Today we had to say a heartfelt good bye to Rocio and her team at Gocta Natura Lodge. We felt more part of the family than guests here and some of us had tears in their eyes when they said good bye. This is a very special place and all of us wished that you could just reach it easily for a long weekend instead of having to travel across half of the world to get here.
We emptied all of Rocio’s provisions for coffee, tonic water and white wine and we ate divine food throughout. The fresh home made breads, sweet cakes and desserts alone are three reasons to come back!
OK enough said, we had to get on our way back to Lima. As we had a flight from Jaén we had a drive of four hours in front of us. The first part through the canyon is picturesque, but not without danger. Driving along a windy road next to the Utcubamba river we witnessed the many land slides that have blocked the only road at various times. Some very recent, some older. The risk of falling rocks or washed out road edges ever present.
After two hours, the deep valley gave way to a more open space. The temperatures turned tropical and rice paddies started to appear as the river delta widened. As soon as we left the river delta, the land around us turned into a dry desert. We were driving into a dry zone between two mountain ranges and the change in vegetation was quick and stark. Trees and cacti appeared that you would find only in very dry areas and the lush rainforest was gone.
Finally we arrived in Jaén, quite an ugly township, if I may say so. Motorbikes and Mototaxis everywhere, not a single charming building, as all looked cobbled together without a plan and aesthetics in mind.
Way outside of the actual town is one of the smallest airports we have seen so far. One check counter, One departure gate and a long bus ride to the beginning of the landing strip. For our trip we seem to have way too much luggage… as if we intended to move here permanently instead of just spending two weeks in Peru.
Taking precautions to not loose certain members of our team (the ones who got lost know who we are talking about ;o)) we made sure to watch out. The plane from Lima arrived and had to be turned around and parked at the end of the runway, so despite such a small airport we had to take the bus to get there.
As the Peru / Uruguay game for the Copa America cup was going on, the boarding announcement was interrupted several times by loud, enthusiastic shouts of the crowd who watched on their smart phones and tablets. Peru beat Uruguay 5:4 in a penalty shoot out. Everyone on the plane was happy!
The flight back to Lima was uneventful. We did not leave anyone behind and all our luggage arrived. We made our way through Lima traffic back to our small buy cozy El Patio Hostelo in Miraflores.
Having only had snacks for lunch, we were all starving and opted for the small restaurant across the street. It turned out to become a memorable night! Good food, live music, way too many Pisco Sours! Esther left before things got completely out of hand. Lets me just say, things got a bit out of control afterwards as the level of alcohol increased as did the volume of the voices singing! We can’t tell what happened to the photos and videos that documented the evening – somehow they disappeared as if by magic …
Let me just say that some of us had to seriously detox for a day, could not eat anything, and/or had to lie down for an afternoon nap in order to recover.
Not being woken up by a screeching rooster is a treat! Bird sounds and rain drops are all you hear here at Gocta Natura Lodge. The five cabins around the main house are far apart and every one has complete privacy. As we were occupying four of the five cabins, it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
All cabins ate very tastefully decorated with so much attention to detail that we constantly are finding small things that delight us. The welcome bowl of chocolate covered strawberries, the stone tiled bathroom with a hot rain shower, a series of pillows on the bed for every liking, home made soap, or fresh flowers in the bathroom. This is such a contrast to all the other places we stayed at that it nearly makes one feel guilty. This is the opposite of roughin’ it!
Breakfast was just as yummy as the day before and everyone ate way too much. Fun fact: we drank so much coffee, that Rocio had to get more (fun fact 2: There was no Gin & no Tonic left after the second night).
Today not all of us felt like another hike, so while Leslie, Jiho, Hary and Esther decided to hike to the upper fall, the rest of the crew had either a leisurely day or was busy filming and droning.
The hiking party stuffed snacks and rain gear into small packs and off we went with two mototaxis. Mototaxis are the cheap alternative to 4WD cars. A refurbished motorbike that served as a trike has a small bench in the back and some sort of roof over our heads.
It rained a bit this morning, so the 20 minute drive was windy and wet. We had to get to the opposite side of the mountain and up the hill to a small village from where we started our hike. We all suited up accordingly and the clouds were low and heavy. Not much of a view so far, but at least it was not cold rain.
It took us about 2,5 hrs to reach the middle of the two falls. The hike was much easier than the one yesterday and we made good progress.
Arrived at the middle section of the falls, you can climb up a steep, wet, wooden ladder to the base of the first fall. The amount of water coming down has doubled since we arrived in Cocachimba. Four large courtains of white water were cascading down the sheer drop of about 200 meters at least.
The sound was deafening and the spray was everywhere.
The volume of water coming down was massive. After navigating down the ladder again, we then made our way to the edge where the upper fall ended and the water drops down a spectacular edge, creating the lower falls.
The scenery was very picturesque, the rain had stopped and even blue sky started to appear. We all had a hearty snack of goodies, from beef jerky to walnut salami, from fresh apple slices to sweet potato bread and set out to head back at a brisk pace.
Soon the sun started to appear and we walked most of the way back in sunshine.
After 1,5 hrs and beautiful, sweeping views (which we hadn’t seen when it was drizzly and cloudy on our way there) we arrived back at the village plaza.
It was a wonderful walk and we enjoyed it immensely. And what was just as good was the late lunch that was to come back at the lodge! Sally and the Gocta Natura team were busy again!
Roasted chicken with fresh vegetables in a red wine reduction! We all could get used to this food on a permanent basis – no problem!
While our hiking party was busy hiking, our two teenagers, Siobhan and Kat were busy chilling, Chris R. was lounging, Chris O. was droning and filming and Sally was cooking.
Everyone was happy and the afternoon was spent relaxing, having hot showers and writing blog entries. This time we have the help of our team guest bloggers Sally and Leslie.
While Jih-Ho is providing Chris O. with some great shots for our blog.
Welcome to heaven !!!! This is the motto when you check into Gocta Natura Lodge. This secluded lodge past the village of Cocachimba has only five cabins in total but what gem this place is!
Tucked away from the beaten track high up at the end of a cul de sac in the middle of nowhere in Amazonas, Peru, lies this small luxurious lodge. The owner, Rocio has created here a small slice of heaven on earth. A cosy all wood and natural stone lodge with high ceilings and an open kitchen invites every guest to spend hours on their balconies and decks with magnificent views or inside snuggled up in cozy blankets in front of a large fireplace.
Three very competent Venezuelans are constantly cooking, preparing and serving the most delicious food and drinks. After the trek to Los Chilchos, this seems to be the polar opposite and it’s wonderful to have three days here as the end of our time in Peru is near.
After a sumptuous breakfast with home made bread, cheese, eggs and jam as well as fresh fruit salad and banana bread we said good bye to our new friend Ricky, as he had to sadly leave us this morning to go back to the US. The rest of us, except Sally who was a bit foot sore, set out for our first of two walks to explore the Gocta falls.
Gocta falls have only been discovered as a travel destination in 2002 when a German explorer named Stefan Ziemendorff heard of falls in the rain forest, that seem to be rather impressive but practically unknown except to locals. He then proceded to cartograph them formally and it turns out that those falls are one of the highest on earth. However, this was apparently based on outdated and incomplete information gleaned from the National Geographic Society, and Ziemendorff’s comments as to the waterfalls’ ranking have since been widely disputed. But who cares – the waterfall is impressive whatever the ranking says.
Gocta falls consist of three parts parts, a smaller but wider vertical fall on the top, a middle section with moderate incline and a second set of falls plunging some hundreds of meters down from a ledge. All in all the entire falls measure 771 meters in height.
Given that the two falls are so close together they are considered one waterfall. By any measure it is an impressive sight and you can only see them in their entirety from far away or via drone.
Today we started hiking to the bottom of the lower fall. A hike of approximately two hours one way, surprisingly up and down. From Gocta Natura Lodge it looked to be an easy stroll of three kilometers, but it turned out to be a five kilometer up and down hike, much more demanding than we thought.
Given that we are eating so well here, we all welcomed the challenge and work out! The weather was once more beautiful again and the sights of the falls when getting closer were spectacular.
Right at the base spray was everywhere. Only lying down or crouching could one take a picture of a person and the lower fall in one picture. They must have been 400 meters high alone. Chris tried to fly the drone, but for one he couldn’t get a lock on the GPS down in the Valley and some magnetic interferences prevented most flying.
Wet but happy we made our way back, another two hour hike until we arrived quite famished at the lodge.
Sally, who did not go on the trek had put her spare time to good use and cooked together with the resident cooks Daniel and Ariana a delicious and very filling late lunch meal for all of us.
Daniel and Ariana came from Venezuela and are now the heart and soul of the Gocta Natura Lodge, taking care of all our needs from the coffee in the early morning until the last glas of wine at night.
Fried yucca, filled tomato, potato salad, delicious pork and beef , too many delicacies to name.
We felt like kings and queens and no one wants to leave this place now. The sheer thought of another meal four hours later made everyone groan, but sure enough after a leisurely afternoon, some singing by Leslie, Chris and Harry, and evening chilling, everyone came back to the dinner table in time to taste fresh tomato soup and an amazing dessert of home made lime tartelet with a meringue top (more to come in the food blog section). It is heaven on earth and the sunset views and food to prove it!
Needless to say that we were all fat, happy and sleepy, so the evening was fairly short.
Since we are travelling in a big group we’ve decided to introduce guest bloggers (as we’ve introduced guest photographers). Today it’s Sally’s turn:
We were up early preparing to say good-bye to our wonderful friends in Leymebamba. The morning was bustling by 7 am because the Harvard Professor Gary Urton and his entire summer archeological field class also stayed the night at La Casona. Nellie, Julio, and Nirmé prepared breakfast for 35 as if it were five! Nothing fazes them and they are always loving and giving, no matter the chaos.
We had boxed and wrapped up our remaining school donations to bring to the Cocachimba schools and our pile of bags and boxes was impressive as we prepared to leave. The night before we said our good-byes to our guides; leaving Javier and Sinecio is always hard. Saying good-bye to Nellie and Julio and everyone at La Casona this morning was hard too. We left with lots of hugs and promises of seeing each other next year.
The drive to Kuelap took about 90 minutes. The Utcubamba valley is beautiful with a rushing river and high canyon walls. We saw evidence of landslides, always a risk in this area during the rainy season. Today however, weather was perfect; sunny with a blue sky.
Esther said she has been ordering it for us every day! On our way to the tram in the town of Tingo, our driver Walter suggested we stop and order lunch at one of the restaurants for after we come down from the Kuelap ruins. Good idea Walter!
The tram is about two years old. There is a beautiful ticket building with information about how it was built. Very organized. We waited for our time to be called and then boarded a bus for a five-minute ride to the actual tram itself. Each car holds eight passengers and it takes you straight up to the base of the Kuelap ruins.
It is incredibly steep but very fun and way better than how you used to get there which involved a three-hour drive on a winding, scary dirt road.
At the top of the tram are a few tourist booths and a little café where we got a quick snack (of course) before we walked the 2 km to the actual entrance of the ruins.
Everyone knows Machu Picchu – but Kuelap is so much more impressive. The walls are 20 meters high and at least a meter thick.
There are only three narrow entrances into the citadel.
They are doing lots of re-construction and preserving of the site.
When our group first went there twelve years ago, they were the only ones there and they could walk everywhere. Now you follow a wooden path throughout the ruins and there were so many people.
But it is still a magical place with trees covered with moss and bromeliads throughout the ruins of the round Chachapoya homes and the rectangular Inca homes.
Kuelap was built by a variety of peoples from around the region as part of a semi-circle of defense against the groups on the other side of the Utcubamba river. We don’t know much about the people because, unlike other groups throughout Peru, the Chachapoya and Inca did not decorate their pottery with faces or stories of their lives.
In addition, Kuelap has only been excavated on the very surface. While it was disappointing to have to stay on the path, it is good they are protecting the ruins for the future.
Chris got gorgeous drone footage that we are all excited to see (but since he forgot his phone in Walters car with the drone footage on it, we will have to wait for it until our return to Lima).
After a quick lunch, we drove another hour to Cocachimba where Rocio welcomed us into Gocta Natura Reserva, her paradise, with open arms. Each of our casitas look out over the jungle with a view of the Gocta Falls.
We arrived around 5 pm and gathered on the beautiful balcony of the main house for wine, drinks, and snacks. The sun was setting, the falls were gorgeous, wine, Gin Tonic and Vodka was flowing, and the group was very happy.
Rocio has built a beautiful eco-lodge, designed by her architect daughter, and the attention to detail is remarkable.
It is filled with fresh flowers and gorgeous architectural details.
After our rugged, challenging trip to Los Chilchos, we truly felt we had arrived to a little slice of heaven.
We crawled into our beds very happy.
Since we are travelling in a big group we’ve decided to introduce guest bloggers (as we’ve introduced guest photographers). Today Leslie is our guest writer.
After a full day of rest from our Los Chilchos hike, we wanted to visit some well known ruins close to the town of Leymebamba. We hired a car and drove up the Cajamarca road for 30 minutes or so and then up a narrow bumpy (the usual!) dirt road. We were hiking with Xavier of course, the most knowledgable self taught historian in town.
We start down a cow path and very shortly are walking in high altitude jungle, palm trees scattered to the right and to the left. Xavier starts to point out the circular stone bases of what was once a Chachapoya village called Cateneo.
These ruins most likely dated back to the 13th or 14th century although no one has done any research or excavation on this site.
I asked why and Xavier explained that the process of obtaining permits is lengthy, expensive and difficult. As a result, many ruins like this one remain in a state of mystery and slow decay. The stones fall, the jungle creeps over the walls and cattle graze in and amongst them.
From Canteneo we hiked to another site called La Congona. This site was higher up the mountain and contained what Xavier thought to be important ceremonial structures, with beautiful detailed stone friezes on the upper portion of the circular walls.
