6 Trips to Machu Picchu

We made it! Amy and I reached Machu Picchu after hiking all day long for four days. Huayna Picchu is the peak above my head and the clouds. I climbed it the next day.

It’s been over a month since I last posted because I’ve been busy having fun, traveling and celebrating my 53rd birthday! Amy and I have done six overnight trips since I last wrote in March. Some of the trips were designed as training for the Inca Trail and some were all about having a great time and seeing new places. So while I posted a few things to Facebook, I have been neglecting this website. I have been doing so many things that I haven’t had time to write. It’s still hard to tell you what’s been going on, but here’s an overview of the trips and some pics.

We took 10 overnight trips from Cusco from February 25-May 9th. March was still the rainy season, so we stayed in the lower elevations (under 14,000′) during this month. In April, we started going to higher elevations with hikes over 16,000′ and peaks over 20,000′.

Trip 5 (the other 4 trips were before my last blog) was one of the most beautiful and it was highest trip that we took. We spent a day with the ancient Chari people who showed us how they make yarn out of wool and weave them into socks and sweaters. This sweet girl went to some ruins with us.

Fanny accompanied us to some Incan ruins and posed for this pic.
From Cusco, we went south to the Chari Community for a night. Then we took a long ride up to rainbow mountain. The dirt road was very bumpy and windy and went to over 15,000′. Then we had to climb over a thousand feet to a lookout with a thousand people on top.
Amy and I are overlooking Rainbow mountain that is over 17,000′ high. It’s too bad the sun wasn’t shining on the vertical layers or rock or they would have really popped. This picture does a good job of blocking out the hundreds of people who were on top of the mountain. You can see the steady stream of people coming up on the right.
These two girls dress up in their traditional clothes and get suckers like me to pay them for photos. It took a few shots before I got this one to smile. They ran sure-footedly by me and many others going down the mountain after they got enough money for the day.

The sixth trip we took from Cusco was to Ausangate mountain that towers to 6,384 meters or 20,940′. That’s pretty high so this mountain has some major glaciers on it. We stayed at a lodge in Pacchanta at over 14,000′. It’s pretty cold up there at night, but the hot springs there were superb! Check out this picture of my toes and the mountain.

Hot springs and cold mountains! This place was unbelievable and I’m going to write a blog just about this trip and the alpaca herder and Jesuit priest that we drank some wine with.
The red line shows the six hour bus ride to Tinki. Then we took an hour taxi to Pacchanta where we found a hotel and the hot springs. From there, we hiked the purple line to the foot of Ausangate mountain. The elevation here is extreme and was a great acclimatization for Machu Picchu.
Amy really liked this place and we couldn’t get enough pictures of it. We’d constantly look up at this beauty of a mountain and want to take its picture.

Trip 7 was to the trailhead of the classic Salkantay trek. This trek isn’t regulated like the Inca Trail, so companies are building lodges all along this trek. We stayed at a the trailhead of Soraypampa that enabled us to hike to Lake Humantay and then up to the pass at over 15,000′ in the rain. The rainy season hadn’t quite left the upper elevations in April.

That’s Salkantay mountain from my hammock in the lodge. The lodge was very shoddy and major drafts poured in through long cracks in the particle board walls.
We took a long, winding bus ride to Mollepata (the red and orange lines) and then a 4WD taxi (green line) to the trailhead of the Salkantay Trail where we stayed for 3 nights. This let us hike to the beautiful Lake Humantay that has a deep, glacier green color. The glaciers melt and cascade down cliffs into the lake. The next day we hiked to the pass below Salkantay Peak (see the longer purple line), but it was raining the whole time.
A better picture of Mount Salkantay at sunset.
Lake Humantay was amazing. The color of the lake was more apparent when we hiked on the ridge to our left.
The dappled sunlight makes the lake a variety of colors.

The 8th trip was to the ancient Incan city of Ollantaytambo. This ancient Incan city is the only inhabited one that features the original layout of the city. Massive stones were used throughout the complex. Channels of water run down several of the streets and the old town looks over the ruins that are built into the side of the mountain.

Here’s an example of the rock constructions of the old town. The bush with legs down the alley is a guy carrying a load of brush. There are no cars in this section of town so people have to carry everything in by hand.
These students walk the ancient Incan trails that run through Ollantaytambo. The house we stayed in is above the wall on the right. These are the original Incan walls and one of the many channels of water that run through town can be seen at the right of this path.
Amy is hiking to the Colcas or storage units that the Incas built high above the town of Ollantaytambo. They had massive storage for their corn and potatoes and I pity the laborer who had to haul bushels of corn and potatoes up these steep hills.
We took a private taxi and it only took us 1 hour to get to the ancient city of Ollantaytambo when he took the new road that follows the train tracks.

For my birthday, I wanted to get to some warm weather and some hot springs that are downriver from Machu Picchu. I picked Santa Teresa without knowing what a pain in the ass it would be to get there. We took an excruciating 8 hour bus ride to the small outpost that sits at the convergence of three rivers.

Here’s Amy tempting fate for a cheap thrill. She said she zipped for my birthday. Now that’s love!
On this zip across the rive gorge, they wanted us to hang upside down, so I did.
Santa Teresa is a very remote place and we had to take the worst bus ride yet to get here. This was the only bus ride where I was ready to heave. I did survive the ride to zipline across one of the many gorges – 4 times!

We returned to Cusco for a few days after my birthday expedition and then embarked on our climactic journey to Machu Picchu. I’ll write a whole blog about this 5 day trek, but here are a few pics.

This picture was taken on top of Huayna Picchu that overlooks Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu means young mountain while Machu Picchu means old mountain. Machu Picchu is the light green colored area above the bushes on the right. The 1,500′ dropoff around Huayna Picchu is amazing and the reason why they built this secure location in the clouds.
The Inca Trail snakes through some of the steepest country I’ve ever been in. The trail went up and down these amazing ridges in endless series of steps. These are some typical ruins behind us.
Our guide Elias is telling us about the ancient ruin of Patallacta that is visible in the valley below us. Here are six of the people traveling with us – two Koreans sushi chefs on the right, two Aussies behind them and two Durango Coloradans on each side of Elias.
The purple line shows where we hiked for four days. The red line is the bus going up and down some switchbacks to the small town of Agua Caliente. The yellow line is the train that follows the deep gorge carved by the Urubamba river.

