Vinicunca 🌈 Mountain

Rainbow Mountain

Did anyone tell you that Rainbow Mountain is at 5,000m or 16,400 ft? For someone who suffers from altitude sickness often (Anna), this is not the best place to be. But, no one tells you.

The night before we were at 13,000 ft and I was having the worst altitude sickness – including but not limited to nausea, headache, vomiting, and lethargy.  Steve made me coca leaf tea and it helped for all of 10 minutes, and then I was off to vomiting that again. If you are ever going to higher altitudes, don’t take a chance just take the medication one or two days before you plan on going to higher altitudes. If you are feeling the symptoms, it’s too late and you just have to ride out the vomiting. In my opinion, not worth it.

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The drive into the rainbow mountain takes you through a serene valley and village. It is breathtaking because you are so high (thus no air) and because you are driving on a dirt road with no guard rails. This is what we imagined when we thought of Peru, quiet remote villages where the ladies are taking their farmed produce down to the local square. It’s really nice to see after such a shocking level of garbage strewn about everywhere in Peru.

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We finally get to the rainbow mountain at 4,800m and it has snowed in the past two days, which means you can’t see it. It took us 2 hours of dirt roads and we already paid the entrance fee, so we are going up regardless. Considering how tired you are just walking around the parking lot, it’s really tempting not to go up. After a grueling hike for an hour, we finally see it – annnnd it is quite underwhelming. The colors aren’t very vibrant and it’s actually more like a knoll rather than a mountain – that’s how small it is.

After a brief picture up top, we all head down to camp at a lower altitude for the night. Sometimes, the picture that was edited over and over again to try and highlight the best of something is a disappointment in reality. We can’t all have a win all the time.

Arequipa, Peru

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Arequipa is normally dubbed the White City as it is built with a white volcanic rock called Sillar. The central historic district is a UNESCO world heritage site and it feels as though we’ve stepped into a small village in Europe. We are only spending two days so we can resupply and also visit Monastario de Santa Catalina.

Monastario de Santa Catalina

Founded in 1580, Santa Catalina Convent is a city within a city and occupying 20,000 sqm center. With colorful orange, white and blue walls, the entire monastery is preserved to show what kind of life the nuns lived in the past 500 or so years. Every corner is a photo opportunity and it’s tall walls protect the area from the modern bustling life outside.

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It’s hard to describe the feel and entire monastery, but the pictures should give you a small idea of how beautiful it is inside. Steve and I aren’t big museum buffs, but learning about how the nuns used to live was interesting.

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The nuns lived a very sheltered day to day life,  never leaving the monastery once they’ve committed and even being buried within the property. If they fell ill, they used their own medical concoctions and didn’t go to local clinics. The 200 nuns who used to live there would only communicate with outside people through a small window and move items back and forth via a small window (like a lazy susan). They often sold baked goods to the public and use the money to maintaining and improving their city.

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The original stones used to be all white (the original volcanic Sillar rock common in this region), but they painted the “streets” and regions to be more distinguished. Yes, there are streets within the monastery –  that’s how big it is.

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There are still nuns who live within the walls of the monastery, but they still maintain minimal contact with outsiders. They walk about freely before and after the property is open to the public, but retreat to their private quarters during opening hours. Apparently, they still talk through a window to outsiders.

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These huge half urns were used by nuns to do their laundry. Most of these are big enough to fit both of us.

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The way they’ve built the city for their belief and lifestyle is quite impressive. Over the past 500 years, they’ve maintained faith in their way of life and built a small sanctuary within a city protected from outside influence. It’s peaceful and beautiful.

If you would like to learn more about the monastery and its history, this is a good website we read – History and Evolution of the Santa Catalina Monastery.

Feliz Navidad!

Lima

After the difficult hike, we make our way down to Lima via the coast. We aren’t planning on spending too much time in Lima, but we’ve heard there are Asian foods and after 3 months… it would be nice to taste the familiar flavors we haven’t had in a while.

