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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

I have a rather embarrassing admission to make: when I first started looking at taking a trip to the Galapagos three months ago I didn’t actually know that the islands were part of Ecuador.  Two months ago I visited the islands. It was amazing, but other than one afternoon in Guayaquil on the way back to the states I really didn’t get a taste of mainland Ecuador.

 

But while touring the Galapagos on the National Geographic Endeavour I made friends with one of the naturalist guides who invited me to come back and visit him in mainland Ecuador.  Always a fan for adventure, and with only minor apprehension about spending 8 full days with someone I had barely spent 8 full hours with, I booked tickets to Quito and packed my bag.

 

The Galapagos Islands are amazing. They are unique, beautiful, and biologically fascinating.

 

A blue footed booby in the Galapagos, with the National Geographic Endeavour in the background.

A blue footed booby in the Galapagos, with the National Geographic Endeavour in the background.

 

Mainland Ecuador is also amazing. It is beautiful, biologically diverse, and inhabited by generous and kind people.  Ecuador has stunning biodiversity, spread over four distinct regions: highlands, jungle (Amazon), coast, and the Galapagos (600 miles due west of the mainland).

 

Quilotoa- more on this beautiful place later, but this is one of may beautiful spots that you can visit in the highlands of Ecuador.

Quilotoa- more on this beautiful place later, but this is one of many spots that you can visit in the highlands of Ecuador.

 

I landed in Quito, the capital, late in the evening on the first where I met my friend and started our adventures.  Quito airport is new, and located about an hour outside of the city.  There is a nice airport express bus that takes you to the old airport in town, from where we took a taxi to Plaza Foch- a popular touristic area of Quito (there’s quite a bit of night life in this part of the city, with un-Ecuadorian high prices).  It’s a fun part of town, and despite being a pricey place to eat and drink there are many affordable hostels.  The night we had a room at one called “The Magic Bean” (coffee was a theme).  Throughout the rest of our trip we stayed at various hostels, never making plans or reservations until we arrived.  Hostels were generally cheap: we paid $19-$40/night for 2 people, always with our own bathroom, and sometimes with breakfast or breakfast and dinner included.

 

My first morning we wandered around Quito, grabbed breakfast, and walked around Parque El Ejido, all near Plaza Foch.  Quito is in a valley, stretching from north to south (with the old colonial district in the middle, dividing “the North” (which is more prosperous) from “the South”), with mountains surrounding.  The weather in Quito is lovely, and fairly constant.  There’s no need for seasonal wardrobes in Quito-you can wear the same clothes year round.  Since Ecuador is at the equator, sunrise and sunset are fairly constant year round, occurring right around 6am and 6pm.

 

Around midday we headed to a bus station on the north side of the city and took a bus to Mindo.  Ecuador uses the America dollar as currency, and generally speaking things are very cheap.  Public transportation within the city allows you to cross town for $0.25 (12c if you’re a senior or child), and the ~2 hour bus ride from Quito to Mindo was a mere $2.50 (a good estimate on bus rides in Ecuador is ~$1/hr).

Our first destination was Mindo...

Our first destination was Mindo…

 

The trip to mindo took us winding through lush mountains.  Wikitravels recommended sitting on the right side of the bus for the best views and they were right.  The tops of these peaks were often in clouds, though we were at lower altitudes than we had been in Quito.

The trip to mindo took us winding through lush mountains. Wikitravels recommended sitting on the right side of the bus for the best views and they were right. The tops of these peaks were often in clouds, though we were at lower altitudes than we had been in Quito.

 

Mindo is a beautiful small town nestled in cloud-forest.  It is famous for the quantity and diversity of birds, and it is an increasingly popular tourist destination.  My travel companion had visited many years ago, when there were a few hostels in a small town. He was shocked at the number of hostels that are there now, with many more under construction.

 

We stayed at the Dragonfly Inn- definitely the most luxurious of our accommodations during our 8-day adventure, with an attractive and clean room for $50/night for two of us (breakfast included).  The inn is located on the main street, overlooking a small river.  Hummingbird feeders attract lots of hummingbirds, and you see other birds flitting about the trees at all hours.  While eating breakfast on the patio I saw at least 20 hummingbirds buzzing about.

 

These guys were flitting around all the time and were especially active in the morning.  The majority were this variety, though we did see others as well as a stunning yellow tanager.

These guys were flitting around all the time and were especially active in the morning. The majority were this variety, though we did see others as well as a stunning yellow tanager.

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Mindo has historically been a destination for birders, but it is increasingly becoming a hot spot for adventure tourism.  During our stay we enjoyed a hike up at the cascade waterfalls and a tour of the local chocolate “factory”.

 

The cascades at Mindo are about 7km outside of town, and you either hike up the dirt road to the cable car that takes you across to the trails or you catch a truck-taxi.  We opted for the latter option, setting up a return journey a few hours after we were dropped off (this ended up being a great set-up, as it started to pour as we finished our hike).  To access the cascades you take a ride on a generator-powered cable-car that takes you on a ~900m ride across a deep ravine.  Our car-operator would give any OSHA inspector a heart attack, as he opted to stand outside the metal cage as we zoomed along, hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

 

About 900m long, and absolutely stunning... A breathtaking way to reach a trailhead!

About 900m long, and absolutely stunning… A breathtaking way to reach a trailhead!

 

Once on the other side we opted to hike to the Reina Falls (there were a couple of trail options).  There were many small falls along the way, and we spotted many hummingbirds and flowers along our hike.  The final falls, Reina Falls, required a climb up a rather sketchy set of stairs.

 

One of the small falls along the trail to La Reina falls.  Everything was so green and alive!

One of the small falls along the trail to La Reina falls. Everything was so green and alive!

 

I loved these massive tree ferns.

I loved these massive tree ferns.

 

La Reina falls.

La Reina falls.

 

Heading back down the sketchy stairs after we'd visited the falls.

Heading back down the sketchy stairs after we’d visited the falls.

 

Alas, it started to pour towards the ends of our hike, so our cable-car ride back to the taxi was a wet one.  Had the weather been nicer, and had we had the interest, there are a number of outfits that offer canopy rides in the area.

 

A slightly soggy ride back!

A slightly soggy ride back!

 

We had lunch at a little café (trout is a regional specialty, and was delicious), where we had a long discussion with the café owner about the various challenges Ecuador faces when it comes to attracting tourists.  While we chatted (first in Spanish, then in English) the owner caught on to my interests in agriculture and food, and insisted on running to the market next door where he purchased a naranjilla and a taxo (banana passion fruit) for me to try.  Both have distinct and interesting flavors and are generally used for making fruit juice, for which they usually require some sweetening (“jugo natural”= freshly made juice, which is very popular in Ecuador.  A glass of some sort is usually served with breakfast and lunch).

 

Taxo (above) and Naranjilla (below)

Taxo (above) and Naranjilla (below)

 

In the afternoon we headed to El Quetzal Chocolate Factory (Factory is probably a bit of an over statement, as operations take place in a small shed and two processing rooms), where we went on a tour and learned how they made chocolate- bean- to bar (actually pod to bar).

 

Cacao trees have many pods on them at one time and they sprout directly from the trunk or branches.  They ripen at different times, and are red and yellow when mature.  The best beans grow at lower altitudes, so El Quetzal doesn’t use the pods from their plants in Mindo (somewhere between 1000 and 2000m altitude) for making chocolate.  Instead they use these for decoration and/or share the fresh pulp amongst the workers as a snack.

Cacao trees have many pods on them at one time and they sprout directly from the trunk or branches.  They ripen at different times, and are red and yellow when mature.  The best beans grow at lower altitudes, so El Quetzal doesn’t use the pods from their plants in Mindo (somewhere between 1000 and 2000m altitude) for making chocolate.  Instead they use these for decoration and/or share the fresh pulp amongst the workers as a snack.

 

 

Pods are broken open to acquire the beans, which are fermented, as well as the white pulp, which is cooked down into a thick syrup that they call Miel de Cacao.  I really liked the flavor, which had elements reminiscent of balsamic vinegar.  In Mindo the cacao beans are fermented and dried in a plastic-sided green-house- the smell is intoxicating

 

Beans ferment for a few days to a week, depending on the temperature.  They are wrapped in banana leaves to conserve heat.

Beans ferment for a few days to a week, depending on the temperature.  They are wrapped in banana leaves to conserve heat.

 

The heat from the fermentation process kills the "embryo" inside.  Initially these embryos start out purple, and they become brown as they cook and die.  Brown (dead) embryos make good chocolate (there's a reason chocolate is brown and not purple!).

The heat from the fermentation process kills the “embryo” inside. Initially these embryos start out purple, and they become brown as they cook and die. Brown (dead) embryos make good chocolate (there’s a reason chocolate is brown and not purple!). This one is on it’s way to being ready, but is still quite purple.

 

Once fermented, beans are laid out to dry.  Drying time depends on the temperature in the house. 

Once fermented, beans are laid out to dry.  Drying time depends on the temperature in the house.

 

Once the beans are dried, any bad ones are removed and the remaining beans are roasted and cracked.  The nibs are separated from the shells by a winnower.

 

The Roaster- Much like the fermenting and drying room, the smell in this room was intoxicating.

The Roaster- Much like the fermenting and drying room, the smell in this room was intoxicating.

 

This is what you get after you roast the beans: nibs and shells. Throughout the process we were encouraged the try the beans.  As someone who enjoys 100% cacao, I enjoyed nibbling on the nibs.  Not so for the other 3 people on the tour.

This is what you get after you roast the beans: nibs and shells. Throughout the process we were encouraged the try the beans.  As someone who enjoys 100% cacao, I enjoyed nibbling on the nibs.  Not so for the other 3 people on the tour.

 

Next, production moves into the first processing room where beans are ground.  Here the beans were either made into 100% cacao paste, or separated (with pressure) into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.  The thick chocolate paste, known as chocolate liquor, is then made into chocolate bars by adding sugar and extra cocoa butter.  The mixture is refined, conched (ground and processed for a long period of time- I believe over 24 hours), and then tempered.  El Quetzal doesn’t add any emulsifiers (such as soy lecithin), and instead relies on extended periods of conching and tempering to get a lovely smooth mouth feel and texture.  They make a few different bars with various amounts of sugar and some added ingredients, such as ginger, chile peppers, and coffee- all of which they grow in Mindo (they also ferment a potent, and delicious, ginger beer).

