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On The Road at Last

Hard Landing in Santa Cruz

semi-overcast 84 °F

Day 1-2 Helena > Santa Cruz

Despite finishing day 7 of the Big Trek, I’m only just making my first entry in what I had hoped would be a more ongoing record of events. Oh Well, so much for the best of intentions. I guess it is just best to begin at the beginning. Day one, Monday June 11, 4:30 am up and at ‘em for a 6:00 am departure on Delta from Helena to Detroit to Fort Lauderdale. The plan is to catch a shuttle from FLL to Miami then Miami to Santa Cruz Bolivia with a 6 hour layover in Lima. Despite an inexorably long line to get through security in Helena, we managed to depart without incident. With only an hour between flights for the stateside portion of the trip it all needs to go smoothly. But with fair skies and no storms on the horizon, we settled in for a long day of travel.

We landed in MSP on time and made our way to the gate for the flight to Detroit. The kids are carrying their backpacks minus sleeping bags. Anne and I checked or backpacks along with another duffle carrying the sleeping bags, my hiking boots, Aidan’s boots and a couple of deflated soccer balls for pick-up games with the locals.

Taxiing out from the gate at MSP all seems well except for too long a delay at the end of the runway. What began as a typical travel day in the over-filled cattle cars that have been substituted for airplanes is suddenly transformed into my own personal travel nightmare spelled “mechanical failure”. The back-up generator has failed and now we are on our way back to the gate. With only an hour to spare in Detroit we are screwed. Fortunately, we brought along one of the kids trac-phones so I immediately called Delta to see if we can somehow get to Miami in time to catch a flight on LAN to Bolivia. Normally, I wouldn’t be so concerned except that with 4 of us flying I knew we would be hard pressed to find seats for all of us. I managed to get a good operator at Delta and within 20 minutes we are booked on a flight to Atlanta then Miami for all of us. But what about our bags? Delta assures us that there is plenty of time to switch them from the Detroit bound plane and they will be in Miami when we arrive. I’m not quite so confident but am not really in a position to affect the situation one way or the other.
As you might have guessed when we arrive in Miami our bags are sitting in Detroit. Our other problem is that we are traveling on a split ticket so at the end of the day Delta only really feels compelled to drop our bags in Fort Lauderdale despite the fact that we are on our way to South America. What a cluster f. But the new math for travel representatives is just to tell you whatever they think that you want to hear. At 10:00 pm they actually have the cajones to tell me that they are still hoping that bags landing in Fort Lauderdale at 10:40 will still manage to catch our LAN flight leaving Miami at 12:00.

Arriving in Santa Cruz Bolivia the next afternoon we didn’t wait around too long to see if our bags were actually coming off the plane. With glum faces as we contemplate the many creature comforts left behind, a super nice guy with LAN in Santa Cruz takes down our information and assures us that he will do everything in his power to have our bags delivered to our hotel in the next day or so. Despite his cheery confidence, the fact that I’m standing in a third world airport and our bags are some 5,000 miles away leaves me with a gnawing pit in my stomach as I wonder where I will ever find a decent pair of boots in a country where the average height is about 5’3. I’m guessing los zapaterias don’t carry much in size 12.

Fortunately, we did contemplate this possibility so Anne and I are at least carrying an extra set of clothes along with the small pharmacy we had put together to hopefully keep everyone healthy. Unfortunately, the chargers for my computer and my camera were stuck behind, so I have a really heavy camera bag with a computer and only one set of batteries and no charger. But there is another flight coming from Miami in the morning and all should be well then.

It has been a while since I have done any travelling in the third world and the ride into Santa Cruz, a city of some 2 million souls was an education for all of us. I had to laugh as I thought about the number of people that asked us if we planned to rent a car. Holy Crap! We wouldn’t have made it out of the airport parking lot. First, imagine leaving a decent sized metropolitan airport where the city has grown up around it without any street signs or other directions to indicate how to get anywhere. Then get rid of all but the most rudimentary of traffic controls. No lanes, no stop signs, roads leaving and entering from all directions, not to mention bumper to bumper traffic all going way too fast. In my finest days of San Francisco city driving I would have been chopped liver within a minute.
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In the hour or so that it took to negotiate the 14 miles into the city center I was sure that we were going to crash at least a dozen times. But our driver delivered us intact to our hotel Residencial Bolivar without incident. Santa Cruz is a hard place to land after 36 hours traveling even without the stress of lost luggage. Fortunately, Residencial Bolivar was a veritable oasis and refuge in an otherwise large, dirty, noisy third world city. Near the main plaza, it is in the oldest part of the city. I’m guessing the building is well over one hundred years old, all one level with a large courtyard filled with tropical plants and a pet toucan named Simone. The kids weren’t too taken with Santa Cruz and looked like they were wondering what we had bamboozled them into. But a hotel with a pet toucan that will sit on your arm makes up for a lot. P1040182.jpg
That evening we made our way to the plaza and found a bar with a nice view. Anne and I each had a Ciaparena, and the kids had sundaes. I also discovered a really good Bolivian brown ale, Pacena Black, and despite the lost luggage, eighty-five degrees and 90% humidity (in winter), I really couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. Considering the hard day, we decided to splurge with dinner that night at Café Lorca, one of Santa Cruz’ more stylish café’s. I had fried alligator that was delicious. With drinks, the tab came to 246 Bolivianos or about $25 for the four of us.
The room at Residencial Bolivar was small but super clean with very comfortable beds and really nice staff. But for our lost luggage I might have slept well.

Posted by White Buffalo 13:23 Archived in Bolivia Comments (7)

Samaipata and the Cloud Forest

Of Moneys and Giant Tree Ferns

semi-overcast 75 °F

Day 3 – 6 Samaipata

Got up the next morning painfully aware of all the gear that was missing but really glad to have the basics to get by. I managed to track our bags on the internet only to discover that they were still sitting in Fort Lauderdale as I had feared they might. Spent the morning calling Delta who deftly delivered another string of platitudes, increased our stash of cash, and considered our options. Since the Travel Gods were firmly in control of our fate, we decided to continue with our plan to travel to Samaipata a small town about 2½ hours west of Santa Cruz on the edge of Amboro National Park. Negotiated a taxi to the place where we could catch another taxi to Samaipata. Found a guy to take us there for 30 Bolivianos each or about 4 dollars a piece for the three hour drive. The taxi could hold 7 passengers along with the driver and since he had only collected six people we needed to wait for another passenger to come along before we could leave. I quickly did the math and gladly paid the extra fare to send us on our way.

We picked up another older woman on the way out of town with a mountain of stuff not the least of which were carefully packed eggs or something equally fragile. When we stopped to fill up with natural gas, the fuel of choice in the Bolivian lowlands, I took the opportunity to use the bano and missed out on the big excitement of the journey. Bridget wanted something out of her pack, and Anne, the ever attendant mother, promptly opened the back of the van where upon a mountain of stuff rained down not the least of which was the old woman’s fragile cargo. The benefits of not knowing the language helped shield the onslaught of the old woman’s rage. Anne had no idea what she said but it was something akin to a long string of expletives to chasten the careless gringa lady that tipped over the apple cart. From there it was a long stony silence for the next 2 ½ hours to Samaipata.

