Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ilha Grande, Brazil

All of the Patagonia blogs are up! If you missed any of the photos or stories, you can find them all at these links:

After weeks of ice, snow and glaciers, I was ready to return to the tropics. When I arrived in Rio de Janeiro to attend my cousin's wedding, I had a few extra days to escape to Ilha Grande, a tropical island off the coast of Rio. I was glad my mom came with me; she needed a break from the big city as well. Our little hostel faced a courtyard with a tiny restaurant that served delicious, home cooked meals surrounded by hummingbird feeders. 

I wasn't familiar with the island, so on my first day I took a boat tour that covered many of the region's best beaches. A week of violent rainstorms left the island's crystal waters looking more cloudy than usual, so I didn't do much work underwater. The spring weather was chilly, perfect for hiking but painful for swimming. Even so, the snorkeling beaches were crowded with people. It was a little frustrating, but undeniably beautiful. 

Ilha Grande is covered in all kinds of great trails that lead to a variety of hidden beaches. Determined to escape the crowds, I googled the most remote beach I could find that was within walking distance and decided on Caxadaço as my second day's destination. I knew the trail would be long, about 22 kilometers total, but after going 30 kilometers in El Chalten I felt confident that it would be fine. My mom felt good about it too, so we set out together into the forest. 

Instead of using the map to get to the start of the trail, we asked locals how to get there and they directed us to a shortcut. The shortcut was an extremely rough footpath that went straight up the mountain through the jungle. I was thankful for the cool weather and couldn't imagine what it would be like to do the trail in the blistering heat of summer. Monkeys howled in the distance and there were exotic birds everywhere. 

I read the the island's trails are incredibly well marked...I beg to differ. When we arrived at the end of the first shortcut, I found a sign marking its' entrance. 

At the top of this first ridge there was a beautiful view of Abraão, the biggest city on the island. The rough trail opened up onto a large dirt road where I was surprised to see a car pass. There are no cars allowed on the island, but apparently there are exceptions to the rule.

At this point we discovered that my mom forgot to pack water. Thankfully, we passed a local on the trail to told us that the water on the island was safe to drink. It took over three hours to hike from the city to the sign indicating the trail to Caxadaço. The sign had an enormous chunk ripped out of it and other travelers had scribbled notes on the sign indicating time estimates. An hour and 40 minutes to get to the beach, sounds good. I looked at the trail ahead....It didn't look good. We decided to walk just a couple of minutes to see if it improved. It didn't. The little foot path looked fun to me, but we determined it was too risky and turned around. 

We returned to the start of the trail where two guys were beginning the trail. Armed with two fit, confident young trekkers, we felt comfortable enough to turn back around and trek to the beach. They could move much faster than we could and we encouraged them to go ahead of us. It was nice to know they were on the trail and we weren't totally alone. They insisted on walking with us, saying they weren't in a hurry.

I've never felt so adventurous. Everything was so natural, no guideposts, no trash, no signs of humans except the footpath. Every 10-20 minutes I would hit a spot in the trail where I wasn't sure where to go; the path stopped and started a lot. The four of us would pause, shrug at each other, pick a route and keep going. At one point we even saw a sign! 

Our new friends were great, making conversation and helping the time pass more quickly. We went deeper and deeper into the woods and the trail became much less defined. We started noticing strips of blue tape and ribbon attached to trees every 40-80 feet. The trail was covered in dead trees and there were many points where we had to climb over, under or around giant limbs on the trail. We were out of breath, sweaty, and wondering when would we ever get to the beach. The guys quickly became our personal heroes, carrying my mom's backpack and sharing their water with us.

The trail got worse and worse. It wasn't so much the terrain as much as it was the lack of trail. All we had as a guide were our faithful blue ribbons. Sometimes one of us would walk ahead and look around for the next ribbon, and shout back to the group when we found it. 

We could hear the ocean; it was so tempting. All I wanted to do was dive in and cool off, but it still seemed so far away. We had been walking together for 2 hours when we hit a marker that said "30 minutes." The trail wound around, up, down, left, right. I was so relieved to finally see the ocean. The four of us stood on the beach and took a breath. We were the only people in the entire world to see Caxadaço beach that day. How special. 

It had taken us almost 5 hours to get there and we had a long walk home ahead of us.  Mom and I left the guys on the beach because we were tired and needed to go slowly. We said our goodbyes but were confident they would meet us on the trail again since they move much faster than we do. They gave us an empty water bottle so we could fill it once we hit fresh water. 

