And I Came to the End: Copacabana and the Island of the Sun

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Watching the sun rise over the Cordillera Real mountain range across Lake Titicaca from the highest point of the Island of the Sun, where Inca legend says the star itself was born. Not a bad start to my last day of travels.

I first planned to stop at Copacabana and La Isla del Sol mostly because they were right on my way. Little did I know that it would end up being one of my favorite areas that I’ve ever visited, or that I would have my best dining experience in South America. While I was able to so see some more unique and interesting scenery in other places, I have to put the Lake Titicaca area right up there as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  [Insert cliche quote about finishing a journey or something like that] Anyways, facing the end of my solo travels was bittersweet, but my last two days in the Lake Titicaca area were nothing but awesome.

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The trip from La Paz to Copacabana was a short but scenic four hours, for which by some miracle I had wifi access on the bus, a first for me in South America. Interestingly, even though Copacabana connected to the mainland almost all vehicles making that drive are barged across part of Lake Titicaca in order to save time before continuing on their way.

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I was a little confused when all of the sudden the entire bus disembarked and we hopped on a different boat

Not quite as famous as the similarly named barrio in Rio de Janeiro, the Bolivian Copacabana is a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca and near the border of Peru. Though it was pretty small, there was lots of activity when I was in town due to tourists trying to get to La Isla del Sol and Peruvians decorating their cars for their national heritage month (I don’t understand the logic of Peruvians drive across the border for this either, it’s just something they do).

I didn’t want to rush my tour of the island so I decided to wait until the next day to take the boat across and instead spend a night in Copacabana. In order to celebrate my last day in a hostel, I ponied up and dropped 7 USD for a larger, private room with a queen sized bed, bathroom, and TV. It was definitely worth the minor splurge, especially when I saw the view from the hostel balcony:

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Hostel balcony

In fact, it was hard to find a view of Lake Titicaca that wasn’t extremely scenic. I’m not quite sure if it’s officially the “World’s Highest Navigable Lake” like many tour companies claim, but the surface is still at a mind-bending 12,500 feet and it boasts some of the bluest water that I’d ever seen.

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The combination of the clear, tranquil water, strong sun at such high altitude, and beautiful surrounding scenery made for a couple of great sunsets (and one awesome sunrise that I’ll get to later). Thankfully, there were a couple perfect lookout hills right next to the town with great views, one had a really interesting cemetery/shrine on top with ceremonies going on, the other was pretty isolated and I could sit in peace.

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After enjoying the ‘luxury’ night in the hostel, I hopped on the first boat in the morning at for La Isla del Sol. The boats on Lake Titicaca are sloooooooow, so by the time I got there it was already almost midday. The main village on the island is in the north, so I decided to get dropped off on the north side and walk down. While it was an awesome walk, it wasn’t easy and lasted a good portion of the afternoon. It was definitely a good decision to have left the majority of my stuff in the hostel’s storage in Copacabana.

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The picture above sums up most of what I loved about the Island of the Sun. First, the views. The island itself was beautiful, but when combined with the deep blue water and matching sky, as well as the mountain range visible in the distance, it was spectacular. Plus, the weather during the day was perfect: about 60, very slight breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. Plus, because of the lack of paved roads the only way to transport anything was by donkey. This gave the island a decidedly old school feel; it felt like a time machine until the spell was broken by a couple locals chatting on their cell phones.

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There were also Inca ruins around, providing reminders that the island had been one of the most holy sites in their religion. My favorite was the Labyrinth[above], which I’m convinced was a maze for Inca children to play in, but there were also a sacred rock and table as well as a centuries old staircase.

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Looking out from the Labyrinth

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Something tells me that the staircase may have been slightly renovated in the fast 500 years…

Once I finished my walk (for which I had some good companions from Israel, Germany, and New Zealand) I took it easy for the rest of the afternoon reading and relaxing with some great views.

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My hipster food/drink photo of the day

For dinner I had a strong recommendation from my salt flats/volcano hiking buddy to go to a place called Las Velas (The Candles) for some great food and views. My problem was that I could not find it for the life of me, despite the town only having about 400 people and a few roads. Eventually, after wandering through a eucalyptuses grove I found maybe the coolest restaurant on my life.

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Set off completely by itself behind the tree grove, Las Velas was owned by a super nice Bolivian named Pablo, who was also the only waiter and cook. A small group of travelers had formed (including a American! the first I met in Bolivia), and they invited me to join them. The tables and chairs were nothing more than sanded tree stumps, but instead of being uncomfortable, something about the setting made them the perfect place to sip some wine and watch the sun set.

