The Great Barrier Reef

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My day trip to the Great Barrier Reef had finally arrived. Snorkeling the reef has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. It was strange to wake up in the morning and realize I would be ticking off another item in only a few short hours.
I headed to the docks at 7:30 to start my tour. The group I went with was called Passions, and they have a beautiful, 80 person Catamaran that stops at two different diving and snorkeling sites during the day. I was ecstatic!
It was pouring in Cairns that morning. Big surprise. But I’d be in the water anyways, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I hopped on the boat, had some coffee and a muffin and sat down to fill out my forms. I met an old English guy and a couple guys from Switzerland and joined them at the table. One of the Swiss guys had some sea sickness pills and offered them around.
“You might want these” he said to us.
Oh my god was he right. We started off and immediately you could feel the waves. It wasn’t five minutes into the trip that people were hurling off the back half of the boat in agony. Not exactly the fantastic day trip they had in mind…
But as the waves continued, the rains stopped. The sun came out, the clouds dissipated, and for the first time I really felt like it was summer in Australia!
I moved outside where I met Simon, the skipper of the boat. We sat and chatted, as he tried to convince me to come diving with him instead of snorkeling.
“C’mon, I promise I’ll hold your hand the entire time!”
I would love to go diving. But my already tight budget simply wouldn’t allow it. The day trip itself was $160, and to dive was an additional $70. When I booked the tour at the hostel I asked the staff what they thought.
“Diving is amazing!” They said “One of the greatest experiences ever! But where you’re going the reef is shallow, you’ll probably see more things snorkeling”
Cheaper and the chance to see more? Sounds perfect. I let Simon down easy…
“Sorry, you’ll have to hold someone else’s hand for the day. I just can’t afford it!”
It took 2 hours to get to our first dive site. We were just off the coast of a small, sandy island in the middle of nowhere. The sun was shining and the water was an incredible turquoise.
We got our stinger suits on, lined up for flippers and masks and headed in to the water. The stinger suits were worth every penny of the $8 they cost for the day. Not only was it stinger season in Cairns, but the suits protected against the sun as well. Something much needed for my winter skin.
The whole way up the coast to Cape Trib I’d been told about the stingers in the water. During this time, right as the rains start in the summer season, the waters fill up with deadly jellyfish. If you’re going to swim off the beach, there better be stinger nets up. Unfortunately, the most deadly of the stingers, the Irukandji, is so small, it’s almost invisible while swimming. The size of one’s pinky finger nail, the Irukandji sting causes excruciating pain… It also can fit through stinger nets.
These stingers are of course a little less common way out on the reef. Nonetheless, I wore a suit, and so did 90% of the people I was with.
All suited up, I leaped into the water. The second I got under water I ran into two huge purple jellyfish. I jumped back a little, not sure if they stung or not, and not quite trusting the ultra thin suit I was wearing. Turns out, they were moon jellies, and totally harmless… Which is a good thing, because I literally bumped in to about 200 of them over the course of the day.
The reef was stunning. As is to be expected from the Great Barrier Reef. But I was glad to find out that it did not disappoint. Huge angel fish, clown fish, parrot fish, and thousands of other species I could never name. The coral was huge and endless over the white sand. It’s difficult to explain, but I was overwhelmed everywhere I looked!
Maybe it was the tour, or the day, but the best thing about the trip was how alone I was. No crowds, or bumping into other swimmers, it was just me, the reef, and hundreds of damn moon jellies (Which, even when I found out they were harmless, were still a little scary to bump in to).
Part way through my first snorkeling stop I spied a massive sea turtle just cruising through the coral. I popped up out of the water to tell others to come see, but found myself alone. So I just casually followed him around for the next ten minutes or so, until he swam away from the reef and out into the sea. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a sea turtle that close before, and certainly not for that long! The turtle was very unphased at being so close to a human, and just kept swimming at a leisurely pace the whole time.
After an hour and a half we came back to the boat. It was only 15 minutes or so to our next stop, but we had a big buffet lunch before continuing on.
The next snorkeling drop off was equally as amazing. But at this stop, we saw a massive parrot fish. I had hardly dropped into the water when I first spotted it. The thing was huge. Probably close to 4 feet long! It was a little too low on the reef for me, but the divers below me were so close they could reach out and touch it. The fish hung out with them for quite a while, letting the group feed and play with it. The second stop we had about 45 minutes to check out the area. Still, I could have spent hours.
When all was over and done with we started our trek back. Normally, the catamaran sails back to Cairns, but with the weather in town, we had to motor. It was a much calmer, 2 hour trek home (thank god). We arrived back in the pouring rain at 5:15. Cairns had apparently seen no sunshine all day. Great day to choose a trip to the reef!!

