities, especially hiking. Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon (the first is nearby Cotahuasi Canyon, only 163 meters deeper). We got off at the town of Cabanaconde, at 3280 meters (or 10600 feet to us Americans) above sea level, where we spent the night in a hostel full of energetic young hikers from around the (western) world, all preparing for various treks into the canyon. We had dinner with Nick from Seattle and Michelle from Germany, and decided to leave together in the morning for a three-day trek. The scenery was spectacular, and we only encountered a few people on the trail that day, almost all heading down. The trail had many sections with loose gravel, making for unsure footing. After the first couple of hours it was apparent that we were not at the same level as Nick and Michelle, who went on ahead at a faster pace while we slowed down with tired muscles and forming blisters. About 6 hours into our trek, the trail crossed a road which we followed for the next hour or so. At the bottom of the canyon, a quarter mile up river, there was a geyser in the middle of the river. We crossed the bridge and came around a bend to see a small town which we briefly celebrated as our destination, Llahuar (pronounced “ya-whar”). Then we realized that it was so tiny it couldn’t even have a restaurant, much less a hostel. Our conversation went something like: “There it is!”, “Ya? Whar?” :-) We slogged the next mile or so down the ridge to another river and up again to the real Llahuar, which seemed to consist almost entirely of a single hostel, the Llahuar Lodge. When we dragged ourselves in the front door, we immediately met our friends who were enjoying lunch and an amazing view. Then Yola emerged from the kitchen and greeted each of us with a warm hug! Delightful and heart-warming! We rested a few minutes in the dining area – which has an unbelievably beautiful view – before being shown to our room. Although the location is quite rustic, the room was extremely comfortable.

View into Colca CanyonYola of Llahuar Lodge

We were surprised and disappointed at how challenging we had found the trek (our legs were painful for 3 days afterwards, and Dan is likely to lose 4 of his toenails as a result). There was no way we were going to be able to continue on the next day as planned. We visited with another couple, Maria and Alex, who are German but currently live in New Zealand. They arrived at the lodge accompanied by a sweet dog – which was not theirs! They had tried to turn it back towards the town it came from, but he persisted in joining them for more than 4 hours along the trail. It turns out that there are half a dozen of these dogs, which have a home base but disappear for a few days at a time, trekking around the valley with all of the tourists who pass through every day. The next morning we said goodbye to both sets of friends, who continued their treks on through the valley – but we knew that we would see them at the top in another couple of days. Although we were sad to relinquish our plans of trekking back out of the valley, we were equally pulled to the pleasures of staying an additional day at the lodge. We had not expected to find such a pleasant refuge at the bottom of the canyon! We spent some time in the geothermally-fed swimming pools at the bottom of the property along the river. (Some people jump back and forth between the warm pools and the chilly river – but we just watched!) We helped Yola prepare dinner in the evening, and we enjoyed a couple of sweet conversations with her about her life’s story. It was truly a heart-warming experience! We learned that there was a bus (or more accurately, a 12 passenger van) that passed by daily at 11, and so on the third day, rather than hike back up the same way we had come down, we hiked up to the road and waited. As we sat in the warm sunshine, two German boys (traveling in their “gap year” between finishing high school and starting university) joined us. Half an hour later, 5 Spanish vagabonds also arrived. When the bus finally showed up, it was basically full, but we doubled the passenger count! Kathy was sitting on the housing for the engine, which got extremely hot – she had to shift from one cheek to the other every few minutes. :-) It was a very uncomfortable ride for nearly everyone – but no one decided that they’d rather walk the 12 miles with more than 4000 feet of elevation gain! We were all glad to arrive back at the main square of Cabanaconde, at the top of the canyon! We met up with our friends who had hiked the whole way, and had a pleasant but exhausted dinner together at the hostel.

