The Astromaid Chronicles

Slow Travel, Creative Living, and Speculation

Tag: hikes

A Non-Traditional Christmas in the Sacred Valley

Jorge and I are situated this year, both physically and financially, in such a way that going home to spend the holidays with either family was pretty much impossible.

But friends, family and food constitute the holidays, right? In light of the fact that we are new to Cusco, are still partially digesting the Thanksgiving explosion less than a month ago, and love to travel, we decided to have a non-traditional celebration in…you guessed it…MACHU PICCHU.

Due to Jorge’s work schedule, we booked a two-day tour. This option meant leaving Cusco at 8AM, driving for about six hours through perilous mountain roads, stopping once to pee, and then finally arriving at the hydroelectric dam — the last stop on the road toward the base city of Aguascalientes.

Off we go to on our extremely economical and totally

disorganized tour to Machu Picchu!

The tour company made mention of the fact that on the road to the hydroelectric dam, sometimes there are landslides. And sometimes, the roads have to close. And other times, people, you know, sorta die.

Okay. We thought about this for a while. These tour companies don’t want dead tourists because it would mean the death of their business, so we knew at least that this route has heavy traffic, albeit it being slightly dangerous. The only other way to get to our destination would be spend a couple hundred extra dollars to go by train. The Sacred Valley region is entering the rainy season, which puts these high-altitude mountain roads at a higher risk of landslides. Being that the rainy season is JUST starting, it’s not as dangerous as January or February, when these tours sometimes stop altogether.

So, being that it’s still being offered, we probably won’t die, I reasoned. And if we want to go the economical route, there is literally only one road connecting the Sacred Valley with the Machu Picchu area.

One.

In fact, this road starts in the valley area of Cusco — very dry air, pretty high altitude, lots of regular forests and agriculture. You go up, up, up for hours — at the tippy top, when we were most definitely traversing a cloud, I saw a sign that said we were at 4,300 meters. More than 14,000 feet. We were told by the driver that we would not be stopping at any part of this part of the mountain road, due to the altitude and potentiality for getting sick. Way up there, I felt the headache kick in, as well as drowsiness.

Once we crossed the tree line descending on the other side of the sierra, I noticed things looked a little different. Way more lush, much greener and…HUMID. The jungle side of the mountains had begun, and the further along we went, the more I felt like I’d suddenly transported to Costa Rica or somewhere similar. I loved it.

This winding mountain road was completely rife with danger, and I am being quite serious. It seemed to be really just a one-and-a-half lane highway, and we passed several areas where fallen rocks had blocked off one half of the road. Furthermore, the engineers were really working against nature, as the mountain had several outlets of (natural) GUSHING water that sometimes was diverted below the road, but oftentimes, just cascaded over top of the pavement. I honestly thought a few times that the gushing water would carry us away off the cliff.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t. BUT IT WAS STILL SCARY!

During the final leg of our journey, right before we got to the dam, we encountered an interesting skirmish. When rounding a tight bend, our driver nearly crashed into an coming truck that had violated the rules of mountain road driving. The offending driver had approached the curve in the center of the road and hadn’t swung out wide, as you must do. So, we almost crashed head on. Our driver was understandably upset, so he called out to him something to the effect of “Hey, obey the rules, or we’re all gonna be in trouble here!”

Well, the other driver didn’t like being called out. Maybe it had to do with the 13 people piled in the back of his truck overhearing his honor being questioned. At any rate, Other Driver stopped the truck, and got out.

The Rules of Road Rage told me this was a very bad sign.

Other Driver then he came up to our driver’s window. They began a heated conversation that involved a lot of “you think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I overheard them make an actual plan to meet later to physically fight about this.

And then someone punched someone. I’m not sure who it was, but our driver began fist-fighting with this man through the window. It was so ridiculous I laughed, but it didn’t stop. Luckily, people who are better at these situations stepped in to handle it — namely Jorge and two other guys on the bus, who began trying to intervene to get these men to calm down. Finally, our driver put up the window and we drove away like nothing had happened.

