Costa Rica Baby! The Journey Begins….

Sorry for the random early morning Wednesday posting, but writer’s block got in my way and I finally managed to beat it down last night.

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No idea why this title jumped into my head, but it did, so I decided to just go with it. Perhaps it’s a sudden renewed enthusiasm given the country’s performance thus far in the World Cup. I mean, fair’s fair: group D winner beating both Uruguay and Italy!!

So why now? Why choose this moment to write about Costa Rica?

As part of a daily (well, almost daily) self-appointed writing exercise, I’ve been going through my travels chronologically and it’s led me to reflect a lot on traveling solo and on which locales I’ve done by myself and how/if those experiences have significantly differed from when I travel with others.

And thus, my meandering mind eventually led me back to my time in Costa Rica.

Trees near the Nauyaca Waterfalls

In December 2012, I was looking for a place that had these attributes:

  • No significant time zone difference from Toronto as I would be working while away
  • Relatively short flying time
  • Internet access
  • Warm temperatures
  • Proximity to water
  • Good value accommodation with a nice view/setting
I had negotiated into my contract a two-week period during which I could work from abroad allowing me to get my travel fix. It was a particularly touch-and-go time for my client so I needed to find a place that was in the same time zone or very close to it. 
When you get to pick up for two weeks and work from elsewhere, though, it’s hard to find a companion. First, that person has to enjoy a fair amount of alone time as I would clearly need to dedicate time to the job. Second, he/she also can’t mind staying in one place for two weeks, another tough sell when you consider that most people in Canada get a maximum of 4 weeks paid vacation per year. Or else, this individual has to have flexibility regarding how and where work is completed. 
So, solo trip it was. 
I started off by looking for a country and then whittled it down from there. Based on the above list, I felt like the Caribbean, Central America and possibly South America regions offered the best options. I ruled out the first because it tends to be more expensive and the third because I didn’t know enough about the countries there – or speak any passable Spanish – to feel like I could make it around comfortably and safely on my own. 
Once I’d settled on Central America, Costa Rica quickly popped to the top of the list as friends who’d been there before enjoyed their time there and came back with fun stories.

Now, let me tell you about how I conducted my search for a place to live (in this case). Price was clearly a factor but after that it was about surroundings, rather than location. I didn’t want to be in a city: I wanted to feel about as far away from Toronto, traffic and crowds as I could. 
A quick search on one of my favourite vacation rental sites (www.vrbo.com) followed and I quickly found a more than suitable property: Casa Selva, a little studio that looked like it was built into the jungle, surrounded by trees, and about midway to two-thirds up a mountain.

Casa Selva Porch

It was at this point, after I fell in love with it, that I realized I still needed to learn WHERE this place was. I crossed my fingers that it was a decent driving distance from one of the two international airports. Casa Selva was located in… Dominical. Huh. Where was that? A trusty Google maps search  and… 4 hours driving from Juan Santamaria International Airport. Score! A small surf town… up a mountain dirt road…. 4 x 4 required. I was in. 

Surfers Finishing Their Day – Dominicalito, the Smaller Beach in Dominical

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing I took care of was purchasing a SIM card. Not as easy as it sounds. Juan Santamaria airport is not very big and it turned out there was only one mobile phone stall before exiting the customs area. Because I’d be driving straight to Dominical, this was my best chance, especially, as I would need to conduct the transaction in English.

Unluckily for me, the name on the booth’s signage wasn’t a company I recognized and so, I walked right by it and into a gaggle of people, passengers, taxi drivers, and guards. It looked like the exit but there were no signs or doors, just a couple of luggage scanners and security guards standing by. Did I need to scan my luggage again? I wasn’t sure, but no one waved me over either so I kept walking and  landed immediately at the car rental desk. Oh crap.. I’ve ‘officially’ left the airport now?

Shoot. The SIM card. I asked the gentleman at the desk and he indicated that the stall back in the airport was the only supplier available. He got up, walked me back to the security area, spoke with one of the guards and I was allowed back in to return to the cell phone company. Thank goodness for the more relaxed atmosphere of Costa Rica! The cell phone would come in so very handy later that day….

I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki Jimmy (4 x 4 with manual transmission), including GPS. TIP: if you’re driving yourself through Costa Rica, a GPS is a MUST, as roads wind unpredictably and often don’t have signs. Also, if you need to do any uphill driving as well, I recommend a more powerful engine. I had some interesting moments trying to match gears with degree of incline.

