Tag Archives: hiking

In search of the world’s largest bird

When you think of birds, what usually comes to mind?  For me, it’s cute little feathered things like hummingbirds, cardinals, or wrens.  Rarely do I think of owls as birds although I guess technically they are.  Then there are large birds like eagles and vultures, but I rarely see them.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

When I heard that the world’s largest bird was in Colca Canyon, I made it my mission to not only see it, but also find out all I could about this magnificent bird.

It’s often hit or miss to see these birds, but there is a stop on most tours to the Colca Canyon at the Cruz del Condor.  It’s often the best place to get a glimpse of the bird in flight.

Fast facts about the Condor

  • The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet.
  • It can live to to be 70 years old, but the average lifespan in the wild is about 50 years.
  • The bird can weigh up to 30 pounds and is nearly 4 feet tall!
  • Due to its size, it prefers an environment where loft can assist its flight. Under the right conditions, the bird can fly to a height of 18,000 feet.
  • Both parents care for the babies and baby condors stay with their parents for 2 years.
  • They reach adulthood around 7 years old.
  • The condor mates every other year and only lays one egg at a time.
  • The condor eats carrion and eggs; it is not a threat to any type of wildlife.
  • Condors are currently on the endangered species list due to over-hunting.
  • The condors, are more specifically, the Andean Condor, is the national symbol of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

and my favorite fact about these massive birds…

  • Condors mate for life.

In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

US National Parks | Chaos at Ninety Six

2018 Michelle here:

I am a #historynerd.  There;  I said it.  I often choose destinations based on history and in destinations I don’t choose, I seek out history.   Y’all can bet the farm that I’ll be exploring Rwanda’s [and its neighbor’s] history while I’m there.  As of now, I know exactly one thing about Rwandan history:  the 1994 genocide.  Not the best impression is it.  I’m determined to discover more about this progressive, modern country in the middle of Africa.


History and a [short] hike

I have begun to expect the unexpected whenever I decide to go for a hike.  It doesn’t seem to matter if it is a long, planned months in advance hike or a spur-of-the-moment trip 30 minutes from my house. Something unexpected is going to happen.  Such was the case when I tottled down to Ninety Six, South Carolina to wander around the Ninety Six Historical Site.

Ninety Six is an easy day trip from midlands or upstate South Carolina. Piedmont or low mountains North Carolina, and upper Georgia.  Ninety Six is also an important historical part of the Revolutionary War.

The History:

Ninety Six began as a crossroads between the English/Scottish Irish/German settlers that left Charles Town in search of a more prosperous way of life and the Cherokee that already lived in the area.  Ninety Six was the only town [early 1700’s] in the Carolina back country and Cherokee Indians traded deer skin for guns and metal with the settlers who then took the deer skins back to Charles Town and sold it to merchants who then shipped it to England.  Ninety Six was an important strategical location as nearly all Indian tribes west of the Cherokee traded with the French and all tribes east of Ninety Six traded with the English. Over time the Cherokee began to distrust the English [and French] which lead to the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760.  The Cherokee reclaimed almost all of the back country but Ninety Six remained under British control.

The lingering tensions from the Cherokee-Anglo War contributed to the backcountry’s division.  Feeling neglected by the government in Charleston, facing high taxes, crime, and Indian raids, settlers on the frontier demanded more law and order in the back country.  Vigilantes took justice into their own hands: patrolling roads, hunting criminals, and whipping offenders.  Eventually the crisis ended without much violence, but unrest among settlers lingered.

By the early 1770s, Ninety Six contained approximately twelve houses, public buildings, and a few businesses.  The town boasted an imposing two story brick jail and a courthouse.  An observer noted: “Ninety Six is situated on an eminence in a flourishing part of the country, the land round about it is generally good.  Natural growth is Oaks, Black Walnut, Hickery, etc., which are very large and thrifty.  The land is cleared for a mile round the Town.  It produces wheat, Indian Corn, oats, Hemp, Flax, Cotton, and Indigo.”

There happened to be some re-enacting going on…and demonstration of weapon firing.

Twenty years later:

The fledgling American colonies have declared its independence from Great Britain.  The war has been on-going for 5 years.  Great Britain’s latest strategy is to retain control of the Southern Colonies while admitting defeat in the Northern ones.  The Siege of Ninety Six in 1781 was the longest siege of the American Revolution and pitted American vs American in the form of Patriots vs Loyalists.  It was as if the truce agreed upon a mere six years earlier had never happened.