That’s a recap of what’s been going on. We’ve already been to Lake Titicaca and are now in the city of Arequipa. Tomorrow we leave on another journey to the deepest canyon in the world to see some condors.

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Building with Geometry

I’ve always been interested in geometry. The world is made of it and it combines with math in amazing ways. Amy and I took a class in Sacred Geometry in Pisac, Peru where the Incans used to live. We had a great time tying a bunch of straws together with fishing line to make some killer platonic solids.

You might wonder what platonic solids are. They were actually known before Plato and Pythagorus was probably the one who discovered it, but Plato gets the credit for it since he wrote about them in 350BC!

I’m going to keep this post short so that hopefully you’ll look at the attached presentation that shows how we made this cool structure. Here is the powerpoint file that shows how we made this monster.

Here I am with the finished creation- an octahedron inside a tetrahedron inside a cube inside a dodecahedron inside a Great Icosahedron inside a icosahedron inside a small triambic icosahedron. Now that’s a mouthfull!
Amy is holding the first three platonic solids that are tied together. It’s a octahedron inside a tetrahedron inside a cube.

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Incan Ruins Near Cusco

This wall in Sacsaywaman has the form of a snake built into it.

The Incans were prolific builders and were masters at building things of stone that would last. They built roads, temples, palaces, fortifications, and terraces on top of prominent mountains in the Andes. The amazing aspect of the structures is the precision stonework that has lasted for over 500 years and shows minimal signs of decay. They didn’t use mortar or concrete between the stones and built them to resist earthquakes and water erosion so that they last.

Many of the stone, Incan foundations can still be seen in Cusco. Most of the buildings have been destroyed, but the foundations made of tons of stones still exist. Many of the walking alleys in the old town are lined with amazing boulders that are stacked on top of each other like sardines. The stones are composed of hard rocks like granite or andesite and are custom carved to fit the surrounding stones. Custom building each stone must have taken patience and hard work that is very uncommon anymore.

Many of the ruins are located in the mountains above Cusco and in the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is a gorge carved out of the Andes by the Urubamba River. The gorge is spectacularly deep and over sixty miles long between Pisac to Machu Picchu.  Everyone knows about Machu Picchu and the dramatic ridge that it sits on. We are going to backpack their starting May 2nd as the climax of our time in Peru. I’m going to tell you about some of the other ruins that we’ve seen now.

To see the ruins in the mountains above Pisac, we had to buy one ticket for over $40 that got us into sixteen ruins or museums. Being the spendthrifts that Amy and I are, we decided to get our money’s worth and go to all sixteen sites. Here is the list of some of the worst and best:

Worst –  Centro Cusco De Arte Nativo – Native dancers twisted back and forth to make their skirts go up and down for an hour. It was very repetitive with similar costumes and weak dancing. I saw better dancing and better costumes on the streets of Cusco.

Museo Historico Regional – This historic museum had broken pots and arrowheads from pre-Incan times.  They also have a few dioramas that look like a high schoolers made.

Puka Pukara – Some old, overgrown Incan walls that were prominent on a little ridge. Skip this one.

Moray – The Incans built this jewel of a site around a sinkhole – basically a lake that drains underground through some caverns. The Incans filled the caverns with rocks and then made a flat, circular terrace on top of it. They built concentric terraces around the bottom of the sinkhole that climb up the ridge. See the pictures for a better explanation.

Moray is very photogenic. I wish I could see it during a big rainstorm when the water cascades down to the bottom.

My favorite tour guide/author Peter Frost reports that crops were not grown on the terraces because the soil wasn’t good and there wasn’t irrigation to the site. He thinks the Inca rulers probably built this on a whim to celebrate the inverted mountain that the sinkhole made. The Incans seemed to direct many things like this to make sites sacred and interesting. They worshipped many beautiful places with rockwork and buildings.

Pisaq or Pisac Ruins – This ruin is extensive and we had to hike for over 2 miles from the top to the bottom. The ruins overlook the Sacred Valley and the temples have exquisite stonework and running water.

Amy is looking out from the temples at Pisac.

Ollantaytambo – This ruin was mainly a fortification and is the location where the Incans actually repelled the Spanish in a battle. The Spanish were on their horses and they flooded the roads leading into the town so that the calvary got bogged down and could be shot with arrows.  The site also has some storehouses with thatched roofs so that I could see what the old buildings looked like when they were in use.

The terraces were fortifications here on a steep ridge.

Saqsaywaman – This site, that is roughly pronounced “Sexy woman”, overlooks Cusco and has some of the most massive stone works I’ve seen yet.  Only 20% of the original site is left, but it is still impressive.  The largest stone is 28 feet high and weighs 361 tons!  It seems like an impossible task to work with such stones.

That’s the 361 ton rock behind us.

One rebellion against the Spaniards was headquartered here and it tuned into the site of a major battle.  I read a few accounts and the most dramatic said that about fifty Spanish Calvary killed about 1,500 Incan soldiers.  It seems more like a massacre where the Spanish were rather invincible in their armor and weaponry.  The dead were not buried for a long time and many Andean Condors came and ate the dead bodies.  The Spanish made the Cusco coat of arms with 8 condors around an Incan tower to commemorate the Battle of Saqsaywaman.  The coat was used until the 1990s when an indigenous movement replaced it with a feline design.

We saw many more ruins that are on and off the ticket.  Check out these pictures and videos to get a feel for some more of the Incan remnants.

Here is a fast-action video clip of many of the Incan sites.
At an Incan gateway in Ollantaytambo. I guess they were quite a bit shorter than me.
Amy in a niche.
Some fountains in Tipon.
Some ponds that capture the salt from the spring on the left.

Second Anniversary of Grace’s Passing

Two years ago, my wife of almost nineteen years took her last, gasping breath and passed into the other world.  She had succumbed to pancreatic cancer that had spread into her liver.  She had been sick for almost nine months, but had been rather healthy for the previous forty-six years.  She had run marathons, hiked up mountains, traveled the world and cooked many great meals before passing into the next realm. 