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The Taj Mahal

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Seriously, what do I say about the Taj Mahal. I don’t know if there are even words in the English Dictionary that can properly describe standing in front of the Taj Mahal as the sun rises. It is beyond words.
It has been coined as “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity,” “the embodiment of all things pure” and finally, as having made “the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes”. Standing there, dumbfounded and awestruck in the morning light, it was all those things and more…
We woke up at the crack of dawn, met up with our guide Dave and walked the short distance to the Southern entrance. Even the gate was impressive, with its massive arched doorway, beautifully scrawled Arabic inscriptions and sparkling golden domes.
“11 small domes on this side and 11 more behind those” explained Dave, “That’s 22 domes for the 22 years it took 20 000 workers to build the Taj Mahal”
Oh my Ganesh! That’s ridiculous.
As we passed under the archway and into the Taj Mahal’s beautifully kept garden area, Kelsi and I literally gasped.
“Look!” Kelsi grabbed my arm and pointed.
The Taj Mahal stood there, glistening white in the misty morning. It was spectacular. It didn’t look real. It looked like someone had painted this elaborate backdrop and just hung it in the sky. I couldn’t stop staring at it. For the next hour, I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off it. Hands down, the most beautiful man made structure I have ever seen.
The Taj Mahal also has one of the most beautiful love stories attached to it. The Emperor Shah Jahan had it built for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. She was the only wife to bear him any heirs and he loved her with his entire body and soul. Upon her death he vowed to build her a mausoleum unprecedented in elegance, something that would reflect and capture the beauty of the whole world within its walls…and I believe he did.
The Taj Mahal, it’s grounds and the two surrounding buildings are entirely symmetrical. The mausoleum itself is symmetrical in four quadrants, so each of the four sides look identical. The only small details that are different are A. The building to the West is a mosque, with an altar facing towards Mecca, whereas the building to the East, although identical in shape, lacks the Mecca-facing altar. And B. When Shah Jahan died, his son had his body placed in a casket next to his beloved wife’s. His casket had to be placed to the side and so is not part of the symmetry.
Other than that, every inlaid stone, every tile, every detail in carving and structure is absolutely identical on all sides. No wonder it took so long to build!
The thing that amazed me the most, was how white the building is. The perfectly, shell-white marble that was used looks heavenly. It is an earthly shangri-la. As the sun rises, the Taj Mahal glows and the tiny, inlaid stonework sparkles in the changing light. The whole building is imposing and powerful and yet it looks so delicate, as if it could shatter at the slightest touch. And I just couldn’t stop staring…
We walked around the mausoleum for about an hour and a half. I could have stayed there all day, gaping in awe. To be honest, I missed most of the facts that Dave rambled on about. To me, it didn’t matter how tall or wide the building was. I just wanted to sit there and take it all in.
I do, however, remember the totally unimportant, but more gruesome facts of the day. The Taj Mahal has four, tall, surrounding pillars at each of its four corners. Years ago, it was possible to climb the steps to the top to get a different perspective of the grounds. Sites like this, with romantic draws, unfortunately have a downside. Within 2 months, 7 different people decided to climb the towers and throw themselves from the windows in a romanticized act of suicide. After the seventh death, they closed the viewing towers to the public…
When all was said and done, we were dragged back out to the south gate to head home. The magnificence of the morning forever burned into my memory. There are few things in life that can match the awe-inspiring feeling of standing in front of the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It is a monument built out of love and heartbreak, and a structure that is almost unequivocally considered the most beautiful building on Earth…

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Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail

After a couple relaxing days in Cusco it was finally time to start our 4-day Inca Trail hike. We had a terrible sleep after 8 of our roommates decided to party in our room until 1:00am. Our alarm went off a couple hours later at quarter to 5 and I wanted to die… Good start. 
We caught our bus without a hitch, picked up the rest of the group and set out towards kilometer 82: the start of our trek.
  At our breakfast stop in Ollantaytambo is where we first met the rest of our Inca group. There were 16 of us in total; We had a an amazing group of British, Australian, French, Russian and Canadians and even after 4 grueling days of hiking we all got along famously!
  Everyone spent some time after breakfast buying last minute essentials for the trip: walking sticks, snacks, coca leaves and much needed rain ponchos. Then we drove off to the starting point.