These were impressive indeed, the patterns mesmerizing, and I could not help but wonder how magnificent these circular stone structures would look complete with the thatch roof and stone stairways that lead to each entrance. We were informed that the area we were hiking in had many more ruins close by and that this may have been an important location in the region relative to organization and religion within the culture.
It is known that when the Inca Empire came along to conquer the Chachapoya, it actually took close to 100 years, so fierce were these people. Yet so much is still not known about their daily existence as resources to investigate are so limited. So for now their secrets remain buried under the jungle vines and trees.
Our day continued with another visit to the Leymebamba museum – but this time we were to be allowed in the mummy room!
But first we had to get there and ordered a mototaxi or in this case an original Bajaj car + a mototaxi. How do you fit four people plus driver in a Bajaj which is smaller then a smart?
Well, you do. Only that the Bajaj didn’t make it all the way to the museum due to some ‘gas problems’ and we had to call another taxi for us four.
But eventually everyone arrived safe and sound at the Leymebamba museum.
We were also surprised to see a group of Harvard students visiting there with Professor Gary Urton, one of the most knowledgable archeologists of the Inca and an avid researcher of the Khipu. The Khipu was the instrument by which many cultures, including the Chachapoya, kept records. It is a series of many strings tied onto one main string, and was used as a counting device. This gem of a museum has three of the most interesting Khipus ever recovered. They were found at the Lake of the Condors along with the 200 plus mummies that were rescued after being nearly destroyed by looters.
And still this day was not done! We finished with a visit to our long time friend and guide Sinecio’s house. We were served tea and humitas, a local traditional corn based tamale with meat inside, steamed in banana leaves and served warm.
Finally back to La Casona, we ate (again) and packed for our bus trip to Kuelap the next day, but not before we were asked to give a short talk to all the Harvard students about our non profit work in the area. That’s what I call a busy day!
The warm shower last night felt wonderful to everyone and not even the roosters could dampen the nice feeling of having arrived back home at Nellie’s & Julio`s La Casona.
Those two siblings make everyone so welcome at La Casona, that it really feels like staying with friends in their house rather than in a hostelo. Any time we could go into their kitchen, use the fridge, get fresh fruit or ask any type of question we wanted.
Today our main goal was to deliver some of the educational items we still had left, to the local kindergarden in Leymebamba and also do some fun activities there.
The kindergarden of Leymebamba was one of the first ones Hatun Runa donated a new playground to some years ago. This was such a hit with the youngsters that based on the very same model, hundreds of other kindergardens were outfitted by the Peruvian government since.
After walking there a large group of 40 or so small children descended upon our small group of eight. Randomly each of us got their legs wrapped around by small pairs of arms and hugged fiercely. In a semblance of order they sang some songs and avidly watched what treasures we brought. Quickly the only way to get those items to safety from prying fingers was to airlift the two boxes out with long arms and get them to safety in one of the class rooms.
Siobhan and Kat had brought colorful strings from the US to Peru and wanted to make friendship bracelets with all the kids. When we saw how many kids there were, we were all converted quickly into helpers braiding, cutting and assisting kids getting their bracelets done. Each child wore their bracelet with pride once each one had one wrapped around their little wrist.
After some more singing and dancing together it was time for lunch and in Leymebamba that meant that all kids are being picked up by their parents and go home for lunch and a nap. Again, saying good bye was accompanied by many hugs, kisses, shiny eyes of the proud bracelet bearers and a huge cacophony of little voices.
Being alone in the street without the sound background felt weird, making one feeling partially relieved and partially deprived.
Hungry ourselves we bought little steamed quails eggs, a local delicacy from a street stall before sauntering home to La Casona. Not before making a bee line to the local convenience store for some dark local beer of course.
Back at Nellie`s the nice sun spurred everyone into action to wash their dirty laundry as best as possible and hang it up to dry in the sun. Hand washing it in a large tub with regular soap in cold water was the best we could do. Consequently while the sweat was washed out, a nice fresh smell would have been hard to some by. Well that’ll have to wait until back home.
Next on our fun day off was a visit to Xavier’s house, one of the two main guides who helped us to get to Los Chilchos safe and sound.
We were instantly captivated by his amazing place, the view, everything. Xavier just started to rent two the rooms in the upper level, so should you consider travelling to Leymebamba, Xavier’s place would be a great choice, last but not least because of the fanatstic soup we were served as his guests.
Meanwhile, Sioaban, Sally, Chris, and Jih-Ho engaged in a contest, who will have taken the most kid, puppy or cat pictures in the end. Which is why this is the most populated gallery ever in this blog (warning: Cuteness overload).
Eventually we had to leave for a great dinner at the Kentitambo Hummingbird Inn, where we have been before for lunch.
We enjoyed a marvelous evening end all laught our heads of, last but not least due to Ricky’s “dad jokes” as Sioaban and Cat called it.
When we left it was late and pitch black dark outside, which gave us the oportunity to see the stars of the southern hemisphere night sky above the museum of Leymebamba.
Today we sadly had to head back to Leymebamba from Los Chilchos. We all really enjoyed our time there and to see the difference in people’s lives a small initiative like Hatun Runa could make.
Many of the kids we saw will be going to the new school hopefully later this year or early next year. Los Chilchos is a growing village and the larger school will be needed urgently very soon. It will allow the village to offer a true and adequate 5th and 6th grade for their children.
After a last breakfast we set out early as the trek back will be just as long a day as coming here. The weather gods were with us again and we set out in brilliant sunshine at a brisk walk along the river.
We mounted the horses once the uphill slope started, and what an uphill it was! 8.000 feet (2.500 m) of altitude difference for us, our horses and the mule. Deep, rutted tracks of half baked clay steps were laying in front of us for the first part of the journey.
It was very exhausting for our animals and we took turns walking and riding. Uphill being on a horse definitively was faster than walking and we had to make sure to cover enough of a distance so we would not run into the dark at the end of the day.
Ever up we climbed until we were at our lunch spot, at the little casita called Laurel Lodge around noon time.
We had the best vegetable tortilla with fresh avocado we all had ever eaten! There was not event time to take a snap shot for our food blog entry, it was gone that fast!!!
Expecting and suiting up for wind and colder weather up on the pass we set out walking further up the mountain path.
The odds were very slim to ever see the highest pass not in clouds, but we were so lucky and the sun came out again and magically cleared the entire mountain region of rain clouds. The views were breathtaking.
Green, lush virgin forest as far as the eye could see in all directions. There were hardly any signs of civilization to be seen. A roof top here and there, a small path, a passing farmer on his mule, a discarded candy wrapper were the sparse signs of human presence in this remote part of Peru.
Having climbed up 8.000 feet, we needed to get down 6.000 feet (1.800 m) again back to where the car was hopefully waiting for us. It was a long, windy, slippery and wet downhill trail. Half of our group preferred to walk and downhill they were actually faster than the horses.
Half of us rode and it was a unique experience to feel the horse move and shift underneath you with incredible precision and balance. After all they not only needed to get their own weight down the mountain slope, they also had to balance our weights on top of that.
They clearly had done this many times before. In addition, this was heading home for most of them, so that gave them an extra burst of energy.
The last part of the trail as fairly flat and wide, and our horses clearly wanted to stretch out and run. Four of us had a fun race to the end, losing badly tied items on the way. Xavier one of our main guides luckily saw it and stopped and picked them up. Gracias!!!
Talking of our guides, they were fabulous! We had three of them always accompany the riding/ walking party and two were always with the pack horses. We had 11 horses for riding and five for the packs. The two senior guides, Xavier and Senessio as well as Saul walked and rode with us, taking turns, while Lennis and Einstein (his actual name was Albert, but he went by Einstein ;o) ) made sure the packs were properly loaded and unloaded and the pack horses kept up.
Those five clearly were a well oiled team and everyone was grateful for their attention to detail, patience and knowledge they provided during the entire trek. We could not have wished for a better crew!
Arrived at the car again, we had to say farewell to our beloved mounts and took one last group picture before splitting into two teams, one driving down and one riding down to take care of the animals.
After arriving in Leymebamba again, we were all craving hot showers and a good wash!
Needless to say that we all were ready for an early night!
Today it was a very slow start. The residual alcohol in the blood stream was taking a toll on some of us, while others recovered fast from the localy brewed aguardiente…
After breakfast at around 10 AM a group of villagers and our small group gathered at the new school building. Hatun Runa had been raising money to build a new school here for two years and with the first batch of donations, the base walls and the roof were built.
The second batch that still is to be done, will have to take care of the windows, doors, floors, bathrooms and interior finishings. As there is much rain here in Los Chilchos, what is much needed is a drainage around the school building and with wheel barrows, shovels, pick axes and 20 pairs of hands, we set out to level some of the mud floor, digging a drainage trench around the building and carting away the not needed soil. The locals were pretty impressed how strong the women in our group were (‘you guys must be very proud of your women’).
Again it was a sunny day and we sweated plenty. In about three hours the work was done.
Everyone helped and it amazed all of us how quickly things could get done if enough people helped together.
Lucky for Hatun Runa, the construction of the school is being overseen by the same foreman that already oversaw the building of the new Ucumari coffee plant. Tapping into that infrastructure is priceless and very fortunate for Hatun Runa and the village. Just getting funds transferred and properly disbursed is already a major challenge here.
Exhausted and dirty but happy we went for lunch. And were looking forward to visiting a sugar cane mill in the afternoon.
Heading out in bright sunshine (still an anomaly in Los Chilchos) at a leasurely pace we walked to the sugar cane mill. We heard the sound of the mill long before we actually saw it. Loud gnarling sounds could be heard.
Next we saw a wooden mill pulled by a horse and a mule going in circles. In the middle three wooden rolls are working to squeeze large stalks of sugarcane until the sugar cane juice dropped out into a vat underneath the press. It tasted very sweet.
The cane juice then gets cooked for several hours until it’s a very thick sirup. This then gets poured into a wooden board with round depressions and hardens into a hard brown blocks of sugar. It tasted very much like molasses.
We put Harry and Chris H. for the picture onto the wooden mill and are still discussing who’s the donkey and who’s the horse.
Back at the coffee plant, the staff there was so nice and showed us what happens if one of the farmers brings harvested coffee to the plant.
How it is being sorted, de-shelled, cleaned and then set out to dry. Once dry, the shells get separated from the beans and sifted by hand. We got a kilo to take home of course.
After our last dinner here in Los Chilchos, we packed for the next day, when we are scheduled to head back to Leymebamba on another all day trek.
Pictures: Jih-Ho, Sally, Chris
Today after a hearty breakfast of eggs and hockey pucks, we were eagerly awaited in the school.
All students lined up to sing and the boxes with the school supplies and toys that we brought were standing in the middle. The kids craned their necks to see what was in there and you could see that they would love to just dive in and start playing and using the things we brought.
The teachers though were quite adamant, that they were the ones to first view and then distribute those supplies to wherethey were needed most. The boxes were carried away to safety and the sport games program of Los Chilchos began.
This was their annual field day and sports activities were lined up in stations around the big village soccer field.
First there was shot put with large, round stones, then an obstacle course that was pretty long actually.
Of course we were expected to participate. Needless to say that we were out of breath after half the course and several of us demanded oxygen tents. We all served brilliantly as comedic entertainment for the village population, old and young. It was great fun for all of us.
Then came the disciplines of fishing and swimming . Not all of us wanted to jump into the cold river, but some of us did.
Back at the village green Chris let his drone fly. As always the kids were in awe and super excited to see something they had never seen before. The aereal pictures were less interesting to them, than seeing the actual drone fly close to the ground. I guess that’s the attraction of a remote controlled airplane, rather than seeing the world from up top.
It was time for lunch and every day they served something new and delicious. Yucca, some new sort of root, yummy soups. We took all our meals in a little dirt floor multi purpose room. One side served as an art gallery of old Pin Up pictures, the other as a rudimentary store front, one as a cinema with a TV and one as a memorial wall to remind one that this was a christian country with depictions of Jesus and Mary. It was a rather unique setting! Dogs, ducklings and chickens wandered freely in and out how they saw fit, checking out if they could scavenge some scraps from us.
Our food was prepared in a nearby kitchen. Low ceiling, open fire place and much to our amazement a herd of little guinea pigs was running around free on the floor. They can’t escape, as they cant master hopping over the door step. They are less intended for cuddling than to serve as meat source once in a while.
After some mid day rest, the sports activities continued. Boys and girls were playing a soccer match on the village green, and an animated volley ball game was going on as well. Even the littlest of children knew how to get the ball to the other side of the net.
Of course it did not take long until we were asked to participate and needless to say, besides the local players we all looked like beginners! It was fun and luckily we did not have to go against the teachers team, as they would have whipped our butts, we are sure!
A bit apart from the main action, Chris noticed something that caught his eye. Roosters tied to a pole in the ground at the edge of the field. Curious as always, he went to look. The owner of the roosters demonstrated how they were pitting two cocks against each other in a cock fight. Luckily without any metal spurs and so no blood was flowing. Nevertheless a pretty gruesome sight, as those two roosters were really going at each other and had to be separated in the end, as they don’t stop fighting by themselves.
The afternoon neared it’s end and we wandered towards our rooms to clean up a bit when a delicious smell caught our attention. It turned out that fresh bread was being baked in a wood fired oven and for one Soles (approx.. 30 cents) we got five fresh and soft hockey pucks. They tasted so delicious, we went for seconds and thirds…. What a treat!
After dinner, we rested a bit as a long party night was in front of us. Our room was a future guest room in the coffee plant of Los Chilchos.
Plant may sound grandiose, it’s a rather small operation that allows the local villagers a modest income by planting, harvesting and producing coffee (Ucumari) in cooperation with Apenheul, a Dutch nature conservation initiative.
