Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco and Machu Picchu
14-19 march 2015

14 march 2015
I staggered off the night bus and into a crowd of taxi drivers screaming like football fans on the morning of my first day in Cusco, Peru. At the time I was too dazed from an inexplicably sleepless night on a bus to appreciate Cusco’s fascinating mixture of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture; but later, after I’d downed three or four cups of coffee and eaten an enormous American-style breakfast in a touristic cafe, when I wandered the polished stone streets and little alleyways of the historic center of Cusco, I was struck by the history written on the buildings in Cusco. All around the historic center of the city, Spanish colonial buildings were constructed on the demolished foundations of Inca palaces and temples, made of stone blocks crafted so carefully that you can’t fit even a sheet of paper between them, blocks which they say seem to jump back into place after an earthquake – blocks fashioned into gently slanted walls which end abruptly where the fragile, white walls of their conquerors were built on top after the Spanish wiped out the advanced civilization that once thrived here.


This morning I wander central Cusco thinking dark thoughts about colonialism until I can check into my hostel for the night and meet Roman, the Swiss guy I traveled with previously in Bolivia. In the afternoon we do what practically every other visitor to Cusco does : we plan our trip to Machu Picchu.


When I left for South America, Machu Picchu actually wasn’t on my list of places to visit. People usually say it’s best to go as part of a trek through the mountains, and I knew I wouldn’t have time or money to do a trek like that, so I originally thought I would skip Machu Picchu and come back on a different trip. But by chance I’d done some research and found out it’s possible to get to the town called Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Pichu, by public transport and walking, and for a small fraction of the usual cost and in less time than you normally need for a trek. Roman and I do a little asking around at tour agencies around town and eventually find a company that runs minivans from Cusco to a hydroelectric plant on the river, the site from which it’s possible to walk along the tracks of the ridiculously expensive tourist train that goes to Aguas Calientes, a walk of a few hours. The round trip cost is 75 soles, about $25. To ride the train would be at least $150.

In the evening we meet Gemma, an English girl I’d met in a hostel in Puerto Natales, and the three of us take a walking tour of Cusco. We walk to the Plaza de Armas as the sun sets and look down on the grave of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, who was executed by the Spanish conquistadors after he lost his value as a hostage. This is the first of countless places in Cusco where the tragic history of the Spanish conquest is written: here was an advanced, powerful, intelligent civilization living and working and reigning, and the Spanish conquistadors came in to their land, stole their finely crafted golden treasures and melted them down into bars, raped their vestal virgins, and murdered their citizens. The tore down their temples and used the blocks to make cathedrals and palaces. We climb a hill above Cusco and look down on the city of this violent conquest, the city which was built shaped like a puma, the city that was once the seat of power of the Inca empire.


15 March 2015
Roman and I are up with the sun. Minivans leave for Hydroelectrica between seven and eight and we negotiate a couple of seats on one of them and soon we’re climbing Cusco’s steep stony streets and winding our way into the mountains as the sun is breaking through the morning fog.

We bounce through the outskirts for a while and soon we’re in the mountains, following huge slow curves around the contours of massive, steep hills. I’m stunned by how beautiful the landscape is here. The mountains are steep but green, covered in soft-looking brilliant green grass. Near the town of Ollantaytambo we pass a valley where the mountains must rise two kilometers or more above the floor where a tiny, humble village is nestled. After a break we enter a road weaving its way through those high steep mountains, in between those high green and impossibly beautiful slopes.


We stop briefly at a small town along the side of a river gorge. Our driver exchanges a few words with some guys running a kiosk by the side of the road, then tells us it’s an hour and a half to Santa Teresa, the town just by the Hydroelectric plant. I can’t tell you what the scenery looked like for this part of the drive, readers, because I kept my eyes closed for most of it. When I opened them for a few brief seconds I saw glimpses of the narrow dirt road we were traveling along, high up on the side of a steep gorge carved out by the river. I would open my eyes again and see that the tires of our minivan were about a foot from the edge of the unpaved dirt road, wet and muddy from the rain, where there was a sheer drop of about 500 meters straight down. No guard rails, readers – it’s not that kind of road. Sometimes we crossed wide concrete channels where runoff water flowed over the road, nearly covering the tires of the van. At one crossing three rows of passengers got out of the van at the driver’s request and walked a little wooden bridge across a sharp bend in the road, to keep the bus from becoming too heavy for the flooded road. Other times when the minivan would lean toward the cliff and I felt fear surge up in my chest and tried to breathe through it, I told myself, There’s no sense in being afraid. Being afraid won’t keep you safe. The bus driver is the one who will keep you safe, and he drives this way all the time. Don’t be afraid.


I kept breathing and closing my eyes and the driver kept guiding the minivan around those sharp, tight turns high above the river, along a road that could probably crumble in a landslide at any time, and I wondered if this was one of those times when I was trying too hard to be tough and independent and brave and had really gotten myself into a dangerous situation. But finally I felt the motion of the bus level out and become solid and normal and I cautiously opened my eyes and saw that we were coming into a rundown, concrete town and pulling up to a restaurant and all the other tourists were getting out of the bus and stretching and sitting down to eat.

Roman and I eat at one of the nearly identical lunch spots in Santa Teresa, serving a fixed-price menu of surprisingly juicy pork along with the ubiquitous rice and french fries. After an hour we’re back on the van for a soothing, easy 45-minute ride to the hydroelectric plant. We come to the plant – a grey concrete industrial building by the side of a roaring, swollen river, chocolate brown from sediment and foamy white where it gushes past huge boulders. The minivan lumbers to a stop next to a few other minivans. A handful of backpackers, guides, and industrious taxi drivers amble around. Everyone else in our van waits for a guide, while Roman and I shoulder our small backpacks and follow the line of other backpackers across the river and past the line of kiosks where the train stops, and on to the train tracks.


I’m worn out from the ride from Cusco, which took us nearly six hours in the end, so I walk slowly and it takes us three hours or so to arrive at Aguas Calientes. The path by the train tracks is pretty well worn – this alternate route to Machu Picchu has definitely been discovered, and we’ve got company with other backpackers along the way. Once we hear a horn and step off the tracks to let a sleek-looking blue train go past. A little later our path takes us off the tracks and onto a steep dirt road that leads up to a little collection of hotels and restaurants – Aguas Calientes.


We stop at the tourist office to buy tomorrow’s passes to Machu Picchu – $50 including a pass to climb Machu Picchu mountain – and settle into our hostel for the night.


16 march 2015
4:15 – almost every hostel in Aguas Calientes advertises breakfast starting at 4:00 or earlier, because this is when you have to get up if you want to climb the stairs to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. Our hostel advertised breakfast starting at 4:30, but the cook slept in so it’s nearly 5:30 by the time we’ve eaten and left the hostel to start the gentle walk down the dirt road leading out of Aguas Calientes. There are a few other hikers up early, and after a few minutes the buses start to rumble past, too – a road has been built up to Machu Picchu and for $25, buses carry those who can’t or won’t climb the nearly 1500 stone steps up to the ancient city.