Entrance to Llahuar Lodge

After a good night’s rest, we hopped on a bus for a 6 hour ride to the city of Puno, located on the shores of Lake Titicaca. This huge lake is known for being the largest navigable lake at high altitude – and by “high altitude”, they mean 3860 meters, or almost 12,500 feet. We arrived late on Friday night, and were pleasantly surprised to discover an amazing market going on in the streets the next morning. There must have been thirty city blocks taken over by small stands selling all kinds of stuff, from clothing to hardware to food. We were amazed to see one stand selling big wash basins made from truck tires, where a large tread was handsewn around a disk of rubber, and handles were also sewn on. Ingenious! We were also tickled at the large selection of animals for sale, from chickens and goats and guinea pigs to puppies and kittens – at first we were a bit concerned for the safety of the puppies, but we convinced ourselves that they were indeed intended as pets! We also saw a cool tool that looked a lot like a Swiss Army knife, but consisted of a fork, spoon and eating knife; we now regret a little not having purchased them – for just under $5! We signed up for a tour (and are just a little bit embarrassed to admit to it :-) ) which took us out to three of the islands in Lake Titicaca. The first was horribly touristy, which was not surprising but disappointing nonetheless. Over the last 1000 years, the Uros people have constructed and lived on a group of “floating Islands” from reeds growing on the lake’s shores. But they are no longer refugees from the Incas, and many of them actually live in the city, returning to the islands greet the tourists. The historical story and cultural traditions are fascinating, but the sense that it is just a show is off-putting. They opened up a “grandma’s attic” of clothing for the tourists to try on and photograph themselves, and gave a lecture/demonstration of how the reeds are piled together to produce a firm surface capable of supporting half a dozen tiny buildings. Walking on the islands feels somewhat like walking on a very firm waterbed.

Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca

The second stop was the reason that we signed up for the tour. It was a homestay opportunity on the island of Amantani. While the Uros people speak Aymara, the folks here speak Quechua. Although Spanish is the national language of Peru, Quechua is the second most spoken language, and Aymara a distant third. Our host family consisted of 65-year-old Sebastiana, her middle-aged daughter Paula, and her 15-year-old son Juan Carlos. Although they host guests a number of times a year (our guide told us that the tour boats use a rotation system among the dozen or so communities, so no one gets overloaded), they were warm and friendly to us. We had a very nice lunch, followed by an outing of the whole tour group (about 30 people) up to a pair of temples on nearby peaks at the top of the island. Since we were at altitude (the peak was more than 4000 meters/13,750 feet) and our legs were still quite tight, we only went to one of them. Pachamama (Mother Earth) is an octagonal pre-Inca structure still used for annual sacrifices (mostly crops) to the gods. Our tour guide told us to find three small stones, circle the temple counter-clockwise three times and deposit the stones inside for good fortune this coming year – who could pass up such advice? The island is divided into many small plots and terraces of farmed land, where they use a rotation system between grains (such as wheat, barley and quinoa), potatoes, vegetables, and a season of rest. We began descending shortly before sunset, which was a good choice because dark set in quickly. We got back to our house with the help of a neighbor who was passing by, and Sebastiana served us another delicious vegetarian meal (the tour guide had explained that the islanders were exclusively vegetarian for financial reasons). Paula and Juan Carlos joined us, but Sebastiana had eaten earlier. Juan Carlos told us that he was beginning high school the very next day, and that the school was in another community an hour’s walk away; he would begin to learn English as one of his new classes. We were pleased with ourselves for learning to say “thank you” in Quechua, although it took half a dozen times for it to begin to stick! (It sounds something like “you-spa-ra-soong-key”.) We slept in a bed covered with 3 heavy wool blankets and a down comforter – and were glad for every one of them! The bathroom was a separate building set between the kitchen and bedrooms around the center courtyard. The toilet was modern, but without a seat or plumbed water: there was a nearby bucket of water with a pitcher that one used to scoop up water to flush the toilet manually. We left with a warm place in our hearts for Sebastiana and her family. In the morning, Paula handed Kathy an armfull of branches of an herb that is used for a minty tea we’d enjoyed, called muña. Sebastiana walked us down to the dock, where we reboarded our tour boat that took us to another island called Taquile. This island also had some pre-Inca ruins, but we decided to pass on that walk and instead spent the hour in the town square watching the town come to life. Nearly everyone wears their traditional clothing, and many of them have their hands busy whenever they are walking, often spinning yarn or even knitting. The men wear hats that boldly declare their marital status which they knit themselves; a fully red hat is worn by a married man, while a half-red/half-white hat means a single man. When the group came together again, we walked across the island to a home that was set up to serve lunch for 30. They gave us a presentation that included a demonstration of a couple of dances, some knitting and weaving, and a few other local specialties. This visit also pushed our “tourist overload” buttons, and we were glad to board the boat back across the lake at the end of the day!

