As our jeep rattled on through the plains, our tour guide stopped intermittently to point out plenty of animals which our eyes glossed over and he was able to spot. Jackals moved swiftly in the distance and herds of deer were spooked by oncoming cars. Monkeys rustled in the treetops, taking a break from their morning snacking to spy on us.
Paraty is undoubtedly paradise. Stefje and I made it our mission to see as much of the islands and beaches that surround this amazing locale, so we hooked up with some other members of the hostel for a boat tour through the bay. In the distance the overgrown islands demonstrated the area’s spectacular propensity for life. Year round sunshine and winter rains ensure that nature dominates here, sprouting up thick forests, fruit trees, and palm branches spreading shade over every square inch of land.
As we continued down the stairs to the overlooking balconies, it immediately became clear why glaciers like this one are capable of retreating or advancing up to two meters in a single day: in the peaceful morning light birds chirping were continuously interrupted by the intense sound of ice calving off and falling into the lake from a height of 40 or 50 yards high. The constant threat of spying one of these awesome breaks had us swinging our necks back and forth along the front wall, which is an astounding 3 miles long and an average height of 240 feet!
Once we reached the trail’s highest point I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the horizon, knowing what was in store ahead. Soon enough, I got my first glimpse of the monstrosity known as Glacier Grey. One of the park’s centerpieces, the massive chunk of ice spans across the entire width of the lake and farther back than the eye can see, steadily rising in height. At the front precipice is a sheer vertical wall of ice, at risk of calving off and sending great chunks into the abyss at any time.
After trying yet failing to break the land speed record, we bussed to a turnoff point for a dirt path. Here was where the real fun began. For the next two hours we bumped downhill, losing feeling in our hands and arms from the intensity of rolling over rocks at such a high velocity. On our left the entire time lay vertical drop offs, some hundreds of meters to the bottom. Despite the initial trepidation of knowing that one wrong move could be our last, we started getting more comfortable and accelerating into the steep turns. Soon we were gaining speed with reckless abandon, all the while trying to sneak glances at the mountainous scenery.
The visual reward upon making it to the top of the Union Pass at 4750 meters made every thigh-busting step worth it. Almost the entire 360 degree view included the glacier-topped peaks that give the Cordillera Blanca its name. The ridge line adjoining the two summits stretched for kilometers in both directions, adorned by snow drifts that appeared ready to plunge into the laguna just below. As I waited for the rest of the group to reach the summit I jumped along the ridge line to enjoy the various vantage points, yelling down in encouragement the calling card for the Cordillera that one of the group members, Paul, had taught us the previous day: “Todo es posible….nada es seguro” ("Anything is possible…nothing is safe").
The boat ride into basecamp seemed more like going to a zoo in a boat or going on a ride at Disney Animal Kingdom. One thing is for sure: it felt completely surreal. As the rain began to lighten intermittently, Romula began stopping the boat every few minutes, pointing out no less than four different species of monkeys, toucans, bats, owls, and even an adolescent Anaconda.
Last Thursday, I woke up early and had my first encounter with food poisoning in Asia, then conveniently boarded a bus through the windiest road in Thailand, turning 762 times over 151 Kilometers on the way up to the tiny town of Pai in the mountains. As the minivan wound it’s way through the mountains, we were greeted by impressive vistas and misty clouds around almost every turn.