4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Canyons”

Up and Down in Zhangjiajie (by Carmen)

Snow frosted limestone tower

Snow frosted limestone tower

As we embarked on the China portion of our trip, there were a handful of places and experiences that were absolute musts: hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, watching sunset on flooded rice terraces, eating lots of Sichuan food, and seeing Zhangjiajie (also called Wulingyuan). You may not have heard of it but you’ve probably seen pictures. The ethereal landscape of towering limestone pillars mysteriously shrouded by mist has become a well photographed corner of China. We boarded a bus from Changsha in order to see them for ourselves.

Mossy stream bed

Mossy stream bed

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

Monkey considering whether or not to attack

After buying the entry ticket and making it through the aggressive vendors at the front gate, we entered a place of quiet and calm. Even the one monkey we saw was pretty chill. I was happy about this since I had read that they like to attack people for food. We walked along a paved path following a mossy stream bed called the Golden Whip. In fact, our entire walk over the next few days would be on paved paths since the Chinese generally don’t care for the whole dirt trail thing in their parks.

Misty cliff view

Misty cliff view

Thin pillar tower

Thin pillar tower

And then we went up. Endless staircases climbed from the stream bed to the cliff edge over 1000 ft (300 m) above. It was so high, we passed the snow line and in the shadows snow crystals would crunch beneath our feet. Breathlessly we made it to the top and took in the stunning view of the canyon.

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

See the tiny people at the viewpoint?

The viewing platforms the park had built were right on the edge! We lingered to enjoy the views and watched as tour bus groups would rush in, take a zillion photos of themselves, then run to the next platform.

Avatar mountain banshee

Avatar mountain banshee

Hallelujah Mountain

Hallelujah Mountain

Soon enough it was time to find some mountain banshees and fly around the park for a closer look at the towers. Park officials insist that Zhangjiajie was the inspiration for Avatar, though James Cameron doesn’t whole heartedly support this assumption. I could definitely see the similarities. To solidify the connection there was an official ceremony to rename one of the towers Hallelujah Mountain, the name of the fictional floating rocks in the movie. And of course they installed the banshee photo op. Classic.

Number 1 Natural bridge

Number 1 Natural bridge

Locks of love

Locks of love

Thin tower with bridge in background

Thin tower with bridge in background

Shortly after our banshee ride we came upon the “Number 1 Natural Bridge.” China likes to name lots of things “Number 1,” but I might actually agree with them on this. It was spectacular. Walking on it was exhilarating. I suppose since it is such a special spot, people have started placing locks on the fences to symbolize love, friendship or even wishes.

Bench with awesome view

Bench with awesome view

Sunlit tree

Sunlit tree

We walked along the cliff edge path for about an hour enjoying the view. As the sun began to set we made our way to our lodging for the night. Our hostel was a simple one within the park bounds. Since there was nowhere to go at night everyone ate and played in the main common room. We bundled up to survive the freezing indoor temperatures (no heat of course) and played cards while gobbling up some fried rice.

Escher-esque stairs

Escher-esque stairs

Nathan the map reader

Nathan the map reader

Our plan for the next day was to hike to a nearby village in the morning and then head to some eastern viewpoints in the afternoon. The only problem was our map. Even the best map you can buy is mediocre with no real scale or indication of topography. We ended up going all the way back down to the stream bed, then back up almost to the cliff’s edge, then back down, then back up, then…well you get the picture. So. Many. Stairs. It was exhausting and it ended up taking the better part of the day.

Fog rolling in

Fog rolling in

Dramatic cliffs

Dramatic cliffs

For all of our efforts, we didn’t get to see as much as we would have liked as the fog started hemming us in. We finally made it to the main park road and I hopped a park shuttle to the hostel. Nathan pushed on to the eastern views.

Looking down on thin towers

Looking down on thin towers

The Two Towers

The Two Towers

Fortunately, the fog situation was a little better to the east and Nathan got some great shots. It started getting dark and I was relieved when he walked through the hostel door. Turned out he caught the last shuttle bus back!

Me in the fog

Me in the fog

Us with a limestone arch

Us with a limestone arch

Our third and final day in the park we were completely fogged out. Literally we could not see more than 100 feet in front of us and all the viewpoints were simply walls of white. What made it even more sad was that two days later perfect sunny days were expected. Sigh. We climbed down the cliff stairs one final time vowing to return one day to see what we missed.

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Market street in Zhangjiajie City

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Noodles from the classically dingy restaurant

Our stay in the park was sandwiched between two days in Zhangjiajie City, 40 minutes southwest of the park. We weren’t expecting much from the city as we were only there for the nature but we really enjoyed our stay. A block up from the cleaned up shopping main street was a narrow market street that was just our style. Inside a dingy cafe, we ate some yummy noodles in a slightly tangy broth while rubbing elbows with locals at the one communal table.

Sizzling beef

Sizzling beef

Another fun eatery sat in the middle of a lane just east of the main square. Our hostel pointed us to it on their homemade map and recommended some dishes. A warm plate of beef kept hot with a table burner and a large plate of stir fried greens were placed before us and we did our best to eat it all. Its deliciousness ensured we were extra full that night.

View from our room's balcony

View from our room’s balcony

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

Complex the Bajie hostel is located in

With full stomachs we slept well at our hostel, the Bajie. It was one of our most comfortable stays in China. I wish we could have stayed more nights there but it’s a little tricky to find. Upon arriving to the city, after walking up and down the street five times in the rain at night we eventually gave up and stayed somewhere else. Those are the not so fun parts of traveling that simply come with the territory.