In order to get to the highway, the genteel female GPS voice led me through city streets, turning this way and that, down residential streets, veering off to merge with local traffic. The instructions didn’t work all that well – for example, directions were given in miles… I don’t have a clue how far a mile is… I’m Canadian! – and in minutes I was lost. A few U-turns and some serious nervous sweating later, I managed to get back on track and on the road. The main road that would take me to Dominical had been paved in the last 5 years or so which made the drive much more pleasurable: earlier accounts from visitors and ex-pats usually included details of bone-jarring ruts and bumps that went on for hours!!!

Inevitably, traffic jams would appear on random stretches of the road, no surprise really when much of the journey provided only for one lane traffic each way. Stray dogs were everywhere and I was terrified that I would hit one who had cluelessly wandered onto the road.

I was running late. The plan had been to get there relatively early, preferably before it got dark, but I failed to realize that in Costa Rica, unlike in Toronto, even in summer the sun sets early, around 5:30pm. Then, it started to rain, heavy, steady drops. Things were getting more complicated and I could feel my body stiffening with tension. The drops turned into a downpour and as night began to fall, the downpour turned into a torrent of rain covering the car so rapidly and violently that my windshield wipers were rendered useless, shooting back and forth so rapidly that I feared they might fly off at any moment. The sky turned pitch black and there were no lights to ease my way; while I knew the safest course of action would be to pull over, I couldn’t see anything and had no idea where I could pull over, lest I end up, best case, in a ditch, worse case, off the side of a cliff.

On top of these, let’s call them adverse conditions, the directions involved spotting landmarks that while easy (or easier) to see during daylight, were next to impossible at night. Paraphrasing slightly: once you enter Dominical, you’ll drive over a bridge (more of a gut feel than a confirmed sighting at night time in the pouring rain) and past a police shack on your left (hmmm… that concrete structure seems like a good possibility); just past the 150 km route marker (say what?!?!) you’ll see a salmon-coloured bus-stop on your right (one: bus-stops don’t look the same in Dominical as in Toronto; two: what does salmon-coloured look like in the dark??); turn left onto the dirt road leading up the mountainside across from the bus-stop. Riiiight…. The directions only got murkier once I started the uphill dirt road climb.

And during all of this, with the threat of a stray dog hit-and-run incident, little to no electricity, a pitch black wall of night sky, a deluge of water, and no clear idea of where I’m going, the one thought running through my mind is: please don’t let anything happen because I do not want to explain to my father how I got into this situation. I’m not concerned so much about the possibility of damage to the car, injury to myself, or being completely lost in a foreign country – I am shit terrified of having to explain this to my father if I live.

Clearly I made it. More on that, what I learned during my stay and how the domestic SIM card was a very advantageous item to have on hand in the next post.

Sunset at Dominicalito

Do you have a story like this to tell too? What place were you unprepared for and why?

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The Inca Trail… Part II

Checking an item off your bucket list sounds exciting, right? Fulfilling, dreams coming true, etc., etc. And it can be all those things, but I think it also creates a little… anxiety. What if it doesn’t live up to the expectations you’ve held in your head for so long? What happens AFTER you check it off the list?
A View of the Terraces at Machu Picchu
Friends who’d walked the Inca Trail provided varying reactions and regardless of what you read here – good and bad – I very much believe that it’s a trip worth making: different people will get different things from it.
And in that vein, I’ve been wrangling with exactly what I should write here about the trip. In the end, the initial question in the first part of this post : How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years? 
I could describe it to you in literal detail, the schedule, the terrain, give you stats about distance covered and height above sea level, but you can get all that from a thousand other sites and blogs (If you really want to know about these details, though, please feel free to get in touch). Instead, I’m opting to share with you some of my personal story – the sensations, challenges, thoughts and conclusions that formed over the days and hours of the journey. 

One of the Ruins Along the Inca Trail
Completion

If it’s physically possible (and safe), complete the trail. Our guide was quite excited that none of our group quit. You should’ve seen our reactions – part disbelief, part hilarity: we had no idea that was even an option! Apparently, it’s not uncommon at all and one girl in our group told me that her friend’s group had two individuals quit after the first hour of the trail! Hmmm… perhaps a very wise and strategically well-timed decision on our guide’s part not to impart this knowledge to us until after we’d finished.