It was tough going, but we recognized landmarks and there were a number of blue ribbons. After we passed a huge patch of thick bamboo, the going got tricky.  The trail sort of ended, and there were no blue markers. To the left looked good to me. After walking 2-3 minutes that way, the trail REALLY ended. We turned around and went back. We stood there a bit, then decided to go to the right. We walked a couple of minutes and saw a white ribbon. I didn't remember any white ribbons on our way there, but we kept going. My confidence wavered until we finally saw a blue ribbon. Thank goodness. There wasn't really a trail...but there was a marker.

I looked ahead. The forest was playing tricks on us. Everywhere I looked I could see a "trail," but for all I knew, these trails could have been made by monkeys. Mom saw a tree she recognized. I didn't remember it, but we kept moving. Soon we discovered that we were completely surrounded by so many enormous ants that we could no longer see the ground. We ran, kicking and smacking our legs, not even caring where we were. We got out of the ants and cleaned them off. It had been way too long since we last saw a blue marker. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I wasn't confident, there were no markers to lead the way and if we kept going I wouldn't even be able to make it back to the beach to try a new path.

Mom shouted that we needed to go "TOWARDS THE LIGHT." I tried to explain to her that "the light" was "the sky" and wouldn't help us. Monkeys were howling at us, sounding much closer than before. I refused to take one more step without some sort of trail or marker. We were miles away from the main road in a dense jungle and the sun was setting. Images of us sleeping alone in the jungle flashed in my mind and my stomach turned. I told Mom we should go back to the last blue marker while we still had a chance to find our way back. My plan was to go all the way back to the beach and find the guys. We originally set off on our own to move calmly and not burden them any more, but I refused to be lost in the forest and if buying the guys a big dinner in exchange for helping us through the forest meant not spending the night getting eaten by monkeys, that was fine with me. 

We turned around and I looked into the forest. A knot formed in my throat as I realized that I might have made that decision a step too late. We wandered in the direction we came. Mom was panicking, so I knew I couldn't panic too.  We had been wandering lost for way too long at this point, and we were really worried the guys had left the beach already and were passing us on the trail. We whistled and screamed, hoping they would hear is. Some of the birds were imitating us, which would have been cute if we weren't so scared.

I finally made it back to the rock I recognized and could see the tree Mom recognized in the distance. At each recognizable landmark I would run ahead of Mom 20-30 feet to check out the woods, looking for a new landmark I recognized. I called to Mom once I found one. We continued this way, always within earshot of each other
 and finally made progress. We found the vicious ant colony and ran for a bit. After an agonizing hour of walking, I finally found a blue marker and eventually the bamboo. I definitely knew the trail from there, so I took off my backpack and told mom to wait for me. "What if the guys aren't there?" "Then we sleep on the beach, Mom."

I ran down the mountain with our empty water bottle. We needed water and a stream that fed into the ocean was the only fresh water for about 2 miles. I ran the rest of the way, praying with every bone in my body that the guys were still there.

I burst onto the beach.

The guys were fast asleep. After the past hour of hell, I actually felt bad waking them up. "Guys?" They sat up sleepily, confused. I stood there soaked in sweat, clutching my water bottle. I didn't even know where to start. "We tried, we really tried, but we got so lost. I couldn't find the trail, we were so scared. I will buy you dinner and a new car if you help us back to the big road. I don't want to ruin your day, but I really don't want to die in the rainforest."

They were still a little lost, "Where is your mom." "She's at the top of the big hill, she's waiting because I wanted to go faster to find you guys! I'm sorry, yall can keep relaxing, we can wait, we just don't want to go alone." They insisted that they were going to head back anyway and started packing. I told them to relax and they asked me to wait for them with my mom at the top of the hill.

I gave Mom some water and sat for a while, catching my breath. It was getting late; how in the world could we make it back to Abraão before dark? We were exhausted, stressed, and Mom was still freaking out. When we met up with the guys Mom started sobbing, thanking them over and over. They offered Mom a cookie and even after all of the terror, the sight of my sweating, sobbing mother eating an oreo was really cute.

We got to the point in the trail that caused all of this mess. The guys looked around calmly, told us to wait, and darted in opposite directions into the forest. Every once in a while they called to each other in quick Spanish, discussing the success of their routes. I worried a little bit, but if they couldn't find the way then at least it would be four of us sleeping on the beach instead of two. We regrouped. Mom asked what they do when they get lost and they looked at each other, shrugged, and said "This."

