Here’s Paul and I flying high on the ziplines at the Adventure Park from the rim of the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua state. Comprising seven adjacent canyons, this area is estimated to be many times larger and at least twice as deep than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
It’s a majestic and scenic area rich in greenery which resembles oxidized copper, hence its name. The indigenous Tarahumara inhabit the cliffs and valleys and continue to practice a traditional nomadic lifestyle. They are still a visible feature of the entire region. Refreshingly little visited by tourists, Mexico’s Copper Canyon is a traveler’s delight with endless opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and exploring picturesque pueblos mágicos.
And if the Adventure Park’s seven ziplines, two rocky suspension bridges, and a 2-mile long gondola ride back to the rim aren’t enough to get your adrenaline rushing, in a couple of weeks the park will inaugurate the longest zipline in the world: a thrilling 8,350 foot (1.5 mile) drop from the canyon rim. We’ll surely be back for that.
Timing is everything and my arrival in Salvador da Bahia coincides with a growing Perfect Storm:
the lead-up to the São João festival that will spill into the cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho neighborhood with wild drumming, dance and drunkenness
the kickoff of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil with matches watched on big screens and celebrated in crowds throughout the city
the headline-grabbing street protests clamoring against government corruption, poor services and the high cost of living here
These brewing forces will surge in coming days, auguring a street festa of Big Brazilian proportions. Here’s a snippet of the preparations for the São João festival I witnessed in the streets the day after my arrival. If this is just a warm up, the real deal this weekend promises to sizzle!
The Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose) train ride in Alausí, Ecuador is unlike most others.
Part of the crucial railway running from coastal Guayaquil to capital city Quito high in the Andes, this hair-raising stretch near Alausí zig-zags up an incredibly steep stretch of mountain – so sheer that a series of rocking switchbacks guide the train up nearly 600 meters (2000 feet) in just a few miles of track.
An engineering marvel when it was completed over 100 years ago, the Nariz del Diablo track still makes for one dizzying ride today. And thanks to the rebuilding efforts of current Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, the entire railway line from the Pacific coast to the Andean highlands is set to reopen in a couple of months after decades of interrupted service.
What fun we had in Baños! I was somehow expecting this given that pretty much everyone we met had told us so. “It’s touristy,” they all warned us, “but you’ll barely notice it once you start doing stuff.”
Normally when my expectations are high about a place I tend to be underwhelmed when I get there. But in the case of Baños, I can honestly say it was more pleasing than I anticipated.
Baños is touristy. So much so that there are literally hundreds of hotels and restaurants in the relatively small town of 10,000 residents. But this also means that competition among businesses is intense so the quality is high and the prices very favorable to the tourist.
Our hotel, for example, Hostel La Chimenea was a delight: sparkling clean and spacious rooms with private bathrooms and balconies, a pool and sauna, wireless internet, a rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls, a great breakfast restaurant, and friendly laid-back management. All this for a mere $8.50 a person!
The real charm of Baños is not the town but the surrounding area. There are miles of excellent hiking trails with views of the active Tungurahua volcano which towers above the valley at 5,023 m (16,480 ft). There is mountain biking past scores of waterfalls, mostly down hill with frequent buses to whisk you (and your wheels) back effortlessly to Baños. You can whitewater raft, bungee jump, zipline, rappel down waterfalls and rent ATV’s. And since the mountains descend rapidly to the eastern Amazon, you can even tour tropical indigenous areas and spot jungle wildlife.
After all this adventuring, you can relax in the numerous hot mineral springs in Baños (known officially as Baños de Agua Santa or “The Baths of Sacred Water”). Our favorite were the baths just two blocks from our hotel which sit beneath a striking 100 m waterfall. We went every day, sometimes during the mornings when we encountered quiet older Ecuadorians, and a couple times during the evening when it is packed with locals and travelers – the happening social scene in town.
Clearly there is much to love about Baños. Here are some of the many things we enjoyed during our visit:
We rushed to escape the clouds and cold of Cuenca, traveling about six hours south to the small town of Vilcabamba. Nestled in the green hills near the Peruvian border, Vilcabamba has attracted a fair number of expatriates who appreciate the laid-back feel, the mild climate, the relative isolation and its attractive natural setting.
