Three weeks of photos from Argentina & Chile

As promised (finally!), here are the photographic highlights from my last 3 weeks on the road in Argentina and Chile.

They start with a few photos from SaltaCordoba, and Mendoza, before I jumped down to Bariloche in Argentina’s Patagonia. From there, I crossed the border to spend a rainy week in Puerto Varas and Valdivia (because of the crummy weather, there are very few photos), then made a long haul up to Vina del Mar to spend my last days of vacation on the beach soaking up some final South American sunshine.


Ode to my zapatos

It’s hard to believe, considering how massive my shoe and clothing collection are, but I’ve had the same pair of running shoes since 2008.

All trip, I´ve been saying how I can´t wait to throw out my zapatos — or as all my new British friends have taught me to say, trainers — before I leave South America. Partially because without them, I’ll have more space in my pack for souvenirs, but mostly because they’re stained, filthy, and falling apart. But as the last day of my trip nears, the thought of chucking my dear old Asics actually makes me a little sad, and even more nostalgic.

My turquoise and white babies, now a mixed shade of grey and brown, were broken in on the Great Wall of China. They took me to Squashbusters and Marino, my two college gyms, on freezing cold afternoons and sleepless, anxious nights alike. They accompanied me on walks to American Eagle on Newbury Street, where I would stand folding clothing for hours and hours on end. They climbed the Eiffel Tower, traipsed around Israel, wandered Costa Rican rainforests, and were there on my first hike up Los Angeles´s Runyon Canyon. Whenever I was plagued with depression and heartbreak, they faithfully let me shove them on and pound out my emotions on the treadmill, searching for answers to my unhappiness.

And in 2009, when Alex and I did a ridiculous 8,000 mile road trip across the United States, my Asics were there every step of the way. We saw the Grand Canyon, attempted a visit to the four corners monument, explored Denver, saw Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, and visited Arches National Park in Utah… all in my running shoes. Of course there was the eastern and southern parts of the US as well, but I’m pretty sure my poor running shoes sat in the trunk when I switched into flip flops for the warmer cities.

My shoes took me twenty-odd miles up to Machu Picchu, traversed Lago Titicaca´s Isla del Sol, and didn´t complain one bit when they turned a slight reddish tinge from the bright brown dirt of northern Argentina and Iguazu Falls. They´ve stayed tightly on my feet through countless horseback rides in Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. We climbed Cotopaxi together, ziplined together, and witnessed the incredibly gorgeous southwest circut of Bolivia together. We traversed down the entirety of Colca Canyon in southern Peru, flew over the Nazca Lines, and attempted to sandboard in the sand dunes of Huacachina. They fell with me (on purpose, of course) 10,000 feet from an airplane over San Juan, Argentina and, most recently, they´ve been absolutely soaked as I walked, biked and drove my way through Patagonia and Argentina´s Bariloche.

As I travel and meet people and stare at a map of the world, I feel like there’s so much that I haven’t seen. But I have to remind myself how fortunate I am to have explored the parts of the world that I have made it to. From the cities in the U.S. I´ve called home to the countries I’ve traveled to thousands of miles across the globe, thinking about all the places my feet, encased in my trusty Asics, have taken me, I feel both humbled and fortunate.

There´s something about traveling and meeting people from all over the world that makes me even more excited and anxious to see the rest of the world, to set foot in the countries whose borders I haven´t yet crossed. My plans of moving to NYC to settle down after this trip have shifted. I´m now revising my goals towards thoughts of more travel and world exploration, toward achieving my goal of becoming a travel writer, and with the hopes of planning another major trip for the second half of 2013.

By then, I´ll have a new pair of tennis shoes. I can´t wait to find out where we´ll go together.

A flashback of photos of me wearing my running shoes all over the world…

Sunrise over the Salar

Apologies for the delay on this post, the internet in the town where I started and ended my tour had no wi-fi, and the connection at the internet cafés was so slow my Gmail would barely load. My plan was to wait until I crossed the border to Argentina to get this post, mostly of photos and a few descriptions, live. My laptop, however, has since died, so I have no way of uploading my own photos. These words will have to do instead, with hopes that I can maybe get my computer up and running soon. 

