We left Perú before seeing Machu Picchu so that we could meet Kate’s Aunt Indira while she was visiting La Paz. Indira has an interesting story. She’s from Kyrgyzstan. Kate’s Uncle Toby met her while mountain climbing in Central Asia. After marrying, they settled in Homer, Alaska to raise their son and daughter. Indira is an industrious woman. She bought a well known established business in Homer called A Better Sweater. It’s a rare store that sells handmade products from around the world.
We went with Indira to visit her various suppliers, our favorite of which was Artesania Sorata, owned by Diane Bellomy. Diane has been working with indigenous women for over 30 years in producing naturally died and hand woven products made of alpaca wool. We were also fortunate enough to meet Diane’s life long partner, Ron Davis, who installs water powered electrical generators throughout Bolivia. Both of these people are inspirational in what they do for others and the environment.
The one thing we absolutely had to do in Bolivia was tour the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat and the incredibly beautiful high dessert volcano laden land that lay just south. We debated many ways to do the tour, to start in Tupiza ending in Uyuni taking the bus back to La Paz or to do a one day tour from Uyuni. Eventually we settled on taking the tour from Uyuni ending in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
We arrived late in Uyuni and we began our search for the perfect tour company the next morning. There are over 80 companies surrounding the center of town. We had several recommendations for the high end companies of Cordillera and Red Planet where there are English speaking guides and newer vehicles but we also heard from several people that “they are all the same.” It was overwhelming trying to pick the ‘right one’. We ended up walking into Uturunku which was recommended by one Austrian man we met on the street in Sucre. It seemed fine and well and they were leaving in two hours. We left a deposit, returned to our hotel, packed up and off we went.
We came back to the ticket office at our specified time to find no one there and no vehicle in sight. We waited around a bit then were called from across the street by a woman letting us know to come there. It was an entirely different tour company but they were going to take us. A German man and Colombian woman were already in the vehicle. We greeted them and hopped in the very back after our guide put our big bags on the roof of the 1998 Lexus LX450 that we would be traveling in. We drove around the corner and picked up a young French couple from yet another tour company. I think this is very common. When one company can’t fill six seats (the required minimum to make the trip profitable for them) they throw everyone together.
Our first day was absolutely incredible, everything we could have wanted. We enjoyed the company of the two other couples as we made our way across the Salar, stopping to take goofy pictures, exploring the bizarre “Fish Island” in the middle of the lake and eating our lunch out of the back of the 4×4 truck. Although aspects of the tour felt too touristy for us such as dozens of other Landcruisers caravanning to the same spots, we enjoyed ourselves. Our driver left us in the middle of the Salar to watch sunset as he went to the hotel to prepare dinner. Watching the sun go down over the endless white salt felt like being on a different planet. It was a spectacular moment I’ll never forget.
That evening we stayed in a salt hotel on the edge of the flat. I read that these are not great for the environment but it was a very unique experience. The tables, chairs, walls were made entirely of salt blocks and the floor was covered in salt. There was even a small white kitten who looked exactly like a miniature of my mom’s cat Blancita. Our guide, Adrian, let us know he would prepare tea for us and serve us dinner. We dined wonderfully that evening. After dinner Adrian told us that he had to go see his daughter who lived in a nearby pueblo. The tea never came. I found this odd. Adrian told us sunrise was at 5AM, breakfast would be at 5:30AM and we would leave at 6AM to begin day two of our tour.
The next morning Kurt and I were up just before 5AM ready to watch sunrise over the salt flats. We walked outside and saw it was still nearly completely dark. We didn’t understand why we believed Adrian’s time estimate of sunrise. We knew it was later. However, we noticed Adrian outside helping a fellow guide with his car, holding a beer can in his hand. Kurt tried to say hello and Adrian ignored him. We had read nightmarish stories of drunk drivers on these tours but thought (or hoped) we had the odds in our favor. We told our fellow group what we had seen and the Colombian woman, Monica, tried to converse with him in the kitchen where he was tucked in a corner eating a plate of rice. He ignored her too. By this time it was already 6AM and we had no breakfast. The other groups were well on their way. Adrian finally showed himself and started packing the vehicle around 7AM and was obviously still drunk. I told Kurt I wouldn’t get in the car with him. I didn’t care if we lost our money. It wasn’t worth it. We confronted him as a group and told him this. He explained to us that he had gone to see his daughter but his ex-father-in-law didn’t allow him to visit with her and he was upset so he drank, but that he was fine now. Kurt suggested that Micheal, the German, drive the vehicle for a while so he could rest and recover. Adrian agreed on the condition that we not tell the tour company. This solution, although very unorthodox, was acceptable.