They both had such calm, confident demeanors when it came to the jungle. 
Apparently this trail was nothing compared to the mountain they climbed in Tanzania. They decided on a route and trudged forwards. The further we went, the more blue markers we saw.  I was so relieved and giddy to finally be on the trail again. The time passed really quickly. I could hear one of the guys talking to mom, asking her questions and helping her calm down. I was so incredibly grateful for the both of them. I could tell my mom to calm down and breathe for days without success. Hearing it in a British accent from a muscly trekker works much better for her. The guys shared the weight of Mom's heavy backpack and we tried to distract her from the trauma of getting lost. 

After 2 hours at a steady pace, we made it back to the main road. I've never been so relieved to see dirt. We weren't 'out of the woods' yet though. Earlier in the day it had taken me and my mom over 3 hours down hill to get to this point. I really wanted to give these guys a good meal, but if we kept walking with them at their speed it will just about kill Mom. They moved so fast and we were all trying to beat the sun. Our heroes insisted on staying with us and we charged up the road.

Mom was shaking and hurting, but she was determined not to be in the dark. She hurt her shin and was bleeding, but wouldn't let me patch her up. We arrived at the mouth of a hidden shortcut and the guys said that we could cut 3/4 off the length of the walk if we took it. It was extremely steep the entire way, mom's legs were giving up on her and the guys followed behind her, calmly coaching her to take deep breaths. Mom sobbed for most of the 40 minute shortcut. Even after we finished the insane trip up the mountain, we still had to go back to Abraão. It was pitch black outside and we still had an hour and a half of walking left to reach our hotel.

Then we heard the most magical sound of all, an engine. That truck I saw at the beginning of the day was coming up the road, and Mom turned with a look of fierce determination. The truck looked like it was going to pass us, but Mom was waving like crazy and it slowed to a stop. She ran to the open window shouting in English, forgetting she was in Brazil. When the driver couldn't understand her, she switched to broken Spanish, which didn't work either. Finally, we were able to get some Portuguese out of her (Portuguese is her native language). We all piled in and the driver started down the road. We told him our story and laughed and cried all the way down the mountain.  We took the guys out for dinner and thanked them over and over. 

The next day was our last day on the island and we didn't want to spend it traumatized in bed. Instead, we took an hour and a half long trail to a waterfall where I had the opportunity to shoot some self portraits. We arrived just as everyone left the waterfall to go get lunch, so there wasn't a soul in sight. I braved the freezing water for portraits.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Buenos Aires

After weeks experiencing the remote corners of Patagonia, I stopped for a couple of days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In UshuaiaPuerto NatalesEl Calafate, and El Chaltén, I relished my time spent alone with the silence of the wilderness, so suddenly transitioning to the second largest city in South America was jarring, to say the least. 

Casa Rosada

La Boca

Overwhelmed by the size of the city and the number of people rushing around me, I decided to focus in on the colorful details of the city. On my first day in Buenos Aires, I visited the La Boca neighborhood which is particularly famous for its vibrant architecture. I have no idea why, but I was especially drawn to doors.

La Recoleta Cemetery

My fascination with details, especially door handles, continued during my visit to Evita Perón's grave. I walked quietly through La Recoleta Cemetery, unable to shake the goosebumps from my body. I looked up, surrounded by enormous crypts whose coffins were so close I could reach out and touch them.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Journey to the End of the World - Fitz Roy

El Chaltén, Argentina

Traveling on the shoulder of the season was a great way to save money and avoid crowds, but what was most striking about traveling in Patagonia at the end of winter were the cold winter landscapes.  Dead trees brought a sense of sadness to forests, while hints of spring popped up in the most unexpected places. 

After traveling from the Argentina to Chile and then back to Argentina, I reached what I considered to be the highlight of my travels in Patagonia.  El Chaltén, Argentina, is a tiny mountain village nestled at the base of the Cerro Fitz Roy mountains.  With fewer than 1000 residents, El Chaltén depends completely on the trekkers and tourists who come to explore and see Fitz Roy.  Founded in 1985, El Chaltén felt brand new and totally rural at the same time.  Somehow, I wasn't surprised to find a cat hanging out in the dairy section of one of the village's two miniature grocery stores. 

Chorillo del Salto 

Weeks of paid excursions, buses, and boats left me starving for independence.  I was aching to hike on my own schedule and photograph a sunrise and a sunset.  Thankfully, El Chaltén was the perfect place for that.  All of the hiking trails in Los Glaciares National Park were free and about a 20 minute walk from my little cabin.  I arrived in El Chaltén by bus around midday, leaving about 5-6 hours for hiking that day.

