To most, Machu Picchu is a bucket list destination, right up there with the Great Wall and the Pyramids of Giza. It is a destination that defines an entire continent. But what often comes with such a designation are the precise things one tries to avoid when traveling: crowds, inauthenticity and price gouging. If Jill and I were going to do this, and of course we were, we were going to have to get creative. This was nothing new to us. We were used to dealing with a bit of discomfort in order to stay on budget while visiting major tourist destinations. The tricky part, however, is that we would no longer be alone. My father would be joining us for two weeks as we made our way from Cuzco to Arequipa. While we were thrilled to have the company, our tight timeline and budget in South America meant we agreed to the visit under one condition: that we would continue to travel in the exact manner we would if it were just the two of us. And although his resources provided new options, we would continue to be frugal travelers, cutting corners wherever possible. We wanted to visit Machu Picchu on a shoestring, avoiding the tourism super highway. Or at least as much as that is possible.
The Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas. There are 16 peaks over 6000 meters including Peru’s highest, the mighty Hauscaràn. Seeing as we like to hit the trail as often as possible we had looked forward to this section of the trip for as long as we can remember. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case the stars were not in line. Not only did we find ourselves in a bit of a time crunch but also an injured knee since Colombia made any multi-day trek a risky undertaking. However, we could not resist getting a small taste. We left our van at the trailhead while we hiked in to Laguna 69 to spend one night in our tent. Our feelings of regret caused by missing out on what most likely would have been our trek of choice, the famed Santa Cruz trek, were lessened when we met a fellow hiker just on his way back from the end of the circuit. He told us that although the Santa Cruz trek was gorgeous in every right, his favorite section of the entire park was Laguna 69. At least our small sample turned out to be the right one.
Most long term travelers have in the back of their minds a fantasy of a place that they imagine they could find themselves getting stuck in. These fantasy scenarios often include opening up a hostel or some other small business to sustain a lifestyle abroad. As we travel through city after city we have come across a great number of people who have done just that and turned their fantasy into a reality. Travelers just like us who decided to pull the trigger and give it a shot. Would we, Jill and I, be capable of doing this? What typically comes quickly after one of us poses that question is admitting to ourselves that living that far away from home would be difficult to say the least. Nevertheless, no more than 48 hours into Peru and we found ourselves brainstorming about our fantasy with a significantly greater amount of earnestness.
There’s absolutely nowhere we’d rather be than with our families during the holidays. One of the hardest times to be away from home for us is the week between Christmas and New Years. No matter how much fun we’re having, no matter how much of a rhythm we have found on the road, being homesick during this time cannot be avoided. It struck us especially hard last holiday season and this year we were intent on doing everything we could to minimize the depression that results from the knowledge of all the home cooked meals, parties and quality family time we’d be missing out on. The underlying theme of how we would approach the holidays this time around was not to try to avoid but to embrace. We would replicate traditions where we could, we would reach out to family as often as possible, and most importantly, we would celebrate.
From the jungle we continued west through the town of Baños, a touristy spot where the activities are dune buggy rentals and bungee jumping. Not necessarily the things we go out of our way to pursue but we had half a day to burn and figured the hot springs were reason enough to stop. If the city had positive attributes, the weather did not help show them off. There was a heavy set fog that encompassed the entire city and loud gushes of wind ripped up the tiny little streets. We made the most of our time by dropping off a load of laundry and spending some time at the local baths that give the town its name. While wandering the streets we noticed most of the locals were wearing surgeon’s masks. Seeing as Baños is at the base of an active volcano we were able to make the connection that the fog was not water vapor but fine ash. We had come across active volcanoes in the past that spurted out small plumes of ash so we didn’t think too much of it. It wasn’t until we were leaving town that we asked a gas station attendant how common it was for the volcano to be this active. He informed us that twice a year the volcano would spew ash for around 24 hours before returning to sleep. As I returned to the car I finally realized that the wind sounded a little different than normal, it was fierce and came in short bursts. The gusts of wind was the volcano erupting.
The market in Otavalo, Ecuador was by far the most impressive we’ve seen since Guatemala. On market day when the market swells with vendors from surrounding towns the produce market alone would challenge in size any that we have seen in South America so far and that was just a third of what they had to offer. In addition to produce there was a handicraft market and an animal market where you could buy everything from pets to livestock. Markets are fun. They are a playground for every single one of the senses. For this reason I have chosen to include most of the pictures we took that day to try to convey some of that experience. Enjoy!
We spent two days in and around the town of Salento just on the outskirts of the zona de café. The draw to Salento, aside from its charm, is the Valle de Cocora. The cocora are the world’s tallest wax palms and can crest over 200 feet. The valley is home to groves of these spindly trees that stand tall and proud compared to the short vegetation that surrounds them. After exploring some of the valley on foot we hopped back in the van and headed into the heart of coffee country. The plan was to find a coffee finca to park for the night, maybe on a hill with a view of the surrounding area, maybe with access to bathrooms, and maybe just maybe a place where we could buy a couple of pounds of fresh Colombian Arabica. It’s possible we were asking for a tall order, but if we didn’t set the bar high we would always end up settling in a gas station for the night and we have learned to love the fight. We have not only developed high expectations of where we camp but we have discovered that the act of finding that perfect place is itself a large part of our adventure.
After four days bouncing around the Caribbean, it was back to reality and back to work. Our van was still in a container in the port of Cartagena and in order to drive her off we had miles of red tape to unravel. Before beginning the process there was the matter of getting ourselves from Capurganá, a small Caribbean village near the Panamanian border, to the city of Cartagena. It would be a long grueling day of travel which included a two hour boat ride through rough seas, a five hour bus ride over terrible back roads, a second five and a half hour bus ride over even worse roads and, finally, a 45 minute taxi ride into the center of town. All of this after staying up late to watch the US presidential election results come in (at last we could breath a sigh of relief). Luckily for us we had two amazing friends along for the ride who would take some of the sting away from a long and arduous process. When you are at the mercy of so many factors outside of your control, the value of people with whom to share your misery cannot be overstated.
While our car was making its way across the Caribbean to Colombia, it was up to us to find our own way. We could fly from Panama City, take a sail boat across the ocean or go for the cheapest option which involves a number of outboard motor boats followed by a series of long bus rides. The motor boat option had the added benefit of getting to see a number of additional small towns along the way and spending the most amount of time on the San Blas Islands, an archipelago just off the coast of Panama. Having logged our fair share of miles on public transportation during our lives a day of travel on even the worst of roads seemed a lot less intimidating than the 36 hours of open water sailing that we would have faced had we taken the sail boat. Of the sail boat option, we had heard a number of horror stories of incompetent captains, lack of food supplies and rampant sea sickness. However, we quickly realized our choice was just as susceptible to a bungling, inept crew as any other.
We left the the war torn hills of south eastern El Salvador to meet up with family of friends in a small town just outside of San Salvador, the capital city. Mayte and Luis are the aunt and uncle of a former co-worker of mine back in my Henkel days. Mayte is a professor of English at the University in the capital, and her husband Luis is a retired chemistry teacher. They insisted that we meet them and stay the weekend in their country house in San Jose Guayabal, the town where Luis grew up. As with any chance encounter with new friends we were unsure how well we would hit it off. It didn’t take us long to quell any doubts when we discovered they fill their time at their country home playing pool, preparing big meals and taking long naps.