We spend 2 nights “camping” at the Club Suizo with our friends. Turns out there is a heavy presence of Swiss people in Lima (also other European and Asian influences), so we find a lot of what we haven’t seen in markets for awhile. Including, instant noodles, Korean snacks, TOFU (o how I’ve missed Tofu), sauces for meats, and soup bases.

We are trying to spend less time in cities as we are slowly running out of time and there are so many things we want to see further south. Lima itself was a really nice city but the income disparity is so much more obvious than anywhere else we’ve seen.

Christmas

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Woke up to Flamingos on Christmas morning!

For Christmas, we head out to the coast to find a quiet place to spend Christmas together with our Swiss friends. It’s hard to be away from our family during the holidays and the internet has been so… unreliable we do our best and make the best of it!

After Christmas, we will be separating for a while until we meet again further south so this is dinner is especially bittersweet. For us, we will be going down the coast to Arequipa while they will be taking the mountain route to Cusco.

Laguna 69

Within Huascaran National Park, there are 600 glaciers and 300 lagoons, but Laguna 69 is by far the most famous. It’s just outside the small village of Caraz and for us, we camp up at 13,000ft for the night to help us adjust to the altitude. Laguna 69 is actually a hike to 15,000ft, so for someone like me who keeps getting altitude sickness, I definitely need some extra time.

 

Bright and early at 6:30am, we see that there is some blue sky peeking out so we get going. You hike through the valley surrounded by waterfalls and a beautiful glacier river.

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There are also some old homes that have been abandoned or we really aren’t sure what they are. There are definitely local farmers who graze their cattle around the entire national park, which is a weird thing to see in national park.

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At 8km, it doesn’t sound like a hard hike, but at such a high altitude it really takes a toll on your body since there is no oxygen. After 3 gruelling hours, we finally reach the laguna just before the rain comes.

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I was extremely proud of all of us for making the hike and it really was beautiful. The surrounding glaciers are melting via small waterfalls surrounding the whole lake. Sometimes when we take pictures of places like this it reminds us of why we started. Pictures are beautiful and it captures a small moment of what we experienced, but the magnitude of the lake is very hard to capture.

 

Day 100 in Peru

We finally cross into Peru on day 95! We’ve gotten advice that Northern Peru is quiet dangerous for overlanders. Poverty + Corrupt Police = Potential Robberies. So, we are travelling faster through northern Peru until we can get clear of the dangerous zones.

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After 2 days of driving 800 km, we finally make it to the mountain ranges of Huascarán National Park. Here we find the famous Cordillera Blanca and dog-friendly hikes! This park isn’t as famous as Macchu Picchu, but I would say it is beautiful in its own way.

We’ll be staying here for a few days doing some hikes and also acclimatizing to the altitude. What a beautiful way to spend day 100 of our journey!

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Lagunas of Ecuador

Laguna Mojanda

It’s a volcanic lake and it is a peaceful place. Wild camping is accepted by the lake and at 13,000ft – we do very little exercise in order to adjust to the altitude. We spend two nights resting and taking in the views and it’s silence.

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Laguna Quilotoa

Quilotoa Laguna is one of those places that take your breath away. Hidden away in a small village near Quilotoa, it is one of those places you drive up to see and then all of a sudden it appears out of nowhere. On the second morning, we get up early and decide to do the hike around the entire creator. At 13,000ft, we knew it was going to be difficult but the blue skies really forced our hand.

We are camping at a viewpoint where cars can drive up using 4×4 (the sand will not be kind to those without it), but you can also access it from the other side where you just drive right up to a different viewing point.

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It takes us 4.5 hours to do the whole hike and most of the time – we are out of breath (except Zoe), but it is 100% worth it. The vastness of the lake and it’s emerald colors aren’t just something you see every day. Steve goes on record to say this is his favorite hike… EVER.

IMG_3543The hike is steep and you are teetertottering on top of a crater with no guardrails or trees to stop your fall and for someone with a fear of heights, this was definitely a challenge. But, it was absolutely memorable. You can stop every 20 steps and admire the changing landscape and the fact that it’s a dog-friendly hike really is the cherry on top.

