I drove to Calgary in the morning to pick up Erin, her flight landed at 11 am. It was the first time I had seen my wife in just over six months, at that point, since our wedding we had spent more time apart than together. From the airport we went to Canmore and checked into our Air BnB. We didn’t do a whole lot the next few days, just a short hike down Grotto Canyon. It was a nice hike and it was neat to see that towards the end people had built hundreds of little inukshuks. From Canmore we headed to Banff and camped for two nights, we were informed that we were catching the tail end of the camping season since it was starting to get so cold out. We wandered around town a bit and cooked over and open fire. I also took this time to help Erin learn to drive a car with a manual transmission. She did much better than I did when I first tried to learn. While in Banff we also got a chance to see the northern lights during some sort of magnetic storm making them extra bright. From Banff we headed to Waterton for no particular reason other than a change of scenery. It began to rain quite heavily as we packed up camp in Banff, we hurriedly filled the car and sought refuge in a parkade to have breakfast and let our gear dry a bit. After two nights of camping in Waterton I decided I was far too cold to continue tenting, Erin on the other hand, wanted to do some back country camping. During the day the weather was nice and we came across a lot of mule deer that had no real fear of people. While hiking the Bears Hump hike we actually, accidentally, got between a doe and her two fawns, neither parties seemed concerned but didn’t want to run passed us on the trail. After a few tense minutes of having three wild animals withing a few meters the mother finally trotted into the trees above the trail and we were able to sneak passed.
After freezing in Waterton we got another Air Bnb, this time in radium. This was also our one year anniversary so we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner. From there we hit the hot springs and then went on to Revelstoke for two nights. The weather in Revelstoke was foggy and snowy but we still drove to the top of Mt Revelstoke and had a look around. Next we went to Kelowna, we stayed at a very nice hostel but we got dorms instead of a private room. The first night that didn’t matter much since we were the only ones in the room. Unfortunately on the second night 5 more guests had shown up, four of them were very friendly exchange students from India going to university in Vancouver. Erin and I went to bed and they went out partying, then several times through the night one would come in and pass out, his friends would try and wake him, then leave… then come back… then leave.. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, they all came in and went to bed, and one of them started snacking on some chips. Then they said something in their native tongue and all got up and got dressed again and left for a while. Only to make a whole bunch of noise coming back in. It was quite funny to me because they were genuinely trying to be quiet but were simply too inebriated to accomplish it, and they were very polite. While in Kelowna we met up with my aunt, uncle and cousin, we went to dinner at their house two nights in row. A home cooked meal was just what Erin wanted after a year of travelling. They also told us about a farmers market, so Erin and I went, she got peach salsa which was amazing and I got some candied salmon which is high on my list of favorite foods. The weather in Kelowna was pretty rainy so we didn’t get up to too much adventuring. Mostly we just spent time with family and walked around town a bit.
From Kelowna we headed to my cousin’s house in Surrey, he and his wife had a spare room he was kind enough to offer me. This was the first time I had been to their house and I was immediately amazed at all the trophies. My cousin does car audio competitions and is apparently quite good at it, as indicated by the many many trophy crammed into every corner of his home. As luck would have it his mother, my aunt, had come to visit him too so I got to catch up with even more family. Erin and I were given a key to come and go as we pleased while they were at work so we spent most of our time in Vancouver just exploring Stanley park. On one day though, we went to Grouse Mountain, we started by doing the Grouse Grind trail which is about an hour of walking straight up. From there Erin suggested we do Crown Mountain which we didn’t realize was up one mountain and down another then up to the top of Crown Mountain. It didn’t seem too bad until we reached the bottom of Crown Mountain, then it became clear that I was going to have to put my limited bouldering skills to use. At first it was just steep bits with lots of roots to grab onto, then it became a scramble on an exposed rock face with a lot of room below you… enough that if I fell I could contemplate how much the landing would hurt before I hit. I made it almost to the top, sadly the last 30 meters or so were just too hairy for my already shaky legs. Of course Erin, whom I’m convinced is part Ibex, made it to the top and got some pictures.
On the day we left his house we picked up our German friend whom we had met in Ecuador while working at the Donkey Den. She had just completed the Pacific Crest Trail which is a hike that runs from the Mexico border to the Canadian border. If memory serves, it took her about five months. She packed into our already crowded car and we headed for the ferry to the island. On the island we were able to stay with another relative of mine. My dad’s cousin and his wife live on the island and even though he was away for work his wife was kind enough to give us, and our companion, a great place to stay, she also gave us a tour of the island and their beautiful antique country home. Her cooking was also excellent, her moose stew was positively divine. Unfortunately for us, the weather was rather insistent on being rainy. So on one of the days we just sat and read books while looking out the window at the rain. The next day we took a road trip, in the rain, to Victoria to see the sights. The weather was so poor all we ended up doing was going to the Bug Zoo, it was pretty neat, we all got to hold a scorpion and a tarantula. I also learned that the most poisonous scorpions are small ones, with dull colors and small pincers…. Like the one I found in our room in Ecuador… which is kinda scary because at the time I was tempted to pick it up under the assumption that its too little to hurt anyone, glad I didn’t do that.
From the island we headed back to Surrey and spent another night at my cousins house, the next morning we dropped our German friend off at a hostel and we headed for home. We made it to Edmonton at 4 am, and thus ended our road trip.
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Erin’s flight was scheduled to land in Las Vegas on the 25th, my plan was to drive down and meet her. I started my trip about a week before her flight was due to arrive so I could spend the weekend in Calgary with a friend of mine that you might remember from my Buller Pass story. I arrived late Saturday night and he gave me a tour of downtown. It was exciting to see the nightlife, we also got some tasty pub food. I had no idea Calgary was such lively city.
The next day he took me for a real tour. We went to Glenmore park and did a bit of a walk around, we then headed to the Calgary tower and walked on the glass floor… a nerve wracking experience if there ever was one. The day ended with some awesome delicious sushi, it turns out its one of the few restaurant foods allowed in my strict diet.
Bright and early the next morning I hit the road south. I planned on crossing the border and spending the night in glacier national park. I stopped only a few times; once to fuel up, and once to stretch my legs and let my family know I was about to cross the border so they would not be able to reach me on my phone.
As soon as I hit the border, things went south. I explained my plans and told them about how I had quit my job to spend a month or so travelling around the USA…. and they told me they didn’t believe I intended to come back to Canada! They told me to drive back to the nearest town and print off something that would prove my intentions to return, like proof of employment or a mortgage. I told them to call my mother and hear what she would do if I didn’t come back… they didn’t go for it. I stood there for about a half of an hour suggesting things I could show them as proof, such as phone bills or cable contracts. Everything I could possibly show them they kind of shrugged off as not good enough. I could tell they just did not like ME, and had no intention of letting me in. When the border security agent said he believes my wife and I are going to throw away our lives, and her accounting career, so we could wait tables in Vegas for less than minimum wage while living in a Toyota echo, I knew I was done. America is great, but its not THAT great that I would throw away affordable healthcare, careers, family, and my outdoor adventures to wait tables… So, with a lot of cursing under my breath I walked out of the office, I was instructed to turn my car around and he would hand me my passport on the way by, so I don’t “make a run for it”. Once I got my passport back and was on the road, the cursing became much much more audible… I drove all the way home that day, and went to bed. The next morning I called all the places in the US that I had made reservations with and cancelled, Erin booked a connecting flight out of Vegas to Calgary. The plan was to pick her up in Calgary in a few days and then head west instead of south.
