Tag: Adventures Within Reach

Going on Safari…Again

Don’t get me wrong, safaris are absolutely fabulous. However, Ted and I had done a fair bit of safari-ing in Southern Africa both in Botswana and in South Africa with our parents (about 40 game drives to date). We thought we pretty much knew the ins and outs of safaris and couldn’t imagine that a safari in Tanzania could actually be that different. But we were wrong. Tanzania hit the safari ball out of the park.

On behalf of Adventures Within Reach (AWR), Ted and I tested out a new safari operator and reported back to AWR about the quality of everything from their vehicles and guides to the meals and accommodation provided (once again, best job ever!). To be honest, we probably wouldn’t have sought out another safari in Tanzania ourselves (read: we couldn’t afford another safari), however, I’m glad this opportunity presented itself or otherwise we would have missed out. Big time. In summary, we have never seen so many animals in our entire lives.

Giraffe drinking

Elephants in the sun and shade

We hit the much-acclaimed and popular Northern Safari Circuit, which took us to 4 different protected areas including the famous Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Highlights of the trip include:

  • The scenery – Straight out of the Lion King, the scenery in Tanzania is what you see on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Wide open expanses as far as the eye can see with a tree and a rock outcrop here and there.

Serengeti Plains

  • Mobile camps – These camps are basically fancy tents that can be moved seasonally to follow the migration of the animals through the parks. You are literally in the middle of the bush with nothing between you and the lion you saw on your way back to camp. And though these tents may sound rustic, some have flushing toilets, hot-water showers, open bars and amazing food. Not exactly roughing it.

Sunset at Exclusive Mobile Camp

  • Momma lion and her cubs – Our guide got us up early for a morning game drive. Within 20 minutes of setting off, we came upon a female lion in the tall grass with three baby cubs. The little guys were hilarious to watch as they wrestled with each other and lovingly pawed at their momma as she cleaned herself up after a kill. They were too much fun to look at that we couldn’t tear ourselves away.   (Photos on the previous Picture of the Week Post)
  • The Great Migration – We literally saws tens of thousands (of the millions) of wildebeest and zebras in the plains of the Serengeti. They follow the green grass which takes them from Tanzania up into Kenya. Nothing can prepare you for seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling the movement of so many animals in such a small area.

A few wildebeest on the move

A LOT of wildebeest on the move!

  • The Ngorongoro Crater – Part animal happy place and part Garden of Eden. The world famous Crater is PACKED with lions, flamingos and beautiful scenery.

The Crater from above

Lions, chillin in the Crater

Crater pics

The list goes on, and it is long. We were continuously blown away by the animal encounters in these parks, not to mention the African landscapes, our well-informed guide and the unique and varied lodges where we got spoiled each night. We quickly learned that the country’s National Parks and Conservation Areas (which are unfenced, by the way) are packed full of millions of animals who are living relatively undisturbed in the same environments that they have inhabited for thousands of years. Tanzania has a good thing going and for a trip to see big animals, you’d be hard-pressed to do better anywhere else.



More cool animal photos from this portion of our trip can be found in our Best of East Africa photo album

Kilimanjaro? Bagged It!

The first 6 hours of summit day were miserable. We started hiking at midnight, it was pitch black, we were freezing cold from the wind, the trail was loose, rocky skree and it was too cold to stop and rest. We spent hour upon hour of putting one food ahead of the other and wondering if we would actually make it to the top. Our guide claimed that for part of the hike, we were actually sleepwalking! I contemplated turning around on many occasions but remembered it had taken me four days to get to this point and I wanted, I needed, to stick it out. I have no idea if Ted was thinking the same thing because at this point we were too cold, tired, and out of it to talk. The altitude was finally getting to both of us and lightheaded-ness, the mild headaches and the nausea were not fun. When you look at your watch and it’s still in the 3 o’clock hour and you have hours to go, you wonder why you pay to do stuff like this.

And finally, oh finally, that beautiful sun started to come up. I was more excited about the sun rising for the warmth than I was for any other reason. However the side benefit was that we could see the top and we were close. The end was in sight. The pink sky was just the encouragement I needed to finish what we started. When you see the crescent of first sunlight on the horizon from the roof of Africa, everything at that moment gets a whole lot better, and man does it feel good!

