The journey continues…at another address

As we mentioned in our last post, due to data limitations on the wordpress site, we have created a second blog to continue sharing out adventures.  Please use the link below to see our new blog and follow it if you would like to receive updates when new posts go up.  Thanks again to our family and friend for reading our stories and sharing the adventure with us.

https://lkviajando2.wordpress.com/

Central Chile

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Renting a car was a great way to see a part of Chile that would have been difficult to access by bus. We spent a little less than a week exploring small towns, touring wineries and hiking in national parks. Unfortunately, we found that finding sleeping accommodations was a bit challenging. Hotels and hostels that are off the tourist track often don’t have web pages or any other way to book online. This proved to be a problem in the first night after we dropped Lisa’s sister off at the airport and continued south to a small town called Buin. We walked around the downtown and then drove up and down streets to try and find a place to stay. Finally, we pulled into fast food restaurant and asked if anyone knew of a hostel in town. After much debate (about whether or not there was any place to stay in town) we were directed to a hotel located on a side street not to far away. Though the facility was not any nicer than most of the places we had been staying recently it was more than double the cost. Alas, it was late so we had few other options.

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After wandering around looking for hotels we stopped for a food break.  This wasn’t the largest sandwich that they had available, but since Kevin wasn’t extremely hungry he decided to get the medium.

 

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Visiting the famous Concha y Toro winery

The next couple days consisted of driving around back roads to find poorly marked wineries, who may or may not offer wine tastings. We had several picnics of bread, cheese, avocado, and olive oil while pulled off on the side of the road or under a tree. We were amazed by how closely the scenery resembled that of central California. We visited the Maipo, Maule, and Curico wine regions. We met many enthusiastic wine lovers working in the different wineries. The central wine region of Chile was much warmer than the coastal region that we had visited with Lisa’s sister. The central region was known for grapes such as Pais (mission), Carmenere, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon where the coast was known for white wines, sparkling wines, and Pinot Noir.

 

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We spent a few nights in a hostel in the town of Talca, as it was a great jumping off point to visit Parque National Lircay. To get to the entrance gate of the park we drove for a couple hours including about half an hour down a dirt road. From the gate it was another 2 km on foot to get to the rangers station where we registered as day hikers. We had read up on the park before we arrived so we knew that the two hikes we were interested in doing were to a lake high in the mountains and to a vista point that would give us sweeping panoramic views. Both hikes were recommended as full-day hikes, so self-assured as we were of our hiking ability, we decided to try to finish both in one day. Unfortunately, our navigational skills were not up to par and the signs on the trail were not the clearest, so we found ourselves at a river about an hour and a half into our hike. Though the river was beautiful we knew from the photocopied rudimentary map that we had picked up at the ranger station that it was the not direction that we wanted to be going.

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A view of the lovely river we would never have encountered if we hadn’t taken our unintended detour

So we backtracked to return to the main trail and set out in the correct direction. We knew we would have daylight until after 8pm but we also knew that driving the 30 to 40 minutes down the dirt road would be much easier with daylight, so we ramped up our pace for the remainder of our hike. The trail was beautiful with a variety of different types of terrain. The sweeping views of the mountains were breathtaking, as was the view we had when we reached the crest that surrounded the lake.

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After our early navigational hiccup we managed to stay on the trail though we still found the occasional signage was nice to reassure us

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The trail itself was on the more strenuous side. Most of our time was spent on a sloped trail, either going up or going down. According to Lisa’s FitBit we walked more than 20 miles, climbing up the equivalent of more than 600 flights of stairs. Unfortunately, climbing that many flights of stairs also meant that we needed to hike back down again. As we were racing against daylight and walking much quicker than we should have, we were painfully reminded that we are getting older and that our knees (particularly Kevin’s) can’t take quite as much abuse as they used to. Needless to say, we were very happy when we arrived back at kilometer 0 and even happier to get to the car!

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The 0 km marker was a very welcome sight for Kevin’s poor aching knees

 

From Talca we made our way back to Santiago, stopping for one night in Rancagua. For the last few countries that we have visited we have not bought SIM cards for our phone, so for each new place that we would go we would pre-load maps into our phones. Prior to heading out from Rancagua we loaded the map and the directions to the rental car lot in Santiago. We made it to the outskirts of Santiago before the google maps app crashed and we lost our map and directions to where we were going. Luckily, we had both looked at the map and we were returning the car to the same location from where we had picked it up. We made only one wrong turn which unfortunately put us on a different freeway with no easy way to turn around. The trip only took us a little ways in the wrong direction but we had given ourselves plenty of time to return the rental so this wouldn’t have stressed us out… Except that as we are trying to turn around the gas light came on. We managed to correct our course and find a gas station when we exited the freeway on the correct side of Santiago where we confirmed directions to the rental car company. All in all we were proud of our navigation skills when technology failed us.

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One of the plazas of Rancagua and the only photo we took of the city

 

We are now looking forward to a couple of days in Santiago without having to drive a car, find parking or a new hostel to stay in every night.

***NOTE*** Unfortunately, as well all know, nothing in life is free.  This is as true for blogging as any other aspect of life.  With this post we will have used up our capacity of free storage space for photos on our blog.  As we are poor travelers at the moment and can’t afford to pay wordpress, we will be creating a new blog address for the remainder of our trip.  To continue reading about our adventures please go to:

https://lkviajando2.wordpress.com

For those of you following our blog you will have to re-register to follow this blog if you want to continue receiving email updates when we post new blog entries (ok we know that this is really only our parents).

