Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Islas Bellestas, Peru

Amber:  The Islas Ballestas, otherwise known as The Poor Mans Galapagos, was a Peruvian highlight.  We arrived in the small, seaside town of Paracas, checked into our hostel and walked to the beach.  The late afternoon sun wasn't too hot so we grabbed a few Pilsen beer (very similar to a glorified PBR) and sat on the small United blanket I had borrowed for life, and watched the local children play soccer with a beat up, semi deflated ball.  It was very nice to be on the beach!
The next morning we woke up early and joined the fifty other passengers going on our tour to the Islas Ballesras via speed boat.  The Islas are a big business for Paracas and the dock was teeming with hundreds of tourists being herded along the assembly line of necessary paperwork, park passes, and being organized into boats.  We actually managed to get a nice seat at the front of the boat.  Our first stop was a huge Candelabra geoglyph.  It predates the Spanish arrival in the 1500's, so another thought was that it was supposed to be a cactus. 

There were thousands of red and white, HUGE jelly fish between the mainland and the small scattered islands.  They were very pretty, but growing up in Kodiak, Alaska on a fishing boat, I had no desire to fall into the water and test how strong their sting was.

We arrived at the Islas after about seventeen minutes and immediately noticed the strong, pungent oder of seabird guano.  There were thousands of birds sitting on the rock islands or circling in the sky.  We had been warned to wear a hat to protect against an occasional dropping!!  There were Peruvian Boobies, pelicans, cormorants, by the thousands, and we even saw a scattering of Humboldt penguins.  Who needs to go to Antarctica and freeze when for $15 you can go to the Islas Ballestas?!  

There were thousands of sea lions lined up along the more accessible rocks and shore line.  Aside from the loner males sunning themselves on the outskirts, the masses of fat, huge sea lion males were constantly roaring and lunging at one another.  The females and young pups did their best to stay out of the way while the males were all either fighting or covered with fresh battle wounds.  Three were so many of them!  We wondered when they had time to eat.  I took hundreds of photos, they were amazing animals!!  We had such a great time we even considered going a second time!  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Flying over the Nazca Lines, Peru

Amber:  Tim and I were both excited to fly over the Nazca lines.  No one really knows why or how exactly they were made.  Obviously, the sun baked rocks were removed piled to the side, hence exposing darker rocks beneath. But there are numerous speculations as to how the images are so proportionate (and large).  Some images are over 200 m long. Some suggest aliens.  Others, a prehistoric hot air balloon.  The lines are in the middle of an extremely hot, dry desert.  The currently most popular belief is that they were used to worship sun and rain gods.  They date from pre-Christ to just before the Inca rule.  Either way, they are really cool.

We had booked a thirty minute flight over the lines for two in the afternoon.  It was a hot, windy day.  I was a little nervous as my sister had flown over the Nazca lines a few weeks prior and had gotten extremely ill while doing all the spins over the figures.  There were about 13 distinct Nazca figures we would be viewing.  First we would circle on the right side of the plane, and then again, on the left to ensure everyone saw and had an opportunity for a photo.  So a minimum of 26 turns in 30 minutes.  I made sure I found my little doggie bag in the seat pocket in front of me, just in case.

We were in a 206, so a small, single engine plane both Tim and I have had lots of experience flying in back home in Alaska.  Due to several plane crashes in the past, Nazca now mandates that each flight has two pilots.  We had a young man as our primary pilot, and the second was a young Peruvian woman.  She discussed the images while the man circled them.

We took off with five of us total in the plane and headed directly for the lines.  A 50 meter killer whale was the first image and about three minutes from the run way. It was so cool!  The plane circled with the image just below the wing tip.  There was a little turbulence along with the steep spiral, but we had good pilots.  I was only a little nervous, and not motion sick at all.  The Nazca lines were just far too amazing!
This is an astronaut 

A humming bird

This was either a bird or perhaps a baby dinosaur

My favorite, the monkey

A spider

A condor


A big parrot, you can see his head here

We flew in the middle of the day, so the sun washed out a little of the definition.  Also, the images are very old.  I was so sad when our 30 minutes were up, I literally could have flown for hours over the images.  They were so fascinating!  We targeted 13 images, as does every flight I believe, some of witch the photos didn't turn out well enough to post, but there were hundreds of images all over the desert.  They were a little less grand, or a little less defined, so the pilots just flew over them, but they were amazing.  

