Thursday, 5 April 2018

Exploring South America 2017: Pushing the Limit

It just seems to make sense to try everything when you are traveling.  Chances are, you won’t be back to try it next time.  This worked with our first trip to Australia and New Zealand – when I started planning to swim in the World Masters Games, I’d just bought a swim suit and had never been to a swim meet.  Our time in New Zealand was planned around hiking the Milford Track and I didn’t even have hiking boots or a back pack.

Here’s a quick journey through some of the physically challenging activities I jumped into and thoroughly enjoyed. There were times that I was tired, or sore, or cold, wet and hungry, or short of breath with my heart beating way over 85% of max, but what I remember is the overwhelming sense of joy that I accomplished something that definitely pushed the limit of my abilities. You’ll note that I’ve not included any of our camping, because that’s just part of the reality of overlanding. 

Torres del Paine (Southern Chili)

The trip notes described the 4 day W walk as iconic and challenging, but the first day was included in the base price.  I decided that the first day, a 20 km round trip hike to a lookout didn’t seem all that impossible.  Of course I hadn’t yet learned that there is no such thing as flat in South America.  The first 9 km was on a fairly decent path with an elevation gain of about 500 meters.  Although I was with the back group, things were going smoothly.  The last km, however, was almost vertical (about 300 meter gain in 1 km) and it was on loose boulders of volcanic scree.  Lesson one; let your guide know what your weaknesses are.  So, I looked at Camille and said “I have no depth perception, everything looks flat and I can’t see the trail.  Sorry, I’m going to be really slow here”.  What took the others about 45 minutes took almost two hours of slow step by step to make it.  Camille was a patient shepherd and let me follow in his footsteps (much as Bryn had done on similar terrain in Iceland). The view was absolutely worth it.  On the way down, it was Omar’s turn to take sweep and walk with the back person – me.  Again, I explained what the problem was and that in addition, when going downhill, I had no idea how far down I was going to be stepping.  Not a problem, he readjusted my poles (10 cm longer) and explained that if my pole hit stable ground without having to bend forward, then my foot would also find firm ground.  Another great lesson learned. And a number of hours chatting with a local about all sorts of interesting things.

Talked to this couple who had driven from BC.  Except the 66 km of the Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia.  They took a ferry

Torres del Paine with the sunset changing the colours

9 km done (from the campground, not the refugio) 1 km to go

And this was the 1 km path

Absolutely worth it.

Thanks, Camille, for putting up with my giddiness that I had actually made it and not backed down.  And for taking this photo as proof.

Group selfie.

Coming down with Omar, I learned that the cowboys, vaquero, came originally from the Basque country of Spain which is why their gear is so different.

While some of the group were on the full W walk, we went on an "easy" day trip to check out rock paintings.

Thousands of years old, but very similar to what you see in Australia.  Or North America.

We stopped for gas.  And snacks.  And the bank.  And this incredible scene at Puntas Arenas before we headed on a long drive south to Ushuaia.

Bush camping just before the Argentina border so we could be first in line the next morning.

A view from the loo.  Even though it was almost dark, my wee camera was pretty sure that this is the photo I wanted.

Whitewater Rafting (Pucon, Chili)

Pucon is one of those “adventure towns” with opportunities to get out and push your limits.  While others were organizing to hike the nearby volcano that was currently active (special gear, special boots, ice axes to catch yourself as you slide down scree), I choose to check out the whitewater rafting.  Of the places for rafting, this was rated as one of the more challenging and I was excited to try it out.  OK, I’ve rafted enough places that this was familiar, but it was a day of great rafting (not floating) because of course everywhere in South America is either up or down.  Perhaps what was most challenging for Hannah and I was to advocate for which boat we wanted to be in.  The guides were trying to divide by “do you speak Spanish” which meant we were heading toward one of the boats with a large group of Japanese tourists that clearly were not adventure types and afraid of the water.  Not even thinking about following rules, we both approached the leader and explained that we were experienced rafters, and knew “enough” Spanish to get by.  Thankfully, he got the idea, and we got to be in the boat with an Argentinian couple and a guide that knew enough English to go with our enough Spanish and a great time was had. The last rapid was classified as a level 5 so we got to portage and then jump off the ledge into the water and then swim strongly to the other side.  The jumping off the ledge WAS pushing my limits. Hannah, it was great to have a mate in the boat.

Estancia Los Potreros (Northern Argentina)

Two full days at this interesting estancia in wine growing northern Argentina.  The owner, born on the estancia, had a British accent from time spent in the UK, and the horse master was someone who knew one of my fellow travelers.  Quite fascinating to experience Argentina from an expats point of view.  The highlight of the time (besides the fantastic food created by Duncan) was exploring the estancia on a retired polo pony. Yes, I’ve been on my share of trail rides, but always at a plod.  This was another level entirely.  First we had to learn to communicate with the horses, and pulling the reins was not how you did it.  Those of us who were experienced had horses that really needed to be directed by their person; novices like me got more calm horses that were willing to go how and where they were supposed to, including picking their way down or up almost vertical cliffs.  My limit, though, was the gallop up and around a wide curve – and I took the coward’s way of following one of the guides sedately up the hill first.  Apparently, if I had stayed with the group, my horse would have taken off at a gallop with the rest of his buddies.