Day one was a relatively easy hike. We trekked from Kilometer 82 to our campsite in Wayllabamba along rolling hills for a total of 12km. We stopped frequently for breaks, lunch and to get a brief history about various Inca ruins and the trail itself.
  The Inca trail is actually only 43km long, but, it goes up and down over high mountain passes that reach up to 4200m in altitude; that’s why it takes 4 days to hike. And although we stopped occasionally, I can’t imagine hiking it in less time. 
Turns out, there are actually Inca trail “runs” and “races” that go on during the month of September. Our guide Cesar is actually going to lead one of the runs this year. He and his group will do the ENTIRE trail in 8 hours. When we were told about that, it seemed crazy. After finishing the hike, it seems IMPOSSIBLE! But that’s not even the craziest part: during the Inca trail races they have professional trail runners compete against the local porters for the fastest time. The porters aren’t racers. They are simple farmers that contract themselves out to carry all our things for 4 days in order to support their families back home. The fastest professional runner finished the trail in an unbelievable 5hours! The fastest porter kicked his ass and did it in 3.

The porters are unbelievable! For our group of 16, we had 22 porters and 2 guides. Everyday the porters would race ahead of us, carrying 25kilos of various supplies on their backs: tents, food, garbage, propane, etc. at our lunch checkpoint each day they would greet us with smiles and a warm round of applause for each one of us as we walked into camp. They served us sweet juice right away, then, hot tea. Afterwards lunch was served. This was no ordinary camping; each meal was a three course, 5-star, home cooked meal! We had gourmet appetizers, hot soup, and a full-fledged main course. Sometimes even dessert! On our first evening the chef came in and had banana flambés for each person! We had pizza, fish, fresh salads, beef, and even a baked cake for Rachel’s birthday on the last night. These cooks were really something special. It would be a difficult enough task for two people to cook a hot, 3-course meal for 16 people in a kitchen at home. These two chefs did it while camping! Props to them!

When lunch was over, our group continued on the hike. The porters stayed behind, washed dishes, took down tents, packed up, and raced ahead of us again to have everything prepared for dinner. They were incredible! 
It is now a law that no porter may carry more than 25kilos on his back at a time. Before this rule went into effect, some men would carry 40, 50 or even 60 kilos of supplies at a time. I have no idea how they managed. Even at 25kilos I would have collapsed on the steeper hills. One porter from the GAP tour group was 69 years old and still pulling his weight. He’d been doing the job, 4 times a month for the past 7 years. I have nothing but wonderful things to say about these men who risk their bodies everyday in dedication to their work.

As I said, day one was very enjoyable. We strolled into lunch as a group, were greeted by a round of applause, and sat down to a delicious meal. Adam got jumped by a chicken that was roaming around under the table looking for scraps and I nearly spat out my tea I was laughing so hard. It came straight up between his legs, jumped towards his face, and stole the garlic bread right out of his hands. This was going to be an awesome day…

The scenery on the way was breathtaking! It sprinkled here and there during the day, but it was nice to keep the temperature down and to not get a sunburn on the first day. We had beautiful views of the Urubamba mountain range, stopped at a few Incan sites and learned a lot about the history of the Incas. A British Archaeologist named Haram Bingham discovered the whole area, including Machu Picchu itself. Although many more improvements have been made since his discovery in 1911, he is the reason so many people hike the Inca trail today. Bingham discovered numerous settlements along the way, all of which gave great insight into the lives of the Incans. The Inca people were a warrior race. They conquered tribes and set up fortresses in order to become the strongest empire around. They captured nations according to their skills. The Nazcan people were used for their knowledge of astronomy; the people that lived deep in the Amazon jungle were used for their medicinal purposes, etc etc. Before long, the Incans were masters at nearly every art. And then the Spanish came.