We arrived to the hydroelectric dam around 3:00 PM, where the road officially ends. From the dam, there’s only two ways to arrive to Aguascalientes (the base city to Machu Picchu): WALKING or the TRAIN.

We ate a quick lunch (included in our tour payment) after a brief scuffle with the tour guides who greeted us at the dam. Our names had been mysteriously lost from the list, and they had to make a series of languorous phone calls, accompanied by vigorous receipt-demonstrating on our end, before we were led to the restaurant.

After eating, our trek to Aguascalientes began. The trail follows the train tracks to Aguascalientes, so all the paying customers can look at us vagabonds hoofing it along the side. It takes two full hours, walking at a moderate pace. The trek was gorgeous, and the only real difficulty was that, at times, one had to walk close to the tracks, and therefore over unstable rocks which slows progress. We caught a random Jungle Rainbow along the way.

Random Jungle Rainbow Alert!

Two hours of hiking is perhaps tiring but not the end of the world. Though I definitely stressed a muscle behind my right knee from all the unsure rock balancing; nothing major. I was certainly ready to sit down once we got to Aguascalientes, though! We met a different guide in the main plaza, who then took us to our hostel and gave us instructions for where to meet for dinner.

We had roughly an hour and a half before we needed to meet at dinner, 8 PM. So Jorge and I headed to the famous HOT SPRINGS (which the city is named after — “Hot Waters”) where we rested our weary hiker bones in the medicinal waters for about a half hour.

At dinner, the guide explained to us how the next day would go. We could either take a bus at 6AM to arrive at the Machu gates by 6:30 AM, or we could wake up at 4 AM to begin a roughly 2 hour hike of pure vertical steps.

We chose the hike, for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer experience of it — what better way to experience the Picchu than trekking up the mountain like the ancient Incans? Another was physical prowess, as most of my readers know I like to challenge myself in specific ways just to know that I can DO it. And, lastly, there’s the money aspect. Though the bus wasn’t expensive by any means — a measly $10 — it’s extra things like that that add up.

So we got our butts out of bed at 4 AM, and started the hike to Macchu Pichu.

Sunrise occurred around 5:30 AM, once we were past the front gates where they checked our passports. The first leg of the walk to get to the control gate was easy — just getting out of the city. But once we crossed the entrance — across a huge bridge with the angry river roaring beneath — the STAIRS began.

I kid you not, I was out of breath after the equivalent of two flights. I paused. I continued. Then I paused again, after a shorter distance. And then, I began something I like to call “The Tour of Desperation.”

I don’t know how many steps there were in all, but let’s be clear on one thing: I’ve climbed the Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai, and I repented harder climbing to Machu Picchu. I began my Tour of Desperation once I realized that I had a full hour and a half of climbing these freaking steep stone steps ahead of me, and after only ten minutes I was ready to lay down.

The Tour of Desperation included highlights such as: the particular corner where I sat down for the first time and thought, “Well, damn, it can’t be that high.”; the variety of instances where plenty of athletic and probably bionic people breezed past us, barely panting; the particular stretch of steps where I began imagining all the other places I’d like to be instead of those stairs, including Hawaii, followed by vivid imaginations of receiving a lei upon arrival; the dense corner of vegetation where I considered the possibility that I wouldn’t actually make it to the top; the time I reached the road designed for the buses and I thought the trek was over, only to be followed by four more excruciating flights of damnable stairs; and, lastly, the time I heard voices above us on the path and my innards leapt with joy, only to realize we hadn’t reached the end, and the path would probably never end, and it was all a giant trap concocted by the ancient Incans to capture healthy humans from the future to use as sacrifices in the past.

A shot of Jorge climbing the stairs. The blur might suggest he was moving very fast, but trust me, he wasn’t.

We did finally make it to the top, only to begin a multiple hour tour of the complex. We found our tour guide and, after a quick snack, we began to meander through the ancient city.

