Climbing. Or not. In the rain.

One of my current projects involves filming a group of climbing students over several months for a video I'm producing for The Mountaineers. Let's just say the weather in the Cascade mountains has not been cooperative this year. Last weekend's trip to practice crevasse rescue saw more rain than snow, but it will all pay off when summer finally (if ever) arrives!

Leaders Matt Palubinskas and Adam Hollinger roughing it in the parking lot at Snoqualmie Pass, WA.

Leaders Matt Palubinskas and Adam Hollinger roughing it in the parking lot at Snoqualmie Pass, WA.

Captain Marielle and the Raft Race

Marielle

BUENOS AIRES – This is my friend Marielle. No, not the monkey, the other one. You may have read about her in some of my previous posts, but if not allow me to introduce her.

I met Marielle in Iquitos, Peru, when I went there for the Great Amazon River Raft Race. Marielle is from Holland where she left her job as a teacher to volunteer at a wonderful non-profit organization in Iquitos called Hogar Arco Iris, which in Spanish means "Rainbow Home." She's a great friend and an amazing role model to a lot of kids.

Arco Iris is home to about 50 children from Iquitos who are orphans or come from broken homes. Thanks to wonderful people like Marielle these kids have a real opportunity to make something of their lives in a place where it is so difficult to do so. They go to school, learn social skills, and are taught self-responsibility. They are even responsible for growing some of their own vegetables. During a year in South America I have seen a lot of charities, and this is a really good one.

Which is why I am writing this post.

Marielle has decided to enter a team in this year's Great Amazon River Raft Race at the end of September. She is using the event to raise money for a children's project in Iquitos, and I am asking everyone who reads this post to help out. This is a great opportunity to help some kids who have not been as fortunate as most of us, and I guarantee that with Captain Marielle at the helm the money raised will make a differnence in their lives.

Arco Iris Kids

Growing Vegetables (image courtesy of Hogar Arco Iris)

Everything helps, and in Peru a few dollars go a long way. If all you can afford is $10, please make a pledge. However, I know a lot of you can afford more – maybe $50 or $100. Heck, some of you spend $10 a day at Starbucks. (You know who you are...) So if you can pledge more, please do so. And don't let the numbers I mentioned be a limitation if you feel really generous!

I know we all get tired of being asked to support one cause or another, and I wouldn't ask for your help unless I was sure it would make a difference. You will probably never meet these kids, but through Marielle you can make a difference in their lives.

For information on sponsoring Captain Marielle's team visit http://www.challengemenow.org/ and look for Marielle Pepels.

UPDATE: The Challengemenow website is very difficult to use and does not seem work most of the time, so you can make your pledge by posting a comment at the bottom of this page and including the amount of your pldege! (Your email address WILL NOT appear on this site!) I will provide you with either an address in the U.S. where you can send a check or information on how to send your pledge to me via PayPal, whichever you prefer. I will then deliver all of your pledges to Hogar Arco Iris in person when I visit later this year. Marielle reads this site and will see your pledges and any encouraging comments you leave for her!

Thanks for your help!!!

Got Salt?

Got Salt?

UYUNI, BOLIVIA – Got salt? This is a photo of me standing on top of over 4,000 square miles of salt on the Salar de Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia. What the heck is a salar, you ask?

It's basically a giant salt flat. And this one, in Bolivia, is the largest in the world. It is the remains of a giant prehistoric salt lake which dried up and left all the salt behind, roughly 10 billion pounds of it. It is white, flat as a pancake, and stretches all the way to the horizon. Pretty wild stuff.

Jumping Over Salt

My trip through this remote corner of Bolivia served two purposes: First, I couldn't pass up the chance to see some of the strangest landscapes in the world. Second, I needed to get from Bolivia to Chile and there are no roads within hundreds of miles; the only way to get there is to cross this high desert plateau (up to 4,500 m, or 14,700 ft.) in a 4WD vehicle. I usually hate organized tours, but short of laying out a lot of cash to hire a private vehicle it's the only way to cross the border, so I took the plunge.

Our small group of six included travelers from Ireland, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S., along with our driver/guide, Gabriel, and a cook. Eight people, along with all of our gear and supplies, crammed into a less than reliable looking Toyota Land Cruiser and headed off into the desert.

Salar de Uyuni Reflections

Depending on the time of year, the Salar de Uyuni takes on different forms. During the dry season it is a flat, cracked plateau of white salt. At the moment, however, it's the wet season and the surface is covered by just a few inches of water. The resulting effect is that the entire surface of the salar turns into the the world's largest mirror, perfectly reflecting everything above the horizon in a mirror image below. It can actually be a bit disorienting.

Gabriel steered our Land Cruiser straight into the water and proceeded to drive past cones of drying salt evenly spaced across the surface. The locals mine the salt, and during the wet season form it into these cones so that it can dry. As we discovered, they do all kinds of things with salt here. In some places the layer of salt is 30-40 feet thick, and they cut bricks from it like you would cut snow bricks for an igloo. Around the edge of the salar you see buildings constructed from giant white blocks.

Salt Cones Drying

Cones of salt drying on the Salar de Uyuni

Somewhere in the middle of the salar, we pulled up at the Salt Hotel. And I mean that quite literally – it's a hotel built out of salt. The walls, the floor... everything is made from bricks of salt. Even the furniture is made from salt. Starting to get the idea?

Lunch with Salt

Rolling up our pant legs we cautiously stepped out and wandered around this strange, mind-warping landscape. This is one of those times when photos just don't do justice to a place. After wandering around for a while and eating lunch at – you guessed it – a table made of salt, we crammed into the Land Cruiser and headed for more remote locales.

That night we stayed in a small, ramshackle hostel in a nearby village, the six of us crammed into a single room. It was on par with a lot of places I have stayed in remote areas of Bolivia, but just in case you haven't been here let me paint a mental picture for you. Everything looks like it is about to fall down. Bathrooms sometimes consist of a hole in the floor. If there are toilets, flushing them involves dipping a bucket into a 55-gallon drum of dirty water and manually pouring it into the toilet bowl. Running water is a bonus, there is probably no heat, and you only get electricity for a couple of hours when someone turns on a generator. Once the power went out we passed the time playing cards by candlelight while drinking some surprisingly good Bolivian rum that we picked up for about $1 a bottle. The world is full of surprises.

Bolivian Flamingos

The next day we piled back into the Land Cruiser and headed even deeper into strangeness. An unexpected highlight for me was seeing all the flamingos. I have always associated flamingos with warm places like Miami, and the last place I expected to see them was in subfreezing temperatures at high altitude in the Andes. Yet they seem to do just fine here. My hat's off to them.

Over the next couple of days we traveled through the most surreal landscape I have experienced in my life. More salt flats, strange rock formations, lakes of various colors, giant dunes of borax, geysers, bubbling cauldrons of mud, hot springs, and volcanoes. I could never quite shake the feeling that I was walking through a Salvador Dali painting. If I tried to describe it all you would be reading for hours, so instead I will just post a bunch of photos and leave the rest to your imagination!

SUV Crossing Bolivian Desert

There are no roads high on the Bolivian plateau. Vehicles pick a spot and cross.

Boiling Mud - Bolivia

Bubbling cauldrons of mud and jets of steam really wake you up in the morning.

Arbol de Piedra

That's me standing under the 'Arbol de Piedra', or 'Tree of Stone'.

Borax Dunes and Red Lake

Where else can you walk on dunes of borax in front of an almost glowing red lake?

Welcome to Bolivia

The remote border crossing between Bolivia and Chile.

Bolivian Hot Springs

After three days crammed in a Land Cruiser, this hot springs at 4,200 m was most welcome!

The Mines of Potosi: Mountain that Eats Men

Potosi Mine 8

POTOSI, BOLIVIA — I struggle along on my hands and knees as the oppressive heat pushes in on me, pausing every few meters to take measured breaths through my mask. Thick dust chokes the air and I am only too aware that it contains particles of silica, asbestos, and arsenic. My world is reduced to the cone of light in front of me, illuminated by the lamp on my hardhat. I have no concept of space or time, only the narrow tunnel I am struggling through. Moments later I emerge into a larger chamber with other moving lights and jump out of the way as two dusty figures push an ore cart past me on seemingly ancient rails. This may sound like some kind of reality theme park, but it's not. I am deep underground inside the infamous mines of Potosi.

Sitting at an altitude of 4090m (13,400+ feet), Potosi, Bolivia, is generally considered to be the highest city in the world. Yet even with that superlative in its back pocket, Potosi is famous for something far more sinister: mines which have claimed millions of lives over almost five centuries. The city is dominated by the massive, pyramid-shaped Cerro Rico, literally "Rich Mountain," which serves as a constant reminder of the forces which have shaped its history.

Cerro Rico

Pyramid-shaped Cerro Rico (4800 m, 15,800 ft.) dominates the city of Potosi.

The discovery of large silver deposits under Cerro Rico in 1544 provided the impetus to found the city. At that time Bolivia was part of the Spanish empire, and the Spaniards were quick to exploit the resource. Between 1545 and 1824 up to 45,000 tons of silver were extracted from the mountain, rapidly making Potosi one of the most important cities in the world, with a population surpassing London or Paris. The silver produced here almost single-handedly funded the expansion of the Spanish empire for close to 200 years.