 

I could have spent a couple of days in Mindo, but the next morning we headed back to Quito so that we could catch another bus to Otavalo.

 

The route to Otavalo.

The route to Otavalo.

 

Otavalo is a (relatively) large city in Imbabura province that is largely inhabited by native people.  Otavalo is known for it’s large market (mainly selling locally manufactured textiles and leather goods), which has made the city and its people prosperous.  The market is open every day of the week, but the largest market is on Saturday.  We arrived on Friday evening, found a hostel (for $19/night for 2 people), took a brief walking tour of the market area, had some dinner, and called it a night.

 

The market in Otavalo, as business was winding down on a Friday night.

The market in Otavalo, as business was winding down on a Friday night.

 

On Saturday morning we woke up early to go to the Mercado de Animales.  This market is only open on Saturdays, and is where locals go to sell, buy, and trade all sorts of animals: cows, pigs, goats, sheep, llamas, chickens and assorted poultry, rabbits, and guinea pigs (known as cuyo). I’ve never seen so many pigs on leashes…

 

Early morning in the mercado de animales.

Early morning in the mercado de animales.

 

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Looking out over the cow section.

Looking out over the cow section.

 

Pigs on leashes!

Pigs on leashes!

 

Piglets on leashes!

Piglets on leashes! (I thought the spotted ones were very cute)

 

One of the few things I found in Ecuador that was actually more expensive than at home in the states was old laying hens.  Here I know farmers that get $2.50/bird for old laying hens, while they were selling well for $9 a pair in this market. “Galina” (hen), has more flavor than regular meat chickens “pollo”, at least according to my travel companion!

 

A woman wearing her baby and selling Gallina (old laying hens).  At $9/pair, these are more expensive than in the US!

A woman wearing her baby and selling Gallina (old laying hens). At $9/pair, these are more expensive than in the US!

 

Lots of Gallina: hens that have stopped laying eggs.

Lots of Gallina: hens that have stopped laying eggs.

 

Alternatively, you could buy pollo- meat chickens (I didn't catch the price).

Alternatively, you could buy pollo- meat chickens (I didn’t catch the price).

 

I asked if you could buy laying hens (what we would call pullets), and was told that no one would sell a good laying hen.  You could buy chicks though- I assume the brown paper bags on the side are for transportation once sold.

I asked if you could buy laying hens (what we would call pullets), and was told that no one would sell a good laying hen. You could buy chicks though- I assume the brown paper bags on the side are for transportation once sold.

 

Guinnea pigs are a traditional meat source in this part of the world, and were prevalent in the market.

Guinnea pigs are a traditional meat source in this part of the world, and were prevalent in the market.

 

A mix of guinneas and rabbits.

A mix of guinneas and rabbits.

 

People shopping in the Otavalo animal market.  It's kind of nice to be in a market where no one is trying to sell you anything.  It's pretty obvious that tourists won't be taking anything home, so you're left to wander around and people-watch to your hearts content.

People shopping in the Otavalo animal market. It’s kind of nice to be in a market where no one is trying to sell you anything. It’s pretty obvious that tourists won’t be taking anything home, so you’re left to wander around and people-watch to your hearts content.

 

Vegetable oil- the bane of my existence… I was sorry to see this guy selling vegetable oil at the animal market.  Why abandon lard! (They’re getting the “animal fat is bad for you, vegetable oil is good for you” story in Ecuador these days.  Also, while people cook most things from scratch outside of the big cities, there were lots of billboards marketing pre-made convenience foods as the way of the future. 

Vegetable oil- the bane of my existence… I was sorry to see this guy selling vegetable oil at the animal market.  Why abandon lard! (They’re getting the “animal fat is bad for you, vegetable oil is good for you” story in Ecuador these days.)  While people cook most things from scratch outside of the big cities, there were lots of billboards marketing pre-made convenience foods as the way of the future.

 

After leaving the animal market (and passing through the small black-market out front where people sold animals without having to pay the $1 fee for trading animals in the market) we headed back into town to check out the main market.  On market day, the central square and two main streets are full of vendors selling silver, leather goods, antiques, and clothing made in and around Otavalo.  I couldn’t resist coming home with a small collection of scarves (made of locally produced cotton) which I bought for $2.50-$3 each.  The main materials produced and used for textiles in the area are wool, cotton, and alpaca, and while most things are made in bulk on machines you can still find a few vendors that hand-make their own items.

 

I bought a few scarves from this young lady, who sold alpaca and cotton scarves, as well as wool hats that she knits herself (I somehow resisted the sponge-bob hat). 

I bought a few scarves from this young lady, who sold alpaca and cotton scarves, as well as wool hats that she knits herself (I somehow resisted the sponge-bob hat). She was very smiley while we chatted but became very serious when I asked her if I could take her picture.

 

I loved the colors of these locally produced wools.

I loved the colors of these locally produced wools.

 

Some general observations of the people in Otavalo:

 

The majority of people in Otavalo are indigenous Ecuadorians, and while they generally speak Spanish they also speak their own dialect of Kichwa.  The women frequently wear traditional embroidered blouses with matching ribbons wrapped around their pony tails.  They often wear hats, but will substitute a folded up blanket on their head to keep the sun out of their eyes in a pinch.  The women generally wear flat sandals or shoes, and have no qualms breastfeeding in public.  Babies are frequently worn in makeshift slings on mothers’ backs, and I didn’t hear or see an unhappy baby the whole time we were there.

 

A folded blanket doubling for a hat in the animal market.  Women will walk around all day with a blanket like this.

A folded blanket doubling for a hat in the animal market. Women will walk around all day with a blanket like this.

 

In the afternoon we headed to Cotacachi- another predominantly indigenous town- famous for leather work.  After meandering the main stretch and grabbing lunch (a delicious $7 per person “menu del dia” that consisted of traditional ceviche, plantain soup, a trout main dish, and strawberries with cream), we got back on a bus to make our way to Vale de Chota via Ibarra.

 

Valle del Chota is not a typical tourist destination.

 

Valle del Chota is a region in Imbabura province with a number of small villages and towns occupied largely by Afro-Ecuadorians.  Along with the Esmeraldas province, Valle del Chota is one of the two areas in Ecuador largely inhabited by black Ecuadorians (descendants of former slaves and those who escaped from wrecked slave-ships coming from Africa).  The villages in this area are generally rather poor (with some living in abject poverty).

 

Onwards to Valle de Chota

Onwards to Valle de Chota

 

Perhaps some would find a visit to Valle de Chota interesting because of the heritage of the people or to see the difficulties of living in poverty, but we came for another reason… While people in this area traditionally scratched out a living trying to do agriculture in a very dry environment, this area has now become famous for the production of something very different- futbol (that’s soccer for Americans) stars.

 

Despite being a mere dot on the map of Ecuador, this region has produced half of the players on the last two Ecuadorian world cup teams.  Players from these towns compete in Europe and around the world, and are internationally recognized as sports stars.  While I have no interest in soccer my travel companion is a huge futbol fan, so exploring these towns was of great interest to him.

 

We started our morning in Pusir Grande- the most impoverished place I have ever visited. The easiest way to get to this village is on foot over a large suspension bridge built in 2004.  In Pusir we spoke with a pair of older women who told us about life in the village.  It was not a pretty picture, with no real jobs, no real opportunities, and no real way out.

 

The bridge to Pusir.

The bridge to Pusir.

 

 

The view from the bridge is stunning, but the sights in the village on the other side take your breath away for totally different reasons.

The view from the bridge is stunning, but the sights in the village on the other side take your breath away for totally different reasons.

 

Pusir Grande- Absolute poverty- there really isn’t much for me to say.

Pusir Grande- Absolute poverty- there really isn’t much for me to say.

 

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From Pusir we took a taxi to Juncal.  The taxi was driven by a local young man who was excited to have some tourists visiting his area.  When he heard our reason for visiting he told us that he would take us on a detour through his town of Carpuela, where he proudly pointed out the houses of family members of various famous soccer players (the names meant nothing to me, but my companion was excited).  Carpuela was definitely better off than Pusir, and conditions continued to improve as he hit Juncal (though I would not call the area prosperous).

 

In Juncal we had a traditional lunch of Fritadas (fried pork served with a couple types of corn and potatoes).

 

Fritadas

Fritadas

 

We then walked through town, eventually meeting up with a group of young boys who found a couple of out-of-towners very entertaining.  They took us down to the river and regaled us with stories, attracting more young boys with their shouts and laughter.  I spoke to them all with my basic Spanish, and as each new boy showed up they asked me “Conoces Libby?” (Do you know Libby?) Apparently they have a visiting American teacher named Libby.  The boys were also fascinated by how my friend and I could be together because my Spanish was so bad… For some reason they had a hard time believing that he was fluent in English.

 

These guys were great and full of life.  Maybe one will be a famous soccer star some day.

These guys were great and full of life. Maybe one will be a famous soccer star some day.

 

I spotted this girl watching us on our walk back to town. Only the boys came up to us to say hello.

I spotted this girl watching us on our walk back to town. Only the boys came up to us to say hello.

 

Under the bridge- this is where some of Ecuador’s best soccer players grew up, with this field being the training ground for World Cup players.

Under the bridge- this is where some of Ecuador’s best soccer players grew up, with this field being the training ground for World Cup players.

 

On our way back through town we stopped to watch some Ecuavolley.  As the name suggests, this is a variant of volleyball, invented in Ecuador.  The game is played with a soccer ball (it’s hard enough to afford one ball, you might as well use it for multiple sports), and is played three-a-side.  During my stay in Ecuador I watched a number of these games (my companion is an avid and accomplished player).  At this game, and throughout our stay in Valle del Chota, I stood out like a sore thumb (as did my relatively pale Ecuadorian friend) but while our presence drew some interested looks we never had any issues and were frequently offered assistance (because surely we were lost!).

