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Machu Picchu

Finally, we are on our way to Machu Picchu. We are writing this from the town of Ollantaytambo, full of ruins and only a short train ride (later tonight) from Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We will be returning early Sunday morning to Cusco, and from there trying to book a bus to Nazca to see the famed 'Nazca Lines'.

What We’ve Been Up To

June 13, 2009

We’ve been busy and have been working on the little laptop to write more stories, but unfortunately we’ve not had time to upload any of them (and haven’t had much supply of net either).

So here is what we’ve been up to, briefly. Later posts will go into more detail.

We left Coroico, heading back to La Paz for a day to iron out some final details. From La Paz, Bolivia, we went to Copacabana, and saw the Island of the Sun, the place the Incas considered their birthplace.

From Copacabana, we crossed into Peru, going to Puno, a town on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We took a tour of some glitzy reed islands on the lake, and then headed Southwest to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru.

Arequipa was a beautiful city, situated in the middle of several volcanoes (some active), with lots of trekking to do in the nearby Colca Canyon (deepest canyon in the world, they claim). Unfortunately while there, Laura’s bag was stolen with all her camera equipment, so that put a bit of a damper on things. Deciding to start with a clean slate, we left Arequipa, going to Cusco, the REAL heart of the Inca Empire.

Cusco turned out to be great, the city is almost oozing with cultural history and heritage. It is almost impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing ruins or relics or whatever else. The place is cool. We took a tour of some of the local ruins, including Saqusaywaman (people call it Sexy Woman), which is a large military stronghold just outside of the main city. This was amazing, showcasing megalithic boulders carved with millimetric precision to fit together like the peices of a jigsaw puzzle. Detail and precision on a scale like this is rare, if almost nonexistent, in today’s world.

Yesterday we also got to witness the celebrations around Corpeus Christi, a religious celebration important to the catholics (pretty much everyone here). Thus, we saw tens of thousands of people gather in the town plaza and carry huge idols of the saints around for hours on end. It was interesting and resulted in great photos.

Now we are on our way to Machu Picchu, and have visited the ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo, where we are currently waiting for our 8:30 train to Aguas Callientes, the city at the base of the mountain, on which Machu Picchu is built.

We return back to Cusco sunday morning, with a 5am train from Aguas Callientes. Wish us luck!

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The Novel of Bolivia

May 29, 2009

We apologize for the long post, but we have been unable to post for a long long time, and have seen and done many things.

Samaipata

We didn’t think that Santa Cruz had anything more to offer us, so we spent one more night then decided to head to Samaipata, a small town deep in the cordillera, which is claimed by the Lonely Planet people to be a must-see in this area. There is a taxi company that will wait for a full car to drive the some 200 kms to Samaipata from Santa Cruz for 25 Bolivianos per person. (Exchange currently is about 6 bolivianos per our dollar). So we got into the cab with three others (two shared the front seat while we shared the back seat with another girl). The girl who sat next to us in the back also had a little puppy with her. The ride was long (about three hours), but the views of the cordillera regions were amazing. Red cliffs overhanging deep revines. Lush green mountainsides standing sturdy above the valleys below. The road was generally paved, but had several dozen washouts and avalanche damage, so it was slow-going, but it appeared that the department (Province) was working to improve it.

The other passengers in the cab with us slept mostly through the trip, but we were both so amazed by the scenery we did not sleep. Near the end of the trip, however, during a very winding part Laura drifted off a little. We pulled into an area with markets on either side of the street and turn onto another street which has a couple of stores. The girl with the puppy is let out, and the driver asked us where we wanted to go. We have learned over the past few months that in Latin American towns the safest and best bet for finding anywhere to sleep and eat is in the central plaza (El Centro), so we asked to be let off there. This plaza was very characteristic of the town; it was small, cute and was very quiet. Around the square were a couple of stores, a hostel and a quaint little restaurant. First things first we donned our backpacks and set out in search of a place to rest our heads. We found it in a little hostel called “Residencial Kim”. Most of the hostels here you enter through a corredor and find the reception and rooms around a courtyard in the center, in typical Spanish style. The same as many of the houses; they do not have front or back yards, but courtyards in which have either grassy or cement areas with the house entirely encompassing it. The rooms were well kept, clean and the one we chose had its own private bathroom with a hot-water shower! (quite a luxury I must say). After dropping off our stuff, our stomachs told us what we were to do next. We headed to the plaza and stopped in a small restaurant and had what else of course but ice cream. The meal around 5 pm here is typically consistant of something sweet and small. (In Bolivia typically ice cream)

Figuring it would be best to start looking for tours around the area, we started down the street where we knew some operators were; however, had no luck in finding anything open due to the fact that it was Sunday. Since we had to wait until the following day to book anything, we decided to grab our cameras and head off to explore the higher part of town. We walked up a road kity corner to our hostel which lead up towards a restaurant we had read about, keeping that in mind for the future, we continued on up the hill hoping for a view over the city. We were shortly rewarded with a nice view of a futball (soccer) game and some trees against the mountainous background. Gerad took a few pics here, then we continued up the road to where we found a nice little view of the town. Staying here for only a short time, we followed the road yet again further up and found “Parque de Avion” a tiny little grassy area with a few benches, some swings for the kids and a big model airplane in the center. We wandered around here for awhile longer taking some sunset shots over the town and in the park, then started our way back down to the hostel. The rest of the evening was quiet enjoying a lovely meal out and settling into the hostel for the evening.

The following morning we were awoken by a parrot pretending it was a rooster, literally. The hostel we were staying in had a pet parrot (whom Gerad befriended) which mostly stayed out in the courtyard, and in the morning it would mimmick the roosters call. Somehow this often annoying sound became quite amusing. It was then joined by the sounds of a marching band. The music school was right around the corner from our hostel, and so we woke to the sound of the music as they marched around the streets of Samaipata. Gerad got out and got a couple of quick snapshots of them as they continued up the street. Kids all playing the drums, trumpets, clarinets and other various instruments. It was quite impressive for a small town; however, it has become a common occurence now for us to hear marching bands.

We resumed our search for a tour company to see the Amboro forest; which we read was an amazing adventure. Then we wanted to go see a pre-incan site called El Fuerte on the outskirts of town. It turned out, however, that the Amboro trip was over priced. Having a tri-lingual Western-European ex-pat (Michael Blendinger) with a masters degree in botony as your guide makes the trip quite expensive. We opted to go with a company run by a couple of German ex-pats, called RoadRunners, for just a day trip to the Cloud forest (the edge of Amboro Park) the following day. Frank, the man who managed RoadRunners, was quite a nice fellow. It was easy to tell he loved where he was, the people who surrounded him and telling tourists about the area. We got a full rundown of what would be our tour from him, as well as some interesting facts about the area and interesting walks to do. We told him we were interested in going to El Fuerte, and he looked at his clock humming and hawing at the time. We figured it was open until six and were hoping on going later in the day to catch the better light from the sun; however, we found out that the park closed at 5pm so it left us only a little over an hour to get there and see the site. We decided we still wanted to go to see it, so Frank called up his friend who was a cab driver, explained to him that there were two “gringo” photographers at his place wanting to go to El Fuerte “rápido”. Within only a couple of minutes we were in the taxi on our way up to the ruins, with Frank trying to call the ruin care-takers to see if we could stay later (what a guy).

El Fuerte is a large pre-incan site where the people have carved off the top of a mountain and made what today looks like a launchpad. There are carved images of animals and other designs in the rock, with two deep grooves running up the middle. Around the sides of the “launch pad” were dwellings or areas where sacrifices were placed. The site is so old that anthropologists and archaeologists have had a hard time figuring out what all it was used for, but either way, seeing it turned out to be quite impressive. We both took several great photos from some of the viewing platforms that had been built here (which really helped to get a high-angle view of the whole thing). Unfortunately, time was short and we were unable to complete the entire trail circuit, missing a huge section of the ruins. “Que será”, we said, taking our cab back down through the steep road cut out of the mountain-sides, stopping briefly to take photos of an “Inca face” that has been formed in rock by natural processes.

That night we went out to a nice restaurant, deceptively called “Latina Café”, which is run by, or somehow associated with, Frank’s ex-wife. The café looked modern but eclectic, having a nice atmosphere, and a lit candle on our table. When we looked at the menu, we found some interesting things. First, they make all their meals from scratch using natural, fresh ingredients. Second, they don’t serve any Coca Cola products (damn, but they have some moral reason). Third, they had Curried Chicken and Rice, which Laura and I both ordered. No regrets there. The curry came with a small bowl with a mixture of very hot peppers, which Gerad added and enjoyed thoroughly (it had been a long time since we had any real spicy food). The food was so good that we returned for the same Curry dish again before leaving Samaipata!

The following day we had arranged to join a tour to the cloud forests of Amboro park. The tour was to pick us up at our hostel at 9am, so we got up a little earlier to go grab some food for the day, then surprisingly on time our ride picked us up. We picked up another passenger and a couple other things, then were on our way out of town with a jolly european named Martin as our guide, an older german couple and a young german guy (who got the back back seat which was a cushion in the bed of the truck). We started our ascent out of town learning about the area, the fauna, and the forest we were to be entering. It was prime forest, so it has never been cultivated. Being a cloud forest it gets its water by scraping the moisture out of the clouds as they pass over, not from rain. The plants are designed to pull out the moisture, which was great today because it was cloudy. We started outside the forest where it was still fairly warm and dry, within about six meters the border of the cloud forest makes the air more damp and cooler. The further up we hiked on the mountain which possessed this forest, the more majestic it all became. We stopped for a moment and the guide asked us what the tallest fern was that we had ever seen, I responded with about 1.5 meters. He then showed us a tree fern that was about 7 meters high. These trees were amazing; they were hollow because the trunk is made from old branches from the fern. When the leaves of the fern die they fall down onto the existing trunk and become part of it, of course this makes this tree extremely slow growing and we were viewing ferns hundreds of years old. This type of fern was around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

We saw also several different types of plants, one that if you drink tea from its leaves when you are pregnant it will obort the baby, one that was highly hallucinogenic, one that was an natural anteseptic, and many others that were made into tea. The hallucinogenic was used by the natives in rituals and ceremonies. It was quite fascinating. When we stopped for lunch the clouds were drifting past us as if we were part of the forest and it looked romantic and eery all at the same time. The rest of the day flew by with more interesting greens and beauty seen, along with type of snail that looked an awful lot like a sea slug.

Finishing up the hike we all piled into the truck again except this time the one in the back back of the truck was Gerad. (Laura was a little jealous). We did make an interesting stop on the way down outside the park, however, we stopped at an abandoned school building. There had been enough inhabitants in the area about thirty years ago that they built a school house. There was an overgrown, rusty teeter totter, and the school building still had childrens drawings, maps, desks and writing on the chalkboard. It was interesting to be in such a building. After some people took some snapshots and Gerad wrote our names on the chalkboard with some left over chalk it was back in the truck for the rest of the journey home. We stopped once to pick up a local who climbed into the back of the truck with Gerad. I could hear him trying to speak with her; however, soon it was silence coming from the back as they were both surely frustrated at not being able to communicate perfectly. Closer to town the conversation striked up again as they tried to discuss where she wanted to be let off. She had been up in the hills minding the cattle that were left to graze on their own for the most part. I guess she would wander around counting heads, checking health and what not.

Back in town we thanked Martin for the wonderful tour and headed to yet another tour agency to book our bus tickets to Sucre. The only bus was in the evening, so we had another full day in Samaipata. All booked up we were given directions (in spanish) and shown on a map where to wait for the bus that was to pick us up around 8pm the following day. The gentleman told us the bus could arrive anywhere between 7:45 and 8:20 (very typical here). We figured it would be simple, so we thanked him with our tickets in hand and headed back to settle in for the evening.

Apparently check out time at our hostel was 10am; however, we did not learn of this until 11. Quickly we started packing our things; however, we had done laundry the previous evening and the clothes were not entirely dry. We didn’t want to pack wet clothes, so we asked the girls at the hostel if we could hang them out on a line in the courtyard. It was fine, and it was also fine for us to leave our big bags at the hostel. This was great. It turned out that the girls were shy to talk to us, but were extremely curious because they knew we spoke english and they were trying to learn. The younger of the two asked both Gerad and I our names and ages, blushing all the while.

Catching the Bus

We spent the rest of the day catching up emails and things at the local internet cafe and trying to clear up some errands. Soon enough the day had past and we were waiting for our bus where the gentleman said was a good little cafe to have supper. The food was very mediocer, but this is where we needed to be for our bus. We sat on the side of the road from about 7:45 until 8:15. A couple of buses had past but none of them slowed or showed any interest in us. Another couple was waiting for a bus, but it was a different company, so it was no help to us. We asked the restaurant owners if this was where that bus stopped, but they were not much help either. The woman told us we would have to wave down the bus as it drove past, a nearly impossible feat since it was dark and we could not see the side of the bus until it passed to know if it was our company. Gerad did flag down one bus that was from our company, but it slowed only for a moment and continued on up the road. We were both fairly anxious now as bus after bus past us. I pulled out the map that the gentleman showed us where to wait and it turns out we were about a block away from where we were actually supposed to be waiting. Gah!

We walked quickly over to the spot that was indicated on the map, and almost immediately had taxi drivers coming to us asking if we needed a lift. When we told them we had bus tickets they dispersed as quickly as they came, except for one taxi driver who told us that he would wave down the bus for us. Around 8:45, we started to lose hope. We surely must have missed the bus somehow, maybe the bus we got to slow didn’t stop because we weren’t at the regular spot, or perhaps it went through when we were still in the restaurant. We started trying to think of alternatives, and decided if the bus was not there by nine we would hitch a life with a big truck headed to Sucre. They often will take passengers in the back with the cargo for a small fee. Fortunately at about 8:55 we heard honking from one of the buses and the taxi driver whistled at us and told us it there (where we had been waiting previously…). We ran to the bus quickly, got our luggage stowed then boarded. Of the seats indicated on our tickets, one had a very stinky local man, the other his duffle bag. When we stood by the seats, clearly confused the man looked up at us said nothing and closed his eyes. After Gerad spoke with the attendant confirming these were our seats, the attendant moved the stinky man up with the driver and we sat down surrounded by rank memory of the seats previous inhabitant.

Bathroom Break

Shortly after we got on the bus there was a bathroom break, since buses in Bolivia do not have washrooms aboard they stop every few hours to let you off to go. At this particular stop the bathrooms were fairly rank with pee running everywhere. We quickly relieved ourselves and went back to wait by the bus. Shortly after the pit-stop we were serenaded by a group of men who sat at the back of the bus; although, no one seemed to mind, we were glad it only lasted a short while. We stopped again a few hours later and the attendant came back to the passengers stating this was a “baño” break. We all tiredly tumbled off the bus onto a street with no open buildings on it. Slightly confused I looked around at the people to see where they were going — and they were doing just that — going. The bathroom was the street. Find a spot and go. Peeing without a bathroom is something that has become a regular occurance here in Bolivia. And the majority of the bathrooms that are bathrooms make you wish you were peeing in the street.

Getting into Sucre around 8:30 AM, we figured we could walk to the square to find our hostel and such, even though we were hounded by taxi drivers. We started off following the map in what we thought was the right direction. We walked for a few minutes looking for roads marked on the map, but there were no signs indicating road names. We continued walking turning up a road that seemed to match the roads on the map and felt confident we would find a park that would show we were heading the right way. Unfortunately, that marker never came. We stopped for a moment and Gerad pulled out the compass, claiming that it “never lies”. We were supposed to be going North but apparently we were going southwest… we caught a cab.

Sucre

Let off again at the Center, we decided we would find a place to have breakfast before finding a hostel. After filling our bellies at Pizza Napolitana we were able to think a little clearer, and decided to head up to a hostel mentioned in our bible, Lonely Planet’s “South America on a Shoestring”. That hostel turned out to be a reasonable enough price, only a couple blocks from the main plaza and isolated from a lot of the street noise, so we booked ourselves in, and headed back out to take some photos of the city and sight-see.

As we walked about, we found that access to sights were pleanty, first walking into a seemingly abandoned colonial building, finding the inside to be a huge plaza typical of many of the Colonial buildings of this time. This turned out to be the Universidad San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca, a famous building in Bolivia, found on their 100-Boliviano bill. The plaza was being worked on by a construction crew, but Gerad still managed to take some pleasant photos of this spot.

Next, we headed to the area of the Central Plaza, where some key government buildings are located (Sucre was the official capital of Bolivia for a long time, and it is still the judicial capital). We wandered into a public building, Gerad taking the lead up the stairs, eventually finding a balcony overlooking some of the city. We took photos here, but realized we needed to get a higher vantage point.

Wandering around the square, we noticed a couple guys up on the top of another building, and shortly we found a doorway where a couple guys were sitting at a table. They told us that there is an art exposition on the roof, and that it is free, and we get the view! Awesome, we climbed the four or five stories’ worth of stairs and were rewarded with a stunning 360-degree view of Sucre. Stopping to take photos for probably 30 minutes, we eventually snapped out of our photo-mode and realized we still had a free art expo to view. We wandered into the small room housing some amazing paintings, which reflected a lot of the torment, fear, and uncertainty that is present here lately. The paintings were eerily realistic but also abstract enough to insight strong feelings, some of them ten feet wide. It was amazing, beautiful, and educational.

Later in the day, we made our way to the Convento de San Felipe Neri, in which we were allowed to wander around and take photographs pretty much anywhere we liked. The highlight, here, was the roof, which was quite large, and boasted several ornate features, including towers with church bells, etc. We had planned things out to be here at sunset, and it worked out perfectly, allowing us to take several great photos. While we were up there, Laura started talking with another woman, who turned out to be a Canadian from Victoria. We had some pleasant chatting while taking photos, but when it was time to leave, we found the door back downstairs to be locked. Afraid of being locked on the roof for the night, we hollered down from the roof for several minutes before we managed to contact some other tourists that were walking the lower levels. The tourists were able to open the door from the inside, and we made it out okay.

After this point, we stopped to take a couple photos of the main cathedral from the plaza, at dusk, because it was nicely lit. We ate again at the Pizza Napolitana restaurant and retired for the night in our hostel, where we listened to some drunk English girls making fools of themselves in the courtyard for some time, until one of them accidentally mistaked our room for hers, and barged in on us, mostly naked and not under the covers in the warm room. Ahh, the fun of hostels.