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We are so so lucky to have the clouds part for an evening and we finally see some stars. Also, at one point the clouds are below us and it covers the village, yet gives us stars for us to see above the laguna. Whoa.

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Mindo, Ecuador

The Norma Blues

We arrive at Mindo in Ecuador, a biologically diverse area filled with chocolate, waterfalls, forests, clouds, and birds. After a lovely evening of hot chocolate on the first night, we plan to the hike in the cloud forests the next morning. Since the hike itself is 7km, we decide to drive to the trailhead 5km away.

But Norma doesn’t start. After 7 frustrating hours trying to fix her, nothing. So we decide the best course of action is to tow her to Quito (1.5 hours away) where we can find a mechanic and parts. Steve gets in touch with Ivan who owns a Jeep parts store (Jeep Willy’s), and he arranges our tow truck and a mechanic nearby who can also look at her on short notice – Mauro.

Feeling defeated, we prepare to spend an evening or possibly the weekend in Quito – wherever that might be. Since it’s Friday, we don’t hold too much hope that she will be fixed by the end of day. But Mauro and Ivan work tirelessly for 5 hours and get her back to roaring again! Wooop!

In the meantime… our Swiss friends get stuck in thick mud coming to Mindo. They have to walk to get reception and then abandon their car for a night until they can get proper help the next morning. After they finally get their tow from a farming tractor, they come to rescue us in Quito. If Norma doesn’t get fixed by end of the day, then they offer to drive all of us and we can at least enjoy Mindo instead of waiting at the mechanic’s shop.

At 6pm, fully repaired, we all roll out and decide to meet at a campground in Mindo.

You thought that was it eh? Nope.

We get to the campsite first, and then 20 minutes later we get a call from Virgine. They can’t shift gears and they are stuck on a hill 400 meters away. Something snapped and they are now in need of a tow from Norma. Let’s recap for a moment. They spent 36 hours getting their van unstuck from mud and now something is broken in a tiny town with no mechanic at 9pm. It hasn’t been a good day.

Thankfully, the road to the campsite is mostly downhill, so we tow them up and he rolls down in neutral and then tow him when it flattens out. It takes us 2 hours, but we are all finally inside the campground where there are hot showers waiting.

Tonight, we rest. Tomorrow, we fix.

Mindo

Mindo is a typical small town. One Central Park in the center with a church nearby and maybe two or three rows of businesses – mostly restaurants and souvenir shops. But they are also known for bird watching, extreme sports like roger rafting, and chocolate – lots of chocolate.

We do the Tarabita cable car ride with 6 people and 2 dogs. At $5/person we zip over the clouds to the other side of the mountain and then hike the 6 waterfalls. There are actually more than that, but after 3 hours – we agree that’s enough and we got to see as many waterfalls as you can see really. This was a really fun and not too challenging hike and the cable car ride really adds to the fun factor.

Quito, Ecuador

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The Middle of the World! We take a small detour on our way to Quito and visit the “middle of the world”. For an $8 entrance fee, there are surprising amounts of things for us to look at – Guinea pigs (they eat these), a demonstration of indigenous homes, a monument looking over Quito, and llamas!!!!

Quito

We were planning to stop by Quito to have dinner with Mauro (who helped us fix the car) and to meet up with our swiss friends (who’ve had to tow their van to Quito to get it fixed), but when we went for a small checkup… Mauro discovered there was something wrong with Norma and it was waiting to happen. So again… we are back in the shop. Unexpectedly, we have to spend 3 days in Quito. But, we make the most of it and go to TeleferiQo, have dinner with friends and walk around Quito’s old town.

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Swings overlooking Quito

 

Bogota, Colombia

Mina de Sal de Nemocon

On our way to Bogota, we stop off at Mina de Sal de Nomocon – an old salt mine. The mines are interesting and from the shallow saltwater pool, the reflection looks like the ground is falling beneath you.