Believe me, it’s not easy. I was not prepared for how much the altitude would affect my breathing. I’d been at higher altitudes before – base camp at Mount Everest – and hadn’t experienced any significant symptoms other than a little shortness of breath. In Peru, leading up to the beginning of the trek, I’d also not had any other symptoms, not even shortness of breath – no headaches, nausea, dizziness or loss of appetite. So, it completely caught me by surprise when very quickly after we’d started the walk, I found myself already needing to take a break to catch my breath. For me, this was the most physically difficult part of the trek: as the days and kilometres continued on, and particularly on the ascents, frequent stops were needed for me to get air into my lungs, sometimes as often as once every 10 or 15 paces. Some people advised me to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth to slow my heartbeat down, but the thing was, my heartbeat was fine. I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen in.

Pausing for a Look: The Valley Below
Psychologically, though, it never entered my thoughts to quit or to stop. I was always going to complete the trail. That was a foregone conclusion in my mind. Difficulty breathing just meant going much slower. In all honesty, this was the bigger mental challenge: I finished last for every section, every day and letting go of my embarrassment over this fact was far tougher. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s not a race, after all. But for me, it signalled a weakness – I am not used to finishing last (in fact, I work very hard not to finish last in all aspects of my life – yes, I am a Chinese-Canadian ambitious, perfectionist female… can you believe we exist? Ha!) and though I wasn’t at the peak of my fitness level, surely it was better than this… wasn’t it? Eventually, the embarrassment subsided – it’s amazing how the little things stop troubling you when something like breathing becomes a struggle – but in actuality, fitness level and susceptibility to altitude aren’t correlated. Some people just adjust better to the decrease in oxygen. I am not one of those people. 
Take it Slow

So, take it slow.
Altitude: A slower, steadier pace will make it easier on you and your lungs. Also a slower ascent overall helps your body acclimatize.
Attitude: It really isn’t a race; take the time to look around (which, coincidentally, is a very rewarding thing to do while catching your breath) and enjoy where you are and what’s around you. The ruins are amazing, in the truest sense of the word, but so are the natural aspects. 
Day 3: The ‘Easiest’ Day of the Trail Brought us a Rainbow to Enjoy

At numerous points, the four of us at the tail end of the pack would pause, thus allowing us to take in our surroundings. We looked backwards, observing our trail snaking back down the mountain and realized just how far we’d come. At other times, we would look up and ahead, suddenly aware of just how close we were to the top of the mountains. I couldn’t take my eyes of the peaks. 
I’m a sucker for mountains, valleys, dramatic skies, cloud formations… really anything and any moment that reveals to us, yet again, the beauty that Mother Nature has bestowed upon us. It’s an addiction – I fall silent in awe, so grateful that I get to see it in person and I only end up wanting to see more. Enjoy it, take it in because no matter how well you’ve captured it in a photograph, there’s nothing like being there to smell the moss, hear the waterfall, see the shades of green and feel the texture and edges of the rocks and stones. 

If Only….

As the attempted (and ultimately successful) conquest by Spain of the Incan Empire wore on, the Incas living at Machu Picchu were instructed to take their belongings and abandon the site and to make their way to Vilcabamba, the last capital of the empire and the last refuge of its people.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, though, and you can’t help but wonder what might have happened if those who lived there had never left. Would some of the Incans have survived? Would there be individuals today with 100% Incan blood and ancestry? Would there be fewer legends and more facts?