We piled into the car, with our now German driver and set off, only an hour behind of schedule. We meandered through the end of the Salar and made a stop for a large herd a llamas crossing the road being guided by a man on a bicycle. At one point we passed a few vehicles (coming the opposite direction from Chile) and the drivers looked at us bug-eyed when they saw our blonde blue-eyed driver. Two hours later, we stopped in the town of San Juan for snacks and water. Adrian told us “10 minutes.”
After about 25 minutes we couldn’t find Adrian. Monica went looking for him and found him in a kitchen of the tienda eating more food. We were among the last of the caravan to leave this town and continue our journey. Adrian insisted on driving this part of the road because it was tricky. He seemed much more sober so we decided to give him a chance for a bit with Michael in the front passenger seat for close observation. He followed another truck sometimes too closely. We were followed by another. Adrian seemed to be driving with too much confidence to prove to us that he was alright. About 20 KM outside of town, he drove too quickly over a harsh dip. We heard a loud noise from the undercarriage. Adrian pulled over, as did the over vehicles surrounding us. He popped the hood. A hose on the underside of the transmission had split and most of the transmission fluid had leaked out. The vehicle in front of us let out it’s six passengers. Adrian got into that vehicle and the two guides headed back to town. They said they would return in a half an hour which really means an hour in Latin American time. We waited on the edge of a high desert with looming volcanoes in the background. When they returned, they attempted to fix the vehicle but it still wasn’t right. Adrian told us that we would have to go back to San Juan to get a new vehicle. We piled back in the truck, as the truck in front of us took off to continue with their tour, and Adrian started the engine.
The car wouldn’t drive. It just stalled. There was no one in sight, no cell service and no one coming anytime soon. Several hours of attempting to add transmission fluid to get the car running made us crawl 4 KM towards San Juan. Finally, Adrian hiked away from us to find a point with cell service to call the company. They said they were sending a new car from Uyuni, an hour and a half away. We ate our lunch, took small walks in the picturesque valley and complained to one another about how horrible our day was and how we wanted our money back. At one point I picked up my iPhone and saw a calendar alert reading, “April Fool’s Day.” I didn’t realize it was April 1st. We had to laugh. Around 4PM our new car and driver showed up, an hour later than the time we were told. We transfered into the new car, bid farewell to Adrian who by now was covered in transmission fluid and off we went.
At first we were all upset. Monica demanded our money back as it was 4PM and we were just now beginning our tour. We had not seen any of the highlights we were promised that day. The driver was very short with us as I think he was unhappy that he was called to do this tour. He probably was not getting paid the full amount. It was tense in the car. Kurt began to soften the mood when he asked Marco, our new driver, some personal questions. We found out that this Bolivian guide is fluent in English, Spanish, Italian, French and Quechua. He was actually a superior guide!
We stopped at a dramatic volcano where we saw uniquely shaped lava formations supposedly made when this area was covered by an ocean. We were the only group there. We saw several lakes just as the sun was going down. We felt very lucky to see these places without the herds of Landcruisers and 50 other tourists snapping shots. It was special to be there with just the six of us and our guide. It ended up being a real treat.
The sun went down around 7:30PM. Shortly after, Micheal asked Marco if it was dangerous to be driving out there at night. He said yes, that it was. He could lose the trail as many tire tracks zigzagged across the desert floor. There is no highway out there and there were no other vehicles. We were in the middle of an isolated high desert at over 4000 meters, hours from any village. The valleys we were traveling through are higher than all of the peaks in Colorado. At one point we lost the path briefly. Micheal got out to help Marco steer the truck to avoid falling into a ravine. He said that it appeared to be teetering when he returned to the vehicle. We continued on. Marco told us that we could get lucky and see a puma. Kurt joked that it would be a good place to get abducted by aliens. Shortly after, the music of a friend of ours from Peru started playing on Kurt’s phone without him turning it on.
