View from the hill!

View from the hill!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The other Bali

When you think of Bali you probably think of tropical beaches lined with luxury beach beach resorts and bungalows. But as you know by now, I like to see the local side of the countries I travel to and my Balinese experience is no exception. I arrived in Denpansar, Bali last night at 1am and was greeted by a smiling local named Eky. He is a couch surfer and offered me a bed in his families home. It sounded a bit too good to be true own private bedroom in a house with 6 people (a family of 5 plus one maid) and to top it off he would even use his dad's car to pick me up at the airport. Well things weren't quite so simple. Eky was not able to use his fathers car so instead picked me up on his motorbike. This would have not been a problem, I have ridden motorbikes on many occasions over the past few weeks. However, we had a 45 minute trek to his house and I had my massive backpack weighing a whopping 20 kg and then my small backpack plus another bag. As I tried to balance on the back of the speeding motorbike I thought for sure I would tip off the back of the bike from the weight of my backpack. After a very uncomfortable ride we finally made it to Eky's house at 2 am.

I would be staying in his little sisters room which was covered in toys and has a large Barak Obama poster on the wall (strange!). The room was fine but the bathroom took some getting used to. The "peeing room" was out in the backyard. After walking through the dog zone- where there three caged dogs tried there best to break out of their crates to attack, i found the hole in the ground that was the "peeing room" not the most ideal situation for late night bathroom trips. The "shower room" consists of a large pot type thing (looks like a large flower pot) filled with cold water. The idea is that you splash water out of the pot and on to your body. I think I will hold off as long as possible before using that facility!

This morning I woke up and my host had gone to the market at 6am, so now I am hanging out with Eky's teenage brothers and all his friends. They dont speak a word of English, so it has been an interesting day. Eky is supposed to return around 5pm. This must be one massive trip to the market! I think tomorrow I will splurge and go for that Bungalow on the beach!

Long Overdue

Sorry for the lack of posts these past few weeks. I cannot believe it is already April 1st...only 22 more days until I will be back in Baltimore.

Over the past month I have traveled through the landlocked and impoverished nation of Laos (one of the poorest nations in the world), taken buses down the entire coast of Vietnam deep into the Mekong Delta, explored the futuristic city of Singapor and now have just arrived in Bali. Needless to say I have a lot to write about and alot to catch you all up on. I will start with the most recent and over the next few days work backwards. I am not sure how much internet I will have while in Bali over the next 10 days but I will try my best to catch up!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Elephant Naure Park

Elephants are everywhere in Thailand; statues of this masive creature fill temples and palaces, elephant necklaces are sold on the street as a symbol of good luck and wisdom and highway billboards use elephants to advertise sales. The Asian Elephant has been a cultural icon of Thailand since the ancient days. However, elephants also seem to lie at the heart of one of the biggest contradictions in the world. While they are highly worshipped and immensely well thought of, they are also tortured and abused. Amidst the elephant rides, elephant shows where elephants play soccer and paint lovely pictures and even elephants begging on the busy city streets lies a true elephant sanctuary- The Elephant Nature Park (

A visit to this elephant sanctuary was highly recommended (thank you Meredith!) and I am truly thankful that I got to spend the day in the park. Before hearing about the park I would have most likely done the traditional elephant trek that so many tourists do. I thought it sounded cool: hiking, elephant riding, river rafting and even helping to bath the elephants. When you think about the sheer size of an elephant it seems like it would be no problem to sit on their back for a couple of hours as they take you for a ride through the hills of Thailand. I had even heard that elephants liked to work, so for all I knew they really enjoyed their "job." However, what most do not know is the torture and abuse that every one of these performing and working elephants must endure.

Every domesticated elephant in Thailand goes through the same torturous process so that they will obey their mahouts instruction and be able to be in such close and constant human contact. The ancient tradition called the pha-jaan has been used for decades to "break" the elephants and make them obedient. Basically the young elephants are put in a small cage and for weeks they are starved, sleep deprived and tortured using sticks with nails on the ends. They are constantly beaten and poked. Elephants are very senstive creatures, both physically and emotionally, and they are also very social creatures often staying with their family their entire life and mourning when a family member dies, so the separation expereinced during the pha-jaan cerimony is extremly devestating for them.

Lek, the founder of the Elephant Nature Park believes in providing a home to these endangered animals as well as contributing to their welfare and development. Currently the park has 35 elephants ranging in age from 2-80 and all of whom are either disabled, orphans, blind and/or rescued. The park is run soley off of contributions and volunteers and it costs about $300,000 a year to run. On any given day there are 50 vounteers there, they stay for either one or two weeks and help to prepare the elephants food, clean the park, help with the medical needs of the elephants and various other tasks as needed. I went for a one day visit. I got to meet each of the 35 elephants, helped with the morning and afternoon feedings, bathed the elephants in the river and watched a documentary on the park and the condition of the Asian elephant throughout Thailand. Hearing the stories of these elephants was truly life changing and I would strongly recommend anyone coming to Thailand in the near future to make a visit to the park. For now, you can read about some of the elphants stories here: (my favorite is Jokia who I had the pleasure of feeding!).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pad Thai??

One of the things I was most looking forward to about this trip was the delicious Thai food. I had heard stories of getting gigantic bowls of pad thai and green curry for as little as a dollar from the food stalls lining every street. But one bowl of thai noodles later and those dreams of delicious thai feasts were long gone. Apparently my Federal Hill favorite, Thai Arroy had mislead me on the true tastes of Thailand.