The STAR FORT and THE MINE [from the National Parks Service website]

When you walk out to the Historic battlefield, you’re walking on hallowed ground. The siege trenches are partially reconstructed, but the Star Fort is original.   Construction of the Star Fort started in December 1780 and finished in early 1781. It was built by Loyalist soldiers (loyal to the King of England) & slaves from nearby farms and plantations. It wasn’t a very popular design because it was hard to build, and couldn’t hold many troops, but Loyalist engineer Lt. Henry Haldane decided that an eight-point star fort would be better for the site than a tradition square fort. The star shape allowed musket and cannon fire in all directions.   The Start Fort had a gun battery which was located near the bottom center point in the picture. The long mound of dirt in the center of the picture is called a Traverse and was built during the Patriot siege of Star Fort (May 22- June 18, 1781). It was to be used as a second line of defense in case the Patriots breached the Star Fort walls. The Start Fort was an earthen fort. As you see it today is pretty much how it looked in 1781. The Star Fort walls were originally about 14 feet high with sand bags around the top giving it a height of about 17 feet during the battle. The walls are a little weather worn in places, but are original. No major reconstruction has been done to the fort.

The Mine has nothing to do with traditional mining, instead it was used by the Patriots (those fighting for independence from England) during the Siege of Star Fort at Ninety Six, May 22- June 18, 1781. The Loyalists (those living in the Colonies that were fighting for the King of England) held the Star Fort and General Nathanael Greene and his Patriot Army tried to take the Star Fort away from the Loyalists. Under the direction of Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Chief Engineer of the Patriot Army, the Patriots dug a mine gallery out from the 3rd parallel. The idea was for the Patriots to dig the Mine underneath the Star Fort, pack it with gunpowder, and then blow it up, thus allowing the Patriots to storm the Loyalist held Star Fort. Patriot Sappers (trench diggers) and slaves borrowed from nearby plantations dug into the hard red clay to dig the mine. They had to suffer from the heat, bugs, broken shovels, Loyalist cannon fire, and Loyalist sorties (attacks made from a place surrounded by the enemy). After dark on June 9, 1781, a small group of Loyalists, under Lt. Colonel John Harris Cruger, attacked the Patriot sappers digging the mine. A British account stated that the Loyalists “discovered a subterraneous passage in which. . . miners were at work, every man of whom was put to death, and their tools brought into the garrison.” (The Royal Gazette,August 25-29, 1781) It was during this sortie that Colonel Kosciuszko was wounded in “his seat of honor” with a Loyalist bayonet, but was able to make it back to safety within Patriot lines.

In the 1973, archeologists actually found a bayonet blade near where Kosciuszko was wounded. The Mine was never used for its intended purpose because the siege was lifted before it could be used. In the 1920s, the entrance to the Mine was stabilized with brick. During the 1940-60s, local children used the Mine as a playhouse before the National Park Service took over its care. In the 1970s, archeologists wrote that the Mine was still intact except. Only 35 feet of the right gallery had collapsed. The Mine was re-opened again in April 2004. Today we know that the Mine starts with a 6 foot vertical shaft from the 3rd parallel then 2 galleries (or branches) go to toward the Star Fort. On average the Mine is 3 feet tall in most places. As the above picture indicates shovel and pick marks can still be seen in the walls along with niches that were carved out for candles for the Patriots to work by. The Mine at Ninety Six National Historic Site is the only mine that was used during the American Revolution.

One of the log cabins on site at Ninety Six Historical Site

The Hike:

The hike is a moderate hike using parts of the Cherokee Trail, Charlestown Road, and the Goucey Trail.  Parts of the trail allow for horses while parts are fairly rustic. An unidentified cemetery lies just off the marked trail that leads to Ninety Six Lake.  The entire loop was just over 6 miles. It took 3 hours including stopping for lunch at the lake, searching for the unidentified cemetery, and reading historical markers.

daffodils along the trail


1780’s men weren’t very big.

The Unexpected:

The unexpected isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes it is serendipity and my hike through the trails at Ninety Six certainly paid off.  At the beginning of the hike the temperatures was around 50F, and by the end there were snowflakes.

 

**image credit of the skeleton from nps.gov**

Gaining perspective on Cinque Terre paths

Most of last year sucked. Like straight up sucked. Yes, I graduated from school and got an amazing job, but other than that 2005 was shitty. Watching my father die, seeing my boyfriend tool around town with some floozy, having a fling with my boss, and moving to a new state–none of those things made me happy. I decided early on that 2006 was going to be a much better year. I’m going to explore my new surroundings, take real vacations, go on actual dates with appropriate people, make new friends…you know all that stuff that is supposed to make life more fulfilling.

cinque terre 4

Real vacation #1–hanging out in Itlay.

One of the things that always helps me to see things clearly is getting back to nature… getting outside and communing with the trees if you will. After being surrounding with throngs of people at the Olympics, I needed some alone time… Enter Cinque Terre, a coastal area of five little villages. This part of Italy is usually DEAD in the winter, but courtesy of the Games, some areas have opened up, providing a much needed escape from the Alps. Don’t get me wrong, mountains are awesome. The Alps are amazing, but I’d take a cold, sunny day on the coast over the snowy mountains any day.

