Coroico, Bolivia

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From La Paz, the country's busy capital, we took a minibus to Coroico, a quaint little town on the outskirts of the jungle. If we kept going in that direction, we would get to the Bolivian part of the Amazon Jungle. We went from roughly 12k feet elevation in La Paz to 5k elevation in Coroico in just a couple of hours, which changes everything—warm weather, moist air, tropical vegetation, no more crusty, bloody noses. Remember, we were here during the winter, so it felt amazing to get a break from the cold, dry air of La Paz (and almost every city before that).

There is only one way to get to Coroico—on the the Yungas Road aka "World's Most Dangerous Road" aka the "Death Road". The Death Road is a single lane, dirt road with no guardrails, that winds along the sides of the mountains with cliffs that drop as much as 2000 feet (the photos will make you feel sick). As many as 200 to 300 people died on the road every year. Luckily, the trip wasn't nearly as dangerous for us. In 2009, a new paved road with guardrails was built to avoid the most dangerous part of the original Death Road. Still, the views from the top were incredible, and I kind of wished we were driving ourselves so we could pull over for photos and stand on the edge. But maybe not. (source)

We stayed in a resort that has a collection of little cabins, completely surrounded by foliage and connected by winding paths. Every part of the resort had amazing views of the valley below and lush green mountains in the distance. We wished so badly we could stay longer. It was the perfect place to chill out and enjoy nature. 

From our cabin, we could walk into town, which was full of things to see, small as it was. Even here, small market stalls adorned the streets, with women selling bananas, cabbage, root vegetables, and Yuriy's favorite, piles of tangerines.  The buildings were colorful, covered in a layer of dirt, and beautifully aged. The roads were either unpaved or covered in cobblestones, which made you feel like you'd traveled back in time. It seemed as if every road was under construction, with piles of bricks laying at intersections, as if nobody was in a hurry to complete any of the construction projects. Even though some of the buildings were shabby and looked like they were uninhabited, every street had people walking, and it felt so alive. 

The only thing that sucked about Coroico is our friend Zhanna got seriously sick there. She looked like she was dying for a little over 24 hours, which included the curvy bus ride back to La Paz, during which she puked in a bag. Traveling in a foreign country can really kick your butt sometimes. 

We came to Coroico thanks to a tip from someone I follow on Instagram, who said it was her favorite spot in all of her South American travels (she was in the area just weeks before us). I love social media for this reason. 

Since we lost all of our photos from this point on, the images in this post are all iPhone photos. So thankful for that little piece of technology. Also, a couple of the images of me were taken by Zhanna (also on an iPhone). Thanks, Z!

- Julia

Our private little cabin in the jungly mountains.
The main lobby/restaurant of the resort was pretty perfect too.
The view from our patio. We should have paid a lot more for this.

La Paz, Bolivia | Part 1

Thursday, May 21, 2015

From Peru, we crossed the eastern border into Bolivia. First stop: La Paz, the highest capitol city in the world (elevation 11,975 ft / 3,650 m).

We had a heck of a time getting into the country. Once already traveling on the bus headed from Peru to Bolivia, we pulled out our Bolivia guide book (a little too late), and read something about American citizens needing a visa, which we didn't know about and didn't have. Luckily it could be purchased at the border, but the border crossing was in the boonies, and we had no cash to pay for the $140 (per person) visa. We had to catch a taxi into the nearest town, where all the banks were closed, and the ATMs were not working. Finally we struck gold with an ATM, but it wouldn't give us American dollars, which were required for the visa. Cash in hand, we raced back to the border, praying our bus was still there waiting for us, exchanged our money into American dollars, then headed to customs. One of the twenty dollar bills had the tiniest tear and they wouldn't accept it, even though they had just handed that torn bill to us at their currency exchange. Long story short, we made it in, but not without a lot of hassle, adrenaline, and with $280 less in the bank. Apparently Bolivia requires a travel visa for Americans only because America does the same for Bolivians. Maybe we should do more research before visiting a new country, instead of figuring it out on the fly. But where's the fun in that, right?

La Paz was a nice surprise. Driving into the city was amazing. It's an enormous city built into the mountains, with peaks surrounding the city. Some have said La Paz is like one big market. Anywhere you go, there are stands and shops and things for sale. Even though its a huge capitol city, many of the locals wear colorful traditional clothing (unlike Lima in Peru). Women wear pollera (long, full skirts), bombĂ­n (bowler hats), and colorful shawls that double as packs for carrying stuff. It was the best place to people watch. Many of the women did not like to have their photo taken, so I had to be sneaky, and used my smaller camera (Fuji X100s) to appear less threatening and often shot at waist level. 

At the end of our trip, our camera was stolen, and along with it, a memory card full of photos of our entire time in Bolivia (the Peru part was on a different memory card). So, all we have left are some photos from the smaller camera, which we used just a little bit in La Paz, and mostly photos from our iPhones. More on that story later, but I just wanted to let you know that the next few posts won't be as full as usual and are mostly iPhone images. 

Isn't La Paz enchanting? I'm glad it was the first city we came to, because we immediately thought, okay, paying for that visa was worth it.

- Julia

Amantani Island | Peru

Friday, May 1, 2015

After visiting the floating islands, we had the opportunity to stay with a family on Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca. We were warned that many of these people didn't have electricity or light, but it turned out that most homes had a few light bulbs hanging from the ceilings. Still, the accommodations were very basic. The island was not very developed, but had inhabitants living on it for hundreds of years.

