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Good Fortune (Or, the Day the Jungle Chewed Me Up and Spit Me Out)

Volcan Arenal

After beach time and mountain time, I decided to round out my Costa Rica trip with some volcano time in the city of La Fortuna. La Fortuna is a small village that sits just below the formidable Arenal volcano. Arenal has been active twice in its history- once 3,000 years ago and most recently in the period between 1968 and 2010, when it again went dormant. The 1968 eruption killed 90 people on one side of the volcano, yet spared the small village sitting at its foot on the other side. At that point, the village changed its name to La Fortuna, meaning “good fortune” or “luck.”

I opted to travel from Monteverde to La Fortuna via the “jeep-boat-jeep” method, which is an overland vehicle out of Monteverde, a boat ride along Arenal Lake beneath the volcano, then another car ride into town. At a cost of $25 and travel time of only 3 hours, this travel method made sense as compared to all day on the public bus. It turned out to offer some amazing views, and was so much fun! I met other travelers from Mexico, Israel, Australia, and the Netherlands. 

With some Australian friends/a fellow law student from the boat!

In particular, I met Gustavo, a guy from Mexico City who has been traveling for 2 years straight now and finances his travels by impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow and collecting tips. He lost his phone 4 months ago and decided he didn’t need one, and has been living without one ever since. He is the definition of a free spirit, and he provided so much entertainment on our journey! 


Once we arrived in La Fortuna, I checked into Mayol Lodge and spent some time lounging by the pool, writing, and checking out the beautiful river and waterfall located on the property. I also booked an “extreme 2 volcano trek” with the receptionist for the next day. A friend back in Manuel Antonio had recommended Red Lava tours for $75, but the receptionist offered me a deal with a locally-owned company for $60. 

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The next morning, I set off on the trek with our 2 guides, and a group of both solo and couple travelers from Australia, Canada, and Germany. I was also so excited to finally meet 3 other travelers from NYC, including another girl traveling solo like me! We ended up having some great conversations over the course of the day about life, travel, and living in NYC. 

With Juan the guide, before things got loco

The 10-hour trek kicked off with a 2.5 hour hike up Chato, which is a smaller volcano beside Arenal without a top. Instead, a massive cater and lagoon exist at the top of the volcano. The hike started off as difficult but manageable. We were going at a pretty steep incline, using hands to grab rocks and roots for balance and leverage along the way. There was no trail- we just followed a downhill path carved out by water flow. 
The trail up Chato. This all became mud once the rain started!
 

Then the rain started about halfway up Chato, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the day. We reached the top of the crater, and had to walk another kilometer around the edge to reach the point where we would descend 100 meters down to the lake. The mud situation got serious, and I was up to my ankles a few times and almost lost my shoe due to the suction once! The real challenge began when we descended down to the lagoon by sliding and climbing on all fours down the slick rocks. “It’s better to have mud on your a** than in your face,” our guide Juan advised. 

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Once at the lagoon, the rain intensified and the already poor visibility decreased even more. I did wade out into the water with some of my NYC friends, only to wash some mud off, as the temperature had also dropped. Sadly, we couldn’t see any of the beautiful views of the crater and Arenal given the weather, but I know it was all there just beyond the rain! 

You can’t tell, but we’re standing in a lagoon on top of the volcano Chato.
We then ascended the 100 meters out of the crater to continue around Chato and descend the volcano on the other side toward Arenal. Just as it had been tricky descending the 100 meters on the slick rocks in the mud, it was equally as challenging climbing out the same way. I used roots and branches to pull myself up particularly tall rocks. 
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My plan was working well, until a few minutes in when my foot slipped on a rock just as I was dangling from a branch. My left thigh crashed into the rock as I fell just 2 feet, but it was enough to hurt a lot! Sure enough, I had a pretty big (but fortunately shallow) scrape on my left thigh, and the blood started flowing. I had no choice but to keep climbing, as we were in the middle of a cliff. All of my fellow hikers were so sweet and offered to help me, and one new NYC friend used his water to clean the wound. As the blood kept flowing, I waited for Juan once I reached the top, and he was able to clean the wound with alcohol and wrap my leg in gauze to keep all the mud out. I have to say I felt super tough at this point! 

