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Machu Picchu

30 Nov

After two nights in Cusco, we hopped on the train for a gorgeous, three-and-a-half-hour ride to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town at the base of the mountains where Machu Picchu is perched.

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We spent the afternoon exploring the town and enjoying the outdoor hot springs, then got to bed early for the next day’s 4:00 am wakeup call. We wanted to be among the first people to arrive at Machu Picchu, so breakfast was at 4:30, we got to the bus station at 5:00, we departed at 5:30 and, after a 30-minute ride uphill through constant switchbacks, we arrived at the Machu Picchu gates.

When we got there, it was so dense with fog that we accidentally walked right past the ruins and onto a trail that leads to the Sun Gate, the entrance at the end of the Inca Trail. One sweaty hour later, we turned around and arrived back where we started, this time with much less fog and an eerie view of the ruins shrouded in clouds.

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All morning we wandered around, exploring every corner of the site. We had 10:00 am tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the much higher mountain that sits next to Machu Picchu (in the background below). Of the 2,500 tickets available for Machu Picchu each day, only 400 of those people are permitted to do this extra hike – 200 people can start hiking between 7:00 and 8:00, and 200 more between 10:00 and 11:00.

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Luckily we bought tickets for the second group, and by the time we were heading up Wayna Picchu, the fog had cleared and the sun was shining. We met some people who did the earlier hike, and they couldn’t see a thing from the top. This was our view:

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The hike was steep, consisting mostly of cobblestone stairs with a cable running along beside for extra support. The very top, though, was slightly more unruly: large outcropping rocks, a small tunnel to climb through (we had to take off our backpacks to just barely squeeze through), crazy Incan stairs (rocks jutting straight out on the side of the mountain), and lots more fun but tricky obstacles.
The way down was the hardest part, with one of the steepest stairwells I’ve ever seen (and nothing to hold on to), a couple ladders and lots of opportunities to fall off the edge of the earth. However, the hike was actually very enjoyable, and I can’t imagine going to Machu Picchu without doing it. The view is crazy.
After descending, we ate lunch, had some drinks, then got a tour guide to take us around and explain the history and meaning of the ruins. All in all, we spent nine hours at Machu Picchu, but it could have easily been more.

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Backpacking in Banos, Ecuador

26 Nov

There’s too much to say about Banos in one measly blog post, so when we return home, I plan on breaking it down by activity and throwing in some accompanying photos and videos.

When we arrived in Banos, it was late, but we had no trouble finding a good spot for dinner and drinks. We went to Cafe Good, whose modest name doesn’t do justice to its fresh guacamole, $1 beer and delicious tacos. As it turns out, $1 beer is par for the course in Banos – just one of its many delights.

The town is situated at the bottom of a massive, active volcano called Tungurahua. It most recently erupted, spewing lava and ash, in August 2012 – yes, only three months ago. The last major eruption, however, was in December 2010, and involved an evacuation of the town. The funny thing is, when you’re in town, you can’t see the volcano because of the enormous mountain in front of it. But Luc and I hiked up the mountain across the river, and there it was, looming over the town like an invisible giant.

20121126-182025.jpg Looking down on Banos from the Sauces hiking trail, with Tungurahua shrouded in clouds but visible in the background.

Since Banos is so small, we didn’t need to cab anywhere, and just walked out the front door of our hostel whenever we needed anything. We stayed at Hostal Chimenea, which was about a one-minute walk from the hot pools. The outdoor baths are filled with water from the volcano, and they claim that it’s the only method of heating used. The cold plunge pool and cold shower spouts are fed from a waterfall that cascades down right beside the pools. It’s impressive, because the hotter pool of the two is blazing (there’s one hot and one even hotter). It really gets the blood pumping to stand under a stream of freezing cold water that you can see being channeled over from the waterfall, then hop into the steaming-hot bath of volcano water.