Leaving the flat countryside, we quickly ascended into the mountains along a series of steep forested river valleys. We passed through several towns and villages that all looked very poor and ratty, but as we ascended into the mountains we began to see some very large, well attended homes with grand vistas of the valley below. Many of the steep hills were cultivated and I wondered if it might be coca they were growing but it turns they were just vacation homes of wealthy people from Santa Cruz.
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Samaipata is a really quaint village that sits at the top of a large river valley. We stayed at the Hostal Andorina, a small B&B run by Andre’ an ex-pat from Holland and his Bolivian wife. The next morning we found a small tour company to take us to El Fuerte, the Fort, a large archeological site on top of a mountain some miles out of Samaipata. Our guide, Tibu, informed us in Spanish translated by Anne, that El Fuerte is one of the oldest archeological sites in South America, more than 2,000 years old, and used by the Incas and a variety of pre-Incan civilizations as a sacred religious site for prayer and sacrifice. The Spanish provided the moniker “El Fuerte” speculating that it must have been a military site due to its advantageous position on a hill perched in a high bowl with mountains surrounding that provided a watershed for the some 2,000 people that resided there in centuries past.

The hills of this particular location were particularly dry as compared with the surrounding country-side and dominated by a long needled pine tree and Eucalyptus that were introduced from Europe and Australia in the last 50 years to control erosion. As you can imagine, the erosion is still prevalent and the pine and eucalyptus are doing a splendid job of crowding out the native plants. It seems that the Do-Gooders ability to screw up the environment is a universal human attribute.
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El Fuerte is an amazing site and a strong reminder that this rugged landscape has a rich history that goes far beyond anything you might learn in your basic history lessons. After several hours we returned to Samaipata, caught some lunch and decided to go check out the Refugio Zoologico, a sanctuary for rescued animals. This small, unassuming enclave was about a 15 minute walk from town. As we entered, we could see several large enclosures with a variety of parrots and monkeys and several standard farm animals grazing nearby. We were greeted by a young woman that took our 40 bvs entrance fee and proceeded to walk through. Then came the monkeys. Several species of Howler and Spider monkeys were just out running loose and immediately came over to visit the new arrivals. Swinging from trees and bushes, after all of about 30 seconds we each had a monkey perched on our shoulders. One larger Howler Monkey, took an immediate liking to Anne, and perched on her head, he proceeded to howl letting all of the world know just how much he adored his new friend. There was a large black spider monkey that liked to swing from your arm and several baby howlers that were content just to nuzzle in the crook of your neck and lick the salt from the sweat on your hands. Unfortunately for the monkeys, our recent arrival from civilization meant that our hair was free from any fleas or lice, but they checked all of our hair just to make sure there weren’t any goodies to be found. It is difficult to express just how super cute they were. The contrast between any zoo or rescue center I have visited in the states was vast, and the staff there was actually surprised that similar facilities don’t allow such direct contact with the animals. The animals that were caged were only contained to prevent them from running off or if they happened to be biters. It all just seemed so sensible.
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That evening, after booking a trek for a hike to a cloud forest the next day and catching a bite to eat, I went and found an Internet Café to check and see if there was any word on our luggage. An email from the LAN representative indicated that unfortunately our bags had not arrived that day as hoped and more alarming was the admission that at this point no one really knew where they were. The reality that we could spend the rest of the trip without most of our belongings seemed to have moved from possibility to likelihood. Despite the absence of numerous creature comforts, I was really mourning the loss of my hiking boots and the power cords for my computer and battery chargers for cameras. The loss of warm sleeping bags would also mean that we were in for some very cold nights during upcoming treks on the altiplano.
After dinner, I ran into Andre’, the owner of the hostal. As we told him of our adventures and plans to hike the cloud forest the next day, he mentioned that he might have some hiking boots that would fit me. I thankfully jumped at the offer. The boots were quite old and worn but they fit reasonably well and provided a big step up from the very light canvas crocs that I was wearing.

The next morning we met our guide, Renaldo. A young guy with a family who’d grown up in Samaipata and spent 6 years at the University in Cochabamba studying tourism and botany. He spoke English reasonably well, but with Anne speaking Spanish he quickly dropped back into his native tongue.

The cloud forest was nothing short of amazing. Within a few minutes of hiking up a steep trail we moved from a relatively dry climate to dense jungle. On the way we encountered several Green Toucans, a Carpenter Bird that looked and behaved much like a large Flicker, and a mother Howler Monkey and her baby. Renaldo’s knowledge of the medicinal properties of numerous plants was very impressive distinguishing a large variety of medicinal plants from what appeared to the untrained eye as a mostly dense green forest. The giant tree ferns were super cool. With a hard trunk like any typical tree at the top is a large top-not with giant fern fronds eminating from it. Large leaves are up to 8 feet in length and a good 4 feet wide.
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The hike took about 6 hours and I was really thankful for the boots since many parts of the trail were steep and muddy. Not the terrain for lounge shoes. The fact that our hosteler had completely saved my bacon was not lost on me as I contemplated where I might come up with another set of boots.

When we returned that evening, I stopped be the internet cafe to attend to what had now become the luggage ritual and the email from LAN informed us that our bags had in fact arrived and would be delivered forthwith to our hotel. The Travel Gods had smiled, and we all let out a huge sigh of relief.

It rained hard that night and on Saturday the 16th we packed up, caught a taxi and headed back to Santa Cruz to collect our things and fly out to Sucre. Apart from the fact that our driver kept falling asleep while negotiating a windy, narrow mountain road the return trip was uneventful. As we approached Santa Cruz the rain came harder and we quickly received an education in the benefits of infrastructure. All the Tea Party nut jobs that don´t think the government is providing any value would do well to make that drive. It is amazing and not very pretty when you concentrate a lot of people in one place with no government services like garbage collection or storm drains just to name a couple of key items.

We returned to the Residencial Bolivar, the kids glad to see the toucan Simone, and Anne and I happy to be done with the luggage saga.
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Posted by White Buffalo 13:25 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Sucre the White City

sunny 70 °F

Sucre – June 17 – 22

We landed in Sucre with clear, sunny skies, happy that we hadn’t stayed in Cochabamba if only for some of the worst air quality I’ve run across since I was in Taipei nearly 30 years ago. The Sucre airport was a bit of a sight. The main terminal had some boarded up windows and the control tower had clearly been constructed in phases so that nothing fit quite right. Just another subtle reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore. We bade fair well to Mara, a young Danish woman that we befriended en route, collected our duffel bag full of sleeping bags and headed for the curb.

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A short taxi ride took us to our Hostal – La Dolce Vita – a small place not far from the main plaza with a lovely courtyard run by two Swiss ex-pats that were really friendly and extremely helpful when it came to explaining the city. Bridget immediately took to the place if only for presence of Michi a very amiable Siamese cat. Sucre is a city of approximately 250,000. It is an old colonial city and the judicial capital of Bolivia. Deservedly a world heritage site for its amazing colonial architecture it is Bolivia’s most beautiful city and home to 4 public and several private universities which provide a certain vibrance typical to university towns.
Sucre is a lovely city by any measure. The people are friendly, the architecture is stunning and with a good loaf of French bread fetching all of 2 bvs or about 30 cents and a buck for a decent Bolvian pils there’s not much to leave you wanting. I have to admit, I was also a bit surprised at how stunning the women are. The Indians look far more Asian than Spanish and the faces of the old people could provide a never ending series of portraits depicting humanities toil.