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Camana, Peru

Amber:  Tim and I decided it was time for the beach after our week in Arequipa and climbing Mt Misti.  We were excited for waves, sand, sun, and most importantly, an elevation of sea level.  I had run my first marathon last August, and climbing Mt Misti was by far more tiring.  Tim and I both agreed that the climb was possibly the most exhausting thing we have done our adult life.  Fighting for each breath can be exceptionally tiring!!  Our lungs actually didn't hurt after our climb, and aside from some tired feet, my body wasn't too sore considering we had summited a 19,100' tall volcano.

The small town of Camana is about five kilometers from 'the beach'.  We arrived by bus and took about an hour to find a hotel.  We changed into shorts and our swim wear and headed out in search of lunch and the 'combie' to the beach.  Our lunch consisted of ceviche.  Lots of ceviche.  Ceviche is small pieces of fish (or seafood) that has been 'cooked' in lime juice.  It is quite good, and coastal Peru is famous for it.  We had tried it in Arequipa, but at a local market and I wanted to try it again.  I ordered an 'individual' order of ceviche, while Tim got a mixed plate of both fried fish, calamari, and octopus.  His, as it turns out, also came with ceviche, so we had mountains of it. We easily could have shared one of the dishes we had ordered. The first several bites were good, but by the time we finished, I don't think either of us wanted to see any more ceviche for a very long time.

Our bellies full of lime soaked raw fish, we boarded the 'combie'.  The combie is a small, worn out bus that takes you to the beach, once every seat is full, and basically, all the standing room, too.  It was 1 sole each for us to ride the five miles to the beach, so about 0.27 USD.  We arrived at the beach and walked along the sandy shore, ever so happy to be on the ocean.

Peru is a giant desert to the all to the west of the Andes.  The whole bus ride from Arequipa to Camana, I kept  thinking about how we would die if our bus broke down.  It is so dry!  And hot!  At Camana, the sun baked sand dunes dump into the ocean.  The tawny brown hills turn a dark gray as the ocean touches it, so the beach wasn't exactly post card pretty, but it was surprisingly clean.  About 2,000 Peruvians lined the beach under umbrellas.  We walked about a mile along the shore.  The ocean is extremely cold!  The locals loved playing in the surf, but for us, even being from Alaska, it was a little chilly with a bit too much of a strong under tow.  We got our toes wet, then found an umbrella and decided to relax with a cold beer.

The next day we returned to the beach for more relaxation.  Tim went for a 5 mile run while I relaxed and read my book.  Theft is supposed to be pretty bad at Camana, so I volunteered to say and watch our things while Tim was healthy.  The beach goes on for miles, so he had a great run before returning and jumping into the ocean.  I was a little to confident in my tanning ability, and absolutely cooked myself while I happily stretched out and read my book.

After the beach, we were happy to board our air coned bus and sleep a little on the seven hour bus ride to Nazca.  We were able to book our flight over the Nazca lines the evening we arrived at our guest house.

We didn't get any pictures of the beach, sorry!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Climbing El Misti Volcano (5822 m)

