Patagonia: Part 2

Puerto Natales

Puerto Natales is a small town that is essentially the gateway for getting to Torres del Paine.  Everyone I knew that had been to Torres del Paine told me that I really needed to go.  So, I arrived in Puerto Natales after a 5 hour bus ride from El Calafate, not really sure if I’d be able to give Torres del Paine the time that it really deserved.  I booked 3 nights at small hostel, hoping that I could do some type of day trek and see at least some of the greatness that Torres del Paine has to offer….. at least from afar.

I first located the tourism office down near the water and was informed that there were day trips up to Torres del Paine, but that a real excursion through the park would require anywhere from 2 to 7 days of trekking.  I wasn’t equipped for camping, nor did I have reservations for one of the hostels that were already booked.  I easily found a tour company in the center of town that assured me that I’d see the sights that I wanted to see.  I signed up not realizing that instead of a day of hiking, I instead would be driven around in a van with other people, making 14 stops along the way for some light hiking, photo-ops, and an occasional snack.  I’ll admit that initially, I was frustrated and a bit disappointed at myself for the lack of planning on my part and the limited exposure I would have with Torres del Paine.  But dealing with cold weather and extremely strong winds all day long left me exhausted and somewhat happy that everything worked out the way that it did.

It also gave me the time to relax and enjoy myself in the sleepy town of Puerto Natales.  Some of the highlights of my stay in Puerto Natales included having a beer at Baguales, a local brewpub in town.  I also came across a small vegetarian soup and sandwich shop called El Living.  While I’m not a vegetarian by nature, I was happy with the healthy food served and the availability of mate.  And with a small bookcase filled with old magazines (both in English and Spanish), I did not lack for any reading material, which was nice considering I haven’t read much since my Nook got stolen in Buenos Aires.

Punta Arenas

If you’re looking to visit the southern most, accessible city in South America so that you can brag about being at “The End of the World”, then you’d likely visit Ushuaia.  But, if you want to visit the southernmost city in South America of respectable size, then you’d visit Punta Arenas.  I was disappointed that my planning had left me unable to visit Ushuaia, but was still happy to be far enough south to be in the Magallanes region of South America.  I needed to go through Punta Arenas so that I could catch a flight to Santiago, Chile.  Initially, I didn’t have much interest in Punta Arenas and was only planning a night or two.  Instead, I recognized the need for some down time and scheduled 3 nights there.  Punta Arenas turned out to be a much more pleasant experience than I had expected.

I first checked into my hostel, Patagonia House, a house that has been re-configured to be a hostel.  A family lives there while guests from all over the world stay in the other available rooms.  While relaxing in your room upstairs, it’s not uncommon to hear some the kids playing Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto on their video game system right outside your door.  It’s never too loud and the place has a comfy, feeling like staying with your family.  I quickly made friends with two of my room-mates from Portland, Oregon (two of the few travelers I’d come across from the US), Brian and Blake, and decided to head out for some dinner.

The next morning, having nothing on my agenda, I hopped a ferry to Isla Magdelena to see a colony of Penguins.  Upon arrival, you walk off the ferry and are surrounded by a multitude of penguins running around, burrowing in their holes, procreating, or taking a dump right in front of you.  It’s an episode of National Geographic right in your face.  I was having the time of my life.  But the bonus for me was the lighthouse that was located there.  After returning to town, I met up with Brian and Blake to explore the cemetery which very closely resembled the Recoleta Museum found in Buenos Aires (but much smaller).

I spent my last day in Punta Arenas checking out the town and relaxing in coffee shops.  The next day, I’d be off to Santiago, Chile.

Patagonia: Part 1

San Carlos de Bariloche

Originally, when I started thinking about my visit to Patagonia and where I wanted to go, it had never occurred to me to visit San Carlos de Bariloche.  I was in my hostel in Mendoza having breakfast across from Emily, a nice young woman from Ireland, and we were discussing places that she had visited in Chile and Argentina.  “If you’re going to Puerto Natales and visiting Torres del Paine, you could do the “W” trek.  I’ve heard it’s great.”, she said.  “You should visit Bariloche in Argentina.  It’s beautiful.”  So here I was in Bariloche.  The first thing I noticed when I got out of the cab was how incredibly windy it was.  The next thing I noticed was how incredibly beautiful the lake was.  Here I stood at the doorsteps about to enter Patagonia and I couldn’t be happier.

Patagonia is an area in the southern part of both Argentina and Chile.  It’s where the hot and humid area of Argentina and Chile stops and it opens up into great big lakes, with great plains decorated with huge mountain ranges and glaciers.  Bariloche is a fun tourist town.  It has trendy streets filled with chocolate shops and small bistros selling artisanal beers or souvenirs.  Cafes that sell mate and wine are just up the street from the lake.  And of course you have the beautiful boardwalk area with health-nuts running along the lake.

