Peeing in the Extremes

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A night critter

The night is so dark, hot and humid. Huge trees overhead block out the light from the millions of stars I saw earlier. I stare up at the roof of the little tent I am supposed to actually be sleeping in and listen to things drop on it and scurry around. I shudder to think what is all out there in the rain forest. That would be the Amazon rain forest, and from a night hike the day we arrived, I know it is teeming with critters like spiders, insects and bats. Not the easiest environment to tent in, but we are determined to experience it all! “Mom,” I hear from the dark. “I have to go to the bathroom.” What?! This has got to be a joke. I don’t want to go out there!Where’s Rafael when I need him? We had earlier laughed when the crew set up two little tents in the small clearing. One of them was clearly a honeymoon suite with hearts and flowers in it. Did they really think I could leave my 10-year-old daughter to sleep in a tent alone in the Amazon? Obviously, they don’t have kids. I’m not laughing now. I should have made her father sleep with her, but who knew? She never, ever gets up in the night at home! I try pleading. “Are you sure? You don’t think you can wait until it gets light?””No Mom. I need to go now!”

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Our home for the night

Shit. Okay. I’m a grown woman. I can handle this. I turn on my headlamp and look around. At least we are both fully dressed. I unzip the tent and peer out, cringing as I hear something fall on the roof. Luckily Rachel doesn’t hear anything, or things could really go south. Our high jungle boots are outside the door. I pick them up, turn them over and give them a good shake. We’ve been warned about things crawling in. I have to wonder why we weren’t allowed to take them in with us. I guess our guides didn’t pack a vacuum to clean up the mess in the tent. Amateurs.

Off we go, into the night. Our “bathroom” is a hole in the ground with a portable toilet seat on a stand above it. “Don’t sit down, Rachel. I can’t see what might be under that seat.” She does her thing with no complaints while I look out into the trees. Wow, it is so amazing here. It’s warm and a little breezy and so alive. Camping is a total pain, but it is so worth it right now. This is a sight not many people get to see, and we are here!

Since I am both a mother and over 40, there is no way I can pass up a chance to pee, so I take my turn and we head on back to camp. That wasn’t so bad!

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Fast forward 8 months. It is bitterly cold and we are sleeping in a block of ice. Literally. We are at the Ice Hotel in Quebec. The place is beautiful, amazing, another adventure! It is also very hard to sleep in. The very thin mattress sits on a block of ice. The air is so cold that it actually hurts to breath in through your nose. If you pull your neck warmer up to over your nose, it quickly becomes wet and you feel even worse.

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At check-in, we are given a class on how to prepare for bed. We take all our toasty clothes to a locker room, where we change into bathing suits. The terry cloth bathrobe is a flimsy shelter from the cold as we make our way to the outdoor hot tub. We gingerly settle into the water, shockingly hot on our frigid toes. Our mission? Get as overheated as we can stand. Once we are suitably boiled, we race back into the locker room and put on our layers. Lots of wool to hold in the heat. We make our way directly to our room and zip into our sub-zero sleeping bags. I’ve never slept in a ski hat before and spend all kinds of time trying to make it comfortable to lie on. Whatever. I anticipate a difficult night anyway. A few hours go by and I’m drifting, on that edge of sleep where you’re relaxed but still aware. “Mom, I have to go to the bathroom.” Oh no! What is up with this? Does she do it on purpose to torture me? If I leave my cocoon, I’ll never get warm again. I don’t want to go back in the hot tub! “Are you sure you can’t wait until morning?” “No, Mom, I have to go now!” I am defeated. Well, it’s not like my bladder hasn’t been complaining for the last hour. After a trip to the bathroom, we stick it out for another half hour, too cold now to even pretend to sleep. Luckily, part of the Ice Hotel package is a real hotel room. With heat. “That’s it guys,” I say. “We are heading to the hotel.” I get no arguments, and we gather our stuff and trudge out to the van.

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That is not a thick mattress!