Touring with Bex

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We decided that to get to Santiago quickly our best bet was an overnight bus, arriving in the morning so that we could spend the day with Lisa’s sister Rebecca who was diverted to Santiago. We opted to splurge a little bit and take a bus with seats that recline to an almost horizontal position, known as a “bus cama.” Though we are both very bad at actually sleeping on buses, the combination of the reclining seats, well-paved road, and relatively straight journey allowed Lisa to get a little bit of sleep on our trip down. Unfortunately, Kevin was not so lucky and drifted off a couple of times but was never able to fall completely asleep. As such, when we reached Santiago we were hopeful that we could do an early check-in and get a little bit of rest before meeting up with Rebecca. Sadly, the hotel where we were staying allowed for early check-in but for a hefty fee. We decided instead to store our bags and get some coffee (and an energy drink for Kevin) to keep us going.

We walked the city for a couple of hours before meeting Rebecca for lunch and a tour of the Museo de Bellas Artes. After lunch we headed back to our hotel to check in and take a quick nap. That afternoon we went to the Human Right’s museum where we learned about the history of Chile and the suffering that occurred during the reign of Pinochet.

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Museo de Bellas Artes

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Our travels through Colombia educated us to recognize a Botero statue on sight

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Having breakfast at the mercado central

The next day we went to pick up a rental car and head out to the coast. We drove towards the beach town of Valparaiso, spending the afternoon visiting a handful of wineries in the Casa Blanca wine region. The cool coastal climate make it an ideal location for growing Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. This is a very young wine region which only began planting its vines in the 1980s. Because the wineries are so young, all of the tasting rooms have also only been built in the last 20 years or so. The wineries and their tasting room were some of the most beautiful that the three of us had visited.

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One of the most elegant tasting rooms that we visited

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Sister time at the wineries

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After a great afternoon at the wineries we continued west to the coastal town of Valparaiso to spend a few nights. Our first day in Valparaiso we opted to take a walking tour to learn about the city and history of the region. Valparaiso was a coast city that rose to prominence during the gold rush as a rest and resupply point for boats heading around Cape Horn and up the coast to San Francisco. After the opening of the Panama Canal, boats no longer had to go around the southern tip of South America to access the Pacific Ocean, and the city began to decline. After our tour we made our way to the neighboring city of Vina del Mar to wander around. Vina del Mar felt like a smaller version of Miami and did not hold the same charm for us that Valparaiso did, even though it looked much more developed and more expensive to stay.

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Valparaiso is one of the most vibrant cities that we have visited, no two houses seemed to have the same color

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Walking along the promenade at Viña del Mar

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The waves were so large when we were there that a large portion of the beachfront was roped off and guarded by local police

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One of the main plazas in Valparaiso

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The street that we stayed on was closed to cars and lined with flowers

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Don’t believe the artwork, she’s totally a hippy

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A fantastic dinner in Valparaiso, recommended by the family we stayed with

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We’re not sure if that dog knows the man he is hanging out with is a statue

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Another look at the street where we stayed

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Not only were the houses colorful, the city was full of bright artwork

On our way back to Santiago we visited some of the other wineries in the Casa Blanca region that we had skipped on our way to Valparaiso. We had a beautiful sunny day touring the wineries and having a picnic before we dropping Rebecca off at the airport in the evening.

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Below are a collection of photos from the different wineries that we visited.

We have the rental car for a few more days so we will take advantage and make our way south and see a little bit more of the central region of Chile.

 

Beginning our 4,224km Journey through Chile

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Where to first?

DSC08946-01Several months of traveling through the northern portion of South America we weren’t quite prepared for the prices we found in Chile. Our three day tour through Salar de Uyuni and southern Bolivia ended just across the Chilean border in the town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro was a cute little tourist town with narrow streets and adobe buildings. There was an abundance of natural beauty in the area and the town seems to have sprouted up to become a jumping off point for any number of tours. Having just come from three days of lakes, mountains, and salt flats, we had a hard time justifying paying comparatively high prices to see similar landscape. As a result, our time in San Pedro ended up being briefer than we had expected.

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Iglesia de San Pedro

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A typical street and buildings in San Pedro

From San Pedro de Atacama we decided to head towards the coast and then hop from town to town as we made our way south to Santiago. Our first stop was Antofogasta which was a rapidly expanding port city. It wasn’t much of a tourist location and we spent most of our time there sitting in outdoor cafes and walking along a picturesque promenade that spans the length of the coast line.

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Torre Reloj (clock tower) in Plaza Colón 

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Taking a break in some of the artwork along the promenade

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The coastline of Antofagasta

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We were treated to a beautiful sunset on our walk back to the hostel

Our next stop was the tiny town of Chañaral. Sadly, Chañaral was the site of severe flash floods in March of 2015 that caused the destruction of many streets and buildings along with claiming several lives. Navigating around the town proved difficult and many of the places we had found online were borded up or completely washed away. After a couple hours of searching we found a small hotel with vacancy for us.

Finding a place to eat was also difficult. We ended up at a tiny hole in the wall that seemed to serve a variety of food. When our food arrived we realized that they got both our orders wrong. Kevin received a completely different sandwich than he had ordered and Lisa, who had asked for a pizza “without meat” ended up with a small pizza layered with both bologna and large chunks of sausage. When the waiter was questioned about the pizza, he confirmed that it was correct, pointing at the sausage stating “that isn’t meat, it’s pork.” This was yet another reminder to Lisa that to get vegetarian food in South America often requires more explanation and patience.

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Looking down on the coastal side of Chañaral where parts of the city were destroyed

Our main reason for staying Chañaral was to visit Parque National Pan de Azucar. It is a unique park where arid desert meets beautiful beaches. Logistically, it isn’t the easiest park to get to. Initially, we tried to get a shared minibus to take us to the entrance of the park. Unfortunately, the minibus was already full, so we were going to have to find a different way to reach the park. Lucky for us, as Kevin was explaining to the maid at our hotel that we would need to find an alternate transportation source, a young couple sitting near by told us that they were heading to the park in a couple of hours and they were more than willing to give us a ride.

