Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bolivia Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations of our favorite hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc.

Copacabana: La Cupula. Great views of the lake (amazing sunsets), hammocks in the yard out front, clean comfortable rooms. We went to their restaurant one night and didn´t think it was that great.
La Paz: Wild Rover Backpacker. A quality manifestation of your classic ¨hostel¨experience. Fun bar
, clean bathrooms and rooms. We lucked into a room well away from the bar... We heard that it gets noisy late at night if you´re too close.

Copacabana: Any of the trucha stands down by the lake. It doesn´t matter which one as they all serve the exact same deliciously cheap and fresh fish.
La Paz: La Comedie. Delicious french food with a great atmosphere. A ¨spluge¨by Bolivian standards, but really not very expensive.
Sucre: Cafe Mirador. Set near a Children´s Museum in the hills above down, this is a great spot for a drink at sunset.

Tour Operators, Etc.
Tours El Grano de Oro. Salt Flats tour operator out of Tupiza (we recommend starting in Tupiza over Uyuni). Great guide/driver (successfully changed 4 flat tires quickly, being a good mechanic is by far the most important criteria in your guide). Delicious food. Tip for your search in Salt Flat tour operators: try to find a husband-wife duo. Ours were married and great. Apparently some of the younger single guides drive too fast and often drunk...

Friday, October 24, 2008

October 16-22: Southwest Bolivia

We´ve spent the past four days exploring Southwestern Bolivia by jeep with a great Irish couple, Sean and Michelle. This is an otherworldly place more reminiscent of an imaginary Martian landscape than anywhere else we´ve seen on Earth. Ranging from 3500-5200 meters (11000- 17000 ft) it is almost completely above the treeline and the temperatures ranged from subfreezing at night to warm during the days. This is also the highest either of us has ever been.

This is a land of deep red, bright green and brilliant white lakes, surreal desertscapes with pink and purple mountainsides and Dali-esque rock formations jutting out of nowhere. This is a land filled with herds of pecuñus (the llama´s fairer cousin), thousands of bright pink flamingos, and the occaisional Andean fox. We drove by many 20,000 ft volcanoes, some still active, geysers shooting up steam around splurting mud, and a well needed hot spring where we soaked our too-long-in-the-jeep aching bodies.
And finally, the highlight was the majestic Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. A blistering sea of white for as far as the eye could see. The salt was broken into geometric hexagonal shapes as if by design. The salt flat is dotted with a few coral islands habitated by giant cacti and long-tailed rabbits. We walked out a ways on to the salt and were met by absolute nothingness. Even the silence was complete.

I´m not sure words can really capture this truly unique part of the world, hopefully the pictures will do a better job.

For those considering visiting this part of the country we´d highly recommend starting your trip from Tupiza, instead of the more common Uyuni. Tupiza is actually a nice little town to spend some time in, it´s fairly warm and the countryside around it is spectactular. We spent a half day exploring it on horseback.
Also it is remote country that you are entering, ie no roads and very basic accomodation so the most important thing to get for the tour is a driver that is a good mechanic (we got 3 flat tires in 4 days).
A quick postscript on Bolivia. The media portrays the country as one in perpetual political turmoil and one with a hatred towards Americans. Well the former point is true. Bolivia is in a constant state of redefining itself. Almost everyone is involved in politics to some degree, every town has political propoganda, etc. The biggest issue now is that the state of Santa Cruz with a largely non-indigenous population wants to secede from the country as the current president Evo Morales is granting a lot of indiginous power. It was exciting to see a little bit of this in process. However, nowhere in this country did we feel at all endangered, and we encountered nothing but respect and generosity from Bolivians. Bolivians joke about Bush, but we felt nothing negative in their attitudes towards Americans. It´s a shame that the media portrays this differently, as we didn´t meet any other Americans in Bolivia and they´re really missing out on this amazing country.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

