Postcards from Split

20171010_183806

Outside of the castle, the most visible aspect of Split is the harbor. There are promenades and paths that run along the water, and a short hike that heads up to the top of Marjan hill, a park on the west side of the old town. There is only one caveat to the beauty of the harbor. It smells. It’s a strong, unpleasant smell, and it’s present all along the old-town promenade. It fades pretty quickly away from the central promenade, and once inside the castle, up on the hill, or even just around to the other side of the harbor, there is no more smell.

IMG_4949

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a rowboat, a sailboat, or a cruiseliner – everyone shares the water.

IMG_5007

One evening we walked out along the water to the west. We thought there might be a way up into the park, but there wasn’t really.

IMG_5001

We had gotten fairly far down the way, when this man with a motorcycle tried climbing up the stairs towards us. He was pretty experienced at riding up stairs apparently, but this last bit was too much.

IMG_5003

Why was he trying to ride up the stairs? Up a ways ahead, we were told to stop. Police had cordoned off the area up ahead due to reports of a potentially dangerous man running around. We decided it was probably a good idea to turn around too.

IMG_4982

The way back offered some of the best views of the old city. It’s really hard to beat the skies of Split.

IMG_4888

Sunset continued as we walked around and watched the water.

IMG_4889

One of the massive Jadrolinia ships went by. They’re the main ferry between Italy and Croatia, and also between split and the nearby Brac Island.

IMG_4882

There came a point during sunset when the clouds cleared and the mountains behind Split lit up. Split truly is a beautiful location.

IMG_4998

The next day we decided to actually hike the hill.

20171012_155413

We got a little lost and found this very cool statue on the north side of the castle.

20171012_170900

Eventually we found our way west and headed up into the hill. It starts out as a fairly narrow path but it gets pretty broad up ahead.

20171012_182121

For a large part of the way there are steps that are wide enough to be a street. The houses here are pretty dense and well maintained. I can only imagine that it’s more expensive to live here than in other parts of the city.

20171012_172227

Eventually we hit the nature-trail portion of the hill. As is traditional in many cities, the local hill is a favorite for kids, families, and pretty much everyone else, to get some exercise and be in nature for a while.

20171012_173301

The path forks and winds a bit, but the main trail is pretty easy to tell apart. We got up most of the way and took a break near an unusually large collection of cats.

20171012_172941

Then this man arrived, and the cats got up in a hurry. What’s the secret? He feeds them from his house nearby, probably every day. Truly herding cats.

20171012_180033

As with any good high point near a city, this one has an oversized flag. Not nearly as large as the ones in South America – like Arica or Cartagena – but still large enough.

20171012_180128

From the top you can’t really see Split proper, instead the western arm of the harbor and the neighborhood beneath the park are visible.

Facing sunset and a chilly wind, we headed back down.

20171012_182606

The dog on Hum Hill

IMG_4776

On our way down Hum Hill, we ran into a dog! He was super cute and very friendly. I pet him, of course.

IMG_4770

As we walked down, the dog came with us. Uh oh. At one point I walked him all the way back up to where we thought his car and owner would be, but no such luck. Doggo walked right back down with us.

IMG_4766

Now we were in a bit of a quandary. Doggo had clearly decided he would be following us, but he also clearly had a collar. We didn’t want to accidentally lead someone’s dog down the hill. It was getting cold so Natalie wrapped him in her jacket while we decided what to do. We checked for a dog rescue in Mostar – there was one! But we had no real way to contact them. We settled on the next best thing – flagging down cars to ask a local for help. Most passed right by us, but a few stopped.

IMG_4779

The general consensus seemed to be that sometimes – fairly often – people will leave their dog up on the hill when they don’t want it anymore. This seemed unbelievably cruel, so we asked about a shelter. This was admittedly naive but hey, the dog was quiet, apparently well behaved, and adorable. As we expected though, Bosnia is not at the stage of having animal shelters, and one of the people who helpfully stopped told us he calls the rescue people once in a while but they never seem to come. The thought on whether to bring him down into the city with us, or leave him on the mountain, was that in the city, he’d be competing with some very rough street dogs. Up here at least, even though it was cold, there would be less violence. Neither option seemed great to us, and it was pretty clear doggo would follow us right down the car-laden road.

IMG_4782

We finally met someone coming down who was taking pictures with a drone and seemed fairly well off. We chatted for a bit – a surprising number of people spoke great English. He promised he would at least stop the dog from following us into the road, and also ask anyone else he saw if they knew the owner. We left with a heavy heart. With any luck someone took pity and took doggo in – our only solace is that the guy we left him with seemed like a good person and maybe in need of a pet? Despite what we’re used to in first world countries – that shelters aren’t great and adoption is hit and miss – there are at least mechanisms in place to prevent total abandonment. In many countries around the world, there isn’t even that. We want to believe everything turned out ok for doggo as we made our way down into the city.