 

A street game of Ecuavolley.

A street game of Ecuavolley.

 

It looked like fun. I'd certainly like to try it out!

It looked like fun. I’d certainly like to try it out!

 

In the afternoon we again headed back to Quito.  While we easily navigated Ecuador by bus, we always had to return to Quito to start a new adventure, with it acting like the hub of our travel wheel.  We again spent the night in Plaza Foch, before heading south to Quilotoa (changing buses in Latacunga- the capital of the Cotapaxi province).

 

The roads to Quilotoa...

The roads to Quilotoa…

 

Quilotoa is a beautiful crater lake in an area sparsely populated by native people.  Due to it’s growing popularity as a tourist destination, the locals have moved from their old village which was located about 1km down the mountain and are now living up at the edge of the crater where you can find many hostels and small cafes or stores (every building is a café, store, or hostel, as all the inhabitants make their living from tourism).

 

One of the many hostels in Quilotoa,flying the Incan flag.

One of the many hostels in Quilotoa,flying the Incan flag.

 

 

My friend had visited Quilotoa 15 years ago, when you had to hire a truck to take you up the dirt road and the only thing at the top of the crater was a small adobe hut.  In the last few years the government has paid for the construction of a nice new road to the village as well as the construction of a handicapped-accessible viewpoint and a maintained trail down to the lake.  With these changes, tourism continues to increase, though there weren’t many other visitors during our stay.

 

This nice wide trail is a relatively new addition to the landscape at Quilotoa.

This nice wide trail is a relatively new addition to the landscape at Quilotoa.

We opted to stay at one of the first hostels we saw- a recently constructed large chalet with beautiful large rooms heated with wood burning stoves.  At almost 4000m (12,841 feet) and exposed to the elements, it’s windy and chilly in Quilotoa and we were certainly appreciative of the stove in our room and in the common area.  For $20/person we not only had a room, but also had a dinner and breakfast that we shared with the other visitors (including four Indians who are on a months-long journey culminating in a trip to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and a young Japanese woman on a solo year-long trip around the world!).

 

In addition to running a hostel, the owner of this establishment makes and sells wooden masks.  In the back you can see him wife tending to the wood-burning stove.

In addition to running a hostel, the owner of this establishment makes and sells wooden masks. In the back you can see him wife tending to the wood-burning stove.

 

We got to Quilotoa in the early afternoon.  We had lunch at a small café associated with our hostel (a $4 menu del dia consisting of a bowl of lima bean soup, a plate of chicken, potatoes, and rice, and a glass of fresh-squeezed juice) and then headed to the crater.  Despite a bit of concern that we may not make it down and up the crater before dark, we headed off down the trail.  There we chatted with a local guy who was maintaining the trail.  I figured that these guys must be used to tourists, so I asked him if he would take a picture of us with my digital camera.  My assumption was wrong, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone have so much trouble taking a picture.  Eventually there was success, and while the picture may be crooked, and you may see only part of the crater lake, our smiles were certainly genuine.

 

My travel companion is a photo instructor for National Geographic, a skill that definitely came through in some of the pictures that he took with my camera!

My travel companion is a photo instructor for National Geographic, a skill that definitely came through in some of the pictures that he took with my camera!

 

It probably took us about half an hour to make it to the bottom of the lake, and I’ll admit that a couple times I found myself concerned about our ascent up the steep path, especially with the added difficulty of catching our breath at altitude.  At one point we passed a local giving a tourist a ride up the trail on a horse, but we declined his offer to come back and get us from the base.

 

The lake at the base of the crater.  The colors of the lake are amazing, and changed with the angle and intensity of the sun.

The lake at the base of the crater. The colors of the lake are amazing, and changed with the angle and intensity of the sun.

 

At the bottom of the crater you can rent Kayaks for $2.50/hour, but they had shut-up shop by the time we got there.  There is also a very basic hostel on the shore, which provides a bed and breakfast for ~$12 a night with access to a pit toilet.  There are no wood-burning stoves in these rooms, but it was much milder down in the crater than up at the rim.  We found a young local down at the hostel, and we chatted to him a little bit before starting our hike back to the rim.  He said it takes him 25 minutes to hike back up, though I’m sure it took us well over twice that.

 

On our return hike we opted to take a different path, rather than the maintained trail.  It was very challenging, but the views on this hike up and down were absolutely breathtaking.  The water is a stunning blue, with the color changing dramatically depending on the light.  The water is brackish and full of minerals, as verified by my hiking partner who bravely took a sip, and I’ll admit I would have loved to of taken a dip had it been earlier in the day.

 

This llama was hanging out on the side of the caldera as we hiked back up.

This llama was hanging out on the side of the caldera as we hiked back up.

 

After our hike we visited one of the small shacks that served food.  We had coffee and struck up a conversation with one of the locals.  My companion asked a lot about how the village had changed since his last visit and I asked a lot about life in Quilotoa.  We learned that people are getting married much earlier now than they had previously- now sealing the deal as early as 14 or 15.  We learned about their marriage traditions (BIG parties) and that most people have about 8 children.

 

The clothing of the native people living in Quilotoa was notable different from that of the people living in Otavalo, which makes sense since the weather is much more severe.  Hats are popular for both genders in both locations, though the preferred style is quite different in each place (and I noticed that many of the hats were adorned with peacock feathers in Quilotoa, a style I hadn’t noticed in Otavalo).  I also noticed that while most women in Otovalo wore flats, all the women in Quilotoa wore heels.  When I asked the guy about this he replied in Spanish that “they just like it… though it does make them too tall”.  We spoke to everyone in Spanish, but the local language in Quilotoa is another dialect of Kichwa.  We were told that they can understand the dialect from Otavalo, but that it’s different.

 

We had a great time chatting with this gent.  As we drank coffee in the corner, women cooked dinner on the burners behind us while men played cards.

We had a great time chatting with this gent. As we drank coffee in the corner, women cooked dinner on the burners behind us while men played cards.w

 

I asked about childbirth for the local women and was told that some chose to have their children in hospital while others give birth at home with midwives.  During my time in the Andes I was struck by the prevalence of nail clubbing.  This is one of those things that medical students learn about in med school, and rarely see (I had a couple patients with clubbing in my clinical years).  The condition was prevalent amongst people that I saw in a number of places in Ecuador (I pathologically started staring at peoples’ hands), and I started to wonder if there was a genetic predisposition in these populations or if it was a result of life at altitude (it’s a condition associated with chronic hypoxia).  Just a random observation that I would love to explore further: you can take the girl out of the lab, but you can’t take the scientist out of the girl!

 

There is a trail, the Quilotoa loop, that goes around the lake.  It takes about 5 hours and is apparently quite challenging.  We would have loved to tackle it, but unfortunately we had to get back on the road by midmorning the next day, so we only had enough time to head out-and-back along one side of the loop for a couple of hours in the morning.  The views were stunning, and I hope to get back one day to hike the entire loop.

 

One of the many beautiful views from the loop.

One of the many beautiful views from the loop.

 

And this is what you see when you look out the other way.

And this is what you see when you look out the other way.

 

From Quilotoa there is one bus a day to Latacunga, but you can easily catch a local taxi to the nearby town of Zumbahua at any time.  From Zumbahua busses run much more frequently or you can catch a ride with someone heading to the city and provide them with some extra pocket money.  That’s what we did, as we were quickly ushered into the cab of a small truck as we headed towards the bus.  At the end of the trip our driver asked for $2 or $3 total (I think it would have cost us about $3 on the bus), having got us there in record time (I was holding on with white knuckles to anything I could get my hands on as we sped around tight mountain curves.  While I was having multiple minor panic attacks my companion happily chatted to our driver- he’s used to this mode of transportation from when he travels home to see his parents in another part of the highlands).

 

Speeding down twisty mountain roads in the front of a truck had me grabbing on for dear life...

Speeding down twisty mountain roads in the front of a truck had me grabbing on for dear life…

 

These are typical houses for the area around Quilotoa.

These are typical houses for the area around Quilotoa.

 

From Latacunga we caught a bus back to Quito, and again headed to Plaza Foch to find a hostel.  That evening we took a walk through colonial Quito, which was lovely.  Quito was colonized by the Spanish in the mid 1500s, and as such has a lot of history.  Of note, we visited La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, aka la Compañía, where we had a tour and caught part of a baroque concert of sacred music (it’s always interesting to visit religious places during holy week!).

 

One of the many beautiful colonial period building lit up in Old Quito.

One of the many beautiful colonial period building lit up in Old Quito.

 

The following day I explored Quito alone, visiting the botanical gardens in Parque Carolina and reading a book and people watching in Parque El Ejido.  I also got to meet up with a friend of a friend who is a native of Quito, and I really enjoyed getting a different perspective on life in Ecuador, especially hearing a different take on the current president (talk of Rafael Correa stirs up strong feelings in many Ecuadorians I spoke with).  In the evening I headed to the airport, and sadly left Ecuador behind.  I certainly hope to return again soon!

 

There are a couple of general things that I think are worth noting…

 

Coffee, Bananas, and Chocolate- I’ll admit that I was excited to return to a country that is well known for these three delicacies.  I’ll also admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of these things in Ecuador.  I don’t know if all the bananas are exported (they are a major source of revenue for the country), but I ate more bananas in the airport lounges to and from Ecuador than I actually did in the country.  There was plenty of other fruit, but bananas weren’t plentiful (at least not at this time of the year).  Likewise, with the exception of El Quetzal chocolate in Mindo, I didn’t see any good Ecuadorian chocolate.  Manicho, the quintessential Ecuadorian chocolate, is a milk chocolate and peanut candy bar, and while that was prevalent I did not see any dark chocolate for sale to the public.  While Ecuador produces high quality chocolate beans, it appears they are sent out of the country to be processed and turned into expensive Swiss (or Belgian or whatever) chocolates.  Likewise coffee is a major export for Ecuador, yet the coffee section in the supermarket I visited was an abomination of Nescafe and instant coffee!

 

Coffee selection- Are all the good beans exported? Where’s that delicious Ecuadorian coffee I was looking for?!