We cross a swinging wooden bridge across the roaring river and then we’re there, at the base of a stone staircase that seems to lead straight up. “Un”, I say, putting my foot on the first step. I’m practicing French. “Deux, trois, quatre…” And so on and so on, up and up and up, counting in French and checking my pronunciation with Roman (who is from the French part of Switzerland), putting one foot above the other up this steep staircase of chiseled stone, a little slippery from the moss and the light rain dripping down from the overhanging palm leaves, rising up through the morning fog. “Mille cinq-cent” I gasp fourty-five minutes and 450 meters later, and there we are next to the honking buses and the confused-looking tourists in wet ponchos at the big pavilion at the entrance to the city of Machu Picchu.


The ruined city was an Inca town whose function isn’t clear to modern archaeologists – maybe it was a special, sacred site; maybe a refuge for aristocrats from Cusco; maybe just a regular city. It was abandoned only about 100 years after its construction, when the Incas fled the smallpox epidemics that the Spanish had brought with them. They say it was never really a “lost” city, since the locals always knew about it, but it wasn’t “discovered” again by westerners until 1911.

The entrance here has a little bit of a Disneyworld feel to it (there’s even an outrageously overpriced restaurant with big menus printed only in English), but once we’re inside it’s just us and the ruins and maybe 1000 other tourists all spread out through the remains of the city. There are discreet signs pointing to temples and other notable sites, but for the most part you can wander the ruins on your own like it’s a regular city.


It’s foggy and rainy this morning as Roman and I walk about a half hour away from the ruins of the city toward the Sun Gate, which is an eastern entrance to the city along the ancient Inca road. Sadly, there’s no sun when we reach it – practically nothing is visible through the thick morning rain clouds. We make the most of it and take a bunch of pictures and eventually the clouds clear out a little bit, enough that we begin to see the mountains around us.


The ruins are impressive – beautiful and interesting – but I think the mountains surrounding the city must be what makes this place special. I never heard anyone talk about the way the high, steep mountains form a ring around the hill where Macchu Picchu is located, but being there, surrounded by these enormous high sheer mountains, this was as impressive as the ruins themselves.


We have tickets to climb Machu Picchu mountain, which is a high sharp peak behind the city from which you can look down on Wayna Picchu, the smaller of the two mountains that shelter Machu Picchu, and on the ruins of the city. This is another grueling hour or so of me and Roman counting the steep, difficult stone steps in French (“mille huit-cent”) and sweating through our layers of warm clothing. It’s still raining at the top of the mountain, but the view is amazing: we’re at eye level with peaks over 3000 meters high, ringing Machu Picchu and by turns visible and obscured by the patchy clouds. The ruins themselves are mostly hidden by billows of fog that rise up from the valley floor and pour over the mountain ridges like a waterfall, or like dried ice.


Back down those grueling steps (quicker than going up, though not much easier) we explore the ruins, walking through a residential district of simple stone walls that were once houses and hearths. I try to imagine living here, imagine going to markets in the morning and gossiping with neighbors and carrying on with daily life in this incredible landscape. We wander past stone temples and rocks aligned with the sun and the compass. We watch llamas grazing on narrow, green terraces cut into the steep hillside.




Machu Picchu is the most visited site in all of South America, so it’s no surprise that we’re bumping into other tourists all day as we navigate the ruins. I see more Americans here than I have in any other place on my journey – lots of middle-aged men and ladies in expensive north face jackets, in large tour groups. You can’t criticize people too much for traveling like that – I think that, in a general sense, the concept of international travel in the states does revolve around the idea that you go places as part of a tour group and you stay in hotels and you have to pay a lot of money to go anywhere. There are lots of places in the states where that’s the only way to do it. But maybe I pity people a little when I see them traveling like that, because I wonder if they realize you don’t have to travel like that.


Eventually we’re hungry and worn out from the hike and the day of wandering. Roman, who has a knee injury, takes a bus down to aguas calientes, while I count another 1500 steps back down to the valley floor. In the evening I eat two enormous meals at the hostel and go to sleep early, exhausted from the day.


17 March 2015
We’re up and having breakfast around 9:00 and leaving Aguas Calientes around 10, walking back along the train tracks to Hydroelectica, where we share a minivan back to Santa Teresa with a few other backpackers. Here Roman and I find a cheap hotel room for the night – 20 soles each, about $7, for a pretty basic room with two twin beds. We nap (both of us are still sore from hiking yesterday) and find the road leading out of town to a little resort complex with hot springs.


We’re there as dusk is setting in but there are lights all around the pools and the hot spring stays open until midnight. Unlike the pools I went to in Yura, which were indoors, and cold, these are outdoor rectangular concrete baths as large as swimming pools, full of clear, very hot water and covered on their floor by smooth black stones. There are three pools of slightly different temperatures and sizes, fed by a source I’m not able to see but which feeds the pools with sufficient volume that from the last pool in the series flow four torrents of hot water, gushing from outflow holes that create the cascades that bathers use to rinse off before entering the spring. There are a few other bathers resting silently along the edges of the pools, relaxing as the faint dusk fades into night. Roman and I soak for a while (I find the small, natural pool that’s fed directly by a source and is piping hot) and we talk with a couple from Findland whom we met in town.

Later we walk back to Santa Teresa as it begins to rain. We say goodbye to the Finns, eat dinner in a little Italian restaurant, and head back to our hotel.

18 march 2015
We visit the hot springs again in the morning and eat lunch at the little restaurant there. By daylight I can see the setting where the pools are located: tucked at the base of a steep hill, on a steppe overlooking the river and the high mountains. Far away in between two huge hills we can see a distant waterfall. We soak for hours in the pools, swimming laps and relaxing by turns. Soon it begins raining again, and if you’ve ever sat in a hot spring in the rain, readers, you’ll know how much I enjoyed it.


In town we wait in a little touristic restaurant for the van that will take us back to Cusco along the same terrifying dirt road we came in. I’m ready for it this time and I keep my eyes firmly closed for the first hour and a half. We somehow manage to avoid dying again and from there it’s another five hours back to Cusco. It’s dark when we return.

19 march 2015
Roman’s off in the morning for Lima. I decide to stay another full day in Cusco and explore a famous ruin site called Sachsayhuaman, on a hill above Cusco. Things seem to be going well until I arrive at the gate and find out the cost is much higher than I had read – 140 soles, over $40 to enter. This is more than I can afford for a trip to ruins. I’m hanging around the entrance trying to decide whether it’s worth it, or if I should try to convince the lady at the entrance that I’m a student, when one of the many random men selling tours comes up to me with a tour leaflet. We chitchat for a few minutes and I tell him my dilemma, and finally he suggests a different set of ruins which can be toured on horseback for much cheaper, about $7. I agree and we take a taxi to a little horse corral while he tells me about some of the old stone walls we pass along the way.