Host Family on Amantani  Archway of Pachamama Temple

From Puno we boarded a bus bound for Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire and gateway to the Sacred Valley. Similar to Arequipa, this is a large city with a well-preserved historical center. The center of town is packed full of tourist-focused businesses, including tour agencies, restaurants, hostels and souvenir shops – and a surprising addition here is massage spas. We chose our hostel based on a second-hand recommendation from Sarah, a girl we met in Puno. Although she didn’t end up staying at the same place, we ran into her the next day and spent a wonderful afternoon together, having lunch at a terrific vegan restaurant followed by a massage for each of us – it was the best massage Dan had ever had in his life! Kathy really wanted to visit Machu Picchu, but we decided to forego the Inca Trail for a number of reasons (including cost, availability, time and concerns about our level of physical preparedness), and we signed up for another tour that took care of the transportation, lodging and entrance fee, and included a 2-hour overview tour with a guide. After trekking, a train is the most popular way to get the 30 miles from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of the peak where Machu Picchu is located and which is often called Machu Picchu Village. These trains are surprisingly expensive, though, roughly $150 a person, so we decided to take a 3-hour tourist bus to the nearest stop possible, called Hidroelectrico – you guessed it, a hydroelectric plant! – and hike the remaining 9 kilometers along the railway. The entire way we were surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery, which unbelievably continued to get more dramatic as we approached our destination. We walked along the Urubamba River most of the way, which was wild and noisy and full of dirt eroding away. Kathy was fighting “Montezuma’s Revenge” (Pachacutec’s Revenge?), so was trudging along pretty slowly, but we arrived before dark and were relieved to have the work of selecting a hostel already taken care of. The village was much larger and more bustling in a tourist-oriented way than we expected (which should not have been a surprise, for one of the world’s top travel destinations!). We had a snafu in hooking up with our tour guide that evening (we thought we were supposed to meet him in the plaza at 7pm, but there was no one there), and went to bed feeling discouraged that, since we didn’t yet have our entrance tickets, we would have to buy new ones ($46 apiece!) in the morning. A couple of hours later there was a knock at our door, and our guide introduced himself and told us where to meet up with him in the morning – we were very impressed! Because Kathy was still drained, we decided to take a bus up and down the mountain, rather than climb 1000 meters of uneven rock stairway. The bus took 30 minutes to wind back and forth up the face of the mountain. Our guide did a nice job of dividing his time between English and Spanish and giving us an overview of the site. At the end we lost the group (unintentionally, but not with much sadness :-) ), and we spent the last half hour on our own. We were impressed at the natural grandeur, the amazing engineering feat, the sense of history, and the crowds (even though it’s still low season, and the guide told us that in the high season one would never be able to get a selfie photo in front of any of the features)! We were fortunate to arrive on a day in between rainy days, where our sky was mostly blue. Our hike back along the railroad tracks and the tourist bus back to Cusco were uneventful.

Train to Machu Picchu  Machu Picchu Vista  Windows of Inca-Carved Stones

One day while we were in Cusco (we stayed almost a week), we noticed that a lot of people were dressed in fancier clothing than usual, and then that there was a lot of activity in one of the parks we walked by. We wandered closer to see what was going on. There were a few bands warming up and quite a few small groups of dancers practicing moves. Many of the performers in this park were dressed in outrageous costumes of fantastical figures, but others simply had on traditional clothes made from fancy fabrics. We watched for a while but didn’t really understand what we were seeing. We asked a local, and the answer seemed to be that it was an annual event celebrating something like the founding of the city. When we headed back towards our hostel, we passed the main square which was also filled with dancers. A platform had been set up in front of the cathedral with a dozen or so people sitting on chairs viewing a parade, while crowds gathered nearby also to watch. The parade consisted of a group after group of performers dressed in matching attire, each of which performed a dance accompanied by their own small group of musicians. The dances typically seemed to tell a story of the harvest or courtship, and often included a few simple props such as a stalk of corn, a whip, or a colorful bundle of pompoms. Most of the performers were teenagers or slightly older, but many groups included one or more elders, who we envisioned were passing on the local traditions. We decided that the groups must represent towns or clans from the surrounding areas. We watched for more than an hour, fascinated by all of the activity and people who surrounded us!