Coffee selection- Are all the good beans exported? Where’s that delicious Ecuadorian coffee I was looking for?!

 

Food- The food in Ecuador was generally outstanding. By far the best of any of the countries I have visited in the last few months.  The ingredients are fresh, food is simple, and food is a central part of community and family structure.  People eat out a lot, but at simple places that are serving one of two basic ‘dishes of the day’.  Some of the best meals I had cost a couple of dollars and consisted of rice, potatoes, and meat.  Ecuadorians also really love soup, and the soups that frequently preceded our main dishes were generally outstanding.  With the exception of strawberries after one lunch, desert did not seem common.

 

This plate of Menestras (beans or lentils) with pork cost me ~$3 just around the corner from the pricey Plaza Foch.

This plate of Menestras (beans or lentils) with pork cost me ~$3 just around the corner from the pricey Plaza Foch.

 

Potatoes are frequently served for lunch and dinner. They're a traditional crop, and there are varieties that  grow in the harsh Andes climate. They look quite a bit different to what you get in the store in the US!

Potatoes are frequently served for lunch and dinner. They’re a traditional crop, and there are varieties that grow in the harsh Andes climate. They look quite a bit different to what you get in the store in the US!

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Corn generally looks quite a bit different as well.  I don't think Monsanto had anything to do with these ears!

Corn generally looks quite a bit different as well. I don’t think Monsanto had anything to do with these ears!

 

Street food was common, cheap, and delicious.  I generally break a lot of the “food safety” rules when traveling, and I very happily ate food from street vendors while in Ecuador.  Common options are grilled plantains with cheese and mango with salt.  Fruit is commonly sold in plastic sleeves as snack food, and you can usually get a bag of grapes, apples, pears, citrus, or rambutans for $1 a bag.  At one point I saw Avocados being sold on the street at 10 for $1.  Not exactly your typical street food, but what a bargain!

 

Plantains grilled on the street.

Plantains grilled on the street.

 

Maduros con queso- sweet plantain with cheese.

Maduros con queso- sweet plantain with cheese.

 

Green mango with salt. Another popular street food.

Green mango with salt. Another popular street food.

 

Rambutans- A curious looking fruit!

Rambutans- A curious looking fruit!

 

Rambutans- I hadn’t had these before, but they are very tasty!

Rambutans- I hadn’t had these before, but they are very tasty!

 

 

Bags of fruit were also commonly sold on the bus, as were ice creams, chips (plantain, potato, and cassava), peanuts, and all kinds of snacks.  At various bus stops vendors would hop on the bus toting their wares, hoping to make a dollar or two before hopping off at the next stop.  You could even get whole meals sold in this way, such as fritadas sold in little plastic bags with wooden forks.

 

Juice-fresh fruit juices, or “jugos naturales” are very popular and often included as part of a meal.  Common flavors are blackberry, pineapple, naranjilla, guanabana (soursop), and tree tomato.  They’re frequently sweetened, but you can ask to have them with minimal or no sweetening.

 

Tree tomatoes, aka Tamarillos- Solanum betaceum.

Tree tomatoes, aka Tamarillos- Solanum betaceum.

 

Money- Ecuador has used the American dollar as currency since 2000.  I used more $1 coins during one week in Ecuador than I have in my entire lifetime in the US.  Things in Ecuador are cheap, so small bills are preferred, and people frequently ask you for small and exact change.  In addition to the US bills and coins, there are also Ecuadorian coins that correspond to the nickel, dime, and quarter.

 

Transportation- public transportation in Ecuador is cheap and fairly reliable.  You can traverse the length of Quito (a lengthy ride) for 25c, and get most places by bus or taxi for very reasonable prices.

 

I usually just relaxed and watched the scenery go by as we rode the bus, but from time to time I would do some light reading- such as this article on the prevalence on fatty liver in children... Longtime readers will understand my interest in this topic!

I usually just relaxed and watched the scenery go by as we rode the bus, but from time to time I would do some light reading- such as this article on the prevalence on fatty liver in children… Longtime readers will understand my interest in this topic!

 

A parting suggestion: VISIT ECUADOR.  It is a beautiful country filled with generous and kind people.  The environment is diverse and fascinating, the food is delicious.  It’s easy to get to from the US, it’s easy to travel on a very limited budget, and you’ll never run out of things to see.  It’s definitely helpful to speak Spanish (or to travel with someone who does), but some of the tourists we ran into had very limited Spanish and seemed to get by just fine.

 

The Galapagos were fascinating, but I fell in love with Ecuador when I visited the highlands.  I’ve now seen two of the four regions of Ecuador, and I can’t wait to go back again… There’s so much to see and do, but perhaps next time I can make it to the Amazon!

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I’ve been fortunate to do some pretty amazing travel in the past, but the journey I just returned from has certainly stolen the show. 

 

As an evolution nerd, a Darwin enthusiast, and a lover of the natural world, a trip to the Galapagos was truly an experience I will never forget.  I’ve wanted to visit the Galapagos for a long time*, and while I had thought about visiting in my 6 months off between med school and residency I only booked the trip about a month ago.  My father (also an evolution nerd, Darwin enthusiast, and naturalist) and I travelled with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions on a trip to the Galapagos aboard The National Geographic Endeavour (named in honor of the first vessel that Captain Cook used in his explorations – the one that landed on the eastern coast of Australia; Cook never visited the Galapagos).  I’ll just start by saying the company, the experience, the ship, the crew, the staff, the naturalists, the whole package- were all first rate.  It’s a top of the line option for visiting the Galapagos, and it really shows.

 

In many people’s minds, the Galapagos are inexorably linked with Charles Darwin and his theory of Natural Selection.  Darwin visited the Galapagos, on HMS Beagle, in 1835. Darwin was aboard the Beagle for 5 years, but he only spent 5 weeks in the Galapagos of which only 19 days were on land!  Nonetheless, the observations he made there and the samples he collected were important ingredients for his future theory.

 

Tagus Cove- One evening we stopped in Tagus Cove- an area where Darwin landed.  There is graffiti in this cove, as it was traditional (until recently) to leave the name of your boat on the cliffs (some are amazingly high up).  The earliest inscription we saw was from 1836, the year after Darwin visited.

One evening we stopped in Tagus Cove- an area where Darwin landed. There is graffiti in this cove, as it was traditional (until recently) to leave the name of your boat on the cliffs (some are amazingly high up). The earliest inscription we saw was from 1836, the year after Darwin visited.

 

Most of the walks we took on this cruise were rather relaxed, but this evening’s hike was a change of pace, and we made good speed up a steep trail.  Looking back, we could see the Endeavour and a large pond that Darwin wrote about in The Voyage of the Beagle.  Alas, while he was hoping for a refreshing dip in some fresh water, he was frustrated to find that this pond is brackish.

 

A [disappointingly] brackish pond.

A [disappointingly, at least for Darwin] brackish pond.

I recommend the Galapagos chapter of The Voyage of the Beagle (Chapter 17).  It is a delightful and quick read, and if you have an e-reader you can find it for free online.  The Voyage of the Beagle was a travel journal of sorts, and while Darwin was the naturalist aboard The Beagle (well he was eventually, he didn’t start that way but eventually replaced the original Naturalist) he first became famous as a travel writer (his theory of evolution didn’t make him famous until quite late in life, and strangely his book on Barnacles wasn’t a big seller…).

 

Over the years, the Galapagos became a popular stopping point for ships.  While there is very limited fresh water, it was a good place to replenish food.  Early visitors introduced goats (a species that quickly flourished on the islands, wreaking havoc on endemic creatures) and the Galapagonian tortoises were particularly popular as well.

 

There are a number of species that are uniquely Galapagonian- the tortoise being a prime example.  These giant creatures at one time roamed the islands in great numbers, but their populations were decimated by humans in ~150 years.  The tortoise had two great misfortunes- first, they apparently taste pretty good (Darwin wrote of roasted tortoise breast “Gaucho style” being quite tasty, and was complimentary of tortoise soup (from medium sized animals), though he found nothing remarkable in the rest of the animal).  Perhaps the greater misfortune for these giants is that they can survive for ~2 years without food or water.  In a time before refrigeration, when fresh meat was almost an impossibility on long sea voyages, tortoises could be stashed on boats for ages until they were finally consumed.  I admit to being rather bad about anthropomorphizing animals, but I can only imagine that being kept in the hold of a ship for over a year before being killed and eaten was a rather unpleasant end.

 

A Medium Sized Tortoise- Perhaps this is a good soup-sized tortoise?

A Medium Sized Tortoise- Perhaps this is a good soup-sized tortoise?

 

These giants are believed to live over 200 years, though it is hard to be sure since we haven’t been studying them that long.

These giants are believed to live over 200 years, though it is hard to be sure since we haven’t been studying them that long.

 

The tortoises on different islands are considered different sub-species (though where you draw the line at species vs. subspecies or variety was a common quandary during our tour of the Galapagos) and some have gone extinct due to human harvesting, competition (with things such as introduced goats), and decreased hatching (because of damage to nests due to introduced species).  One of the most famous Galapagos Tortoises was “Lonesome George”, the last of his kind- a subspecies of tortoise that inhabited Pinta Island.  While a number of attempts were made to breed George and “save” his kind, none were successful, and he died- the last of his kind- in 2012.

 

Lonesome George had been living at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island since his discovery in 1971, and for many years was the center’s most famous denizen.  We visited Santa Cruz, and the Charles Darwin Research Center, during our cruise, and we got to see the conservation efforts there.

 

The National Park manages 97% of the land of the Galapagos (only 3% is habited). The Charles Darwin Research Center does a lot of research, but only the national park can change policy and initiate change in the park.

The National Park manages 97% of the land of the Galapagos (only 3% is habited). The Charles Darwin Research Station does a lot of research, but only the national park can change policy and initiate change in the park.

 

Eggs from different subspecies are hatched and reared in captivity on Santa Cruz (and there are two other tortoise breeding centers elsewhere in the archipelago).  When they are large enough to be released they are tagged and released.  These efforts have generally been very successful and the tortoise population is recovering nicely.  While they claim the number painted on the babies backs are for identification purposes, I secretly hope there is some illicit tortoise racing going on after hours!