Tim: After a busy first two weeks in Peru with friends and family, Amber and I were ready to stay in the same place for a few days. We opted to brush up on our Spanish speaking skills with a week of Spanish classes in Arequipa. We went to class for four hours per day from nine in the morning till one in the afternoon.  
Amber and I both had private classes with two different instructors each. All of our instructors we very good, and I learned how much Spanish I have yet to learn.
After five days of Spanish lessons, Amber and I were ready for some more adventure. El Misti is a dormant volcano overlooking the city of Arequipa. At 19,100 feet (5822 meters), El Misti is a very tall mountain. Its elevation is almost as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 ft.), Africa’s tallest mountain. El Misti is still shorter than Alaska’s Mt. McKinely at 20,322 ft.
We were able to arrange a guided tour for Saturday morning. The cost was just $85 USD per person. This included all the need gear such as a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, gators, ice axe, etc…  After getting equipped at the guiding company’s headquarters we set off in a lifted 1984 Suburban. A four wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance is required to make the approach to the starting point of El Misti hike. The access road was narrow and frequently washed out by past rainfall. After a bumpy 30 minute ride on the dirt road, we reached the trail starting point.
Our hike would begin at 11,316 ft (3450 meters). We had been acclimated to the elevation in Arequipa of 7,661 ft. (2335 m) for the last week. Gaining more than 1000 m. already made it harder to breath.
For the past several days, I had been experiencing some intestinal discomfort. I began taking antibiotics the morning of our hike as my condition was worsening. The terrain was surprisingly very desert like. Most of the plants were brown from lack of water even though this time of year the summer is the raining season for Peru. The terrain reminded me of arid parts of Arizona. There were no trees and only small brush covering the arid ground. It was also very hot. The rocks absorb the suns heat and radiate it back at you. When we began our hike it was close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As we slowing ascended the temperature cooled and there was a slight breeze.
Before setting out, Amber and I put a wad of coca leaves into our mouths to chew on. Coca leaves have alkaloids that help combat the effects of altitude sickness. I would chew a couple of mouth fulls each day. The coca leaves look similar to tea leaves. They are dried. To use properly, you take 25 or so leaves and place them along your gum on one side of your mouth and slowly chew. You do swallow your saliva. After 20 minutes or so, your gum goes slightly numb. If you want to the effect to be stronger you can also chew the coca leaves with calcium bicarbonate. The calcium bicarbonate is often included with a small bag of coca leaves. It comes in the form of a small grey chalky like stone. It is brittle so you can break off a small pebble size piece and wrap it in the coca leaves before putting it in your mouth. The feeling is very subtle. Something like the feeling you would get from the caffeine in a regular cup of coffee.
Our pace was slow. Our guide led the way for our group of five. This included our guide, Amber and I, and local Peruvian man named Tito, as well as a young Peruvian woman who was a receptionist at the tour company we booked with. Her name was Mariam.  We hiked for five hours the first day, beginning at 10:30 AM until 3:30 PM. The base camp was at 4300 m.
We ate dinner at 5:30 PM. Dinner included a Ramon soup with queso followed by an unpleasant dish of spaghetti pasta, one table spoon of tomato paste, and canned tuna. I was unable to eat much of it. Amber and I brought local dark chocolate to share with the group.
We went to bed in our tent at 7:00 PM. Our hike the next morning would begin at 2:00 AM in the dark.
1:00 AM the next morning came soon. In the darkness we stumble around to put our gear together. We were able to leave our larger pack at the base camp and only carry water, snacks, and our ice axe for the second day’s hike. The helped a lot as the gear that was provided was very heavy. We also had to carry 5 liters of water each the first day. This morning we only need to carry 1.5 liters each. We slowly ascended the mountain with baby steps that seem almost ridiculously slow.
This slow pace was all our lungs and heart could muster. We would take a break about every 45 minutes. Mariam was much slower than the rest of our group and lagged behind much of the climb. This was her first attempt of El Misti or any tall mountain.
After we reached 17,000 feet, the thinning air became more noticeable. Talking became difficult because of the need for heavy breathing. This kind of heavy breathing was different from other physical exertion. After only 4 or 5 steps I would be completely out of breath. If I continued dizziness and nausea would follow and you would feel like you were going to pass out. I started to force myself to use heavy breathing. I would quickly inhale and exhale also lifting my shoulders on each breath to help lift my rib cage as well as focus on deep breathing with my diaphragm to maximize my lung volume. At rest the average person breaths 12-15 times per minute. I was breathing about 50 times per minute with each breath like I had just broken the surface of the water after holding my breath for a minute. The sound of my gasps was audible to my climbing companions. When I focused on these deep breathing techniques I was able to walk slowly without getting dizzy.  The energy it took to breath was far greater than the energy my legs needed to walk as a pace was a snail’s pace.  My breathing was the same as if I was trying to hyperventilate myself at sea level.
Within several hours of this breathing I could feel the fatigue in my intercostals and diaphragm. It was light enough by 5:00 AM so that we no longer needed our headlamps. It was not until 6 hours into our climb that morning that we could finally see the peak. At this point Mariam had fallen way behind the rest of our group. We continued on without her. We were not sure if she would be able to make the ascent. We were close enough to the peak that Amber and I knew we would make the summit. The coldest part of the climb was at 4 in the morning. The sun was still not up, and our elevation was increasing. The temperature was around 30 degrees Fahrenheit with a 20 mph wind. We were wearing all the warm clothing we had.