Never been happier to see the sun rise!

The final few steps to the summit

Too tired to appreciate the beautiful sunrise

Summit Reached!!

Views from the summit

Views from the summit

Kilimanjaro? Bagged it!!

We owe another huge thank you to our friends at Adventures Within Reach for making it possible (and affordable!) for us to experience this opportunity of a lifetime.  If you’re going to Africa, be sure to check out their awesome itineraries.

East Side

After an amazingly fast couple months in Southern Africa, our trip is taking us north to East Africa. Tanzania has a reputation of being a rockstar destination on the continent and we are looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

After a quick night in the busy, hot and humid, dirty, traffic-filled, over-crowded capital of Dar es Salaam, we took a ferry boat over to the island of Zanzibar. Zanzibar has always been one of those magical, exotic, far-away places that I wasn’t sure really existed. I can now confirm that it is indeed real, and we indeed loved it.

Dar Es Salaam from the ferry to Zanzibar

Arrival to Zanzibar's coastline - we're gonna like this place...

In connection with Adventures Within Reach (AWR), Ted and I headed over to the east side of Zanzibar Island to do some site research on the various hotels that they send guests to, which resulted in extravagant (and deeply discounted) stays for us! The east side is known for its quiet pace of life, nearly empty white-sand beaches, and high-end resorts. We got to stay a total of 3 nights at three different neighboring properties and have never felt so spoiled and pampered in our lives. Going from a cement block of a room in Dar to gorgeous sea-side bungalows, with manicured grounds, sapphire blue swimming pools, freshly prepared seafood, and the Indian Ocean at our doorstep was quite a treat. Two of the three places we stayed even had private plunge pools adjoining our rooms, and one had complimentary everything – ‘Why yes, we’d love the cocktail-of-the-day served to us while relaxing in our plunge pool overlooking the property gardens and a massage tomorrow by the Thai masseurs.’ :) Ted did some windsurfing, I did some oceanside reading and we both took runs on the beach (last minute training for Kili!)

Enjoying the coastal breeze

Best seafood of the trip (so far)

Private plunge pool, complete with complimentary champagne!

Ted's first ocean windsurfing

Unbelievable. I’m not sure what we did to deserve this good fortune, but Zanzibar is forever etched in our minds as a little slice of heaven.  Thanks AWR!!

Heading West to Chile

From Bariloche, Argentina we headed west to Puerto Varas, Chile. The Chilean border crossing was quite intense and not recommended for drug smugglers. Checking out of Argentina was pretty routine, but getting into Chile is a pain. Everyone had to get off the bus and everyone’s luggage had to be sniffed by dogs AND put through an X-ray machine. They are very strict about all the normal stuff, but ridiculously strict about any food or beverage item. Ted and I had made some sandwiches for lunch to be cost-conscious but there was no way those sandwiches were going to be allowed over the border so we had to eat them on the spot at 10:30 a.m.!

Puerto Varas was luckily worth the hassle. As Bariloche is part of the Argentine Lake District, Puerto Varas is in Chile’s Lake District. However, while Bariloche is surrounded by mountain ranges, Puerto Varas is surrounded by volcanoes. Big ones.

Osorno Volcano

For a day trip we headed out to the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park for some walking around. We met a large group of Americans on the bus ride out there who were living in the area and volunteering at schools by helping the local English teachers with their classes. They invited us to hike with them and we happily accepted. While hiking you could look to your left at a beautiful, cone-shaped, snow-covered volcano or to your right at the fjords and the lake. It’s nice to have options!

Hiking in the Park

Hiking in the Park

Hiking in the Park

On the ride back to town we stopped to see some incredibly powerful waterfalls just down the road from the National Park – the Saltos de Petrohue. Though not impressive in height, the quantity and strength of them certainly was.

Saltos de Petrohue

Saltos de Petrohue

Thanks to our good friends at Adventures Within Reach (AWR), we were able to sit down and have drinks with a local and learn a bit about both Chile and tourism in the region. We met with a wonderfully great guy named Gerardo who owns a sea kayaking and rafting company called AlSur Expeditions. AWR uses AlSur for their trips in the Lake District, so naturally we had to test them out!