Eggs from different subspecies are hatched and reared in captivity on Santa Cruz (there are two other tortoise breeding centers elsewhere in the archipelago). When they are large enough to be released they are tagged and released. These efforts have generally been very successful and the tortoise population is recovering nicely. While they claim the number painted on the babies backs are for identification purposes, I secretly hope there is some illicit tortoise racing going on after hours!

 

After his death, Lonesome George was sent to NYC where he was preserved by experts at the Natural History Museum.  The current celebrity at the Charles Darwin Research Center is a much happier tale.  When conservation efforts were initiated, there were only 14 tortoises of the Española subspecies- 12 females and 2 males.  While conservationists hoped to build the population from these animals, the females were not interested in the males.  In an attempt to save the subspecies, a global search for a male of their kind was initiated- seeking out giant tortoises in zoos and private collections around the world.  Eventually a male was found in the San Diego zoo, and after some negotiating “Diego” made his way back to the Galapagos.  Now, having fathered over 1000 offspring, Diego is known as “Super Diego”, and the subspecies is doing well!

 

The conservation of the Galapagos Tortoises seems to be on the road to success, which is wonderful.  The Charles Darwin Research Station has also had good success breeding and reintroducing some subspecies of Land Iguanas.  In fact, the breeding program at the research center has now been closed because the efforts were so successful.

 

These cuddly guys (land iguanas) have had a hard time on some islands, but with restoration and conservation efforts they are now dong well.

These cuddly guys (land iguanas) have had a hard time on some islands, but with restoration and conservation efforts they are now dong well.

 

There were slim pickings for the Land Iguanas on North Seymour. These guys like to eat prickly pear cactus, but were taking to the trees to find some greenery in this sparse environment.  One of the naturalists we were with said he had never seen Land Iguanas so high in trees before.

There were slim pickings for the Land Iguanas on North Seymour. These guys like to eat prickly pear cactus, but were taking to the trees to find some greenery in this sparse environment. One of the naturalists we were with said he has never seen Land Iguanas so high in trees before.

 

Lusher pastures for this land iguana near Urvina Bay.

Lusher pastures for this land iguana near Urvina Bay.

 

You may not know it, but about 30,000 people live in the Galapagos.  While 97% of the island is National Park (for which you need a permit and a naturalist to visit- no more than 16 tourists per naturalist), there are a number of inhabited areas.  At the end of our cruise we visited Santa Cruz, where the Darwin Center is, and San Cristobal, from where we flew back to the mainland.  In Santa Cruz we took a walk through town, and it was fun to stop at the fish market and see the catch of the day.  Humans weren’t the only interested customers!

 

Pelicans at the self-serve bar

Pelicans at the self-serve bar

 

A bit more anthropomorphizing... I imagined this Sea lion waiting for his number to be called at the deli counter.

A bit more anthropomorphizing… I imagined this Sea lion waiting for his number to be called at the deli counter.

 

The Sea Lion was given a hunk of fish and the fishmonger kept the pelicans back with a fly swatter so he could enjoy it!

The Sea Lion was given a hunk of fish and the fishwife kept the pelicans back with a fly swatter so he could enjoy it!

 

The Galapagos are part of Ecuador, and until fairly recently were not inhabited.  Initially, colonists were “gifted” land, as encouragement to come and live in the Galapagos, but now there are significant efforts to curb immigration.  When we were in Santa Cruz we headed up into the highlands to see tortoise in the wild (they much prefer to be in the highlands with lush vegetation and more water, but the females come out of the highlands to lay eggs- an unfortunate habit, since the smaller females were more desirable fodder for hungry sailors, and were much closer to the ocean than the large males who stayed in the highlands).

The tortoises in the highlands like to relax in ponds such as this one.  They will drink gallons of water when they visit, but can go years without water in hard times.

The tortoises in the highlands like to relax in ponds such as this one. They will drink gallons of water when they visit, but can go years without water in hard times.

 

At first I was confused by the shrubbery this tortoise had acquired, but after seeing them wallowing in the weed-covered pond all became clear.

At first I was confused by the shrubbery this tortoise had acquired, but after seeing them wallowing in the weed-covered pond all became clear.

 

Unfortunately, this method of hiding didn't save tortoise from hungry sailors.  Darwin writes how sailors would flip these hiding beasts over and carry them off to the ships for storage. Darwin also wrote about his attempts to ride these massive creatures!

Unfortunately, this method of hiding didn’t save tortoise from hungry sailors. Darwin writes how sailors would flip these hiding beasts over and carry them off to the ships for storage. 

 

While we were in the highlands we visited a plantation where a family grows coffee and sugar cane.  Both grow well in the Galapagos, and while we visited we learned how people traditionally processed sugar (into molasses and alcohol) and coffee.

 

Sugar Cane processing- This isn’t how the family processes sugar today, but this is the traditional method.  Sugar cane is fed into the press and juice comes out the bottom.  On this plantation half of the sugar cane juice is made into molasses and half is made into alcohol!

Sugar Cane processing- This isn’t how the family processes sugar today, but this is the traditional method. Sugar cane is fed into the press and juice comes out the bottom. On this plantation half of the sugar cane juice is made into molasses and half is made into alcohol!

 

Diabetic Warbler?- This Yellow Warbler really liked to hang out on the sugar cane press!

Diabetic Warbler?- This Yellow Warbler really liked to hang out on the sugar cane press!

 

Hooch- this was the open vat where the sugar cane juice was fermenting.  The final product, after it was passed through a still, was… rough.  There's a reason people age rum!

Hooch- this was the open vat where the sugar cane juice was fermenting. The final product, after it was passed through a still, was… rough. There’s a reason people age rum!

 

Coffee- Having had an introduction to traditional coffee processing methods in Belize, I got a review in The Galapagos.  Here you can see the unroasted cleaned and uncleaned beans.

Having had an introduction to traditional coffee processing methods in Belize, I got a review in The Galapagos. Here you can see the unroasted uncleaned and cleaned beans.

 

I took a new camera with me on this trip and certainly had some fun with shots like this...

I took a new camera with me on this trip and certainly had some fun with shots like this…

 

We got to try coffee beans, sugar, coffee, sugar juice (delicious with a squeeze of lime), and hooch (ditto).  While I certainly took lots of pictures in the Galapagos thing, the only physical product I’m coming home with is some Galapagonian Coffee.

 

Admission time- Label something “Evolutionary” and I am 27% more likely to purchase it.

Admission time- Label something “Evolutionary” and I am 27% more likely to purchase it.

 

I have a lot more to write about, and many more pictures to share, but this seems like a good stopping point for now.  I’ll get the next post up ASAP, but it may be a bit of a wait since I head to the UK tomorrow for a quick visit with family.

 

Me and my old new-friend. Unlike Darwin, I didn't try and catch a ride (though you can see why he tried!)

Me and my old new-friend. Unlike Darwin, I didn’t try and catch a ride (though you can see why he tried!)

 

*While I have always been keen to visit the Galapagos, I have also been somewhat wary.  There is no doubt that humans have done a lot of damage in the Galapagos.  While the bulk of this damage was done by early visitors who purposefully introduced a number of hardy species, tourists certainly have the potential to damage the environment, spread seeds, and introduce species or disease.  That being said, done correctly, tourism can be an incredible force for good in the Galapagos.  A lot of damage has been done in the past 200 yrs by sailors, settlers, and visitors.  Progress is being made to repair these damages, with money coming largely from tourists.  If humans were to now abandon the Galapagos, the endemic species would be pushed out by species that have already been introduced. Well-regulated tourism, appropriate management of the land, and conservation efforts can help preserve the Galapagos. They are certainly a wonder worth saving.

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It’s been a busy month since my last post.  I’ve studied for and taken the United States Medical Licensing Exams (USMLE) Step 2 CS and (on Friday) USMLE Step 2 CK, two parts of what most people know as “the boards”.  I’ve attended and spoken at the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS) and moved out of the apartment I lived in for the last 18 months.  I’m also half way through my “Acting Internship”, a clerkship most medical schools call a Sub-Internship, where I basically function as an intern (a first year medical resident).  I’m doing this rotation at a local community hospital and I’m really enjoying the atmosphere, personnel, and patients.  The hours are long, but not as long as for many of my classmates doing acting internships in Internal Medicine, Surgery, and Ob-Gyn (mine is in Family Medicine, the specialty I am pursuing). Applications for residency programs go live in just over a week which finds me struggling to write (for the fourth time) a personal statement that embodies me

 

Needless to say, things have been hectic , and the last month has been a touch overwhelming at times.  I’m certainly looking forward to some downtime after I finally complete my remaining med school requirements (just 8 more weeks!), have my residency lined up, and am able to catch my breath. 

 

I really shouldn’t complain.  Even in the last, relatively crazy, 6 weeks I’ve still had some good times.  The week of AHS in particular was one for the books.

 

I’ve written before about destinations and journeys.  The destination for AHS was clear- Atlanta Georgia- but the journey I took to get there wasn’t what you might expect. 

 

Many, many, months ago, when the location for AHS was first announced, I made a rather rash statement that Atlanta was almost close enough for a road trip.  While I had no real intention of road tripping to Atlanta, my longtime Twitter friend @PrimalRush (henceforth known as James) said he was keen to tag along for the journey.  At the time I thought an actual road trip was unlikely (it’s a good 13 hour drive and airfare isn’t that expensive), but as the time got closer I realized I would regret turning down the opportunity to create an excellent story (those that know me know all too well that I’m a fan of adventures and stories). 

 

Since I took 4 weeks off from school to prepare for the boards and attend AHS, I was able to take some extra time travelling to AHS.  About a week out, I vaguely mapped a path to Atlanta, made plans to pick up my Canadian travel buddy from the bus stop, and hoped for the best!

 

Three days before we planned to pull into ATL, James and I hit the road with camping gear, a cooler, and a tank of gas.  After making a stop at one of my favorite butchers to fully stock our cooler, we made tracks to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  We travelled the length of the park on Skyline Drive, stopping about midway to camp for the night. 