Paul and I immediately took to the town. We settled into our cozy hostal just a block off the main square, replete with a hammock on the balcony and lush gardens inside the expansive walled patio. We chatted with the caretakers, an English-Romanian couple who own a well-regarded restaurant in Cuenca and agreed to run the hotel in Vilcabamba while their friend/hotelier takes a much-needed sabbatical.
Vilcabamba has a great feel. It attracts a trickle of backpackers and the expat residents are mostly alternative/hippy types who seem to integrate well with the locals. We met young and old, and many families live here. It’s not uncommon to see bilingual European or North American kids playing in the main square with their Ecuadorian friends.
Here’s a short video of Paul and my New Year’s revelry in Cuenca, Ecuador. Locals here celebrate with a unique tradition in which they burn life-sized dolls representing the old year in order to start the new year with a clean slate. These effigies are simply old clothes filled with sawdust, cardboard and newspaper and at midnight they drag them out to the streets, douse them with gasoline and the blazes begin.
Lots of neighborhood groups work together to build elaborate themed displays of these Old Men. We saw acerbic political commentary, clever takes on global warming, and other displays that were just plain absurd.
And since this is Latin America there were plenty of costumes, loud music, fireworks, dancing in the streets, food and good fun kept everyone entertained throughout the whole evening. An unusual but amusing way to ring in the New Year!
I was in great need of a long weekend in Toro Toro which awaited me at the end of a curvaceous and bumpy six-hour ride from Cochabamba. The town, with its laid-back vibe, is the base for an adjacent national park that promised me a rewarding getaway with spectacular sights. It was my first escape from large Bolivian cities in two months and I was ready for a mini-holiday from my consuming Kiva duties.
There’s not much to Toro Toro town and that’s what makes it such a delight. It’s a traditional quechua-speaking village that hasn’t changed much from its Republican days except for a mild increase in tourism once 60-million-year-old dinosaur footprints were found in the area. And given that it sits in a place of striking natural beauty, it’s a small wonder people started coming here.
There are a handful of basic hostales spread about town that serve meals since there aren’t any restaurants. I was incredibly happy to stay with the warmest and welcoming hostess Lily at Hostal Las Hermanas, a lush paradise of blooming roses, bougainvillea, lime and pomegranate trees, hanging coyate squash (which is cooked and sweetened for tasty desserts), a host of potted flowers and a menagerie of kittens and parrots roaming the grounds.
La Feria de la Alasita is a craft fair in Bolivia where miniature ritualistic items are sold to enthusiastic locals. Objects include tiny baby dolls, wads of small bills, petite bottles filled with healthy concoctions, cars, houses, even diminutive diplomas. With the help of the Tiwanakan deity Ekeko, god of abundance and prosperity, the Aymaran people of the Andean altiplano believe that possessing (or gifting) these figurines will become reality for holders.
While the crafts on display were fascinating, I especially enjoyed watching the whirlwind commotion at the fair.
One of the great joys of living in Cochabamba is the ease of access to its surrounding mountains which abound with great hiking trails. The lofty peaks of the olive-colored Tunari Range of the eastward-reaching Andes awakened my inner rambler and I headed to the hills on many weekends. Here are some highlights:
My first weekend in Cochabamba I rose early, grabbed some bananas and chocolate and my filled water bottle, and hoofed it from my apartment to the gate of the Parque Tunari. This is the closest and most accessible areas for hiking and soon I was rising high above Cochabamba. The city’s iconic Cristo de la Concordia with his monumental outstretched hands quickly faded to a mere spec far below. I was surrounded by the smell of eucalyptus and the spectacle of spring bloom.
I encountered very few people on the trail, just a couple families out for a picnic and one dedicated student, his nose diligently in his textbook at a particularly inspired lookout above Cochabamba. Eventually I reached an abandoned campground I and goofed around in the children’s playground:
I kept ascending and finally stopped high above the Cochabamba valley at around 3700 m (over 12,100 feet). I took in the beautiful vista s of the valley below and the towering Mount Tunari (the highest peak in the region at over 5000 m) covered in clouds to the west.
It was a satisfying hike from house to hilltop, I’ve never had this luxury before. All my previous hikes required some sort of transport from my home… this was fueled by just my own two feet.
Here’s a visual of my awesome paragliding adventure with the great guys at AndesXtremo.com in Bolivia. It was a thrilling tandem ride from over 10,000 feet above sea level in the Tunari Range of the eastern Andes and landing in the Cochabamba valley below.
I can’t recommend this highly enough, I will definitely do this again!