October 11-15: Sucre and Potosi

From La Paz to Tupiza we´ve been blessed with three Bolivian bus experiences. Each has come with it´s own flavor of excitement. Our first trip (overnight from La Paz to Sucre) was initially cancelled due to road blocks resulting from protests -- only to be then allowed to go at the last minute although on a cheaper version which is never a good alternative for overnight journeys. Trip #2 (from Sucre to Potosi) was on a bus driven by this kid pictured below. Trust us, he actually looks OLDER in this picture than he did in real life. On trip #3 (from Potosi to Tupiza yesterday) we tried to buy tickets on the most expensive bus available. Our agent informed us that that bus was ¨sold out¨ (translation: she had a deal with the cheaper company). So we ended up on this beauty below with ducktape holding the front window together. 7 hours into our trip we stumbled upon one of the infamous Bolivian road blocks - this one for road work instead of protests. Three hours later we were allowed to proceed.... It´s been said that you haven´t experienced Bolivia if you haven´t waited at a road block so now we are truly legit travelers thru this country!

Sucre was a beautiful little colonial town. The view from a hillside outside of town reminded us somewhat of looking down onto the Castro and the Mission from Dolores park in San Fran. Less we got too comfortable with the ease of this town, we decided to gamble our luck on a Bolivian ferris wheel in a park nearby.´

In the 16th and 17th century, Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world with silver from its mines funding the entire Spanish empire. The silver is long gone but Potosi remains a mining town with over 10,000 workers entering the mountain each day to mine ore and other minerals. The town is also the highest city in the world (4,060 meters). Although the workers in the mines are now part of mining cooperatives, rather than slaves as they were in the silver era, the work is still insanely difficult and unsafe with the average lifespan of a miner being between 40-50.
Our tour into the mines started with us signing our lives away. We then bought gifts for the miners we would meet (the favorite being pure alchohol which they drink in mass quantities every Friday afternoon, often while still below ground). Dynamite is also a popular gift for the miners as they are responsible for funding all their own equipment. Yes, anyone can buy dynamite in this town. We did.

From there we travelled deep and then deeper into the mountain. At the deepest point of the tour, our guide decided to tell us that engineers from the US did a study 12 years ago predicting that the entire mine would cave in within 5 years. The kind of information that you prefer to receive AFTER the tour.... Another guy on our tour casually asked what the white stuff was all over the walls. Asbestos. The pictures which came out here are from the mellower parts of the tour -- too much dust for the real intense ones to come out.

Our guide who was a miner for 3 years before having an accident said that he would ¨put dynamite up his son´s ass¨if he ever indicated an interest in the work. Speaking of dynamite, there was the dynamite demonstration at the end. Nader was chosen to make the bomb and tried to remain calm while it was lit under his shirt.... It´s a sad sad livelihood and we felt very fortunate to have seen a slice of these men´s lives to understand their hardships.

Off to find some saltenias for lunch....

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October 8-10: La Paz

Built on the side of a canyon 3,500 meters above sea level, La Paz was remarkable to see coming in by bus from Copacabana.... We can only imagine what it must be like to fly into this city. We spent 3 days exploring around. Perhaps most importantly, we fell in love with saltenas -- a Bolivian speciality of heavenly pastries filled with meet and vegitables. The woman selling them outside the local market was very pleased to see us come back from round 2 on our second day.... (knock on wood) our stomachs seemed to handle this classic street foot just fine. At $0.40 each, the price was right as well.

Another highlight was the witches market where you could buy all different varieties of potions and such. Lama fetuses (yes, that is what´s shown in the picture below) are bought and buried under new houses for good luck. We were tempted to buy a few as presents but couldn´t quite work out the logistics of getting them back home...

As you may have read, Bolivia is in the process of negotiations with the opposition party who have caused some unrest in the eastern provinces in recent weeks. We were lucky to stumble upon full Bolivian political pomp and circumstance on our second day in town as the red carpet was rolled out (literally) for representatives from the UN who came to town to help facilitate the discussions. While waiting for whoever was arriving to arrive we chatted with a cute young Bolivian couple who was also there to witness the excitment. It´s facinating to see how connected all Bolivians (or at least those in bigger cities) are with their politics..... Although it does make sense when there is such a constant state of uncertainty and change.