Finally, we said goodbye to Zhangjiajie. We liked the town and the park and want to return someday. And next time, we will be able to find our hostel!

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Trekking Tiger Leaping Gorge (by Nathan)

Mother nature's craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

Mother nature’s craftsmanship: Tiger Leaping Gorge

What is it about canyons that can so intimately engage human kind? Observing the intricacies of the water-weathered terrain is like reviewing the life’s work of a master craftsmen. Each fluctuation in the landscape is a hard-earned blow of hammer and chisel, each contour sanded smooth and the landscape fiddled with over millions of years of geologic time. Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the inspiring and beautiful masterpieces in this world. Enormous mountains jut vertically into the sky and the rather calm Yangtze River is transformed into a violent earth-carving tool. There is no better way to observe this type of landscape than walking; hiking the cliff’s edge is the best way to experience earth’s craftsmanship.

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cliff edge of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Finally we hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge! I have wanted to hike this stretch of canyon for four years now. We originally learned about it in a favorite travel book of ours called Lost On Planet China by J. Maarten Troost. After our first trip to China, we knew that we needed to spend some more time exploring this country. We needed more time to eat its delicious food and see the depths of natural and historic sights that there were on offer. Yunnan and Tiger Leaping Gorge remained a central element of our travel planning for this entire year abroad.

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Hiking trail signage at beginning of trail

Turn right at " This Small House"

Turn right at ” This Small House”

We started the hike in Qiaotou after taking a early morning bus from Lijiang. We stopped at the one guesthouse in town, Jane’s, to drop off our excess luggage and we began the hike up the hillside. I had expected few or no signage, so it was nice to see the frequent yellow and blue arrows leading us from Jane’s to the trail. The one tricky spot came at about 2-3 km into the walk-at “this small house.”‘ Turn off the paved road and walk through the courtyard onto the marked dirt path.

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The enormous entrance into Tiger Leaping Gorge

The rocky foot trail

The rocky foot trail

We were immediately struck with an enormous depth and magnificence of the canyon. The steepness of the cliffs appeared near vertical and the sparsely snowcapped mountains were so high, but so close. The footpath was well worn, a couple feet wide, but very rocky and unmaintained.

Wall of corn

Wall of corn

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

The tiny village with Naxi Guesthouse

We walked for another twenty minutes to Naxi Guesthouse for some lunch. The women were very nice and fixed us some simple and slightly bland Chinese food. We admired the wall of corn that dried in the sun and then we began our steep ascent up the mountainside. Late January has to be the perfect time to hike this trek. We had sunny weather around 15-20C (60-70F) and we saw almost no tourists. Off-season tourism in China is proving to be the way to travel.

Tree clinging onto the cliff

Tree clinging onto the cliff

We reached the bottom of the infamous “28 bends” after already counting to ten. We had been climbing for seven kilometers but we determined that the real climb starts at a small building that sells drinks during high season. Carmen and I pushed on up through the switchbacks and we slowly but steadily climbed up the cliffside. For anyone who decides to count the bends, I recommend only counting full switchbacks that take at least five to ten minutes to cross. I was pleasantly surprised to reach the top with only counting 25. Both of us had actually expected a much more difficult and challenging ascent.

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Self-portrait at top of 28 bends

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

Steep vertical cliffs carved by the Yangtze River

In total from Qiaotou the climb to this point was maybe 800m. The lookout point at top only met the elevation of slightly below the middle of the mountain across the canyon. We could not help but compare the climb and canyon with some of treks earlier this year. Colca Canyon in Peru is the worlds deepest canyon, but the mountains are very rounded so although the hiking was much more challenging, the landscape was not as drastic as the Chinese gorge in front of us. The Grand Canyon is unmatched for its beauty and hiking, in my opinion.  Tiger Leaping Gorge has steep vertical mountains but the red Navajo sandstone and ease of do-it-yourself hiking in America is very rewarding.

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Carmen hugging the pine needle mound

Every couple hours we would encounter a tiny village or a series of small plots of farmland. Carmen in particular enjoyed this tower of pine needles that looked so soft that she could hug it. Of course this type of thing always turns out more prickly than she could have expected.

Pipeline eyesore

Pipeline eyesore

They are building like crazy in China…everywhere. As we walked through each town we started noticing that every building had a brand new solar water heater on the roof, then we realized that some towns had ten to twenty buildings that were less than a year old. Even here on the steep cliffs of the Yangtze River, the Chinese are flocking to inhabit and make a living for themselves. Unfortunately this development does not care about the aesthetics of the landscape. This water pipeline was just one of many that snaked through the landscape. The placement of electric lines on the trail is also very discouraging as some awesome photo spots are plagued with droopy wires and decrepit leaning and fallen electric poles. Nevertheless, the scenery is beautiful and we just walked passed it in search of another awesome lookout and there were many places to enjoy the view.

View from the toilet

View from the toilet

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Our serene mountain getaway- Half Way Guesthouse

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Stark peak of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at 5600m high

Most specifically, the bathroom at our Half Way Guesthouse had one of the best views. Turning our heads just slightly mid-squat and we were faced with 4000m of glorious mountain across the river. Unfortunately we did not want to get too distracted and become unbalanced. Losing aim has bad consequences when hovering over a trough. There was an even better view from the dining hall and roof that looked unobstructed into the gorgeous gorge.