So is she really gone? 

I don’t think so.  As long as people remember her and think of her, she is still alive in our hearts.  The movie Coco said that we don’t really pass as long as someone on Earth still holds them in their heart.

This was Grace at her last Christmas being a clown.

I was in a deep meditative state last week and I felt Grace’s presence. She was on my left side with her head resting peacefully on my chest.  This is how we both loved to be.  To rest in each other’s arms and feel each other.  We did this almost every morning when we would say, “Every Morning!” to each other.  If one of us got up early, the last one to get up would call them back to bed with “Every Morning!” so that we would have our affectionate moment together and wake up on a loving note. 

Grace and I would take this to an extreme sometimes and call out wildly for the other.  We’d throw a temper tantrum and kick our legs up and down and scream like a baby for the other’s love.  We always had fun doing this and the other would always oblige by dropping whatever they were doing and come back for the other.

These intimate moments are what I miss the most.  I also miss traveling with her, having a great meal, having a bottle of wine, going on a long hike in the mountains or an urban hike to Franceschi Park.  We did many great things together and gave each other freedom to do our own things as well.

After Grace laid by my side, I missed her and sat up and cried.  I knew that I didn’t have her anymore, but I did have her family still.  I immediately thought of Grace’s niece Mei Lan who was with me the day Grace passed.  When I sat and watched Grace who was completely still, I started sobbing. Mei Lan came and comforted me.  My love was gone, but I was still here. 

How does anyone deal with or comprehend a loss of someone so close.  There is no one answer.  My heart physically hurt for months after her passing.  I read an article months later that found how the hearts of people who lost someone are very vulnerable to heart attacks and other heart problems.  I felt like damaged goods.  The loss was so profound that it took months before the hole in my heart began to feel. 

Eventually, I resumed some of my hobbies like travel and bought an RV that was very similar to the one Grace and I had and lived in for a year.  The first place I took it was to Faria Beach Park on the coast north of Ventura. I had never been there, but dreamed of going there for many of the months when Grace was sick.  It was my dream of paradise and I found comfort there.  I was going to take Grace there, but we never got to fly back to America.  After the beach, I took the RV to the mountains.  I was alone most of the time, but my sister, brother and David and Mianne Sell did come and visit me there.  I came to some level of peace by then and my brother helped me move on by signing me up for Match.com.  Nothing ever came of my search there, but I did find Amy through my friend Phil. 

Now Amy and I are traveling the world for a year.  We are currently in the Sacred Valley of Peru and have been to Columbia and will go to Chile.  Amy and I are very close and we are both very happy to have each other.  Our relationship is unique and we both love to take photographs of new places and we are ready to pay the price to get there.  The price is not only time, but the effort to go to remote places on long days on buses, taxis, trains, planes and mostly our feet.  I’m trying to document my trips on my website www.skippstrips.com and facebook.  I hope you can follow along and keep up.

Grace is still with me in my heart and in my thoughts.  I know she inspired me to do more with my life.  I’m still here and moving on with my life the best I can.  I hope you do the same and know that Grace would want that of you.

Love,

Scott

PS. My niece had a reading with a psychic last week, and Grace was the first one who came to her.  The medium said Grace wanted us to know that she was fine and that she wants me to be OK.  Grace was happy that I found Amy and that she sent me Amy to find happiness and joy.  Grace was cooking something in a bowl and I think it is appropriate since she was always cooking something up.

Two Old Travel Books

I just finished Jules Verne book Around the World in 80 Days.  If you haen’t read it or seen the movies, it’s a classic travel adventure novel based in 1872 where the London-gentleman Phileas Fogg makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days.  Jules dreamed up the book in a Parisian café after seeing an advertisement for taking an around the world tour.  The book is a good page turner and based in real places with the fictional characters.  The Skyler series of books that I’m writing will be similar and have Skyler travel to real places in each book.

The Jules Verne book was intriguing because of how Phileas went around the world on the latest technologies of steamships and trains.  The novel was based on the ability to be an around-the-world tourist because of the completion of the Transcontinental railroad and the Suez Canal.  I like the historical descriptions of various places from Suez to Bombay, Hong Kong to Yokohama and San Francisco to Salt Lake City.  The book is a great time capsule of the people and places in the book.

In Around the World in 80 Days, Phileas is not the least bit interested in the countries that he passes through and just jumps from train to boat and back.  He does fall in love on the journey with an Indian woman he saves from the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.  In the end, Jules says that finding his love was more important to Phileas than winning the $20,000 pound bet that is equivalent to over $2,000,000 today.

Last month, I finished Mark Twain’s book Innocents Abroad where Twain and a bunch of tourists went to Europe, Middle East and Africa on a steamer in 1867.  The book is a compilation of letters that he wrote for a newspaper about the trip.  Twain’s sarcasm and humor made it the best-selling book during his life – more than Huckleberry Finnn!  The book is one of the best-selling travel books of all time and gave Twain the freedom to waste his money on many money-losing ventures.

I’m taking note of the techniques in these books and how Twain and Verne made me laugh and kept me listening (I download audio books).  Around the World in 80 Days is much more similar to what I want to write since it develops characters and a plot instead of just Twain’s remarks of going from place to place. I want the places to be the background and influence the characters, but I still want the characters to be the driving force in the story.  I hope to learn from these masters so that I can be a great author as well.

PS. I also read a current travel adventure novel in the Jack Reacher series.  The book was interesting and I liked the mystery/detective part of the book, but I didn’t like the military aspect and couldn’t relate to the seriousness of Jack.  He was a little too James Bondish for me too.

House of Dreams and Reality

In the mountain town of Villa de Leyva, Colombia, Amy and I stayed in an Airbnb house that is appropriately called Casa Realidad y Ensueno. That translates to “The House of Reality and Dreams” and is named after a poetry book by the host’s great grandfather. The house covers about two acres and has about twenty buildings, loads of decorations and beautiful art that makes the place feel like a dream. The complex includes the main house, a barn, a Beatles man cave, a glass bedroom on a boulder, a chapel, a breakfast nook and a Fairyland.  The place is amazing and I want to tease you with a few pictures.