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Because it was a one man show (we even saw Pablo run out and pick some minty plants that he used as seasoning on some of the dishes), it was hard to mind that the food took a while to come. However, by then it had grown dark and cold so we moved inside. It turned out that Pablo ran his operation without electricity, but it was still still warm and the candle light added to the ambiance. Predictably, the food was incredible. The house specialties were trout and king fish, which everyone else claimed was amazing, but I inherited my dad’s distrust of sea food so I stuck to lasagna and loved it.

Our group, plus Pablo who joined us at the end of the meal, ended up getting along well so we stuck around and chatted for an hour or so. By the time we walked outside it was pitch black, except for the most incredible stars that I had ever seen. It turned out that being at over 13,000 feet and set off from the town on an already relatively dark island  in the middle of a huge lake made for almost unbelievable star watching.  I know that living in Milwaukee for the past decade hasn’t exactly made me an expert, but I can’t imagine it being much better. A pretty nice surprise to end the day.

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The next day I didn’t want to miss the chance of watching the sun rise on the Island of the Sun so I was up nice and early to find a place. It so happened that on the highest point of the island, that I could find at least, someone had left a half-completed house with a balcony that ended up being the perfect spot. It also happened that the sun rose directly over the highest peaks of the Real Cordillera mountains in Bolivia.

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I really couldn’t have scripted a better way to end my travels. Thanks for reading!

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road!

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All credit to my awesome guides at Vertigo for the photos

The statistics are alarming. Sheer drops of almost 2,000 feet with no guardrails. An estimated 200 to 300 deaths a year until 2006. At least 18 cyclists having died since it began to attract tourists in 1996. So, how did it feel to bike down the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road”? As much as I’d like to build up my hype as a swashbuckling, risk-taking, thrill seeker and drop some Han Solo like quote of “Never tell me the odds”, it was actually relatively safe and I never would have done it if I didn’t know that before hand. 

There was a guide in front of and behind the group at almost all times, which allowed everyone to go at the pace that they felt comfortable. Even on the rare times that the road did shrink to as little as 10 feet across, it was never a problem because I could always slow down and move more inside. Although I had minor problems with my gears, the brakes worked fine and did the job whenever I felt that I was getting a little out of control. 

However, although I felt safe I still had one of  most adrenaline filled and exciting experiences of my life as I descended almost 12,000 feet in under four hours! 

Here’s how it (or I) went down:

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The group getting ready to set off

First, one of my companions from the Uyuni tour with who I was was still traveling and I went to Vertigo Biking to meet up with the rest of our group. There were eight of us in all, myself and my Aussie friend with pairs of Canadians, Swiss, and English. We all hopped on a bus and were driven up to 15,500 feet. There we met up with our two guides, got our bikes and equipment, and had a brief safety briefing before we set off.

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Views from the first part

There first hour or so actually ended up being my favorite part even though we weren’t on the official Death Road yet. The company wanted to give us a chance to get used to our bikes on safer, asphalt roads before letting us loose on the gravel of the main part. The scenery was incredible; we were so high up that we were literally biking between snow-capped mountains for the first 20 minutes or so. Plus, because of the paved roads and the steady downhill it was basically full speed ahead for the full hour, something that I had never even come close to doing on a bicycle before. Pedaling was useless because I was already going faster than what the highest gear could help, so I had to bend as flat as I could over the handlebars if I wanted to pick up any extra speed.

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After we reached a checkpoint at the end of the paved section we hopped on a bus to be driven to the start of the Death Road. 

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Starting point of the Death Road

Here, things started to get a little trickier. Just the fact that we were now on sometimes on very loose gravel upped the difficulty level a few notches (but it made for some great skidding stops with our hydraulic breaks). Even though the bikes had full suspension, the constant bumpiness grew hand numbing after while. Adding to the fact that the road often narrowed to less than a single normal lane was that it was still in use by a few locals; meaning that about five time I had to stop to let some brave car drivers pass. The cliff edges also moved right up to the side of the road, making for heart-stopping moments but awesome pictures. 

 

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That cliff was about 1000 feet straight down!

The terrain through which we passed was also beautiful and varied. After a while it turned into almost total jungle, complete with waterfalls falling literally over our heads and streams crossing the road. Basically, due to the combination of incredible scenery, constant danger, and lots of fun my heart didn’t stop beating hard for the entire 3 hours of the Death Road section. That is, until I fell. 

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The Canadians that I mentioned before turned out to be experience mountain bikers; the type that complained about the road not having enough ‘features’ on the way down. –Hello, it’s called the DEATH ROAD! What more features do you want?– Anyways, this was great because they could explain to us some extra safety tips and help fix my bike when the gears got screwed up. However, it wasn’t so good because it made me want to keep up with them, and they flew. For almost the entire way it was going fine; I was following behind and making the occasional weak attempt to imitate their jumps and skids. Eventually though, my luck turned completely around.