Cusco Day Parade  Local Dancers in Cusco Day Parade  Traditional Dresses for Cusco Parade  Cusco Cathedral

There are an incredible number of sites, mostly archaeological, near Cusco. We quickly became overwhelmed with the tourist “scene” though, and felt less inclined to visit any more. However, we had heard of an “off-the-beaten-path” site, a “new” place if you will, that caught our interest. People were calling it Rainbow Mountain, although the local name is Vinicunca; either way it can be described as a natural wonder. A bit of a Google search produced a couple of blog sites from people who had sniffed it out on their own, and a few photos that were repeated over and over again. Later we turned up a couple of guide services that either were quite pricey or didn’t include a price, but one of them had a local address and we tracked them down. We found Gregory Tours in a tiny space but conveniently located near the main square (Plaza de Armas). They told us that they “created” this tour! While it had begun to sound as if we’d need to have 4-6 days, this place also offered 1- and 2-day options. We decided to go for the 1-day hike, because we’re starting to notice that our three months are rapidly disappearing. :-) The hike goes through very high altitude, so the tour included a horse and oxygen bottle in case of emergency. This was the deciding factor in whether to try to find the place on our own or to go with the tour. Our friends from Colca Canyon had told us about this tour, and mentioned that Michelle had had troubles with the altitude, even displaying blue lips for several hours! The path spends several hours over 4000 meters (13,100 feet) and perhaps an hour over 5000 meters (16,400 feet). After our Colca Canyon experience we were a little concerned that we might slow down a group, but that concern was allayed when we found that there was only one other person with us on the hike – a real treat! We were picked up at our hostel at 4am for a 3 hour drive to the trailhead. The drive got off to an awkward start when our driver made a wrong turn and ended up going against traffic on a highway, but he backed up 100 yards and found the correct entrance. It turned out that it was his first time doing this tour, and our guide had only done it once before. But we arrived safely at our hike’s starting point, a llama farm (which also had some sheep and horses), along with half a dozen other tour vans. :-( One group of roughly 15 people headed out just before us, but soon left us in their dust. We hiked across a pasture with dozens, maybe hundreds, of llamas grazing nearby, and up a stream bed which became a minor waterfall before we were done with it. The next 4 hours we moved steadily upwards, across beautiful terrain with stunning mountain peaks (some snow-covered) and steep river gorges. Over the course of the day we were frequently passed by local people heading up the mountain carrying several long poles each, perhaps 8 feet in length. We wondered what was going on, but our guides couldn’t really say. It turned out that they were building a fence to help keep the livestock (llamas) on the right side of the ridge – and perhaps the tourists as well! The Inca culture has a tradition similar to the Catholic tithing, where a day or two each month is allocated to community work. We saw more than 25 people participating in this project, from early morning until after dusk. As we approached our destination, we began to see the colored stripes of rock that gave the hike its name. Our companion Marcella struggled with the altitude, and ended up riding the horse for an hour or so, but hiked the last steep quarter mile on her own for a breathtaking (literally and figuratively!) view of the ridge. Most tours double back at this point, returning the way we all started, but our tour continued down the other side and around a sparkling lake. We got closer to the Ausungate peak, which is a local holy spot, reaching more than 6000 meters (19,600 feet), and truly awe-inspiring. We stopped for a surprisingly large lunch in a meadow overlooking the pretty lake (sorry, don’t remember the name!), and quickly wrapped up when it began sleeting – tiny little pellets of ice which bounced energetically when they hit the ground. We got a little nervous when they began accumulating in the troughs, but it blew over fairly soon and uneventfully. We crossed through more pastures with llamas before coming back to the farm where we began our day. Our tired but satisfied group nodded off most of the 3 hour drive back to Cusco.