Here’s a stairwell that uses green-glass bottles for lighting.
This is the outside of Fairlyland at night. Check out the pumpkins, mushrooms and rabbits in the foreground.
Here are some of the fairies in Fairyland with their house in the background.
Here’s the main hallway with a few roosters lined up to greet you.

The Airbnb hosts are Natalia and Juan who have an amazingly cute little three year-old daughter named Mariana. When we arrived on a Thursday afternoon, they barely had time to say hello before they left for Bogota where they were born and went to college.  Amy and I were left in the complex wondering how this young couple had collected and decorated the house with so many things.  They had told me that they had only lived here for four months after living in Taiwan for nine years and Bogota for two, so I wondered how they got so much stuff and who made the artwork – mainly dioramas.

Here’s a little diorama of unicorns with fairies on them.

Amy and I had most of the crazily decorated house to ourselves for the long weekend.  With the owners gone, we had the full grounds to ourselves.  We got to enjoy the hammock cabana with beautiful views of the valley and mountain.  The house was built to entertain and the kitchen sat eight while the ornate dining room sat ten more. We were the only people in the breakfast nook that seats 16 people inside and 12 more outside. A nice Colombian woman lived on the property and made us breakfast, but she couldn’t explain the crazy house.

Here’s the hammock cabana with views of the mountains in the background.
The stagecoach on the left has its own shelter. Their private chapel has a bell tower in the middle of the picture. Some swings are on the right and they have a full playground for kids.
Here’s the breakfast nook where we were served breakfast every morning. For events, I’m sure this would serve as a great bar.

When Natalia and Juan returned from Bogota on the Monday, they shared a bottle of wine with us and told us how Juan’s parents had decorated the house over the last 18 years.  Juan and Natalia started renting out six rooms on Airbnb and had just finished upgrading the property with a commercial kitchen to host events like weddings.  Juan’s parents had always entertained lots of guests over the years and many of them had given their parents collectibles, but most of the stuff was bought by them. The collectibles had accumulated to a crazy collection of hearts, crosses, fairies, roosters, Beatles-memorabilia and much more.

Here’s an example of some quirky artwork that is everywhere.
Just a little detail on a wall outside.

Juan and Natalia were full of energy and told us all about Colombia, South America and their home. The original builder of the house was famous for using green wine bottles in the walls as windows and for lighting.  Their neighborhood is full of other artists’ homes and the most famous one is the Casa Terracotta house that is right across the street. (I made this video about that crazy house.) They told us how Juan’s mother had made a lot of the art in the house.  She makes dioramas like this manger scene over a boulder that forms part of the foundation of the home.  There are too many of these creations to see in one night, so they agreed to show us the property the next night over some more wine and other intoxicants.

This manger scene is on a boulder that is about 15′ long. They have lighting built right into the complex.

The next night, we started with wine, coca tea, local delicacies and some fine aguardiente Nectar Azul.  Aguardiente is a distilled spirit and Bogota is known for a special anise-infused one known as Nectar Azul.  I’m not into drinking straight, strong spirits like whiskey or brandy, but this Nectar Azul was delicious right out of the bottle.  The anise isn’t overpowering like ouzo or Sambuca, and we all agreed that it is refreshing.  Juan lined up some shots and they went down really well.  With a good buzz going, Juan lead us to some special rooms and buildings that only special guests get to see. 

The first stop was Fairyland.   Fairyland is a very small shack that features a diorama with all kinds of fairies that Juan’s mother collected and arranged in a landscape.  She enhances the base fairies with paints or adds things to them to make them very special.   Here’s another picture of Fairyland that doesn’t do it justice.

Here’s a nice shot of the house for more fairies.

After Fairlyland, they took us to the barn that is probably 10’x16’ and full of animatronic farm animals.  Animated cows, chickens and pigs are in the barn with sound effects.   She even recreates a scene from Charlotte’s Web with a pig climbing on a fence to look up at Charlotte the spider dangling from the ceiling. The barn has a loft with more pigs and chickens clucking away. 

You can see the spider Charlotte right above the nose of Wilbur the pig. The cows moved their heads back and forth and wagged their tails.

The next stop was Juan’s father Beatle-themed man cave.  The walls of the man cave were covered with custom paintings of the Beatles and thousands of dollars’ worth of memorabilia.  It was an amazing tribute to the Beatles with drums, guitars, microphones and more. We should have done some karaoke, but we settled for listening to the Beatles and having some more aguardiente. We hung out there till the wee hours of the morning listening to the Fab 4.

A custom painting of the FAB4.
Amy looking up at the disco ball in the Beatle man cave.

I can’t begin to tell you how warm and inviting Natalie and Juan were to us.  Amy and I had such a memorable and relaxing stay there that we plan to go back.  There is plenty of room at the House of Reality and Dreams, so please come along!

Here we are with Juan and Natalia in the Beatle man cave.

Here’s a drone video of the house that they made. The cover picture is of the glass bedroom that is built right on top of a boulder.

Here’s the kitchen with great lighting and views of the mountains.
Here’s the main entrance to the home and you can see the green glass bottles used in the walls.
Some nice ironwork looking out from the dining room.
Here’s the main living room with a knight.
This was our colorful bathroom.

They have a website here with a lot more photos. Most of these photos were taken by Amy. Thanks!

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The Long Trail to the Paramo

Frailejones sunflowers thrive high in the Andes in the ecosystem known as the paramo.
Amy took close up of a new fern frond.

Amy and I hiked to the legendary Laguna de Iguaque (Iguaque Lake) that local Muisca Indians say is the birthplace of humanity.  The grueling hike climbed 2,700’ or 900 meters to 12,500’ high into the Andes.  We hiked through rain forest and above tree line to the paramo – a high alpine region where the ancient lake hangs in a box canyon.  We hiked all day though muddy trails in the rain forest, up long, steep, rocky falls and above the trees to the hidden lake.  This is the first time Amy hiked over 12,000’ and it was worth it!  We’re getting closer to being ready to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu that will go over 13,800’.