Suddenly, we saw a vehicle appear off to our right. It’s headlights were on and it drove straight for us. I thought, “this is strange.” Quicker than I could imagine, the car stopped in front of us. Four men not in uniform jumped out, surrounded our truck and pointed machine guns at us. My heart stopped. I thought for sure that we would be killed. Kurt thought we were going to be kidnapped. They wouldn’t stop pointing the guns at our vehicle as they told the driver to get out. They demanded to know what we were doing. At some point we figured out that they were Bolivian drug enforcement agents. They got on top of our car and searched around our bags for cocaine that they thought we were trying to smuggle to Chile. Then, one man who looked exactly like our Peruvian friend who’s music randomly came on Kurt’s phone just minutes before shown his flashlight into our truck and told us to have a good night. He was very polite. This event took less than 5 minutes but felt like an eternity. They mistook us for drug traffickers because it is extremely uncommon for tourist vehicles to be out there at night.
We still had an hour more of night driving before we landed at our hotel. At this point I prayed that nothing else would go wrong and we were lucky that nothing did. We stopped at a few sights in the dark and Marco shown his headlights on a monument so we could see it. Arriving at our hotel, we saw a desert fox. The women at the hotel prepared us a late dinner. We were exhausted and went to sleep immediately after.
The followng morning we were supposed to arrive at the Bolivian border exit by 9AM to transfer to our Chilean transportation but we talked Marco into reversing our path a bit so we could see Laguna Colorado, a large flamingo filled lake that is red in color. He agreed and we woke up at 5AM, had a quick breakfast and arrived at the lake for sunrise. We were the only ones there. It was another special moment. It was bitterly cold outside and we had no mittens so Kurt and I ran around rubbing our hands together to generate heat but it was totally worth it. Standing at 4000 meters alongside a warm red lake with steam coming off the top as flamingos woke up was breathtakingly beautiful.
After the sun came up fully, we got back in the truck to race to the border to make a 10AM departure van for Chile. We stopped at a bed of natural geysers to put our hands in the steam pouring from the ground and take photos along the bubbling volcanic mud. Kurt made a mud mask. We stopped briefly at the hot springs but didn’t have enough time to get in the water. The temperature was perfect. We drove through the Dalí desert and passed the White Lake. Our last stop in Bolivia was Laguna Verde where we saw the Licancabur volcano behind it. The landscapes were unbelievably grand. Our driver pulled over several other times so we could catch some last photos of perfectly reflected mountains in the still water. We saw another desert fox! We made it to the border crossing just in time as we hugged good bye to our tour-mates and headed to the office to check out of the border on the day our visas expired. What an incredible way to end our Bolivian trip!
After Chachapoyas, we made our way to the high jungle town of Tarapoto, farther off the traveler’s trail. In Tarapoto, we spent time working online and plotting our next move and further plans. Shall we go to Portugal in May? Shall we book now or wait? I found a flight for only $415 from Lima to Copenhagen. From there, Lisbon was only a cheap flight away. We dined daily at a delicious vegetarian restaurant and spent our nights eating coconuts in the living room of a family down the street from our hotel. In the posh coffee shop on the main plaza, I struck up a conversation with a man wearing a Texas Rangers hat. He is from Marfa and lives in Tarapoto. I got a sense about him and asked about the Masonic lodges present in Peruvian cities. The man said that he hasn’t been and wouldn’t go without a handbook from the G.L.T. I was right. This man was indeed a fellow Master Mason. We talked for a time about taking a boat to Iquitos and other things including bad directions to the local market. After five or so days in Tarapoto and hearing Eastern chants played nightly by our Peruvian hoteliers, we made our miserable trip to Pucallpa by car.
I had talked to a friend who had lived in the region about traveling from Tarapoto to Pucallpa by car during the rainy season. My friend advised against it. When I asked if he had done it, the response was an overwhelming “Nope!” We opted for the more expensive car with four passengers rather than a minivan with more. We neglected to ask the age of each vehicle, something we would later regret. Just before 3am, a decrepit Toyota station wagon loaded atop with furniture pulled in front of our hotel. A female journalist was in the back seat. Her brother in law was in the front passenger seat. Kate sat in the middle of the back seat. I sat on the reWiar passenger side. My portion of the bench seat was slanted down toward the door. I would sit in this seat for the next ten or so hours to Tingo Maria. Several hours later, a brand new minivan with the same company’s logo passed us on a gravel road through the higher jungle. We arrived at a breakfast place where passengers from the same van were finishing their meals. I looked inside their new van and noticed plenty of room and supportive seats with headrests. The passengers loaded inside and took off. We never saw the van again. In Tingo, we transferred to a less decrepit station wagon with the journalist who told us of the lovely shopping malls in Pucallpa. A portion of the road between Tingo and Pucallpa was closed for an hour or more so that it could be cleared of mudslides. By the time we reached Pucallpa, we had been traveling 16 hours in the most uncomfortable fashion. We took a mototaxi to the main plaza, looked at a number of gross hotels then negotiated a room in the nicest hotel in town from 240 to 80 soles a night. I’m sure they were different rooms but still. It was nice. No A/C though but we had two fans. We ended the exhausting travel by dining at a nearby Adventist vegetarian restaurant.
