It’s a Great Day to be Alive

I like to explore a town by running through the streets and checking out places that way, but as much as I’ve described my writer’s haven as an ideal respite, not all was paradise in paradise. Taganga itself wasn’t the loveliest place I’ve been outside of my sweet writing villa.

It’s quite hilly and the “streets” are bumpy dirt roads, but not in a charming, untouched way…rather in a the-street-is-our-garbage-can sort of way. They also run out of water frequently. Stare at the ocean as long as you like while contemplating that one, the town is just out of water. The majority of our experiences were such that people seemed very eager to take our money and very irritated when they had to do something in order to make that happen. (That is not meant to be a stereotype, but was my true experience). There’s a strip with some restaurants and shops and you can walk along a trail over the ridge to get to another bay with another little beach. That’s about it.

There’s a trail you shouldn’t walk however, and I found that out the hard way…

You could see from town that it went up to the ridge at the top of the mountains overlooking the bay. A friend and I picked our way through the small town to take a break from writing and go for an afternoon hike. It was pretty rocky and steep, not necessarily beautiful, but a challenge. Some locals must have been more used to it then we were because they practically sprinted past us. I moved to the side to let them go and they stopped around us waiting for their chubby friend to bring up the rear, asking us where we were going. “Up to the top!” we said honestly and innocently.

I then felt a jerk from behind as my friend yanked me backwards in response to the guy to my right stepping towards me. Startled, I looked up to see that knives had been drawn. I took my camera strap from around my neck and gently handed it over, submitting to what was out of my control before it would be handled with force.

My friend was calmly talking to them while taking off his backpack. They weren’t too pleased with making conversation and hit him at the base of his neck. They yanked his shoes off, nearly knocking him to the ground before they forced him to the ground at knifepoint anyway. I took my shoes off and was told to get on the ground next to him. We lay there as they went through our stuff.

“Where are your cell phones?”

“Where is the rest of your money?”

“Don’t talk or we’ll kill you.”

“Don’t open your eyes or we’ll kill you.”

“Don’t go to the police or we’ll kill you.”

“Lay here for 15 minutes after we leave or we’ll kill you.”

I almost wish I hadn’t understood Spanish at that point.

We did as we were told, not wishing to call their bluff. I checked out and tried to visualize being back in a safe place as I felt hands at the back of my neck taking off my necklace and then digging in my pockets. (My necklace had the “Om” symbol on it. I can’t imagine it’s the best karma to steal that.) I trusted that all they wanted was our stuff and if we cooperated, we’d be safe.

This did turn out to be the case. My biggest fear was that they would hurt us, that they would take advantage of me or that my friend would get hurt or killed trying to protect me. After helping themselves to our cameras, shoes, cash, my watch and necklace, they took off and every breath after that felt like a gift.

After 15 or 20 minutes we started our descent down the rocky, thorny path in our socks. We saw another man approaching. I was terrified it was one of them coming back for us. As we came closer, we saw it was an older man with a machete. What could we do? We had nothing.

He said through his rotting teeth, “You shouldn’t be up here. It is dangerous.” “Um yeah, look at us. That would’ve been excellent information 45 minutes ago.”

So there are no pictures to go with this blog. That luxury was robbed from me, along with a sense of peace and happiness. Likely and sadly, I will be able to replace my camera before they will change their ways and earn money in honest ways.

It’s been a long process of fear and anger and discernment and forgiveness since then. I will not stereotype an entire country as unsafe. I would even like to return to Colombia some day.

As for the walk itself…in beautiful hindsight it still isn’t 100% clear if we should have taken it or not. Especially as a woman traveling alone, I take extra precaution to keep myself safe, although sometimes it really pisses me off when I want to do something and feel I can’t because of this. My best experiences have come from taking risks and understanding when the advice giver (Don’t go there! Don’t do that!) is being paranoid or if there is a genuine danger…often the former.

It is unfortunate this happened and it did change my course. I am still responding to what showed up that day. My hope is that some day, the sooner the better, the guys who did this will realize that it was wrong and seek to make their lives right. It is so sad to me that people feel so desperate and are so misguided and unsupported in their lives that they resort to violence and a lack of respect for human life. I am grateful for the life I was born into, my family, my morals, my circumstances and I hope to do a whole lot of good with the blessings in that.