IMG_4796

Hiking Hum Hill in Mostar

IMG_4835

Hum – pronounced ‘Hoom’- hill dominates the south-west portion of the city. It’s not a mountain, definitely a hill, but it’s large and extremely up close. We decided our outdoor activity for the area would be to climb it. Luckily for us, we had run in to a local who chatted with us for a bit in the marketplace. His salient warning was to not climb the city-facing side of the hill. There’s a road that runs around the back and is the only safe trail to get to the top of the mountain. The rest of it is still mined.

IMG_4865

To get there, we crossed the bridge to the west side of the river. We then passed through some of the more typical residential areas – medium sized soviet style apartment buildings and their associated markets and restaurants. The prices here are much, much lower than in the old town.

IMG_4855 IMG_4626

After the residential area, the road started heading up into the hills and the the houses started becoming a bit more decrepit. Not every house was like this, but a fair number were.

IMG_4630

The top of the hill is marked by a giant cross. In a Muslim majority country, this was something of a big deal when it went up. Many people were quite unhappy, and it doesn’t seem to foster good relations.

IMG_4786

The road winds up and up, here we looked back at the city. There’s not much of a space for pedestrians to walk. It’s much more common for people to drive up and then walk around after the highway ends, but the locals are used to pedestrians hiking up the mountain. It’s still very important to be aware and careful though, especially around the curves.

IMG_4707

At some point near the top the road ends and the hill-road begins. It’s a fairly long hike all told, and the split is roughly halfway.

IMG_4747 IMG_4640

Along the side of the mountain road are these stone settings – they each show Christ or another religious figure. The whole mountain was apparently decorated with religious symbols around the time the cross went up.

IMG_4647

One of these comes around every hundred meters or so.

IMG_4762

From the back of the hill you can look down on to the edge of the city and the green hills and mountains surrounding it.

IMG_4670

In the other direction, the majority of Mostar. Even during the hike up there’s a fantastic view.

IMG_4714

Along the way we spotted some amazingly vibrant blue flowers.

IMG_4684

At the top the cross looms large. It’s a fairly minimalist, concrete structure, fairly similar to the one in Skopje, but less Eiffel-tower like.

IMG_4687

On the other side of the cross is the part of the hill facing the city – the mined part. There are some clearly marked trails that people have been through, and the view is very nice.

IMG_4699

We took some time to soak in the view. It seemed fairly important to not go off trail, despite the fact that there had been clear human presence in some of the ‘off-limits’ areas.

IMG_4683

The only other people we had seen go off the road were a family picking up cans and foraging herbs. We ran into another family on the way up who talked with us for a bit, lamenting the downfall of Mostar and the rampant inequality.

IMG_4751

The famed bridge was not quite visible from the safe areas. To get a view of it we would have had to walk out onto the face of the hill we had been warned against.

IMG_4703

Having seen the landscape and the city sprawl, we headed back down the mountain. It was starting to get near sunset and the temperature was dropping.

 

The Trails of Stolby

IMG_1621

The camp inside the park is super close to the central stairs – great for us! On the days it wasn’t pouring, we made our way up and out into the main bouldering/hiking section. Many day visitors don’t go too far along this route, being content with reaching the picnic/play area at the top.

IMG_1778

Past the stairs, almost immediately after, is First Pillar. It’s nice, not particularly climbable in the upward direction but fun to scramble around on. There are little training boulders scattered around, including some for kids.
The path from there splits. On the first day we visited the yellow/blue trail. The markers are a vivid stripe of blue and another of yellow on trees and rocks around the park. It’s a pretty short hike and really focuses on climbable boulders and pillars.

IMG_1709

Some of the rocks have names, some of them don’t. We found a fun one to climb on the way to Ded (grandpa) pillar. Here we got to scramble through a little stone chimney and wander around somewhat above the treeline.

IMG_1676

There was a nice little ascension point at the base which was a good warmup for the slightly harder second half of the climb, just out of sight of the picture.

IMG_20170717_124817

Ded pillar is a pretty popular one. We met a few families climbing around on it. There’s a low easy section that’s a lot of fun to run around on and has some hollow sections that fill up with rain to make ponds. From here you can see over the park and into the city. There was a whole family leaning over to take a selfie with Krasnoyarsk. Ded rock also has a much, much harder second portion.

IMG_1806

You can climb on the taller segments but the path is hard and not straightforward. We only know this because we saw an old man gripping his way around the rock. He was leathery and cut, probably climbing these rocks most days.

IMG_20170717_143948

Around the loop we hiked, skipping Perya Rock, instead reaching in about half an hour Third Pillar (3rd rock!). Lots of good climbing on this one! The paths in this part of the forest intersect rather freely, so we had to make sure we were on our trail several times. There’s at least one path that goes from this area all the way back to town.

Right nearby is Fourth Pillar, and then the trail loops back around towards first and second pillars.

IMG_2664

Back to camp we went, let the rains pass for a day, and headed out again. This time we went on the purple trail. This trail goes way south into the explorable region of the park, does a tight loop, and returns. It’s a lot more hike-y and way less climb-y than the other trails, though there are still some good rocks to be found. It has a lot more bog and mosquitoes, so that’s not as nice. But the wildlife is wilder – we saw a pack of wolves (wolf and german shepherd mixes mostly) running not 40 feet from us. We did not get a picture, but we also didn’t get eaten, so yay!