I’ve come to regret it, but I only gave Bariloche one full day.  I could have easily relaxed here for a week or at least enjoyed three to five days sipping tea and reading books.  I got up early the only day I spent there and walked along the boardwalk until I spotted a chocolate shop and decided I needed a snack.  Afterwards, I bought my bus ticket to travel out to Puerto Pañuelo so that I could hike Cerro Llao Llao (pronounced ‘shao shao’).  The hike produced some incredibly beautiful pictures of Nahuel Huapi Lake.  I finished the night having a nice dinner and going to bed early.  The next morning I’d catch a flight to El Calafate.

El Calafate

While flying to El Calafate, I made the acquaintance of Tiffany, the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  After landing, I asked if she wanted to get out ahead of me and exit the plane.  She preferred to stay in her seat.  I said goodbye and offered that maybe we’d pass each other while in El Calafate.  But you say things like that so many times, rarely believing them. You understand that as a traveler you pass through so many lives and for the few times you actually cross paths again, there are a million more where the opportunity never manifests itself again.  Little did I know at the time how important meeting her would really be.

I located my hotel and then walked the mile and a half stretch into town to locate the Tourism Office.  I inquired about going to Perito Moreno, the giant glacier.  They provided a map, and informed me that it was an hour and a half bus ride to the site.  I located the bus station and bought my ticket for the next day.  The Perito Merito glacier is a massive ice shelf floating on an azure blue lake.  Perito Moreno glacier has been tamed with walkways that provide multiple balconies for viewing the glacier as well as protecting the landscape from the large numbers of people that come to visit this site every year.  A cafeteria is also on hand to feed the throngs of people that become hungry watching and photographing this incredible monument.  The weather was bright and sunny.  You can only walk for so long before stopping and staring at the glacier, hoping to hear the soft crack that precedes a big chunk of glacier that falls to the water below, leaving an azure blue imprint among the dirty remnants of the glacier where the chunk used to be.  It’s peaceful and captivating.

Back in El Calafate, I needed something to warm me back up.  Stopping in a bar near the artisinal market, I inquired to the bartender if they served any mate to which he replied “yes”.  Within moments of ordering my mate and sitting down at the bar, a woman’s voice called my name.  I turned to see Tiffany, whom I met on the airplane earlier, propped up on crutches and smiling at me.  When I asked her to join me for some mate, she readily agreed and sat down to provide me company for the night.  2 cups of mate turned into 2 beers, when she finally opened up about her story.  Tiffany uses crutches because she suffered a spinal cord injury after falling from a balcony in Dubai years back.  Despite doctors telling her that she’d never walk again, she set out to prove them wrong.  And she did.  She’s still paralyzed from the knees down, but can still walk with the help of two crutches.  Her next challenge….. to prove to herself and the world that she can travel for the next 13 months all over the world.  You can read her story and adventures at her blog, A Tale of Two Legs.

Serendipity is a very real thing.  I’ve known people in my life that seem like they’re plugged into this universe.  They ask for what they want and then they receive.  Through perseverance and a positive outlook, they overcome all obstacles and achieve the most incredible feats.  I too am plugged into the universe, but still feel awkward and doubtful at times.  But when I’m feeling unsure and doubtful of my life and purpose, someone like Tiffany shows up to remind me that almost anything is possible.  I have doubts and questions about my travels thus far.  Tiffany shows up and dispels my doubts and answers my questions.  I start to feel stronger and thank the universe for putting her in my path.

The next day, I have a lazy day and sleep in.  Later, Tiffany and I meet up for dinner and afterwards hug and say our goodbye’s.  She’s off to the glacier, and I need to make my way to Chile.  I’m starting to feel energized again.  My next stop is Puerto Natales where I’ll hopefully get a glimpse of Torres del Paine.


People from all over the world come to Mendoza, Argentina for primarily one thing: to taste the wines that have given Mendoza its reputation.  I was coming to Mendoza for that very reason.  Truth be told, Maipu is actually the center of many of the famous bodega’s.  Plan your trip accordingly as Mendoza is quite a bit busier and Maipu is more laid back.

After checking into my hostel, I quickly booked a wine tour where you traveled between bodega’s on a bicycle.  Thoughts of riding a bicycle from one bodega to another, through wine fields and trying ample samples of wine raced through my head.  Contrary to my romantic notions, it was more like riding a bicycle between bodega’s on the streets of Maipu, in 100+ degree heat with 2 or 3 very small samples of wine.  We visited 2 bodega’s, Lopez and Cecchin, and one olive oil producer.  Lopez is an old wine producer that uses new methods to produce high-quality wine.  Cecchin is a family winery that produces organic wine.  The best part of the wine tour was the lunch provided at the end where we all spent together in and around a small pool.  The family ran a small vineyard, and for me, it was a cultural experience spent with my new friends from the hostel.