Gerad Gives In

The following morning we decided to do a little shopping and head up to the “Mirador Café”, which the Canadian lady had told us about the day before. We stopped and talked with a local artisan who happened to have Laura’s biggest vice on display — necklaces. After looking them over, we settled on a beautiful necklace with a nicely set stone in the middle, which was a bargain at less than 15 dollars. Afterwards, we wandered around to a few more stores, incuding some that had musical instruments. Gerad had been longing for a guitar ever since he left home, and had always intended on buying a small one to carry with him whilst backpacking, but it wasn’t meant to be. Now, in Bolivia, musical instruments were pleantiful and cheap, and the temptation proved to be too great — Gerad buying a nicely built full-size Bolivian classical guitar for about $100, complete with a colorful case. He was also tempted by one of the common regional instruments, the Churango, a small 10-stringed instrument with a beautiful sound, often with an armadillo shell for a body, but managed to resist (for now).

After dropping the guitar off at the hotel and playing for a bit, we finally headed up to the Mirador Cafe, having to walk the gauntlet through a group of merchants with lots of textiles, churangos, and other stuff. We managed to get out of there, only having bought an Alpacca scarf for Gerad, but it sure was tempting with all the wonderfully woven colorful garments.

The Mirador Cafe lived up to its name, with a 180 degree view down over most of Sucre, and huge portions of food to match the view. We engorged ourselves on pasta and freshly blended fruit juice, then left after taking a few photos.

On the way back to the hostel, we noticed a cafe with internet access, called the Amsterdam, and made a mental note to return here later, which we did. While there, we made an update to the blog, checked or dwindled bank accound balances (and Gerad’s rapidly growing iStock account balance), and snacked on some nacho chips and guacamole (mmm our first true nachos since we left home). As we were leaving, we spoke with the owner, who turned out to be from Amsterdam. She asked us what we were doing that night, to which we replied that we were unsure. She told us about “Origéns”, a group that was putting on a show that night, in which they would be demonstrating many of the Bolivian regional music and dances. Tickets were reasonably priced at around $8/pp, and the show sounded quite interesting, so we decided to go. Within a few minutes the owner had called and made a reservation for us, so we just had to go find some dinner before the show. We found a simple Chinese restaurant and loaded up before heading to the show.

When we arrived at the show, a friendly waitress gave us a complementary beverage, a shot of Licór de Coca, which was made from coca leaves and mint — it was divine. We quickly ordered a second one as the show got under way. The dances and the music were very entertaining and interesting to watch, clearly we could see the regional differences between the music, the outfits, and the dances. Origéns also provided us with an English programme explaining the dances in detail. As we finished our second ounce of Coca Liquor, the waitress came by with two wine glasses filled with the liquid, on the house! We took a lot longer to finish these, as it was basically a pure, sweet alcohol. At the end of the show, after the performers gave their bows, they ran into the audience and selected people to come up on stage and dance with them for a few minutes — including Laura! Laura managed to keep up with them, having a great time and impressing the dancers. She came back to the table feeling the excitement and energy of being up on stage. Afterwards, riding high on the positive vibes from the show, and from the rejuvinating effect of the coca, we returned to the Amsterdam hoping to thank the owner for her positive recommendation. Unfortunately she had left for the night, so we just chowed down on another plate of nachos before heading back to the hotel and to bed.

Fullfillment

The show was just what we needed to fullfill our time in Sucre, so we decided we would head off to Potosi the following day. Figuring it would be easiest to catch a cab right away this time instead of attempting the walk to the bus station, we headed to the square where there is always an abundance of taxis. Sure enough it only took us a few minutes to wave down a cab and be on our way. We started up one main road, which turned out to be blocked off, so we continued to another…also blocked off, the taxi turned around and tried another route…blocked…and another…blocked…we questioned the cab driver why all the roads were closed and he told us there was a big bike race happening that day, and that they were using all the main avenues. It took us about the same time (if not longer) via taxi that it would have taken us to walk, and cost us double what he originally quoted.

Pulling into the bus station, immediately there were women running up to the cab. Before we could get out there were about five people surrounding the cab shouting “Potosi” or “Uyuni”. Laura quickly responded with “No Moleste” (Don’t bother me) because she did not trust them. Wanting to go into an actual bus line and purchase the tickets there. Gerad had about three people around him while he attempted to retrieve the bags from the back of the taxi. Laura again told them not to bother us, but one woman showed Gerad a sheet that had the assigned seats and an agency name. He started to inquire and the women all pointed to the bus company’s store front which was just in front of us. Laura was still a little apprehensive of giving the money directly to the woman as Gerad filled out the papers, but asked to be taken to the agency. One woman walked with us, while the other ran off with the seat list. We paid the woman who walked with us showing where the bus was parked and provided us with the tickets. We thanked her and continued on our way. The bus left within 15 minutes of us arriving at the terminal which was perfect.

Here in Bolivia, the cheapest price for bus tickets is after the driver has turned the key in the ignition and is about to depart. Something in which the locals know. We drove just out of the parking lot and then were stopped for about 15 minutes while the locals all tried to snag the last seats. Of course they probably paid about a quarter of the price we did, but we were simply happy to have a seat. We stopped a few more times inbetween Sucre and Potosi so that the passengers could purchase goods from roadside vendors. The vendors walk around the outside of the bus, and you reach down to them from the window. We purchased some yummy frutilla heladas (strawberry icecream) from one of the many ladies. At a later stop we purchased corn bread (at least that’s what we called it) it was by far the best corn bread we have ever eaten (Crystal if you are reading this, and know how to make it I am putting in a request now! *smiles*). Gerad mentioned he had had something like it before made by our friend Ernesto. They mixed up the ingredients, then neatly folded it in the husk of the corn and baked it. To eat it we peeled back the husk and found the delightfully moist bread within. Delicious!

Upon arriving in Potosi, we both began to feel the elevation. Potosi is claimed to be the highest city in the world at around 4060 meters above sea level. Getting off the bus, we met a guy named Ethan (pronounced E-Tahn) from Israel. Ethan was one of the only Israelis we have met so far that was traveling alone, and definitely one of the nicest. We talked briefly then decided to share a taxi to the center and look for a hostel. He asked us how we were feeling with the altitude and it seemed we were all doing about the same, feeling very winded and lethargic. Since he was also using the Lonely Planet book as a guide we went to a recommended hostel that was not far from the square. We got to the doors where the hostel should have been, but were greeted with two construction workers and the obvious hostel owner at the door. He told us he was closed for renovations, but to return to Potosi and stay with him next year. He did suggest a newer hostel not far from where we were, so we headed off and found a place to lay our heads at “Hostel Casona”. A brilliantly yellow painted place with clean nice rooms. Ethan wanted to book a tour for the following day (he was on a much more strict schedule than we were) so we agreed we would meet up later for dinner.

Now the first thing on our list to do was to find coca leaves, which are supposed to help with altitude fatigue and illness. We headed towards a large market. It was partially in a square, partially inside, partially outside, partially two levels and had no order whatsoever; however, after asking about three merchants where we could find “hoja de coca” (literally “leaf of coca”) we found the place to buy coca leaves. We purchased a small bag and Gerad immediately placed some in his mouth. The headache starts very quickly when you go from 2000 meters to 4000 meters within three hours, so we wanted to try what we could to relieve it naturally. It seemed to work and Gerad began feeling better.

For dinner, we met up with Ethan, and decided to try llama, which is a common local cuisine (Ethan wasn’t kosher, so he could eat meat). We found a place that advertised llama meat dishes and decided to try it. The meat turned out to be very tasty. We later found that llama can taste a lot like deer meat depending on how it is cooked. It was more expensive than we were used to, but quite tasty. With dinner Laura ordered a beer and Gerad a rum and coke. Both unusually fizzy due to the altitude. After eating dinner, Laura’s headache increased immensely, and by the time we had got back to the hostel she felt faint and nausious. She was finding it hard to breath and felt extremely sick. Gerad tried to console her , but the only thing she could do was lay down and try to sleep. Now for anyone who has ever gone to high elevation places there are three common things you need to do: eat light, drink lots of water, and avoid alcohol. We broke all the rules upon reaching Potosi, and our bodies responded with complaint.

The following morning, Laura felt better, but Gerad felt much worse. Luckily we had planned for this and decided to take this first day very easy, not planning any activities to let our bodies adjust to the altitude. Laura got up and took advantage of the breakfast included at the hostel, and let Gerad rest. Around noon he soon felt well enough to get up and we headed to a local cafe for some lunch. Cherry’s was the name of the cafe, and they had the most delightful “sopa de pollo” (chicken soup), it felt so nice in our systems and gave us enough energy to continue on feeling a little better. Of course the coca leaves we often were chewing also helped rejuvenate us.

Over the past couple of weeks we have learned a lot about coca leaves; they are a huge part of the culture here. Of the population in Bolivia 92% of men and 89% of women chew coca. The two most common ways to consume it is to chew the leaves (well, you don’t really chew the leaves, but munch them a little to get them to release the alkaloids then let them sit in your mouth), or you can drink a mate (herbal tea) made from the leaves. “Mate de coca” has become Laura’s favorite drink (besides water). The leaves themselves are not harmful or addictive, but improve alterness, reduce hunger, allow the body to resist cold and the effects of high altitude; however, since some people of the US found that they could make a recreational drug out of it, restrictions were heavily implemented on the crops here in Bolivia. Evo Morales (the current president of bolivia), who was a coca grower himself has now stepped in and overthrown the US’s restrictions and introduced the statement “coca si, cocaina no” as an attempt to ease the international issues with a plant so incredibly important to this culture.

We found Potosi to be a fascinating city, so once we had enough energy we headed to the rooftops. One cafe also named “the mirador cafe” was very unique. We climbed up through an old staircase to the roof, where there were two small tables set up. The view was divine, looking over all of Potosi with daunting Red “Cerro Rico” mountain looming over the city. After indulging ourselves with a coffee on the rooftop, we headed towards a church of interest called “Convento de San Francisco”, which beautifully displayed places of worship. The tour was in spanish, but we were able to understand most of it. After the tour of the magnificent inside of the cathedral, we were allowed up to the roof for yet another amazing view out across Potosi. We paid for entrance for three…for the two of us and for a camera. We have found here at most places of interest you pay to enter and you pay the same for the right to photograph (usually with a restriction of no flash…). It was quite late in the day when we finished the tour here, but still had one more place we wished to see, “Compania de Jesus on Ayacucho”. This is a large archway monument built in the 1600s which you could go up into. It served as a bell tour, and allowed fantastic views over the city from yet another angle. It was still forty-five minutes or so until sunset, so we decided we would head out and look around the streets a little, then return to the tower to shoot the city with the red glow of the setting sun; unfortunately, the glow happened much sooner then we expected and managed only to shoot a few shots before losing the light.

Tour Time

With the sun down, we figured it best to head to a tourist agency we decided to use for a tour of the Potosi Cooperative Mines. We decided to book with a company called Andes Salt Expeditions, who were recommended in Lonely Planet. The people seemed to be fairly knowledgeable and answered our questions. We booked for a tour of the cooperative mines the following morning, and discussed with them the tour they offered to the Uyuni Salt Flats. The salt flat tour seemed to be comparable to those offered by other companies, and although we originally planned on going with another we booked our Salar de Uyuni salt flat tour with this company for convenience. The man telling us about it, was to be our guide for the Mine tour, and explained to us that he had been to the Salt Flat three years prior and how beautiful it was. From our understanding we were to be out for four days and three nights, so it sounded excellent. They also offered to book our bus tickets to Uyuni and make our hotel reservation, so it was a one stop shop for us. “Great” we thought!

The following morning we met up with the group we were to be doing the mine tour with. The tour takes tourists into active mines in the “Cerro Rico” mountain, which to this day still has about 4000 miners working. They are cooperative, so the individual miners are working for themselves, they do not have a salary but only the money earned from what they individually extract from within the mountain. In the 1500s ore deposits were discovered in the mountain, by the end of the 18th century Potosi had grown from a little village of indigenous people to a city surpassing that of Paris or London at the time. The mountain rich in silver quickly made Potosi the maker of the World’s coins and many other recreational silver things. Millions of natives and slaves brought from Africa were forced to work in the mines under atrocious conditions and millions of the miners died. The workers within the mine are still using the same methods of extracting zinc, and other minerals as they did in those times. The tour was informative about the people and culture within the mines; unfortunately, some of the information was extremely disheartening. If you are interested in more information, there was a movie created called “The Devil’s Miner” which tells the story of the Potosi Mines.

Our tour started with getting all dressed up in coveralls, helmet, and rubber boots, then off to what is called the “miner’s market”. At the miner’s market we were able to purchase gifts for the miners. Among the items we could purchase were coca leaves, pop, cigerettes, 86% alcohol (yes they drink it), and dynomite. Anyone on the street, can purchase dynomite here. Of course we purchased a stick along with some coca leaves and pop for our gifts. Once everyone had purchased their presents, we climbed back into the van to head up the mountain. At the top, Bemar (our semi english guide) took out a stick of dynamite for a demonstration blast. He showed us how to prepare the nitro glycerine, the detenator, the fuse, and how to pack it with imodium nitrate to make it a bigger explosion. Once lit we had about four minutes to hold the dynamite and take pictures with it. That was exciting! Then off Bemar ran down the hill with the lit dynamite in hand…burrying it in a shallow hole before running back up to us all peering through our camera lenses in anticipation of the explosion. Of course focusing on the spot where the fuse lay did nothing as we all jumped back from surprise when the dynamite actually went off.

In the Mine

We started in fairly tall shafts, but they soon began to lower to about five feet. Walking through water and muck, Gerad soon found his boots to have holes in them. He spent the entire tour with wet mucky feet, but it did not deter him from enjoying the time we spent in the mine. Shortly after entering the mine, we were met by four fellows pulling out a trolley. That’s right two pulling and two pushing a trolley full of minerals out of the mine. They did not have machines to do the hard work for them like modern mines. They still use hammers, axes and pics to remove the minerals. We were allowed to take a few pictures, we gave them some gifts, then continued on our way deeper into the mine.

After crawling through a very narrow shaft we came to a site where the people had built a “Tio”. Tio (Uncle) is commonly referred to as the Devil. The guide explained to us that the term “Dio” means God; however, in Quechua (the indigenous language in the area) they do not have a letter D, so they replaced it with T creating the term Tio. Throughout the mine there are many places that they have erected these manly figures that represent Tio. The miners bring offerings to these shrines to keep Tio happy and avoid confrontation in the mine. They bring llama fetuses to the feet of “Tio” for safety, cigarettes, 86% alcohol (which we all got to taste…YUCK), coca leaves and other sacrifices. Every Friday, the miners gather at the Tios and celebrate. Another important figure in the culture is “Pacha Mama” (Mother Earth), who is represented by the “Cerro Rico” mountain. The people believe that Pacha Mama and Tio are married, and procreate to produce “mineral babies” aka Silver. So every Tio that is built within the mine is built with a large erect penis (obviously to produce better). As not to offend Pacha Mama women were not allowed to enter the mine. If women were to enter the mine, Pacha Mama would get jealous, and not procreate with Tio to have mineral babies.

This belief stayed true for over 500 years, no woman entered the mine and the mountain continued to provide silver; unfortunately, then came along tourism. Our guide explained that half of the tourists are women, and so they began letting women into the mine. Tourism could not have come at a worse time for the indigenous people in and around Potosi because it came at the same time that the mountain ran out of silver. Coincidence of course, but to the indigenous people tourism is completely exploiting the mine and its workers and they are not happy to have us around. Although Laura thoroughly enjoyed the tour within the depths of this magnificent mountain, she thinks it would have been better to only open the tours to men as to respect the culture.

Unfortunately, we did have to remind the guide of a few things that were supposed to be included in the tour (such as a stop at a view point of Potosi from the mountain). It was a little disappointing, especially since we had planned on using this company for a very important salt flat tour in a couple of days.

After the mine tour, we still had an afternoon in Potosi so we decided to go to “Casa Real de la Moneda” or The Royal Mint. This Structure was built in the mid 1700s and controlled the minting of colonial coins. Potosi was responsible for making all the coins for the Spanish Empire. We got to see where the silver was melted into blocks, where those blocks were pressed and cut, and of course where they were branded. The floors were original in many places, and there were actual foot marks indented into the wood from where the men pounded the coins. It was quite phenomonal; although, we again paid for the right to photograph we were not given the apprpriate time to do so properly. It is one of the more interesting museums we have visited.

Then it was back to the Andes Salt Expedition tour office to finish booking our tour for the Uyuni salt flats. We had began booking for an English tour across the salt flats, but were now told that the english tour left on Wednesday (we were booking for a Thursday departure). She asked us if a Spanish-speaking guide would be ok, and we told her no. We wanted to have an english guide so that if something went wrong out in the middle of nowhere we would be able to communicate with the guide, as well as with the other clients on the tour with us. She looked concerned, but then phoned the office in Uyuni. She continued to look concerned through the conversation with the person on the other end, then after a brief conversation told us it would not be a problem we would have an english guide. Ok, we looked at each other, and inquired about what we woud be seeing and the route to be taken. The woman at this office did not speak english well enough, so she phoned the Uyuni office (yet again) and Gerad spoke with an english speaker there who confirmed the places we wanted to see. So we finished booking and went back to settle into the hostel for the evening.

Uyuni

The next morning we had a bus booked out of Potosi to head to Uyuni. While waiting for the bus we met three other travelors (a girl and a guy from England, and a guy from Fort Mac, Alberta) and shared stories with them. None of them had booked their tours in Uyuni yet, but all planned on leaving the following morning with a tour to the Salt Flats. We had ample time to talk, since the bus left about an hour late (not uncommon). About half way to Uyuni, the bus pulled over to a small building in the middle of no where. We weren’t sure why we stopped, but Gerad hurriedly hopped off the bus as he had to pee. Slowly we all got off the bus figuring out this was a lunch/pee stop. To the British girl’s disappointment there were no bathroom facilities except the open countryside. We all found the most private place beside small (one to two feet high) bushes to relieve ourselves.

