Friday, October 30, 2009

Laguna de Quilotoa, Ecuador

This is going to be a short post. Not much to say other than to look at the picture above.
The two mile wide crater was formed when the volcano erupted approximately 800 years ago and the cone collapsed. The laguna is a rich turquoise color as a result of dissolved minerals from the Volcano. Mix this beautiful color with the reflection of the sky and clouds above and it makes for quite a sight.
We hiked down to the lake and enjoyed the scenery for awhile. We then kicked ourselves for doing so because the hike back up was rediculously steep. The path was also mostly sand or volcanic ash so as you took one step up, your foot would slide half the distance back. Grueling.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Banos is Banging - Ecuador

Banos is a town known for its plethora of adventure sport options and Gemma and I knocked them all out of the park. We dominated this town. But before I get to that let me tell you about the beautiful square in the middle of town and the amazing little fruit juice stands in the central market. The weather was amazing in Banos with clear blue skys and lots of sunshine. We sat on the porch of a CRAZY Danish ladies cafe looking out over the park, drank good coffee and read English newspapers and magazines that were at least a month or so old.

I say the Danish lady was crazy because she´d just pop out of the cafe and to our table and start shouting at us about how her daughter`s passport is invalid and she is worried she´ll be denied at the US border on their upcoming trip. She also dropped at least 4 F Bombs during this story. Thanks for the info. She popped over to our table at least three times interupting an otherwise pleasant morning.

Gemma and I have also been living off these little fruit juice stands all over South America. Our favorite is Fresa con Lecha or fresh strawberries blended together with milk. You should try it. Banana and peach con leche are also personal faves.

Now onto the good stuff. Our first day in Banos we went whitewater rafting. I´ve always wanted to do this but never have and now after trying it feel like I´ve missed my calling in life as a river guide. Since I was 18 I´ve always said I wanted to live in New York, California, Colorado and London. Recently I´d dropped Colorado off the list but now I realize why I thought I´d like it having never been there. I love these outdoor sports. It was a really fun day and we both had a good first experience learning how to do it.

On our second day we went canyoning which translates to repelling/absailing down waterfalls. The great thing about South America is they´ll let you do anything even with zero experience as long as you give them 20 bucks. We had about five minutes of instruction that was mostly in spanish before we started lowering ourselves down these falls.

It was an amazing experience. On the first waterfall we lowered ourselves almost all the way down and then jumped backwards into the pool of water from about two meters. Gemma went first and was a pro right from the beginning.

I went next and again dominated. The second waterfall we just kind of slid down while the water was pounding down on us which was kind of fun.

Then came the third and final waterfall which was somewhere around 60 to 80 meters high. After repelling down about six feet or so the rock stopped and we just slowly lowered ourselves down next to the water. The vegetation near the top under the water was lush and just beautiful.

Once I got to the bottom I was able to take a few pictures of Gemma coming down. We then both went under the water and our guide took a couple pics of us. If you click on the pictures above you might be able to see some of the vegetation I was talking about.

On our third day Gemma and I rented bikes for a 40km bike ride along the Routa de Cascada (Route of Waterfalls) which takes you to the next town and passes 18 waterfalls along the way. What we forgot before signing up for this is that Gemma isn´t much of a bike rider. The ride is along a busy winding road so its necessary to stay close to the edge of the road which she can´t do. We also didn´t realize how hilly the road was. We made it about 45 minutes before G decided she´d had enough.

I continued on and made it about half way before flagging down a bus to take me back. Gemma wasn´t so lucky as to wave down a bus and it took her two hours to push her bike back uphill to the town while the peddle kept banging into her leg. I don´t think you´ll see any more bike riding posts from her for awhile.

Here are a couple pics of the best waterfalls along the way.

And now for the big mack daddy. Check out the pic below.
We jumped off that little ledge in the left hand corner!

Gemma went first as always and was terrified.

Its bad enough that the bridge is 100 meters high, but then the platform is actually placed about another four feet up and you have to climb over the railing and stand on it before you jump. Well you´re supposed to jump off it. Gemma just kinda fell face first off. :o) Not the best jumper. She says she was too terrified to jump so she just fell. I just don´t think she can jump. It is terrifying climbing over the railing. It just isn´t something you feel natural doing.

The rope is tied to the other side of the bridge so you are supposed to jump out as far as you can away from the bridge and then when the slack runs out it kind of whips you back under the bridge where you then swing back and forth a few times before they lower you to the ground.

This is how its done.

I have to give G some props for capturing the moment in the pics above. She couldn´t have done a better job.

Jumping off the bridge was terrifying and a mega rush. We only free fell for a couple seconds before the rope caught us and swung us but it felt like an eternity.