I hadn’t planned on staying in Mendoza much past that, but I found a place in Mendoza that was able to partially solve my technology problems.  Todo Computacion was able to look at my computer right away and fix one of the problems.  And, since I decided to stay 2 more days due to high airline ticket prices, it was inevitable that I try out one more one tour.  While walking back from lunch one day, purely by accident, I walked by and then into Trout and Wine, a small travel agency specializing in wine tours.  For double the price of my last wine tour, I was able to book another wine tour that included 4 bodega’s (one of which was also an olive producer), and a gourmet lunch.  No bicycling involved in this one, either.  I’d escape the heat (mostly) by being shuttled from place to place.

We started things off at Dante Robino with an explanation of how wine is produced and 4 very generous samples of Wine.  Next was Alta Vista, where we had another explanation of how wine is produced (let’s get to the wine samples – I’ve heard this before) and then 3 – 4 more generous helpings of wine.  It was by this time that I was getting a bit peckish.  Have no fear – a gourmet lunch was right around the corner at Tapiz, a winery with a nice boutique restaurant upstairs.  We started things off with a plate of bread, olive oil, and balsamico.  We were then treated to an appetizer of Gazpacho and then followed up with our main entree of some Asado.  During this time, we also were treated to another 4 generous samples of wine.  We finished things off with some helado for desert and were off to our final vineyard.  Lastly, we visited Carinae, a small, french-owned vineyard.  The owner, an astronomy enthusiast, named the Vineyard Carinae after what he felt is the most beautiful constellation in the southern hemisphere.  We were all treated to another tour of the facilities and an explanation of how wine is produced (we didn’t care this time, considering we were all a little buzzed).  In the end, we were treated to 4 more samples of wine.  This was the tour that I was hoping to have.  Obviously, I splurged a bit for this one, but it was well worth it.

At this point, I felt like the heat and humidity were getting to me.  I needed some cooler weather, and Patagonia was calling.

The mate always comes to you

When my friend, Lynn, discovered that I’d be going to Uruguay, she introduced to me Elian, a young woman she met the previous year in Minneapolis that was visiting from Uruguay.  Before arriving, I promised I’d contact her as soon as I got to Montevideo.  I was excited to spend some time with a local and make a new friend.

Before I left for my trip, one of my colleagues whom spent a year in Buenos Aires had told me about a drink that I must try called mate.  While in Argentina, I hadn’t really given it much thought.  And then, after arriving in Montevideo, it seemed like it was everywhere.  You see tons of men everywhere holding their gourd and bombilla in one hand, and their thermos tucked between the forearm of the hand holding the gourd and their chest.  What is this magical substance?  This link hopefully explains.  On my first day in Montevideo, I stumbled across the restaurant Facal and for dinner ordered a small pepperoni pizza and some mate.

The next day, I shot off a text to Elian and headed out to explore the old town.  Like most historical centers, the old town is an area of cobblestone streets and people from Uruguay selling their artisanal wares.  I stumbled across Bacacay Cafe, a simple, tranquil cafe and decided to have some lunch.  Afterwards, I returned to my hotel where Elian was waiting to take me out and show me around.  She explained to me that she considered herself a terrible host because she wasn’t sure what to suggest and instead asked me what I was interested in doing.  We decided to go back to Facal, have a drink and then go to the Rambla and walk the beach.  The beach was the type of beach where you could walk for hours.  Women were sunning themselves and families were frolicking in the surf.

The next 3 days were spent exploring the city and spending time with Elian.  We checked out a lot of different restaurants, including Alebrijes, an excellent Mexican restaurant.  It was there that I was able to have a michelada, a drink from mexico essentially consisting of beer and salsa.  I was excited since I hadn’t had one in about a year.  My plan after Montevideo was to go to Punta del Diablo, but Elian told me that I should spend my time in Cabo Polonio instead.  They were close by, so I thought it could be possible to do both.  So, I decided on a bus to Cabo Polonio.

Cabo Polonio

If anyone were to ask me to sum up Cabo Polonio, I’d probably tell them that it’s basically a hippie commune on the beach.  There are few hotels, and the hostels are very basic.  I was lucky – my hostel, Del Cabo, had warm showers, a kitchen, and one outlet to charge your phone.  Leave your computer and other items at home – Cabo Polonio is a place to get lost for a couple days or week.  Cabo Polonio is also a protected park and the park currently does not allow any new construction.

After arriving in Cabo Polonio, I quickly decided against going to Punta del Diablo in favor of enjoying Cabo Polonio with all the time that I had.  I’m glad I did because I spent most of the next day visiting the lighthouse, watching the sea lions sun themselves and bark at each other on the rocks, sharing some mate with friends, and of course, walking the beach.  During the evening, I walked the beach with my new friend from the hostal, Ivana.  We came across a capsized boat on the beach.  It couldn’t have been any longer than 30 feet.  The sailor was living on board and I believe trying to figure out how to get his boat back in the ocean.  Nonetheless, it provided some amazing photographs at sunset.