To get to the trail, we ordered a 4WD truck taxi for seven am sharp – pretty early for me. When we got to the front gate of our Airbnb at 6:58, Caesar, our taxi driver, was backing up his dusty truck to pick us up.  Caesar told us how he hiked in the mountains all the time and already did an hour hike that morning starting at 5am.  We spoke in broken Spanish and English as we drove along the Andes.

After only a few minutes on bumpy, dirt roads, we got stuck behind an 18-wheeler that kicked up so much dust that it looked like we were driving through thick brown fog.  People waiting on the side of the road for the bus held handkerchiefs to their faces as the dust cloud enveloped them.  Caesar couldn’t pass and had to back off from the dust cloud so we could see.  Now I knew why his truck was covered in so much dust.

After a few minutes behind the semi, Caesar turned onto an even smaller mountain road to Iguaque Sanctuary of Flora and Fauna (SFF Iguaque) that was designed to preserve the historic and unique ecosystem around the lake.  We got to the ranger station at 7:40 and had to wait for 20 minutes to pay 52,500 Columbian Pesos ($17) per person to enter the park.  A ranger told us that it should take us three hours to get up and three hours to get back.  We hit the trail at 8am.

The trail was a cobblestone path for the first mile and difficult to walk on.  We crossed over a clear running stream at 2,900 meters or 9,500’ – about the elevation of Breckenridge, CO.  The trail turned into hard packed dirt and mud through a high rain forest. The forest was so thick that we could only see a few feet into the trees.  Butterflies and a few birds could barely fly though the forest that was a mixture of bamboo, vines and moss covered trees.  Ferns, orchids and other arboreal plants were thick in the trees like shown in this picture.

Some arbroeal plants are growing on the tree limb. On the left is some thick bamboo.
Some pretty pink flowers.

We climbed over tree roots and small mud puddles for the next couple miles and the trail always climbed.  Amy used her new hiking poles for the first time and they helped her navigate the rough trail. After a couple of hours in the forest, the trees thinned and we reached a rock fall that would be a beautiful cascade if a river ran over it.  The rock fall turned out to be the trail and this is where I felt in my element climbing from rock to rock.  Amy wasn’t used to this type of climbing at over 11,000’ and she was winded and tired climbing over and around the rocks.  The rocky ridge rose at about a fifty degree incline for 800 vertical feet.  When we finally reached the top at over 12,000’, we were in the paramo where no trees grow.  Without trees, we had expansive views over the surrounding mountain ranges to distant mountain ranges or cordilleras as they’re known here. 

Amy next to a flowering bush.
These flowers fell on the ground, so I picked them up and put them in my hand.
Amy took this picture of me hiking up the trail surrounded by mossy tree roots.

The high Andes have been separated from the rest of the world for a long time and a unique ecosystem known as the paramo has developed over the eons.  The paramo is too cold and windy to grow trees (tree line is defined by the altitude where trees can’t grow anymore because it’s too cold), so special plants grow here that can thrive the cold.  The main thing the plants use to survive the cold seems to be fur.  Like animals that live in the snow, these plants have a furry texture that helps them trap the sunlight and keep them warm enough to photosynthesize. 

The most distinct plant is the frailejones – a perennial sunflower that grows to 10’ tall.  We were lucky because these Joshua Tree-like posts were in bloom.  Surrounded by furry leaves that look like rabbit ears, each frailejones sported yellow bouquets that teamed with bees.  Special bees lives in this high country and pollinate the flowers. Here are a few pictures from the unique environment.

Here’s a video of many of the plants and flowers on the trek.

The trail flattened, and we traversed the mountain towards the lake.  We had spectacular views looking down on farmer’s fields thousands of feet below in the valley. The trail wandered into a box canyon where the lake sits.

The lake is very historic because of the Muisca creation myth about the lake.  The Muisca people were one of the four great pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas with the other three being the Maya, Aztec and Inca.  The Muisca myth says that the goddess Bachue came out of the lake with a boy in her arms.  When the boy grew up into a man, she married him and they made passionate love.  They loved each other many times and populated the world.  When the man got old and it was time for him to die, the happy couple went back into the lake in the form of snakes.  Kind of an interesting creation myth like the Garden of Eden.

We ate lunch in the beautiful valley overlooking the lake.  We were tired because of the three and a half strenuous hour hike up.  It took us a half an hour longer than what the park ranger said, so I began to worry that we would miss our bus back home. If we missed the last bus, we’d have to hitchhike and I don’t think Amy would have liked that!  We had four hours to get down to the bus stop – which was an hour below where Caesar had dropped us off at the park entrance.  

We made good time until we reached the rock fall.  Amy struggled with her short, tired legs to get down some of the rocks.  She slipped and fell a few times on her butt, but Amy is persistent and quick.  She mustered her strength and kept going to meet the bus. We made it to the ranger station in two and a half hours – an hour faster than it took us to go up.  I hoped that someone could give us a ride from there, but no cars were there and they didn’t have a phone to call Caesar.  We’d have to walk another hour.

There was little time to rest so we started down the mountain road.  The rugged road was much easier to hike than the trail and we made it to the bus stop by 3:30 by hiking the last distance in about 45 minutes.  We had 30 minutes to spare.  All that worry about missing the bus for nothing.  The bus turned out to be 30 minutes late too, so we sat at the bus stop for an hour! 

We made it to the main square of Villa de Leyva in perfect time for happy hour.  We ate an empanada and drank some German beers while the sun set on the square.  Amy did a great job and has changed a lot in the year she has met me.  She used to call herself a city girl, but now she’s climbing above 12,000’ to see the shallow lake where humanity began for the Muisca.

Amy hiking up the trail.
Here’s where we had lunch. The lake is seen right above our heads.
Here’s the 9th station out of 10. We were in the paramo and you can see the frailejones scattered across the hillside.
Here’s the last picture of the hike taken from the bus stop. That’s a millstone behind Amy’s head.
Amy crossing the creek at the start of the hike.

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A Month In Lima

Diego flew me over the cliffs of Lima in his parasail for about $75. A steady breeze made it easy for us to climb up above the high-rise apartments near where we stayed for a wonderful month.