My gears, which I had been having problems with all day, decided to skip on one of the only flat parts of the trip; causing me to jerk forward because I was actually pedaling hard and leaning frontwards to keep up. It would have been fine if it wasn’t also on one of the bumpier sections of the road and my balance was especially important at that moment. It still would have been fine, it a bee hadn’t just flown into my ear hole, so I was riding one handed and slapping the side of my head at that exact moment (I promise I’m not making this up!). It STILL probably would have been fine if I was actually a good biker or had any sort of experience with that sort of thing. But as it was it was my second time on a bike in about 8 years,  so I took a little tumble.

Because I was in the middle of the road and not near any cliffs, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’m making it sound. Still, I bent the front of my bike 90 degrees and scraped up my side a little bit. Counting my blessings, I hopped up, got my wheel back in place, brushed of the dirt, and continued on my merry way. My confidence was a little shaken, but as that made me slow down a significant amount that could be considered a good thing. 

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By that point we were nearly done, and I managed to keep the excitement to a minimum for the rest of the way and just enjoy the trip. I felt a little less ashamed when I found out later that three other people in our group had similar or even more minor falls; one girl only about 100 meters into the gravel section! 

Although it was a little bit of a tough ending for me, our company took us to a nearby hotel with a pool and an all-you-can-eat buffet that helped soothe my minor discomfort. It felt incredible to end the day relaxing poolside in the hot sun after starting up by the snowy mountains. A pretty cool ending to an even more awesome day! Biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road immediately moved to one of my favorite few experience on the whole trip. 

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La Paz and Mysterious Ruins at Tiwanaku

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The view from the bathroom at my hostel😉

Surrounded by snow capped mountains and unofficially the highest capital in the world, La Paz took my breath away, but mostly because walking up stairs at 12,000 feet was really hard. In fact, getting just about anywhere in La Pas wasn’t easy as the city was a maze of complicated streets that rose and fell without regard for my poor lungs. However, when I forced myself to get out and explore I found lots of interesting sights and cultural quirks despite not having too much time to spend in the city.

First, I had to get there. The city of Uyuni where the salt flats tour ended seemed like a total dump filled with trash and little else, so we all decided to book it out of there as soon as we could. Our group split off with about half going to Potosi and half going to La Paz. I was really torn as Potosi sounded fascinating both historically and culturally, but due to my time crunch I would have been extremely rushed in La Paz. Given that the principal attraction of Potosi was a mine tour and I’m 6’4, I decided to leave that for next time and hopped on an over-night bus to La Paz with four of my new friends.

While I don’t regret getting out of Uyuni as soon as I could, overnight buses in Bolivia are about as bad as it gets. Many of the roads aren’t paved, the landscape is extremely mountainous, and the buses are much, much worse comfort-wise than those in Argentina. I got to La Paz as quickly as I could, but I lost almost all of a night’s sleep in the process.

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View of La Paz from about halfway up a mountain

Once in La Paz I encountered the same happy coincidence as in Cuzco, it was festival time. I’m still not exactly sure what was being celebrated, but it meant lots of interesting costumes, lively parades, and pretty yummy street food. [Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, with La Paz’s reputation of not always being the safest I figured it was a good idea to leave my camera in my room] The festivities ended with fireworks, for which we luckily had a perfect view from our hostel. Speaking of which, ours was about as bare-bones as it got, but it randomly had an awesome upstairs lounge with a large screen TV, pool and ping pong tables, and huge windows with a great view of the city. Not bad for $3.50 USD.

As for the city during the daytime, I would say that it’s most interesting non-geographical feature was its markets. Seemingly every street was filled with stalls selling goods from food to diapers and everything in between. I have no doubt that given enough patience I could have found anything under the sun in a street market in La Paz with a little searching. One of the most common items were the dried baby llamas that were hanging from the roofs of many of the stalls. I’m pretty sure that they’re burned during traditional house blessing in La Paz, but the ladies selling them took them very seriously and did not appreciate questions or photos.

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Main temple at Tiwanaku

La Paz had a number of options for day trips, and the one I chose (besides the Death Road of course) was a visit to the near by ruins at Tiwanaku. The complex was the site of the capital of a huge empire that is thought to have ruled parts of Bolivia, Chili, and Peru from roughly 500-1000 AD. At least that’s what I got out of my tour, further internet searching revealed that the site remains one of the bigger mysteries for modern archaeologists so I doubt much is known for sure.