I wonder where our next peeing adventure will be? We love to rock climb, and Rafael and I watch all these amazing climbers who go up a mountain partway and have to attach a tent to the side of the mountain to sleep. Maybe we should try that. I don’t even know how they pee, as they don’t seem to highlight that in their films. Spoilsports. I’m sure Rachel will love it!

 

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Frontier Towns

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Aguas Calientes

The evening streets are chaotic. Filled with people, there is not a car in sight. Music blasts out of the open doors and windows of bars. Incredibly aggressive restaurant hosts push menus at your face as you walk by. Everyone wears rugged, hiking and trekking clothes. Many are seriously not clean. This is Aguas Calientes, Peru, the gateway to Machu Picchu.

Inaccessible except by train, which isn’t all that reliable, or by foot via the Inca Trail, Aguas Calientes is a true frontier town. Myself, I’m a mall kind of girl. I live fifteen minutes from anything I could ever need. Convenience is the name of the game. For some reason, though, I love frontier towns. They’re just so different; vibrant, exciting, colorful and unique. The difficulty of getting to them is part of the adventure. Aguas Calientes, Peru; Ushuaia, Argentina; Talkeetna, Alaska; Myvatn, Iceland and other places like them, are some of my favorite stops in our travels.

Aguas Calientes stands out because of how remote it is, how hard it is to get to, and the kind of people who frequent it. The atmosphere is one of relief to have arrived and anticipation of what is to come. Machu Picchu sits high above the town, visible from the window of our little Inn. The imposing mountains are part of the town, closing it in, making it seem even smaller than it actually is. The trekkers who have just arrived from the Inca Trail seem to make their way directly to a bar to celebrate. We ride the train, as our daughter, Rachel, is a bit young for a three-day hike. The train may be easier, but it sure isn’t seamless! The tracks are covered in debris from a recent rock slide so they pack the train passengers into vans to drive beyond the slide. Only, there are no roads. We bump through fields, along streams and even on the tracks. It takes forever and is nausea-inducing. It feels like paradise when Rafael, Rachel and I finally board the train.

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Machu Picchu

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The thing about frontier towns is that they’re there for a reason. Something amazing is nearby. Machu Picchu is an experience of a lifetime. The beauty, the history and the way the sun hits the ruins, makes it almost otherworldly. In Ushuaia, you have the southernmost city in the world, “El Fin del Mundo,” an amazing National Park, and the last port before Antarctica. Talkeetna, a picturesque, fun town, is the staging area for those who are climbing Denali, and a great place to float down the river.  Myvatn has natural hot spas, set in a stark volcanic landscape, far from the crowds of the Blue Lagoon in the south. These towns attract people who are looking for something amazing. And they find it.

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Myvatn hot springs

When we travel, we try to experience as much of a place as we can; its food and drink, music and dance, wildlife and scenery. There are new experiences to be had everywhere, from big cities like Buenos Aires to small islands like Santa Cruz, Galapagos. For us, it’s all about finding out what is unique about a place and then experiencing it. Frontier towns are a great way to do this. They offer up a unique and interesting view of a people and place. Go the extra mile (or hundred) and see for yourselves!

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Myvatn

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Myvatn

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Ushuaia

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The southernmost post office in the world!

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penguins live outside Ushuaia

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overlooking town

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hiking in the National Park

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climbing the glacier above town

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Talkeetna. Ready to float.

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the view on the river

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult.

Courage Level: 2 Most of these towns are easy enough to get to if you’re willing to drive. Aguas Calientes is the only one you will need to have a bit of fortitude to reach. Anyone can do it, though!

Fitness Level: 2 Again, only Aguas Calientes will make you work a bit. The rest you just need to be willing to drive!

More info?