Edited: My computer is back from the dead! At least long enough to let me get these photos up, so you’re in luck!

My tour of southwestern Bolivia consisted of days so long and so jam-packed that at the end of it all, it was hard to believe I´d only been gone for 4 days, and not 4 weeks. Despite the exhaustion from not sleeping properly at high altitudes and spending hours on end in a not-so-comfortable jeep, I had a fabulous trip, met some wonderful people who actually changed the course of my trip (more on that later), and saw some of the most incredible scenery I´ve ever laid eyes on.

There were hours where I looked out of the jeep window and the landscape looked so foreign that I swore I´d been transported to Mars, and other moments where it looked as though I was back at Arches National Park in Utah. The Salar de Uyuni, the highlight of the tour, was our last stop on the fourth day, but we spent the third night at it´s edge. Walking out onto the endless expanse of salt was more humbling than I can describe. And even though our 4 AM wakeup call on day four was just as painful as my 4 AM Machu Picchu wakeup call nearly six months ago, the sunrise I witnessed was so different, it literally took my breath away.

Most people head west from Potosi (where I did the mine tour) to Uyuni, where the majority of the 3 day/2 night tours of the Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats start. I´d been given advice, however, that starting from Tupiza, an equally small town that is directly south of Potosi, is a lesser known, but much better option. From Tupiza, the tour is four days and three nights, the landscape surrounding the town is beautiful, you drive through a completely different national park, end with the salt flats instead of begin with them, and the tour quality is supposed to be higher. All of this advice proved true, and I am incredibly thankful I started from Tupiza instead.

I could easily write 3,000 words with every detail of my trip, but I´m going to spare you and just write out the highlights, then (fingers crossed) let my ridiculous number of photos speak for themselves as soon as I can get them up.
  • On the night bus from Potosi to Tupiza, I ran into Vincent, one of the guys on the same mine tour I´d done earlier in the day. When we got off the bus at 4 AM in Tupiza, we decided to check in at the same hostel and research Salar tours together the next morning. A few hours later as we wandered through town, we ran into Anthony and David — two Australian guys also on our tour in Potosi — and it turned out all four of us were staying at the same hostel/tour agency and had booked the same 4 day tour leaving the next day. Yet another small-world South America run in! As happy as I am to be traveling on my own, I was glad to know I´d have some familiar faces on my tour.
  • The day before we left Tupiza, Vincent and I took a 3 hour horseback ride in the red-rock valley near Tupiza. Although our horses random, un-announced galloping was a little bit overwhelming, the scenery was beautiful, and I immediately fell in love with southwestern Bolivia. The naturally carved red rocks, low-growing green brush, and mountain studded horizon reminded me of a more spectacular version of the southwestern US, and I couldn´t get enough.
  • Our immediate tour group consisted of two jeeps. I spent countless hours bouncing along dirt roads with Eduardo the driver, Irena the cook, Vincent, Stephanie and Isabelle, French-speaking sisters from Switzerland. The other jeep shared our cook, and was headed by Edson the driver and Sergio, our English volunteer tour guide. Laura from Australia, Brian from Ireland, and Sophie and Daniel, a couple from Switzerland, filled the four back seats. There were three other jeeps from the same tour agency that we saw along the route and stayed at the same hostels with, including Anthony and David, my Australian buddies.
  • Toward the end of our first day on the road, we had just climbed back into the jeeps after a stop at an eerily abandoned ghost town. As we cruised away, our jeep began shaking and rattling, but not from the rocky, dirt road we were driving on. We were being pelted with huge chunks of hail. Thunder rumbled so loudly we were all slightly startled, and the lightning streaked so brightly it lit up the entire sky — at one point we even saw smoke rise as the currents hit the mountains ahead of us. Amazingly, we drove straight through the storm and into the pueblo where we´d be spending our first night, and by then all was calm. In fact, the sky was clear enough that we were able to climb up on a ridge behind the town to watch the sun set behind the grey clouds in the distance.
  • Throughout the tour, we stopped at a half-dozen alien-looking lagoons filled with bright, strangely colored water and hundreds of gorgeous pink flamingos. My favorites were Laguna Colorado, a bright red lake that gets its stunning coloring from red plankton, and Laguna Hedionda, a stunning bright turquoise lake rimmed in white minerals and surrounded by picture-perfect mountains that were reflected in the clear, still water.
  • At some point on day two, the landscape changed drastically and it was like we´d suddenly landed on Mars. Flat red, rocky expanses of nothingness stretched out before us and black volcanoes with bright yellow, white, and red tops captivated the four of us as our jeep zoomed past them. I wasn´t surprised to find out later that that specific area of the Bolivian desert is actually used by NASA to test space rovers because the wind conditions and rocky landscape mimic those of Mars.
  • On our second night, I braved the miserably cold air to stand outside and stare at the stars. I can´t remember seeing such a bright sky since my Camp Tawonga days, and watching a shooting star streak through the darkness reminded me of how much I absolutely love the night sky. I had one of those cheesy travel moments, where I couldn´t have been more thankful that I quit my job and made myself crazy for a few months so I could be standing in that spot, seeing the beauty of the world. It just solidified how worth it this has all been, despite the ups and downs of the last few weeks.
  • On day three, the landscape turned flat and the mirage on the horizon appeared. The sun reflecting off the salt, stretching out for hundreds of miles in front of us, made the salt flats look like a perfectly mirrored lake, and we were all convinced it was actually covered in water until our guide corrected us. Once we put our things down at the hostel, we walked a half hour out onto the edge of the salar. Its expansiveness was humbling, but in a completely different way than anything I´ve seen on this trip thus far. Incan ruins, mountain ranges, cloud rainforests, pelican-dotted beaches… they all seemed so far away, and so drastically different.
  • Our last stop after the salt flats and before the town of Uyuni, where our tour officially ended, was a massive train cemetery, where old, rusted British trains had been abandoned. Unfortunately, my camera battery died shortly after our arrival, but I could have easily stayed there all day with my DSLR — the rusting iron, graffiti-covered cars contrasted with the hilly background was a photographers paradise.