After that was finished we wandered over to where a woman had a pot; she lifted the lid to show us some potato concoctions. They looked quite good, so Gerad bought one. It turned out to be vegetables wrapped in lightly fried potato with a nice spicy sauce gently pushed into the middle once ready to eat. Yet another delicious surprise found on the side of a road in the middle of no where in Bolivia. After seeing Gerad’s delight, the rest of the group all ended up buying them, much to the delight of the old lady selling them.

Arriving in Uyuni around 5:30 pm, we quickly found our hostel. After dropping off our bags, we wandered around in a few stores again finding beautiful clothing made of llama and alpaca fur, as well as other interesting artesanal things. The town was actually quite cute with a little clock tower and more modern statues on its streets. Soon our bellies told us it was time to find food, so we settled on a small pizza joint close to the hostel.

More Rude Tourists

The pizza place was great, with lots of maps and local crafts on the walls, as well as musical instruments (pan flutes, charangos, etc). The staff were pleasant and polite. We had barely finished sitting down when we noticed a group of loud, abnoxious people sitting on the other side of the building from us. We quickly discerned that they were Israeli’s, and were shouting at each other, playing cards, etc. They had clearly finished their food, and appeared to be paying — transaction complete, no? Instead of leaving, they seemed to act like they owned the place, spreading their jackets, backpacks, and other valuables about the place like it was their bedroom. Shortly after we ordered, the waitress brought out a propane tank and heater, and pointed it out into the middle of the restaurant, to warm it up (as it was starting to cool down). As soon as the waitress went into the back room, one of the Israeli girls briskly walked up, grabbed it, took a chair, positioned the chair beneath a TV (which was playing cheesy 80’s music videos), and turned the heater toward the chair (away from the rest of the restaurant, then adjusted the heat level on the heater down a bit (because it was too hot for just her). The girl was sitting there for at least 25 minutes. The wait staff, clearly annoyed at this, brought out a second propane heater, lit it up, and put it in the middle of the floor again (where the previous one had been). Again, when they went back to the kitchen, another Israeli grabbed it and took it over to their tables where they were playing games. The look on the waitress’ face when she came out the next time was disgust.

Luckily, the girl who had stolen the first heater had to go to the bathroom, and when she came out she had found that the waitress took her heater away and brought it over to OUR table (the paying, polite customers). She was dissappointed, and we could see her debating about taking it back from us, but that definitely wasn’t going to happen, and she knew it, so she settled on going back to her rude friends, near the other heater they had monopolized.

After we had been there for a good hour or more, and finished our food, we left a good tip and exited the restaurant, the Israeli’s continuing to loiter and torment the poor waitresses.

Salar de Uyuni

The day had finally arrived that we were to be on the largest salt flats in the world. Something Gerad had built up in his mind with photo ideas and excitement. We walk into the office with our bags on our back and are told that we cannot bring them with us. We are permitted to carry with us small day bags with some clothes and a sleeping bag. We negotiate and are able to bring one large bag for the two of us. So quickly we shuffle our things around, but it makes us a little apprehensive about this company. Before leaving another passenger asks us which day we are to return, and we say Sunday. He looks at us concerned stating he thought it was Saturday evening and that he had planned to leave Uyuni on Sunday morning. So we ask the employee who confirms that we return on Saturday evening. We had the people at the office in Potosì verify that it was a four day, three night tour several times, and the lady on the phone had also verified this. Dismayed at this point, we explained that this was not the information provided to us in Potosì and that we paid for what we thought was a four day tour. He tries to explain that we can stay at one area on the third day and then maybe get a ride back with a random tour agency that might have seats available the following day to make it a four day tour; however, this meant paying for additional accomodations, finding our own food (in the middle of nowhere), and depending on a “maybe” vehicle picking us up the following day, which we would likely have to negotiate a price with another tour company to drive us back to Uyuni, which the man at our office estimated to cost an additional 100 bolivianos each.

Completely disheartened, we discussed maybe just pulling out of this tour and going with another (the one we originally were going to go with), but we checked and they were full today. Reluctantly, we decided to just suck it up and try to enjoy the trip; surely it could not get any worse and we would be fine.

At the time we were supposed to be leaving, there were no vehicles to be seen from our company. We along with the rest of the group began discussing the tardiness. Again almost an hour after we were supposed to have left, an older landcruiser pulls up with non other then our “english” guide, Bemar, from the Potosì mine tours. He was to be our guide for the Salt flat expeditions (The same guy who had told us he had visited the Salt Flats once three years prior, was now to be our Guide for the tour…) Laura nearly started crying, but after yet again discussing the options we again agreed to suck it up and just try to enjoy what we were going to see.

On Our Way

So nearly an hour and a half late, we climbed into the old landcruiser with two boys from Holland, Jules and Micky, a couple from Quebec, Katerine and Karim, Bemar, our “guide” who was basically on vacation and could only speak un poco de Inglés, and our driver, Juan, who seemed stabled enough, but spoke not a word of english. These would be our travel companions for the next three days.

The first stop was the “Train Cementary”, where the oldest trains in Bolivia came to rest. They were once used to transport the minerals from the many prosperous mines out to areas they could be exported from. Now they stay rusted out in the middle of a vast wasteland. Old steam engines, coaches and tracks all lined as if ready to resume their jobs. We each snapped some shots here, but due to the tardiness of our departure we only had about five minutes to actually shoot here in the midday sun. Luckily this time no young drug addicts gave us any issues, and soon we were all crammed back into the landcruiser ready to retur to Uyuni.

Back in the town we drove around while the Bemar and Juan tried to organize things that could have been very easily organized prior to them getting us, their paying clients. We stopped to pick up a spare tire, and sleeping bags for those who did not have their own. After about half an hour of a city tour, we were actually on our way to the salt flats.

We stopped briefly in a small town located on the outskirts of the Salt Flats where there was a small salt museum, as well as a refinery where they process the salt. People bike out here from Uyuni to “mine” the salt, which is then exported, or sold around Bolivia as table salt, or for people’s livestock. The little town was made from salt; the houses and souviners alike were created from salt. We spent about twenty minutes here, so that people had a chance to buy souviners (none of our group did). We were then asked to return the the vehicle, where we patiently waited for about five more minutes for our driver to show up.

The road was salt, then the surroundings were salt, soon we were on pure white driving by piles where the miners had stacked the salt to be transported out for processing. Hundreds to thousands of salt piles standing about a meter high could be seen across the otherwise extremely flat terrain. We past a couple of miners digging away, and were told they produce 20 to 30 1-tonne piles of salt a day. Shortly thereafter we stopped and were able to take pictures and experience the vast size of the salt flat for the first time. Looking out in the direction we were heading, all we could see was white as far as the eye could see, but for a few huge volcano silhouettes on the far horizon. After stopping for a few pictures, we all were back in the truck on the way again.

The sand piles quickly faded until all we could see was level white 360 degrees around us. Soon enough we stopped at a random building in the middle of the salt flat; the building was built with salt bricks and a thatch roof. This was where we were to stop for lunch, but we had about twenty minutes to play around with the camera. Unfortunately, we were still a little disgruntled with the company, so our creative juices weren’t flowing. We did not play around as much as we would have liked with the optical illusion stuff; however, we did get all four of our traveling companions in some awesome shots (and we got model releases!) After a little while Bemar called us in for lunch; everything was salt, the table we ate on was salt, the chairs we sat on was salt, there was a salt clock and other salt ornaments throughout the building. Ironically, the only thing that didn’t have enough salt was the food. This is a salt hotel; however, it is now illegal to stay in it because its lack of proper bathroom facilities polluting the now UNESCO protected site, but that doesn’t stop people from staying there and the hotel from continuing to operate (hey, it’s Bolivia).

After lunch we again all piled into the landcruiser and started out into the white abyss. We stopped awhile later in the middle of nowhere. There were some small holes cut in the salt, which displayed water underneath. Bemar quickly grabbed a screwdriver from the truck and began chipping away at one of the holes, then reached his arm in (almost to shoulder height) and took out small salt crystals. They were formed by the minerals within the water and salt under the surface of this great salt flat. What we found more amazing than the crystals themselves was the fact that we were walking and driving on about a couple-inch thick sheet of salt that could be picked through with a screwdriver, without falling through. We all marvelled as both Juan and Bemar pulled out crystals from beneath the surface. They explained that the salt went down for 50 meters; however, each year the top 6 meters are cleansed by rain and flooding. The Salt flat was formed after a large salt water lake receded some thousands of years ago (we asked how long ago, but Bemar struggled to interpret the question, or provide an accurate answer…). Bemar and Juan offered for us to keep some of the crystals, Bemar keeping some as a souvenir, as well.

Our next stop was a landmass called “Isla del Pescado” or “Fish Island”; the “island” gets it’s name because it is shaped like half a fish, but the optical illusion of the flat salt desert makes it look like a fish. This random chunk of land plunked down in the middle of the salt flat is home to 30 foot cacti and Chinchillas. We were alloted about half an hour to wander up and around the paths of the Island, and Laura even spotted a wild Chinchilla. Wandering about we came upon a naturally formed archway of volcanic rock. Nature sure is a spectacular thing. Our time was brief here, however, and soon we were back in the landcruiser continuing on our way. The next stop was to be our hostel, which we questioned Bemar about. We were told that we were to be visiting some caves in the afternoon before heading to the hostel; unfortunately, this was neglected and soon it was negotiating time with Juan and Bemar to find time to include this in our trip. There were a couple of caves close to the hostel we were staying in that night, so we could go to one of them, but it was an additional 10 bolivianos a person. Guess this is what happens when your guide is on the tour with you as a tourist not as a guide. Bemar took more photos then some of the clients, bought souvenirs, and took pieces from the salt flat. Not that we blame him, we would have done the same thing in his position.

Laura does not typically keep her sunglasses on for extended periods of time, but the reflection on this vast white made it necessary. Unfortunately, it also meant having some raccoon eyes at the end of the day. Laura’s lips also did not like the dry air at this altitude and dried up completely. With a red raccon face and dry extremely cracked lips, she certainly was not a pleasant sight by the end of the day.

Once we were situated in our hostel, we quickly grabbed our cameras and headed out to try and catch the last bits of the setting sun over the Salar and the little village in which we were located.

Niños

As we headed outside, we quickly saw a few things that we wanted to shoot, Gerad setting up the tripod and Laura shooting. Almost immediately we had an audience of about five kids, all interested in our cameras. One of the kids asked Gerad if he could try to take a picture, and Gerad let him try. Soon enough, Gerad had a pile of kids all pushing to get a glimpse through the viewfinder, and playing with his Zoom lens. When the kids noticed that Laura had a camera, too, they quickly divided and would run back and forth between us to try to get a chance to play. We let the kids have fun with the cameras for about twenty minutes, until the sun had gone down and we were called inside for Maté de Coca and other beverages. It was quite enjoyable playing with the kids and giving them an opportunity to look through the lens. Definitely these kids seemed like they would appreciate having a camera to play with, if only they were available here, in some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.

A Night in a Salt Hotel

We returned to the hotel after saying goodbye to the kids. This hotel was quite nice, with lots of rooms, common areas, and plenty of tables for the tour groups coming through to sit at. The floor in the rooms was salt brick, but throughout the common areas it was loose salt crystals, about a quarter inch in diameter or smaller. The walls were made of salt, and so were the tables and chairs. The only thing that wasn’t salt was the roof, which was made of bamboo, a plastic vapor barrier, and on top of that, grasses.

We sat down, had our coffee and coca maté, and shortly afterward dinner was brought out, which was basically a vegetable stir-fry with a tiny portion of llama meat mixed in. We finished dinner and retired to bed after chatting a bit longer. We had been told that the nights on the salt flats were very cold, with outside temperatures as low as -15 celcius at this time of year, but in our salt room, it was quite toasty all night. The only problem we had was that our room had a rickety door that was not sound proof, and an even more rickety large window into the main common area, which let the sound of the jovial guests in until they finally went to bed. Bemar told us to wake up around 6AM, because we had a 6:30 breakfast planned and were to leave at 7AM.

Day Two

The next morning, we awoke at around 4:15 to the sounds of kitchen staff and tour guides hollaring at each other in Spanish from the front door of the hotel to the kitchen in the back, then to the sound of the guides knocking on people’s doors and telling them to get up, and then to the sound of the turistas all hollaring at each other in Hebrew or British accents (always these are the loudest people). Finally there was the repeatd hollaring, “vamos”! Which meant that they were leaving, finally. Just as we fell asleep again, Bemar came knocking on our door, the clock reading 5:59, telling us that our breakfast was ready (early, how odd for a Latin-American country). Begrudgingly, we got out of bed and packed our things, emerging to the breakfast area to find Jules and Micky waiting. We made our coffees and started eating the bread and jam provided. We ended up leaving the hotel earlier than expected.

As we were driving down the road, Beymar announced that we were now heading to the town of San Juan, which was about an hour away, and our next stop. Right away, several of us enquired about the caves, which on the night prior, he had promised we would stop at this morning. Bemar and Juan conversed for a minute, after which Beymar said it wouldn’t be a problem and we would stop at the caves. What we didn’t realize at the time was that this meant we would have to pick up a woman in a nearby village, who would bring the keys to a closed cave, then bicycle back to her village. We did all that, and shortly were looking in a small cave, which was labeled the “Galaxias Cave” on a sign on the inside, but was really an isolated seperate cave, much smaller than the caves by the same name that we had read about, further to the West. Nevertheless, the cave was interesting to see, because it had tons of stalagmites hanging down, which were formed as lava burned away the water here and caused the calcification of algae, rather than just dripping minerals. Thus, the stalagmites were intricately detailed and extremely fragile; probably most of them will be gone within 20 years as tourism continues to ramp up. Attesting to this is the fact that Beymar broke off a peice of stalagmite and took it as a souvenir of this place, right in front of the lady who let us into the cave, without repercussion. The UNESCO people would probably be freaking out if they saw this act, but of course they never would, because they do nothing to actually ensure that these places are being preserved and that the locals are educated, maintaining no actual precense here. The story is the same at all UNESCO sites we have visited except Peninsula Valdez, which seemed to take precautions bordering on ludicrous. Either way, I think the letter “U” in UNESCO stands for Useless.

Anyhow, off we went to San Juan, which turned out to be a tiny village with an almacén (general store) and a café/restaurant. The only thing notable here was that the store had a 40-gallon drum outside, which appeared to be a garbage can. However, Juan reached down into the drum and out came an armadillo, squirming in his hands. The poor armadillo was being kept at the bottom of the drum like a pet, sortof. However, Gerad noted that in the store were lots of dead armadillos that could be purchased as souvenirs — it stands to reason that the owners simply capture the armadillos and leave them in the drum without water or food until they die, and dry out. Then spray them with some laquer or some other preservative and sell them. This is one place where the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) organization would be good to have around, but they are too busy telling people in America to drink beer instead of milk to avoid harming dairy cattle, which are bred exclusively for that purpose and would die in excruciating pain if they weren’t milked regularly (Keep up the good work, PETA).

So off we went, heading South. This second day was to be jam-packed with lagunas, huge rocks, and volcanos, which it sortof was. We spent most of the time in the Land Cruiser, however, passing volcano after volcano, stopping infrequently. It was sortof dissappointing for us, because we would have loved to spend time out of the vehicle, stretching our legs and shooting, but we didn’t want to hold up the tour, especially not knowing what we would be missing later if we took too long out here shooting.

We did stop at a place with lots of volcanic rock, which was in turn covered by what looked like a different kind of volcanic rock, which flowed over the crevaces and different shapes, drying in a way that reminded Gerad of pudding. From this area, we could look over to an active volcano, smoking from the side. This was a cool stop.

We proceeded to the Arbol de Piedra, a huge rock sticking out of the Siloli desert, which is so named because it looks similar to a tree. After taking the obligatory photos, we piled back into the 4×4 and continued along the desert, eventually reaching a series of nondescript lagoons. At the second-last lagoon, we stopped and had a lunch of pasta, chicken, and salad. At this point, we were next to a lagoon which had a few flamingos in it, and we had been attempting to photograph them, but were called back to eat lunch, indicating that we were running behind.

After lunch, we headed into “Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa”, in which resides Laguna Colorada, a lake well known for having a large flamingo population, and being a strong red color. The laguna didn’t let us down, it was as red as we imagined, and had quite a few flamingos. Again, we took the obligatory photos from a couple points along the laguna. Unfortunately, Laura didn’t have as much time as she hoped and failed to get “that shot” she was looking for of the flamingos. At this point, it was about 4:00 PM, with a couple hours of sunlight left. “Where are we off to now?”, we thought, expecting to be going somewhere magical for the sunset. We got back in the 4×4, and drove for a couple minutes to the place that we were staying in for the night.

Hotel California – Hard Times

We pulled off the desert highway into a deserted hotel, which appeared to be undergoing construction. Bemar told us to wait, and after a few minutes he returned, telling us that we were to stay in a particular room (all of us), but that if no one else showed up, we’d have the place to ourselves and could stay in seperate rooms. Either way, it didn’t matter to us, because we knew tonight was going to be the coldest, in this plain building without insulation or sealed walls, so more body heat in a single room would like make for a more comfortable sleep.

Again, Bemar dissappeared, Juan with him. We were left to discuss amongst ourselves what we were feeling about the day. We Canadians were all dissappointed, because we had refrained from asking Juan and Bemar to pull over throughout the rest of the day, thinking that we would have lots to see and do later in the day, and now we were sitting in a shitty hotel in the middle of nowhere at 4:30 in the afternoon, sure to miss the sunset. The area around us was barren and dull. We contemplated asking Bemar and Juan if we could go back to Laguna Colorada for the sunset, but given that they were gone, likely preparing dinner, we decided that their answer would be no, or met with great reluctance. This was not the trip we thought we had paid for. Already we were out here a day less than expected, we had missed a few landmarks that we expected to see, and it seemed that our tour (unlike others that we had heard of) avoided being out at sunrise or sunset, the two most beautiful times of day, especially for photography. It just seemed like the whole thing was lazy and dissorganized. As we discussed things, Jules and Micky dissapeared, and we got a sense that maybe they didn’t agree with us, which was fair, as they said the whole time, “we just want to get out and see the salt flats, which we did”.