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Anyways, I’ve always enjoyed history so I found the tour interesting despite still being pretty tired from the bus ride two nights before. The main parts of the site included a giant pyramid that remains mostly covered in dirt, a sunken temple (pictured above), and a large courtyard area. The sunken temple was lined over 150 stone heads carved into the stone that all seemed to be staring at me as I walked around.South America!! 1313

In the main area, two giant monoliths stood watch over a place where archaeologists have found strong evidence that human sacrifice occurred.  While I didn’t buy the guide’s explanation that this was (and still is) one of the few spots in the world where ‘energy’ is concentrated, making it especially powerful, it was still creepy to learn that the locals return to sacrifice llamas at least once a year.

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Recently built sacrificial bed

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After the tour of the site there were a couple of nearby museums to check out. As neither was especially interesting, and I was still tired from the bus ride two days earlier, I found myself wandering around apart from my tour group in a tired/bored daze when I stumbled into a dimly lit room with one of the most impressive objects that I’ve ever seen- the Bennitt Monolith.

The Bennett Monolith, Pachamama Monolith - Tiwanaku, Bolivia

“No tomen fotos!” Even my trusty trick of pretending not to understand Spanish failed as I tried to get around the ridiculous no photo rule. Unfortunately, I have to settle for this from http://www.Tiwy.com

Thought to be some 1700 years old and contain mythical powers, the enormous and intricately carved statue is still worshiped by locals today. At roughly 24 feet tall and 40,000 pounds, it’s the largest monilith found in South America and was carved out of a single stone that had to have originated from at least 40 miles away. Given that I had no idea that it existed and that it’s one of the most famous archaeological finds around, it was pretty strange to find it without fanfare or explanation in a museum that contained almost nothing else.

After the tour I returned to La Paz exhausted and ready to relax. I ate and went almost straight to bed because the next day I was going to do the…

Death Road! Which I’ll talk about next time.🙂

Volcanoes, Salt Flats, and the Unearthly Scenery of the Uyuni Tour

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Visiting the salt flats at Uyuni on a jeep tour had been at the top of my wish list for as long as I had been planning my trip. I had no idea, however, that the tour would be filled with other cool adventures four days and the flats would just be the icing on the cake at the end. Nor did I expect to have as much fun as I did with my fellow travelers, none of whom I knew going into it. All in all, it made for an unforgettable experience and one of the most enjoyable sections of my trip.

Getting started:

The majority of the tours leave and end at the town of Uyuni to the north of the flats and run for 3 days and 2 nights. However, the little bit of research that I did made it pretty clear that the trip is generally better if you could start from Tupiza in the south and end at Uyuni. It’s slightly more expensive, but it lasts for a full extra day, the tour companies are far safer, the jeeps leave with 6 people instead of 8, and the salt flats end up being the grand finale instead of the first stop. A no-brainer decision for me because going from Tupiza to Uyuni fit in perfectly with my travel plans.

Luckily, the first hostel that I stopped at in Tupiza had a travel agency running tours out of the main office. The agency was a little pricey but it had good reviews and a track record of being environmentally responsible (a big problem in Bolivia as there are few government regulations). I was initially planning on shopping around a little more, but they impressed me enough, and I was on a little bit of a time crunch, that I signed up for a tour that would leave the next day. Not the most thought-out decision of my trip, but it ended up working out well. There wasn’t a ton to do in Tupiza due to wind storm so I just relaxed, went to the pre-trip informational meeting, hung out with my fellow travelers a little bit, and went to bed.

Day 1:

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We were divided into our groups and set off at 8:30. There were 14 tourists in 3 jeeps, each with a driver, plus one cook for the whole group. My jeep consisted of myself, 2 girls from the French speaking part of Switzerland, 2 guys from France, and Carlos our driver. While it was great to get to know people from other parts of the world, it unfortunately meant that there was a lot of French spoken in my car. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been though as one of the girls and of the guys both spoke pretty good English and we got along very well, plus I ended up talking to Carlos a lot and we became pretty good friends. When you’re in the same jeep as five other people for almost 25 hours over 4 days you’d better get to know each other and get along or it’s going to be a brutal ride.

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The first day was probably the most boring day of the trip scenery wise. The trip started with a pretty steep ascent up some harrowing roads which provided some excitement, but besides that there really wasn’t anything to see. However, that lack of almost everything actually ended up being one of the charms of the tour. There was an odd beauty to a landscape that was so unfathomably barren it almost seemed like life couldn’t exist except for the odd llama. Added to the fact that almost all of the trip was spent somewhere between 13,000 to 14,500 feet made the area by far the most desolate that I had ever visited. However, we did pass through a couple small streams and rivers that provided life to the few brave communities of llama herders and miners that called that area home.