The Spanish introduced westernized culture and religion into the Incan empire. Those who were against the change were tortured or killed. They also brought influenza and diseases that were foreign to the Incan people. This caused thousands of Incan warriors to die. Each village that was discovered by the Spanish people was changed through cultural transformation and widespread disease… But Machu Picchu was never found. The city was built in the hills, often shrouded in mist and clouds, and a number of false Inca trails were created to lead the Spanish armies astray. On top of that, Machu Picchu was not a common city. It was a sacred sanctuary for the ruling family and special priests. Common Incans did not know the location of the city, and so, they were unable to give hints to the Spanish armies. 
The men that traveled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu were messengers and amazing trail runners. These men ran on foot for days at end to pass messages from village to village. They ran up steep hills and along mountain summits at insane speeds, and always beat the Spanish army that traveled by horseback. Where the Spanish took 7 days in their journey from Ecuador to Cusco on horseback, the Incan runners would make it in 5: entirely by foot. (Just as some perspective… This is how many days it took our BUS to do the same trip with the protests).

Needless to say, it still took us 4 days to hike the 43kilometers along the trail…
After a nights sleep, camping out in tents in Wayllabamba, we were woken bright and early at 6am. Aldo, our guide-in-training, woke each of us up, with a couple of porters offering hot tea and coffee. What an amazing way to wake up. My standards of camping have just jumped up significantly. We packed our things and sat down to a big breakfast of fresh fruit and yogurt, a quinoa and cinnamon porridge and a pancake with dulce de leche. Then of course, more hot tea. We needed to stuff ourselves in order to prepare for day 2 of hiking.

Day two is infamous for being the most difficult day of the hike. The first 5 hours is completely uphill. Giant steps, massive hills and climbing to our highest peak of 4200m altitude. 
To get our energy up, Cesar taught us how to properly chew coca leaves. The coca leaves helped with a number of ailments: altitude sickness, fatigue, breathing difficulties, and if chewed and rubbed on the body, also with joint pain. What a miracle plant! We chewed up a few leaves with a small amount of charcoal for a couple of minutes until our mouths went tingly and numb. Then, after spitting out the dark green mess, we rolled a tiny piece of charcoal on a ball of leaves and left it in our bottom lip for a couple hours of hiking. The stuff really worked!! For the whole hike my breathing never became rapid or hoarse. Even on the steepest inclines I breathed slowly and steadily and found myself much more energized than usual. 
After our coca demonstration we started the hike. Uphill we went, in the cold morning, and in the drizzling weather.

The rain was not ideal, but it could have been a lot worse. The trail was partially in the trees so the rain wasn’t a huge problem. The hike was tough, I can’t deny that, but compared to what I was expecting it really wasn’t that bad. We picked a pace, stuck with it, and never looked up and how much further we had to go. I honestly though I was going to have a rough day, but I made it up to the 4200m summit in amazing time, just behind Adam and Rodrigue, about 45 minutes faster than our guide had anticipated! I was pretty proud of myself. I suppose I had expected much worse, but after hiking the Grouse Grind at home, this was not much more difficult.

When we arrived at the top, there was zero view. Rain clouds covered the valley and the fog made it impossible to see much farther than 100m or so. But we waited and cheered on the rest of the group as they each made it to the height of the pass! When everyone arrived we were lucky enough to have a break in the rain, and got a group family photo of us all at the top! 
From there it was all downhill…

Apparently I’m not as big a fan of downhill as I am uphill. Who knew! Good thing the rest of the 3-day hike was almost entirely downhill. The stairs were steep and uneven, and it was a lot of pressure on the knees. After an hour of descent, my toes began to get blisters from ramming into the fronts of my shoes. The only thing that was easier was breathing. Most of the time you had to walk sideways down the steps because they weren’t wide enough otherwise. After a while, even slight downward slopes were uncomfortable on my joints. But it was only 2 hours to the camp, and we arrived at our final campsite by lunchtime, which was very nice. It gave us a good afternoon to relax our tired bodies for the next day of hiking. When we arrived, I immediately stretched my legs, assuming they would be a little sore the next day. When everyone else arrived, we ate another wonderful lunch, had some down time, an early dinner and then a VERY early bedtime.

