12/21/12

Climbing the Pichincha Volcano

In 2007, Quito, Ecuador became my home for four months while studying abroad.  As a Spanish Studies major, I really needed to live abroad for a decent chunk of time in order to get my language skills to near fluency, so I chose a program in Microfinance in Ecuador.  I lived with an amazing family, became good friends with my fellow students, and completed an internship with a microfinancial institution named Codesarrollo Ltda.  Ecuador is an incredible place to visit, and an even more incredible place to live.

Quito is the large, sprawling urban center of northern Ecuador.  It may not have much for skyscrapers, but the city is beautiful, sprawling across a rolling landscape with a stunning backdrop of Andes mountains.  The western skyline of Quito is dominated by a large, active volcano named Pichincha.  It last erupted in 1999, and before that hadn't erupted for centuries, so it is open to the public as a an attraction to tourists and hikers by way of the Teleférico.  The Teleférico is a gondola-type structure that runs from the base of the mountain up to the lower summit of Pichincha, commonly known as Guagua ("baby" in Quechua, the old Andean language) Pichincha.  Just riding up the Teleférico is an adventure in itself, with unbeatable views of the city and the Andes mountains that cradle the city.
Going up!
Now, conquering the Teleférico was one of the first to-do list items upon arrival in Quito.  During the first week, a group of us students made plans to take a day trip to the top of the Teleférico to have lunch.  The views are incredible!  Once we got to the top, we began to walk around and take photos, but like most tourists, we all began to experience altitude sickness.  Feeling dizzy and short of breath, Alica, Emily, Carol, Jules, Michael (Migs) and I sat down to lunch at a restaurant, which luckily served Coca tea, a natural remedy that combats the effects of altitude sickness.  A little freaky, considering coca leaves are used for making cocaine, but if its good enough for the locals, we figured it was good enough for us.  After a few cups, we had hoped to feel good enough to continue walking around, but we ended up just touring the Guagua on horseback instead.

Left to Right - Emily, Alicia, me, Carol, and Jules.  Don't you love Emily's attire?  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.

Yee haw.  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.
Singing "the hills are alive" Julie Andrews style!  Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.


Me enjoying the view at the top - Photo courtesy of Migs
Top Left to bottom right - Me, Emily, Alicia, and Carol - Photo courtesy of Emily Stout.

The Guagua was beautiful and made for a fun filled afternoon.  However, once I got a look at the second and tallest peak of Pichincha, Rucu ("old one" in Quechua), I knew I had to climb it. My friends Alicia and Michael (aka Migs) got the same itch, so we decided to plan our attack.  Since we hadn't fully acclimated to the altitude yet, we had to wait another week or so before our big climb.



Climbing Rucu Pichincha is no small feat.  On the day we returned to Pichincha, we came prepared:  we planned for at least 6 hours of hiking/climbing, packed extra food and water, maps, coca candy for the altitude, and brought layers of clothing to protect against the frigid and extreme climate changes we would surely encounter.  The weather wasn't very clear that day, but we set out energetically to conquer the peak anyway.  The trail winds up and down rocky hills and ridges, at times disappearing into thick grasses or mud puddles.  We passed a few other hiking groups on their return trip, but none of them had attempted the peak climb.  It made me a little nervous that we were the only ones going so far along the trail, but if either of my hiking companions felt the same way, they sure did a good job of hiding it.  We had a great time talking about Quito, our new families, our school, and how much we wanted McDonald's cheeseburgers.  


After about 3 tedious hours of slow incline, we finally hit the base of the peak and decided to stop for lunch.  Munching on our sandwiches, we nervously laughed and talked through the next portion of our climb.  Looking at what lay ahead of us, we considered turning back.  Despite my doubts, our close proximity to our destination renewed my determination.  I stood up and brushed the sandwich crumbs off my pants and turned to Alicia and Migs.
"We've gone this far, we might as well just keep right on going!" I said in my best Forrest Gump voice.
Our lunch spot...and the calm before the storm.