There was almost no snow. When we first had arrived in Arequipa we could see that the summit of El Misti had some snow accumulation at the very summit, but over the past week almost all of it had melted away.
The last hour of the climb was the slowest. We could see the summit just a few hundred meters away, but we were struggling so hard to breathe that we could only muster a few shuffled steps before needing to rest. We reached the summit at 8:00 AM. The summit is marked with a 4 meter tall iron cross that has been on the peak since the early 1900s.  I’m glad I didn’t have to help carry it up there. The sun was up and the temperatures getting warmer. We rested on the summit for an hour. It was sometime before Mariam became visible slowing climbing up the ridge below us. We were happy to see that she had continued. She reached the summit 45 minutes behind the rest of us.

We had apparently carried our ice axes the whole time for the sole purpose of getting photographs with them at the peak because there was no snow or ice that need picking anywhere along our climb. We took many photos and gazed and the beautiful view. There are several other very tall mountains nearby including Chanchani (6075 meters).  
We began our descent at 9:00 AM. We would take a different route down much of the mountain. The trail up El Misti followed the more rocky areas providing traction, but the way down the mountain followed the ginormous scree field. The scree was actually more like volcanic sand. It was black with very few large rocks or stones making the terrain ideal for a quick decent. We were able run/ski down the side of the mountain. The sand covered our ankles as we slid down the mountain at a rapid pace. The scree field lasted until almost our base camp. We were able to descend 1200 meters in less than 45 minutes.

Once we reached base camp we back our sleeping bags and tents, repacked our large backpacks and set off again down more scree that lasted for another 600 meters. The last 5 kilometers we had to hike out. It was very hot and we were exhausted. The suburban waiting for us at the end of the trail was a pleasant site. We had made it! I think that this will likely be the tallest mountain that we ever climb, but it was an awesome experience.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Colca Canyon Trekking

Tim: The bus ride from Puno to Arequipa took almost 7 hours. We arrived into Arequipa early in the evening. Because there were six of us in our group we took two taxis to our guesthouse. We found some dinner and I nice Peruvian steakhouse then returned to our Guesthouse for some sleep.

We also arranged for a 3 day two night tour of Colca Canyon said to be the second deepest canyon in the world. The deepest canyon in the world is also located in Peru, but not as accessible as Colca Canyon.

Our tour would begin at 8 in the morning. We would take a small our bus to Chivay, the gateway village to Colca Canyon. On the way we would visit a vicuna reserve, and the lookout of the volcanoes where the road reaches an elevation of 4910 meters or 16,104 feet. This would be the highest any of our group had ever been.

Vicunas are similar to llamas. Apparently there are four distinct animals in camel family in Peru. They are: llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos. Llamas and alpacas are domesticated while vicunas and guanacos are wild. We were able to see many vicunas along the road.

We reached Chivay in the early afternoon and ate lunch at the recommended Peruvian buffet restaurant. The food was pretty good. Amber was not feeling well at this point and took a nap while the rest joined the tour group for an outing to the hot springs nearby.

The road to the hotsprings was a very bumpy narrow dirt road. It was also raining a fair bit. I noted that in the USA we would never drive a two axel two wheel drive bus down such a road.

The hot springs were lacking. There were only two pools for us to use and they water was not very clean and not very hot. We enjoyed ourselves any way for an hour before climbing the hillside in the rain back to our tour bus.

About halfway back to Chivay, our driver cut a steep corner to sharp and ground out the back of the bus in the muddy dirt road. Everyone had to get off the bus. Once we looked at what happened we realized the bus was pretty stuck and risked tearing the back of the bus off.

