January 28, 2012

Life Abound

Will stalked this bird by climbing a 30 foot boulder (wearing crocs, of course) to take a closer photo. Nicely done!

Green and blooming! Oh so delicate... Not much bigger than Baby's Breath.

The Rio Grande in Bolivia carries about as much water as the Rio in the American Southwest. The irony of its name, Big River, never fails to bemuse me, but I suppose it really is a lot of water compared to a desert.

Valle de Rocas

Bouldering paradise! The rocks are dangerous...sandstone based...but we plucked our way about some of the solid ones until my foothold broke off the wall and I fell into a prickly bush and got spines stuck in my underwear. No regrets though! Had a blast all the same.

Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorada. 4300 meters

Volcanic landscape surrounding Laguna Colorada

Laguna Colorado is stained red from an algae bloom which covers 90% of the lake. Flamingos feed in the shallows. The wind blows so strongly here that I nearly fell over.

Teal Waters

Cairns mark the road to Laguna Khara

Teal waters of Laguna Khara

Will and Sayo (awesome Korean and fellow traveler) read while relaxing at the mirador overlooking Khara. There were two other Korean travelers in our 4x4 (Kim and Jeero) as well as a Japanese cardiologist who quit his job to travel for 6 months.


Laguna Hedonda

Flamingos, Bolivian Highlands, Laguna Hedonda

Laguna Cachi

January 26, 2012

Nostalgia for Abundance

The barren landscape inspires a sense of nostalgia for the vibrance of life and color. Any hint of red in the rocks or green in the crispy tufts of tenacious grasses draws the eye. Water is rare and usually a colorful brine, thanks to the myriad of minerals in the mountains and salt flats. While non-potable to humans, we are drawn to it nonetheless thanks to the flocks of four varieties of flamingo, coots, and Andean ducks which feed off microorganisms living in the high altitude lagoons. One of the more optimistic sights was the puffy white clouds, purveyors of fresh water--or depending on the time of day, snow.

Train Cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Despite the desolation, the wildness was rare and beautiful. I was so fascinated by the views that I nearly a,ways had my face pressed against the backseat window of the 4x4, often rapping my forehead against the panes when we hit particularly rough washboards or potholes.

Converted to a playground with yours truly on the swing! Thanks for the wide-angle shot, Will.

Despite the raw beauty, like nothing I have ever seen before, three days in the Altiplano proved to be enough for me and I have three indications why:

1. I miss trees. And plants. Or anything green and living.
2. Water costs a fortune. We have iodine and a steri pen, but they are not equipped for desalinization.
3. My skin cannot stop peeling from the brutal sun (hardly any ozone at altitude), relentless wind, and bone-dry air despite hourly applications of sunscreen, petroleum jelly, long sleeves, hat, sunglasses, and hydration. I feel like a snake shedding my skin, except that it doesn't come off in one clean run like a banana peel.

Asi es la vida... (Such is life). Se necesita una mechanica con experiencia... (Needed: a mechanic with experience).

On the bright side, I no longer have daily headaches from the thin air! Hurrah, I have finally produced enough red blood cells to keep from losing brain cells and being stupidly oxygen deprived--oh, but what I hope I didn't forget in the mean time.... I will never know!

January 25, 2012

White World

The Uyuni Salt Flat, or Salar de Uyuni measures 11,000 square kilometers. Salt is mined manually by scraping it into conical piles with a shovel or rake. It is then shoveled into the back ofthesalt trucks and shipped out of the highlands.

Bolivia also holds 43% of the worlds lithium reserves, the majority of which is located in the brine lake located under the salt crust at a relatively high concentration of 0.3%.


Salt is rather tough on the harvest vehicles.