When the sun went down, the camp sight was FREEZING! I wore every layer I had and was still shivering. Luckily our sleeping bags were wonderful and so we all just called it a night early and went to sleep.
  Night two’s sleep was uncomfortable. The sleeping mat might as well have been the hard ground, and every angle I tried left me in agonizing pain. I tossed and turned, not wanting to leave the sleeping bag to sit up for fear of the cold. By the time Aldo woke us up at 5:30am to start the morning I was exhausted. Not even Coca tea helped. But the worst part was my legs wouldn’t move. My quads were complete jelly from the day before. Stretching obviously didn’t help. I had to use Adam as a crutch just to stand up, and even then it took about 5 minutes for my legs to warm up enough to stop my shaking muscles. Uphill was fine! I had no problem walking UP the hill to breakfast, but walking DOWN the hill to the bathroom was a different story.  
For those people who say day 2 is the hardest, they are wrong. Day 3 was my nemesis…

We started hiking by 6:20 and went uphill. We had another peak to climb to before everything else was downhill again. I limped along for a few minutes before warming up enough to not be in pain. Then it rained. We hiked up steep stairs in an icy rain that came at you from all angles. No matter which way you turned it was blowing in your face. The wind spun around in circles, chilling me to the bone, even with all my layers on. One of our activities of the day was to make an offering to Mother Earth at the top of the second pass. We each carried a rock up the mountain, and then, waited for everyone to arrive to make the ceremony. This was the low point of my trip… 
I couldn’t feel my hands from the wind and rain. Sweat and water ran down my face, into my eyes, and no part of my body was dry enough to wipe it off. My running shoes were soaked, and every step I took I could feel my waterlogged socks slosh around. I stood shivering at the top of the pass for 15 minutes waiting for the last of us to arrive. With so many groups all moving at once, the line was slow, and it took longer for everyone to reach the summit. When the time arrived, we all just put our rocks in a big pile and that was it. Not impressed. If we had just kept walking we would have been A. Warmer and B. 20 minutes closer to our final destination.

Today’s hike consisted of 11 hours of hiking, I did NOT want to waste time standing in the rain. I put on the alpaca gloves I bought in Arequipa, but every 10 minutes or so I had to wring them out they collected so much water. Then we went downhill. Each step was agonizing. I couldn’t go fast, because the steps were so uneven, but if I went slowly, I thought my legs would buckle under. I walked for 40 minutes without seeing another soul (apart from the passing porters). I was only a couple people from the front of the group, but everyone went at their own pace, so we rarely caught up to each other. The rain was not helping. If the sun had been shining, it may have been pleasant, but there was no view, no warmth, no end in sight. Just fog, and stairs and aching muscles… Why did I do this trek? 
We stopped at another Incan ruin but I hardly listened to the explanation because I was trying to keep warm, and not let my quads cool down. Every time we stopped, my muscles cooled and I had to start all over again. As we walked downhill on uneven rocks I began to curse whoever designed this stupid trail. Why did it have to be so uneven?!

Finally the rain slowed and the sun revealed itself by early afternoon, only 6 hours or so of treacherous hiking in the rain. We had a bathroom break, I ate a pack of M&Ms to get my sugar levels back up and I instantly felt better. I was still soaked to the bone, but at least the sun was warm and there were some amazing views to be seen. A few of us walked together until lunchtime. We stopped frequently to take photos (as this was our first good view in three days) and took it slow to lunch. The sun dried almost all my layers, except for my shoes and socks: they were a lost cause. 
Lunch was amazing as usual, an after a short break of relaxing we continued in our way.

The next part of the trip was called “the gringo killer”. Great. It was named so, because of its steep, never ending, downward stairs. Double great. It was painful to say the least, but at least I wasn’t freezing. We managed to stay more together as a group, so morale levels were slightly higher than our morning segment. As the day grew closer to an end, we had the option of taking the shortcut route to camp, or the 25minute longer scenic route to “the terraces”. Even with all our aches and pains everyone chose the terraces. They were beautifully crafted stone and grass terraces that jutted out along the mountain pass. It was a breathtaking view. We took loads of photos as the sun slowly sunk behind the mountains. Then we made our final leg of the day and hiked the 20 minutes back to camp.