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Besides the fact that Sucre is a must for any visit to Bolivia, we planned to spend the next 5 days with all four of us in language school. Anne honing her very capable skills and I attempting to resurrect what was left of 4 years of Spanish classes almost 30 years ago. Me Gusta Spanish School was located just down the street from our hostal and around the corner. Run by a nice young couple Fernando and Ely Gonzalez, it was one of the few language schools that I could find that would take kids.
We spent the first afternoon strolling around the many parks and other highlights of Sucre then at 8:15 a.m. sharp, we marched down to school with notebooks and language dictionaries in hand. The kids complained bitterly that it really wasn’t fair that they should have to go to school during summer vacation, but we reminded them that this wasn’t a typical summer vacation. Me Gusta is a small school with not more than a dozen or so students at any one time. After some testing to determine our level, Fernando took the kids, Anne went with the advanced group and I was left with an Australian gal named Kate. I was comforted by the fact that she was in decidedly worse shape than I when it came to comprehension and with that Australian accent injected into her speech, I felt like a real pro.
The standard class was 4 hours in the morning and I had thought about doing the intensive version with an extra 2 hours in the afternoon. After 4 hours of non-stop Spanish my brain was complete mush and I was as ready for the final bell as any typical school kid. I had overworked some brain cells that hadn’t been exercised in a really long time. I had to believe that maybe part of it had been removed. With mornings spent in class, not to mention another hour or so of homework in the afternoon, our days in Sucre flew past, highlighted by the Ballet de Origenes a live show that exhibited the costumes and traditional dances of various indigenous people of the area. Other highlights included the Indigenous Textiles Museum that exhibited the most unbelievable weaving I have ever seen. After spinning the wool by hand then dying it with natural dyes, a 3x4 panel typically requires about 3 months to finish. Each area of the country has their own unique designs. P1040206.jpg P1040319.jpgThe Museum of Ethnographic Folklore had an exhibit of ritual masks that were extremely ornate and completely spooked the kids. On Thursday night we had dinner with Fernando and Ely and their two young children, and I can honestly say that for the first time ever I participated in and followed a conversation completely in Spanish and actually understood a good part of it. The beauty of speaking Spanish in Bolivia is that for 60% of the population it is their second language, most people speak Quechua or Aymara along with 30 other dialects so they tend speak more slowly than in most of the other Latin America countries and it is much easier to understand.
We finished classes on Friday morning and then caught an afternoon bus for the 2 ½ hour trip to Potosi.
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Posted by White Buffalo 18:21 Archived in Bolivia Comments (2)

Potosi -Tough Living and Rough History in a Difficult Place

sunny 58 °F

Potosi – June 22 – 25

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Leaving Sucre, we ascended a long river valley, the hills covered with mahogany and greasewood, the bottoms supporting stands of pepperwood and eucalyptus. The view from the roadway could have just as easily been a side trip through the hills of Southern California as the lower reaches of the Altiplano. As we continued higher in elevation large cactus similar to small saguaro appeared and the vegetation thinned. After ascending to around 11,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation, we reached a high plateau and began to see numerous enclaves of not more than a couple of squat mud-brick homes with small agricultural plots terraced into the surrounding hills. Herds of llamas, sheep and goats each with a tender sprinkled the countryside foraging for what little the sparse hills could provide._DSC3607_01.jpg_DSC3603.jpg
Potosi is an incongruous place. Located at more than 13,000 feet in elevation thin bunch-grass is the primary vegetation quickly giving way to disturbed soil in every direction. The main highway enters a large basin framed by the peak of Cerro Rico the richest mountain on earth that has been mined continuously since 1545. Active and abandoned adits are visible across the mountain along with small groups of miners clustered nearby and their minimal tools associated with the mostly hand labor used to extract the ore.
The new bus terminal where we arrived looks completely out of place among the mud, brick, stucco and tile that comprises 99% of the architecture. The circular blue glass and steel exterior structure with white marble interior belongs in a decidedly more modern locale than the rough and tumble hodgepodge that is Potosi. A short taxi ride delivered us up the hill to The Koala Den, a backpackers hostal near the main plaza inhabited by mostly young European gringos surprised to see Anne and I with our family in tow. The proprietors were very friendly and helpful, but a cramped room badly in need of a good cleaning and new paint left Bridget questioning the premise of our whole adventure. We caught dinner that night at a small pizzeria where I had a delicious llama steak, the girls settled for soup and Aidan pasta. It’s no wonder that I am the only one that has suffered any gastronomic challenges on the trip so far.

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We spent the morning touring the Casa de Moneda, the Spanish mint established in the early 1600’s which became the primary source of Spain’s wealth for the next several hundred years. It is a fascinating story of early industrialization and exploitation. It is estimated that 8 million black slaves imported from Africa died in the mint alone, not to mention those that died in the mines.

That afternoon we hooked up with The Big Deal mine tour operator for a first-hand look at life in the mines of Cerro Rico. Our guide Pedro, an ex-miner himself was first rate and his knowledge of the mines and their operation was vast. We stopped first at the Miners’ Mercado to purchase gifts of coca leaves, cigarettes, nearly pure cane alcohol, and sodas for the miners. From there we went to a refining facility that would give even the most jaded OSHA inspector nightmares.

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A short ride further up the mountain delivered us to a small adit where we entered the mountain. A maze of small tunnels took us into the bowels of the mountain, taking care to step over and around large holes that led straight down into the reaches below. Since it was Saturday of San Juan de Noche, the Aymara New Year, there were not a lot of miners working that day. P1040373.jpg We did find one fellow, working alone with a pick and shovel, we bestowed numerous gift and watched in awe as he packed a hole with dynamite. With the fuse in place and the dynamite well packed we moved back up the tunnel to wait for the blast. A loud kaboom, dust, and the strong smell of burnt gunpowder indicated our blast master knew his business. Bridget was not happy with the noise level to put it mildly. He was unhappy though since the ton or so of displaced rock was mostly waste rock that would have to be moved by hand in the ongoing search for valuable ore that provided his livelihood.
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After the blast, we moved back down the tunnel and into a small sanctuary that held Tio or “the Uncle”, a straw and mud figure where the miners made prayers and gave offerings of coca leaves, tobacco, and alcohol. Tio provides safety, good fortune, and a link to Panchamama, the earth mother who protects all. The Mine Tour offered a fascinating insight into the proud tradition of miners that devote a life’s work to finding a good vein. By all accounts, despite the back-breaking labor, they really do quite well making on average of $200 to $500 dollars (U.S.) a week working in the mines, high wages in Bolivia.

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That evening we hooked up with Pedro 2, who works with Pedro 1 on the tours, for a party at his parent’s house to celebrate San Juan de Noche. We built a big bonfire in the alley outside their house. The old Senora reminded us a little of Michael’s sister Diane - she just kept the drinks flowing. We drank and lit off fire-works until well past midnight.
Moving slowly the next day, we made our way to a small neighborhood well off the beaten path to the Resturante Don Eugenia for a traditional Bolivian maize soup in which they drop a very hot rock in your bowl that makes the soup boil. The place was packed with nary a gringo for blocks and the food was far and away the best that we’d had in Bolivia. On the way home we stopped at Potosi’s main cemetery. Being Sunday, there were many families tending the graves of loved ones with fresh flowers and prayers. The contrast with any cemetery I’ve ever run across in the states was startling. It was obvious, that for many of the people there it was a very regular pilgrimage to visit their family graves.
The next morning we were up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the 8:00 bus for the 5 hour trip south to the small town of Tupiza.