The next morning, I said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to Montevideo.  I would spend some more time with Elian before heading out to Mendoza, Argentina.

Back in Montevideo

Sitting in Cafe Bacacay on my last day in Montevideo, I ordered a Mate and something to eat.  While starting to sip water from my cup, I noticed an older couple situated near my table looking at me quizzically, laughing, and then talking to the waiter about something.  Not long after, the waiter approached me and starts to give me some advice on “how to drink” mate.  First off, he tells me that no one drinking mate bends over and sips from the cup.  “The Mate always comes to you.”  You always bring the cup up with your hand and then sip.  Next, he explained to me that if the taste of the mate starts to become weak, that one can adjust the straw by scooping in and then pulling it to a different side about 45 to 90 degrees.  And lastly, when you start to drink a cup of mate, you need to add just a bit of cold water first, so the mate can expand and grow.  When it’s mostly filled the cup, then you can pour hot water, near the straw and start drinking.  I’ve come to appreciate these fish-out-of-water experiences.  They’re the experiences that, while embarrassing at times, make me feel like I’m having a truly cultural experience.  Nothing is ever gained if you don’t screw it up first.

Saying goodbye and moving on to my next destination is difficult.  Uruguay has been one of the more enjoyable and surprising experiences of my trip.  It wasn’t even on my radar to go until I started hearing about it from other people.  I think this is the travel that I enjoy most.  I’ve met incredible people here and will hopefully return someday.

A hop, skip, and a jump

Technology issues, abound.  Sorry for the lack of updates but I’m forced to work on my blog when my computer is actually working.  Hopefully I can get this fixed once I’ve reached Santiago, Chile.

Anyways, I’ve been restless.  After 8 days in Buenos Aires, I was starting to feel stuck.  I wasn’t really enjoying the big city anymore and felt the need to start moving again.  The humidity was getting to me and I was tired of solving technology issues.  I decided that my next destination would be Iguazu Falls and then Uruguay after that.

By foregoing any sense of planning, I’m not really able to enjoy the benefits of reduced airfare that is typically available to someone that plans ahead.  Needing to move forward, I booked round-trip airfare between Buenos Aires and Iguazu.  After arriving in Iguazu, I took a taxi and quickly located my place of residence for the next two nights, Poramba Hostel.  It’s a very basic hostel that is only four to six blocks from the center of town.  I headed out to establish my surroundings.  The town of Iguazu is a laid-back town that mostly survives on tourism.  I returned to the hostel and quickly befriended my roommates.

The next day, we all got up early and headed out to the falls.  Two of my roommates were attempting to do the Brazilian side in the same day.  Lacking a Brazilian passport, I wasn’t worried about fitting in too much.  We located the train that transports visitors to the top and got on.  Note:  There are two trains and the first one only takes you a short distance.  Once you reach the first destination, you’re forced to get off and re-enter the line for the train.  I think it’s better if you walk to the first destination and then get in line, otherwise, you’re burning up time changing trains.  After finally reaching the top, we were treated to some incredibly majestic waterfalls.  Make sure you bring a rain jacket as you’ll get wet from the mist.  We all took the train back, and did the 4 smaller falls which I thought offered more impressive views of all the falls there.

The next day, I hopped my flight back to Buenos Aires and readied for my boat to Colonia, Uruguay.  I had six hours to spare, so I burned it up having drinks and using the WiFi at the TGI Friday’s located around Puerto Madero.  The high-speed boat to Colonia takes one hour to cross the bay.  I decided to go with Colonia Express whom I thought was very professional and also the cheapest of the options.  You can also drink beer and shop their small duty-free shop while enjoying your ride to Uruguay.

Colonia del Sacramento is a sleepy little town.  Their historical center is full of cafe’s and restaurants.  The view from the lighthouse is incredible.  I ended up renting a motor scooter during the day so that I could ride up to some of the beaches north of town.  Before arriving in Colonia, I was told that Uruguay had some of the best beaches around.  I was impressed so far and looking forward to experiencing some more of Uruguay’s treasured beaches near Montevideo and Punta del Diablo (hopefully).  In addition to visiting the beaches, I was also able to check out the Museo de los Naufragios y Tesoros, the most ridiculous pirate / nautical museum I think I’ve ever seen.  The scariest thing about the museum was the horrible paper-mache pirates on display.  Outside the museum, one can also visit a small, abandoned Colosseum.  Unfortunately, one cannot enter due to it being surrounded by metal fencing.  I don’t believe that’s a problem in that it looks extremely unimpressive from the outside.

The next day, I would be arriving in Montevideo via a two hour bus ride.  It was nice to be moving around, but I was looking forward to a couple of days of leisure.

