The Best of the Best

The "Tres Chicas Locas" have all been back stateside for at least a couple weeks now (Sarah since July) and we are slowly adjusting to life north of the equator. Its taken those two weeks for me to finally wake up not utterly confused about my whereabouts - how is it that after waking up in a new place every day for nearly a year, it is the waking up in a safe, spacious and comfortable home that brings on a slight panic attack? Life north of the equator is treating us well, although we are desperately looking forward to sleeping in the tent again soon. New adventures are unfolding day by day - Change. Life. Jobs. Standing Still. I continually search for the trashcans in the restrooms, accustomed to NEVER throwing the TP in the toilet, and it still takes Trinity several minutes before realizing that her phone is ringing (I haven't been able to dive back into being fully connected 24/7 yet and am still holding back from getting a phone until the last possible minute). For the first time since Sarah left us back in Peru, we enjoyed a complete 3-part reunion this past weekend in Breckenridge- the same place where we began to plan this trip back in February 2011. It is nice to reflect and try to summarize, so for us and for all of you out there we have put together a few lists - "The Best of the Best" 

Back in Colorado - Seeking the next adventure...

Top Ten Rules of the Trail:
  1. Always keep on outerwear when hitch-hiking to minimize smell in confined spaces
  2. If a shower is available, you have to take one
  3. Warn people the pretty rag hanging on your bag is actually your "pee-rag"
  4. Keep your hat on. Or wear a large headband.
  5. Don't eat the group chocolate. (SONNET!!!!!!)
  6. If you want cookies get your own.
  7. No out-and-backs (or you end up on a beach trying to flag down a boat trying to avoid not going back through a hell of horseflies), only thru-hiking northward!
  8. Calculate wind direction before snot-rocketing
  9. No drinking unless it's with others, brought by a visitor, or at breakfast
  10. If offered food, eat it 

Our Favorite Towns You Probably Never Need To Visit:
  • Chos Malal, Argentina (Mirko's Honey!)
  • La Quiaca, Argentina (Comfortable colorful hostal and best pizza of the trip while we were holed up waiting for the train)
  • Ocuri, Bolivia (nothing to do and no showers but for some reason it warmed on us)
  • Cachora, Peru (hard to get to but beautiful setting!)
  • Huancacalle, Peru (6-pack Mancon Hostal, random festival)
  • Pacoyan, Peru (most welcoming community we encountered!)

Our Top Ten Picks You'd Likely Find in the Lonely Planet Book:
(Ordered south to north... choosing 10 alone is hard enough!)
  1. Around El Chalten (Argentina)
  2. Torres del Paine "W" (Chile) NOTE: We hiked into TdP from Pto. Natales which we highly recommend.
  3. Cerro Castillo (Chile) NOTE: We created our own route starting on a trail in the south and continuing north un-trailed (about halfway through the reserve) until we exited the reserve and walked dirt roads into Coyhaique. The classic guidebook route runs east to west.
  4. Refugio hikes around El Bolson and Bariloche (Argentina)
  5. Lago Lolog to Laguna Verde in Parque Nacional Lanin (Argentina): NOTE: Again, we created our own route starting on established trails and then continuing north through the park to Volcano Lanin via two small swims across the lake and unimproved trails.
  6. Villaricca Traverse (Chile)
  7. Ausangate Circuit (Peru)
  8. Choquequirao (Peru) NOTE: We extended past Choquequirao to Huancacalle
  9. Cordillera Huayhuash (Peru) NOTE: We traversed from Cajatambo in the south to Llamac in the north, which is a less-common route (most do the full circuit).
  10. Cordillera Blanca (Peru) NOTE: We traversed the park generally south to north, ending with the guidebook Los Cedros trek.