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Carmen hiking at sunrise

Waterfall crossing along trail

Waterfall crossing along trail

We were comfortable exhausted after over 16km (10mi) of hiking. We grabbed an early dinner and drifted into deep rejuvenating sleep. We woke before sunrise to get a jump on the hike ahead of us. As the dawn light broke through the canyon we traversed the rocky path. There were a few waterfalls but they were not too challenging or wet for us to cross. After about 8km (5mi) we found ourselves in the tiny tourist town of Walnut Garden.

The gorge from sunshine trail

The gorge from sunshine trail

We passed the cool hours of the morning with some breakfast and tea. The sun was slowly finding its way into the canyon and it was not until about 10:30am that we felt there was enough sun to not freeze our butts off walking down into the depths of the gorge. We started from Sean’s Guesthouse and followed the “sunshine trail” deep into the canyon. After about forty-five minutes of walking a young girl offers to sell us some drinks and candy. We politely turned her down, then she insists on us paying a fee to use e trail that we just walked. We had expected this but it is still frustrating to pay a park entrance fee then again pay some tart that stands in middle of the trail. We haggle a bit and settle on 10¥ for Carmen and I to use the trail in only one-direction.

Be careful not to cross this

Be careful not to cross this

We walk around the corner and were stopped abruptly by a mean-looking bulldog-faced girl. Now, she has the same sign as the other girl, but she is charging for the “ladder trail photo spot.” We were planning on using this trail, but charging to take a photo is ridiculous. We knew that there was a toll booth at the top of the ladder trail that we suspected would also try to charge us. So I decided to step passed her. She jumps in front and growls and screams and starts pumping her tiny balled fist into her pudgy left hand. I found this display of violence comical and disgraceful. I paid a hefty tourist ticket to get in the park but it is not acceptable to bully tourists for more cash.

Then I noticed a brief moment when she was distracted, the wind fluttered, her phone beeped and in three steps I was passed her. I unleashed the dragon from the cage. She screamed, squealed and barked everything she could at me. The intensity of her anger sprayed heavily on my face with thick insults. Standing on her tippy toes she gripped my jacket as if she planned on throwing me to the other side of the mountain. I stayed calm, happy that I maintained composure in China. I look at Carmen and I see one of those faces that immediately humbles me and sets me on track. I see a face that says, “What are you doing? Now I am fucking trapped over here while you and that crazy bitch are arguing over $3.25!” I convince Broozie Lee to stop pumping her fists and we pay the full toll (or maybe I got across from free and Carmen paid double). Looking back at it, this incident reflects the challenges of a miscommunication. If I knew I would not get charged at the top for the same trail, or if I knew that they actually maintained the trail (which turned out to be clean, safe and well-maintained) then maybe this would have been smoother.

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Tourist rock on the Yangtze River near Tiger Leaping Rock

Another five minutes and we were on the main tourist viewing spot, Tiger Leaping Rock. The legend has it that a magnificent tiger fled human hunters by traversing the steep mountains. The hunters encroached on the tiger and cornered up him against the Yangtze River. The tight canyon confined the river into a raging pulsing body of rapids and waterfalls. The panic-stricken tiger paced on the last remaining landform expecting his inevitable death. As the hunters encroached down the hillside the tiger leapt in desperation. The river raged below, but gloriously, the tiger flew over the tumultuous water and landed gracefully on the river bank. The distance was too great for the hunters. The tiger swiftly climbed and disappeared into the mountains. The people and the place were forever changed with the memory of the tiger and the remaining Tiger Leaping Rock.

Yangtze Rapids

Yangtze Rapids

We sat on one of the rocks and admired the river as the water violently slammed against the rocks causing one of the most abusive rapids I could ever imagine. We were forced to yell across the thundering sound. There are a handful of places to visit at the water, but many of them require bribing this one family for each photo. I think the best spot is the free on e at the end of the trail. The mountains ascend almost vertically from the water’s edge and the Yangtze snakes in the the distance.

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

Ladder trail up from Tiger Leaping Rock

We climbed out of the canyon to discover that the ladder trail had significantly more elevation gain and was more challenging (exposed in the sun) than the 28 bends. There actually is a sixty foot ladder (optional for those that trust Chinese safety standards). We huffed and puffed our way to the top excited to have completed a wonderful Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The scenery throughout our two days was magical.  It is impressive how  for just a short distance these mountains confine the river to create a drastic and impressive landscape. It is possible to look in both directions to see the mountains and canyon disappear, the Yangtze flattens and resumes a gentle flow across the landscape. Back at the cliff’s edge, the river no longer takes on the characteristics of thrashing through the canyon. The whitewater softly meanders through Tiger Leaping Gorge slowly carving and chiseling it more elegantly than ever before.

Lake Powell and Layover Las Vegas (by Nathan)

Stepping away from the Grand Canyon was a difficult task for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the Grand Canyon.  We enjoyed brutal heat and shaded strolls; we camped in the valley and on the cliff’s edge; and in total we covered over fifty miles of beautiful canyon lands.  We packed up our tent and sleeping bags, we gazed one final time out from Cape Final Point and we walked away from the Grand Canyon.  Of course there will be a next time, but our tour of the Southwest went in search of another thing- water.