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The cold morning air wrapped around me like an unwelcome blanket, just the slightest of breezes slashed across my exposed neck. I know it was my my fatigue that made me feel so cold, but that knowledge didn’t provide an overwhelming amount of comfort. The wind in Patagonia is well known, and for good reason. The wind in the middle of a city rivals only that of the wind on a Canadian mountain summit. The difference being the wind in Canada feels like it belongs there, in Patagonia it feels like an entity with bad intentions. My stomach felt like something was trying to escape and I barely had the physical or mental strength to stand. The taxi pulled up two houses away, Erin waved and he pulled up to us. I hugged Erin and she gave me a kiss. It was dark, but I knew she was crying; my tears not far behind either. She quickly let go said an abrupt goodbye, spun on her heels and quickly walked back to the small guest house we had been renting. She spared me a long goodbye, and deep in my heart I thanked her for it. I climbed into the taxi and headed for my five a.m. flight. My South American Adventure was over, all that was left was a forty hour nightmare of airplanes and lay overs. I pitied and envied Erin, she had a lot of adventure left ahead of her but she had the misfortune of having to do it alone.
Erin and I flew into the town of Ushuaia, Argentina on Saturday morning. I was a bit taken aback by the airport. It was a small single runway affair, with large timber beams that made it resemble a cozy mountain lodge. Our hostel was only a few kilometers away from the airport so we decided to walk. The decision was influenced by the fact that the walk was along the seaside, which offered us a beautiful view of both the sea and the surrounding mountains.
We got to the hostel, got settled into our dorms, and walked into town to get some groceries. The next day we did a hike up to a glacier. It was at the far north end of town and the first portion of the path was along a (closed for the season) ski hill. I still can’t help but day dream about catching a flight to Patagonia in the middle of august to go snowboarding.
Our trail quickly went passed the top of the chair lift and went from a wide gravel road to a narrow packed pathway. It took us through some amazing mountain scenery, over a few bridges, and eventually to a glacier… The first snow I had seen in a very long time. We stopped, had eggs, bananas, and croissants for lunch and then found our way back down to the trail head. All said and done it was only about a two or three hour hike, but it offered views usually associated with an all day hike.
The next day we really felt like challenging ourselves. We went to the nearby Tierra Del Fuego National Park to do the hardest trail listed: Cerro Guanaco. I am told the name translates to “Alpaca Hill”. A shuttle picked us up at our hostel, drove down every street in town to pick up other hikers, then headed to the park. The bus stopped at the gate so we could pay our entry fee then the driver was kind enough to drop us all off at which ever trailhead we asked for. We were told that our chosen hike was four or more hours each way and warned not to begin it any later than noon as the last shuttle back to town was at 7pm. We started our hike a little after 11am so we decided we best hustle a little, lest we have to spend the night in the Patagonian wilderness unprepared. It would make for a good story but it only gets to about 12 degrees Celsius during the day and I have a hard time imagining night time being anything other than cold.
The first part of the hike was steep uphill through a densely wooded forest filled with thick trunked trees. I also noticed that a lot of the trees had large burls on them, which I found very interesting. I later learned that burls are the result of stress, damage, or illness in trees. So its possible that some sort of disease went through the forest at some time. The dense trees started to thin out and then we found ourselves at the edge of the strangest patch of trees I have ever come across. Our path led through a patch of the most twisted and tangled tree I had ever seen. I couldn’t understand it the trees grew in any direction and, apparently, often changed their minds about what that direction should be. I spotted one that had grown in an almost perfect four foot loop. It looked like a haunted forest in a Disney movie.
After the haunted forest was a mud hole. We cautiously walked along the edge, trying not to lose a shoe until we reached a gravel creek bed to walk along. Our trail then led us across a seemingly open field. The field, however, was soft wet ground and required care and caution to navigate, for fear of the soft ground sinking into the water. I accidentally learned that the water was about the depth of an ankle.
Across the field was the final portion of our hike. A very steep trail etched into the crumbly shale on the mountain side. This would lead us to the summit of the mountain and reward us with beautiful views of the park, the town, and the ocean. Going up the final section Erin and I passed a group of people playing in a patch of snow on the mountainside, on the way back we would overhear that they had never seen snow before.
Surprisingly, we managed to reach the summit in just over two hours. It turns out we had hustled needlessly. We took a bunch of pictures and made our way back down, enjoying the scenery just as much the second time through. All said and done our hike took us just over four hours total.
On our third and final full day at Ushuaia it was far too windy and rainy to do anything of note. We just relaxed and planned our trip to Chile. The next morning, bright and early, we jumped on a bus at traveled eleven hours to Punta Arenas, Chile. It was nice to see the Patagonian country side through those big windows. We spent a few days in Punta Arenas and then I caught a plane home, and Erin took a bus to her next adventure, a nine day hike around Torres Del Paine. Hopefully I can get her to write it up for us all to enjoy.
By this time, many of you are likely wondering why I came home early, and why Erin didn’t. Well, the truth is, I am sick. I have had IBS for many years now. While travelling it got worse. A lot worse. I was stressed and not eating much; in fact I lost about 50 lbs in five months. I often found myself staying in the hostel, sick, while Erin would go do activities alone, or waste the day in the hostel. I was essentially paying big money to hang out in cheap bunk beds with a stomach ache. So we talked about it and decided it would be best if I came home and got control of my diet and stress and tried some new treatments. Erin wasn’t sure if she should keep traveling without me or come home with me, so I put my foot down. I told her to stay and travel. She is a more experienced traveler that me and she is no stranger to solo travel. Furthermore if she did come home with me there isn’t much she can do to help me recover, and it would mean ending the trip of a lifetime very early.
Posted in Hiking, Travelwith 2 comments.
New Years day Erin and I took a series of busses from Baños, Ecuador, to Santa Marianita, a beach on the coast of Ecuador. This took us about 12 hours and two busses over night. We were headed to a guest house called The Donkey Den, where we would work for accommodation and delicious breakfasts, for three weeks. We arrived on the morning of Saturday the 2nd, long before anyone in the hostel was awake. We were shown to our dorm beds and left to sleep.
The next morning we got to see the busiest day of the year at The Donkey Den, it was breakfast in the attached restaurant on the Sunday after New Years. This meant that everyone who came out to celebrate was still around and recovered enough to leave the house for food. There was also a power outage along the beach so no one had anything better to do. Unfortunately the power outage meant the kitchen needed to use a small diesel powered generator. It didn’t want to stay running and the person tending to it couldn’t seem to figure it out. I mumbled to Erin that it sounds like theres no fuel in it, having a diesel powered truck at home I am somewhat familiar with the basic principals. She urged me to stop being shy and go help.
I walked over and asked if it had fuel in it, to which I was told there was. I then looked the generator over, fired it up and listened to it sputter and die. Checked for a blocked fuel line and cleaned the gunk off of the kill switch and tried again but to no avail. I took a look for myself and it turns out the fuel tank was bone dry. I did my best to not say anything hurtful to the young man who told me there was fuel in it. I filled it, pressed the heater for the glow plugs and it fired up like a charm. I let it idle a bit and warm up before plugging in the power cables so as prevent the engine from stalling. From that moment on, I was considered a handy man. I am not a particularly handy person but the owner, Linda, still found plenty of odd jobs for me over the next few weeks. For the most part though, my job was simply to keep an eye on the place for a few hours a day and help guests with what ever they needed. I also spent a lot of time tending to the garden, something I thoroughly enjoyed.