15km of hills and 11 hours on the road we finally arrived at camp: the last of our long days behind us. Total number of stairs to date: over 4000! Fortunately, from here, we only had a short 5km to make it to Machu Picchu, and the walk was only rolling hills, much like day 1. What a feat!
  The last morning our wake up call was at 3:50am. This time there was no room service of hot tea and coffee, just a dark, cold morning and another struggle to get out of bed with sore muscles. We forced down a tiny breakfast and started walking by 4:40. It was still dark, and I was definitely still disoriented about whether I was awake or asleep. As the sun started to come up, all we could see was that we were completely surrounded in clouds. We walked along cliff edges, but looked out into a blank white sheet of air. Who knows how deep the valley went, or what the view was like. Occasionally the top of a mountain would peek out from behind the fog, and then disappear just as quickly. We passed two different landslides on the two-hour walk, one that had happened only a week earlier, the other, two weeks earlier. A makeshift path was created, but our guide warned us not to linger to long on it.

After 2 hours of walking we made it to the Sun Gate. This is where you are supposed to see the first glimpse of Machu Picchu… All we saw was white and rain. We hung around for a while, hoping that the fog would lift, but to no avail. So we continued hiking downwards towards the ruins. It took only another 20 minutes or so before we reached the stereotypical “postcard” view of the ruins. 
We had finally made it below most of the clouds and could make out the city fairly well from where we stood. The place was massive! An entire city, at one point housing over 1000 people, almost fully intact! Unfortunately, the clouds mostly covered Huayna Picchu, the mountain that sits behind Machu Picchu, but we snapped some shots anyways before continuing down to the main tourist gates.

It was definitely surreal being surrounded by hundreds of clean, fresh looking people. After 4 days of hiking in the rain, wearing the same outfit, being excluded from civilization, not showering, and limping with exhaustion, it was very weird seeing clean, well-dressed people, chatting on their cell phones, in dry, uncrumpled rain ponchos just hanging out for the day. Just a short couple hours on the train, or a vigorous 4 day trek through the wilderness: almost seems unfair that there is another option. Even with my jelly quads, I’m glad we hiked it. It makes the whole place so much more magical and amazing!

After a quick bite to eat, Cesar took us on a 2-hour tour of the ruins. We saw the priests’ temples and the royal family’s living quarters; we learned how knowledgeable the Inca people were with astronomy and construction. All of the Inca structures were built to be earthquake proof. By building the walls and doors at a slight angle, and keeping some of the natural landscape to fortify the walls, these structures could withhold almost anything.

When we finished the tour, the rain and clouds lifted, the sky turned blue and the sun shone down, warm and welcoming. We had a couple hours to explore the ruins on our own, and this is where I finally realized how gorgeous the place really was.  
I said before that Rio was a dramatic city, but the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu is absolutely dramatic in every sense of the word. I’ve never seen mountains like this before. Ones that are huge peaked hills, each completely separated from the other in looming towers of green. They are steep and dangerous looking and majestic in the misty clouds of morning.

Machu Picchu itself is built on a steep mountain. The backside of the city drops off into a dangerously vertical cliff, and it is believed that many people were killed during this part of the construction. Gorgeous terraces spread upwards along the side of the city, and at one point were used for crops and gardens. The structures of Machu Picchu now are only stone walls, but when the city was in use, each of the buildings had dried, straw thatched roofs, smeared with llama fat in order to make them water proof. They say that when the sun shone down on the city, it lit up like gold with the beautiful, light tan structures. When you picture this, the entire city is even more surreal than before.

While the sun was shining, we hiked back up to the viewpoint where we first spotted Machu Picchu. It was spectacular now that Huayna Picchu was clearly visible in the background. We snapped some more photos and then finally trekked back in the bus to Agua Calientes (a town about 30 minutes from the ruins).
  We ate lunch, had a few beers in celebration, then spent the afternoon playing pool until our train left at 6:45 that evening. A few of us celebrated our successful hike with a bottle of rum back on the train, and by the time we arrived in Cusco we were dead tired. But all in all, SUCH an amazing experience; as well, another world wonder off the list… Check!

Rio De Janeiro

Rio is, for lack of a better word, dramatic. The city is defined by its sweeping expanses of white sand beaches, looming mountains, colourful neighborhoods and crowded favelas. It is 1/3 the size of Sao Paulo, with a measly 7 million people, yet easily has 3 times the character.
  We stayed in the Copacabana district of Rio, just a short couple blocks from one of the most famous beaches on Earth. The neighborhood is crowded with Barzinos, cheap juice bars and a boardwalk lined with street venders and thrifty places to enjoy caipirinhas!