Llamas in VinicuncaLocal Work DayRainbow Mountain Summit View

Ausungate Lake

We decided not to dilute our “peak” experiences of Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain with a myriad of other interesting but less significant sites, so we left Cusco on a high note. :-) We headed north across the rest of Peru – which is most of it! But we had one more major stop, which we’ll cover in a separate blog entry: a visit to the Amazon Basin. We broke our travel up into several legs of 8 to 20 hour bus trips, mostly overnighters, with our first stop in Lima. Lima is located along the coast, and it was pleasant to spend a few hours at sea level again before continuing on to the small city of Huaraz. Huaraz is fairly central, once again up in the mountains at just over 3000 meters (almost 10,000 feet). This town is a popular jumping off point for outdoor adventurers, located in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which is home to many of Peru’s largest peaks. But we were just stopping in for a short visit to a very old city, called Chavin de Huantar, built some time around 1000 B.C. Although we investigated taking another tour, we decided to do this one on our own. We found a bus line that went to the nearby town, about 3 hours away on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, and purchased some tickets for the next morning. The bus ride was a real local experience – there were even chickens packed in half a dozen crates loaded on the roof – and we loved it! It went up and up and up, more than 1000 meters (3200 feet), and then went through a short tunnel before winding its way back down. Just after passing through the tunnel we were greeted by a huge statue of a Jesus figure. When we arrived in town, we quickly purchased our return tickets and then set about finding our way to the ruins on the outskirts of town. Chavin is a sweet but sleepy town that doesn’t actually host many tourists. We stopped half a dozen people on our way, to confirm our route, and got slightly confused directions, but we eventually got there and enjoyed our visit to the oldest continually occupied place (yet) known in the Americas. The city was built on a mountain at the confluence of two rivers. It was built in several waves, with the older temples being revised into new ones. They apparently started by flattening the mountain top and building it back up, with layers of stone structures, including a well-designed system of drainage and ventilation. There was also evidence that these passages were designed to transmit sounds, especially the sounds of a conch trumpet that would then echo around and emerge quite dramatically in the main plaza. There was a huge temple building that was constructed with a main stairway divided in half, one side made of black stone and one side white. The sight must have been quite impressive, when a priest emerged from a small doorway and suddenly seemed to appear high above accompanied by the moving musical sounds! Lots of carvings on the walls also imply that their rituals probably involved psychedelic substances derived from local plants and a focus on transformation into the form of their god(s) that was rather feline in appearance. There are a series of carved heads attached to the outer walls which seem to show that progression, from human to more and more god-like. Inside the temple is a labyrinth of passages, and a small chamber where an elaborately carved stone figure could be seen lighted up by the sun on December 21st.

Lima's Sinusoidal Beach  Chavin de Huantar  Chavin Head Carving  Jesus Statue in Cordillera Blanca

After visiting this impressive site we were ready to continue our travels north. We arranged for another 20+ hour bus ride to Trujillo, where there are a few smaller nearby ruins available for touring. Unfortunately though, when we arrived Kathy was again having trouble with her belly, so we decided to stay in town for the day – near a bathroom. :-P From Trujillo we pressed on to Tarapoto, another overnight bus, and when we arrived mid-day we grabbed a collectivo car along with a Norwegian man currently living near the jungle town of Iquitos. He was an interesting character, splitting his time between this home in the jungle and another above the Arctic Circle – neither of which had electricity or running water! He had an “indian family” that looked after his place in Peru when he was gone, and it sounded like they lived cooperatively when he was there. And he enjoyed ice fishing when in Norway. Quite a hardy and adventurous individual! We arrived in Yurimaguas late in the afternoon, the gateway town to visiting this portion of the Amazon Basin. But that’s a story for another posting…

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03-25-2016 – Chile

They say that all good things must end, and sad to say, our cruise was no exception. We spent the last week cruising north through Chilean waters, but unfortunately had to bypass the fjord region because of a medical emergency. The captain had to take the fastest route possible to the next port, and that did not include meandering between dozens or hundreds of rocky islands. He shaved 12 hours off of the travel time over 2 days. Although the ship is prepared for medical problems, it comes at a cost; we heard through the grapevine that the medical care costs of the patient onboard reached $20,000.