Erin and I intended to stay for three weeks but ended up staying for six. Part of the reason we stayed so long was we were waiting for mail to come in to Quito before we left to Peru, another reason was that we just enjoyed it and didn’t feel like leaving. Something about the beach just makes you lose ambition. Over the six weeks lots of small things happened so here they are… In no particular order.
Tyson Steps On a Stingray:
One of the local American expats, named Ed, who lived near The Donkey Den was a regular for breakfasts and a surfing fanatic. I had casually mentioned to him that I would kind of like to try surfing. One morning, him and a friend showed up at the restaurant, they had been out surfing and his friend had been stung by a stingray and needed to put his foot in some hot water to ease the toxin and the pain. For future reference, hot water eases the pain of being stung by a sting ray, I also find that it help stop mosquito bites from itching so much.
Ed offered me the chance to take his friends place and go surfing. I was a little hesitant, considering the circumstances, but I went anyway. He told me to shuffle my feat on the sand to prevent stepping on a stingray and getting hit. Their sting is a defensive reaction to being stomped on. I followed these instructions carefully and shuffled out to the break… slowly. Ed explained the basics and helped me catch a few waves. I managed to stand up, very briefly, twice during the whole outing. Toward the end of our trip I jumped off my board and landed on something slimy and about the size of a dinner plate. I immediately lifted one foot off and then set my other foot down on top of it over and over again. I must have stepped on this poor sting ray about 5 times, it was similar to when you start to slip on ice and run on the spot for a split second. I managed to get both feet up at once and set them down far apart, it was a miracle I didn’t get stung. I don’t know for sure that it was a stingray but the other possibilities don’t make me feel much better. Shortly after, we headed back to the Donkey Den and I was able to get some breakfast just before the kitchen closed.. That was the end of my surfing adventures at Santa Marianita beach. The ocean is just too big and too deep, and it kinda scares me. I think I’ll just stick to snowboarding, I like the cold more anyway.
Tyson makes friends:
The great thing about volunteering there was that everyone I worked with was super friendly. I will undoubtedly miss them greatly as our travels continue. One of the ways I cheated to make friends was I baked sweets for them, this works every time. During our stay I baked several batches of peanut butter cookies. Some with oatmeal instead of flour because one of my fellow volunteers couldn’t have gluten (If you want to try it yourself just replace the flour with an equal amount of oatmeal and bake a little longer, Erin thinks they are much better this way). I also baked several batches of brownies, using oatmeal instead of flour didn’t work quite as well. I also learned how to make really good banana bread. The other volunteers tended to make huge dinners which they were more than happy to share. Erin also made her famous popcorn, naturally it was a hit. Someday I’ll put up these recipes for all to enjoy. Towards the end of our stay Erin and I had started putting weight back on, another few weeks and my pants might have fit again!
Tyson witnesses Carnival:
Carnival celebrates the same thing Mardi Gras does, the Tuesday before lent begins… I think. I have never been to Mardi Gras, but I imagine its quite a party and I have no doubt that the Ecuadorians could keep up to it. The beach in front of our hostel was standing room only, with a large sound stage blaring all afternoon and into the evening. I would watch hotel guests and volunteers walk out in clean, dry clothes and return soaked in the colourful spray foam that the people were dowsing each other with. It was quite a sight, but I chose not to go out into the crowd, I could see it just fine from the balcony…
Erin gets wounded:
Nobody panic! Erin is fine now. She was laying on the beach when a large wave snuck up on her and some friends. She jumped up in time and grabbed most of her things but the bottle of sunscreen got away. She ran through the shallow water to grab it and in the process stepped on a jagged rock and cut her big toe open. When she got back to the hotel it looked awful and I though we should go to the hospital. Once we rinsed it and got the sand out of it I realized it just looked much worse than it was. We bandaged her toe and kept it clean and I am happy to say we didn’t have to amputate. I have some pictures of her toe cut open but its pretty graphic so I won’t post it here.
Linda rescues another dog:
Linda, the owner, is a one woman army for animal rescue. At the time of our stay she had three dogs and I think about fifteen cats, though nobody was sure the numbers. She takes in stray cats and dogs, gets them spayed and neutered, any medical attention they need, and then tries to find homes for them. After they find a carefully chosen home she continues to pay the vet bills to ensure their well being.
One day we were taking two cats into the vet to be spayed. A little girl on the beach saw the animal carrier in the back of the truck and came up to me. Unfortunately she only spoke Spanish and we couldn’t communicate. She walked off a little frustrated and came back when there were more people around the truck. Eventually we figured out that she had a sick puppy at her house and wanted us to take it into the vet. She jumped in the truck with us and one of her family members followed us on a motor bike to her house. One of the volunteers went with the girl into the barely standing brick shack. I could see they had no running water. They were using the gutters to funnel rain water into a shack beside the house, I imagine it to be similar to an old style wash house. It turns out the family had a sick puppy too young to be away from its mother, AND a sick dog. It turns out they had neutered the dog themselves and as a result he wasn’t feeling too well. We took both dogs to the vet along with the cats. Both dogs were treated for worms and the older dog had been given a shot of antibiotics to prevent his wound from getting infected.
After the vet, we took both dogs back to the Donkey Den with us along with some dog food and hamburger to give to the owners to help put some meat on the skinny dogs bones. The larger dog, whom we called Dobby (his owners named him Tobi), was at first shy and lethargic but once we got food and water into him he came around. The puppy, Erin named her Charlie, was at first quite mobile but by the end of the day was breathing shallow and not moving much. One of the volunteers put Charlie in a basket with some towels for the night and she hadn’t gotten much better by the morning. Linda took Charlie back to the vet, and unfortunately she just didn’t make it, she was just too young and malnourished to survive. When Linda got back to the Donkey Den, she told me what happened and I grabbed a shovel. We went off and I dug Charlie a grave on the side of a sandy hill overlooking the pacific. It was a hard hole to dig, I have a hard time with dogs dying, especially young ones. We buried her, set some stones on the grave and Linda’s friend, Mary, said a few nice words.
The family never came back for the dogs and I don’t think they even know that the puppy passed away. Over the next few days Dobby came out of his shell, and his wound began to heal. He was eating more and socializing with people and other dogs. Erin had to lift him onto the chair to show him that he was allowed to be there. After that he would go on the chair, but instead of jump he would struggle and climb to get up, I think he just never learned to jump. When I left The Donkey Den he was still there, and last I heard he still is. It has been about two weeks, so I think its almost safe to say that Dobby is at The Donkey Den for good.
Erin and I are now on our way to see the rest of the continent, hopefully we meet another group of people that are as lovely as the guest and volunteers at The Donkey Den… but those are some big shoes to fill. Thanks for the good times everyone.
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When Erin and I were packing for our trip I made a point of bringing my fly fishing gear. As I packed, I dreamt about catching piranha in the amazon and brown trout in Patagonia. Not once did bass cross my mind, maybe they should have.
While in Colombia, Erin and I went to Guatape the reason for our visit being La Piedra, essentially a very big rock that they made a staircase up the side of. The town is also near a very large man-made lake that flooded a town when they built a dam. When we were looking for a hostel I noticed one listed fishing as one of the nearby activities, obviously we booked with that one.
The day we arrived we decided to do the hike up the 700ish stairs to the top of the rock, which was conveniently across the road from our hostel. We slogged our way to the top and I’m told the views were amazing. I was not interested in going near the edge, or peeking over the railing. I hate heights, and don’t worry, Erin got a few pictures of me crawling around on the top right next to a three foot concrete railing.