IMG_2690

Along that route we saw a lot of weathered rocks – large pockmarks and crevices.

IMG_1825

And plenty of good rocks for climbing.

IMG_2639

Some more difficult than others.

IMG_20170719_134516

We actually got to the end of the purple trail, dire warning sign and all! It makes sense in this park – the land here is supposed to remain free of human interaction, and the only way to guarantee that is to ban most humans from entering the true nature reserve. The chipmunks living past this line in the forest do not get fed nuts and berries from tourists.

IMG_2642

Out near the final rock someone had set up a little picnic area, a little disused. We saw some traces of previous visitors but really, if you want to be alone in nature, this is the spot.

IMG_20170719_111726

On our way back we had the pleasure of searching for the Cain and Abel rocks. This was a fun diversion for a while and really got the sweat flowing. The trail we came in by is at ground level, while the ‘loop’ portion of it is ten or more meters above that, so we spent a lot of time climbing straight up a very steep slope looking for the loop portion of the trail. We got lost for a while, going much further east than we intended, and had to backtrack.

IMG_2725

Finally our legwork paid off – we found the trail and the rocks we were looking for.

IMG_1865

The view from the top was grand. The day was clear and we could see the park stretching on and on.

IMG_2608

There were other large rocks within out sight and we could see where parts of the forest had been burned or hit by disease. A real bird’s eye view!

20170719_162043

The rock we were on had some climbable rocks jutting out pretty far over the cliff proper. Here Natalie climbs those rocks while I sit grumpily afraid of heights for her in the background.

IMG_2607

The nature in the park is remarkable. Trees here grow huge from the tiniest cracks in the pillars. One day they’ll help force apart the rock and cause their eventual collapse.

IMG_1852

Here is one such fantastic tree, its roots crawling all over the rock searching for any purchase. We were not the first people to sit in it for a picture, we definitely won’t be the last. That tree is rooted in tight.

20170719_164829

Done with Cain and Abel, we headed home. On the last stretch back we encountered Farm Rock (ferma). We’d been seeing signs for this rock the whole time we were here, and we finally found it! It’s a good short-hop bouldering site with lots of interesting low-height routes. Why it’s called a farm, I have no idea.

PANO_20170717_115306

We had a great time hiking and climbing in Stolby. Since we were there taking pictures, we also made this map of the paths we explored!

Summer fun at Miyajima Island

IMG_5616

A few hours by train out from Hiroshima is the city of Miyajimaguchi, which Natalie tells me means Entrance to Miyajima. It’s mostly true. The only reason most people visit this city is to get to the nearby island of Miyajima. It’s real name is actually Itsukushima but for some reason everyone calls it Miyajima.

IMG_5601 Miyajima has five things going for it, and that’s not even counting the ferry ride. Ferry rides are awesome. IMG_5612

First and foremost, the biggest attraction on (really off) the island is the absolutely massive Torii gate literally right off the coast. It’s base is submerged in water at high tide so it looks like the date is floating on the ocean. At low tide you can flock to it, along with all the other tourists. You can get a really great shot of it from the ferry, but try to do the boat at high tide, the shot is much more impressive.

IMG_5869

As soon as you land on the island, almost first thing outside of the boat terminal, are deer. Entirely unafraid, food seeking deer. They’re pretty cute and only a little annoying, but they will eat anything and they have no problem asking for it very directly. If you give them an inch they will try to bite a mile, so watch your fingers. Ignoring them and moving your food out of their way is the best thing to do if you don’t want your snack eaten. You can pet them, they’re pretty harmless.

IMG_5685

After the gate and the deer comes the tchachki gauntlet. A long, covered marketplace holds shop after shop of souvenirs – delightful bells, rice paddles, chopsticks and Torii gate paraphernalia. There you will find the largest rice paddle I have ever seen.

IMG_5572

The other biggest draw for this section is the Momiji Manju – maple leaf shaped egg dough treats with sweet filling, usually red bean, custard, or chocolate. They’re made in these fantastic machines that you can see operating all day long.

IMG_5892

We tasted a whole bunch of them and left with the impression that the chocolate ones are usually the best. It’s entirely worth it to buy an individual one at a particular shop before going for the box. Some are sweeter, others dryer, some have more filling, others have tastier dough. There’s maybe a dozen vendors to try so leave some room for dessert.

IMG_5644

You’ve taken a picture of/with the giant gate, fed the deer, and stuffed yourself on Momiji. Next up at Miyajima, climbing Mt. Misen! It’s the highest mountain on the island and it has a fantastic trail. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, and even with the tourist map it’s a bit of a puzzle.

IMG_5773

Here’s a link to the starting point on the map. To one side is a temple, to the other the trail.

IMG_5706

We wound up getting lost and finding a large shrine near the trailhead where we tried the local healing tea, enjoyed the sound of a hundred or so bell chimes, and listened to a very loud monk prayer chant.