Green sage and coral sands of Page Arizona

We drove north and descended four thousand feet into the desert.  We cruised through the canyons and sand fields admiring all the beauty around us.  The pastel green sage brush flourishes on the coral colored sand that stretches forever into the desert.

Horseshoe Bend

Then we met up with a seemingly impossible and striking section of the Colorado River called Horseshoe Bend.  The meandering of the river has slowly carved out these drastic curves into the rock.  Eventually the two ends of the horseshoe will meet and only a column of rock will remain.  This section just above the Grand Canyon is the last remaining visible portion of Glen Canyon.

Red rocks of Upper Antelope Canyon

Glen canyon has all sorts of controversy around it.  The upstream section of the Colorado River carved out numerous fingers into the bright red Navajo sandstone.  The beauty and richness of the colors was supposedly unmatched by even the Grand Canyon.  John Powell fought to conserve the canyons, but a dam was built, the lake filled and it was named after the man that tried to prevent it.  The beauty of the canyons was transformed into a vast, but narrow lake of crystal blue waters.  The lake intertwines in and out of ancient canyons leaving just a hint of the red and white rock exposed on the surface.  The lake is beautiful in its own way, but different from the natural canyons that remain beneath the surface.

Sunset camping on Lake Powell

When we finally arrived into Page, Arizona the only thing on my mind was to find a way to go swimming.  The temperatures teased around one hundred degrees and the locals kept telling us that it does not get really hot until September. Nevertheless we found a spot for our tent that doubled as a place to swim.  We could sit with our feet in the water next to our campfire and only a few short steps away from tent. 

Rainbow of canyon colors

A trip to Arizona and Utah would never be complete without a slot canyon.  Slot canyons are narrow sections of rock where the water has carved out a passageway three to five feet wide.  One of the most beautiful is the Antelope Canyon.  The area is controlled by the Navajo Nation, and the tourists have arrived in hoards.  The immense beauty is worth the shoulder to shoulder grappling for the perfect picture.

Illuminating light rays

Light and shadow of Antelope Canyon

The Upper Antelope Canyon is roughly 100ft deep and entirely navajo sandstone.  The light of the sun reflects of the red rock creating a rainbow of textures and colors.  The formations communicate an ever-present flow of time and erosion.   The most spectacular phenomenon occurs when the sun aligns perfectly into the depth of the canyon.  A little dust in the air creates a magical light beam that illuminates and intensifies the beauty.   There was only enough time for a few quick photos before we were rushed out of the canyon into the sun.

Four boots and Lake Powell

Carmen in route to a swimming hole

There was another great location to swim in Lake Powell just to the northeast of the dam.  A short walk along the striped rock, boots removed and we were diving and jumping into the cool waters.

Glorious grilled cheeses

In ten days we had camped on cliffs, under trees and in the desert heat.  Our legs were tired and our clothes dirty, but that was no reason to stop us from having a little fun.  A key tradition of any road trip is a visit to In-N-Out.  A read of Fast Food Nation and a taste of their legendary sandwich and anyone would agree that it is the perfect conclusion to a rigorous vacation.  Carmen and I do not even order the burger; the grilled cheese with extra veggies is amazing.

Las Vegas Strip

The fun continued with a layover in Las Vegas.  When given the choice of driving eleven hours straight to southern California or spending a night in Vegas, the decision was easy.  We plopped our dusty packs into the air-conditioned room and we were on the streets taking in all the craziness.  Stepping into casinos and the commotion of so many tourists was a shocker after spending so many hours isolated in the wilderness, but there were so many ways to be entertained!

Feaux Eiffel Tower

Inside the Venetian

We decided to see a Cirque du Soleil show and we found ourselves at the box office ten minutes before show start.  Lesson learned, smile and always ask for a discount!  The kind woman worked with us, found us great seats and we saved $50 each.  In seconds we were running up the stairs and watching the wonderfully done LOVE acrobatic show.

Stripes and weathered sandstone of Lake Powell

Our thrilling trip to the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell and Las Vegas came and went in a rush of excitement.  I was constantly stunned by the detail and intricacy of every rock formation and I am amazed that Carmen and I were able to explore so much of it in so little time.  These areas are a unique portion of the world with a beauty that is rich, vibrant and essential to any world traveler.

The Cooler Side of Grand Canyon on the North Rim (by Carmen)

The open road

Rim to rim, the Grand Cayon is eight to ten miles wide as the crow flies.  But as our car drives, it is a 200 mile route that takes 4.5 hours.  That’s because you have to drive to the very beginning of the canyon, where it becomes narrow enough to create a simple bridge over it.

Striped hillside along the route to the North Rim

But it is a beautiful drive.  We were making our way at sunset which gave the landscape a golden glow.  I couldn’t help but think that this what American road trips are all about.

View of the mighty Colorado River from the bridge

We eventually crossed the bridge and headed just a few miles north of it, to Lee’s Ferry.  This is a historical site that marks the first ferry crossing in the area.  It was created in 1871 by a mormon family to help other mormons settle what is now Arizona.  These days it is the launching point for the thousands of adventurous souls that raft down the canyon each summer.  We took advantage of a small campground there to take refuge for the night.

Historical fruit orchard

The next morning we explored the area where there are still some cabins built by the original settlers.  They even have a small graveyard for all those that perished in the settlement or while crossing.  Another one of their legacies is a beautiful fruit orchard that stands out like an oasis in the red desert.