One of the easier hikes listed on my map was the hike to Chorillo del Salto waterfall.  My heavy camera backpack made every hike a little harder than it should be, but it was totally worth it. 

After spending some time at the base of the waterfall, I noticed the silhouette of a hiker at the waterfall's mouth.  It looked impossibly high, dangerous, and totally fun.  The trail to the top of the waterfall was not official, nor was it marked, but that couldn't stop me.  I spent most of the climb on all fours, leaning my weight into the mountain to keep from toppling backwards.  I made it to the top, and the height made my stomach turn.  It was difficult to see over the rounded edge of the cliff, so I got down on my stomach and scooted to the edge. 

Mirador de los Cóndores

The natives originally named elusive Fitz Roy the "smoking mountain," thanks to the clouds that perpetually hover around its peak. I read dozens of accounts from tourists traveling across the world to see this incredible mountain, only to spend days battling rain and thick cloud cover. Many had to leave El Chaltén hoping the see the mountain, just once, from the plane. As with the rest of the trip, I prepared for the worst. After weeks of unbelievably good weather, I was sure that my luck would run out in El Chaltén. Thankfully I was wrong, so I hurried back to town to take the trail to the Mirador de los Cóndores to see my first Patagonian sunset. Even on this crystal clear evening, the mountain hid behind puffy clouds. The first day's hike totaled at 12 kilometers and ended with a quiet sunset.

Tales of a 30 Km Hike

Determined to catch a sunrise, I set my alarm for 5am and went to sleep early.  My goal was to hike to Laguna Capri, a "two hour hike uphill" according to my map.  Taking only the most important camera gear and snacks, I hit the trails in pitch darkness around 6am.  My flashlight was pitiful, but managed to keep me on the dusty trail up the mountain.  With no moon and dim starlight, it was impossible to see more than 2-3 feet ahead of me. The night air was freezing cold, but layers of clothing and the effort of the hike kept me warm.  I was surrounded by shadows of dead trees and total silence, there weren't even any bugs.  After about an hour of hiking in the dead of night, the sky grew pink, birds started chirping, and I could sort of see the trail without my flashlight.  Relieved, I put my flashlight away and picked up the pace.  The sun was far from peeking above the horizon, but I had a feeling that this hike was going to be much longer than I expected. 

The water in the park is safe to drink, there are even signs warning against washing dishes or yourself in the rivers.  The park officials take great care to make sure the water stays clean and safe, so for the first time in my life I knelt at the edge of fast moving stream and took a sip.  The icy water tasted so fresh and perfect, it was like being in a fairytale. 

I caught a glimpse of the tip of Fitz Roy through the trees, it was already pink!  I looked at my map and identified the stream I just passed and discovered I was only halfway to my destination.  I charged up the mountain.  After 3 hours of hiking up 1200 feet in elevation, I finally made it to the first lookout point, soaked in sweat.  My body was warm, so I didn't realize how cold it was until I tried to use my lip balm and discovered it was frozen solid.  The fierce orange changed to an icy stone color as I hiked from the lookout point to the lagoon. 

The absolutely perfect sky was free of clouds and the air started to get warmer.  I removed a couple of layers and looked at a map.  After 3 and a half hours of hiking it was only 9:30am.  The trails were completely empty and I had an entire day ahead of me.  I calculated that I could hike until about 2pm before I would need to turn around and hike back to town and arrive before dark.  Over the next 3 hours I pushed forward on the trails surrounded by haunting silver trees. 

I had been hiking for 5 hours without seeing a soul, so when a young couple came hiking up the path we struck up conversation.  They started their hike about 3 hours after I did and they had already caught up to me.  Talking helped distract me from my tired feet and their pace was so much faster than mine that they helped me cover much more ground without even realizing it.  Time sped by and I realized we were at the end of the safe, relatively flat trail.

From there was a path marked with exclamation points, danger signs, and strong recommendations to not continue.  My new friends looked up at the trail to Laguna de los Tres and said it was no big deal; they were just going to go to the top and come back.  The map indicated the trail would take them from 1200 in elevation to 2500 feet.  They went ahead and I plodded along at my own pace.  I only had an hour left before I absolutely had to turn back and I had no idea how far I would make it.  There were more warning signs: 'for experienced trekkers only' 'very dangerous when windy or rainy.'  I was not an experienced trekker, but it wasn't windy or rainy either.  After only 10 minutes, I hid my camera backpack and tripod in the woods and continued with just my camera, a banana and a water bottle. 