IMG_5717

Just below the shrine were statues of childlike monks with beanies and scarves. We found out they are taken care of by parents who have lost a child, an outlet of grief and parental affection.

IMG_5697

To the side of the temple is the actual trail. It’s wonderfully maintained and wanders through some amazing hillside nature. It goes up and up and up, a climb of at least two hours or so.

IMG_5737

There’s a waterfall along the way, and at the very top is an observational platform and building.

IMG_5802

On your way up you might encounter this riff on the classic rock cairn.

IMG_5810

The views are great and in the building is a small souvenir store supporting the maintenance of the trail where a lovely old man will give you a stamp for climbing to the top!

PANO_20170618_132111

On the way back down you can pass by the cable car landing – the other favorite way to get to the top of the mountain and, after passing through more forest and picnic grounds, arrive back at the town market for a well deserved treat.

IMG_5851

At this point you can enjoy the relaxing seaside and try to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Staying on the island can be a pretty expensive ordeal and the ferries do fill up during peak hours, so try to be early.

IMG_5877

We had a great, sunny day running and hiking around the island. It was even a Sunday, right in the middle of summer, so it was as close to busy as it gets. There were plenty of people enjoying the island with us but it never felt crowded. So go, enjoy the standard island-town setting with a few unique Japanese twists, it’s well worth your time.

IMG_5766

And let us know if you find any sandwiches!

Keelung

IMG_2778

Keelung is a port city in northeastern Taiwan, but it feels like a small town compared to Taipei. We’re here as part of a transit route from Taipei to Jiufen, a tourist town just to the south. But an impending heavy rainstorm has stalled us, and given our limited amount of time here we’ve opted just to stay here in Keelung.

IMG_2758

IMG_2729

The strangest part of Keelung is the subtle Japanese influence that pervades and surfaces seemingly at random. At the tourism center, which is staffed by mostly elderly volunteers, I find a man who speaks fluent Japanese. He learned it in school, under the Japanese occupation (which lasted until the end of World War II). The old man helps us find an affordable hotel room, and tells us about how the Japanese occupied the island and treated the native Taiwanese people well. They built the rail system we used to travel here from Taipei. They modernized the economy. And to this day you can take a two-day ferry from here to Okinawa, at the southern tip of Japan. The weirdest thing is to listen to this man remember the fifty years of Japanese occupation with warmth; nearly anywhere else in East Asia, they’re reviled for the wartime atrocities committed during occupation.

IMG_2815

Like Taipei, the city lives more at night than during the day. In the daytime, the city loses thousands of people who commute into Taipei to work. Their motorbikes stand, neatly lined up together, behind the city’s train terminal. Few people walk the streets, and most are visitors that have just arrived on cruise ships for the day. In the evening, the situation reverses. The cruise-ship visitors return to their floating hotels and depart, while the people of the city return to enjoy Keelung’s night market. Stalls offer dumplings, fried scallion pancakes, and fresh seafood. Locals walk between the stalls, carrying food or the now internationally-famous Taiwanese invention, bubble tea.

IMG_2835 IMG_2827

After all of the food at the night markets, we set out one morning to try and walk off some calories, heading north along the coastline to see what we find. We walk roads meant primarily for cars and keep a nervous eye out for careless drivers, though there’s little traffic for a weekday. The roadside scenery on the landside alternates between dense hillside forests and dense apartment buildings, both a chaotic mess of angles and lines.

IMG_2841

IMG_3027

On the sea-side, we see nothing but port and shipping equipment. We pass rows of cranes for shipping containers, standing stock-still like iron horses silhouetted against the sky. There are no people in sight, but there is evidence of them everywhere. We see a crane moving in the distance and trying to center itself over a shipping crate, like a giant, million-dollar stakes version of a claw catcher game. We find empty chairs in front of guardhouses, and trucks left with the engine idling. But we encounter no human souls on our side of the port’s wall.

IMG_3058

IMG_2853

After a few hours, we find our first destination, a Buddhist temple hidden in a cave. I realize with embarrassment that I’m not wearing anything to cover my shoulders and pull our travel towel over me like a makeshift shawl. But the Buddhist monks here don’t seem to care, or at least they ignore us politely as we enter. We make our way in to the main altar and bow like my father taught me to when in the presence of a temple.

IMG_2857

IMG_2862

To the left of the altar is a crevice, and I’ve heard rumors that there’s another altar past it where you can hear the ocean through the cave’s walls. At nearly 2 meters, Stoytcho is hesitant but follows, and we walk, then crouch, then crawl our way through the crevice, scraping the walls with our backpack and shoulders. It’s not something I would recommend for anyone with claustrophobia, but on the other side a small room with an altar stretches before us, the walls decorated with thousands of Chinese characters scratched into the sandstone walls. I make out a character here and there, but can’t put any meaning to them. We also stop to listen for the sound of the ocean, but can hear nothing. IMG_2877

IMG_2873

Back at the temple entrance, we continue north in search of our final destination of the day, Baimiweng Fortress. It’s near sunset when we arrive at the fort’s base, and we find our way through the maze of apartment-lined suburban streets to our destination with the help of locals, who tolerate with patience my attempts at pronouncing Baimiweng. At the top, we find that the local government has converted the fort into a grassy field for sports and recreation, with richly-painted pagodas for picnics and lounging about.