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Posted by White Buffalo 19:41 Archived in Bolivia Tagged bolivia potosí Comments (2)

Tupiza - Red Rock in the Bolivian Southwest

sunny 70 °F
View Altiplano Odyssey on White Buffalo's travel map.

Tupiza June 25 – 27

We arrived earlier than necessary to the bus station, with plenty of time to purchase snacks before paying our 6 bvs tax to board the bus, the cry of the barkers calling you to board their bus but a minor din so early in the morning. Only about 8 people boarded the bus, leaving us thinking it would be a quiet ride to Tupiza. The bus wheeled out of the station right on time only to stop just outside the bus station to load the remaining passengers. It was then we learned that most bus tickets are sold outside the station, thereby enabling passengers to avoid the 1.5 bvs passenger tax levied inside the station proper. Pulling out of Potosi the bus was filled to capacity.

Negotiating our way out of Potosi in a large bus on streets designed for donkey carts took every bit of an hour and finally we made the open road. With a paved road all the way to Tupiza it was a relatively smooth ride, highlighted only by the video entertainment of the movie “Final Destination” a Bolivian B rated movie complete with green slime that attacked and killed its victims punctuated by a series ofgruesome and bloody accidents. Despite the Spanish dialogue Aidan was rapt the entire way.

Dropping out of the high Altiplano, we soon entered a long river valley and with red rock canyons that might just as well have been southern Utah. Tupiza is a nice little Bolivian city of around 20,000 people, bisected by a wide river plain reduced to a small creek in the dry season. The pigs and garbage scavenging the river plain were just a few of the reminders that despite the red rock it is still Bolivia tierra firma.

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A ten minute walk across the river and out of town brought us to Hostal Solares, a small hostal neglected by the guide books that is impeccably clean, with really hot showers and laundry service. Being the ignorant gringos that we are, we realized only later that the laundry service was actually the grandma washing our clothes by hand for 10 bvs or about $1.50 per kilo.

_DSC3803.jpg _DSC3764.jpgThat evening we took in the character of the town and I spent a couple of hours street shooting in the warm afternoon light. The next day, our host arranged a five hour horseback ride to some of the larger canyons in the area. Anne and the kids exhibited their suburban roots with a high degree of trepidation at the equine activities ahead. The horses were the mishmash of nags that you might expect, which still left Anne and the kids on pins and needles.P1040408.jpg Our guide Simone seemed more interested in his cell phone than us but fortunately we soon got out of cell range and then he engaged. The canyons in the area really spectacular, with large hoodoos and steep ravines formed in the highly erosive soils. My horse, “Speedy Gonzalez” was an ill-mannered 5 year old that shaped up substantially once I cut thin branch for a quirt. It was a hot, dusty, memorable day with spectacular countryside that evoked fond memories of the many miles I logged on the trusty steed of my youth. P1040437.jpg

The next day, Wednesday, we slept in, made a short hike up to a viewpoint above the town and made preparations for our 5 day tour to the Lagunas, a series of high mountain lakes, and the Salar the world’s largest salt flat.

Posted by White Buffalo 18:50 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Desert Lakes, Volcanoes, and the World´s Largest Salt Flat

5 Day jeep tour through the remote backcountry of southwestern Bolivia

sunny 52 °F

Lagunas and Salar tour June 28 – July 2

At 8:30 am we met our guide Milton, who speaks pretty good English, and Josephina, a classic Bolivian Chollita, complete with boler hat, long black braids, ten children and a warm easy smile.Over the next 5 days we covered 1200 Km of back roads in the southwestern corner of Bolivia ending in the town of Uyuni.

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The first day we wound our way up through the desert into the mountains and over a pass at 5,000 meters. Small herds of wild Vicunas peppered the hillsides along with larger herds of llamas. At one time, the Vicuna, prized for their super soft fur, were reduced to less than 5,000 animals. They now estimate that approximately 70,000 live in southwest Bolivia. Milton informed us that shooting a Vicuna carries a mandatory 5 year prison sentence and if you can’t afford an attorney something more like 25. At about 4:00 we pulled into the town of San Pablo de Lipez, a tiny collection of mud brick houses and our hotel, Los Volcanes, one of two nights of deluxe accommodations. We were the only guests in this 4 star hotel in a town of 300 people nearly 100 miles from a town of any size. The service and food were easily the best we’d had in Bolivia.
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The next day we bounced our way over semi-improved roads and rough two-track stopping for lunch at Laguna Celeste, a large lake fed by springs and sparse run-off at the base of Utrunucu Volcano. That evening we pulled into QuetenaChica, a small town populated mostly by llama farmers. Our guide Milton is friends with Miguel, the proprietor of the small hostel, that amounted to a collection of small rooms with no heat, no hot water, and much to Bridget’s dismay a shared bathroom. We arrived early enough to go on a side excursion out to Miguel’s farm to look at some very ancient pictographs and a large cave that had clearly been used by the pre-Incan tribes that peopled the area. Aidan was carrying a set of small binoculars that Miguel thought were just the best thing ever for looking at his llamas. At dinner that evening he approached our table to ask if he could buy them. _DSC4029.jpgThey weren’t expensive, but with most of are trip still ahead of us, we declined and committed to the proposition that we would send him a pair when we returned to the states. By morning, Aidan had fessed up that he really wasn’t that crazy about the binocs anyway so he sold them at a substantial discount to a very pleased Miguel for 300 bvs or about $40.
_DSC4062.jpgThe next morning we were on the road by 6:00 and caught the first light as we wound our way through the mountains. We stopped to look around San Antonio de Lipez, an abandoned mining town that once supported 3,000 miners. Walking through the ruins we came upon a human skull tucked in the corner of a fallen down house, another reminder that Bolivia remains very rough around the edges. Around noon we crossed the boundary into EdwardAvaroa National Park which is a huge park that surrounds the principal Volcanoes and Lagunas of southwestern Bolivia. _DSC4071.jpg

The day was filled with immense vistas and surreal landscapes. We saw rayas, a large ground bird the locals call kiwi, as well as several suri, a medium sized ostrich native to Bolivia.