Overall, I had a fabulous trip. I wish there was a bit more walking and a bit less sitting in the jeep, but as everyone had told me to expect, the Salar truly was spectacular.

My original plan was to get out of the jeep in Uyuni and immediately arrange a transport out to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. But it turned out my plans for Argentina overlapped with Vincent´s and Sergio´s and I decided I wanted to have some travel company for a bit, so I ended up coming back to Tupiza to relax, wait for Sergio to finish his volunteer gig, and the two of us made our way down to Salta yesterday for a few days. After Salta, I have yet to make up my mind whether I´ll go out to San Pedro like I´d originally planned and then hightail it to Cordoba to meet Vincent, or keep heading south on my own to explore some smaller towns and then wait for Vincent.

My OCD tendancies are hating my indecision right now, but the other half of me is so thrilled that my vacation has warped and changed so beautifully just because I made instinctive decisions to do exactly what I wanted from moment to moment. Not having a solidified plan has been a wonderful thing!

And now, cross your fingers that my nearly seven-year old macbook wakes up from her deep sleep long enough to let me post pictures!

Cruising down sand dunes

The Peruvian dessert, especially south of Lima where I’ve spent the last two days, is truly spectacular. As I’ve been wandering and exploring and taking a million photos, I’ve been trying to come up with the right adjectives to describe it, and it’s been quite the challenge.

This may be one of those instances where photos, even though they don’t quite do everything justice, will have to be worth a thousand words instead.

In Paracas, I was shocked at the juxtaposition of a gorgeous, turquoise ocean and vast fields of hilly, goldenrod sand. In Huacachina, just an hour and a half south of Paracas, the sand dunes literally look like the opening scenes from Aladin — enormous hills with seemingly-sharp tops and edges; perfect, half-moon shaped mounds that are completely untouched, molded only by the wind. As you stand on the edge of gigantic dunes, there is not a single thing in sight but millions and millions of tiny grains of soft sand that stick to every surface of your body as soon as you take a single step.