I’m grateful that I was not alone in this particular experience and it did bring my friend and I closer together. It really does give you laser focus as to who and what you care about in life.

***Many thanks to those of you who have been following me with this journey. I’ll speed up the posts a bit to get caught up to present time. This event took place at the very end of May. It did change some things for me, but all is good.

If you like what you are reading here, please consider backing my kickstarter.com called: Let’s Go on an Adventure! and please share too. The campaign is focused on writing and publishing a book about my transformative adventure from Corporate America to a life designed around passions and also includes an interactive guidebook to help those wishing to make their own personal changes.

I have 3 days left in my campaign, all or nothing!

You can read more about my story at erinkmac.com and continue to receive this blogs by clicking the ‘follow’ button.

Thank so very much for coming along on this adventure.***

Solita en Bariloche

So with a few weeks to myself in Bariloche, I decide how dreamy it would be to build an A-Frame house with a writing tower, 360 degree windows, on the lake, cozy fireplace with an alpaca rug on the wood floors. I sketch it and imagine myself inspired, writing there, taking breaks to kayak or ski, depending on the season. Maybe after I write a best seller… 

Image

Until this dream can be realized I decide I can still head to a mountain hut to do some writing. I plan a 4 day trek, staying at two refugios (simple mountain huts where you can pay a fee for a mattress and use of the kitchen). The first day goes well, but reminds me that I’ve been away from mountains for a few months now. The hike is easy, but a steep walk up Cerro Lopez for a few hours with panoramic views across this massive, mountain-lined, deep blue lake. Parque Nahuel Huapi, one of my favorite places. I have time to read and write and talk to the couple who run the hut and their curious son. A simple life preparing meals, running up and down the trail with supplies, talking with the different guests who pass through, drinking lots of mate of course. There was a huge group of about 50 pre-teens that must’ve been about 10-12 years old. I was rather surprised to watch as they were served the highly caffeinated mate as well at about 9pm. Start em young I guess! I thought they’d keep me up all night, but can only guess that they were packed so tightly into their room that they couldn’t possibly even talk. This isn’t that big of a hut. 

 Image

Image

I knew the next day would be challenging. Within minutes of starting the trail, I was using all fours trying to keep my balance with my heavy pack on my back, my short legs fully extended in a reach to hoist myself up and over boulders, a trail hardly visible. So hardly visible in fact, that I lose the trail. I know from other hiking that I have done here before that sometimes the “trail” is across, up, or down a scree field and not entirely clear, so I follow what I think is the trail. I hike across a stretch of loose rocks, across snow, up to a ridge. At this point, I see a gorgeous, still, turquoise lake that looks as if it has been painted on the earth. Gorgeous and yet there isn’t supposed to be a lake there. I’ve gone the wrong way. I’m trying to get my bearings with the map, thinking to myself, “Where am I supposed to go?” Just then, one lone condor comes up over the peak, flies passed me over to where I am supposed to be, loops back around to fly directly over my head and away into the distance. I think, hmm, that was interesting timing and strange. I study the map again and realize that it flew exactly where I needed to be. Great news! I also realize that I am now about 3 hours out of my way by the time I get back to where I should’ve gone. Bad News.

 Image

Image

It was still early in the day and the middle of the summer with a 10:00pm sunset, so I went for it. This was a crazy tough hike. I ended up with bruised hands from how much I was lowering myself down, pulling myself up, slipping here and there on everything from loose gravel to chunky scree fields to having to use ropes to rappel down large boulders. Remember doing the crab walk as a kid? When you’re on all fours, butt towards the ground? That is what it was like to get down these peaks, to stay balanced with a pack on. I enjoyed the challenge immensely, but to enjoy the nature I had to stop and take it in. Every step I took required complete focus on that step and nothing else. I spent much of the time mentally encouraging myself while also reprimanding myself for going alone. I know you are not supposed to, and while I did see other people along the way and knew I would be ok, I had no desire to become another movie plot line, having to cut my leg off and crawl out or something. (In the photo below I had come from the other side of the pass behind me and then across the valley up to where I am in the photo)

 Image

Image

After 10 hours of hiking crossing two passes, hiking through a pretty valley, across several ridges with views of Cerro Tronador in the distance, I made it to the next refugio on an elevated mountain laguna. Laguna Negra. I spent two nights and days reading and writing and dreaming about my future Patagonian A-Frame cabin.