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Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the countryside was the amount of water available in nearly every drainage of any size that we crossed. Most of the country we travelled receives not more than 30 millimeters of rain annually and some areas as little as 10 millimeters yet there were creeks, ponds and lakes in relative abundance considering the sparse precipitation. Laguna Colorado was the highlight of the day, a large lake turned deep red by the algae that flourish there framed by several large volcanoes. A thousand or so flamingoes were scattered in bunches around the large lake. Anne and I made a pact to return sometime in November when upwards of 30,000 flamingos are typically found there. Unfortunately, we only spent a couple of hours at the lake. Between the red water, the red volcanoes, and the pink flamingos it is one of the most surreal, and utterly confounding landscapes I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing.
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For our third night we were supposed to have deluxe accommodations at El Desierto another 4 star hotel constructed at the base of a mountain with the nearest town of any size more than 100 miles away. Considering our stay the first night at Los Volcanes, we were eagerly awaiting the creature comforts of El Desierto. Unfortunately, the hotel messed up and was over-booked and we were turned away. We were informed that another similar hotel was situated about another 1 ½ hours down the road. It was only about 4 and with no other choice we trundled our way down the 2 track that is the road. Los Flamencos Hotel was situated beneath a large peak with a good sized lake and 500 or so unhappy flamingoes. With the light fading fast I went straight to the lake to photograph the flamingoes in the evening light. You may wonder why a flamingo would be hanging out in a lake half covered with ice at 13,000 feet in the middle of the Bolivian winter. In the summer, there are thousands of birds there but only the strongest ones make the migration to lower altitudes and warmer climes. The weak ones remain in those lakes that are spring fed and don’t completely freeze over.
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Once the light was gone, I made my way into the hotel for a hot shower and a 4 star meal. Turns out the four stars were from a bygone era, and there was no hot water, no heat, and composting toilets that had given up their eco-ways some time ago, hence pit toilets. Not that I have anything against a well-constructed out-house. They’re really some of my favorite habitations in the right locale, however, inside my sleeping quarters is not my location of choice. Turns out that once again we were the only ones staying at the hotel, but not because it was undiscovered gem. Miguel’s basic set-up was far superior, but with a roof, and four walls to keep out the winter chill we all did just fine.
We pulled out of town early, catching the sunrise on the road. As we emerged from the mountains and came upon the edge of the Salar, our guide suddenly stopped and took us a short distance off the road. He told us to look closely at the basalt scattered over the desert floor and that we might find some arrow heads from a pre-Incan tribe that lived in the area. Walking randomly about, eyes trained on the many chips that littered the ground we all began finding arrowheads and worked chips. They were everywhere. In less than an hour we had found a couple dozen good quality arrowheads with many others cast off along the way.

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That evening we spent our last night in small hostel on the edge of the Salar constructed completely out of salt blocks. All of the furniture was made from salt and even the floors were covered with heavy salt crystals. We arrived early enough to catch the final game of the Euro-Cup, Spain and Italy, which required a contribution of gasoline to the proprietors to get them to turn on the generator at 2:30 instead of the typical 5:00.

We left the Hostal at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise over Incahausi Island, an island made entirely of ancient corral and covered with cactus. As the sun came up there were too many gringos for my liking and I would have rather been out on the salt flat alone but that is the trouble with covering so much ground in so little time. It is difficult to know where a person should spend their time the first go around. 10 days would have been more appropriate for the ground that we covered with a lot more time hiking and less time in the Landcruiser. Next time.
We ended our day in Uyuni, a nothing town on the edge of the Salar dominated by pizzerias and trinket shops for the many gringos that start their tour of the Salarthere. We got a cheap hotel for the shower and a place to hang out for the evening, and bought an overnight train ticket to Ururo leaving the next morning at 1:45 am.
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There were too many cosmic photos to scatter amongst the words so here are some of the others from the 5 day trip in no particular order.

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Posted by White Buffalo 18:52 Archived in Bolivia Comments (3)

Ururo - Butte meets Bolivia and Quime - Into the Yungas

semi-overcast 70 °F

Ururo – Quime July 3 – 6

We arrived at the Uyuni train station at about 12:30 am and proceeded to wait. In classic Bolivian fashion, there were no signs or other indication of which train to board so we generally followed the herd, found our seats and got settled a few minutes before the train rolled out of the station and then sat idle for another half hour or so. There was no heat on the train, so we pulled out sleeping bags and settled in for the 7 hour ride to Ururo. Anne and the kids were quick to crash while I sat awake watching the ice form on the inside of the windows. Sometime in the wee hours, I managed to fall into a troubled sleep. At one point, I was certain that the train must have left the tracks and set off cross country if only for the lurching back and forth that made it difficult to believe we were actually riding on rails at all. It will be awhile before the bullet train gets to Bolivia.

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We pulled into Ururo just about right on time, grabbed our bags and made our way to the taxi stand. Our taxi driver assured us that he knew just where our hotel, San Felipe Real, was located and proceeded to take us on a tour of the city. Fortunately, the price is always set at the outset and after about the third circle it was clear that he had no idea where he was going. He assured us that the hotel we were seeking didn’t exist and took us, barely, to another place. We unloaded at the Residencial Boston, an uninviting old colonial building filled with dingy rooms and no windows. We decided to ditch that and our next cab driver knew where our other hotel was located. It was a lovely old colonial hotel but at $100 a night too rich for our blood. Our third choice was located down near the bus station that was a crazy scene of people, buses, and vendors all milling about in a crush of humanity that reminded me of Manila in the late 80’s. The next hotel was full, so we proceeded on foot to find a place to stay. We finally found a perfectly acceptable hotel with hot showers and clean beds. The only shortcoming was the location on the main square outside the bus station with a constant cacophony of the barkers chanting agua, agua, agua and lapa, lapa, LaPaz. By the time we were settled it was close to noon , and considering the all night train ride, no breakfast, and the impromptu tour of Ururo the kids were on the edge but holding up surprisingly well.

Ururo is on old mining city generally neglected by the guide books but for the fact that it is party central in Bolivia during Carnival. I suspect there are many worthwhile attractions but we were really just looking to get some laundry done prior to our trip to Quime a small town in the mountains. Turns out that laundry service in Bolivia is really only for gringos, and after several hours of searching never did manage to find anyone willing to take on a week’s worth of desert clothes. So the next morning we packed up dirty clothes all and caught a bus to the small town of Konani on the main highway between Ururo and La Paz.

large_1_DSC4721.jpgUntil just a year or so ago, the ride from Konani to Quime was a 12 hour drive up over a 5,000 meter pass on semi-improved dirt road. With the new paved road, it was only a 2 hour drive up over the mountains and down into Quime, a town of about 2,000 perched at the head of a river valley at 13,000 feet. We stayed at the only real hostal in town, Hostal Cobiri or the Hummingbird Ranch operated by Don Marko Louis an ex-patriot botanist from the U.S. that has been living in Quime for the last 35 years after leaving Minnesota with a PhD and way too many student loans. Quime is a genuine Bolivian mountain town, that despite a spectacular setting lacks even the most basic tourist services. Hostal Cobiri sits on the hillside high above town and is really more like a homestay than a hostal. Marko opened his lovely home to guests mostly to provide some company and a little income. I’ve never met a more reluctant hostaleer. But he made his kitchen available, a huge bonus since there isn’t a restaurant in Quime that won’t make you sick.

Marko was delighted to have us, and the first night there he made great pumpkin muffins to satisfy Bridget’s craving for something that reminded her of home. We spent 3 nights at Hostal Cobiri highlighted by 2 days of spectacular hiking where we had the good fortune of spotting 3 Andean Condors. I also saw a Giant Hummingbird which is a hummingbird the size of two small sparrows and another blackish blue one with a typical hummingbird body and a long tail that was easily 5 or 6 inches long and appeared something between miraculous and other-worldly in flight.