The dark side of history tells a different story. It is estimated that over the past five centuries millions of people, the vast majority indigenous and African slaves, have died working in the mines. It is no accident that Cerro Rico has been nicknamed "The Mountain that Eats Men."

I have decided that the best way to understand the mines is to experience them in person. My guide, Juan, is only too happy to share the gory details of history with me.

"This mountain is like Swiss cheese," he tells me. "Miners have been digging tunnels here for hundreds of years and nobody knows where they all are. The whole mountain is being hollowed out; we're on borrowed time."

Juan is a short, solid-looking man in his late 30's, and he knows a lot about Cerro Rico. He should; as a former miner he spent several years working underground alongside many of the same miners I will meet today. During his mining days he earned the nickname "Ocho," which he tells me means spicy in the local Quechua language, apparently some reflection of his personality.

Dynamite

Our first stop after donning mining attire is the miners' market. This is where Potosi's miners come to shop, and you can buy everything from dynamite to pure alcohol with the same casualness that most of us would associate with buying a box of Oreo cookies. We step into a small shop and Juan launches into a lesson on explosives.

"We have several types of dynamite to choose from," he says matter-of-factly, waving several sticks in the air. "The best is from Argentina, but we don't get much of it anymore. The second best is Bolivian dynamite, and the stuff from Peru is terrible."

I don't see the point in asking what makes one nation's dynamite better than another; I'm still shocked by the fact that I can walk in off the street and buy it, no questions asked. One complete explosive "kit," which includes a stick of dynamite, blasting cap, three-minute fuse, and a bag of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to enhance the explosion, costs a mere two U.S. dollars.

In addition to explosives we buy bottles of 96% pure alcohol (which the miners drink), bottles of soda, and bags of coca leaves. None of this is actually for us, but to give to the miners as gifts. It's a kind of 'thank you' for letting us crawl through their mine.

Coca Leaves

Stocked with explosives, alcohol, and coca leaves, we head off to our next stop. It occurs to me that what I am carrying would probably land me ten years in prison back home.

A few minutes later we pull up in front of an ore processing facility. It is surrounded by garbage – in fact, it looks like a dump – and as we approach I am hit with a strong chemical odor. Ore processing employs many toxic substances including various acids as well as cyanide. Additionally, byproducts such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic are abundant. Yet from what I can see none of the workers are wearing any protective equipment.

Ore Processing Facility

Entering the plant there are piles of semi-processed sludge sitting on a concrete slab by the door; who knows what it contains. Inside it is almost impossible to hear over the industrial machinery. Large tanks of frothy brown liquid are being stirred by enormous paddles, the contents separated into troughs. Juan reaches into one of the troughs with a small pan and lifts out a bit of the foamy brown soup. Like a prospector panning for gold he swirls it around while rinsing the contents with clean water. A minute or two later there are a few tiny flecks of pure silver resting at the bottom.

Panning for Silver

A bit further on I encounter open tanks of liquid with a strange smell. It is cyanide. Metal wheels rotate through the tanks, and small thimble-sized cups attached to the sides are transferring liquid cyanide into plastic funnels along one side of the tank. Some of the cups have broken off the wheel; an industrious person has jury-rigged a fix by attaching lids from soda bottles in their place.

Liquid Cyanide

Open tanks of liquid cyanide.

Juan explains that the average life expectancy of the people who work in these facilities is about 45 years of age. They work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and the constant exposure to chemicals – particularly cyanide – takes its toll. Why do they do it? Money. A worker in one of these plants can earn 1200 Bolivianos (about $150) per week. By comparison, he says, a teacher may earn around 300 Bolivianos per week.

And what happens to all the chemical waste? Well, nothing really. It's mostly dumped into the nearby river, helping Potosi earn a reputation as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The waste eventually makes its way downstream to Paraguay and Brazil.

The most shocking thing is that of the roughly 35 processing facilities here, almost none of them are Bolivian-owned. According to Juan, most of the plants are owned by Canadian companies.

"These companies, they are really terrible," he laments. "They pollute our rivers and poison our people. But the thing is, they provide something we really need. Jobs. Jobs that pay well. And the government is just as bad, because they don't do anything about the problems."

And that's how it's been for about 500 years.

Potosi Mine 5

Back in the truck, we continue our trip up the slopes of Cerro Rico, passing debris piles left by generations of miners as Juan explains a bit about the mining business.

When the mines first opened minerals were selectively extracted based on value. First came silver, and later metals such as tin and zinc. As the mines became less productive over the centuries, miners became less selective about what they brought out. Now they just remove everything and let the processing facilities sort out the minerals.

According to Juan, this shift in mining technique has only accelerated deteriorating conditions.

"We are literally hollowing out the mountain," he explains. "A while back Cerro Rico was evaluated by a group of American mining engineers. They concluded that within seven years the entire mountain had the potential to collapse on itself. That was eleven years ago. Hopefully it won't happen today."

Juan tells me that about 50 years ago miners began organizing into cooperatives in an effort to benefit more directly from their own labor. On average, these cooperatives have about 300 members, and only by working as a 'helper' for many years can one gain membership. There are hundreds of active mines under Cerro Rico, each operated by a different cooperative.

Candelaria Mine

We reach the entrance to the Candelaria Mine, one of the hundreds of mines currently operating underneath Cerro Rico. The entrance is littered with debris and a couple of ore carts lie on their sides; metal tracks half-buried in the mud extend from the low tunnel entrance.

Feeling a last-second twinge of fear, I ask Juan how carefully the mine has been constructed. His response is anything but reassuring.

"This isn't like a mine where you come from. We have no engineers, no geologists, or hydrologists. If someone wants to dig a tunnel, they dig it. There are no rules."

Potosi Mine 3

Upon first entering the mine it doesn't seem so bad after all. A string of incandescent lights extends down the tunnel, and plastic pipes run along one wall. About every ten meters there is an audible hiss coming from the pipes where fresh air is delivered from the outside world. I briefly have to remind myself that this is not a Disneyland tour, but one of the most dangerous mines in the world.

"Don't touch any of the wires. You'll get electrocuted," Juan says matter-of-factly.

Any illusion that this trip will be easy disappears about 100 meters into the shaft. The lights disappear, the tunnel roof lowers, and my hard hat is the only thing that keeps me from injuring my head on the rock above. Finding myself in a cloud of grey dust I realize that my mask is still around my neck; I quickly pull it over my face, wondering if I have already inhaled something toxic.

Potosi Mine 1

As we descend into the Earth the temperature rises to the point that I am sweating head to toe, rivulets of grey dust running down my cheeks. Several times we arrive at junctions with jagged tunnels heading off in every direction. This is a real-life maze, and a deadly one if you don't know your way around. Fortunately, Juan does.

Potosi Mine 4

After descending a shaft lined with what appears to be hundred year-old lumber, Juan calls for a rest. We flatten ourselves against the side of the tunnel as two miners pass, pushing a cart full of equipment. After waiting a few moments, Juan continues his story.

"Today, there are about 12,000 people working in the mines; about 2,000 of these are children, often as young as ten years old. Most of them will die very young. Some will last ten years, a few fifteen. Eventually, if they don't die in an accident, they will die of silicosis – respiratory problems resulting from inhaling particles of silica dust."

I have seen the children. Struggling through the tunnels it is impossible not to notice them; they seem terribly out of place. Like the adults, they wear no masks and breathe the fine dust into their lungs. They have already begun the process of killing themselves. Most will never see their 30th birthday.

"The children work here instead of going to school because they can earn money. Sometimes 50 Bolivianos (about US$6) per day. That's a lot of money in Bolivia, especially when you're ten years old."

They will pay with their lives.

Potosi Mine 2

As if by some unspoken plan we turn off our lights and just sit, listening to the silence of the mine. Hundreds of feet underground, with no light, it is the blackest black I have ever seen. Even in the darkest night there is some light. Not here.

Passing groups of dusty miners, we continue our descent. There is no machinery, no automation here. Every ounce of stone that makes it to the surface is moved by brute force in a cart or on somebody's back. As a result, even young men look old after a short time in the mines.

Mine Cart

We have descended several levels into the mine when we reach Tío.

Tio, The Devil

In Spanish, Tío literally means uncle. But down here, Tío is the god of the underworld. The Devil. When the miners are above ground they worship God. When they are below ground, they pay homage to Tío, asking for his protection while intruding into his realm.

Life-size statues of Tío, probably thousands of them, are scattered about the mines under Cerro Rico. They are surrounded by offerings left by miners in hopes of bringing good karma. The statue we encounter is covered with party ribbons and confetti, a testament to the recently concluded celebration of Carnival. In addition there are dried alpaca fetuses, bags of coca leaves, and bottles of the 96% pure cane alcohol preferred by the miners.

According to Juan it is tradition for miners to gather near Tío at the end of the week to give offerings, ask for protection, and to drink the 96% pure alcohol – admittedly to dull the senses after a week of work.

