Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Homeward Bound

Six days ago I did something that I had not done in 26 years, step on soil of my native Nicaragua. I left long ago, under not so good circumstances, mostly because I was tired of the hot weather,just kidding, it was more because of the F.S.L.N., the National Front of Sandinista Liberation. So to make a long story short, I have not been back to see where I am from, and where I lived.

Upon entering Nicaragua, I felt something, not nostalgia as most would expect, or melancholy, rather like a stranger in a place I no longer knew and did not know me. We traveled from the border town of Peñas Blancas and into San Juan del Sur where we stayed for a night and I slowly began to get a feel for the people, their manerisms and talk, which I know I have lost / maybe never really had. Today, we finally arrived in Managua, and I was a bit nervous about what I would see and how I would find things.

It is hard to imgine how things are, after having vivid memories of how they were. Often I had dreams of my childhood, where I would be at the little house with the three foot tall white wooden fence and hear Doña Rita´s green and red parrot yapping away. Or at my elemntary school, constantly running with the other kids in our blue and white uniforms as we played tag. But time passes and sometimes I can no longer differentiate what part of my youth I am remembering from Nicaragua and what is coming from my times at 1523 Meridian Ave on South Beach.

Today though, we finally arrived in Mangua and after asking half a dozen people if they remembered where the old (from 30 years ago) Reynaldo Hernandez Hardware store was, we arrived at a house that is not as I remembered it, but the lot is there nonetheless. The house had been split in two and converted to two tiny houses, resembling more of a shanty favela, with metal decking for a roof, than the cute house where I would climb the guayaba tree. The parrot was no longer there (obv.) talking everyone´s ear off and neither was the small white fence, but new residents were. I spoke to them and they mentioned how they had only been there for five years and did not know of the neighbors I spoke of. Maybe they were affraid that I was there trying to claim the house (as another man I spoke to said they knew someone would eventually come to claim it), or maybe they were too young to know the neighbors I remembered who were no longer there.

Either way, I made it home. I saw my little street where it bends to the left, took a few pictures to show my parents what is left and went back to the (Piedresitas) the park where my father would take us. And now, I feel fine, no longer wondering about the littel house on the little street. Now, I can simply go back to my other home.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Into the Home Stretch

For all of those worry-wort readers (and parents), do not believe the hype! We were not in fact kidnapped by drug lords in rural Colombia and forced to design them lavish mansions. We did not succomb to malaria and yellow fever. We did not become filled with fright and terrified to write after the mention of the SSTSA on sites like Check on My Bike and

Truth is, we've just been on vacation. Quite literally. As the weather got warmer and the days got longer and South America became Central America, we got lazier and lazier. And even I´m learning that on vacation, that's ok.

Not like we´ve been resting on our laurels, however. Since we last posted, we´ve been to three countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua), three times as many cities and towns, and I tell you, we have done everyone of them to the utmost. Still, among all of those languid, delightful beach days and sweaty, slogging climbs up volcanos I´ve managed to find some time to upload some photos to share with you the many things we´ve seen.

A look back at the blog reveals that I haven´t posted a full set of photos since Buenos Aires, a mere month or so ago. Let´s go ahead and fix that right now.

After Buenos Aires, we flew a short hop over the Andes to Santiago, the bustling business and political center of Chile. Like a number of bustling business and political center of's that we've seen on this trip, Santiago was, sadly, a pretty average place. Granted, we certainly did not see all of a city this size in a mere couple of days, but there didn´t seem to be much to see. While Dan and Joey headed for the hills, Hern, Carlos, and I took an afternoon to bang out the city´s major tourist sites. Santiago has an incredible location in a bowl, surrounded by the Andes' peaks on all sides. This location also contributes to the awful air pollution in the city. In many of the pictures, you can see the tops of the mountains and the city below, but the middleground is a gray miasma. The city had an amazing park, Cerro Santa Lucia, which covered a tall mini-mountain rising from amid the city´s street grid. Pretty amazing to stand on a hillside at the equivalent of 20 stories and look over at a skyscraper across the street. Definitely the highlight of this stop for me. Carlos (who of course, bumped into someone he knew in the park) might list the city's latest fad, called cafe con piernas (coffee with legs), as his favorite. I´m sure you can imagine, but I'll just say that it involves coffee. And legs.

