After winging it on our first day in Canta, we started off Day #2 with a very well-defined plan: hike to “that” waterfall. See photo below for details… (Can you find the waterfall?)                                         

Took this picture while speeding down the road between Canta and Obrajillo (David was appreciating the open road after we got past a spot of traffic). Have you located the waterfall? Scroll down for help…
To orient you, Obrajillo is in the valley to the right, the overlook is at the edge of a village, San Miguel, and we hiked up to the waterfall trickle that you can barely see (which seems kind of close to San Miguel, but I promise you that it’s not).

Okay, so the plan was vague, but Julie did some research and came away with the conclusion that it’s definitely possible to hike there (probably). The directions, as far as she could find, were to start by walking up to a popular viewpoint overlooking Obrajillo. Okay, easy enough. And then, walk to the waterfall. Hm. Welp, at least we knew the beginning part! We could figure things out from there, right?

The good news is, I love to overpack for hikes which means I was already prepared for uncertainty. My formula for day hikes is roughly: (day hike + 4 days) x # of people… and then I pack snacks and water accordingly, as though no one else is bringing anything (even though they are). It’s good to be prepared! What if someone else is underprepared? What if we get lost? What if someone gets hurt? What if there’s a mudslide and we get stranded and don’t want to resort to cannibalism? No one ever says, “I wish we had less food.” Worst case, you don’t need it all and get stronger from carrying the extra weight.

Once we were ready for anything, we walked to get breakfast sandwiches before heading out. This was our staple meal for the weekend (literally 3/5 meals in Canta): a fried egg on a roll. After you eat approximately four, you’re good to go! Then, we piled into the van and drove down to Obrajillo. There was traffic because of course there was. As soon as there are two cars on the road, it seems to be inevitable (I think it’s because Peruvian are so proud of their traffic, they need to make sure it’s always living up to its terrible reputation).

After we parked, we located the path to the viewpoint, and David, Dina, and her daughter split off to do other things… apparently the idea of a potentially endless hike didn’t appeal to them. Sorry, I mean “adventure walk”. Julie doesn’t like “hiking”, so we rebranded the activity. That ended up being a much more appropriate name in this instance anyway. “Hike” implies order, a defined path. “Adventure walk” says “I don’t know where we’re going, but that’s part of the fun!”

At the viewpoint
I can’t get over the greens! Maybe if they knew THIS was the view they were missing out on… nah, they still would have ditched us.

Anyway, the path to the overlook was easy enough to follow. Maybe that could be called a hike. From there, it was inarguably an adventure walk. After the viewpoint, we started asking every person we met for directions. That may sound like overkill, but it was a necessity. When people don’t know the answer to your question, they don’t say, “I don’t know.” They say, “Oh, it’s that way!” and point and say it with full confidence and make you think they have a clue. So, the only way to be safe is to ask as many people as possible, rate their trustworthiness, compare answers, pick a direction, and remind yourself that not knowing where you’re going is part of the fun.

Another album cover option
I love these mountains.
Like seriously. (Also, that’s Canta on the left.)
HOW ARE THERE SO MANY GREENS? Also, fun fact did you know that the human eye can differentiate more shades of green than any other color?

The good news was that we could see the waterfall, Catarata de Shupucro, in the distance. The bad news was that it wasn’t clear how to get there. Even now, the only thing of which I’m certain is that our beginning route was NOT right… because there was no path, and we ended up inside the locked gates of a school. So, thanks for nothing, people who gave us directions up until that point.

Okay, let’s try again with the directions. We asked the school groundskeeper (who looked confused about why we were on the school property… yeah, same) and he unconvincingly pointed us in a direction. A few steps later, a woman vaguely motioned that was as well. Finally, we found a guy who confidently pointed at a path and said it would take us 2 hours to get there. He had the highest trustworthiness ranking. Welp, nothing left to do but cross our fingers and start walking!

Obrajillo. And some fab mountains
Despondent donkey on the path. He was probably trying to find the waterfall as well.
Just starting out, back when we were so young and naive
I mean, it’s kind of like being in an airplane… The earth looks like a patchwork quilt.

Our biggest mistake was asking for more directions after trustworthy-guy. Right as we started up the path, we saw a few people coming down. Julie asked how far it was to the waterfall, and the guy said 20 minutes (LIES) and then gave some directions for how to get there. They seemed trustworthy… I mean, they had just come from there, so you’d think they’d know something. YOU WOULD BE WRONG.

The way up was unpleasant. The path was well-defined but also steep and rocky, and we were all feeling the effects of the altitude. Eventually, Jocelyn tapped out and told us to pick her up on our way back down. I felt bad leaving her, but she clearly wasn’t going to change her mind. We left her just before a fork in the path where we started following the directions of the guy we saw coming down.

Taking a breath before scaling these rocks…
Trail friends

Wrong choice. Very, very wrong. I still don’t know what we should have done, but definitely not that. We ended up on the wrong side of the mountain, and after maybe 30 minutes of walking up the worst ever uphills, we bumped into a couple coming down. Julie asked if we were going to the waterfall, and they said, “No, this is the path to the cross!” And then they pointed at this teeeeeny tiny cross at the top of a mountain in the distance. Can you spot the cross?:

(Scroll for assistance hahaha)
THERE it is. My gosh. Is there anything about this picture that makes you want to walk to that cross??? It looks like torture.
This is me, standing on the path to the cross, looking up at the trail ahead, zig-zagging up this steep mountainside. No, thank you.
Happy because we were taking a break
The only benefit of going the wrong way was getting this view of the valley
Flowery mountainsides

Yeah, no thank you. So, we turned around and tried to find where we went wrong. At this point, we also realized that we were almost all the way back to Jocelyn, so we sent Paul to bring her to meet us. She was nice and rested after her 40-minute break, and we were exhausted after our spirit-crushing uphill climb to nowhere.

Time to change strategies. We could see the waterfall, so instead of looking for the “right” path, we decided to walk towards it until we got there. I’m Peruvian-giving-directions confident that we took the proper route, and I will now describe it here, just in case you ever find yourself hiking in Canta: when you get to the fork in the path, don’t go left. Also, don’t go right. Instead, walk across the poop-covered field, following no path. Jump down the 5’ wall into the cornfield. Cross the field and climb over the short wall at the other side, taking care to avoid the cacti on top (nature’s barbed wire). Cross the river. Walk along the river until you reach a big rock and little waterfall. Cross the river again. Climb up the 7’ rock wall. Continue to walk towards the waterfall until you see a path. Follow the path to the waterfall.

Walking through the poop-filled field
Keeping our eyes on the waterfall while hopefully not destroying this cornfield
Can you spot the Lara? I’m hiding somewhere in this picture!
Exhaustion break disguised as a photo op
Wildflowers
Climbing up the final stretch

Got that? I couldn’t have made it any clearer. No wonder no one could give us directions!

As is generally the case with waterfalls, the view of the actual waterfall wasn’t great from up close. We did, however, get a better view of the valley and took a moment to pat ourselves on the backs because we made it!

Almost there! Almost there!
Sliding my way towards the waterfall
We made it, we made it!!
A little delirious
Waterfall view from the top

The hike up had been steep and tiring, but the way down was brutal. Lots of slipping and sliding with a few falls. Jocelyn had the worst luck. On one of her falls, she caught herself on a cactus and got a cactus spine stuck in her finger. We tried to pull it out on the trail but couldn’t get a good grip or tell how deep it went. I had tweezers at the hotel, so she decided we should just leave it until we got back.

Finally getting back to flat ground!
Can’t believe we were at that waterfall…

The layers in this picture are crazy… the bright green foreground, the hazy green middle (thank you, smog), and the low clouds above, chopping off the mountain tops.

Once we got past the steep part, the rest of the return trip was easy. Well, there was one part where a rock wall collapsed beneath me, but it’s fine because Kylie caught me by the backpack and saved me from disaster. It’s good to have friends with quick reflexes!

Kylie, me, and Julie

 

Going down
Found this kitten model on the way back to town
Shepherd keeping an eye on his sheep
Spot the sheep!

Back in town, we met up with David, Dina, and her daughter and drove back to Canta. Our first order of business was getting the spine out of Jocelyn’s finger. I got my tweezers and tried to ease it out, thinking it might be short. That did nothing, so Jocelyn braced herself and I pulled as hard as I could until it came out. It felt like I was going to pull her finger off! When it finally gave, we all freaked out because it was SO much longer than we thought. I can’t believe she walked around with that thing stuck in her finger for like 4 hours! And I can’t imagine how much the extraction hurt. Geez! Jocelyn wins the pain tolerance award.

We headed to dinner after the drama and devoured our food, only slightly hampered by the nightly power outage. It’s clearly not an uncommon occurrence because the waitress was prepared, bringing in an emergency light. And then the power came back on… and went out, and came on, and went out. Geez, just leave it off.

Back at the hotel, we made a solid effort to stay awake a little longer (it was only like 7:30PM) and eventually gave up and passed out. What a day!

The cactus spine

Now that you’ve seen the final building pictures, you’re probably thinking that we’re finished with Peru and Esperanza de Ana and ready to move on to the next thing, right? Well, yes, we probably should be, but I realized while writing about our Ica weekend that there was another trip I briefly mentioned, said I would write about in more detail later… and then never did. *sigh* We’ll give last-year-Lara a break because she was a little overwhelmed, but now is the time to right that wrong and tell you about our Easter trip to Canta! (Hehehe better late than never, right?)

The week before Easter was a short one, and the break came at just the right time… approximately one second before I lost my mind or collapsed in a puddle of my own tears (to set the scene, I had only been in Peru for about a month and a half and was feeling the pressure of the work + unfamiliar working/living conditions + wrapping my head around having committed to a year in Peru when the first six weeks had already been a rough adjustment period). The major motivations for the weekend getaway were 1. Everyone else felt similarly exhausted and wanted to escape from EA for a few days, 2. We were sick of the brown desert-ness of Chilca and were craving green landscapes, and 3. Julie’s friend Kylie was visiting from the States, and there’s nothing like a guest to motivate action!