A New Year

The other day, I received an email from my friend Lisa, where we were discussing length of travel and some of the challenges that can occur while traveling.  She states:

“People don’t realize how exhausting it is to keep moving, finding new hostels, figuring out transportation, speaking/butchering another language, getting hustled, getting sick, meeting new people, etc. It becomes less of a vacation and more taxing overall.”

I have a friend that has spent a year in Buenos Aires on two seperate occasions and another that has spent a couple months.  Both speak very highly of the place and I’ve been quite excited coming to see Buenos Aires based on those recommendations.  I was also ready for something new after spending two and a half weeks in Cusco.  The prospect of spending an amazing New Year’s in Buenos Aires became a huge draw.  But that’s the thing.  Many times, I think I over-romanticize what my experience will be, and if it doesn’t quite come close to that, then I’m somewhat disappointed.

The truth is, Buenos Aires kinda wore me out.  Maybe it started when I had to rush at the Lima airport to get my reciprocity fee paid for before I’d be allowed to get on the plane for Argentina.  Or, maybe the fact that I arrived during the hottest weeks in Argentina in the last 4 years, with blackouts and no air-conditioning at a very uncomfortable hostel.  I imagine letting my guard down and having my day pack stolen in San Telmo didn’t help matters.  And of course, dealing with some crappy taxi drivers and failing technology about put me over the edge.

When it rains, it pours.  But that’s the thing about travel – despite whatever challenges arise, you find a way to keep moving forward.  There are no other options, but to go home.  And I’m not going home.  Not yet.  This trip has been too amazing and incredible to just up and walk away from it because of some mishaps.  You learn to apply this to the rest of your life.  When I do go home, I imagine that instead of walking away from many of my problems and starting over, I’ll instead face them head on and keep moving forward.  Also, I imagine I’ll be better at planning and avoid some of the avoidable pitfalls I experienced on this trip.

But enough with the challenges.  Buenos Aires was still an amazing experience.  After finding a hotel with more stable electricity and WiFi, I went to meet Juan Villafañe, a swing dance instructor I had met in Herrang this year that my own Swing Dance instructor contacted on my behalf before leaving.  For the small price of a lunch, Juan gave me invaluable information on where to go and what to see while in Buenos Aires.  We parted with the promise that we would meet later in the week for a swing dance lesson.

The first thing I wanted to experience was a tango show.  Juan recommended the Madero tango show which I can verify was an amazing show.  The food was top notch and the tango lesson thrown in at the end was icing on the cake.  The next two days were spent exploring La Boca and San Telmo, two very touristic places situated amongst cobblestone streets and very colorful buildings.  Also, I took in La Recoleta Cemetary where I was fortunate to see the gravesite of Eva Perón.  The graves were the most ornate graves I’ve ever seen.

New Years, it turned out, was a more laid-back affair.  After finally locating an open restaurant (within my budget) at 9:30pm, I was quickly invited over to the table of 3 women that were currently traveling.  2 were from Canada, and the other was from Santiago, Chile.  We all drank and talked about our travels.  When midnight struck, we all cheered the new year and watched the fireworks exploding from above.  It was here that I discovered my true hidden talent – taking selfie photographs.  New Years day found most of Buenos Aires shut down where I was told most people spend the holiday with their families instead of going out.  And honestly, it was nice not doing anything for the holiday.

I had a feeling the worst was over and that the challenges would be fewer from here on out.  I decided to spend another day in BA before heading out to Iguazu Falls.

Lost Toenails and other Christmas Stories

Traveling takes a toll on the body, and my body is no different.  While traveling in Lima, I had stubbed my toe while in the hostel, and it forced the toenail loose.  And then while in Cusco, I contracted a stomach bug.  So, when I returned from Machu Picchu, I decided that it was probably best to visit the doctor.  Luckily for the me, the Clinic was only a ten minute walk from my hostel.  While trying unsuccessfully to bridge the communication barrier between me and the receptionist, a peruvian doctor, looking strikingly like Javier Bardem and speaking English, intervened on my behalf and said he could meet with me in 20 minutes.

The diagnosis was as expected.  I needed to be put on antibiotics, and it would be best if I had the toenail removed.  Another 20 minutes later, I had my prescription, and my front toe had a new sexy / sleek look.  It was about this time, that I realized I should probably take it easy and stay in Cusco through Christmas.  This turned out to be a good choice, as I had just met a bunch of new people (many from my own dorm room) that I liked hanging out with.