Picking up a bottle of pure alcohol that somebody has left, Juan sprinkles a bit on the ground at Tío's feet as an offering, then takes a swig. He passes the bottle to me.

As I swallow the burning liquid my eyes feel like they're about to pop out of my head; I do my best to look unruffled as Juan continues.

"I'm a bit worried," he says, looking at Tío. "In the old days people had a lot of respect for these traditions. They took them seriously. I think the young people now just use it as an excuse to drink. It's not good."

I ask if it's possible that years of drinking pure alcohol could be as responsible for the early deaths of miners as breathing toxic dust.

"It's probably a combination of the two," he admits.

Potosi Mine 7

Continuing our subterranean trek we pass through shafts so low that I am crawling on my stomach, clawing my way over what seem to be centuries-old boards, abandoned rails, and climbing near vertical shafts in dust so thick that I can't see more than a meter in front of me. In the maze of the mine I am completely lost. Without Juan to guide me I would never reach the surface.

After a few hours my mask has become so choked with dust that I briefly pull it from my face in an effort to take a full breath. Even here underground we are over 4000m high and the air is thin. I try to pretend that the cloud of dust surrounding me is not there, and I begin to understand why the miners don't bother with masks. At some point it's easier to resign yourself to the inevitable than to struggle endlessly for breath.

After what seems like an eternity I feel a light breeze coming from one of the shafts. Minutes later it becomes a pinprick of light – literally the light at the end of the tunnel. I suddenly appreciate that saying like never before in my life. Emerging into sunlight I tear the mask from my face and breathe clean, cold mountain air. I am covered head to toe in toxic grey dust mixed with my own sweat.

Fresh air never felt so good.

As I stand on the slopes of Cerro Rico, I can't help looking back at the entrance to the mine and thinking about the hundreds of men – and children – still at work in there. Unlike me, they don't get to go in for a day, then leave forever. They live subterranean lives, performing backbreaking labor, with the almost-certain promise of early death as payback. It's the most sobering moment of my South American travels.

I Found Jesus...

Dale with Christ Statue

COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA — I found Jesus. It wasn't hard to find Him since this is the tallest statue of Christ in the world. At 33 m (about 40 m if you include the pedestal) it's just a few centimeters taller than the famous statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. The statue stands on a hill right in the middle of the valley, so you can see it form anywhere in the city. And if you want an even better view, you can climb up the stairs inside and look out from the top.

View from Christ Statue

Cochabamba sprawls across a very nice valley in central Bolivia, however I can't say that I really like the city that much. It's not that it's a bad place, it's just not terribly interesting.

That said, there is one thing that has kept me here a couple days longer than expected. The food. I'm not talking about anything fancy, expensive, or innovative. In fact, everthing I like can be bought from street vendors. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Fruit

Maybe I have just been in the mountains too long, but Cochabamba seems to have an amazing amount of fruit. My first day here I walked through the central market and discovered numerous stalls where women were making fresh fruit salads. I decided to take the plunge and ordered one from a friendly lady named Lisbeth. She instantly started cutting up fresh fruit - bananas, pineapples, oranges, strawberries, grapefruit, apples, mangos, peaches, and grapes - which she dumped into a large bowl. She topped the whole thing off with some canned peaches, fresh yogurt, jello, and freshly grated coconut. The end result was an absolutely huge bowl of fruit that I could barely finish. Total cost in U.S. dollars: about 40 cents. Lisbeth's fruit stand has been a regular stop for me every day since.

 

 

Fruit Salad
Relleno

The other food to which I became quickly addicted are rellenos. Relleno is a pretty generic Spanish word to describe a food, but it generally refers to something like a sandwich or something with a filling. In Cochabamba rellenos consist of a layer of mashed potates surrounding a mixture of meat and vegetables - beef or chicken with onions, peppers, tomato, etc. - which is then dipped in a batter and deep fried. The closest approximation I can think of is a New York knish, but these are much better. I'm sure they are terrible for you, but that doesn't change the fact that they taste incredible.

I'll be moving on pretty quickly, but not until I make another pass through the market for some food!

New Year at the Beach

HUANCHACO, PERU — What better way to celebrate the New Year than at the beach? After spending the better part of two months in the mountains I was ready for some warm weather, so along with my new friends Cedd and Emma from the U.K. I decided to head for the oceanfront town of Huanchaco, along Peru's north coast, where sun, sand, and surf awaited us. (Hopefully...)

Huanchaco is famous for the tortora reed boats used by local fishermen. These boats have been employed here for generations, and if you arrive at the beach before dawn you can watch fishermen head out to sea much as they would have done hundreds of years ago. Built of tightly packed tortora reeds, the boats are flat in the rear, with a bow that tapers and bends upward. Fishermen battle through the surf with nothing more than a wide paddle made from split bamboo.

Shortly after sunrise the tortora boats begin returning to the beach, met by groups of kids in bright clothing and the occasional fish buyer. You can usually tell which boats have made a good catch by the number of kids gathered around them. Fish are sorted into reed baskets where they make a short trip up the street to the local market.

Sorting fish...

On New Year's Eve the beach lit up with hundreds of campfires surrounded by thousands of people. We found ourselves sharing a fire with a group of young Peruvians and some tourists from Mexico. The Peruvians provided beer, the Mexicans provided rum, and we provided fireworks. A riotous combination, I assure you. By 3:00 AM I couldn't stay awake any longer and went to bed, but was impressed that when I woke up at 8:00 AM the entire town was still in full party mode, complete with live music and dancing. Partying is never done half-heartedly in South America.

Sunset on New Year's Eve: The party is about to begin...

A day later I rendezvoused with my friend Marielle, a Dutch woman I met when I was in the jungle for the Great Amazon River Raft Race. Marielle is volunteering at a great home for children in Iquitos, Peru called Hogar Arco Iris; she also happens to be one of my favorite people in South America. Taking a well-deserved vacation from her work, she couldn't pass up the chance to lie on the beach en route to a holiday in the Galapagos Islands.

Not wanting to pass up nearby cultural opportunities, we visited the mud pyramid of Huaca del Luna (Temple of the Moon) and the mud-brick city of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. It's pretty amazing what these early civilizations were able to build out of mud. Covering 20 square km, Chan Chan is so big that even today you can clearly see its outlines from aerial photos - for example, here on Google Maps. You may also notice that the Peruvian government had no qualms about building a highway right through the middle of it.

Back a the beach we had mixed luck on the weather, but managed to get enough sun one afternoon for me to get a nice sunburn. And we did luck out with a couple of really spectacular sunsets.

The last night before leaving town I surprised Marielle with a box(!) of sangria and plastic cups on the beach at sunset. I'm sure she would tell you that I 'forced' it on her, but I'll let you look at the picture below and decide for yourself!

Santa Claus Found Me

CHACHAPOYAS, PERU — I arrived in Chachapoyas on Christmas Eve, following two brutal days of travel through the boondocks of Ecuador and Peru. (Read about it here.) Exhausted beyond belief and not knowing anyone in town, I was fully prepared for a lonely Christmas highlighted by an early night's sleep. But somehow the spirit of Christmas wasn't going to let me off the hook that easily, and everything turned out merry and bright.

This was going to be my Christmas dinner - a Panetón purchased at the store.

As soon as I arrived in town I checked into the Hostel Revash, a family-run hostel across the street from the Plaza de Armas. An hour later as I walked through the lobby I was stopped by the owner, a genial man named Carlos.

"I noticed you arrived alone tonight. Do you have plans for Christmas eve?" he inquired.

Conceding that I didn't, Carlos extended an invitation that I wasn't expecting.

"I hate to see anyone spend Christmas alone. I would be honored if you would join my family for our traditional Christmas dinner tonight," he said.

I was caught off guard; I wasn't expecting to be invited to Christmas dinner by a total stranger. Gathering my thoughts I quickly accepted. Carlos responded with a large smile.

Shortly before midnight there was a knock on my door. Carlos, smile still on his face, led me toward the back of the building where his family lived. I found myself in large room with a table decked out in full holiday cheer, a blazing fire in the fireplace, and Carlos's immediate and extended family there to greet me. Carlos explained that his family had owned the building for over 150 years, and it was tradition to have important gatherings in this room.

Over a steaming hot dinner of turkey, scrumptious vegetables, fresh bread, and abundant champagne, Carlos and his family made me feel like one of their own for the evening. Following dinner the entire party moved to the fireplace where Carlos had another surprise in store. Pulling out a guitar, he proceeded to play folksongs while the rest of us drank wine and did our best to sing along for the next several hours. By three or four in the morning we finally gave in and returned to our respective homes.

A blurry photo of an after-dinner toast.

It was a small gesture that Carlos made, but his unexpected hospitality really brightened my Christmas. For one evening I really felt like I had a family right here in Chachapoyas, Peru. My Mom and Dad sent me an email on Christmas Day asking if Santa Claus found me this year. Yes, he found me. Except instead of a read suit and a bag full of toys, he sported a sweater and a guitar!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Crossing the Border the Hard Way

(Note: For a variety of reasons I wasn't able to get any photos to go with this post.)

CHACAPOYAS, PERU — "Are you sure you want to go that way?" asked the woman at the tourism office for the third time.