This turned out better than we could have imagined as this young Chilean couple let us tag along as they made their way up the coast in the park, stopping at each beach and lookout. We walked down a couple of the long stretches of beach and stopped to eat our lunch while watching the waves.

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Us with our new friends as we arrived in the park

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Another advantage to befriending people who had a car was that everyday at 3 pm the park rangers take whoever is interested on a guided caravan through parts of the park that are normally off limits to cars. We thought this was a great idea until our new friends’ rental car got stuck in the sand on one of the turns. We were too far to turn back, so once we managed to push the car to slightly sturdier ground, the four of us all piled into the back seat of the rangers’ truck. This made for an interesting ride as we bounced along the trail with too many people crammed into the hot vehicle.

Even with the minor congestion of our vehicle we were very thankful to have the chance to see the various landscapes of Pan de Azucar. It seemed that every 20 minutes we crossed into a new terrain. Periodically, our guides would stop the caravan and we would all get out to listen to a short lecture about the land and plants in that area. The park rangers who led our trip were some of the most passionate conservationist we had ever met.DSC09103-01

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One section of our tour had thousands of these cactus that all leaned toward the sun

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A highway went through this area until the storms last year when the area flooded and washed away all traces of the road.  The park rangers were happy that the is gone and that the nature of the park is less disturbed.  There is a chance that the road will be rebuilt in the future.

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The tour culminated in a steep climb to a vista point on the cliffs where we could see the park sloping towards the ocean and the Pan de Azucar island rising out of the sea. It was a beautiful view and a great way to end the tour. On the way back down we stopped and reclaimed the rental car and thankfully made it all the way back to the ranger station.DSC09128-01DSC09116-02DSC09114-01

With another stroke of luck, our Chilean friends were headed to the town of Caldera that evening and offered to give us a ride. As it was the next spot on our itinerary, we jumped at the chance to not have to coordinate bags and buses. They even arranged for us to stay in the same hotel once we arrived. It was fairly late when we arrived in Caldera so we took them to dinner to say thank you for all their generosity, walked around town for a bit, and then called it a night.

The next day we spent a bit more time exploring Caldera and then headed to the nearby beach of Bahia Inglesa. We had read that it was known as being one of the most beautiful beaches in all of Chile, with white sand and turquoise water. When we arrived at the waters edge we were surprised by how many people could squeeze on a small section of beach. It was a beautiful beach with rock formations jutting out of the water. The rock formations also created a tranquil bay for tourists to splash and play in the smaller waves. Though the bay was pretty, it surprised us to realize that just beyond the rocks surrounding the tiny bay, the beach stretched on for many kilometers and was virtually deserted! The rest of the beach did not have the turquoise waters or the protection against the big waves, but we were still surprised to see so much beach so desolate next to the overcrowded beach next door. We walked for nearly an hour down the beach and barely made it half way.DSC09175-01

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The only place we could find to take a photo that wasn’t overflowing with tourists was at the shore in a section slightly less protected from the waves

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The beach felt like a little bit of the Caribbean in Chile

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The white sands looked more like a rainbow with all the tourists and their sun umbrellas

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The beach next door didn’t have the turquoise crystal waters, but it was still a beautiful places to go for a walk 

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That night we learned that Lisa’s sister Rebecca had gotten diverted on from her trip to Buenos Aires and instead would be in Santiago for a few days. We decided change our itinerary a bit and take a bus directly to Santiago to meet Rebecca so we could spend a few days together before Rebecca had to be back in NYC.

 

Salar de Uyuni

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Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, measuring 4,086 square miles (10,582 square kilometers). It is located in the southwest corner of Bolivia and contains an estimated 10 billion tons of salt. The flats are thought to have developed from a prehistoric lake that has since evaporated, leaving a salt crust up to 32 feet thick. Beacuase of the evaporation process, the flats are unusually level, creating an opportunity for many fun photos.

Once we decided on a tour company (Andes Salt Expeditions) we were able to sit back and enjoy being transported to some of the most unique landscapes we had ever seen. We spent the next three days driving around in a 4×4 SUV with our guide Walberto, a young couple from Australia, a Colombian, and a German. Before starting the tour we anticipated that the immensity of the salt flat would be the highlight of our tour. As it turned out we were amazed by the salt flat but we were also stunned by the beauty of the lakes, geysers and colorful mountains.

Our first day we drove a short distance from the town of Uyuni and to a train cemetery. From there we returned back to Uyuni to head the other direction to the salt flats. We made a couple of stops to take pictures of the landscape as well as some fun shots taking advantage of the perspective offered by the flat terrain. We also made a stop at Isla Incahuasi, an island covered with cacti and fossilized corral. The cacti were supposedly planted by the Incans, and we were told that they grow only 1-2 cm a year.

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The trains were skeleton that you could climb in, on, and through

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Kevin will climb anything he can find

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On the salt flats there are no “roads”, the SUVs can drive any path that they want that leads the direction they are going

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We were blown away by the beauty of the flats

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Kevin squishing Lisa into a pringles can

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Jumping for joy on the flats

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The hexagonal patterns in the salt are formed by water which was underground and has evaporated up through the salt

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At the salt hotel in the middle of the flats there is a collection of flags, but the flag for the USA is noticeably absent

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Last year the Dakar race passed through the flats, and this monument (built entirely out of salt) was constructed in commemoration

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A cactus forest on Isla Incahuasi

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Lisa showing off the impressive size of the cactus

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Looking out from the Isla onto the flats

After our day enjoying the flats we drove for a few hours for our first night’s accommodations. The first night we stayed at a “salt hotel.” This was a building made entirely out of salt blocks. The concept sounds quite novel and would likely have been beautiful if we chose to stay in a high priced, luxury hotel. As it was, ours was very simple just looked like a slightly dingy adobe building.