When we flew into Lima, Peru, we stayed overnight at the airport hotel and then flew out the next morning to Cusco. From there, we were picked up at the airport by a driver from El Albergue Inn, located in a Sacred Valley town called Ollantaytambo. We spent a couple nights there, acclimating to the altitude and enjoying this amazing Incan town. The Inn was just perfect – wonderful people, beautiful room and grounds and delicious food. We walked everywhere we wanted to go. Here is the link: http://www.elalbergue.com/en/

In Aguas Calientes we stayed at the Rupa Wasi Eco Lodge. We loved it there. It is set on a hill, away from the craziness of town, but close enough to walk to everything. It’s rustic, but everything there is! They have a high quality restaurant, with some tasty passion fruit offerings. http://rupawasi.net/ingles/index.html

In Iceland, you will find that once you leave Reykjavik, there are not a lot of choices in where to stay. As you get as far northeast as Myvatn, the options are down to one or two. We chose Skutustadir Farm. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the views are spectacular and breakfast is tasty. http://skutustadir.is/en/

Talkeetna, Alaska had more options for lodging. We stayed at the Denali Fireside Cabins, which was perfect for us. We had room to spread out and relax and the location was great. We even got takeout and ate in the cabin as it was so nice! http://www.denalifireside.com/

Ushuaia, Argentina also has a lot of options for lodging, many with a high price tag, as it is the jumping off point for travel to Antarctica. We chose something that was family friendly and affordable for the five nights we were there. The Tango Bed and Breakfast was great. The room was small, but ensuite. The breakfasts were good and, best of all, there was a tango night! The owner plays the accordion and teaches guests who stay for more than three nights how to tango. There is also plentiful wine! http://www.tangobyb.com.ar/index.php

 

There’s No Laughing in Sandboarding…a Peruvian Adventure

I peer through my goggles as I careen down the hill. The wind is whipping the hair back from my face. The sun is warm on my back. I hit a bump and my body rises off the snowboard so I clutch the nylon straps a little tighter. I land back down on my stomach with a thud, feeling my hip bones collide with the board. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat’s going to leave a mark. I don’t care. I laugh out loud as I seem to pick up even more speed. I reach the bottom of the huge hill and roll off the board. Lifting my goggles to my forehead, I struggle to my feet.  I look up to my husband Rafael and daughter Rachel who are standing at the top watching my ride, “It was amazing,” I yell “but keep your mouth shut while you come down!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am standing at the bottom of a huge sand dune in the middle of the desert of Ica, Peru, south of Lima. I never knew there was a desert here, but it’s real, with sand as far as the eye can see and even an oasis call Huacachina. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am now covered head to toe in a fine, white sand. I can feel it coating my teeth. Guess I shouldn’t have laughed on the way down!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is like extreme tobogganing, without getting cold! The modified snowboard uses hold-on straps. You can use your feet as brakes, but I didn’t bother. The faster the better! I’m the most daring in my family, and always go first, so I took the camera to the bottom to take pictures.

Prior to the thrilling sandboard ride, we raced around in a dune buggy up and down the hills at high speed. It was like a crazy roller coaster ride. You’re buckled in the seat, holding onto the grab bars. Wind and sand are flying through the air. Your stomach keeps dropping to your feet as you crest a hill only to plummet down to the valley and climb the next one. You can’t keep the smile off your face.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rachel says this is the most fun she has had in her life. At 10 years old, that’s pretty good. My husband and I are a few years older and we loved it too!

Can I do this adventure?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult.

Courage Level: 2-3 – If you can handle a roller coaster, you can handle the dune buggy ride. There are straps to secure you to the seat and handles to hold onto. The sandboarding may be a little more challenging because you are lying on your stomach looking down a very steep hill. However, you do have the ability to use your feet to slow you down. I just didn’t use them!

Fitness Level: 1 – You don’t need to be in any kind of shape to do this. Sitting in the dune buggy is easy physically, as is sliding down a hill. You don’t have to climb back up.

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We used the Olympus Stylus Tough camera, which is shock proof. That thing can take a real beating. It even survived the ride down the dune in my pocket and being covered by sand. I wouldn’t try this without a shock proof camera! Wear long pants and closed-toe shoes to protect your skin from the sand.