Yuriy and I were paired up in one home, and the rest of our friends (we had made some friends at Machu Picchu) went with another host. We were shown to our room upstairs, then called down for lunch—hot soup, a fried egg, and assorted fingerling potatoes—a staple on the islands, where harsh winters require dehydrated potatoes for survival. For dessert, an herbal minty tea mixed with coca leaves. Our meal was cooked by our hosts in a tiny kitchen which also served as a dining rom.

Our hosts spoke zero english. The man of the house knew a handful of words, but for once, I think we knew more Spanish than they knew English (and we don't know very much Spanish). They speak their own language on the islands as well, so Spanish is already a second language. We communicated with a lot of hand waving and smiling and facial expressions that showed we liked the food.

In the evening, we were led up a steep hill side along intersecting dirt paths, following on the tail of our host, who almost ran up the mountain while we gasped for air. The elevation here is very high and some people had headaches and nausea. We got a quick lesson from our guide about the island, and then headed up to the highest peal on the island to watch the sunset. Being at such high elevation and on a giant lake, it was extremely windy and freezing, but all of the locals wore sandals on their feet, as if to show how little they cared about the cold.

After the sunset hike and dinner, our host family dressed us in traditional Peruvian clothing—a skirt for me, a poncho for Yuriy—and took us to a community hall, where once again, all the visitors were gathering, and we were reunited with our friends. A local band played and we danced and laughed and took photos is our colorful, happy outfits. It felt very touristy because obviously the show was for just us, but it didn't stop us from having a really good time.

- Julia

Uros Floating Islands | Peru

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Our next major destination was Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world (elevation 12,500 ft / 3800m). Besides being known for its size and high altitude, it's known for its islands, and that's what we came to see. We booked a boat ride and two night stay on the islands with a guide.

Our first stop was at the Uros floating islands, one of the craziest civilizations I've ever seen. A long time ago, the Uros people were in conflict with their neighbors, so they retreated to the lake. And stayed there for good. They constructed floating islands out of reeds that grow abundantly in the lake water. Then they made homes out of reeds, boats out of reeds, and basically every other household item they could think of. Humans are so clever and resourceful when they need to be. Out there on the water, the Uros were left in peace. That is, until tourists heard about them.

Over the last few decades, the floating islands have been moving closer to shore and closer to Puno, a large city on the lake, and accommodating tourists more and more. When we got off the boat and stepped onto the island, the locals gave us a demonstration in building the floating islands with reeds, and with the rest of the time, worked really hard to sell us handicrafts and trinkets. It was pretty obvious that nobody actually lived on this island and everyone who was there was catering to the tourists. Apparently the truly inhabited islands are further out on the lake, far from tourists (yes, they can be moved, just like a boat). I don't blame them.  (source)

While it was really cool to learn about the history of the Uros people and see the floating islands in person, the really special experience came later, when we visited a couple of real islands (not floating islands) and got to stay in the homes of the locals there. That post is next.

- Julia

Banff for Spring Break

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A little break from regular programming to catch some of you around your spring break.

We were recently featured by Women on Their Way from Wyndham Worldwide. When asked what our ideal spring break spot would be, we thought Banff, Alberta was the perfect spot to get some adventure in a short amount of time. Check the link below to read more about Banff and five other spring break ideas from various bloggers.

Women on Their Way: Spring Break Destinations

Coming up next are the small islands we visited in Peru.

Inca Jungle Trek | iPhone Photos

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sometimes whipping out a giant camera is too much effort, and you just shoot it with your phone instead. Some shots, like riding downhill on a mountain bike or a selfie with a llama just wouldn't be practical with a chunky camera. Here's a collection of our iPhone snaps from the 4-day Inca Jungle Trek.

Machu Picchu | Part II

Monday, March 30, 2015

From Machu Picchu, you can continue to hike up to two different peaks. We hiked up to Machu Picchu Mountain, the taller, less popular of the two (the other peak is Wayna Picchu).

This hike was more difficult than the one we did to get to Machu Picchu from the city. Again, there were uneven stone stairs carved into the side of the mountain, that got steeper and narrower toward the top. The views were amazing the whole way up, and it was kind of mind blowing that it kept getting better and better.

From the top was an incredible view of the Machu Picchu ruins below and surrounding mountain vistas in every direction. The scenery was so green and lush, and I could have stayed there for hours. Unfortunately the peak closes at a certain hour and we had to hurry down.

The hike to Machu Picchu Mountain takes about 3 hours round trip, with 2,139 feet (652 meters) vertical gain from Machu Picchu. The elevation at the top is 10,111 feet (3,082 m) above sea level (source).

After coming down from Machu Picchu Mountain, we were pooped. Four days of hiking, and this day had the earliest start. We found a field of grass and took a nap in the sun before exploring more of the Machu Picchu ruins. We slept like babies that night.

- Julia

Would we recommend the Inca Jungle Trek? If you like traveling in groups and having a guide, yes. If you are a more serious hiker and want more independence and less crowds of tourists, no. If we were to do it again, we'd go straight to Aguas Calientes, and do a one day hike from there to Machu Picchu and up to Wayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. Then do a multi-day camping hike somewhere more remote and less touristy in a much smaller group, or without a guide at all.