The place was incredible. I forget entirely about the fact that I might have to amputate a thigh from overuse and instead, got completely lost in the guide’s explanations of the environs. They estimate the city was built in the 1400’s, and was one of multiple cities in the region commissioned by the then-leader of the Incans. It was primarily a religious center, and also had plenty of astronomical observation centers. One thing I especially liked was the naturally-irrigating agricultural steps, shown below.

They grew things like corn on the different levels.

Our tour lasted about two hours then we had a few hours to wander around and take ample photos. We climbed up to the highest point of Machu, took plenty of selfies, visited with some alpacas, and basically enjoyed the insane views from the mountaintop city. We could see the river down below that marked our starting point — we think we climbed about a mile upward, all told.

Taking some shots around 7 AM, before the morning fog had cleared.

Behold the majesty of the lost Incan city! They call it ‘lost’ because it wasn’t discovered until the early 1900’s — meaning the Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked this gem. And thankfully so!

See that river down there? That’s where we started.

Just enjoying the MAGICAL JUNGLE VIEWS.

Mister Machu. The Incans were most likely freaks, based on the manner of city construction. I’m sure they were 90% thigh, at least. Our guide mentioned that the next Incan city over is roughly 120 km away — a hike that for us nowadays would take 3 or 4 days, but for the Incans, took a matter of hours.

Money shot!

When there’s animals nearby, Jorge must meet them.

Merry Christmas from the tippy top point of Machu Picchu!

We all know what happens next, right? We have to get OFF the mountain. Thank GOD for physics — what goes up must come down. To be fair, we could have taken the bus, but again, chose not to. Besides, going down is always easier than going up. Though our knees were a little worse for the wear afterward, the 2 hour trek up became a 1 hour trek down. Practically a walk in the (extremely humid and steep) park.

But then came our return hike to the hydroelectric dam, where our return bus would be waiting for us. Two more hours walking after a full day of climbing, sweating, and desperate thoughts? Sure. Why not. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

We got to the dam around 2 PM, ate a quick lunch, and then went to the pick-up area for the return trip to Cusco. A lot of people milled around, and I overheard a heated conversation between a  tourist and a guide nearby.

Turns out, the disorganization of the tour company had reached another peak. I had mentioned to Jorge at one point of our trip that I didn’t really trust that this company was looking out for us. It seemed like in order for things to get done, we had to be exceptionally on our toes. Making sure we had receipts ready and knowing what came next ahead of time.

And this was the case here. When we arrived, we were told there were no spots for us on the return bus. We reminded the guide that we had paid, showed the receipt, demanded that we be provided with this service. He suggested we just buy our spots on the bus to Cusco AGAIN, which was laughable, considering we had proof of already paying this. He ignored us for a bit, made some phone calls, was approached by other angry tourists. I felt bad for the guy — I know it wasn’t his fault, but rather the whole company’s approach was just poor, and he was the guy on the front lines receiving the brunt of it.

After a tense half hour, another bus did arrive, and we were allowed to board. Most of the other tourists in limbo were also able to board — some had been waiting (and been ignored) for over three hours.

Our return drive didn’t include any fist-fights (unfortunately?), but it DID include an active landslide. Helloooo, rainy season! We watched as rocks tumbled from the mountainside and onto the road, some continuing off the cliff. They weren’t boulder by any means, but one of those to the side of the van would definitely break a window — and possibly a head. Our driver waited tensely until the frequency of the landslide slowed.

And then he freaking gunned it.

We made it through alive, some of us actively trying to avoid peeing our pants (me). Another several hours later, we made it back safely, and dead tired, to Cusco.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS to everyone!!

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Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.

I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:

SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.
WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.
S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?
WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.
Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.
This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.
We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.
Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.

I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

 The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.

Reflections On An Important Anniversary

I’m not good at remembering birthdays, maiden names, anniversaries of any sort, and sometimes what I ate yesterday. Even things I feel I could never forget, not in a million years, tend to slip my mind.

I write today to confess that I have forgotten an important anniversary in my own life, a date that I swore to honor every year for as long as I had breath in my lungs.