No cowboy hat when riding a polo pony (retired)

Our horses letting us believe we were directing them

The estancia is named for these dry mount walls "los potreros".  The land was originally granted to the Jesuits, who hired local people to build these walls (to keep animals in) in exchange for food.

Hand braided ropes that we were using to try and lasso volunteer calves.

I may come from Alberta, but my lassoing skills clearly indicated I was I townie.

Wild Andes Trek (Machu Picchu, Peru)

The trip notes gave us three choices about how we wanted to experience Machu Picchu.  The Classic Trail that “everybody” wants to do.  No hiking, just take the train to Machu Picchu to see it.  Or the Wild Andes Trek, a special trek with a local guiding group that was less crowded, and included an opportunity to visit local artisan villages to see local traditional weavers.  Of course, I went for the Wild Andes Trek. 

After committing to this similar but different trek, I read the details which included the fact that we were hiking a bit farther.  And we had two summits of about 5000 meters.  But, we got to visit a number of Inka sites and the traditional villages.  And we got to have showers and a great meal after the trek and before catching the train to Machu Picchu.  And who cares about catching the sunrise through the iconic gate when you got to check out traditional weaving?

Day one was checking out a number of sites around Cuzco.  This is Saksaywaman.

Lupins are indigenous to the Andes.  The higher the altitude and the colder the temperatures, the bigger and bolder the flowers.  They are eaten as a bean.


The best weavers are aged 15 to about 20.  After that, they have so many responsibilities with family that they have little time to weave.

This temple was far enough from Cuzco that it is still intact (there is a Spanish church at the top).  The Spanish planted crops on all these terraces.  Each one has a microclimate so they could adapt plants from lower altitudes to gradually higher ones.

Llamas for transportation

I can’t say enough about how fantastic the experience was.  I traveled the entire route with Juan, who as one of the more senior guides, was given the task of sweep – taking care of and constantly assessing the slowest hikers.  His concern was altitude sickness and it took me til noon on the first day to reassure him that I was a slow hiker not used to hills (although more used to hills than when I had left Canada) but that I had traveled at these heights in Asia and was having no problems.  He accepted my request in some of the areas to lead so I could follow his footsteps, but otherwise we walked together talking about families, the native plants we were seeing, the children we met along the way and interesting gossip.  Like why the head of the crew and horse ambulance driver was nicknamed “Wari” and that it was his village that we were stopping in and his wife that was offering fresh roasted potatoes to refresh us along the way.  He also advocated for me with our shaman – a tiny gentleman who was carrying a huge traditional bag and scampering along in sandals – who felt he should carry my pack as I was walking so slowly, or perhaps I needed some coca leaves to ease the altitude sickness,

Resting after passing the summit on the first full walking day.  My hat has flowers on it from our shaman, to give me good wishes.

My tentie, Jenny

Camp set up at 3200 or so meters

Hmmm.  Something is rolling in.  Hopefully it will miss us (it did)

Our last camp.  We had come over the hill and down the path to camp in this village's spare field.  The villagers thoughtfully had beer for sale :)

Chino thought I was crazy to want a photo with the local chicken, but Hannah was all for it.

Out of order, but this is starting out on day 1.  One of those reasons why I like to be at the back, not part of the crowd.

Our first night was at this village, we've already climbed straight up to here.

Altea, a high meadow flower

Wari, and the two horse ambulances for anybody who was unable to walk.  He roamed back and forth amongst the group.

Our crew. One of the young men was Wari's son, and training to be a guide (which includes being fluent in English and getting a college degree)

This is higher than the summit of any mountains in the Rockies.  There's no year round snow because we are close to the equator.  One of our guides explained that winter was deadly, because of the combination of rain, frost, and wind that meant there was no food for the animals and nothing to heat the houses.

Our shaman, who blessed the trek, gave thanks on the final day, and wandered back and forth among the group helping Wari take care of us all.

We had a few extra crew with us - the owner of the travel company was creating a video to advertise their services.  This young man, in spiffy city gear, was originally from a nearby village and quite capable of helping when needed.

Every morning we would finish breakfast and be on our way.  The crew would clean up, take down camp and pass us on their way to setting up for lunch, the to set up camp for the night.

This little lamb had lost his family.  We rescued him as we came into the village.  The city dude did the negotiating as we passed the first houses - who knew which family this wee fellow belonged to.  Finally someone accepted him.