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Most of the rivers were easily fordable, except the very last one of the day which seemed a little deeper and muddier than usual. We drove around for a while before Carlos found a place where someone had laid sticks across the river to provide some traction for crossing. Without a second thought he gunned it across and we made it without much problem, as did the other two jeeps in our group. However, one of the jeeps from a different company was not so lucky and got stuck in the mud at the bottom. Incredibly, none of the five jeeps in our convoy had a tow rope so we spent two hours futilely trying to push it out manually or tow it out out with jury-rigged seat belts.  It took so long that by the time we finally got to the village the only two hostels were already full, as were the ones in the next village. Needless to say we were all pretty hungry and grumpy by the time we finally found a place to stay and ate supper at about 9:30 pm. Not exactly how I would have chosen for the trip to start, but after a big meal and a good night’s sleep I was ready to go again in the morning.

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How fantastic does your Toyota feel now?

Day 2:

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The second day started with a short drive to some rock formations that looked a lot like how I remembered the Badlands from about 10 years ago. It was fun to get out of the jeep and climb around for a little while in the sun after sitting so much the previous day.

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I found a way to get on top!

Our next stop was a large lagoon where we had our first real flamingo sighting of the trip.

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Llamas and flamingos, doesn’t get much more Bolivian

After that we entered an absolutely massive forest of rocks that put the jeeps to the test.

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Hidden inside were two large open fields, one with a creek running through it and another highlighted by a large lagoon. The area probably would have been pretty marshy if it were summer, but as it was winter and we were well over 14,000 feet everything was frozen over which added a cool effect [see what I did there?? ;)] to the scenery.

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It was a great area to get out and explore and one of my favorite stops on the tour. We even ended up circling the jeeps and having a picnic lunch so we could stay a little longer.

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The Black Lagoon

The day wasn’t over yet as we still had three more major stops: the Black Lagoon and a viewpoint of an active volcano being the first two. Both were underwhelming but still worth the stop.

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The volcano was smoking when we stopped by!

The final stop of the day was a half millenium old cemetery carved into stones. It was a little unnerving, but a completely new and interesting experience. Several of the tombs were open to the air, but because of the cold and dry nature of the climate the skeletons were almost perfectly preserved and all you had to do was peek your head in to see them.

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Even the hostel of day two was an experience as about 80% of it was made of salt. I even managed to snag a heater that was laying around so for one night I could avoid the freezing temperatures and sleep in comfort.

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Day 3:

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On the third day we got our first look at the salt flats as we crossed them first thing in the morning to get to our next hostel on the other side. It insanely huge and getting across took almost the entire morning. Our hostel was at the base of an extinct volcano and our main activity for the afternoon was to climb as far up it as we could.  First, we were greeted at the base by more mummies in a cave. These were even more eerie as they were just sitting around in the cave in seemingly natural positions.

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At first I was determined to reach the top of the volcano no matter what it took. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close possible as I ran out of time long before we got anywhere close to the summit. I found out later that if you actually want to make it to the top you have to set out right away in the morning and basically go nonstop to reach the top and get back down in one day. Maybe next time. I still got to a career high of over 17,700 feet though!

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We closed the day by driving out onto the salt flats for the sunset.

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We had big plans of going out to see the stars at night but were kept from the full experience by clouds and an extremely bright moon.  However, I did catch a glimpse of one star that was nearly even with the horizon, one of the perks of being in the flattest place on earth.

Day 4:

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The fourth day started extremely early as we headed for the largest ‘island’ in the middle of the salar for sunrise. It was a large, rocky outcropping with gigantic cacti that was surrounding for 360 degrees by salt almost as far as I could see. Basically, the perfect place to watch the sunrise and maybe my favorite part of the tour.

We ate breakfast out by the island and then headed off to the most remote part of the flats to take the perspective-playing photos for which the salt flats are so famous. Our group wasn’t the most creative, but we still had a lot of fun and came up with a couple of good ideas.

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The tour ended with a quick look at where salt is harvested for production and a tour of a ‘cemetery’ of abandoned trains right outside of Uyuni.

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The tour wasn’t all perfect as temperatures dropped well below freezing at night, we were forced to listen to Carlos’s Latin pop mix on repeat for 8 hours until we could find a cord for our iPods, none of the hostels had heat, warm showers were scarce, and the national park with supposedly some of the best scenery was closed because of a snow storm. The closure especially was a big disappointment, but the downside of dealing with actual nature is that sometimes it doesn’t cooperate. But if I’d wanted a perfect, cookie-cutter experience I would have gone to Disneyworld🙂.