And so, a trip was inevitable. But, to where? One of the staff suggested Canta because it’s not too far away, but the mountains are green and there are outdoor activities. That was enough to sell me! Julie also convinced David and Dina, the two Peruvian missionaries at EA, to come with us, and besides adding more fun to the group, David can drive which saved us from the mess of navigating the public buses. Thank goodness. And so, we had quite the travel crew: Jocelyn, Julie, Kylie, Paul (the intern from the beginning of the year), David, Dina, Dina’s daughter, and me. Can you say “party”?

I think mountain roads are amazing. They must have been such a pain in the butt to build! For this one, whenever a hill got in the way, they were like, “NOPE you’re going to have to move” and just cut a chunk out.
Green!! Teeny little hints of life!

Canta is northeast of Lima, so we left at 5:15AM to avoid the horrible Lima traffic. Yuck. The good news is that it worked! The anticipated six-hour drive only took four! I can’t give all the credit to the lack of traffic, though. It’s also because David drives, well, fast. Even on windy mountain roads. Even in the 12-person EA van that’s poised to rust apart at any moment. BUT, we were so distracted by the sight of real mountains flecked with green that it almost didn’t matter that we all thought we might throw up with each turn and that I bounced off my seat and headfirst into the ceiling with each bump. As we got closer, the surroundings got greener, and we got more excited.

View during a stretch break along the drive. Spot the toilet! (Why???)
We found this random moto-taxi on the same stretch break as the random toilet. Julie and I had a dream of recording a stereotypical reggaeton-pop music video. They’re all essentially the same… some dramatic shots by the ocean, people partying in the streets of a village, and a fancy car. But instead of a fancy car, we’d use a moto-taxi because they’re way cooler. Anyway, we’re weird, and this was meant to be our album cover.

We made it to the hotel around 9:30AM, and everyone felt like we had already lived a whole day. I was sure it was 2PM. None of us felt capable of existing without a nap, so we all passed out and moaned and groaned when it was time to get up, only managing to do so because we were starving.

Walking through the streets of Canta
Jocelyn and I shared a twin-sized bed, and Kylie and Julie shared a full-size bed with a mattress covered in plastic (see colorful plastic in the bottom left). This is truly the height of luxury.

We piled in the car and drove down to Obrajillo, a small town in the valley nearby. It’s gorgeous! There are mountains all around, a river running through the center of town, a bunch of waterfalls… and approximately a bazillion Peruvians who were also escaping Lima for the long weekend. We saw no other non-Peruvians, but apparently, Canta is a hot vacation spot for people who live in Lima.

We had a brief delay while driving through the streets of Canta, thanks to this herd of sheep hehehehe. Why is it that animals in the street never get less funny?? Where are they going?
Driving out of Canta towards Obrajillo
This is the church in Obrajillo, and we were entertained every time we drove past. I assume that’s supposed to be God popping out above the doors like a jack-in-the-box? Interesting architectural decision. (This is why I generally like mosque decor better… geometric patterns never look so unsettling.)
Lunch, anyone? Just casually cooking some flattened meat in the street.
The Chillón River, running through the center of Obrajillo
Our clean van. Dina’s daughter practiced her finger-cursive by writing our names in the dirt. Ew.

After we ate and felt semi-human again, the group decided to go horseback riding to a nearby waterfall. I decided that I didn’t want to ride a horse and instead opted to ride ATVs with David and Paul! There were only two ATVs, though, and when we asked if two of us could share, the woman said, “el joven y la chiquita pueden compartir.” The youth and the little girl can share. Little girl? 😂 Hey, I’ll take it.

Paul drove on the way there. The ATV rental man rode along with David and was very concerned that we were going to be reckless and fall off a cliff. “DESPACIO!” (Slowly!) was his constant call, and Paul mostly pretended he couldn’t hear/understand him. I think that the only speed slow enough for the ATV man to be assured of our safety was 0 mph.

The horseback riding crew on the way to the waterfall
Don’t we look like we can be trusted? (Also, LOL at the helmets they gave us. Regulation ATV helmets for sure.)

The waterfall at the end, Cascada de Huamanmayo, was just a little thing, but I’m not hard to please. I thought it was great! There was a trail up to the waterfall from the road, and when we reached a point where the trail was flooded, we scrambled our way across the rocks in the river, doing various gymnastic maneuvers to get a closer look. It was kind of like a team-building challenge. We all worked together to strategize the best route and help each other across. I loved it. Also, the water was FREEZING, so there was plenty of motivation to stay dry.

Travel friends! Except for David because he was taking the picture. This is at the first waterfall… just pretend that you can see up, up, up the hill behind us because that’s where the waterfall is. Also, ignore all of the horse poop on the ground in front of us hahaha.
Me and Jocelyn, finding a way across
The grand Cascada de Huamanmayo

When we’d had our fill, we headed back to our horses/ATVs. I got to drive on the way back! It was my first time driving an ATV, a fact of which Paul was apparently unaware until we were already on our way. Hehe. But I’m sure I did a fabulous job. And the ATV man was far behind us, so there was no one to cramp my style as I whipped around the corners. Kidding! Kind of… All that matters is, I didn’t fall over the edge, and I didn’t have any close calls. Nothing to worry about! Plus, we were wearing helmets (that would have been completely worthless had we fallen off the cliff), and I was totally a natural.

Jocelyn and I really started to cement our friendship on this trip (she clearly loves me).
Born for this.

We hit some heavy traffic on the way back, something that became an ongoing theme during our trip. How is there traffic in the middle of nowhere? Well, when you have a single-lane, two-way road (as in, a single lane for both ways to share, not for each way) being used by cars, buses, horses, ATVs, and motorcycles, how could there NOT be traffic?

Cascada de Lucle

We were all tired after that mess but decided to walk across town to see one more waterfall, Cascada de Lucle, before heading back to Canta. This one is in a campsite, and it was so crowded that it was like a music festival campground but without the music. Definitely not the place to go to if you want to commune with nature for the weekend!

And yet, it was still absolutely beautiful. We walked uphill for a better view of the valley. So green! I didn’t realize how starved I was for green until we were surrounded by it and my heart was jumping for joy. It may sound stupid, but living in a brown wasteland takes a mental toll.

Finally, it started to get dark (I say “finally” because we spent the whole day just trying to survive until it was time to sleep again). We stopped for dinner at another generic restaurant on our way back to the hotel, and the power went out/came back like 12 times while we were there. Oh, the joys of rural living! I awed the group with the classic water bottle lantern trick (shine a phone flashlight up into a water bottle to diffuse the light). We unquestionably had the best-lit table in the restaurant. Mom and Dad will be happy to hear that I’m still putting that lighting design degree to good use!

Waterfall adventures!
A picture of one restaurant in Obrajillo that might as well be every restaurant in Obrajillo. They’re all the same.

From there, it was back to the hotel, and even though it was dark outside, it was only about 7:30PM… so we stayed awake for a few more hours and then completely crashed.

Me laying in the flowers

I’m back in Peru! I got in late last Monday night and spent Tuesday wrapping my head around the fact that they poured another floor while I was gone. That’s right, we have a 2-story building now! And even though there are no walls on the third floor, we can walk up there and see what the view is going to be like when it’s finished (the other buildings on the property are only two stories or less, so this is a new experience for us). Essentially, all the third floor means, view-wise, is that we will be able to creep on our neighbors exceptionally well. Like the ones next door who have a pool that we’re all very jealous of (though to be fair, we already knew about that thanks to the drone).

Mountains from the 3rd floor
3rd story views
View of the new building from behind
As you can see, we have two stories on the left (Module 1) and one story on the right (Module 2). The existing bathroom building is in the middle (with the bricks piled on top).
Construction site
With our new view from the “3rd floor”, you can get great pictures of the rest of the property. Here’s the construction site, and at the top of the picture, you can see the septic gardens (top right) and the equipment/workshop building (top center).
Concrete mixing area
Here’s the area where they do the concrete mixing (bottom left). You can see the piles of different materials, and they usually have the mixing drum right in the middle. The long, bamboo-fenced area running along the top of the picture is where we store a lot of construction materials (for maintenance and stuff, not for the actual construction project). And you can kind of see the neighbors’ pool deck.

As I was saying, the construction has made big strides since I left. I was a little sad to miss out on some of the fun, but no need to get too upset about it because there’s still much to do. Now, they’re starting to work on the first-floor ceiling on the other side of the building (Module 2). I wasn’t super involved with the foundation phase up until they started the ceilings, but now they’re finally installing electrical-related things which means I have more to do! As they’re laying things out, I’m making sure that everything is in the proper location and that it’s going to work the way I designed it. It’s crazy getting to see it all come together!

Ceiling scaffolding
There’s nothing like a good scaffolding forest…
Looking through the roof supports at the existing building
Standing in the second floor hallway looking towards the new building… these buildings are going to be connected when we’re finished!
Module 2 in progress
Ceilings coming soon! The beginnings of the ceiling for the first floor on Module 2!
Boards covering half of the Module 2 classroom
Halfway there!
Module 2 from above
Adding in the steel for the beams
Junction boxes on Module 2
You can see the little, white electrical boxes sitting on top of the wood. Those are for the lights, ceiling fans, and smoke detectors in this classroom.
Stack of bricks on the ceiling formwork
Nearly ready to start adding the bricks!
Looking up at the ceiling
This is what the ceiling scaffolding/formwork looks like underneath after the bricks are added. Between the bricks, above where the wood planks are, is the poured concrete.

I’ve also had fun getting to be somewhat hands-on in the construction process. For example, the electrician came last week to direct the construction crew on where he needs tubes for the electrical wiring, and first, he and I walked around and made sure that we were happy with the locations of the devices. I chalk-marked the walls in the stairwell showing where I want the lights, and he and I talked through some locations for the electrical boxes. This is way more than I would be involved with on a job in the States. There, the engineer essentially just shows the way they want the system to work and then leaves the details to the electrician. Here, I had to include much more installation-related information on my plans, and now, I’m getting to see it all through. How cool!