The hike up, photo courtesy of Migs

And that was that.  We picked up our bags and set out for the last leg of our climb, and looked up at way lay ahead of us. The next half hour, the terrain would incline sharply and and the ground would become more treacherous.  We could barely make out the summit through the thick clouds that were forming, but it didn't seem too far off.
Photo courtesy of Migs
 The climb was grueling.  The solid ground transformed into sand and loose rock beneath our feet.  Climbing the sand was tiring and difficult...we had to crawl on our hands and feet to get beyond it places where the sand became too deep to walk through.  Beyond the sand, we gingerly climbed piles of jagged, black rock.  We couldn't climb in front of each other because of the loose rocks, and continued on side by side.  To make matters worse, a storm was forming around us.  Snowflakes began to fall, and thunder rumbled all around.  We stopped on a large, stable slab of rock, tired and out of breath.  
"I dont think we can do this, this storm is getting worse.  I'm exhausted!" Migs yelled between heavy breaths.
It was true, we were all exhausted.  But we could see the peak, only 50 feet away!  No matter how tired we were, we couldn't come as far as we had only to turn back in our final momentsWe caught our breath and made one final push forwardFinally, we reached the top of Rucu Pichincha!  We entusiastically celebrated our conquest with loud woops all around and took lots of photos.  We were exhilarated by our success, barely noticing the worsening conditions around us.  We never stopped to think that the thunder we were hearing meant there was a lot of electricity in the atmosphere...and we were pretty much standing in atmosphere.
Exito!  Photo courtesy of Migs

Photo courtesy of Migs

Photo courtesy of Migs

While taking a celebratory video to show everyone back at our school where we had been, we suddenly froze.  Our hairs felt like they were standing on end under our hoods.  Moments later, all three of us jumped at the same time as electricity shocked through our bodies.  A second later, a bright flash of lightning lit up the sky.  It didn't hurt, but that was our cue that it was time to get out of there.  You can see the video Migs took below!  At the last moment, Migs almost drops his camera in surprise from being 'mildly' electrocuted.  

We got off that peak as fast as we could, making the trek back to the Guagua in half the time it took us to trek in.  The snow turned to heavy rain as we descended on the trail.  By the time we reached the Teleférico, we were soaked to the bone and covered in mud.  Two cabs drivers denied us rides at the base because of how awful we looked!  We eventually found a cab willing to deal with our mess and went home to our families.  As I walked in the gate to my family's house, my host mama shrieked and told me to stay in the garage until she could gather my mud-soaked clothes.  Migs, Alicia and I met up the next day at school very sore, but we all agreed it was worth it!

Come on, how many people can say they have been electrocuted on top of a volcano?


12/18/12

Necessities - Best. Sandals. Ever.


When you are traveling, good shoes can make or break your trip/excursion.  If you have a lot of walking to do on an upcoming trip somewhere warm (aka NOT Minnesota), and want great sandals for walking around in and still looking good, try Borns!

I bought two pairs of the Born Aberlin Sandals for my recent Europe trip, one in black and one in gold.  They are spendy on the Born site, but you can find them for a much lower price on other shoe websites like Amazon and Zappos.
 
Ladies, these sandals are cute, flexible, and slightly cushioned.  I walked around in them for hours without so much as a hint of a blister.  Did I mention how cute they are?  They can be casual for everyday walking around, and since they aren't flip flops, they are also acceptable to wear with a dress or skirt to a nice dinner.

 Even if these aren't your style, almost all Born shoes are very confortable.  I have purchased flats from this brand as well, which I loved.

Dudes, I can't personally vouch for the men's shoes, but a family member of mine swears by them.  Check 'em out.


Happy Walking!

12/7/12

From Around the Web

Our very own Twin Cities made the Lonely Planet list of Top U.S. Travel spots for next year - Top 10 US travel destinations for 2013 - Lonely Planet
 

Nat Geo's take on the best trips to take in 2013 - I'm excited that Quito made the list! - Best Trips 2013


Skipping the holiday stress for this?  Not a bad idea - Abandoning the hearth for Christmas - CNN Travel  

Nat Geo's Photo of the Day comes from Spain - National Geographic Photo of the Day




Never heard of the Whitsunday Islands, but sounds like I should have by now - Kayaking Australia’s Whitsunday Islands


12/5/12

Name It

Take a look at the photos below, can you identify where in the world this is?  This place might be on my Wish List after looking at these photos... 

Post your guess in the comments below.  Good luck!

12/3/12

Travel Tip - Talk the Talk

If you are traveling out of the country to a non-English speaking country, and you have some time to prepare, try learning the language!  One of the best ways to get the most out of any foreign experience is to be able to communicate, even minimally, with people you will no doubt meet.

Learn a few basic phrases in the language of the country you will be visiting, even if it is only "Hello," "Goodbye," and "Thank You".  I am amazed at how much more receptive locals are to tourists who at least attempt to communicate with them in their own country's language.  Plus, there is quite a rush that comes with being able to speak to someone in a new language and understand their response.  

Rosetta Stone is the best option on the market right now, but if you don't have a couple hundred dollars to spend, fear not!  If you only need a few phrases, a simple Google search will reap plenty of resources.  If you would like something a little more intensive, where you can build a language foundation in an academic approach, but without the high price tag, look no further than Livemocha.  

Livemocha is a FREE online language learning program.  Not only does it allow you to take language courses online for free in many language options, but it also can connect you to other users around the globe who are trying to learn English.  You can 'friend' people, review other users submissions, and have other native speakers review your writing and speaking submissions.