Image

 

The rest of my time in Bariloche was overcast, crazy windy, and chilly. This actually ended up being a good thing in terms of hunkering down with my journal and toying around with the guitar that I’ve been wanting and finally, finally bought! I befriended a French/Swiss guy, Igor and we’d have lingering breakfasts enjoying the view out over the lake from our 10th floor hostel. A good friend of mine had just been guiding kayak trips in Antarctica and our paths were able to cross for a few days to do some day hikes and share meals with other travelers. So good for the soul. It was definitely the right choice to spend this time in Bariloche.

Peak Experience

Getting through the length of this post may take as much effort as it took me to climb the mountain I’m about to tell you about. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and the most physically challenging thing, so I cannot help but write in detail about it. I summited a 5530m mountain; that’s 18,140ft. I say physically challenging, but I’d have to say it was equal parts emotionally, mentally, spiritually and culturally challenging and fulfilling as well.

Image

As luck would have it, I did find a hiking partner this time around and we met up in Huaraz, Peru, the trekking hub of the Cordillera Blanca. It is a common training ground for the Himalayas due to the number of 6000+m peaks and technical climbs in the area. Relief! I have someone to go out adventuring with me again!

The town of Huaraz itself is just barely over 10,000ft, which helps with acclimatizing. We also did a 5 day trip, the popular Santa Cruz trek, as a warm-up. It took us up and over a monster pass and down a valley, green all around us and then the white peaks towering over us.

Image

Apparently Paramount Pictures was as impressed as we were; they picked this peak out of the garden of stunners to be featured at the beginning of their films. (photo below)

Image

So conquering Mount Ishinca started with a conversation that my friend had with a German mountaineer who blessed our mountaineering experience levels as suitable for this adventure. I felt like such a bad ass before we even left town, such was the flavor of prep conversations. We were actually using the words ‘crevasse’ and ‘col’ in sentences referring to our trek, words I’d previously read or heard in the likes of Everest documentaries. Not to mention that every time you sign into a national park is a chance to be who you want to be, and we signed in as “aventurero” and “escritora” respectively. (or adventurer and writer)

Continue reading Peak Experience

My Dance with Machu Picchu

I am not a fan of overuse of common facebook phrases, but I can’t help it here…”Machu Picchu was the low light of my travels” – said no one ever. But honesty might be the single most important thing, honesty with others of course and especially with yourself; so I have to be honest.

It felt amazing to arrive in the Sacred Valley. I energetically felt the “sacredness”, especially arriving fresh and raw from the jungle. And in spite of this, I felt a gap, something missing (Hint #1). I had a strong feeling that I was meant to be sharing this with someone, a friend, family, a love. Someone to try on fun llama hats with me!

Image

I returned to Cusco after my time in Pisac with hopes of meeting a travel buddy also seeking an adventurous, remote journey to Machu Picchu, to go it alone and really connect with how the Incas approached the land. Bonus if said travel buddy had a tent! No such luck, no such serendipity (Hint #2). In the mean time I enjoyed wandering the narrow, hilly streets of beautiful Cusco, full of eye candy, leg workouts and traditionally dressed women with llamas. It sure is touristy, but wow is it beautiful. It makes up for every tourist with another beautiful vista of tiled roofs, cobbled streets, ancient churches, bustling markets and a plaza that just makes you sigh.

Image

Image

Image

Finally, against everything I know to be true about myself, I booked a tour. A tour! I have since realized that it is a form of travel that many people enjoy or even rely on. I respect that. I however, am not one of those people in most situations. I like being able to figure things out and explore, following my intuition, senses, my heart. It can be fun speaking to locals, seeking the details of how to go about an adventure, preparing for it, owning it success or failure. If you have ever camped, it is entirely easy to safely approach Machu Picchu on foot without a tour. And I intend to go back and do it. But for whatever reason, I went against my gut and booked a tour.

Image

Image

The girls I hiked with were super friendly and good company, although we had different hiking abilities and outdoor experience. The guide, on the other hand, had a serious case of machismo and often told me I was wrong when I asked questions and such.

“So I saw some Incan mummified children in a museum, who were sacrificed…” “No you didn’t.” Really, hmm.

“I read at the Machu Picchu museum…” “There isn’t a Machu Picchu museum.” Interesting because my ticket stub here says…ok whatever.