For those readers who are not familiar with my journey, on May 29th, 2007 I had major back surgery to remove a benign tumor that had been growing for possibly a decade inside my spinal cord. The surgery to remove it was successful, but it left me paralyzed for an amount of time that my neurosurgeon said could possibly last the rest of my life.

Luckily, it didn’t last the rest of my life — ya’ll have seen me using two legs — but the window of time that included paralysis from my chest down was life-altering. The months spent in the hospital and the ensuing years of rehabilitative efforts were similarly life-changing. It was a transformative experience that not only reminded me to be grateful every day for the gift of mobility and independence, but one that reinvigorated the passion of living life to the fullest. I promised myself then that I would no longer limit myself based on fears, social norms, or any other form of perceived physical or societal limitation.

This is why I do what I do. We’re all familiar with the stories of mid-life crises that involve a high-powered exec or other mid-life professional dropping the cash and career in favor of extended travel, or starting their own business, or enacting that personal goal that had lain dormant for decades. What I took away from my experience is that life is meant to be lived now.

I do not want to nor will I wait until I am 40-something with too many years of unfulfilling income-earning behind me, with a host of material possessions to prove an ambiguous degree of “success in life”.

As homage to the neurosurgeon who saved my life — he resolved the excruciating pain of my daily existence, a pain that I’m embarrassed to say would have led to me taking things into my own hands down the road — and also reinvigorated my life, I bring him photos from my travels whenever we have a follow-up appointment. I tell him, “This is possible because of you.” I’m not sure I can ever thank him enough.

I believe we are all capable of living our dreams, and choosing our dreams. What I strive to avoid is falling into the trap of living a life that I haven’t chosen. Following a path that someone else decided was right for “someone my age”, “someone like me”, or “a successful twenty-something”.

I consider myself lucky and blessed in too many ways to count. And one of the best experiences of my life was going through the agony, trauma, pain and challenge of back surgery, losing my ability to walk, and then fighting to get that back. Not just the ability to use my own two legs, but the ability to live my life as I imagine it. 

This is why I am here. This is why I have embarked on many trips, why I do things differently than maybe what parental figures might suggest for their children, why I won’t stop doing this until I absolutely cannot continue any longer.

In 2009, during the climb up the 
Steps of Repentance on Mount Sinai

During a 2010 trip to Tikal in Guatemala…
Sweaty, humid pyramid climbing!

Cavorting around Cedar Point in 2012,
definitely a physical feat as mentioned in my previous post

My legs (and some planes) have carried me down south
as of 2012 to continue the explorations…

What inspires me most is the wide variety of goals and dreams in this life. It is a deeply personal decision, and nobody can tell you if you’re right or wrong. For some, living life to the fullest might mean studying in an ashram in India, or raising three children in a safe neighborhood, or twisting culinary conventions in a hip restaurant in NYC, or writing books about science-fiction robots, or perfecting their color-coordinated living space, or starting an e-Bay business that sells doorknobs. It doesn’t matter what it is…all that matters is that it comes from the pulsating, wrenching pits of your gut; that it forms the unseen lining of your blood vessels and internal organs and can only be felt, understood and enacted by you.

Life is meant to be lived now. Look around and ask yourself if where you are and what you’re doing is truly what you want to be doing. If so, congratulations, and keep doing it! And if not, the first step of an exciting new journey can begin at exactly this moment. 

The Ballad of Flank & Shan

Flanky and Shannon were partners

Oh lordy, how they could roam

Swore to be true to each other

Just as true as the moai around.

She was her dog, and they hiked for hours.

-original version of the classic song “Frankie and Johnny”

I was wandering around map-less on Easter Island in the blazing mid-day sun, walking down a long, deserted road thinking that maybe I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. My destination was Rano Kau, the biggest inactive volcano on the island which, at its summit, features the ceremonial site of Orongo. Being the guilty young traveler that I am, I feel often obligated to use legs as opposed to easier methods of transportation even though I usually want to take the easy option.

So I thought yes, let’s walk. 10km there then 10 km back. Cake.