IMG_3148IMG_3106 IMG_3119

We rush to explore the fort in the dying light, up to the top of the lookout hill and then back down and across the grassy fields to the concrete bunkers installed during Japanese occupation. While the fort location has been an important military base since the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese government was the one who updated it for modern warfare and installed concrete structures, now overgrown with weeds and showing cracks from disrepair. But this area was once a strategic place protecting Taiwan, then vital to the Japanese Empire as a supply line to their former colonies. It’s strange how alliances and governance have shifted and changed since then, and it all seems like far away history. But just yesterday, we met the old man at the tourism office who lived through it.

IMG_3134

Hiking without a goal

23-IMG_20170214_113557

Sometimes a hike doesn’t work out. For us, a successful hike is one where either we reach our goal or we enjoy it so much along the way that the destination wasn’t too important. Our go at the Kaipawa Trig Track was neither of these things.

07-IMG_8257

We’d be driving for a few hours now, bored and stiff. The weather was mildly gloomy, occasionally drizzling. At the top of a hill were parked several cars, a clear indication of a trailhead. Ponchos and boots on we wandered around the picnic area looking for the path in. We found it and up we went on a nominally steep but miserably slippery grade. The drizzle had wet down the whole trail and many sections were now just exposed, slick rock. This is normally a good indication that the hike will be tough, but we don’t mind increased difficulty.

04-IMG_8242

If the path were dry, I’d imagine this to be a fair trail with some mild climbs. As it was, we were growing increasingly wet, tired, and I’d threatened to fall several times. We’ve faced worse conditions and tougher climbs, but without a clear goal or reason for going, the hike became a slog. Because we need an end-point, we decided to go to the first Trig. Incidentally, you might be wondering what a trig is. We did too. It’s a marker used in geographical and geological surveys of an area. A trigonometric marker. We never quite made it to this one.

02-IMG_8238

There were several hill climbs along the way, and the scenery was beautiful to be sure, but conditions were just bad enough that without the need to get somewhere, we decided to turn back. The thought of putting more sliding slopes between us and the car was not palatable, and by this point in our journey the ponchos we bought in Cusco were starting to let in water and smell kind of funny.

03-IMG_8241

In the end we got what we wanted, sort of. We’d seen a part of the New Zealand wilderness and stretched our legs. We felt somehow unfulfilled at the end of it though. We didn’t reach our goal, and mist and cloud made the trail seem much more constricted than it otherwise would have been, all the vistas obscured by fog.

05-IMG_8245

Looking back on the photographs we took, the hike seems much more interesting than we experienced it. Ours was a hood-blinded, sweaty trek. From the pictures we took though, the nature around us was abundant and vibrant. New Zealand’s tramping site lists this track as going through “regenerating forest”. A regenerating forest is one where something took out a large portion of the older trees, and saplings quickly established themselves.  No information was provided on whether this forest is under human assisted regeneration or natural regeneration after a fire.

06-IMG_8246
A Kauri tree stands tall, a canopy unto itself.

Either way, the verdant green of the forest shows it’s doing very well. The rain also gave me an opportunity to see one of my favorite sights in nature : wet moss.

24-IMG_20170214_121638 25-IMG_20170214_121650

Well, to feel really. Wet moss under the fingertips is a lovely texture, and really only available in rainy forests. Done appreciating the small things along the way, we headed back to the car. On the way there I almost fell a few times, but to my credit, my balance has increased tremendously over the course of our travels. For someone with better balance than I, the final downhill before the parking lot would make for an amazing slide. Safely back at the car, we were very ready to dry off and get on the road.

01-IMG_8233
The windswept trees saw us off to our next destination.

 