The rest of the random tour group arrives and soon I’m on an old white horse that keeps dozing off while we wait for everyone else to climb into their saddles. I worry I’m going to have trouble motivating the horse to actually walk – I don’t know anything about motivating horses, readers, I’ve only been on a horse once before – but he perks up and paces steadily behind the lead horse as our group moves up into the hills. There are six of us – a pair who live in Switzerland but are originally from Portugual and France; a fantastically annoying middle-aged woman who has an American accent but seems to be Israeli, and her quiet, terrified boyfriend; our tour guide; and me. David, our tour guide, leads us up a gentle hill into green farmland. We tie up the horses and go on foot to a large complex of boulders, caves, and sturdy Inca walls. David shows us a network of caves among the boulders where the Inca army would hide from invaders, luring them into the labyrinth of tunnels where they would become lost and divided, easier to defeat. He shows us flat indentations in the boulders where they would have placed sheets of polished metal intended to reflect light into the tunnels, or in some places, intended to reflect the stars and make astronomical observation easier. The American woman in our group translates David’s explanations into English for her boyfriend, adding in peculiar comments like “they loved the stars like brothers” that aren’t part of David’s explanation. Occasionally as David is explaining some facet of Inca philosophy to us she’ll interject a “correcto!” loudly in response, like a professor. I gather that she’s already studied the Incas.


We enter a tunnel between the boulders – just a narrow path, really – where David shows us sacred inca formations in the shape of a chakana, which he tells us is the symbol for the sun. He tells us the Inca believed in reincarnation, and would bury bodies mummified in the fetal position, to symbolize their return to the womb of the earth to await rebirth. I’m not clear on how this relates to the sun symbol but it’s an interesting compliment to our walk through the caves.


We’re back on the horses for another 20-minute ride through more tranquil green pastures, watching the landscape above Cusco open up into brilliant green hills. Close to another large rock pile we dismount again and climb up to what David tells us was the Inca moon temple here. There are figures of pumas, snakes, and condors – animals that represented power – carved into the rock. All of them are missing their heads. When the Spanish conquered this civilization, they waged war on their religious sites, too. In Inca philosophy it was believed that a person could not be reincarnated if their head had been cut off. So the Spanish cut the heads of the symbols sacred to the Incas, to indicate that their beliefs and their civilization could never return.


We make our way slowly around the rocky temple ruins, coming up to a set of shallow steps. David shows us how they’re cut in the shape of a chakana – but the shape is incomplete. “The other half of the chakana is formed by the shadow of the sun,” he tells us. All over this temple we see places where negative and positive space are used to create a sacred shape – the Incas loved duality, he tells us. “It’s not really a religion, it’s more of a philosophy,” David says. (“Correcto!” shrieks the American woman). By the entrance to the temple David explains the meaning of the chakana to us. The symbolism is supposed to incorporate four sacred animals (the snake, puma, condor, and llama), planes of existence, points of the compass, months of the year, and a creation myth to booth. The symbolism is rich and sophisticated and at the time I was quite moved by it, but since researching the Inca philosophy, I’ve learned that there’s no respectable scholarly basis for these interpretations and probably no historical basis either, which disappoints me.


We circle the rock pile and come to the entrance to the temple. According to David, girls would come to the temple around the time of their first menses and remain until the full moon, when they would participate in some kind of ritual involving the sacrifice of a llama (the American woman is very excited by this and jabbers to her boyfriend about animal sacrifice, talking so loudly I have to strain to hear David) and a symbolic rebirth from the earth, before leaving their families to attend university (so David tells us) and enter obligatory military service, like their male counterparts. I’m now skeptical as to the veracity of this information as well, but the temple itself was fascinating in its own right.


After we leave the temple the obnoxious American and her boyfriend leave the tour (without giving David a tip). The Swiss couple and I continue on to another temple called the Temple of the Monkey, where there are some stones set to align with the sun at specific times of day and indicate times and season on a rock wall.

David leads us back into Cusco (a walk of about 30 minutes) and takes us to a restaurant serving typical Peruvian food : I eat an incredibly tender slow-cooked cut of beef. The Swiss couple sticks around – David is kind and interesting and knowledgable about Peruvian culture, and I’d like to stay too, but it’s getting late and I plan to take a night bus to Ica tonight. I give David as much of a tip as I can manage to try to make up for the rudeness of the other American on the tour, say goodbye, and speedwalk back to the hostel to grab my back and jump in a taxi to the bus terminal.

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.


Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.


Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.


At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.


Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.


In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.


The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.


Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.



Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.


At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.


Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.


I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

Recovery in El Bolson

19 January 2015
13:45 – this is a day for recovery. I’m wrapped in the covers of my narrow hostel top bunk, streaming a forgettable English-language movie. What I saw of El Bolson looked beautiful when I ventured out to buy groceries, but two solid days of Spanish, forced interaction, and uncertain plans have worn this introvert out, and I’ve come into a hostel full of vacationing Argentines – no easy camaraderie with other English-speaking foreigners here. Normally I’d be thrilled to escape the typical hostel environment and meet more South Americans, but today I begin to truly appreciate for the first time the comfort of speaking one’s mother tongue and the feeling of camaraderie you get from meeting other foreign travelers. I don’t have the energy for anything except a few brief words with the travelers coming and going in the overcrowded, stuffy dorm.


20 January 2015:
11:35 – I wander through the artisan market in the main plaza : vegan street food and clocks made out of old gnarly tree slices and picture frames with dried flowers under glass and handmade puzzles and notebooks and bookmarks and countless macrame bracelets and silver jewelry and incense and windchimes – and that’s just the first block of the market that covers the square.

I think this is El Bolson’s strength, this market. I heard people describe El Bolson as a sort of hippy haven, and I think it may have been a few years ago, but now I’ve found it depressingly commercial: where I expected to see charming humble little incense stores run by locals, I find a boxy ugly supermarket stuffed with overpriced meats, and “natural” shops selling hideously expensive health products with ugly labels and pushy salespeople, and restaurants advertising organic vegetarian meals that cost a small fortune. If this is a haven for hippies, the hippies in this part of the country must be pretty rich.

On the other hand, the artisan market seems to stay true to a tradition of simple goodness – high-quality crafts sold by gentle, friendly locals who insist on wrapping your 30-peso bookmark carefully and lovingly in soft paper to protect it while you travel. The natural surroundings, too, defy commercialization. Charming bungalow houses line quiet streets and it seems every family keeps a rose garden. A mountain ridge towers somewhat alarmingly (yet majestically) over the village, steep and close enough that you may glance up expecting to see sky and find a wall of old granite in your line of sight instead.

I spend the morning wandering in the market. Vendors shyly ask me where I’m from and smile when they show me their wares. I amble around the quiet neighborhood surrounding my hostel. The perfume of rose gardens follows me down every street.


15:43 – a brief nap on the edge of lake Puelo and a few sketches fill my afternoon; steak dinner and quiet conversation with a porteño guy from buenos aires fill my evening.