We spent a couple of days orienting ourselves before venturing into the jungle and exploring the lake, Yarinacocha. I saw monkeys during a solo hike where I got lost in the jungle for a few hours. We took a boat tour where we saw several types of iguanas, birds and a sloth. We took a public boat to the Shipibo village of San Francisco. On the way back, we saw river dolphins then thousands of black and white birds. We decided that we would go to Portugal but then discovered that the flight costs had doubled since we last checked and that Kate parents would not be able to meet us there. We rethought our plan and concluded that we are in South America now so lets make the most of it then go home overland via Central America.
Palpa and Nazca
Palpa was never on our itinerary. We ended up there completely by accident. We took an overnight bus from Pucallpa to Lima and when we arrived in the big city, we decided to just keep on pressing. What’s another 5 hours when you have been in the bus for 19 hours already? We continued to Ica, where we knew a friend’s cousin lived. We tried connecting with him but he wasn’t in Ica that weekend. We searched for a hotel but a teachers conference had the whole city booked. We then took an auto rickshaw to Huacachina, a small touristy oasis in the desert known for its giant sand dunes, to try to stay there for the night. But alas, no suitable room to be found. We did stumble upon a very good vegetarian restaurant and splurged on hummus for the first time since we have been down here. It was nice.
After our second strikeout, Kate did a little more research and discovered a town about half way to Nazca called Palpa. Off the beaten track, it has only a few hotels. We arrived late and checked into the nicest hotel in town and hit the hay. The next day we were happy to find the Sunday market, eating fruit, batidos, bread and tamales for breakfast. We checked out the church and sat in the plaza when unexpectedly a marching band began playing music behind us. There didn’t appear to be any special occasion and the plaza was almost empty. In the afternoon we took an auto rickshaw to Manantial a la Maquina, a beautiful spring fed pool on the outskirts of town, an activity we would repeat the next day. For just 3 soles we took a dip in the water with some local Peruvians. The lagoon was full of tiny fish that nibbled on our feet and legs when we stood still for too long. The cool refreshing water was the perfect way to spend the afternoon. Afterward, we walked up a rocky, desert hill to look upon a solar clock created by the Paracas culture and view the lush Palpa valley contrasted by the surrounding desert. On our walk back, we bought the juiciest oranges we’d ever eaten. Palpa is known for its oranges. They were so juicy that we’d have to drink them as we peeled them. Yes folks, that juicy. Another day, we took a colectivo to the nearby town of Llipata and walked to a mirador in the middle of the desert to view other Paracas designs. The Paracas culture based around Palpa is significantly older than the Nazca culture and is where the Nazca got their ideas. We learned this during our free personal tour of the Palpa museum.
We spent one night in Nazca so that we could fly over the Nazca Lines. Definitely worth it. We made the trip with a Colombian lady and her mom. It felt good to tell them how much we love their country.
We caught a night bus on Cruz del Sur to Arequipa. We learned that it isn’t worth paying for this high end bus line unless you get the most expensive seats. They were sold out. We would have been more comfortable in the most expensive seats on a lesser line. Arriving in Arequipa, we shared a taxi to the center with a couple from France. They had a hotel reservation but we took our chances and looked around. We found a quiet place on the opposite end of the main plaza from them and didn’t see them for the rest of the time we were in Arequipa. We saw the beautiful cathedral that night and felt a presence there that we hadn’t felt since Colombia. I suggested that we stay only one night in Arequipa but Kate wanted to stay two and we agreed on that after realizing that we had plenty of time to meet Indira in La Paz and do what we want to do. On the second day, we saw the amazing San Ignacio Chapel then walked an hour circle seeking restaurants Kate had read about. All three were out of business. We met some Frenchmen on the street that we met the morning before at a charity bakery and they invited us to lunch with them. The restaurant was out of fish so Kate couldn’t eat there. It was Friday and during Lent. We found a local place and ate for almost nothing then walked to the river where we found a skatepark. A bunch of kids were hanging out. One was skating. I borrowed his board and cruised around the park to sounds of cheers from the kids. Pedestrians stopped and looked. After thanking the kid, we crossed the river and made our way to the La Recoleta Monastery Museum which had incredible pieces from all of Peru. Some were quite sad though, especially the taxidermy of the many Amazonian species and the photos of indigenous people in square missionary clothing. The library there is a treasure of very, very old books.