Cusco’s Trail of Ruins

IMG_5517
A view from Tambomachay
After a day of rest and recovery in Cusco, we decided it was time to test our preparedness for the Salkantay Trail by hiking Cusco’s trail of Inca ruins, a ~7.5 km downhill hike that visits the Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Q’enqo, and Saqsayhuaman archaeological sites. While 48 hours isn’t a lot of time to acclimate to Cusco’s high altitude, we’re due to head out to the Salkantay tomorrow and it’s better to know now if we’re not in good enough shape. So we paid 17 soles (~$5 USD) for a taxi to the start of the trail at Tambomachay, where we paid 70 soles (~$21 USD) per person for day passes to all four ruins and got ready to hike.
IMG_5477
Cairns along the trail
 The ruin of Tambomachay was a few minutes’ walk uphill, with bilingual Spanish/English signs along the way that introduced the site’s history. To the Incas, Tambomachay was simultaneously a sacred site, a resort getaway, and a key defensive area. The Incan leaders worshiped the manifestation of water here through the abundant springs in the area, rested in its hot springs and enjoyed hunting, and commanded warriors to use this as a guardpoint for entry into ancient Cusco. Now the area was guarded by polite ropes cordoning off the ruins, and manned by a string of vendors selling souvenirs to the handful of tourists coming by. This time of year is the low season in Cusco, and mostly what these poor folks are doing is huddling under blankets to ward off the morning cold, chewing coca leaves and chatting to each other.
IMG_5473
A girl leads a stubborn lamb
IMG_20170113_095639
The ruins of Tambomachay
The ruins held our interest for about 10 minutes as we admired the masonry and construction, then we turned our attention to the patchwork of trails around the ruins. There didn’t seem to be a specific trail we should take, so we picked one and started hiking uphill, partly to test our fitness and partly just to see what else was around here. The flora and fauna was decidedly different here – there were plants and insects of brilliant color and odd design, from the papery husk of a wildflower set to seed to a metallic blue-green wasp. The view was also stunning, as the clouds of the rainy season drifted over the Andes.
IMG_5494
A worker who maintains the archaeological site walks a trail in the ruins
IMG_5506
Flowers set to seed
IMG_5560
A metallic green wasp rests among leaves
On a trail high above the ruins, we stopped to rest and were ambushed by a pack of llamas, who insisted on taking right-of-way on the path. We climbed up above them, gazing down in awe as the trail became a flowing river of wool, llamas and sheep walking, stopping to nibble, and rolling in the dust. As we waited for them to pass, I made the mistake of snapping a photo. The driver of this herd, an old woman, had rounded the bend by this time and approached me. “Moneda,” she said forcefully, holding out her hand. I was confused, and then it dawned on me that she was demanding money for my pictures. “Moneda,” she demanded again. “Uh…no,” I replied. The woman stood there for a few more moments, her hand out, frowning. But her herd was wandering on without her, and so she hissed and turned away. For the safety of the money that’s supposed to get me from here to home, I made a mental note to never photograph specific things or people here in Peru without asking first. It’s just too risky. It also seems absurd that photos of daily life would warrant payment, but when tourism pays so much better than anything else then everyone wants in on the action.
IMG_5542
A sudden abundance of llamas
IMG_5554
Sheep and llamas overflow the trail

On the way back down, a vendor stopped us to try and barter some of his goods for Stoytcho’s watch, a ~$30 Casio G-Shock. We politely declined, but I asked if I could pay him 5 soles (~$1.50 USD) to take pictures of his wares. He agreed enthusiastically, suddenly donning a hat and holding up his brightest colored blankets for me to photograph. It was an absurd display, and it seemed so far from life in fact that I cringed inside. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t necessary, that I was interested in him just as himself, and that he didn’t have to dress in the kitsch he sells to tourists and put on a show. Instead, I took my picture and thanked him.

IMG_5565
A vendor displays his wares
The next two ruins were a blur as we trudged down the paved road and dirt trails toward Cusco. Puka Pukara had little information provided only in Spanish, though its walls were beautifully reconstructed and we could see the amazing stonecutting skills of the Incas. Each piece of stone seemed to fit together perfectly, without even space to slide a needle in. This hadn’t stopped plants, though, and mosses and weeds sprouted defiantly from some cracks in the walls, intent on rejoining the structures with the nature around us.
IMG_5588
The impeccable masonry of the Incas; each stone is carved and fitted together without any kind of joining material. Pale chalk lines are probably remnants of archaeological notes during reconstruction.
IMG_5585
Defiant weeds and mosses make their homes between the rocks
Q’enqo had no information whatsoever, its sign missing from the wooden frame. We walked the ruins anyway, puzzling over its cave and stairs that probably once led to an altar. “This was probably a worship site for the Incas.” I hypothesized to Stoytcho. “Whatever it was, it was meant for shorter people,” Stoytcho replied, bent at nearly ninety degrees as he squeezed through spaces between the rocks.
IMG_20170113_132211
While not particularly helpful for information, Q’enqo’s wooden information sign frame made a great place to collapse from exhaustion.
IMG_5604
Once an altar?
While we weren’t the only visitors on the hike, we seemed to be the only foreigners around. We passed local families walking the ruins, children playing in fields, and couples picnicking on the hills. Maybe they’re shopkeepers in the city, but they seem to be a different class entirely from the Cusquenos selling souvenirs from street stalls and at the ruins.
IMG_5609
Locals picnic on the grass
IMG_5613
Lovers in the woods
It’s late afternoon when we finally reached the ruins of Saqsayhuaman, and I fully admit to being pretty done with ruins. It was a shame, because Saqsayhuaman was one of the most interesting ruins, a reconstruction of the part of the ancient city of Cusco. Ancient Cusco was built in the shape of a jaguar, and the fortress at Saqsayhuaman was the jaguar’s head, complete with an eye and jagged teeth. Many guides here walked with tour groups, explaining the history and structure of the site, and there were several signs explaining the layout of the ruins in English and Spanish. But we were both tired, and so we stayed only 30 minutes before continuing on toward the city. We only stopped again for the giant Jesus on the hill.
IMG_5647
The jagged teeth of the jaguar
IMG_5622
Cusco seems so close now…
IMG_5653
The Jesus that watches over Cusco
Finally, seven hours and four aching feet later, we were walking through the streets of Cusco again. We trudged back down to Plaza de Armas where our trip had started, and sat in front of the Catedral del Cusco. It was a fitting if not morbid end to the trip, sitting before the works of the Spanish conquerors who laid waste to the Incan empire only a few hundred years ago. With guns and horses, they captured Cusco in 1533 and made it their base for Spanish colonization of the Andes. They spread Christianity and suppressed Incan beliefs and political systems, building new edifices of power while the remains of the Inca civilization faded. The Incans may have made the temples, walls, and fortresses, but these conquerors made the ruins we saw today.
IMG_5657
Finally on the streets of Cusco
IMG_5660
Cusco’s Cathedral, built by the Spanish in the ashes of the Incan capital
And as for the verdict on our condition after the hike? We’re exhausted but not dead exhausted and not injured, nor had we suffered any dizziness or fainting from the altitude. I’m pretty sure we’re ready for the Salkantay.