The next week was spent exploring new parts of the city.  Cusco held an art exhibition in the streets near the Hostel I was staying at.  I also was introduced to the San Pedro market.  Leticia, a brazilian woman that I befriended while in Cusco, introduced me to a new Cafe named La Valeriana.  I spent the next couple of days getting to know Vanessa, Sarah, Clint, and Calvin.  We all decided to spend Christmas together.  Sarah prepared Swedish meatballs and potato salad.  Another couple contributed some fish.  We finished off our meal with fruits and cream and also a bottle of wine that I had purchased.  It wasn’t the standard american Holiday Feast that I’m used to, but it was with new friends, and that alone made it special.  After dinner, four of us went to the Plaza de Armas to participate in the Christmas festivities.  Children and adults were lighting off fireworks.  The whole plaza smelled of sulfur and small explosions.  Sarah spotted some children selling cotton candy and we all decided to have some.  I finished the night having a holiday drink with my friend Leticia.

The next day was spent saying goodbye to friends, some that I hoped wasn’t goodbye…. only goodbye for now.  I caught up on some emails and skyped with some friends back home.  The next day, I’d be leaving for Buenos Aires.

Cusco and Machu Picchu

After a 16 hour bus ride, I arrived in Cusco tired and ready to settle in somewhere.  I hailed a taxi and made my way for Pariwana hostel in the historical center of Cusco.  After settling in, I was checking my email when Eliza, an attractive woman, approached me about joining the BBQ that night.  I readily signed up.  Later, I left to go check out the Plaza de Armas and check out my surroundings.  When I returned for the BBQ, Eliza serendipitously introduced me to two girls that were taking Spanish lessons.  Being one of the things that I wanted to do in South America, I got the information for the Academia Latinoamericana Espanol school.  The next morning, I dropped in and immediately signed up for Spanish lessons for the week as well as have a host family assigned to me.  Hopefully this is what I need – to maybe lay low for the week and take in the culture a bit.

I spent the week taking private Spanish lessons and checking out the city of Cusco.  Cusco has many different plazas, Plaza de Armas being the most popular, and Plaza de Blas, to name a few.  Another day, I hiked all the steps to Cristo Blanco, a large Jesus statue overlooking the city of Cusco.  I also enjoyed  visiting the Church of San Cristobal which has a great overlook of the central part of Cusco.  The evenings were spent checking out restaurants.  One of my personal favorites is Paddys, advertised as the highest Irish pub in the world.  While it may be a total Gringo bar, it’s the only place in South America, besides Cuenca, where I was able to get some decent beer.  Old Speckled Hen trounces Cusquena and Pilsner any day of the week.  Another noteworthy place is Jack’s Cafe.  They served up a mean homemade chicken noodle soup when I needed it most.

Cusco is beautiful city, but it’s also very touristic.  Because of that, the cuzquenian people are constantly trying to sell you something.  Walking down the street, you’ll be hounded by women for massages, or gift items.  The men will hound you about buying paintings or roses.  People that work at restaurants stand outside and will shove a menu in your face and try to entice you into their restaurant with the promise of a free Pisco Sour.  Some restaurant owners are also involved in 2 or more businesses.  At one resturant, the owner approached me while eating my meal and asked if he could talk to me about planning a trip to Machu Picchu and what he could offer in return.  You get really good at saying no and many times you’ll make it your personal mission to refuse items from anyone selling.  That’s not to say that you don’t ever purchase anything.  After a couple days here, I recognized the need for a warm sweatshirt.  It is the rainy season and Cusco is typically cold in the evenings this time of year.  Stopping by a market one night, I purchased a sweatshirt made from Alpaca fur.  Make no mistake – Alpaca fur is “legit”.  It keeps the cold out.  The forearms of the sweatshirt remind me of the forearms of a wookie, but who’s complaining?

Machu Picchu

I’ll start by saying that I decided against doing the trek to Machu Picchu.  I had heard that you needed to book months in advance and I, unfortunately, did not know when I was going to be arriving in Cusco.  That being said, I found that traveling in the off season, you don’t need to book your 4-5 day hike in advance.  In fact, most travelers that I’ve encountered here have been booking their treks once they’ve arrived in Cusco.  I also discovered that there’s so many options that they can essentially tailor for you once you arrive.  There are 4-5 day treks, 2-3 day treks, jungle treks, overnight trips.  The reason that you need to book in advance for the on-season is partially because Macchu Picchu only allows 2500 visitors a day into the site.  Huayna Picchu only allows 400 visitors a day.  So there are definitely benefits to going in the off season.

I went up to Machu Picchu on an overnight trip and stayed in a hostel in Aguas Calientes, the town one typically stays during a trip of this type.  While there, make sure you check out the hot springs.  It’s a great way to lay around and soak up the atmosphere.