Top Ten Less-Traveled, More-Adventure Trails:
(Ordered south to north... choosing 10 alone is hard enough!)
  1. Villa O'Higgins to Cochrane (Chile)
  2. Chacabuco to Lago Jeinimeni (Chile)
  3. Cerro Castillo  (Chile) NOTE: the second half was off the beaten path - see above.
  4. Flor del Valle to Icalma (Chile)
  5. Copahue to Estancia Ranquilco (Argentina)
  6. Chilecito through the Famatina Valley to Santa Cruz (Argentina)
  7. Antofagasta (Argentina)
  8. Ocuri to San Pedro (Bolivia)
  9. Cerro de Pasco to Cajatambo (Peru)
  10. Ingapirca to Alausi (Ecuador)

Top Ten Things We Will Miss:
  1. Cheap and delicious Argentinian/Chilean wines
  2. Spotting the Southern Cross every night
  3. Being disconnected and the anticipation of reconnecting
  4. Making friends with police and Border Patrol guys
  5. Hitch-hiking
  6. Traditional Foods: all street food, api & fry bread, alfajores, harina tostada, Mirko's honey, Argentinian/Chilean asados, saltenas, Tari (Crema de Aji), Aji, Cebiche... 
  7. Being able to have food in the tents- Colorado's got BEARS!
  8. Dirt cheap, creamy, durable avocados at every meal
  9. Having time to read for pleasure
  10. Our threesome and our routine

Top Ten Things We Will NOT Miss:
  1. Trucks honking in our faces while we're hiking by roads
  2. Constant smell of urine in cities
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Kids begging for candy
  5. Perma-dirt on our ankles, feet, nails, etc.
  6. Buying bottled water (so much waste!)
  7. Crappy "paper" napkins
  8. Invasion of personal space on buses and in markets
  9. Scary street dogs
  10. Only having 2 pairs of undies

Top Ten Things We Are Looking Forward To:
  1. Hot showers with reliable and consistent pressure
  2. Knowing what we are really ordering at restaurants
  3. Toilets you can actually sit on
  4. Healthy, sustainable diets
  5. Helpful, friendly and customer-oriented customer service
  6. Drinking tap water without worrying about consequences
  7. Reliable and safe transportation
  8. Rebuilding our upper body strength
  9. Make-up, high heels and dresses!
  10. (North) American Men! Yes we are all single :)

The Final Leg - 11 Months and 1785 Miles Later

In our last and final leg of our journey hiking up the spine of South America, we narrowly escaped a volcanic eruption, suffered a knife robbery, braved a night of rain without a tent, evaded three police tickets, and were swept away by two buff, blonde Canadian mountain climbers. Okay, so maybe it wasn't that dramatic...

We met up with our two travel companions for the upcoming week, Dave and Jeremy, in Baños, Ecuador. We met them back in Huaraz, Peru as we were scarfing down our post-trail breakfast at the California Cafe on day ten sans-shower - we were luckily abiding by our rule of "wear outerwear in public places after extended time on the trail"(to keep the smell in). Apparently we made a good enough impression on them to warrant the 30-hour bus ride and unplanned border crossing into Ecuador for some shenanigans our last week on the trail. Little did they realize they were bringing a third companion- a CRAB!

This adventurous guy escaped a box of crabs on a bus and latched onto Jeremy's backpack. We did not find it until the next day. The guy was still alive but very slow without water.
So what do you do with a stowaway crab? You have a chef (Dave) properly cook it and then use pliers to eat it! (Pictured- Trinity)
From the overrated hot springs of  Baños (murky, crowded cement pools), we planned to hike around Cotopaxi and then Otavalo. When it started non-stop raining, with our time ticking away in South America, we decided to ditch Cotopaxi (can't see a big volcano in clouds!) and bus straight to the hiking and shopping mecca (end of trip = we can carry souvenirs) of Otavalo in hopes of getting in one more 3-day trek before ending our trip in Quito. Little did we know, just after our departure from Baños, the town's backdrop volcano erupted (apparently there were some evacuations but it was not serious). During our bus ride north to Otavalo, my backpack was squeezed into the tiny space underneath Jeremy's and my seats where someone made a targeted robbery to steal Jeremy's camera from the top pocket by reaching up under our knees (the top of the pack was sticking out from the front of the seat under our legs). In addition to stealing Jeremy's camera, and more detrimentally for our immediate plans, the thief slashed the bottom of my pack (facing the seats behind us) and stole our Mojo 3's poles and stakes! I hope they found a good use for them.