The fact that you keep asking me the same question makes me want to go that way even more, I thought to myself.

The way in question was a remote border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. There are officially three land-based border crossings between the two countries; one at Huaquillas, one at Macará, and the third at a seldom visited outpost known as La Balsa. The vast majority of travelers cross at the first two locations, largely due to the fact that they are near places that people actually want to go to. The crossing at La Balsa, however, is extremely remote and difficult to get to. Heck, the border crossing didn't even exist until a few years ago when Ecuador and Peru ended a 60-year border dispute that resulted in more than a few instances of armed conflict.

At first the tourist office official wouldn't even acknowledge that I could cross the border at La Balsa. Pushing her a bit harder she gave in and changed her story.

"OK, you can cross there, but I don't recommend it. It's very remote and takes a long time. Tourists don't like it. Lots of things can go wrong."

Little did she know that she was talking to the Accidental Explorer. Remote places where things can go wrong are what I'm looking for.

A few days later I embarked on my journey from the quaint town of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. My destination: Chachapoyas, Peru.

At 6:30 AM I flagged down a southbound bus in Vilcabamba. In typical South American style the bus didn't actually stop, and I had to execute a flying leap through the door while wearing my pack. Once aboard I discovered that there were no open seats left. I settled in for a long, bumpy ride standing in the aisle.

Shortly after departing Vilcabamba we left paved road behind; it was the last pavement I would see for quite a while. Winding its way along steep mountain valleys the bus bounced and pitched through every pothole of the one lane dirt track, flanked on one side by a sheer wall, on the other by precipitous Andean cliffs. The horrendous conditions didn't deter the driver from passing cars on blind corners or accelerating to alarmingly unsafe speeds. Each bump sent a shockwave up my spine and it didn't take long to get a bus-induced headache. Six hours later we finally pulled into the remote town of Zumba, just north of the Peruvian Border.

In Zumba I transfered to a ranchero for my next hop to the border proper. A ranchero is basically a flatbed truck with rows of wooden benches and a roof mounted over the back. Designed for about 35 passengers, the driver had no qualms about loading us up with close to 60 people, including the ones hanging onto the roof. For the next two hours the ranchero bobbed and weaved over precarious, washed out roads that in places are seemingly too narrow for a compact car, let alone a flatbed truck. My prime seat along the side insured that I could look straight down into empty space, particularly when the outside tire was hanging into thin air. Two hours of this punishing ride brought us to the border town of La Balsa.

La Balsa isn't much of a town, just a small outpost along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The migraciónes (immigration) officer there sees so few foreigners that he wasn't even at his post when we arrived. The town's lone police officer tracked him down, wearing a dirty white t-shirt and smoking a wilting cigarette. After giving my passport a cursory inspection he placed a completely illegible exit stamp on one page and handed it back to me, gooey ink dripping from the paper. I walked across the bridge to Peru and repeated the process on the other side.

The trip was just starting to get interesting.

On the Peruvian side of the border transportation was limited to colectivos, Toyota Corolla station wagons that essentially function as shared taxis. The driver of my colectivo was Mario. His name was appropriate because he drove like Mario Andretti - really fast. Before leaving, Mario crammed nine people and all of our luggage into his car. (For those of you who believe it is impossible to fit nine adults plus luggage into a Toyota Corolla station wagon, I suggest that you expand the limits of your imagination.)

Mario put pedal to the metal and we spun tires before careening down a dirt track that made the crater-strewn roads of Ecuador look like a superhighway. Mario's odometer read over 300,000km, though since it was no longer functional there's no telling how overdue he was for a tune-up. At one point we blasted through a village without slowing, livestock fleeing in every direction. Mario ran down a large chicken (apparently it really was trying to cross the road!) but didn't even bother looking in his rearview mirror to see the carnage. Not that he could, given that there were no mirrors remaining in his car. Three harrowing hours later we screamed into the lonesome town of San Ignazio, tires smoking, where I checked into the only hostel I could find. Sweeping the cockroaches off the bed with my arm I settled in for a depressingly short sleep.

At 5:00 AM I boarded a combi, a Toyota minivan that doubles as a bus in rural Peru. Before leaving San Ignazio 21 people had joined me for the ride to Jaen. College kids trying to stuff themselves into Volkswagen Beetles have nothing on Peruvians. (Lest you be impressed at 21 people in a Toyota minivan, I should point out that my record is 25.) For three hours we pounded over barely recognizable roads, my face pressed against a glass window.

At Jaen I took a three-wheeled moto-taxi across town where I caught another colectivo for the trip to Bagua Grande. I was pleasantly surprised to find only seven people along for the ride. Sometime between Jaen and Bagua Grande we hit paved road for the first time in as long as I could remember.

After a relatively short 90-minute ride we arrived in Bagua Grande where I took yet another moto-taxi tricycle across town and jumped in yet another combi for the trek to Pedro Ruiz. At least we finally had paved road, making the 90-minute trip tolerable for the 22 people on board.

In Pedro Ruiz I made my last transfer of the day to another colectivo. It felt relatively roomy with only six people stuffed inside the metal box. The rear doors had no windows, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as everyone but me smoked like volcanos. My driver, the aptly named Jesus, stopped midway to refuel. As gasoline pumped into the tank I noticed that everyone was still smoking. My fellow passengers were smoking. Jesus was outside smoking at the gas pump. The man from the filling station was smoking as he pumped gas. Having sudden visions of a large mushroom cloud, I rapidly developed a 'cramp' in my leg and exited the car to stretch. About 50 meters away. Somehow Jesus managed to fuel the car without blowing up northern Peru, and three hours later we finally arrived at my destination: Chachapoyas.

Trip Statistics:

Hours in transit: 20.5
Total vehicles: 9
Vehicle types; 5
Ibuprofen (Advil) consumed: 2000mg
Cockroaches in hostel: at least 100
Run-over livestock: 2 chickens
Near-death experiences: countless

Flowers of Ecuador

VILCABAMBA, ECUADOR -  Ecuador is a treasure chest of plant life and has one of the most diverse ecosystems of any country in the world.  In particular, the flowers here never cease to amaze me.  I'm not a botanist and have absolutely no idea what most of these flowers are, so I'm going to challenge some of you back home.  If you're a floral expert and think you know the names of any of these flowers, please post a comment and tell me!  Enjoy.

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Fiestas de Quito

QUITO, ECUADOR — This holiday wouldn't even be legal in the United States.

I'm talking about Fiestas de Quito, a city-wide festival to celebrate the founding of Quito by the Spanish on December 6, 1534. The official holiday falls on the 6th, but Fiestas de Quito kicks off on November 30, beginning a week-long period of partying. And I do mean partying. Streets are crowded until all hours of the night, bars practically flinging their doors open to the crowds, and brass bands cruise the city playing the same song over and over again. There are dozens of live concerts, a beauty pageant, various competitions, and bullfights featuring the best matadors from Ecuador and around the world.

One of the most popular traditions during Fiestas de Quito is to ride around the city for hours on open-air buses called chivas. The basic idea is to cram as many people as possible onto a chiva, toss in a brass band, a liberal supply of liquor, noisemakers, flags, and - if it interests you - fireworks. The band typicially goes on the roof, and passengers ride wherever they can find space: on the roof, the back, hanging off the side... you get the idea. The chiva proceeds to cruise all over Quito amidst throngs of celebrations as passengers drink, make noise, wave flags, and shoot roman candles at whatever (and whoever) they feel like.

The first night of Fiestas de Quito I joined about 40 of my closest friends from the South American Explorer's Club for our very own chiva party. Being first-time chiva partiers we weren't completely versed in chiva party etiquette, and as a result nobody thought to bring roman candles to randomly fire into crowds, though we managed to get all the other paraphernalia in place. Our bus arrived, complete with brass band on roof, and like crazy college kids we piled on and began partying.

Our chiva cruised in the direction of Old Town Quito, with its colonial vibe and large plazas. Upon reaching the Old Town we slowed to a crawl in places as our driver negotiated the road covered by thousands of party-goers. Vendors sold food and drinks as we passed by, kids with squirt guns would occasionally open fire, and balls of fire shot from roman candles passed over our heads. The brass band never missed a beat and the party aboard the bus never broke stride.

The week of partying is capped off by a giant nighttime parade down one of Quito's main avenues. Imagine a parade on the scale of the Rose Parade, combined with the party atmosphere of Mardi Gras, along with a hefty dose of fireworks being ignited by people in the crowd. Grand floats pass by one after another, indigenous people dress in traditional outfits and dance, and beauty queens pass by waving to the crowd. Unlike parades in the U.S., however, where spectators obediently observe a barrier separating them from the parade, spectators in Quito surge into the street between almost every float, only to surge back the other direction as the next one threatens to run them down. It's a different way of doing things. It's the Ecuadorian way!

Street Kids of Iquitos

IQUITOS, PERU — Over the past few weeks I've gotten to know quite a few people here in Iquitos, including a number of the street kids.

Many visitors consider them to be pests, nuisances, troublemakers, or even criminals, but the reality is that most of these kids were born into unfortunate circumstances.