Instead of taking the bus up to Machu Picchu the next day, I opted instead to hike up the mountain with the other overnight pilgrims at 4am the next day.  Make no mistake – the hike up is pretty brutal (at least I thought that, before trying Huayna Picchu).  It takes about an hour to hour in a half.  The hope is to see Machu Picchu as the sun rises above it.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case that morning as everything was shrouded in cloud cover and mist.  Nonetheless, Macchu Picchu is spectacular once you enter.  Bring plenty of water, since water at the Machu Picchu food stand will run you about 8 peruvian soles for a regular bottle (~ 3.50 USD).  I originally had a guide scheduled for a portion of my tour, but instead got tired of waiting for him and eventually went in on my own.  It would have been nice to better understand some of the buildings as I explored, but I was able to see and explore more on my own.  I ran into other adventurous souls like myself and quite enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and talk with them in a more casual atmosphere.

At around 9:30, everyone scheduled for entrance into Huayna Picchu started arriving outside the gate.  At 10am, I was let into and started my trek up to Huayna Picchu.  The trek up to Huayna Picchu is probably the toughest and most nerve-racking hike I’ve ever taken in my life.  With steep drops and no barrier to stop someone from falling, it’s not for the faint of heart.  I’m baffled by how the Inca’s were able to haul stone and materials up Huayna Picchu for construction of their city.  As I was going up, I saw young kids bounding down the makeshift stone steps with effortless ease.  Mind you, these are the same kids that challenge me to a snowboarding race down a black diamond run.  To have that kind of fearlessness.  Regardless of the nerve-wracking experience, the views are breathtaking.


The last two weeks have been pretty relaxed for the most part.  I’m occasionally running into other travelers that I met earlier in my adventures.  And while you don’t necessarily form extremely tight bonds with these people, the familiarity helps to make some of the undesirable parts of traveling (loneliness, culture shock, etc) more digestible.  It provides an anchor, and I think is helping me to appreciate the people that are more constant in my life.

Lima and Huacachina

Before arriving in Lima, I had been told to only give it 1 or 2 days by other travelers.  “It’s just another big town” they said, and I believed that to be true.  I booked a room at a hostel called Puriwasi for a night and set out to get acclimated to the area of Miraflores.  It’s a super touristy part of Lima with coffee shops and restaurants galore.  Take note – you won’t be saving much money here.

At the hostel, I met up with two girls from Australia, Nessa and Sean, and headed out to the malecon (boardwalk area) for some food.  Every restaurant we encountered was pricier than normal and since we couldn’t make up our minds of where to go, we settled on going to Chili’s.  I ordered the Sampler Platter, which is full of all things that make my soul soar – Buffalo wings, Southwestern eggrolls, and chicken fingers.  The sweet taste of home.  That night, I joined all the hostelers on the roof for some Pisco Sours and travel talk.  Andrew, from Scotland runs the bar.  He kinda fell into the job a couple months ago when as he describes it, the owner offered him the job after he had made him the best Pisco Sour that he had ever had.

The next morning after realizing that I was still very tired from riding overnight buses the last couple of nights, I booked another night at the hostel.  I decided to take it easy that day.  Later, Emad, James (two other hostelers), and I hopped a bus to the center of Lima to check out the Parque de Reserva where they light up a bunch of cool water fountains at night.  After arriving back at the hostel, struck with a bad case of indigestion, I decided to call it a night.  The next day, I joined a group of people from the hostel to go out to the historical center of Lima and see the Monastery of San Francisco and the catacombs buried underneath.  While not as extensive as the catacombs located in Paris, France, I still found the tour to be quite enjoyable.  That night, I joined everyone on the roof for a Pisco Sour tutorial and the chance to say goodbye.  Most everyone that I had befriended at the hostel were leaving the next day and I was ready for my next adventure.  I had one more stop to make before going to Cuzco.

Sandboarding in Huacachina

Before leaving on my trip, I had heard about sandboarding from my lifecoach, Gracie.  Basically, you strap a snowboard to your feet and slide down a 300 foot sand dune.  It’s become a huge draw for travelers to go to Huacachina.  I’d been looking forward to it the whole trip.  Unfortunately, the day before arriving in Huacachina, I kinda messed up my foot.  That being said, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity.

Upon arriving in Huacachina, a natural oasis outside Ica, I located a hostel and immediately signed up for a sand buggy and sandboarding adventure.  Within a half hour, I was getting fitted for a snowboard.  The bindings were crap and the snowboard looked like it had seen better days.  However, I felt lucky they even found a pair of snowboard boots to fit me.  Soon after, seven other individuals and I got on the sand buggy and screamed as the driver drove us up and over sand dunes at breakneck speeds.  I loved every minute of it.  After arriving at our destination, I dismounted and got my board ready by rubbing candle wax on the bottom.  My foot was sore, but I grunted through the discomfort and latched on my board.  I had visions of flying down the sand dune, using my skills as a snowboarder to carve and weave back and forth like one of those pros you see on the X-Games.  Not so.  I came to find out that it is extremely difficult to carve on sand like you can on a mountain.  Maybe I was too timid or not used to more “powder”, but the best that I could muster was going 30 or 40 feet at a time before falling.  I finished with a huge smile, spitting sand from my mouth and trying to shake the sand from my hair.  I arrived back at my hostel, said hello to my roommate – the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen in my life and proceeded to take a shower and wash the sand out of all of my orifices.  I ended the night at Banana’s, a local pub, watching a Tom-cruise wannabe from Cocktail overemphasize every bartender trademark move used to make a Pisco Sour.