On our first evening, we decided to enjoy the boardwalk nightlife. We walked a good stretch of the Copacabana surf before stopping in at a lively bar full of people playing drums and dancing on the sidewalk. We ordered a caipirinha each and a coconut (which was incredibly refreshing) and watched the locals dance through the night. 
Dancing appears to be a huge part of Brazilian culture. People have no problem stopping in the middle of their walk to drop some sweet dance moves for 5 minutes and then continue on their way. No dance floor needed; couples and or singles will dance in the sidewalk, next to their tables, out in the sand, or wherever they feel! But why not when every person in the country could kick ass in a “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” episode. I guess we’ll see how Adam and I fair in a dance off as Carnaval countdown begins!

The next morning, we had a full day of touring. With only three days to see the city, we felt the need to pack our days full. We booked a city tour through the hostel and ended up getting an amazing private tour of Rio from our guide Andre. The three of us hopped in a taxi and spent the morning hitting the sites! 
We started off at the Sambodrome, the giant Carnaval parade route where people sit in the stands and watch the samba schools go by. The stands have several levels of VIP. The lowest ticket prices are around 80-100 Reais per day, and the more affluent box seats will sell for up to 100 000 Reais ($70 000ish) per evening! We visited the Sambodrome 3 days before Carnaval started, and crews were working round the clock to set up the area.

After the Sambodrome, we went to the big futbol stadium. The Maracana futbol stadium used to be the largest stadium in the world, holding up to 200 000 fans in its bleachers. Right now, the stadium is closed for repairs as crews renovate the stadium for both the 2014 world cup, and the 2016 summer Olympics. Construction crews are keeping the shape and structure of the stadium, but changing the capacity a much more manageable 55 000: all with proper seats (unlike my earlier description of the Boca stadium in Buenos Aires). Although we were unable to actually go IN to the Maracana stadium, the layout is so open, that you are able to see into the center from the road, having mainly large gates and no walls as the outside structure.

After the stadium, we quickly stopped by the centro of Rio to see the city’s largest church. It is a huge conical shape right in the heart of the business district and seems very out of place. The building is quite unique, with massive stained glass motifs stretching towards the ceiling. The church holds a total of 20 000 people, making it by far the largest (I think in the country). We just happened to arrive during Sunday mass, which was very neat; however, even though Brazil has the largest catholic population in the world, the place was not close to being full.

From the church we drove over to the Lapa district to see the Santa Teresa steps. This was definitely one of the highlights of the day. At the top of a couple hundred steps, there is a convent where women spend their entire lives cloistered, making shoes for the poor and praying all day long. The story goes, that you could hear the women, through the window, praying for the souls of the less fortunate. So, in order to bring some cheer to the neighborhood, and to the women who spent their lives dedicated to prayer, an artist decided to tile the steps and 
make them beautiful. He collected tiles from all over the world, and in one amazing mosaic collection, he created the now famous Santa Theresa steps. The artist still works there during the week, constantly adding to the collection. We walked the steps and found tiles from every country imaginable. Our guide told us that people now send him unique tiles from their home so they can be included. The mosaic really is breathtaking, and there was even a couple that was having their wedding photos taken on the steps when we arrived!

Once we took about a thousand photos of the steps, we made our ascent up to the Christ the Redeemer statue. I have seen this statue in countless numbers of films and TV shows and have ALWAYS wanted to see it for myself. It’s such a beautiful idea to have a statue, of which you can see almost anywhere in the city, as a welcome, literally with open arms, to the immigrants and visitors of Brazil. The statue is 28m from hand to hand and 38m from top to bottom. It is one of the wonders of the world, and, once again, another bucket list checked off!  
We had to drive up most of the mountain, take a bus from there, then an elevator, and finally, climb stairs to reach the top… But the resulting view was spectacular! With a completely unmarred, 360-degree view of Rio, the mountain is PERFECT for photographing the city. The beaches, the mountains, the centro, all the things we had just explored in the city were there. However, viewpoints are viewpoints, and even after taking a shot of the beautiful Copacabana or Sugar Loaf Mountain, when you turn around and are faced with this unreal, larger than life statue, it is… Unexplainable. It is awful, in the sense of the word that it “fills one with awe”. It is moving and exciting and I couldn’t get over the fact I was standing right under it and looking up. After seeing so many world wonders in the past few years, you would expect them to be less wonderful. But I’m amazed, every time, how incredible and unique each one is. Once again, I recommend Rio’s Christ the Redeemer!