21 January 2015:
13:58 – I’ve looked up “cajon” in my dictionary and found a translation of something like “drawer” or “box”; when I finally reach the impressively deep swimming hole at the end of a dry, dusty hike, I think I get the concept though I can’t come up with a satisfying English translation. “Cajon azul” (blue hole? Blue drawer? Blue box?) is freezing cold, painfully cold, but crystal clear. I’m not brave enough to dive straight in like some of the other hikers, so I wade in and swim further downstream, hiking clothes and all. The air is clear and dry here and my shorts dry on my body as I hike back through quiet forests and steep dusty hills.



The mountains here make up for El Bolson’s commercialized atmosphere, I think. The hike is hot and difficult, especially for this out of shape traveler, but the scenery is rewarding. Along the way back to town I meet Alejandro from Neuquen and Serrana from Uruguay, who tell me about a several-day trek they’ve just completed. It’s possible to spend several days hiking in the mountains among the hidden mountain lakes and little streams, eating at the refugios and camping or sleeping in basic cabins along the way.


My last night in El Bolson is as quiet as the first. I never really connect with the town and I’m ready to move on.

Calafate and Chalten

13 January 2015:
I wake up late in the morning, refreshed. I’m Couchsurfing again, this time with Eduardo, an Argentine IT specialist who is basically the perfect Couchsurfing host. He picked me up from the bus terminal late last night after I left Puerto Natales and crossed the border back into Argentina.

Eduardo’s friendly and chatty and speaks English almost perfectly. He plays a Janis Joplin record while I cook eggs and tells me about previous surfers he’s hosted. By the time I’m done eating he’s convinced me to go visit the nearby glacier Perito Moreno, which I had intended to skip because of the high cost and a general vague notion that glaciers aren’t that interesting. Eduardo sells it well though so we head to the bus station where I pay 250 pesos for transport to the park.

Because I take the late afternoon bus, I arrive at the park with only a couple of hours to explore. I regret this instantly, as soon as I see the glacier. I think when I pictured glaciers in the past I thought of sort of a giant rectangular ice cube with snow on top – like the pictures you see of Antarctica. This is completely different: it’s much craggier than I expected. It’s a field of giant wrinkled slices of ice, all sliding and piling up over each other as they march toward the peninsula. It does not look like a comfortable place to walk – in fact, I can’t imagine walking over this at all, the way you think of polar bears or penguins doing. It really does look like a river of ice. It’s colorful, too: alternating between an unnatural electric blue, deep cold sapphire, and brilliant pale sky blue laced with pure white. It’s also enormous – 14 kilometers long and nearly 50 meters tall at its edge. It comes to an abrupt end in a jagged wall of ice that makes me think of the wall from Game of Thrones.



This is the cool part: the bus leaves me at the top of a huge hill that’s maybe two kilometers from the edge of the glacier. What’s happening here is that the glacier is headed straight for this promontory hill extending into the lake, and it’s so close that at times the ice blocks the flow of water at the shore. They’ve built balconies and platforms all along the side of the hill facing the glacier where you can watch it calve. There’s an enormous crack and then you see it – a huge outcropping of ice, tall as a high rise apartment building, pulls away from the body of the glacier, almost as if it’s being tugged, and shatters into fragments as it plummets and explodes into the lake below. Spectacular. I watch for hours.


That evening, back in Calafate, I return to Eduardo’s place and meet Anna, a couchsurfer from the Netherlands. We visit a bar together and Eduardo makes us Pho soup from scratch, and we talk into the night.


14 January 2015:
12:47 – Eduardo, Anna, and Eduardo’s dog Blanquita drop me off just past a police checkpoint by the side of the road leading out of Calafate. There’s a depressing little pack of hitchhikers spread along the first fifty meters or so of gravel shoulder across from the welcome sign – mostly men in groups of two of three. This worries me a little – maybe this is a bad spot to hitchhike? – but I’m hoping that being blonde, female, and solo will give me an edge.

13:14 – one of the police officers ambles over to check my passport. We chitchat about Nevada while he makes some notes on a clipboard and asks my age and where I’m headed. He wishes me luck. I think about hitchhiking laws in the US, and how the hitchhiking culture is clearly different here if the police are actually keeping tabs on hitchhikers rather than arresting them.

14:02 – two men in a company van wave at me as they drive past, then continue down the road a few hundred meters and pull onto the shoulder. I walk the distance and hop in the back and meet Luis and Cesar. They’re men in their 50s working for a transportation company, and they tell me that they make the trip from Calafate to Chalten every day and always pick up hitchhikers, but they have to be out of sight of the police station when they do since the back of the van is an open floor – no seats or seat belts. I sit on my backpack and grin to myself as we settle in for the trip to Chalten. Success!

Luis drives and chats with me : he lived in Rio Grande for many years and remembers Ushuaia well, but he’s lived in Calafate for a long time working for this transpiration company. Cesar is quieter, mainly checking his watch and pouring endless cups of mate for the three of us.

14:36 – as we turn towards Chalten we stop to pick up Paolo, a hitchhiker from Brazil who’s traveling for three months on 100 US dollars and has hitchhiked from Brasilia all the way to Ushuaia. He’s a little skinny and road weary, but full of smiles and cool stories. He drifts off to sleep after we talk for a while, but I wake him up as we get closer – the views of the mountains are spectacular! Jagged, grey peaks loom above the low hills, tinged blue and fading into deep shadows where they overlap each other. Luis stops for a few minutes so Paolo and I can take pictures. They say it’s rare to see Fitz Roy so clearly from the road, normally it’s hidden in clouds.


16:13 – we arrive in el Chalten. Luis and Cesar promise us rides back to ruta 40 if we need them and show us where they work when they’re in town. “Anything you need, just bang on the door and ask for us.”

18:26 – I start up the path toward Laguna Capri to meet Paolo, the Brazilian hitchhiker, who headed up here ahead of me. It’s a steep climb, but somebody loves this trail: clearly marked, clean, well supported and free from trash and overgrowth. It’s a dream. The sandy path weaves through tall grasses which quickly give way to shorter, hardier vegetation as I climb a little in elevation. Dusty, dry, yellow sand dotted with rocks. Clear, dry air. I can see clear across valleys when the trees open up, clear to hard granite peaks thrown into deep shadow by the afternoon sun, white patches of snow dotting the peaks.


I reach Laguna Capri in an hour and a half and there’s Fitz Roy, a rounded granite monolith soaring above the treeline in the soft light of early evening. Paolo and I sit in silence for a while and take it in.


15 January 2015
8:52 – The weather in Patagonia is famously changeable, so I don’t worry too much about the low clouds shrouding the mountains as I set out from my hostel on the edge of town. I work up a fine sweat as I climb up to Laguna Capri again, where I wake up Paolo and chat with an American couple I met back in Puerto Natales. Paolo’s moving slowly but we get going in an hour or so, headed to Laguna de los Tres where the views of Fitz Roy are supposed to be incredible. The trail is flat, clear, and well maintained, which I’m grateful for because it’s started raining and the wind has picked up. After Torres del Paine I’m fully prepared for rain and nothing in my backpack is going to get damaged, but it’s still miserable to hike when you’re wet and we’ve got about seven kilometers to go yet. Thankfully the showers clear after an hour or so and the famous Patagonian wind sets in. I’m dry in about 10 minutes and worried in another 10 when the wind knocks me over. I start to consider quitting the trail since it’s violently windy and getting worse, but the clouds are clearing and Paolo is doing fine and there are other hikers around, so we keep climbing.