Me and the electrician on site
Me talking to the electrician and looking very official in my hard hat (though not wearing appropriate footwear).
One of the guys standing on a board spanning between a ladder and a water drum
Do you like this work platform? Very safe… Don’t worry, he’s not doing anything dangerous… just using a saw to cut the channels in the brick wall for the conduit
Box and conduits set into a wall
Nice and ready for some wires!
Mason putting stucco on the wall
Applying the stucco
Half of the wall with stucco, half still brick
Stucco job in progress
Mason smoothing out the stucco
The mason working on the stucco. I’m still not quite sure how he manages to get it from this lumpy mess to completely smooth. He’s using that piece of metal in his hands to level it out a bit, but that seems like a very long process
Finished stucco wall
Smooth!

Besides the construction, things have been nice and chill since I got back… well, with the exception of actually getting back into the country. I had a little scare in the airport on the way in because I’ve already overstayed my welcome for the year. You can technically only stay for 90 days each year without additional paperwork. When the lady at immigration told me I had already exceeded my allowance, I was worried that they were going to put me right back on a plane home! But thank goodness they let me back in, only giving me a 30-day visa instead of a 90-day… which just means that I definitely can’t leave the country again this year until I’m sure that I’m ready to be gone for good, and when I do leave, I’m going to have to pay 60-days’ worth more for the exit fee (that’s the punishment for overstaying your visa, a fee that accumulates for each day beyond your allowed stay).

Aside from that whole mess, though, things have been good. I’m not feeling overwhelmed or overworked (yet). I’m happy to be back working on the project. It’s been a fun week of hanging out with the roommates and getting back into some good habits. I think my trip home came at just the right time, and now I’m back and feeling ready to have a strong finish to my time here.

I want to make the most of the time I have left, so I’m trying to be more proactive about doing things on the weekends. On Saturday, Julie, Jocelyn, and I went on an adventure walk (aka a hike, but Julie thinks that doesn’t sound fun enough). The mountains near where we live are usually nice and brown, adding some extra brownness to the rest of the brown of the desert landscape. Since it’s been such a humid and misty winter, some of the mountains have turned green! I don’t know how so many little plants managed to spawn in such dusty ground, but I’m not upset about it! From a distance, the mountains look like they’ve just gone a bit moldy.

Road cut out of a brown mountain
Spot the moldy mountains
A half-green, half-brown mountain
How weird is that line between green and brown??

We’re starved for green landscapes here, so we decided to take advantage of this favorable development and investigate. What does that entail exactly? Well, we had to cross over one row of brown mountains before getting to the green ones, so we looked for a path that didn’t seem too exhausting. We walked from our property through our neighborhood and the next one until we got to the foot of a low point between two peaks. I thought maybe that would mean it was easy to cross over. No. I was wrong (rare occurrence, but happens every so often).

It wasn’t “easy”, but we made it over after nearly 30 minutes of walking up a mountain slope that might as well have been vertical. Seriously, it had to be at least a 75-degree incline. And then we had to walk around the mountain on a skinny, slanted path, only one foot-slip away from a tumble all the way down the steep mountainside. The verdict? Not the best route we could have taken, but live and learn!

 

Climbing up the mountain
Julie and Jocelyn having so much fun…
The neighborhood from the top of the hill
The neighborhood!
Selfie at the top
We made it!… to the top of the “gap” between mountain peaks
Jocelyn walking on the little path
The long, winding path around the mountain
Selfie in the wilderness
Our discussion topic at this point: “When I imagine the wilderness, it looks something like this.”

After that, though, it was heavenly! We learned that the moldy green is mostly wildflowers! There was practically a line separating the brown from the green, and after we crossed over, it didn’t matter how steep the path. We were too busy raving about the smell of plants in the air and the fact that there were actual flowers (no irrigation system required!) and marveling at how much happier we felt being surrounded by green life instead of brown dust. It was magical.

Pretty green mountains
It’s like we’re not even in Chilca anymore! (spot the Jocelyn)
Green mountain selfie!
Just happy to be here, breathing in the fresh, plant-supplied air
Green mountains
It doesn’t even look real!! Such a vibrant green
Me laying in the flowers
Just happy to be here
Mountain color progression
Contrast… Green to less green to less green to BROWN
Cactus in a field of green
Despite the addition of these new plants, we’re still in the desert!
More green
Can we live here? I’m moving.
Line of identical little houses
We walked through this weird little neighborhood on our way home. This is what they usually do when they’re marking out plots to be sold. You get this wonderful patch of dirt and this completely customized hut with your purchase!
Little, purple flowers
Flowers!!! SO MANY FLOWERS!
More purple flowers
Can’t. Get. Enough.

On top of all of that, and I’m sure that I cannot possibly convey the extent of my excitement for this next part, we discovered a new neighborhood gem. One of my favorite things to eat here is cheesy bread… exactly what it sounds like. Cheese + bread = Lara dream meal (I’m very easy to please). Our usual cheesy bread supplier is at least a 15-minute drive away, and it’s been closed for the last couple months with no explanation. BUT we recently discovered that there’s another cheesy bread place just a 15-minute WALK from where we live. We walked there to check it out at the end of our hike, and they have now been quality approved by us. This is life-changing! (no exaggeration… it doesn’t take much) I’ve never meant it more when I say that the future is looking bright!

Cheesy bread
Cheesy bread!!! This one has ham in it too
The blue/cloudy sky reflecting on the river

Our final day in El Chaltén was also our final day of hiking… our seventh in a row. The fun wasn’t completely over – we had a flight to Buenos Aires the following day, but the nature portion of the trip was coming to an end. Even though we had a bus to catch, it didn’t leave until 6PM which meant we had nearly the entire day to wander around and get our final taste of the Patagonian wilderness.

The major street with nearly no one in sight
The main road in town

Originally, Mike wanted to do this hike that’s 4 hours of constant uphill and then 4 hours down the same path to come back. It’s supposed to give you a really nice view of the valley on a clear day. He said I didn’t have to go with him, and I’m still not sure if that was him trying to be nice or trying to tell me that he didn’t want me slow-poking along… but if it was the latter, too bad because I decided that I was going to do whatever he wanted, even though there was NO part of me that wanted to go on another 8-hour hike.

THANK GOODNESS he changed his mind. He decided the night before that he didn’t want to do it anymore “because it doesn’t sound very fun”. Tell me about it. I was pretty happy.

Me pretending to wear a backpack-shaped bench
Like my new backpack?
Mike wearing a giant backpack
The sun came out right after my picture… this one of Mike looks like it was taken on a completely different day.
A carved, wooden backpack-shaped bench
The backpack-bench from behind. It’s kind of hilarious…

We decided to have an “easy” day and do three little hikes around town: two to viewpoints and one to a waterfall. This was the itinerary that I planned for us to do on our first day in town as a rest day before Mike overruled me and sent us on the Laguna Torre hike instead because the weather was nice. I gave him a hard time about deleting our rest day, but I have to admit… he was right. I know, am I really admitting that Mike was right about something? Yes, but don’t get used to it. For our entire trip, we got EXTREMELY lucky with the weather. Everyone says that the weather is super variable, and it doesn’t seem like clear days are the norm. We had clear skies and good visibility EVERY day, until this last one when we were doing hikes where that wasn’t as important. It would have been much more of a bummer on the longer hikes we did the two days before. So, good on you, Mike.

For once, we let ourselves sleep in and didn’t set an alarm until 8AM. I know, luxury. Before we could hit the trails, we had to pack our bags and move them out of our room since we were checking out. We were like two sloths getting ready for the day and finally motivated ourselves to leave when it was time for our hostel friends to catch their bus. The bus station was right on our way to the first trailhead, so we walked with them, said our goodbyes, and continued on to the “Los Cóndores” viewpoint. It was just a quick 40-minute walk from town, and you get a nice view of the valley. That’s when we realized how unintentionally well-planned our hiking schedule turned out to be. We could see where Fitz Roy was supposed to be, but it was completely covered in clouds. When we went, it was totally clear! Also, it was so good that we didn’t do that terrible 4-hour uphill hike because it’s only worth it if it’s a clear day, and this was definitely not!

El Chaltén from the first viewpoint
The bustling metropolis of El Chaltén
Fitz Roy almost completely blocked by clouds
Look at all of those clouds around Fitz Roy!
No sign of Fitz Roy
Where is it??? So glad we weren’t doing the Laguna de los Tres hike on this day!

About 15 minutes past that viewpoint is another, Las Aguilas. From there, you can see the valley on the other side of the mountains where there’s a pretty lake. They weren’t the most magnificent hikes, but they were definitely worth the minimal effort it took to get there. Plus, we got to see a few condors along the way! I’m not much of a birder, but even I can appreciate seeing such graceful birds swooping through the air.

Mountains and a lake in the distance
View from the second viewpoint. Not shown: crazy winds.
The road into El Chaltén and mountains behind it
Love these mountains

These two hikes are on the south end of town. Our last hike was to Chorillo del Salto, a waterfall past the north end. It’s only supposed to be a 40-minute hike, but that’s with the trailhead ALL the way at the end of the town. So, we walked from south to north and then went the additional 3km to get to the waterfall.

The hike was easy because it was almost entirely flat but also hard because I kept thinking it should be over soon, and it kept not being over. I guess I would have liked to have some informative signs telling me what kilometer we were on and how many we had remaining, unlike on the Laguna Torre hike when I cursed the existence of such signage. I’m hard to please.

View of a meadow along the way
On the way to Chorillo del Salto
The blue/cloudy sky reflecting on the river
Check out those cloud reflections!
Streaks of algae in the river
Funky algae. Mike loved this. It’s so sculptural.

The waterfall was so pretty! Mike and I both admitted that we hadn’t been expecting much. It was definitely worth the seemingly endless walk to get there. We also showed up at the perfect time. Maybe we were right between tour buses? I don’t know, but it wasn’t terribly crowded when we arrived, and like 15 minutes later, it was completely swarmed with people (you can drive almost all the way to the waterfall, so I’m sure it’s a popular stop for tour buses).

Me with the waterfall
Almost fell in on the way back from this spot, but I didn’t so that’s all that matters.
Mike with the waterfall
Mike made it there much more gracefully than I did.

Guess how far we hiked on our “easy” day. 10 miles. Ha! So much for that. I mean, it was definitely much more relaxed as far as intensity goes, but that’s still quite a distance for a day that was supposed to be easy! I was pooped by the time we made it back. I can’t even imagine how terrible I would have felt if we’d done the more intense hike! 8 hours? No, thank you!

