Friday, March 26, 2010

Parque Nacional Ybycui

A few weeks ago, we had a three day weekend for Hero's Day in Paraguay. Wanting to explore the country we live in a bit more, we rented a car for the weekend with Danielle and Kagan, and headed to a national park that we had heard good things about from a few people. The drive was surprisingly pleasant, and while we had a little issue with some people who didn't know how to drive on mud and got stuck so we had a picnic while they waited for the tractor to come and get them out of the ditch, we got to the park. We again were surprisingly surprised. Living in Central America for two years I guess our expectations for national parks was pretty low, but this park definitely surpassed them all. While we could set up our tents wherever we wanted, there were quite a few picnic tables and grills around, and there were some pretty nice bathroom facilities as well. And the location isn't too bad either! Jesse and Kagan had a really fun time after we realized that we didn't have chairs to sit on. My size coolers anyone?
It was sprinkling when we first arrived, so we didn't do much that first night. But the second day, we went on a hike. During this hike, we encountered many interesting items. First, we were amazed that a well-groomed trail existed here. Well, it was well-groomed until the first mirador or lookout point.
After this, the trail continues, but the word trail is used lightly. We continued, in 100% humidity, and climbed over boulders, walked into countless spider webs, were attacked by biting ants, and the final straw was a huge patch of burrs that proceeded to attack Danielle's pants to the point where she actually had to strip so that we could pull all the burrs off.
Going down, the trail was nice, and we noticed how many different ecosystems we were passing as we had climbed up one of the only hills in Paraguay.
After the hike, we were all just dripping in sweat, so we changed, and jumped into the river. The park is known around Paraguay for its waterfalls, and is supposed to have over 15 waterfalls. What's really cool is that the campsites are set up right by some natural waterfalls (Salto Mina).
After we enjoyed the cool, fresh water in the river, we took a shorter, much gentler hike to the Salto Guarani (Guarani waterfall). This waterfall was absolutely beautiful and incredibly relaxing.
We returned to the campsite, and noticed that we had some neighbors!
Looking back at the weekend, I felt that we participated in something that many Paraguayans would do (I feel like I can say that based on the amount of people that were at the park that weekend). It was a great weekend and was a fabulous way to see more of Paraguay.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Our New Wheels

After returning from the vacation, Jesse and I decided to get a mode of transportation, other than our feet, to use in the sweltering heat. So we bought a 150cc Leopard Moto. We've already used it a few times to experience and visit different parts of Asuncion. The challenge for Jesse now is to teach me how to drive it!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cotopaxi, Banos, and Papallachta

In order to see more of Ecuador instead of just Quito and our friend's apartment, we signed up for a few excursions. One of which was mountain biking down Cotopaxi Volcano. Cotopaxi National Park is the second most visited park in Ecuador, after the Galapagos. Its a national park because it is the water source for the city of Quito and beautiful Cotopaxi can be seen from different parts of the city. We took a two hour van ride to the park, then drove up the volcano until we could see the refuge for the mountain climbers.
It was really really cold at the base, so we were bundled up!
Jesse really enjoyed taking pictures of me while we biked down.
In addition to this, we also went to Banos, which is town, much lower than Quito altitude wise, where we rented a motorcycle to see some really cool waterfalls. The town is pretty small and is tucked in a valley in the mountains. We also just enjoyed the atmosphere of the town. It was pretty chill and relaxed, and has obviously been recommended in lots of travel guide books!

There were two waterfalls that were really awesome to see, one was called Cascada del Diablo, which is you look carefully, the devil's face does seem to appear in the rock.
Jesse crawled all the way up to the top (and I do mean crawled, hands and knees) to see and experience the mouth of the falls.
The other waterfall was tucked away and required us to hike down over 400 steps (yes I counted on the way up) in 100% humidity.
The last Ecuador adventure I am going to write about (Jesse will have to do one on the hike he did) is about our hike to Papallachta. Papallachta is a town, about two hours outside of Quito that has natural hot springs. Caitlin really wanted to go for her birthday which was a few days before we arrived. However, just arriving on bus didn't warrant the gloriousness of natural hot springs. We felt that we had to do something to deserve such a wonderful event. So we decided to hike to Papallachta. Jess and I felt fairly prepared, since we had just done the Inca Trail, so we were game. However, we were not prepared for this.

First, we went an hour out of our way. Not so bad, it was chilly, but our spirits were still high. We walked along for quite awhile, enjoying ourselves, chatting, following the trail. Then the trail disappeared. We were hiking along a ridge, with the wind gusting so much you could lean into the wind without any problem, when we lost the trail. The map we had wasn't very detailed (to say the least) so we had to depend on our wits. The land wasn't exactly what I was expecting, and neither was the cold.
We saw what appeared to be a trail on the other side of a lake, and then had to find a way to get there.
The unfortunate aspect was, that the mountain we had just climbed to see the trail, dropped off in a cliff. So we had to go up and down another mountain to get there. We basically slid down the mountain, holding on to the grass so that we didn't fall all the way down. Jesse and Caitlin, both needed to take breaks so they didn't go crazy.
Once we got to the lake, we had to cross a marsh and fjord a river, well creek.
All the while we were getting quite hysterical and were saving ourselves from mass hysteria with dried fruit, chocolate, and the vision of steaming hot springs in our future.