Rafting the Petrohue

Rafting the Petrohue

We celebrated Ted’s birthday in Puerto Varas, starting the day on one of Gerardo’s half-day rafting trips which was a blast. The weather didn’t invite too much more outdoor activity that day, but we managed to entertain ourselves with wine and a delicious seafood dinner. We later met Gerardo out for another round of drinks and then onto another bar where we met up with the Americans that we hiked with earlier that week. Considering we didn’t know anyone in the area when we arrived a couple days earlier, Ted was properly celebrated as he rang in the big 3-1.

Technology Can Be Brilliant

Our technology got ripped off in Ecuador during the first month of our trip. Bummer.  Bringing e-connectivity on a trip like this is exactly what I intended to escape, so perhaps it was rather good to be forced offline.  But, because I am continuing to work in certain capacities, and because the backpacking world is now miraculously full of wireless signals, it’s been quite convenient to have a computer with us. So, when ours got stolen, I was fairly quick to look to replacing it. Due to a fortunate set of circumstances, and a few good friends, getting us back online and up to speed didn’t take long at all. A special thanks to Mark Lewis and the ladies at Adventures Within Reach for purchasing and transporting the new machine down to us in Peru! You saved us a good couple hundred dollars!

What I was most bummed about after the theft was not the computer itself, but rather the data on it. I had spent a good bit of time transferring files, music, and photos to our brand new netbook, and we also had a good bit of non-backed up info from our first 3 weeks. Anticipating that our computer might disappear along the way at some point, I had signed up for Carbonite, an online auto-backup platform. Unfortunately, the internet connectivity in Ecuador, while widely available, is not very fast, and I found during the trial period that it would take me two months to back up 2 days worth of photos. So, I scrapped that, and hadn’t determined a proper backup plan when the computer disappeared.

So now we’ve got this new computer, but no music or files available. Everything music and work-related is backed up on an external drive at home, but what good does that do me here? Enter my new favorite online program – GoToMyPC.com. Shear brilliance (and convenience)! I had my dad plug my external hard drive into his constantly-connected computer, download a bit of software and voila!, I was able to log onto his computer, and simply drag and drop my files from my external drive to my new netbook in Peru. I’m blown away at how well it works. Sure, big files take a while to transfer, but the access is there, and at my convenience. And, I can now back things up from my computer here to my drive back at home. Brilliant.

Here’s to hoping our new technology lasts us through the rest of the trip!

Access Denied!

Generally speaking, the countries we’ve visited so far have been very tranquil and safe places. Not once have we felt threatened or in danger in Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia. But twice now, we have been the unintended victims of peaceful protests, preventing us from accessing our planned activities.

The first, and more significant issue we encountered occurred throughout the south of Peru. We were in Cusco at the time, and had just returned from our Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu. During the 3 days we were set to be in Cusco, we had arranged AWR product testing biking, rafting, and hiking in the Sacred Valley. We got to do the mountain biking, but after that, transportation in all of southern Peru was halted due to these protests, apparently tied to water rights. During these protests, road blocks are put up and no traffic is allowed to pass. Any cars caught on the road during these protests are in danger of being stoned (the only violent aspect to this civil disobedience, and stoning rarely happens because everyone knows not to drive). In addition to the roadblocks, protesters walk the street, chanting their calls to action, while police in riot gear stand idly unless something breaks out (but never does).

Such protests have come to be quite regular in Peru, happening roughly 15 times per year! So regular, that certain tour operators put roadblock bribes into their operating budget. For us, it was a bummer to miss out on the rafting and hiking days, but it allowed for some very tranquil days exploring downtown Cusco with no automobile traffic.

Our second encounter with roadblocks occurred in northern Bolivia. We were excited to do one of Bolivia’s most famous tourist activities – mountain bike down the “World’s Most Dangerous Road” (the road is no longer that dangerous, as nearly all vehicle traffic now takes the new road to Coroico, leaving the road pretty open to bikers). Well, it turns out that a lot of the country’s coca is grown near Coroico, and the coca farmers were a bit angry at the government for some new regulations put on their production (coca is both legally and illegally produced in Bolivia). As a result, they blocked the roads to their town, and thus our access to the bike trail.