Taking an overnight bus to Uyuni, Bolivia, we decided to book a tour of the famous Bolivian salt flats. The 3 day tour winds through the Bolivian high plains and mountains, exploring various lagoons, the salt flats, and microscopic towns. As soon as we disembarked from the bus, we were accosted by multiple agencies, seeking tourists to fill the last slots of that day's tour which would leave in 2 hours. We picked one that had a solid looking Toyota Land Cruiser as our high altitude, back country, off-road transport of choice. There are abundant warnings about picking an agency with a driver who doesn't drown his night in a bottle and a car that won't break down in the mountains (lest our fate be shared with those unlucky tourists who froze to death in the cab of their malfunctioning vehicle). Assuming that are chances were better than a roulette table might offer, we went for it! We used Lago Minchin.

A hotel on the salt flats made from salt bricks.

Uyuni has the same story of any other podunk town with a natural resource mined from the earth...it is small and depressingly static... Yet this town has tourists! I doubt mountain top removal sites receive nearly as much attention
Twenty foot diameter dust devils danced across the highland desert. The landscape is blinding without sunglasses, and removing them causes my eyes to fill instantly with tears.

January 19, 2012

We decided we couldn't skip Bolivia...

El Catedral San Francisco

...and we were right. La Paz, the capitol of Bolivia is beautiful! The cobbled streets and stone sidewalks are clean and quirky, packed with travelers and locals alike. Skyscrapers touch the clouds, thin brick homes tenuously cling to the hillsides, and well maintained colonial buildings line each plaza. Best of all, the food is far better than the food we have been eating in Peru. We ate empanadas for lunch, standing on the street corner, stuffing ourselves to the gills with the potato, squash, and beef filling and dousing each bite with a sweat-inducing salsa and cooked onions. I am craving another, even now when I should be preparing for bed. Fortunately, there is always tomorrow!

Llama fetuses at the witch market.

Later we strolled through el mercado de brujas ("the witch market") and surveyed wrinkly old women peddling dried plants, candles, and crates of desiccated llama fetuses. Seeking shelter from the afternoon hail and rain storm, we camped in a coffee shop, savoring South American style hot chocolate and creamed pumpkin soup. After searching for white gas for the camp stove for an hour with no luck, we realized that we should have bought a llama fetus for good luck.

La Paz from the San Francisco Bell Tower

Taquile and Titicaca

Shoreline of Taquile


Miscellaneous Photos

Lake Titicaca

Shrine inside butcher shop... Note the meat hooks on the ceiling.

January 16, 2012

Teasers Because I Am Too Sleepy to Write

Click on the photos to enlarge them!

Puno, Peru, Lake Titicaca

Market, Arequipa, Peru

Wide angle shot of ruins on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca, Peru. Knitted hats and friendship bracelets are the most common handicraft on the island. According to Wikipedia: Knitting is exclusively performed by males, starting at age eight. The women exclusively make yarn and weave. (From what I saw, this is true!)

January 14, 2012

3 Uses for Hiking Poles

Fingers purple from poor circulation at altitude and legs wobbly and weak from our sloth holiday season, Will and I set out, bound for "somewhere nice" in the canyon. It was my first time using hiking poles and our first overnight trip with packs. The transition from bipedal to quadrupedal was awkward but short, and I was immensely grateful for the poles as they spared my knees from suffering from the 3,000 ft descent. Sliding down the scree laden trail, we contemplated the many uses for hiking poles, including fighting condors and dogs. The former has not happened. The latter will happen. Poles are much preferable to a water bottle (our weapon of choice upon our last unfriendly encounter).

Descending to Sangalle, a tropical oasis resting on the roaring river bank of the Colca canyon, we eyed the pristine swimming pools. Our bodies were groaning under the weight of our packs, and our mouths were pasty and dry from the dry desert air and brutally powerful sunlight. Once again I debated the practicality of such a heavy hobby as photography and wondered if I should just take up knitting. I forgot about my decision to ditch photography for knitting once I slid into the clear, cold water of a swimming pool. What a delight it was to watch the light fade from the clay colored canyon walls. Grabbing my camera, I scouted out the lush property, seeking out other travelers for company and photo ops before dusk. It wasn't long before I was deep in conversation with Joaquin, an Argentinian traveler, relaying the state of agriculture in the USA and swapping travel stories. Our conversation stalled only when the light changed and I would scamper up a boulder or around a tree to take another shot.