There was a pedestrian trail that began in some ambiguous spot near the coast, and as I wandered further my mental map grew fuzzier. A mother and her child whizzed by on bikes, took a left turn, and I decided I’d follow them.

Down the road which I later found out to be the wrong turn (note: do not just follow strangers. Their mere existence does not mean they have the same destination as you), I was almost bowled over by a friendly stray dog and his companion. Folks, meet Flank, the friendly stray who was my dog for a day on Easter Island.

Flank leading the way, friend in tow, at the beginning of the pedestrian trail.

“Come on, slow human. There are things to explore!”

I’ve had plenty of strays accompany me on various journeys. But never to this extent. In a way, I feel like Flank chose me. I didn’t give him a name right away- I fully expected Flank to wander away after ten minutes or so. But he stayed true to me. He waited for me as I lingered like a silly bipedal humanoid wielding strange contraptions and pausing for amounts of time in various spots to snap photographs. He made sure I caught up when I struggled down narrow paths. And he sat with me whenever I chose to plop down in a field or along the path to take in the heavy silence of Rapa Nui Nature.

Not a bad view. Here we stopped to look at the scenery and eat soda crackers. Please note the walking stick I acquired somewhere along the way.

Flank and I finally reached the first stop of our two-tiered voyage above, the lookout over Rano Kau. This volcano crater, which looks like a giant scummy pond, provides the fresh water for the island.

I named Flank “Flank” because I was staring at his flank the majority of the time. Also I think it’s funny to pretend it’s a bad mispronunciation of “Frank”. Also, I found out that Flank was a female about halfway into our hike. By that point, we’d shared so much that I couldn’t just up and change her name. We kept Flank despite the unladylike moniker.

The Rapa Nui men used to compete for a coveted religious position by swimming out to these rocks, collecting some sort of seafood, then making it back to land alive. Whoever made it back without being eaten by sharks or other monsters of the sea then had the honor of spending a year in a cave by themselves.

Along the trail up to Rano Kao. That red face is a mixture of sunburn and exertion.

Flank was so much “my dog” that day that she would come when I called her (I felt silly screaming “Flank” in front of other people but, hey, it’s her name) and always reunited with me despite wandering off sometimes to go explore other things. When we finally reached the ceremonial site of Orongo, I was a bit panicky: what should I do? Would she wait for me outside while I went to look at the site? The answer was quickly clear: she was coming with. In fact, she led the way. Right through the visitor’s center and all through Orongo. She was very friendly with the other tourists, and quite inquisitive as we see below.

Flank, no! It says you can’t go in there!

I had so much fun with Flank at Orongo. I was way more engrossed by the fact that I was wandering around an inactive volcano with my adopted dog-for-a-day (I mean, come on, who gets to go see ancient stuff with their pets??); so engrossed, in fact, that we breezed through the site and I think I missed all the exciting petroglyphs. Oops.

On our way back from the hike, Flank led me down a different road than from where we started. I followed her, the dutiful master that I am, and she brought me to this gem. I am forever grateful to her.

Flank rests with me in the park. There were also more moai here, so she gets a couple tour guide points for this one.

Find the Flank! 

I thought she was being a silly and irresponsible Rapa Nui pup when she wandered off along the super steep coastline (depth not perceived well in the photo above), and when she began to descend closer to the cliff I even called to her to come back, anxious that she would slip and fall to her death. She ignored me, and instead sat on her haunches and watched the sea, unmoving, for almost ten minutes. We both enjoyed the view quietly, the sea breeze whipping our respective locks of fur/dreads.

After the hike and surprise visit to the place above, I knew firmly and resolutely that she was the coolest dog I’ve ever met. I told her all about my dog back in my home country far, far away, how they would probably be really good friends; I told Flank that my dog could never be off-leash like she was, and that she was really lucky to have such a cool view like on Rapa Nui. Flank understood me. She also listened while I made up songs about the activities we were performing.