Many are trying to make money to support their families, usually by selling items such as t-shirts, jewelry, or handicrafts.

I thought I would introduce you to a few of these kids to put a human face on things.

Meet Antony. He's eight years old and spends his days making the rounds between tourist restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Antony sells handicrafts that he makes at home with his mother and siblings, including woven bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Sometimes he sells t-shirts. Like any good salesman he knows how to turn on the charm, and when he approaches you it's almost impossible to turn him away. Before you know it Antony has become your fashion consultant and is finding an item to match your taste. At about $1-2 per item he's able to make a number of sales, but at the end of the day it's not much. Antony doesn't attend school regularly but hopes to join the army when he gets older.

Jackson is 13 years old. Most days it's not hard to find him around the Plaza de Armas or along the river walk selling t-shirts. Unlike a lot of the street kids here Jackson is still in school, though working keeps him from attending full-time. Once a week he returns home to the town of Nauta, a two hour ride away, to attend school for a couple of days, after which he returns to the streets of Iquitos. He says he wants to graduate if possible and even wants to learn English, though given his educational opportunities the prospects don't seem great. Jackson aspires to be a police officer and hopes to one day join the ranks of the Policía Nacional.

And there's Willy. At ten years old he no longer attends school in order to sell t-shirts full time. Willy is a very persistent and energetic salesman; if he were born in the U.S. he would probably be a millionaire by age 21, but unfortunately for him he wasn't. His family lives in Nauta, but Willy lives with the owner of the company that makes the shirts he sells. Each shirt costs 20 soles (about $7), and for every shirt he sells Willy gets to keep 1 sol (about 30 cents). He only sells a handful of shirts each day, but his income provides essential support for his mother and siblings back in Nauta. For this Willy has given up his education.

These street kids always refer to one another with reference to their "profession." You will hear things like "Carlos is a lustrino (shoeshine boy)," or "Jorge is a vendedor de camisetas (shirt salesman)." These kids are too young to have professions, but they do.

The biggest thing these kids have going against them is luck of the draw on birthplace. Had they been born somewhere like Seattle, Toronto, or Paris their lives would no doubt be quite different. And it's a sobering thought to realize that the single most important factor which allows me to be an international traveler instead of street kid is that I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S.

(Note: photo of Willy courtesy of The Iquitos Times.)

The Great Amazon River Raft Race – Part II

(To read Part I of this article click here)

Day two. I wake up early with the idea that I can make a few improvements to our raft, but quickly realize that it's a hopeless cause; we simply have a crappy raft. I discover that a few of the Peruvian teams are dropping out of the race. No longer in contention to win prize money after the first day they are throwing in the towel to return to their villages. With a sudden stroke of genius I take the quintessential American approach to solving our problem – I buy a better raft.

It turns out I'm not the only foreigner with this idea, and other teams are trying to do the same thing. For a brief period this remote bank of the river becomes the Amazon version of a used car lot, buyers and sellers haggling over prices and options. Fifteen minutes later I am the proud owner of a new raft and a primo set of paddles. Price? Raft: $3. Paddles: $5. Not having to use our old raft again: priceless.

Pushing off from shore we instantly feel the difference our new balsa makes. It's stable, travels straight, and feels like a sports car. We finally have our Ferrari.

"Now all we need is an engine," Montana John muses.

For ten hours we paddle. Banana trees along shore tempt us throughout the day. We watch monkeys move through the trees and brightly colored birds flitting about the jungle. Entire villages turn out to wave at the crazy people on the log raft floating down the river. Occasionally we even discover a tarantula that has taken up residence aboard our balsa.

Mid-morning we meet a man fishing from a canoe. He shows us a basket of fish including a couple piranha, confirming our suspicion that they lurk below us, ready to strip flesh to the bone in mere seconds.

The most Amazing thing about the Amazon is how big and remote it is. You can read about it or see photos, but you simply can't appreciate how vast and isolated it is without traveling it. To put it in perspective, the Amazon has more water flowing through it than the next six largest rivers in the world combined, and is responsible for a fifth of all the fresh water entering the world's oceans. It has multiple tributaries larger than the Mississippi, and during the high water season can flood to over 100 miles wide in places. In short, this is one big river.

Throughout most of our journey we see no signs of human existence. Not even another boat. On either side of the river is thick jungle, full of wildlife that has never seen a human being. You could enter that jungle and walk for hundreds of miles without encountering a road. It is the definition of the middle of nowhere.

Food and water supplies run low, and hunger and thirst begin to set in along with exhaustion and fatigue. Norma spies a peki-peki, a motorized river canoe, passing in the other direction and waves it down. An old woman riding in front grins and waves back; the old man at the helm of the sputtering engine turns in our direction. The peki-peki is so overloaded with fruit that I'm amazed it even floats.

"¿Cuanto cuestan las piñas?" asks Norma.

How much do the pineapples cost?

Moments later the old man, whose rough life in the jungle clearly shows on his weathered skin, is passing pineapples across the water to us as we pass coins back the other direction.

The media hard at work aboard the Dawn on the Amazon.

For the next hour we eat pineapples while watching a storm move across the horizon like a wall of black. Realizing too late that it's on a collision course with us I glance towards shore, knowing right away that we can't make it in time. Minutes later the storm wraps itself around us and we lose sight of everything else on the planet; for all practical purposes we may as well be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Winds howl and water turns to whitecaps. Lightning surrounds us on all sides and we are tossed about like a bathtub toy. Anything not tied down is lost.

I am simultaneously terrified and exhilarated. Here we are in the middle of the Amazon River on a log raft, in a lightning storm, completely isolated from the world, with only wooden paddles and our own muscles to move us. How many people will ever experience this and know what it is like? I have never felt so alive.

The storm passes and with our remaining strength we paddle the last few miles to the riverside town of Tamshiyacu, arriving just as the sun is setting. It feels like a veritable metropolis after the isolation of the jungle.

Dragging my battered body up the hill and into town I discover a festive atmosphere.

"¿Vengas a la fiesta?" a young man asks me as I cross the central plaza.

Are you coming to the party?

His name is Cesar. As he talks his friends share fresh pan de yuca, a soft bread made from the starchy root of the manioc plant, with me. It's delicious. Cesar explains that today is the anniversary of the founding of Tamshiyacu. Tonight there will be a party so loud it will rattle your teeth. I promise to come.

The Over the Hill Gang taking a "multiple-beer tow" behind the Dawn on the Amazon.

Later, aboard the Miron II, Mick announces the race standings for the first time. I am completely floored to discover that among the international teams we are in first place. Despite finishing dead last on the second day, our combined time has put us into the lead by 49 minutes, ahead of the Lady Vets and the Rasta Boys, but still hours behind even the slowest Peruvian teams. With a bit of extra spring in my step I head back into town as I hear the music start.

It doesn't take long before my buddy Cesar spots me, and the next thing I know I'm drinking beer in the town plaza and listening to music that can probably be heard hundreds of miles away in Lima. Beer eventually gives way to aguardiente, and in due course I walk, stumble, and crawl my way back to the Miron II. The music is so loud that every thump of the bass creates tiny ripples on the glassy surface of the river.

My teeth are indeed rattling, though I'm not sure if it's from the noise or the aguardiente.

Day three. There is a mad rush to leave early. Crack-of-dawn early. Mick has decided that each team can leave today whenever it's ready. Wanting to take advantage of the cool morning air and calm water, rafts begin leaving shore at 6:30 AM.

We are not one of them.

Montana John is missing, and nobody seems to know where he is. I sit on the edge of our raft munching soda crackers to ease my queasy stomach, teeth still numb from the previous night. Norma is peeling a papaya she picked up along the river somewhere. Mirta just sits quietly; she is her usual staid self. It occurs to me that in two days on the river I have never seen Mirta eat or drink anything. She's superhuman.

At 7:15 Montana John materializes, having spent the night at a hostel in town, unable to pass up the prospect of a bed and a shower. We wave him over, but he shakes his head and points at the Dawn on the Amazon, a luxury riverboat that has been following the race.

"Where are you going?" I yell, giving myself a headache in the process.

"To eat breakfast," he replies nonchalantly as he disappears up the gangplank.

Lying across our raft I stare up at the clear blue sky. It's the only thing that doesn't spin when I look at it. As I slowly chew the last of my crackers, John is putting away bacon, eggs, toast, fruit salad, and coffee. Hell, for all I know he's probably washing it down with a couple of mimosas.

At 7:45 he reappears, looking significantly more nourished than the rest of us, and we push off.

We are the last team to leave.

Two days on the river have not been fruitless. We have learned to read the current and predict where it will be fastest. It's like free energy. It takes only ninety minutes to overtake the Over the Hill Gang, still guarding the cooler strapped to their raft.

A couple of hours later we spy more teams, mere pinpricks of color, miles away on the opposite shore of the river. We've placed our bet on a different channel, and through cunning observation – or more likely dumb luck – we are in the faster one. One by one we slide past them until only the Rasta Boys are ahead of us. Excited by the prospect of starting last and finishing first we motor past them and never look back.

The Rasta Boys dining on ripe jungle melon.