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We were all covered in mud, and it was still pouring rain…

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We continued the hike down Chato to then hike around Arenal to some waterfalls and hanging bridges for another 3 hours. 

Crossing a hanging bridge

Juan kept a close eye on me to make sure I didn’t have any other accidents (haha). Even as the rain continued to pour, we all kept ourselves in good spirits by laughing and joking about the insanity of the situation. In particular, my new Canadian friend Matt made me laugh so much the rest of the afternoon that I forgot I was cold, wet, and bleeding. It was actually fun! 


We found a river to wash off in, and a waterfall. We even saw a tree frog in the pouring rain. So cute! 

This is real, not fake, I promise!

After a few more hours of hiking, we reached the Arenal observatory around 6:30pm. Sadly, we could not see Arenal at all. Instead, I stood under the hand dryer in the bathroom to try to warm up and dry off (this was the first shelter we had all day!) Juan also gave us coffee! 

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Then, we loaded up in a bus and rode over to some natural hot springs, where we soaked our sore (and injured) muscles and floated. We also enjoyed some Costa Rican cocktails at this point, as well as a volcanic mud facial. It was the perfect ending to the day.

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Last night, after I showered and as I fell asleep in clean, dry clothes, I thought about what a wild day it had been and realized I had never been more thankful to be in a dry, warm shelter in my life. I felt very fortunate. I also felt fortunate to have met such fun, adventurous, and hilarious people from around the world on the trek. We all had so much time to chat, commiserate, and share life stories as we trekked through the rain and mud for what felt like an endless amount of hours. Lastly, I felt fortunate that I didn’t hurt myself that badly when falling down the rock, that Juan had a first aid kit on hand, and that I was able to continue the trek and have a great day. I’ve had a few close calls on this trip, so I’m more than ready to return home to NYC at this point.

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That’s not to say I didn’t love the jungle! Similar to when Sarah, Rachele, and I trekked Vinicunca mountain in Peru back in June, I feel like I pushed myself to a new limit and proved my own strength to myself on yesterday’s trek. At a point in my life where my days are usually characterized by a conflated stream of words from the cases I read and lecture notes I take, it was cathartic to get super dirty while hiking and climbing to the point exhaustion. 

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This morning, I woke up and felt like I had been hit by a truck. But I also felt fortunate, and that’s Pura Vida. 

The view of La Fortuna from halfway up Chato.
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The Magic of Machu Picchu

Yesterday, I visited one of the New Seven Wonders of the World–Machu Picchu. Discovered as recently as 1911, Machu Picchu is an Incan city built six centuries ago. Before coming to Peru, this was the one site I had heard the most of, and I was almost desensitized by the amount of pictures and information I had seen about Machu Picchu on TV and social media. However, I realized upon my arrival that nothing could have properly prepared me for this visit, and no pictures or words can ever really do this place justice.IMG_9774.JPG 

When we were planning our trip, Sarah and I decided to do one day in Machu Picchu and forego the week-long trek along the Inca Trail that many visitors elect to do (I want to do this someday though!), so that we could have more time to visit Rainbow Mountain and Colca Canyon. At 5:30am, we woke up and walked down to the train station in Ollantaytambo to catch the Inca Rail for an hour and a half ride to Aguas Calientes.

 

Aguas Calientes is the last town before the Machu Picchu archaeological park, and it reminds me of a Peruvian version of Gatlinburg, Tennessee–very quaint, but touristy and overpriced! Once here, we purchased a bus ticket to Machu Picchu and hopped aboard the first available.

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Aguas Calientes…the last stop before the magic! I doubt the water is actually “caliente” (hot)…Peru has been freezing cold mostly! 