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Coffee break in the salt hotel after a long day of travel

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Enjoying a sunset while the local llamas were herded to bed for the night

 

We were also a bit nervous about the extreme conditions that region is famous for. The trip through the Salar reaches elevations of around 16,400 feet and during the winter can often reach temperatures of -10 celcius. Luckily, we were there in the summer and we had a much milder climate.

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This little fearless bunny-thing walked up to us as we squatted down with our hands out… once he realized we had no food he promptly left

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Kevin climbing more stuff

The second day was spent driving through valleys that were beautiful and often barren as we made our way to various lakes and points of interest. We visited 2 lakes with white shores that we initially assumed was more salt. It turns out that the white substance that coats the area is actually borax, of which the lake has levels that are toxic for most organisms. It turns out that one animal not affected by these chemicals are flamingos and the bacteria that they feed on. We also visited the Arbol de Piedra (tree of stone) which is a large area with interesting rock formations, one of which looks like a tree. That evening we stayed in a hostal with a half dozen 6-person dorms inside Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. The reserve was the at the highest elevation of our trip so it was the coldest night, but nowhere near the subzero temperatures that occur there during the winter. Also, because of the altitude many people suffer from altitude sickness on this portion of the trip. Luckily, we were prepared after our hike up Huayna Potosi, and neither of us suffered any ill-effects.

 

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First first of the lakes with flamingos

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The flamingos were eating nonstop while we visited the lakes

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Thankfully all of the flamingos were busy eating and none were temped to fly and disobey the clearly posted no-fly signs

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The Arbol de Piedra

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Lisa working on her boldering

 

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Us at Lago Colorado, that red substance behind us is actually water

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Another look at Lago Colorado

Our last day we got up 3:30 am and had an early breakfast so that we could hit the road just after 4 am. Our first stop of the morning, and the reason that we had to get up so early was to see the geysers. The geysers only erupt in the early morning and they were about an hour drive from where we spent the night. We spent an hour enjoying the geyser and exploring nearby sulfur pits before heading to soak in a nearby hot spring. It was still early morning and quite brisk when we got to the hot spring. The combination of the cool weather and multiple long days of sitting in an SUV made the natural hot springs seem incredibly luxurious. After 45 minutes of relaxation we piled back into the car and head to our last stop, Laguna Verde. The name Laguna Verde translate to green lagoon, which is evidently how the lake appears in the afternoon when the winds pick up, stirring up the lake and causing sediments containing copper minerals to give the lake a green hue. If you visit the lake in the morning it is more aptly named Laguna Negra, or black lake. The lake and surrounding mountains were still beautiful even if the lake didn’t live up to its green name. From the laguna we made our way to the Chilean border where we were picked up and transported to the nearby town of San Pedro de Atacama.

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It was quite cold for our early morning departure

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Warming our hands at the geyser with a little steam bath

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The hot water was nice, the sulfur scent not so much

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Kevin and our guide Walberto

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The mud was bubbling over and occasionally splashing on us as we explored.  There were no ropes or indicated paths to guide us through the maze of boiling mud pits, just our fearless guide Walberto who told us to follow him closely… or else!

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Group photo

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Posing on top of our hard working 4×4 SUV that began to feel like our home

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Enjoying the hot water that the stinky sulfur pits provided

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The mountains on the way to Chile looked like they were painted on the horizon

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Kevin at Laguna Negra (verde)

We had an amazing 3 days traveling through the salt flats enjoying the diverse and unique landscapes that it offered. We are sad that it passed so quickly but are excited to see what adventures we find in Chile.

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Getting (re)started

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Our time in the states was extended a few days as Lisa’s work asked her to stay a bit longer to work a few shifts in a nearby ER. The company gladly rearranged flights for both Lisa and Kevin to accomodate the new schedule.

DSC08388We arrived back in La Paz after 16 hours of travel (missing a night of sleep in the process) only to figure out that our only option to get to our next destination was via a night bus. This meant that we had approximately 12 hours in La Paz before getting on a 12 hour bus ride to Sucre. Since neither of us sleep particularly well on buses and we were already a bit sleep deprived, this was not the most ideal itinerary but we didn’t see many ways around it as we were eager to get on with the next phase of our travels.

DSC08390-01We spent most of our 12 hours in La Paz walking around the city, figuring that it was much easier to stay awake if we were vertical and moving. The bus ride was fairly uneventful and we arrived in Sucre blurry eyed and ready to find a bed. Unfortunately, our hostel in Sucre was full and we were unable to check in until the early afternoon. So yet again we decided to do an improvised tour of the town to keep ourselves awake. We visited the central square, a couple parks, and the cemetery which boasted many famous inhabitants. As Sucre is the official capital of Bolivia, it had some beautiful buildings and parks to walk through.

 

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The grave of Huascar Gustavo

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One of many walls of small cubby holes where loved ones can leave flowers and other keepsakes for those who have passed

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Lisa in front of the Eiffel Tower(ish looking structure)

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The view from the mirador in Sucre

Once our room at the hostel was available we took a nap for a couple hours before continuing our tour of the city. We walked up to a vista point at a church over looking the city. We sat and talked until the sunset and watched the lights of the city come on.

The next day we got back on a bus and headed for Uyuni, the jumping off point to see the famous salt flats of Bolivia. Unfortunately, a couple hours into our bus ride we found ourselves in the middle of another road blockage. We seem to have a talent at choosing to take buses on days when large groups of people decide to demonstrate their right to organized protest. We were unsure what they were protesting but we sat on the bus for quite a while debating our various options. About half of the inhabitants of our bus jumped ship and decided to head back to Sucre or try to walk past the road block and see if they could find transportation on the other side. We however, didn’t have a place to go to in Sucre or in Uyuni so we decided to stick it out. About 5 hours later we started moving, and 5 hours after that we arrived in Uyuni.