Marko was a wonderful host and despite smoking way too much in close quarters we got along famously which had as much to do with his personality and political views best described as a cross between Edward Abbey and Hugo Chavez.
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Posted by White Buffalo 19:16 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

La Paz - Bolivia Melting Pot at Full Throttle

semi-overcast 68 °F

La Paz July 7 – 10

We arrived at Quime’s central taxi stand around nine and were directed into the typical 8 person Toyota diesel van. The first sign that the morning might go differently than planned came when a large bus parked along-side of the van with exhaust pouring into our open door. As Anne and I scrambled to get outside for some air the driver jumped. As one of the passengers yelled, “Va, Va, Va”, and the kids, still in the van yelled, “Stop, Stop, Stop” Anne and I jumped in and the van roared off in a haze of diesel smoke. It quickly became clear that our driver had an acute and untreated case of ADHD doing his best to keep the over-taxed van revved to the maximum at all times. It wasn’t quite so bad going up the hill, but once we made the pass at 5000 meters and gravity became his friend our relative safety took on a higher state of urgency. Anne and the kids were completely petrified in the back as we roared around hairpin curves on our way to the plains far below. While it was a hair-raising ride, we arrived in one piece. I pretty well Zenned my way through it while Anne and the kids were completely shell shocked.

Once at Konani, the plan was to flag down one of the many buses headed to La Paz that must stop at the toll station there. We waited for 45 minutes or so, several buses passing through but with no seats to spare. Anne and the kids finally left to find a bathroom while I waited on the side of the road. About five minutes later a large tour bus came by with many seats to spare but Anne and the kids were nowhere in sight and I had to let it go by. After they returned, we waited another hour or so without a spare seat to be found. Finally a van driven by two middle aged fellows stopped and offered us a ride to La Paz for 100 bvs. We gladly jumped in. Within a few miles it quickly became clear that we had jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. The driver Pedro and his side-kick Roby had clearly been drinking and admitted as much. Roby was hammered, fortunately Pedro was in better shape. They told us that they picked us up because they had just bought the van in Oruro and the owner’s manual was in English and perhaps we could help them figure out the controls.

All went smoothly until Roby started smoking. Fortunately, Bridget was somewhat conditioned after three days with Marko lighting up constantly. But when he lit the second one I told him that Bridget might puke all over their new van if he didn’t stop. That immediately got Pedro on our side and he made Roby stop smoking pronto. I got worried when they stopped at a roadside Almecen for “more drinks” and I told Pedro “no mas cerveca”. Fortunately, it was just a bottle of Fanta so we all drank some orange soda and trundled our way down the road. Despite the typical passing on blind hills that is the Bolivian way the 1 ½ hours to La Paz passed uneventfully, though Roby did make too many comments about how beautiful Bridget is and I concocted a plan to bring the whole show to a stop with a fire extinguisher that was mounted inside the car if it came to that. But we passed through El Alto, a city of 1 million that sits on the bench above La Paz and descended down into the city. They dropped us at the bus station and we all heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Our taxi driver seemed to actually know the city this time and drove us straight to the Hostal Blanquito recommended by Marko. It was full but our driver said that he knew of a good hotel nearby. The Hotel Florida was seven stories of dingy grime and after looking at a room we declined and decided to proceed on foot. Within a few blocks we found the Hotel Sayiri on Manco Kapac just up from the tourist district that was a huge improvement.

La Paz sits in a large bowl about the size of San Francisco with twice the population. Between the street vendors and general crush of humanity I imagine it is a very tame New Dehli or something of the kind.

We spent one day traveling out to Tiwanaku an archeological site near Lake Titicaca that was cool and interesting but not nearly as impressive as El Fuerte near Samaipata. We did laundry, caught some museums, and shopped for small gifts.
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Posted by White Buffalo 20:10 Archived in Bolivia Tagged la paz Comments (2)

Lake Titicaca - Copacabana and Bolivia's Hottest Showers

sunny 67 °F

Copacabana July 11 – 13

At 7:30 a.m. a large tourist bus picked us up at our hotel for the 3 ½ hour ride to Copacabana. That should have us arriving sometime late morning but for another 1 ½ negotiating the narrow curvy streets of La Paz in a large bus picking up passengers and then another hour just to reach the out-skirts of El Alto. The ride along the lake was beautiful broken up only by a short ferry ride across a narrow straight in which the bus unloaded and we all took a small water taxi across the strait the bus following on a large makeshift barge powered by an undersized out-board. _DSC4933.jpg
I’m sure that more than one bus hasn’t completed the trip. Copacabana is a lovely town on the south side of the lake and is the first really touristy town we’ve encountered in Bolivia. The upside to that was our accommodations, La Olas is a collection of unique and whimsical cabanas scattered on the hillside above town. Martin, the German proprietor, has great vision and the attention to detail was unlike anything we’d encountered in Bolivia. At $70 a night for the four of us it was a little on the pricey side for Bolivia, but recalling that I’ve paid $85 for a Super 8 on the freeway and that similar digs in the states would run more like $250 to $300 a night we had no complaints. Especially considering the solar water heater on each cabin, Las Olas may have the hottest showers in Bolivia, a huge bonus at 12,000 feet in the Bolivian winter.
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After settling into our room we picked up some food for hike the next day to Isla Del Sol, and hiked to the Mirador above town. In the morning we caught a large water Taxi for an 1 ½ boat ride out to the Island. Lake Titicaca is as beautiful as it is huge. Despite crystal clear skies, there is nothing except water to the north and the east side is bounded by the high peaks of the Cordilliera Real. Mount Illampu at more than 6,000 meters dominates the skyline while Huyana Pichu and Ilumani to the south offer distant exclamations.

Isla del Sol is the largest island on the lake at a couple of miles wide and 6 or 7 miles long. With beautiful views of the lake in all directions, the most amazing aspect is the terraces that cover every slope. The Incas believed that Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of civilization and from the look of the ancient terraces they might be right. We made a lazy circuit of the south side of the island returning late afternoon for the boat ride back to Copacabana, and a private hot tub lit by bright southern constellations at Las Olas that night.

The next day we slept in and took a long walk around the northern end of Copacabana to swim in the cold waters of Lake Titicaca. I was the only one that actually swam but Aidan at least got his head under while Bridget only managed to go knee high.

The next morning we caught the bus early for the 4 hour trip to Sorata.
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Posted by White Buffalo 20:11 Archived in Bolivia Tagged copacabana Comments (1)

Onto Sorata and the Cordillera Real

semi-overcast 65 °F

Sorata, July 14 -16

An hour on the bus from Copacobana took us to the small town of Huarni on the eastern shore of Lake Titicaca. The plan was to catch a micro or bus from there over the mountain to Sorata. After 45 minutes or so of watching jam packed buses and micros sail by us in a cloud of dust, I could sense the anxiety level rise as memories of our Quime to La Paz debacle sprang up. A taxi driver came by and sensing an easy target inquired if we needed a ride. At 300 bvs for the 2 ½ hour trip, I’m sure that we paid at least double the regular rate but he was a very nice guy and provided some history of the area and stopped for several photos as we drove up over the pass in the shadow Mount Illampu at 6,000 meters or just shy of 20,000 feet.
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It so happened that we arrived in Sorata for the festival Virgen de Carmen

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as well as the 203rd anniversary of the state of La Paz in addition to the last weekend of a two week mid-winter break for school so the town was packed with revelers from the many nearby villages and everyone was primed for a party. That evening the party got into full swing with a large march around the Plaza, followed by speeches from local officials with entertainment provided by two Latin Techno-pop bands that worked hard to determine who had the loudest sound system. Fortunately, our hostel, Casa de Piedra, was located down the hill from the main plaza so we were shielded from the primary onslaught. We thought that was the main celebration, but the next morning, there were more marches around the plaza, and more speeches with the whole thing repeating itself several more times throughout the day. It became clear, that in addition to being very religious and patriotic, Bolivians really like to march needing little excuse to throw a party.