All in all, we’ve been very lucky in our travels to date, with no major interruptions, detours, or delays due to uncontrollable circumstances, so I’m not complaining. When traveling in the Andes, you never know what roads might wash out, what bus might break down, and what roads are impassible. So far, our patience hasn’t been fully tested….yet.

The Capital of the Inca Empire

There is a lot going on in Cusco. It is the most visited city in Peru – and for good reason. Anyone who visits Machu Picchu travels through Cusco on their way to the ruins – whether they take the train, hike the Inca Trail or do an alternative route like we did. Beyond the draw of Machu Picchu, the city has a lot going for itself – it’s beautiful, there is a lot of history there (being as it was the capital of the Inca empire shortly before it’s demise), there are tons of great restaurants and beautiful hotels, and it serves as an access point to the Sacred Valley which is an awesome spot to do just about anything outside including hiking, horseback riding, rafting, mountain biking, etc.

As part of our trip and activity research for Adventures Within Reach, we had the opportunity to do some mountain biking in area and we were not disappointed.  The group consisted of Ted and me, as well as another couple from Canada. We had a lead guide in front and an assistant guide who brought up the rear. Both Ted and the other gentleman from Canada had some mountain biking experience under their belts so they were able to fly down the hills with the lead guide.  Myself and the other woman were not quite as experienced and appreciated having the assistant guide back with us going our pace.

The Sacred Valley is a wide open valley used heavily for farming but also surrounded by 20,000+ foot mountains. The scenery is spectacular. Just before lunch we had the opportunity to visit the ruins of Moray which anthropologists believe were constructed as an experimental farming technique that dates back to Incan or possibly pre-Incan times.

After a delicious lunch the mountain bike trail changed from mostly flat and rolling hills to being essentially a straight downhill ride. It was at this point that our guide informed us that we would be riding on one of the most popular downhill racing routes in the South America and that he in fact competed in the race! It was a fun ride, for sure, but as it maneuvered around tight corners and over slippery gravel patches near the edges of a cliff, I found myself relying more and more heavily on my brakes.

On the way down we stopped another time at the Maras Salt Pans. People from the town of Maras still use the the pans and literally mine for salt. The water that comes out of the mountain is naturally high in sodium and as it evaporates in the shallow pans, salt forms. Every few days they gather the salt and allow more water to fill the pans. It’s quite a sight, actually! We were told that some of the salt is used for human consumption and some is used for animals.

After the final stop, we cruised down a bit more before celebrating with a beer at the bottom. It was quite a day and we were able to strongly recommend Amazonas Explorer’s mountain biking day-trip to Adventures Within Reach for their future clients! We looked forward to doing a rafting trip and hiking trip with Amazonas Explorer as well, however, our plans were unfortunately canceled due to a nationwide strike that was brewing…

It’s a Hot One in the Jungle

Our next trip research assignment for Adventures Within Reach took us to the jungle. We flew from Lima to Iquitos, Peru which is the largest city in the world that can not be accessed by road! There are over 500,000 people in this place and you can only get there by boat (on the Amazon) or by flying. Immediately after we landed we were sweating. This place is hot! I mean, damn hot! Not only is the temperature high (in the 90s), but the humidity was the main challenge as we had gotten used to the dryness of being at altitude.

Taking our transport into the city, I kept getting the feeling we were near the beach – everyone is driving around on mopeds and wearing skirts. The bars are advertising tropical drinks and the weather is hot and sunny. However, though there is no beach nearby, there is plenty of water, and that water is the Amazon River.

We took a boat for over two hours up river before transferring to a smaller boat and continuing up a tributary for another half hour before reaching Muyana Lodge. Muyana is perched on stilts in the middle of the rain forest, hours away from anything. We were visiting towards the end of the dry season so the water level was quite low, but during the wet season the river comes up all the way to the stilts and rooms are essentially islands connected by the boardwalk pathway.

Both our room and the main lodge/eating area were entirely screened in, which did a fantastic job of preventing bugs from finding their way to us. Though overall the Muyana Lodge was quite nice, the fact that it is in the middle of nowhere means that electricity is a luxury. There is no electricity in the rooms (they provide you with a couple oil lamps each evening) and there is limited electricity in the eating area, depending on the time of day. No electricity means no air-conditioning (which we obviously weren’t expecting), but it also means no ceiling fans or any kind of relief from the heat. We would have paid good money for a breeze could such a thing be purchased!