 

At times, we were in the clouds driving on Skyline Drive.  Driving the length of the park added a few extra miles to our trip, and certainly slowed us down a bit (the speed limit is 35mph and you can't help but pull over and ogle at the views), but it is certainly worth it!

At times, we were in the clouds driving on Skyline Drive. Driving the length of the park added a few extra miles to our trip, and certainly slowed us down a bit (the speed limit is 35mph and you can’t help but pull over and ogle at the views), but it was certainly worth it!

 

Without going into detail, our time in Shenandoah involved meeting some mushroomers who confirmed my Chanterelle (and Chicken of the Woods) identification, cooking a truly excellent camp dinner (with Chanterelles), having a run-in with a slightly disgruntled ranger, hiking part of the Appalachian trail in the dark, pitching a tent in the dark, waking up and breaking down camp in the dark, and then scrambling to a 360o viewpoint to watch the sun rise.  When we were finally able to tear ourselves away from our solitude and sunrise we hiked the couple miles back to the car and made tracks through the rest of the park and onto our next destination in Mortimer North Carolina.

 

A delicious addition to our dinner (good thing I had some Kerrygold butter in the cooler!)

A delicious addition to our dinner (good thing I had some Kerrygold butter in the cooler!)

 

I'll take this over dehydrated rice and bean camp dinners any night!

I’ll take this over dehydrated rice and bean camp dinners any night!

 

The view at dawn from Bearfence mountain.

The view at dawn from Bearfence mountain.

 

It was certainly worth waking up at 5, and hiking in the dark, to watch the sun rise over Shenandoah.

It was certainly worth waking up at 5, and hiking in the dark, to watch the sun rise over Shenandoah.

 

How could I resist?

How could I resist?

 

Mortimer North Carolina holds a special place in my heart.  One of my longtime friends has a family cabin in Mortimer, and I’ve twice travelled with her for an escape to the mountains and the beauty of Wilson’s Creek.  Mortimer is also home of Betsey’s Ole Country Store an establishment owned by my friend Bruce.  The address to Betsey’s is a little deceiving- let the record show that “Highway 90” is a gravel road where you need to pull over to let oncoming traffic pass. 

 

Anything I say about Betsey’s or the owner/operator of the establishment, Bruce, would sound like a paid advertisement, so I’m not going to even start.  What I will say is, if you want to visit a beautiful part of North Carolina- visit Mortimer. And if you visit Mortimer- visit Bruce.  He’s got cabin rentals, inner tube rentals, and more knowledge of the area than you’ll find anywhere else.  If you ever find yourself that way, tell him Victoria sent you… Seriously!

 

With Bruce’s back yard as our home base (he is a gracious host), we put in many miles of hiking, had numerous dips in local swimming holes, and managed to spot some of the Perseid meteors.  It was hard to tear ourselves away in order to make it to Atlanta on schedule (we actually didn’t make it to Atlanta on schedule because we opted to take a morning hike before we hit the road).

 

Betsey's. "Peace and Love, Y'all"

Betsey’s. “Peace and Love, Y’all”

 

Putting in some miles in Pisgah National Forest...

Putting in some miles in Pisgah National Forest…

 

I was keen to keep my socks dry, and I did! At least for the first half of the hike (darn slippery rocks)...

I was keen to keep my socks dry, and I did! At least for the first half of the hike (darn slippery rocks)…

 

My new favorite swimming hole, at the top of Gragg Prong fall.

My new favorite swimming hole, at the top of Gragg Prong fall.

 

The reason we didn't make it to Atlanta on schedule- I had to introduce James to one of my favorite spots- Big Lost Cove.

The reason we didn’t make it to Atlanta on schedule- I had to introduce James to one of my favorite spots- Big Lost Cove.

 

It goes without saying that Atlanta was a big change of scenery in comparison to the preceding few days.  I actually didn’t see much of the city, save for the inside of the Sheraton Conference center, a few of the fine dining establishments, and Boyd Eaton’s gorgeous house where the presenters dinner was held.  Prior to the official start of AHS, a number of the Physicians and Ancestral Health docs got together for a brief meeting.  It was great to catch up with these like-minded Docs, and I was reminded, again, how refreshing it is to spend time with people who share passions and interests. 

 

AHS itself was fantastic, save for a few AV snafus. I thoroughly enjoyed some of the plenary talks: namely Nassim Taleb’s antifragile talk, Gad Saad’s talk on The Consuming Instinct, and Geoffrey Miller’s talk on Sexual Fitness (not talking about “reps for time”).  I was a bit surprised by Mel Konner’s and Boyd Eaton’s talk on the history of modern “paleo” diets, where they repeatedly said that our modern diet is much higher in saturated fat and lower in polyunsaturated fat than historic diets… I find it hard to believe that any diet that contains modern vegetable oils has anything other than an excess of polyunsaturated fats. 

 

There were many excellent talks over the course of the conference, and it was often hard to pick which talk to attend out of a very tempting schedule.  I look forward to catching some of the ones I missed online when the videos are posted.  On that note, my talk on Dietary Fats and Fatty Liver Disease, went well.  When the video becomes available I’ll try and post it here!

 

As much as I enjoyed the various lectures, workshops, and posters, the highlight of AHS was catching up with friends and making new ones.  There is quite a vibrant online community of those interested in evolutionary and ancestral health, and AHS can sometimes seem like the interwebz in 3D.  As someone who would happily trade days of online interactions for even brief face-to-face encounters, AHS was a social occasion that refilled my tanks and renewed my enthusiasm. 

 

Back in May, on the Wilderness Medicine elective in Utah, our instructors expressed that one of the goals of the elective was to “stock good memories” for the rough times that were to follow in residency (all but 2 of the 12 students would be starting internship in the next month).  I still have quite a bit of time until I start residency (though the march towards June of 2014 soldiers on), and my goal between now and then is to bank as many good memories as I can.

 

Stashing good memories (and looking for Hobbitses).

Stashing good memories (and looking for Hobbitses).

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Gather

Time to take a break from breasts- though I think I may have one more post in me on that subject.

 

I’m a fan of a paleo diet. There, I said it.  To me it is not “the” paleo diet, and there is no single set of “rules”, but I embrace the idea of thinking about our evolutionary past when talking about health and disease.  Like it or not, what we eat (and of equal importance, what we don’t eat) is one of the major forces that shape our health.  Let’s face it, it’s much easier to change what you eat than to change your genetics (and probably your job, your geographical location, and other things that affect health).

 

There’s been increased coverage of a paleo diet in the media of late- usually not a resounding endorsement, not that I’m surprised- and it’s sometimes referred to by other names such as “the caveman diet” (except our ancestors largely didn’t live in caves) or the hunter-gatherer diet.

 

I generally like (and use) the term ‘paleo’.  For me (and many others), it’s a term that has developed a definition that we all understand.  That being said, I also like the idea of talking about a ‘hunter-gatherer diet’.  It gives a nod to seasonality, encourages us to think about naturally available quantities, and a personal involvement in the food we eat.  Sure, a lot of people who “eat paleo” don’t hunt or gather their own food (though certainly some do), but it’s good to be mindful of when you might actually have access to different foods and in what amounts.

 

I’ve never been a hunter (though I love having friends that are, and appreciate the stock of venison I have in my chest freezer), but I’ve been gathering since I was little.  I’ve been involved in two different types of “gathering”- spending a portion of my summer childhood raiding (or being put to work) picking in my family’s garden and also time in the woods scouting for wild edibles.  It’s funny how times change: these days I love getting out in the sun to pick berries at a local pick-your-own place, but as a child I really thought of it as a chore (I’m guessing it’s mainly because when the plants are yours you don’t want to let anything go to waste so you pick whether you want to or not, and you also pick *everything* instead of just as much as you want).

 

Of course, picking quarts of strawberries at the local pick-your-own place is NOT gathering (in the truly ancestral sense of the word), but it’s fun (at least for me), and while I’m picking vitamin C I’m getting vitamin D for free.  I’m also supporting  local farming families, keeping money in the local community, and keeping an eye on how the food I eat is grown.

 

The farm I go to grows a variety of strawberries, I exclusively pick the “Early Glow” variety. They are, without a doubt, the best in the field, though arguable more tedious to pick since they are quite a bit smaller than most commercial varieties. They are well worth any extra effort, as the flavor is unparalleled (though their shelf life is very limited).

The farm I go to grows a variety of strawberries, I exclusively pick the “Early Glow” variety. They are, without a doubt, the best in the field, though arguable more tedious to pick since they are quite a bit smaller than most commercial varieties. They are well worth any extra effort, as the flavor is unparalleled (though their shelf life is very limited).

 

As a child, while I was duty bound to pick strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and whatever else we had in the garden, I still would go out “exploring” with friends and bring home wild bounty.  To this day wineberries are one of my favorite fruits. Seedy, waxy, and plentiful (if you happen to beat the birds to the punch), I would spend hours with my friends gathering these treats.  I still find it difficult to pass a stand without stopping for a snack.

 

Stopped for a snack- I’m being a bad Pony Clubber, allowing my horse to grab a quick bite with the bit in her mouth, but it seemed unfair to stop for a snack for me and not let her grab a mouthful as well!

Stopped for a snack- I’m being a bad Pony Clubber, allowing my horse to grab a quick bite with the bit in her mouth, but it seemed unfair to stop for a snack for me and not let her grab a mouthful as well!

 

Wineberries are just ripening in my area, but I haven’t had a chance to get out and pick any yet.  However a couple weekends ago I was out hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and came across blueberries- LOTS of blueberries.  I’d seen the green berries at other places earlier in the season, and fortuitously happened to be out on the Blue Mountain portion of the AT when the berries in the area were ripening.

 

These had caught my eye on the trail a week or so before I hit the motherload!

These had caught my eye on the trail a week or so before I hit the motherload!

 

I felt a little bad for my hiking partner, since I seem pathologically incapable of walking past a good stand of berries without stopping to pick.

I felt a little bad for my hiking partner, since I seem pathologically incapable of walking past a good stand of berries without stopping to pick.