It’s fierce wind on the way to the top, and a steep, nearly vertical rocky climb for the last kilometer. Fitz Roy is right there – impressive – but I can’t stand nor walk for the violence of the wind screaming over the mountain range. We have to crawl to peek over a ridge hiding the lake, and I stay behind a huge rock where the wind is merely terrifying, not intolerable. Just crouching there, I get exhausted from battling the gusts that buffet me from around the sides of the rock and the constant noise and the energy that’s howling around me. I can’t stay for more than a few minutes.



It’s an exhausted, though warm and less windy hike that I take back to Capri where I say goodbye to Paolo, and back to my hostel in Chalten where I fall into my bunk.

16 January 2015
15:38 – I round a corner of a stony, barren hill and find a dusky turquoise lake with a perfect iceberg floating in the middle. At the western end of the lake rests the leading edge of a modest glacier flowing down from steep peaks above, slate-colored granite spikes tinged blue in the clear air. Snow and ice glisten in the calm sunlight.


This is Laguna de los Tres. I was lucky with the weather today, clear, dry air, blue skies, warm sunshine, and I hiked much slower than normal to save my aching feet still complaining after yesterday’s walk. It’s really perfect weather, a perfect hike, and perfect views, which don’t make for a very interesting blog post but were a lovely experience.


In the evening I visit friends at a hostel across “town” (chalten is tiny, only 12 blocks). I’m out late and have to hustle back to my hostel before they lock the doors at midnight.

I go to sleep a little anxious. Tomorrow I’ll attempt a long hitchhiking journey to el Bolson, 1300 kilometers north through some of the most deserted countryside in Argentina. I’m doing it solo and without a tent. I’m hoping it’s just a fun and crazy idea, not a dangerously stupid one.

8-10 January : I attempt Torres del Paine

8-10 January 2015 –

I returned early from Torres del Paine, driven out of the park by a massive and unexpected snowstorm and the realization that neither I nor my equipment were prepared for Patagonia’s violent weather. Snowstorms aren’t unheard-of in the park, though this one was still a surprise for a lot of hikers, and I wasn’t the only one to bail early. It was a disappointing and unfulfilling conclusion to my Puerto Natales saga, but was not without some memorable moments, which I’ll write about here.


8 January 2015:
18:30 – the bus from Puerto Natales arrives at the Administration center. I step out into dry, warm air and late afternoon sunshine.

I know my bag is heavy – I’m guessing 12 or 13 kilos – so even though I’m anxious to be on my way after the four-hour bus ride, I take my time getting ready to hike to Carretas. I tighten down the straps along my backpack and check that the heaviest bits are shoved at the bottom for balance. Though it’s chilly, I strip off my insulating layers since I already know I’ll sweat through them as I hike. I stuff a trail mix bag in my pocket so I won’t have to stop in fifteen minutes when I’m hungry. Though it’s late in the evening I slap on sunscreen just in case.

The path starts out along a gravel road before cutting into a field of tough, stubby grass that covers the rocky plain. The other backpackers on the bus must have left right away, because I don’t see anyone else as I follow the trail north across the fields, skirting low craggy hills dotted with a few trees twisted into spirals by the fierce Patagonian winds. Fortunately, the wind now is light and dry, the sun drifting in and out of clouds brooding over the massive peaks I can see towering beyond the hills to my right. It’s pleasantly warm and I sweat a little with my heavy pack as I walk.


8:16 – I arrive at Carretas, pleased to be a little early even though I took a few breaks to rest. The campsite consists of a sign, a vault toilet, a few hollows of flattened grass where other hikers have pitched their tents, and a largeish three-sided wooden structure that looks like a bus shelter. This the cooking area. This is the entire camp. A friendly Chilean helps me find a site that’s sheltered from the wind (though not from the mosquitos). I pitch my tent reasonably well, checking carefully that the narrow side faces into the wind and the surface is pulled tight with guy lines. I’m glad I practiced setting my rental equipment up before I have to do it in real weather. I’ve only camped a few times before and I’m still making some of the beginner mistakes.

In the cooking shelter I meet a couple planning to hike the full circuit, as I am, and I run into Marcus, a German backpacker I met in Puerto Natales. He shows me his huge laminated trekking map and the tiny trail he’s planning to take that veers up the John Gardner pass and way off the normal routes the tourist hikers trek. He’s prepared for it – he walked all the way from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, a trek of 14 days, last month. We swap New Years stories: he says he was picked up by the Chilean army in the wilderness and invited to an asado. We talk and nobody really feels like sleeping, but it’s getting late. We’re still so far south that the sun doesn’t set until nearly 11:00, so we go to sleep with the sky still light.

9 January 2015:
8:30 – breakfast is fancy powdered cappuccino mix and a bit of trail mix. I’m apprehensive. I feel good, strong and well rested and over my cold; but I know my pack is heavy and I have a longer walk today. This is a test today – to find out how I handle weather changes, if I can manage the weight I’m carrying, and if I can hike the trails in a reasonable amount of time.


10:00 – I wait around camp for the other hikers, making some sketches, but eventually I’m too antsy to sit any longer and I set off. The landscape is similar to yesterday’s – a single path winding through windswept plains. The central peaks of the Torres del Paine formation come into view as I round smaller hills, ever closer, and I take breaks to sketch when I feel like it. I pick up an excellent walking stick as I pass through a copse of burnt, dried trees. I remember hearing that this part of the park burned about five years ago. The grass has come back rich and thick, but the skinny dead husks of the trees that burned will be standing here for a long time yet.


13:50 – Paine grande lodge. It’s another two and a half hours to my campsite Italiano. Here, the trail winds over the low foothills next to the massive bulk of the mountains. Giant peaks loom on my left, and after a few minutes a sparkling, unnaturally turquoise lake comes into view on my right. Between these two wonders I walk alone with my bag for some hours.


15:30 – My pack is heavy and I stop for breaks frequently. The mountains help keep my spirits up. The Cuernos formations are right in front of me, huge spades of granite with nearly sheer sides, thrust up one right after another, tops ripping through the ragged clouds. Deep valleys fade in and out of view as the clouds wind through mountain range. The peaks are massive and deep and you can never quite get a complete view of everything – something is always hidden, something appearing and then fading out of view. In front of all of this, the glacier-fed lake Sköttsberg ripples, light turquoise against the gentle gray stone shores.


17:15 – I arrive at Italiano exhausted, but accomplished. I was a little slow, but not dangerously slow, and I feel all right. This campsite is busy – there are probably seventy tents already set up among the trees. This campsite has a guard station and cooking shelter set among the trees next to a clear swiftly rushing river. The mouth of the valley Frances opens just above the campsite, already obscured by early evening mist. At times cliffs and glaciers appear further back along the bends of the river before the fog shrouds them.