Hiking, Biking and Shopping Around Otavalo
We found ourselves in Otavalo with variable weather, no tent, no time to craft a tarp, and no tents available for rent at the town's two tour companies. While discussing day hikes at one of the tour companies, we capitalized on the mention of a gazebo lookout on Lake Cuicocha, realizing we could sleep protected under its roof. We leisurely walked a whopping 1.5 hours halfway around the crater lake's rim to the gazebo and fell asleep to a clear sky counting our last South American constellations. In the middle of the night, we abruptly awoke to gusts of wind and spitting rain. The wall-less structure provided zero protection to the wind sweeping raindrops underneath its holey roof. Albeit consistent, the rain was light enough to be deflected off our sleeping bags per their water-resistant protective coatings, so we managed to stay dry and warm.

In the morning without rain, we celebrated our last day on the trail with fresh strawberries, pineapple, chocolate fondue (made with Ecuadorian chocolate), and hot mulled wine from our gazebo perch overlooking a pair of Hawaiian-like islands jutting out of the giant crater lake. As we hiked the rest of the way around the lake, Shelley and I kept catching each others' eyes reminding ourselves that this was our last leg, but it didn't quite feel real, and it never did. Perhaps we have more hiking to do...

Trinity and Jeremy hiking the well-maintained trail around Lake Cuicocha
Dave meaning business on the trail- covering his mohawk with a baseball hat
The sun setting on a nearby volcano and its surrounding clouds
Consoling each other our last night on the trail (Trinity and Shelley)
Mmmm fondue! (Dave and Shelley)
Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman??? No, that's Trinity stitching the five-inch slash in her Mariposa pack from the earlier tent pole robbery. Grrrrr.
Last day on the trail (Trinity and Shelley)
On the way back to Otavalo from Lake Cuicocha, we stopped in Cotacachi to peruse it's renowned leatherwork and each purchased a leather jacket among other souvenirs. The next day after some more souvenir shopping in Otavalo's infamous market (future roomies, look forward to hammocks!), the four of us antsy-with-energy adventureres opted to rent mountain bikes for a ride to a nearby waterfall turned pub crawl before busing back to Quito.

Some go for Country... others a little more Harley...
Rockin adventure hats (Jeremy and Trinity)
View of the main market in Otavalo. And this isn't even on Saturday- their busiest day!
Shelley, Jeremy and Dave (left to right) biking the streets of Otavalo
Jeremy, Shelley and Dave (front to back) roughing it on some abandoned train tracks (which were actually preferable to the adjacent cobblestone road)
Trinity, hardcore mountain biker (with admirer on left of photo)
As we have dubbed ourselves, the "fab four"! (Trinity, Dave, Jeremy and Shelley)

Quito And Our Mini Cheley Reunion
We saved only two short days in Quito and thanks to our friend Valen, we felt like we saw it all! We met Valen, from Quito, on staff at Cheley back in 2005. Coincidentally, another Cheley staff alum was in town- Jessica, who moved to Quito earlier that week for a two-year teaching position at a British academy. Among many excursions described in picture captions below, Valen suavely evaded three tickets for cramming six people into her five-person car (Ecuador's police force is ever-present).

Valen treated us to one of our best meals in South America- Ecuadorian ceviche, fried plantains, spiced muscles, fried  sea food.  Ceviches de la Rumiñahui restaurant was packed with locals, we were lucky to get a table seating six.
Cheley counselors! Valen, Jessica, Trinity and Shelley posing for a photo above Quito
Jessica and Valen sipping a local specialty, canelazo, while looking out over the lights of Quito at sundown. Canelazo is an alcoholic hot drink made of agua ardiente (sugar cane alcohol), sugar, cinnamon and naranjilla (relative of an orange). Delicious!
Who are those two?? After a long time on the trail, sometimes a girl just needs to don heels! We were determined to get dressed up in Quito (this plan has been in the works since our first week in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina) and go out big on Friday night. We arrived at the mall 30 minutes before close. In a whirlwind of a shopping spree, we purchased clothes, heels, and accessories. The only item we lacked was a real bra, so we rocked the clubs in our sports bras. Thank you to our personal stylists, Valen and Jessica, for their advice, speed and patience! (Shelley and Trinity)
We intentionally bought closed-toe heels.......
Lounging around on La Mitad del Mundo - the equatorial line! (Shelley, Valen, Dave, Jeremy, Trinity, Jessica)
Shelley has got the whole world in her hands
We decided to spend our last night in South America cooking and grilling among new and old friends from our hostel's (Casa Bambu) five-star rooftop patio
Enjoying the evening
Having a moment, trying to comprehend the end of our trip and the end of our lightweight, simple, nomadic, and often times extremely remote lifestyle (Trinity and Shelley)