While at the baths we met a fellow Canadian who told us about his favourite hike to see Tungurahua, and that’s where we headed that same afternoon. (See above photo.) Before that, though, we started the morning with canyoning – repelling down waterfalls. That deserves a whole post. As does the go-karting down the highway along La Ruta de las Cascadas (the waterfall route) in dune buggies, which we did the previous day.

The only crummy thing about Banos was leaving it. There’s so much to do there that we’re already dreaming about going back. The bus ride to get there and back isn’t great, especially when your driver is racing another bus through tiny, cobblestone streets in order to pick up more people first. I wanted to remind him that if the bus tips over, you won’t be getting more passengers, even if you cut off the other bus first.

Banos is definitely an adventure town, and more time is spent outdoors on a mountain or in a waterfall than wandering the streets.

The Accidental Night Bus

20 Nov

Of all the travel advice we received prior to coming to South America, we agreed that there was one tip we would follow steadfastly: no night buses. But when you’re navigating from water taxi to taxi to ferry to bus, then flying from the Galapagos to Quito, then fighting rush hour to the bus terminal at the edge of town, you sometimes find that the sun sets and you are, indeed, on a night bus. Maybe not an overnight bus, but one that travels through darkness while you hope that you’ll just arrive already.

After being reassured that we were taking the express bus, it only took a few detours into tiny little towns for us to realize that the ticket vendor was full of shit. The ride was scenic, and certainly a stark contrast to the landscapes we took in over the past ten days in the Galápagos Islands. But once the sun set, there wasn’t much to do but stare at the seat in front of you.

We’re here now and ready for more adventure. The nighttime streets in Banos are safe and lively, with lots of bars and a restaurant that we’ve already sampled and deemed excellent.

I have a feeling this little town surrounded by mountains and volcanoes is going to be jaw-dropping in the daylight.

Travel Day

20 Nov

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Authentic Galapagos Grub

19 Nov

Our tour guide, Tomas, showed us a street in Santa Cruz that turns into one giant patio at night, and he said that it’s one of the spots we could eat in an outdoor market setting without getting sick (he was right).

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Luc had a juicy looking lobster, I had fish and beans, and of course, we both buried our faces in beer.

Las Grietas

19 Nov

Yesterday afternoon we made the 15-minute trek on a path of uneven lava rocks to Las Grietas, a hidden channel on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. Two rock faces plummet straight down to a crystal clear, narrow canal with a white-sand bottom. There are two small sets of wooden stairs leading down to the water level, but for the most part, you’re slowly navigating over slippery rocks in flip flops.

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(This photo wasn’t one that we took, but I wanted to show what Las Grietas looks like.)

We hopped in the water, and it wasn’t long until we were scaling the rock face in our bare feet and bathing suits to jump off into the canal. The jumping wasn’t scary, but climbing the sharp, slippery rocks was slightly unnerving. The locals climbed with ease, while Luc and I made somewhat clumsy ascents.

Since we’re functioning on low technology right now, I can’t upload the videos and photos from our camera, but I will when we’re back home in December. One of the crazier guys there was jumping from the very top, which would be a little bit like jumping from a 4-story building.

Commencing Self-Guided Tour

18 Nov

Despite being the most populated of all the islands in the Galapagos, Santa Cruz, where we are now, is a quaint little town around a relatively calm bay. To get from our hotel to the main town, we have to take a 60-cent water taxi ride that lasts about 2 or 3 minutes, depending on how fast they’re going.

We’re now done with the tour portion of our time here, which is a little sad, because we had a really nice group of people and an amazing guide – Tomas, a young guy from Quito (same age as me), who’s probably going to go home and sleep for a week after we exhausted him with all of our constant questions!

This afternoon we’re going to walk to Las Grietas, a narrow channel between two giant lava walls with exceptionally clear water for swimming and snorkelling. After that we’re going to dine in town at an outdoor market “that won’t make you sick” – fingers crossed!