It’s amazing how many memorable experiences you can accumulate when you travel off-the-beaten-path. It was honestly difficult to pick this top five list, because many other experiences from this trip could have just as easily made it – perhaps I’ll expand it to Top Ten sometime. Without further ado, my Top Five Experiences from my trip to Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, and where they happened.

Ica

Outside the gold mine

5. Visit into a Gold Mine in Rio Grande, Peru

In the desert in the south of Peru, I had the opportunity to go to a gold mine with a small group of gold miners – some of whom co-owned the mine and the rest of whom worked there almost every day. We strapped on helmets with headlamps and walked past a mine-cart (which made me think of Donkey Kong) into maybe the most complete darkness I’ve ever experienced. Thankfully, I’m not at all claustrophobic, otherwise I would have peed my pants. The air quickly becomes thick and hot and the walls are always just on either side of you. One of the miners gave an unofficial tour, explaining which parts of the rock have gold, and which are just rock all the way through. He also corrected my assumption that occasionally miners just pickax giant hunks of pure gold out of the wall. That never actually happens – you pickax hunks of rock out of the wall, then send it to a processing plant, where the gold is extracted. Probably best just to watch this video we made:

Jack in the Gold Mine and Processing Plant

Rappelling a Waterfall

Rappelling a Waterfall

4. Eco-Adventure in Bucay, Ecuador

In one day in the Bucay area, I hiked through a cloud forest, rappelled down a waterfall, zip-lined across two valleys, saw three toucans in the wild, and stayed the night in a rustic cabin overlooking a beautiful mountain valley. What’s perhaps more incredible is that, although all of this is readily available to do, few tourists go to Bucay! For whatever reason, it hasn’t received its fair share of promotion – hopefully we can help change that, because it is one of the best combinations of pristine ecology and adventure activities that I experienced on my trip.

Jack Ziplining

Ecuador, Ancash

The Campsite Near Lake Akilpo

3. Two Day Hike to Lake Akilpo in Ancash, Peru

I did many hikes in Ancash, the “Trekking Capital of the World,” Peru, but the best was definitely a two day hike to Lake Akilpo – a glacial lake at about 15,000 feet. It was tough hauling camping gear and food in a backpack for eight hours at such altitude, but the challenge made the trip that much more rewarding and the payoff of reaching the lake that much sweeter. There’s something about being completely removed from civilization that is exhilarating and there is absolutely no one living up by Lake Akilpo.

Yeah, we actually saw that. Copyright 2013 Jeff Cundith

Yeah, we actually saw that.
Copyright 2013 Jeff Cundith

2. Alto Coca Reserve in eastern Ecuador

I saw an active volcano erupt at night from the Alto Coca Reserve. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and my favorite picture to show people now that I’m back from my trip. The reaction is consistently, “You actually saw that?” and I continue to wonder if I really did. Thing is, even without seeing the volcano, the trip to Alto Coca was a fantastic experience. A challenging hike through a cloud forest leads you to the 1,000 hectare Alto Coca Reserve at the edge of the Amazon jungle and completely untouched by human hands. I saw rare birds (such as Inca Jays and Flame-Faced Tanagers), learned to carve a spoon out of a block of wood, and woke up in a hammock to spectacular views of a green valley covered in low clouds. Oh, and did I mention that I saw a volcano erupt?

Making Wooden Spoons

Ecuador, Santo Domingo, Ts'achila

An herbal bath after the shaman cleansing

1. Indigenous Ts’achila in Los Naranjos, Ecuador

Here, I received a shaman cleansing from a real shaman, drank a hallucinogenic jungle vine, fished using a motor and electrical wires, and drove a motorcycle for the first time in my life. All in two days. That may sound fairly frantic, but Los Naranjos was one of the most relaxing communities that I visited on my entire trip. Between the coast and the jungle, Naranjos’s surroundings look like jungle, but the temperature is more that of the temperate coast, which to me is a perfect combination. The pre-Colombian, indigenous Ts’achila people of Naranjos still maintain many of their ancient customs, including using fruit to dye their hair red, and practicing shamanism as a means of spiritual cleansing. I received one such spiritual cleansing from a local shaman, who used an egg to diagnose my energies and prescribed a cold bath of flowers and herbs to help cool my “hot head.” It was strange and memorable and fun.

Jack Receives a Shaman Cleansing