Afterwards we had two port stops: Puerto Chacabuco and Puerto Montt. The approach to Puerto Chacabuco took several hours of winding down a long inlet, with spectacular scenery along the way. The inlet ended in a deep basin big enough for a couple of cruise ships to swing around at anchor – which was a good thing, because although Puerto Chacabuco has a only about 1000 inhabitants, we happened to be there on a day when a second cruise boat was passing through from the other direction. All of the local transportation was quickly “soaked up” by prearranged excursions, so we were unable to arrange for a rental car or taxi to take us to neighboring sights. We poked around town for a bit, looking for a trail that would take us up into the local hills, but took 2 or 3 false starts, ending at fences marking off private property. We sat down in a shady spot by the side of the road in a quiet neighborhood overlooking the harbor, and struck up a conversation with a local who was walking by. He took us to a gate a couple of blocks away, clearly marked “Private Property – Do Not Pass”, and told us that if we climbed over the fence (there was a stile right next to the gate), then we would find a trail that went around the harbor. Emboldened by his permission, we set off on a delightful walk through the woods. The trail began as a road, but soon shrank to a walking trail that slowly and steadily climbed as it traversed the harbor. We stopped for a bit at a sweet stream burbling its way down to the harbor, and drank in the view, enjoying the observation that we were above the level of the cruise ship’s 12th floor. As we retraced our steps, we passed a local walking the same trail and were reassured that we weren’t too far out of line by crossing that gate. The stop at Puerto Chacabuco was a short one for the cruise boat, since under normal circumstances the entrance through the inlet is done pre-dawn and they want the opportunity to see it during the afternoon daylight hours. It was every bit as beautiful in the other direction!

Chacabuco Overlook

Puerto Montt is a much larger town, set in a highland lakes region. We tracked down a local bus to Puerto Varas, which is right on one of those lakes and is the gateway to some nearby parks. Although there are volcanos, waterfalls, and significant amounts of amazing scenery, we decided to forego a “quickie” trip that day. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the town, whose architecture has a huge German influence. We found a toy shop that carried a magnetic chess set (we had been looking during the last several stops, and even learned the Spanish for this unusual purchase: “juego de ajedrez magnetico”), so we were thrilled to walk away to actually find one (playing on the computer just doesn’t have the same feel). We even played a game while sitting on a park bench before returning to the ship.

Chess Anyone?

A few more things that we enjoyed about our cruise: There is a small netted off area on the top deck with a couple of ping-pong tables. There is an ice cream bar open all afternoon. Even after two weeks on the boat we were discovering new features. They have a naturalist on board who gave a talk every morning that we weren’t in port. Peter was excited to hear about our travels, and reminisced with us about his days of backpacking before he “settled down”; now he splits his time between an organization he founded to train tour guides in Vietnam and sharing his knowledge on this boat. He’s been around the Horn more than 40 times! Last – but definitely not least in our hearts – we met a couple at dinner one night who we really hit it off with. Michael and Cate are two nurses from Indianapolis that think about life in similar ways to us. We hope that you’ll hear more about them in future updates!

We pulled into Valparaiso early on a Saturday, found the bus station with our new friends and fondly bid them adieu. Then we wandered off to a nicer part of town to find a hostel. This port city is quite picturesque, although like many cities it can vary quite a bit from one neighborhood to the next. It’s built on a series of hills clustered around a huge bowl of a harbor. The centrally located neighborhood that we enjoyed is centered on Cerro Alegre (Happy Hill). A number of the hills have an inexpensive funicular allowing one to bypass the stairs, and we took it just for fun! This neighborhood is geared towards tourists: loaded with hostels, restaurants, and boutiques. There are wonderful murals painted on virtually every building, many of them quite creative. Although there are lots of walking tours around town, we ended up crafting our own. We wandered up in search of a great vista, which did not take long. :-) There is lots of maritime activity, including navy boats, freighters, tour boats, fishing boats, and of course the occasional cruise boat. The hills are covered with cheerfully painted houses in pastel hues. There are quite a number of churches in this city, many of them with distinctive spires. It was fun to hear them all ringing one evening around 7pm; they weren’t well-synchronized, so the peals seemed to drift around the city. We enjoyed our first empanadas (playfully described by our naturalist friend as “bundles of joy”), and found a chocolate shop that made bars on site. We got a couple extra for the road.