One of the main draws to Cinque Terre aside from its location is the interconnect hiking paths. Some of them are easy, more like leisurely strolls through the woods.  Other trails are actual hiking trails complete with mountains and steep climbs.

cinque terre 2

A lot of people just hike the leisurely trail;  I opted to hike the entire network of trails. Hiking the entire length of the trail took about  8 hours or so. I went at an easy pace; it was bright and sunny except for the early morning fog, and temperatures were awesome for February. I had a lot of shit to sort out in my head. So I walked. And walked. And walked some more. Those paths are amazing. And snapped photos [2016 Michelle here: with FILM]

cinque terre 10

cinque terre 11

cinque terre 13

cinque terre 3

cinque terre 7

I took the train back to my room after hiking all day and indulged in a massive plate of pasta, all the bread I could get my hands on, and a carafe or two of the most wonderful red wine ever. Of course I say that every day… today’s wine was the best ever… today’s pasta was the best ever… today’s gelato was better than yesterday’s gelato. But the hike… the hike was amazing. The towns are pretty cute too.

Also I am amazed at how green everything is.  You’d never know it was February.
cinque terre 5

Fresh clementines rock.

The Lover’s Walk

2016 Michelle here. Here I sit… older and wiser and all. 2005 was a particularly low spot in my life, and going in Italy in 2006, while not the best idea I’ve ever head, was really what jump-started my love of travel.  And also here I sit, older and wiser and all, dating a special dude.  One day I may even commit  to something more serious… like a love lock.

As a single, late-20-something suffering 3! break-ups in the last year, I’m pretty cynical about love these days, and not even being in the undisputed romance capital of the world is changing that. In the last 12 months I’ve caught a boyfriend with another person, had a few months’ long fling, and returned– against better judgment– to hook up with a previous partner. If my judgment is any indication of how my life is going to go, I should run, not walk away from any man that approaches, but me being me, hope springs eternal.

cinque terre 12

The Lover’s Walk is one of the easiest trails in the Cinque Terre. It’s just over a mile, flat, and connects Riomaggiore with Manarola. It could be the perfect trail to stroll with a lover… not very private if you catch my drift, but wide enough for two people, and the views are amazing.

cinque terre 14

Like nearly everything, there’s a story that goes along with the trail.

Built between 1926 and 1928, the Via dell’Amore was born out of necessity and not at all with love in mind. As workers blasted through the rock in order to upgrade the railway line, they found it necessary to build a gunpowder warehouse safely away from the two towns. They created a pathway from both villages that lead to a central storage area. After the railway was finished, locals rallied to reinforce the pathway, cover part of it, and keep it open as a second link between the two very isolated villages.

The story goes that, apart from aiding in commercial dealings, the new pathway also made it easier for young men and women from Riomaggiore and Manarola to meet and fall in love. Thus the pathway came to be known as the Via dell’Amore. Through the decades, the Via has stayed true to its name with lovers from all over coming to enjoy a stroll through its cliff side galleria, which displays breathtaking panoramas to visitors in any season. Approximately halfway along the Via sits the Bar dell’Amore, the original gunpowder warehouse that is now a quaint and welcoming café where visitors can rest, sample a glass of local wine and enjoy 180° views of the coastline and the turquoise waters below.

bar

lover walk

Decades’ worth of amorous graffiti painted onto or carved into the rock adorn the cliff face and the walls of the path’s galleria. Although off-putting to some, true romantics seem to find the sentiments behind the graffiti endearing. “Lucchetti d’amore” or love locks — padlocks marked with a couple’s name and locked in a public place for all to see — are a frequent sight as well.

kissing statue on cinque terre

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You know, one day I’d like to lock a lock somewhere special with some as of yet undetermined male.

Happy Birthday NPS and Fee-Free Days

Happy Birthday National Parks Service! One of the best things about America is its national park system.  There are currently 59 of them and cover some of the best landscapes in the world.  There is the glacial wilderness of Wrangell NP in Alaska and the coral reefs of Biscayne Bay NP in Florida.  We have America’s first sunrise at Acadia NP in Maine and quite possibly the last sunset at American Samoa NP. There are old growth flood plains in South Carolina at Congaree NP and incredible desert landscapes of the west at Grand Canyon NP in Arizona and Zion NP in Utah.  We have amazing highs at Denali NP in Alaska and incredible lows at Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico.

The National Parks are home and habitat to more than 400 endangered or threatened plant and animal species.  Animals from grizzly bears to Dall sheep, timber wolves to peregrine falcons, Pacific Boas to gray whales all call the lands protected by the National Parks home.  The largest living things in the world are in National Parks: Sequoia trees and Alaskan brown bears (the world’s largest living carnivores.)  Whatever type of landscape fascinates you, you are sure to encounter it at one of the US National Parks.

Old growth flood plains at Congaree National Park in South Carolina

One of my random travel goals is to visit each of the US National Parks, and I’ve managed to visit roughly half of them.  The government wants us to visit the amazing wonderland that is our home and each year that have fee-free days for the parks that charge entrance fees [not all of them do].