Often we won’t arrange a hostel before we arrive in a city, either because we can’t find enough information online, or we aren’t sure when we will actually arrive. This is often complicated but the fact that we don’t know the layout of the town or where the highest concentration of lodging options are located. In Uyuni, this meant we went door to door to find a place to stay when we arrived at around 11pm. We finally found a rundown hostel on the main square that had availability. The room even came with a private bathroom (a luxury that was often out of our self imposed budget). The bathroom however was up on a small platform in the corner of the room and completely enclosed in plexiglass. Around this they had hung a curtain, that didn’t quite cover everything, for privacy. We decided it was sufficient for our first night but we moved the next day.DSC08424-01

Arriving in Uyuni later than we thought meant we ad to wait a day to find a tour to the Salt Flats. We spent several hours talking to the different tour agencies (there are dozens of them) to find prices for three day tours that would drop us off in Chile at the end of the tour. Once we decided on a tour we got our exit stamp for Bolivia in our passports at the tiny immigration office in town (they will post-date your stamp if you are going on a tour) and we were ready to go. We leave tomorrow morning and we can’t wait to see this natural wonder for ourselves.

We’ll be home for Christmas

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The next stop on our tour was Cochabamba, a town in central Bolivia about midway between La Paz and Santa Cruz. Ordinarily it might not have been a destination on our travel route except for one key factor. This was the town where Alejandra lived. Alejandra is a good friend of Kevin’s dating back to his time in Spain who had had her first child a few months ago.  Kevin was very excited to catch up with Alejandra and meet little Luana. Alejandra and her family were kind enough to let us stay with them as we took a few days to recover from our arduous hike and relax. They were so sweet and took us on tours of the city, invited us to eat multiple meals with friends and extended family, and generally made us feel at home.DSC08273-01DSC08279-01

Alejandra had friends in Cochabamba who ran a paragliding business, so we decided to cross paragliding off our bucket list. There is very little training or preparation that went into our guided tandem flight.  We drove about 45 minutes to the top of a nearby hill, chatting with our guides in English and Spanish.  When we got there our instructors began setting up the parachutes while we took some photos of the city below.  After the parachutes were laid out they came over and gave us our helmets and the breakdown of how our flights would go.  The talk went something like this: I will be strapped in behind you.  When I say go, we start running.  When we start running the parachute will fill with air and pull us backwards a bit, don’t stop running.  That looks like a cliff below but it’s not…the hill just gets much steeper.  We need to sprint at that point and make sure we get enough lift to take off.  Any questions? No? Ok let’s go then!DSC08197-01DSC08214-01

There is something magical and exhilarating about running down the side of a mountain and feeling the wind lift you up. Once you are flying it is actually quite peaceful and provided us with a unique view of the city, although it was slightly nausea inducing if you are Kevin (though many activities we do seem to have that effect on him).DSC08224-01DSC08248-01

We had initially planned on taking a bus from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz to spend a day or two there before we needed to catch a flight back to the US to attend a wedding. At the counsel of Alejandra’s family, however, we decided to take a quick flight to cover that distance due to frequent road closures along the route. Luckily we found a cheap flight but it got us into Santa Cruz with only 8 hours to enjoy the city before heading back to the airport for our flight to San Francisco.

Eight hours was sufficient to give us an overview of Santa Cruz, try some of the local cuisine (including a very sweet drink made with a dehydrated plum at the bottom of each glass), visit a museum, and walk around the city center.  At the end of our short visit we hopped in a cab back to the airport around 11:30 pm and got to the airport by midnight to check in for our flight.  With just one connection in Panama City for a couple of hours we were home on Christmas Eve just 17 hours later, exhausted after not sleeping for 33 hours but excited to spend the holiday with our families.DSC08287-01DSC08284-01DSC08298-01DSC08295-01

The holidays were a blur of food, family, and friends.  This was the first time we had been apart for more than a few hours since we began our trip in September, but we were optimistic that we could survive on our own.  Somehow our first several days back passed in what felt more like 10 minutes and it was time to head up to Geyserville for our friends Paul and Joy’s wedding.  The ceremony was in a beautiful small church and the reception was at a nearby winery.  All in all it was a lovely evening celebrating the union of our friends, catching up with other friends, eating too much delicious food, and dancing the night away.

 

6088 meters

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When it comes to choosing where we will go and what activities we will participate in, our methods are quite varied. Sometimes we find things on the internet, sometimes we hear about excursions from fellow travelers, sometimes we get suggestions from the people who work in the hostel where we are staying, and sometimes we see a poster or sign on the street or in the window of a tour agency. The last of these was how we ended up deciding to climb Huayna Potosi. Kevin saw a sign advertising a 2-3 day mountain trek to over 6000 meters. Within an hour we had done some preliminary internet research on the mountain, compared prices at a couple different tour agencies and booked the trek – leaving the next morning. We hadn’t anticipated leaving the next morning but a brief look at the weather report for the next week made us realize that we had a very small window to make it to the top of the mountain before a snowy weather front rolled in. So, by necessity, we opted to skip the acclimation day and try to make it to the summit in two days.

The next morning we packed our backpacks with all the gear we would need for the trek (compliments of the our agency) and set out for Huayna Potosi. It took a couple hours to drive to the trail head. Our driver stopped several times along the way to allow us to take photos of the majestic mountain we would soon be climbing._pointing

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The lake just before arriving at the mountain was a rainbow of vibrant colors, unfortunately we suspect that the colors come from contamination from the nearby mine 

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Locals built a graveyard for the miners on the hills along the side of the road heading to Huayna Potosi

When we finally arrived at the lower base camp (situated at the trail head), we still didn’t totally appreciate what we had gotten ourselves into. We ate a hot meal of soup, met our guides and a few people who were coming off the mountain. The climbers looked exhausted after their descent and told us the trek was spectacular but one of the hardest things they had ever done. Thankfully, when you are just about to start a trek like this, excitement and anticipation win out and paid little heed to their warnings.