Our time in South America appropriately ended how it all began, with Cheley, where we chicas locas were united seven years ago (refer to our about us page). With happy bellies from our feast, we gathered around Valen on the guitar and tried to remember camp songs. We sang from the rooftop overlooking the twinkling lights of Quito, beneath the abstractions of the southern hemisphere's all-too-familiar night sky, and enjoying the company and bonds of new, old and Cheley friends.

Valen on the guitar
11 months, 1765 miles of hiking up the Andes, and five countries later, Shelley and Trinity arrive at the equator

Still to come on the blog over the next couple months:

Standing Still

Our first gorgeous sunset in Ecuador
Just after crossing the border into Ecuador I turned to Trinity, "There are people everywhere! Look at all the houses!" Indeed, we learned from Lonely Planet that Ecuador is the most densely populated country in South America. Ingapirca, Incan ruins northeast of Cuenca, sits on a small outcrop of land, fenced off from the bustling agricultural community surrounding it. After camping near the visitors center and talking to a local archaeologist about the history (and the UFOs) we started up the dirt road to find the Incan trail at the end. Several times along the way we asked for directions from locals, who repeatedly said "straight" but then we would arrive at a T-intersection about 40 meters ahead. We found our way through the cows and farmland to one of the few uninhabited areas remaining in this part of the world.

Ruins of Ingapirca
Agriculture land around Ingapirca
Lugging our loads up the road just like the locals (a little lighter though!)
Trinity lunching, this cow wanted a piece!
Where the road ended, a faint trail began leading straight into the marshy grasslands beyond. We were unimpressed by this Incan Trail until we looked up to the horizon- the wide green byway was so clearly spread across these rolling hills that it would be impossible to lose. While you're in it, it is harder to make out the trajectory but from a distance it gives you perspective (is this an Incan metaphor for life? Hmmm...). We navigated through the "small lakes" jumping from grass tuft to grass tuft, past the free-roaming horses and cows and lowered to some walled ruins below a still-functioning aqueduct. We played house, setting up camp right inside the ruins- perfect to block some of the strong winds. At one point, Trinity and I even adopted Quechua names, pretended our backpacks were really just our wawas (babies) on our backs and wondered what women of centuries past talked about while they walked- Their ambitions? Food? Men? From what we know, the Quechua language (*the Ecuadorian and Colombian variety of the Quechua language is called Quichua) is much simpler than Spanish or English- does this mean they have simpler, less philosophical conversations? We pondered how life, society and nomads world-wide have changed over the years. After switch-backing up a small pass the second day on the trail, we briefly lost the super highway in the swampy valley but "thinkin' Incan" led us back to it. Over a gentle pass and wrapping around the rolling hills, the trail finally led us out of our daydreams and back to civilization.

Following the "highway" from Ingapirca
Clouds rolling in through the distant valley
Trinity hitting the ruins just before sunset
Shelley heading up the gentle pass on day two
Picturesque- looking through the valley to Achupallas.
Starting in northern Argentina, we have explored a meager portion of the cross-continental Incan "highways." Although Choquequirao and Salkantay had the "must-see" scenery and history, Ingapirca was alluringly different. Maybe it is because we are nearing the end of our year-long adventure and I am getting sentimental. Or possibly the wide open landscape that makes me feel so humble, searching for the familiar. Or the fact that we had arbitrarily selected a point "southeast" of Alausí on the GPS to approximately locate of our unmarked destination, Achupallas. Whatever the case, as we wandered along the clearly laid, but seldom used trail, I felt a sublime connection to the land and Incan pilgrims that followed these roads to unknown distant lands. I stepped deliberately, as if literally walking in the footsteps from hundreds of years ago.