They proudly fed us way too much food which sadly reinforced this uncomfortable feeling I kept experiencing about feeding the perceived fat (bellies) while taking from the perceived fat (wallets) of the Westerner tourist in Peru.

But Hint #3 that this just wasn’t my time for Machu Picchu came from Mother Nature herself. After a gorgeous first day of a 5 day trek, we woke up to an equally gorgeous foot of snow. Beautiful for memories, devastating for our trek. We would be forced to return to Cusco (first time in 10 years they say) while stewing just as much over the loss of our money which would not be returned as the bitter reality that we’d be reaching Machu Picchu on a bus, quite different than the Incan approach.

Image

Image

I contemplated whether I should just count my losses and start over some other time. Ultimately, I did take the train to Aguas Calientes and walked the 400 meters of vertical steps to the entrance. I got choked up when I filed into the site and was able to find a perch overlooking her on time to watch the shadows transform to gold as the sun crested the peaks of maybe the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. (and I’ve seen A LOT of mountains!)

Image

I spent the day using every ounce of strategy to navigate against the crowds and it worked as well as it could. I climbed Machu Picchu, la montaña, which is actually the name of a peak opposite of its striking sister, Waynu Picchu, the back drop to every Machu Picchu photo. It did offer stunning views and give me a sense for what the Incans navigated to create this sacred city. Man, they built huge steps for short people! This was a workout day. And ironically, it was 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky (although I did get a glimpse of snowy Salkantay in the distance, the namesake of the trek we had started.)

Image

LLamas act as the landscapers at Machu Picchu, happily munching away on grass and posing for pictures. I tried hard to picture an Incan village/sacred site in action. I hope the central patch of perfect green grass was a futbol pitch! The masonry is truly astounding. The history, the views, the immensity of it all…it really is everything you dream about when you put it on your “Do Now” list (the term I like to use instead of bucket list).

Image

In retrospect, I realized that I went from seclusion in the jungle with like-minded people, operating by sun and candlelight, following the rhythms of nature…to the most sought after tourist destination in South America. Oopsies! So maybe my timing was off, however, I have learned a lot in processing that and was still “wowed” along the way. Maybe it hasn’t been the highlight, but it did shed good light in my life and on this journey.

Image

Picture Perfect Pisac, Peru

I’m back! Note to self, don’t break a MAC computer cord in Argentina where you cannot purchase apple products. And now for some long overdue posts…

Following my adventure in the jungle I was grateful to have my friends Doug, Jake and Joe from the retreat traveling with me for a week. We set out to explore Pisac, Peru, which is near Cusco in the Sacred Valley.

Image

We met an amazing man, a stone shaman of sorts, in a rock/mineral/crystal shop who oozed “elderness”. Following his advice we rose at 4am the next morning for what would be one of the most breathtaking full moon to sunrise hikes ever.

Image

After a steep climb through impressive, ancient agriculture terraces that I loved in equal parts for the ingenuity and perseverance as for the beautiful lines they created in my photography, we were rewarded with new views and Incan ruins to explore around every bend as the rising sun worshipped them with golden rays. Something feels so magical abut rising so early and waking up with the sun, like you have some secret hours in the day that you’ve somehow earned. We had the place to ourselves and took advantage of the opportunity to have breakfast on the terraces, do a fun jump photo sequence and practice some Andean breathwork above the valley.

Image

Image

Image

In town we made some amazing acquaintances as well. If you ever visit Pisac, be sure to seek out Kaneye at the “Whole in the Wall”. You can taste the love, dedication and wholeness in her baking and hear it in her voice. What started as a quest for gluten free bread quickly became a new friendship…and yes, amazing gluten free bread too! Pisac is also known for its extensive handicraft market. I spent some time talking with local artisans about their natural dyes, weaving designs, and handmade products in hopes of striking up a partnership to put others in touch with their talent and artesan wisdom. Stay tuned!

Another hike took us into some unplanned snow. Very atmospheric, very wet and cold. What occupied our conversation most though was whether or not the sweet, locally dressed woman with a child strewn on her back had left her herd of alpaca with us with a smile and hopes that we’d take them for the day. As we captured the subject of debate on camera, the alpacas didn’t waste time debating that all they cared about was finding the nearest grass to chow down on. Lunch is served! We weren’t able to herd the alpacas and still hope that we didn’t disappoint our new friend. Ah magical Pisac!

Image