Anyways, I had so much fun and saw so many interesting things that I never even thought about the park being closed until the tour was over. Even more, I met a good group of people from all over the world, and staying up late with them in the hostels and chatting on the road made the trip even more enjoyable. I discovered that even people from France and Switzerland can be huge Bob Marley fans! A group of us even stuck together to travel to La Paz after the tour was over and I’m still in touch with a couple of them. The combination of new friends  and otherworldly scenery made for an unforgettable four days and I was sad when we reached the end of the road in Uyuni (even though it felt absolutely incredible to have a long, warm shower after four days of freezing!).

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My jeep crew

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Carlos and I

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Weary after a long volcano climb

Death to Yankees and Long Live Coca! Or ‘Welcome to Bolivia’

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Church in the Bolivian countryside

“Que mueran los yankees, que viva la coca [that the Americans die, that the coca live.” That’s how the toothless old lady who was first person that I met in Bolivia greeted me when I got on a bus at the border. Somehow she figured out that I was American (in a bus filled with fifty short, dark-skinned Bolivians, I don’t know what gave me away). It turns out that the news, which I had totally glossed over when I heard it in Argentina, that the Americans had recently ordered the Bolivian president’s plane grounded and searched without consent went over pretty badly in his home country. Plus they already don’t like us because “we” keep trying to unjustifiably burn down their coca fields. In short, not the best time to be an American in Bolivia.

However, it turned out that my initial scare was almost completely without reason. The lady on the bus ended up being super nice and I talked with her almost the entire hour-long ride and learned a lot about Bolivian culture. No other Bolivian even mentioned the incident. It turned out that the strains in diplomatic relationships had exactly zero impact on my travels or my relationships with those whom I met.

However, that didn’t mean that everything always went smoothly. Bolivia was definitely more ‘third world’ than Argentina, and tourists especially should be on their guard. I figured this out quickly as the very first bus ticket I bought was also double sold to another passenger. Thankfully, things ended up working out and we continued on our merry way to Tupiza.

The initial scare of imminent violence against Americans combined with being double sold a ticket made for an interesting first morning in Bolivia. Luckily, I arrived in Tupiza quickly and without further incident. The ride only lasted an hour, a blessing because the roads in Bolivia are often terrible and from the smell of things the lady with whom I was talking had eaten onions for lunch, breakfast, and at least ten or so meals before that. From Tupiza I hoped to book a tour of the Salar de Uyuni tour within a couple days. Things ended up working out pretty well on that front, but tour makes for a long story so I’ll deal with that in another post and keep this one short and boring. Chau!

Mountain Biking and the Hill of Seven Colors

— Skip to the bottom if you just want pictures, it’s story time and I actually have a lot of free time today🙂 —

On Saturday the 20th of July I woke up Cafayate. I was over 350 miles from the Bolivian border and knew that I had to do my four day Salar de Uyuni tour soon if I wanted to make it to Lima on time. However, I also didn’t want to miss out on anything cool in northwestern Argentina by rushing too much. Through a combination of luck, middling Spanish ability, and a growing familiarity with the Argentinian bus system, plus a little stressing out, I was able to pull it off. On Monday the 22nd I went to bed in Tupiza, Bolivia having already booked salt flats tour that would leave the next morning.  Here’s how I got there. [And here’s my handy dandy map to help explain where ‘there’ is and help some of the place names make sense]

In my last post I mentioned how the travel agency in Cafayate threw a wrench in my plans by canceling my tour at the last minute and how I had to settle for a little less scenery than I wanted. However, I still got to Salta on time with plans to catch a bus to Purmamarca, where I had for once actually called ahead and reserved a hostel. Again, I thought I had everything planned out until I discovered in Salta that no buses went directly to Purmamarca, but instead I had to go to capital of the next province, Jujuy, and hope to make a connection there. I knew that I would be pushing my luck because I wouldn’t get to Jujuy until at least 9 p.m. I had no idea what the terminal looked like or where to find anything, when the buses left from there for Purmamarca or if they even went that late at night, nor  did I have a place to stay in Jujuy if everything didn’t work out perfectly. I decided to go for it, only to lose my confidence  when I got to Jujuy to discover that it was an old school, open-air bus terminal of complete chaos. 

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Bus station in Jujuy

It was completely filled with busy travelers, dogs fighting and pooping everywhere where there weren’t people, and unmarked booths. Somehow, I’m still not completely sure how, within ten minutes I managed to get a ticket to Purmamarca for 10 p.m! It definitely paid off to know Spanish, otherwise I’m sure that I would have been wandering the streets of Jujuy late at night looking for a place to stay just like Salta. By eleven o’clock I was in Purmamarca, only to discover that the lady at the hostel that I had most definitely called and made a reservation with had no memory of our conversation. Luckily, I was able to convince her that I had actually called and that she should give me here last remaining bed. It had been a long, dusty, stressful day, but I had made it and there were hot showers and the best beds that I found in all of Argentina. Even better, my roommates for the evening were a group of super friendly traveling Argentinean musicians who also happened to be huge basketball fans, so I made some friends and got my fix of NBA talk in too. 