So, here's a sampling of 45 choice shots from Santiago, Chile. (click the photo to launch the Picasa set)
From Santiago, it was a short bus out to Valparaiso on the Pacific coast, which was slated to be the highlight of our Chilean leg. It did not disappoint. We settled into an awesome hilltop hostel, and set out to explore the city. Valparaiso is a port town, and for a long time it was the port of call on the west coast of South America for ships heading from the east coast to California around the tip of South America. The city prospered and grew immensely. Needless to say, the construction of the Panama Canal put a damper on the party. So, Valpo has become one of those delightful, elegant-decay kind of towns, though it maintains an active port and incredible buildings and public spaces. Also unique are the ascensors, near vertical cable railways that connect the lower town to neighborhoods perched on the steep cliffs above. Finally, Joey and I managed to get kicked out of the old jail (now a cultural center) for climbing the walls. There was no specific admonition against doing this, but even our dumb-american routine failed to keep us in. Regardless, it was totally worth the 45 minutes of sitting outside waiting for the rest of the guys to finish.

107 shots of Valparaiso, replete with harbor tours, the requisite excellent seafood, lovely vistas, and antiquated public transportation can be launched below.
Ok, where's next? Ah yes, Lima. See the Santiago entry and the whole bustling business and political center of's part. Another ok, but unispired and often quite shady place. I hate to pass judgement after what was essentially a stopover, but that was my impression of the place. There was a beautiful central square with a great cathedral and some absolutely incredible woodwork. This was reached via a long pedestrian street of dodgy characters. The food was good, with the ceviche being a standout, but when we tried to get more ceviche for dinner, we were told that it was too heavy for the stomach (?) and never sold after 2pm. So we went to a chain chicken place in seaside mall that honestly looked like it was airlifted in from Orange County, fashionably-dressed tweens and all. It was a very odd way to end the day.

So Lima... check it out. By clicking. Right there.
From Lima, it was just a brief, very early flight to the navel of the world, Cusco. The capital of the Incas. An ancient and beautiful place. A pile of modern over colonial over Inca. It's a big part of what you think of when you think of Peru, and it will be a big part of the way I remember it. The town is also the jumping off point for everyone heading to or from Macchu Pichu, and as such has become a bit of a tourist trap. Still, we enjoyed it, despite each having our own individual struggles with the altitude. We splurged on a nice hotel for the last night before three days of hard hiking and sleeping in tents, then took an afternoon to storm the town. Lots of coco tea (which I grew to loathe in the coming days) and incredible people and places.

So, here's 36 good shots from Cusco...
A note on Macchu Pichu: it was a four-day hike, over the mountains and over the mountains and over them again to Macchu Pichu. This was one of the hardest, most interesting and most rewarding four days of my life. It was also among the most beautiful places I've ever been. Hence, I managed to take nearly 600 photographs. As with the experience, I'm still trying to process all these, so I decided to skip them for now, and will do a proper post in the future. From home, I guess. Don't worry though, I'll happily show each of you all of the hundreds of pictures and give you the play-by-play.

Nest stop, Colombia. And where else to begin but it's bustling business and political center. In thinking back to our visit to Bogota, it was astonishingly similar to our visits to Santiago and Lima. These are all enormous cities where many millions of people live their lives. But we really only saw the nice park, the view from the mountain, and the main square in each of these places. I never really felt comfortable in any of them and they tend to run together in my memory. Still, Bogota was not nearly as bad as many imagine it to be. Very nice center square, good food, rainy views from mountain, and the Botero museum. This place was new and absolutely gorgeous, in a rambling old block of houses in La Candeleria. As a combination of physical museum and quality of the collection, it vies for the best of what we saw in South America.

Pictures of all that goodness (and some of that average-ness) are below.
Off to Cartagena. The colonial jewel of Colombia's Carribaean coast. Great beaches, hot as hell. Incredible old walled center city with a tunnel-ridden, ant-farm of a fort to match. Cartagena reminded me a lot of Charleston, South Carlolina. The colors and feel were very similar to me, though the differed greatly at the finer scale. There were great churches, replete with opportunities to sneak onto roofs. We even managed to walk the walls without being asked to leave. We saw a couple of good museums, ate well, and even sat in on a beach side wedding (I´m sure they were thrilled) during our brief stop in town. It was fascinating to be there during the announcement of Ingrid Betancourt's (and a dozen others') rescue from FARC captivity. The story was huge deal there and consumed the Colombians for the rest of our visit.

Cartagena. Check it out. Fifty-seven times.
A note on Medellin, Colombia: Basically, this was the finest surprise of the trip. From the great (and cheap) apartment we rented, to dinner and drinks with local friends, to the generally amazing nightlife here, Medellin was a winner. Add on top of that the best contemporary design we saw on the trip, incredible transportation and public space initiatives, Freddy the 10-year old tour guide and entrpreneur, and everything else that was just right about this place and it's clearly deserving of it's own post. Certainly a place that requires a bit more refined thought and a properly assembled photo-essay. So... yeah, at least you've got that to look forward to.