After our hike, we meandered back into town. She waited for me as I stopped to buy groceries; she sat by my table as I rested with a coffee and to journal, even though the waitress tried to shoo her away and I said, “Please, she’s with me.” Flank paused as I lingered over souvenirs, waited patiently as I consistently was slower than her due to my two legged deficit. In fact, it was around this time that I knew she had to come back with me, whether or not the cabana owner Carmen liked it.

Just as we were about ten minutes from the cabanas, it started to rain. The precipitation up until that point was pretty sporadic- maybe it would sprinkle for five or so minutes, then it would clear up. Well, not this time. What started as a grey drizzle turned into a full-fledged monsoon. I wanted to take a taxi but knew that no Flanks were allowed in cars. So we walked. Step by step, through mud streams and up hills and along horse paths that had turned into miniature rivers. By the time we got back, every article of clothing was leaking water and I was completely soaked to the bone. But Flank was with me.

And then, my beautiful Flank instantly plopped on the welcome mat in front of my door, as if she already knew it was my room.

Carmen came over a bit later and found Flank and I lounging outside during the freak rainstorm. She wasn’t pleased. “What are you going to do with this dog? She can’t stay here.” I felt awful, like I was abandoning Flank, but what could I do? Feed her for a couple days, then just disappear from her life, never to return? It was a doomed situation and I knew it. She was Rapa Nui; I was beholden to the continent. I disappeared into my room for a time and when I next emerged, Flank was gone. I think Carmen’s dogs scared her off.

This post is dedicated to the wonderful 6 or so hours that Flank and I spent together. I left for Orongo that day alone but returned with a new best friend.

Rapa Nui Bliss

Tell anyone you’re going to Rapa Nui, aka Easter Island, and the response usually begins with an exclamation (“How cool! Bakan! I’ve never been!”) followed immediately by a piece of advice (“Go to this restaurant. Visit this place at this time. Watch out for the moai at night.”).

The night before my flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui, I was lingering outside my hostel and got to talking with a random passer-by. The conversation of course led to Rapa Nui (all conversations end in Rapa Nui), and when the Advice Portion of the conversation rolled around, this is what he said first:

“Oye, chica, los pascuenses te van a comer.” (Hey, girl, the Rapa Nui men are going to eat you.”)

Unsettling.

I’m proud to report, post-Rapa Nui, that I was never eaten by the rabid Rapa Nui men, nor was I molested in the night by the moai. I was, however, fully and completely satisfied by my trip in every possible way.

Let’s start the Rapa Nui Review with some stats.

Number of empanadas consumed: 2. One was tuna and cheese on the beach for my birthday, the second was shrimp and cheese. Both were mouth-wateringly fresh because, well, fishing is pretty much the only option for fresh food round those parts.

Number of volcanoes climbed and conquered: 2. I climbed Rano Kau via a pedestrian trail, then continued on to a ceremonial village higher up named Orongo (long, hot, sweaty, lovely hike, accompanied by a totally unexpected but perfectly matched stray dog, whose tale I will relate another time); also ascended Rano Raraku on foot, which was a far less impressive feat but still beautiful and useful in my stats nonetheless.

Number of moai visited, spotted, witnessed and otherwise enjoyed: Upwards of 40, easily. It was hard to keep track of them all. Forget naming them, too. I thought that was a good idea in the beginning (wrong).

Time spent lingering, wandering, oogling and otherwise admiring the shit out of the island: innumerable hours.

Shades of tan acquired from sunbathing, hiking or just standing on the corner for too long in mid-day sun: 4

Amount of money spent on the island: [this information is currently not available nor will it ever be analyzed]

Number of caves spelunked: 1, La Caverna de Las Dos Ventanas. This number should have been higher. Next time, Rapa Nui. Next time.

Number of 4-wheeler breakdowns: 2. One of them occurred just as a policeman was signaling me to stop so he could check my driver’s license. Little did he know I was in panic mode and desperate for someone to explain what was happening with the gears and why it would no longer shift out of 4th gear. We never got around to checking my license.

Average cost of a meal in any restaurant on the island: About $20, conservatively, not including drinks, appetizers, desserts, or anything.