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Purmamarca right at sunrise

Thankfully, Purmamarca was worth the trip. Surrounded about 300 degrees by mountains, it was a tiny but postcard pretty town with great scenery on all sides. It’s most famous for having a seven-colored hill as a backdrop, but there was no shortage of views or colors in any direction. 

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The Hill of Seven Colors

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Because I had gotten up to watch the sunrise, I had been around the hillsides long enough by noon that I felt like I had seen the highlights and was ready to move. I hopped on a bus to Tilcara, less than an hour away and the last significant stop before the border. 

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There was a lot of sun, dust, and wind; hence the almost full face covering. Plus I’m cool.

I had about four hours to kill in Tilcara as I waited for my bus to the border town of La Quiaca so I decided to rent a bike to check out a waterfall that I had heard was up in a nearby mountain. When the bike rental guy pointed up the hill that I had to bike up it seemed pretty tough but doable so I set off. Unfortunately, I had vastly underestimated the negative effects that the combination of a lingering cold, lack of mountain biking experience, lack of recent exercise in general, strong sun, and 8,000 feet above sea level would have on my stamina. Plus the hill top that he pointed me towards ended up being only about half way. So I biked/walked my way to the top. Thankfully I had a lot of water because even with the walking portions dwarfing the riding portions it was a ton of work. 

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Although the waterfall at the end was disappointing, the views along the ride there were spectacular and worth the trip in and of themselves. The road was lined by a steep gorge and it provided some cool view of mountain-ringed Tilcara. Plus it felt awesome to just ride a bike again after eight years and I got a little practice before the looming Death Road in Bolivia.

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Dust storm rolling in on the way down

From Tilcara it was a 4 hour ride to La Quiaca where I would spend the night before crossing into Bolivia the next day. The town ended up being a total dump with nothing to go for it except that it provided a way out of the country. Thankfully I was tired enough from my bike riding adventure that I couldn’t have cared less that there was nothing to do. Traveling through South America by bus without a great deal of planning made for great learning experiences and lots of fun. Although it was sometimes stressful, I found that figuring out where to go and how to get there while flying by the seat of my pants could be extremely awarding when it all worked out. Sometimes the journey [CLICHE ALERT!] was every bit as worthwhile as the destination. Never did I feel the satisfaction of a road well traveled more more than after my last couple of days in Argentina. 

My Favorite Stop in Argentina- Cafayate

ImageMy experiences in Salta and Cafayate taught me that fellow travelers can be every bit as valuable for information as guide books and the internet. Many of the traditional travel sources called the regional capital of Salta a can’t miss stop on my journey north, while only one traveler recommended the small, kind of out of the way stop of Cafayate. Luckily, I took her advice because Cafayate ended up being my favorite place in northwestern Argentina. Meanwhile, Salta was…blah. 

 

Maybe I would have liked Salta more if my bus into town wasn’t delayed a couple hours so that I arrived at about 1 a.m, adding frustration to my slight cold and definite tiredness after enjoying myself so much in Cordoba. Maybe I would have liked my time in the city more if all the hostels weren’t full on that particular night so that I had to wander around a completely unfamiliar town for a solid 45 minutes before finding a place to stay. Maybe it was an out of the ordinary thing that caused the city to be covered in a dusty/foggy sort of cloud that obscured any views from the nearby San Bernardo Hill. Even so, the top was covered by a big tourist trap with fake waterfalls and pricey restaurants; definitely not my idea of an authentic or worthwhile climb. The city itself seemed also seemed crowded and dirty, but maybe my bad mood was just coloring everything by the time that I actually got to look around. A couple of the churches were cool and the museums in town seemed really interesting, but I wasn’t willing to spend money on indoor activities at that point in my trip. I didn’t really give Salta a fair shake, but at I didn’t have enough time to stick around just to see if my impressions would change. I hightailed it out of town as soon as I could. 

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I guess the highlight of Salta?