Fee free days

For 2016,–which also happens to celebrate 100 years of the national parks system– the following days have been designated fee-free:

  • January 18–>Martin Luther King Day
  • April 16-24–>National Park Week
  • August 25-28–>National Park Birthday–let’s party
  • September 26–>National Public Lands Day
  • November 11–>Veterans Day

If the fee-free days aren’t enough to get you out there, check out these interesting facts about the US National Parks.

  • Yellowstone was the world’s first national park. It was created in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. Its caretakers – the cavalry.  The most recent addition to the 59 national parks list is Pinnacles, California, which was added in 2013.
  •  Sometimes national parks and national monuments are confused. National parks are chosen for their natural beauty, unique geological features, and unusual ecosystems. National monuments are chosen for their historical or archaeological significance.
  • Only one state in the country is not lucky enough to currently have either a national park or national monument. It is actually the country’s first state, Delaware. Poor little Delaware.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the largest park in the country. At six times the size of Yellowstone, it is the meeting point of four major mountain ranges and includes nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S. The preserve contains three climate zones, which means that it has everything from giant glaciers to wetlands to one of the largest active volcanoes in North America
  • Everglades is the only true tropical forest in the northern hemisphere. Because of this it is home to plants and animals you can’t find anywhere else, including the Florida Panther and twenty species of orchids.
  • Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama, has an almost continuous record of human habitation going back to at least 7000 BC.

For statistics nerds, check out the numbers.

  • The NPS operates roughly 401 units which include 79 National Mon­u­ments, 78 His­tor­i­cal Sights, 59 National Parks, and 46 Historical Parks all contained within 84 mil­lion acres.
  • The parks host 280 million visitors a year. And whether they are exploring the highest point in North Amer­ica in Denali NP (Mount McKin­ley –20,320 feet), or the low­est point in the west­ern hemi­sphere at Death Val­ley NP; the National Parks are a host of extremes. From the deep­est lake at Crater Lake NP (1932 feet), or the tallest trees in the world at Red­wood NP (397 feet).

Get out there, and enjoy what America has to offer. Fee free.

South Carolina State Parks | Jones Gap State Park

Well, that was unexpected

‘Oh thank God, I made it’ was my first thought when I reached the top of Rainbow Falls at Jones Gap State Park two hours after I started.  To be fair, I stopped a lot, took a lot of snaps, and played with all the friendly puppies that crossed my path.

upper rainbow falls

It isn’t the highest peak in South Carolina nor the most strenuous, but with 1200 ft elevation gain over a fairly short distance, it was hard enough.  Especially with humidity in the 90% range and temps in the upper 80’s.  I checked the weather forecast before I left and with only a 15% chance of rain, I threw a lightweight rain jacket in my backpack, packed myself a decent, trail-worthy lunch, filled up my Camelback with water and set off.

Walking the trail

And that was the last time my day went according to plan.  The main road to Jones Gap was washed out resulting in a 30-ish minute detour.  There was a yellow jacket advisory [which I should have paid more attention to].  The sky was overcast, but not threatening, and so I was off.  I hiked through rock beds.  I criss-crossed streams.  I crossed bridges. I navigated tree roots. I walked across a narrow board.  I went through boulders.

trail-to-rainbow-falls

Not 5 stinkin’ minutes after I reached my glorious summit, I heard a low rumble.  At first, I ignored it.  After all, I had a lunch of a deluxe turkey sandwich, trail mix, granola, grapes, and water to enjoy. I heard the low rumble again; this time is was just a little bit louder. I looked up.

storm clouds

And then I started to curse…loudly. As in F-bombs flying The last thing a novice/intermediate hiker wants is to be stuck on the top of a mountain when a thunderstorm comes rolling in. The very last thing I wanted was to get struck by lightening. Rain I could deal with; thunder and lightening, not so much. Not even two bites into my sandwich, I had to pack up. I barely broke into my granola, and I didn’t even get to eat one little grape! I was pissed at Mother Nature, but I didn’t want to inspire her wrath. As if I needed prodding, the low rumble rumbled again…this time a lot louder. I packed up my sandwich, pulled out my rain shell, and set off back down the trail I’d just made my way up. I hadn’t even rested good, yet! I practically ran down the trail, or at least as safely as I could manage, considering the rocks and roots. I didn’t even get to enjoy the small waterfalls that appeared sporadically on the trail.