After this, our tour ended. We were forced to postpone our tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain for a couple days due to Carnaval rehearsals, and so, we were dropped off at the hostel early. This didn’t phase us in the slightest, as we grabbed some beers and checked out the beach for some afternoon rays! (Or at least Adam did, since I am still required to sit in the shade).  
After dinner we explored the beach nightlife again, this time waking in the other direction, and enjoying the music of a solo guitarist playing at one of the local restaurants. We had planned on going out on the town to a funk party, but after dressing up, found we didn’t have the energy to party until sunrise, only to be at our favela tour for 9am the next morning.

 

Iguaçu Falls: An Incredible Wonder of the World

The day after our long overnight bus trip was gorgeous: possibly the hottest day of our trip so far, although I never actually saw what the temperature was. Adam and I walked through town and down to the river so that we could get our first glimpse of Brazil (everything on the other side of the water). It was fairly uneventful, we just snapped a photo and then trudged our way back up a steep hill in the scalding heat, but, we were excited at the prospect of having a 3rd country on our list. Our hostel had a really nice pool with hammocks and lawn chairs around it, so we took it easy for the rest of the evening.

The next morning we were pumped up for the falls! I woke up, showered (carefully, since it appears ALL the showers this far north are suicide showers) and headed outside to breakfast… As I got outside, I realized it was not just raining, but pouring down in a torrential monsoon only possible in tropical rainforests. Thunder boomed and the heavy-duty waterspouts on our building were having trouble holding in all the rain. 
However, the weather was not about to deter either of us from enjoying this wonder of the world, so we grabbed our raincoats and headed for the bus stop!

As we arrived at the falls, the rain calmed down a bit. We were still soaked within minutes, but the rain was warm and it wasn’t very foggy, so pictures were not a problem.
 I wish I could describe the falls and surrounding area properly, but I suppose wonders of the world are called that simply because they are too great for words: and Iguaçu Falls is precisely that. 
 On the Argentinean side of the falls, there are several waking trails (each around a km in length) that lead to different parts of the falls. We started on the Superior Trail, and found our first view of the falls to be directly on top of them! We stood above some of the smaller falls, and looked towards San Martin Island (a small island at the foot of the falls that we explored later in the day) and were totally taken aback. Both of us at the same time thought “Jurassic Park”. The place looked exactly like some giant T-Rex should pop out of the thick jungle and terrorize both the people and the boats around the base of the falls. Of course, to our relief, this didn’t happen, but it gives you an impression of what we were overlooking. Another thing we were surprised about, was how GREEN the falls were. The water was still a sparkling white, but green grasses and exotic plants clung to the rocks of the falls, making an even more beautiful panorama.

We continued through all the other trails (and San Martin Island) for the rest of the afternoon. I think we managed to see the falls from every angle possible by the end of the day. It was absolutely mind-blowing how much water rushed over the rocks and down into the river. Iguaçu Falls is the largest waterfall in the world in terms of water volume. There are a total of 275 waterfalls and each one bigger than the next!

For our last stop, we took the train up to the “Gargantua del Diablo” or “The Devil’s Throat”. This waterfall was by far the most impressive. It is one giant, semicircular waterfall that is absolutely unbelievable. We stood right on top, in the deafening roar, and looked down over the edge. From the top, you can’t even see where the water ends, due to the amount of steam and spray it gives off when it hits the river below.

The day at Iguaçu was epic to say the least. We managed to stand on top of the falls, look up from the bottom and even take a boat ride right through them (Which soaked us to the core completely as our boat crashed through the spray and right under the rushing water). In the end the weather was refreshing, and it made for a quiet day at the park: no lines, perfect views! 
The next day, the sun was up and we headed over to Brazil. We checked in at a hostel and headed back to the falls to see them from the Brazilian side! The Brazilian side was much less interactive than the Argentinean side. There were no path to walk through the falls, and it was impossible to get up close and personal; however, it did offer amazing chances for photos from a wider perspective. The weather was perfect and the falls were just as beautiful! It is definitely a two day event and a must see wonder from both countries. Unfortunately, the only way to really understand how amazing the falls are, is to make it down yourself. Because no amount of photos or words compare…