People told me, prior to my trip, that 6 days was too long there. “Baaah, you can do it all in three days! Four, tops!” As an official Rapa Nui Veteran now, I can say with a firm word and soft heart that 4 days is an injustice, 6 days is a tease, and three weeks is ideal.

However, in fiscally responsible terms, 4 days is sufficient, 6 days is stretching your budget, and three weeks will leave you penniless and scouring the earth for extra income. Although I am still a “budget traveler” even when I splurge, Easter Island hit me way harder than I thought. I sort of knew this in advance – being the most remote island on the planet, one can’t expect them to have cheap amenities. Everything, save the seafood and the moai, must be shipped in from Elsewhere. Farming is hard on the island due to rain and crop loss. Deforestation has altered the landscape, wildlife diversity is limited, and there’s a history of cannibalism when protein sources dwindled. In other words, shit is expensive there.

My splurging consisted of the following: one meal out per day, usually with an adult beverage or two, a 4-wheeler for 24 hours, my own private room in some cabanas away from the city center, and the entrance ticket to the two main parks. The rest of the expenditures consisted of food for me to eat at the cabana, an occasional taxi and internet use, and the inexplicable disappearance of pesos when one is on Rapa Nui. (Most likely the moai in the night.)

However, let me make one thing clear: every last peso was incredibly well spent. Was I paying double or sometimes triple the price compared to anywhere else in the world? Yes. Was I still shocked and dismayed even coming off the tail en of a stint in Puerto Varas, one of the more expensive cities in Chile? Quite. Was it irrefutably worth it and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat and if I’d had more money I would have stayed for two more weeks? YES. YES. YES.

Sunset on Rapa Nui, my first night there.

Fun and festive cemetery. 

On the north-eastern part of the island, during my four-wheeler adventures. See the moai on the hillside?

I was the girl zipping around in the chic black helmet with dreads flying in the wind.

At Ranu Raraku. The site of the quarry, where the moai were carved.

Hiking along a twisting dirt path, rocky and impassable for cars, with the vague idea that a cave was somewhere along the way after about an hour or so of walking. I found it, eventually. But only after a few piercing moments of doubt where I mistook nearly everything for a sign to the cave entrance.

View from La Caverna de las Dos Ventanas. Spelunking is funlunking.

In case you wondered, this is what the face of spelunking actually looks like in Spelunking magazines.

A bit of a funky shot from Anakena Beach, where I spent my birthday reading, writing, sunbathing, and reveling in that tuna empanada.

One of my favorite shots. Tongariki, the day of my 4-wheeler excursion. The day was too gorgeous for words. Tongariki sits on the sea (like the whole island, technically?) and features 15 moai.

This shot looks like something from a video game to me. This is Rano Raraku, the quarry. The moai are essentially in various points of a tumble down the quarry hill. Their transport was halted for unknown reasons and they were left abandoned. I like to call this shot “Moai Rush Hour”.

Tongariki. Hanging with 15 of my closest buds (not all pictured here).

A shot from my hike to the cave on my last full day on the island. The views were stunning, and the hike was hot but pleasant. I passed maybe 4 people the entire way there then back. Quiet, peaceful, beautiful, and humid sea air. That dirt road is among my favorite places in the world.

I spent the majority of my time alone during the day, finding company in the moai and my journal. At night, I spent time with my fellow cabana mates; one Spaniard who had moved to the island trying to start a massage/holistic venture, a Chilean couple who came to get married and then spend their Honeymoon there, and a Chilean journalist who was one of the most educated and well-spoken people I’ve ever met.

The owner of the cabanas, Carmen, was pure Rapa Nui and she and I spent a few nights talking about life, culture, the real reason behind the moai, and yoga. All in all, I spent my time expressing myself on paper in English and verbally in Spanish, which is why upon my return to Santiago where I met Amanda, we noticed that my English skills had…slipped, to say the least.