Pretty view of the river on our way back into town
Heading back to town

We still had some time to kill before our bus departure, so we obviously just sat on our butts at the hostel and watched time pass. I was so happy to have some time to sit down… yes, I know that we had a 2-hour bus ride ahead, but post-hike sprawling isn’t the same as bus sitting.

Mike on a roller treadmill
Mike got a kick out of this outdoor “gym”. Obviously he found it necessary to give the equipment a try. This treadmill looked like a greattt workout.
Mike on another "gym" contraption
Elliptical, anyone?
Mike on another mystery piece of exercise equipment
Literally no idea what this is.

The bus took us back to El Calafate for one more night before our flight to Buenos Aires. The scenery along the way was awesome! I know I said that about the ride to El Chaltén also, and that makes sense because it’s the same road… but I didn’t think anything looked familiar. Maybe I’m losing my mind. Maybe my memory is failing. Maybe I was sitting on the other side of the bus. Who knows? It was fab, though.

A lake and fields with ground plants
Along the drive back to El Calafate
Fields topped with menacing clouds
This picture kind of looks like a storm is looming, but I think part of that is smudges on the bus window.
Chalky blue lake along the drive
How did I miss this on the way drive into town??

All we had to do back in El Calafate was repack our bags for our flight the next morning. Of course, we took forever to do that and ended up going to bed WAY too late. Like past 1AM late. And we had an airport shuttle coming to get us at 5:30 in the morning. Do you see what I mean about us being self-saboteurs?

Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water

Our third day of the W trek started out much better than the second. There was no wind in the forest where we were camping. I didn’t wake up terrified of blowing away. Nothing disturbed us until my alarm went off at 8AM which means Mike slept for 14 hours straight and I slept for 11.

We treated ourselves with a late morning because we had our shortest day of hiking ahead, just over 10 miles. Plus, we were both exhausted, and I think my body would have full-on rebelled if I had tried to wake up any earlier. Even with the extra rest, I wasn’t thrilled about having to move.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted
Here’s the map again! Day 1 was up and down the pink line, Day 2 was along the blue line and then up and down the vertical part, and Day 3 was along the orange line.

There was no sense of urgency in getting ready to go. We didn’t even have a tent to pack up (we spent that night in a rented tent because it was the only option left when we were booking), and it still took us until about 9:30 to get completely ready (okay… probably it was mostly me taking my sweet time, but we really had no reason to rush). Mike and I met at the trailhead… and it looked like we were dressed for completely different seasons. I was feeling the morning chill, so I had leggings and my winter coat on. He was in his lightweight hiking pants and a t-shirt. The difference is that he’s more often hot than cold, I’m the opposite, and we dress accordingly. Sometimes we’re both right about what will work for us, but this did not end up being one of those times. Who do you think was wrong?

Okay, okay. It was me. I think we walked for 10 minutes before I felt like I was going to melt into a puddle. There was way more sun than I was expecting, plus I hate starting out cold even when I know I’m going to warm up from the exercise.

Lake Nordenskjöld
First views of the lake
Another view of the lake
That. Water.

Our segment for the day was the second bottom part of the “W” which meant we had to take all of our stuff with us again. Since there weren’t any big viewpoints along the way, I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA! You’d think I would have figured it out by then. Maybe there weren’t any mind-blowing, mountain-surrounded valleys, but the scenery was still amazing. Soon after we left our campsite, Francés, the forest thinned out, and we started walking downhill towards Lago Nordenskjöld (that’s about when I decided I needed to take my coat off).

Epic mountain
Yeah, the views were still pretty fantastic

After about an hour, we made it all the way to the edge of the lake! I had no idea that we were going to get so close to the water. It was beautiful! And we walked along a little rock beach which made me like it even more because you know how much I hate sand (and if you don’t, just know that I hate it a lot and do my very best to avoid it).

The rocky shores of the lake
Don’t you just want to go for a swim?
Pretty lake view
If this wasn’t only an hour into the hike, I would have tried to convince Mike to take a snack break so I could stare at the water for longer.
Walking along the lake shoreline
<3 <3 <3

The route for the rest of the day followed the edge of the lake pretty closely, though that was the only time we were actually within touching distance of the water. From there, the trail headed uphill and back into the woods for one of the only shaded stretches of the day. That’s when we reached our first landmark, another campsite, Cuernos. Cuernos is another site where people sometimes stay after the hike we did the day before, and all I can say is thank goodness we got a spot at Francés. No chance would I have survived another two hours of hiking the night before (either my legs would have rejected me, or Mike would have killed me out of annoyance).

Mike filling his water from a rocky stream
This was the actual best thing… I loved being able to drink straight from the rivers! Mike is filling up his water bottle.
The lake
And I thought it was going to be an underwhelming day. HA!
Mike and me with the lake behind us
Lake selfie!

With our fresh day 3 legs, the hike to Cuernos took only about an hour and a half. We stopped briefly to put on sunscreen which turned out to be a VERY good idea, though we probably should have also reapplied because my face was very pink at the end of the day. And my arms! Oh, my poor arms. I was wearing long sleeves, so I didn’t put anything on them… and when I started getting overheated, I pulled my sleeves up to my elbows without even thinking about it. I had an embarrassingly distinct line on my forearms which I hoped would even out the next day a bit. (Spoiler alert, it’s been like a month and a half since this day, and I STILL have a line on my arms. So the moral of the story is to WEAR SUNSCREEN.)

A rocky mountain peak with a little waterfall
Spot the waterfall!
The lake from above
Bye, bye shoreline! Up we go…

After Cuernos, the hike felt a bit like walking through the desert. Any hint of the morning cool was long gone, and there was NO shade, just low plants. It was pretty, that’s for sure, but it was also exhausting. It kind of ended up working out in my favor because usually, Mike is like, “Meh meh meh, I don’t need a break,” but he was definitely feeling the heat too. It also helped that we had such a short day, so we didn’t feel like we needed to hurry.

The rocky trail with some low plants
The trail. Pretty plants, but not great for shade
Me with the lake
I hope you like lakes because this isn’t even close to the last lake picture
The trail bending away from the lake
Is that a picturesque trail, or what?
A particularly rocky stretch
I can’t say my feet appreciated those rocks, though

Elevation-wise, the whole day was a constant up and down and up and down. The good news was that my knee wasn’t hating me as much, plus I had a fresh strategy for the downhills to keep it that way (aggressive use of my hiking poles mixed with a slight side turn, in case you were wondering). Thanks to that fortunate development, we managed to keep a good pace throughout the day. I was surprised by how fast we could comfortably go when I wasn’t crippled by blisters and throbbing knees! And it was so nice to be able to focus on enjoying the hike.

 

Me walking across a suspension bridge
Another suspension bridge! And another 1 person at a time limit
Mike crossing a suspension bridge
Mike making the trek across
Pretty red and orange streaked rocks
LOOK AT THE COLORS OF THESE ROCKS
Another gorgeous trail pic
Ugh so many ugly views I can’t even stand it
Weird-looking cliffs by the trail
Funky mountains. Seriously what is happening with those cliffs?
Beautiful view of the lake with sky blue water
I don’t know what was going on with the light and the water when we got to this point, but yes, this is what it actually looked like and no, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Another view of the lake with pretty colored rocks
Imagine a pterodactyl in this picture and try to tell me that it doesn’t look like it belongs.
The lake with clouds reflecting on the surface
I CAN’T DEAL WITH THIS. How are these colors real? How is this place real? How did we get so freaking lucky with the weather? WHY CAN’T I LOOK AT THIS VIEW ALL THE TIME FOREVER FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE?
Mike and me with a mountain backdrop
I’m sure you’re sick of lake pictures by now, so here’s us with some mountains instead (except just kidding because how could you ever get sick of those???)
Me gazing out at the lake
So darn pretty
Crossing the river with no bridge
Pretty sure it looks like I’m smiling because I’m laughing about how I’m definitely not going to make it. Mike took this picture and then attempted to direct me across. Once I accepted that water was going to get into my boots, it wasn’t as hard.

Our next landmark was a fork in the trail. The left fork continues along the route of the W, and the right fork leads to the campsite where we were spending the night (because the more convenient campsite was booked… that’s what happens when you book things only 2 weeks ahead of time. No complaints from me, though. I was just happy we could make it work!). I knew our campsite was kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t realize just how out of the way it was. I estimated it was maybe another hour after the fork in the road. It was not. Try 2.5 hours.

Soon after the fork, we found ourselves at the edge of a river that absolutely should have had a bridge. It was wide, the current was strong, and there was literally no way to get across without getting water in your shoes. I was mostly worried that I was going to fall over and get everything in my bag wet, but my hiking poles saved the day once again, and my socks were the only thing that didn’t come through unscathed.

From that point on, there was truly no shade. Mostly, there weren’t even ground plants. Just rocks. On the bright side, it was fairly flat. I spent most of the walk marveling at the colors. It seems almost stupid when I write it out, but the colors just seemed so vibrant in comparison to other places. Like I was walking around with color filters over my eyes that made everything look unrealistically saturated (so if you’re thinking that my pictures look like I did a little too much filtering, I promise I didn’t. It somehow does actually look like that).

Mountain views
Oh, you know. Just another stellar landscape
Red and black rocky stretch along the trail
This is definitely the surface of another planet. Check out those rocks!

Eventually, once I realized that my time estimate was WAY off, I got to the point where I transformed into Mike (a terrifying image). I was trucking because my knee didn’t hurt, and I just wanted to get to the end. No breaks! No pictures! (Kidding, there’s always time for pictures.) No snacks! I was determined to keep moving at my aggressive pace and left Mike behind at some point. Who knows what he was doing back there, but I was not stopping. Then, we got to the place where I thought the campsite was, and nope. There’s a hotel there, Las Torres, and I thought the campsite was close to there. It’s not. We still had at least another 30 minutes.

Me walking down into the valley
“Mike! What’s taking you so long?”
The valley
THE COLORS
The trail running through a field of weird, low bushes
So… these plants are weird.
More weird bushes
Within minutes, we went from the surface of another planet to this… also possibly another planet but like… what?
River running through the valley
At this point, I was ready to be at the campsite. When I took this picture, I probably thought we were almost there. NOPE. This was still maybe 40 minutes away.