Small falls

Trouble…just ahead

About 1/3 of the way down, I hit trouble. Raindrops so big and hard they stung as they hit my exposed skin. I also inadvertently disturbed a yellow jacket nest. I never saw it, but my God, they saw me. A small army flew after me, and at least a couple managed to find their way under my clothes. And that’s when the real fun began. Off came the backpack. Off came the rain shell.  And off came my t-shirt. The bees were still swarming. Off came my shorts. Luckily I was near one of the many creek crossings, and general safety and common sense be damned, I jumped into the creek. It was a part where there was a small plunge waterfall and a shallow pool. I screamed like a little girl getting her ponytail pulled on the playground. The water was icy cold. Icy may be a tiny bit of exaggeration, but 55 degrees still feels like the frozen tundra. Sports bra, socks, hiking boots were all that I had on as I submerged my head! and body! in this shallow pool. Might I remind you, it is 1) still pouring 2) thundering and lightening and 3) I’m still about 1.5 miles or so from my car.

small falls at jones gap

Bees stung me 5 times; once on the neck, once on the leg, and 3 times higher up the leg in a slightly more delicate area.

yellow jacket sting

After drowning the bees and freezing my ass off in the water, I resumed my descent still faster than I’m comfortable with because now, as a soaking wet thing, being struck by lightening was still a very real possibility. I successfully navigated the boulders, the steep decline, and the roots. My God, the roots. They always seem to be out to get me. I have a fear of falling. This is a real fear, not just one that COULD happen.  I HAVE actually broken bones while trail raining:  two to be exact [a wrist and an ankle], sprained an ankle multiple times, required stitches, and have cut, scraped, and bruised myself way  too much.

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But I keep coming back. Because there is beauty in nature. I find answers to the questions of the universe when I am in nature.  There is peace in nature. Even when Mother Nature shows her ass and reminds us mortals who’s boss, a day in the woods is better than a day cooped up in a building any day.

rainbow falls

Adventures in Colca Canyon

Like many things I do, my trek to Colca Canyon was not carefully planned; it was more of a spontaneous impulse.

I arrived in Peru mid-March hell-bent on hiking Machu Picchu.  The universe was equally hell-bent on making sure that didn’t happen. As always, the universe won.  I poked around Cusco for a while, contemplating where to go next. Arequipa seemed like a logical place.  It has everything I look for in a destination: history, interesting architecture, something special in the vicinity that you can’t find anywhere else.

Enter Colca Canyon. It is the second deepest canyon in the world, and home to the world’s largest and most romantic bird:  the Colca Condor.

The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet, can live to be 100 years old, and mates for life.  In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

After poking around Arequipa for a few days, I headed out to Cabanaconde, a small town nestled in a chasm deeper. I had nowhere to be until May so I planned on doing a little hiking/backpacking in the area knowing that I’d be back in Peru in the fall [technically, I suppose I mean spring since seasons are reversed] I had just returned from a short day hike and was admiring the view of the canyon while sipping what would become one of my top five all-time favorite alcoholic beverages–a maracuya sour– when I saw it far off in the distance.  What ‘it’ was was a small white waterfall standing out against a wall of green. At that moment, I knew that I’d have to get a lot closer, and I wasn’t leaving the canyon until I felt that cold water on my feet

 As it turned out, the white blip was the Huaruro waterfall, a 250-foot behemoth accessible from the small village of Fure on the opposite side of the canyon.  A hiker and explorer by heart, a mountaineer I am not. Thankfully I’ve been blessed with the curse of self-awareness, and knew that getting there completely on my own was so far outside my comfort zone it would not be advisable to try.  Enter my new best friend, Jose [maybe not his real name, but he answered to it]. As a solo female traveler and even more so as a solo female adventurer heading into a canyon where I could be raped and dismembered and left for the condors to eat, I have to trust my gut when meeting guides.  After all, I am literally putting my life in their hands–at least for a few days. I met my tiny Quechua guide the day before and maybe he recognized my hesitation since he invited me to meet his family.
Meeting the family put me at ease that this wasn’t some serial killer trying to get me alone and away from civilization.  Dinner was potatoes and meat, probably alpaca–I didn’t ask–and chincha, a drink I’ve already come to loathe, and conversation was probably 75% Spanish and 25% Quechua. Don’t worry, I didn’t know I could understand Quechua either, but apparently having studied/lived with Mayans 10 years ago

After dinner, the women-folk did their cleaning up and Jose and I discussed the particulars of the trek. We would start at 7:00 in the morning, and hike from Cabanaconde down to the bottom of the canyon [a descent of approximately 3,300 feet]. After that, we’ll cross the Colca River, have lunch in Llahuar, hike up about 1,650 feet to the town of Llatica and then continue up another 600 feet to Fure, where we would sleep that first night.

The next day, we’d set out for the waterfall and then hike back down the canyon to the Sangalle oasis, where we’d spend the night. Then, early in the morning of the third day, we’d leave the oasis to hike up back to Fure and on day 4, it’s back to Cabanaconde and civilization.  Looking back, I’m grateful I’d mention up front that I wanted to go slow since I’d would be taking a lot of pictures because Jose said in the past, this had always been a 3-day trek for him.

Jose said he didn’t do this route often; not many guides did since most people just wanted to see the canyon, but for 4 days he charged me $50. Food was extra, but in reality still only amounted to another $25 for the two of us for the four days. So $75 total for four days of guiding, food, drink, and our one night in a shelter.  What a deal. Fortunately, or maybe not, I had no idea of what I was in for.

Colca Canyon Sunrise.