Then, once we actually found the trail and thoughts of imminent death has ceased, we could actually enjoy the rest of the hike and take pictures. The clouds and misting had dissipated, so the scenery was actually enjoyable.
We arrived at the ranger's station, looked at the map of the trail (we were way off!) and caught a ride the last 2 km to the hot springs!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Quito and Mitad del Mundo

I'm working hard here to try and finish up these vacation blog posts, so forgive me if these last few on Ecuador seem a bit rushed. The last two weeks of our long vacation were spent chilling in Quito, Ecuador with our friends Alex and Caitlin. Our first two days we went downtown and visited some beautiful churches and cathedrals that they have there.

One of the churches is famous for its gold plating. Here is a short video showing the beautiful gold altar and insides of the church.

Below are pictures of the main plaza, and some other churches around the area.
Jesse and I climbed up a rickety staircase and ladder to get to this beautiful view of the city from the cathedral; built in the 1920's in a classic Gothic style. It really reminded me of France's cathedrals.
After exploring downtown, we went with Caitlin to the equator. It passes just north of Quito, and so a short bus ride later, we joined a few other travelers and enjoyed some interesting activities that are only true on the equator.

The interesting thing about the equator is that 60+ years ago, some Ecuadorians realized that the "Field of Dreams" mantra is true- if you build it, they will come. So a huge monument was built along with tons of little shops and restaurants where people thought the equator was. However, they were wrong. With the advent of GPS technology, they were about 200 meters off. So we went to the monument for the great pictures, and then headed for the real equator for some fun.
Now, I know everyone has heard of the Coriolis effect on water (water moving in different directions based on which side of the equator you're on. Well here are three short video clips showing water north of the equator, on the equator and south of the equator. Some people say its a hoax, but it looked pretty believable to me!

Watch all three videos and then let us know what you think by writing us a comment. Is it real, or is it a hoax??

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nazca Lines

Our final destination in the land of Peru was the city of Nazca and a trip to the Nazca Lines. The lines were created by a group of Pre-Incan people who lived in this area of Peru. Very little is known about the people and about the lines. The "Lines" are designs created by these people that are only able to be seen by plane. So we took a little 40 minute flight in a tiny 5 seater plane to see them.
Some interesting facts about the lines are: since they were created in a desert (one of the driest in the world) the lines have been incredibly preserved; some of the creatures the pictures are of would have been impossible for the ancient peoples to have actually seen, i.e. a whale, martian, shark, monkey, etc., which intrigues scientists as to how they were created and why.

Can you spot the following pictures in the photos below? Spider, Monkey, Hummingbird, and a Martian?
These were our clearest photos. I happened to become a little airsick from the whole experience (40 minutes in a tiny plane rotating from side to side so that each window on the plane could see), so Jesse was our official photographer. After the flight, we visited the small museum in town dedicated to this Pre-Incan civilization and realized that not much is known about this culture. More research is needed to really explain why and how the people created such enormous (many over 200 meters long) pictures in the sand.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Arequipa and Colca Canyon

After Lake Titicaca, we descended down a bit from the altitude to the city of Arequipa and the nearby Colca Canyon. We were interested in the Colca Canyon especially because it is one of the deepest canyons in the world and home to Andean condors, which depending on which source you use, is either the largest or second largest flying bird in the world.
Above, a view of part of the canyon where people have lived since Pre-Inca times. Below, Sara, sticking her head out of our tour van.
We were very lucky that day, because not only were the condors out, but they were out in full force. We got to see full grown adults and some juveniles spread their wings.
The Canyon had some very interesting flora, including some beautiful flowers. Jesse, being the photographer that he is, took the picture below with the butterfly.
The three girls on the trip, Sara, myself and Amy, with the beautiful backdrop of the canyon.
Downtown Arequipa, home to the Incan child sacrifice mummy Juanita (pictures weren't allowed, but you can Google it for pictures, pretty amazing stuff), beautiful white architecture, a convent, and some awesome restaurants. We left Arequipa a little bit early to get to Nazca (post to follow)but felt that if we returned, there was definitely more things to do in Peru's second largest city.

Monday, March 1, 2010

LakeTiticaca and the Uros Islands and Taquile Island

After the trek, we headed on an overnight bus ride to Puno, which is on the coast of Lake Titicaca, which is the largest navigable lake in the world which also constitutes the border between Peru and Bolivia. We stuck to the Peruvian side and took a day tour to the Uros Islands and Taquile Island which are out in the lake.
The Uros Islands are actually not really islands, but floating islands made of reeds that grow in the lake. The Uros people started making these islands before the Inca empire started. The islands are anchored down to prevent movement and the people spend their whole lives on the island only going to the mainland to trade for goods they can't get on the islands.
Everything the people use for their day to day living come from the reeds, they even eat part of the reeds (we tried them, it tasted like chewy water). To earn extra money, the indigenous people have started making crafts to sell to tourists. The people certainly know how to make as much money as they can in the tourist industry as shown below with Sara dressed in the traditional dress.
We were able to walk around the island, see the goods that were for sale, and see a small demonstration on how the island is built.
The next place we went to on our island tour is Taquile Island, which is an actual island in the Lake. Here a different group of people who speak Quechua (the same language as the Incans) life. The island was actually quite hilly and we took a quick hike across the island, saw an indigenous dance, which Jesse was included in, ate some lunch, and enjoyed the scenery.
While the tour we took was very touristy, some might saw exploitative, we did enjoy seeing a wonderfully different culture set in the Andes Mountains.