Amy and I spent an amazing month working, relaxing and exploring Lima, Peru.  We took our time to enjoy the best parts of Lima while learning Spanish.  The month abroad was my exploration of a new way to work and live in a furnished apartment in a foreign place.  We were able to work, relax, write, exercise, learn and have fun in our temporary home in a great city.

Highlights of the month:

  • Soaring over the cliffs and hihg-rise of Lima in a parasail
  • Learning Spanish from a professional for $10/hour/person
  • Great meals in the culinary capital of the Americas for a third to half the price of meals in the US
  • Great furnished apartment for $1,200/month
  • Time to read and relax
  • Great workouts hiking up and down the cliffs of Lima
Here’s some seafood paella and a jug of lemonade that we ate above the esplanade that overlooks the cliffs where I parasailed. A meal and drinks for two that would cost between $50-80 in the US cost about $25-40 in Lima. We could eat a good lunch for $3.

Lima has about ten million people and a rich history dating back to 1535 when the Spanish Conquistador Pizarro claimed it.  Lima was the viceroyalty or capital of the Spanish territories in South America and has excellent museums.  Lima is set on a plane that ends abruptly in 300’ cliffs that fall to the ocean.  High rise apartments tower above the cliffs and a long park or esplanade is a great place to walk and watch Limons walk their dogs and exercise. We rented an Airbnb apartment that was one block away from these cliffs.  While we didn’t have ocean views, we had comfortable home with a doorman for about a third of the price that I’d pay in Santa Barbara.

This pic shows the extent of the high-rise in Lima that stretched to the horizon. I think most of the apartments near us were second homes or unoccupied because there weren’t many people on the streets.

The apartment was in the Miraflores district which is considered the nicest part of the city and where most of the tourists go and foreigners live.  We were within walking distance of many superb restaurants and interesting places like the Choco Museum where we took a cooking class or John F. Kennedy Parque.  We could easily get a taxi for under $5 to nearby neighborhoods like Barranco or downtown.  We also took some crowded buses to downtown Miraflores for $0.30, but we got tired of the crowded buses that got stuck in traffic when we could spend $3 on a taxi and miss the hassles. Our Spanish teacher told us that taxi drivers might rob us, so we ended up taking Uber which was even cheaper. The only downside of Uber was that we often had to wait up to 10 minutes to get a ride. We could take longer, express buses downtown, but ended up taking taxis.

We took our Spanish teacher Julio out for some fresh juice in the Buena Vista Cafe that is perched on the cliffs on the edge of Lima.

Our Spanish teacher Julio came to our apartment and taught us in 2-hour stretches for $40. That breaks down to $10/hour for the both of us.  Julio was a nice, middle-aged man who had acted and done voice-overs for much of his career.  He had lived in Pueblo, Colorado for 8-years and was helpful to get our survival Spanish flowing.  We’ve been using Duolingo on our phones to learn Spanish, but Amy and I both tend to freeze when we want to speak to a live Peruvian.   While we were pretty good at speaking to the phone, Julio helped us speak to actual people.  We still have a long way to go on our Spanish, but I have used Duolingo for 28-days straight now.

I am pretty pleased with how easy it was to get around in our broken Spanish.  Spanish is pretty easy to read – especially when we have Google and Google translate when we’re ordering food. I learned to negotiate with taxi drivers before I started using Uber.  Conversations were rather limited and most Peruvians spoke English about as good as most people in Taiwan – my reference country.  So there was a significant language barrier, but I could read plaques of signs much better than I can Chinese.

Speaking of reading, I started doing that again while I was in Lima.  I usually don’t make the time to do such casual things as read, but I found the time in Lima.  I enjoyed reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and lots of online content.  We had excellent WiFi in the apartment and could stream movies on Netflix or Amazon with Amy’s Chromecast or the built in TV apps.  We also had good cellphone service via a local carrier for about $25 for the month.

In addition to reading, I also did quite a bit of work in Lima.  I finished editing the third and fourth editions of my new novel Beyond the Cliffs of Death. I’ve printed a few copies and I’m sending it out for review.  Other work related things I had to do was coordinate repairing my flooded basement in Santa Barbara.  While Lima never gets rain – only drizzle, Santa Barbara has had 13 rainstorms since September 1st and has received their average rainfall for the year with a couple months to go in the rainy season.  My basement flooded in the worst storm and several inches of water got into the basement apartment.  I had to replace the lower 8” of drywall and put in new baseboards. My property managers handled most of it fir me, but I was able to communicate with them easily with Skype.

The catacombs below the San Francis Monastery in Lima featured bones arranged in this pit where they used to throw the bodies. Lim had tens of museums that we didn’t have time to see.

Besides being wetter, winter in Santa Barbara is also colder than Lima.  Every day in Lima had the highs in the upper 70s to mid 80s and lows in the upper 60s to low 70s.  Lima is close to the equator and tropical but considered a desert even though it was fairly humid.  Santa Barbara has mainly had highs in the 50s and 60s while lows have dropped into the 30s.  I won’t even discuss the harsh winter that my family in KC has been going through. 

The weather is so moderate in Lima, that the apartment doesn’t have heating or AC. We just opened the window and got mild breezes to blow through.  The temperature was fine for the first three weeks, but it got hot enough in the last week that had to sleep in the raw with a fan blowing over us to keep it cool enough to sleep.

The hottest we got was when we would exercise going up and down the cliffs to the ocean.  A nice set of 337 steps, or about 250 vertical feet, went down to the beach below our apartment. These steps were similar to the steps of Santa Monica where we used to work out a lot.  To get in shape for climbing Machu Picchu in May, I set a goal of climbing the cliffs 50 times.  It seemed pretty doable and I initially climbed the stairs two or three times for my workout at the start of the stay.  I accumulated about twenty hikes up the cliffs after two weeks when I was hit by traveler’s diarrhea (TD).  Most travelers to the developing world get afflicted by this scourge and we were prepared.  Amy and I brought a dose of Azithromycin and I decided to use mine after I’d lost about ten pounds and a week.  I’d take it earlier next time.

This Venezuelan refugee taught us how to cook ceviche and make the national drink of Peru – the Pisco Sour.