Into the canyon

The next morning, I was up at 5 for breakfast and last minute backpack arranging. As promised, Jose arrived promptly at 7 and off we went. We walked through the town of Cabanaconde, passing an empty bullfighting ring and the goal of an abandoned soccer stadium. From there, we descended into the canyon.

I was weaving my way down Colca Canyon, slowly– little by little, when I caught my first glimpse of the Colca River. This glistening sliver of hope encouraged me that I was getting closer to reaching the bottom of one of the deepest canyons on the planet and helped me carry on.

Almost immediately, Jose started pointing out all kinds of indigenous herbs and fruits. A plethora of plants with a variety of uses grow in the canyon: muña for indigestion, cactus fruit for asthma and jatupa for insecticide, for starters. The canyon also hosts an incredible bounty of fruit. Peaches, apples, papaya, several different types of squash, lucuma, corn, mango and figs all flourish there. And you know this just fed my little nerd heart so much.

Five hourse later, we crossed the rushing Colca River and arrived at Llahuar, a small settlement consisting of two guesthouses, where lunch was a hearty heap  of protein in the form of trout, and the requisite unidentifiable soup with a mass of avocado or potato in it, and rice.  The view was simply amazing–an overlook of the convergence of the Colca and Huaruro rivers.

 

After lunch, more hiking, this time up as we ascended to the town of Llatica, a sleepy place with a rundown church. At the end of the first uphill leg of our trip, I was completely winded. I maintain that this was due to the altitude (about 12,000 feet), not the fact that I was, well, a bit out of shape.

That’s when things started to get interesting. Right outside Llatica, we met the bearer of bad news. A group of three Peruvians guys told us the path to Fure had been blocked by a rockslide, and we’d be unable to continue. Specifically, one of the guys said that I wouldn’t be able to cross the affected path, which was now apparently a heaping pile of boulders. I am at most most effective [and stubborn] when someone tells me that I can’t do something. The guys pointed out a different trail, one that went almost to the top of the mountain and then descended to Fure.

I, of course, was not in favor of this option, considering the dire state of my knees and lungs. However, if we reached the rock slide and couldn’t get around it, we’d have to return all the way to Llatica in the dark for the night. Night hiking is not my favorite. By this time, it was already 3:00 in the afternoon. We’d been hiking since 7A and sunset would be about 6P. If I’d been smarter, I would have suggested staying in Llatica for the evening and re-evaluating my options. I wasn’t smart.

Thinking about what to do

Obstacle surmounted–chasing waterfalls

We soldiered on to  Fure where we met a young teenager who seemed more confident about our chances with the rock slide. The catch, though, was that we’d have to rock-climb up a 20-foot chasm in the mountain. There were no ropes and no harnesses, and there certainly was no emergency room close enough to make any difference. Rock-climbing has never been an interest of mine, and now I’m mentally cursing myself for never having visited a rock-climbing gym. And I was tired.  Bone-tired, but I was not at a place to stop.

By the time we got to the slide, I was running on fumes. The path ended and in its place stood a substantial rock face, which there was now no choice but to climb. On either side of the rock slide, the mountain shot straight up and dropped straight down, so there would be no walking around the boulders.

My new friend took my backpack up the crevice. Then it was my turn. My new friend and Jose told me where to put my feet and hands, and I inched up the mountain. About 15 feet up,  I got stuck. For nearly a minute, I balanced on one toe on the crack in the rock, using three fingers to grip the rock above my head. I held myself there, paralyzed, unsure whether my next move would hoist me up or land me with a broken leg.

Honestly, though, the climb was almost a relief, because I was able to make use of my arms in addition to my legs. With one big heave that involved placing my other foot on the rock above my hip and hoisting myself up, I cleared the worst of the climb. From there, just two more moves took me to the top. My new friend (I never got his real name) helped me up at the end, and Jose scrambled up quickly behind me like the native pack mule he is.

We picked up the trail again on the other side of the rockslide, and from there, we crossed a rickety bridge to Fure, where we were shown to our room for the night: a mud hut with four walls, a dirt floor and a mattress propped up on bamboo and logs.

Main Street–Fure

After a long soak in the town’s natural spring and a dinner of soup, squash puree and white rice, I went to bed and slept like a dead animal until sunrise the next day.

The Waterfall

After a relatively mild hour-and-a-half hike, we approached the waterfall. At first, all we could see was a watery mist drifting up into a vivid green pasture. Then we turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the foot of a mass of water plunging to the ground. The vegetation was dripping wet from the mist, and the noise from the water’s 250-foot drop silenced our conversation.

The hike to Sangalle oasis was thankfully, drama-free.

Colca Canyon has more to offer than resounding views and an oasis.  It has the power to challenge us both mentally and physically whilst giving us strength and a connection to the world around us.