Later dinner was brought to us by Bemar, who promptly dissappeared again. Over dinner, we had some debate over things like the ethics of child labor in these areas (which is still prominent), etc. Finally the conversation wound back to our experience with the tour, and how negative we had been about everything. Jules finally layed out his opinion, which he had been trying to keep to himself. He told us that even if we got a shitty deal on the tour, and not what we had expected, we should be trying a lot harder to appreciate what we do have (the luxury of being there, not being forced to work as a child, etc). Jules basically made the point that if we continue to view things so negatively, we won’t enjoy anything, but if we try to look at things as positively as possible, and make the best of it, we will ultimately have a better time, and so would the other people on the tour with us.

We reflected on what Jules said, and knew that he was right. Over and over we had told ourselves to try and make the most of it, but we hadn’t been. At every wrong turn, and every apparent lie we had been told, we had become more negative about the whole thing. Rather than experiencing what we were given, we turned off our ability to be happy and creative, replacing it with negativity and sarcasm. We started speaking constructively together, as a group, deciding that the next day we would put priority on seeing Laguna Verde when it was green (which really depends on the wind, so the later in the day, the better), which Laura and I really wanted to take photos of, and sunrise, which all six of us really wanted to experience out there. We were also thinking that the thermal baths, which we were supposed to see on the third day, would be nice to spend some time in, as we would surely be chilled to the bone by the night’s cold and the early morning air.

Before bed, Bemar returned, and told us the itinerary for the following day. We were to rise at 5AM, and make our way to a geyser basin (which Bemar called “geesers”, hee hee), where we would see furmaroles and mud pots. Then we were to go somewhere to see sunrise, and shortly after that, we would be heading to thermal baths for about fifteen minutes. The plan was for us to be at Laguna Verde by 9AM, so that we could begin the 6-7 hour drive back to Uyuni, returning by 5-6PM, with a couple of stops on the way.

When told this, now speaking as a group, we responded that we wanted more than 15 minutes in the baths, and that 9 seemed really early to return to Uyuni, if the drive was 6 hours. We negotiated with Bemar to rise at 4:30AM and get out as early as possible to the furmaroles, so that we’d have lots of time to see and shoot the sunrise, and more time in the baths. Bemar agreed and we were happy. After Bemar left, we decided that if we needed more time we’d ask them not to worry about the stops on the way back, focusing on our prior-stated priorities.

No one else arrived at our hotel, so we went to sleep in seperate rooms. The two of us talked for a few minutes before going to sleep, agreeing that the next day we would make our best effort to be happy and make the most of what we were given. In spite of the cold, we slept relatively comfortably, rising at 4:30 as planned.

A Chilly Morning

The next day started out as planned, out on the road by about 5AM and arriving at the furmaroles in pitch black. There were tons of other tour vehicles around, so we knew we weren’t the only ones who wanted to get out here early to have time for a nice sunrise. The furmaroles were impressive, even to us who have been to Yellowstone and seen hundreds of them before. The air was very cold, but dry, probably -5 to -10 celcius. The hot steam coming from the furmaroles was probably 20 degrees celcius at waist height, so it was pleasant to stand in and made things more barable. We were able to walk all around the vents in the earth from which the hot air was spewing, and right up to the side of a giant mud-pot, gurgling and bubling away like a witches culdron (illuminated by our headlamps, barely able to make it through the thick steam). While here, Bemar and the rest of the group decided to stay here to shoot the sunrise. As we were all getting cold, Gerad, Katerine and Karim piled into the Land Cruiser with Juan, to wait until the sun came (which was still at least 20 minutes away at this point). As they sat there, they struck up a conversation with Juan, telling him that we were waiting for the sunrise. Juan told them that the sunrise wasn’t good here, because we had a hill in front of us (where the sun would be coming from), and that it would be much better down the road. Juan talked with Bemar, who grabbed Laura and Micky, because we were going to go further down the road for sunrise, instead of the initial plan.

We were all packed in the 4×4, but no Jules. We looked around, and couldn’t see him anywhere. Bemar ran around looking for him, and we started calling out to him, honking the horn, driving around, but nope, he didn’t come. Finally we saw someone down by the furmaroles, and Micky said, “yep, that’s him”, so we flashed our headlights at him as Micky repeatedly motioned him to come over. Finally, he made his way up to the 4×4. It turns out that he had his iPod on, and was meditating as he waited for the sunrise. Jules got in the 4×4, and we hooked his iPod up to the stereo as we blazed down the road, sunset fast approaching, and Luciano Pavarotti blaring away through the stereo.

As we drove down hill, we could see a glorious valley in front of us, the sun already illuminating some of it. If we drove down to the valley, the sunrise would have already long occurred, so we decided to stop here and wait for it. Where we were, it took probably five more minutes for the sun to come, Jules took the time to get his iPod on and find a nice spot to experience the sunrise. Laura got out and started shooting, Gerad staying in the car to keep warm (knowing that this spot wasn’t great for his tastes, anyhow). Sunrise finally came, and just as it did, Juan started the engine, “vamos”. No way, we said, Gerad and the rest of the people in the Land Cruiser jumping out to catch some photos and experience these first glorious rays of warmth. After a few minutes, we huddled back into the 4×4 and proceded down into the valley, which turned out to be the location of the thermal baths and breakfast.

As we approached the thermal baths, we all had to look at each other and admit that we were not all that excited to go into a bath when the outside temperature was -10, then have to get out and freeze for the rest of the morning with wet hair. All the sudden the thermal baths didn’t seem like such a priority. We had to stop here, nevertheless.

The two of us walked around shooting various puddles and springs, while the rest of the group stayed by the thermal baths, Katerine eventually getting the guts to hop in there, the rest of them dipping their feet. We had pancakes, and Muslix with Yogurt for breakfast, which was good.

Finally, we were off to Laguna Verde. We saw a few impressive sights along the way, primarily another desert, which off in the distance had large columnar rocks sticking out at random from millions of square meters of smooth sand. All around us was volcano after volcano, most of them showing the yellow and white colors near their tops, characteristic of recent activity. Eventually we pulled up to the Laguna Verde, as promised.

Laguna Verde and the Unwelcome Visitor

Laguna Verde is a huge green lake, not very deep, with tons of Borax deposits all around it (meaning that the lake bottom and shoreline are pure white). The water becomes a calming green color throughout the day as the wind blows it (I would explain why but it wasn’t explained to me). Behind the huge lagoon is a massive volcano (towering almost 6,000 meters above sea level, that’s almost 20,000 feet!). Where we were standing was a nice high viewpoint, perhaps 50-80 meters above the water’s surface, so a nice reflection of the volcano was present, and the water was sufficiently green to be seen through our cameras. We took the obligatory photos, then hung around some volcanic rocks, which were strewn almost everywhere. As we were taking in the scene, admiring this great beauty before us, something, as usual, had to ruin it.

In what has to be one of the most ignorant and selfish acts we have witnessed in South America, a man (who appeared to be a Bolivian) broke out a can of white spraypaint and started writing graffiti on the largest and blackets of the volcanic rocks in this area. As far as we could see, not a single rock in this huge area had been so obviously molested by man. The man was going from rock to rock, writing things like “Pachamama + Bruno 2009”, which literally would be saying “Mother Earth loves Bruno, 2009”. It was completely beyond us how this idiot could think that making graffiti like this ON mother nature’s creation could possibly please her. Gerad took several photos of him, hoping to present them to authorities, and finally, Katerine took the ball and confronted him. When asked why he was doing this, he told us that he wanted to come back in 10 years and see if it was still there. This was the most thoughtless and ignorant answer he could have given. We told him that if everyone did this, none of the beauty of nature he was seeing would be here, but it fell on deaf ears.

Feeling powerless to do anything, Gerad went back to the Land Cruiser and told Juan and Bemar what the man was doing, but neither of them wanted to get involved. Gerad overheard Juan mentioning that there was a five thousand US Dollar fine if you are caught vandalizing in the park. The tour operator with which the man was riding also failed to make any effort to stop it. This is South America for you, though. Most of the people here don’t understand environmentalism, which is forgivable given that most are extremely poor and have a drastically different set of priorities. However, one would hope that anyone who has enough time and money to be taking one of these tours should have the capability of respecting the environment. Of course, the tour operators should also understand the basic principles of environmentalism and make every effort to stop their patrons from commiting atrocities against nature like vandalism, or simply from leaving garbage behind, but as we observed on multiple occasions, most operators have no regard for the environment on which they solely rely upon for income.

The Fox

That brings us to the fox, the day prior. As we drove down the road, Juan quickly stopped the car, pointing at a Zorro (fox) on the side of the road. It looked like a Fuegian fox, which we had seen several of before in Argentina/Chile. However, Juan and Bemar told us that the fox was somewhat domesticated, so we could get pictures of it. We got out of the 4×4, as Juan grabbed the remnants of the day’s lunch (chicken bones from a bag of garbage), and started throwing them to the fox. Bone after bone was thrown to the dog, which looked as sad as a beggar on the streets of La Paz. As we prepared to leave the area, Juan looked to throw the rest of the bag of garbage in the ditch next to the road, but another vehicle approached and he stopped, indicating to us that he knew what he was about to do was wrong. Instead, he took the garbage bag, and threw it on top of the Land Cruiser roof rack, where it was sure to blow away in the wind as soon as he got any speed. This is typical of the people here.

Back to Uyuni

On our way back to Uyuni, things were pretty uneventful. We went through some beautiful lanscape, dropping roughly 1,000 meters of elevation (3,300 feet) as we made it back to the “Altiplano”, or high-altitude plains in which we were to spend the rest of the day. We stopped at or near La Valle de Las Rocas, where more huge rocks stick out of the plains, which was quite fun, and resulted in some good photos. While there, Laura quickly spotted a Chinchilla, which she pointed out for the rest of the group to see. She would spot another one later and get some good photos of it.

Later we stopped at a tiny village, which was situated under volcanic rock cliffs, for a lunch of tuna, rice and veggies. For desert we were given a bag of lollipops. We each took one (or two), and with what was remaining, in the spirit of the past night’s discussion, Jules suggested giving the remaining lollie’s to the local children, which he did.

Off again we sped until we reached San Cristobal, a small town which recently “struck it big”, as American and a Japanese companies opened up mines in the San Cristobal mountain nearby, employing many of the townspeople, which clearly has brought much prosperity to this dusty little town in the middle of nowhere. As we passed the mine and entered the town, we were greeted by much more affluent looking housing made of real brick rather than mud brick, with well paved streets, expensive SUVs and pickup trucks, and lots of other obvious signs that the people here had money.

The town of San Cristobal really only has one touristy attraction – a beautiful stone church, which is probably not very old, but made in a style that looks old enough. We took shots of the church, then headed to the market for snacks. As the two of us ate Pringles, Jules and Micky went over to shoot the church. Finally, we all piled into the car again as it was time to go.

The Luckiest Man in Bolivia

As Juan started the engine, Micky uttered to Jules, “my bag, its not here, I must have left it…”. Jules said to Micky, “oh shit, you must have left it by the church, don’t worry, I’ll run and grab it”. We waited for Jules for about five minutes, but he didn’t return. Finally we spotted him walking around empty handed, and Micky jumped out. The next half hour we spent walking around looking for Micky’s bag, which happened to have his camera, the last few months’ photos, his wallet, his passport, and other important valuables in it. Micky spoke with a girl by the church, who said she saw the person who took the bag, and knew where they might be, off he went with her while the rest of us continued searching for it. The problem at this point was that Katerine and Karim had a bus to catch at 6:30 or 7PM, as well as laundry to pick up in Uyuni, and it was getting late.

Bemar and Juan found us Canadians, and asked where Micky was. We told them what happened, and that we weren’t sure where he was now. Now Bemar and Juan were growing concerned, because not only had we lost Micky’s bag, but also Micky. Eventually Juan brought the Land Cruiser over to where we were, and we hopped in. Bemar questioned some girls by the church about who Micky went with, and thanks to the small town know-how, they pointed us in a direction where we eventually found Micky with the girl he had spoken to at the church, the two of them in front of a house, with a woman, man, and child standing in the doorway. Micky was speaking to them, and they handed him his bag, to our absolute astonishment. The bag was inside out, because they had gone through it. The money from his wallet was missing, which he enquired about, and they returned him his non-Bolivian money (Peruvian and Euros). He triple checked all of the items in his bag; everything else was there. Jules gave some money to the girl who had pointed Micky to this family.

Completely astonished and incredibly thankful, we all thanked the family for returning his valuables, and piled back into the 4×4. Needless to say, the next 15-20 minutes were filled with everyone in the car still astounded by Micky’s luck and telling him how lucky he was. None of us expected him to get his bag back, especially not in that time frame or with everything intact; it was incredible and probably not anything we would witness again.

We pulled into Uyuni at around 6:15, just enough time for the Quebec’ers to get their laundry and find a bus. We wished each other good luck and farewell.

The two of us had planned on tearing a strip out of the folks back at the Andes Salt Expeditions office in Uyuni, but we had decided that, although we didn’t get the trip we had planned, and we payed more than we should have for what we got, most of the things that were upsetting us could have happened either due to miscommunication or could be just as common on other tours. Additionally, the fellow at the office was not the owner, and he had done everything he could to try to organize something for us to come back in four days (an option that we ultimately refused because we were afraid of the possibility of being left at Laguna Verde). The truth was that most of the problems we had were a result of poor management from the top, which rested on Braullio, the company owner, who was conventiently absent from the office. If we wanted to get upset at anyone, it should be him, and we didn’t want to wait around Uyuni for another two days to try to find him in the office on the following Monday.

The fellow who was at the office clearly wanted to try to make it up to us, still, and he offered to book us our tickets to La Paz, our next destination. We didn’t have enough money for the tickets, so he made up the difference out of pocket, which was kind, and he offered to meet up with us at 8PM to take us to the bus.

We still had an hour and a half before the bus left, so we decided to go back to the Italian Pizza place we ate at before. We were happy to find that this time the patrons were quieter and more respectful, and the propane heaters were not monopolized by any single group of guests. As usual, the pizza was excellent.

We met back up with the helpful fellow from the tour operator, and walked to the bus, piling our stuff on, and preparing for a long night without water (we had run out of money and the town’s only bank machine was out of order). The bus trip was relatively uneventful, other than Gerad almost being left behind in Oruro as he took a pee and looked for water, Laura innocently sleeping away, unaware that Gerad had got off the bus (oops, won’t happen again).

La Paz

We awoke the next morning as we pulled into La Paz bus terminal. We got off the bus and immediately found some ATM’s, from which we drew cash. The next mission was to find a hotel, as neither of us were yet thirsty. We walked past a line of incessant taxi drivers and headed down hill. The rule of thumb in La Paz is “if you want to find city center, just go down hill”. We had an ace up our sleeve, of course, a map of the city showing us that the bus terminal is only about 15 blocks away from downtown. It was around 7AM, and the beautiful sun was lighting the clouds above us in hues of pink and orange. It was breathtaking, literally and figuratively, with La Paz at around 3,660 meters elevation (over 12,000 feet), and our full set of luggage getting very heavy with souvenirs and our normal comlement of gear. We eventually found and settled upon a hotel, called Hostel Maya. It was on the most touristy street in town, Sargánaga, in a building with an inside market consisting of a travel agency, a locutorio, two restaurants, a lavandería (laundry) and some souvenir shops, but was reasonably priced. Our room was reasonably large with twin beds and a view of some old mud brick buildings and a small cement courtyard.

We have found the simple act of walking in La Paz (and in many areas in Bolivia) can become quite challenging, not only because of the altitude, but due to the old cobble stone roadways. Old cobblestone is slippery enough when dry due to the grime on it and the polishing effect of wear; however, when you add water to the equation (from people washing welcome mats, cars, sidewalks etc…) it becomes nearly impossible to take a step without slipping, especially with our Vibram-soled hiking boots, which are designed for dry mountain environments. We slid around quite a bit here, making it hard to imagine how the ladies walk around in their high heel shoes.

Shopping Heaven

Since it was still early in the morning, we headed out in search of some breakfast, then began a walking tour explained in our Lonely Planet tourist bible. We got about ten feet into the walking tour when in the Mercado Hechiceria, or Witches’ Market, colorful garmets and dried llama fetuses and toads stopped us in our tracks. Taking pictures of the llama fetuses, and trying out different garments, musical instruments, and whatever else we found, we quickly realized that this was going to be the place we spent a lot of our souvenir budget; we had always planned on Bolivia being the place we bought this stuff, given that it was supposed to be the cheapest for the better quality items, and La Paz seemed to have it all.

As we walked up Calle Santa Cruz, we found different “districts” for everything imaginable, from a block of plumbing stores, to a block of electronics, to a block of fabrics, to a block of sporting goods, etc. The stores all clumped together here. One street was all lit up, literally, with light bulbs of every style, technology, and shape imaginable — Home Depot can’t hold a candle (or was it a lumen?) to this place. Hardware stores abundent, we went past shops with propane barbecues and grills, turkey fryers and every other imaginable propane accessory (Hank Hill’s Disneyland) — I (Gerad) couldn’t help but think of my father Wayne’s delight, buying all the grills and heaters he could fit in the back of a pickup truck for less money than he’d spend on a single one back home. In the textile district at Plaza 14 de Septiembre, Laura couldn’t help but think of her Aunt Diane and the joy she would have with all the selection of fabrics, buttons, thread, and other sewing accessories found here.

Eventually, we walked down Graneros, finding the Mercado Negro, literally “Black Market”, where kiosk after kiosk is set up with brand name after brand name of popular american and european clothing, as well as sunglasses and other fashionable items. Our Lonely Planet explains that in spite of the onerous name, most of the stores here are not selling contraband, and are on the “up and up”. Gerad’s sunglasses were getting quite worn, so he decided to buy a new pair. He looked at one kiosk with a selection of anteojos (glasses) from brands like Nike, Reebok, Puma, and RayBan. He settled on a pair of Pumas, which appear to be genuine, with a tiny defect in the sanding of the plastic lens at one side of the frame (meaning they are likely factory QA rejects), an extremely minor defect. When he asked the price, he expected to pay about 80 Bolivianos, which translates to $13 CAD, and would be a fair price for here, but they turned out to be 28 Bolivianos, or less than $5 CAD. Wow, back home we would pay a lot more (London Drugs sells factory “seconds”, or qa-rejects, think of the “discount” you get there compared to here).