The next day we walked the three kilometres into town, which involved crossing over a very shaky suspension bridge over the highway. The town wasn’t particularly exciting there were lots of people offering boat tours and a few stores selling fishing tackle, mostly small and expensive hard plastic fishing lures. That afternoon, after we got back to the hostel, I started asking about fishing. The lady running the hostel told me that the neighbour had a boat and would take people fishing for a small fee and the she had an old fishing rod Erin could borrow. I asked her what kind of fish the lake had in it and she said “trout I think, is there one called a rainbow?”. That evening, after the neighbour had returned home, her and I went over and she acted as a translator for me to hire the boatman. I was informed that the fishing seemed best between four pm and dark, about six pm. He said it would cost 40,000 pesos and he would pick Erin and I up at four the following day. That night I did a lot of research into how to catch rainbow trout in lakes.
In the morning, the hostel owner showed me the fishing rod she had for Erin. It was an old collapsible spin caster rod with the last quarter broken off of the end. The reel on it was dusty, dirty, grinding, and had about twenty feet of old sun damaged line on it. I stripped it down as far as I could and used some vegetable oil to lubricate the reel, that made a huge difference, but the rig still had a lot of problems. We walked into town again to see how much some fresh line would cost. Upon seeing the price, I decided that line would probably be too heavy for that rod and not cast well anyway.
I packed my fly gear, some snacks, and the borrowed rod into my backpack and at 3:30 we got a call that the boat was here to pick us up. We were told that he had a few other anglers out on the banks, one of whom was from Puerto Rico and spoke excellent english. As the boat headed out, I started assembling my, nearly, top of the line Redington five piece fly rod, I looked at Erins shambled excuse of a rod and felt like a bit of a show off. I was also terrified by the realization that she will still likely out fish me like she always does. I expected that the boat driver would drop us off at on the shore and come back at dark, but I was mistaken.
We pulled up to the shore and a man with a Texas accent, and a bunch of fish on a rope, jumped on the boat and introduced himself. Turns out he was the Puerto Rican, or more accurately, a Texan who had lived in Puerto Rico. He was followed by a few Colombians. We started chatting and it turns out his girlfriend is from Colombia and the men with him were his in-laws. We started talking about the fishing and he informed us that the fish in the lake were actually large mouth bass, but everyone in town referred to them as trout. He said they resembled the bass from Florida and he guessed they were transplanted there after the dam was built and to his knowledge they were the only bass in Colombia. I don’t know where he got his information from but he seemed to know a lot about bass and told us he had done some tournament fishing back home. I believed him and he was kind enough to give me some tips. Also, in an amazing act of kindness, compassion, or maybe pity he saw Erin’s rod and promptly handed her his, stating “I have been fishing for five days straight, I need a break” she took the rod and he promptly opened a well deserved beer.
He explained to us where bass tend to hide, in the weeds, and where to cast, just beside the weeds. At first no one was seeming to catch much but finally Erin connected and the whole boat was a buzz. The little bass thrashed and skidded across the surface until Erin brought it in. The Texan grabbed it, took the hook out, we got a quick picture and then it was tossed on the string with the rest of the days catch. At a glance, I would say it was one of the bigger fish caught that day.
Everyone kept on fishing and chatting, I kept practicing my casting. A few other guys on the boat caught a few fish, and kept them all. Finally, in the crystal clear water, I watched a small bass swim up and take my chironomid fly. All at once it was on, I lifted the rod and set the hook, I started stripping line. I then realized how tiny the fish was, I could tell by the joking and cheering from everyone else in the boat. I hollered at the Texan “Get the net! Gonna need a bigger boat!”. I reeled the little guy in, grabbed the bottom lip, got a picture and tossed it back into the water to grow some more. It may have been small, but on a fly rod anything is exciting and you don’t have to even be catching fish to have fun fishing, so I’m still happy with it. We fished some more with very little success until finally it was just too dark.
We started heading back in the pitch black night. I was marvelling at how well the boatman could navigate in the dark, when suddenly the boat stopped, then turned sharply. He said something in Spanish, the Texan laughed and replied, then told us the boatman took a wrong turn and was a little lost. That was comforting. We made it home with no further incident.
While we were fishing I noticed there wasn’t an abundance of plant life in the water and there didn’t appear to be much for the bass to eat. It was nice to be the only people we saw fishing on the lake and an amazing novelty to say I have bass fished in Colombia. I would be curious to see if it develops into a better fishery in the future. Maybe once aquatic plants can spread more and other aquatic species work their way in from rivers and become a food source for the sport fish. If not, its still a great place to spend and afternoon or two casting a rod.
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The Amazon might be one of the last blank spaces on the map. Its jungle so dense it can swallow entire cities and there are still, supposedly, uncontacted civilizations. That idea amazes me, that there are people living in the jungle like they have been for thousands of years that have no idea that the outside world exists. Makes me wonder if we are missing anything. Despite delusions of being a writer, I am aware that I am no explorer, but Erin and I decided to go to the town of Mocoa, which is referred to as “The Gateway To The Amazon.” From there…things got a little strange. If I am not mistaken, Mocoa is one of the last towns in Colombia that has easy access to the amazon jungle. Any deeper into the Amazon and its boats, plains, and muddy roads. Mocoa is located in a region that used to be quite dangerous due to rebel activity, but they are currently in peace talks so we didn’t think security would be an issue.
The journey to Mocoa was done in a very full, very smelly mini-van down a winding road that nearly made me lose my lunch. Erin and I checked into our hostel located on the side of the road a few kilometres out of town. We caught a “camioneta” truck into town for some lunch, and then walked back to relax at the hostel for a few hours. After dinner, we started to watch a movie with a British couple. It was a low budget Nicolas Cage film, and it was thoroughly awful. I cannot even describe how awful. So we gave up on the film. We left the common area and walked down the stone path to our four bed dorm that we shared with a French couple. We were laying in our beds reading for about ten minutes when we heard an alarm go off in the distance. We didn’t think much of it, in Colombia there are always car alarms and building alarms and false alarms going off. This alarm wasn’t stopping though, it had been a few minutes and it was still roaring. We pulled back the curtains and looked outside and all of the sudden the hostel staff came running past our building screaming in terror. All I could think was, “Here we go again.”
I jumped off the top bunk and told the French couple to shut off the lamp and I dead bolted the door. I quickly got dressed. In my mind I was thinking, “If I’m going to get shot, kidnapped, or in some kind of fight, I want to be fully clothed.”
We then took to hiding our valuables as fast and as quietly as possible. Phones went under mattresses, and computers went behind shower curtains. Erin went into the bathroom at the back of our little cabin, and the french couple huddled together on the creaky bunk bed beside the window, which didn’t strike me as a good place to hide, but I didn’t feel like correcting them.
I knelt behind the big steel door and pulled my metal pen out of my pocket. My logic was, the steel door is a barrier, if they get through it, they mean business, and I have to become the second barrier. I wasn’t sure if it was robbers looking for money, in which case its smarter to cooperate, or possibly rebels looking to kill people to upset peace talks or kidnap someone for ransom. Granted the last two are unlikely, but still ran through my mind.
After a few tense minutes, we thought we heard the police outside, we cautiously peered through the curtains and confirmed. The French man and I went to see what happened and instructed the girls to lock to door behind us, just in case it wasn’t all over.
It turns out that shortly after Erin and I left for our room, two gunmen came into the common area and took wallets and phones from the British couple and a computer from the reception. Had Erin and I still been sitting with them, we would have lost 2 phones, and iPad, and a computer to the thieves. We just missed being hit by a second armed robbery because we couldn’t tolerate another minute of the Nicolas Cage film. Maybe I should write him a thank you letter?