Nathan with a rock formation

There are also these funky rock formations that are the result of a rock slide thousands of years ago.  As the softer ground erodes away around the boulder, it forms a sort of tree shape.  It was a reminder that this area of the southwest is truely a geologist’s dream.

View from the North

As we made our way to the north rim, the landscape changed dramatically.  Tall pines and aspens took over the red dusty earth.  There were grassy meadows and small ponds.  The North Rim is actually closed October to May due to snow.  It was amazing what 1500 feet in elevation could do.  This limited access also meant that fewer people visited the North Rim, which made for a calmer, more tranquil visit.  If I could only visit one side, I’d opt for the north.

Aspens above our camp in the Kaibab National Forest

The aspens were particularly pretty.  They were particularly prevalent because of a massive fire that swept through the area 20 years ago.  The aspens are the first to recover and provide shade so that the baby pines can grow.  Eventually the pines will become taller than the aspens, which will die out from too much shade.

Picnic table at Tiyo Point

View from Tiyo Point

After our arduous hikes on the south side of the Grand Canyon, I was ready to take it easy.  But, of course, Nathan had other ideas.  He was already ready for more hikes and backpacking.  So we compromised with an overnight backpack trip that was 12 miles out and back to Tiyo Point.  The hike did not dip into the canyon and instead remained on the rim.  Therefore, it differed from inner canyon hike in three glorious ways: it was flat, shady and cool.

Clouds over Cape Final

Tent on the edge

On our last night in the canyon, we made our way to Cape Final.  This was a special campsite, only 4 miles out and back.  It’s a popular day hike but for an even better experience it has just one little campsite sitting on the rim.

Nathan cooking up some din-din

We cooked our dinner (indian curried veggies with couscous) right on the point.  Meanwhile, we struck up a conversation with a day hiker who told us his inspiring stories of hiking in Nepal.  Someday…

Me doing a morning stretch with my oatmeal

Our last morning we woke up with the sun and watched it rise over the canyon with no one else around.  Spending a full week in the canyon was a wonderful opportunity, but it was time to move on north for more adventures.

Nathan couldn’t get enough of the Grand Canyon

Getting Down Deep In Grand Canyon’s South Rim (by Nathan)

Hiking shadows on South Kaibab Trail

The best way to describe the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in summer is HOT. The heat that collects in the valley billows over the rim in waves of hot air. The dryness creates a landscape that is seemingly bleak and lifeless. But then I when we peer down into the deep abyss, into the alternating colors of red, orange and white, we see the Colorado River. In total this artery to the region channels water for 1,500 miles acting as the lifeblood of a complex ecosystem. Thick pine forests meet the rims edge, and desert cacti cling to the valley sands. The waters were once colored red with silt, but are now blue and cold from dams upstream.

Grand Canyon from Monument Creek vista

We arrived just after dusk and pulled into a car camping spot just outside of the park. We woke at sunrise to go and see our first views of the canyon. We were immediately awestruck by the beauty of the canyon. The colors are bright and omnipresent; slowly the light brightens, our faces become visible and the glow fills the valley. We picked up our first set of permits at the back-country office and we were ready to begin our hike the following morning.

Carmen hiking on the South Kaibab Trail

Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail

We had the afternoon free so we grabbed our water bottles and made our way to the South Kaibab trail. We traversed down the steep switchbacks and made our way deep into the canyon. This trail is exciting with steep cliffs on both sides and stunning views throughout its length. We walked along the ridge line soaking in the afternoon sun. Our final stopping area and snack break was at Skeleton Point, a saddle at the tip of the ridge before the trail breaks off into more switchbacks to the Colorado River. Rejuvenated from a short rest, we turned around and ascended the 2,000ft (600m) back to the trail head. As we climbed our way back up the mountain the sun began to disappear beyond the cliffs. Slowly the grey shadows began to darken and the blackness crept its way up the canyon.  We setup our tent and cooked dinner that night in the darkness of the South Kaibab National Forest.

Nathan making his way to Salt Creek

The sunsets in the Grand Canyon are beautiful, but it is at sunrise that the park becomes a scene of magic and changing light. Our hike into the canyon began early at 5am. We hiked down the switchbacks in the usable twilight of dawn. Slowly the canyon changed shape and color as the planar greys disappeared with a new day’s sun. The sunlight first touches the upper limestone of the rim in every direction. Slowly this bright golden light drips down the cliffs illuminating the entire canyon.

Carmen the morning hiker on Hermit Trail

Perfectly shaped yucca

The shadows disappear, the heat engulfs us and we continue our walk in the full sun. The hike planned was a three day, two night, 30mi (48km) loop starting at Hermit’s Rest and returning from Indian Garden up the Bright Angle Trail. It was going to be very hot in the valley so we tried to get a jump on it. Water was also scarce so we carried one gallon each to safely get to our backcountry campsite with a natural spring.

Monument rock pillar

By 11am we had made it to the campsite at Monument Creek. No one else was there (because it was too hot) so we got the pick of the campground. Our camp overlooked intricate cliffs of vertical red rock. One column of rock, the “monument” of our camp, stood prominently 150ft (45m) in the air in the creek bed.

Granite rapids of the Colorado River

We took a siesta in the shadows of the vertical rock. After 3pm the canyon began to cool down and it was safer to explore and hike around the area. Our camp was on the Tonto formation which is an enormous ledge that wraps around the entire canyon. The Colorado river sits another 600ft below. We walked along the dried out Monument Creek until our voices were drowned out by the roaring Granite Rapids. A small hike upstream and the water was still and frigid enough to make me yelp when I plunged in head first. Refreshed, we made our way back into the depths of the canyon.