Next stop is Ecuador´s capital city, Quito. We´ve only heard bad things about the town but we´re heading north towards Colombia so we´re stopping there for a few days.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ayahuasca - A Spiritual Journey

Our few days in Mancora didn´t satisfy our need for more beach time so we left Guayaquil and headed to the Ecuadorian Coast and the town of Montanita. The town was just as you´d imagine a beach town, full of bars, surf shops and cafes. Unfortunately the weather was awful and we didn´t get in the ocean once in five days. Kind of a bummer but the nightlife was pretty good as long as you like the song "I Know You Want Me" by Pitbull. Its the only song they play in South America. Its a great song with amazing lyrics. Here´s a sample:


I know you want me (want me)

You know I want cha (want cha)
I know you want me

You know I want cha (want cha)

I know you want me (want me)

You know I want cha (want cha)

I know you want me

You know I want cha (want cha)

We met some cool people over the few days we were there including Swedish Mike and Ollie Wentworth Bentley Paddle III (who looked like Shaggy from Scooby Doo) and a quite a few people who we were apparently best friends with at the clubs but can´t seem to recall who they were when we looked at the photos the next morning.

Swedish Mike informed us about the Samai Retreat and Spa ( just outside Montanita in the jungle which offers Shamanic Journeys with Ayahuasca. It is run by a guy from Boston who after getting laid off from his tech job in the late 80´s moved into the Peruvian Jungle with a group of Shaman´s for a few years. It was there he was intoduced to the ancient sacred tradition of drinking Ayahuasca. Drinking Ayahuasca is supposed to ¨promote a transformational shift in self-awareness and personal growth¨.

We did a bit of research into Ayahuasca and this BBC video on Youtube made it seem a bit more legitimate so we decided to give it a try. When we arrived at the resort we were taken to our own cabin with an amazing view of the jungle and ocean.(The white in the pic below is the ocean)

We then met Ed and Tanya Tuttle, the couple who run the resort. Ed is probably one of the happiest guys I´ve ever met and he attributes alot of this happiness to the work he´s done with Ayahuasca. He explained how the shamans make Ayahuasca from the Ayahuasca plant along with up to 30 other plants most of which are unknown outside of the shaman communities in the Andean jungles. Here is what their website says about Ed:

Ed Tuttle has been on a spiritual path for over 25 years, studying and practicing Buddhist meditation, Christian mysticism and Shamanism. He has studied with Zen masters, lived with Andean shamans and spent many nights deep in the rain forest learning of the ancient spiritual systems encoded in the shamans cosmology. Ed has a special sensitivity to nature and facilitates the interaction with the timeless plant teachers on our journeys into the rain forest and the Andes Mountains.

Before the cermony started Tanya showed us a few books on Ayahuasca. One was about an artist named Alex Grey who paints the visuals most people see after drinking it. These paintings are what Tanya said we could expect to see during our journey. They often are images of DNA and the insides of your body. Visions of skulls and snakes are also quite common and appear in many of his paintings. Apparently this is also why you find two snakes (representing DNA) wrapped around the Caduceus, a common medical symbol in North America.

A tree carving on the way to the hut where the ceremony took place featuring the Caduceus.

Tanya tried explaining to us that one of the plants used to make Ayahuasca has something to do with the DNA in our bodies and therefore helps us see inside ourselves and is able to help you see areas in your body which need work or are unhealthy. Please Google ¨Alex Grey Images¨ to see what I´m talking about. And if this all sounds a bit crazy, believe me, it did to us as well.

The ceremony took place in a hut made by some of the shamans Ed studied with. The hut is designed with one wall open to the jungle which allows you to be closer to nature and makes it easier for you to throw up which is quite common.

The ceremony started at 7:30pm and lasted three hours. It is pitch black inside the hut except for a little moonlight. Ed explained how the ceremony would take place and then opened it with a cleansing of the space. We were all initially seated in the chairs you see above. One by one we were called up to take a shot of Ayahuasca followed by a little swig of home brewed moonshine to wipe away the taste. The Ayahuasca is red in color and tasted similar to a bloody mary mix but the moonshine tasted way worse. Gemma went first and was the only girl there. She often is the only girl trying alot of the more adventurous things we do and I have to give her some credit for that.

We sat in complete silence for about 40 minutes waiting for the effects to kick in. Have you ever sat in complete silence for 40 minutes? Its boring. We eventually all moved down to the floor and laid on the mats. While Ayahuasca is a pychadelic type drug, its not one you could go about your daily activies after taking. You have to lie down and just let it ¨open your mind¨. Ed told us to ask ourselves questions like ¨What is that which has no other?, Who am I? or What is my purpose in life?¨

After about forty minutes Ed invited us to have another shot and then called us up one by one to sit in front of him while he performed a type of ritual. He shook a bunch of palms (you can see in the pic below) over our heads actually kind of smacking us in the head. At first I wasn´t sure if he realized he was hitting my head so I lowered it a bit but he just kept smacking it. He was chanting in Quechuan and making these really cool sounds that sounded like someone shooting an arrow out of a blowgun or blowpipe. Hard to describe but it sounded like an arrow was flying really quickly past your head.