We reach the outskirts of Iquitos, drooling in anticipation of the finish line, our hands raw from the rough wood of the paddles. It occurs to me that Mick never bothered to tell anyone exactly where the race is supposed to end, and I am briefly struck by the horror that we might have gone too far without noticing. My fears are allayed when a boat directs us into a side channel and we see the Miron II a scant quarter-mile away.

Suddenly, we are confronted by the cruelest twist of the entire race: the side channel we are entering is not, in fact, a side channel, but a tributary of the Amazon called the Rí­o Nanay. The last quarter-mile of the race is upriver, against a current.

Driving our paddles into the water we push forward with every ounce of remaining strength. Minutes of work result in mere inches of movement. Conversation is reduced to grunts and profanity in two languages. Translation is unnecessary.

After what seems like hours the Miron II is so close we can almost reach out and touch it. Standing on the stern, beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, Mick has a giant shit-eating grin on his face as he watches every painful stroke. Spectators lining the shore cheer madly as we struggle to keep going.

Our balsa finally touches shore. Half walking, half crawling, I make it onto dry land and immediately stub my toe, grimacing as I stifle a scream. Examining my quickly bruising appendage I discover that it's broken. Someone hands me a bottle of Iquiteña beer, which I down with alarming efficiency.

As the remaining rafts struggle against the current we wait along the riverbank with new friends from the last few days. There are no longer teams, just fellow racers who have stuck it out long enough to finish, the distinction between international visitors and local residents having mostly disappeared over 142 miles of Amazon River. Now there is just a sea of people from all over the world, drinking cold beer, sharing stories, slapping backs, and exchanging email addresses. Yes, even Amazon River villages have the Internet.

Gathering for the awards ceremony Mick presents the first place prize to "The Invincibles," a team from the nearby river village of Padre Cocha. Their time of just over thirteen hours blows us away by almost twelve hours. I'm more than a little bit embarrassed when my team is called up to accept the first place trophy for the international division. It's like icing on the cake; winning was never really the point for us. Like summitting a high peak, just finishing is a victory.

Ceremony complete, beer consumed, we say our goodbyes. Everyone asks if I will be back for the race again next year. I nod my head and feign surprise that they need even ask. I don't bother mentioning my secret fantasy is that ESPN will decide to cover the event next year and, as former champion, hire me as color commentator.

My improbable team has one last high-five before going our separate ways. Mirta disappears into the crowd as enigmatically as she appeared three days earlier. In a few days Norma will return to Lima. And Montana John? Well, the next time I see him it's in a smoky hut deep in the jungle with a shaman performing the ancient ayahuasca ceremony. But that's a story for a different time.

Our prize for winning the race is a three-day trip to the Amazon Rainforest Lodge. My teammates, all having spent enough time on the Amazon to satisfy their needs, elect not to go, but my new buddies the Rasta Boys are more than happy to stand in for them. Together we head off into the dark, foreboding jungle, where we finally get to meet many of the wild creatures that have haunted our thoughts in recent days.

(Note: Some of the race images in this article are courtesy of Bill Grimes/Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises)

The Great Amazon River Raft Race – Part I

Pilsener Beer

IQUITOS, PERU – Like many great adventures, this one begins over beer. Specifically, the local Ecuadorian brew called Pilsener. There are no thoughts of Tarantulas. Or piranhas. Or 40-hour bus rides, corrupt policemen, sugarcane alcohol, broken bones, lightning, or intestinal parasites. Not yet, at least. That will come later. For now there is just adventure. Or at least the prospect of it.

"The World's Longest Rafting Race" teases the hand-drawn poster on the wall of the South American Explorers Club in Quito. Sitting around with a few like-minded adventurers the poster makes great fodder for alcohol-induced conversation. After one beer it's a running joke. After two it seems like a good idea to enter. After three we have formed a team and my fellow travelers are forking over money to pay the registration. Looking at the poster for fine print we discover there is none. Only a warning that "The faint of heart need not apply" along with the location: the remote city of Iquitos, Peru.

The Great Amazon River Raft Race is the brainchild of Michael "Mad Mick" Collis, a British ex-pat living in Iquitos. Mick has been putting on raft races for years, but this is by far the longest. On paper it sounds remarkably simple: paddle a log raft 142 miles down the Amazon River, arrive at the finish line three days later, and avoid being eaten by the local wildlife en route. Think Huck Finn, except that you're surrounded by piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes.

The following day while preparing to leave, my team drops a bombshell; after sobering up they have all decided that maybe this isn't such a great idea. They've bailed on me and I'm flying solo. I decide to go anyway, even if the rest of my team never makes it beyond the Quito city limits.

I fire off an email to Mad Mick informing him of my plight. "Don't worry," comes his nonchalant reply. "There are tons of people down here looking for teams. You'll have no problem."

But first I must get to Iquitos.

The Amazon

Situated in the Amazon jungle in northeastern Peru, Iquitos lies just below the confluence of the Rí­o Marañon and the Rí­o Ucayali, where the Rí­o Amazonas, the mighty Amazon River, officially begins. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the city was a boomtown thanks to the plentiful supply of rubber trees in the surrounding jungle, not to mention an indigenous population readily available for virtual enslavement by the rubber barons. Everything was just groovy until a British entrepreneur managed to smuggle some rubber seeds out of Brazil, giving birth to the industrialized rubber plantations of Malaysia. The economy has been in the doldrums ever since.

Iquitos has the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road. To get there you must either fly or spend several days lying in a hammock aboard a riverboat. And unless you can afford to fly, it takes a long time to get there from almost anywhere else on the planet. With less than a week before the race starts I settle on a compromise strategy: a 40-hour bus trip to Lima, followed by a plane hop to Iquitos. With luck I'll arrive with hours to spare.

Huaquillas, Ecuador

Following an all night bus ride to the Ecuador-Peru border, I find myself in the treacherous frontier town of Huaquillas, wandering through a crowded market selling every black market good from pirated DVDs to fake Duracell batteries. I do my best to avoid the many hands that seem all too familiar with the zippers of my backpack, and eventually make it across a pedestrian footbridge into Aguas Verdes, Peru, where I repeat the process a second time.

I commandeer a taxi for the 20km ride to the coastal city of Tumbes. En route I am stopped by an overweight Peruvian police officer wearing mirrored sunglasses who could easily play the bad guy in any number of movies I've seen. He concocts some story about a problem with my passport and tells me that I'll have to leave the country immediately, then kindly offers to look the other way for $100. Another all night bus ride across the coastal deserts of Peru brings me to Lima, where I make a mad dash for the airport in hopes of catching the last flight of the day to Iquitos.

Crossing Peru

Arriving exhausted and teamless, I make my way to Mad Mick's Bunkhouse and Trading Post to find the man in charge. Mad Mick is a larger than life character who is hard to miss in a city like Iquitos. I find him at the aptly named Gringo Bar, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, along with an impressive collection of empty bottles. I get the distinct impression he has been there since breakfast.

I remind Mick of my need for a team. He responds with an extra-long drag on his cigarette. "No problem," he bellows, his strong British accent seeming out of place in the Amazon. "If you visit some local bars it should be easy to recruit people."

As I am to discover over the next few days, Mick is a guy big on ideas but decidedly small on details.

Mad Mick's

I have been reduced to bar hopping. All I need to do is find three people who are willing to cancel whatever plans brought them to this lonely corner of the planet in order to spend three days floating down the Amazon River on a log raft while dodging piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes. I decide that I will conveniently fail to mention any prospect of intestinal parasites.

I come close a few times – a young doctor from Holland; a German woman too far gone to remember whether she's really from Germany; a couple from Boston on their way to a jungle lodge – but never manage to close the deal. Then I find Norma.

"I'm going to join your team," she announces in Spanish before I can even make my pitch. Norma is a student from Lima and has already met one of the other teams. She's dying to get into the race and makes me promise her a spot.

Claro. No problema.

My team is now officially bilingual.

After Norma my luck runs dry. The bars close and I retreat to my hostel to sleep for the first time in three days, still missing half a team, too tired to care.

Amazon River Boats

Morning comes all too quickly and teams gather at Mad Mick's Bunkhouse for transport upriver to the town of Nauta where the race will begin. Despite a clear lack of marketing prowess, Mick has somehow managed to recruit teams representing Ireland, South Africa, Russia, Australia, Canada, the U.S, the U.K., and of course Peru.

Teams will compete in two divisions, a necessity owing to the fact that most of the Peruvian teams come from villages along the river. For all intents and purposes they have had unlimited time to prepare for the race; some have been engineering rafts and practicing for months. They are competing for cash prizes of 6,000 nuevo soles ($1850) – the equivalent of half a year's salary for many.

In contrast, international teams arrive one day prior to the race and will use rafts built for them by local crews. We are competing for bragging rights and a three-day trip to a jungle lodge. And to demonstrate to all of our friends back home how truly twisted we are.

There is an eclectic mix of international teams. Among them are the Lady Vets, a group of women veterinarians doing volunteer work in Peru. Then there are the Rasta Boys, a team of dreadlocked snowboarders from Lake Tahoe and a baker from San Francisco. There is even the Over the Hill Gang, a crew of American and Canadian retirees led by a crusty 74 year-old guy named Mort. And, of course, there is my own bilingual half-team.