Both of us have worked very diligently over our time traveling to try to make our packs as light as possible. When you are constantly moving and need to carry everything on your back a few pounds makes a huge difference. Lisa’s pack usually weighs around 11kg and Kevin’s is 13/14kg. We were quite surprised when we struggled to hoist our packs on our backs and with their new weight. We had left almost all of our own belongings back at the hostel and now had our backpacks full of ice picks, crampons, gaiters, snow boots, sleeping bags, jackets, helmets, harnesses and snow gear. We would wear the gear on the hike to the summit so we only had to carry it to the upper base camp for the night, but as far as we were concerned, that was far enough.

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With bulky gear and so much of it we were forced to strap some to the outside of our packs

The first day was an “easy” hike. We only had to achieve a 500m elevation gain and we could wear regular hiking shoes. The path was rocky and often required a bit of a leap to get up some of the boulders (or perhaps it only felt like a leap because of the heavy backpacks we were wearing). The upper base camp was a welcome sight, even though we had only been hiking a few hours.

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Full of optimism despite our fully loaded packs

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The trek to upper base camp was relatively short, but still hard work

The upper base camp sits at 5130 meters (16,830 feet). It is strong stone building with a small kitchen and a large room with bunk beds and tables. Just outside the building were a couple of out-houses. There we met the other three trekkers who would be attempting to summit the mountain the next morning. There was one French girl, an Australian girl, a guy from Japan, and the two of us. We chatted, drank tea, and listened to the freezing wind howl outside. Dinner was served at 5pm and we were all tucked in our sleeping bags by 6pm.

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Step one complete, we made it to upper base camp!

As you can imagine 6pm is not the easiest of times to try and fall asleep , and elevation often makes it even more difficult.  We mostly just tossed and turned for the next six hours until our wake-up call came. That’s right, we had to get up at midnight to prepare for our trek to the summit. An early breakfast at midnight then it was time to gear up.  Our hike would be entirely up the snowy face of the mountain and it is much safer to trudge over frozen snow and ice then once it has been warmed by the sun. As the day warms up the top layer starts to melt, causing a slippery and dangerous landscape.

Six hours also seemed to be the opportune time to let us really appreciate many of the symptoms associated with climbing to that altitude.  Upper base camp was high enough to make us feel sluggish and nauseous. We were taking acetazolamide for the altitude and Lisa had brought a small supply of Zofran to try and combat the nausea. Unfortunately, this didn’t work too well for Kevin and he was unable to keep any of the medication (or his breakfast) down. Being the determined (or some might argue stubborn) personalities that we are, and since we didn’t have headaches or other signs of dangerous complications related to altitude, we set out as scheduled.

We were wearing 2 to 4 layers of insulating clothing, covering every inch of our bodies except our eyes. On our feet we had snow boots and crampons and gaiters. The boots closely resembled ski boots and did not allow for any mobility at the ankle. Over all of this padding we squeezed into harnesses that allowed both of us to be roped to each other and  our guide. For safety each guide can only accompany two people up the mountain.

The next 5+ hours were some of the most physically challenging of our lives (we now fully understood what the prior hikers were talking about). At that elevation each step is an effort. Or path was a sea of white, illuminated only by our small head lamps. Thankfully for us the hike was not technical.  We used our ice axes almost exclusively as walking sticks, helping us balance on the steeply inclined mountain.

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Hiking by the light of our headlamps

The sun began to raise about an hour before we reached the summit. This created some of the most spectacular view either of us have ever seen. We were above the clouds, looking down at the smaller mountains that surrounded us. In the twilight we could see lightning jumping between the clouds in the distance. Above us the sky was changing colors- pinks, yellows, and reds, as the sun crept onto the horizon. Unfortunately we failed to capture some of the most impressive views on film because our camera battery had frozen and refused to turn on.

After a while our camera warmed up enough to function again and we started our final ascent to the summit. We were physically spent but still filled with determination. It felt like we were on a near vertical climb as we struggled to move our feet one step at a time. We would count out 30 steps and then we would pause to rest and catch our breath for a couple of minutes. As we were crossing the final stretch and could see what we assumed was the summit in front of us, our guide turned around and said “only one hour left.” We almost fell over. He then laughed and led us the final stretch to the summit where we arrived about 10 minutes later.

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Sunrise on the mountain

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We had bought a collection of snacks for the hike knowing that it would be difficult to keep food down.  We bought foods full of calories that are small and easy to eat, such as chocolate and gummy candies.  It turned out that our planning was for nothing.  We both had trouble trying to drink small amounts of the Gatorade that we had bought (and only partially because it had started to freeze), so the idea of eating food was impossible despite the large number of calories we had burned walking up the mountain,

The summit was much smaller than we anticipated. There was only space for us to sit against the peak and smile for a couple photos. We had planned to do a photo with Lisa on Kevin’s back reaching for 20,000 feet (as we were only a few feet short of that benchmark). In reality the combination of our poor balance due to exhaustion and high winds made it difficult just to stand on the peak, let alone try a pyramid. Only two of the other travelers actually made it to the top about 15 minutes after we arrived (the other one was suffering from altitude sickness and had to return back to the upper base camp). The other two hikers had to wait a on a lower ridge while we took photos and enjoyed our accomplishment because the steep sides only allowed for 2 or 3 people at the summit._I5696

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We could have spent all day enjoying the magnificent views from the peak

After reveling in our victory for a while it was time to make the steep descent back down the mountain. Now that the sun was up we could actually see some to the terrain that we had crossed to make it to the top. There were times when we were underneath overhangs full of massive icicles, or on a ridge with severe drop offs on either side. We decided it was much better that we couldn’t see anything but the path on our way up the mountain. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

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Making our way down the steep descent from the summit

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Some of the ridges were narrow with very steep sides, needless to say we were glad to be tied to each other

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Watching the other hikers making the steep ascent to the summit from our throne at the top of the world

We made it down to upper base camp and rested for a short while.  Kevin tried to eat some soup but after a spoonful the nausea returned and he had to leave the bowl almost untouched. We then packed up the rest of our gear and continued on to the lower base camp to meet our shuttle driver and ride back to La Paz. Overall it was an amazing experience and we are so glad we did it…but we are pretty sure this will be the last 6,000 meter climb we will attempt on this trip.