The next day, knowing I’d be leaving on a 16 hour overnight bus ride to Cuzco, I decided to sign up for a Pisco wine tour in Ica.  Pisco is a grape that the peruvians grow.  They make a wine and a liquor out of it.  Due to the climate and the fermentation process, the wine is extremely sweet.  I quite enjoyed the wine.  When it came time to try the liquor however, I startled the girl next to me when I almost gagged on it.  Smooth….. I know.

I left that night on a very comfortable bus but uncomfortable with the feeling that I’ve been pushing myself too hard across Peru.  Shouldn’t I be enjoying myself without trying to push from one destination to the other?  I had all these visions before I left that I’d be doing language studies and volunteer work in an effort to expand my horizons.  “Go easy on yourself”, I reminded myself.  I was just getting my feet weet.  I was only 4 1/2 weeks into my adventure.  I turned on my movie display and picked a movie from the list.  “Fun Size” looked like it would probably be stupid, but somewhat enjoyable.  I settled back into my cozy bus seat with the realization that I was going to have to make some adjustments when I reached Cuzco.

Walking the Beach

I arrived in Mancora, Peru, and after locating a hostel, the first thing I did was walk the beach.  Walking a beach is so therapeutic for me.  And, in this moment I feel for the first time, that I’m not quite sure where I’m going.  My plans for the most part have been somewhat free-flowing and I’ve had to make some adjustments to my trip (like taking out a stop on the west coast of Ecuador).  But I had yet to feel like I wasn’t sure what to add or how long I should stay anywhere.  It’s scary to not have something or some purpose guiding your travels.

So I walk the beach.  With each step in the sand, I leave an imprint.  And with every indentation in the sand, is a thought, or idea, or concern, or something that troubles me.  I ponder where I really want to go or what to do with my life.  Sometimes I berate myself for the mistakes that I’ve made.  And other times, I remind myself of how fortunate and blessed that I am to have this amazing opportunity.  But after a couple steps, the water comes rushing back in, taking with it my thoughts, dreams, mistakes, and fears.  Nothing is permanent.  This is something that I’ve always struggled with.  I hold onto things far too long and am fearful of too many things.  I’m too hard on myself.  Like the waves washing away my footprints, so do my days wash away my mistakes and fears and replace them with wisdom.  A fresh start.  This is what I need.

The second day in Mancora, I decide to stay at PK’s Hostel.  It’s a pretty crappy place, but I meet Thomas, a man from Holland who’s been traveling for well over a year.  He’s got his breakfast tucked under his arm and he gives me a huge smile, slightly creepy, but one that says “Hey – I’d really like some company for breakfast”.  So I invite him over.  We talk about travel and how it changes people.  To “find yourself” is not really what happens, he explains.  Instead, it’s all the little things that happen to you that change you.  It’s the small conversation you had with someone one day, the small adventure that you have another day, or the challenge you have on another day that altogether changes you as a person.  You gain confidence.  A new perspective is gained after living your life out of a bag each and every day.  Your new minimalist lifestyle starts to give you a greater idea as to what is important in life.

I take a surf lesson, eat some tacos and Ceviche, and meet some other great people.  I end my stay at Hostel Loki where I spend a night drinking and conversing with other like-minded individuals from around the world.  But, it’s time to move on.  I decide on an overnight bus to Trujillo.  I need to get to Lima, but 20 hours on a bus from Mancora seems like too much.  So, I’ll do 9 hours and then take a break.  I’m stressed because my bus is an hour and a half late showing up.  Andrew, an Australian that I come to find out that’s been traveling for almost 2 years, shows up and is incredibly calm.  Maybe too calm.  He pets the dog in front of him and doesn’t seem fazed at all that his bus is late.  The bus finally departs.  When I reach Trujillo, I immediately head to Huanchaco, another surfing town 20 minutes outside the city.  I locate a hostel and then…… I walk the beach some more.

I hang out with Andrew a bit.  Like me, he’s in his late 30’s and just got tired of working the corporate grind.  We discuss politics and books.  After awhile we talk about travel frustrations – late buses, inconsiderate people, taxi cab drivers trying to rip you off.  After awhile, they become funny stories that you tell your fellow travelers or friends.  “I remember this one time…..”

Andrew boards his bus to Huarez with some girls from the Hostel.  I’m on way to Lima.  Maybe we’ll see each other when I get to Cusco.  Another goodbye.  I imagine that when all is said in done, I’ll get more comfortable saying goodbye…. or at the very least letting go.