By the time we arrived at the campsite, I was beyond ready to sit down. At least my knee wasn’t hurting, though! And I wore approximately 85 pairs of socks (+/- 83 pairs), so I didn’t get any new blisters! So many victories!

We set up the tent, showered, and went to sleep as soon as we could manage because we had a fun 5AM start the next day. Our last day in Chile!

Last time we left off at a tense moment (not really). Mike and I had just come across a cave hole in the ground and were trying to decide whether or not to go in. I could tell that Mike wasn’t sure about it, but if I said yes, he would be all in. He’s used to going on vacation with a friend who is also ridiculous, and the two of them take pride in things like doing two days’ worth of hiking in one day. Knowing that, my general attitude towards the trip was “don’t hold Mike back.” So, I said we should go for it.

Down he goes! Byeee Mike!

We ran back to the car to grab flashlights (and learned our lesson about travelling prepared for anything) before climbing down into a big, open space. It looked like it ended right there until Mike found another hole in the back. That led us into a hallway-like area with a high ceiling, and at the end of that, there was a short hole into one final room at the back. That had a low ceiling and was much wider. The ground was all very soft dirt, and it was the definition of pitch black. Maybe there was a tiny hole that would have let us keep going, but we decided to turn around. Our curiosity was satisfied, and I personally wasn’t interested in getting even dirtier.

Journey to the center of the earth
Explorer Mike
Check out the colors on those rocks!

Turns out that there was no need for me to worry about climbing out. It was way easier than expected because it wasn’t a hanging rope climb… I just used the rope to support my arms, walked up the cave wall, and found a ledge to stand on while I squeezed out through the hole to the surface.

Me, climbing out

I’m glad we went. Otherwise we would have spent forever wondering about what was down there and how far it stretched and if maybe it was a passageway to the center of the earth or a troll treasure trove.  (I don’t even know if troll treasure is a thing, but if it is, Iceland would be an ideal place to go looking.) Plus, when adventure calls, I want to be the kind of person who responds with an enthusiastic “YES!” I’m going to say that I passed my adventure test of the day.

The colors! We saw these rocks during our hike back to the car.
Love those groundscape shots!

On the way back to the car, we stopped at Gunnuhver, a geothermal area. It’s different from other hot springs because it’s so close to the ocean that it uses seawater. The steam coming out is 570⁰F (300⁰C)! Eek! The name of the hot spring comes from a legend. This was our first exposure to an Icelandic legend, and they quickly became another of my favorite things about Iceland.

Gunnuhver from afar

This story is about a woman named Gunna who lived on a farm owned by a lawyer. She failed to pay her rent, and the lawyer took away the only thing she owned – a cooking pot. Gunna grew furious to the point of madness and died. On the day of her funeral, the men carrying the coffin felt it get lighter, and people heard a voice during the grave-digging, saying, “No need deep to dig, no plans long to lie.” The obvious conclusion to all of this was that Gunna was a ghost, and she soon took her revenge on the lawyer who was found dead and beaten. Gunna continued to wreak havoc on the peninsula, killing the lawyer’s wife and leading to the deaths of others who saw her. Finally, a group of men was sent to seek the help of a sorcerer. He gave them a ball of yarn and explained that if Gunna grabbed the loose end, the ball would roll her to a place where she could no longer cause harm. It worked (because I guess ghosts really like yarn?), and the yarn rolled Gunna into the spring. It is said that those with “the second sight” can still see Gunna following the ball around the edge and screaming as she falls. (Story adapted from the sign at Gunnuhver.)

Gunna was hungry and she ate this formerly-functional bridge. But actually, the geothermal area expanded and consumed the former viewing area… who’s to say it wasn’t Gunna’s doing?

One of the interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that since the Icelandic settlers kept such complete records, there’s a census from 1703 that lists her name. So a woman actually existed and lived in the area… and some freaky things happened that may or may not have been caused by her ghost… that’s up to you to decide, but it’s a fact that she lived. Creepy.

The census listing Gunna’s name is one example of the meticulous recordkeeping that allowed the creation of an incredibly complete genealogic database. Nearly all Icelanders can trace their genealogy back to the original settlers. In the early 1990s, an Icelandic software engineer started the first electronic database. This got even further developed in the late 90s when a genetics company signed on. With the help of census data and marriage, birth, and death records, the database is said to include 95% of Icelanders who lived in the last 300 years. It’s been used for genetics research as a way to trace genes to understand how diseases are passed down through generations. The information is available to all Icelanders, so people can see how they’re related to famous Icelanders or their friends and coworkers. When two Icelanders meet for the first time, it’s common to exchange the question, “Who are your people?” as a way to understand someone’s lineage since family names aren’t passed down. There are also jokes about using the database to make sure that no one is dating a family member, but in practice, that’s likely not a problem because most people know their close relatives.

After learning all about Gunna’s demise, we hopped in the car and made it about three minutes before getting sucked in by another sign. This one was for Brimketill, a naturally-formed rock pool along the coast. It looks like a little hot tub (ignoring the facts that the water is frigid and if you tried to sit in it, you’d get crushed within minutes by the waves and the rocks).

The waves were nice and calm near Brimketill… scroll down for the aftereffects.

It wouldn’t be Iceland without a troll-related legend about the pool. This one is about the night troll Oddný. She frequently bathed in the “surf cauldron” (that’s what Brimketill translates to), and on one particular night, she went to retrieve a whale carcass that had washed up on shore. On her way home, she stopped for a rest in her pool, and it was so relaxing that she stayed much longer than intended. She rushed to get home before the sun came up, but she didn’t make it in time and was turned to stone. The pool is sometimes also called Oddnýjarlaug, meaning Oddný’s pool, after her. There was a sign at Brimketill that told the whole story, including specific details like where she lived and the names of her husband and son. Those Icelanders don’t mess around with their legends! Or maybe those details mean it really happened, just like the story of Gunna.

Can you see it? The little hot tub?

We started heading in the direction of Reykjavik and only made two more stops along the way. I’m pretty sure that both of them were unplanned (Mike was driving and did the “planning”, so maybe he knew they were there or maybe it was just luck… I think the latter). We also had to really pep-talk ourselves out of the car because the weather was getting grosser and grosser by the second. Essential Iceland packing list: waterproof jacket. And shoes. And pants.

Despite the fact that one of our stops was at a geothermal area aka where heat from inside the earth is coming up to the surface, it was still freezing. Maybe you have to throw yourself into the bubbling mud in order to feel any warmth. Anyway, the area is called Krýsuvík, and – wait for it – it’s super weird. The soil is multicolored and seems like it couldn’t possibly be natural. Have you ever seen red, yellow, green, and grey soil in the same place? It was baffling. I guess the grey was mud, but still. It was bubbling up like there was a lava monster living under the surface.

Bubbly mud
Count the colors
Weird.
Mike insisted on touching whatever water we were close to in order to report on its temperature. That seemed pretty dumb to me, but it’s not my hand, so go ahead, Mike. He did, fortunately, steer clear of the spots with signs warning you to stay away or the ones with steam pouring out.

 

There were some hiking trails leading up a nearby hill which Mike wanted to check out, but it was getting late and I was starving and my big toe was still not recovered from whatever I did to it in the UK *facepalm*. And my nose was running because I was trying to fight off a cold. You can’t do it all. (And just like that, my “don’t hold Mike back” mantra completely failed. Oh well.)

Boardwalks that hopefully won’t get consumed by steam like the one at Gunnuhver

What is this place?!?!

We were sure that we were going to go straight to Reykjavik from there… butttt then we drove past this beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn, and we HAD to stop and get out to stare at it. And then get back in and drive another couple feet and get back out and stare at it again. And touch the water. Temperature report: FREEZING. Mike said that he would swim in it. I stared at him like he must be some sort of alien because my fingertips almost froze off in the one instant they were immersed, and you couldn’t have possibly paid me enough to make me go in there. Plus, there’s supposedly a whale-sized, worm-shaped monster living in it, and I’m not interested in getting ingested by a giant water worm (I’m telling you, if there’s anywhere that the stories of these funky creatures would be true, it’s Iceland). If Mike and I didn’t look exactly the same, I would question our relation.

A pretty view with a goofy Mike on the side

Pretending I’m not cold. Are you convinced?
Funkyyy rocks

The black sand shores of Kleifarvatn and the water that almost froze my fingers off.

After THAT stop (x4), we went STRAIGHT to Reykjavik to meet up with Mike’s friends, Tony and Alex, who were living in Iceland for a month. We went out to dinner at about 10PM, it was still as bright as day outside, and we ate the most expensive Thai food of my life. The End.

Our drive along the lake
Dinner! From left to right: Tony, me, Alex, and Mike

I had a brilliant idea to maximize my sightseeing efficiency in Batumi: a sightseeing run. In hindsight, I see the million flaws with this idea and also the million better options, but I didn’t see those at the time, so here we are.

What is a sightseeing run, you ask? Well, exactly what it sounds like. Go for a run, stop at any sights, keep running. I thought this sounded like a perfect idea because I wanted to work out, I wanted to go sightseeing, and sometimes, I feel like walking between sights just takes too long. I planned to run along the boulevard by the beach so that I didn’t have to deal with cars and could have nice views of the water along the way.

More beach pictures! The weather was much better on Day 2.

Since I’ve given you no real information about Batumi yet, here’s a little background for you. Like I briefly mentioned, Batumi is the major beach resort of Georgia, located on the western side of the country along the Black Sea. It’s the second-largest city in Georgia after the capital city, Tbilisi, and its economy is centered around tourism, gambling, and its port which is the biggest in Georgia.

The harbor

Historically, the first record of a city on the site of Batumi was an ancient Greek city, Bathus, in the 4th century BC. The Romans conquered it in the 2nd century AD, and after that, it went through a series of rulers along with the rest of the cities in the region.