Next up for us will be resting for a day or two before heading to Cochabamba to visit Alejandra, another Bolivian friend that Kevin met in Spain.

La Paz

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The bus stop in Copacabana was just a couple of blocks from our hostel and the street was chalked full of mini-vans known as micro-buses and full size buses. We asked a few of the drivers to find the correct departure time and to confirm that the bus would take us all the way to the bus station in La Paz. The bus ride itself was a beautiful trip skirting the perimeter of Lake Titicaca for the first hour or two. At one point the bus assistant walked down the aisle telling everyone it was time to get off the bus. The road from Copacabana intersects with the lake and both the passengers and the bus itself are put on ferries to get to the other side. Due to weight restrictions the passengers have to ride apart from the bus. We watched our bus float across the water and hoped that it would make it safely to the other side with all of our gear packed on the underside of the bus. After re-boarding the bus we made our way away from the lake and towards the city.

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The bus preparing to enter its ferry, we were glad to be on a slightly more sound looking ferry

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Our bus setting out

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Lisa and Caroll boarding our more sea (lake) worthy ferry

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A little girl on our ferry traveling with her kitten in a bag, after a few moments we realized this was a live kitten and not a stuffed toy

About an hour away from our scheduled arrival time in La Paz we were passing through a small town when the bus pulled to the side of the road and stopped for a few minutes. The bus then made a u-turn and proceeded back a dozen or so blocks the direction that we had come before making a turn down a side street. Due to protests blocking the road we were forced off the “freeway” and down multiple dirt roads around the town before meeting back up with the freeway miles out of our way. Thankfully the detour wasn’t too far out of the way and we arrived in La Paz only about an hour after scheduled.

Unfortunately, when we arrived to La Paz the driver of the bus decided that we were not going to go to the city center and dropped us off at the cemetery on the outskirts of the city. We were able to find a tourist information center and found out how to use public transportation to get from where the bus left us to the center of the city. Normally we find a hostel prior to traveling to each location, but the Internet was dead the entire time that we were in Copacabana so we were forced to look for a coffee shop in the center of town equipped with Internet. Luckily, we found a hostal that was reasonably priced and only a few blocks from where we stopped for coffee.

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Basilica San Francisco and the plaza is where we found a coffee shop to search for our accommodations.  On the right of the picture is the shopping center where we found cheap food and dined often.

Our time in La Paz was mainly spent walking the city. One day we did a walking tour and learned a lot about the people, politics, and culture of Pacenos (the term for people from La Paz) as well as a great deal about the city itself. One of the highlights of the tour was passing through the witches market where vendors had assortments of different powders and potions for a host of different effects from more traditional herbal pain remedies, to love potions and curses.

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Llama fetuses that are buried under new houses to bring the inhabitants good luck

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Many of the streets of La Paz had markets with food stalls selling fruits, vegetables, breads, and other goods

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The clock on this building is reversed and ticks backwards

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Another highlight was visiting Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon) which is a landscape shaped by erosion and devoid of almost all plant life that looks feels like you are walking on the moon.

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La Paz also has three telefericos (gondolas) that run across the city and up the mountains on the side of the city. We went up to the top of two of the telefericos and were rewarded with spectacular views of the enormous city. The telefericos are also a great way to get around the city because aside from the views the offer, they fly rapidly over the traffic congestion below.

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The view from the gondola as we headed up the cliffs

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Alex and Kevin at the top of one of the gondolas

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Traveling for an extended time means that we need to budget our money carefully. One of the places where try to save money is on food. In each town we look for budget options where we can get a good meal for a small price. In La Paz there was a multi-level shopping center a few blocks from our hostal with various stalls selling a wide variety of foods including full meals, sandwiches, bunuelos, fruit salads, smoothies, and almost anything else you could want. We found ourselves eating at these stalls at least once a day. The challenge was that the entire shopping center was a series of ramps, and the stalls sat on these ramps. If you saw the stall where you wanted to eat it could still be an adventure wandering the maze of ramps to try to arrive at your destination. Our time in La Paz also reunited Kevin with one of his favorite foods, the salteña. Salteñas are folded dough similar to an empanada, but inside they contain hot soup along with the usual meat and veggies of an empanada (we found vegetarian-friendly ones for Lisa too). Salteñas are delicious but take some practice to be able to eat without burning your mouth or making a complete mess of yourself.

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Lisa and Caroll waiting for empanadas at one of Caroll’s favorite food stalls

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We reunited with our friend Catherine that we met on our sailing trip from Panama to Colombia

Kevin had also met a few people from Bolivia when he was living in Spain. Alex and Veronica were two of these friends who both lived in La Paz. Both Alex and Veronica were kind enough to free up their afternoons and evenings to spend time with us while we were in La Paz. It was great to get to spend time reconnecting with both of them as well as having personal tour guides of the city. Veronica’s family runs a chocolate company called Para Ti, so we stopped by the store and sampled some of the chocolate. Alex works freelance designing comics and animations. Alex gave us a tour of the comic library where she spends much of her time as well as an animation studio where she works from time to time. It was interesting getting to see some of the projects that she has worked on and to see the development of the very young animation industry within Bolivia.

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Taking our turn behind the counter

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The view as we watched the hail fall around us

One afternoon, while walking around La Paz we got stuck in one of the most impressive hail storms any of us had ever seen. Luckily we found a little cafe with a covered terrace that allowed us to enjoy the storm from the warmth and comfort of our glass enclosure.