We decended through the rest of the Black Market, past watches and electronics, and every accessory imaginable. On our second day of walking, we even found a guy set up in the middle of a walkway with very high-end binoculars from brands like Tasco (we didn’t ask the price, but I’d expect the ratio to home prices to be similar to that of the sunglasses). The optical coatings (which are very important in high-end optics) were clearly visible and the lenses impeccable. Again, incredible.

Coca Coca Coca

Later in the day, we decided to head to the Coca Museum, which the Lonely Planet describes as giving “an educational, provocative, and evenhanded look at the sacred leaf and its uses”. We think this describes it quite well. For us, the most important lesson learned was that the use of the coca leaves is very deeply rooted in the cultures of this region. Ancient (think 5,000 years before Christ) stone miniature statues have been found that clearly show people with a wad of coca in their cheek. Ancient prophecy declared that “men from another land” will one day come and try to take the coca leaf, but its power will corrupt their hearts and make them crazy, acting as a poison, bringing pain and disheartenment, which is exactly what happened. The prophecy went so far as to declare that the men from the East would make these people work in the depths of “the mountain” to extract ore for them, and that the people here should use coca to resist the effects of the abuses. It was very cool. Some other interesting facts we learned:

– Coca leaves are non addictive, and contain a very small amount of the alkaloid(s) known as cocaine

– Chewing the coca leaves is one of the most effective ways to avoid the negative effects of altitude sickness (already proved that in Potosi)

– Coca leaves reduce the amount of oxygen the body requires to metabolize food, and stabilizes blood sugar/insulin levels in the body (confirmed by French/Swiss researchers)… kinda makes one wonder if this wouldn’t be beneficial for people with diabetes or hypoglicemia, or maybe just preventative (definitely not what the pharmaceutical companies would want us to figure out)

– During the late 19th century, a Pope gave a French wine-maker an award of merit for the invention of coca-wine (which contained cocaine), the use of cocaine was later adopted by the American who started coca cola

– Coca Cola Co. is still the largest buyer of Bolivian Coca in the world, now only extracting the “flavor” from the leaves, instead of the cocaine

– During the 50’s, a prominent American banker declared that Coca was responsible for the poverty and “mental retardation” in South America (completely unproven), and based, at least partially, on his opinions, the war on coca was started, with the US DEA going into South American countries and forcefully destroying people’s livelihood and sacred beliefs

– The UN has a “club” of nations that are allowed to grow coca, but although Coca naturally grows in Bolivia, at these altitudes, in this climate, and is central to the culture, Bolivia is not on this list of countries — the US is

– In the country, most families have a coca field. When a couple wants to marry, the groom must present a gift of coca leaves to the bride’s father, if he accepts, the marriage can happen, and a reciprocal gift is given to the groom’s family. The bride and groom start a new coca crop together when they marry, and the coca crop grows with their family, in a symbolic way

– Americans consume more than 50% of all Cocaine produced annually

– Crack cocaine is now much more common (cheaper) than real cocaine, and is produced chemically, in a lab, without using real coca leaves

– The chemicals used to make cocaine are expensive and difficult to acquire. Bolivian anti-drug authorities have determined that these chemicals are being flown directly into the jungles of Bolivia illegally by American and Western-European chemical companies, meaning that they do not have to go through any border drug prevention methods. Most likely the drugs are being flown out the same way

– It takes roughly 500kg’s of coca leaves to make a 1kg jar of cocaine

– The leaves typically used for cocaine production are of a different variety than those chewed, they are larger and have a more bitter, unpleasant taste, so they are easy to tell apart

– In Bolivia, drug use has increased 5-fold since the American-backed Anti-cocaine laws were put in place

What basically comes out of this is a lot of questions about the ethics of coca and countries like America coming here and trying to impose their will on the people, without any true knowledge or understanding of what they are meddling with. Coca is not a harmful or addictive substance, cocaine is. Cocaine is made because Americans are buying it, plain and simple. If America wants to solve the problem, coming here and burning down the crops does nothing, because (as was proven in the past), making it harder to produce a drug one way just means people improvise, producing a different drug with the same effect (crack cocaine, heroine, what next). America and the other western countries need to realize that the problem isn’t Bolivia’s, or Peru’s, or Columbia’s, it is their own. We as Westerners like to pass blame on to other people, rather than looking at ourselves (McDonald’s made me fat). It is easy for our governments to step into an economically weak country like Bolivia or Columbia and destroy the livelihood and culture, hidden from our televisions and newspapers, then report it back to us saying “we are doing something about the drug problem”, than it is to look at why our own culture is broken and we have so many people that need to take drugs to feel happy. Answer that question and you will probably answer the question about why we have some of the greatest rates of alcoholism and obesity in the world, as well.

So, clearly, you can see that we have been brainwashed by the evil south americans, or maybe you will take a second to pause and think about things, and (we hope), realize that maybe what we’ve been raised to believe back home is perhaps not a lie, but at the least, a misdirection — a refusal to admit that there is something wrong with the way we do things, because we like to believe that the way we do things is the best, we are the best, Ra Ra Ra!

Back to La Paz

On our second day in La Paz, we completed the walking tour mentioned previously, and headed to a place Gerad had been looking forward to for the last month — the Musical Instrument Museum. We got there, paid our $1.67 each, and started walking around. They had tons of cool local instruments, like huge horns played by locals at festivals, guitars, mandolins, and charangos of every shape and size, Japanese and Chinese instruments, improvised instruments made (literally) of trash, pianos, gramaphones, flutes, drums, harps, etc. Many of the instruments were hands-on. It was a great way to pass an hour.

After the museum, we stopped in a cafe and had some juice and hot dogs. While there, some creepy drunk guy gave us his card (he directs a local band) and tried to get us to share his white wine with him. Regrettingly, Gerad sampled a tiny sip out of courtesy, and it was good, but we declined the offer out of distrust. He told us that his band had played in New York, Chicago, and some other US city, but he never made it to Vegas, which he was quite sad about. Anyhow, it was weird and we got out of there as fast as possible.

Next, we decided to head to Parque Mirador Laikakota, which is supposed to have a good view of the city (“mirador” means “viewpoint”). We walked the 15-20 blocks, arriving there only to find it closed (our Lonely Planet bible failed us in this case, stating different operating hours, but we still love it). Being tired and dissappointed, we found a lower viewpoint and took a few photos. From there we walked downhill to the Prado (main avenue), and followed it back up to our hotel, stopping along the way for ice cream at Bits n’ Cream (some of the best ice cream in Bolivia). We then decided it was a good time to head to Iglesia de San Francisco, a church first built in adobe here starting in 1549, which later collapsed during a snow storm, taking 200 more years to rebuild and complete (stone and brick the second time).

The tour guide was a bubbly girl probably in her mid to late 20’s. She told us that her English was very poor and that she had only been taking classes for two weeks, but it seemed sufficiently good for us, and eventually we were speaking Spanish together anyhow. The guide took us up to the roof of the church first to allow us to get photos as the sun set, which was nice. Every time she spoke to us, the guide would giggle like a school girl. Inside the church was lots of interesting rooms, paintings, and artifacts pertaining to the liberation of La Paz from the Spanish. We stood in the very bedroom where the conspirators hatched many of their plans against the Spanish, for it was from this church that much of the uprising against the Spanish originated. In the catacombs of this church are located the remains of several of Bolivia’s great liberators, and other key Bolivian figures.

After walking around the church, and learning a great deal, we had dinner and retired for the night.

Soroche

“Soroche” is the word for altitude sickness, which is characterised by a strong headache, shortness of breath, even while resting, fever, nausea, dizzyness, malaise, loss of apetite, and fluid in the lungs. Gerad woke up not feeling great, a tightness in his lungs like that of athsma, which seemed to be increasing the night before. Throughout the day he started showing more and more symptoms, until we had to return to the hotel, Gerad laying in bed under all the blankets and llama wool we could find, shivering with a fever. Although we had been at altitude already for about eight days, something finally pushed Gerad over the edge (or the top?), and he crashed. At first we couldn’t figure out what it was, since the initial symptoms were flu like, but the feeling in Gerad’s lungs, and the dizzyness told him that this wasn’t the usual flu, altitude being the only reasonable cause. Unfortunately, soroche is untreatable, and if the affected person remains at altitude, it results in swelling of the brain and ultimately death.

Throughout the day we had gone to an internet cafe, spoken with some of our friends and family, written emails, etc. We also found a very nice music store, where Laura bought Gerad a beautiful Charango as a present (and a flute for herself). Also that day, we had booked tickets to Copacabana, on Lake Titicaca, which was to be our next area of exploration. But if this was altitude sickness, it meant we couldn’t go there, because lake Titicaca is basically at the same height as La Paz, 3700 meters. Laura did some more research on the Internet, confirming her beliefs that it was soroche, as Gerad slept the night away. The next morning Laura waved off our ride to the bus terminal (and Copacabana), and booked us a ticket for later that day, to Coroico, a small town only 82km from the edge of La Paz, but at only around 1500 meters (a huge drop in altitude). Still feeling horrible, Gerad donned his pack and we headed to the bus terminal in a taxi that the hotel had arranged for us. Unfortunately the taxi driver didn’t know where our bus operator’s office was, and he took a long time to navigate through the streets crowded with people (it was mother’s day, which seems to be a national holiday here, so everyone is out carrying flowers). The bus was scheduled to depart at 1PM, and we arrived at an office that the taxi driver claimed to be correct, at about 1:10. The office was the right company, but for the wrong destination, so they walked us to the other office, which told us we had missed the bus. Luckily, there was a bus scheduled for 1:30, so they gave us a free ticket for that bus, which turned out to be a little Toyota combi-van with a roof-rack, and we boarded.

Coroico

The drive to Coroico was only 82kms, but it took us a good 3 hours due to the rapid descent being made. Incredibly, the road reminded us of some of the best interstates in Montana (better than our Canadian roads), navigating terrible mountainous terrain with wonderful concrete precision, tunnels, retaining walls 400 meters high, etc. The road was paved most of the way, except near the end, where there was much more slope to engineer against and landslides had upset the roadway, or areas that they intentionally used stone on for drainage purposes. Anyhow, it was strange to see such impressive engineering in Bolivia, let alone South America.

Finally we arrived in Coroico, finding it to be a tiny town situated high in the mountains, and breathtakingly beautiful. Gerad was feeling a touch better already, still having the remnants of a headache and the pain in his lungs, but already things seemed to be looking up. We made our way up a steep hill, quickly finding a hotel called Hostel Kory, which had an incredible view of the valley below and the mountains across from us, as well as nicely kept rooms, a pool, and bathrooms with hot showers, all for the breathtaking price of $17/night (for the two of us).

Settled into the hotel, we couldn’t help but look out off the balony, to the incredible expanse of a valley that stretched out in front of us. We could see the road we came in on, the cars like little specs. Although we dropped 2000 meters (almost 7000 feet) from La Paz, we were still high up compared to the bottom of this valley, and all around the mountains we looked at, was clouds. Again we found ourselves in cloud forest, but this time we were literally living in the cloud forest, in paradise. Not surprisingly, a sign greets you when you arrive in town saying, “Welcome to Paradise”.

We are now resting here, and planning out an altered trip, avoiding prolonged exposure to altitude, which means the Inca Trail is out, but not Machu Picchu itself.

The Last of Argentina, the Beginning of Bolivia

May 20, 2009

Back to BA The next afternoon we hopped on a bus bound for Buenos Aires. Happy to be on the road, we watched several good movies, and eventually fell asleep. In the morning we awoke to the rush hour traffic on the outskirts of BA. It took perhaps another hour and a half to arrive in town, after which we had to walk some blocks to the big train station, and catch a train back up to Marcelo’s neighborhood. Meeting up with Marcelo was nice, and we shared more stories of the trip with him, and relaxed some. Over the following days we didn’t do as much as we had hoped, because Gerad fell slightly ill with a stomach flu of some kind. We watched the news of the Swine Flu and all the panic and hypocritical news from the West, and relaxed knowing that we had nothing to worry about here other than dengue fever. Because both Marcelo and Gerad were feeling under the weather, we mostly hung around near Marcelo’s house. We would sometimes venture out to check out some local areas. Bored a little more quickly this time, we decided to book tickets to Colonia, which is a small town across the river from Buenos Aires in Uruguay. We booked with a tour, so we got a lunch and guided information around the town. The Cutest Town in South America Although the tour included passage with the slower of two ferries offered, the trip to Colonia flew by, as we all slept through most of it. Getting to Colonia about lunchtime the first thing on the agenda was lunch. They dropped us at a restaurant that was once a general store that one of the first inhabitants in Colonia ran. The original walls were still in tact with a rock staircase leading down to what now we think is a festivities hall; it was fun to have lunch in such a place. After lunching the bus picked us up yet again (after being rushed out from lunch), and we headed to the northern part of town. Here we saw an old Bull fighting ring, or the outside of it anyways; from what we could see of the structure it looked like a mini Colleseum. It used to house countrywide bull fights, but was shut down after only a few years due to a law set in place that the animals were not allowed to be killed. It is now (like several things we are seeing) being restored. The brick and cement work that held it up was all crumbling and was now fenced off while the work was in progress. We then passed several old colonial buildings that were used for a power plant and other manufacturing plants. Stopping for about ten minutes at the beach to feel the white sand and take some pictures. Apparently there is no pollution on this side of the river, so people swim here in the summer and they can drink the water without problem. The sand reminded Gerad of the sand in some ash trays in North America. It was so smooth and soft, we wanted to take my boots off and run barefoot in it; unfortunately, we were on a tour and so only had about 10 minutes here. After the beach we were off back to town, where we had a walking tour through the older part of the city. Colonia is a UNESCO Heritage site, so any new buildings they want to build need to get approved by UNESCO first. The tallest building in the city is 12 stories high, and only because it was built before UNESCO claimed the site; now there is a law that prohibits buildings being taller then only a few stories. We walked over a draw bridge still in tact along a stone wall that once surrounded the village. It was designed to encompass the entire town; however, with modern development it now only stands in one area. The streets were all original cobble stone and were sloped out to allow drainage as people would throw water from the windows of their houses into the street. The cobble stone was beautiful with reds, greys, and blacks and was well taken care of. An old lighthouse still stands tall at the edge of the town, and tourists can go to the top; however, we didn’t manage to go up with the time we had. But, you will be able to see the pictures that both Gerad and Laura were able to get from the road below. The rest of the town was so quaint and quiet all three of us fell in love with it. We all wanted to stay longer; however, with the tour it was not possible without losing the return trip price. So again we boarded the vessel that would now return us to Argentina. This time the ride was much longer as none of us wanted to sleep. We discussed getting pizza for dinner and created quite a hunger in all of our bellies. We arrived in Buenos Aires about half an hour later than scheduled, which they apologized for over the speaker phone. We were happy since we didn’t have any luggage to claim, we figured it would be quick to get through customs and to our pizza. Everything went smoothly and quickly for about five minutes…we turned a corner and there was a huge crowd of people who appeared not to be moving at all. We tried to figure out what was happening. Perhaps customs wasn’t open yet, or because we arrived late (at the same time as another vessel) there were simply too many people going through for the staff to handle properly (Like previous Argentine border crossings). Eventually the line moved ahead slightly, then started to crawl forward inch by inch. We heard many different stories of what was happening. As we got closer we could see that there was an escalator down to the first floor, which they were only allowing 4 or 5 people down at a time. We could not see the bottom yet, so now it started a new round of guesses of what they were doing. We waited for about forty five minutes longer than we should have so that they could put us through a thermal scan! Every single person entering Argentina here stood in front of a make shift scanner where they reviewed your temperature. Unfortunately, even though both the boys had been feeling ill, none of us were stopped with a fever. Colonia may the cutest town we have ever visited. The people were kind, the streets cobble stone, the buildings old and full of character and the food was excellent. Highly recommended for anyone visiting South America. Now What? After Colonia, we didn’t feel like there was much more for us to do in or around Buenos Aires. We discussed our next plan of action and decided it would be yet again best to fly. It was quite a bit more expensive this time but would save us about two days travel time as well as backtracking. We booked the tickets to go to Santa Cruz, Bolivia for Friday (it was now Wednesday), so we started to get our stuff together. Things we decided were too expensive or valuable to us to worry about having them stolen in Bolivia we put into a suitcase to be mailed back home before leaving Argentina. We also sorted through clothes and belongings for things we could live without, to cut down weight of not only the bags we would be carrying with us, but also the package being sent home. Those items were left behind for Estella, a woman that comes to clean Marcelo’s apartment once a week and who we truly adore. After everything was organized, we just had to go to Fedex in the morning and ship the parcel and then relax untill noon or so when we would have to head to the Airport. Just shipping the package turned out to be a big ordeal. Apparently the guy that was helping us was not trained properly; we could not claim any of the souvenirs we were sending home as gifts (in order not to pay duty on them), nor could we claim things we purchased in Canada (again not to pay duty on them), so everything we were shipping was to be taxed, even things we had purchased in Canada. It seemed ridiculous to us, but we had no time to dispute it. We also had some souvenir maps that we were intending on shipping; however, due to Argentina printing maps with the Malvinas as Argentina’s instead of the UK’s there are heavy restrictions for shipping maps out of Argentina. So out those came. Free little souvenirs that Laura had picked up along the way were also discarded due to shipping issues and our time. It took us little over two hours to sort all the shipping stuff out and get it mailed off, which left us approximately -15 minutes to catch our cab to the Airport. The cab was waiting for us at Marcelo’s when we returned. First Impressions Luckily the airport in Argentina did not give us any problems and we were checked in in no time. Flying time was about three hours and we were blessed with a beautiful first impression of Bolivia. We flew above the clouds where the sun was shining. From what we could see in the breaks there were three layers of clouds. The bottom the typical looking clouds, one in the middle that was thinner and more streamline (more elegant looking), and the highest which for as far as the eye could see was flat except tiny spots of high pressure which would eject the clouds up further into the atmosphere. These huge figures towered above the rest of the sea of white, and were simply phenomenal. We could see through some of the breaks in the cloud the jungle below us that was uninhabited by any people and great river valleys currently empty of water, this amongst the amazing clouds we were floating through were our first impressions of Bolivia. It was a beautiful welcome party. As we descended to Santa Cruz, we broke through the clouds, coming underneath them, to a surreal scene; spots of rain were visible all around, the cloud cover relatively thick, except with patches of sun shining through, illuminating the rain and patches of green earth. Santa Cruz came into clear view, spread out in a big circle with its ring-roads forming a target for some celestial shooter. We landed in Santa Cruz de La Sierra, Boliva at about 6pm, just as the sun set. The captain shut off the seat belt sign and everyone started to collect their belongings from the overhead bin. We then heard an announcement over the speakers about everyone taking their seats (this was all we could understand). The flight attendants then came around and requested people be seated, as they passed out medical masks to all the passengers. We had not been wearing them the entire flight with eachother, but now they wanted us to wear them. So we donned our masks and left the airplane. Every worker in the Airport and every passenger from our plane wore safety masks…until we got through customs. After we had retrieved our bags and got our passports stamped the masks were allowed to be taken off. Seemed rather ridiculous, since we were still heading into the streets of their people, but I am sure they have their reasons. Now it was time to get a cab and head into the City. It was dark and had been raining, so the first impression of the damp City was a little daunting. The streets were more erratic than the ones in Argentina, with people using every inch of the road possible as long as another vehicle was not already using it. There was quite an absence of cross walks, so pedestrians ventured out into the road to try and quickly weave through the crazy mess of cars and horns were well used. After weaving in and out of other cars, small alleys and streets for about half an hour (it happened to be rush hour, of course), our cab pulled over on a small street that looked fairly abandoned, and let us out. Our hostel was an unassuming hole in the wall across the street from where he stopped. We walked in, and booked ourselves into the small run down hostel. We had a room with a lock on the door; however, it had cracks and holes in it. The beds were springs with what felt like hundred year old mattresses on them; however, this was where we were to stay for two days. We were both hungry so immediately we packed our little backpacks with our cameras and such and headed out to find food. After reading warnings about the (un) safety of tourists of Bolivia, we were both a little nervous about wandering about at night. We were not entirely sure which way the center plaza was, but took a guess and started walking. Everyone we passed seemed to look us up and down fairly judgingly, but we did not have to walk too far before finding a great place to eat, Picadilly (or something like that). Our new favorite The restaurant mostly specialized in Helado (Ice cream); however, served main dishes as well. It was painted bright orange, with a fake waterfall in the middle; the music was live and the service was incredible. The servers had help though…each table had a sophisticated wifi electric box with three buttons that would send a message to the wait counter. One button you would push for the waitress to come to the table, one button you would push to cancel a call, and another button was to call for your check. It was quite splendid actually. I suppose I should mention that a difference between eating out here and eating out at home is the type of service you receive; at home the waitress will periodically come to your table to refill your drink, make sure everything is tasting well, and generally bug you to make sure everything is ok. Here it is not that way at all, the only guaranteed visit by the waitress is when they bring you the menu when you first sit down, after this time if you would like them to come to your table, you must catch their eye and wave them down. So this system of pressing a button was a nice change for us. Then, of course, was the food — not only was it flavorful and well prepared, but it was also very nicely presented on the plate — this place must have a professionally trained chef. When we had completed our meal our waitress dropped off ice cream at our table free of charge. Now one thing I can tell you about Bolivia is they know how to do things with fruit, and they love their ice cream! We had a jug of freshly squeezed strawberry juice (literally blended strawberries mixed with a little bit of water and ice), and the ice cream now provided to us was naturally made with strawberries. Delicious! After a pleasant meal, we wandered further down the road where we found the center plaza. It was very nice with a beautiful brick church all lit up, trees, benches and the usual government buildings surrounding. We walked around the square for a bit, then headed back to the hostel to settle in for the night. The following morning, we figured we would check out the saturday festivities around the square and look for a map of the area. Stopping again for lunch at our new favorite restaurant. We found the square to be busy with people sitting playing chess, boys shining shoes, and couples sitting laughing on the benches. It was sunny and warm and loud with happiness. We wandered around the square a little, before sitting on a bench ourselves talking about what we would like to do in the next couple of days. We had some ideas of what we wanted to do, but for now we figured we would look around the area we were in. We walked through an alley way to a second square where there was festivities happening; there were activities for children and people set up at booths promoting crocs. Yes Crocs the shoes. Nothing here interested us, and we decided it would be best to continue to look for a map. Across the street was a used book store so we thought maybe we would have luck there. They had maps of the area, but for more than we thought we wanted to pay and they were not as detailed as we would have liked, so our search continued. We walked along the road back towards the square, but were distracted by open doors to a large building on the way. It turned out that there was a Photo Expedition showcasing images from September and October of 2008. In Bolivia at the end of last year there was a huge civil uprising against the government (riots, strikes, blockades, etc). This civil unrest still prevails in a lot of the areas and demonstrations are still a very common occurance. The images in the photo exposition portrayed revolution type situations with people fighting against the authorities. People carried sticks with nails sticking out of them, fireworks (which were lit and thrown towards the police barracades). Some of the images were more gruesome; however, most of them did a fantastic job of showing the emotion of the people. Another section showed the acts that Santa Cruz took against Dengue. They showed people doing massive clean ups of the streets and anywhere that garbage had been allowed to pile up stopping a flowing water system. People standing scrubbing the gutters and properly destroying rubbage that could hold water. Yet another section showed the military smashing down shanty homes. These people were on the property long enough to build up brick walls for housing; however, they were all destroyed in a “urbanization” project. At one point a woman started speaking to us (in spanish of course) about the civil unrest and how Santa Cruz is now sadly a bad place to live. Before Evo Morales, she explained, they had 38 years of peace and safety. It had been a tranquil place, but now there was no trust or security anywhere. Tears started to appear in her eyes, and it was clear how much she cared for the place she called home. The photos were hard to view, but very educational. We were both humbled by the turmoil these people have fought through and what they continue to fight for. After we viewed the images, we headed back to the center plaza to sit for a little while. We both started to crave ice cream, so we headed to a small shop we had read that the locals rave about. The ice cream was good, but not as good as the other restaurant we had been to previous. Ice cream certainly is not taken lightly here. It is everywhere and it is good. We discussed the possibility of renting a car, which felt a little scary with the driving we had seen. We wanted to rent a car to go further east to see some Jesuit Missions; however, in the end we decided against it. Renting a car would be expensive and maybe dangerous to drive on our own. The missions would have to wait for the next trip to Bolivia.