Then he did one of the craziest things Gemma or I have ever experienced. He put his hands on the side of our head and put his lips to the top of our head and blew out vibrating our skulls. It was wild. He then took his two thumbs and put them on our forehead and did the same. It felt almost as if a drill was going into our head but not in a painful way. Kind of like someone giving you rasberries but to the extreme.

We then went back and laid on the mats. At this point we were supposed to be seeing these crazy visuals and having a life altering internal conversation with ourselves. For me, it didn´t really happen. I just felt kinda sick, cold and bored laying in the dark. After three hours Ed invited us to go back to our huts and ¨continue our journey¨. He warned us to keep the lights off because they are harmful to the Ayahuascan spirts. Boy was he right, I turned on the light to go to the bathroom and it was a horrible experience.

As I said I didn´t really have the experience I was told about while we were in the hut. I actually spent the last hour or so thinking about emails I hadn´t responded to. I also thought it was kind of odd that all the research we did spoke of how inevitable it is that you will get sick but none of the six of us did while we were in the hut. Then as we left the hut and walked about ten steps Gemma got sick. After she finished Ed´s immediate response was ¨Thats great, good for you! Thats alot of negativity leaving your body.¨

We got back to the hut and laid down. I really started to feel funny once we got back for the next four hours but still no visuals. It was 2am when Gemma looked at her watch but it seemed like only about 20 minutes had gone by since we got back.

The next morning when we woke up I wanted to know how it affected Gemma. Man did she have a different experience. She told me of the visuals she had. She first saw herself floating above the Amazon Jungle and then she´d dive down to a building which would then turn on its side. She rode on a giant snake that she was climbing up but could never reach its head. One of the wildest things she described to me was a ceremony she watched from above. It took place in a big stadium that was full of smokey spirits whose faces resembled the mask from the movie Scream. All the spirts were pushing all their energy and love into the middle of the stadium which was a giant glowing sun. How wild is that!

She also described to me how when she was getting sick there were skulls coming up from the ground which her vomit would then push back down into the ground. She rode in a miners cart with diamonds and gems on the side. She came to a giant door that every 10 or 15 minutes she tried to open but couldn´t and said it had a light coming through it. At the very end she finally saw the snakes head which she said had my eyes. Wild Wild stuff.

We met with Ed the next morning to talk about how it went. He wanted me to do it again the next night and said he´d double my dosage but it was quite expensive and I wasn´t sure I wanted to go through with it again. Gemma wants you to know she´s not crazy and Ed confirmed alot of her visuals were common. I´m glad we tried it but I´m not sure it had the life changing effects most speak of.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Guayaquil, Ecuador

Most backpackers simply transfer buses in Guayaquil and have little thats nice to say about the town but the guide book said there were a few things to see so we thought we´d give it a day. It turned out to be a good decision. The Guayaquil we experienced was lovely. The town spent a considerable amount of money transforming the waterfront from a dirty crime ridden area into a long strolling boardwalk with gardens, restaurants and sculptures.

There is also a cobblestoned street full of art galleries that look out over the river. We spent some time popping in and out of them before climbing a staircase to the top of a big hill that provided a nice view out over the city.

Later in the afternoon we went to the cemetary to mix it up a bit. There are only so many churches and plazas you can see in each town before you need to challenge yourself to see something different. It was actually a beautiful area with lots of marble flooring and palm trees. We saw former presidents and generals impressive gravesites and many more simpler crumbling ones.

In the evening we drank dollar beers and ate falafel along the riverside looking out on the sailboat below. It reminded me of college a bit, mainly because I can´t remember the last time I drank a dollar beer. Another fun fact is Ecuador uses US dollars for their currency. The bills are the same but the coins have Ecuadorian figures and monuments on them.

We left the next morning to go to the beachtown of Montanita.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mancora, Peru - Finally Reached a Beach

We finally reached a beach! Woohoo! After two months of climbing everything under the sun and being in landlocked Bolivia for a month, we were ready for some fun in the sun. So much so that we took two overnight buses to go from the very south of Peru to the very northern coastal town of Mancora. The bus ride wasn´t fun and the bus company lost our bags along the way which meant we hit the beach in our warm clothes we had on from the south. Luckily they delivered them a day and a half later. I finally shaved my beard and immediately looked about 12 years old.

We stayed at a hostel right on the beach and soaked up the sun for five days. It was nice eating lunch near the ocean while watching kiteboarders jump waves. One day we took a tuktuk to a mud bath just outside town in a national park. We had it all to ourselves until all the locals showed up and watched us for about fifteen minutes laughing at how white Gemma is. Ha.

Next stop is Ecuador, the third country in our South American tour.