I cook my modest dinner of instant mashed potatoes, cheese, and sausage, and I drink a little wine given to me by a Spanish woman I meet in the shelter. The couple I met at Carretas is here too and we play cards after our meal, but the temperature plummets at sunset and we escape to our sleeping bags by 21:00.


Sometime during the night it begins to rain.

10 January 2015:
7:45 – I’ve been awake for a little while but haven’t yet mustered the courage to leave my warm sleeping bag and my dry tent. I’m pleased that my rented tent doesn’t leak and that my large sleeping bag kept me more or less warm during the night – but the thought of getting out to hike up Valle Frances in the freezing rain is intimidating me. I promise myself a hot breakfast – more potatoes with cheese and sausage, and hot coffee – and haul myself out of my tent.

10:00 – I leave my tent pitched and take my small day bag up the misty valley. It starts off merely sprinkling – though I can see snow further up the valley – and the exertion from the steep hike keeps me warm under my waterproof jacket. This trail is rocky and meanders across stony streams and through quiet, green woods as it skirts the blue river that cuts through the valley. All the time the huge Glacier Frances looms to my left. It’s a hanging glacier – a glacier in the process of falling over a cliff – and huge chunks calve as it inches over the edge. I’m in no danger – the valley is wide and I’m hiking on the opposite side from the avalanches. During the night at camp we could hear what sounded like thunder rumbling through the valley. As I watch the glacier and catch sight of a small-ish slice of ice cascading down, I realize that I was actually hearing the sound of enormous blocks of ice crashing onto the valley floor as the edge of the glacier broke apart at night.


I keep hiking, but the rain picks up and it gets colder.

12:50 – I’m an hour past the glacier overlook and I’ve just come out of the tranquil, snowy woods and into a wall of wind and ice. The snow howls against me and smacks me down, knocking me off balance as I try to cross a clearing. This is it, then – my turn-around point. It was freezing in camp this morning and to get myself to even try the hike I told myself I would turn around if things got too cold and miserable. Things are too cold and miserable now. I made it up the valley nearly to Mirador Britanico: enough of an accomplishment for me. I head back toward camp through quieter woods.

A snowstorm in the middle of summer isn’t unheard-of in Patagonia, but this seems like more than the 15-minute weather blip I was expecting based on other trekkers’ stories. The clouds are dark and endless and the rain and snow are coming down solid and steady. And as I hike down and the trail gets easier, the real problems are becoming apparent – my hands are numb inside my wool gloves (“don’t bring gloves – you won’t need them,” they told me in Puerto Natales) and my feet inside their wool socks and chuck Taylors are cold. I took a gamble when I decided to try this trek in sneakers, and I’m beginning to need to think seriously about whether I’m going to lose that bet.

14:30 – I’m back at camp and it’s menacingly cold. The rain is coming down steady even among the trees. I eat another hot meal and try to encourage myself to pack up my tent and head for the next campsite. Supposedly, I’m not allowed to stay at Italiano two nights in a row. I think through all the steps I need to take to get my bag ready, and wonder how in the world anybody takes a tent down in the rain without it getting soaked.

15:15 – amazingly, I somehow figure out how to take the tent down underneath the rain fly, keeping it mostly dry. It’s dirty and the rain fly is drenched. I stuff everything in the tent bag, trying not to think about how utterly frozen through I am, and trying very very hard not to think about how difficult it will be to set it all up again in a few hours. I’m headed to Cuernos campsite, a couple of hours away.

Before I start down the trail, I weigh my options. I can hike to Cuernos, camp in the freezing cold and rain tonight, and hope the weather changes. But what if the weather doesn’t change? And what if I run into more freezing temperatures and rain later on in more remote parts of the park? And will I be able to enjoy being out in this park if I’m worried about hypothermia the whole time?

I hike toward Cuernos for about ten minutes. The rain comes down harder than ever. It’s freezing and the trail is flooded – my feet are soaked through and my toes are beginning to numb. At one water crossing I stop in the rain for a minute and take a deep breath.

I turn around. I have exactly enough time to reach Paine Grande in time to take a boat across the lake and catch a bus out of the park. My feet and hands are dangerously cold. It’s not going to stop raining any time soon. I decide to head for the previous campsite, further south where the weather looks clearer, and decide there whether to take the boat back to puerto Natales or spend another night in the park and try to make it work.

18:25 – I make Paine Grande just in time for the catamaran back to the park entrance. Two hours of freezing cold rain and wind made the decision for me – I’m heading back. I shudder with cold as we cross the lake and look at the massive dark clouds smothering the mountains.


Part of me thinks I may have given up on the trek too early (though it seems my instincts were correct – other hikers who were in the park that week told me it was cold and rainy for days afterward). But hypothermia is not something you mess around with when you’re in the mountains alone, and this wasn’t a situation where I needed to risk it. I console myself by telling myself I’ll come back one day and trek with a friend and better equipment and see Torres del Paine properly.

Ushuaia: Day 3

2 January 2015:
9:23 – seven minutes until I’m supposed to meet Diego, a couchsurfer from Ushuaia whom I’m meeting for a hike today, and the bus company’s office still hasn’t opened. I’m going to have to leave to go meet him and return together to buy tickets for Puerto Natales.

10:15 – Diego and I wait for a while decide that the office isn’t open today. He very helpfully calls a few travel agencies around town who can make bus reservations, trying to help me plan a route to Puerto Natales in Chile tomorrow. One company in town has places available. On the walk over I tell him about changing my plans and heading to Puerto Natales in Chile instead of El Calafate in Argentina, and how a friend convinced to go to the Torres del Paine national park to hike. “Estoy emocionante!!” I’m excited!

11:24 – buying bus tickets has taken an unusually long time, so we ditch our original plans to hike a summit in the national park and decide to walk to the glacier closer to town instead. Along the way he tells me about his work in casinos and in the national park.

14:38 – we reach the bottom edge of the glacier, which is covered in snow and looks pretty much just like all the other patches of snow on the mountain. It’s been snowing for about half an hour and the wind is fierce. We’ve climbed 800 meters in the past couple of hours, staying warm with the effort but feeling the bite of the wind through our jackets when we stop for food or pictures. Ushuaia is bitterly cold today – only about 6 degrees centigrade. Though I dislike being cold in general, it feels kind of nice after about eight months of summer temperatures. Somehow it didn’t really feel like January before.


The views of the mountains are beautiful. Wild, hardy mountain grasses and mosses line the ascent. The glacier begins just above the vegetation line. Further up, broad slate-line rocks cover the peaks of the mountains. When I turn around, I can see the majority of the town of Ushuaia and the bay laid out below.





22:01 – I spend another slightly uncomfortable evening with my Couchsurfing hosts. We eat dinner together after a little while and I give them a thank you drawing, alfajores, and a magnet in the shape of Nevada as thank you presents. It’s a shame I never managed to connect with them, but I decide not to overthink it. Sometimes it’s just bad luck with Couchsurfing.

I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to catch my bus to Puerto Natales.