Red rock cliffs

Walking from the river out of the canyon is a powerful experience. The dark black gneiss at the water’s edge is two billion years old; the age of the earth is five billion. The history of the world was everywhere around us.  We climbed over boulders and river rock to return to our camp, but we were also climbing back to the future. We walked from a time when volcanoes created the base of the canyon, and then alternating layers of sandstone and limestone as the landscape was created under large oceans hundreds of millions of years ago. Magnificent cliffs towered above us as we walked, but we remained careful of every step spending most of our time watching where we were going.

Three rattlesnakes and a lizard

We encountered three rattle snakes in the first three days of visiting the Grand Canyon. In all cases the snakes were curled up in defense as they had heard us coming. To our benefit we walked with hiking poles that led us along the trails and river banks. With each discovery of a snake, it was fascinating how the colors varied and each was so remarkably camouflaged into its surroundings. A rainbow colored lizard insisted on hanging around our camp, he was plump and bold. He’d stare at us, and, when he knew we were watching he’d start a series of pushups then move a few inches and begin another set of pushups.

Indian Garden on Bright Angel Trail

Textured cliffs of Indian Garden

Our second day of hiking was brutal. The hike itself was mostly flat as we traversed along the Tanto Trail that followed the steady, but exposed rock formation. The challenge was that by 6am we were already walking in the sun, temperatures quickly reached 100 degrees and we had six more miles to go. One step at a time we slowly and carefully made it to Indian Garden. This lush valley had been used for thousands of years for seasonal agriculture by the Havasupai tribes. Today it is filled with non-native cottonwood trees, water-filling stations and many back-country campsites.

View from Plateau Point

Dinner at Plateau Point

For dinner that night we decided to hike out onto the plateau point about a mile and a half from camp. From there we watched the sunset, and cooked up one of our standard back camping meals of sautéed tuna, onions, carrots and garlic over couscous with lemon. We could see the Colorado River from our little perch and quickly the sun faded away leaving us to walk in the dark back to our tarp.

View from Hermit’s Point

Ideally when we backpack, Carmen and I carry a tent. The lower elevations of the Grand Canyon were so hot that we left behind the extra weight and instead slept with only our silk sleeping sacks and the footprint of our tent. In the end it was well worth the 5lb savings, when we were also carrying 8lbs of water. That next morning we awoke again in the darkness to set out on our ascent out of the canyon. By 8am we had climbed 3,500ft (1,050m) and we sat at the Bright Angel trail head, catching our breath, finishing off our morning snacks, and gazing out into the morning sun lit canyon.

Native American building ruins

Indigenous tribes lived throughout the Grand Canyon for millennia. Evidence of their presence is well hidden, but everywhere. Only 5% of the national park has been surveyed and over 4,500 archeological sites have been discovered. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 sites in the park that contain, rock paintings, building ruins, burial sites and agricultural plots. Only the most elementary of this archeology is shown to tourists, but it is possible to bushwhack through the forest and come across, a circle of stones that once built a village, or hand painted pottery that is centuries old. Archeologists have found parrot bones in these areas, which proves that the Indians here traveled and traded with tribes in Central America. In the watchtower that was built on the eastern edge of the park there are some beautiful re-creations of Hopi Indian paintings.

Modern Hopi painting

Our first four days in the Grand Canyon took us to phenomenal vistas, dizzying temperatures and eye-opening history. The south rim is the most popular place to visit for tourists, many of the best lookouts are accessible only a few steps from the public tram. A ten minute walk along any trail and the canyon begins to engulf and encapsulate with spectacular colors and unimaginable verticality. We would hike for hours without seeing anyone and each shadow and niche, each boulder and ledge was only for us to see that day. Very quickly I felt alone, not in loneliness, but more so as an explorer seeing a magical place for the first time. During our hikes we descended into the depths of the canyon, touched the water, traversed the cliffs and climbed back out. We descended into a prehistoric era and climbed back into the present to realize that the Grand Canyon has been one of the most beautiful places on earth for the last five million years.

Climbing In and Out of Colca Canyon (by Nathan)

Colca Canyon

Waking up at 3am is never easy, when traveling it is sometimes a necessity.  But when the plan is to hike in and out of the deepest canyon in the world we were excited.  A van picked us up at the hostel in Arequipa and we cruised through the darkness of the night and into the mountains.  By sunrise we had crossed the high mountain pass at 5,000m (16,500ft) and we descended to the cliff’s edge.  Our destination: the Colca Canyon with winding cliff trails, historic villages and expansive, gorgeous sights.

Andean condors flying through the canyon

The andean condor had already mesmerized Carmen and me on that exhausting day in Argentina, but along the Colca Canyon the condors have survived and flourished for thousands of years.  At the Cruz de los Condores we watched five giant birds soar majestically through the air.  With minimal effort they utilized the wind and the rising heat to pull themselves thousands of feet above our heads.

Carmen and I hiking in Colca Canyon

Our hike began mid-morning and nearly two-thirds down into the canyon.  The canyon is huge, but much less drastic than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The Rio Colcahas cut through a volcanic mountain range with summits at 5,500m (18,000 ft) and the river below rests at around 2,000m (6,600ft).  Our descent was rocky, loose and steep.  Our knees and feet ached after dropping 900m (3,000ft) in the first two hours.  A quick jump in the river and I was refreshed and ready to continue.