Yesterday morning we took a two hour boat tour of the Isla Ballestas. The islands are protected and you can’t disembark on them, so the boats just drive around the rocky coasts and through the massive archways carved out by the oceans — close enough to the “shore” that you can practically touch the gorgeous birds and adorable sea lions basking in the sun. After the boat tour, we took a tour of the northern part of the Paracas National Reserve, where we saw more of the beautiful, sandy coastlines.

I was, admittedly, relatively terrified to go sand-boarding today and I considered skipping it altogether, but I’m so glad I went because I actually had a complete blast. Our group was great and we had a ton of fun posing for photos and encouraging each other as we went tumbling – literally – down the dunes.

Clearly, I’m a pro.

Huacachino is a town based around a small lagoon in a massive dessert — it really is a stunning landscape, and I’m glad I made the last minute decision to stop here instead of going directly to Nazca. That, and my hostel here is great: tons of hammocks, a miniature pool, delicious food, and two adorable pugs.

And now, a million photos. Be thankful for these, they took ages to upload!

Cuenca highlights: Ingapirca and El Cajas

Yesterday, we took a day trip out to the Ingapirca ruins, a two hour drive north into the Cañar province of Ecuador. We drove out of the Cuenca valley and into a very different, adjacent valley, where rolling green hills host farmland and pastures where cattle graze and beans, potatoes and corn grow. We stopped first at a beautiful church on the hillside with a view of the valley, and then at a local market where indigenous families sold a bizarre combination of fresh fruits and vegetables and brand name clothing (Hollister or Aeropostale anyone?) from China. I bought fresh chocolate that my mouth was practically watering for as I purchased it, and of course I had a total gringa moment, because it was 100% cocoa and disgustingly bitter. Total fail.

The ruins themselves are the biggest Incan ruins found in Ecuador, and are built upon ruins of the Cañari people — an older tribe conquered by the Incas. As a result, this site is the only Incan ruins site with a sun temple in the shape of an eliptical (the shape used primarily by the Cañari people, Incans primarily built square and rectangular rooms). Our guide Diego was fantastic, and explained tons of Incan theories and history for us. I loved him so much, at the end of the day I joked that I wished I could just take him with me into Peru!

hillsides (and cows!) from the van window

Amazing Incan moon calendar, believed to help view the constellations

(More pictures from the ruins in the gallery at the bottom)

The Incan culture truly fascinates me. The sheer manpower used to form such perfectly shaped stones for their temples are mind blowing, and the intelligence they held about the stars and solstices (every single temple they’ve built is angled absolutely perfectly for the solstices/equinoxes in June, March, September and December) is unbelievable. To this day, no one has been able to recreate the construction of the Incan people, it’s just that damn impressive. After seeing ruins from their civilization in so many countries, it’s interesting to see the differences and striking similarities, despite the thousands of miles of distance between the various sites.

After the tour our group of students from the school met for a cuy (guinea pig) dinner for Pascal’s birthday. I tasted a bit of the meat and skin (when in South America, right?) and didn’t think it was anything incredibly special, but the rest of the group seemed to enjoy it!

Today, our group opted for a day tour of the El Cajas national park, just 45 minutes outside of Cuenca and absolutely, breathtakingly, beautiful. I feel like I can’t quite find the right adjectives trying to explain the raw, natural beauty of the park, but the 110 sq miles of land contains over 700 bodies of water, thousands of species of bird and animal life, and more beautiful – and totally unique – flowers than I could count. Only 8% of the park is in use, the rest is inaccesible, high up on the granite hilltops or covered by golden yellow grass and “cushion forest,” a term for the muy fuerte y verede grass that grows on the thin layer of soil throughout the park and holds vast amounts of rainwater beneath it. We walked 5(ish) miles (we’re talking Ecuadorian distance, so really who knows) on two different paths, and visited the continental divide, where on one side of the mountain, all the water flows to the Pacific Ocean and on the other, all the water flows east instead, to the Atlantic.