The next day, over breakfast, the British couple informed us they were checking out and moving to a hotel in town, closer to the police station I assume. That day Erin and I did a hike to a waterfall called “Fin Del Mundo” or “end of the world”. It was a muddy, hot and humid hike over big roots and slippery logs. There were several swimming holes and a cafe placed under an outcropping on a cliff. It was amazing to see. The hike ended abruptly when the trail dead ended at a waterfall that was eighty meters tall.
That night, a few hostel guests decided to partake in an Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony. Its a drug commonly used by shaman in the amazon to help take people to the spirit world. It is supposedly famous for helping people find enlightenment and have epiphanies. I know some people who have tried it and all speak highly of it. That said, one of the side effects is vomiting, which from what I understand, is seen as a sigh of cleansing and your body purging stress and tension. Ayahuasca does have a few instances of people being killed by it, and on rare occasion, killing while on it. For me, no thanks.
That night,I lied awake in by bed beside the window, listening to ten people vomiting in unison. A chorus of people vomiting is a hard thing to hear without joining them. I didn’t get sick, but I didn’t sleep much either. Between armed gunmen and drug use, I was starting to wonder if I was in Apocalypse Now. A few more days in the jungle and I might have had to adopt a dog or start surfing.
I was not looking forward to the next morning. We were set to take a bus to the town of Pasto. The road we were taking is colloquially known as “The Trampoline of Death“. I can’t make this stuff up. It called that because it has wild altitude changes along a narrow winding mountain road. It is the most dangerous road in Colombia. A friend of mine who had taken the trip a few days earlier posted pictures of a bus that had gotten hung up on a guard rail along the road, which did not decrease my sense of foreboding.
Erin and I arrived at the ticket window and bartered the seller down to a price we were happy with. When the driver looked at our tickets he was pretty upset and told us we had to pay more. We refused, and told him this was the price we agreed upon, and the deal was already done. No worries, he sat us at the back where it was the bumpiest. I guess his plan was to take that money out of my spine. In the three back seats was myself by the window, Erin in the middle, and an absolutely unconscious young man who smelled like a night of hard drinking leaning on Erin. She shoved him off, and he slumped back over. She grabbed his head and repositioned him and he never batted a lash.
After a few good bumps and hairpin turns he fell on her again. She devised a plan, she leaned over him and leaned his seat way back and hers way forward so he couldn’t fall on her shoulder again. I was glad he didn’t wake up for that, there might have been some explaining to do. The rest of the trip wasn’t too bad, a few nerve racking passes on a road about 1.5 cars wide. Towards the end of our trip the big van stopped hard and Erin’s seat neighbour neighbour slid straight out of his seat like it was a water slide. With a bang he landed on his back on the floor, and just kept sleeping. I was likely a nice shade of red trying to hold in my hysterical laughter. The whole van was laughing with me though.
After we checked into our hostel in Pasto, we went to the grocery store to grab food for breakfast. On the way back we passed a square with some live music and a lot of people dancing and all around enjoying themselves. We walked up to the back of the crowd and enjoyed some music. We then noticed two older men in front of us, one was drinking beer from a tall can and the other had clearly already had his share. He was short man with white pants, a white shirt, a fedora, a lime green jacket, and matching lime green shoes. The well dressed man was dancing up a storm, and I knew exactly what was coming. He spotted the two tall gringos and felt the need to do his civic duty and give us some dance lessons. He was friendly, polite, and didn’t speak a word of english, and man, could he dance.
I did my best to mimic his moves, and he was supportive but I just wasn’t getting it. He then showed Erin and they did some spins and had a grand time. Her dancing is much better than mine. We decided to leave before I got too jealous of such a good dancer spending time with my wife. As we left he shook our hands, smiled and waved. Then his friend came and shook our hands and handed Erin a warm, tall, beer can from his pocket, and wished us Felíz Navidad. It was a local Colombian brand, and hey, free beer is free beer I say. We went to our hostel and went to bed, we had to cross the border to Ecuador the next day and I was hoping our excitement would give us a day off.
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The streets were filled with smoke from the fires. The air was filled with the shouts of the crowds and the thunderous cracks in the sky. Broken glass lined the curbs. There was an unfamiliar chemical foam raining down, it was sticky and smelled like cleaner. It looked, sounded, and smelled like a city in the midst of a bombing raid. I can’t believe I paid money to be here, and I can’t believe I’m having this much fun. It was the wildest new years I have ever witnessed.
In Canada, at least for me, New Years eve celebrations are usually quite mild. They consist of spending time at a friends house and hiding from the usual cold weather that plagues us that time of year. They are typically a potluck and catch up with friends kind of an evening. Ecuador… is a different story.
Erin and I had decided that we were simply travelling too fast and it was starting to wear us down, so we rented an apartment in the town of Baños, Ecuador, for christmas and new years. It was wonderful to have our own space and be able to cook for ourselves. I even got to make two batches of cookies while we were there, those made me quite popular with our landlord and her young sons.
While we were there our friend Rob, whom we had met in San Augustin, Colombia, had made his way down to Baños and met up with us for a few days, including new years. He was on his way through, biking from Bogota to Chile… and you thought I did crazy things. He has a blog about it here. He has done this in Asia too.
New Years eve, in the morning, Erin and I went to Casa Del Arbol. We decided to take the bus there and back, instead of a three hour walk each way. Mostly because she had to be back on time for her classes and also because I didn’t feel like walking three hours each way. We jumped on the bus and a friendly British couple began talking to us. For the remainder of the trip to Casa Del Arbol and back we were friends. Casa Del Arbol is an interesting place, it is a large tree house on the edge of a cliff and on each side of the tree house are large swings which throw you out over the edge of the cliff. Erin of course went on the swing, while I took pictures for her. I opted not to ride the swing for self-preservation reasons. I did however use the zip-line that ran about three feet off the ground and maybe 100 yards long. On the way back our new friends invited us to join them for dinner at Casa Hood, we were told to bring any friends we had.
That night we met up with Rob at Cafe hood, and soon realized our confusion. Just as we were about to leave to go to the right restaurant we overheard a girl from New Zealand who had made the same mistake. We to keep her company and ordered some beers to help pass the time while she finished hers. While we were finishing our drinks two men dressed, badly, as women came running in. One began playing the guitar and singing while sitting on Rob’s lap and the other danced around. When they were all done, I gave them some spare change and they were off to find new victims. We had also noticed, on the street out front, young kids in what looked like halloween costumes were stopping traffic and people in cars were giving them candy or spare change. Throughout the day we had also noticed many people making effigies out of paper māché, in all shapes and sizes.
We eventually made our way to the right restaurant, but had missed our friends. The New Zealander’s friends were there and she joined them. We had a wonderful dinner, just the three of us. After dinner we went out to walk around and see what the festivities looked like. The streets were packed with kids in costumes and young men dressed in drag. They were standing in intersections, stopping traffic, rubbing themselves against the cars, and harassing the drivers until they got money. There were vendors on the sides of the street selling all kinds of things; masks, wigs, cigarettes, fireworks etc. Erin decided to buy a pink wig to help get in the spirit of things. There were also a lot of people shooting fireworks into the sky and drinking heavily. This was already beyond anything I had seen back home. We dipped in and out of a few bars for a drink or two but the street was just too exciting to pass up. Plus there were several stages in the streets with live music. We eventually ran into the British couple… They weren’t too hard to spot since he is about six foot five and was dressed in drag. That sort of thing stands out to me.