Colca Rock Face

Rio Colca

The villages in these mountains have a remarkable history.  Tribes of people have lived here for thousands of years. They farmed the steep hillsides by notching terraces, called andenes, into the slopes.  Each terrace was irrigated by local springs and the vegetables were optimized for the microclimates.  Thousands of potato varieties exist in Peru as well as primary crops of corn and quinoa; each crop was planted and harvested to the heat, moisture and soil that varies from terrace to terrace.  The people here survived before Inca times.  They flourished with Inca civilization and now the communities hang on to difficult lives that are locked high into the mountainside.

Corn cobs drying in the sun

The villages house several families and many of the towns take over two days to walk to.  There is one poorly kept clinic that provides meager guidance and healthcare to the people.  This was probably the most upsetting part of the hike because we spoke with and observed people that were brutally poor, yet we paid an entry into the park of $26.  This money did not go into roads, which were dirt, or signage, that did not exist, or residents, who did not even know that tourists pay over $100,000 per day to the region.  In this way, the hike was a cultural experience in addition to a natural one.

Terraced hillsides of Colca Canyon

Our lunch spot was San Juan de Cucho, which was 1,000ft of ascent from the river.  Our guide cooked us some lomo saltado and we enjoyed a conversation with our new friends.  While the rest of my group napped I hiked up the steep mountainside. I followed a narrow path that tightly cut through the brush and grass and I switched back and forth up the mountain.  I peered through the bushes to find another village, or at least the remnants of a village.  Beautiful stone walls peeked out of tall grass and trees grew from the foundations of former buildings.  I returned to our lunch spot and the group was assembled and ready to go.

Church in village of Malata

Our dinner and lodging for the night was in a town a few hours hike along the mountainside.  In Cosñirhua we were welcomed into a small dwelling ran by two women and a five year old boy.  The boy kicked a soccer ball with us and then laughed at my Spanish in our conversation about his front yard garden.  In the kitchen a small pen housed fifteen guinea pigs, but we would not get the chance to try this Peruvian delicacy until Cusco.  We slept in a room that crudely resembled a hostel but the room was warm, the bed clean and there was running water so not much more was necessary.

Sangalle el Oasis below and switch-backs to Cabanaconde

The next day was an easy hike with little change of elevation.  It went quickly because we were all excited to jump in the pools at the oasis.  Sangalle El Oasis is a cluster of buildings and huts that were built for the many tourists.  Each group of buildings includes a beautiful turquoise pool.  We jumped in the cool water and baked in the sun.  The mountains rose in all directions and quickly blocked out the sun and invited cold winds to howl through the canyon.

Group photos above Colca Canyon

Our third day was challenging.  We needed to climb out of the canyon.  We started walking at 5am and pushed ourselves up the steep trail.  Each of us walked at our own pace and in 1.75 hours I was at the top after climbing 1,100m (3,600ft).  Forty-five minutes later, Carmen arrives claiming that she did not even break a sweat.

Nathan, a little girl and a baby alpaca

We hiked with an international group of people from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and France.  Each arrival of one of our new friends was a celebration.  Both out of breath from the hike and from the beautiful views we congratulated each other on the three wonderful days of hiking.  We picked up breakfast in Cabanaconde and lunch in Chivay that included a welcomed sight of a baby alpaca and young girl dressed in the traditional fabrics and hat of the region.

Alpacas grazing along the side of the road

It was an exhausting couple of days, but for Carmen and I this was only practice for the six days of hiking that we had planned to Machu Picchu.  First we needed to get to Cuzco…

The Colorful Quebrada de Cafayate (by Nathan)

Layered red cliffs

Entering into Cafayate we experienced a drastic change of scenery.  Grass covered hills transitioned to brilliantly red cliffs and cactus filled valleys.  I could not help but be reminded of the drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park.  The beauty was similar, but exciting and special in its own way.

Las Ventanas

El Fraile

The quebrada (canyon) extends almost 110mi (180km) between Cafayate and Salta.  Every two to three miles and new rock formation emerges from the earth. A series of arches in one area is called las ventanas (the windows).  Another formation resembles a monk in robes and is called fraile (the friar).

Colorful Striations

Desert flowers

The colors and textures of the rock make a feast for the eyes. Striations of copper, sulfur, iron and zinc create rainbows of layered rock along the cliffs.  The desert is home to many spiny plants and animals.  The canyon has a unique microclimate where it only rains a few days a year even though it rained everyday in January and February in Cafayate.

Feeding a llama

Further on we stopped for drinks and a chance to feed llamas.

El Sapo

One of my favorite formations was el sapo (the toad).

El Locomotivo

Another formation is perched on a cliff, el locomotivo (the train).

El Amfiteatro

The grand scale of the canyon is not fully felt or realized until we enter el anfiteatro (the amphitheater). Huge rivers flowed down the mountain side and created this 400ft deep bowl at the base of the waterfall. Plate tectonics have now shifted the mountains and diverged the flow of the river so that the rock formation remains dry.  The cliffs are gorgeous, striped with colors and golden in the sun engulfing us as we stood, taking it all in. The name of this formation comes from the high quality of sound retention.