Ucumari/Apenheul originally bought large swaths of land to protect the wild habitat of the yellow tail wooly monkey, a very rare monkey species in Peru only living in the cloud forest of the Chachapoyas. Their habitat was threatened by the ever growing clearing of native rain forest to make grazing space for cattle. To stop the clearing altogether, Ucumari and the Los Chilchos village formed a partnership to grow organic coffee and sell it at an agreed fair price so the villagers would not need to destroy more of their rain forest for cattle. This proved to be a highly successful match and clearing of land has nearly stopped. The Ucumari team, espacially Alan, helped Hatun Runa supervising the building of the school alongside their structure.
That night, Ucumari threw a party at their coffee plant and the whole village came. We all had a blast. Live Peruvian music, dancing, singing, eating, drinking anything that makes a party great was there. Action was going on until about two in the morning and some of us were clearly under the influence the next day!!
It’s time for our ten hour treck to Los Chilchos. The night before, Ricky gave us a presentation what to pack for the four days in the middle of the rain forest. The bottom line of it was: as little as possible since it all has to be transported on horseback (or on our backs).
Chris has already gotten used to the trekking saddles over here by practicing on our wooden horse at our hotel ‘La Casina’.
So we were ready for our big trip to the remote village Los Chilchos.
We got up again very early, as it will take us the whole day to make our way from Leymebamba to Los Chilchos and no one wants to be stuck on the trail without daylight.
One hour drive with a minibus to our drop off point and then an eight hour walk and ride on horseback. Sunset is around 6 PM each day. Not much time to spare.
After a bumpy ride with a minibus up a steep, windy road we were confronted with the real Peruvian weather in this region. Low hanging clouds, obscuring the mountain tops and a drizzle of rain to start with.
We all suited up accordingly to resemble mountain expeditioners on the trails for days. Our horses, or should I say ponies, were already waiting for us as well as some pack animals. Everything has to be brought there by foot or pack animal. There is no road to Los Chilchos, just an very rocky and muddy path up and down through the mountains.
We put on rain gear, cold gear and wind gear and then got assigned our mounts. By and large everyone was happy about their horse (and one mule). Esther had a pretty grey called Moro, Chris a nice black mare called Nena. Harry had the mule to start out with and found it quite comfortable. Once all were mounted and the saddle bags stowed, we set out on a wide muddy track towards a misty destination in the distance, some eight hours away. The horses are so sure footed and tough, that they can carry a third of their own weight on their backs for hours.
A light drizzle and a fierce, cold wind made us all snuggle further into our warm coats, hats and gloves. Soon at least the rain stopped and it started to clear up a bit on the lower mountain sides. The higher we got, the denser the clouds got again. Chachapoyas, people of the cloud forrest. One has no doubt that this name fits perfectly.
We alternated the walking and riding, some preferred walking to riding and vice versa. All of us were wearing rubber boots instead of hiking shoes, as the mud is ever present and ankle deep in most places. Boot liners, thick socks, plasters, all needed to make sure the blisters did not show up too soon! We’ve never hiked the mountains in rain boots!
First we had to hike and ride up 6.000 feet only to then descend 8.000 feet to Los Chilchos, in a warmer valley. The highest mountain pass had no view due to the low clouds but the altitude was making everyone breathing heavily. Despite all of us being reasonably fit, one has the impression of total unfitness when climbing up a steep, rocky slope in 12.000 feet altitude.
We had lunch on a nice half way point and as we had left the cloud cover behind, breathtaking views started to emerge. Even the sun came out and we saw undisturbed nature and forest for miles on end in each direction. Really not much different must have looked this exact same trail a hundred years ago.
We shed our rain gear and several layers of clothing on the downhill trek to Los Chilchos.
Deep ruts forced our horses to take very careful steps and often the downhill stepping stones felt like vertical drops to the rider. Amazing what those animals can accomplish! They sometimes ponder their next move and very rarely take a wrong step. On the very steep slopes, we got off the horses to make it easier for them to navigate this very challenging terrain.
Part of the trail was a stone paved band of rocky blocks of stone, not smooth at all, but keeping the path intact. Some of the path was just pure mud holes and gravel. Stoically all animals went about their path and we were all grateful for it.
The lower we got, the hotter it got too! Apparently we were super lucky with the weather as fellow travelers had told us of hours of wet misery in the saddle and on the trail on other visits to Los Chilchos.
Tired and saddle sore we finally arrived at Los Chilchos around 4.30 PM and were shown our sleeping quarters for three nights. Chris and Esther had the luxury of a room to themselves even if the beds were not constructed yet. Improvisation is key here and soon we had two working beds in our rudimentary abode at the coffee plant while others slept in the health clinic.
Solar energy provided some lighting but other than that there was only one electric outlet in the whole village that could charge Chris’ drone.
To round out an exhausting but eventful and wonderful day, we were invited to the school for a community dinner of a simple but rich chicken soup and yucca.
Fun fact: as dessert hot, very sweet coffee (in the late evening!) was served and the locals dip their cheese in it, like we dunk bisquits in it. Off we went to a well earned sleep, looking forward to meet the people living at such a remote place.
Today we got up early to do our day two of acclimatisation. A half day walk and a visit to the village of Atuen was on the menu. We took a 4×4 minibus over the newly built road that connects Leymebamba to Atuen and then further to Chikibamba.
A few years ago, Rene, Esther’s dad, still had to hike and take the horses there for a full day that now is a bumpy drive of roughly two hours. Progress is unstoppable…. For the villagers who live mainly from growing organic potatoes, it is a hard life up here, where it is almost always windy, rainy and cold. The population is shrinking despite the new road making transportation easier.
We visited the health clinic and Ricky checked a few things. Solar panels were working so important medicines could be kept refrigerated.
This is a basic outpost for the most urgent medical care in the area. A small hospital bed and visitation room, simple, but so important for the people here. Hatun Runa, the US based charity we are traveling with, has been working for over a decade in remote villages in the Northeastern Andes of Peru like they did here in Atuen. Even small donations can do great good in Peru.
Same goes for the Atuen school. A new kindergarden is being built and while the old school building will continue housing the kids up to grade six.
After that, very few go onto higher schools, as they would need to do so in Leymebamba. Not all kids of the village go to school at all. A number are needed by their parents in the fields and therefore only get a very basic education at most.
The elementary school teacher is called Narca and does what she can to help and teach the kids there but the limitations of doing so are everpresent. 16 children aged three to 13 share one class room all on different levels and with different needs and only one teacher to help them. Local mothers take turns in cooking a warm meal for lunch which is often the only warm meal the kids are getting. What a luxury world we have for our children in the US and Europe, and we still complain about so many things. Visiting here puts things into perspective real quick.
We brought the school some supplies, books, childrens educational toys and Ricky, Harry and Chris proceeded to open a very large wrapped box that was delivered there without many instructions.
It turns out that it was a solar energy storage system. In the adjacent room we found many solar panels and mounts. Narca gave us a piece of paper that calls for a list of local things the villagers need to provide (like sand, wood and labor) in order for the government dept. of mining to send an engineer on site to install the solar system. The villagers are supposed to build a hut to house the transformer. The system is supposed to deliver enough energy for the school and the new kindergarden which is being built next door. If this is a genuine good will from the government of Peru to better the situation in remote villages, or is designed to sway the villagers to agree to open their land for mining is not clear to us at this point in time. Mining is the big cash cow here and those companies are insatiable for new land to be opened up.
Unfortunately in Peru while the villages own the right to work on the surface of the land, the government owns all the soil underneath. Often a cause for big disputes as the mines are never underground mines but surface mines eating up huge chunks of land to mine for silver and copper.
Behind the old school, Leslie showed us some rectangular holes in the ground, about seven feet deep with steps leading down to them. This was an ancient Inka settlement, the ruins of houses still hidden underneath many of the small mounds of earth around us.
The rectangular chambers were designed on a little stream, that could be diverted to fill two pools with clear water. According to ancient stories, a wounded Inka king was nursed back to heath here for two years. We searched and found still a number of pottery shards most likely dating back to that time.
After saying farewell to Narca, we started our hike to two remote lakes straight into the hills. Despite all odds, the sun came out and transformed this arid land into a magical hobbit land.
Our hike was supposed to last 40 minutes , which turned into two hours and 40 minutes – one way ;-))) Nevertheless we could not have wished for a better day to get used to the high altitude. Atuen lies at 3.450 meters above sea level and we hiked some more up.
We had a beautiful lunch in a wind protected area on the lake shore, taking in the grandiose views. Not a single tourist in sight.
Just our small group and some cows.
Having noticed that we took a circular route to get here, we took a more straight one back and arrived at the car a bit exhausted but perfectly happy. What a wonderful day !
Now the only thing left was to pack our bags that were going on the pack horses in the morning to Los Chilchos. Difficult decisions…. for some of us ;o))
After a nice and quiet night, we were woken up way too early by a pair of mobbing roosters, that produced 100+ decibels of noise. Usually one does not think of dinner that early in the day, but boy! we certainly wished that dinner plans included roasted rooster in the evening.
While some of us had a lazy morning, sorting hiking gear out, others were already out and about getting acclimated to the high altitude. After a simple breakfast of eggs and hockey pucks (round hard bread loafs) we proceeded to sort out our footwear for the long hike, mostly done in knee deep mud (so we are being told). Hence that footwear consisted of the good old fashioned rubber boots with good hiking socks. Most of our group found suitable pre-owned footwear right at La Casona. Jih-Ho of course picked a pair that was used for spider housing in the past and decided a brand new pair was in order.
We set out to the town center in search for boots, but all suitable shops were closed at the time. Leymebamba is an old Inca settlement. The town center is a pretty open space and most of the shops, the police etc. are lined up around it.
Later in the morning we set out on foot through town towards the museo de Leymebamba. Here is where most of the recovered mummies and arte facts taken from the recently found Chachapoya tombs are stored and can be seen.
In the Late 1990’s, by sheer coincidence, a group of local cow hands fell upon a series of Chachapoya tombs, hewn into the cliffs of sheer mountain walls. They then proceeded to ransack and loot them, taking all the valuables and destroying hundreds of mummies doing so. Luckily through their own carelessness, it became known in Leymebamba what had happened and brave, fast acting locals went to the tombs to protect what was left. The archaeological community was outraged at what had happened and funds were collected all over the world to start properly extract, store, investigate and preserve the mummies and their tombs. The museo de Leymebamba was built to honor and house what is widely regarded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. This find changed the importance of Leymebamba drastically.
We walked a pleasant 40 min walk up the hill to the museo and fell in love with one of their living furry residents, a baby alpaca. So cute when little, they spit when they don’t like being approached.
The exhibits were very interesting and lovingly done. We were the only visitors at the place and could take all the time we wanted to stroll through. The mummies were very well preserved and many are actually still enveloped in their original gauze and canvas wrapping.
After a shopping spree in the little museum shop, we were all ready for lunch.
Directly opposite of the museo was the Kenticafé, part of the Hummingbird Inn in Kentitambo. The Inn absolutely deserved that name. We saw many hummingbirds feeding on feeders and flying about with their beautiful colors shining in the sunlight.
Blue and green ones, red and orangy ones, larger and smaller ones, we saw all kinds of hummingbirds. Standing barely three feet away from the feeder , we could see them up real close and a foto battle of the best hummingbird shot ensued…
We had a delicious home made pizza lunch with fresh salad with the most beautiful view over the valley. Sun and rain within minutes of each other let the surroundings glisten and shine in a million colors. We spent a long time chatting with each other and just marveling at nature. What a peaceful spot!
After an excellent slice of cake and coffee we wandered back through fields, picked up some beers on the way home and even got the missing pairs of rubber boots as well.
Time to chill until dinner and Pisco Sours before an early night.
Today we said goodby to Lima for two weeks and off we went onto our Peru adventure. The morning started at 3 AM with everyone waiting to pile their luggage into a bus. It looked like we were on an survival expedition lasting months, not four days !
With the bus being 30 min late, we would have made it in time for an european or U.S. airport to catch our 5.20 AM flight to Cajamarca. Our two last travellers, Harry and Sally joined us that morning, so we are now 10 in total. The lines were long at check in but huuuge at security. Our group got split up all over the place. We’ve asked several officials if we should skip parts of the line due to the upcoming boarding of our plane, but they all made us understand that we are fine. Heck, what do we know?! And actually the line was moving forward pretty fast. Security control was very efficient.
But once we were through the process, the screens showed final boarding for our plane. Eight of us made it barely onto the plane, and that was with Chris O. literally holding the doors to the bus open! Unfortunatly Jih-Ho and Chris R. did not make it. The signage and confusion about departure gates at the airport in Lima ( two different airlines were going to Cajamarca ) had them arrive too late at the gate. No amount of begging and pleading helped.
So eight of us took off on the flight to Cajamarca, where a nice breakfast awaited us. All bags arrive OK, even Chris R‘s bags got sent. The computer thought he and Jih-Ho were on board since we were all on the same reservation.
We took the bags into our custody and made our way to Laguna Seca our breakfast place. For the first time in days we saw blue sky an the sun shining!
Laguna Seca is a lovely spot just outside of Cajamarca. This place is known for their hot springs, Los Baños del Inca’. Cajamarca served as a major town in the North South Andean travel for centuries. Here is where the Spanish defeated the Inca and took their king hostage, be paid a huge ransom in gold and silver just to kill him later anyway ( listen up Chris R. and Jih-Ho! Forget about bribing security ).
Unfortunately we had no time to take a nice dip in the hot springs as we had a bus drive of around eight hours in front of us, most of it on very windy roads and it is highly advised not to drive after dark. More to that later.
Walking through the ‘Los Baños del Inca’ and we saw steaming streams , pools and even fountains with their white evaporation , giving this place a mystic touch.
The breakfast was delicious and we sampled again some new things. Cactus fruit, all pink and juicy as well as home made cookies with dulce de leche filling. Yum!!! Fun fact, coffee gets served as a concentrate here that then needs to be topped up with water to be drinkable.