We walked through mossy forests, around gorgeous lakes nestled into valleys, and through gigantic mud puddles (my shoes now have Iguazu dirt & Ecuadorian mud permanently embedded in them). We saw a herd of llama with two babies, all sorts of ducks and hummingbirds, and ate amazing fresh fried trout for lunch. I took a million photos (okay, only 263) in the 6 hours we were there, so I’ll let (some of) those speak for themselves.

Kathleen & I!

Obviously Stella had to make her appearance. I think she was quite jealous of all her fellow ducks living in the gorgeous ponds!

Clearly very bundled up (knee socks and all) — it was freezing!

Our trout lunch. I somehow managed to de-head, de-fin, de-tail AND de-spine this sucker. And despite the fish face on my plate, I ate it too! Surprisingly delicious and incredibly fresh! (Thanks to Robin for this awesome picture at lunch — my camera was in the van.)

Yesterday was my last day of the traveling classroom program, and our last day together as a group — we’ve been together two weeks, since the start of our week in Quito. Edith had her flight down to Lima this afternoon, Katelyn leaves the country tonight, Pascal is off to the Galapagos for a week, and Irene and Rinalta are headed back to Montañita.

For many reasons, I’m glad to head my own separate way.

I’ve really loved the homestays I’ve had — all of my families have been so sweet, so welcoming and so helpful as I’ve slowly learned to speak and express myself in Spanish. But staying in someone else’s house (and eating their food) can be tough, especially when you’re immersed in a different culture and have a different lifestyle. It was a wonderful experience – and something that I will always value – but I’m ready to set my own schedule and decide my own meals.

Traveling with a group is tough at times — everyone has different complaints, different needs, and different quirks, and it can be exhausting to be constantly surrounded by other people who see things differently, travel differently, and want and expect different things.

Of course, the perks of constantly having companions are great too. We built great inside jokes and had a blast together. Kathleen and I – who have been together since day one – forged a great friendship, and I was so bummed to say goodbye to her this afternoon! Luckily, she lives in San Francisco, so I’ve got a 99th reason to get myself up to the bay once I get back to the US. But having someone to watch your stuff while you walk to the bathroom, lend you a $1 coin when you only have a $20 that nobody will break, or take a silly picture of you at just the right moment is wonderful too, and I’ll definitely miss those perks.

I can’t believe four weeks have already passed — the time has literally flown, and what’s really unreal to me is that this means my travels are already a third over. So far, I’ve really had an amazing time, and I’m so glad I chose to take Spanish courses. I really feel like I’ve absorbed a ton and that I can communicate, which is much more than I thought I’d be able to say a month ago! I can’t wait to keep practicing.

My favorite, and clearly very appropriate, ending picture:

All of my favorite pictures from the last two days:

Yo amo Cuenca

I didn’t like, let alone love, Quito. It reminded me of a South American version of Los Angeles — gigantic, ugly, and smoggy, filled with fast food and inefficient public transportation. The city is also incredibly unsafe, and the school I was studying at was completely unorganized, so although I really loved my host family, I was ready to move on.

tourist pic!

Cuenca, on the other hand, is gorgeous, and I’ve completely fallen in love with this city. After less than 48 hours here, I understand why so many gringas decide to settle down in the city, and why the locals never leave. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, Cuenca is full of gorgeous churches, plazas filled with indigenous senoras selling flowers and fresh fruit, and incredibly old buildings that are falling apart in that beautiful, third world type of way, if that makes any sense at all. At first glance, not everything looks so charming, but there really is beauty everywhere here — in the balcony railings, the wild flowers growing in the cracks of the sidewalk, and the colorful graffiti.

The weather in Cuenca is relatively predictable this time of year: it’s perfectly sunny every morning, and without fail it rains every afternoon. If you’re lucky, like we were today, the sky clears up by 3 or 4 PM and the day ends with a gorgeous, cloud scattered sky to gawk at.