A note on Costa Rica: I hate to do two of these in a row. However, I did not take a single photograph in this entire country. In fact, I didn't really do a damn thing. For three days. And it was great. We left San Jose in a hurry (that whole business and political center thing) and headed to Tamarindo on the Pacific Coast. Then, we sat around on the beach, surfed a bit, drank copiously with wonderful Irish friends. And that's about it. It was a great few days though, to say the least. So... don't look forward to that Costa Rica photo essay. It ain't coming.

On to Nicaragua. We're here now. We started in San Juan Del Sur, on the south Pacific coast. It was basically a continuation of the Costa Rica beach week. We swam, watched a lightning storm from a restaurant with a thatched roof, and rode in the back of a pick-up truck driven by a one-armed man (manual? of course) to an even more remote beach, which had some awesome wildlife and rocks and waves and all that good stuff. It was called Playa Madera, and was were I took most of these shots. I think only the first one is actually in San Juan.

Click it. Check it.
There´s certainly more to tell, though I'm not sure that we´ll be telling it from here, as there is still so much left to do. So hopefully, we´ll talk to you again, but if not we'll see you even sooner.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Hola amigos y amigas...
Winter gave way to summer about a week ago when we arrived in Colombia from Cusco, Peru. Tonight is our last night in Sudamerica as tomorrow we move on to Costa Rica and well, Central America where it only gets warmer. Mike and Joey's Spanish has gotten so good, that they now speak English with a lovely Mexican accent. We have decided that upon our arrival in the good ol' U.S & A, we will open an empanada stand somewhere on South street, as they are clearly the best source of nutrition. While we have spent nearly a week in Colombia, I must say our hike through the Andes is still fresh in our minds. Here is one of my favorite images of one of the many children we'd come across, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. We'd fill their hands with candies, toys or any goodies we'd picked up beforehand to which they'd respond with a smile, a face of confusion or our favorite..."grashas"

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hiiiiiiiigh Andes!

Hello from Bogota! (okay, we're now in Medellin by the time I've finished this post!)

Sorry for the long break in updates to our Team Sud America blog, but we were a little busy crossing the Andes... on foot! Yes that's right, our little team ventured out in the high alpine region of the Lares Valley in Peru for a 4 day trek, that brought us to Monchu Pichu. Needless to say, it was an amazing experience because of the difficulty of the hike and coping with the high altitude, the many native Quechwa villagers we encountered, the way we shared our adventure with 14 new friends and fellow hikers, and of course ending at Monchu Pichu. So, here's a synopsis of our trek!

Our first day of the trek began at 5 am when the alarm woke us up from our comfy hotel beds. We got our hiking gear together, ate the typical breakfast of ham, cheese, and bread, and put our extra luggage into storage for a few days. We got onto the bus with our fellow travelers, which was loaded with our gear for the next few days, and had a crazy ride into the mountains. We were going up these really steap switchbacks, climbing at one point to 14,000 feet. The dirt road wasn't a deterrent to our bus driver, who liked to pass every car and truck in front of us. We had a short stop in the town of Pisac where we had some breakfast and picked up some candy and presents for the children we would see at a local market.

We got to the start of our hike, at a small mountain village where the little kids came running up looking for candy and little presents we had brought with us. Our hike was not the famed Inca Trail, which is loaded with tour groups, and so we passed through solitary little villages that hadn´t changed much in the last few centuries and probably only see a handful of hikers for a few months of the year. So we started our hike around 3,300 meters and instantly the altitude was a problem for a lot of people. One group member lost his lunch, some of us had shortness of breath, I had a pretty bad headache as we slowly made our way higher into the mountains. But it was okay because they kind of know that is going to happen and are very helpful and we took many breaks to regroup. Hernaldo was able to hand off his pack to a porter, who slung it over his shoulder with no trouble! Apperently, they recently changed the hike to become the hardest hikes in the area, which almost none of us knew! But altitude sickness aside our trail was taking us through a very beautiful place. We could see glaciers high up in the mountains all around us, passed through famers tending to their llama herds, met lots of adorable little kids, and hiked our buts off! All of the people we saw were dressed in traditional red ponchos and sporting colorful hats. They don´t even speak Spanish mostly, and still speak the Incan language, Quechwa. But we had two great guides, moved at a slow enough pace for everyone, and everyone had an amazing trip.

We had teams of llamas and horses carrying most of the gear, I just had my pack with a sleeping bag and clothes to worry about, but at that altitude even that was tough. The porters would of course move faster than us, setting up camps for lunch with huge meals of rices, meats, salads, potatos, and lots of coca tea. When we would arrive for lunch, they would have bowls of warm water for us to wash up, cups of juice ready to go, and of course the huge meals. It was pretty awesome. Same kind of thing when we would arrive at our camps at night... the tents were all set up, with hot tea and snacks waiting.