While we were enjoying our breakfast, Leslie had already made arrangements for Jih-Ho and Chris R. who got left behind in Lima, to get picked up from Jaen, another airport and their alternative flight route, that had a better road to where we needed to go. That way we could make our road through the Maracana Canyon to Leymebamba as planned and still meet up our two lost souls at the hotel in the evening.
At first the drive was climbing up a massive mountain range up to about 2.900 meters above sea level. The road was just curves, no straights but very scenic. Vast dry slopes and green valleys everywhere. Some higher peaks shrouded in mist.
After passing the first pass we went all the way down to Balsas, a small village right at the only bridge that crosses the Maracana river.
What a difference in temperature and humidity! It felt like walking into a hot house!
At Balsas we stopped for a light lunch, consisting of incredibly fresh fruit, nuts and cold coconut juice. Another new taste experience for all of us was a taste of the mamey sapote fruit. Looking like a peeled brown coconut from the outside , it was a bright orange inside and had a large core. The flesh felt a bit leathery to the touch but tasted sweet and very pleasant. This fruit grown in tropical climate, but nobody of us had heard about it until now.
We are always amazed what new tastes we find when visiting a new country!
Off we went again climbing up steeps mountain slopes, the road winding like an endless snake. It felt like hours and many of us had to keep their eyes on the horizon so as not to get sick. We climbed ever higher – until we came to a complete stop.
Road works, delay of one hour before we could move on we got told. Getting out of the car and stretching our legs was very nice. The sun was pleasantly warm and we started continuing up the road on foot , knowing that the car would eventually pick us up. It felt so good walking , while others were happy to just wallow in the sun.
Views were stunning!
After the car had picked us up we climbed even higher and once we crossed to the other side we saw a the mist and low hanging clouds obscuring the peaks. This is where the sun rarely shines and fog is permanent. We’ll be having lots of it in the coming days. Saying good bye to the sun with lovely rainbows we started into the misty world of the cloud forest.
We could hardly see the road in front of us sometimes, so dense was the cloud cover. As the entire road is only one lane wide and visibility is close to nothing, we could very well see why this trip was better done during daylight hours.
We climbed our last pass of over 3.000 meters, all covered in mist, and made our way down again.
Finally after a long drive we arrived in Leymebamba and were welcomed very warmly by Nelly, our host for the next few days and owner of a wonderful small hotel called La Casona.
Esther really felt that after all this great food, some physical exercise was in order. So on Sunday morning, after a very nice breakfast with some of the Hatun Runa team, we set out to explore the high cliff walk and park two different ways. While Esther preferred to run, Chris wanted to try out the micromobility revolution by using one of the green electric scooters to whiz through the neighbourhood. They are standing around everywhere and will soon invade Munich, too. Setting up the app was simple as was using the little racing machines.
Heading down to the sea shore in a happy tandem of scoot and run, we spend a very pleasant and sporty morning along the sea shore. Many Peruvians were already out walking their dogs or doing some sports around the sea shore.
One can only imagine the magnificent view one has from up top the cliffs when (if ever) the sun shines. As it happens always around this time of the year, it was drizzling and grey.
Back at the hotel, with everyone gone, we decided to head into the historical center of Lima and explore the old city on foot. Best way to get to know it. We took a taxi to Plaza St.Martin and here finally we saw the splendor of the old colonial times all around this majestic square. Fine old buildings were restored all around and it looked exactly like in Spain or Portugal – if it wasn’t for the weather.
There’s something odd about the statue. Let’s forget about the chap on the horse for a minute ( it’s Jose Francisco de San Martin Matorras in case you wonder ) and focus on the woman below. She is supposed to be a physical representation of freedom, much like the big lady with the torch just off Manhattan. But she comes with one unusual feature: She has a small llama, perched on her head. While llamas are not uncommon in Peru (estimated pop. of seven million including alpacas), the llama is based on a small but significant misjudgement. The blueprint reportedly requested a female figure of liberty wearing a crown of flame. But, alas, one of the Spanish words for ‘flame’ is – well – ‘llama’. So that’s how Lima ended up with the sculpture of a dignified woman wearing a local mountain animal as a hat.
Walking down a long pedestrian zone, we saw that not all the old city had been restored like the Plaza St. Martin. Some old buildings had been lovingly renovated, but many old buildings are in a state of disrepair, to the point of falling down and being closed off, or have been torn down already and replaced with new, ugly looking buildings. We guessed that there’s not always the budget for maintaining such an old building in it’s original splendor.
Making our way to the Plaza Major, the main square, we heard music coming from bands and people lining up the sides of the street. Turns out that this was a parade of local bands and dancers in traditional, very colorful costumes. We really enjoyed watching the groups perform. There weren’t really many tourists there so it felt like a local Sunday event and all the families on the square enjoyed the performances.
The police was ever present, some of them fully dressed up in riot gear armed with a shield but they really had little to do. Actually they seem to enjoy the day as well.
We walked further north to the old main railway station. Now converted into a library with arts and exhebition, the building is stunning and what caught our eye most was a beautiful stained glass ceiling in the art nouveau fashion. Truly a gem.
Getting peckish, we had a small lunch in the oldest still active dining hall in town. The Cordano dates back to the 1905’s. Don’t expect innovation here! We drank the traditional corn juice with cinnamon flavor called Chicha Morada. The grape juice looking beverage tastes great in small doses and we prefer to dilute it with sparkling mineral water.
As Chris loves Sashimi, he enjoyed one of his many ceviches since arriving in Peru, after all the Peruvians invented ceviche! But next time we will try the butifarra which is french bread stuffed with country ham.
After a nice meal and good coffee which we didn’t take at one of the many Starbucks here in the city but at an original tiny peruvian café (support local communities!), we headed to the monastery of San Francisco.
This yellow complex is fairly large and has hundreds of pigeons which get fed just like in Rome or Venice. Rats of the skies!
The monastery was rebuilt several times due to earthquake damage. It has a very nice inner courtyard and church choir with impressive wood carvings.
The most interesting part though are the catacombs, where more than 70,000 human remains are buried underground. A fairly gruesome sight, especially if the light only goes on, once one is in the middle of those low ceilinged tunnels. Not Esther’s favorite place to spend a lot of time … But it was impressive, indeed!
Last but not least we headed out to Lima’s China town. While it was bustling with locals, tourists were absent and we did not see any Chinese anywhere, neither shopping nor working there. It was really weird walking through a China town without any Chinese…
We took a cab back to the hotel, where we met up with everyone and had a delicious dinner in very pleasant company.
Late last night more of our group arrived in Lima. We met Leslie, Jih-Ho and Chris H. for breakfast , Siobhan and Katherine, two youngsters, are also part of the WHIP group. (Weird Humans In Peru our travel name : credit to Jih-Ho Donovan)
We are still missing Ricky, Sally and Harry but the rest of the crew has arrived!
After a noisy and chatty catch up breakfast we met Milton Hatun Runa’s main contact and man-for-everything in Lima. He’s a super nice guy and he organized the transportation to one of the most important activities before we set out on our trip: money exchange in a somewhat unconventional way. We’ll leave it at that.
Next on the list was grocery shopping as we won’t be able to get many of the things once we hit the countryside. Wine, favourite snacks, pumpernickel bread just to name a few.
Hungry from all the shopping we went for lunch at “La Bonbonniere” and no it wasn’t really a French restaurant, it was a medley of all sorts of cuisines. The view from the terrace would have been great if it hadn’t been so foggy ;o)
Hang gliders were gliding precariously close to sky scrapers and a tour group foto, Chris O. nearly gave Esther a heart attack, perched on a silver rail without safety rope balancing on top of the cliff with a sheer drop of 100 meters only feet away.
After lunch we split up into separate teams , each doing their own must do’s for the afternoon. Leslie told us that outside of Lima, where we are going, it’s all cash in local currency , no cards , and no ATM. So we needed to get more cash out of the ATM’s in Lima, and they only dispense 700 soles at one time. We literally emptied 3 ATM’s cash reserves and it took us ages to finally take out enough to last us for the entire trip.
Lessons learned for next time!
We wandered back towards our hotel through the ‘cat’ Parque Kennedy and Chris discovered his favourite cat with floppy ears again. Now that grumpy cat is gone, maybe floppy ear cat can take it’s place ???
There was a lot going on in the Parque Kennedy on a Saturday. Seems the locals love being out and about. Public viewing of the soccer game between Peru and Venezuela, singing and dancing by people of all ages complete with DJ set-up in the park. They all seemed to have a jolly good time and it was fun to watch.
After some rest in the hotel, we gathered for a very special evening event. We were invited to a grand old mansion on top of a hill on the outskirts of Lima. This old mansion was built and re-built a number of times, last in 1880. You could see that it was a grand old building.
It’s reception area, dining room and courtyard all still remembering it’s former glory. Ornate window grills on every window and beautifully painted ceilings remind the visitor of the old colonial times. Being served a scrumptious buffet dinner of local delicacies with lots of fresh food, we doug in as the only guests there for that evening. And to top dinner, we were treated to a private performance of an African Peruvian music and dance group.
The sounds were really a musical medley between Latin American elements and African elements, as was the dancing. Besides the two professional dancers who performed, it seems to be a tradition that whoever is new on the Hatun Runa Peru trip that year has to perform as well, to the great delight of the rest of the crew!
We got paper tails pinned to our backsides and were given candles to light each others butts on fire much to the delight of the onlookers! Needless to say that we all made fools of ourselves not trying to be roasted alive ;o)) We confiscated as much as possible the photographic evidence but I am afraid that some videos and pics might pop up on some social media account…
This was also our first intro to Peru’s national drink: the Pisco Sour. A potent 48% alcohol, the Pisco gets mixed with lime juice, bitter, and whipped egg whites and served ice cold. It tastes a bit like a Margherita. Everyone had at least two of those but Esther really should have had only one…. Lessons learned…
To close out a wonderful evening, we went to a look out in the Barranco district.
This area is known for their bohemian little shops, restaurants and lots of street art everywhere.
It has a wishing bridge, where one has to hold their breath from one end until reaching the other end, then supposedly the wish will come true. It is a very charming area by night and we will be back in a few weeks to explore it a bit more.
Ok here we go on our next adventure to Peru.
After a really long, long flight from Munich to Lima, we arrived tired and aching. No matter how comfortable the seats were, not sleeping properly for so many hours is just tiring. Luckily our pick up from the airport was perfect and so after an uneventful drive we got dropped at our hotel in Miraflores.
El Patio is a cosy and charming old colonial building, sandwiched between much larger buildings that have risen around it since. It has little patios on different levels with cosy seating areas. Flower pots and plants are everywhere. And not a single mosquito in sight. That’s pretty amazing that we don’t have any bugs here in Lima.
After a surprisingly quiet night in the middle of the city, we went downstairs for our first Peruvian breakfast. Scrambled eggs, olive paste and toast with fresh passion fruit juice. Not bad at all I have to say. Today we wanted to explore Miraflores by foot. The others on our trip won’t be arriving until late that day, so we set out walking with a map and travel guide.
Our hotel is centrally located and so after a short walk we were in the J.F. Kennedy Park. And immediately what caught our eye are the many cats that are wandering about or sleeping on the grass. Seems there is a long tradition in this park to feed and adopt stray cats . We even saw a ‚cat hotel’ where cats could sleep inside … Everywhere we looked there were different color and size cats. It was quite an arresting sight.
What was surprising to us were the many street cleaners, gardeners and construction workers, that seem to be bustling about making the city pretty. Weather wise, we have to say there is room for improvement…. grey skies most days for most of the year and a humidity of 90% always….
Wandering through the park and the cats, we decided to pop into a large church next to the park. The church of the Virgin Milagrosa , which reminded us of temples in Myanmar with neon light effects making their way into modern day churches.
Walking from there we stopped at the Choco Museo and tasted ourselves through various % of cocoa, from super dark 99% to white. We tasted cocoa nibs, small fragments of the cocoa shell and various cocoa jam combinations. For the first time we drank chocolate tea made out of the cocoa shells. Really a weird sort of taste. It tastes hot cocoa but in tea form. Not bad actually. One more new taste experience to add to our memory.
From there we went in search of a real Peruvian market, and found one right next to a major city highway. It reminded us very much of the markets in Africa and Asia. Big hunks of freshly slaughtered meat hanging about, next to meticulously stacked and colorful fruit stalls.
An abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit everywhere. This felt more like the real Peru than the whole Miraflores district with it’s modern, but mostly ugly, high rise buildings. After strolling through the parque de reducto no.2, a big war memorial commemorating the Chilean / Peruvian war, we walked back towards our hotel.
We have to say there is no shortage of coffee shops and espresso bars. So we decided to stop at one which was so tiny , it was adorable. Barely 10 m2 , it is only comprised of three tables and a small barrista bar. The owner was French, so we chatted in French, which was so much easier than our less than our minimal Spanish, which collides with our French every time. After a very pleasant tarte d’amande and a café au lait we slowly meandered back to El Patio.
Stopping at a local supermarket for some drinks and snacks, we were surprised to see that this supermarket looked very much like a whole foods market in the USA. Food bought here is only slightly less than in Munich, I have to say. Judging from the theft protection on Red Bull cans , this seems to be the hottest item in town ….
Back at the hotel, it was time for a nap before going on our first gourmet expedition. Having heard so much about the excellence of the Peruvian cuisine, we were ready to start tasting it! Chris picked one that was ranked in the top 40 of all 3000 restaurants in Lima.
Saqra was located in a very old building below street level. Big old wooden beams set a nice ambiance and the colorful interior was very inviting. We had a small dinner of excellent quality and felt stuffed in the end but happy and ready for a long rest.