Earthquakes in Colca Canyon
The next morning, we left early to catch an 8am bus to Cabanaconde but were told that it wasn’t available and one would leave at 11am so we had to wait. Three other Americans purchased tickets for the same bus, one was from Houston and went to school in Austin. He was finishing medical school in Dallas. We arrived in Cabanaconde early evening and checked into our comfortable hotel with a wood fired oven in its restaurant. A Jamaican man working there, told us that there was an earthquake early that morning and another 30 minutes before we arrived. He would leave tomorrow he said. This didn’t sound good. We hung out in our room a bit. Kate felt aftershocks when I was seeking water and fruit in the town. That night, we dined on delicious wood fired pizza, not as good as in Baños, Ecuador mind you but still very good and relaxed in the ambiance of the probably only heated room in town. We felt an earthquake when we went to bed. It was alarming. Then, another thirty minutes later. At 7am the next morning, we felt the strongest. Going down into the canyon seemed like a bad idea at this point. We’d have to skip it. We walked to a mirador over the canyon and discussed what we should do. Should we risk it? When we returned to the hotel, we found the French couple that we shared the cab with when arriving in Arequipa coincidentally sitting traumatized near the door to our room. They had arrived the day before, hiked down into the canyon and spent the night there. All through the night, they felt earthquakes and heard boulders falling down the canyon walls. They were concerned that boulders might roll into their cabana. After the 7am earthquake that morning, they knew they had to get out and hired mules to take them up the trail which now had crumbled. Boulders were continuing to fall. The animals were in a state of panic. They came across a woman covered in blood but still alive. She was being taken out on a stretcher. Their story confirmed our decision. We decided to leave as well. They pointed us to another mirador where we could see where they came from but we went to another mirador by accident and saw two condors circling about. It was magical. We saw the three Americans that we rode in with on a tourist van headed out. I was happy to see that they didn’t go into the canyon. Our bus out was full of foreigners, many with a similar traumatic story as our French friends. We had to stand because we weren’t going all the way to Arequipa. The Jamaican guy told us of a hotel with a hot spring inside of it an hour and a half away but still inside the canyon. It was supposed to be cheap and a paradise. We walked all over that village and no one knew what we were talking about. Weird. We took a van to the canyon’s largest town of Chivay nearby and joined our traumatized French friends at the same hotel. This end of the canyon did not feel the earthquakes. The next morning, we left the hotel before sunrise and walked to the hot springs outside of town. The walk was gorgeous and the springs were very hot.
Most foreigners leave Colca Canyon for Puno direct by tourist bus for $40 U.S. dollars per person. Kate and I found this price ridiculous and decided to do it the way locals do it. We took a bus from Chivay to a stop in the road called Pampas Cañaus and waited in the sun for forty minutes for a bus with two empty seats. We had local competition. The other couple took a bus with an empty co-pilot seat and space in the stairwell. Five minutes later, we boarded a bus with huge seats that turn into beds and made our way to the city of Juliaca where we caught a van to Puno. It took us an extra hour or so but only cost us $8.50 U.S. each to get there. We spent two nights in Puno relaxing. We didn’t see the reed islands because we heard that no one lives on the ones open to tourists and really the experience is just a tourist trap. Puno is on Lake Titicaca at incredible elevation. Kate had a horrible headache and we weren’t sure what to do. The first night, I went for take out at a vegetarian restaurant owned by a doctor. He suggested a magnesium powder for Kate which just wiped her headache out completely and immediately. The following day, we walked the boardwalk along the lake then happened upon a busy skatepark where I quickly borrowed a board. The 14 year old kid I borrowed the board from challenged me to a game of S-K-A-T-E. I was a bit unsure of my flip trick skills considering my age and how little time I’ve been on a board lately. The kid went up 0 – 3 pretty quickly then 1 – 3. Then I was inspired to bring out very simple early 80s freestyle tricks that Ric Frazier taught me when I was 12 years old. Bingo. I evened the score at 4 – 4 with “walk the dog” then put the nail in the coffin with the cheesy late 80s boneless adaptation “thread the needle”. The kid kept asking in Spanish, what was that?! He wanted another chance and I said sure. He did a kick flip but I landed one perfectly just after with my renewed confidence. Not bad considering I was triple that kid’s age!