Thankfully, I was able to find a bus to Cafayate right away so I ended up spending less than 24 hours in Salta. Getting to Cafayate required a little backtracking so I hadn’t been planning on doing it until I received a very strong recommendation from a friend that I met in Cordoba. While it’s mostly famous for having the second best wine in Argentina, I skipped the wineries and headed straight for the surrounding countryside. Image

On a recommendation from the guy who ran my hostel, I spent the first day doing a trek which followed the Rio Colorado up a gorge into the mountains. What was a last minute decision turned into my favorite day hike of the entire trip. The trail criss-crossed the river as it wound back up into the mountains, so it was a fairly interactive hike with a lot of  climbing and jumping from rock to rock. I ended up loving that kind of trek as I found it much more interesting than following a simple, flat trail. However, sometimes that meant a high degree of technical difficulty and a lot of hard work. I didn’t find it completely exhausting (Cafayate is at a relatively low 5,500 feet so my lungs were fine) but it still required a lot of concentration and a little courage and creativity to find my way around. The ‘trail’ took me from hopping across wet rocks to shimming my way around the side of huge rock face within minutes. 

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As much as I enjoyed the more challenging of hiking, scenery is what makes or breaks a trek for me, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. For one, Cafayate is in the desert so there were gigantic cactuses and lots of cool rock formations. To make it even better, the river valley/gorge created a cool little micro-climate that had a fair amount of green and the only real trees around. The sometimes sheer walls of the gorge were also spectacular, and all of this combined to form a new type of landscape for me. However, the best part was the series of progressively bigger waterfalls which highlighted the hike.

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Obstructing the view of waterfall #2

The hostel worker had mentioned something about waterfalls and maybe needing a guide to reach them, but I was feeling adventurous so I set out on my own. Needless to say, I was feeling pretty happy with myself when I reached a small fall without any help. As I pressed on, the hike started to get harder and harder but every once in a while a slightly larger waterfall would pop up. Eventually, I caught up to a super nice family that was using a guide and invited me to join them because they were concerned that it was too difficult for me to continue alone. I swallowed my pride and tagged along, and after we had basically crawled around a few really tough sections of the trail and reached a large fall of about 45 feet I was glad that I had. While I thought that was the end of the line as far as the tough hiking and waterfalls were concerned, it turns out that I was wrong on both counts. 

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Although there no trail visible, it turned out that the best way to continue involved a tiny slit that went straight up that one could only fit into by sticking his head in first and trusting that his body would be able to follow. It definitely wasn’t something that I would have found or attempted if I were by myself, especially after hearing about the whole 127 Hours story. But after the family chose me as the guinea pig and the guide assured me that I would fit it, I managed to wiggle and squirm my way up until I reached the upper level (after a couple 2 second panic attacks and visions of having to saw off one of my arms when I got briefly stuck twice). The trail got slightly easier after that little adventure, and eventually finished at a beautiful little pool with a waterfall that topped out at over 70 feet! After exploring the area for a little bit– the guide showed us a spot where if we crawled completely flat on our stomachs for about 20 feet under a rock we could get almost directly under the waterfall! Another thing that I definitely would not have tried if I were alone–we had an impromptu potluck style picnic sitting on the rocks around a miniature beach next to the fall. I can’t really imagine a much more beautiful setting or rewarding day. 

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View of Cafayate from the return trip

Thankfully, having joined up with a guide paid off again on the return trip because he knew a path that took us up and over the ravine that not only provided an easier walk and different scenery but cut about 1 1/2 hours off of our return time. 

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Rio de las Conchas

As great as that hike was, I had saved the main reason that I had come to Cafayate, the otherworldly scenery at the Quebrada (quebrada is Spanish for ravine) de las Conchas (a river), for the next day. Unfortunately, my beautifully laid out plan of having a tour that ended at the northern end of the Querbrada before catching a bus heading up to Salta fell apart when my tour company canceled the trip when I showed up in their office ready to go 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave. I’m still pretty bitter about how that whole situation turned out, but at least I got my money (and a little extra) back and still managed to see the two biggest highlights of the Quebrada. 

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La Garganta del Diablo. That’s a person in the middle for size reference

La Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat) and el Anfiteatro (the Amphitheater) were two enormous gashes cut into the rock wall that lined one side of the river valley. Both had bigger than I thought possible and had completely vertical walls, but the Garganta was bigger as it ran over 200 yards back into the mountain. Every once in a while an enormous gust of wind would howl down and and threaten to knock me over as it blew dust everywhere. While shorter, El Anfiteatro had some awesome acoustics as  the end formed a bowl that mimicked those shell shaped outdoor theaters found in the US, only it was at least 3 times bigger. 

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El Anfiteatro

While I would have loved to get the complete tour, I had to be content with the cliff notes version and a little extra time to mess around down by the river. I still ended up being able to catch the bus from the end of the Quebrada and start the combination route that would take me through two cities and end in Purmamarca the same night. But I’ll save that for tomorrow, Cafayate had more than enough awesomeness for one blog post.