El Gargantua del Diablo

The next major attraction to the quebrada is gargantua del diablo (devil’s throat). I think it’s funny how names are reused. There has been at least five “mountain of seven colors” and Carmen described another gargantua in Iguazú. This formation is enormous!  Its natural origins are similar to the anfiteatro but contain many levels of red rock and contrasted with perfectly green little trees. We had to do quite a bit of scrambling to get to the main bowl but it was well worth it.

Layered rocks

Two weeks ago, we were entering Mendoza and the bus felt so small in its attempt to cross through the Andes.  The highway to Salta has been a different experience of vibrant colors and imaginative land formations. Goodbye to the Grand Canyon of Argentina.

Higher Learning in Condoritos (by Nathan)

Another name for this post might be “The Best And Worst Day In Condoritos.” Vacation is not all about relaxation, but frequently a memorable experience is about a little pain, fantastic views and numerous lessons learned. Visiting the Parque Nacional Quebrada de Condoritos was one of these adventures.

Park entrance...finally

Park entrance…finally

Our trip to the canyon containing the Andean condor breeding grounds was another two hour bus ride from Córdoba. We travelled high into the mountains and high into a thick cloud that we did not expect. Our driver was supposed to drop us off at the unmarked dirt road entrance, but he forgot. He pulled over on the side of the highway and informed us it was “really close” and that we just had to “walk around the corner.” An hour and a half later we arrived at the visitor center, time to “begin” the hike.

Windswept pathway

Windswept pathway

We checked our return bus schedule to Córdoba and we were off. We planned on a five hour hike that would give us plenty of time to get the 6:30 bus.

Cliffs of the quebrada de los condoritos

Cliffs of the quebrada de los condoritos

The canyon of condors was magically sensational for the eyes. We saw huge boulders, green grass and an occasional field of wispy golden grains that danced in the breeze. We sat on the cliff edge hypnotized by the souring condors gliding effortlessly into the thermal columns of the canyon. We quickly ate down our lunch of carrots, cheese and apples then cooked in the sun like two lizards on a rock.

Breathtaking valley

Breathtaking valley

Our return hike was even more fantastic. The clouds dispersed and everything sparkled in the golden sun. The trail glistened with huge crystals of quartz and flakey mica. We climbed and descended over the hills and repeated this cycle several times on our way to the highway.

Andes Condor souring above

Andes Condor souring above

Huge condors flew overhead.  This bird has a wingspan of up to ten feet and a body the size of my thigh (it´s a big thigh). In the last dirt section of our trail a condor soured over us to better investigate. His huge wings fully spread with its white finger-like tips barely moved and his huge body hovered fifteen feet above out heads. With a gentle tilt of his wings he quickly maneuvered into the valley.

We were tired from 30km (19mi) of hiking and we plopped our throbbing bodies on the side of the road in anticipation for our bus.  An hour and a half passes and we realize that the bus is not coming. Another couple arrives loaded with camping gear and plans to hitchhike to Córdoba. Every half hour a microbus similar to the one we took to the park would fly by. We wave our hands eagerly, but we faintly remember the driver telling us that only the collectivo (big bus) would stop for us.

The sun began to set, the winds pick up and the temperature drops. Carmen and I huddle for warmth, but this does little to stop the shivering. Carmen screams out at the bus that never came, tears dropping as the freezing temperatures take their toll.

Then Carmen got a little warmer and there was hope. The back-packing group lent Carmen a hooded sweatshirt and thirty minutes later they saw my violent shivering and passed me the warmest pullover of my life that was soft and light with llama wool.

Another hour on the roadside shielding ourselves behind a concrete barrier and a third couple arrives from the dark. Jumping up and down and waving frantically the 7:30 bus does not stop for us. We attempt to hitchhike as well, but no one hesitates for six hikers and no car stops for us. There is only one more bus, one more chance. Carmen and I make plans to break into the visitor center for shelter.

The third couple fed us cookies to keep up our spirits. Then there is an idea: FIRE. Frantically we scramble to assemble the dried reeds. I was the craziest of all. I built a blazer and nearly threw myself into it to take in the heat. Our hysterical actions blinded the fact theat we could start the whole national park ablaze. Carmen pointed out that the three foot sideways windblown flames were inching their way to the dray brush.

We create a fire ring and restart the fire. Across the valley we notice a red glow, our last hope- the 8:30 bus. Our jumps and waving is even more frantic. We are desperate to get to Córdoba. It stops! Our boots stomp out the fire and we douse it with a liter of juice. Magically the bus pulls over onto the dirt shoulder and we sprint to the open doors excited to suck in the mixture of dust and exhaust. We stumble onto the dull bus and we find seats on the warm hard aisle floor. I refused to remove my layers because I enjoyed the tingle of sweat on my face that is so much better than frost in the nostrils. After three hours of waiting, we were finally warm and on our way to Córdoba.

This is not meant to scare, but more so to point out that this is traveling. The insatiable craving to explore brings about experiences good and bad. In every city there is joy and pain, frustration and delight and most of all knowledge and understanding of a culture and a place that only happens when we say “we have been there!”

Endless fields along our trail

Endless fields along our trail

Now, what are these lessons learned:

  1. Appropriate clothing: We had prepared for a cold day, but with three hours of waiting, we were not ready for a freezing night.
  2. Make friends: It was so much easier to endure this pain alongside our circumstantial friends. Their kindness was genuine and sincere.
  3. Know more about the transit: We headed out on a brief recommendation without full understanding of how to get back. We so rarely wing it, but in the future it is better to over plan.

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