Mountain View from Machu Picchu
Achievement
The Incan Empire was, in a word, impressive. 
Geographically, it stretched through 6 countries of western South America: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. Despite the numerous nations that were enfolded (by force or otherwise) into the empire, there was one language and one religion. At its core were the Andes mountains and a 14,000 mile long network of trails/roads was constructed in and amongst the range to link all its inhabitants together, thereby allowing for efficient communication and travel. Much of this network still exists today and is in relatively good condition, some of which we traveled on during our 3.5 days on the trail. 
The Incans were also well known for their architectural achievements, their legacy evident in the structures that still stand today. The blocks that were used to construct buildings were finely cut into precise shapes and angles, perfectly fitted and held to one another without mortar, so close to each other that a knife cannot be passed in between. Their construction methods also essentially made buildings “earthquake proof”, with small occurrences having no effect, while larger events caused the stones to jiggle, for lack of a better word, and then fall back into place once the earthquake ended. 
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of its existence endures, that we can still touch, walk on and see the work produced by this remarkable people, in spite of the long span of time that has passed since their disappearance, which we find simultaneously so sad and yet so alluring, that lead thousands to visit Machu Picchu a day. 
Machu Picchu, Another Look
After
For me, walking the Inca Trail was an achievement. Knowing what’s involved – the sleepless nights, the physical challenges, three days without showering, less than ideal bathroom conditions (by the way, there are way worse) – I would happily do it all again and then some. 
The memories of that trail will stay with me: the ‘gringo killer’ sections where you forbid yourself from assessing the degree of steepness and how easily your momentum could carry you forward into a tumble; the closeness of the rainforest, the weight of the humidity bearing down on your sweat and your shoulders while its thickness made you feel like you were trying to breathe in something solid; the rare quiet moment where it was only me and the sound of the birds and a distant waterfall; the realization that you had so much farther to go and the immediate impulse to just continue putting one foot in front of the other; the consummate satisfaction and happiness of arriving at Machu Picchu, the ‘end goal’; the admiration for the scale of the site and learning that it was not even the biggest Incan settlement. 
Machu Picchu did not disappoint: its magnitude and its endurance, an embodiment of the lost empire. 
The Inca Trail was not what I expected. In fact, I’m not sure that in all my imaginings of this trip, I ever gave due consideration to the trail itself, but rather only thought of the ‘end goal’. In this sense, the trail was much more than I expected, a true experience, one that taught me lessons and challenged me. 
So what happens now? 
Well, I suppose I should find another experience to add to the bucket list. 
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The Inca Trail – Part I

How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years?

The Plans

When a good friend, K, asked me to organize a trip for her and several friends to do the Inca Trail in April 2014, she insisted I book a spot for myself. I hesitated. It was November 2013 and I had made the decision to intentionally step away from my day job for a few months to travel and to work on this side of my life. The choice was undoubtedly a good one – it led to a month in Greece, my first group photography exhibit and my regular blog posts – but as with all contract and freelance work, there was no guarantee that I’d find a client for the new year. Could I afford the trip? Savings for the day-to-day was covered, but a trip to Peru? What if no new gigs came up? What if…?

F*ck it, I thought. The Inca Trail had been a dream for far too long. I was not going to miss this opportunity to walk the trail.

The tour was booked with G Adventures, one of the partners I work with through my travel consulting gig. In fact, K and I had met on a G Adventures trip through Tibet 6 years earlier and as anyone who has been a part of these small group tours can attest to, one of the biggest rewards is the incredible friendships that result with people you’d otherwise never have met.

Flights

Just wanted to start off with a quick TIP about flights.

I organized the air travel for six of our group of seven (the G Adventures group was the max size of 16). All seven of us, though, flew LAN Airlines for the international portions to and from Peru as well as the domestic portions. While the flights themselves were fine, we all had a terrible time trying to complete anything other than check-in via the website. For me, even check-in was confusing with mixed messages between the LAN airline site and its codeshare partner site. Additionally, the kiosks that were available at the Cusco airport were useless for anyone who wasn’t a member of their frequent flyer program. Unfortunately, there are no signs to indicate this and you don’t realize it until you’re about 5 steps into the process… in Spanish.

So if you’re flying LAN, my recommendations are to: 1) try and have your travel agent book your preferred seats while buying the fare; 2) failing that, call the reservations team to change your seats; 3) or sign-up for LANPASS.

Also, a specific tip for the Cusco airport. If you like to be (more or less) on schedule or if the idea of potentially missing your flight causes you to feel faint or sends your pulse racing uncontrollably, I HIGHLY recommend you ignore the advice you might receive from your hotel’s front desk that you need only arrive 60 minutes before your flight from Cusco to Lima.

It’s not that this necessarily isn’t enough time; it’s just that when you’re still standing in the check-in line 30 minutes before departure, at many other airports this is a clear signal that you should just give up and start asking about details for the next flight. Despite the fact that all the employees to whom we asked the question ‘Are we going to make our flight?’ all answered in the affirmative, most of us found this incredulous. Cusco’s airport is small though so once you’re checked in, security and the walk to the gate is a very quick process, particularly for early morning flights. The employees there are far more laid back than us North Americans are used to but that doesn’t mean they don’t know the routines and timings of the airport

Where to Begin…? 

How about llamas and alpacas? I’m not very good at telling the difference… the ears are apparently a telltale sign, but I’m terrible with these kinds of details.

Fittingly, the llamas and alpacas bookended my time in Peru.

