A camping stove. It is a must-have item for living outdoors. It cooks our food, it makes us hot drinks to warm us up on cold, rainy days, it boils water for drinking, it keeps us alive without having to do all of those tasks over an open fire which would be way too time consuming.

We started in the U.S. With an MSR Dragonfly. Though an obnoxiously loud stove, it was small, efficient and ran on both white gas and regular unleaded gasoline. We would have loved to bring it to South America with us, but of course we aren't allowed to take stoves on airplanes. You can always try to hide it, but if it's discovered, not only do you end up at your destination without a stove, but you also permanently lose your possession to the ever-multiplying collection of items confiscated by the TSA. And good camp stoves are not cheap so we sent ours home and painstakingly searched for another one once we arrived in Ecuador.

The second stove of our bike tour was the Coleman Exponent 442. Though it didn't pack down nicely, it was pleasantly quiet and also ran on gasoline which was a huge plus for us down here because it's inexpensive, readily available and we never had to worry about finding propane fuel canisters which are very costly.

However, there's also a downside to using gasoline. It's a dirty form of fuel and over time it tends to clog the stove. Ours decided to crap out on us much sooner than we expected. After 2 months of use there's already corroding parts and Mike's disassembled and cleaned the thing a dozen times to no avail. It's infuriating how these items are outrageously expensive, are marketed to work with 2 types of fuel yet really designed to only function properly for extended periods of time with one of those fuels. Then when it breaks on you, it's impossible to fix and you're left out on the road or in the mountains without a stove.

Today we went searching for yet another stove to last us for our next 2 ½ months in South America but didn't find what we were looking for nor were we thrilled on the idea of wasting another $150 on a stove that we'd have to dispose of when we were ready to fly out of here. Our solution was to make an alcohol burning stove that was so simple it couldn't break on us.

Mike had a blast with this project. We went to a pharmacy and bought a bottle of rubbing alcohol (our new fuel). Then we stopped at the grocery store and bought a huge canister of dry milk, a can of tuna, a can of peas and 4 beers. Mike was pleased that today's beers got to go under the “essential supplies” column in our budget instead of the “food” column. The only other things we needed were some copper wire, which Mike found laying on the sidewalk and some bolts and a few other tools, all of which we had in our spare parts bag.

We dumped the dry milk in the trash because that stuff is gross, but the large can was needed to provide a solid base for the stove and to hold our large cooking pots. A shorter can would have been ideal but this was all we could find. Vents were cut in the can and then set aside.
The base.

The pea can was needed to build a pedestal to hold the burner. This was only essential because we used the large milk can and could have been omitted had we found something shorter. Mike attached the pea can inside the bottom of the milk can with copper wire.

The very bottom couple of millimeters was all that was needed of the tuna can. This piece became the preheating tray which holds the burner as well as a tiny bit of alcohol that gets lit to heat up the alcohol inside the burner. Mike attached the preheating tray to the pea can with a non-essential screw from the TV stand in our hotel room because we didn't have one in our tool bag.
Looking down at the pedestal and preheating tray.

The final part to the stove was the burner which was made out of the bottoms of 2 aluminum cans. One can was cut about 1 ¼ inches from the bottom and the other about ¾ of an inch. With a sewing needle, Mike poked 16 evenly spaced holes around the beveled edge of the can, which is where the flames will come out, and with a drill bit, a larger hole in the center of the can which will be the filling hole. He then carefully fit together the 2 bottoms of the cans making sure not to dent them, filled the burner with alcohol and inserted a bolt into the filling hole. Since it's impossible to regulate the flame with this type of stove, he also made a burner with only 8 holes so we have the option of both a high or low flame.
The burners.

All of our trials throughout the day have been a huge success – we've cooked on it, boiled water and are pleased with the outcome. Now the major test will be to see how it performs in the never-ending winds of Patagonia. We now have a stove that is light but kind of large, quiet, we can take on airplanes, looks ridiculously awesome, is unlikely to break, but if it does is easily repairable and only cost us about $12. Beat that all you big camp stove manufacturers!
Our awesome new alcohol burning camp stove at work.




I love running into people who completely prove wrong the all-too-widely accepted notion that once you have kids your ability to live a wild, adventurous lifestyle goes down the toilet. We met a Scottish family (mom, dad and 10-year old daughter) last week on one of their many grand adventures. They started in Northern Canada, have been cycling for the past year-and-a-half and have ridden over 14,000 miles through North, Central and South America.
Sean, Ingrid and Kate 

The tandem Sean and Kate ride

Had you been in the gas station at the moment the 5 of us met, you likely would have assumed that we were old friends bumping into each other after years of being apart. We were all so far beyond excited to meet other English speakers that none of us could wait for our turn to talk. I think there were 5 conversations going on at once. It had been a long time since Mike and I have had people other than ourselves whom we could actually understand, have in-depth conversations with and not have to play charades to get our point across, and an even longer time for Sean, Ingrid and Kate, so you can only imagine the eruption of excitement, wanting to spew out stories from all of our latest experiences.

We spent a night camping together and it was awesome and inspiring to hear their stories. We learned how other parties celebrate a touch of Christmas while living on bicycles by being the audience for Kate and Ingrid's Christmas pageant dress rehearsal, the actors being 5 stuffed animals they have either been given or have picked up along the roadside somewhere along their journey. We rode off in different directions from our camp site, but they too are riding south and we can only hope that we'll be so lucky to have our paths will cross again at some point.
Kate and the actors


We had one of our first really cold and rainy days in South America last week. It's really not fun riding on those days, but it must be done and we better familiarize ourselves with the discomfort of it because they're only going to get more and more frequent the further south we ride.

We had just enjoyed a long, relaxing lunch and hot drinks and then took off riding in the rain. Not long after, I started feeling that rainy-day tired feeling setting in. It's not difficult to lose yourself in your thoughts while on a bike, your mind totally at ease, and then suddenly find yourself 20 miles down the road without knowing where the miles went. But this time my mind went a step further; it got both lost in thought and hypnotized by the rain, I turned around to see where Mike was and suddenly I found myself roaring down a hill, stuck in a sloping gutter, smashing into the guard rail and then skidding on my side on the pavement. Ouch. I was no longer lost in dream world after that.

My bike took a bit of a beating, bending the handlebars and leaving some awesome scrapes. Just a little more character added to the good old Cougar, I guess. Fortunately for me, it was both cold and rainy that day so I had on extra layers along with my rain jacket and gloves to protect me from the pavement. I walked away with a banged up, bloody elbow and knee, a throbbing thumb, aching neck and a lot of holes in my clothes that I'll soon have to patch. It would have been much more painful had it been a warm, sunny day so I guess I was thankful for the crummy weather that day.


One night we were making dinner in the center of the town of Villarica, Chile. The huge cement slab we were sitting on was surrounded by little booths with people selling all sorts of touristy trinkets. On the other side of the slab was a portly man who turned out to be one of the men selling his wares and as we were cooking he made a comment of how good our food smelled. Once we finished cooking we realized we had made way more than we could eat (our eyes are often much too large for our stomachs on the days we find a grocery store with good looking produce), so we made up a plate of food for the man and Mike took it over to his booth.

I have never heard anyone cry out in such ecstatic happiness over a simple plate of stir fried broccoli, mushrooms, red peppers, garlic and onion over rice. His continuous laughter was deep and jolly, he repeatedly cried out, “Que rico! Que rico!” (meaning how tasty), told us Chilean food was boring and bland and made sure that every single other vendor knew that he was the lucky recipient of a delicious plate of food from a couple of grubby looking cyclists.

It made our day to see him so thrilled about our food and when he finished, he returned with our plate and a little wooden mug from his booth. Not that we need to be carrying any more stuff with us, but we couldn't turn down his gift, so we now have a mini-mug from Villarica that will certainly finish out our bicycle journey with us.
Mike, the stir-fry guy and Cari


Though it hasn't felt much like the Christmas to us, we get occasional reminders that it's the holiday season when we cruise through towns and see all of the decorations in the store windows and Christmas music playing on the radios. We couldn't let the holidays pass without acknowledging them at all, so one day while we were spending some time in a town and Mike was busy on the computer, I picked up 5 tiny ornaments from a roadside vendor. When we got to camp that night, I picked up a branch and surprised him with our own little Christmas tree. We get a new “tree” every night and it adds a nice touch of holiday spirit our vagabond life.
One of our beautiful Christmas trees

Today is Christmas. We had a beautiful ride along Lake Nahuel Huapi which, in my opinion, closely rivals the infamous Lake Tahoe in spectacular scenery and splendor with its vibrant blue water, snow-capped mountain setting and elaborate lakeside homes. To make our day even better, the weather gods decided to spare us from another rainy day, gave us perefct temperatures and mostly tailwinds for a change. Our gifts to ourselves when we arrived at our destination was a restaurant meal, hotel, soft bed to sleep in and the first shower we've taken in 2 weeks. It has been a great day.



The riding since we left Santiago has been absolutely perfect. Finally, we got the terrain we've hoped for every time we start out after a long break. The first few days were completely flat and everyday thereafter got slightly more hilly. Although at first it makes for fairly boring cycling, it was just what was needed for my aching knee, which thankfully is feeling much better.

The scenery has changed dramatically over the last 400 miles. We have cruised through flat lands and rolling hills which seemed to be a cross between the central valley of California and the Midwest; endless fields of corn and wheat, pastures of horses, cows and sheep and orchards of cherries, apples and nectarines. The wildflowers are out in full force as Summer approaches, making the landscape beautiful with color, but at the same time are giving Mike a major bout of allergies. We have just reached the edge of where the hills are starting to last longer than a few minutes, the air is clear, free of city pollution and smells of the sweet conifer forests the highway passes through. On the horizon we can now see towering, snow-covered volcanoes and are excited to be riding amongst them.

Saltos del Laja

Up until this point we have stuck to riding on the Panamerican Highway, the main road running north and south through Chile. It is a superb road with excellent pavement and huge shoulders, but it feels kind of like riding on an Interstate with all of the traffic. It has been difficult finding places to camp as there are fences around virtually every parcel of land, so we have continued living trucker-style, riding from one truck stop/gas station to the next and pitching our tent there. It's convenient because we have a ready supply of water and snacks if our food stash is running low (or if we just have a late-night sweets craving which is usually the case) and if we're really lucky they have showers, but that's only happened once. We typically find a corner in the back so we're out of the way and out of sight, but there have been occasions where we've had to camp right out in front. Imagine a U-shaped floor plan with a small grassy courtyard and 24-hour pumps with blaring bright lights. Now place 2 blonde haired foreigners on bikes and a bright orange tent in the courtyard and imagine the perplexed stares we got. Another interesting campsite was the night we got permission to sleep on the front porch of a quiet, small town mini market. We waited until dark to set up our tent, but it turned out that instead of shutting down, this market came to life at 10 pm. Suddenly all of the lights on the porch and the bright floodlights in the parking lot came on, customers started arriving and sat on the porch eating, drinking and smoking with their children running around the parking lot peeking into our tent. We were ready to sleep, but it was evident we wouldn't be getting any rest for several hours.
Camping on the front porch of a mini-mart

Although we could stay on the Panamerican for quite a while longer, we are ready to get away from the bustling traffic and explore some of the remote, less maintained, quieter roads that climb and wind around the hundreds of lakes, volcanoes and National Parks in eastern Chile and western Argentina. Tomorrow we will turn east, start climbing and soon be riding through the part of South America we've been anxiously awaiting.



Shades of brown, rocks and sand for as far as the eye can see, no people, no vegetation, no animals; nothing to look at and nothing but the hot sun beating down on us all day long. The monotony of the desert gets old very quickly and after only a few days of enduring the heart of the Atacama we were ready for a change. We took a little detour away from the Panamerican Highway and rode the winding and hilly tightrope of the coastal highway where the endless desert meets the infinite sea.
Cari escaping from the sun.

 Where the desert meets the sea.

The slight change in scenery was pleasant and the towns were more frequent which made it easier to refill water, but we were still in the desert, growing bored with our surroundings, and though not wanting to admit it, somewhat dreading the next 1,000 miles of riding through the same old scenery. I'm not sure why I can be perfectly content riding through the monotony of a forest and not that of the desert, but riding was beginning to feel more like a daily chore than a daily pleasure. In addition, my knee had decided to rebel after our first few days of riding and big mountain climbs and though I pushed through the pain for several days, we concluded it would be wise to rest for a while and let it heal rather than pressing on and potentially killing our chance to ride the southern, more beautiful half of Chile.
Mike walking down the street in Iquique. 

A fishing village as seen from the highway. 

A very old cemetery.

In the town of Michilla, after a week of riding the Atacama Desert with a bum knee, we both agreed that we'd had enough. We stopped for lunch and instead of getting back on our bikes to ride the second half of the day, we walked them to the side of the highway, stuck out our thumbs and in less than 30 seconds got picked up by Juan who towed us to the city of Antofagasta in his empty semi-truck. It was nice to watch a small section of the desert pass by quickly from the cab of a truck instead of slowly and painfully pedaling through.
Mike and Juan loading the bikes on the truck.

In Antofagasta we met up with Mario, a guy we found through Warmshowers.org, a website set up for hosting touring cyclists. Earlier that day we had commented on how we were missing meeting and having conversations with many random people everyday, as we did while riding through the US.  Here, it's difficult for us to talk with anyone because our Spanish is so elementary and though we have each other to talk to and our Spanish is improving little by little, meeting people and outside conversations were huge aspects of touring that were now missing. To our surprise (and relief), Mario spoke English very well and we enjoyed his company and hospitality for a couple of days. He showed us around his city and we cooked dinners for him; how nice it was to have an actual stove and oven instead of our little, one burner camping stove.
Mike, Mario and Cari in Antofagasta.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome and with my knee not quite feeling ready to ride again, we decided we'd head down to Santiago, by-pass the remainder of the desert and allow me a few more pedal-free days. We had such luck with hitchhiking to Antofagasta that we opted to give it another try instead of dealing with the frustrations of getting our bikes on buses. Mario gave us a ride back out to the Panamerican Highway, dropped us off on the side of the road and gave us the phone numbers of a friend in Santiago we could stay with when we arrived. Once again luck was on our side and within minutes an empty 30-foot flatbed trailer on it's way to a city just outside of Santiago pulled up, we loaded our bikes on top and climbed in. Mike took the passenger seat and I got the bed that lay behind the two front seats. We spent the next 30 hours with Patricio, living the life of a trucker; driving long hours, eating at roadside diners and sleeping at truck stops. Patricio was a very kind guy, but unfortunately didn't speak any English. We would have loved to learn about his life, his family and his country, but our questions were simple and we rarely understood more than a few sentences of his responses. It was very clear that we didn't really know what he was saying, but he just continued on talking; I think he was lonely and was happy to have some company along for the long haul.
 Mike, a little dog and our bikes on the back of Patricio's truck.

 In the truck somewhere along our 800-mile trip.

We set up camp for the night on the back of Patricio's truck.

Cari, Mike and Patricio.

We watched the desert pass by from the excellent vantage point of the truck; the complete barren nothingness slowly transitioned into a land with sparse cacti, then shrubs and ultimately trees and abundant vegetation. Part of me was happy to watch the Atacama whiz by so easily yet part of me was disappointed that we didn't press on and ride through it. I know we'll enjoy the southern part of the country much more than the north, but it feels a little bit like we cheated on our ride across Chile.

We are now in Santiago, staying with Mario's friend, Lorena and her family. Though they speak only a few words in English making it very difficult to communicate, we were welcomed into their home and are experiencing firsthand how I expect the majority of South American families live. The house is modest at best in a not-so-nice-looking part of town, shared between 2 families, with a sheet metal roof that rattles in the wind and paper thin walls. Furniture, decorations and possessions are sparse, but there are an abundance of televisions and they were excited to show us that they had cable TV. It is run down and grungy, but the people inside are a tight-knit family, cheerful, friendly and very welcoming to a couple of complete strangers. There has been a party to attend every night, entertaining ourselves until the wee hours of the morning by teaching them English phrases, learning Spanish phrases, singing together to the American Rock and Pop music that they love to listen to, dancing in the kitchen and building friendships in spite of the language barriers that exist between us.
Group photo at Benjamin's birthday party.

Benjamin and Mike at the grill. 


My knee is improving, but I'll continue with the rest, stretch, anti-inflammatory regimen for another day or two before betting back on the bike, just to make sure it's actually better. You'd think we would have learned our lesson about starting out gung-ho way back in California with Mike's knee injury, but apparently we didn't. For now we'll continue to wander around Santiago, which we've discovered is just another monstrous city like anywhere else in the world with the exception that public displays of affection are apparently normal here. Everywhere, people are doing way more than smooching in the streets...it's very strange!



Our final bus ride was right on par with the rest of our experiences in Peru. We boarded the run-down bus for our 18-hour ride after paying our extra luggage fees and being reassured that nothing would be piled on top of our bikes. We watched as the bus stopped and picked up more and more passengers, each with a heap of crates, bags and boxes piles beside them. Within the first hour of the ride Mike was outside arguing with the bus loaders as he watched them stack more and more 50-pound totes of fruits, vegetables, cheese and various other wares on top of our bikes. Despite his efforts, along with the help of another Spanish-speaking passenger, he was told to shut up and get back on the bus.

We were beyond furious at this point and if someone would have stepped on board with 2 tickets out of South America to just about anywhere in the world, we would have taken them in an instant. We arrived here with open minds, willing and eager to experience and accept a different culture, but were so tired of being treated worse than the mangy, homeless, trash-eating dogs that roam the countryside, constantly being lied to, ripped off, given cold shoulders and fiery glares, that we were positive anywhere would be better than Peru. I don't know how long a person can endure that kind of life and unhappiness before forming an unchangeable opinion about a place or its people, but if we didn't get out fast, I was going to have one of those outlooks where I couldn't remember any of the great things about Peru, but only the bad that never seemed to end.

Miraculously, when we reached the border of Chile it was like we had entered a whole new world. It's amazing to me that we could cross over an invisible line and life would immediately change, but the differences were unbelievably apparent. The Border Patrols were friendly folks who wanted to chat with us, willingly offered us information about traveling in their country and reassured us that, unlike the corrupt law enforcement officials in Peru who could never be trusted, those in Chile took their jobs seriously and could always be turned to for help. There was not nearly as much garbage piled alongside the highways and the towns are much cleaner, nicer, and considerably more western-looking than those in Peru. There were much fewer people just sitting around. It baffled me in Peru how we could walk through a city and it seemed like half of its population was simply sitting idle, doing nothing, staring blankly into the void of space waiting for life to pass them by. Sure, we've seen a few of these people, but overall, people are moving, going places, living productive lives. Chileans seem more physically healthy, more social and much more receptive to outsiders. We see them out riding their bikes for fun, eating at restaurants with family and friends, talking, laughing and smiling amongst themselves and extending their words and smiles to include us as well. We no longer have to pay twice as much for a hotel or bus ticket, get stared at, whistled at, run off the sidewalks or feel like we're going to get robbed at every corner as we walk through towns. We feel like we're once again living amongst human beings and we're so relieved to be here.
Welcome to Chile!

So far the riding in Chile has been tough, but good. We are now in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. It is going to be a major test of our willpower to get through the next 1,500 miles as we make our way south towards Santiago. Our days are filled with hot, dry air, major mountain climbs and descents, horrific headwinds and not much to look at other than sand, rocks and more sand. We have to carry considerably more water and food with us here than we did in the US, as the towns are very infrequent, often times close to 100 miles apart. We have yet to see any animals, other than a few dogs that live in the villages we pass through and we occasionally see a shrub or two growing where there would be a river if it ever rained. We feel small here, like 2 specks of energy slowly passing through a landscape of death, so harsh, desolate and nonsupporting of life.
 Mike climbing one of many desert mountains.

 Cari, tuckered out, but still not to the top of the mountain.

Although it may sound horrible, being out here does not worry us. There are so many cars, semi-trucks and buses driving along this route that if we ever needed help, it wouldn't take long to find it. We have received more honks, thumbs-up, peace signs and energetic waves as if people have spotted a long lost friend in a crowd after not seeing them for decades, than you can imagine. Nearly every vehicle that passes gives us an affirmative sign and even though we're painfully and slowly grinding our way through this desert, we almost always have a happiness in our hearts and genuine smile on our faces, both of which have been absent for the past month. Cycling is good once again.
Strange, yet wonderful things can be found in the desert.



We have been very happy with our decision to not ride through Peru, especially as we watched the garbage-laden, barren desert of northern Peru pass by and as our buses spat and sputtered their way up and over narrow, steep mountain roads. We were more than happy to not have to deal with those challenges, but of course, our bus tour through Peru has left us with plenty of other stories to tell.

I have to commend the South American bus system. It has, for the most part, been fantastic for the 70+ hours we have thus far spent riding them around Peru. You can literally get anywhere by bus for a fairly cheap rate, even when lugging around a couple of bicycles as long as you're willing to pay a little extra for the extra luggage. Many of the long routes travel at night and we have typically splurged on our tickets and purchased the super comfortable seats that recline so we can get at least a few hours of sleep. It's not always completely stress-free, as we feel like we have to watch our stuff like hawks while it waits in the luggage area and then gets put under the bus. It would be easy to “accidentally” forget to put a bike on board and we sometimes have to remind the packers that bicycles have many fragile parts that could easily break given the way they manhandle our precious cargo. Once we know all of our equipment is on board and we make it through their hokey security system which consists of scanning everyone with a hand held metal detector that beeps at least 5 times per person, but they just ignore it and wave everyone through, we usually gripe for a few minutes about how rough they were with the bikes and how we hope that nothing got busted, but then we snuggle in for the long haul and it's typically fairly uneventful.

Our last bus trip, the 22-hour ride from Lima to Cusco, where we went with the most well-known and upscale bus company in Peru, Cruz del Sur, was by far our worst bus experience. Although we were reassured when we purchased our tickets that we could take our bikes with us, we had to fight tooth and nail to get them to put them on the bus with us. They tried to tell us there wasn't room and they could put one on our bus and one on the next, but we refused and argued in the best Spanish we could. Eventually they gave in and put both of them on the bus, but with the way they handled the bikes and shoved them in the storage compartment, we were sure we'd arrive in Cusco with severely mangled equipment. Then came the bus ride from hell. First of all it was way too long and second, they couldn't seem to control the air temperature and we'd be shivering and putting on more clothes one minute only to wake up the next minute completely drenched in sweat. Third, it was on the most curvy roads ever. We were constantly being flung from one side of our seat to the other, all night long. Half of the bus was sick and we were awoken several times during the night to the sounds of people around us wrenching their guts into bags or whatever they could find and sometimes just spewing into the aisle. Every time, I covered my face with my pillow, plugged my ears, tried to ignore the nauseous feeling that had overtaken me, hoped not to get sick and willed myself back to sleep. We have never been happier to get off of a bus than we were when we arrived in Cusco. I think that ride was the moment when we both decided we'd had enough of this bus stuff and although there are many more places we'd like to see in Peru, it is time to get back on our bikes.

In addition to spending a ton of time on buses, in bus stations, in taxis and in collectivos (something in between a large van and small bus where they pack in as many people as possible for a very cheap fare), we have spent our time over the past 2 weeks wandering around various cities, eating at local restaurants, checking out the abundant markets and living a somewhat quiet existence. The markets here are fantastic. You can find anything and everything you could possibly want or need, from food; restaurants, fresh produce, breads, grain and meat stalls abound, to housewares, clothes, movies, toys, seamstresses, art and trinkets of every kind. They go on forever, and ever....and ever. They're quite overwhelming and we have enjoyed getting lost in them, taking in the smells of the restaurants cooking up huge vats of soups and not so much enjoying the smells of the meat sections where nothing is refrigerated and whole skinned chickens, guinea pigs, fish and huge hunks of beef, pork and lamb parts hang from the ceilings. I usually hold my breath, close my eyes and walk as fast as I can through those sections hoping to not collide with anyone and cause a big scene. We have enjoyed the colors of the markets. The fabrics, trinkets, clothing and piles of stuff for sale is so abundant and comes in every color of the spectrum that when you're walking through the artisan markets it feels like you're lost in a technicolor dream world. Before long everything starts to look the same, you have no idea which stalls you've visited or how to get out of the craziness. It's mesmerizing and overstimulating, but beautiful at the same time. We have enjoyed the authenticity of the markets. There is generally no English spoken and it is where the locals eat and shop. It is their culture and it's fun to witness firsthand.
Scenes from the markets.

Lunch at the market...a ton of tasty food for very little money.

Chicken anyone?

One of our more noteworthy excursions in Peru has been our backpacking trip in the Cordillera Blanca, outside of Huaraz. In this mountain range lies the tallest mountains in Peru and some of the tallest in the Andes. They are jagged, snow-capped and unbelievably beautiful. Although we didn't have all of the essential backpacking gear with us, like backpacks, we had the majority – a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, stove and warm clothes. We rented 2 backpacks, decided to hike the Santa Cruz route, which is supposedly one of the more beautiful treks within Huascaran National Park, did our grocery shopping and set out on our way. The first day we took a collectivo and then a taxi to Lake Llanganuco, a brilliant turquoise lake, surrounded by the red-orange barked quinoa trees, snow-topped mountains and on one side a massive black stone wall with green, purple, red and yellow plants growing out of it's vertical face. We weren't supposed to camp there, but it was too beautiful so we found a quiet nook on the far side of the lake to set up camp for a relaxing afternoon and evening of reading, taking in the views, hiking and acclimating to the 10,000 feet of elevation.
Huascaran Mountain as seen from the city of Huaraz.

Lake Llanganuco

Early the next morning we caught a bus that was passing by to take us to the start of the Santa Cruz trail. The bus was old, as most of them are here, with torn seat covers and seat cushions that had completely worn out decades ago and we took the last row of unoccupied seats in the very back of the bus. This ride wins hands down as the most intense, scary and perhaps most painful bus ride I've ever been on. Immediately after we boarded, the bus began to climb. The road was narrow, barely wide enough for a single bus. So what happens when we meet another vehicle coming the other direction, one must wonder. Well, we move over so that half of the tires on one side of the bus are hanging over the edge of the cliff. Then the two vehicles squeeze by each other, missing each other by mere millimeters. The road was steep. We thought we had been on some steep roads, but this takes the cake. The road was bumpy. It was covered in potholes and huge rocks and being in the back of the bus, we felt every single one of them, our spines compressing a little more each time as we flew into the air and then came crashing back down on the rock hard seats. We had sore backs even before our backpacking trip began. The road switch-backed its way up the side of the mountain, making unbelievably tight turns and I, who typically enjoy a thrilling ride, sat there white-knuckled, sweaty palmed, jaw clenched, with my heart racing, thinking we were for sure gonners. As I looked out the window I was unable to see an inch of road to the side of the bus, instead there was a drop of 1,000 feet, then 2,000 feet as we continued to climb. I sat there hoping for the ride to end soon so I could get off, whereas Mike was on a pure adrenaline rush, hopping from one side of the bus to the other so he could see out of the window.

We eventually made it over the continental divide to the trail head and I was able to relax and breath again. Sort of. Altitude always seems to get the best of me, giving me excruciating headaches, making it hard to breath and making me feel weak and tired. On top of that, the backpack I was wearing was garbage and hurt both my back and shoulders. As much as I was looking forward to trekking, it was very difficult to fully enjoy it because I was so uncomfortable.
Mike at the start of the Santa Cruz hike.

The first day of the trek, we met up with a couple from Colorado, Zach and Heather and they became our hiking partners. They were much faster hikers than us, well mostly me, but it was fun having company along the trail and at camp. Our first day was pretty good as we wove our way up a narrow valley, through several small villages. Though it was mostly foggy and drizzly and we were unable to see the tops of the mountains, the clouds rushing up the valleys between the mountains gave the park a mysterious feeling and though it was difficult to capture with a picture, it was stunningly beautiful. That night we had a hard time finding a place to camp even though the park technically had designated camping areas with toilets. It turned out that the toilets were once upon a time nice facilities, as far as back country facilities go, but were now run down, roofless, door-less, shacks that you don't want to go within 50 feet of. It's hard to believe they couldn't afford to maintain these restrooms with the amount that each visitor to the park has to pay, which wasn't cheap. Anyway, we eventually settled on a semi-flat area next to a river in a cow pasture. In fact, pretty much all of Huascaran National Park is a cow, donkey, sheep or horse pasture. We spent much of our time dodging piles of various animal poo and camping was no different. It was a challenge finding a clean spot big enough for our tents and we were certain that we'd get sick drinking the water despite our triple purifying techniques of boiling, filtering through a bandana and adding iodine tablets. There was literally poo everywhere and we were frequently reminded that we were imposing on a herd of cows' territory by their loud mooing and constant snooping around our tents.

Cows in our camp.

The second day of our trek was summit day so we got an early start.  I, of course, had a migraine so Mike opted to carry the uncomfortable backpack. We spent the first 5 hours of the day climbing. Again we knew we were surrounded by massive peaks, but only on a few rare occasions did the clouds part and were we able to catch a glimpse of their size. As we neared the pass, rain began to fall which quickly turned into hail and ultimately snow as we reached the top of almost 16,000 feet. We piled on a few more layers of clothes, snapped a quick picture and began descending down the other side to one of the most picturesque settings I've ever seen. We were standing on top of a mountain, looking to our right at a much bigger mountain covered with wicked looking glaciers and crevasses, it's peak surrounded by clouds and we listened to the rumble of avalanches rushing down its slopes. Down below was a brilliant teal colored lake and to our left was a narrow, green valley with spectacular mountains on either side of it and lakes dotting the valley as far as we could see. At that point we were dreaming of what this place would look like on a clear day. It would have been breath-taking.

Freezing on the summit - 15,617 feet.

Mike just past the summit.

Heading down.

That night we again camped in a cow pasture and the following morning I was so sick I couldn't eat or drink and we decided to hike the remaining 15 miles in one day rather than camp another night. We spent a large portion of the early morning navigating a flooded pasture, leaping over rivers and attempting to find any dry patches of grass we could. In the end, we both ended up with soaking wet, poo-water filled shoes, oh and we were wearing running shoes because we obviously aren't carrying heavy hiking boots on our bikes.  It was disgusting.  Then the major descending began on super steep, rocky trails. Although I was no longer sick and my headache had ceased, we were beat by the time we made it to the end. Our knees felt like we were 90 years old, Mike's back and shoulders were wrecked from that stupid backpack and I was puffed up like a giant marshmallow. My typically veiny hands were like loaves of leavened bread, my typically skinny fingers were like 10 massive sausages, unable to bend or come close to making a fist. My feet were so swollen they could barely fit into my shoes and my legs were the same size from my knees down to my feet. We were a mess and it took several days before we were finally back to normal. Thankfully, you can walk into any pharmacy here and order just about any drug you want without a prescription, so we got me a supply of diamox in hopes that all of this wouldn't happen again in a few days when we arrived in Cusco, another city nestled high in the Andes.
Huascaran National Park

 Mike, Zach, Heather and Cari enjoying a celebratory drink after the hike while listening to the man, whose house we were at, play the harp.

Our second noteworthy excursion in Peru was our trip to Machu Picchu. We booked a simple tour through one of the agencies in Cusco, and though we would have liked arrange everything ourselves (being the control freak that I am), we did the math and it was actually cheaper to go through an agency. It doesn't make much sense, but that's the way it goes. We have been in South America now for a month and we've learned quite a bit about how things work down here. Tourists get ripped off on just about everything and we decided we had had enough. The night before we booked our tour, we wandered around Cusco getting quotes from several agencies. They were all offering more or less the same thing for about the same price. The following morning, we walked into our chosen agency and told them we were booking with them because they gave us the best quote. They asked us what price they told us last night and straight to their faces we lied to them and told them a good $50 less than what they had said. Ha. We were playing their game. They kind of shook their heads and asked if we were sure that was the price. Oh yes, that was the price, otherwise we wouldn't be here. They knew we were lying through our teeth but they wanted our money even if they weren't making a big profit. It's the low season and every agency is fighting for business. They gave us the tour for our stated price and the following morning we were on our way to Machu Picchu.

There is no organization in this country and it drives me nuts. Our tour was chaos from the start. The first leg was supposed to be a bus trip from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Instead, when we showed up at the agency, a guy from the agency, the two of us and 2 other people who were definitely not going to Machu Picchu, but needed to go to Ollantaytambo stuffed ourselves into a taxi and we drove around the block in heavy traffic which took a good 15 minutes. Suddenly the guy from the agency jumped out of the taxi and took off running. He met us back at the taxi station a few minutes later, jumped in the car, gave us our train tickets, wrote down the name of our hostel and jumped back out. We drove to Ollantaytambo and then took the train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Upon our arrival, there was supposed to be someone there to meet us. Of course, there was no one so we started searching for our hostel. Aguas Calientes is nothing more than a stopping place for everyone who visits Machu Picchu. There are about 500 hotels, 500 restaurants and 1,000 souvenir shops. We'd stop and ask for the Golden House Hotel and the person would send us up a street, which eventually dead ended with no sign of any such hostel. We'd ask another person and be sent to another part of town. And on and on and on. We finally found it, checked in and were told that our scheduled 7:30 meeting would instead be a 10:00 because our guide was tired and was sleeping.
The train.

No problem, we'll go check out the town and have some dinner. Just like the tour agencies in Cusco, the restaurants in Aguas Calientes are fighting for customers, each one of them with someone standing outside, pulling you aside to negotiate a deal. We finally chose a pizza place where we got a good deal, enjoyed our meal and then the check came and there was a “service tax” on it. That's just another one of those hidden tourist scams where they add a tax and we all pay it. Well, our bad-ass tourist attitude had been in full swing for a few days by now and knowing that there's no tax in Peru, we got into a big argument with the owner of the restaurant. It wasn't that the tax was all that much money and we likely would have left that for a tip, but the fact that they all try to weasel an extra dollar or two out of you everywhere you go is really annoying. We listened to her sob story about how they don't make any money and how we should pay her extra, Mike's reply of we're not stupid, we know what you're doing and just because we're tourists doesn't mean we're rich and my reply of we're paying you the cost of our meal or we're paying you nothing ended with me walking to another store, getting the exact change we needed (minus the service tax), slamming it down on the table and storming away. Sometimes travel can be so frustrating.

We returned to our hotel for the meeting with our guide and were pleased to find there was another couple in our group, Carla and Miguel from Ecuador. At this point we were hoping to be fully clued in to what was happening the following day, but given our record with organized tours, I don't know why we would possibly think such a thing could be possible. We needed our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, but our guide didn't have them at the time. She told us she would put them under our bedroom door sometime in the middle of the night because she still had to go buy them. The next morning we were to get ourselves up at 3:30, eat our “good, healthy breakfast” and then start hiking at 4:30, without our guide. Our directions were to walk down the road and along the river. There would be lots of people and we couldn't get lost. Well, of course we can get lost; it's pitch black outside and none of us have a clue where we are. Whatever, we went to bed and woke up in the morning to find our entrance tickets on the floor. A promising sign. We headed downstairs for breakfast and our good, healthy breakfast was sitting on the table for us, consisting of tea, coffee, 2 slices of bread for each of us, butter and jam. I'm not sure how this was considered a good, healthy breakfast, but it had to do. We took off walking down the street. No one else was out. We eventually caught up with another group of 3 and we all walked together along the forested, dark riverside trail to the bridge leading into the National Park. There were many more people there, all of us wanting to be amongst the first 400 into the park so we would be allowed to climb the mountain Wyna-Picchu which overlooks the ruins. The only way to obtain one of the coveted tickets is to walk, as the buses don't run until a bit later and by the time they arrive, everyone who walks is already in line at the gate. It was a grueling hour and a half hike at 4:30 in the morning, but we got our stamp and entered the park.

We had a free couple of hours to wander around before our guided tour began which was nice because the hordes of people had not yet arrived. It was a foggy morning with the clouds alternately socking in the entire mountain and then clearing for a few minutes so we could catch a view of the ruins. Although I had been to Machu Picchu before, I still found it to be a wondrous place. And even though Mike wasn't originally overly thrilled about the idea of visiting this commercialized tourist trap, he immediately discovered it really is an incredible place despite being touristy. The ruins themselves are unlike any of the other Inca ruins around Cusco. They are actually intact, massive and with only a little tiny bit of imagination you can visualize what this society looked like when it was a living, working civilization. The setting is spectacular with sheer cliffs surrounding the city and mountains and jungle in every direction you look. The Incas couldn't have chosen a more beautiful place to live.

The two hours of exploring passed quickly and as we were told, we met our guide at the front gate. As soon as she met us, she pawned us all off on another tour group and disappeared. Honestly we weren't too disappointed about that because we didn't really like her anyway and our new guide was fun, knowledgeable and hilarious. The tour was great and afterwards we opted out of climbing Wyna-Picchu because it was still foggy and we didn't feel like climbing all the way up there only to see fog. We spent a bit more time wandering around and talking to some people we'd met and then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes.

Back in town, we were told we had to pick up our return train tickets from some restaurant. We showed up but there were no tickets in our names. Frustrated, we went back to the hotel to tell our guide, who replied that our tickets were being faxed to her and we could pick them up in an hour. Meanwhile, we decided to go get our luggage out of our room, but we opened the door to find someone elses stuff in the room and our stuff gone. Downstairs we found our guide in the kitchen and our bags were there. We reached to pick them up, but she grabbed them first, locked them in a closet and said we couldn't have them because the agency hadn't paid for our room yet. Oh boy, so now our luggage is being held hostage for something that was in no way our fault. We paid our money, this dilemma was between this woman and the agency and somehow we're stuck in the middle. We told her we wanted to go to the police and her reply was that we'd go in 20 minutes when she finished her lunch. At that point, I was raging mad and in utter disbelief. She told me to go wait outside, but I refused. I stood in the kitchen with her until she and the other hotel worker got pissed off at me and proceeded to lock themselves in the closet with our luggage and eat their lunch in there. I was ready to kick in the door but then Mike got up to peek through the crack to see what they were doing. And then the door opened. Mike boldly stated he was taking his luggage and going to the police as he grabbed it right out from under her. There was nothing she could do. We joined the other couple in the lobby and the 4 of us listened to her sob story about how she has to work so much, doesn't make any money and how we tourists just come into her country and don't show any respect. It went on for way too long and I eventually turned off my Spanish translators and heard nothing more than blah, blah, blah. I had had enough.

Sometime in the next half hour as Carla and Miguel were trying to straighten out their end of the mess, our guide got a phone call, the money had been transferred, and we all walked down to the train station to pick up our tickets. Finally, we were done dealing with this woman. The four of us went to a bar to decompress and laugh off the outrageousness of the past day's events. But, we weren't home yet. The train was uneventful, but when we arrived back in Ollantaytambo there was supposed to be someone from the agency waiting for us to take us back to Cusco. No one was there. We buddied up to a taxi driver and told him our dilemma, he called the agency, apparently we had been put on an earlier train than they had expected so we should wait for an hour until the next train and then someone would be there to pick us up. Okay fine, we started walking up the street to find a restaurant to sit in when someone approached us with a sign containing our names. She was from the agency and we were told we'd be on her bus. Communication, organization...they need some major help down here!  We finally made it home around midnight that night. What a long, strange trip it had been!
Miguel, Carla, Cari and Mike after the whole Machu Picchu ordeal.

It was good to be back in Cusco and we spent our Thanksgiving visiting yet another market, which we're getting sick of at this point because they're always just a lot of the same old stuff, running errands and making phone calls. We had a reservation at a restaurant in town that was serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, so we enjoyed our night out amongst many other US travelers. We stuffed ourselves in the typical Thanksgiving fashion with turkey (Mike only), mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, stuffing and between the two of us an entire 9x13 baking dish full of veggies. Then to top it off we got apple pie and ice cream. It was delicious and though we weren't surrounded by the familiar love of family and friends, it was really nice to have a little taste of home!
 Thanksgiving in Peru.

And really delicious pie and ice cream for dessert.

Well, we're almost to Chile where we'll be getting back on our bikes. The only thing left to endure before we start pedaling again is another 20-hour bus ride and a border crossing. Hopefully it will go smoothly. We're ready for some smooth sailing.