The patchwork hilllsides we saw beginning in Bolivia have followed us to Ecuador
Before ever embarking on this trip, we had visions of hiking trails, dirt roads and train tracks. Finally, on one of our last treks, we were actually going to be on train tracks! We spent some time in the train station asking about towns along the way and train schedules until we realized the line between Alausí and Riobamba is being restored and not functioning. Relieved we were not going to have to dive out of the way on blind corners, we followed the tracks heading north from town. We hadn't even exited the city limits when the construction crews began and the tracks ended. Someone stole the tracks! After so much anticipation and playing out scenes from Stand By Me in my head, we were again hiking another dusty construction road.

Hiking through the fertile valleys, invisioning where the trains will go...
With all the dust flying around, we were thrilled to see the tanker spraying the roads with water!
It is ironic that in the most densely inhabited country, we have felt the most remote, the most removed, that we have felt since Antofagasta in northern Argentina. Of course, there have been some amazing legs between then and now, but the open road of the Ingapirca trek reminded us of the unknown that we began this trip with nearly a year ago. There is a certain self-discovery that accompanies travel on the untrodden trails. The lack of obligations, abundance of freedom, endless possibilities, unidentified obstacles and unimaginable memories that lay over the next horizon keep us wanting more. We expected to feel rushed and anxious nearing the final stretch of our trip, desperate to cover as much ground as possible. In reality, we feel the quite opposite. To make "every step count" we worked in an extended lunch to attempt to even out our farmer's tan lines and several good life chats over a leisurely morning coffee or a relaxing two hour long "juice break." These pauses allow us to reflect and savor every experience so that we fully appreciate this strange outdoor-enthusiasts-fairytale we have been living. Subconsciously, there is a desire to stand still for once. Maybe if we stop moving forward, northward, that if we don't reach our destination, then our journey will not really end. Maybe that is why we hiked a mere eleven kilometers for two days in a row...

Trinity in o
ne of our many introspective moments
  • The typical dress of rural Ecuador is similar to that of Bolivia and Peru- colorful skirts and blouses- but completed here with an adorable fedora-style hat (sometimes with feathers) and a cape! I am keeping my fingers crossed that this style will make its way up to the US soon.
  • In vegetarian heaven, I consistently pack too much produce for the trail. I was trying to pawn off my extra food to Trinity on every break- with one day left and I still had five bananas!
  • In addition to the abundance of fresh fruits and veggies, my pack has been weighed down recently with two thick paperbacks since I broke my (second) kindle a few weeks ago. Trinity on the other hand continues to float down the trail, taking all the ultralight weight backpacking tips to heart- she even cut her toothbrush in half a while back!
  • Following two young boys herding sheep as we descended to Achupallas- we enjoyed watching the younger one hurl himself up onto the rear of the bareback horse
  • When I pointed out the fact that we haven't done laundry since Huaraz, Trinity said, "Two weeks, that's not too bad"... our standards have definitely lowered
  • Dogs- after our encounter with the teeth-bared dog near Oyón, I have been scarred for life. Even a bark from across the valley makes me jump! I arm myself with rocks any time we pass one.
  • After a muddy trek through Cajas we had tried to wash our shoes, only to be back on another swampy trail here in Ingapirca

Every morning starts with a little music, so we decided to make an Incan Ruins dance video
Trying to capture the marshy wetlands
Shelley breathing it all in after cresting the pass to see a dozen gorgeous horses running wild
Old tracks, hanging to the cliffside
The only chance to actually walk on tracks- while they were piled on the side of the road
We might actually miss our early morning routines when we get back stateside
Trinity reenacting Austin Powers
How can you not love it- puppies and capes!?