The unspoken knowledge between us was that down was hard. Up would only be harder, and though it was only a 3,000 ft gain, it was at altitude (10,000?) there is no telling how far we walked thanks to the ENDLESS switchbacks. Andeans know how to walk about the mountains. It is part of day to day life. Aside from the packs of mules carrying gear for tourists or supplying food to these roadless towns, we encountered an older Peruvian couple on the trail who appeared to be in their late 60's. The man used a stout wooden pole for support and the woman used an aluminum broom stick. Carrying no more than a small bag (no water), they were on their way home. Home was Cosnihua, a village with no access apart from the very trail we were bemoaning our sore bodies for climbing. A walk home meant descending 3,000 feet, and then ascending the same distance. On Maine standards, this would mean that to walk home, you would have to ascend and descend Mt. Katahdin (don't forget to add altitude)!


Will debated whether or not he should pretend to be dead so as to attract the great, scavenging condor. He decided against it. The five hour bus ride to Cabanaconde proved to be uneventful, but wonderfully scenic. We arrived after dark, climbing off the bus with a group of French travelers and wandering the silent streets in search of accommodations. Low and behold, we came across a delightful hippie hostel, packed with travelers who, like us, had shirked the tour companies to spare getting ripped off by exploring the canyon independently. It's an easy place to explore alone and plenty of backpackers are seeking companionship and interesting conversation.

A blurry but a nicely framed shot by Will when the one (and only) condor flew by. Catching the 6:30 am local bus up the mountain, Will and I visited the Mirador del Condor. The first to arrive on scene, we basked in the sunshine, wearing down coats to keep out the wind chill despite the warm sun and keeping a sharp eye for the world's largest bird (by wingspan). Fact: They can weigh 17.5 kilos and have a wingspan of 10.5 feet. According to Will, condors eat elephants which explains why there are no elephants in the Andes. I haven't checked my sources on that.

January 11, 2012


At last! We are healthy enough to hit the road. Time for a 6ish hour bumpy bus ride. We are off to the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world...allegedly. The deepest canyon in the world is the Cotahuasi Canyon (a neighboring geological phenomenon)....still allegedly. There is a fair amount of controversy over what defines the depth of a canyon. Is it the top of the highest mountain in the range from which the canyon tumbles, or is it the level plateau from which the lowest point of a canyon can easily be measured. The Himalayas certainly may have deeper canyons than the Andes--it is a close call as both ranges host rather formidable peaks--yet the Himalayas are largely unpenetrated, unlike the Andean range. It is likely that nobody has measured the depth of all its hostile and impermeable canyons.

Fortunately, no statistical competition will dissuade me from whether the canyon is worthwhile or not. Rather, its superlative as one of the best trekking locations in the world magnetizes our interests. Time to see what it is worth!

January 9, 2012

Another Time-Out for the Team

One of the unfortunate aspects of traveling in third world countries is the inevitability of contracting traveller's diarrhea. One has to seek fiber in this meat, noodles, and potatoes world eventually, but this usually involves eating vegetables--which happen to be washed in local non-potable water. Alas, Will was the first victim of a day in bed with mint tea, soda crackers, and the book, The River Why. Shortly thereafter, he contracted the cold which I had finally purged from my own body. Now that he has returned to health (mostly), it's my turn for soda crackers! Luckily we are staying in a hostel with comfortable beds and pillows for this round of reading and sleeping around the clock. Earlier this afternoon, I received a wake-up call. Crawling out of bed, I stood up too quickly and was dizzied by the rush of blood draining from my head. I walked over to the wall to press my forehead against the cold tiles to help regain my senses before finishing the 15 foot trek to the bathroom. Instead i found that my legs had buckled and I was convulsing on the floor.