As the evening got closer to midnight things really started to pick up. At about ten minutes to the stroke of midnight everyone started throwing their effigies into piles on the street and beating them senseless. There was kicking, throwing, shouting, and some full on body slams. Everyone was whipped into a frenzy and then the count down began. At the stroke of midnight everyone went wild, singing, yelling, hugging, and burning the piles. Once the fires started burning things got even crazier, people were jumping over the fires, myself included, and shooting off fireworks, myself included. Fatemah, the girl we had met earlier that day, ran out of the bar and started spraying party foam out of an aerosol can. She spayed into the crowd and really made a point of hosing down Rob. To me, it looked like big heavy wet snow falling to the ground. For a split second my mind wandered to an old memory of home when me my friends and me were standing around a bonfire while the snow fell. I did my best to get some pictures of the riotous streets but there was just too much movement and action to get anything of quality. I think the blurry, crooked, and obscured photos are an accurate representation of the night anyway.
We then wandered up and down the streets and hit a few more bars. We stayed out far later than we should have, but so did everyone. We finally made it back to where we were staying at about three in the morning, at which point we video chatted with our friends back home. Between bad internet and late night excitement I don’t think I was able to properly convey what we had witnessed.
What we had witnessed, at least what I pieced together from the locals is: New Years is obviously a huge celebration in Ecuador, no one needed to explain that. They celebrate it by building and burning effigies, they can look like anything from a shoebox sized spongebob to a twelve foot tall batman. Most looked like people and varied wildly in size, they represent the previous year and anything bad that happened in that year, hence beating them senseless before burning them. The young men dressed in drag asking for money are pretending to be the widows of the effigies, who now need help providing for their family. The money, of course, is spent on beer later in the evening. Drinking in public is completely legal and I saw very young children buying and using fireworks. To me it was mardi gras, meets new years, meets a circus all without parental supervision.
When you travel you hope for adventure and excitement. You want to see other cultures and how they celebrate, you want to partake in festivities as the locals do. This, to me, was a travellers dream. We got to witness and experience a wild celebration with the locals, just as the locals do. To make it all better, it came as a complete surprise until that day I had no idea other cultures took partying on New Years so seriously.
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Erin and I decided to do a highly recommended hike up to the Purace Volcanoe. We left our hostel in Popayan and caught a two hour bus to the park entrance. As soon as we got off the bus, a friendly fellow traveler, with a german accent, asked if Erin and I would like to join him and his three friends, and split the cost of a guide up the volcano. I said “sure” before I could see the look on Erin’s face that suggested we didn’t want a guide. He did prove useful in finding the park though, it turns out the bus actually dropped us off at a turnout and we had to walk through some farmland and various gates to get to the entry.
At the park entrance we paid an entry fee and began following the guide up the trail. The german man was very chatty and a little strange, in a good way. He struck me as a bit of a goofy fun loving kind of guy. He wore a black hoodie, baggy multi coloured pants, and what appeared to be worn out combat boots. He also had with him a satchel that, as best I could tell, contained only his phone, camera, and a blue tooth speaker so he could play music from his phone, which was actually quite enjoyable. The four people we were hiking with, and Erin, were all wearing jackets and scarves and couldn’t believe I wasn’t cold in just my button up flannel shirt. It wasn’t cold, but it was windy and luckily all my clothes seemed to be pretty good at blocking wind. As the hike progressed it was clear that Erin and I were a little faster than the rest of the group and began to pull ahead. Usually we would hike ahead, stop for a break and our german friend would catch up and say hello.
As we got higher and higher it began to get a little chilly and very windy. I pulled my gloves out of my backpack and clipped them to a belt loop via a carabiner, I didn’t need my gloves yet but I figured it wouldn’t be too long before I did. I also clipped my hat to the carabiner and pulled the buff from my neck and spun it into a toque for extra warmth. As we started walking again the german guy caught up and asked if I was cold. To which I replied “not really”, he then pointed at my gloves and asked “Can I borrow?” not wanting to be rude, I handed them over. He was clearly cold as he had wrapped his head with a scarf and pulled his hood up already. I told him I needed them back once the trail got steep because I tend to crawl on all fours due to my fear of heights.
After another hour or so, the trail started to get steep and he quickly handed the gloves back and thanked me. I was glad to have them back, I was getting chilly and my hands were getting weak… I even had to roll down my sleeves. Finally we could see the top of the volcano, we were on a peak beside it. We had to walk down a little valley then up a series of switchbacks to make it to the summit. Unfortunately, just as soon as we saw the top of the volcano, clouds rolled in and covered it. Erin and I climbed into the clouds and the wind howled. Finally, after I nearly gave up from exhaustion, we made it to the summit… and we couldn’t see a thing. The clouds were so thick that we could only see a few meters and the wind was so strong we had to lean into it. It was an amazing experience but the view was non existent. I was also a little proud of myself as we were the first people to reach to summit that day.
We headed down and passed the german and his group and informed him they were only a few hundred meters from the finale. They were very glad to hear it. On the way down we also passed a lot of people who got a later start and a few that seemed to be having a really hard time with the cold. It made me sad to see such small kids having such a hard time, but in hind sight it was impressive they made it that far.
Eventually we made it back to where the bus dropped us off, there was a nice dutch couple who had been waiting for an hour already. I guess the 2:30 bus didn’t make it, a common occurrence in Colombia. We stood around for another two hours or so, and a few other people joined us in waiting on the side of the road. Finally a collectivo arrived. For those who don’t know, a collectivo is a pick-up truck with two bench seats in the back, facing each other and a canvas top covering it. There is also always a rack on top of the canvas for luggage. They run much like a bus just with less capacity. This collectivo had room for about 2.5 people. The dutch couple climbed in first, then Erin squeezed in beside the dutch girl and I handed her the backpack. The truck then started to drive away. I didn’t have a lot of time to think so I just jumped on the bumper and grabbed the luggage rack. I have a fear about splitting up when travelling and Erin was carrying the money, so it would have been a long walk home. In a panic, the dutch girl got Erin to sit on her lap and I sat where Erin was and left my legs hanging out over the tail gate.
A few bumpy and uncomfortable miles down the road the truck stopped. I peered around the side and saw that we had a flat tire. I was actually really happy about that, it gave us a chance to get out and stretch, they replaced the tire with a spare and then we got back in with a better plan. The dutchman and I sat on the benches with our legs out the back and Erin sat in the middle on the spare tire with her legs out the back as well. The dutch girl got a crammed, but safer, seat behind her boyfriend. It was a far more comfortable arrangement.
Unfortunately as we got closer to town, it started raining.. Hard. We dropped the canvas cover down to protect us from the rain but the trade off was that we got covered in dust. It wasn’t so bad, and we had a lot of fun. We made it to town and shared a taxi back to the hostel where a hot shower was a welcome thing. Post shower, the only thing on my mind was food, lucky for us only a few blocks from the hostel was an Italian restaurant that served the best steak I have had since getting to South America.
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It seems that I’ve been facing a lot of fears these days. They are silly little fears, as most are, but they are dug in deep. For many years I’ve been afraid of swimming in large bodies of water, especially if I can’t see the bottom. I just don’t know what’s down there, and in my mind I am always just on the brink of some terrifying attack from a creature of the deep. Kayaking forced me to face these fears, scuba diving even more so. I don’t pretend that I don’t have these fears anymore, but its nice to know that I have survived facing them and I intend to face them again and again… and again if necessary.