So basically, our first day we had a pretty steady hike to our lunch spot at a high alpine lake, where we had a big feast and a short siesta. We then continued a steep ascent to our first mountain pass at 14,200`!!!!!! It was a tough push to the top and I think everyone was feeling the effects of hiking at such a high altitude. Needless to say though, the views from up there were just amazing.

We had a pretty long descent the first day to our camp, and everyone was pretty beat so after a big dinner and some conversation with our fellow travelers we had an early night in our tents. There were so many stars out because we were so far from any major populations and it was a pretty cool sight to behold way up in the Andes. It was pretty cold at night, but we had great sleeping bags to keep us warm.

On the second day, we woke up at dawn to watch the sun rise on a distant peak and glacier that glowed red from the sunrise. Once we got hiking into the sun, things warmed up and we had a great stop in a Quechwa house, seeing how the native population lives. After a few hours got to our second pass, at 14,100 feet! Again, all along the way little children would come up to us hoping for more candy and pens and pencils to use.

We had a beautiful descent passing more alpine lakes and seeing a few more small villages. At this point, we had a small horse with us that we were taking turns leading to our lunch camp. We had another big lunch and afterwards got some time to rest. Somehow, Carlos and Hernaldo scored massages from some fellow travelers!

After lunch, we had a long trek to our last mountain pass, climbing in elevation and racking up the kilometers along the way. Although it was a tough push, we arrived at the top and felt awesome about reaching the high point of our trek at 14,600'! It was waaaaaaaaay up there, and the views were amazing.

The descent to our camp that night was beautiful as the sun set on us walking past more llama herds and alpine lakes. We got to camp and had a really fun night talking with our group of travelers. There were 16 of us total: Mike and I were the only Americans; Hernaldo and Carlos hail from Nicaragua; Joanna, Jock, Peter, and Ronan made up team Ireland, Louisa, Alexandra, Allistar, and Charlie were the English chaps enjoying their gap year, Dinesh was from India, and Helena made the trip from her native Australia. We also had two excellent guides, Roberto and Salvatore, who told us all about the areas history, culture, and geology as we walked. After another great dinner, we had a few beers we were able to purchase from locals who came to our campsite, and then a bottle of rum was passed around to add to our tea! We were having a great time telling jokes and thinking about the hike we had finished. The stars were out in full force again and our guides and fellow travellers pointed out the constellations, both the modern ones and the ancient Inca ones. It was cool being in the southern hemisphere, because all of the constellations were different.

The third day was an easy one, and we had about a 3 hour descent to a cool town way out in the mountains where we were to meet a bus to take us on our next journey. While we waited, we of course had to play a game of football (soccer), and I hate to admit I was the goalie that let in the only goal. I guess it´s not just my sport! We took a cool bus ride to an ancient Inca town Ottoytomboa where we had a good lunch and some time to explore the area. Mike and I went to check out some ruins high up on the hill, structures very similar to the ones from the Peublo Indians like Cliff Palace and such. We had the place to ourselves which had amazing views of this small town set in the Andes. We then got on a really cool train ride to take us to Agua Calientes, a town close to Monchupichu where we stayed the night in a hostel with hot showers and comfy beds! Me and my friends and the Irish group had a really fun night putting a dent on the restaurant's beer cooler, but we didn´t stay up too late since we had an early start the next morning.

We got up on the last day at 5, had a quick breakfast, and borded a bus to take us up some really steep switchbacks to the lost Inca City of monchupichu. We arrived before dawn and the crowds were pretty small. That´s because there is no road to the site, just the train. The only people that can get there so early are the ones who stay in the small town... the first train doesn´t bring people until 10.30. So our guide brought us way up on these terraces where he explained how this city was a type of Inca university that was abandonded when the Spanish began conquering the area, and it was left untouched until 1911.

It is on a mountain plateau, surrounded by incredible mountains. To see the sun rise on this place was just unbelievable, and it was really one of the most amazing experiences I´ve ever had.

We had a great tour with our guide who told us all about the different temples and structures for about 3 hours, and then we had some time to explore on our own. We did two hikes from the top to check out some other sights, the Sun Gate and the Inca Bridge. The former is a gate at the top of a mountain pass that the Inca trail passes through with amazing views of Monchu Pichu.

The Inca Bridge was a very narrow trail with a few hundred meter drop off to one side! After those adventures, Mike and I decided to walk back to Aguas Calientes down a thousand steps through dense jungle! It is was as amazing as it sounds! We had a great last lunch with our guide, then we went to the hot spring in town for a good soak for a few hours! Just what we needed after all that hiking. We had a late night train back to Cusco, the main town where I last wrote from, and after a few celebratory beers with the group, we went to bed at our hostel.

Phfewwww.... that was a long one and I hope I did our amazing trek justice! We've just finished a great week in Colombia and are looking forward to our next adventures in Costa Rica!

Ciao, Joey