If all the food is like this here, this will become a food journey in any case and we’ll come home fat as pigs …
As you may have guessed, we were woken up again by dogs barking and early traffic on the road. One thing we are really looking forward to at home is our really quiet bedroom for an undisturbed sleep without dogs barking, priests chanting, early truck traffic and building noises.
We had a very pleasant morning bird watching (it helped to have two Swiss with a bird book on the table). We liked a small blue bird with red cheeks the most, called Cordon Bleu (no joke!)
Other lodge residents included half a dozen giant turtles, that were crawling around at their leisure.
We decided to take a kayak and to paddle around the lake. As if to cement the fact that Ethiopia is not a quiet country, the Air Force decided to have a few maneuvers with fighter jets above our heads and helicopters dropping divers over lake Babogaya.
After lunch we set out back to Addis with our driver and car.
As we still had some time to kill until our plane was leaving for Europe, Chris suggested that we visit Africa‘s largest market, the Mercato in the middle of town for some last minute shopping. When we say largest of Africa, that‘s exactly what it is. It is basically a whole quarter in a town that just consists of shops of all shapes and sizes.
Similar to guilds, different areas belong to different businesses. Some 50.000 small businesses are housed here from Monday to Saturday and sell their goods.
It was amazing, baffling, scary and exciting at the same time. Thousands of people running right and left through this maze of streets and small pathways. It’s one of those markets that weaves in all directions and you never know what you’re going to stumble into or what you’re going to find next.
Heavy goods get transported by donkey into the market. Runners with bulky loads on their heads are shouting ahead to clear their path. They are called ‘human trucks’.
We drove through some of it, the car repair corner and spare parts shops. The DIY and home improvement shops were right next to the building materials.
Our initial thought of just wandering through a picturesque local market evaporated when we saw the hustle and bustle as well as the maze of streets and walk ways we would have to navigate. We did not see a single Western or Asian looking person in the market.
We would never find our car again. ‘Chigger yellem’ = Hakuna Matata / no problem in Ethiopia, said our driver and stopped at two policemen (while we were thinking ‘En-dayyy!’ = Are you serious?!). After a short conversation, one of the policemen offered to accompany us through a portion of the Mercato and then deposit us safely in our drivers’ hands again in an hour. OK, with a curious feeling (specially Esther with her shiny blond hair) we left the safety of our minivan equipped only with a small camera and some money.
We were certainly the attraction of the market today as we felt like a fish out of water in the middle of the sea of dark-skinned people. Sometimes the policeman told some guys off, who wanted something (not sure what, as we don‘t speak Amharic) from us. We started in the household goods section and made our way carefully between all those stalls in pursuit of something interesting, always having to keep an eye out for cars, runners or donkeys that have right of way.
A fancy china shop caught our eye as we were ogling some of the small coffee cups, we had gotten so familiar with. Nobody spoke English, so price and quantity inquiries were difficult. Out of nowhere an older local guy popped up who spoke some English and decided to adopt us during our visit in the Mercato (‘You are welcomed guests in our country!’). He swiftly cleared it with our police officer, that he was one of the good guys and started to pull us along deep into the maze of small shops, where hardly a donkey can pass without toppling something over.
We found what we wanted and with this impromptu guide at our front and a police officer at our rear we really were able to enjoy whizzing in and out of various shops. We must have looked a strange sight passing like ducks in a row through this maze. Huge sacks with chili and spices were standing in the spice section, large injera baskets were woven on the spot for sale, and a drum maker was making drums out of the most unlikely materials.
Remember: Ethiopians are the kings of reusing and recycling what’s possible. Of course, there is an own department to do just that by going through some – what we would call – garbage.
The electro section looked like something out of an apocalypse movie, broken bits and pieces from a time long past everywhere.
The tailors section had rows of tables with old Singer sewing machines and busy tailors that altered any garment you just bought to your satisfaction.
In the plastic ‚lane‘ any bit of plastic scrap was separated, classified and segmented into their category and made ready for pick up by clients or a recycling company.
And so, we went from one area of the Mercato to another, fascinated at the sight that looked so foreign to us. Finally our two locals delivered us to our car again, safe and sound and richer by yet another new impression of Ethiopia. It was a memorable last activity and we were ready to go to the airport after that.
The streets that surround the market are just about always choked, but traffic seems difficult everywhere in Addis during any time of day.
A pillar reminded us of the socialistic past of Ethiopia when the country was part of the Eastern Block. With the help of the Soviet Union, Eastern Germany, North Korea and Cuba, the Ethiopian Army became in the late seventies one of the best equipped armies of Africa.
In 1974 the army seized power from Emperor Haile Selassi I (also known by his king name Rastafari – he inspired the Rastafarianism in Jamaica) with a military coup and installed a government that was socialist in name and military in style.
Civil war and the war with Eritrea as well as with Somalia led 1984 to the regime’s collapse. It was hastened by droughts and a famine which affected around eight million people and left one million dead – the pictures of starving kids (each month 20.000 died) from that time are imprinted in the collective European mind ever since. Even though Ethiopia still struggles with droughts, aid programs helped to prevent another catastrophe so far.
All in all Ethiopia to us is a very impressive, memorable, exciting and fascinating and friendly country with all its faults and room for improvement just like any country. It was definitively worth visiting.
‘Izosh ኢትዮጵያ!’ Stay strong Ethiopia!
Today it was time to say good bye to Lalibela and our great team at Simien Eco Tours. While we were scheduled to board a flight to Addis, they were to return by car to Gondar.
After a nice breakfast we drove 30 minutes to Lalibela Airport, the second largest in Ethiopia after Addis Ababa. On the way Esther finally got her pic of a donkey foal, which wandered with his mom along the road. They are soooo cute! Would fit so nicely to our horse collection…
The air strip looked well maintained and we expected the airport to be efficient and functioning well, after all there are only a few flights a day departing or landing here.
Well when we arrived none of the computers or wireless were working and the friendly staff was checking everyone in by handwritten boarding passes (just looking at our email flight confirmation) with free seat assignment and kept hand written passenger lists and baggage receipts. We’re wondering if we’ll get miles for it (Ethiopian is a very, very proud Star Alliance member).
Neither did they know how many exactly were to be on the plane, they did not weigh any bags either. Luckily Chris drone wasn’t an issue at all (specially Lalibela is known to confiscate drones and to send them to Addis Ababa for pickup once you leave the country). So, we just hoped that there were enough seats on the plane and we were not overloaded.
The flight was only about 50 minutes and they did serve a drink and a muffin.
Marco, the owner of Simien Eco Tours picked us up at the Addis airport and we had a nice lunch together. He showed us where to buy the best Ethiopian coffee beans. Early afternoon, a driver took us to our last lodge, at a nice lake outside Addis for a relaxing final day and a half.
Arriving at Debre Zeyit, also called Bishofftu, the first thing Chris noticed was that they seemed to just add random letters to words for the fun of it. Each word on any shop sign seemed to at least have three double letters, as if that was the latest fashion. Restaurant for example was often spelled Ressttoorant. Really funny.
As always, we saw plenty of action going on where Ethiopians favorite past time is concerned. In each village or town, there are at least several kicker / table football on the street and always a group of boys playing passionately as well as at least one billiard table in each village, often many more. Various covers and canopies try to keep the dust out.
After an hour and a half drive, we arrived at Viewpoint lodge, a small yet charming place overlooking the Babogaya lake.
It had a wonderful terrace overlooking the entire lake with its many birds flying back and forth between trees and reed grasses.
Our room was a round mud hut but it did have a small bathroom. Draw back was that it was close to the road.
Our other option would have been more quiet but neither with bathroom, nor toilet. We picked the first. We enjoyed a very relaxing afternoon and nice sunset there.
Normally we do a food blog as one of the entries, but frankly in Ethiopia the most amazing things we found were the menus themselves. We found amazing things on it: ‘Chees Berger with mined beef’, ‘Spaghetti with cheese dumping’, ‘Stake ala bis mark’, ‘fillet mignon café depari’… Of course, once you ask for a filet mignon you’ll learn that “we no have”. Today? Ever?
In short most food is medium spicy and Ethiopians honor Wednesdays and Fridays as fasting days, which means they don‘t eat meat on those days. Then only vegetarian dishes are on the menu.
Main ingredient of any Ethiopian dish is injera, the sour dough, pancake like bread that serves as a base for all dishes and it serves as cutlery at the same time. Ethiopian cuisine offers traditional vegetables such as beans, chick peas, cabbage, carrots, spinach or lentils and one always gets a good tomato and green pepper salad (green peppers as in green chilies…)
Ethiopians eat with their right hand and no cutlery, so we adjusted quickly. We love finger food anyway.
On fasting days, a very popular dish is Shiro, a spicy bean paste that gets served hot on top of injera bread. Aside from the vegetables, the meat served is mostly sheep or goat. We did have some chicken and beef, but that was mainly in the larger cities we drove through. We have to say that most meat was very tough. Animals seem to get slaughtered before they pop their clocks naturally, so our ox must have been at least 20 years old and even the chicken was tough in some places.
While Ethiopian cuisine knows some delicious soups, desserts seem to be absent in every menu, much to Chris’ chagrin. Whereas the fresh mango juices were delicious and common throughout.
After each meal or at breaks, often the traditional coffee ceremony was performed, which would delight Espresso drinkers, because that‘s basically what it tastes like. No milk and plenty of sugar. Burning frankincense is part of the ceremony, Chris’ guess was that it helps to attract more people. Which doesn’t work with Esther since she is not to keen on the smell of it.
Let us summarize our culinary experiences in Ethiopia as quite good (Esther) or as OK (Chris), but don‘t travel Ethiopia for the food. There are other countries with much more variety throughout. Nevertheless, we tried almost everything and never got sick, which is already a positive fact.
After having had Shiro for lunch we felt the need for something different so we had spaghetti for dinner (Pizza and Pasta are omnipresent here, a left overs from the short time of the Italian occupation) and had a pleasant conversation with some nice Swiss bird watchers which rounded out our last night in Ethiopia.
After a peaceful night and the best shower since having arrived in Ethiopia, we set out on a half day excursion trip to a remote monastery, known for its unique and stunning architecture.
The monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos is an hour drive away from Lalibela across bumpy roads. Only a few tourists make that trip as you have to have your own 4×4 car. The usual mini busses can‘t make that journey.
It is very different from the other holy buildings as it was built in the Axumite style of mixing wood and stone, rather than using pure stone/ rock to construct. One has to walk up to 2.700 meters above sea level, a walk of about 20 minutes and find oneself looking at a boring wall.
The monastery is built inside a large cave but protected on the outside by a three meter high wall with only one small entrance door. Again, shoes off on holy ground and in we went.
Right as soon as we entered the enclosure we were fascinated by the brown and white striped building. It‘s a real eye catcher.
It was built in the 11th century by one of the predecessors of King Lalibela. The Zegwe emperor, who supposedly imported the wood used from Egypt wanted to connect the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.
As stunning the building is on the outside, with its stripes and wood carved windows, the inside is remarkable as well.
The ceiling consists of ornately carved wooden shingles in various forms and paintings on the walls are quite well preserved. They never saw sunlight. The doors are original and beautiful in their massive construction with iron nails and old locks.
Towards the back of the cave, is the more macabre side to this place, as the skeletons/ mummified bodies of about 5.000 pilgrims are stacked up. It is not known whether they came here as far as from Egypt on their pilgrimage and died here or if an epidemic of some sort killed many of them and they were buried here. Not a pleasant sight, but impressive nevertheless.
Off we went again down for a nice buna (coffee) in the little village and even found a souvenir we liked.
Back at Lalibela we had a nice lunch and then set out to visit the second cluster of rock hewn churches, the Southern cluster.
Equally impressive than the Northern cluster.
Bet Gabriel Rafael is a very imposing monolithic church, where archaeologist are not sure if it was not the palace of King Lalibela with a chapel included. It can only be accessed by a small bridge as the only way into the building. It is surrounded by a big trench that fills up with water in the rainy season protecting it perfectly. As with many of the other rock hewn churches in Lalibela, the interior is much less impressive than the exterior. Fairly plain and simple with few ornaments or pictures.
We could see the restauration efforts as some of the churches had cracks and erosion over time. Through a small tunnel and a trench we reach a small building, that was supposedly the imitation of Jesus Christ‘s shelter in Bethlehem
Then through a pitch-black tunnel (no picture for evident reasons) of about 50 meters we slowly advance in complete darkness from the small shelter to a large, 12 meter high church called Bet Emmanuel.
This one reminded us of the Axumite style as well, like the monastery from this morning, as the exterior and interior mimics the Axumite style of mixing stone slabs with wooden beams. Just with this one it was all hewn out of rock. It is a beautiful church, very finely and precisely worked and supposedly the private church of the king and the royal family.
It really feels like this one has been crafted with special attention to all the details. The carvings of the window and columns are more exact and sharp, and the ornaments inside are cut with an exactness that is clearly above the others.
From there to Bet Mercurios, a half-collapsed church, that must have been impressive in its size as it contains 12 separate rooms. This one as well as the first Bet Gabriel Rafael are rumored to actually be the royal palace instead of churches. The layout and number of rooms of Bet Mercurios suggests as much.
Along the large trench and through several doorways and walkways we entered the last compound. Bet Abba Libanos not a monolithic church but a cave church.
An existing cave was extended to accommodate a square building. It is connected by the roof to the rock but one can walk around it completely inside a cave.
This building shows some serious cracks as well, as the rock face above it started to sag and is slowly squashing the church in the cave.
After so many churches, albeit very impressive, we felt we needed to see something different for our last days and so we finished off the day with a (near) perfect evening dinner at the only 360 degree panoramic restaurant in town.
While the view and sunset of Ben Abeba restaurant could not be any more perfect that evening, the strong winds ripped napkins from our hands, blew pepper mills and salt shakers off the tables and our food got cold in record time.