Oh, and for any American considering visiting Bolivia, be sure you have your $135 ¨reciprocity fee¨ready at the border, which Nader - as a Canadian - didn´t have to pay. The US started charging Bolivia first and so they responded in turn..... Both countries have expelled each other´s ambassadors as of late. Diplomatic relations at their best :)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

October 5-8: Copacabana & Isla de Sol

We've been in western Bolivia for about 5 days now. The ride over from Cuzco was our first experience with cama bus service, with fully reclining seats. Much better than expected especially due to the thick wool blankets provided as it gets very cold at night in the altiplano (the elevated plateau that covers parts of Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina).

So far Bolivia has been a land of extremes. Extreme elevation, extreme temperature shifts, etc. It's often too warm in the sun and too cold in the shade. We've spent the last few days in the Lake Titikaka area. The lake is the highest significant body of water in the world at 13,000 ft. Copacabana (the original, the Rio beach came later) is a small beach town popular with both locals and visitors as it's got the only public beach in landlocked Bolivia. We stayed at a great place above the beach where we enjoyed the sunsets and ate the local specialty fried whole rainbow trout every day.

The first thing we noticed in town was the MASSIVE bags of over-sized, semi-stale, semi-sweet popcorn being sold at every corner. Delicious, we've had a constant supply going.

Wandering up to the cathedral that dominates the center of town we stumbled onto another peculiarity. Dozens of cars around the cathedral decked out in flowers with a white-robed priest flinging holy water into the car and on the owners, while the owners are spraying champagne on the engine and in the trunk, and kids are setting off fireworks everywhere. Apparently this ritual of blessing new cars is to ensure the longevity of both car and driver. The combination of alcohol on the engine and fireworks didn't seem like the best idea to us, but who are we to judge.

We took a boat over to Isla del Sol, a beautiful island in the lake which is at the heart of the Inca creation story. The sun supposedly emerged from this island, and apparently this belief is still held by many locals who tend to blend the older indigenous beliefs with the more recent catholic ones brought over with the Spanish. We spent the day walking the entire length of the island along an Inca path over the spine of the island. Deep blue waters, and the snowcapped peaks in the distance made for an incredible hike.

Locating an ATM in this part of Bolivia has turned out to be more challenging than expected and we were down to our last 20 dollars, still needing to pay for our room, food, return boat and bus to La Paz. We got a kick out of the response we repeatedly got trying to change the dollars into bolivianos. We're on a remote island and the women running tiny little stores would tell us the US economy was in big trouble and they didn't want any dollars. We finally found someone willing to exchange some money at a greatly depressed rate and were able to get back to the mainland. We got dropped off about 20 km from Copa and took another great trek back along the perimeter of the lake past small farming communities and kids with sun-burnt cheeks.

The bus to La Paz was another exciting one, driving by the 20,000+ ft Cordilla range and the ever exciting river crossing where everyone gets off the bus so that it can be ferried across while the passengers take a far too small motor boat, not to mention the dramatic drop into La Paz itself as the city clings precipitously to the sides of its valley. I hope an earthquake never chooses this spot.

Off to explore some recommendations from Tara and Melissa. Snow is on the forecast for today!

Hasta luego.

PS. For those I didn´t tell I´ve revamped my photo website - - with a bunch of new photos from the first leg of our year. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Peru Recommendations

Here are a few recommendations of our favorite hotels, restaurants, tour operators, etc.

Cusco: Casa Elena. We stumbled upon this place wandering the streets after the hostel we wanted was booked.... and we were very happy to have found it. Welcoming atmosphere, great breakfast.

Cusco: Juanita´s Sandwich shop. If you´re tired of the Peruvian set menu, this is a great alternative with seriously good sandwiches. It´s on the main strip in the San Blas neighborhood.