I can personally attest to the usefulness of Livemocha.  Prior to our Europe backpacking trip this year, I decided that I wanted to learn some Italian before we visited Italy.  I joined Livemocha and worked through 2 units of the lessons over the course of 3 months, and bought a Goldkey membership so that I could download audio lessons and flashcards to my iPod.  The lessons were useful, and by the time we reached Italy, I was able to ask a man on the street for directions to Grom Gelateria, and understood his response and followed his directions.  SUCCESS! 

I highly recommend Livemocha!  I will be using it again soon to start brushing up on my Portuguese!

Livemocha: http://livemocha.com/


12/1/12

Necessities - Space Bags

I never thought to use these until my most recent backpacking trip.  I bought a great backpack, only to realize it was bit too small to fit all that I needed to bring for two weeks.  Like a sign from the travel gods, I stumbled upon Space Bags 3 days before my trip.


Duh.  Why didn't I think of this before?  They were perfect.  In case you don't understand how they work:
1.  Put in clothes
2.  Seal Bag
3.  Roll bag to push air out
4.  Pack.

Voilà.  They shrink your clothing bulk down to take up half the space they did before.  It's genius.  Here is the brand I used, and I thought they were good quality for such a low price.  You can find them on Amazon.com here: http://www.amazon.com/Space-Bag-Vacuum-Seal-Storage-Bags/dp/B0009VCB5M


Deep Sea Fishing in Dubrovnik, Croatia

The most recent trip abroad took me back to Europe, only on a slightly different path with a very different group of people.  My husband Dustin and I embarked on a backpacking trip with our friends Ryan and Kari Hannay through London, Paris, Bordeaux, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Rome/Ostia and Florence over the course of two weeks.  Ambitious, I know, but being that we are all grown up with grown up jobs, taking a month off for Europe isn't an option anymore.  So we just packed as much in as possible in 16 days.

Surprisingly, Croatia quickly climbed the rankings to become my favorite spot of the trip.   Not only were the people extremely friendly and laid back, but Dubrovnik is beautiful.  When driving through the mountains towards the city, Dubrovnik appears as a white pearl perched on the rocks, a stunning contrast to the deep blue of the Adriatic sea.  The city center is surrounded by white medieval stone walls, both beautiful and a reminder of the city's difficult past.  Tourists can pay to climb the walls, and walk along the top around the city for amazing views of the city and sea.
We booked an all day excursion on our third day for deep sea fishing with a local man named Mislav.  A driver came to pick us up from our hostel and drove us to a marina in Cavtat, a nearby town.  I don't know what I expected, but when Mislav ran up to greet us loudly with a big smile on his face, I knew it was going to be a good day.  Mislav is an animated older man with long gray hair that he sweeps back in a careless ponytail.  He shook our hands enthusiastically, and ushered us down the road toward his small yacht.
Dustin and Mislav
On the way, he made sure to point out his restaurant, the Taverna Galija, which serves amazing authentic Croatian-style seafood.    If you ever find yourself in Dubrovnik, I highly suggest taking a quick trip to Cavtat to eat at Taverna Galija.  You won't be disappointed!  You can find a link to the restaurant's website here.  

 As we approached Mislav's yacht, a stout man in a fishing hat came out of the cabin...with no pants.  This is Stiepo, Mislav's good friend and fishing buddy.  If you ask Stiepo what he does for a living, he will tell you that he is a "rock star."  He is a well known local Croatian musician, and has traveled all over the world to play guitar and sing.  But today, he is fisherman.  Stiepo's English was not quite as good as Mislav's, but anything he didn't understand he simply nodded and smiled to.  
Stiepo
Mislav yelled in Croatian to a server standing on the patio of the Taverna, and the server quickly disappeared and reappeared moments later with a bag of freshly baked bread, cheese and sliced salami.  Lunch, Mislav said.  He hopped on the boat and opened a cooler full of wine, beer, and Fanta.  It was going to be a good day!

We set out from the bay and out into the Adriatic Sea, and Mislav cranked up the music.  We stopped in a few spots where Stiepo got a good feeling, and dropped lines full of hooks and pieces of squid into the water on weights.  This is a more traditional method of fishing, Mislav explained, and we would come back later to pull up the lines and see what we caught.  We then took off deeper into the ocean to try our luck with the rods, James Brown blaring over the speakers the whole way.
"The only fishing music is James Brown!" Mislav shouted as we looked for a good fishing spot.
The boat slowed, and Stiepo, who was much more serious about our fishing than Mislav, hooked our lines and explained how deep to drop the lines.  We fished like this for about half an hour, then Mislav became antsy and jumped in for a swim.  Dustin and Ryan followed suit while Kari and I watched and manned the reels with Stiepo.  