Balsa Rafts

Arriving in the town of Nauta we see our rafts, or balsas, for the first time. Made of six to eight fire-dried balsa logs lashed together with jungle twine, they are surprisingly small; roughly sixteen feet long by eight wide. I find myself wondering what it was that Huck Finn saw in this mode of transportation, anyway.

Local teams have an impressive collection of balsas, some of them months in the works. Narrow and svelte, built with perfectly balanced logs tapered at the ends to reduce drag, they are the Amazon equivalent of Ferraris.

Balsas for the international teams are large, ungainly, asymmetrical contraptions that are still under construction as we arrive. They look like they were built by someone who has no intention of actually floating down the river on one. Assuming they even float. I conclude that we are about to ride the Amazon version of my parent's 1979 Chevrolet Caprice.

Late in the afternoon Mick pulls me aside. "I found another person for your team!" he says, never missing a drag on his cigarette. He introduces me to "Montana John," a 59 year-old American ex-pat who lives in the jungle outside of Iquitos. I'm usually a bit wary when I meet someone named after a state, especially when he has no last name and his house is miles from the nearest road in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. With less than twelve hours before the starting gun fires I don't have the luxury of being choosy and Montana John joins my increasingly motley crew.

Hammocks

Hammocks are a way of life in the Amazon.

That night Mick gathers the teams – 88 people from seven countries – at the only bar in Nauta large enough to accommodate us. "This should be a really easy race," he explains. "Even with minimal paddling you should be able to complete each day's leg in about five hours." He ceremoniously hands out hand-carved wooden paddles for us to use the next day.

Beers are passed around and a pre-race celebration ensues. Any excuse to drink cold beer in the hot, humid Amazon is greeted with enthusiasm.

We will be accompanied downriver by the Miron II, a classic Amazonian riverboat that will serve as our floating headquarters and bunkhouse. Designed to accommodate 20, it will house 40 people in hammocks and berths, less than half the complement of racers. The remainder will need to find accommodations in villages along the river. To boot, we will be shadowed by a Peruvian Coast Guard launch that has been assigned to monitor the race and provide emergency assistance.

The Miron II

The Miron II. Designed for 20, it will sleep 40. The toilet is a hole in the floor.

Paddle in hand, I traipse off to the Miron II and lay claim to some precious hammock space, falling asleep to the flashes of a silent lightning storm on the horizon.

Race Day

Race day. I wake up in my hammock aboard the Miron II at dawn and look down to see a crowd already gathering along the shore. Grabbing my gear I jump off the boat and track down Norma and Montana John.

"We have a problem," I tell them. "Every team is required to have four people, and we have three. Unless we find someone else to join our team in the next 45 minutes we're going to be watching this race from the deck of the Miron II."

Norma smiles and disappears into the crowd lining the riverbank. Thirty minutes later she reappears, a small local woman named Mirta in tow. With minutes to spare I am finally el capitán of a full team.

Standing on the riverbank Mick raises his megáfono and simply yells "Go!" Twenty-two rafts – six international teams and sixteen local ones – splash madly into the river, jockeying for position to get into the current.

It quickly becomes apparent that our balsas are even heavier and more awkward to maneuver than we anticipated. Compared to the finely tuned rafts carrying the local teams they are poorly built and border on disaster. A corner of our raft is permanently submerged, leaving one person constantly sitting in the muddy Amazon. Another team's raft lists severely to one side. Others have logs coming loose and disappearing downriver within the first few minutes of the race.

Peruvian Team

The Peruvian crews paddle with the precision of a championship rowing team; they have been doing this all their life. By comparison, we are trying to find a rhythm while attempting to hold our raft in one piece as we flounder down the river. It takes 15 minutes for most of the Peruvian teams to pull away, and within an hour all of them are out of sight down the river, leaving the international teams in their wake.

Not that any of us really care. True, we have traveled halfway around the world to race, but all we really want to do is finish. For us this adventure is about discovering a remote corner of the world and testing our own limits in the process.

I survey my fellow teams. The Lady Vets have lashed plastic garden chairs to their balsa for the ultimate ride-de-luxe. The Over the Hill Gang is guarding a giant foam cooler strapped to the center of their raft. We suspect it is stocked with Molson beer they have smuggled down from Canada. The Rasta Boys are lying on their backs and smoking something.

In short order we learn a few facts about life on the Amazon. It's hot. Really hot. Just a few degrees south of the equator, the sun blasts you like an oven, and humidity averages 85%. It doesn't matter how much sunscreen you apply because it simply washes away in the muddy water. At times it seems inviting to jump overboard and cool off, until you remember that the river is a soup of piranhas, alligators, intestinal parasites, and raw sewage dumped from boats.

Caimans

It seems like an easy thing to paddle a log raft all day, but it's not. Logs are heavy, even balsa ones, and over the course of the day they absorb water. You have to paddle hard to move, and despite Mick's assurance that this would be an easy jaunt down the river, it becomes clear that we will have to paddle constantly if we harbor any hope of reaching our destination before nightfall. We study the current, watching for lilies or other floating debris in a futile attempt to find fastest part of the channel.

On the River

As we cruise along I size up my improbable team. I can't decide if Norma spends more time paddling or lounging, but her bubbly personality keeps us in good spirits. Montana John regales me with larger than life stories ranging the gamut from knife-wielding chases through the streets of Lima to psychedelic ceremonies with jungle shamans. I'm not sure how much to believe. All of it I suspect.

Mirta is an enigma. Even when I speak to her in Spanish she replies with little more than a grin. But she never stops paddling. She's a machine.

Except for a couple of passes by the Coast Guard launch in the morning we see no other boats all day; eight hours later we round a bend in the river and spot the Miron II pulled along shore next to the small village of Nueva Esperanza.

Nueva Esperanza is a fairly typical Amazon River village: a collection of thatched-roof buildings and freely roaming livestock surrounding a soccer field. Several Peruvian rafters have joined some local kids in a game of pickup fútbol, and with looks of amusement they grab me as I meander past. The next thing I know I'm playing soccer on a not-so-level field with a bunch of Peruvians. And these guys are good. Really good. I'm about to curse my Teva sandals when it registers that most of them are playing barefoot. They still kick my ass.

Rainstorm

Midway through the game I experience my first Amazon storm. It arrives quickly, wind tearing through the trees. Lightning appears in every direction and thunder is instantaneous; the river turns to froth. We rush en masse to seek shelter under the thatched roof of a small bodega.

My new friends are curious about where I'm from, and while we wait out the storm they pepper me with questions. What is it like where I live? Is it cold? They are captivated by my description of winter, of snow in particular. None of them have ever seen snow except in pictures. What is it like? How deep does it get? I have difficulty explaining in Spanish the concept of building a snowman.

As we chat someone passes around a bottle of clear liquid – aguardiente

. Pure sugarcane alcohol, it is the local firewater. It burns like gasoline as I choke it down, and everyone breaks into riotous laughter when they see the grimace on my face.

Back along the river somebody realizes that amidst the storm one raft is still unaccounted for, yet for some reason the Coast Guard boat is pulled up on shore, its crew in serious chill-out mode. They don't seem to know how many teams are in the race, so they have no way of knowing that a raft is missing. At the urging of other rafters they head back upriver in search of the missing team. We learn later that the storm had ripped their raft to pieces, the Coast Guard plucking them from the water as they clung to logs in the middle of the Amazon.

The storm dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving the river calm and serene; perfect conditions for a night on the river.

(To continue reading Part II click here)

Sunset on the Amazon

(Note: Some of the race images in this article are courtesy of Bill Grimes/Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises)

The Nariz del Diablo

RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — In the early 1900's a railway line, the Ferrocarril Transandino, was constructed from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian coast to Quito in the mountains. The line made it to just below the town of Alausí­ when builders encountered an almost vertical wall of rock known as the Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose). A series of switchbacks was carved directly into the rock face of the Nariz, and by advancing and reversing through the switchbacks a train could climb 1000m of vertical rock. It's truly an amazing feat of engineering, even by twenty first century standards. The stretch of track from Riobamba to Alausí,, and down the Nariz, is one of the only remaining sections of the Ferrocarril Transandino still in use.

As if riding down the most hair-raising train tracks in the world weren't enough, passengers are invited to ride on the roof of the train where they can stare into the abyss as they descend the switchbacks.

Juliette and I arrive at the train station during pre-dawn hours in hopes of staking out a seat on the roof. Unfortunately, everyone else with a ticket has the same idea, and we find ourselves hopelessly relegated to the back of the line. As we wait, street vendors selling everything from wool hats to bananas make their way from passenger to passenger hocking their wares. 

"This is an amazing country," Juliette observes. "You never have to go looking for anything. If you stand in one place long enough someone will come to you selling whatever it is you need. They assume we have money to burn, whether it's true or not."

When the conductor finally begins boarding the train a mad rush for the roof ensues, and we find ourselves laying claim to the best indoor seats we can find.