But Chris had the best burger in Ethiopia and it was the last evening with our lovely and funny crew from Simien Eco Tours.
Today was a long driving day for us. From Mekelle to Lalibela 300 kilometers drive that take a full nine hours!
You can imagine that the road conditions are very challenging at times. Most of the way is asphalt road, but that does not mean you can drive fast.
Our Toyota Land Cruiser and driver are perfectly equipped for those journeys but we obviously are not. Remember the ‘African massage’ from the other post? This was a mega massage that lasted for hours… About half of the nine hours spent in the car were on dirt roads in questionable conditions.
Even straight, asphalted roads here are not to be driven on fast at all. There is a number of sudden obstacles that can spring at you from any direction. Just to name a few:
Any kind of animal can suddenly walk into the road, from chickens and monkeys on the smaller side to camels on the larger. Sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys you name it, they will appear suddenly, prompting sharp breaks or avoidance maneuvers from our driver.
Then there are the hardly visible potholes. Mean half concealed holes in the surface that will break any suspension or blow a tire without warning. Blown tires are lined up at any village and city galore.
Then there would be the occasional traffic that we needed to overtake, or that was coming towards us. Mule carts that try to navigate steep downhill slopes using the entire width of the road in order not to slip down with their cargo or heavily overloaded trucks, leaning precariously to one side, crawling up or down the mountain roads like huffing and puffing snails. Often enough you see overturned trucks or lost cargo on the side of the road.
Then there are asphalt roads, that turn into gravel roads with no prior warning and then at some point back to asphalt roads. Great tire blowers are also the many improvised sleeping policemen (road bumps) some are just mounds of gravel on the road intended to slow the traffic down (usually in a village), some concrete humps, some are irrigation ditches. All have the same effect on cars: they have to crawl over those very carefully and at a snails pace.
And last but not least near invisible steel ropes straight across the road in about 1.50m height that are signaling a checkpoint where each car needed to slow down and get either inspected or waved through by a nearby guard or militia man. Often, we asked ourselves how our driver knew, as those steel ropes are hard to see. He just knew. We would have driven straight into more than one…
So, this explains why a 300 km drive can need nine hours.
Finally, we arrived at Lalibela, the most famous destination in all of Ethiopia. The Jerusalem for the Ethiopians and religious center. Former capital of the empire and the must-see tourist attraction of every Ethiopia traveler. More on this in the next blog entry.
As this day was mostly spent in the car, without many great picture opportunities, we decided to enrich this blog entry with some other fun facts and observations from our travels here.
Power: the relationship that Ethiopians have with electric power is rather sketchy. Frequent power outages lasting hours to days are not uncommon. Most important institutions and hotels have a generator. Wiring seems to be very haphazard too. Solar power is unfortunately hardly seen at all. Our little solar charger panel was in high demand in the mountains to charge everyone’s mobile phones. We would guess that half of Ethiopia`s houses are not connected to electricity.
Building boom: wherever we went, we saw new buildings spring up. Whether it is government supported housing for the people (looking like copy paste villages with their tin roofs and identical rectangular layout) to concrete office and factory buildings. This building boom is visible everywhere but the deep mountains. Scaffolding mostly looks like a wooden spider web attached to some other structure and large building machines are rarely seen. A lot is still manual, human labour.
Water in Ethiopia: as you may have guessed from some blog entries, warm or running water is good luck here in Ethiopia. While we were not at the top of the range hotels, the common theme was that while hot water is there with a boiler in each room, to find it in good working condition is not. Dribbling, luke warm showers are the norm and while not showering or washing hair properly is no big deal for a few days, after a while one craves a good shower and hair wash. Ethiopians in the countryside don‘t have running water for the most part. They fill up orange 10 liter canisters or water barrels at a pump that‘s more or less nearby and transport it with animals most of the time. We have seen some irrigation systems with the help of ditches, diverting water from higher up to the fields, but that‘s not the norm. Toilets are also mostly without flush. One has to pour water from a can into it and discard paper separately. We won‘t have a separate blog entry on the sanitary conditions as they vary greatly depending on location. Let it just be said that the bush toilet is a more preferred option than most here.
One thing we noticed straight away is that every man here is carrying a walking stick. We were wondering why and our guide told us that for a man a walking stick is like an extension of himself and always has to be carried. We compared it to a handbag for a woman in our world – without it, one feels naked. A stick is used to prod slow animals, chastise unruly kids, waved when dancing and leaned upon when one is tired – simply indispensable.
Recycling: it is big in Ethiopia, but not as one might think for environmental reasons, no – simply out of practicality and lack of resources. Just to name a few examples: we found plenty of old wheelchairs now functioning as rolling bases for small street shops and discarded water canisters were cut to make blinkers for the donkey and mule carts or fans for heating up the fire to make coffee. Broken pots were used to secure the tips of thatched roofs and plastic bottles are cut and painted green to simulate artificial plants.
Fashion: we noticed that while most men‘s fashions are western dress (with exception of the very old) , most women‘s fashion are local fabrics and gowns. Something that’s surprising but pleasant to look at with many bright colors. Shoes are mostly plastic sandals (for men) or plastic slippers (for women).
They are produced in Ethiopia. Gashow says, shoes from China have a poor quality here.
Today we had our first full day of Church-seeing in Lalibela. It‘s a small town of about 30,000 people now with small shops and the usual chaotic traffic and goings-on. Nothing out of the ordinary, other than that it is way off the beaten track and not visible at first glance.
Only reachable by plane or hours of bumpy dirt road it lies in the center of Northern Ethiopia as one of three former capitals. Lalibela was originally known as Roha, but was renamed Lalibela for King Lalibela who resided there for a long time and decided to build a series of amazing churches to honor various saints and the Christian faith. All within 24 years, he built 13 churches.
But not churches built from the ground up, he built them into the rock, downwards by excavating loads of pure rock. In huge excavated areas below ground level, some of the churches are 15 meters high and carved out of a single rock, pillars, doors, windows and all.
There are two main clusters of churches, the Southern and the Northern Cluster and one church that was built last and stands apart a bit. Today we visited that church and the Northern cluster of six churches. Some are covered by a protective roof nowadays, as erosion is taking its toll.
Bet Medane Alem is the world’s largest rock-hewn monolithic church with 11 meters in height and nearly 800 m² in ground area. It has an incredible amount of 36 rock-hewn pillars on the inside and 36 on the outside. Rather impressive on the outside, its main feature inside is a cathedral like feeling stemming from its sheer size and massiveness more so than any ornaments on the inside.
It is rather plain, with only a few holes for burial graves. Bet Medane Alem stands in its own excavated courtyard, the sheer outer walls only pebbled by some more rock graves or hermit‘s coves. A tunnel connects Bet Medane Alem to its neighboring courtyard, encompassing three churches.
Bet Maryam (Virgin Mary’s church) is smaller in size, about ten meters in height and about 260 m² in ground area. It was the first excavated church and is very popular with local folks.
As it happens the day we visited was St.Mary’s day and so the chanting we heard starting at four AM that morning was due to the celebrations in her honor.
One corner of the courtyard was roped off for ceremonial purposes and we saw the priests chanting, singing and dancing.
Inside St. Mary’s church we could see some older paintings, but they were not too well preserved.
On the northern side of the courtyard we visited a very small rock hewn church called Bet Meskel (House of the Cross) which is tiny with its 35 m² inside. While we were alone in it for a while, all of a sudden 50 Italians piled into the church all at once and we fled to the outside fast. A sea of shoes awaited us, as one needs to take of the shoes before entering any of the churches.
Bet Danagel chapel, is even smaller, dedicated to 50 (supposedly murdered) nuns but was not very remarkable. One thing to note in this courtyard is a deep pool of green algae covered water. History or legend has it that infertile women are lowered on a rope into the water and then are supposedly more likely to conceive afterwards. (…remark Esther: already back hundreds of years, why is it always the women‘s fault ???)
The last set of churches on the Northern compound, accessible through a series of trenches hewn into the rock, are combined together. Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha are fairly small but very atmospheric. One feels transported back in time.
Bet Mikael is a dark church without windows. The only light is coming from the entrance door. It has a dungeon like, dank smell and it does not get better the further you proceed to the back of the church.
In the back wall is the entrance to Bet Golgotha, names after the hill outside Jerusalem. It is only allowed for men to enter this one and it boasts a series of life size reliefs of various saints around the walls.
Last but not least we found a rarely visited chapel on our way out. This one was the most charming and serene of all the holy places we saw this morning.
It is the Selassie chapel with its own little mini courtyard in front. Carved in the 15th century it houses the tomb of King Lalibela. A friendly priest agreed to be photographed and proceeded right to ring the bell for prayer time after telling us that he saw the arc of the covenant as a kid and that it has been found right in this chapel.
Having had our fill of churches for the moment, we decided not to visit the Southern cluster that same day, but to relax a bit in the hotel and only do one more church in the late afternoon due to the nice evening light.
We set out to visit the touristic highlight of all the Lalibela churches only around four PM that afternoon ( it supposedly closes at five PM), right when we ran into the motorcade of our President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, who happens to visit Lalibela at exactly the same time as us. Luckily, he just left when we arrived and we were surprised how little security was. We could walk right by his SUV before he set off and look into the window. The army guards around the car did not stop us in any way to pass.
The most photographed and iconic church of all of Lalibelas churches is Bet Giyorgis (St. George`s church)
It is the youngest of all the 15th century churches and has a completely different shape of all the others, as it is a full monolith and shaped like a cross.
It sits deep into its own courtyard and can only be accessed by a trench from the outside and a tunnel in the wall.
There is no climbing down the 17-meter sheer rock walls that surround the church. As stunning as this iconic church is from the outside, as bare it is on the inside. Still it is very atmospheric inside.
Legend has it that St.George was offended when he heard that none of the churches King Lalibela built was dedicated to him and so he visited with the king and complained.
The king then promised to build him the finest of all churches and so it came to be. It is an awesome sight from above and the outside, thinking that it was hewn out of sheer rock in only six years. According to legend, it the Lalibela churches were all carved by day labour and not slave labour, but who knows… It’s a lot of carving in 24 years…
Despite supposedly closing at five PM, we were allowed to linger on the outside for much longer and profit from a beautiful setting sun and without any tourists on the premises anymore. A local photographer was impressed by Chris’ camera and we decided to let him take a picture of us, that he printed out on the spot.
To round up the day on a lighter note than seven churches, Chris bartered with a TukTuk (in Ethiopia it’s called Bajaj, spoken Badshash) driver to let him drive back to the hotel.
As always, money has persuading powers and so we took the Bajaj and the driver showed Chris how to drive it without crashing.
It was a lot of laughs from all sides until we were home again.
We had been so looking forward to have a long sleep in on a Sunday morning in our beautiful Gheralta Lodge when we were woken up at two AM by chanting monks again. Arrgh!
It was Sunday and while the next church was about two miles away, the sound of chanting in the silent night travels very far and clear. Needless to say that sleeping in was off the menu…
Nevertheless we had a very nice breakfast in the lodge, could update our blog with some better internet than usual and headed out on our first hike only at 9.30 AM in beautiful sunshine and about 24 degrees.
Our guide had never visited that particular rock church, and so we could only go by what the guide book told us. We found the start of the trail easy enough. According to the book it was supposed to be an hour walk up to a high plateau and did not say anything about the terrain itself.
So we started walking uphill, joined by two uninvited pseudo guides that were trying to negotiate their way into our small group and of course at the end of it get paid as well. The guide book said it was the most remote of the churches, and indeed we were the only ones there.
The hike started pleasantly enough, meandering through the shrubs and up the mountain, but dragged on and on in the sun. Up and up we went for nearly two hours, Chris was ready to throw in the towel after about one hour of rapid heart beat and out of breath state due to the high altitude.
The path could only be guessed as there were no markings whatsoever. Finally we arrived at the plateau and one of the guys following us had called the local priest who is in charge of the masses and baptism that are happening in the Church as well as opening the church to visitors (and charging them for it).
Through a small rock passage and with bare feet we entered this seemingly small church. It is carved entirely into the rock, complete with pillars, two entry doorways (one for women, one for men) and even a few window openings were hewn into the rock. It always amazes us how much work this must have been and who oversaw the static and architectural elements of it several hundreds of years ago.
The paintings were very similar to the ones we had already seen (Mary`s travels to Egypt with baby Jesus, St.George defeating the dragon, 12 apostles, and this one had the holy Johannes, as he helped Mary to escape and also escaped himself onto this hill top by magically flying up there with a winged snake.
Here he then built this church which was never destroyed or ransacked even during the time that the Jewish queen Judith who tried to eradicate the Christian orthodox church and install Judaism instead.
Again the views from the top were great and when asked if we wanted a different way down, faster than the way up we accepted and our adopted guide earned his money by showing us a more direct path down. So in the end both additions to our team proved to be very useful, one having gotten the priest to unlock the church and the other by leading the way up and then down the mountain. All in all it took us three hours, double the time we had planned.
Chris then flatly refused to do one more step up a hill even if the next church was only a flight of some 100 stairs. He stayed in the car napping while Esther and our guide went up to see Abraha we Atsbeha.
This church was founded and excavated by two brothers of the said name, supposedly around 335 AD, but a British archaeologist dated it more around the 10th century. The mummified bodies of the two brothers are still kept in the church in the section Holy of Holiest. The Church has 13 large pillars that support a high roof of stone. Each church has three areas: the singing / chanting / reception type area, like an entry chamber, then the praying section and then the Holy of Holiest. This section is always veiled with curtains and only the priest can go there. The Tabots are kept there too.
In the Abraha we Atsbeha church, the first welcoming chamber is made with regular bricks, but the second and third sections have been hewn into the rock completely. It measures 16 x13 meters and is at least 6\six meters high inside. A fire and some water dripping through the rock ceiling have unfortunately destroyed some of the art work. The remaining art work is much more elaborate than at most of the other churches we have seen so far. They were painted with much more detail and accuracy, which can be seen in the people’s faces and their horses.