I had an amazing moment on my walk home today. I was walking down Avenida Loja and was incredibly distracted, staring at a beautiful church facade contrasted with a picture perfect sky on my right hand side. I crossed the street to pull out my camera and snap a picture, standing in the same place for a few moments trying to line up the right shot. When I turned around to re-cross the street, there was a picture perfect rainbow streaked across the clouds.
Had I not crossed the street, I’m not sure I would have seen it. A beautiful reminder to keep my eyes open to everything around me.
Here are a smattering of my favorite pictures from the last two days: Mercado 9 de Agusto with it’s fresh Ecuadorian cuisine and amazing selection of fresh fruit, Ecuadorian “shaman” senoras blessing small children, the Mirador de Turi outlook, and a random smattering of beautiful old buildings from our city tour yesterday.

Ayer, yo subo al volcán

Who ever thought I’d be able to say the words “Yesterday, I climbed a volcano?” I feel like that sentence needs a “freakin’” in there somewhere!

Let me start by saying that thus far, I’ve really enjoyed my time Ecuador. I’ve discovered, however, that many things local people tell me tend to be relatively untrue. For instance, “Oh, the walk is easy” – 30 minutes later I’m huffing and puffing up a gigantic hill. “Oh, it’s always cloudy, overcast and completely freezing there” – meanwhile, I’m sweating through my long sleeves and long pants. “Oh, we’re open every day” – the gate is clearly shut and locked. Maps are inaccurate, signs lie, and “mas tarde” – a general term for “later” – rules all. I’ve come to refer to these inaccuracies as Ecuadorian distance and Ecuadorian time.

That being said, our school here has been less than informative about the activities we’re signed up for. Oh, yeah, you’re going to go to a volcano called Cotopaxi. Lunch and a guide is included. Meet at the school at 6:20 AM. Have fun! is essentially what our instructions looked like for our day yesterday.

The real instructions, which we received en route to our destination: We are hiking up that volcano, mountain biking down some mysterious road, oh, and btw, its miserably freezing and probably below zero at the top, so you may want scarves, gloves and a hat. And bring 2 liters of water with you! I’m so glad I got all of this information before I packed my backpack for the day. Not.

Regardless of the lack of communication, climbing up the volcano was breathtaking. Literally, in that the altitude was so high it was incredibly difficult to breathe, and we were climbing up very steep switchbacks for over an hour, but also figuratively — the view of the valley below and the other volcanos in the distance was absolutely incredible.

The group, which consisted of 15 people, about a third of which were associated with our Spanish school, trudged up rather quickly. I took my time, stopping often to catch my breath, take pictures and just take in the view. I was enjoying myself thoroughly… until it was time to climb down.

Now, here for all to read, I will admit I am a wuss. I am my father’s daughter, and I can be both a complainer and a coward. However the path down Cotopaxi was one of the most unsafe, ridiculous challenges I have ever seen. Easily at a 75 degree incline, the path was covered in loose dirt, gravel and rocks with no stairs, no railings and no markings whatsoever. You could barely “climb” down slowly. Instead, you were forced to run-walk, your body pushed down with the force of gravity as you attempt not to tumble down the mountain. My shoes had more rocks and sand than a beach when I reached the bottom.

I ate shit several times and on my last fall, I managed to stop myself from tumbling face forward by catch myself with my right ankle… twisted underneath me. I think the shock, anger and fear caught up with me, and by the time I reached the bottom I was shaking with tears in my eyes. After I calmed down and realized the throbbing in my entire body was more fear than actual pain, I knew I was okay, but I will say now I would definitely not recommend that hike to anybody else.

Regardless, knowing I climbed to 4,810 meters (15,780 feet) on one of the world’s highest active volcanos is certainly an experience I won’t soon forget.

After we hiked down, the van dropped us off on the side of the road with our mountain bikes, handed us some helmets and said “see you in 10 kilometers and 45 minutes!” The road was under construction so it was dusty, rocky and altogether relatively unpleasant. Though I try not to be a debbie downer on vacation, I had a hard time enjoying the view while I was concentrating on not flipping over my handlebars, so about halfway through the descent I put my bike back on the trailer and climbed into the jeep. I’d had enough!

