A Travellerspoint blog

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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