Once we kinda adjusted to sweating all the time, we were happily distracted by our guide Moises (pronounced Moses) who was born and raised in the jungle. Our activities included:

  • A boat trip up the river looking for birds (herons and macaws) and wildlife (several kinds of monkeys and a sloth!), that culminated in a beautiful jungle sunset.
  • A hike through the rainforest with Moises who was amazingly adept at making a variety of bird and animal sounds as well as pointing out incredibly scary insects hiding in tree trunks, underground, etc.
  • Fishing for piranhas and other fish. I caught nothing but Ted snagged a couple piranhas and we then ate them for dinner!
  • A nighttime boat excursion where a different guide literally got out of the boat and caught a caimen (an alligator-type creature) with his bare hands!
  • Seeing pink-bellied dolphins and swimming in the Amazon!

I was pretty unsure about swimming in the Amazon after fishing for piranhas only the day before, however, after nearly 3 straight days of being uncomfortably hot, I couldn’t help but see any other alternative. Our guide led the way followed by Ted and another woman in our group. We all lived to tell about it and it certainly was worth the dip!

Ted and I loved our time in the jungle. It was an incredibly unique experience that we are happy to have had. That being said, we have decided that we are NOT jungle people and if it wasn’t for those cold-water only showers that we utilized at least three times a day, we might not have made it out without melting first!

Fortunate Timing

We had a lot of opportunities to conduct trip research in Peru (best job ever!) for our good friends at Adventures Within Reach. The reason there were so many trips to check-out was because our time there coincided with the largest travel industry gathering in Latin America called TravelMart. Buyers and sellers of trips from all over the world, gathered in Lima and to incentivize the buyers (i.e. tour operators in North America, such as Adventures Within Reach), sellers (i.e. Mountain Lodges of Peru) offered low to no cost opportunities for people to go on their trips (known as “familiarization” or FAM trips in industry lingo). We were happy to be those people!

And another wonderful benefit of the TravelMart being in Lima when we were there meant that we were delivered another cute laptop computer just like the one we had stolen from us in Ecuador! A huge thank you to Mark Lewis in Boulder for doing the on-the-ground shopping to replace our belongings, and an equally big thank you to Barbara and Robin at Adventures Within Reach for schlepping our items all the way from Colorado to Peru. We can’t thank you guys enough!

Machu Picchu

A lot of people asked us what we were most looking forward to doing on our trip and Machu Picchu was certainly on my short list. Like many, I have always been fascinated with the place (it must be the anthropology-major in me!) and wonderfully, we were not disappointed.

Machu Picchu opens its doors at 6:00 am and we were there in line when that happened. Our guide walked us to the “postcard viewpoint” and just let us take it all in. The morning at Machu Picchu is surprisingly serene as the majority of the Inca Trail hikers haven’t arrived and all the day-trippers from Cusco are still hours away. Our MLP guide also provided our tour of Machu Picchu and we happily followed him around for 2.5 hours as he pointed out and explained all of the fascinating aspects of the incredible history we were experiencing.  Amazingly, the architects of this world wonder only lived here for ~100 years before the Spanish arrived and the site was abandoned.  The Incas barely got to enjoy the fruits of their labor before they up and left! Truly an incredible place, with its remote location being one of the many impressive things about it (and the reason for its existence – fortunately, the Spanish never found this gem).

Three of us from our trekking group wanted to climb Machu Picchu’s most famous peak, Wayna Picchu (the mountain in the background above).  Due to the hike’s popularity, park officials limit access to only 400 per day.  To get one of those prized Wayna Picchu entry stamps, you have to get up SUPER early – we had to be in line at ~4:30am (and our guide was already there saving a spot for us!).  Having arrived in Aguas Calientes fairly late the night before, it was a short sleep.  BUT, well worthwhile.  The hike up Wayna Picchu is a steep climb. It is a hard climb. But luckily it is a short climb (45-60 minutes), and the views at the top make it worth it (photo to the right)

There are other things you can do when visiting Machu Picchu that we didn’t quite get to – such as climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, visiting the Sun Gate, or hiking to the Inca Bridge. I guess we’ll have to go back again sometime!

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