Traveling alone to Rapa Nui was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Plenty of people commented negatively about this decision (“You’re traveling alone? How boring. And for your birthday no less? Why would you do that?”) but for me, it was a liberation that I didn’t know I’d been craving. Everyday I woke up and asked myself,

Hey, Shannon. What do you want to do? Feel like going to the beach? Maybe you want to meander slowly to the coffee shop and write for few hours? What about a hike to the summit of this volcano over here? Caves? Maybe caves? What about a FOUR-WHEELER. Well, at any rate, do some yoga, eat that fruit and nuts, take your time because no time schedule exists and you can do anything you want to do however fast or slow you want to, and then I’m sure there will be moai somewhere along the way. Just make sure you get really sweaty throughout the course of the day and take a thousand pictures. And also make sure the Rapa Nui don’t eat you today.

I really like to be alone, though I’m not a perpetual introvert. I need a healthy dose of socialization. However, this trip came at just the right time. It was a nice (and needed) break from the rhythm of Puerto Varas. And far more physically taxing than what life has been for me in the south so far. I’m not sure how many miles I hiked/walked during my stay there, but it was far more than anything my body is used to.

Furthermore, one of the reasons that I think extra time is not only a plus but a necessity for travelers like me (who find that delicate balance between budget and personal satisfaction) is that ‘conquering’ Rapa Nui is technically feasible in a day, if you rent a car and whiz between sites or, worse yet, come in a group package that ushers you blindly from one thing to the next.

That doesn’t allow for the quiet wonder and wander, the light sea breezes that caress your bright red boiling cheek in the middle of a hike where the trail end seems to be more of a fantasy than fact. Nor does it allow for the unexpected entrance of stray pets into your life (like I said, story pending), nor the discovery of caves, moai sites off the beaten trail, and more.

I think Carmen, the cabanas owner, thought I was a bit of a rogue – some mornings I showed up at her cabana asking roughly how to do one thing or another, she would show me on the map, and then I’d go do it. Planning was at an all-time low on this trip, even by my standards.

This approach saves money, sure, but more than that I feel like I really connected with the island. With so much time spent knee-deep in it’s hills and crevices, but yet with so much left to explore, I’ve got a good start on the journey to really know and appreciate this ridiculously remote gem of an island.

Also, please, can someone, anyone, give me a truly feasible answer for how anyone found the dang island in the first place?

Guess what? Couldn’t hold it in.

Like I said, I’m bad at holding it in. Farts, laughter, secrets about what I’m getting my friends for Christmas/birthdays, and more. I’ve been hanging with the moai here on Easter Island since Friday and, well, my harddrive space is filling up at an unprecedented rate.

Before I bore you all with this megalithic monotony (just kidding: far from monotonous. Sorry, moai. That was just a joke. Please don’t haunt me in the night), I would like to pose a riddle.

How many dark silhouette photos of moai-against-sunlight can you have before it’s too many?

Do you know the answer?

….Yeah?……Do ya?

Time’s up!

The correct answer is: It was a trick question, YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY! My iPhone and laptop harddrive serve as testament to this little-known but deeply true FACT. I present to you all now a sneak peek of Easter Island. Much more words and pictures to come, this I promise you.

Enjoy!

P.S. I think I may have to move to an island soon. Not necessarily Easter Island, because it’s relative remoteness makes me uneasy on the inside (seriously, once plane fuel prices go up, they are so screwed). But this sun? These palms? This ocean and sand and view of various cliffs and volcanic remnants? Yeah, I’m ready for that kind of stuff in my life. Plus the humidity isn’t bad. I never thought I’d miss humidity, but DAMN YOU OHIO SUMMERS you’ve crept into the fabric of my being.

Found this on accident my first day here during my walk to town.
This is the ceremonial site of Tahai. 
Literally can see it from my cabana. 

Found this guy today on my way back from a 
dirtbike expedition around the island. I don’t know what
site it is yet, but he was very stern and didn’t talk much. 
He’s probably upset because he’s got some ancient paint on his face.

This is me and the moai at the beach Anakena.
I spent my birthday on this beach this past Saturday.
People say I’m traveling alone, but I beg to differ.
These guys behind me were great company.

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