Of course, Stella had to make an appearance…

After a bizarre lunch of fruit, guacamole, ruffles and a terrible – and tasteless – mystery brocoli soup, we drove the 2 hours north back to Quito and said our farewell.

Random side-note – a couple we’d gone to the Isla de Plata with was also on the exact same Cotopaxi tour with us. Such a crazy small world!

And now, the rest of my pictures!

Adventuring to the cloud forest

Before I write about our day in Mindo, a few quick updates.

On Wednesday evening, we took a trip down to the Papallacta hot springs. I was hugely skeptical, considering we drove 2 hours on windy mountain roads, in the rain, to get there and I was being asked to put my bathing suit on when it was probably no more than 50 degrees outside, not to mention pitch black by the time we got there. But once I sunk into the amazing hot water, lay back and got to look at a sky full of stars, I knew immediately why the school prioritized this trip. My pictures are unimpressive because it was so dark and steamy, but believe me, it was amazing, and completely relaxing!

And here is a picture of me, Pascal and Kathleen hanging out with the Ecuadorian equator line on Thursday. The museum at the line was mostly cheesy, but it was fun to be at the actual equator regardless!

Now, onto our day in Mindo! 

My host family (who, btw, are super sweet, I’m so sad to be leaving them tomorrow!) had mentioned over dinner one night that Mindo, the cloud rainforest just two hours northwest of Quito, is really beautiful and that it’s a shame I didn’t have more time in Quito to spend some time there. I had been itching to get to a rainforest, especially since I don’t want to go deep into the Amazon on this trip. I mentioned Mindo to Kathleen and she was interested as well, so we decided to ditch classes on Friday and spend the day there.

After gathering a plethora of detailed instructions and information from our teachers and administration at the school, we hopped in a taxi at 7:30 AM and headed to the bus station. We got on the bus to Mindo no problem (and for a whopping $2.50 each), and were on the road by 8 AM. We arrived at 10 AM and found a tour agency, where we bought tickets for the Mindo Canopy Adventure – a 13 line zipline course. The lady at the agency showed us the location of the zipline course on the map, saying we could pay $4 for a taxi or just walk ourselves. Eager for some physical activity, the course looked close enough on the map, so we opted to walk.

Mistake numero uno.

South American maps are wrong. And deceptive. Okay, a gross exaggeration. But this isn’t the first time I’ve been deceived. A tiny little squiggle of a road in the bottom right corner of the map turned out to be a gigantic hill with many, many dusty switchbacks that we had to climb. We got to the course and were absolutely drenched in sweat. We had both significantly overdressed, considering how cold it was in Quito, and we quickly discovered our long pants and long sleeves were completely unnecessary. We did, however, take a nice little break at an adorable juice stand with cute wood swings for seats, and each indulged in batidos, amazing, fresh fruit smoothies. I never loved maracuya (passionfruit) in the States, but the fruit here is so fresh, maracuya has quickly become my favorite.

Stella loves fresh juice stands too!

Kathleen being super silly in front of our new favorite juice stand!

When we finally arrived, we signed waivers, checked our backpacks, got all strapped in and got our basic instructions for the zipline. In our exhaustion/excitement to start, we had rolled up our pants/leggings but forgot to put on bug spray.

Mistake numero dos.

After the first amazing, totally exhilarating zipline, we had to hike. And when I say hike, I mean up a very long, serious set of steps and along paths with very steep inclines. That’s when the nausea and altitude sickness began to kick in, and when I realized aside from a few bites of granola on the bus and my juice, I hadn’t eaten or drank any water yet that day.

Mistake numero tres.

Feeling totally faint and completely out of breath, we continued on the course. I was having a blast when I was on the actual ziplines, ironically, but when we had to walk — I mean hike — between lines, I was worried I was going to faint. I was seeing spots and ridiculously dizzy. Not safe! Luckily, I held it together and didn’t pass out, and when we finally finished I  chugged a ton of water and was all set.