Free of the extra weight, I felt refreshed...for about 10 minutes.  The trail had about a 45 degree incline and was not fun.  The rocks were huge and uneven and no matter how far I climbed, the top didn't seem to get any closer.  I took a couple of breaks, cursing exhaustion and the height of the mountain.  I played in the snow for a bit and then came to a place in the trail that actually showed the rest of the path. 

I looked up..."Absolutely not."

Eventually my pleasant 45 degree incline would be replaced by a 60+ degree incline for the rest of the snow covered trail.  There was no sign of my friends, apparently they had already passed over the top of the mountain like super heroes.  The top of the mountain stood there, teasing me.  It looked like a reasonable height, but that incline...I only had half an hour left to get to the top before I had to turn back.

I spent several minutes trying to convince myself to give up and turn around.  Finally, I decided to sprint up the mountain for half an hour and give up if I hadn't gotten to the top by then. I had a renewed sense of power, drive, energy.  It
 was steep and rocky, but not too bad.  Things got complicated when I got to the first huge patch of snow.  There were no rocky places to get stable footing, so I followed the footprints from previous trekkers.  I was ok until I noticed an enormous hole where a trekker's foot fell 3 feet deep into the snow.  I proceeded carefully. 

The path got much steeper, I used both hands and feet to hold onto rocks and scramble up the mountain.  Patches of thick snow alternated with insanely steep slopes made of unstable rocks and muddy silt.  I was crawling, grabbing onto the snow with my bare hands.  I was so pumped with fear and determination that I couldn't even feel the sting of the ice.  The top of the ridge looked so close, I took photos every couple of minutes to check the time on my camera. 

To my dismay, it was an illusion.  The 'top of the ridge' was just an overhang that hid the real top.  I stood there, exhausted. I wanted that panoramic photo and it was so close!  It wasn't as close as I had thought, but I could do this. I checked the time...15 minutes.  I was encouraged with how far I got in 15 minutes and calculated that I could probably reach the top within my time limit and kept climbing.

The path started getting really scary. By "path" I mean "row of yellow sticks poking out of abnormally high piles of snow and sharp rocks."  I repeated mantras aloud: "You can do this" turned into "you are insane" to "SO close!"  I was out of breath, completely and utterly terrified, and totally determined to get to the top.  My water bottle and banana fell out of my sweater pocket over and over.  Eventually, I lost the banana completely and when my water bottle fell for a 7th time, I left it behind.

I'm not even sure how to describe the last 5-10 minutes of the climb. I couldn't look down without getting sick from the height, and I couldn't look up without getting aggravated at the top of the mountain. I stared ahead of me at each rock and patch of snow I grabbed. It was so steep that I had to kick the wall of snow to make a place for me to put my weight before taking another step. Rocks slipped out from under me and holes in the snow made me terrified to continue trying my luck. All I wanted was to get to the top and go home.

I made it. Finally I could see Fitz Roy, closer than I ever hoped it could be. The rush of finally arriving was washed away by the realization that the path still wasn't over. Ahead of me was a valley that, to my exhausted and terrified eyes, looked miles wide. On the edge of the next ridge I saw two tiny dots, my new friends.

I was out of time and couldn't go one more step. I turned back towards the path and immediately burst into tears. All I wanted was to get down from there. I sat on a pile of snow and slid my way down most of the mountain. It wasn't a perfect solution, but I was able to collect my water bottle and banana on the way down. My hands were red and numb.

I finally stopped sobbing and collected myself. My jeans were soaked, but I was too pumped with adrenaline to care. I reached the place in the trail where I left my dry ski pants and changed. After a couple of minutes I saw my friends coming down the mountain. They called out, thanking me for my "butt trails." They had apparently used them as guides for sliding down the mountain in their waterproof trousers. I asked them how they got so far and they replied "Oh, it was only five minutes from the first ridge." When I asked them how the trip up the mountain was they replied "nice, fun."

We walked together down the mountain.  It was so much faster, especially with them chatting.  I picked up my backpack and tripod on the way down, and we hiked together all the way back to the first lake where I took pictures in the morning.  On the way back, some hikers asked if the trail was really as bad as the park rangers said, my friends answered "Oh no it's really fine!  Just be careful, there is snow and sometimes you have to go off the path.  It's very beautiful."

Apparently, running up a dangerous trail alone, with no trekking experience and with a strict time limit distorts the experience....a lot.  The entire hike totaled at about 30 kilometers, the longest hike I've ever done in one day.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.