Enough churches for a few days, back at the car we had to wake up Chris and drive to Wukro, our lunch destination over some dirt roads where serious road work was going on. It looked like Ethiopia wanted to build a next highway here and our road was a curious mix between four lane wide freshly graded dirt road sections and one lane wooden bridges in between. Luckily the traffic is still so light here that those one lane bottleneck bridges don‘t matter much.
After our very good lunch in Wukro, where Chris ate goat for the first time here in Ethiopia, we simply drove to our next overnight destination, the regions capital Mekelle, an industrial town which Chris refused to take a picture of due to it’s dinginess …
… but for documentational reasons he finally took a shot to show you how Mekelle looks like in the early morning hours.
Today we spent the day rock climbing and church viewing. And yes, those two are related as the rock hewn churches of Gheralta are only accessible by steep and cumbersome climbs. Some are downright scary and not for the folks with vertigo… like Esther.
We set out to our first destination and picked up our local guide and a climbing harness at Megab, a small village before the mountains. Our first destination was a sheer rock with a flat top that looked very difficult to climb without crampons, ropes and a harness. Over a very rough road, only accessible by 4×4, we started our trek. Right on our path were two Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, large ugly black birds, that obviously always travel in pairs.
Our hike took us up a narrow chasm between two rock faces. While the climb itself was not challenging so far, the altitude was. Being on 2.500 meters above sea level made us heave like we were the most untrained of hikers, which we, good old Bavarian mountain goats, certainly were not. The shortness of breath was really puzzling, but all `Ferendshi` (white foreigners), young or old, were grappling with the same issue.
The chasm ended on a saddle between two mountains and then the real ascent started. On hand and feet, we crawled up a steep rocky slope, not quite steep enough to afford a rope but very challenging nevertheless due to the altitude and steepness.
After about 45 minutes clambering up, we finally made it to the top of the rock. From here it was smooth sailing.
There is a small walled enclosure around both churches and the first thing we noticed was a group of women with small children and a baby eating some bread. They wore flip flops and we wondered how on earth they had made it up here with all those small children. They were up here to baptize the small baby and ate some food after the ceremony.
One priest and one nun are permanently living up here. First, we walked around the rock to Daniel Korkor, a small church hewn into the rockface.
It consisted of only one chamber carved out of sandstone and had only a window sized door as opening.
It has some faded religious paintings of the 14th century but nobody knows exactly, as not all of the paintings had been properly dated by experts.
The church had only a small stone ledge in front of it on where to stand and a 200-meter sheer drop going down.
It had grandiose views of the entire valley but the drop was heart stopping.
Maryam Korkor, the main church on to of this rock was a much larger church, 17 x 10 meters in ground space and fully hewn out of sandstone, including the columns, arches and windows. It must have been a back breaking work to get it finished.
It had some less preserved paintings on the walls, but was pleasantly cool in the inside.
The way down was faster albeit we often used hands, feet and butt to get past the very steep parts. A bit exhausted but happy we arrived at our car again. After a pleasant and refreshing lunch in our magnificent lodge, we tackled the second trip of the day. This time, we would told, we would be needing the harness.
Abuna Yemata Guh is a small church hewn into the sheer rock face of a vertical pinnacle of rock. The ascent is only for very brave people, with no vertigo whatsoever (which of course excluded Esther from the start). She made it to the base of the rock face but not further. While walking up a steep slope, wheezing like a steam train we saw cute rock badgers.
Arriving at the rock base, and after some wait to get the heart rate down again, Chris put the climbing harness on and his shoes off (no shoes on sacred ground!) and set out barefoot with two guides to climb up the last 50 meters to the church.
Once the first 15 meters were over and the harness put aside again, Chris heart rate went up again – this time not due to the thin air but in looking at the final scramble and precarious ledge walk over a 200-meter drop.
A trust in one’s own abilities or devotion wanting to see the church. Definitely not the right place for Esther up here. Having made the whole way up Chris was wondering how local families have brought their newborn babies up here to be baptised, and even carried corpses up to be buried on the mountain.
The church itself is spectacularly sited within a cliff face.
Inside are beautiful and well-preserved frescoes that adorn two cupolas. The church was hewn from the rock of the mountain around the 5th century by an Egyptian priest named Father Yemata.
According to the current priest nobody has fallen down yet on his way up. Immediately Chris was wondering: What about the way back down?! He donated 100 Birr to the priest, just to increase the odds of a safe return.
Luckily all went well, the only minor issue arose when the three additional (and unrequested) helping hands on the way back down didn’t seemed happy with their tip of another 200 Birr. That’s when Gashow made them clear that tip is not compulsory and that we were not the gloden goose.
Clambering down carefully we were soon at our car again. It was a great day hiking, climbing and looking over a fascinatingly dry landscape.
Back at our hotel we were looking forward to a most pleasant night at the beautiful Gheralta Lodge. The best (bath)room we have seen in Ethiopia so far and we were looking very much forward to a good dinner and quiet night…
Today we got up fairly early as we needed to visit the telecom office again to make our new SIM card work. Saying good bye to Axum was not difficult, as we did not see it as a very charming city. It was once the capital of the Axumite empire, but as so many buildings and churches had been destroyed or the building material used for other things, there is not much left of the olden times other than history and stories.
We drive from Axum towards Adwa and the impressive Adwa mountain range. Great trekking there but we had not planned on stopping. We bought some fresh chick peas on branches as a snack and approached out first sight-seeing target. The small town of Yeha, boasts not only a small university, it is also the host of the most important pre-Axumite Empire archeological site. Yeha was founded more than 2.800 years ago and was the regions capital before Axum took over.
Yeha is famous for its huge 12 meter high Almaqah Temple. Dated some 2.700 years ago. Only the walls stand today, the 12 impressive columns have been taken out and used elsewhere since. Only the large base stones are still visible on the temple floor. The huge sandstone blocks were hewn to perfection and fitted onto each other without mortar and it`s impossible to get a single sheet of paper in between. Quite a big feat of building mastery at that time.
The temple survived largely because it got adopted by Christians and converted into a Christian church in the early 6th century and was an important Christian church for a very long time.
Next to the old temple is now a monastery that sports interesting engravings of ibexes, supposedly the preferred animal for sacrifices. It was not possible to see the inside of it.
What we could visit was another excavation in its vicinity, the old palace ruins of one of the kings there, which at the time consisted of a lot of heavy sandstone interlinked with strong wooden beams and some bricks. Currently the site is being excavated by a team from Hamburg from the German Archeological Institute.
We went further on our way to see the oldest monastery of the Tigray region, Debre Damos.
Debre Damo is one of Ethiopia’s most important monasteries and is thought to date back to Axumite times and the 6th-century reign of King Gebre Meske. But what makes this monastery really stand out is its location: Almost inaccessible on the top of a high plateau, a so called ‘Amba’. And in fact, there’s only one way up:
To reach the monastery, you’ll need to scale a sheer 15-meter cliff. There’s a thick leather rope to help you climb and the monks will tie a second line that looks a bit like a fire hose around your torso and help pull you up.
This special experience takes some nerves and you have to be able to deal with heights. That and the fact that only men are allowed on the premises made Esther decide to stay with our driver at the car and munch the fresh chickpeas.
After using the rope to pull themselves up Chris and Gashow crawled through a little door to enter the women free world of the 150 monks and their 150 disciples. With them the indispensable local guide. In his unique version of English, he led us through the compound.
The first question: How did the first person reach this island in the sky? Well, good question! The answer is even better: a men named Abuna Aregawi had God on his side, and God, knowing this was a fine place for a saint to find peace, made a giant snake lower its tail down the mountain, allowing Aregawi to reach the summit.
The Abuna Aregawi church of Debre Damo is probably the oldest standing church in the country (10th or 11th century) and maybe even all of Africa.
Thanks to renovations some 50 years ago it is in an excellent condition and likely the most elegant church so far. Chris tried to take as many pictures as possible to document it for Esther.
The monastery’s location once allowed Axumite monarchs to keep excess male members of the royal family locked up here. Just in case they might have threatened the rule of the active king.
The monks here have to be completely self-sufficient. Water is collected during the rainy season in carved out cisterns, they grow their own food and have their own livestock up here.
Fun fact: the animals up here have to be males (except for chickens and cats). Young oxen and male sheep are lifted up there by rope and are fed on top until they are ready for slaughter.
There is a second church a bit further down, but for Chris it was impossible to decipher the local guides explanations any further. But a weird smell evaporating from one of the caves made him curious: Indeed, there were several coffins pilled up. Obviously, there were real bodies inside and they are left for 80 days and then buried in one of the caves. Fun fact two: That’s the only way you can get on the premises if you are a woman – in a coffin.
Now came the time to get back to the car and back to Esther. Unfortunately, there’s only one way back down, and that’s the way you came up. But looking down is worse then looking up… Chris was joking his nervousness away by telling the monk he would get 10 Birr now and the other 90 once he’ll reach safe ground again. But eventually he managed to make the 15 meters without an accident – since everyone is protected by the saints as the locals kept on repeating.
Right after Chris & Gashows descent, a monk showed them how to climb in the most elegant way – looking like spiderman in action, ready to save the world.
After the visit to the monastery Debre Damos, we continued with a late lunch at Adigrat in a remarkable restaurant called Geza Gerelase Cultural Restaurant, which clearly is a prime spot for carnivores. It even has a butchery inside the restaurant for all to see. Really weird, but the food was good.
We tried ox on a little charcoal stove but it was really a tough ox at the end of its life judging by the chewiness of the meat. As always accompanied by a very yummy tomato salad, which gets served here everywhere in variations.
We decided to drive onto our next hotel in Hawzen and arrived there by 6 PM. As we had eaten only at 3.30 PM that day, we decided to skip dinner and just had a glass of Ethiopian wine.
Today we were woken up at six AM by the newly started up generator in our Debark Hotel. It turns out that the power was off all night and still was not restored again. Our Guide told us it could be days before power was back. Imagine the consequences in Munich or another western city…
Thanks to the generator electricity was restored in the front part of the hotel where the restaurant and the reception is located, so breakfast was secured. We had flashlights yesterday to get around our room but we could imagine how other guests of the fully booked hotel might have struggled without any light for ten hrs.
After a basic but tasty scrambled egg breakfast, we set out for the long drive to Axum, some six hours down from the highland of the Simien Mountains to Axum, much lower. What we did not expect was the fantastic scenery and views we were getting. On winding mountain roads only partially covered by asphalt and sometimes only a single lane for the entire road.
It snaked along the mountainside and through charming villages. We mused that opening a panoramic cafe here on the road would be the prime tourist destination as it is so beautiful to just sit and overlook those breathtaking mountain ranges in the distance and those charming villages in the foreground.
Slowly as the landscape changed from mountainous to hilly to flatter land the vegetation and people changed too. The lower parts were much more fertile, we saw our first camels carrying large loads and much more road traffic than in the mountains.
The road quality got better and larger settlements and small cities started to appear.
We passed a refugee camp for Eritrea refugees which looked like a small city by itself, having been converted from a tent city to huts by now that gave a much more permanent appearance. According to our guide despite the peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea those refugees did not want to go back home. They are not allowed to work in Ethiopia and don`t go to school, so it feels like they are forever in limbo in their current state, food and health wise supported by the UN. We saw several UNHCR compounds, vehicles and initiatives around that area, but it must be a bleak outlook for them.
One thing that strikes up nearly every day is the human potential that lives here, but is not tapped into. We realize every day that the place where you are born so much determines what chances you have in life to improve your position. It makes us humble and grateful to have been born in Germany at a time of peace. Some kids here are so curious when Chris flies his drone, They want to know exactly how things work and we are sure some of them would be great engineers given the chance, rather than spending their time herding goats in the mountains, missing school to help the family make ends meet.
We had a lovely lunch at the Africa Hotel in Shire Inda Selassie and had our first real Cappucino while being in Ethiopia. We felt decadent but for 18 Birr (35 Eurocents) it was very reasonably priced. Shire Inda Selassie is an up and coming town where we saw lots of construction and UN and other NGO organizations being very active. It has its own airport and seems to become the industrial town from all we could tell, while Axum remained the ancient capital of Ethiopia with its rich history.
Axum used to be the capital of the Axumite Empire many centuries ago, when the empire stretched until the Red Sea. They controlled the trade routes and were very rich indeed until the Arabs cut off the direct sea access, then Axum declined and the kings moved further South to Gondar. Many of the old palaces and churches were destroyed by the Italians when they occupied Ethiopia for four years.
The only significant remnant of those pre-christian times are the Stele. Large stone pillars.
Used as burial stones by influential pagan Kings and members of the society at that time. There are three very large stone Stele standing in the stele field in Axum. The largest one toppled down due to a weak base construction that could not hold the huge 40 meter long obelisk in place. The base caved and the solid granite block fell down and broke into several pieces.
Another one of the big ones was transported to Rome by Mussolini’s troups during their brief period of occupation. It was standing in Rome until 1972, when it was officially returned to Ethiopia and put back onto its original place.
The third large one always remained standing where it is now, but has to be supported by some stabilizing steel cables as some excavation work caused some shifts in soil and the obelisk threatened to fall down.
The largest ones representing the burial stones of ancient kings are carved, the others have a more or less smooth surface and may have a round top, but are far less impressive than the three large Stele. The age dates back to the area before Christianity, where paganism still reigned.