 

For a bit of comparison you can see the wild blueberries (or are they bilberries? [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccinium_myrtillus#Confusion_between_bilberries_and_American_blueberries]) next to some that I picked in my parents’ garden (this years crop are particularly large)

For a bit of comparison you can see the wild blueberries (or are they bilberries?)  next to some that I picked in my parents’ garden (this years crop are particularly large)

Out on the AT, I don’t look all that out of place gathering handfuls of berries, but in the park opposite from my apartment I get some weird looks when I stand on tiptoe to pick the ripening Mulberries.  As I’ve said, my drive to gather might be a little pathological, though I suspect it is a deeply human urge.  Most of the kids that I’ve met have loved to gather food (berries, vegetables, eggs, etc.), but perhaps it’s novelty not nature…

 

When I was up in Maine a few weeks ago I went beach combing with a friend. To our excitement, while we were out at low tide we came across a few pools that housed beautiful large mussels.  We were looking forward to cooking them up in some white wine until we discovered there was a red-tide warning for the area- what a shame!

 

Seafood can’t get much fresher than this…

Seafood can’t get much fresher than this…

 

Most recently I’ve been gathering watercress from a local stream.  I know the thought of this makes my European friends cringe, but the liver flukes that make this practice a hazard in other countries don’t live in the US- or so I’ve been told.

 

WaTERCRESS

 

In the fall I’ll be gathering chestnuts, a task I’ve been doing for years.  My neighborhood has quite a few old Chinese Chestnut trees- I wonder if there was a local craze to plant them some decades back.

 

Best roasted, though I have been known to make a dark chocolate/chestnut mousse at times- don’t tell the paleo police!

Best roasted, though I have been known to make a dark chocolate/chestnut mousse at times- don’t tell the paleo police!

 

A “paleo” diet isn’t about prehistoric reenactment. The point isn’t to only eat foods you’ve hunted or gathered, but personally I like having a role in sourcing the food that I eat, and I do enjoy time spent outside gathering foods.  The food “gathered” at a pick your own berry farm certainly isn’t the same as the food our ancestors gathered (I’ll refer you back to the post I did on bananas– check out the difference between the wild and the domesticated fruit), but what you pick yourself will be infinitely fresher than what you buy at the supermarket.

 

As I was finishing up this post, I heard an interview on NPR with the author of a new book, entitled Eating on the Wild Side. Her premise seems to be that the plants we evolved eating were very different from their domesticated ancestors that we eat today, and that somewhere in the mix foods have lost some of their most valuable micronutrients *.  I can’t speak on the book, but the interview is certainly worth a listen!

 

*Interestingly, some people have suggested that some of the nutrients that the author above touts can actually be problematic.  You can check out Dr. Ede’s talk from the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium exploring the darker side of plant foods.

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OK- enough (for now) of the photo documentation of my past month of explorations!  While I am keen to write more about the environment, wildlife, and general experience of my last month in Utah, it’s time for me to get back to the reality of a med student and think (and write) about medicine.

 

A number of schools (and programs) offer Wilderness Medicine electives for medical students, but I chose (and was fortunate to get a spot in) the elective offered by UMass Medical School.  A few things drew me to this program.  First- it has been running for 20 years, so I initially suspected they were doing something right.  Second- many Wilderness Medicine courses are taught in classrooms with field trips and forays “into the wild” for practical experiences.  The UMass course is taught in the wild. With the exception of our first day of lecture, conducted in a hotel meeting room, all our lectures were done outside on snow, in boats, on beaches, or sitting in the desert.  Thirdly- we got to experience three different environments in the course of three weeks.  A few other courses are taught in the wild, but they are taught in a single environment.  Utah gave us access to three, very different, environments (as shown in my previous posts: alpine, river, and desert).

 

This was our main classroom in the alpine section.  We'd just arrived and are taking a quick break before setting camp, but this area was left open and we would congregate here for lectures.

This was our main classroom in the alpine section. A classmate snapped this shortly after we arrived when we were taking a quick break before setting camp, but this area was left open and we would congregate here for lectures. 

 

When I initially described this course to friends and acquaintances, many suggested that this course was basically Outward Bound for doctors.  The answer, I suppose, is yes and no.  There was certainly a lot of medical learning done in this class, but we also gained life skills that will not only help us in future endeavors in the wild but will also give us confidence as we go forward in our medical careers.  Broadly, it taught us to have confidence in our decisions and to use what we have available to do the best that we can.  I’m unlikely to ever have to improvise a splint in the Emergency Room, but knowing that I can, and having that confidence, will carry me and my classmates a long way as we progress to interns, residents, and one day attending physicians.

 

As you might expect, the medical topics that we covered were married to the environments and activities we were doing.  Before heading out on our first big trek we had a thorough lecture on blister pathophysiology, prevention, and treatment. Once in the alpine, we promptly learned about hypothermia, and how to create a hypowrap to help someone with hypothermia.  We learned about frostbite and non-freezing cold injury, as well as thermal burns, sunburns, and sun blindness.  While in the mountains, we also discussed various problems that occur at high altitude.

 

A lot of injuries in the wild are orthopedic, so we had multiple sessions on splinting, immobilizing, and caring for these injuries.  We also learned various lifts, rolls, and carries, utilizing minimal equipment- since you don’t always have a backboard and a team of people to help you.  Along those lines, we learned just how difficult it is to litter carry someone out of a bad situation (you need about 18 people to go 1 mile, and it will take you a LONG time).

 

It's not what you would do in a hospital setting, but how do you get someone with a potential cervical-spine injury free after you’ve just dug them out of an avalanche slide? Stabilize their neck with their arms and drag them! (And kudos to our instructors.  Not only did they dig a deep snow cave for us to locate with avalanche beacons, but one of the brave residents agreed to be buried down there for one of our “scenarios”. I wish I could have seen the look on my face when we realized there was a person 5 feet under the snow!)

It’s not what you would do in a hospital setting, but how do you get someone with a potential cervical-spine injury free after you’ve dug them out of an avalanche slide? Stabilize their neck with their arms and drag them. (And kudos to our instructors. Not only did they dig a deep snow cave for us to locate with avalanche beacons, but one of the brave residents agreed to be buried down there for one of our “scenarios”. I wish I could have seen the look on our faces when we realized there was a person ~5 feet under the snow!)

 

 

The slope that we dug our patient out of- the instructors made the scenarios very realistic while keeping everyone safe.

The slope that we dug our patient out of- the instructors made the scenarios very realistic while keeping everyone safe.

 

Injuries in every settings... here I’m sporting a mid-humeral splint fashioned out of a camping chair (in the rain and on the river).

Injuries in every settings… here I’m sporting a mid-humeral splint fashioned out of a camping chair (in the rain and on the river).

 

A number of dermatologic conditions occur in the wild, so we discussed their various etiologies.  We also discussed methods of wound management, including wounds caused by snakebites, insect stings, and mammalian injury.  (On that note, during our time in the desert our group spotted rattlesnakes, scorpions, and a black widow spider.)

 

A trio of beasties spotted on our trip.

A trio of beasties spotted on our trip.

 

Many of the topics we covered are much more likely to be encountered in the wilderness than in a clinical setting, but some topics are ever-present in any setting.  Anaphylaxis and allergies can occur at any time, and while you may acquire tick-borne illnesses or infections diarrhea in the wild, the incubation time for many of these mean that they frequently present at a primary care office.  Nonetheless, these were topics we covered on this course, frequently harking back to the “bible” of wilderness medicine: Wilderness Medicine written by Paul Auerbach.

 

Thus far I’ve mainly focused on the didactic portion of the course, but much of the learning took place in “scenarios”.  I’ve never participated in simulation medicine, save for the standardized patients we get on our OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Exam) at the end of most clerkships. While at first it can be awkward to “practice” medicine on people that you know are acting, once you get into the part it is a wonderful way to learn.

 

The beauty (and perhaps the terror?) of our scenarios was that our instructors would let us “play it out” in the field.  In clinical settings, while students may participate in discussions about patient care, they are never in the driving seat.  In our wilderness scenarios we were allowed to make the decisions and deal with the consequences.  At times this was frustrating (can’t I just ask the Wilderness Fellow standing over my shoulder what I should do), but it also allowed me to make mistakes that will stick with me for years to come.  For example, if a “helpful” stander by hands your patient some food, make sure they’re not allergic to it before they take a bite (that’s how a painful case of sun blindness can progress into life threatening anaphylaxis).

 

The scenarios also allowed (or I should say made) students make decisions about evacuation. Do we evacuate the patient? How? Can they walk? Do they need a litter? Do they need cervical-spine protection? Do we leave now or hunker down for the night and head out tomorrow? What’s the best evacuation route? Could a rescue team get a helicopter in here? A snowmobile? Maybe we should send runners to a ranger station? Where’s the closest location we can get cell phone reception?

 

The scenarios progressed with our wilderness medicine knowledge, as well as our knowledge of Incident Command Structure (ICS).  There were twelve medical students in our class, and when we had a scenario with one patient, it would be easy to have “too many cooks in the kitchen”.  On the other hand, when we had three patients, we could quickly run out of hands as people were relegated to “safety officer”, “equipment”, “communications”, and if the scenario necessitated it “runners” leaving the scene to make contact with civilization.

 

All in all, the medical education side of this course was excellent.  Some of the medicine was a review, but it was a much-needed review and one that frequently found we students (who are trained to practice medicine in well-stocked hospitals with multiple imaging modalities at our fingertips) asking “what do we have that we can use” and “how can we do what we need to get done”.

 

Medically, this class was a reminder of quite how much we’ve learned about medicine in the last few years.  It also emphasized that frequently there is no “right way” to handle a situation and your best guess and best efforts may save the day. We were also reminded of the reality that sometimes there is nothing you can do to save a life… and that is an important lesson to learn as well.

 

 

Not a bad place for a lecture...