We had a couple of days hiking around Sorata, caught up on some laundry, and Monday evening we moved to Altai Oasis a small eco-lodge 15 minutes out of town where we met our guides from Andean Epics the company that would take us two days mountain biking from the mountains above Sorata at 4675 meters to the gold mining town of Mapiri at 800 meters followed by three days on a river boat to the town of Rurrenabaque.
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Posted by White Buffalo 19:48 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Sorata to Rurrenabaque - Mountain Bikes to River Boat

Mucho Gusto Cipro

sunny

Sorata to Rurrenabaque July 17 – 22

We met our guides, Maricio and Alejandro for breakfast at 6:00 a.m. The other couple signed up for the trip cancelled due to stomach problems so it was just us and our guides. We all loaded up into a Landcruiser Travel-All type vehicle you can only find in the third world because they are far too practical for the states and began a two hour drive up the mountain on a steep and narrow two-track. It had rained the night before making it slick and muddy. We left Sorata in the clouds, under a slight drizzle, but as we ascended the mountain we began to see patches of blue and soon broke through the clouds to a bluebird day. As we neared the top of the pass, the views of Illampu were stunning with the surrounding low-lands bathed in clouds.large_P1040608-1.jpg
After 45 minutes or so of sorting out gear we were ready to begin our descent. The bikes with dual suspension and hydraulic brakes were surprisingly modern and well maintained by any standard much less Bolivian standards. With Maricio in front and Alejandro driving the sag wagon, we began a six hour descent to the small mining town of Conzata. Beginning above treeline, the 80 Km descent that day would bring us to the rain forest. Heading down the mountain, there was simply no-way that I could keep up with Maricio. I thought it must surely be a sign of my age, but when I found out that Maricio had been Bolivia’s BMX champion as a child and was currently Bolivia’s downhill mountain bike champion, I didn’t feel so bad.
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The descent down the mountain brought us by herds of llamas and sheep. Descending lower, small villages popped up supported by herders and the increased mining activity that we saw along the way. Bolivian mining is generally not a very pretty site, but the lack of mechanization diminishes the impact substantially to what you might find in a more accessible locale.
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Conzata marked our first really sketchy sleeping quarters highlighted by the bano in which a look out the window revealed a sewer pipe extending straight out the side of the building over an embankment that led straight down to a small creek below. There is nothing quite like flushing the toilet and watching exactly where it all goes.

The next day we loaded up the bikes and drove along the river to reach the next high point where we would begin our descent. Our path soon became obstructed by a large trac-hoe slowly making its way down the “road”. With no place to pass we decided to unload the bikes and ride up to the next pass. Between the heat and humidity we soon discovered why they typically drive up this incline but given the previous days continuous descent it felt good to settle into a good long climb. After a two hour ascent we were happy to reach the pass and begin the descent into Mapiri. Descending down the road, with a steep river valley below, we passed numerous side drainages where the mining impacts had all but destroyed the drainage with large alluvial fans depositing tons of the highly erosive soils into the larger river below.
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After a long day of descending from the rainforest into the jungle with a stop at a very pristine side stream for lunch and a swim, we arrived in Mapiri, a larger town on the banks of the Rio Tambopata where we would meet our river boat for the 3 day, 200 km descent to Rurrenabaque.

At about 8:00 a.m. the next morning we walked down to the “dock” to meet the boat. With two boatmen, a cook, our guide Alejandro, and several villagers catching a ride three hours downriver to Guanay, we loaded our gear into the 30 foot river boat and began our descent. Mining remains the chief economic driver of this region of Bolivia and the improved access and increased mechanization has resulted in environmental impacts I’ve only ever seen in texts and journals.
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After three hours on the river, we entered the Rio Kaka and stopped for additional supplies in the larger town of Guanay. With some trepidation, we ate lunch at a small Bolivian kitchen just off the river the likes of which we normally avoided but Alejandro assured us that it was a usual stop. By the time we arrived at our first campsite that evening my gastronomic distress became evident. By 10:00 o’clock the high fever and chills set-in with all the symptoms of a full-blown case of Salmonella . With the outhouse situated 50 yards up a steep incline punctuated by a treacherous descent, by the six or seventh trip I actually knew the route well enough that I could still remain half-asleep without killing myself.
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The next morning I took a Cipro in an attempt to repair my damaged gut but skipped the hike up the mountain to catch a view of the river below. I did manage the 30 minute hike up to the waterfall as well as the two hour hike in the jungle later that afternoon despite several deep breaths and pit stops along the way.
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We camped one more night on the Rio KaKa before the confluence with the larger Rio Beni and on to Rurrenabaque to complete the 200 km on the river portion of the trip. Several jungle hikes along the way revealed a large ground tortoise, some night monkeys that looked very slow and sleepy in the mid-afternoon sun and a herd of wild pigs that have a musk gland in their shoulders enabling them to emit a rancid awful smell when frightened. We rolled into Rurrenabaque at about two in the afternoon, got settled in our digs at the Oriental Hotel, a lovely place that was cheap and clean with a nice courtyard full of hammocks to lounge in the heat of the jungle winter sun.
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Posted by White Buffalo 20:47 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Madidi National Park - Birder's Paradise in Pristine Jungle

