Bolivian Expedition Part 3: Geysirs + Hotsprings

Friday, June 26, 2015

On the last day of our Southwestern Bolivian expedition, we drove through an area with a lot of geothermal activity, which was clearly visible above ground with bubbling mud pools and steaming cracks in the earth. Some of the steam was blowing out so forcefully that it sounded like a whistling tea kettle. The sight and sound and rotten egg smell was overwhelming on the senses, especially after driving through barren nothingness to get there. Walking through the steam felt like walking on another planet. It was incredibly captivating and also terrifying, because nothing was fenced off, and it seemed so easy to step into a boiling mud pot and get cooked alive, especially when the steam enveloped you and you couldn't see a thing. Throughout our expedition, we kept thinking this is like Iceland but in the desert. 

One of the best perks of geothermal activity is the natural hot springs we soaked in on our way out. 

This concludes our Bolivian expedition. From here we headed home via La Paz and Lima. We have a couple more posts coming from those two cities. 

- Julia  

Bolivian Expedition Part 2: Flamingo Lakes

Friday, June 19, 2015

I didn't think the second day of the expedition could be better than the first day with the salt flats, which seemed like the main attraction, but it was. This time we drove further away from civilization, weaving through the high desert on unmarked dirt trails that cars before us left behind. There's no way you could do this trip without knowing where you're going. We were surrounded by colorful volcanoes on all sides. I kept trying to capture it with my phone but the surreal watercolored looking hues just didn't come across. 

The highlight of the day was coming upon the first lake with flamingos. I wanted to run and shout and swim with them. It was the most amazing feeling to "stumble upon" a lake in the middle of the desert, filled with big pink birds that look like lawn ornaments. I could have sat and watched them all day. It was one of the most unreal sights I've seen. 

Throughout the day, we stopped by three salt water lakes that are homes to flocks of flamingos. The last lake, Laguna Colorada (Red Lagoon), is supposed to be bright red in color, but it wasn't as brilliant as photos we had seen. It must not have been the right season. It was also not the season for flamingos. In high season, there are hundreds if not thousands of them (so we hear). Apparently in the winter, the old and weak are the ones who can't make the trip to warmer climates and stay behind. Well the old and weak ones sure impressed me.

- Julia

Bolivian Expedition Part 1: Uyuni Salt Flats

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We took a night bus to the town of Uyuni to go on a 3-day expedition around Southwestern Bolivia. Julia and I were crammed into a Land Cruiser with 4 guys from Brazil who spoke no English. And our driver/guide spoke no English. The only reason people come to Uyuni is for the tours; there really is nothing to see or do in this little dusty town, but so much to see around it. 

Our first stop was the 'Great Train Graveyard'. In the early 19th century, Bolivia was planning on building a large network of trains but technical difficulties and tensions with neighboring countries put those plans on a permanent halt. So they just left the British made trains to rust and corrode out in the elements. The flat and empty landscape made the train remains look extra lonely and eery.  

From there, we headed to Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat at 4,086 sq. miles (10,582 sq. km.), sitting at the crest of the Andes at an elevation of 11,995 ft. (3,656 meters). We stopped a few times to walk on the salt... and to taste it to make sure it was really salt. The salt flat is exceptionally rich in lithium, and contains 50-70% of the world's lithium reserves, as well as many other minerals. Just to give you an idea of how large the salt flats are, look up South America on Google Earth and look for a big white area, close to the Pacific Ocean.

In the middle of the salt flats is a little 'island' called Isla Incahuasi. The island is the top of an ancient volcano, which was submerged in a giant prehistoric lake before it became the salt flats. Now the 'island' is host to hundreds of giant cacti, and a welcome site in the middle of the flat white landscape. We had a great time stretching our legs by climbing to the top and getting 360 degree views of the cacti and salt flats below, stretching out in every direction as far as the eye can see.

- Yuriy

All photos below were taken with our iPhones.

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