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The hail covering the ground

Sadly, La Paz was the last stop on Caroll’s tour with us. We greatly enjoyed having a third travel partner to share in our travels, especially her sense of humor. We were all sad to say goodbye to each other, but Lisa and Kevin will fly home for Christmas for another friend’s wedding, so we will be reunited soon.

Click on the follow photos to see the full sized photos:

 

Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world

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DSC07466-01After a night in Cusco we hopped on a bus leading down to Puno, the largest city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world sitting at 12,507 feet. “The highest navigable lake” is a statement that we heard countless times though we still haven’t figured out what exactly defines a lake as navigable. We spent quite a bit of time walking around Puno, but our main activity was to take a boat ride out to visit the floating islands and the Island of Taquile.

 

 

DSC07589-01The floating islands were fascinating. They are build by layering reeds on top of each other to form a mat which sits on top of a collection of bundled together cork-like objects.  The cork-like objects are actually the dense roots of the tutora plants which have been that were pulled from the ground when the lake level rose and then cut by locals with a saw.  The roots when not embedded in the earth below are extremely buoyant and are how the islands are able to float. The people are continually adding reed to the top of the island as the underside disintegrates away. Each island holds a few families living in huts also made out of reeds. Cooking in done in a separate area so as to not burn down their houses. Each island has an elected leader who is part of the leadership council for all the islands.

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The floating island that we visited had a dozen or so houses built on it, with a few other floating islands visible in the distance.  The boat in the photo that is docked at the island now gives tours but originally the indigenous people lived on these boats and not floating islands.

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The boats were equipped with motors but the docks were packed with boats.  The only way to get the boats out was for workers to use long sticks to “punt” the boat along in the shallow waters.

DSC07508-01Visiting the islands felt very touristy as everyone was shuttled out to the islands on a small ferry boat. We got off on the island and were greeted by the leader of the island. We then had a short lecture on how the island was constructed. After that all the tourist were divided into groups and escorted by different women into their homes to discuss life on the islands and to try on some traditional garb. After taking a few pictures and buying some souvenirs (that were overpriced but the money went to support the local community), we got back on our ferry and headed to the island of Taquile.

 

Taquile is a small island about 45 km off the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Despite its close proximity to the shoreline it still took us nearly 3 hours to reach the island from the Puno port. It is an island that has retained much of its cultural identity in spite of the fact that dozens of tourist visit the island daily.  After arriving on the island we hiked from the dock to the top of the island where we had a lunch prepared by locals. There are 3 restaurants on the island along with a cooperative that sells artisanal goods.  The interesting fact is that all of the families on the island take turns running the restaurant and the cooperative.  This is a great way to ensure that every family has an opportunity to make a profit from tourists eating on the island, but it means that the quality of the food changes with each rotation. The goods at the cooperative each have an item number on them indicating which family created the good.  When a good is sold the tag is taken off and the money put aside to give to the appropriate family.

On the island of Taquile property can not be sold.  Property belongs to a family and is passed down from generation to generation.  This means that no foreigner can ever relocate to Taquile unless they marry into a local family.  This is one of the ways that they have been able to preserve their culture.  On the island there are no police officers, no fire fighters, or any other public servant.  They do have local and regional leaders who are elected for set terms by a town meeting in which all people of age raise their hands to vote for the candidate that they support.  The island also only has 3 laws: work hard, don’t lie, and don’t steal.

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Our guide for the day was a native from the island of Taquile and gave us a wealth of information about island life, local customs, and culture

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The sign upon arriving to Taquile made us smile as it was the only time we had been welcomed as “Lord Visitors” though we didn’t appreciate having to pay our income

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A local child who’s happiness was contagious, though we aren’t sure where his parents were

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The next day we traveled from Puno to Copacabana on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Unfortunately, Bolivia began the portion of our trip where we had to pay to cross each border, technically Kevin only had to pay to get his stamp switched from his US passport to his British passport so that he would not have to pay the reciprocity fees of Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Bolivia also required a wide variety of different paperwork for American tourists entering the country.  Thankfully, we had done our research in advance and after an hour or so, Lisa and Caroll were permitted into Bolivia and we continued on our way to Copacabana.

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The distances in the sign may be correct, but we are fairly certain the directions are not

Upon arrival in Copacabana we rushed to our hotel to drop off our bags so that we could make the ferry to Isla del Sol, an island located on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. We managed to get to the docks 15 minutes before the ferry was leaving and negotiate a reasonable price to travel to the island.  When we bought our passage we were told the ride would take 90 minutes each way, and we would have 1.5 hours to explore the town of Yumani on the southern end of the island, as well as a second stop for 20-30 minutes to visit the site of some ruins on the island. Unfortunately, the trip took almost twice as long as we were promised and we were only allowed 45 minutes to hike around the island. We raced up the hillside, which is no easy task given the altitude, and were able to get some stunning views of the island, the lake, and the Andes Mountains in the distance. After a few quick photos we ran down the hill and arrived back a few minutes late with our guide frantically waving us to board the boat, saying it was about to pull away.  In reality we sat there for 15 minutes after we got on board, pulled out a hundred meters or so into the lake, and had to re-dock to pick up some passengers who were left behind and yelling from the dock.

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The islands of Taquile and Isla del Sol both had tiered terraces where they grew their food

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Local girl taking her two donkeys and a llama for a walk through town

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Lake Titicaca with the Andes Mountains of Bolivia in the background

We arrived back to Copacabana early in the evening and wandered town until the sun set beautifully over the lake. We had dinner at a local restaurant before going to the central market for tea, hot milk and Api (a hot drink made from corn that tastes reminiscent of apple cider or non-alcoholic spiced wine) and bolivian buñuelos (a dessert made from fried dough that resembled circular churros).

Tomorrow we will hop on a bus and make our way to La Paz.

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In Puno we were treated to one of the more spectacular sunsets of our trip