The Rest of Argentina

May 14, 2009
Perito Moreno Glacier from Afar

Perito Moreno Glacier from Afar

El Calafate

Back to El Calafate after hiking in El Chalten. The campsite where we stayed was in town, quite close to the center. It had three separate areas with three different prices, first you had your individual sites (mostly for what we would call car camping), second you had an area for motorhomes and RV’s (A parking lot in the back), and finally you had a space across the river designated for backpackers. Of course this is what we needed and it was the cheapest. Fifteen pesos per person per night. Since we had camped here before we were familiar with one of the camp staff and he welcomed us back. We talked briefly about our travels within the park, then started about the business of setting up camp and settling in for the night.

We  also started loading and editing our pictures from Fitz Roy. Diego, who is one of the campsite’s attendants, became quite interested in what we were doing and ended up sitting with us for an hour or so. We shared adventure stories and pictures. The next couple of days were spent editing pictures and uploading them (I know we neglected to post here during that time…sorry). We also enjoyed playing with the grill and building our cooking confidence.

As you can imagine after a couple of days sitting and working on files, we were both anxious to get away from the computer for a little while. So we headed off to the rent a car place we had previous used, and made plans to head to Perito Moreno the next day for a second chance at seeing it. The weather was forecasted to be sunny in the morning (when we wanted to be at the glacier), so we figured it was our best chance at seeing it under blue skies. We planned on getting up around 6 to get an early start to see the sun rise on the glacier.

Round Two

See Gerad’s professional shots of Perito Moreno HERE. Our shared picasa album is HERE.

Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep “Click” goes the snooze button…Beep Beep Beep Beep “Click”, this was the sound from our tent at 6am the following morning. It took us a little longer than we thought to get up and going, and with the all too familiar feeling of “crap we’re going to miss it” we headed on our way slightly later than planned. We were relieved, however, to see that the forecast seemed to be correct and the visible stars were just beginning to fade to the morning light. Laura (the worry wort on the trip) was concerned that we wouldn’t make it through the gates before the guards got there and we would have to pay the way too overpriced entrance fee; however, when we arrived at the entrance to the park, the gate was still and quiet and we drove through without interruption. The few clouds that were in the sky started to get the beautiful morning pink as we drove through the park (still about 15 minutes away from the Glacier). The views were much more inviting this time as the lake and mountains were painted with the pink and purple colors of the waking sun. We rushed to get our camera stuff out when we arrived to the parking lot of Perito Moreno, and hurriedly headed down the walk ways. The sun rise had hit the glacier and cast a pink shade across its top; unfortunately, we were able to see it, but arrived too late to be able to take any decent pictures of the beauty before us.

As the pink faded, the blue arose. “Great!”, you might be thinking, which it would have been if it was the nice comforting blue of a clear sky; unfortunately, it was the dull grey/blue that comes from overcast skies. Still it was plenty better than our previous experience with the glacier, so we began shooting. We spent about an hour taking pictures before heading back to the car for some food. Later with full stomachs and after much deliberation we decided to return to the walkways to take advantage of the suns advances in the sky.

Lull of Tourist Season

It is late in the tourist season down south due to the fact that it is the start of autumn and winter seasons, so in the tourist towns and especially at the tourist attractions they are starting to do touch ups and additions. Projects that would be difficult to do with the thousands of tourists during peak season. So standing on the viewing platform looking out over a magnificent glacier we were deafened by the sound of a jack hammer, mounted on a back-hoe, which was slicing a place for the new walkway they are installing. We know the sound of even the smallest of ice breaking from a glacier and the sound of the glacier shifting and doing what glaciers do from our previous experience at Glacier grey and to not hear any natural sound while watching such majesty was extremely strange, more like watching home video with your crying kids at home than actually standing there.

Eventually we both felt we had exhausted the variety of shots we could take; although the glacier is among the largest in the world and is quite an amazing site, you really can only take so many pictures from the limited angles we had to work with. Now it turned into a waiting game. A game we shared in with about 100 to 200 other glacier guests to see if any large pieces of ice would calve off Perito Moreno’s bold face.

Sure enough, the glacier rewarded us by calving a massive section of its northeastern side, just as a tour boat happened to be in that area. The boat drove away to better safety as massive waves of water rushed away from the glacier. Chunk after chunk fell into the water, some huge (like a small apartment building), many smaller (school bus, minivan). Although we could clearly see what was going on with our eyes, it was very difficult to capture much of anything with the camera, except for the aftermath — a huge ring, thick with iceburgs, gradually expanding outwards from ground zero, with perfectly flat, calm water at its center. What a view the people on the tour boat must have had!

See PHOTOS on Picasa and Flickr (at right).

Having witnessed that event, the little bits of ice that fell of the glacier close to us were not as impressive. We packed up our gear and headed away from the glacier, stopping periodically so that Laura could shoot a caracara, as well as an interesting fox that happened to be trying to cross the road (see pictures on Laura’s flickr).

We stopped at a viewpoint far out from the glacier, with an overall view of it and the ranges from which it was protruding. At this point, Gerad was feeling slightly sick and exhausted, and he decided to sleep for a bit in the car while Laura prepared some lunch. After eating lunch, Gerad felt a little better, and we proceeded on toward our next destination — Lago Roca, a place that had been recommended to us by some friends we had met down in Chile. We drove ’round the countryside, stopping repeatedly to take more photos of caracaras, as well as sheep, and horses (see Gerad’s flickr for horses), eventually making it to Lago Roca about a half hour before sunset. The area turned out to be a nice campground in the mountains, with a lake, as expected. There seemed to be lots of trails that we could take from this area if we camped here. Unfortunately, knowing that we had been to Perito Moreno and El Chalten, we didn’t plan to spend much more time in this area, so Lago Roca would just have to wait for another trip to Southern Argentina.

Day After the Day After Tomorrow

The following day we set about booking tickets back to Buenos Aires. There is still so much of Argentina we haven’t had the opportunity to see; however, time and money will not allow us to visit those places on this trip. The best way we decided would be to fly, since a bus was over two days of travel and only about $35 cheaper than the flight. The next flight was Friday; unfortunately, this airline only had a twice weekly fight to Buenos Aires, and a long way about it. The flight was scheduled to fly from El Calafate to Ushuaia (which we thought was amusing since we had previously been there) then onto two more cities before finally into Buenos Aires.


Our New Friends

Having booked our flight, it was back to the campground. We had met a couple youths from Mar del Plata the night before, and made plans to do Asado with them this evening. We spent the day working on photos and chatting with people on the Internet. In the evening, we went grocery shopping with the boys from Mar del Plata — Maxi and Germain, who turned out to be big fans of American rock, metal, and grunge music. Gerad bonded with the two, who were also in a rock band. Sharing tunes with their iPod and our computer, we proceded to make Asado. Maxi showed Gerad the art of making the asado, and also some cordero (lamb), and we showed them how we prepare garlic bread. One interesting trick that the boys had was to take a whole onion, unpeeled, and throw it directly into the charcoal of the barbecue early on. After about a half hour, we took the onion out, peeled off the burned outer layers (maybe 2 layers) under cold water, and cut open the onion, which was very hot, moist, soft, and flavorful — delightful.

Germain, Maxi, Gerad, and Laura at our Campground in El Calafate

Germain, Maxi, Gerad, and Laura at our Campground in El Calafate

Going to the Dogs

With the onion and asado cooking away, we got distracted by sharing music and stories. Eventually, we turned around to check the meat, and Gerad noticed that we went from four pieces of asado to three somehow. Off in the distance, we had seen dogs arguing over something a few minutes earlier, most likely our meat. Damnit — a huge piece of meat gone to the dogs. Oh well, it turned out that we had more food than we needed. Maxi and Germain loved our garlic bread, and we deeply enjoyed the asado, cordero, and choripan (chorizo sausage on a bun). With full bellies and many stories shared, we turned in for the night.

Our flight back to BA was interesting. The plane from El Calafate to Ushuaia was tiny, and looked like an old cargo plane that had been converted into a passenger one. There were still hooks all along the cabin where you could strap cargo down. We could see through the front window up through the cockpit where the flight attendants hung out for the entirety of the trip. About twenty minutes before landing they set down the wheels and we could see the looks on the faces of the crew (worrying); it seemed that they were all looking at a compass or something, so Gerad and I both started joking about what is happening. We demised the captain let one of the flight crew let the landing gear down and he simply did it too early. Also, the poor guy in the seat beside us had major air sickness, and was puking into a bag from the second we took off until the moment we were on the ground again in Ushuaia. It was strange flying into Ushuaia, our former stomping ground, looking down over the Beagle Channel, and over the water to the town, mostly shrouded by the mist of heavy rain. Our plane from Ushuaia was bigger and more modern, thankfully, and we had only to land a couple of times along the way in Comodoro Rividavia and Mar del Plata to pick up more passengers (and drop some off).

Back to City Life

Back in the big city, we took advantage of late night empanadas whilst overwhelming Marcelo with Travel stories from the past few weeks. It felt nice to be back in the City, so we spent the first few days wandering around taking in a few more attractions such as the Lakes District, the Costanera Area (where all the fishermen hang out, street vendors don’t sell the normal treats and souvenirs but things you’d find in a tackle box), downtown and the Zoo.

The Buenos Aires Zoo

Laura feeding a deer with some discarded pellets

Laura feeding a deer with some discarded pellets

I have always had a love/hate relationship with zoos. I love the fact that it is a way for people to view and learn about wildlife they would not normally, but I hate the fact that the animals are stuck in smaller quarters than their normal habitats. This zoo gave a fairly positive first impression with ducks and things wandering around and prices being reasonable; however, it did not take Gerad or I very long to start noticing huge faults in the maintenance and care of the habitations and animals. We came to the Bear area where there was a Polar Bear in an area the size of a very small apartment with little water, and a Grizzly in the same size habitat. The Camels were in such small quarters their muscles could not form properly and it was painful for us just to watch them try to walk, let alone the pain they must be feeling as they attempt to hobble the three meters squared they have. The deer were grouped with a few others that were clearing sick (tongue sticking out, drool, red puffy eyes etc..), one of the small leopards was missing a leg, and the Cheetah had a broken one (which we were confused by since even a child could hardly have room to break a leg in that cage…), the Hippos did not have any water in their containments. Other animals were all skin and bone it was sickening, as if they had no medical attention whatsoever. Maybe the zoo had a policy of letting the patrons feed the animals in place of the zoo keepers, as this seemed to be the encouraged behavior in the zoo. That’s right, you could buy pellets at the front of the zoo to feed ALL the animals. The Elephants performed for a treat (sitting pretty and such), and there were holes in the fences to the deer and other cages that you could reach through and feed the creatures. I don’t know but something tells me that exotic animals from all over the world don’t naturally have the same diet of pellets that they received at this zoo. We were told by the “zoo photographer” (Or so he called himself) that it was due to the entrance fee being kept so low, they do not have enough money to support the animals…

We did not leave the zoo feeling happy in fact we both left the zoo feeling utterly disappointed. Recommendation: If you go to Buenos Aires…avoid supporting the zoo, go to a Tango show or something instead.

After spending a little over a week in Buenos Aires, we booked our bus tickets to Iguazu Falls.

Iguazu Falls

Gerad’s professional photos HERE. Our shared picasa album HERE.

Us at Bossetti Falls, Iguazu

Us at Bossetti Falls, Iguazu

It was a Wednesday  night when we boarded our bus to Iguazu at 10pm and we expected to be about 18 hours before we would be getting off the bus. We were fortunate enough that none of our fellow travelors felt the need to listen to Celine Dion or other music loudly from their cell phones, so the only thing inhibiting us from sleep was the lack of a proper bed, or sleeping mat.