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We did the dune buggy and sandboarding as part of a tour of the area south of Lima, which included the Paracas Reserve and the Nazca Lines. It was a 3 day, 2 night tour. There is a lot to see in this area so getting a tour is the easiest way to fit it all in. They pick you up in Lima and take you to all kinds of sights, including a pisco vineyard, the Ballestas Islands and the cemetery of Chauchilla (the Nazca lines and cemetery were both in the newest Indiana Jones movie – the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, if you have never seen them.) We used http://www.mysteryperu.com/eng/co_paracas.html as our tour company and they were very good.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spiders, Sharks and a Revelation; an adventure in the Peruvian Amazon

The tarantulas are as big as my hand and creep along the trunk of the tree we are standing beside. Our guide Paul helpfully shines a flashlight on the creatures a couple of feet from my head. It’s our first night at Explorer’s Inn, a research station and guest lodge in the Peruvian Amazon. This is what I’d been dreading since I planned and booked this trip. I love adventure, exploring new places, learning about different cultures. I do not like spiders. At all. Even as a kid, I would make my younger sister come into my room to kill any spider who dared to take up residence. Being in the Amazon, surrounded by the creatures? I was not in my happy place.

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My husband Rafael, our 10-year-old daughter Rachel, and I had arrived in Puerto Maldonado that afternoon from Cuzco. We already hiked around Machu Picchu and attended the Inti Raymi festival so were riding the high of those experiences. We met our guide Paul and drove to Infierno (which means Hell – a not so auspicious start) and then took a motorized canoe for a three-hour trip up the Tambopata River. It was a beautiful ride; exotic and unique. Oropendula birds’ nests hang from trees. Caimans line the banks of the murky river. Turtles rest in the sun with butterflies sipping their tears. Beautiful birds fly overhead.

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The main lodge at Explorer’s Inn

When we arrive at Explorer’s Inn, it’s what I expect from my research, rustic but comfortable enough. There is no electricity in the cabins but there is running water. Yay, showers and toilets! Other lodges I looked at had one wall opened to the outside so that you could be one with nature. Yeah, that’s too much for me. I like screens if they can help keep the spiders out! We settle in, eat dinner at the main lodge and get ready for the night hike.

118_5874 We cover as much skin as possible; long pants, long sleeves, hats and rubber boots that go up to our knees. We also have mosquito netting for our hats. We’re dressed like this whenever we hike in the jungle, no matter how hot it gets. The creepy crawlies here mean business. There is an ant they call the bullet ant because if it bites you it feels like you’ve been shot. In the beginning of our hike my daughter and I are tense and trying to see every direction at once. We’re convinced a spider or something is going to drop down for a bite. Eventually, though, we relax and just start to enjoy how amazing and beautiful the jungle is at night. There are all kinds of chirping, fluttering, croaking and flapping sounds around us. At one point a howler monkey starts roaring and it’s scary. Chills run down my spine (supposedly they used howler monkey calls as the dinosaur sounds in the Jurassic Park movies to give you an idea how scary they are!)

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A Capybara family by the river bank.

The next day we go another few hours up river in the canoe and camp in a tent. We are right in the thick of the jungle. Our guide uses a machete to hack a trail for us to hike. The critters are everywhere, from the wild hogs who scare even our guide to the ants marching up the trees. Spiders, snakes and more insects than I can count surround us. Birds fly overhead and monkeys swing in the trees. Many spiders come out at night so, of course, Rachel, who never does this at home, needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. We unzip the tent, bang our boots to make sure nothing is in them and head to the “bathroom” (read that to be a hole in the ground with a sheet around it!) 118_5962On the way back is when I have my revelation. I realize I am actually enjoying myself. The world I am in at that moment is so foreign to me, so amazing and full of life. The sounds, the smells, even the air just feel so alive. I cannot help feeling the same way. This is exactly why we travel and bring Rachel. At that moment there is nowhere else on earth I would rather be. I realize that maybe I’m not as afraid of spiders as I thought. I let it go and open myself up to the wonder around me and it is incredibly liberating. It’s a great lesson for me and Rachel. We are never too old to challenge ourselves and overcome what scares us most. That means I have only one more fear left to conquer. It is something that has been holding Rafael back from doing what he wants to do!118_5976

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Watch out for the Piranha!