Ushuaia: Day 2

1 January 2015:
14:20 – I pause to eat hard boiled eggs and raisins on a little stone wall holding up the trail. I can’t stay long – the wind is blowing now and even with my down jacket I get chilly quickly. As soon as I start moving again I’ll shed layers the way I did at the start of this hike, a walk of a few kilometers along the edge of a bay that extends into the Tierra del Fuego national park. I’m within sight of a clear, turquoise bay lined with little flowering bushes and a variety of trees – I think aspen or beech, mostly, and some firs. The dark earth is lightly covered in a bed of yellow oval-shaped leaves from the fall and dead branches. There’s not much undergrowth in the park so the woods have a pleasant open feeling.

My hands start to get numb and I move on. The lake I’m heading for is still a few kilometers away.



14:45 – I’m waiting for the bus back to Ushuaia from the national park. While I wait I sketch the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake. A man stops and shyly asks if he can take a photo of my drawing.


I’m loitering by the parking lot when I spot an enormous black bird of prey circling the lake with slow, powerful wingbeats. Its wingspan must be nearly two meters wide. Its head is white and after a few minutes I realize that what I thought was the sun shining on its back is actually white feathers lining its shoulders. It’s a condor – not a rare animal to see in the park but an exciting spot nonetheless. It circles majestically, and conveniently, in front of a peak called “el condor”. The bus arrives just as the bird disappears from view.


23:56 – I’m walking back from the bar where I met a friend from the states to get some advice on hiking Torres del Paine. The sun has just barely set, and the sky is still light in the west – it’s nearly midnight! The longest day of the year was just a couple of weeks ago and there are only a few hours of true darkness at this time of year.

Back at my host’s house, I’m a little uncomfortable again. Couchsurfing is often a gamble : sometimes you connect and make a friend for life, other times it’s just a bit awkward or unremarkable. I’m still surprised at how very difficult it is for me to converse with my hosts. All three of them work in the tourist industry in Ushuaia, so I thought it would be easy for us to talk, especially as my Spanish is steadily improving, and I assume they’re used to talking to foreigners – but I can barely understand them when they talk to me and not at all when they talk to each other. There’s a skill to knowing how to slow down, speak clearly, and use short sentences when you talk to someone who’s not fluent in your language, and for whatever reason, these guys don’t have that skill. I don’t blame them for it, though it does surprise me. Maybe they’ve never hosted someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well before. In any case, our interactions are strained and awkward. I do my best to be a good guest in spite of the language barrier.

Travel Update: Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park was my farewell to the West, a final camping and hiking adventure before I was to spend three very long driving days covering the 2,000 miles of hot asphalt that separated me from my parents in Virginia.

My experience in Yellowstone was probably typical to that of other visitors.  Buffalo, geysers, long stretches of vast wilderness between natural wonders, and so many photographs taken.

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

I’ll be honest – a lot of the scenery in Yellowstone didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  I drove through long corridors of unremarkable two-lane road bordered by dense evergreens – maybe unique in the west, but not remarkable for someone who comes from a heavily wooded state.  I didn’t understand until I visited how big the entirety of the park really is, and how far you can drive from one place to another before the scenery changes.

Saphhire hot spring

Sapphire hot spring

But loved the Geyser Basin.  The area around Old Faithful called Biscuit Basin is riddled with (very) hot springs and erupting geysers.  The trees thin out and rainbow-colored pools of boiling water and steam dot the landscape.  This part of the park is unreal – unlike anywhere else I’ve been, even unlike the hot springs I’ve visited.  The barrenness of the Western landscape is what has always drawn me, so it makes sense that this was my favorite spot in the park.

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

On a short hike, we were lucky to see a rainbow in the valley just as Old Faithful erupted again.


Lamar valley is the first place I would go back, if I ever make it to Yellowstone again.  Camping here would have been divine; I’m sorry we didn’t try to make it work, but I don’t think I nor my couchsurfing friend were prepared to wild camp in grizzly bear country.

Lamar Valley panorama

Lamar Valley

Possibly I could also have been trampled by a buffalo, always something to be avoided when in a tent.

Buffalo crossing

Buffalo crossing

My favorite long-distance views were from Mount Washburn.  It’s not a very difficult or interesting trail, but I would recommend it for the views from the top.

Panorama from the spur trail

Panorama from the spur trail

Wildlife on the trail was limited to some mildly interesting moths, but from the summit we could look through telescopes to see the bighorn sheep on the opposite hillside.

two bighorn ewes and a kid

two bighorn ewes and a kid, seen through a spotting scope

I would have loved to continue hiking the spur trail that follows the top of the ridge from the Mount Washburn summit.  The grassy plains and scattered rocks reminded me of the rolling fields in Ireland, so green and vast.

Spur trail up to Mount Washburn summit

Looking up toward the watchtower from the spur trail

And the hillsides covered in butter-colored wildflowers didn’t hurt either.

Field of flowers

And that was it.  I put the holy West behind me reluctantly, cutting a sprig of sagebrush as as last souvenir.

As cross-country trips go, mine tend to be hurried.  Three solid days of driving got me back to Virginia without much to show for my journey except 15 cups of coffee and emergency oil change in Montana.  And so the lull in my travels began, which as I write is coming to an end.  In two weeks, I’ll begin a trip through South America that may last six months or more.  I’ll keep writing and posting photos, so stay tuned.

Laying low in Virginia

For the next month or so, I’m biding my time in the house where I grew up, keeping my parents and sister company and trying to hang on to a few pennies for my adventures outside of the country.

After weeks of road trips and hikes in majestic mountain ranges, new stories revealing themselves every day, I’m finding I don’t have as much to write about here in the comfort of my family’s house.  I’m happy and relaxed, staying busy by reading voraciously, keeping a daily yoga practice, running, writing, and taking day trips around Virginia to see various friends.  It’s not very exciting, but it’s important for me to have this downtime to tie up the loose ends of my previous life and prepare for what I hope will be at least six months of traveling abroad.


It’s surreal to visit my hometown now.  I’ve changed so much even in just the last six months that it feels like I’m seeing the area where I grew up for the first time, even as I also feel like I’m returning home. When I make a grocery run to the store where my family has bought food for the past 20 years, I feel just as much like a traveler as I did on one of my many grocery stops in nameless towns across the country.  But I don’t feel isolated, or lonely, or out of place.  I feel excited to be seeing old familiar places with new eyes.

After a couple of years in the desert, the mist and fog and fuzzy, tree-covered mountains that I grew up with seem exotic.  I still miss Reno’s dry air and constant sunshine, but I’m also enchanted by the rolling fog and heavy clouds that have blanketed the valley for the past few days.  I began hiking avidly when I moved to Reno, and now I’m coming back to discover that my hometown is rich with hiking trails I never took an interest in before.  On today’s hike, we ascended up through heavy fog and into low-lying clouds that brushed the top of the mountain we summitted.

Travel Update : Tetons

I’d wanted to return to the Grand Tetons for nearly two years.