Valparaiso Mural  Another Cool Mural

After enjoying a couple of fairly leisurely days in Valparaiso, we began our backpacking trip north, starting with a 15 hour overnight bus to La Serena. The long-distance buses are double-decker, with fully-reclining seats on the lower level and ‘semi-bed’ recliners on the upper level. We opted for the ‘semi-cama’ class, and both loved the views during the daylight hours but regretted the choice during the night. The costs are reasonable – we paid about $20USD for this trip, but since we will be traveling 2/3 of the length of the continent, they will add up! Although the town of La Serena is a beach town and a university town, it did not grab our hearts. We stayed in a hostel that was part of a family’s home. It appeared to have 2 or 3 generations of women running the business, but no men (or anyone else!) helping to keep the place in good repair. We’ve noticed that the homes and even shops in these countries south of the US have a different division of inside and outside than we are used to. For example, the sitting room in this home/hostel had a ceiling originally open to the sky, but later covered with a very light, flexible plastic sheeting that let in light and, since the panels weren’t sealed to one another, rain. This country is fairly dry, though, so a couple of buckets have a subdued (but continuous?) presence in the room. There was another living space that they called their terrace, which also had a half-in, half-out feel to it. It had a couch and table arrangement, opposite a work-out machine. This room had a couple of guitars tucked in the corner, which caught Dan’s eye, so one afternoon he enjoyed a few minutes of strumming and reconnecing with his inner musiician. We visited a Chinese restaurant one night and puzzled over some of the items on the menu, in particular a whole section called “Teeth of the Dragon”. When we asked, the proprietor disappeared for a moment and returned with a small bowl filled with bean sprouts!

Just a 10-hour bus ride away, our next stop was San Pedro de Atacama, a small town that has become the gateway to the recreational delights of the Atacama Desert, including trips to nearby Bolivia (since Bolivia charges a $160 “reciprocity fee” from Americans for a visa, we sadly chose not to head that way). For this leg we took a daytime bus, and enjoyed the spectacular scenery all the way. Although it’s extremely dry and there isn’t much foliage, the mountains are created from colorful rock, pushed up from an ancient seabed and slowly eroded over eons to form a myriad of shapes and features. The region boasts volcanoes, geysers and canyons. The moment we arrived we were “invited” to sign up for numerous tours of the region’s highlights. After settling into a hostel, we ended up signing up for a half-day trip to see the nearby geyser field – a couple of days later. First we wanted to do the usual chores: bank, food, figure our way around town. In addition we decided to stop by a pharmacy to pick up some medicine for a cough that Dan had been fighting for more than a week. They recommended that we go to the public health clinic and see a doctor. Although it took us the better part of the afternoon, it was a good choice. The doctor he saw treated him respectfully and knowledgeably. She gave him a treatment that helped clear his lungs immediately, wrote a prescription for an antibiotic, and tested him for tuberculosis (since he had told her that his cough had lingered for a long time). Chile’s president has set a goal to have Chile be a First World nation by 2020, and although it may be a stretch goal, we’re impressed that they’re even in the ballpark! The medical care here felt like there was more centralized oversight than in some of the other places we’ve visited. We ran into no graft, or even talk of it, and banks were readily available. As with most places around the world, though, conditions vary widely between the large cities and all of the smaller and more remote towns. Even in Valparaiso, we were surprised at how inconsistent the sidewalks were – and the amount of dog poop and litter all around! The infrastructure of roads varies a lot from one region to another – even some of the roads traveled by the larger buses are still just packed dirt. We did see a number of extremely poor neighborhoods with abysmal housing, clearly without power or running water. We don’t know the specifics of his plan, or how they are progressing, and although it seems unlikely that they will fully attain that goal in just a few years, it is admirable that they are striving to improve their country. Unfortunately the task is made more difficult by the current downturn in commodities. Chile is a major exporter of copper (and other precious metals?), and many of their mines are shutting down. We were pleased to see several wind farms and solar power stations, mostly in the desert. (Dan flirted with the idea of turning Lungta into an electric vehicle by removing our sails entirely and replacing them with two of the huge windmills. Unfortunately, the multi-million dollar price-tag is out of our reach – at least for now! :-) ).

The geyser tour turned out to be an excellent choice. It leaves at 4:30am – they told us that it was to maximize the temperature differential that drives the geyser activity, but we’re not sure that makes sense. There are over 100 vents and geysers in the area, which created a somewhat surreal scene during the pre-dawn hours when we arrived. There were clouds of steam rising from rocky creches in the sandy terrain all around, some of which also contained small pools of near-boiling water. Our driver/guide immersed a sack of eggs and boxed chocolate milk in one of these pools, and 10 minutes later served up a cute breakfast of hot chocolate, hard-boiled eggs, cookies and cheese sandwiches. He drove us to a handful of spots with clusters of geysers, and explained that some are continuous and some erupt periodicallly. The feel of the place changed over time as the sun came up, but the geysers continued to do their thing. There was a swimming hole warmed by geothermal water, and we took a dip – it was fun, but not quite warm enough to make us glad to get out again. On our way back to town, we saw a variety of local wildlife, including vicuñas (related to llamas, but undomesticated and even smaller than the guanacos we saw in Argentina), flamingos (three varieties!), and long-tailed rabbits. We also stopped at a place the driver called Cactus Canyon that had experienced significant flooding in February that had completely changed its character. He told us that it used to be a lush area filled with pampas grass and small shrubs, but what we saw reminded us of the Toutle River Valley after the Mount St. Helens eruption.