 

 

 

Scaling the highest peak in Wales

I have always kept a record of my travels.  It used to be with a pen and paper and 35mm film.  Now it’s all digital.  Back in 1997, I spent a summer living in the UK…actually, I had a place but nothing to do… so I wandered…and wandered, and one weekend I ended up at Snowdonia National Park in Wales–where I spent more than a couple of weekends while I was in the UK.

Taking on Wales’ tallest peak

My first weekend away landed me in the charming village of Betws-y-coed, North Wales, a village of about 500.  Bewts-y-Coed is located in the heart of Snowdonia. Wales may not be home to the tallest mountain peak, but it still has some challenging hiking.

It has charming waterfalls.

But really what I came to Snowdonia National Park to see was Mt. Snowdon, and it did not disappoint. You see, I like to think that I’m a bad-ass hiker chic. I have visions of hiking the Appalachian Trail or some other multi-week trek. Or climbing Aconcagua. Or Denali. In reality, I’ve rarely done much more than overnight camping and nothing more than a day hike on my on. Certainly not scaling any peaks anywhere. But back when I spent an entire summer in Great Britain, I was a 19 year old college athlete who thought I could do anything, and anything included climbing mountains without any preparation and only minimal supplies.

You see those little squiggles… that’s the hiking path… It’s none too wide, and a bit scary the higher up you get. I didn’t know that these peaks were also ski paths in the winter.

If I’d known what I was in for, I might have been content to hang around the lake all day.

Tips for Climbing Mount Snowdon

  • Entrance to the park is 100% free.  It costs to park, but some B&Bs offer shuttles to the park so if you can snag one of those, total cost is F-R-E-E.
  • Bring lots of layers! It was quite chilly on the summit and this was in June! — bring a water-resistant parka, gloves,  and a hat.  All I had with me was a light windbreaker, a long- sleeved shirt, and a baseball hat.  Clearly, I was expecting better weather from June.
  • Try to climb on a clear day. Your photos will be so much better.  I got lucky.  With minimal planning or prior knowledge of Welsh weather, I had a great day.  As I have since learned, weather at the bottom of a mountain is no prediction of weather at the top of a mountain.
  • Snacks, water, and for me ibuprofen are crucial.  I only had 1L of water, a few power bars and fruit, and zero painkillers.  I crawled up into a ball when I got back to my room, and finally, after a hot shower or two, I could walk normally again.
  • Believe in yourself.  Before I started, I NEVER thought that I couldn’t do it.  I didn’t research it.  I just heard about it and it sounded like a cool thing to do.  Once I got started, I didn’t think I’d make it.  But I’m too stubborn to quit.

This is Wales’ tallest peak; had I known I’d be hiking a ridge, I probably would not have done it. Balance has never been my strong point.

  • Climbing Snowdon is absolutely worth it. This is one of Wales’s best adventures, and one that you’ll always remember.

Be prepared for anything when you are hiking in the Welsh mountains.  The weather can change in an instant.

The view from the highest peak in Wales–simply breath taking.

Finally getting to Machu Picchu

I arrived in Peru at the tail end of February 2010 in preparation for my awesome Machu Picchu trek leaving the first of March.  That didn’t happen.  I was a little bummed about not getting to see Machu Picchu, but in true adventurous spirit said to myself “I’ll be in South America for a while… we’ll see what happens.”  I explored Cusco and Arequipa.  I went on a tour of the floating islands on Lake Titicaca.  And went sand-boarding on the dunes in Huacachina.  I flew over the Nasca lines and marveled at the shapes.  And then I put Peru out of my mind.  I started on my first volunteer project in Cartegna and promptly put my missed opportunity at hiking the Inca Trail out of my mind.

But when meeting other travelers the conversation always seems to go somethitng like this:

Random Traveler:  How long have you been traveling for?  Where have you been?

Upon hearing that I have already been to Peru but did not get to see Machu Picchu, it inevitably goes like this:

Random Traveler:  Dude!  You have GOT to go to Machu Picchu.  It’s EPIC.  Your trip will be nothing if you don’t get to Machu Picchu.

At this point I don’t even bother trying to explain that a natural disaster occurred not long before I was to hike Machu Picchu and that I am grateful that said natural disaster did not occur while I was hiking Machu Picchu.

More time passed and I helped build eco-friendly hiking trails and count howler monkeys in the dry forest [which is a total misnomer since it’s soaking wet 6 months out of the year]. I catalogued orchids in a cloud forest.  I tagged turtles on the Galapagos Islands.  I climbed volcanoes in Ecuador. I caught malaria in the Amazon Rainforest.  I volunteered in a health clinic and taught classes on respiratory infections, influenza, and tuberculosis. I chilled out and took surfing lessons on the coast.  I went hiking in Keulap and Chachapoyas.  I met up with friends in Cajamarca.  I rented an apartment and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner with and for travelers.

Kuelap view
Kuelap view

And then my roommate asked me this question. In Novemeber.

 “Someone just cancelled in my tour group to hike Machu Picchu.  Do you want to take their place? It’s the first week of December.”