The Trail to Las Grietas

IMG_5421
The view in the direction of Las Grietas

Las Grietas is one of the few hikes you can do directly from Puerto Ayora, taking you from the town to a narrow canyon where you can snorkel. On our second day in town, we took a ferry across the bay to the start of the trail. It’s a five-minute ride that takes you less than half a mile, but the atmosphere is a world away. Once you get away from the ferry dropoff point, the noise of boat motors dies away and it’s quiet. There’s no sound of vehicles, or bustling crowds. Just the occasional chirp of birds.

IMG_5425
The population on this side of the bay is sparse, isolated, and fairly wealthy

The path from the ferry to Las Grietas started as asphalt but then gave way to sand. We passed private houses and hotels, with high walls and locked gates. The wealthiest people live and stay on this side of the bay, where there are no roads and no stores. After the the homes came a boardwalk and Finch Bay, a beach of white sand and clear aquamarine water flanked on either side by mangroves. Snorkelers dotted the water here, while others sunbathed on the sand.

Past Finch Bay was the official start of the Las Grietas trail, marked with a wooden sign. We left the shade of trees to and emerged next to a salt flat, evidence that work still does exist outside of tourism here, however rare it may be. Rectangular pools of water lay drying in the sun, ringed by crystals of pinkish white salt. Though no one seemed to be tending the flat, a man at a kiosk nearby waved us over and placed a pinch of salt crystals in our hands. I sampled one of the crystals and found it salty, slightly metallic and tangy. It tasted like the sea.

IMG_5439
The salt flats on the trail to Las Grietas
IMG_4197
The salmon-colored water of the salt flats is likely caused by halophilic bacteria, similar to those found in the Rainbow Hot Springs in Yellowstone

The landscape was more arid from here, dotted with leafless shrubs and towerting Opuntia cactuses. We walked along packed red earth and over wooden bridges past marshes and rocky volcanic terrain under. The midday sun bore down intensely. The landscape was flat, then became slightly hill, and finally climbed gently to the top of a cliff. This was the edge of Las Grietas.

After registering with the rangers on duty (rangers are an omnipresence here in the Galapagos), we climbed down the wooden stairs into the canyon. It was blissfully shaded, and we wasted no time stashing our packs and clothes among the rocks and jumping in the water. The water itself was cool and refreshing, a mix of fresh and seawater so clear that I could see the bottom of the canyon, thirty feet down. The occasional parrot fish and mullet swam by, eager to put distance between themselves and us.

IMG_4205
Swimmers at Las Grietas, a narrow volcanic canyon that serves as a great snorkeling and swimming site

We swam to the end of the canyon, then scrambled across slippery rocks into a shallow pool. Though we could have waded in the knee-deep water here, the algae made the rocks dangerously slick, and I found it easier to lay in the shallow water and pull myself along. Sculpins clung to the algae dressed-rocks, scattering was we slid across.Across this pool and another rocky barrier was second deep pool in the canyon, this one teeming with whole schools of mullet and parrot fish.

Stoytcho’s biggest frustration was that he couldn’t see anything. We shared a snorkel and mask between us, a 5$ toy we bought in Mexico. But without glasses, the fish appeared as formless blobs.This didn’t bode well for our snorkeling on the cruise. Luckily, a man with a prescription mask was snorkeling nearby, and offered to let Stoytcho borrow it for a bit. Though the custom mask likely cost more than $100, he let use it without hesitation. It made a world of difference to Stoytcho. We could see all of the fish together, now.

Explore Nature Around Quito with Mindo’s Waterfall Hike

IMG_3741
An aerial view of the waterfall hike and surrounding forest from the gondola

The small mountain town of Mindo is a perfect getaway from the city of Quito. Located only 2 hours away, it boasts amazing hikes, a bird sanctuary, an orchid garden, and chocolate tours. For those of you looking for a nice half-day hike, look no further than Mindo’s Santuario de Cascadas, which leads you through tropical cloud forest to several beautiful waterfalls.