We arrived in Taganga after taking an all-night bus from San Gil to Santa Marta. We stayed in a hostel called Villa Mary, run by David, energetic and helpful man who spoke excellent english. His family lived at the hostel and he treated us more like welcome house guests than paying customers. We asked him for a recommendation for a scuba school, as I was interested in getting my Open Water certification, since Erin already has her Advanced Open Water. David recommended Reef Shepherd, so we walked over to inquire.
It turns out there are multiple courses for essentially the same certification all with varying focus on various aspects. The most common training is PADI, which is what Erin has. I opted to go for SDI because to me it appeared to show more how to dive with modern technology and had less theory and class room work. SDI was also the cheaper option. I did a lot of research between the two online and found that they are pretty similar and there is no right or wrong answer.
The dive shop gave me a USB stick of videos and a text book to take a look at and fill out. We went for a walk on the beach, it had rained very heavily two days before and it washed a lot of litter into the ocean which then washed up on the beach. It was sad to see all that garbage, but over the following days it was cleaned up by some sort of town employees.
The next morning I met my instructor, Fabio. He looked a lot like a stereotypical handsome scuba instructor in a Colombian beach town. After introductions he gave me a quick overview of the equipment, most of which I remembered from my two prior dives in Fiji, and all the info I had studied the day before. From there we jumped into an old Land Rover and headed to a nearby hotel to use their pool to go over basics and confirm the fact that I can swim.
We did a few laps around the pool, and I was shown how to clear water out of my mask, and what to do if a companions or my air quits flowing. I was also shown how to use a compass while diving. I already had a good idea as I know how to use a compass on land, but I didn’t mention it to him because its always good to refresh… and no one likes a wise ass.
The first day of training was done within a few short hours. Erin and I wandered around the beach a bit, got some lunch and relaxed in the hostel. That night, a woman came by and sold us fresh loaves of homemade bread, still warm from the oven. It was amazing. She came back every night, and every night I bought at least one little loaf to eat.
The next day I was ready to dive in the ocean. We did two dives in the morning. On the boat there was Fabio and I, as well as about four other Colombians who were going spear fishing with another dive master. At first, I was a little nervous to get out of the boat and into the ocean. Something about it being so big scares me.
I didn’t want to be embarrassed, so I swallowed my fears and tipped myself backwards off the side of the boat. Soon Fabio was in the water too, and he explained what we were going to do. I had to do a few tests, things like: taking my mask off and putting it back on while under water, sharing oxygen, and emergency surfacing.
After all that was done, we did our dive around an island with a lighthouse. I saw a very large eel and a barracuda, along with a variety of other small fish unknown to me. We surfaced and loaded into the boat. The other group surfaced shortly after, and one of them was holding a trident with a lion fish on it.
They climbed in and we started chatting. It turns out lion fish are an invasive species in the Caribbean and they are edible. He told me they are a delicious white meat. To me, it sounded like they were similar to our Walleye.
The second dive started with more testing, mostly for my buoyancy. In this case I had to put my feet in the ocean floor and hold the rest of my body at a steady 45 degree angle. Easier said than done, but with careful, calm, shallow breathing I was able to do it.
We then swam along another coral reef to a sunken boat. It was a large piece of hull about ten meters across. I was told later that it sank and broke into three pieces which all found their way to different depths. As we were looking at the hull I swam around the side and was startled by three scuba divers, one of which had a large trident with a lion fish on it. It was the other group of divers from the boat, but it sure surprised me when I came around the side.
The day wrapped up around noon, so Erin and I walked over a small ridge to another beach called Playa Grande, which was crowded with Colombian tourists enjoying the sand and sun. We sat in the sand and royally over paid for a juice and a coke, but I guess thats just the cost of travel sometimes.
When I awoke on the third and final day of my course, I wasn’t feeling too well. Erin had scheduled to dive with me for my final two dives. Luckily the dive shop was pretty easy going and let us reschedule to the afternoon. We relaxed all morning and walked around town a bit. In the afternoon we went to the shop and geared up, Erin refreshed her memory and we met another Canadian who would be joining us on the dive.
We loaded into the boat and there was another group on their second day of the same course I was taking. On our first dive I had to do one more test, a basic compass navigation. I had to set a heading on the compass and swim 12 fin cycles (leg kicks) then turn around and follow the opposite heading back with the same number of fin cycles, I was allowed a two meter window of error. I was quite nervous, but on the return trip I almost crashed into the instructor who was waiting at the endpoint, so maybe I just expected it being harder than it was.
We then began our dive. It was a nice dive along some corals. We saw a large green eel, some lobsters, and a very large eel with a sort of leopard print. At first we only saw its head sticking out of the sand but when it spooked and swam away, we saw six feet of body emerge from under the sand.
We surfaced and started heading to the beach for lunch. Suddenly the boat stopped and Fabio told me to jump in and swim to shore. Naturally I gave him a funny look and asked “Why am I the only one swimming to shore?” He replied “Oh its your final test, I need to see that you can swim two hundred meters and then float or tread water for ten minutes, these two are also going to do it.” The other students jumped in and started swimming.
I sat hesitantly for a moment. Swimming in the ocean is one of my bigger fears. The ocean is big and deep, and I can’t see whats under me. Again, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, so I swallowed my fear and started swimming. The boat motored around us to shore. When I got close they singled to stop and tread water. It was the longest ten minutes my memory can recall.
We had some sandwiches and iced tea on the shore, then went back out for our second dive. We dove another reef just off shore. As soon as we descended to the bottom, Fabio pointed out an octopus hiding behind a rock. We kept swimming and saw a variety of fish and swam through a tear in net. Just passed it I saw our guide pick up some litter and stuff it in his pocket. A little farther down he grabbed a broken water gun and started pointing it at us and waving it around. It’s nice to see people having fun at work.
Just before the end of our dive we spotted a lion fish resting in a nook in a rock. From there we began to surface. We did a safety stop, where we stopped at five meters for three minutes. It was during the safety stop that a school of silver fish swam by. One of them was very curious and swam several laps around and between us. It got close enough that I could have touched it were I brave enough. Erin, of course, was brave enough and did touch it.
The next morning I went back to the dive shop and they printed my new certification card. I chatted with the owner of the dive shop about his Land Rover, of which I am a fan. He was also kind enough to tell me all about lion fish which are and invasive species in the Caribbean, originally from the Pacific ocean. Heres what I learned:
He said he first reported them in the area about seven years ago, and as best he could tell they came from Florida. They are an expensive and prized aquarium fish. It appears that some got out either by accident, sloppy tank draining procedures, or possibly poor weather, such as hurricane Katrina breaking open houses and aquariums. He also said that for many years they weren’t found south of the amazon river as it drains into the ocean with too much force.
Unfortunately one year, with El Niño, they were able to cross the weakend river drainage. There have been reports of them south of the Amazon for the last three years. He also told me that they hold competitions to see who can spear fish the most and the largest lion fish. Sadly, though, it does not appear that they will ever be able to get rid of them entirely, the ocean is just too big and they reproduce too fast. Further research here and here showed me that they are believe to have a founding population of only a handful of individual lion fish.
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It’s been a while since I posted something and even longer since I gave an update of my trip, here’s some of what Erin and I have been up to since you last heard from us. I also have a video for you all to check out (link at the end). It’s a little rough, feel free to give me some feedback on it.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway” – Unknown
When Erin and I left New York for Ecuador, the airline wouldn’t let us on to the plane without some proof that we intended to leave the country. Many countries have this “onward ticket” rule, but it generally seems to be only sporadically enforced. In a panic, we booked a bus ticket from Quito, Ecuador to Bogotá, Colombia, just so they would let us on the plane. Once in Ecuador, we took a closer look at the ticket and realized we had signed ourselves up for a 30 hour bus ride. Great.