I’m from the Jaws generation. I remember seeing that movie and being afraid to swim over the deep end of the pool in swim team practice. Never mind the ocean! My husband has been after me for years to get our scuba diving certification, but I was too afraid to go in the deep ocean. After we return home from Peru, we sign up and get certified. Now, sharks are one of my favorite dive sightings. From Bora Bora to Galapagos, we have been thrilled to watch them glide effortlessly through the water. When I was riding in that canoe in the Peruvian Amazon, I never would have believed it would lead me to the incredible world of scuba diving. Life is such an interesting journey.

Can I do this trip?

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most challenging:

Courage Level: 3 – As we saw, there really wasn’t anything to be afraid of, except for the unknown. However, you need the courage to get there and figure that out!

Fitness Level: 2-3 – You don’t need to be truly athletic to do this trip, but you do need to be able to hike for fairly long periods in high heat. We left for our hikes very early in the morning to beat the worst of the heat, and would walk for 4-5 hours. Luckily, there were not a lot of elevation changes. Afternoons would include rest times.118_5849

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Do I need special gear?

You want light clothes in the jungle, but you need to be covered. I wore a long sleeve shirt from Exofficio that had SPF in it with a bikini top under it – mostly because I could wash the bathing suit out at night and it would dry by morning or at least not feel awful damp. My husband wore a long sleeve shirt with wicking fabric. For pants we used thin, long pants that had bug repellent built in. Use the same clothes every day for hiking. Bring something else to change into when you are done and showered – shorts and workout tops worked for us. They give you high boots to use, but bring sandals for hanging around or to walk to dinner on the boardwalk. You don’t need any nice clothes here.

We always bring our cheap $5 Wal-Mart rain ponchos – we can fit 3 in one day pack easily with all our other stuff.118_5810

We use the Olympus Stylus Tough Camera. This is not the camera for photographers, but it is great for adventurers. It takes great pictures and causes you no worries. You can drop it, get it wet and bang it into trees and rocks. Nothing we have done to it has hurt it yet. It’s perfect for memory photos. Make sure you have enough memory cards because you won’t have your laptop here to upload pictures. They do have a generator for you to charge your camera.

Bring a hat and mosquito net for your head.

Get a small headlamp that will light your way at night. There is no electricity in the cabins. Bring a book for relaxing and a journal for recording your experiences.

A small pocket notebook is helpful on your hikes because your guide is full of information about plants. The Amazon has so many medicinal plants and he will be naming them left and right. You will never remember them all if you don’t write them down!

You will need sunscreen and insect repellent with Deet.

Bring a sense of adventure because you are going to love it!!

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Here is a link to a blog that has a photo and recording of the call of the Oropendula, a beautiful bird and an amazing nest builder!

http://oropendolaproductions.com/listen/

Here is a link so you can see some of the spiders in the Peruvian Amazon. Luckily, none of these were crawling on us (that we know of!) http://thinkjungle.com/amazon-rainforest-life/amazon-rainforest-spiders/

We stayed at the Explorer’s Inn, where we did a 5 day/ 4 night package. One night was three hours farther down river in a tent near a clay lick that macaws visit in the morning. We highly recommend this as we saw a lot of animals while so far out in the jungle. It was just my husband, daughter and I, and our guide, the cook and porters.  http://www.explorersinn.com/#

I mention Inti Raymi in my article. Inti Raymi is the Incan festival to the Sun God that is held in Cusco on June 24, the Summer Solstice. It is a huge event and well worth attending in Cusco, which was the Capital of the Incan Empire. The party goes on for days, culminating on the 24th with a ceremony at Saqsayhuaman, a Sun Temple about 2 km walk from the Old Town. Here is a link to learn about it:

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Inti Raymi

http://www.amautaspanish.com/destinations/learn-spanish-in-peru/peru-overview/festivals/inti-raymi-149.html

In Cusco, where we were prior to our trip into the jungle, we stayed at Second Home B&B, which we highly recommend. It is in the old section of the city, in walking distance to everything.  The prices were extremely reasonable, the rooms were very comfortable, they had WIFI, and breakfast was included. You can read about them on TripAdvisor.  http://www.secondhomecusco.com/en/bed-breakfast-cusco

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Second Home B&B

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