29 October 2007

The Condor Hike and La Pajcha

On our last full day in Samaipata we hired a guide and our trusty taxi driver to take us on an all day adventure. We woke up early, grabbed some bananas, and found our taxi waiting outside. I love the taxi drivers in Bolivia because they will drive you anywhere. They will ford through rivers, go straight up dusty mountain roads, and of course, they will avoid potholes and speed bumps by swerving and going off-road. Most of the drivers are very friendly and our driver in Samaipata would even hike with us all day providing useful information. Below is a picture of the inside our Samaipata taxi. The Bolivians like to decorate their vehicles. Almost all of them have this plush dash guard, fringe optional, and all of them hang teddy bears or hearts or something from the mirror. I think it's perfect that the speedometer is on the opposite side from the driver.

The first thing on the agenda was The Condor Hike. There are few times in life that I have felt like my body will die but this was one of them. On the way up to the top of the 2500M mountain my lungs decided to rebel against me. The hike is straight up and the whole thing is very rocky and dry. I tried chewing coca to help with the altitude but the fact that my asthma was kicking in required that I spit the coca out and just concentrate on breathing. Our guide was very understanding and somehow Rupp coached me to the top. Like all great things in life, the battle may be hard but the reward is sweet. We settled into our spot to eat lunch and watch the Andean Condors bathe below.

Our seats were literally on the side of a mountain. Our feet dangled off the edge and if we leaned over we could see the Condors perched on a rock below bathing in a waterfall. The Andean Condor is considered to be the largest flying bird in the world with a 10 foot wingspan, 4 foot height, and a weight of up to 30 pounds. They belong in the vulture family and usually soar in the thermals looking for carrion. The trick we used to get them close was to lie back and wait for them to circle by. At one point we saw 30 Condors either bathing or circling the valley. Our guide and taxi driver left us to get a different view and that's when the show got even better.

We decided that since our 3 hour hike up to the top left us both exhausted the Condors must have smelled death in the air. This female (above) came within 6 feet of us. Her red-eye gaze was piercing as she swiveled her head at us to get a better view. A mixed group of males and females started circling us as we lay motionless on the mountainside. Our guide would later tell us that we were very lucky to see so many at one time. The whole hike up I thought that we would miss them because we stopped so often to rest but the birds came through and gave us a show that neither of us will forget.

Riding the wave of adrenaline we quickly descended our mountaintop in just 2 hours (that's 1 hour quicker then our ascent). The views down were beautiful and I even enjoyed the hike though my chest was sore and my legs ached. On the way up we crossed through this farm and paid a small fee to access the mountain. On our return the whole family came out to greet us and brought a drink to share. Up to this point I had been avoiding leafy vegetables, the skins of tomatoes, and anything remotely unclean but here I was exhausted, thirsty, and when the little lady offered me the gourd to drink her Kool-aid like drink, I happily tipped the whole drink back. Surprisingly, I never got sick and it was just one more part of the day to remember.

The adventure wasn't over though. We scrambled back to the taxi and made our way to the base of La Pajcha. The 80M waterfall left us breatheless. We didn't hesitate to strip down and jump in the frigid waters. Normally, this would be a pool that I would just look at but with our sore muscles and hot bodies, we dove in and swam to the deepest part. Lying on our backs, looking up at the waterfall, I realized that this may be one of the best days of my life.

This is our group shot before leaving the waterfall. Carmelo is the young guy in the brown boots. I don't think he even broke a sweat on our hike up the mountain. He was an excellent guide, showing us not only where the Condors nest but also picking medicinal plants for us to use later. Our taxi driver, Pincillo?, is dressed in the jean outfit. We were loyal to him for our whole stay and he provided us with the best experiences that Samaipata had to offer. The whole day was amazing and one I will never forget in my life.

Ruppie's thoughts on the hike: It was a torturous hike up, but lying on our backs on the edge of a cliff, looking into the eyes of condors not 10 feet away and listening to the air rush under their wings made the hike more than worth it.

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