Bogota

We decide to stop by Bogota for a couple of days to resupply –  Steve needs new pants and I need a belt. Since we know this city pretty well, we’ll be staying in Bogota for a few days to get the supplies we need – like pants, belt, etc. Steve ends up finding his hiking pants from Tatoo – a Colombian outdoor clothing/gear store. We also have a chance to visit Min Mal – a local restaurant highlighting ingredients and cooking methods from Amazonian region of Colombia.

We also meet up with Pascal & Virgine who have also stopped by in Bogota and we go for a disappointing dinner in the Usquen park area. The company is good so its all ok! Since we know we’re going towards the same regions – we know we’ll meet again! Guess who loves Bogota? This dog.

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The Texas Pivot

Austin, Texas

Austin is a beautiful city. Lots of greenery, restaurants, dog-friendly, and overall it reminded me of a warmer version of Vancouver. We stayed here for 5 days to try and figure out what we should do while getting some rest that we all needed. We go to Barton Springs, swim lots, eat some bbq and nap. Lots of Naps.

Here’s the thing, Central America is in its full thunderstorms season and in its 30 plus weather without a drop in temperature. Guess who’s not doing so well with the heat? Zoe. She can’t cool down.

Time to pivot.

**FYI info about going over the Darien Gap – We had to eventually ship the car between Panama and Colombia. There is no road you can take and it’s called the Darien Gap. It’s essentially a gap between Central and South America. 

So here is what we are dealing with:

  1. We have to ship the car to South America or the closest port city – Cartagena, Colombia
  2. We also have to get to Colombia via plane somehow
  3. The extreme heat means Zoe can’t fly from anywhere near where we are soo we have to wait until it gets cooler or find somewhere cooler to fly out of

So what did we end up doing?

Step 1.  Ship Norma to South America

Drive and meet with Obed from Horizon Shipping to ship Norma from Houston to Cartegena, Colombia. Guess what Houston had in stock for us? Tropical Storm Imelda. While we are trying to do errands, the roads start flooding from the torrential downpour. There are signs that say

If the road is flooded, turn around, Don’t drown

We thought it was an exaggeration. NOPE. Highways get flooded, exit ramps get flooded, and we are all basically parked on the side of the highway waiting for the rain to stop. What should have taken us 1-hour roundtrip, ends up taking 6 hours.

Step 2. Find an airline that will take Zoe to Cartagena, Colombia.

This took a lot of research. There are some local airlines that fly direct to Colombia, but they don’t take pets because their airplanes are too small. Also, if we fly out at early in the morning in Houston, it’s cool enough, but Cartagena is too hot to fly into. Bogota  – a slightly cooler city in Colombia is more than ok. We’d just have to drive to Cartagena to pick up Norma later.

Air Canada is the only airlines that can via phone confirm that they will take pets no problem. The only catch? We have to go to Toronto and then fly directly from Toronto to Bogota. So! guess where we are? TORONTO!

Step 3. Get the Family to South America

Flying with a dog is very stressful. I confirmed on the phone with Air Canada with 2 separate agents that she is on our reservation, but when we arrive at the airport, the ticketing agent says she doesn’t see anything. So arriving 3 hours early provided to be a very good idea. Eventually, I get an agent on the phone and she also confirms again. So after an hour of talking to her, another agent on the phone and another actually helpful agent named Alex, we finally get her on the plane and we are good to go. We check just before we board that she has been loaded onto plane. Don’t want to leave her behind in Houston by accident.

When we land, the first thing we see is Zoe on the tarmac being taken out, that’s when we sighed with relief.

Now, we’re in Toronto for 4 days.

We need to get a vet certification and Canadian Food Inspection Agency to sign off on her health certification before we fly. Plus, she’s been through a lot and needs some fun hikes, food, and lots of naps to recuperate. Btw, lol all of this went down on my birthday. Happy Birthday to Me! Don’t worry, we went to Mandarin Buffet courtesy of our dear friends who sent Steve money to make sure I get something tasty.