Did I?  After all, 8 months earlier I came to Peru a month earlier than my first volunteer assignment required for the sole purpose of hiking Machu Picchu.  But was that still a goal?  At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, Machu Picchu was becoming just another box to tick… just a way to impress my fellow travelers. I wasn’t helping anyone by climbing it. I wasn’t learning Inca culture and this wouldn’t be a culmination of assimilating all that knowledge. I had done so much more than I had originally intended to do, and I still had a half of a continent to explore.

“Oh and this isn’t the standard 4day/3night trek This is a 9day/8night 100km hike”

holyfuckingshit…. that’s a long ass hike I thought. And my roommate… she used to climb mountains. For fun.  And for fun I like to sleep. And then before I realized the words were out of my mouth “I’m in,” and I had a paltry 6 weeks to get my ass into shape. There was no turning back after that.  My previous longest hike was a measly 2 day 16 miler in Chachapoyas.

Kuelap 1

Did I go?  Oh hell yeah.  Was it amazing?  Incredibly so.  Was it the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have ever done in my life?  Without a doubt.  Was it worth it? 

inca trail 3

machu_picchu_07

peru
Abso-fucking-lutely.

6 years ago

A twist on the popular saying: What goes down must come up. After two days of descending into the canyon, I could think of just one thing: it was time to go up… on an ankle that was most likely broken.  Fabulous.

I was as rested, iced, compressed, [and well, elevated was going to be a problem] as one can be and by 4:30am, with the ankle wrapped, boots tied, and backpack on, I, along with the rest of the group was ready to start the upward climb out of the canyon.

grand canyon floor
One last view of the Grand Canyon floor and the Colorado River that runs through it

I puttered along, using my stick more like a crutch, but putting one foot in front of the other and more or less keeping up with the group. It wasn’t long until we reached the Colorado River and came to my Kryptonite.  I’m not sure why crossing bridges on foot scare the bejeezus out of me, but for some reason, I almost stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, and went back the way I came.  The bridge was not the most sturdy [but certainly not what it could have been considering what it is], but what I can only attribute to nerves of steel and some deep, well-hidden vat of courage, I crossed the Silver Bridge to begin the ascent toward the South Rim.

Silver bridge colorado river

silver bridge
The bridge… that caused me to act like a stubborn mule who refused to plow

The early part of the hike followed the Colorado River on a slight incline, alternating shade and sun. Temperature was manageable, probably in the 80s-90s, but the hardest section for me was a series of switchbacks and stairs which nearly brought me to my knees. But I am a stubborn wench, and I refused to be med-a-vac’ed out of the canyon.

One stubborn gal I am

stairs
Stairs that made me want to cry

Five or so hours later, I limped into Indian Gardens, the campground for the night. I debated the wisdom of removing the hiking boots that were acting a a de-facto cast for my ankle. I compromised. One boot on, one boot off. And I elevated, rested, and compressed. Icing was a no-go with the foot still in the boot. But I lunched and rested and later in the day, I took some time to wander around the campground to take some more photos because a good patient I am not. It was much greener than I had anticipated, with a plethora of flowers adding even more color.

grand canyon hike flower
A pretty white flower

grand canyon cactus flowers
pretty red flowers

grand canyon catcus flower
I often say I’m as cuddly as a cactus, but upon seeing these, I might be *slightly* more huggable.

mule corral
Oh look.. apparently there are some of my relatives. Did someone mention being as stubborn as a mule?

Nap, foot propping, photo shoot, dinner, then a short hike up to Plateau Point for the sunset.

plateau point
Perspective.

Sitting on the plateau looking over the canyon gave me perspective on how far we had come in three days and how much of the canyon remained. On the walk back to the campsite, I could see flickering lights far in the distance.

Grand-Canyon-sunset-at-Plateau-Point
a fabulous colorful sunset

Here’s the thing about hiking a canyon: the hardest part comes at the end, when you are the most tired and you have to go up to get to your destination. And because I like to make things extra difficult for myself, I get to hike up and out of a canyon with only one good leg/foot. Yay me.

We were up once again by about 4a eating breakfast, packing up our gear for the last time and getting our feet taped up. I made the executive decision to sleep with my boots on, because I have the feeling that once that left boot comes off, no amount of ace wrap at KT tape will make it fit in again.

tent in the woods
last night of sleeping in the tent for a while

It wasn’t a terribly long and arduous hike from Indian Gardens to the Bright Angel Trail Head. This particular section is popular with day hikers and the like. ANd by 10 am…we were D.O.N.E

indian gardens
More people, more need to display the obvious

A lot of people don’t like for group activities to end. They’ll hang around, take picture with, exchange numbers, and promise to stay in touch. It rarely happens though. For me, though, after being with strangers for four days, I really just want to be alone. However, this time, I had to hang out with people just a little while longer so that I could hitch a ride to the nearest urgent care clinic to confirm the obvious.

bright angel hike
The last hiking I will do for a while, just take it in, OK.