 

Once we were there, we immediately walked to the first viewing point!IMG_9571

 

We had booked our visit early enough to secure a ticket to hike two of the smaller mountains in the ancient city–Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu. While 2,500 visitors are allowed each day at Machu Picchu, only 200 are allowed on these peaks each day! After soaking in that first initial view, we made our way to the gated entrance for these two mountains. I got separated from Sarah and Rachele, so I went ahead and started the treks on my own. I first scaled Huaynapicchu, the smaller mountain. It only took 20-30 minutes to climb, and the most exciting part was a small cliff where I had to pull myself up by rope! Once on top, the views of Waynapicchu and Machu Picchu were beautiful. I also made friends with a German, a Canadian, and an Italian at the top.

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Atop Huaynapicchu

 

I then made my way toward Waynapicchu, the big mountain. I was actually very surprised I was allowed to climb it, as it looked quite treacherous. Surely enough, I found the trail and began to follow it up, scaling some very steep and narrow steps along the way. It took about an hour to climb up, and I was so famished at the top (I had only had a small package of wafers for breakfast!) I instantly ate some Peanut M&M’s (my favorite!) and chugged some water before soaking in the view. I also climbed around on some rocks at the very top, and at one point I was literally holding on to a rock to keep from sliding down (not off the mountain, but just a few feet!) so that I could get a good picture angle for a sweet married couple I met. All the trekkers who made it really bonded at the top of Waynapicchu!IMG_9667

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IMG_9665IMG_9686After making my way back down (and almost dropping my iPhone off the side of the mountain…a very close call!), I met up with Sarah and Rachele for lunch. They wanted to leave early to head back to Aguas Calientes, but I chose to stay a bit longer at Machu Picchu. After re-entering the park, I soon found myself on the trail to Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. This was my favorite part of my time at Machu Picchu! This was the original gate into the sacred city from the outside world, and the trek up from the city was about an hour up. The views of the city below were absolutely amazing. I also met a nice Russian along the way who was about to quit the trek…but I convinced him to keep going!IMG_9730.JPG

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On my way down from Intipunku, I stopped by a grassy area where people were laying in the grass and chilling, and I decided to do the same. The view from here was also amazing. I found myself reflecting a lot on the last few months, the last few years, and what is ahead of me for the next few years. In my daily life, I often have a hard time slowing down to take time to pray and meditate, but I found myself doing such as I laid in the grass with the views of Huaynapicchu and Waynapicchu, the mountains I had scaled earlier in the day, before me.IMG_9772
Finally, it was time to leave. I caught the bus back to Aguas Calientes and met up with Sarah and Rachele. We then took the Inca Rail together back to Ollantaytambo. I was not feeling well at all, so I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Even though I felt sick physically, I had such a full heart from the amazing visit earlier in the day. Strangely enough, I felt a real spiritual connection at Machu Picchu, and I can’t wait to visit again at some point in my lifetime (God willing!).

A Birthday Trek to Vinicunca Mountain

Yesterday was a high point of my trip in South America–not only because it was my birthday (27 years young!), but because we trekked up Vinicunca Mountain (otherwise known as Rainbow Mountain!). Rainbow Mountain is a recent discovery and opened in April 2015 to tourists who dared to make the trek. Starting at 14,000 feet, the trek takes you across 10 miles, ultimately ending at an elevation of approximately 17,000 atop vibrantly painted mountains rich in minerals and undisturbed by human touch.IMG_9405.JPG

 

Back in January, when Sarah and I started planning this trip, we discussed in detail what exactly to do on my birthday. Our first thought, naturally, was the majestic Machu Picchu, which is arguably Peru’s most famous attraction. However, the more we saw and read about the Rainbow Mountain, the more convinced we became that this was the ideal trek for June 13.

 

But was this the right plan? The more we talked to people along the way once we arrived in Peru, the more worried I became. One guy who had hiked it legitimately laughed when I told him we were hiking Rainbow Mountain on my birthday. The trail is known for being extremely tough given the altitude and steepness, and people sometimes fall ill along the way or have to get a horse to ride as they can no longer walk the trail. “I’m sure we will be fine!” I responded to his laughs. Still, my anxiety secretly grew! Were 3 city girls from NYC who relied on running, SoulCycle, and yoga for fitness ready for this trek!?