Getting There

There are two main ways of getting to Mindo: booking transportation with a tour, or taking the bus. In either case, prep for the trip by bringing hiking shoes (this hike is a real one so don’t just come in flip flops and then slip and fall to your death), a swimsuit, some food, and some cash.

IMG_3728
Waiting to ride the gondola across the valley to the waterfall hike

The tour option: This is better if you want to do multiple activities in Mindo and you’re short on time, since it will work on your schedule. You can book a tour to at nearly any agency in Mindo, but I’d recommend Gabby Segova’s Ecuador Family Tours; we booked our Galapagos cruise through her and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful person to help us.

The bus option:  The bus may not work for those on a tight schedule, but it’s cheaper ($3.10 as of December 2016) and great if you have a couple of days to spend exploring Mindo. There are a couple of bus lines that run to Mindo, but all but one drop you off outside of town and you have to flag a ride to finish the trip. Only the Flor de Valle line, which leaves from Terminal Ofelia, goes into Mindo itself. It departs Quito->Mindo and Mindo->Quito only a few times a day, so double check the schedule at Terminal Ofelia. For those of you planning a day trip to Mindo with the bus, the ride takes 2 hours; if you’re on the 8:00 am (first) bus out, you have 7 hours to explore Mindo before you have to catch the last bus out. Buy your ticket for the last bus in advance (i.e. when you first get into Mindo), because it can sell out.

It’s a 15-minute ride from the town to the entrance to Santuario de Cascadas. Pick-up trucks here double as taxis, so flag one and ask to go to “Tarabita y Santuario de Cascadas Mindo” or just “Cascadas del Mindo”. It’s not a cheap ride ($6.00 in 2016), so share it if you can.

The Hike

The hike is only accessible by gondola, which costs $5.00 a person to cross — that includes the trip back, so don’t worry about paying again when you return. At busy times you might find yourself waiting for 20-30 minutes for the gondola. The ride itself takes only a couple of minutes, and while the picture below might seem scary, this type of transport is fairly routine in mountainous parts of South America. If you’re afraid of heights then sit, don’t stand, and definitely don’t look down.

IMG_3734
Riding the gondola

There are two hikes you can do from where the gondola drops you off: a 45-minute hike with one waterfall (left when facing the gondola building) and a 1-3 hour hike with six waterfalls (right when facing the gondola building). We chose the six-waterfall hike because we wanted a longer walk, so the rest of this post will focus on that hike.

IMG_3860
Hikers make their way down the steep trail

The first part of the hike was a pretty steep downhill trail with semi-formed stairs that can get pretty slippery when wet. It was mostly packed earth when we visited, but workers along the trail were building new safety rails and steps, so it looks like either the locals or the park service is investing in improvements.

IMG_3893
Workers lay rebar for a railing along the trail

The first five waterfallswere the most crowded so we hiked on through to the last waterfall and had our own private swimming pool. When another group finally caught up with us nearly an hour later, we packed up and worked our way backward, visiting each waterfall.

None of these falls are Niagra or Iguazu, but each has its own personality formed by the flow of the water around the rocks. For those completionists out there (like me), here’s a list of the waterfalls from closest to furthest from trail start:

Cascada Nimbillo

IMG_3919

This is the busiest waterfall, with a dedicated (but somewhat run-down) changing area. We saw a lot several families swimming and playing near this waterfall.

Cascada Ondinas

IMG_3906

A small waterfall that has a small wooden seat near the edge. The pool is shallow, so it’s better for having a picnic or relaxing than getting wet.

Cascada Guarumos

IMG_3896

This waterfall had a fairly deep pool, but I don’t remember seeing anyone swim here. It’d be a great place to check out on the next trip.

Cascada Colibries

IMG_3877

This shy waterfall is veiled by canyon walls, but if you wade upstream a bit you can get a great photo opportunity. It’s popular with visiting locals for photos, so you may have to wait for a few minutes to get your shot.

Cascada Madre

IMG_3858

The penultimate waterfall is surprisingly busy for how far it is from the trailhead. It’s got several easily accessible and deep pools, so it’s popular for swimming and soaking in.

Cascada Azul

IMG_3796

This waterfall is the least busy, since most people stop at Cascada Madre. Several pools around the area are deep enough to soak in, although there’s not much space to swim. We had this waterfall all to ourselves for an hour before other hikers showed up.

The Wildlife

I’m a biologist, I can’t help myself. Here here is some of the amazing wildlife we found on our hike:

IMG_3832
A shield bug (Pentatomoidea) on a leaf.
IMG_3798
Mushrooms grow from a woooden post along the trail
IMG_3768
A caterpillar on a leaf
IMG_3773
A longwing butterfly (Heliconius, probably H. melpomenes) drinks water from a concrete post along the trail.
IMG_3779
Tiny white mushrooms grow in the leaf litter of the forest floor.