Upon Arrival to Puerto Iguazu, we checked with the tourist agency to find campgrounds and prices. The campground was stated to be 17 pesos a night/ person (with Hostels being around 35 to 40 pesos) We made a poor attempt at catching a city bus to the site, but were persuaded to take a cab to our intended campsite, since we were both exhausted from the trip. The campsite was called Camping Americano…not a good sign. The price turned out to be 17 pesos per person plus 17 per tent per night…a bit of a rip off if you ask me. There was a pool, and a market onsite, which we discovered to be quite reasonably priced. So, although we were disappointed with the price we were paying to camp, we decided this would be our best bet. One thing we noticed from the bus on the way to the north was the colour of the land. The vegetation became a deeper green, and the soil a deep deep red, moreso even than clay. All around this campground was the red dirt, with grass peaking through. Various types of ants were working their way along the soil doing the stuff ants usually do. Right away, we knew we were into the beginning of the rainforest. One bug that seemed strangely absent was the Mosquito — we had heard many stories from visitors to the falls about the huge mosquitos attacking them like helicopters or something, but right now there were none. Having set up our tent, the plan was to head to the Argentina side of the falls the following morning, then play it by ear after that.

Taxi Mayhem

We woke to catch the 8:50 bus in the morning. Since we were already on the outside of town we had to catch the bus on the side of the highway. There is no stated stops, you just wave down the bus as it drives along. Approximately one minute after stopping to wait for the bus a taxi approached us offering a lift to the “Cataratas” (Waterfalls) for only quarenta pesos (40 pesos, or approximately $13.00), since the bus was due to arrive in about five minutes and was only going to cost us a total of 10 pesos we kindly refused saying we were taking the bus. A litte disgruntled the cabby pulled a u-turn and parked on the opposite side of the road with about three other taxi cabs. Another fellow crossed the road and came to join us, he was from Malta and was traveling around South America, then onto New Zealand. We were in the middle of exchanging stories (about two minutes after meeting). when yet again a taxi pulled up in front of us offering a lift for the three of us for only twenty pesos this time, we played a little and told him we would go for 15, but he knew that’s what we would be paying for the bus. He left a litte more upset than the last guy. Now the bus really would be arriving in less than a few minutes, so it was pointless for us to get a taxi. Two girls, then crossed the road to join our crew waiting or the bus and of course, without missing a beat, the taxi driver again returned to us. This time it was 25 pesos for the five of us (In his just enough room for four people car), “no gracias” we all said to him. We were not about to pay the same amount we would pay for the bus to be crammed into a little car. The bus was approaching in the distance, so off the driver went. We heard him exclaim when he arrived across the street to the other cabbies “bus! Bus! Bus!…augh”. We all shrugged it off and boarded the bus.

First Glimpse of the Park
The park entrance fee turned out to be slightly more expensive than we thought at 60 pesos, but we had come all this way, we weren’t going to skip it now.

Entering the park felt the same as entering disneyland; you go through a gate, then you walk on a paved path past stores, concessions and visitor centers. There turned out to be many guided tours through the park; you could rent your very own tour guide for the day. We ended up walking behind a medium sized group tour for the first while, but luckily they stopped to take the Train (included in the price of your entrance fee) to Garganta del Diablo (Or Devil’s Throat), which is the largest of the series of waterfalls. We decided we would wait to do that until either later in the day or the following day.

The Park had risen walkways that had high railings to dissuade people from going into the rainforest, or disturbing the wildlife. We walked down to the lower trail system, since it was approaching noon we did not want to be subject to the hard sun as much. Passing across river beds you could tell normally would have plenty of water flowing over them, but due to the lateness in the season there was hardly any; in fact, in a lot of the river beds there was no water flowing at all. The scenery was spectacular though with lush greens and yellows everywhere, and you could not walk anywhere without a poor little lizard startling and running off. Cute little things those lizards, if only they could stand still no one would ever know that they are there.

We also passed by a couple large rodents (the name of them is escaping me at the moment), the babies looked like very large hamsters, while the adults seemed a cross between a hamster and a rabbit. They did not have long ears, but they did have fairly long lanky legs.

Tourists Tourists Everywhere!

Taking our time viewing the falls, which fell with various amounts of water and over various rock embankments, we enjoyed a relaxed day. I think both of our favorites was the Bossetti waterfall, which was at the end of the series. At this time of year it fell elegantly like angel hair and looked almost fragile (see Gerad’s flickr for pictures); however, it was disrupted by a rude American. Gerad had set up to take a shot of Laura (A Tourist) in front of the falls, when a tour group came to the platform all of the about 60 people stopped for a moment to let Gerad take his picture, but a rude ignorant American who decided even though he had no camera to take any pictures he needed to walk through Gerad’s shot and stand in the middle of it. Laura turned around and gave him a bit of a nasty look before returning to Gerad (since the shot was useless now), and the man’s wife quickly apologized…while he smirked at us. Most likely they were staying at the Sheraton in the middle of the park. Oh yeah, did we neglect to mention in the middle of the park (a UNESCO Biosphere I may add) is a huge Soviet-missile-command looking eye sore called The Sheraton Iguazu Hotel? Grrr, what an atrocity.

Anyways, since the shot at Bossetti Falls was no longer possible without a long wait, we decided to head over to Isla San Martin, which is an “island” locked by waterfalls and cliffs. A small boat was prepared to take tourists to and from the island, which offered a different view of the waterfalls, particularly the San Martin fall, the second-largest one in the park. From the island, there was a section in the river roped off to have a dip, and many people did take advantage of this, particularly during the blazing afternoon sun.

On Isla San Martin, we found that most of the views weren’t all that spectacular, primarily because the falls were low at this time of the year. Also, we happened to be standing there looking out at the falls from the worst angle (relative to the sun), at the worst time of day. Thus, we didn’t take too many photos here, and opted to just sit down for a bit on some concrete in the jungle, and snack on crackers. As we were eating the crackers, a few very curious birds, about the size of magpie’s, but with very brilliant blue feathers around their eyes and a tuft of feathers on their head, came to visit us. It wasn’t long before Gerad was able to coax them to within a few feet of us, using tiny crumbs of cracker as bait. Laura tried to take some photos here, but the birds were very fleety, and it didn’t work out too well. However, a couple of lizards seemed to be just as tame as the birds, and were approaching us, as well, almost certainly looking for food. Laura was able to get a few shots of them, at least. By this point, it was apparent that the animals were begging for food, and we quickly realized the error in our judgment, which was encouraging this behavior to continue. From that point on no more food was given to any animals in the park or otherwise.

Garbage Eaters

Coatí Bums Sticking Out of a Garbage Can

Coatí Bums Sticking Out of a Garbage Can

Tired from the sun beating down on us, and with only two hours remaining  before the park closed, we crossed the river and headed back up the steel girder trail system toward the Sheraton. Along the way, near the Bossetti Falls, we came to a huge group of tourists, it took a few minutes to figure out that they were all watching animals playing in and around some garbage cans. It turned out that a group of Coatís, which are something like a cross between a raccoon and an ant eater, had figured out that they could dine like humans by getting into and digging around in the park’s garbage cans. We took tons of photos of these beautiful creatures eating ice cream, the remains of people’s lunches, etc, crawling in and out of the garbage cans, fighting over access to them. This was a stark reminder of why we shouldn’t be feeding the animals, and why the park should be doing everything it can to prevent them from finding and eating human food, including ejecting people from the park who are caught feeding animals (like we were). We witnessed several people feeding the coatís at this point.

Later this became even more clear. We walked further up the hill to a cafe and had espressos and water in the comfort of aire acondicionado. While we sat inside, we repeatedly witnessed the commotion happening outside as coatís would steal the lunches and food from the other park goers, or would be fighting each other for the right to some bag of garbage they had pulled out of the garbage cans. It started to become disturbing to watch. We later witnessed a coatí steal a plastic bag of food from someone, and run all around the plaza with it, shredding the bag to bits (which were subsequently carried off into the rainforest by the wind), and eventually discarding it after finding its contents. Laura witnessed a man (an adult) bait the coatís into coming close with his shopping bag so that he could take photos of them. As he paused to review his pictures, a coatí climbed onto the bag and was sniffing around inside it. The man vigorously shook the bag, but the coatí wouldn’t let go, so he flung the coatí and the bag around wildly until it let go and flew off. This situation played out over and over, each time making us more disgruntled and disappointed in the park, which we had come such a long way for and paid so much to enter. We did see a few park rangers, called guardaparque, but they seemed to be there more for symbolism than actual purpose. They occasionally cleaned up the mess made by the animals, but not once did we see any guardaparque do anything to prevent people from feeding the animals, or reprimand them afterwards.

La Garganta del Diablo

La Garganta del Diablo

La Garganta del Diablo

With the sun starting to get low in the sky again, and only a couple hours left in the park, we headed to the ecotren (Green Train), which took us through the jungle to a long sequence of catwalks, eventually leading to La Garganta del Diablo, or “Devil’s Throat”, the largest of the falls, forming the border between Brazil and Argentina. Walking along the catwalks, we could see lots of fish swimming in the calm, clear water below. There were plenty of sucker fish moving along the rocks, which looked to be volcanic, polished smooth by the river. Not to be outdone by mother nature, people had also done their part to beautify the area by throwing lots of coins into the water, making the pristine river look more like a cheap city fountain than the natural beauty it should be.

Eventually, as the catwalk approached the Garganta, we came to an area with a perpendicular catwalk, and lots of twisted metal girders, re-bar, and concrete strewn about in the water. A sign on the catwalk commemorated the destruction of the former catwalk system here by a flood in 1994. All around us was evidence of the destruction, including the metal plates that had been used as walking platforms. One couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t spent any money on removing at least some of the material, a day or two with a helicopter and clean-up crew would do wonders here.

Anyhow, it wasn’t all bad. When we arrived to the Garganta, we weren’t dissappointed — it was huge and wildly impressive. The Argentine’s had built a large, long viewing platform directly over a section of the falls. Underneath us, on our right, and out in front of us, a mind-boggling volume of water was making its way over a sheer drop, down several hundred feet, and disappearing into the mist. In and around the falls were many birds, which may have been sparrows of some kind. The birds nest in the cliffs behind the falls and somehow find ways to fly out through them. Thousands of feet above the garganta you can usually see thousands of these birds gliding around, as there are some kind of thermal updrafts here that they can effortlessly ride in all day. Next to the falls are a few trees in which we could see dozens of grey vultures, and often they are seen gliding around up above the falls. This area seemed to be like a “Club Med” for them. We later found out that the vultures like the park not only because of the falls, but also because there is so much roadkill here.

After taking shots of the Garganta from the busy platform, we were shuffled back to the train by park officials, because the park would be closing in an hour and they wanted to make sure everyone was out of there before the last train left. With lots of time to spare, we arrived back at the train platform and waited for it to arrive. On the way back toward the park entrance, we chatted with a couple of guys from Britain, one of whom was a photographer. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, save for the beautiful sunset that we witnessed while we waited to catch our bus back to the campground. Unfortunately the park closes before sunset and opens long after sunrise, precluding photographers like us from obtaining the best shots possible of the falls without paying a hefty sum for a special access permit. Oh well, just adds to the challenge.

Day One Complete

Having walked every pathway on the Argentine side of the falls on our first day, we now realized that the four days we had allotted ourselves was maybe too much, but our return ticket was booked in advance and we had no choice but to stay. We elected to return to the Argentina side the next day (at half price) to take a few more photos, including the garganta in the morning, then do the Brasil side on one of the remaining two days.

The next day in the park was pretty much more of the same thing. The Garganta in the morning was very difficult to shoot, because the cooler morning air allowed more mist to spray up at us. Within a few minutes we were drenched as if we had been standing in the shower; it was not very productive, but fun. Soaked, we walked back toward the train station, pausing at some benches to relax and have some dry cereal. As soon as Gerad had the bag of cereal out of his pack, a group of those brilliant blue magpie-like birds came over to see what we were up to. Without feeding a single crumb to the birds, they were almost attacking us for the food, flapping around our heads and standing just over our shoulders on the seat back watching us eat and looking for an opening to steal the food. Dazzled by the sight of these birds, a couple of large tourist groups stopped, and we quickly became the center of attention — well sortof, more like the birds were the centre of attention, and since they were basically sitting all around us, we had a couple dozen tourists taking pictures of us like we were a spectacle on display in the zoo!

Comfort Zones

This is maybe a good moment to pause and point out a key difference between the people of South America and the people of North America. Studies have found that North Americans need a good meter (just over three feet) or more of space without people around them in order to feel “comfortable”, thus leading to the phrase “comfort zone”. From what we can tell, that number must be a lot smaller down here. The people taking photos of the birds over our shoulders crowded in front of us until they were up against our knees — claustrophobes beware!! Over time, more and more of the gawkers started to feed the birds, drawing them away from us, so as soon as we could get away from the crowd, we did, heading to the train station.

While at the train, a conversation struck up between us and an older couple from Buenos Aires. The couple had a lot to say (in Spanish) — at first they spoke slowly and asked us the customary questions (where are you from, are you going to Buenos Aires), but after they realized we could understand them, the man started talking at full pace, giving us a 90-second run-down about how Argentina used to be such a great place to live and how she is falling apart due to their corrupt governments (including the current one), and how now a person can barely walk down the street in Buenos Aires without fear of being robbed, kidnapped, etc. All of what he said was surely true, and we knew it already, but the conversation was actually a highlight of our day, because the couple was so friendly and we could tell how happy they were to be able to say what they wanted to say to an outsider, and have us understand (which we were also delighted by).

Mariposas Bonitas

The 88 Butterflies

The '88' Butterflies

After that chat, we took some photos of the hundreds of butterflies present there, some of which had a brilliant “88” pattern on them, and decided to head back to the garganta for a second try. Just as we started toward the catwalks, a butterfly landed on Gerad’s hand, suckling away at the salts or sugars or whatever else happened to be there. Gerad said, “hey, looks like I’ve got a new friend”, to which Laura flatly replied, “you must be salty, it just likes the salt”. We walked the some 450 meters down the catwalks, the whole time expecting the butterfly to fly away, but no, it stayed there, clinging away for dear life. When we arrived at the Garganta, we again found it to be heavily misted and ourselves getting soaking wet. The butterfly continued clinging to Gerad, in spite of the heavy wind and mist, even while Gerad was setting up his tripod and taking photos of the falls. Another kind tourist gave Gerad a newspaper to shield the camera from the mist, but it did little to prevent it from getting soaking wet (nothing Gerad isn’t used to, though). After some 20 minutes of attempting to shoot here, cleaning the camera lens over and over, holding the newspaper up, etc, the butterfly was still there. Although Laura had been denying it before, she was now forced to admit that this butterfly really seemed to like Gerad, and it wasn’t just chance that he had stayed on him on the boardwalk. On the long walk back along the boardwalk, the butterfly continued to stick to Gerad until he was accidentally bumped off by Laura.

Something Kinda Funny

With the rest of the day we ate some lunch and were finally able to get a good shot of Bossetti Falls. With all our shooting finished, and the park closing again soon, we decided to head back to the campground. On our way back through the park, we smelled something citrus, like oranges being peeled and squeezed right in front of our noses. As we rounded a bend we noticed a lot of coatís on the ground, and a few people looking up into the trees. Looking up, ourselves, we saw small monkeys scrambling around in the trees, eating oranges that they were plucking out of some of the branches there. This was delightful, as we had both heard that monkeys were present in this area, but we thought that the odds of seeing them would be very low, and that you’d have to take a safari tour in the jungle. The light was low and the monkeys were quick, but Laura managed to squeeze off a few photos of them for the blog (we havent had time to upload them yet, though). It turned out that all the coatís were there because the monkeys were sloppy and were dropping pieces of oranges there. There were so many of the coatís that we were almost tripping on them while looking up at the monkeys above.

Having seen the monkeys, we happily left the park and returned to the campground for the night.

Brazil Bound
We decided to get up really early the next morning and catch the first bus to the Brazil side of the falls. We had heard that a tourist visa might be necessary for Americans to go there, but we weren’t sure about Canadians. The next morning, we were on one of the early morning buses going to Brazil. Things were going smoothly, we went through Argentina and got our exit stamps, but when we stopped at the Brazilian border, we were told that we couldn’t enter without a visa, but that they could be purchased back in Puerto Iguazu, where we had just come from. We asked what the fee was, but they wouldn’t tell us. Someone else had told us that americans had to pay 180 Argentine pesos for the Brazilian visa, which was highway robbery, especially considering that visas for Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia are all free of charge for Canadians, and that we only were planning on staying in their country for a few hours and had no need for a 90-day visa. The whole thing left a sour taste in our mouths, particularly the unprofessional way the Brazilians handled the situation at the border — it seemed that Brazil was simply trying to gouge the naiive gringo tourists who came to Iguazu Falls, and by charging an expensive fee for a visa, they would encourage people to stay at least one night in their country, spending more money there. It seems, to us, that if Brazil devoted as much effort to making the border experience as friendly and easy as possible, they’d encourage more tourists to come to their country and ultimately make more money, but hey, who are we to tell them how to run things. Anyhow, we decided to boycott Brazil and avoided getting their stupid visas, even though we still had two full days to fill up before we returned to BA.

After re-entering Argentina, and getting another stamp for our passports, we ended up in Puerto Iguazu. We decided to lighten our spirits by eating some steak. We went to a local supermarket, bought some carne, charcoal, and other essentials, and headed back to our campground. At camp, we relaxed in the pool for a while, which turned out to be very cold and buggy. cooked up a large meal with the charcoal — our typical steak, garlic bread, and onion combo. We spent some time talking about the future, what we wanted to do with ourselves when we return, etc, and headed to bed.

La Casa de los Pajarros

Gerad pets a howler monkey

Gerad pets a howler monkey

The next morning we walked a short distance from the campground to “La Casa de los Pajarros”, or “House of the Birds”, where we expected to find several local bird species in cages in some sort of building. When we arrived, we learned that the name was misleading, for it was not a house, but rather a 50+ hectare sanctuary in the jungle, throughout which a conservation organization worked to rehabilitate injured or domesticated animals, specializing in carnivorous birds, like falcons, hawks, eagles, and vultures. We took an hour long tour through the sanctuary, seeing many different types of birds, and hey, guess what, some coatís from the Iguazú park. It turns out that the park rangers have singled out some of the worst-behaved coatís, and sent them to the Casa de los Pajarros, where they are working to reintroduce them to normal food again, and trying to get them used to living without humans. Our guide at the casa said that they “would take all of the park’s coatís, if they could, but they just don’t have enough room for them”. Unfortunately it seems that the park’s policy of managing the wildlife is to allow people to completely corrupt it, then when it doesn’t behave naturally any more, to ship it out of sight.