The phrase "train ride" is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the "train" is a diesel bus that has been fitted with train wheels, and the experience is more akin to riding a school bus than a train. The roof is fitted with a large rack on which passengers can ride for hours, sitting on thin, uncomfortable pads. In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise that we failed to get space on the roof - shortly after leaving Riobamba a rain squall soaks everyone up top, many of the passengers remaining cold and wet for much of the trip.

Leaving Riobamba behind, the train crawls through high alpine valleys lush with plants and dotted with fields growing corn and potatoes. It continues on to high, grass-covered altiplano before entering a dry, scrub-covered region that resembles areas of the American southwest. Along the way we pass indigenous people dressed in traditional wool attire, often accompanied by animals, occasionally shooing them off the track to avoid collisions with the train. We are always greeted with smiles and waves. Three hours later the train pulls into Alausí­ for a brief stop before descending the Nariz.

A few minutes later we are descending steep track through a deep canyon. Upon reaching the first switchback the conductor disembarks to manually move the switch on the tracks. We find ourselves looking directly down a vertical slope at another section of track below. With a jerk, the train begins an unnatural backwards descent down the second switchback. A couple more switchbacks and we are at the bottom, staring up at an unbelievably steep cliff. There is short pause while we exchanged places with the group sitting on the roof, after which we ascend back up the Nariz. The ride on the roof is thrilling and exposed, the cliff dropping away for thousands of feet beneath our feet as they hang over the edge.

Arriving back in Alausí­, Juliette and I heade for the bus station; Juliette is headed for Guayquil and I for Cuenca. We grab a quick lunch before saying our goodbyes, and then she jumps on her bus to head west. I have a few hours to kill before mine leaves, so I head to the center of town to explore the weekend market overflowing with people in bright wool ponchos.

Chimborazo: World's Highest Volcano

RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — I arrive in Riobamba to find ash on the ground from the recent eruption of nearby Volcán Tungurahua. Every time a gust of wind comes along it kicks up clouds of ash, which subsequently become grit between your teeth, turns your eyes red, and generally makes things unpleasant. Many storefronts have heavy sheets of plastic across their entrances in an effort to keep the ash at bay, but it's insidious stuff that somehow manages to get everywhere. I had arranged to meet my friend Juliette in here; Juliette is from Switzerland and we met in Quito. We found each other at the Hostel Oasis and shared travel stories over an improvised dinner of pasta, tomato paste, and canned tuna. Hey, you make due with what you can find.

The following morning we left at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the day's destination - Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the world at 6310m (20,700 ft). Owing to the bulge in the earth around the equator, Chimborazo's summit is farther from the center of the world than any other point on the planet, even Mt. Everest. Climbing it is a serious undertaking even for experienced mountaineers, and though I would love to climb it someday, that wasn't our goal. We wanted to hike to the higher of the two climbing refuges used by climbers on their way to the summit, el Refugio Whymper, at 5000m.

Standing, we bounced along in the bus for close to an hour before the sun broke across the horizon, revealing that we had ascended and were now crossing the arenal, a high desert plateau almost completely devoid of plant life. The entire scene looked remarkably similar to photographs sent back to Earth by Martian spacecraft. Upon reaching the park entrance the driver slowed for us to exit, though in true Ecuadorian fashion he never actually stopped, and we jumped from the moving bus. When it disappeared over a distant rise we found ourselves alone in the arenal, literally standing by the side of a lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

A lone truck crosses the barren arenal.

If Chimborazo were in North America or Europe it would be supported by some serious infrastructure - paved roads, visitor centers, souvenir shops, motels, restaurants - but not so in South America. Looking across the highway, a lone sign next to a dirt track announced the entrance to the Chimborazo Wildlife Preserve, behind it the massive peak of Chimborazo itself, framed by intense blue sky.

We would need to follow that dirt track for approximately 8km, after which we could climb to the refuge. Commencing our hike I felt the altitude for the first time since arriving in Ecuador. At more than 4000m we are already quite high, and had another 1000m to go. Ascending the dirt track the terrain dropped away around us, leaving behind arenal in exchange for the foothills of the volcano. Occasionally we had close encounters with vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama, making their way across the barren landscape, no doubt wondering what these strange two-legged creatures were doing in their home. Upon reaching the First Refugio at 4800m we took a short break, then continued on to the Refugio Whymper at 5000m.

Taking a break at the Refugio Whymper.

Juliette and I were both feeling great at 5000m. Grinning at one another we decide to go higher. I almost felt as if I could reach out and touch the icefall coming off the summit; in reality it would take several hours to travel that far. Somewhere beyond 5200m (17,000 ft.) we finally turned around - not because we were tired, but because we needed to get back to Riobamba at a reasonable hour. Pausing to take a couple of self-portraits, we descended back to the refuge where the caretaker prepared cups of hot tea to go with our lunches.

At the park entrance we again found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, along the lonely highway crossing the arenal. One of the great things about Ecuador is that it has frequent buses traversing almost ever corner of the country, and we waited less than 30 minutes before flagging down a passing bus for the ride back to Riobamba, arriving just in time to buy the last remaining tickets for our next day's adventure - the train down the Nariz del Diablo.

Quito: Alpine to Tropics

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS EVERY GUIDEBOOK WARNS YOU ABOUT IN QUITO IS THE ALTITUDE. At 2850m (9350 ft) it is the second highest capital city in the world, and I expected to feel a little breathless here. To my pleasant surprise I have never noticed the thin air. Given the altitude, you might expect it to be cold, but the city is only 23km south of the equator. The combination of altitude and latitude make for a very comfortable climate – shirtsleeve weather during the day, and maybe a light jacket at night.

Quito is tucked in a valley between two parallel mountain ranges, the Coridillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental, which run north-south and effectively divide the country in two. The German Explorer Alexander von Humboldt coined the phrase "Avenue of the Volcanoes" to describe this section of the Andes, and it's a fitting description. The range is dotted with numerous spectacular volcanoes, including such famous peaks as Cayambe (5790m), Cotopaxi (5897m), and Chimborazo (6310m) - the highest volcano in the world. Quito itself sits directly in the shadow of Volcán Pinchincha (4794m), which has been active in recent years. In fact, just a couple of days after I arrive Volcán Tungurahua (5016m) erupts, spewing blankets of ash over much of the central highlands and causing the evacuation of thousands from their homes. Volcanoes are a way of life in Ecuador, and most people seem used to the occasional eruption.

Cotopaxi Volcano (5897m/19,350 ft.) rising above Quito.

I decide to get a different perspective on the city and visit the Teleférico, a gondola-style ski lift that whisks you up the side of Volcán Pichincha to an altitude of 4100m (13,400 ft.) where you can look down on the city. In addition to the requisite tourist shops and restaurants there are hiking trails to some spectacular viewpoints, and it's a great place to see the surrounding mountains. To my amazement I still don't feel the effects of altitude, though in fairness I have been living at 2800m for about ten days, so maybe I am already well adjusted to the thin air. For those that find the atmosphere a bit thin for their liking, an oxygen bar is conveniently located in the visitors center, complete with a selection of fragrant aromas to choose from.

Unfortunately, the day I visit turns out to be quite rainy and I spend several hours in a coffee shop trying to convince myself that I am enjoying machine-brewed Nescafé while writing in my journal. About an hour before sunset the clouds finally move aside long enough to get a beautiful view of the city as well as the evening light on Volcán Cotopaxi in the distance.

Quito has a great public transportation system. Two parallel transit lines, called the Trole and the Ecovia, run north-south through much of the city. Although the vehicles are basically large, articulated buses, they operate more like a light rail rapid transit system. To board either one you enter an elevated indoor station along the street, paying as you enter the station. Each bus has multiple sets of doors, like a subway, and the elevated stations insure that the doors of the bus are exactly level with the floor of the station, just like a train platform. When a bus arrives you step on or off just like a train, with the bus remaining at the station for only 15-20 seconds. During the week I find that I typically wait less than five minutes for a bus to arrive. Both the Trole and the Ecovia have dedicated lanes that are not available to other vehicles - in fact, in most places there is a physical barrier separating them - insuring that they can zip past most traffic without stopping. And at 25 cents per trip it's tough to beat the price.

The Ecovia has stations like a light rail system.

Exploring the city is a contrast of old and new. The southern part of the city, the Old Town, showcases the Spanish colonial history of Quito. Narrow, cobbled streets and wide plazas are lined with colonial-style architecture and tiled rooftops. The area is home to many beautiful churches and important government buildings such as the Presidential Palace. You would be forgiven if you momentarily forgot that you were in South America instead of Europe.

A typical street in Old Town Quito.

A short ride to the north on the Ecovia takes you to New Town, a bright, modern area of glass office towers and shopping malls with broad, tree-lined boulevards, department stores, restaurants, and internet cafés. One area in particular, the Mariscal Sucre, is known locally as gringolandia, owing to the fact that there are probably more tourists there than there are Quiteños. It's a good place to connect with other travelers or to book a trip to the Galapagos, but it's the worst place to visit if you want to get to know the real Quito because almost everyone you meet is from somewhere else.

I did find  a good coffee shop, but it's right in the middle of the Mariscal. I guess I won't be able to avoid the area entirely!