Anyway, the TD set my schedule back and I wasn’t sure if I could make my goal of fifty sets.  After I recovered, I had only done twenty sets and had six days to do thirty sets!  I was only doing four sets before I got sick, so I had to step up and get it done. 

Amy likes doing the steps in the morning while I prefer to work out at sunset when the breezes pick up. I decided to join her one morning and regretted it.  The winds weren’t blowing and I started sweating like a dog and overheating in the calm air after only two sets.  When the air is still, the humidity really got to me.  I had to quit after two sets and I felt like I was hungover while I wasn’t. 

Here are the stairs that climbed the cliff below our apartment. I figured that the 337 steps were about 250′, so I climbed over 12,500′ in my 50 sets.

I tried again about 6:00pm and knew the sun would set at 6:40.  Each set took about nine minutes, so I figured I’d go until sunset. There was a nice breeze off the ocean and it kept me cool while I watched the sun set over the Pacific. I felt great and did six sets without much difficulty as the lights turned on.  In the end, I did eight sets that day or about 2,000 vertical feet up and down.  Over the next few days, I reached my goal of 50, met some locals on the steps and got in shape.  I feel in much better shape after and know I wouldn’t have hiked that much if I hadn’t set a goal.

To summarize my month abroad, I got to spend some lovely time with Amy in a fairly exotic and lovely city. This was my first visit to South America and we loved it. We did leave Lima for a weekend getaway, but we could have stayed even longer in Lima.

Our next extended stay is 44 days in Cusco!

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Here’s a video of me parasailing over the cliffs of Lima.

The Barranco Collection

Have you done any karate yoga lately? They have it in Barranco.

Amy and I have been in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru for four weeks now and we leave for Bogota tomorrow.  We’ve had amazing food in Miraflores and it is very nice and fascinating.  We are staying in modern, high-rise apartments in the western section of Miraflores that overlooks cliffs that fall three hundred feet to the ocean.  The apartment is very conveniently located, relatively quiet and we have gotten a lot of work done here.  I finished the fourth revision of my new novel Beyond the Cliffs of Death and have sent it to the printer.

Besides a lost week of traveler’s diarrhea (TD), we have seen some amazing museums and a promenade overlooking the ocean.  I have never seen a more beautiful promenade than the one that goes along the cliffs one block away from our complex. The promenade is well used and so nice that there isn’t much exciting to write about. Talking about nice people walking their dogs, people working out or bicyclists almost running us down is rather pedestrian. I hoped something more exciting might happen and yesterday it finally did.

The district next to Miraflores is Barranco and is famous for its Spanish-colonial architecture. I had to look up the meaning of Spanish Colonial architecture is described as: marked by the contrast between the simple, solid construction demanded by the new environment and the Baroque ornamentation exported from Spain.

I had to look up baroque and I think this description from Wikipedia is appropriate: The Baroque style used contrast, movement, exuberant detail, deep colour, grandeur and surprise to achieve a sense of awe. The Barranco neighborhood was built as a resort area near the beach in the early 1900s and was designed to awe. Walking around Barranco made me feel like I was walking by presidential palaces and princely estates. The neighborhood has a Colonial feel to it that is hard to place.  The exciting thing about it is that many of the homes have been abandoned so that they are in a state of disrepair and have a lot of character.

This is the Museum of Pedro Osman. Pedro converted his casona into a lovely museum.
Lots of old VWs in Barranco
An old bug next to an older casona.

Walking by new high-rise after new high-rise in our neighborhood doesn’t inspire me to write much. Walking by a run down and graffiti-covered mansion, known as a casona here, gets my mind dreaming of what was and what could be. In Miraflores, I’m not bored by the white, gray, black and tan apartment complexes with their staged entrances, but they are so similar to what I can see in many cities in the US.  Do you want to hear about how they are almost the same as in the US?

Even if you do, I’m not going to write much more about it.

In Barranco, I see a skateboarder riding by worn down casonas and I have to take pictures like this.  I’m compelled to tell their story – or at least make one up.

Skateboarding by history.

I’m not complaining about staying in a nice apartment where I have a door man and food delivery, but Barranco is romantic and bohemian.  Many of the casonas have been converted into museums, restaurants, bars, boutique hotels and quaint shops.  I love their high ceilings, covered windows and elaborate constructions.  We can walk in many of them and have a drink or coffee and it is very open. It doesn’t ever rain here and it has been in the 80s every day and 70s at night.  The apartments here don’t need AC, heating or much of a roof except to keep the birds out.

The casona I want to talk about is a little boutique called Artesanias Las Pallas. Amy found the shop from here extensive research. We walked down a quiet Barranco side street past many nice homes to a shop that looked like any other house on the block.  I looked through the green, wrought-iron gate and saw a gray-haired woman sitting inside on the couch.  I asked if they were open and she buzzed me in.  Amy was a ways behind me taking photos as usual. 

The woman told me how she keeps the gate locked, so people can’t just wander in and out.  That way, she doesn’t need a security guard.  She spoke the Queen’s English and told me she had been living in Peru for 33 years. Her name was Mari and she grew up in Wales.  She had met a Peruvian man in Switzerland when she was studying to be a translator.  They got married, moved to Peru and had a couple children before he passed.  She stayed in Peru and now has grandchildren roaming in and out of the house.  She was a rather tall Welsh woman and stood upright with great posture.  I expected her to offer me high tea with her accent, but the offer never came.

This collection of chimney toppers is in Mari’s private garden. Her grandchildren found a baby hummingbird in this garden and they were nursing it back to life.

Mari had many of the regular Peruvian souvenirs like portable dioramas, alpaca wool hats, braided bracelets and tapestries – and we would eventually bought many of these items. Mari had very high quality products and told us how she worked with the artist to improve their quality.  She said many Peruvian souvenirs are made in China now, but hers were from Peru.

When she saw our keen interest, she took us out of the shop and into her home to show us her private collections.  Her collections of relics were packed on to shelves and in cabinets all around her high-ceilinged home.  She opened the green cabinet shown below and turned on lights on each shelf to show her collection off well.  We’ve been to some fine museums in Lima and her collections were at the same amazing level. She was glad to show us things that she said had collected over the decades.  She said you can’t find many of her things anywhere else.