Architecturally, the city is particularly interesting. This is something I absolutely didn’t expect going in and was pleasantly surprised by (though of course, I knew nothing going in, so it’s not very surprising that I wasn’t ready for what I found). Many of the buildings are from the 19th century and are a mix of different styles: European and Asian, Georgian, Turkish, and Soviet, etc. There’s also a strong sea theme, so you can see a lot of mythical sea creatures woven into the architectural details. And the colors! There are so many pretty and unexpected colors.

The Batumi Drama Theater in the background with creatively-named Theater Square in front of it.

Recently, there’s been a push to grow Batumi, and these historic buildings have been joined by new, modern high-rise buildings. It was already a strange architectural mash-up, and now it’s even more so. Just wait… you’ll see what I mean in the pictures.

Okay, back to my sightseeing run. I hadn’t worked out in quite a while, so I thought maybe three miles (5k) or so would be a good start (I’m not a good runner AT ALL, so even this was kind of a stretch). Plus, with the sightseeing component, it allowed for “photo stops” aka “find something to take a photo of because you don’t want to run anymore” stops. It seemed like a good way to ease back into running. Maybe it would have been, too, but after I had gone two miles and hadn’t turned around yet, I saw some mountains in the distance and decided that I wanted to be closer to them. Very specific, I know. So, I kept going, and I kept thinking that I was going to reach the point where I had some epic mountain view and would know that it was time to turn around and go back.

The sky!!
So many shades of blue!!

The path was nice, too. It went right along the beach, there were interesting buildings to look at, and there were barely any other people around. Then, somehow I was more than four miles away from home and seemingly no closer to the mountains. I could have kept going. I kept thinking that if I just went a litttttttle farther, I would hit a good spot to turn around after the next bend. Or the next bend. Or the next bend. That maybe would have been fine, but I did NOT plan ahead for that kind of adventure and was carrying no money and no bus ticket. Not my brightest moment. Note to self: always bring bus money.

Found a hammock along the way…
???
No clue what this is but weird, right?
There’s also a ton of public art everywhere, including a series of silhouettes doing various things while holding hearts.
More public art
This fountain was cool… Her wheels spun around and kicked up water!
This is a tower celebrating the Georgian alphabet
View on the boardwalk during my sightseeing run
A park along the boulevard
“The Colonnade”, designed as an entrance to the beach. The concept, as you might guess, was developed by someone who had recently gone to Italy. Now it’s just a random and confusing monument, in my opinion. Though definitely pretty.
More interesting architecture

Finally, I had to accept that if I hadn’t gotten a good view of the mountains yet, it probably wasn’t going to happen and that I needed to turn back or risk collapsing from exhaustion. Oh yeah, I also didn’t bring any water. Or money to buy water. And I had only eaten a granola bar for breakfast. I know, I know, but remember that I was planning for a two- to three-mile jog/walk/stop, not an almost nine-mile (15k) adventure. Hehe. Oops.

The closest I ever got to the mountains… so not close at all
Right near my turn around point… good question, random street art. Where the heck am I?

My post-experience thoughts about this whole thing:

  1. What on earth was I thinking?
  2. Why didn’t I just rent a bike?
  3. What on earth was I thinking?
  4. I don’t even like to run.
  5. At least I got a good workout.

After I got back to the hostel, cooled down, drank some water, and ate something, I changed and went out again because despite the ridiculous distance I had covered, I had only seen the sights along the coast and still had the entire downtown area to check out. This time, I aggressively plotted my route to avoid covering any extra distance, and off I went.

I did NOT want to leave the hostel again after I got back and sat down, but it was my last day in Batumi, so I didn’t feel like I had a choice. My legs were killing me, and I walked at an impressively slow pace the entire time.

My loop around the city included a whole pile of churches, whatever parks I happened to stumble upon (because who doesn’t like parks??), some city squares, and a few of the tall buildings that I didn’t get to on my “run”. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves for the most part because it’s not even worth me trying to explain without visual aids!

A building on Europe Square. Does it not look like it was taken straight out of a fairy tale?
More buildings along Europe Square, all so different from each other!
There’s an astronomical clock on one of the buildings (farthest to the left in the picture above), and this was the diagram explaining it. I looked at it for about 5 minutes before deciding that there was too much going on and taking a picture to try to figure out later.
The astronomical clock from below
This statue on Europe Square is of Medea, a daughter of a Georgian king, holding the Golden Fleece. The story goes that she helped Jason, the legendary Greek hero, to steal the fleece.
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
This thing is called Chacha fountain. Chacha is a classic Georgian alcohol made from distilled grapes, and supposedly you can get free chacha from the fountain for 10 minutes each day. Who knows if this is true or not but either way, hilarious.
This building, Batumi Tower, was designed by a Georgian architect, is 200-m tall (and is the tallest building in Batumi), and was supposed to house a technological university. Instead, it got sold and now it’s a hotel. And there’s a ferris wheel in the side. Did I mention the ferris wheel? Like… what????
Pretty sure these are condos
Rocks!

This is a sculpture called Ali and Nino, inspired by a story about a Georgian princess, Nino, and an Azerbaijani Muslim, Ali, fall in love but are kept apart by WWI. It’s like the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. The two figures move back and forth, literally through one another.
Holy Mother Virgin Nativity Cathedral. Quite the mouthful of a name… maybe it’s shorter in Georgian

Armenian church!

I had a train ticket to go back to Tbilisi the next morning, so as much as I enjoyed my time chilling in peaceful Batumi, it was time to move on to the next adventure. I asked at the hostel about how to get to the train station so early in the morning, and the guy said that the buses weren’t running yet, but I could probably get a marshrutka there.

I walked out to the bus stop around 6:45 because my train was at 7:30, and it was like I was the only person awake in the entire city. As you might imagine, I started doubting that there were even marshrutkas running after not seeing any for the first 10 or so minutes waiting at the bus stop. This one taxi driver kept asking me if I wanted a ride, but I was determined not to take a taxi. He asked where I was going, and I told him the train station (using a very unhelpful Georgian phrasebook I found online). He said he would take me there for 20 lari. HA! I literally laughed at him. I didn’t know how much it SHOULD cost to get there, but 20 lari is like $8 and is completely ridiculous for a 5-minute ride.

After I laughed at him, he lowered his price to 10 lari, and when I said no again, he changed it to free. I apparently am a phenomenal negotiator… This conversation all happened through hand motions and google translate because he spoke ZERO English. When he said he would take me for zero, I typed, “Why???” into google translate. I thought that was a valid question. He just looked at it, laughed, and gave me the “come along” hand wave.

An architecturally-hip Catholic church
And this is a hotel

At this point, I still hadn’t seen any marshrutkas drive by, and I was starting to get a little worried about missing my train. I figured what the heck, and off we went. Let me just say that if I was in practically any other country, I never would have done that, but this was Georgia and I was mostly not worried about it. We got close to the train station, and I started pointing that I wanted to go there. From our broken conversation, I gathered that we’d had a slight misunderstanding. I thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Batumi train station to take the train to Tbilisi. HE thought I was saying that I wanted to go to the Tbilisi train station. I mean, I guess I technically did, but not in his car!

Thanks to my mostly worthless Georgian phrasebook, I knew how to say, “Stop here!”, and I said it on repeat until he listened. He kept trying to tell me that he would take me all the way to Tbilisi for free, and still I have no idea why. Eventually, I convinced him (in my fluent Georgian) to take me back to the Batumi station, and that was that. He didn’t ask for any money, and I’m almost positive that he would have been insulted if I had offered.

It wasn’t the most conventional method of getting to the train station, and I’m sure my mother is losing her mind right now, but hey, it worked. I’m happy to report that the rest of the trip was uneventful. I took the train, I took the metro, and soon enough, I was back at my hostel to enjoy a couple more days in Tbilisi.

I took it slow during my first day in Georgia because I wanted to give myself some time to process everything going on in my brain. I checked into my hostel, sat in a park and journaled, and went to bed early because the next day, I had an 8AM train to Batumi.

Batumi is the major beach town in Georgia. It’s on the Black Sea, and I knew basically nothing about it going in except for those two things. Last time I was in Georgia, we met some people who said it was a great place to visit, and apparently that’s all I needed to be convinced. I also knew that I wanted to get out of Tbilisi for a few days, and Batumi seemed like as good a place as any.

I was definitely not prepared for such interesting buildings! The pointy one in the middle literally has a ferris wheel on the side of it.

The train ride was five hours which is maybe a lot, but at this point, unless a leg of my journey is more than ten hours, I don’t even think twice about it. Five hours is easy, plus on a train you have a bathroom and space to walk around if you want. Luxury!

After the all-too-familiar packing struggle, I pulled myself together and left the hostel around 7:15 to get to the train station early in case I had any issues. It was a little confusing to figure out how to get into the station, but with my “keep cool and use your brain” mantra playing on repeat in my head, I followed some people carrying suitcases and was delivered straight to my train. Fabulous.

To help orient you, Armenia is at the bottom (Yerevan is marked with green pin), Tbilisi is marked in blue, and Batumi is to the west in red

The train ride went smoothly until we were maybe 20 minutes from Batumi. We stopped at a station along the way and then didn’t start moving again. They made some announcement in Georgian and Russian, and people started freaking out. I asked some Russian-speaking girls sitting near me if they spoke English, and one knew enough to explain that there was something happening with the train and the tracks and the weather maybe? But the conclusion was that the train was not moving until whatever was resolved, and there was no timeline on when that would happen. Okay, cool. I settled in to wait it out because sometimes these things happen. Around me, it was chaos. People were yelling at the conductors in Georgian and Russian (as if that was going to change anything). Some were jumping ship and aggravatedly calling taxis to go the rest of the way. An English-speaking kid was whining about how the wifi wasn’t working, and his mom was going on and on about how she was worried that the train was going to leave us in the middle of nowhere as if she thought that was an actual possibility. And then she said, “and we’re running out of water,” as if we were stranded on a desert island and minutes away from death by dehydration.

Batumi!

About an hour later, we started moving again and made it to Batumi maybe an hour and a half behind schedule. Not a big deal. The next step was figuring out how to get from the train station to my hostel. The easy thing to do would be to take a taxi. When you’re trying to travel on a budget, you usually choose economic over easy, so I was taking the bus. I had scoped out the bus routes online, so I was fairly confident that I knew which numbers I could take. After a struggle figuring out where the bus stop was, I made it there and hopped on the first bus that came by.