We contacted the company to see about a refund, but the best they would do was let us change the dates on the tickets. So, two days after the home invasion, we packed some snacks into our new daypack, and climbed aboard. The ride wasn’t actually too terrible, just long. The real excitement was at the Colombian border when we were informed that, as Canadians we are required to pay a “reciprocity fee” of $160,000 pesos (roughly $50 USD) to get in. We weren’t sure we had enough money, and the closest ATM was 7 km back, in town. We emptied all our pockets, pulled out our emergency stash, counted up all of our change, and we had just enough to pay our fees. We had about $4 left when it was all said and done. Good think we brought our own food for the bus trip, because we had no money left to buy dinner or lunch when the bus stopped for breaks.
Eventually we made it to Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia. Bogota is a huge city. To put it in perspective, there are more people living in Bogotá then in the whole province of Alberta. We stayed at a hostel in the old part of the city (La Candelaria), and, for the most part we just wandered around and took in the sights. We went to the Museo Del Oro (Gold Museum), which featured a lot of indigenous and pre-colombian gold works and sculptures, – all owned by the bank, oddly enough. The bank started the museum after finding a particularly beautiful piece, and deciding maybe they shouldn’t be melting down all this ancient artwork. We also did a bicycle tour of the city, it seems on every block in Bogotá someone important has been assassinated. I’m glad things have calmed down lately, because it is a beautiful, chaotic city and certainly worth seeing.
From Bogotá, we took a short ride on the bus to Zipaquira. We spent a single night in a very run down and poorly kept hostel, and saw the Salt Cathedral in the morning. It’s a salt mine carved into a cathedral complete with some very impressive sculptures.
Next up was the picturesque colonial town of Villa De Leyva, where we spent a few days relaxing. One day, Erin and I decided to do a hike up one of the small mountains nearby. At first I wasn’t sure we were even on a trail, but eventually we saw some other footprints and were reassured. After the first forty five minutes in the heat and high altitude, I was worried I wouldn’t make it to the top. After the second forty five minutes, I was worried I wouldn’t make it home alive. Erin just rolled her eyes at my bellyaching, and kept on climbing.
Eventually, the trail stopped leading upward and levelled off. Suddenly the trail was leading between fields of grazing sheep and cows, and small houses dotted the landscape on the sides of the mountains. We stopped and had some lunch (fresh baked bread and gingerale). As we headed back down, I was looking out at the houses and I realized something. There were no cars or motorcycles, these people commuted to town via the trail that I barely survived. Suddenly I felt a little silly and plenty weak. On our way down, my theory was confirmed as we passed several groups of people, many walking and some riding donkeys laden down with supplies. One man we passed was talking on a cell phone while riding a donkey up the hill, it was just an interesting sight to see.
The day after our hike we decided to rent some mountain bikes and do a self guided tour to a local park with a few nice waterfalls. We biked up hill the whole way there along a gravel road. We arrived at the park, paid our fees, and hiked down into the valley to see the waterfalls. We passed a few people on the trails but didn’t see anyone at the waterfall. We sat on a rock at the bottom and had some lunch and then we climbed up the slippery rock to the top of the falls, which was really just some water trickling down the rocks, as it had been very dry lately.
After taking some photos and admiring the scenery we came down and grabbed our gear. Before we could leave a local man explained in Spanish that there was a nicer, larger waterfall further down the trail. He was pretty adamant and got us to follow him, until we saw a sign that clearly denoted the end of the trail. He waved his hand in a “ah its nothing” fashion and kept walking, we went a little further and then Erin said “I’ll wait here.” We were both a bit concerned that it might be a set up, trap, or ambush of sorts. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to give and excuse not to follow him also I was aware that my paranoia was still a little high from the previous weeks excitement in Quito. After a bit more following we showed up at a really big waterfall, and I was quite relieved. We felt bad for being suspicious of him. Erin and I headed back to the park entrance, grabbed a lemon aid, and headed back towards town. On the way, we made one more stop near a small pond and had a light snack before finishing our tour.
From Villa De Leyva, we made our way to San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. We stayed at a nice hostel run by an Australian man who organized activities with other local businesses. I signed up for kayaking course and was up bright and early the next morning ready to go. Unfortunately, they had forgotten about me. Erin had left before I was supposed to be picked up so while she was off exploring nearby towns with new friends, I sat in my room, grumpy that I had been forgotten. Oh well, I needed the rest and relaxation. That evening I mentioned to the owner what happened and he immediately called the company and confirmed I would be picked up for classes the following day.
The next morning, they called the company to re-confirm. Sure enough, they showed up this time. The first day, I was told, would be in a pool working on basic skills. I expected a normal swimming pool, but we actually went to a local waterfall that had been dammed up down stream to create a semi natural pool. The class consisted of myself and one other traveller who was staying at the same hostel. We worked on basic paddling and maneuvering and then started to work on eskimo rolls. An eskimo roll is the ability to roll a kayak from upside down to right side up using a lot of hip and a bit of paddle… and from what I could tell, a bit of magic. By the end of the first day I was sore, tired, and still unable to do the roll.
On the second day of kayaking lessons, we were taken for a trip down the river over some light rapids. It was pretty exciting. I had to bail out of my kayak more than once, and be rescued by the instructor. After the first crash it was a lot less frightening. My classmate had a few spills that day too, but he had figured out the eskimo roll on the first day, so he was a little ahead of me. Throughout the day, we stopped along the shore a few times to go over more techniques and practice our eskimo rolls. I was still having trouble with it. Eventually, we were on a nice slow and deep patch of river. JD, my classmate, did an eskimo roll at the teachers request. Then the instructor looked at me and said “Ok, this is it Tyson, you’re going to do and eskimo roll right here, right now. Go for it!”
I assumed the position, rolled under, and sat for a moment, I regrouped mentally, loosed and tightened my grip on the paddle, and visualized what I wanted to happen. I thrust my right hip “up” and my left knee “down” and popped out of the water like a cork. I had done it. I looked around, amazed as both my companions cheered and clapped. For the first few seconds I didn’t believe I had done it myself. As we neared the end of our route, the instructor told us there was a huge wave just before where we get out of the river, and he wanted us to hit it head on. I was happy to oblige, worst case I crash into water and sure enough, thats what happened. I went straight up the side of that wave, went right upside down, and couldn’t roll out of it, so I had to eject from the kayak and swim to shore… how embarrassing. We were then told that the following day we would hit some harder rapids and do a longer trip.
The next morning my stomach was in my throat. I was very nervous about hitting bigger rapids. The instructor assured me I would be fine. Worst case, I have to get rescued. I decided to bring my action camera and get some footage. The three of us headed down the river, and more than once I was tossed from the kayak and had to be saved. We then met up with another instructor and a student on his second day. We did some more work on our rolls, and I was introduced to the kayak equivalent of water boarding. The instructor flipped my kayak and then I had to roll to correct it, at which point he would flip it again as fast as he could, over and over until I couldn’t roll anymore. I did six and got it on film. Later on down the river on calm flat water without someone flipping me upside down, I was able to do eight rolls in a row unassisted. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment.
We finished out the trip and had a few more crashes along the way. When we finally made it to land, we were offered a second run on the river, we both declined. JD had hurt his shoulder in a crash and I was so tired I was worried it would be a safety concern. I had also taken a good bump to the rib cage, courtesy of a large rock, during one of my rescues. So I headed back to the hostel to recover before taking an overnight bus to the Caribbean coast, but I’ll tell you about that in my next story.
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