I first saw the mountains while driving west on my way out to Reno. They struck me almost like a blow, I’d never seen mountains so sharp or tall. We had crossed the Rockies, but this was different – these were like the fingers of God.

Grand Teton mountain range

July was my first time seeing them again. In 2012 we’d driven past the mountains at sunset, passing herds of bison and taking pictures of the mountains until the light failed. The next day we were driving as far as Reno, so there was no time to do more than learn the name of the mountain range and give our own secret names to the peaks that had most unsettled us.

I expected to feel frightened and disturbed like I had when I first saw the mountains, but I’ve grown since last time, and they didn’t affect me the same way. I must have taken a hundred photos, trying to catch the range from every angle as the light changed. I hiked into some of the canyons, exploring the hidden places of the mountain range.  After all the exploring, though, I left feeling like the mountains still had something to tell me, something I hadn’t quite heard while I was there.  Maybe to really understand this mountain range I need to summit one of the peaks – something I wasn’t prepared for on this visit.

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

I’d left Reno for the last time (in the foreseeable future) on Tuesday midmorning, car packed to the brim with the remaining possessions I couldn’t part with.  I followed a route that took me through northeastern Nevada, northwestern Utah, and a corner of Idaho where I eventually camped for the night.  My roads were two-lane highways and I generally avoided interstates, so cell phone reception was spotty and my musical selection limited.  I kept things interesting by sampling the ancient CD collection that has lived in my car since high school; for the misty, ethereal morning sunrise over the Idaho farmlands, I picked Radiohead’s Amnesiac.

I was just beginning the second listen-through when I entered Jackson from the south – gas stations and supermarkets crowded each other and broke the mesmerizing atmosphere just as the sun rose high enough to burn through the last of the morning mist.

Mountain and Thistle

Mountain and Thistle

It was a different experience seeing the mountains after driving through crowded, superficial Jackson as opposed to coming on them suddenly after miles of empty mountain roads.  I felt more like a tourist, less like I was discovering the mountains unexpectedly.  I was in luck, though – the road was busy but not congested (apparently this is rare), and I was lucky to snag a campsite for the following two nights.

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

I set up camp, but the morning air was clinging to the inside of my head and making me feel aimless.  I hadn’t planned any major activities for the day – a mistake I still sometimes make as I’m getting the hang of solo travel – so to keep myself from feeling like I was wasting time, I packed food and hopped on my bike to explore the park and get some exercise.

Teewinot Peak

Teewinot Peak

The drama of this range can’t be conveyed through photographs – it must be experienced in person.  These mountains were formed along a fault – no, they are the fault: the top of the ridge is one edge of the fault, the other edge far below at their roots.  There are no foothills, no gradual rise in elevation.  They burst from the landscape.  Standing by these mountains, you can almost feel the surrounding area still trembling from the violence of their rising.

Grand Teton

Near sunset I swapped my bike out for the car so I could take in the length of the scenic drive that parallels the Teton range.


The next morning I was sick from something I’d eaten the night before, but I’m an old hand at weathering exciting digestive incidents, so I decided to drive into Jackson for espresso (and the coffee shop’s flush toilets).  By midmorning, after  I felt well enough to go through with my plan for the day – volunteering for trail maintenance with a cleanup crew.

It was a day of hard work brushing out a trail above one of the park’s alpine lakes.  Working alongside me were a very young ranger on her summer break from college and an old retired woman who had more energy than me and the ranger combined.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and happy to have spent the day getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, and making a contribution (however small) to the health of the park.  As I begin this long season of traveling, I don’t want to experience the places I go as a typical tourist.  It was good to participate more deeply in the growth of this park – not as a consumer, but as a participant in its maintenance.

That evening, feeling deeply worn out and satisfied from my hard day, I put on a flowy dress and drove into Jackson.  I walked slowly along the busy streets of the tourist district, window shopping at the upscale outdoor outfitters and jewelry stores, people-watching.  As the sun set, I drove back into camp, stopping for a couple of unexpected wildlife sightings – a bull moose and a bull elk!

a moose!

a moose!

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

At this point in the story, I suspect a normal exhausted person would have taken a day to recover from the hard work, possibly sleeping in, but I tend to push myself when I’m traveling.  I don’t want to spend my time sleeping when there are mountains to climb! So, I hauled my tired butt out of my sleeping bag at 6:00, broke camp, and headed out to a trail for a 10-mile hike.

Grand Teton at Sunrise

Grand Teton at Sunrise

The morning light gave me a new look at the mountains – their shape and character changes subtly throughout the day as the light moves over new faces and into canyons.

Tired as I was, getting up really early turned out to be a great decision.  All the hiking information in the park contains strict admonitions not to hike alone due to the presence of bears.  I didn’t have a traveling or hiking partner, so after consulting with a ranger I’d planned to go up the trail armed with bear spray and plan to stick close to other hikers on the popular trail.  However, I was in luck – I met another solo hiker at the trailhead and we agreed to hike together.

Hiking buddy!

Hiking buddy!

It only took about an hour of conversation for us to discover that we were both Couchsurfers and on road trips in opposite directions – I was going east, he was headed West.  It was a serendipitous meeting that wouldn’t have happened if I’d slept in the way I wanted to!

Surprise Lake panorama

Surprise Lake panorama

The views at the top – Surprise lake and Amphitheater lake – were lovely.  As we rested at Amphitheater lake, a gentle rain crossed the ridge and made its way east, gently dimpling the surface of the lake with perfect rings that gradually spread out and crossed each other over and over.

Amphitheater Lake

Amphitheater Lake

I wish I’d had the energy to follow the spur trail up to the peak pictured above – an additional 2,000 feet of climbing, with the top of the mountain just brushing the clouds.  Starting a hike like that with uncertain weather is not the best idea, either, so I passed on the opportunity this time.

Indian paintbrush flowers

Indian paintbrush flowers

I didn’t find the trail particularly exotic, but we were treated to beautiful scenery.  The park has had a late spring this year, and wildflowers blanket the trail corridors at various elevations.  I also happened upon a beautiful leather belt that someone had abandoned on the hike.  Good strong leather, it must have been made for a woman, because it was the right length for me, and tooled with ducks and wetland scenery.

After 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I was seriously worn out.  Couchsurfer and I decided on a drink in Jackson, then headed to a campground by a developed hot spring, where I’d originally planned on staying on my way into the park.

I’ve been spoiled by many visits to beautiful undeveloped and remote springs, so I was a little unimpressed by the large concrete swimming pool “hot spring” that required a $6 entry fee.  However, even the grumpy hot spring snob in me had to admit that the warm water felt amazing after two days of hard work.  We soaked and floated in the water for about an hour, and enjoyed a hilarious conversation with a very drunk group of middle-aged ladies who had snuck vodka into the pool in their water bottles and were having a fantastic time splashing around in the spring and making snarky comments about the fat tourists.

The next day we headed north to Yellowstone, separately – planning to meet again in the next park, both of us a little lonely from our days spent traveling solo.  I left the mountains for the time being, still not entirely understanding them, and promising to come back.

Teton Range