Mistake number two became a reality when I looked down at my legs at the end of the course to discover at least 20 bug bites covering the space between my knees and my sock line. Oops. As I type, I am trying desperately not to scratch my legs off.

We hiked the mile and a half-ish (it’s questionable how long the walk actually was, but it was a solid 25 minutes, so we’re guessing at least a mile and a quarter, if not more) back to town and indulged in a delicious pizza lunch. We ordered two salads as well, which turned out to be wayyyy too much food, but completely delicious regardless.

Possibly one of the best veggie pizzas I’ve ever had. So delicious!

Suddenly, I looked down at my watch to realize it was 2 PM, and the last bus back to Quito, which we’d bought tickets in advance for, was at 3 PM. We figured we’d walk down to the butterfly garden, spend twenty minutes there, then hike back to town for the bus.

Mistake numero quatro.

We should have learned from our mistake that morning. The butterfly exhibit might have looked close on the map, but after a solid 30 minutes of fast-paced walking along a very curvy dirt road, each turn anticipating the butterflies to appear out of thin air, they were still nowhere to be found.

When we booked the canopy tour, the lady had asked if we were taking the 3 PM bus or the 5 PM, non-direct bus. So, wanting to take advantage of the fact that we were all the way out in this beautiful little town and wanted to have as much time as we could for the day, we decided to screw the $2.50 we’d spent on the 3 PM bus tickets and opt for the 5 PM instead.

Mistake numero cinco. (In case you can’t count in Spanish, we’re up to 5 mistakes thus far)

When we finally got to the butterfly garden, at just around 2:45, we asked the nice man working the front desk for some more information about the 5 PM bus. Turns out, this instance of non-direct means the bus takes 4 hours, not 2. Oh, and btw, he explained in Spanish, it doesn’t actually go to Quito, it goes to Santo Domingo, a far away suburb of Quito. And the second bus we’d need to catch to Quito from Santo Domingo doesn’t really have a schedule and picks you up at a random, yet very typical Ecuadorian, unmarked side of the road bus stop. We looked at each other and shrugged. We would just take a taxi back, knowing it would cost a fortune but it was too late, and worth not dealing with 5 plus hours of miserable local busses.

We had an amazing time with the butterflies — they were so beautiful and the garden was literally chock full of them — taking a ton of photos and just relaxing.

A female owl eye butterfly with its wings spread — such a gorgeous bright blue!

Owl eye butterflies… everywhere!

These guys were my favorite — such vibrant yellow and orange wings.

Oh, and Stella made some friends! Who knew butterflies and ducks got along so well 😉

More butterfly pictures in the gallery below!

An hour and a half later we made our way back through town, had a tour agency call us a cab (which we had accepted at that point would cost us $50) and hopped in our private SUV. A few minutes later, a killer headache set in. Luckily, we made it back to Quito in one piece — unfortunately, there was a dog that our driver hit somewhere along the way who can’t say the same. Ecuadorian drivers are insane, that’s all I have to say.

My headache was so bad at that point that all I had the energy to do was shower off the dirt and snuggle into bed to pass out, even though it was only 7:30 PM when we got home and I hadn’t eaten dinner.

Despite our several crucial mistakes, we had a blast, and the town of Mindo was adorable, and the surrounding rainforest absolutely beautiful. We both agreed that had we had more time, we would’ve spent the night and a second day — checking out the waterfall 7 km away and taking a tour of the local chocolate factory. Maybe next time I’m in Ecuador!

All of my favorite pictures from the day:


Hi friends —

I’m still trying to figure out the best way to post photos from my trip. I had initially thought Flickr was the best way, but the free account limits you to 200 photos, and I’m already up to 175. Do you think it’s worth it to pay the $7/3 months, but then have my photos disappear at the end of the summer? I had thought about using Picasa via Google+, but does that option give you a public link? Anybody have any suggestions? It’s a pain to upload a ton of photos into wordpress posts, but I’d love a way to embed a slideshow or photostream into my posts…

Does anybody have suggestions?

In the mean time, there are a few dozen photos from day 1 in Santiago up on Flickr: