Micah: Unmitigated

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Posts Tagged ‘La Balsa’

Limestone Cowboy

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

While traveling south from Ecuador into Peru, the crossing known as La Balsa, about 5 hrs south of Vilcabamba, is recommended. Though the journeys are long and uncomfortable, the scenery is amazing and it is a good way to get to the Kuelap Inca ruins. You will find that the Northern Highlands of Peru are everything the adventurous traveler could hope for and more.

From the border, it is about a 3 hr journey by shared taxi over gravel roads to San Ignacio. If you happen to be hanging your head out of the window of your 4 deep backseat, you may get a local kid walking with his family to point and yell “A GRINGO!”. While your car mates are laughing, you should just politely nod your head in acceptance. You have been formally welcomed to Peru.

When visiting San Ignacio, try to plan your stay around one of their rare earthquakes. Your bed will shake for an unusual amount of time, then when you put your feet on the floor, you will realize the whole hostal is shaking. Women and children will be heard evacuating the building, but you can just put a shirt on and go back to sleep. Now, it may take a little effort to plan, studying seismic charts and such, but it will be well worth it.

From there, you will make your way to Chachapoyas via 4 different collectivos (shared taxis). One of which may be driven by a man in a hurry. He will pretend to be eating and blow past a flagger into a construction zone, while honking his horn loudly and laughing. Then, you will pickup a man with some chickens who will give you 2 bananas each, just what your malnourished body needs. After 10 hours of transit, you arrive in the fairly large mountain town known as “Chacha”.

August 12th is a good day to visit, when they hold their annual festival with an unknown name. There is a church service and then a parade of kids dressed up in costumes representing the countries/places they like. All of the Spanish speaking countries are represented as well as those that did well in the World Cup. With the South African group being the biggest and loudest, singing and dancing for hours. They do not have a USA section, but they will celebrate the existence of Hawaii.

The Bolivian group

The Bolivian group

From Chacha, you will want to get closer to Kuelap, so try to catch a collectivo to the small hamlet of Maria. But, they only run there at 4 am, thus you decide to make it up as you go and take the next best destination, Tingo. A small junction town along the river, where a road splits off into the mountains, to make the winding 2 hour journey to the ruins. They have reasonable accommodations that occasionally have running water. Better yet, the lady at the hospedaje (small hostal) will inform you that it only takes 3 hours to hike to the Inca site and not the 6 you had thought. You will be very happy and will enjoy the quiet afternoon, walking the towns one road. If you time it right, at about 4:30 pm, two local boys will see you playing with your camera and ask to have their picture taken.

kids in Tingo

Look for these kids in Tingo

If you are lucky, they may even drop their plastic ball in the creek and need help getting it free from being caught in the current. Now what you do is, grab a big rock from the pile to your right, throw it at the ball swirling around, and it should be enough force to make it come out the other side of the bridge. The kids will collect it and thank you vigorously.

Get up at 6:50 am the next day to have time to grab breakfast before your hike. Make sure you have enough water and snacks to keep your energy up, and wear sunscreen. The trek begins off the main road heading south, just before the bridge. It starts with gradual up and downs, following the river valley, before you see the sign for Kuelap pointing up. The real climb begins. You should have chosen your hiking stick by this point, partly to aid your upward walking and partly to ward of dogs or potential robbers. Look for the stick pictured below at the trail entrance, but please return it when finished.

and add your name

and add your name

If you eat mandarin oranges and drink water, it will remind you of your youth soccer days back in Lawrence, Kansas. The fruit and the memories will make the time go by quickly as your feet traverse the limestone rock sides of the ridge. The rock is soft and stair like footholds are common. After you pass through a small valley village, you will get your first look at the Kuelap ruins up above. If you are an extremely fit and intelligent person, it will take you about 2 hours and 45 mintues to reach the site. If you are 3 French girls, it will take you 5 hours.

the first view

the first view

After catching your breath, ask the lady selling water where the ticket office is to receive some bad news. For some reason they want you to purchase tickets back down at a parking lot 20 minutes away, where most people arrive. I guess they don’t feel the need to cater to the 1 person a day who hikes there from Tingo. At this point, it is recommended that you just walk around the corner and eat your lunch, waiting an appropriate amount of time before passing by the lady again with a smile to enter the ruins. You will slightly hope that this means you wont have to pay the $4.10 entry fee, but the man asking for tickets at the top of the stairs will bring you back to reality. He will send a runner to get your ticket for you, and you will have been correct in assuming that they wouldn’t make a humble hiker, with a return trip still in their future, hike an extra hour for a piece of paper. Everything has worked itself out and the ruins are yours to explore.

Up on the top of a ridge, with sweeping views of the surrounding valleys, you will be impressed. Kuelap receives far less visitors than it deserves but that just means you are in for a treat. Finding quiet areas among the rugged overgrown ruins, gives you the feel as though you discovered it. You can easily avoid the few tour groups that are led through and have time to just sit and contemplate life. Go ahead, explore the space, and feel free to ignore the tape that the current excavators have put up.

(You can see more photos of Kuelap and northern Peru at the following site: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=75141&id=1408574607&l=20e6a83706)

From back in Tingo, it is a another 10 hr transit day to the town of Cajamarca. Though it may be shorter if your bus doesn’t breakdown in the middle of the switchback, one lane road, requiring the driver to break out the tool box. Just try not to think about the as-the-crow-flies distance, you will sadly wish they would build bridges across the valleys or tunnels through the mountains.

Cajamarca will greet you with the cheapest hostal you have ever seen ($3.70/night), the cheapest internet ($.37/hour), and the cheapest street hamburgers ($.37 for simple, $.74 with egg and fries on top). You will start to think that Peru overall wont be as expensive as you thought and that just the travel will be costly. So, relax and checkout the museums, bust out some blog posts, and upload some pictures to Facebook. Your butt will need the travel break.  Un viaje seguro!

E = 104

Bedtime Story

Monday, August 16th, 2010

(Editor’s note: I have gotten a little bored of my normal format and will try some different things. I hope to at least entertain myself. Thanks)

There are a few stories out here on the backpacker trail, you kind of need to sort through them and decide which is real and which is legend. The one that intrigues me the most, is about a man working his way down from Colombia to Bolivia. He is known only by the name of “Micah” and despite just a few confirmed sightings, the myth is growing.

He is believed to be a 6 ft tall American, with hair and eyes the color of dirt. His clothes are plain but efficient and his footwear is generally open toed. The ladies describe him as ruggedly handsome due to his perennially unshaven face and hair the has not felt the touch of a comb since the Reagan administration. I have yet to personally meet the man, always seemingly one step behind, hearing tales of his visit in each city I come to.

Most stories tell of a stingy spender, always choosing the cheapest form of satisfying his needs. During one bus ride from Cuenca to Loja, he didn’t donate any money to the 3 youths who played music he greatly enjoyed. He is quoted as saying that it just didn’t feel right giving to 3 kids dressed in nice clothes, when he didn’t give to the disabled man asking for change just 5 minutes before. Then, in Loja, he stayed in a $4 a night hostal despite the fact that the smell in the shared bathroom made his eyes hurt. And, he began to indulge in the Southern Ecuadorian treat known as “salchipapas” (small hotdogs placed on top of a pile of french fries and covered with ketchup and a flavored mayo, normally served in a bag with a small plastic fork, and sold for 2 quarters).

One bar story states: While walking to catch the local bus in Loja, he felt a man unzip the small pocket on his backpack, and single-handedly (his right hand) fought off the would-be thief while eating an empanada with his left. I don’t know whether to believe that or the other version that goes: On a city bus to the Loja terminal, some friendly passengers alerted Micah to a pocket being open on his pack, and kindly zipped it up for him. He immediately checked the contents when he got off the bus to find nothing missing. And, he will never know whether it was opened by a person looking to pilfer or left open during packing. Both stories sound feasible to me.

He was then spotted an hour south, in Vilcabamba, strolling around the center plaza. Known as the “Valley of Longevity”, they say he drank the water there and will now live to be 123 years old. I also have heard from multiple sources that he hiked the “Mandango”, a rocky summit south of town. A French couple said they met a man at the locked entrance to the trail who crawled under barb wire fences and plowed through thorn bushes, helping them find the main path.  He had a lollie pop in his mouth and for some reason asked them if they were English, despite the fact they clearly spoke to each other in their native tounge. Thus adding another layer of mystery to this man.

The Mandango

The Mandango

Reports have him reaching the cross at the summit in record time before traversing the entire length of the ridge. One story says that he out ran 2 rabid dogs while cheating death hugging livestock trails over dizzying dropoffs. I think it is more likely that he heard dogs barking in a field down below, and decided to walk along the other side of the ridge and stay out of their sight.

from the end of the ridge, looking back toward the Mandango

from the end of the ridge, looking back toward the Mandango

Then he descended via a rough ridge, scraping his arms and legs. One group of three hikers spotted a man sitting on a rock down below, snapping pictures of them silhouetted against the blue sky. I can only assume it was Micah. It is said he finished the day six feet under a cemetery, but after I attempted to retrace his steps, I think he probably climbed up a 6 ft dirt wall to get up to the cemetery and the main road back to town.

The next day (Wednesday, August 11th), after his bus had a part changed in the middle of the road, he began heading south toward Peru. The trails grows a little cold from there, at the remote border crossing known as “La Balsa”, where they see less than a handful of gringos per day. But one lady told me that her best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with a girl who saw Micah hop off the bus and wander out into Podocarpus National Park, to live out his last 91 years the way God intended. Or, if you want some more crazy rumors, he spent that night in San Ignacio, Peru at Hostal Dorado in room #402.

I guess that is why I like this myth so much, who knows what to believe? All I know is that I hope to catchup with him someday, if he does exist, and buy him an empanada. Y usted como debe así