Here are a few pictures of things around her home.

Mari has cabinets chock full of artifacts in her home. She was very proud to display them to us.
Zoomed in verison. Most of these things were carved from soft stone by Shaman.
Mari said the pottery on the upper left were influenced by the African slaves that were imported to Peru.

She told us the significance of many of the items and how shamans carved soft stones into healing stones that they gave to their patients.  She showed us African influences on some of the pottery from the imported slaves.  She showed us how Spanish and Moorish glazes were used on some pottery.  Amy and I got a private tour of museum-quality artifacts with the curator and collector herself.  By going to Mari’s shop, we finally got to see inside a casona and how the other half lives.

If you’re ever in Lima, go to Barranco and to Artesanias Las Pallas.

I bought this alpaca hat. I’m going to cut the pom poms off. Check out the weird musicians on the wall. These were for sale, but we didn’t buy them.

Powering Up with Qigong

I finished my 28-day retreat at Esalen Institute and wanted to share a peak experience with you. A peak experience to me is something that changes your life. My peak experience was practicing a new version of qigong.  I have practiced qigong since Grace made it her last wish for me, but the version that I learned at Esalen from Teja Bell is much more straight forward and powerful than the version that I learned in Taiwan. The qigong version Teja teaches is known as Radiant Heart Qigong (RHQ) and it involves simple movements that synchronize well with each breath.  I can now get energized with qigong in as little as 5 minutes!  The best thing that qigong does for me is improve my posture and it gives me lots of energy.

Esalen is perched on the cliffs of Big Sur.

Teja teaches sitting or standing qigong, so basically anyone who can move their arms can do it. The best part is that it is very easy to do.  Teja has made many qigong videos online and I suggest that you start with this one.

Teja does different versions of qigong each time and the one we did at Esalen was more active than the one in the video.  Teja’s lesson at Esalen was part of the Loving Awareness Retreat Week with Jack Kornfield headlining.  After lots of meditation, the group needed to get energized and Teja energized us in spades.  My friend Linda told me about attending the day before and said that it was amazingly powerful.

I was intrigued and had an edible, so I was ready for some amazement.  I walked across the Esalen campus to the Leonard Pavilion. As I approached the big white tent that is perched on a cliff over the ocean, I heard the seals barking in the distance and about a hundred people walking extremely slowly around the lawn. I felt like I was entering a world of slow motion as the meditating people took a step about every five seconds as they wandered in thought.  I joined the people walking in slow motion and found it to be another interesting form of meditation.

That’s the Leonard Pavilion in the middle of the picture.  This was taken at sunset on another night.

After about five minutes of that, the leaders rang a singing bowl to signify the start of Teja’s one-hour qigong session.  The meditators slowly walked back into the tent and took seats.

Teja took the stage and had us sit on the front edge of our seats.  I was surprised to see that he was Caucasian with a name like Teja. He has studied and practiced Buddhism and martial arts since the 1960s.  He has a fifth degree black belt in Aikido and has studied with the Dali Lama.  What stood out to me was his superb posture and calmness.  He was wearing a robe and a cap and didn’t have the hair that you’ll see in the videos.

Teja had us exhale our breath and hold our hands over our stomach.  Then with an inhale, we would move our hands up and out and then return them with each exhale.  He has developed a series of patterned movements that synchronize the inhale with extension and the exhale with retraction.  The simple movements had the effect of straightening my spine, tucking my tummy and broadening my shoulders.  I felt like a changed person after just a few minutes.

We continued doing different poses in the seated position and then we did some poses where we folded our thumbs in and wrapped our four fingers over it to form a fist that would break your thumb if you hit something. This slightly clenched pose was released after a while and it felt really good.  I felt energized and calm at the same time.

After about twenty minutes,  Teja had us move all the chairs to the edge of the room and we did a series of standing poses.  We could incorporate movement in our legs with the breath as well.  With the edible in full effect, Teja had us visualize our bodies starting at our feet and working our way up the body.  I closed my eyes and had visions like an Alex Gray painting.  I could see bright nodes of my body against a darker background than you can see in this painting.

We continued doing poses for the next twenty minutes and my arms were getting pretty tired.  Then, Teja had us arrange the chairs back to the way they were and we took our seats again. We did some sitting poses and more breath work until the hour was up. I had very peaceful feeling from the work and what really surprised me was how my posture was amazingly better. I’ve been kind of a slouch for most of my life and all of the sudden I was sitting up erect and comfortably. My spine was straight and my stomach was flat and my shoulders were back. I felt great mentally and physically!

I’ve had similar experiences doing yoga before, but my posture returned to slouching after a day.  For whatever reason, qigong has helped me keep my good posture for a few weeks now. I’m a changed man!

Amy likes doing the five minute qigong sessions with me as well. We just stand facing each other and start breathing and moving.  If I find myself slouching and with low energy, I do my qigong for 5 minutes and my back is straight and I have more energy.

There are over one hundred versions of qigong that are commonly practiced.  You can read more about qigong here.  The Falun Gong practice qigong.

Qi is energy or life force in Chinese.  Qi can also be translated in English as chi or ch’i depending on the translation.  Qi is not the same as Chi in Tai Chi where the Chi means source or beginning.

Gong is work or cultivation and can also be translated to kung or gung.  Gong is the term used in Kung Fu as well.  The Fu means merit or achievement.  Kung Fu is thus working to achieve merit while Qi Gong is energy work or cultivating and balancing energy.

Another reason that I really feel good about doing qigong is that Grace’s last wish for me was to learn and practice qigong.  Grace marveled at how young and energetic her friends who practiced qigong were.  She wanted me to live a long and healthy life, so she had me join up for a qigong class that met over three weekends while she was in her final month. I was extremely stressed from Grace’s pending demise and I tried to follow the complex set of movements that were similar to Tai Chi, but I struggled to practice the complex motions.  In contrast, I don’t have complex movements to remember with RHQ.  All I have to do with RHQ is synchronize movements with my breath and I find it more powerful.

I know qigong might be weird and strange, but it’s very simple and powerful.  I suggest you give it a try!  Maybe you’ll love it too!

Happy trails to you,

Scott