Most of the animals in the sanctuary turned out to be exotic pets that had turned out to be too difficult to take care of, like giant ant eaters, or some of the macaw parrots, which live to be over 120 years old in captivity. Our guide also explained to us that any Macaws that are rehabilitated can not be returned to the wild, because all of their natural habitat in Argentina has been destroyed over the past hundred years by the lumber industry, who has stripped all of the natural jungle from the riverbanks to replace it with roads, and this just happens to be where the macaws live. Further, the lumber industry has replaced a lot of the natural forest in this area with pine trees, which grow significantly faster in this climate than they do in Canada, taking only six years to reach an adequate size for harvesting (versus 25-30 years back home). Thus, the nature in this area has been severely damaged by humans.

Anyhow, the house of the birds turned out to be very interesting and impressive, and we were happy to finally meet a group of people who actually seem to have conservation on their minds, rather than just raping the land and its resourses for personal gain (like the Argentina government).

Almost caught up!

So this post catches you up almost to where we are. We have been working hard to finish this up. We thank those of you who have the patience to continue to read through our long wordy posts and for the support you all continue to show us as we continue our journey. Next up will be the beginning of our adventures in Bolivia. Quite a different taste than Argentina and Chile.

Gerad and Laura

Where are all the fun photos

May 8, 2009

Some of you may be wondering where we keep all the fun photos of us doing all the stuff we talk about on here. Usually we are just showing off our professional shots of these places, but we are also usually shooting each other doing stuff, as well. We have decided to use Gerad’s Picasa account for all those photos. We have just uploaded a bunch of them, so go check it out, and bookmark it to check periodically. Here is the link: http://picasaweb.google.com/GeradColes

Tomorrow we head to Bolivia, wish us luck!

Another round of photos

May 3, 2009

Valley Fitz, originally uploaded by Artisan.

Gerad:
A couple weeks ago I went through my first round of photo editing and uploading, finding the strongest photos to upload and working on them first. Usually I evaluate them based on the time I think it will take to work on them compared to how the end result will look. In doing so, I tend to defer working on a lot of the photos that I have shot with HDR in mind (something called High-Dynamic Range photography, based on combining multiple exposures at different light levels together in a mathematical way, resulting in a photo with a lot more range of color and tonality).

The other day I started to look through my photos from El Chalten again, and found several of these photos, which I had overlooked the first time. After running through the exercise of creating a few of the HDRs I was blown away. Check out my flickr portfolio by clicking on the photo here, and you can see a few of these images.

Also, Laura has been busy getting her flickr portfolio built up and recent. We’ve updated the blog to show our most recent flickr uploads on the right-hand side. At the moment, you can see a bunch of Laura’s latest uploads. For those of you who have been waiting to see more photos, our flickr portfolios are a good place to start. In addition to using the photos at the right, or the one above, you can use these links, directly:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/gcoles

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lauzla

Mmm Sweet Calafate Jam

April 30, 2009

It’s good stuff, that jam. El Calafate, the City, is named after the Calafate bush, which is prickly, thorny, and darn right annoying when you’re trying to hike through it. However, this annoying bush has one saving quality, the berries. During the spring and summer months, the Calafate bush is covered in ripe purple berries, which are heavily consumed by the local wildlife and tourists alike. Everywhere in Patagonia you will find Calafate Jam, Calafate Syrop, and Calafate Liquor. Of course, there is also Calafate Ice Cream, Calafate flavored chocolate, and pretty much anything else you could manage to put berries into. We first bought some of the Jam back in Puerto Natales, and are hooked on the stuff. Maybe we will manage to bring some home with us for you to try out (unlikely).

Anyhow, back to El Calafate. The city itself is relatively unremarkable. It is located beside Lago Argentina, a huge glacially fed lake in Patagonia. The city bases probably 99% of its industry around Tourism. From El Calafate, you can get bus or boat tours to Glaciar Perito Moreno or Glaciar Upsala, trips to El Chalten (Monte Fitz Roy) or the many Estancias in the area, pay for a guide to take you ice trekking up on the glaciers, or any one of another ten dozen touristy things that people do in mountains with many glaciers and lakes. Tourists flock to this place by the hundreds of thousands every year to see Perito Moreno (probably the most accessible BIG glacier on earth). Thus, this place is a heck of a lot like Banff, where everything comes at a price.

We arrived here, like most others, to see two things – Perito Moreno, and El Chalten. Perito Moreno, as we mentioned already, is a massive glacier, something too big to try to describe, I think. Photos may give you an idea, but the only way to truly appreciate something like it is to see it in person. El Chalten, technically speaking, is just a tiny town in the middle of the mountains, but it really is the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, where we planned to hike to see Monte Fitz Roy (formerly named Chalten). Parque Nacional Los Glaciers is a large park in Southern Argentina that is literally filled with glaciers, 356, to be precise, including Perito Moreno and Upsala (the largest) in the South. Anyhow, the point is to get to anything interesting you have to stop in El Calafate.

Getting to Perito Moreno

Perito Moreno, being the big draw it is, comes with a heavy price tag. To get to the glacier from El Calafate, you need to travel some 80km by bus or car or thumb. The cost of a bus to the glacier is roughly 80 pesos (28 USD) per person. The cost of a car for a day, with just enough kilometers to get to the glacier and back, was around 200-260 pesos per day. Then you have the park entrance fee, which is not included in the bus fee, another 60 pesos per person. It adds up fast – to take a bus into the park we were looking at 240 pesos total. To rent a car, 200. However, many an Israeli had already told us the secret to getting to Perito Moreno for the least money – rent the car for 200 pesos with as many people as possible, then drive into the park prior to the 8 AM arrival of the Guardaparque (wardens), at which time the admission starts being charged.

This in mind, we decided to find somebody else to go in on a car with us. After we arrived in El Calafate, retrieving our bags from the back of the bus, we noticed another person getting a bag with a tripod attached to it. We carefully eyed up this man,  mid to late 30’s, perhaps another Canadian, maybe an American, to see if he seemed like someone who might be interested in renting the car with us. If he was interested, it would probably be the ideal situation, being that we were all photographers, we would want to spend more time at the glacier and do things slower than most other people who would be going there.

Gerad approached him, complementing him on his wise choice of camera gear, and sparking a conversation about the prospect of a car together. It turned out that the man, who turned out to be an American named Drew, was interested in the car. We sat at a local café and had some food, then proceeded to find and secure a rental car for the next day’s activities. Shortly after, we found a pleasant campground, Camping de la Ovejero, and pitched our tents for the night. The two of us ran to the grocery store and picked up steaks, which we had been longing for ever since Ushuaia, as well as some bread, onion, and other ingredients that Gerad mentioned in a prior blog post. We found some left-over charcoal and a barbeque setup, and for the first time (on our own), grilled meat the way the Argentines do, which was delightful.

The next morning we awoke early to our alarm clock. Since we planned on being in the park prior to both sunrise and the guard’s arrival, we set our alarm for 5:15AM. It seemed like a half decent morning from what we could see of the sky, half clear half overcast. We hastily packed our tent and boiled water for coffee, waiting for Drew to emerge from his tent, which was only a few meters away. Eventually, Gerad hollered at him and shook his tent, and after a few minutes he emerged, apologizing and explaining that his watch alarm hadn’t gone off (peculiar that we heard it going off earlier).

To the Glacier

Leaving later than planned, we sped out of El Calafate, Drew at the wheel, Gerad acting as co-pilot, pointing out speed bumps and other road hazards. Drew explained (using both hands) that back in Arizona he works as a US Border Guard, and drives on back-country roads all the time, so we have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, this was little comfort to Laura, who spent most of the trip envisioning the many ways we would perish if Drew made a wrong move at the wheel.

We managed to get to the park gates before the guards arrived (we are pretty sure we passed their truck on the way to the park), and to the glacier as sunrise should have been occurring. Unfortunately, the closer we got to Perito Moreno, the only sun we got was in liquid form – rain. Being early in the morning next to a gargantuan ice field, being rained upon, it was very cold. All three of us tried to muster the courage and strength to make our cameras work in the cold rain, but it became difficult and even painful to do. Defeated, we all looked at each other’s solemn faces and agreed to head back to El Calafate, where we planned to take a later bus to El Chalten together.

Back in Calafate, we heard from a local that the weather forecast for the next few days wasn’t exactly pleasant. In fact in El Chalten it was supposed to be solid rain, wind, and a bit of snow…and we were to be trekking and camping. Both of us were entirely unimpressed with the idea of hiking and camping in the said weather; however, decided to continue as planned anyways.

El Chalten
The bus to El Chalten was spent mostly sleeping and silently hoping the forecast would be incorrect; however, as the bus pulled into El Chalten the predicted rain greeted us  full force.

El Chalten is stated as the gateway to Fitz Roy, and this is very true. If you walk down the main avenue, you will shortly find yourself on the trail to the park. In fact the entire town was constructed specifically for tourism only about twenty five years ago, and since it is specifically for tourists (climbers, trekkers, outdoor enthusiasts etc..) you can imagine it is very small. Quite a nice town in the sunshine, but with the weather being rainy and gloomy, it did was not much to meet the eye. Most of the tourists that come to El Chalten come for one reason, to view or climb Cerro Torre or Cerro Fitz Roy,  using the town merely as a bus stop not a place to spend much time.
After hiding from the rain in a café for about an hour, we faced the fact the first couple days in the park may be spent very wet and cold. We headed on our way up the trail, quickly reaching the first campsite. The weather began to lighten and we figured we still had a couple of hours of light, so we decided to continue to the next campsite only about an hour away.

Unfortunately, the light did not stay as long as we had predicted and soon we were not only finding ourselves back in the rain, but also in the dark. Out came our headlamps as we trekked across a swamped terrain.

Wet, Tired and Lost
We came to a trail junction with a sign indicating our intended campsite was only 15 minutes ahead, so we continued hopping across a few logs, over a few rivers, through some soaked bushes, and across some sand dunes. What most likely took us about 15 minutes felt like an hour. Yet again we came to a sign, but it did not state where the camp was. By this point we were both annoyed that we hadn’t found the camp and it looked as though the trail was ducking back into the woods. Neither of us inclined to search much longer we walked about 20 more meters before deciding to pull out our map, which seemed to indicate we had already passed the camp. Not wanting to be stuck on a trail deeper in the forest we started to walk back to find the camp we had likely passed. A small trail we had missed came in view, so we followed it into the woods with high hopes. Soaking wet, cold and miserable, we quickly found this trail to be a simple animal trail leading not to a campsite, but just the woods. Sick of being wet, cold and not having a place to dry off and warm up, we decided to stop here and set up tent…campsite or no campsite this is where we were to spend our evening.

Finding the driest place on the swampy forest floor, we quickly set about getting gear from our bags to set up. Both of us fumbled with frozen fingers, wet equipment and darkness; however, we managed to set up and get settled into our dry tent fairly quickly.

The following morning we woke up with rain dripping on the tent; Laura got up first to check out the scene. At this point there was not a lot to see. The valley we sat in was smothered in cloud and rain, so after finding water it was back to the tent to spend the day resting. Gerad was sick after catching a chill the night before, so we decided it best not to try and move camp or do anything.

Late in the afternoon the weather had cleared enough to wander around a little bit. Walking about another 100 meters from where we turned around the previous night we found the campsite and a familiar tent. Walking a bit further past the camp we were able to see our first glimpse of Mt. Poincenot (a tall mountain beside Mt. Fitz Roy), and found Drew taking pictures in the valley. We would continue to have short meet ups with Drew throughout our stay in the park, but none of which were longer then a “hey, how’s it going?”.

With a better knowledge of the trails, we again reviewed the map discovering it was not very accurate…in fact it out right sucked. It had trails marked where there were no trails, and did not have trails that were clearly main routes within the park.

Clouds, Clouds and more Clouds

The following day we woke up early (before sunrise), trying to make it to a view point before the sun came up. Unfortunately, the trail we took was a steep incline up to a viewpoint about an hour away from our camp, so we missed the sunrise light on the mountains. The trail gradually became icy, and a light snow began to fall on us, although the sun was still shining. When we arrived at the top of the trail, Fitz Roy and the majority of the other peaks in the area played shy and hid behind a thick veil of clouds, but Poincenot stood in view. Fitz Roy isn’t actually the mountain’s original name, it was originally named Chalten which means “smoking mountain” in the native language. Due to the clouds that constantly surround the peak the natives believed Chalten to be a volcano.

The ground was snowy and the air cold, but the views we could see were beautiful. We surmised that the difference in temperature between the air and the many glaciers in the area created a thick cloud around the peaks. Although the sun was still shining, it was no match for the cold breeze that has a way of penetrating any layers you can put on. Although we were cold and slightly disappointed we could not see the famous peak, we both were still able to get a few decent shots before deciding to head back down to the valley.

After lunching, we headed out to explore the valley which was dusted with the sweet colours of autumn. We were situated in a large valley that extended as far as the eye could see down the side of the Andes. The autumn colours were magnificent and stretched up and beyond where glaciers reached their fingers down towards the valley below. It was strange and beautiful to see the contrast between the icy blue of the glacier and the warm yellows, reds, and oranges of autumn meeting so elegantly on the mountain side. Of course we spent some time here photographing until the warm glow of the sun was no longer visible and we were happy to retire to our campsite. We decided we liked our little spot in the woods and did not make any effort to move over to the now crowded campground.

Waking up a little later than the day before, we decided to hike over to the other valley in the park where the famous “Cerro Torre” makes it home. We were thinking of moving our camp over to that valley within the next couple of days, so we figured why not go check it out without our big bags first. We spent the day wandering along a flat trail next to beautiful lakes, and through gnarled old growth forests. At one point we dropped about 200 meters to the next valley, which was completely filled with burned skeleton trees. It was eery, but beautiful. The reds and oranges were not as vibrant here, but the yellow contrasted against the grey mountains made a nice picturesque landscape. Although the mountains that we came to see (The Cerro Torre group) were also shy and hid behind clouds, what we could see was magnificent.

Strange Footprints

Continuing along the trail to scope out a future campsite, we noticed some animal tracks in the mud. They looked similar to a deer or huemul, but were much larger, so guessed perhaps guanaco, but they too would be too small for these prints. It sparked some discussion between us for a short time, before encountering two gauchos (Argentine cowboys) guiding a pack of llamas down the trail. Question answered.

After hiking for about half an hour further, we stopped to take a few pictures and fill up our water bladders. We knew approximately how far it was to the next campsite, and not wanting to be stuck in the dark again, we turned around to start back towards our camp. For the final time we met up with our American “friend” Drew. Shortly exchanging plans and stories from the previous day. He stated that he had seen Fitz Roy earlier that day, which was disappointing to us as it was our main objective in the park. We were unable to see it when we returned to camp.

Before packing it in for the night, we headed along the trail down the valley a little ways to get a better view for sunset. Sure enough the clouds began getting dusted pink and the mountains got a warm glow on them. We both were able to get some nice shots of the valley here and there are not many things I’ve seen more beautiful then an Autumny sunset in Patagonia.

Magnificence
Sleeping in slightly past our alarm, Laura was the first out of the tent the next morning. Her sleepy eyes were brightened quickly with the view of clear blue skies not blocked by a single cloud. She ran out to the valley to look back towards Fitz Roy and sure enough there it stood tall and proud with no distractions surrounding it. The dominance of the mountain was something pictures cannot depict in the slightest. It is slightly humbling to be beneath a mountain towering more than two and half km above the place you stand.

Extremely excited she ran back to the tent to grab her camera and day bag. We both grabbed our cameras and headed to some ponds we found the day before. This morning they were icy from the cool night before and reflected the autumn, blue sky, and magnificent Fitz Roy splendidly. More than once we paused to admire the incredible view in front of us.

After getting our fill of photos from the valley, we headed back to our tent to grab some food. Deciding to make rice up at the viewpoint we had been to two days previous. The goal now was to get up to that viewpoint and take advantage of Fitz Roy showing its face. We made it up the hill a little easier the second time around and were rewarded with a front row seat to one of the most magnificent mountains in the world. We spent the rest of the day up here shooting various types of shots and playing around.

We headed down to our campsite before the sun went down, and decided the following day if it was nice we would head over to the other camp in the opposing valley.

Two Seasons in the Park

Waking up not hearing rain on the tent was nice, and we were happy to not have to pack up in the wet; however, when we got up we found that clouds had rolled in overnight and instead of raining on us…it had snowed. The entire valley had a nice white blanket upon it. We packed up and started out.It was quite beautiful but quite cold; the sun came out and fought its way through the clouds. Now we got to see the valley in Fall and Winter conditions. It was gorgeous in both. We decided we were happy with our time in the park, so concluded today would be a good day to hike out.

There were several places along the trail that allowed views into beautiful valleys, and we stopped along the trail to shoot some lifestyle shots, but not very long as Laura was stressed to make it out in time to catch the bus back to El Calafate. Not knowing exactly when the bus was to leave the last bit of the hike was a bit rushed…rushed for nothing. We got to El Chalten in time to wait three hours for our bus. Next time Laura won’t worry so much (hopefully). We headed to our little cafe that gave us refuge almost a week before, but it was now siesta time and it was closed. Wandering just a little further along the road we found a resto bar that was open. Sitting by the window we ordered two cokes and a pizza. By the time the pizza came it was time to order two more cokes, shortly there after Laura spotted our waiter running across the street from behind the resto bar to the kiosko. Returning with two cokes…our two cokes. It was too funny. He ended up doing two more runs while we were sitting there. Guess they hadn’t got their shipment yet.

We caught our bus back to El Calafate, where we stayed at the same campsite. Working on the steaks written about in a previous blog, working on pictures, and making new friends. But this is where I will end this blog post. I will continue writing so we can get you completely caught up to us on our adventure. For now there are no pictures (Gerad is using the hard drive that has them…) but hopefully tomorrow we’ll get more pics up from Fitz Roy to share with you. And hopefully within the next few days the completely up to the minute report will be completed. *smiles* For now I hope you are all keeping yourselves healthy and happy!

Chau