Grey rock, grey sky

When I’m figuring out a new public transport system, I usually watch to see how everyone else pays and then just follow along with that. This time, I was the only one to get on, so that wasn’t an option. I sat down and stared at the various payment locations like maybe they’d make sense if I focused hard enough. Finally, a woman got on and I watched to see what she’d do. She took a chip card out of her purse and tapped it on one of the card readers. Okay, not helpful. I only had cash which meant that I needed to figure out the cash payment method. The woman looked nice, so I made eye contact (probably with a slightly panicked look in my eyes), held up some change, and made my best “how do I pay with cash?” face.

This is the way that travelling works when you don’t speak the language. Observation, facial expressions, sign language, and charades are key. She pointed to a woman who was sitting in the back of the bus, and the woman quickly came over to me. I pulled out the amount I thought I owed, she looked perplexed, and I dumped a bunch of change in my hand and held it out to her. She took what she needed, gave me some change, went to one of the machines to punch my ticket, handed it to me, and showed me that I had paid for two rides instead of just one which was why my ticket cost more than I thought. When we got close to my stop, my friend was getting off too. She offered to help me with my bags, and the ticket woman helped me to untuck my scarf which was stuck in my backpack. Basically, everyone was taking care of me. On the street, my friend introduced herself as Mina and asked if I needed a place to stay (via charades). I had a hostel booked so I was good, but I was definitely appreciative of the fact that everyone was so nice and helpful.

Since it’s still the off-season in Batumi and I was there during the week, I had the entire 6-person room in the hostel to myself! I was super happy to see how quiet and relaxed the city was because that’s exactly what I needed, a little escape from chaos and some time to think. I walked out to the harbor and followed the water to the beach where I had the BEST surprise. It was a stone beach! Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Lara, you went to this place without even knowing that the beaches weren’t sand? Did you read literally nothing about it??” The answer to that would be yes, and that is totally not like me but I’m trying this new thing where I go with the flow and don’t over-plan my life.

Okay so prepare yourself for a lot of rock pictures but like… I’m in love.

Anyway, that complete lack of research led to me being pleasantly surprised and extremely excited by what I found, so I’d argue that it was even better that way. In case you don’t know this about me, I despise sand. I don’t think I’ve ever truly liked it, but I successfully ignored that truth until a pivotal experience. Long story short, my friend Sarah and I went camping on a beach once because that’s such a romanticized idea and how cool to sleep on a beach… and by the morning, we were so over it. Three words: Sand. Gets. Everywhere. It was in the tent, in our clothes, in our mouths, all over everything. There was no shade because we were on a beach, and the tent was like an oven in the morning (that’s not sand’s fault, but it didn’t help the situation). We took showers and still felt sandy. We were on an island, and when the morning’s first ferry to the mainland pulled up, we couldn’t get on it fast enough. And that was the dramatic end to my already rocky (hehe) relationship with sand.

<3 <3 <3
Me pretending I wasn’t taking a picture of myself

So anyway, as I was saying, stone beach. I think this might be one of my new favorite things because besides the fact that there’s no sand, the stones were beautiful! They were a million different colors, smoothed out by the sea and with pieces of driftwood mixed in. I walked along the shore (note: walking on a stone beach is at least as awkward as walking on sand, especially as the stones get smaller. Also, infinitely louder. There’s no way to sneak up on someone on a stone beach) until I found a good spot devoid of weird beach couples, plopped down, and organized my rock collection.

I love rocks. Pretty much in every application. I love old buildings made of rocks and rock-filled ruins. I also LOVE smooth and colorful rocks, and that is exactly what I was surrounded by. Between the rocks and the sound of the waves, I was in heaven. AND the weather was perfect. I had a t-shirt on, there was a nice, warm breeze coming off the water, and I didn’t even notice the temperature which means it was exactly right.

Some of the best rocks that I picked up along my walk

After sitting there and sorting rocks for who even knows how long, I decided that I had to go and touch the water because it’s the Black Sea, and I’m trying to touch as many bodies of water as possible. Okay, always a difficult task when you’re trying to touch water that’s coming in waves and you don’t want the rest of you to get wet. As I got closer to the water, I realized that half of the sound of the waves was the rocks clinking over one another as the waves went back out to sea. Seriously one of the coolest sounds. So of course, I stood there for a bit just listening before I got back to my mission.

Wet rocks near the sea

I spotted a good strategic location… there was a concrete pier sticking out into the water, and I thought that would be the perfect place to stick my hand down and keep the rest of me dry. The only problem was that there was some guy filming a video of himself that seemed to go on and on forever. After he finished, I hopped onto the pier, did my water touch, and was about to leave when he asked me to take a picture. He was British, and we got to talking and that was the end of any plans I had for the day.

Me and the sea! Photo thanks to my new friend Ben

Meeting people is arguably the best part of travelling. I know, you can meet people anywhere, but it’s not the same. This guy, Ben, is in the middle of a motorcycle trip around the world. The purpose of his trip is to raise money in memory of his friend who passed away from Crohn’s disease, and it grew into a round-the-world adventure (if you’re interested in donating, you can do that here). He’s been going for eight months now and he thinks it’s going to take about four more years. Yes. Four years. He was planning to go through Armenia next, so we started talking about that and ended up getting dinner and hanging out for the rest of the day. That was the first time that I realized I’m now one of those crazy travel people. I looked at him and thought, “Look at this guy who’s doing this crazy travel thing!” and while we were talking, I was like, “Whoa, I can actually keep up with him. Look at this girl who’s doing this crazy travel thing!”

Ben and I got khinkali for dinner because he hadn’t had it yet, and it’s a classic Georgian dish. I always describe them as little meat-filled money sacks.

Nearly every travel friend I’ve made has taught me something about myself. I’ve met some incredibly insightful people, and despite the fact that those relationships are generally short-lived, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, an 8-hour friendship can have a lifetime impact. It’s a good reminder that every interaction, no matter how brief, has the possibility to shift someone’s life.

(P.S. Sorry for the philosophical musings, but they’re probably going to be semi-frequent. I have a lot of things to sort out in my head right now, so enjoy your complimentary window into my swirling thoughts.)

Things we all know about Lara:
Lara loves rocks.
Lara loves caves and other enclosed spaces.
Lara loves climbing things.
Lara loves pretty views.

These are four very basic Lara facts. These four facts also make Lara sound like she might be four years old, but that’s not the point. The point is that, while travelling southern Armenia, Lara finally found the place where she belongs. That place is, quite unfortunately, a deserted cave village, but we don’t need to dwell on the little, insignificant details like “deserted”. That just means there’s more room for me!

Where is this magical, mystical place? Khndzoresk, aka the future site of Larkzoresk. The village is only a 40-minute drive or so from Goris where I was staying for a few nights with my new friend Mary, and she connected me with a guide, Ara, who grew up in new Khndzoresk. I know, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Typical.

Looking down the gorge. The land in the distance is Artsakh/formerly Azerbaijan-controlled land

Khndzoreskis a village in the eastern part of Armenia, right on the border of what is now Artsakh. One name-origin theory is that “Khndzoresk” comes from the words “Khor Dzor”, meaning “deep gorge” in Armenian. At the beginning of the war with Azerbaijan, the village was so close to the fighting that some of the shepherds who lived there were kidnapped and killed. Anyway, the village has been occupied since ancient times, and until the end of the 1800s, Khndzoresk was the most populated village in eastern Armenia! At its height, there were around 24,000 people living there (though who knows how accurate that number is… that’s what I was told, but it seems like something that probably everyone has a different answer for). The thing that makes it so interesting is that it was a cave city… until the 1950s!

View of the city. It has those same weird rock formations as Goris! You can also see one of the churches, Surp Hripsime, in the bottomish right.
The village… mostly just looks like a cliff from this far away haha
Fake concrete

It’s made up of both natural and man-made caves situated in the cliffs along a gorge. Many of the houses had a cave in the back and then a structure built in front of it, and the roof of one house created the floor for the next. Ara explained that there were three different kinds of caves: houses, stables, and safe houses. The houses had the highest ceilings and often consisted of multiple rooms. They had holes in the ground for cooking and for storing grain. Chimneys were carved out to allow smoke to escape. If someone had a two-story structure as the front part of their house, it meant they were rich because it was expensive to build like that. The house structures were built out of stones, and they didn’t use concrete. Instead, some used just clay/mud, and others used a mix of clay, eggs, and water.

Remains of a two-story rich person house
They have a little museum with a sample cave home that’s filled with things they found in the actual village. You can make alcohol with this thing. Pretty sure Ara said that he has the same thing at home now.
Cave living room. In the back left and right, there are two more little rooms that served as bedrooms.
A picture of a woman climbing up into one of the safe caves

The stables had lower ceilings and didn’t have any additional construction in front. The safe caves were located high up in the cliffs. They could only be accessed by ropes which were supported by pieces of wood set across the cave entrances. In times of danger, the women and children would climb up and pull the ropes in to prevent invaders from reaching them. (Questions about this… did the women and children train for this?? It’s not like it’s easy to climb a rope into a cave! And I assume that a lot of the kids had to get carried up which means that the women must have been incredibly fit. Though I assume that everyone in the village was fit because you had to climb to get practically anywhere. Okay, I’ll stop. I just think the whole thing is kind of marvelous.)

Stable caves

There are four churches in town. The oldest is in a cave and dates back to 305AD! That’s impressive because Armenia adopted Christianity only four years earlier in 301AD. There were also schools, shops, businesses, springs for fresh water… it was a town, so there was everything a town needs. Ara’s father was born in old Khndzoresk, but in the 1950s, the Soviet leadership decided that the town should be moved to the flat land above. I asked why, and he said that it was closer to the existing infrastructure and people’s gardens (they were already on the flat ground). Most people moved out in the 1950s and 1960s, but the last family didn’t leave until 1974!