Not a bad place for a lecture…

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I’ve been hesitant to write this post.  This blog is certainly not a travel blog, and it was never intended to be a place where I posted my exciting travels (and to be honest, during the final years of my PhD and third year medical school I didn’t really have any exciting travels to write about).  That being said, I can’t help but post about my adventures in Moab.  If my antics encourage just one person to get outside and enjoy time in the great outdoors, I will consider this post a huge success…

 

Moab…

After completing my Wilderness Medicine Elective, I opted to take two weeks of vacation time (4th year medical students can get a rather absurd amount of vacation time if we play our cards right) to recoup, relax, and since I was already out west, spend time in Colorado with my best friend.  With over 100lbs of luggage to lug around, I managed to sweet talk my best friend into picking me up in Salt Lake City (where my elective wrapped up), instead of hopping a plane to Denver.

 

My best friend is a good sport about road trips (I suppose she should be, as I once drove 28hrs straight with her when she moved cross-country to Colorado), and she was happy to come pick me up, suggesting that we route our trip back through Moab for a bit of outdoor adventuring before heading back to Colorado.  I didn’t know much about Moab before I got there, but I knew Arches National Park was right next door and that the desert portion of my course was in Canyonlands National Park, so I thought it might be fun to swing back through and at least check out Arches on our way back.

 

That was before heading west… Once I met and talked with the river guides who work out of Moab and spent a “transition” day there between the river portion and the desert portion of the Wilderness Medicine elective, I was counting down the days until I would be back.

 

Moab is a stunning place- the rock formations and geology surrounding the town are truly “other worldy”, with the red rock shaped by time and weather into precarious and beautiful structures.  There is also a LOT to do in Moab for people who enjoy the outdoors.  The Colorado River can be enjoyed from rafts, boards, boats, or the shore, there seems to be a new hike for every day of the year, biking (mountain and road) is king, and the weather in May is wonderful for camping (sans-tent, for those-like myself- who are so inclined).

 

There are plenty of places to stay in Moab, but being on a budget and having spent the majority of the prior 3 weeks sleeping outdoors, I was more than happy to camp in Moab.  There are many campsites with RV hook ups, tent sites, and amenities such as showers, but I’m a fan of primitive camping.  Fortunately, for those in the know (or those who get the scoop from knowing river guides), there is plenty of dispersed camping to be had in spots around Moab.

 

view from one of our camp sites up off Klondike Bluffs, about ten miles north of town.

The view from one of our camp sites up off Klondike Bluffs, about ten miles north of town.

 

We spent out first morning in Moab getting coffee (“That Paleo Guy”, Jamie Scott, would swoon at all the coffee spots in Moab) and sorting out plans for the next couple days.

 

Wicked Brew- home of a mighty fine shot of espresso

Wicked Brew- home of a mighty fine shot of espresso

 

After a morning in town we headed out for a hike at Fisher Towers.  This hike, while popular, is a bit off the beaten track (at least in comparison to the tourist heavy hikes in Arches National Park).  The rock formations are stunning and the plant life was beautiful. This place is popular for rock climbers, and it was breathtaking to see them atop the tallest towers.

 

Fisher towers- if you go on this hike, make sure you get on the proper trail… we ended up scrambling quite a bit looking for a trail on various dead ends when we erroneously got started on a “photograph trail”.

Fisher towers- if you go on this hike, make sure you get on the proper trail… we ended up scrambling quite a bit looking for a trail on various dead ends when we erroneously got started on a “photograph trail”.

 

“The Titan” is the tallest structure at Fisher Towers, and is very striking.

“The Titan” is the tallest structure at Fisher Towers, and is very striking.

 

 

Alas, I seemed to have a knack for attracting rain on this trip… As we rounded the turn at the top of the hike, we were greeted by storm clouds and a flash of lightning.  Needless to say, we made a rapid retreat (I did learn about lightning strikes on my Wilderness Medicine course, but like almost all aspects of medicine, the best solution is prevention, prevention, prevention!)

Alas, I seemed to have a knack for attracting rain on this trip… As we rounded the turn at the top of the hike, we were greeted by storm clouds and a flash of lightning. Needless to say, we made a rapid retreat (I did learn about lightning strikes on my Wilderness Medicine course, but like almost all aspects of medicine, the best solution is prevention, prevention, prevention!).

 

After our hike, we headed back towards Moab, making one stop at a local vineyard and a detour down Onion Creek Road.  If you are around Moab and have an AWD vehicle (or are comfortable taking your vehicle through multiple stream fords), definitely check out Onion Creek Road.  If you’re really lucky, one of the dispersed camping sites might be open and available (we didn’t have any luck on that front).

 

My best friend is an avid paddle boarder, and she’d contemplated packing her paddle boards down to Moab for us to use on the Colorado River.  It seemed that renting boards in Moab was a much better option, so after making some inquiries, we ended up renting two inflatable boards (Badfish MCIT) from Canyon Voyages, strapping then to our car, and driving them up river to our drop-in point.  We’d scouted the river the day before and had decided to drop in at Take-out beach and to get out at Lion’s Park: a ten-mile paddle downstream (with my friend opting for the hitchhikers shuttle after parking her car down at the pull-off site. Pro-tip: carry your PFD (personal flotation device) and catching a ride is pretty easy).

 

Boards- Ready for adventure.

Boards- Ready for adventure.

 

While a road parallels the Colorado River the length of our ten-mile paddle, the trip was still very calming.  I’ll be honest- I went through our lone rapids and a couple of the choppy fast-water sections firmly on my knees.

While a road parallels the Colorado River the length of our ten-mile paddle, the trip was still very calming. (Though I’ll be honest- I went through our lone rapids and a couple of the choppy fast-water sections firmly on my knees.)

 

The rest of our day was spent driving out to Dead Horse National Park, seeking out dinosaur footprints (yes really), cooking dinner at our campsite, and then meeting up with a new friend from my Wilderness Medicine Elective- one of the river guides from my travels down Desolation Canyon.

 

I can’t tell you if they’re Therapod or Sauropod footprints, but they were pretty cool!

I can’t tell you if they’re Therapod or Sauropod footprints, but they were pretty cool!

 

As much fun as the previous two days had been, the real adventures began when we started hanging out with a local… My river guide friend was just back from another long trip down Desolation Canyon, which meant that he had a bit of time off before heading back to the river.  The next morning he took us on a hike up to Cable Arch, an arch off the beaten track on an unmarked trail.  Our drive out to the trailhead took us past quite a few petroglyphs, including one that I found very interesting.

 

The birthing rock- my picture isn’t the best, but this petroglyph seems to show a breach position birth.  Some readers may remember that I’m interested in “traditional” positions for giving birth, so I found these depictions particularly interesting.

The birthing rock- my picture isn’t the best, but this petroglyph seems to show a breach position birth. Some readers may remember that I’m interested in “traditional” positions for giving birth, so I found these depictions particularly interesting. (Here’s a better picture.)

 

An arch all to ourselves… something you seldom get in Arches National Park

An arch all to ourselves… something you seldom get in Arches National Park

 

Not another person for miles...

Not another person for miles…

 

Scrambling up and down rock faces is a lot of fun (and an excellent work out)…

Scrambling up and down rock faces is a lot of fun (and an excellent work out)…

 

After a relaxing lunch in town, we headed up to the Sand Flats for an afternoon adventure of rappelling.  I’ve never been rappelling (save for the ~15’ rappel we played with up in the alpine on the Wilderness Medicine course), and I’ll admit that at the top of our first descent I was more than a little nervous.  However, as I lowered myself into the slot canyon (into an area aptly named “the medieval chamber”), my fear was replaced by exhilaration.

 

Rappelling down into the "Medieval Chamber".

Rappelling into the “Medieval Chamber”.

 

The second rappel, off a natural bridge, landed us at the focal point of a somewhat well travelled out-and-back hike.  My best friend went first, and her adventures were well documented by some of the sightseers below!

 

Kate, headed down off the natural bridge

Kate, headed down off the natural bridge

.

The next day found us rappelling again, this time in Arches National Park.  We were truly spoiled to have a local show us yet another awesome spot, for while we left our car in a crowded parking lot, we quickly backtracked along the road and scrambled up a rock fall to find ourselves isolated atop a large mesa.  Hundreds of feet above the other tourists below us, we spent much of the morning relaxing above Arches, in our own world, away from any other visitors to the park.

 

Above Arches- We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the top of the mesa, but eventually we settled down to soak up the sun, talk, and relax.

Above Arches- We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the top of the mesa, but eventually settled down to soak up the sun, talk, and relax.

 

Above Arches- I’m not sure the scale comes through…

Above Arches- I’m not sure the scale comes through…

 

After an hour or so of basking on the rocks, we started our descent back down into the canyons.  This (again, unmarked) path took us down a number of small descents before finally putting us atop a 100’ wall down to the canyon floor.  The rappel was a rush.

 

Can you find me? Hopefully the scale comes through now!

Can you find me? Hopefully the scale comes through now!

 

My best friend and I did plenty of other things in Moab, including taking a drive and some hikes through Arches National Park. Arches IS stunning, but after getting an insiders-tour to some stunning and relatively unknown-to-tourists spots, hiking along crowded groomed trails to ogle at postcard views lacked some luster.  I don’t mean to sound snooty, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way, but I think my favorite moments of this trip to Moab were the moments with friends around bonfires, scrambling up rocks, and quietly taking in all that our surroundings have to offer.

 

After more than a month away, I am finally headed home to New Jersey.  I am heading home physically tired but psychologically refreshed.  I have always believed that nature is *good* for humanity, but I have never experienced this goodness so intensely as in the last month.

 

Through the wilderness medicine elective, my trip to Moab, and then a Memorial Day Weekend camping trip in the mountains of Colorado, I have experienced many different environments.  A big part of experiencing these environments, to me, is learning to be present in the moment- to quiet the mind of all the banality and drama that so easily catches us and to really appreciate what surrounds us.  In the hustle and bustle of normal life this skill takes practice, but it is practice that pays back in dividends on the principle that nature satisfies a deep and primal part of our humanity, and we should seek it out and absorb it whenever possible.

 

Memorial Day Moonrise over Twin Lakes in Colorado- Not sure I can think of a better way to end the day…

Memorial Day Moonrise over Twin Lakes in Colorado- Not sure I can think of a better way to end the day…

 

Find your people, find your places, and enjoy the moment…

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