One other archaeological site close by is called the false door tomb. It has a mock door as a head stone on top of a staircase that leads several meters below the surface. It was excavated by some British archeologists and housed the burial chamber and a mysterious stone sarcophagus in a small chamber. Despite the stone sarcophagus not showing any signs of any opening it sounds hollow when tapped with a small stone. It most likely will keep its mystery for a while longer until scientist will X-ray it in the near future…
On our way back across the town of Axum, we stopped at Ethiopia Telecom and tried to get a SIM card so we could actually update our blog a bit better. This involved three steps: buy sim card from telecom office, next go to one shop to get it cut into a micro sim format and go into another shop to buy the prepaid codes for 100 Birr (3 EUR) . Nevertheless, when we tried using the card it failed. We have to go back to the telecom office in the morning…. And contend ourselves with the spotty internet and frequent power outages at our hotel.
Today we only had a half day trekking left before having to head back out of the National Park by four wheel drive.
For us it was really the baboon camp, that made camp Chennek so memorable. The day before at dusk our guide had led us already at a small high plateau where we saw a small herd of native Gelada monkeys grazing and digging up roots.
Gelada monkeys are native to Ethiopia only and are special as they are 100% herbivores. Most other baboon types eat meat as well and are much more aggressive. Esther can tell first hand from her experiences with baboons in Malaysia and elsewhere in Africa. They have huge fangs and are up to one meter tall sitting up. A force to be reconed with and be aware of.
As much as a bad rep baboons normally have, Gelada baboons are completely different. As herbivores they are not aggressive at all and as they are not being hunted are not shy to humans.
So that evening and the next morning we had the pleasure to wander amidst whole families of Gelada baboons and just sit down and study them.
It“s like a live theater and one is sitting in the middle of the play. The stage is all around. The papa baboons are the kings and get groomed by their hareem monkey ladies.
Some teenager monkeys try to overstep their boundaries and get put back into their place by the more senior ones.
The babies play catch in the rock face under the watchful eyes of some adult baboons. It looks like a rock climbing monkey kindergarden.
And the very little ones still cling to their mama`s and ride on their backs.
The monkeys talk to one another, whether it is to tell some monkey off, to communcate : groom me! Or to just say Hi I am here, I am OK. There was such a variety of sounds, we were both amazed. We could have sat there the entire morning just watching the show those baboons gave us.
It was as if we as the audience did not exist for them. They just carried on foraging, playing and grooming. Just as Chris got carried away taking hundreds of pictures of these cute creatures.
Besides the hours spent watching the monkeys we also saw a very large Lammergeier with a wingspan of about 1,5 meters and a crested eagle, who’s name escaped us.
One of the French guys was a bird expert and he told us that it was very rare and he was delighted at the number of birds of prey he saw here in the Simien Mountains.
After a delicious lunch, it was time to say good bye to the national park and our crew, consisting now of our excellent cook, assistant cook and the scout.
We offered them a tip as well as multi tools we had brought from Germany. The flip open multi tools were vey much appreciated and treasured by all. They kept looking and marvelling at them on the drive back to Debark. It was a long and very bumpy dirt road until we arrived grimey in Debark at our hotel. We both craved a hot shower and hair wash after four days of wilderness and very little personal grooming going on.
Showers are another topic besides toilets and internet connections that Ehtiopia really needs to work on. All rooms have hot water boilers, but someone forgot to put a valve in to make sure that the vaccum from the hot water leaving the tank gets equalized. As is is,, showers are dripping only and then the hot water suddenly stops after five minutes completely. No water and one is standing under the shower soapy wet and nothing comes out of the tap. Despite the hotel clerks assurances that the shower in our Debark Hotel works without issues, we again were proven wrong and Chris had to get the plumber (or whoever was handy with a wrench) while Esther was soapy from head to toe, waiting dripping wet and wrapped in towels until the shower was ìmproved to the point that the dribbling tap did not give up producing luke warm water after five minutes. Needless to say that a shower with hair wash and conditioner takes at least 15 minutes of dribbling water until all the soap is washed out, and that’s a pure guess.
Chris cared much more about the electricity to recharge all his batteries. Once everything was plugged in the power went down. First he felt a bit guilty, but then we realised that the power outage concerned the whole city.
Africa, we love you!
After a very cold night on the plateau of Camp Gich, we woke up to some strange sounds.
It was still dawn but already the animals were busy hunting.
Close to the camp side we saw foxes, jackals and the very rare Abessyinian wolf, that unfortunately is dying out. In this national park only about 50-60 animals remain. They get decimated by rabies and other illnesses introduced by local dogs.
After a warm, hearty breakfast we mounted our small horses again and set out for the longest trekking day.
Our first stop was the peak of Shayno Sefer some 3.962 meters above sea level. Wandering on the high plateau with a grandiose view of the surrounding, ragged mountainside, we saw a herd of Gelada monkeys, also called Gelada baboons, the only endemic moneky species in Ethopia. The largest population lives in the Simien Mountains. More about those in another blog day.
While we left our horses to climb to the peak of Mount Shayno Sefer, we were at awe again by the steep cliffs that drop hundreds of feet into the valleys. There are hardly any gentle slopes. Either you stay on the high plateau, or you are down below in the bottom of the valleys. Very rarely are slopes that are gentle enough for humans and domestic animals to change from highland to lowland.
After a nice break we continued on the highlands to our lunch destination and the highest point of our journey: Mount Inatye, some 4.070 meters above sea level.
Sheer drops on one side but a fantastic, breathtaking view from up top.
Cheeky thick billed ravens came and of course were trying to get at some of our food. After the experience with the stolen soap, we were careful not to leave any valuables unattended.
Then we started our big descent down to 3.620 meters, where our next camp was waiting. It was a steep up- and downhill path full with large rocks and dusty soil. Impossible to ride the horses on those slopes, so we all hiked by foot.
A few local children tried to sell some souvenirs they had made themselves and we found one that we thought Esthers parents liked. No point in haggling here, as those children were waiting for maybe 3-4 groups coming by a day, not more. Despite peak season here in Ethiopia and the Simiens, there were still no more than four groups we saw in each camp at one point in time. Ethiopia really has not been discovered by tourism (yet), let alone mass tourism.
In the middle of the afternoon, we arrived at Camp Chennek. Our two mules and their handlers as well as the cook and assistant cook had already set up our tent, unloaded our luggage, out linens on our matresses and made tea and coffee with biscuits or popcorn. They had organized a live chicken for our dinner, the other group had a live young sheep tethered to the cooking hut as well. Food can`t be any fresher.
This is really the African contrast at its finest. Getting served hot tea and coffee as well as an excellent freshly cooked three course meal with a chef in white cook’s garb including a bottle of wine and then having no running water or electricity, bathrooms and toilets where most people rather use the bush toilet than any of the buildings that don’t even deserve the name toilet.
Rather than complaining about the things you cannot change anyway, everyone just went with the flow and had a good time.
The landscape and views from the high plateaus and peaks today were simply breathtaking we enjoyed the multitude of languages in the cooking hut at dinner where everyone gathered as it was so cold outside.
A lively fire was lit in the middle and all te staff as well as the trekkers sat around the fire and babbled away in at least eight different languages. We counted German, French, Israeli, Amharic, Czech, English, Danish and Russian but there may have been more just the single people conversed in English with all others.
Today we thought we could sleep in. We did not make the calculation of Day three of Timkat. This was the day of St.Michael and the church with the same name was just next to our hotel. While Chris was blessed with his earplugs and slept through, Esther got woken up at 4 AM by some loud chanting by the monks and priests. And when we mean loud, it was really like next door loud. Like they were practising some strange Hogwarts Choir where everyone chanted a different tune at the same time.
We tried to find some melody in the chanting but really could find none. Needless to say that Esther did not fall asleep again. So two short nights in a row… We are looking forward to our Simien Mountain trek , expecting peace and quiet after these three crazy days of Timkat.
But first we had to sort our luggage we needed for the trek into one smaller bag that can easily be strapped onto a mule. Nevertheless even for the two of us we keep a small army of locals and mules busy.
Besides our regular driver (who will have the next days off) and guide we are going to pick up a cook, assistant cook, a scout with gun (for the leopards and wolves), two mule handlers and four mules. If we were a party of five, we would have had to take on another cook, assistant cook, scout and the number of mules and handlers that were needed. This is Ethiopia and at least it‘s not all just going to large travel agencies that are using one (possibly foreign) guide and driver and then the locals have not much of it. This way at least some of the money the tourists leave here are creating quite a number of jobs for the locals.
None of them though besides our usual guide Gashow can speak a speck of English. So Chris is busy practicing his Amhara. OK, Thank you, I don’t want, I do want, water, good and can I take a picture ? Are some of the words he learned quickly.
First we needed to drive from Gondar to Debark, a 2,5 hrs drive normally. If it was not for Timkat. We passed (or rather crawled) past several village celebrations, always blocking the main road of course.
As Gondar had no gas station with gas, (permanent shortages in Ethiopia) our driver was happy to find one that carried gas and we filled up. One liter is 17,80 Birr, approx. 50 Euro Cents)
On our way we went. And all of a sudden a group of chanting and dancing boys with sticks blocked the road. What might look scary in different circumstances was just some boys asking for contributions to their villages Timkat celebrations (or maybe to buy some drink for themselves), we gave 5 to 10 Birr (15 – 30 Cents) then they cleared out of the way and on we went…
… into the arms of the next group blocking the road, demanding their share… and so it went for a good 45 minutes and we were several hundred Birr lighter.
If we had had no guide with us, we would have probably worried what they were up to, wielding their sticks and mock threatening us.
Finally we arrived at Debark, where our guide’s family lives and we had a lovely lunch there in his house with his wife and his two adorable daughters.
In the early afternoon we went to the park office to get our permit and pick up our supplemented staff for the four day trip. Soon we left the asphalt road and on we went getting an „African Massage“, that‘ s what locals call it when you get rattled through by a dirt road. After one hour we arrived at the starting point of out trek and set out by foot with our scout and guide for about three hours until our fist campsite.
Cook and assistant cook drove with our driver ahead as it was possible to reach the first camp by car. Our mules and maybe a horse or two with their handlers will join us tomorrow morning. We hiked past some spectacular scenery.
Walking high up on a plateau we saw very cute antelopes and, well, not so cute lammergeiers.
We hiked up to 3.250 meters to the first campsite called Sankaber Camp. Here our tents and bags were already put up and inside of the kitchen/sleeping house for scouts we had a lovely cup of coffee and tea in the sun overlooking massive mountain ranges.
We are looking very much forward to this trek, as everyone we met has not stopped saying that Simien Mountians were the best part of their trip. After a delicious meal and a beautiful moon rise we went to bed early.
Today is the most spectacular day of Timkat at Gonder. The re-enactment of the baptism of Jesus. The whole night already the chanting and music continued so we did not get much sleep. We had to get up at 2.15 AM bundle into our warmest clothes, as Gonder is 2.400m above sea level and quite chilly at night. Together with a few other tourists we were driven to Fasilide’s pool to pick the best seats early.
Already ceremonies were going on and locals started to arrive with us at the same time, taking choice spots around the moat and on wooden bleachers built for the occasion. Of course Chris couldn’t stay put while the picture opportunities were happening all around, so he started to venture out.
It got bitterly cold after a while and Esther was glad to have brought a fleece blanket from the hotel. Many other wished they had too. There was nothing much to see yet.
While the sky was still pitch black, the castle and pool were illuminated by colorful light garlands and the candles of the believers. More and more people poured into the walled compound through three entry points. Thousands and thousands of people. It felt like a sea of people clothed fully in white.
From Chris perspective who was moving around, the place was coming alive. While some believers still slept snuggled in colorful blankets all over the enclosed premises of Fasilide’s pool, others were chanting prayers reading from their Amharic bibles only illuminated by candles.
At one corner of the pool some priests gathered to perform the baptism of three babies, obviously a special privilege for those involved in the ceremony.
Finally at the crack of dawn the priests had obviously all said their prayers and blessed the water of the pool. In rows three deep hundreds of believers in their ceremonial gowns were lining the sides of the pool chanting and moving in tune.
The crowd outside the walled pool got noticeably impatient and started to chant their own chants to be let in for the jump into the holy water. The police and orderlys had their hands full trying to contain the masses from storming the inner wall of the pool.
With batons and sticks they had to discourage over eager young men from entering the inner pool area. The atmosphere was charged with anticipation. So much that it became too much for some tourists who left early. Young men around the pool started to shed their clothes and got ready to jump into the water in their briefs. Waiting for the signal to be the first to jump in, others outside the wall sensed that the action was about to begin. The push and rush towards the pool got quite scary.
Several tourists had to be rescued from the outer side of the wall to the inner side otherwise they would have been squashed by the pushing people.
In the midst of that chaos, Chris even had to take a break from taking pictures to rescue a boy, who was very afraid of all that action around. He lifted him onto the wall so he could see and was no longer being pushed.
The stands, which were full of tourists to start with, were climbed from the outside by dozens of locals wanting to get a better view too.
More tourists left in a haste, especially as holy water was sprayed with hoses into the crowds. Collective yelping from all sides. Then all hell broke loose.
The first believers jumped shouting and yelling into the pool followed by hundreds and for sure over one thousand young men from all sides now. It looked like some line had snapped and walls were climbed as the entrances were too small to withstand the pressure of so many people.
It makes one realize what power and potential those single minded crowds can have. We were just glad that this was for a positive cause and did not turn negative in any way.
After we each independently finally managed to make our way outside the compound, we found each other through text messages on a street corner and shared a TukTuk, crowded with six people inside, back to the hotel for a bit of a rest.
In the early afternoon we were invited to watch the homecoming of the procession in reverse order back to it‘s starting point, a great open place called Meskel Square. The office of our local travel agency had a balcony overlooking the square and we had traditional coffee and bread there, watching the procession arrive slowly.
We decided to have a lazy rest of day as Chris needed to get on top of his hundreds of pictures he took that day and we were hoping that we could upload some to the blog as well.
Dinner was at one of the premier restaurants here called Three Sisters and it served all the local variety of meat and vegetables and local beers. Certainly a spot to recommend when in town.