One of the many springs in town. I think this is the one that has a weird legend behind it. Back during one of the times when the village was under attack, the women fought alongside the men. One woman, Sona, was a widow with nine kids. She was killed in battle, and her father built this spring to honor her.
Inside Surp Hripsime

After the exodus, the cave town fell into disrepair. Ara said that he used to play in the caves with his friends growing up. He can still point out where his grandparents’ cave was, though it’s now overgrown by plants and inaccessible. The town also is kind of in ruins because when people moved, they took the stones from their cave houses to use in their new ones. Now, it’s a government protected area, so people can’t take materials or anything. They’re slowly cleaning up and restoring different parts of the town, such as one of the newer churches, Surp Hripsime, that was built in 1665. For a long time, it acted as a stable, so as you can imagine, it was filthy. Now, it’s been cleaned, and there are plans to fix parts of it. It was also cool because there are just random pictures and other documents inside the church. I asked Ara where all of the pictures came from, and he said that when the old town started attracting attention, villagers began bringing pictures and other things that they had laying around that they thought might be of interest.

There have been various improvements made to the old town over time. Ara explained that there’s a kind of unspoken rule that if you move out of the town and make a lot of money, you come back and build something. He said that some of those changes are good, but each one makes the town less authentic. I completely understand what he means… you want people to be able to access and see this awesome place, but you don’t want those changes to take away from its history and personality.

So far, the improvements have included a lookout point, stairs down into the gorge, paved paths leading to some of the sights, and a suspension bridge across the gorge. Supposedly there are plans to build a cable car down from the new town, but that seems like overkill to me. He told a story about the bridge, which looks somewhat terrifying, and said that it was built by hand by three guys: the one who was financing it, plus two others from the village. They didn’t have an engineer or anyone with bridge knowledge helping them, and when it was completed, someone complained to the government saying that it might not be safe. In response, the government sent out some engineers to evaluate the bridge, and they determined that it was strong enough to hold 500 people at once. As usual, who knows how true any of these stories are, but that’s all part of the fun.

Stairs into the gorge
Me on the questionably-500-person-capacity bridge
Bridge view
Church ruins near the cemetery

On the opposite side of the gorge from the main part of town, there’s a little area with ruins of a church and school and a cemetery. The cemetery contains the grave of an Armenian war hero, Mkhitar Sparapet, who fought with another hero, David Bek, leading the Armenian liberation efforts against Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Sparapet had a cave fortress at the top of the gorge. He was eventually murdered by some villagers who wanted him to move his fortifications away from the village because they were worried about what would happen if the enemies found him hiding there. They delivered his head to the Ottoman leader who apparently found their actions despicable and had them killed. Now, Iran still has his head (I have SO MANY questions about this… where have they kept it all these years? Why? In what conditions? I just don’t understand!), but they’ve agreed to give it back (ALSO so many questions about this… I asked what they’re going to do with it, but Ara didn’t know. What are they going to do with it? Bury it with the body? How will this handover occur? In person? By mail? Who will it be delivered to? Does anyone besides me think that this is the weirdest thing? Was that part of some big diplomatic discussion between Armenia and Iran? This whole thing is weird, right??).

Ruins of the school near the graveyard
Mkhitar’s grave. Ara also showed me where his mistress is buried nearby. Apparently he was quite the stand-up guy (sarcasm).

In the past, if you said the words “cave town” to me, I would have thought it sounded like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. Now that I’ve been to a cave town, that thought has been MORE than confirmed. If anyone out there is trying to start a cave town and needs resident volunteers, count me in!!! I already know exactly how I’d set up my cave.

My trek from Meghri to Kapan started VERY early in the morning, especially by Armenia standards. The marshrutka left at 7:30AM, but it actually wasn’t too hard to get up on time… thanks to all of the walking the day before, I had a fabulous, comatose night’s sleep.

Kelsey was going all the way to Yerevan, about eight hours, and I was hopping off in Kapan after about two. It was nice to have some company for the ride! I’m so used to going places by myself now that it always throws me off when I have a friend.

Kapan city sign

The marshrutka dropped me off right in front of my hotel for the night. I didn’t do much pre-planning for this trip (I’m trying to learn how to “go with the flow” and be okay with that), so I looked for somewhere to stay only one night in advance. According to the internet, there weren’t many cheap choices left. In hindsight, I feel like I should have just gotten dropped off in the city center and wandered around asking hotels if they had vacancies. Anyway, I didn’t do that, so I stayed at an inexpensive and NOT centrally located hotel. Everything except for the location was great! But that resulted in me having another ridiculous walking day.

Inside Surp Mesrop Mashtots

I had two sightseeing goals for the day, Halidzor Fortress and Vahanavank. According to google maps, it was a 15 km walk to Vahanavank, and Halidzor is in the same general area. I looked at that and thought, “Oh hey, that’s not bad! Only 3 hours!” Any rational person would have looked at that and said, “I’m going to ask the hotel to call me a taxi.” Oh, well. I figured that I would walk there and then find an alternate method of transportation back.

I walked about 40 minutes just to get to Kapan. The thing is, though, that you can’t just think of it as a long walk. You have to think about the fact that you’re seeing things you wouldn’t have seen otherwise because you don’t enjoy the scenery as much when you’re in a car. See? That’s my way of rationalizing my decision and telling you that it was the right one to make (though strong recommend that you just get a taxi if you’re ever in this situation). On my way through Kapan, I went to see the church, Surp Mesrop Mashtots. If you feel like you’ve heard this all before, it’s because every city/town/village in Armenia seemingly picks from the same list of five church names and ten street names, and things can get confusing very quickly.

Surp Mesrop Mashtots
The municipal building

From there, I roamed a little more, stopped in a store to buy some snacks (where they stared at me like I was a Martian and forgot to put my human suit on – classic Armenia moment right there), and continued on my way. I walked more… a lot more… and eventually realized that I could have taken a bus nearly the ENTIRE way that I walked. Well. I got some good exercise, and I REALLY saw the scenery. After maybe 11 km, I finally got to the point where I turned off the main road and started heading up to Vahanavank.

Finally off the main road
See the little peek of orange roof along the line between the brown front mountain and the darker back mountain? Vahanavank.

I was probably 20 minutes from the church when a car came up behind me. I did what I usually do and pretended that I had everything under control and totally wanted to be walking up a mountain after already walking for almost three hours… and at that moment, I got caught on a spiky plant and had to stop to untangle myself. So much for looking like I knew what I was doing. The driver pulled up next to me, rolled down his window, and asked if I was going to Vahanavank… as if there was any other reason I would be walking on a random mountain road that literally only leads to the church. I said yes, and he told me to hop in. I’m not too proud to accept a ride, especially when my legs are ready to fall off, so I got in and we were at the top in three minutes.

The river that runs beside the town

When we got to the church, there was actually a priest there! I was so thrown off. I think that’s literally the first time I’ve ever seen a priest in a church who wasn’t in the middle of conducting a service. The guys who picked me up seemed to be buddies with him, and I heard them telling him that they picked me up on the side of the road. I started poking around the church, and the priest invited me to drink tea with them… which he was in the process of heating water for on his little propane tank. Ha! It was a little chilly up there, and I was kind of hoping for a ride back down the mountain too, so I said okay.

The priest spoke some English, so our conversation was actually pretty good. I spoke broken Armenian, he spoke broken English, and we figured it out. He was excited that I’m an architecture person (no one knows what an architectural engineer is, so they usually just decide that I’m an architect), and after tea, we walked around the church and he pointed out different architectural features.

Wild pigs along the way. The priest took it upon himself to tell me about all of the creatures that live in the mountains there, including bears, snakes, deer, pigs, creepy spiders, lizards, etc.
One of the priest’s favorite khatchkars. I think he said that a prayer is written around it asking for the prince to be healed.

Vahanavank was founded in 911 by the prince of Kapan, Prince Vahan, who supposedly became a monk to cure himself of a demonic possession. The main church is called… wait for it… Surp Grigor Lusavorich aka Saint Gregory the Illuminator Church. It functioned as a monastery and a spiritual school for some time, and there are a bunch of graves in/around the church, including Prince Vahan and many other kings and princes of Syunik (the province where Kapan is located).

Vahanavank

There’s another little chapel on the grounds as well, Surp Astvatsatsin, that was built by one of the Syunik queens, and it also serves as a mausoleum for her and her relatives. It seems like people just built churches when they wanted fancy places to be buried.

Surp Astvatsatsin Chapel

There was an earthquake that destroyed practically everything on the grounds, and they just recently did some restoration work that was never finished. The main chapel of Surp Grigor Lusavorich Church was completely restored, but the vestibule on the side is only partially completed. The priest showed us where they put in different structural features to help if there’s ever another earthquake and the difference between the original and the new stones. The original stones were quarried from a neighboring mountain, but the new ones were brought in from elsewhere.

The little indents in the side of the building are to help with side-to-side movements if there’s another earthquake.
The more reddish stones on the left are original, and the more orange ones on the right are the new ones.

I stayed at Vahanavank MUCH longer than anticipated. If I had gone on my own, I probably would have stayed 15 minutes max and then kept going to Halidzor. Instead, I was there for more than an hour. When they asked where I was going next and I said Halidzor, everyone looked at me like I was a lunatic. They went on and on about how it had just rained and the path was going to be muddy and I shouldn’t go. Usually I’m not one to listen to things like that, but I was kind of cold and the sky had been overcast and dark all day, and I was a little worried about getting stuck out there in the dark. The priest gave me his phone number in case I decided to go and needed help, but I ended up deciding that I had walked enough for one day. I asked the guys who gave me a ride where they were headed, and they said, “Wherever you’re going.” I kind of assumed that would be the answer. People are too nice.

Apartment buildings along the way. Is it just me or do these look ridiculous?

They drove me all the way back to my hotel, laughing the entire time about the fact that I had walked all the way there. I’ll tell you this much – it seemed like a long way even in a car! At least I got my exercise in for the day! I was happy to have some extra chill time at the hotel to take an incredibly long, hot shower and attempt to warm up. The weather was much colder than I expected, and when I stopped walking at my breakneck pace, I think my body got pretty cold.

Anyway, it was certainly an adventure, and now I still have things to do the next time I go to Kapan! This trip is just making me even more sure of my thoughts that I need to come back to Armenia someday. Maybe Sarah and I will do another trip to conquer all of the hiking destinations!