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Friday, November 29
The Best Part of Trip- the Adventure to Los Nevados

Posada Montana was gracious enough to hold the majority of our luggage for us while we spent an evening away. We packed only what we'd need for the night into backpacks, and headed off by foot for the few short blocks to the Teleferico tram. It's reputed to be the highest and longest tram in the world (4,765 meters above sea level and 12.5 kilometers in length). Anyone who knows me and knows my fear of heights and flying knows I was not happy about this, but I wasn't going to let it stop me.

We were there early, since we needed to be on one of the first gondolas leaving to allow time for the burro ride to the town. As we stood in line, we got to talking with some people around us. The couple in front was heading the same place we were, but they were making the trek on foot, and then onward to other little villages on their way back to Merida. She was a Venezuelan, and he, surprisingly enough was from San Francisco. Behind us was a really nice guy from the US- he was just going up and returning on the tram the same morning. He too wasn't crazy about the heights, but didn't want to miss the sites.

The ride wasn't too bad actually. I mean- granted, I kept my eyes closed behind my sunglasses most of the way (Curt kept calling me Helen Keller), but the operators seemed to take care to make the ride nice and smooth, so it wasn't like a ski lift when you swing drastically over each tower you pass. Andean music plays in the background, and a gentleman's voice shares information in Spanish about the trip: I assume things like what types of vegetation you're passing, and awful things like how high you are now and how it was built- so I was quite happy not to be able to understand what he was saying. There are four gondola stations, and at each one, you get out of the car and walk forward to the next. Part of this is apparently to give you time to acclimatize to the higher altitude. At the third station, the landscape changed dramatically. The vegetation was no longer lush and green, but rocky, gray and dry. There were beautiful flowering, low lying shrubs, and the temperature had dropped so that the air was cool and crisp enough to require a sweatshirt. After seven months of sweating in the Caribbean, I was loving it!

Pam, Steve, and Curt bought a tickets to go up to the highest, fifth, level and I took the opportunity to skip going any further so I could talk to the guides with the horses that take you to Los Nevados. We were told there would be plenty of guides there waiting, but when I arrived, there were only two guides with one horse and one burro each- perfect for the four of us… but what if anyone else was going to the town?

When they got back from the top, the guides put Pam and Steve on the burros, and Curt and I on the horses. They walked. I felt a little silly- after riding horses all my life, I was used to galloping along on big thoroughbreds, not walking along a trail on a pony. But it was fun nonetheless. And it was hilarious to see Steve on a burro! But poor guy- his knees were killing him because they couldn't quite wrap around properly since his burro was so small. And of course, then there's the poor burro! And so we were off, further up into the mountains still.

Pam is no big fan of heights either by the way, but on the gondola ride up, she didn't seem to flinch. Now on the burro however (who seemed to favor the very edge of the trail along the cliffs) she wasn't such a happy camper. I'm not sure why it doesn't unnerve me- maybe because I was just so happy to be back in the saddle? Or perhaps after being around horses so much, I trust them more, knowing they don't want to fall anymore than you do.

Having said that- it was really thrilling. We climbed up further and further up to the mountain peaks, so high the clouds were curling over the tips around us, and down into the valley. The trail was sometimes quite narrow, and sometimes so rocky were walking over boulders, not dirt- but always, there was a steep mountainside to oneside. The animals seemed to know their way well though and I just tried to stay out of the way and let my horse do his job.

But then Pam's worst fear happened- her burro slipped and tumbled over onto his shoulder and on top of Pam! I was above and behind her as we came around a corner and saw the whole thing as if it were in slow motion. Her knee took the brunt of the fall, but after both she and the burro had scrambled back up and caught their breath- it didn't seem like anything was broken. It was one of those moments when you fret for your friend- is she okay? And then think oh no, what about the little burro? And at the same time you see the guide who feels terrible about both. With my limited Spanish I was able to ask if he thought the burro was okay, and he seemed to think he was. And Pam was so brave, she got back on without a peep. This time however, the guide walked directly alongside her and steadied her anytime she got a little teetery.

We stopped to give the horses some water and rest (and the guides too I'm sure), and when Steve got off, his knee was shot. He could barely put any weight on it at all. Not to mention the fact that the altitude had completely erased any little bit of hearing he had left as well. To speak a few octaves louder than normal as we'd grown accustomed to with Steve was no longer even close to loud enough. We had to yell for him to catch any of what we were saying. The two guides, who didn't speak even one word of English, must have really gotten a kick out of us screaming at him. But Steve was such a good sport about it- he merely laughed and joked about it himself with them in Spanish. He was telling them he was an old man, but had a young heart- which is absolutely true by the way.

The ride was quite long and I was happy to see Curt seemed to be having a good time and acclimating well to the horse thing. Secretly, I was checking him out to see how he did. I've always gotten a kick out of taking friends horseback riding to see how they handle it. At it's best, guys that can ride are so fun to watch and ride with. At it's worst, for men that can't- I can't think of anything that would be more emasculating. Anyway, Curt was doing great and seemed to really like it. It made me think that perhaps our next adventure after sailing should be living on a cattle ranch in Montana.