After an hour of no luck on the reels, it was pronounced lunch time.  Mislav set out a huge platter of warm bread, thick white cheese and salami.  It was simple and delicious. Together with Mislav and Stiepo's mixed white wine and club soda drinks, our group agreed it was one of our best meals of the trip.
After lunch we turned back to pull up the lines and our catch.  We took turns pulling up the fish, and our pile began to grow.  We didn't catch anything big, but it was still fun pulling in the fish. I got a lucky string of fish, and therefor had to pull the lines up the longest since I was deemed 'good luck.'
Despite my enthusiasm with each fish, Stiepo was not impressed, and Mislav humphed at each fish pulled in.  "Only good for soup" Mislov explained.
Kari is proud of her pink fish

Me with my teeny fish

Unfortunately, we hooked a stingray!  We let it go

Dustin and his Fish

Ryan pulling up a whopper...or not.

We finished pulling in our lines and jumped in for another swim as the sun began to set.  The view was breathtaking.  It is moments like this when you can hardly believe where you are and what you are doing.  As I swam out into the sea, I looked around in awe and couldn't believe I was swimming in the Adriatic Sea at sunset, while my friends and family back home were probably just beginning their days at work.  It's times like these when you realize how lucky you are to be able to travel and see what the world has to offer.
 
Salty, hungry and smelling of fish, we soon turned back to have dinner with Mislav and Stiepo at the Taverna Galija.  Though we probably wouldn't eat our catch that day, Mislav promised we were in for a treat.  We pulled into the dock, and one of the servers from the restaurant promptly greeted us with a tray of wine glasses for a drink before our meal.  We sat on the boat, recalling the days events and our scrawny catch.  As we talked, a stray cat wandered over and sat near the boat, smelling our fish.  Stiepo had a soft spot for the cat, and threw one of our little fish to the cat.  Soon, 4 other stray cats came crying, and thanks to Stiepo, each one left happy with a silver fish in his mouth. 
The wine finished, we hopped back on dry land and sat at a large table on the Taverna's patio.  While talked and laughed watching as Mislov's dog, Mini, chased the stray cats from the Patio.  We feasted on fresh bread, the most amazing mussels I have ever eaten and fresh caught Adriatic fish.  Our meal ended with homemade desserts and wine.  Bellies full and eyelids drooping, we sadly said goodbye to our new friends, but thanked them for an amazing dayMislav asked us to come back the next day to fish with him and Stiepo again, free of charge, but unfortunately we were flying to Rome the next day and couldn't take him up on his generous offer.  We promised to one day come back to fish again.  I hope we do!
The gang plus Mini, Mislov's dog and patio gaurd
If you are interested in booking this trip, you can find more info at this site: http://www.adriaticglobal.net/en/excursion/fisherman-story-and-cavtat-highlights.aspx

11/28/12

Adventure Wish List #1

Oh, Pinterest.  You are so much fun to look at, but you suck so much time from my day without me realizing.  Damn you.

I don't know about users, but when I log into Pinterest, my home screen is FILLED with gorgeous pictures of faraway places that people have repinned.  It's like Pinterest knows how much I like to travel, and it decides to taunt me with all of the places I haven't been to yet.  It prompted me to make a board of 'Places to Go' that is pretty full.  
Here is what I was greeted with today.  Sigh.

So instead of pinning every pretty pic of places to go, why not focus realistically on one place at a time?

First Item on the Adventure Wish List - Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

¡Vamos para o Carnaval!

I am choosing this first since it recently became a near-future possibility.  My best friend's husband, Chester, had missionaries for parents.  He was born and raised in a rural area of Brazil before his parents moved him and his family back to the United States in his late childhood.  He has since married my best friend Ashley, and now wants to take her to Brazil to see his home country.  While at dinner a few weeks ago they asked Dustin and I if we would be interested in going to visit Brazil with them, and I mentioned how crazy it would be to go there during Carnaval, which is Brazil's national celebration during the six weeks before Lent.  It is Brazil's biggest holiday, and the country pretty much shuts down to party and throw elaborately costumed Samba paradesInteresting fact from Wikipedia:  80% of Brazil's annual beer consumption and 70% of tourism happens during Carnaval.  


So, it sounds like Mardi Gras on a much larger scale.  Who wouldn't want to do that?  Plus, we have a Brazilian native and fluent Portuguese speaker to travel with.  Perfect.

Besides the festivities of Carnaval, the beaches are amazing, you can visit the Amazon rainforest, and Brazilian food is delicioso. 


I am hoping we can make this trip happen, so we better start planning soon!  In the meantime, feast your eyes on the beauties of Brazil and Carnaval :)

Wiki Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_Carnival
Official Carnaval Page: http://www.rio-carnival.net/