Our last day included a visit to this water temple only accessible by this very steep path.  What I found interesting was on this very steep path with loose pebbles and rocks, I was not the slowest, and I didn't fall and injure myself.  Juan and I both smiled when I reassured him that I knew exactly how to handle this - poles and one step at a time - and that he could attend to others who discovered they were terrified of downhills.

Yes we had to get down there.

Numcha.  Looks like tiny wild ginger.  This is the flower that is tossed on the Cristos of the earthquakes.

Chili chiri.  Very sticky.  A rub for aches and inflammation.  Also for indigestion Has a bright orange flower that attracts giant hummingbirds.

At the village the night before, our leader had been told that the usual path was not passable due to rains and perhaps a wee earthquake.  So, these two young boys served as guides to get us to the water temple and then down to the valley.  The only problem was that this path was a bit iffy, too, and the horses had to take an alternate route.

Olayantaytambo.  The classic group starts at this town and hikes up to Machu Picchu.  We finished here, had a shower and clean clothes, explored the temple and had a great meal.  Then the next day we visited Machu Picchu. This temple is unfinished - the Inka were still building it when the Spanish arrived.

The original Spanish buildings from 1500s.  Still in use.

Inka cross

These large blocks in front of the temple were pulled by a group of ladies from here to the town square and back again and filmed by BBC, I think.  To prove that of course the Inka could quarry rocks in one place and transport them to another.  With enough people and enough time.  All the stones for this temple were quarried across the river - so the river was first diverted to get them to the site.

Original Inka waterway at Olayantaytambo

The tricky part of visiting Machu Picchu is taking photos without the hundreds of tourists.

The sacred river that is the main tributary from Peru to the Amazon

The mountain across is where all the storage was. 
I was sitting enjoying the view and the quiet.  And doing a bit of finger weaving on my Peru square.  These two Peruvian fellows were fascinated with what I was doing - a gringo lady weaving, even if not with a backstrap loom.  Their point and smile Spanish and my point and smile English and we both took away photos of the encounter.

The Wild Andes Trek was actually pretty Gucci (a Canadian military term referring to a wee bit of fancy to make a hard task bearable).  There was a large crew who set up and took down camp, who created hot meals along the way, and even carried all our gear but our day packs. There were always guides nearby if there were problems or to talk about what we were seeing. We got to travel some of the Inka Trails that only community members get to travel.  And, by luck, we had fantastic weather with the rain holding off until we were leaving Machu Picchu and heading back to the train.

Camping in the Dunes (Huacachina, Peru)

The Humboldt Current comes from Antarctica along the coasts of Chili and Peru and creates incredibly dry, desert like conditions.  At Huacachina, the landscape of huge sand dunes stretching for miles just begs adventurous types to dune buggy and take a board and slide down the hills.  This was a great opportunity to push my limit of comfort with edges – the vehicle heading purposefully over edges, or climbing straight up over an edge.  I’d sand boarded before, but never at these heights.  Luckily, our group had been traveling together for months and knew which of us needed to go first so we had no time to get anxious and back down. Camping over night in the dunes let us experience a fantastic sunset, have a great meal, and sleep without tents to get in the way of seeing the sun rise in the morning.

Camp for the night.  Trust me that this is not flat.  

Zip lining (Banos, Ecuador)

I could choose to remember our three days camping in the mud in daily rain and misery, but that is what you need to expect on the edge of the cloud forest and the Amazon.  When there is rain, you have fantastic waterfalls, and incredibly lush forests to zip line through.  We all agreed with the suggestion to do the “best” zip lining; a little more expensive and a full day experience, but way more interesting than just once across the river.  Duncan drove up (he’d been there before) and Rianne drove down.  After it had been raining all day on a winding dirt track not meant for trucks like Amber. There were times as we crept around a corner or over a bridge that it seemed like the only thing keeping us on the track was a lot of prayer.  Rianne, you definitely earned your gold star with that trip.  And Duncan, I heard your constant reassurance and advice of what to do next. The zip lining was pretty fantastic, too.

Hiking in the Amazon.  OK, on the edge.  Drop a thousand or so meters and its warm and muggy and rainy rather than cold and rainy.

Through all these journeys, there were guides and other crew members who believed that they could make a challenging experience manageable (and even fun).  Thank you for your patience, for your willingness to teach skills, to talk about your life and your country.  Your love of what you are doing definitely pushed me to meet your expectations that I could do it.

I was also blessed with sharing these adventures with a great group of fellow travelers.  It didn't take long to figure out each other's strengths and weaknesses; and to support each other when we were pushing our individual limits.  I remember discussing our experiences of Machu Picchu some time later (over a good meal I believe), knowing that the group who had done the classic trail had had a very different time.  I confessed that I had been the slowest in our group, always arriving at a break point or at a meal or the end of the day about 15 minutes behind the group and worried that I had been impeding the group.  No worries, I was reassured, it was only 15 minutes and everybody was celebrating with me that I was having a great time.  There's another bit to this story that doesn't need to be repeated to protect the guilty.