Tatio Geyser

That afternoon, we rented a pair of bicycles and headed out of town to visit the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), reputed to be THE place to watch the sunset. We pedalled through a blessedly flat valley to get there, but once we arrived the park road bent upwards and did not promise to let off. We resorted to walking our bikes for a while – you know, just to the next bend – when a red SUV pulled alongside us and offered a ride. We didn”t hesitate a moment before tossing our bikes in the back and climbing aboard! Although we just thought we’d go to the nearest site with a western view, our host took us all the way to the end of the road (only about 12km/7miles). There was an abandoned mine there that we poked around for a short while, amazed that the deep entrance wasn’t cordoned off in any way, not even any signage! Two of the 3 guys in the car climbed roughly 20 feet down to see if they could see any water (not!), while we enjoyed the magnificent view. We retraced our route to the best sunset-viewing lookout and went our separate ways. After locking our bikes up in the parking area, we followed the well-trodden path 3/4 of a mile and up maybe 750 feet to a ridgeline at the confluence of several canyons. The view was indeed amazing! And we didn’t arrive a moment too soon; we only spent about 15 minutes there before the sun was moving behind the mountains. Kathy was nervous about being on the highway after dark, so we headed back down the hill and made our way down the road. As we rode, the sunset continued to develop. This evening was the only one we saw where there were a good number of clouds in the sky, which made for a gorgeous sunset – the sky behind us seemed on fire as we exited the park! Although we did indeed end up getting home after dark, the flashlight that Dan had packed assured that the journey was uneventful.

Moonscape in Moon Valley  Moon Valley Sky

As we had rented the bikes for 24 hours, we still had them the next morning. Although we had intended to get an early start, to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures, we were tired from our ride the previous evening (and also our butts were sore!). So we didn’t get out of town until almost 11. This time we headed into a different canyon that we had heard would be unlikely to have many tourists. :-) The route took us along a wide creek with huge hills on either side. About 6km/4miles in, there was a fork to the left that mentioned a tunnel (“tonel”). Being the curious sort, we followed that path, which turned upwards fairly quickly and did not slacken for quite a while. The road had clearly been designed for vehicles, but we kept wondering why anyone would go to such trouble out here in the middle of nowhere; perhaps mining? It had not been in use for quite some time, though; it was rough and pitted and there were quite a few large holes, some of them in man-made stone bridges that were open below. We wore out quickly and ended up walking our bikes more than a mile constantly asking ourselves if it was time to turn around. But we finally reached the entrance to the tunnel, which was marked “1930”. We walked its length, perhaps a quarter of a mile, passing a short section where a portion of the roof had collapsed (!). The other side gave us no more of a clue than the first as to why all the effort had been expended to build this road and tunnel. As we looked around, a couple emerged from the tunnel and we struck up a conversation. He was the organizer of an annual mountain-bike race that went down this road, and was investigating the state of the road, to evaluate how safe it was and develop plans to get an ambulance there if needed. He told us that this was the old road to Calama, the nearest city, and that there was no mining in these hills. Mystery solved. :-) Our trip down was exhilarating (but uneventful), and we were wiped out by the time we returned our bikes that afternoon.

Tunnel to Nowhere  Biking in Quebrada

Since then, we’ve been busing north for a few days. We first took a bus to the beach-side city of Iquique (isn’t that a cool name?!), thinking we’d stay a few days, but then changed our minds and moved on to Arica, and across the border to Peru. The scenery has been amazing, although almost entirely desert, even where it fronts the sea. The mountains have smoothly eroded tops, and sand dunes are periodically found snuggling up in a corner below a cliff. Most of the valleys have a trickle of water running at the bottom, but for the most part this region has no vegetation. An hour after we left San Pedro, all of the color was gone, and everything was a pale tan/taupe color. It was a shock to come over the ridge to Iquique and see the blue of the ocean! But it wasn’t enough to hold us. Peru beckons…

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