Conveniently, Will's backpack and sleeping pad were sprawled across the hard tiles, so my landing was gentle. Terrified at the inexplicable downturn of events and at the fact that this happened to be the one moment Will had left my side throughout the entire day for a bite to eat, I struggled to grasp what had just happened--that is, until I smelled burning hair. Apparently I missed the wall and pressed my forehead against the light switch, giving myself a healthy dose of voltage. Moments later, Will returned from lunch and scooped me gently from the floor, showering me with the comfort I so desired. Thank you, Will!

January 6, 2012

Rainy Season

Traditional Andean women wear colorful wool leggings, hoop skirts, multiple wool sweaters, and black bowler hats. Sheep are abundant so the reason for wool is obvious, but European style bowler hats and hoop skirts?! "it is interesting to note that all bowler hats you see worn..trace back to the 1880's, when an enterprising British hat salesman, anxious to dispose of a factory overrun, convinced indigenous leaders that the hats were considered the rage in Europe. As European fashion was considered the ultimate word in civilized standards, the hats (and, incidentally, those ubiquitous billowy hoop skirts) became--and remain--the style norm for indigenous women in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes." (Doing Business in the New Latin America: A Guide to Cultures, Practices, and Opportunities, by Thomas H Becker).

We are in Arequipa now, though by no means was the trip from Huancavelica to Arequipa a walk in the park. Leaving Huancavelica at 7 pm, our rickety bus took the trip in stride--a mere 11 hours of rough dirt roads between us and Ica, our coastal transportation transfer location before the 12 hour ride (on paved roads!!!) to Arequipa after a five hour nap in a hostel with pillows that may have been made with rocks. The dirt road through the Andes is not for the faint-hearted. The steamy bus which smelled of wet wool and body odor, had to make three point turns to navigate the curves down the treacherous single lane "highway", and passengers who couldn't afford seats sat on the isle side armrests, making for a rather cozy environment. Later, as we crossed a 5,000+ meter pass around midnight, our proximity to our wool clad highland neighbors proved to be a godsend because the bus windows leaked the frigid mountain air, dropping the already damp and cool temperature of the unheated vehicle. The bus stopped every ten minutes or so to pick up highlanders waiting for transportation on the side of the pitch black road, and again to drop off others who would walk away from the bus in to what appeared to be a wasteland, the darkness enveloping them long before anyone could tell if signs of life were about.

Despite the vulnerability of obviously being tourists, no one took advantage of us. Our bags were untouched, despite the ample opportunity for pulling them from the luggage compartment--even with my persistent window-seat night watch, I could have easily missed our packs in the constant luggage shuffle. Most people smiled at us. Others spoke to us, but I suspect that many people who might have said something, did not, because they only spoke Quechua and not English or Castellano (Spanish is referred to as Castillian, rather than Espanol/Spanish). Arriving at Ica around 5 am, we snagged a hostel, took our first shower (oh my gosh, there was hot water!) in several days, and slept for several hours before heading back to the bus terminal to see how soon we could escape the scalding hot, dirty, dusty tourist trap for the pure mountain air. Ten minutes later we were on a bus bound for Arequipa with tickets for the last two seats. This time we actually had the option of first class, and gratefully accepted, in part for the cushy seats, but mainly for the security of our baggage. The extra 15-20 USD is well worth knowing that you won't lose camping gear!The route took us South along the Panamerican highway, frequently in sight of the crashing waves, and sometimes seemingly on the waterline itself. Navigating rocky cliffs, and coasting along the desert highway, we were occasionally greeted by a shock of bright green farmland. These farmland oases lined trickling rivers, supporting small towns along the highway. Their precarious existence depends on water availability, but the soil and small amount of water supports cattle, asparagus, banana, and cotton.

If only the highway had been this nice....