semi-overcast 82 °F

Madidi National Park, July 23 – 26

Rurrenabaque is a larger town of about 20,000 people and surprisingly, one of the most touristy we encountered in Bolivia. It is cleaner than most Bolivian cities but the preponderance of pedestrian obstacles with the potential to maim or kill reminded us that despite the numerous tiendas catering to turistas and the absence of any cholitas it is still pure Bolivia.
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At 8:00 a.m. our guide Raul met us at our hotel and walked us down to the boat dock for the ride upriver to the Madidi Jungle Lodge in Madidi National Park. After an hour riding up the much larger Rio Beni we entered the Rio Tuiche and motored for another 2 hours before reaching the lodge. The Madidi Jungle Lodge is run by native people that live in the park and is supported by several international conservation organizations working to enable the locals to profit through the health and success of the park. We arrived in time for a typical 3 course lunch that is the standard for trekking in this part of the world. After lunch we rested a bit before embarking on a three hour hike in the jungle. Our guide’s ability to spot birds and other creatures great and small was really something to behold. It made me feel a little like a blind person stumbling through the wilderness by comparison.
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The sound of the jungle may be more memorable than the many species of birds and animals that we saw along the way. Tiny birds like the Motmot that mimics almost everything and has the biggest voice in the jungle. The variety of bird whistles, booms, and tremolos produced a wondrous jungle chorus. As you may have guessed, our guide knew every bird call and could usually find the culprit often high in the canopy without the aid of any binoculars. Over the next four days we spent 3 hours hiking in the morning and two hours each afternoon. Along the way we saw numerous species of parrots large and small, toucans, hawks, falcons, storks, and terns; cappuccino, howler, and spider monkeys; caiman; and butterflies of every color many as large as small birds; large herds of wild pigs, capybara, and numerous prints of jaguar and ocelot. Trees like the walking palm that moves up to six feet per year infused a sense of magic on the place.
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We spent one morning fishing in a small side drainage of the Tuiche, hooking several fish but Bridget was the only one to land one. That afternoon we motored a ways up the Tuiche to fish some more. Our guide was the only one to catch a fish, a large giant piranha with a set of teeth deserving of the reputation but our guide assured us that they are not aggressive. Between the caiman and the piranhas we declined the invitation to go tubing on the river for our last morning opting for a last long hike in the jungle. After lunch we loaded up into the boat for the 2½ hour trip back to Rurrenabaque. Along the way we stopped at some high sandstone cliffs where several dozen pairs of red macaws are nesting. After working so hard to see the birds we could often only hear in the jungle canopy, it felt almost like cheating with the large raucous parrots so close at hand.
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While at Madidi we met one of the few Aussies that we ran across during our stay in Bolivia. Shane McCarthy is one of the few wanderers I’ve ever met truly deserving of the moniker. An elementary school teacher from Melbourne in his 50’s, over the last 30 years or so, his program is to work for 3 years or so and then he usually takes 18 to 24 months to travel the world. A master of languages, he speaks English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, and some Arabic. He is also an engaging storyteller, and he kept the kids rapt with many stories of his travels throughout the world. With their suburban, U.S. upbringing the kids found him an unusual and mysterious creature unlike any they had ever encountered. I couldn’t help but hope that his carefree carpe diem attitude might be catching.

We returned to Rurrenabaque in the late afternoon of the 4th day, had dinner with Shane and thanked our lucky stars for our plane ticket to La Paz the next morning instead of the 20 to 30 hour bus ride depending on weather facing Shane. Raining hard as we left for the airport prospects for leaving seemed to dim, but then the clouds broke and our plane landed and we arrived in La Paz before noon that day.

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Posted by White Buffalo 09:12 Archived in Bolivia Tagged madidi Comments (3)

Back to Civilization - Of Inca Brilliance and Tourist Hell

semi-overcast 73 °F

La Paz, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo - July 27 – August 2

We had a brief stay in La Paz, enough time to get some laundry done and round out the mountain of regalitos we had been acquiring along the way. At 7:30 a.m. we made our way to La Paz’s central bus station for the 12 hour ride to Cusco. The border crossing offered an unexpected 2 hour delay in the form of a huge line around the block on the Peruvian side facilitated by an official in the front padding his salary by moving his patrons to the front of the line.

We arrived in Cusco about 9:15 that evening, managing to find a supermarket open despite the independence day holiday celebrations that had closed most things up. Despite Cusco’s long history as the Incan capitol, it is relatively modern by Peruvian standards with stunning architecture and more magnificent churches than you can count. Serving as the gateway to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, it is also the tourism capital of South America. Think West Yellowstone in mid-July. After seven weeks in Bolivia, the contrast was a bit overwhelming.

We spent 3 days in Cusco seeing the many incredible Incan ruins, museums and other sights, and confirmed details with our guide service, Cusco Native, for the 4 day trek to the Lares Valley following our visit to Machu Picchu.
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At about noon on the fourth day we caught a micro to Ollantaytambo and then the train down the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes which sits at the base of Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is a nice little town sitting along the banks of the Urubamba River that reminded somewhat of Calistoga in a cloud forest, not very Peruvian and definitely not third world.

The next morning we arose at 4:30 to catch the 5:30 bus up to Machu Picchu. Arriving at Machu Picchu at 6:30 for the opening, the mountain was bathed in mist. The mist and the rising sun created a surreal effect right out of tourism promo. The light really couldn’t have been much more perfect. After spending two hours with a guide touring the ruins, we made the two hour climb to the top of Machu Picchu Montana, the high peak that overlooks the ancient city.

By 2:00 the crowds had magnified to nearly unbearable so we caught the bus back to town and then onto Ollantaytambo for two nights before leaving for the Lares Valley.
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Posted by White Buffalo 08:09 Archived in Peru Tagged machu picchu Comments (1)

Above the Sacred Valley - Walking with the Quechua

sunny 68 °F

Ollantaytambo – Lares Valley Trek Aug 2 – 6

We caught a taxi at 5:45 to make the 45 minute trip to the town of Calca where we met our guide Miguel, our cook Mario, and an assistant cook, whose name I cannot remember in part due to the fact that he only spoke Quechua but smiled just about all the time. We drove for about an hour and half up a steep narrow canyon to the small village of Quishuarani where we met Roberto our Caballero. _DSC6166-1.jpgThe 1 to 1 ratio of personnel to clients seemed a bit excessive but it is really standard operating procedure in this part of the world. After an hour or so of gathering up gear, we started our hike to the small village Cuncani about 10km over the mountain. Our previous weeks at high altitude in Bolivia served us well and the walking wasn’t too strenuous despite the pass at 14,600 ft elevation. The biggest challenge would prove to be not eating too much at lunch. The standard for trekking here is a 3 course hot meal for lunch every day. My guess is that the early trekkers were well healed folks out more for sightseeing rather than hiking and it created a tradition that could just as well be forgotten.
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Descending from the pass that afternoon we saw our only Andean Condor of the trek soaring at high altitude. We rolled into camp at about 3:30 and the arrival of gringos immediately brought out 4 or 5 girls age 16 to 18 with bundles of goods to sell. First we bought a couple of beers and soon it was a scarf to beautiful and cheap to pass up and within half an hour or so managed to buy at least something from everyone. Looking at the bare feet and sandals that are standard issue for all both young and old despite the freezing temperatures at night we were happy to help anyway that we could.
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The next morning we headed off to the village of Huacahuasi. My first hint that our guide wasn’t completely with the program came as we left camp walking entirely the wrong direction from the route that we had planned. When I asked him about it he told me that that route was much too difficult. Since I had picked the route mostly through research on the internet, who was I to argue? We discovered later that he just didn’t want to take the more difficult route despite the fact that it was not overly demanding. Besides our crummy guide, the rest of the crew was super nice and really bent over backwards to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. We passed several small villages along the way, giving out pencils, candies and small pins as regalitos for the many children that we passed along the way.
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A notable difference between this region of Peru and most of what we saw in Bolivia was far less garbage. This may also have been due to the lack of road access for goods from the outside. These are all subsistence farmers and herders. They make most of their own clothes and apart from bare essentials rely on very little from the outside.
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We camped that night above Huacahuasi instead of Lake Ispaycocha as we had planned. In the morning, it took us about 1.5 hours to reach the pass at 15,000 feet. We then descended past Lake Auraycocha for lunch at Lake Yuraccocha, two beautiful high alpine lakes both filled with large trout. We camped that night at a very forgettable campsite at Pucara not more than an hour from our final destination. I realized on this trip and others that there is tendency among guides to keep things simple, and if you want to really get off the beaten path you’ll like need to remind them of your intent and plans at every turn along the way. Despite our disappointment at the abbreviated route, the country was spectacular and the people were very friendly and curious about the aliens in their midst.
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Posted by White Buffalo 20:50 Archived in Peru Tagged valley lares Comments (1)

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