Pam and Steve however, rode well, but you could see they would have preferred for this experience to be over about three hours ago. We had hiked over the peaks of the Andes, and then carefully picked our way down a narrow and rocky trail into a never ending valley. Tough going even with the stunning landscape to lure you along.

Eventually we entered a magical valley that was nothing short of a fairy tale. It took my breath away and I've never seen anything like it. Flocks of white doves glided through the pass and there was grass here and there now, and soft leafy trees. As we rounded the corner from afar, the steep mountains were wrapped in patchwork quilt fields, each with a little white house with a red tiled roof. Lines of drying laundry flapping in the breeze were splatters of bright colors among the golden hillside. Along the road we were walking, a creek followed alongside- perhaps a foot and a half deep and two wide… our guides told us it carried drinking water to the farms and town. The younger of the two, whom I had by now been able to exchange some simple conversation with, asked if up ahead we could stop for a cold beer. I wasn't sure that I had understood him correctly, because I couldn't imagine that there would be a Stop and Shop or bar anywhere nearby- but I said, si anyway.

We turned off the road, down a little drive where we passed some cows sleeping in a little pasture. A short distance ahead was a little clay house with a sliver of porch providing a little protection from the now blazing heat. We were greeted by an absolutely beaming toothless woman. I don't know if I've ever seen someone so purely gushing with sheer joy. We fairly collapsed onto a rickety bench along one wall and bought beers for all. She passed ice cold Polar beer through a window in the side of the building, her toothless grin framed like the Mona Lisa. A little boy and girl appeared from one of the doorways and played with a ping pong ball in the dirt where we all sat. They seemed enchanted by us as we exchanged small talk. You could see that the older one- the girl, seemed to think it was funny we didn't speak her language.

As good as the cold beer was, we wanted to get to our final destination and rest. It was only another hour or so ahead, and by the time we got there, we were happy to be done with the ride. The only way to reach this little village is by foot, horseback, or serious four by four (and I don't mean Explorer). We were later to find that the taxis for hire actually have to go through an aggressive certification process due to the difficulty of getting in and out. Absolutely everything on the vehicle must be checked out, and the driver's themselves have to pass a health test. As we saw firsthand on our way back down- a few inches off the road, and you'd tumble thousands of feet before there'd be so much as boulder to hit on your way down. Anyway, I think this has kept the Los Nevados pure from outside influence. If not for the jeeps, you would have no idea what century it is.

The cobblestone streets were almost barren of people. A few here and there walked from one place to the next. One led his donkey and cart up the road. Another boy trotted by smartly on his shiny black horse with a long mane. Steve's knee was really bad, and it was going to take awhile for him to walk down the hill to the posada we had been referred to. Never one to pass up a photo opp (he's a professional photographer), Steve took it slow and shot pictures on the way down while I went ahead to reserve rooms at Posada Bella Vista as we'd heard it was by far the nicest one in town. Almost immediately I was approached by a woman offering us another posada. Sometimes it pays to be a foreigner, as I was able to feign not speaking Spanish.

At the bottom of the hill, next to the church, an iron gate led to Posada Bella Vista. As I passed through and walked down the steps to the courtyard, I was afforded a spellbinding view of the valley beyond. The posada itself is a few well kept buildings with hand painted names on the walls. Flowers are everywhere and a patio with hammocks overlooking the mountains invites you to have a nap. It's quiet and tranquil: the only sound is the wind in my ears as I look around for life. I find a girl who directs me to two very simple rooms: cement floors and basic beds with blankets stacked high at their foot. The bathroom has a shower head coming from the ceiling and a drain in the floor. She says there's hot water, but I'm skeptical. For our $14US here, we receive lodging, as well as breakfast and dinner- which will be served at 6 or 6:30. We can pay in the morning.

The posada owner was kind enough to dig around and come up with a walking stick for Steve, and it helped a great deal for the rest of his trip down the hill. By now however, Pam, Curt and I were exchanging worried looks about Steve's ears. He was almost entirely deaf it seemed to us. It was both frustrating to try to talk to him- and moreover scary. It had happened in a matter of hours. Neither Curt and I have ever given Pam and Steve's age a second thought, and so it seemed so odd to see him walking with a cane and not able to hear any of what we were saying. As ever, he was unbelievably good natured about it, though it must have been killing him not to be in the middle of the action. He's one of the laughiest, talkiest, jokiest guys I know- and all of a sudden he was cut off from our conversations completely. And here we are in a quiet little Venezuelan town- where no one even speaks English, and we're putting our mouths to Steve's ear and yelling to communicate. We felt so bad for him. And Pam too, since it puts a burden on her as well. She swore she'd get him to an ear doctor when we get back to Margarita.

After relaxing in the hammocks, we met in the main hall area for dinner. There was another couple there with their guide- headed the opposite direction as we were. They'd be doing the mule ride tomorrow. We had a bottle of wine with dinner, and sat eating as course after course appeared before us. The meal was simple food- bread, soup, chicken, rice, boiled potatoes, fresh squeezed juice, but absolutely delicious! I ate so much I got a bellyache. Curt even left the table early and went to bed. That night, our room was cold, and I was in heaven snuggling under heaps of blankets for the first time since San Francisco! Bed felt good after our long travels.

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