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Tres NYC chicas…ready for this trek!

 

Finally, the day arrived. Our alarms sounded at 1:45am, and our guide, Abel, picked us up at our hostel at 2:15am sharp. It was entertaining to watch people stumble back from the bars as our bus took us out of Cusco, knowing the arduous trek that was ahead of us in just a few hours. It took 3 hours to reach our “base camp” site, which was a hut with no electricity or running water with a herd of alpacas right beside. I tried to sleep on the ride, but it was too cold. Therefore, I had the pleasure of watching our bus make some extremely sharp turns along a narrow mountain pass. Once, the turn was so sharp our driver put it in reverse, and I honestly thought we were going to back off the cliff! I grabbed my friend Rachele’s hand and said a quick prayer…fortunately, we survived and continued on! We also got stuck on a bridge, but this was not life-threatening, so I wasn’t as worried.

 

At our base camp, we had breakfast of bread, fruit, and tea. Once the sun rose, we started on our trek, passing through a herd of alpaca and scaling our first steep hill. Our group consisted of Abel (our guide), Sarah, Rachele, and myself, as well as a really nice girl from Boston. Our Boston friend quickly realized on the first hill she needed a horse, so we trekked onward and let her and Abel catch up with us on the first mountain pass.

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The start of the trek…passing through a herd of alpacas!

 

Abel was an amazing guide! He looked out for us “chicas” and was dedicated to making sure we were the first group to reach Vinicunca that day, meaning we could enjoy the vista views undisturbed by other trekkers! With our Boston friend on the horse, we kept a steady pace, and reached the mountain over 2 hours ahead of schedule (which was ideal for our type-A group)!

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Sarah and I at the very top with Abel. He was the best guide, and anyone who wants to visit should special request him through FlashpackerConnect!

We also had another informal guide, a dog that we named Rainbow (she didn’t have a name already!). Rainbow lives at the base camp, and walked with us the entire way up the mountains! She also loved to play, although sometimes she was a little rough (I tried to discourage her by saying “no morder!” because…rabies. But she was so cute and sweet!) Rainbow was seriously one of the highlights of my day!

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Our second fearless guide…Rainbow!

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Rainbow on top of Vinicunca…all in a day’s work for her!! ❤

Once on top of the mountain, we took time to soak in the view.

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IMG_9406The altitude did not hit me until the trek downhill. We were well-stocked on natural supplements in the form of teas, pills, and candies to combat the altitude, but I think these items can only help so much. Somehow, the way down was much harder for me than the way up. Although I did encounter some shortness of breath on the trek up, I had a terrible headache and achy knees on the way down. Abel had some special liquid that he put on his hands for us to inhale that helped a bit. After what felt like forever, we were back at the base camp, where they prepared a huge lunch for us! Sadly, we were all feeling a little nauseated, so we didn’t eat a lot.

 

Then, Abel brought us all outside, where he brought out a special birthday cake our cook had made for me while we were trekking! It was a beautifully decorated chocolate, caramel, and peanut butter cake…3 of my favorite things! I was so impressed he made such a delicious and intricately decorated cake on such short notice in such a deserted area! I shared my cake with some of the local farmers who also help with the treks, and we had a wonderful birthday celebration! This was truly one of the most special birthdays of my life, and I am so grateful to Abel and the locals who live here for that! 🙂IMG_9425

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The creator of my beautiful cake!
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Sharing cake and having a very special birthday celebration with some of our local hosts!

Rainbow Mountain was tough, but rewarding. Although I was covered in dirt and exhausted by the end of our 9 hours, I felt cleansed and energized for what the future holds. I am so happy I was able to start my 27th year in such a special place with amazing people. Last year was one of the best years of my life, and I can’t wait to see what 27 holds. It is already off to an amazing start!

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