Tour Operators, etc.
Peru Treks. We did the Lares Valley trek with them and had an excellent experience. Great food, well organized, good gear (tent, sleeping bags) professional guide.

Friday, October 3, 2008

September 29 - October 2: Lares Valley trek and Machu Picchu

As an alternative to the classic Inca Trail, we decided to do a trek through the Lares Valley and then onto Machu Picchu. We were a bit wary of all the crowds on the Inca Trail (500 people per day) and also remembered fondly our trek through the Atlas Mountains in Morrocco a few years ago which sounded similar to this Lares Valley trip -- walking through small mountain communities along the way. This trip was simply wonderful and we didn´t see any other hikers along the entire journey. We highly recommend it to anyone considering an alternative to the Inca Trail.

There was only one other couple on our trip -- Claire and Barry from London who were great travel companions. Roberto, our guide was wonderful as well. Our trip started off a bit rocky as the wrangler and the horses who were supposed to meet us at the trailhead never showed up after 2 hours of waiting.... we soon learned from other locals that he had broken his leg the day before. Living deep in the mountains far from any medical care this was something to be taken very seriously and our frustration quickly turned to sympathy for him and his family. So our first day of trekking actually turned into a day of driving to the next campsite where another wrangler could join us. A bit of a dissapointment, but we were lucky that the next site was accessible by ¨road¨ (just barely) and it was actually pouring rain for part of the day so maybe it was all for the best!

We camped that night next to the primary school of a small community. Along the way we saw a few other primary schools that had been recently built by a Dutch foundation. This same foundation built a secondary school that we passed on our third day. Students walked as far as three hours each way to get to this school every day. As we observed their lessons for a bit, the intensity of their focus was remarkable and a stark contrast to the classrooms Allison had spent time in over the past several years.... A reminder that motivation comes from within when the goals and purpose of ones education is clearly understood.

On day two we started our trekking early. We had beautiful weather and the scenery was breath taking. We passed several lakes and summited two major passes. Along the way we passed through serveral communities -- generally consisting of 8-10 families living in proximity to each other. Often when we passed through all the adults were out working while the few young children played at home along, some as young as 4 or 5 years old. All of the children spoke only Quechua and we all seemed to play the same role in our non-verbal exchanges of smiles and waves, each equally mesmorized by the foreignness of the other. We found ourselves in that same eternal debate whenever exposed to indegenous cultures. They have so little and their lives are so hard-- but is what lies on the other side really any better? This seems to be the debate that many of the parents are having as so many of the teenage children leave home for the cities. We didn´t see anyone between the ages of 18-30 really, which is an indication of how this way of life may be dissapearing.

We camped on the second night not far below our highest pass -- at around 4,100 meters. Unfortunately we were both struck with pretty bad altitude sickness (Allison worse than Nader) which made us a bit nervous for future high elevation stops along the way, but this had to have been one of the highest. Despite the sickness, the site was incredible. Our crew caught some trout in the lake which we ate for lunch the next day.

The third day of was fairly mellow -- mostly downhill. We were picked up in a small town (which felt massive after all the tiny communities we had walked through). Nader played soccer with some of the kids while we waited for our van... They dominated him with their high altitude running skills. From there we headed to Aguas Caliente where we spent the night to allow for early morning access to Machu Picchu.

Day four, Machu Picchu. The location alone is truly remarkable. We arrived early in the morning and it was awe inspiring to watch the mist dance in and out of the surrounding mountains through the light of the rising sun. It´s amazing to think that the Incan empire ruled this region relatively not that long ago -- just alongside the renaissance movement in Europe. Their worship of the natural world was remarkable and we wondered how their civilization here may have advanced had the Spainards never have arrived.

We´re now back in Cuzco regouping and planning... Off to Bolivia tonight. Oh, and a correction to our last entry which reflected some ignorance of high mountain animals on our part. Llamas and Alpacas are DIFFERENT animals -- were pretty sure that the ¨donkama¨was saw was actually an Alpaca, which come in many different varieties. Now we know :)