Everyone seemed to have an idea of how to get the bus unstuck. Other vehicles came up the road behind us, but the bus was blocking the entire roadway so no vehicles could pass until our bus was free. The woman gathered up hill of the bus while the men collected large flat rocks to but under the low side tires that were high centered. This was complicated by the rain which made the roadway very muddy. After 30 minutes of work, the bus driver was able to pull out of the ditch. When we re-boarded the bus everyone's shoes an sandals were covered in mud and made a mess of the bus floor.

For dinner we went to a restaurant that included cultural dancing. Everyone sat at on both sides of long tables and watched the show. Above us on the wall there was the carcass of a wild cat in a basket nailed to the wall. The wild cat was barely recognizable as a cat only by the texture of the fur and one shriveled up pay that was hanging out of the wicker basket. It did not even appear to be stuffed or taxidermied. It was as if someone killed a wild cat then threw the carcass in the basket on the wall to shrivel up. I tried asking the guide why it was there, but he didn't have an explanation.

The cultural dancing was done by one man an one woman. In Chivay, the traditional dress of the men is similar to that of the woman. The men wear colorful dresses. We were told that this tradition started in colonial times when marriages were arranged by the parents for the purpose of increasing the standing of the family. As a result men would have to disguise themselves as women in order to court woman in secret.

Several of the dances included whippings, The man would whip the woman with a cloth strap that would make a whip snap noise. Then this would be repeated with the woman whipping the man. On of the dances included the man trying to look under the woman's skirt and being smitten. Also man had to try to forceful pick up the woman over his shoulder and run away with her. It was an interesting experience.

Amber:  The next morning we woke up bright and early, had a traditional Peruvian breakfast of jam and bread, and met up with our tour van to head towards Colca Canyon.  It was still fairly misty out, so our guide was not particularly optimistic about us sighting Condors.  We had booked a hike into the canyon, while the rest of our bus were turning around at the condor viewing spot.  When it was clear that none were to be seen, Jerami, Eloise, Dwight, Heather, Tim and I were loaded onto a smaller van and transported to the trail head a few kilometers down the mountain.  Heather had accidentally forgotten her rain coat in the van, but a second group of hikers were able to pull over at our original bus, pick it up for her, and deliver it to us at the trail head.  We had strict instructions to bring lots of water, and it was at this point that I realized that one of my water bottles had rolled out of the side of my pack, and it too was still somewhere on our bus.  Thankfully, Tim shared some of his water.

The deep canyon was filled with fog, so we could not see how far down the steep walls went as we hiked down our trail.  We were all happy to be outside, hiking in the beautiful canyon regardless.  As we went deeper, some of the fog lifted, and we actually spotted a condor!  He was not particularly big, only about 6' wingspan.  Adult male condor's can grow to having a 10' wing span.  He soared above us and dissapeared into some of the caves that peppered the canyon wall.  We saw two different condors, both about the same size, as we hiked down.  The closest we got was about 20 meters from them as they soared up the thermals, letting the up drafts lift them out of the canyon.

We finally reached the river that cuts through Colca Canyon. We had to cross a surprisingly sturdy hanging bridge, and scurry along a very narrow, very high up, steep trail to make our destination for lunch. Only foot traffic and mules (and the occasional cow) make the trail to the small village that perches just up from the river, but we were provided with alpaca, rice, and local avocados for lunch.  Not too filling, but pretty tasty, considering.  We hiked on, and a light rain started.  The trail took us up to a second village, a small, dirty town made of crumbling brick houses and rusted tin roofs, before dipping back down to the river.  This bridge was a lot less sturdy, and Tim of course thought it would be fun the bounce on the bridge, just to make sure that I was terrified as I climbed across the river, some 50' below.

We arrived at our camp by about four. Little bungalow shacks waited for us. It was a little chilly, but the six of us Alaskan's could not resist the beautiful swimming pool.  It was cold and refreshing, and we all decided we deserved a beer for our long days hike!

The next morning, we were awoken at four in the morning to make the dark, steep climb back to the top.  Breakfast was not to be provided, or coffee either, until we reached the top of the canyon.  Talk about motivation!  It was supposed to take three hours, but we made the climb in two and a half.  Dwight had kindly brought, and shared, Laura bars, hence, we all survived.  It was a steep hike, but a beautiful, clear morning.  The view of the canyon, as we climbed up, and once we reached the top, was amazing!