My first pic is of an alpaca (I think) that we were feeding. Some of the alpacas were fully in there with us, pushing to the front of the fence and eager to take the stems we were holding out even when their mouths were full; others… not so much. I have a suspicion we weren’t the first to foster these delicious green munchies so those that hung back were probably contentedly satiated.

                                Feeding alpacas in the Ccaccaccollo community… look at those eyes!

My second pic is of a llama… uh, I think. As we were saying our final good-byes to Machu Picchu and making our way towards the main entry/exit for the site (Spoiler: I completed the trail! Apparently, some don’t… more on that in the next post), we were more than a little startled to see two llamas wandering up the steps, pausing at random to munch on the surrounding grass. 
This little fellow/gal (and companion, whose backside you can just make out to the left) was kind enough to make its way by me… or perhaps more accurately, to allow me to pass by it. Rather than being spooked by the swarms of curious tourists, they seemed to me to be a little wary and just wanted to be left alone to eat. 

      Surprise llama sighting as we exited the Machu Picchu site

Day 1: A Little Tip About Cusco

The tour that we selected started with Day 1 being the day of arrivals to Cusco. We’d read, though, that spending two days in Cusco is a better option as it allows you to acclimatize better to the altitude. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t allow for it so we only had the one day before the tour began to settle in.

In regards to the altitude, I don’t think any of us were too much worse for the wear by having only the one day in Cusco. The major downside was that we didn’t have the chance to really explore and to get to know the town and based on our first day’s impressions, we weren’t super excited about it.

Thankfully, K had asked that I book us to stay for an extra night in Cusco after the tour ended. Our new hotel was to the northwest of the main square, Plaza de Armas, a section of the town that seemed a little bit nicer than where we’d been previously plus, as a huge bonus, it put us squarely on the Easter Friday parade route!

I’m so thankful we spent the extra night: Cusco is a wonderful town for wandering with plenty of original and old architecture for buffs like me. The narrow roads and lane ways lead to all sorts of interesting buildings, cute shops and openings to little squares.

Oh, and if you like to eat, you’ve got to try this restaurant: http://www.cicciolinacuzco.com. Amazing food, friendly and super helpful owner/chef and really good prices (compared to North American dining). The squid ink pasta (which, if you sit at the bar, you can see being made) is delicious.

TIP: Cicciolina is a small restaurant, so reservations are a MUST. We didn’t know this but got lucky and were given seats at the bar – for me, this was the best seat in the house: we had ring-side seats to the kitchen and bar! I couldn’t stop staring… until the food came. Then, I got busy.

Day 2: Supported Communities & Co-Ops

In 2003, G Adventures started a not-for-profit organization called Planterra to raise funds and support the communities where they operate. For more info on Planterra, please visit: http://www.planeterra.org.

To kick off our second day, we stopped off at a Planterra-supported women’s weaving co-op in the Ccaccaccollo community. We observed goods being weaved using traditional methods, but also saw how the supply and use of looms allowed these women to greatly speed up their work. Using natural stones, herbs and other elements, the women of the community showed us how they cleaned and dyed the fleece.

          Dying elements for the fleece

TIP: You’ve probably heard this already, but buying a hat and gloves at the weaving co-op is a wise choice for the four days on the trail and they make for memorable souvenirs that you will likely use again (I know I will – I live in Canada!) once you return home. We moved from stall to stall, not only looking for designs and sizes (I have tiny hands – I’ve known pre-teens with bigger hands – and I learned to hold them up for the stall owners/managers to assess who would either shake their heads or pull out a perfectly sized pair) but also for women that we felt comfortable with. Some were definitely pushier, but there were always others who gave off a more welcoming and laid-back vibe. 
We stopped off for lunch at Huchuy Qosco. This village was previously not part of the tour route and didn’t benefit from the country’s significant tourism industry. It now welcomes visitors to a Planterra-supported restaurant (it’s open to all tour groups, not just G Adventures), a three-wall structure – solid wall to the back, transparent walls to the sides that allow you to take in the beautiful surrounding scenery – built under the mountains. The food was prepared in a red stone A-frame building sitting across from and slightly to the side of the dining area and were all delicious local dishes. You definitely don’t go hungry on this tour. 

    The mountains surrounding the Sacred Valley Community Restaurant

That’s it for today’s post, but I’ll be submitting Part II on Thursday. Topic: Days 3 to 6, the Inca Trail.

For more info on the tour we took, please click here. If you have any questions about the tour, the sights, the food or anything else about my time there, please feel free to get in touch! 

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