I think a large part of the problem is the manner in which this food is presented. When walking through Bangkok every few feet you are greeted with a skinned pigs head or chicken legs on display at a food stall. The animal hanging above the chef is indicative of what is being served. Call me crazy, but staring straight into the eyes of a skinned pig does not make me crave some fried pork and noodles. Likewise looking on at the chicken feet and neck does not make me salvate for chicken and rice. Another issue for me is the excessive use of shrimp, shrimp paste, shirmp sauce and any thing else with the name shirmp in it. I hate shrimp. My first bowl of pad thai (which was actually harder to find than one would expect- oily rice and chicken or pork and noodles are more common among the street stalls) was an exceptionally disappointing expereince. I was massively hungover (common theme in Bangkok) and so excited to finally find the pad thai food stall I had been searching for for days. When it came out of the wok and onto my plate I was thrilled, it looked just like Thai Arroys. However after my first bite, containing what I thought was shredded carrots, I wanted to vomit. Those little orange bits that I thought were carrots had eyeballs staring at me, they were miniature dried shrimp. Ew.

I was not yet ready to give up on my dreams of delicious Thai feast, I thought maybe I just needed to get out of Bangkok and far far away from street stalls. I thought the Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai would be just what I needed to understand and love the true tastes of Thailand.

After arriving in Chiang Mai the first thing I did was book into the Thai Farm class. Unlike the dozens of other cooking classes offered in the city this one took you far outside of the city walls to the school's organic farm. After being picked up from my hotel my group stopped at a local market for a briefing on some of the ingredients we would be using throughout the day. We learned about the different types of rice, cocconut milk and spices that make up the root of Thai cooking. Next it was time to head into the country. After passing through numerous rice fields being harvested we turned onto a small dirt road and arrived at the Thai Organic Farm. We were able to select a type of chili paste to create then 4 dishes to prepare. I chose yellow curry, coconut milk soup, chicken with cashew nuts, pad thai noodles and mango with sticky rice. We began by making our own chili paste with the mortar and pestel. This noisy and tiring task proved why so many people go the easy route and simply buy the prepared packet!

Next up was our tour of the farm. This was the part of our day that really set this school apart from the others. Through an hour long tour of the property we learned all about the unique fruits, vegetables and herbs that form the foundation of Thai cooking. And I learned alot....those nasty little pea looking things that were in my green curry are actually bitter eggplant. And the large leaves that I thought were basil and meant to be eaten are actually kaffir lime leaves only meant to add flavor. We were able to taste long beans and rose apples stright out of the garden. After a day of picking, cooking and tasting really fresh thai food I have come to have a much better appreciation of the flavors and styles of cooking. And now I know what true Thai Pad Thai should taste like and I know to ask for it with NO shrimp! We were given a cook book with the recipes to all of our creations so I plan to test out my skils once I get home, do you think the Sunday dinner crowd can handle a menu of Kaeng Phed Gai, Tom Yam Kung and Pad Si-Ew? ?

Here a Wat, There a Wat

One of the top thing on all tourists lists when visiting Bangkok is to head up the river to Rattanakosin, the historical and cultural heart of the city. After several attempts to get to this site of the old royal city I finally made it there on my last day (previous attempts were spoiled by mean tuk tuk drivers and massive hangovers). I had been told the best way to get to these sites was by boat, up the Chao Phraya river. I of course did not want to take the easy way (aka the tourist boat) so it was a bit tricky trying to figure out where the commuter ferry departed from and which direction I needed to go. However, once on the boat I pleased to find out I only had to pay 14 baht (about 40 cents) and was able to ride the boat all day long with as many stops on the east bank as I pleased.

Although the river itself is not particuarly scenic, the long tail boats and well known landmarks we passed on the way (sights such as the famed Oriental Hotel and Wat Arun) made for an enjoyable 45 minute ride to my destinaion, Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. I got the palace early before both the heat and crowds were too unbearable. I knew to dress conservatively so thought capri pants and a t-shirt would do the trick, but I was ankles allowed. Luckily I packed my sarong just in case. Looking stylish in my tenis shoes, sarong, backpack and guuide book in hand I was ready for a day of Wat visits (F.Y.I. wat=temple in Thai).

The first step into Wat Phra Kaeo, also known as Temple of the Golden Buddah, transports you into a world of incredible golden spires and extravagent pavilions guarded by all sorts of be-jeweled mythological creatures and the site simply takes your breath away. Instead of rushing directly to the bot or meeting hall (which holds the emerald buddah) I took some time to walk around the grounds and explore the dozen or so other buildings. It was almost overwhleming to be surrounding by so many incredible buildings, unlike anything I had ever seen before. The mix of colors and textures, everything from pastel painted ceramic and porcelains to shimmering gold stupa's, made the outer grounds of the wat even more fascinating to me than the Emerald Buddah himself. However, it is important to point out that the Emerald Buddah is the most holy and powerful statue and a symbol to the Thai people of the power, divinity and enlightenment of their country. And the wat in which he rests is the most significant religious structure in Thailand. Whithin the grounds of Wat Phra Kaeo is the grand palace, another rather impressive building which combines both Western and Thai styles but it looses some of its allure after viewing the exquisite carvings and decoration of the Wat.

My next stop was Wat Pho, also known as Temple of the Reclining Buddah. This temple is the oldest and largest temple complex in Bangkok. The reclining Buddah himsef is of course the main attraction, and at 150 feet long he is hard to miss. It is almost hard to appreciate his size because the building that holds him is so small, it is almost impossible to get a photo of him because of the lack of space. The massive buddah who is laying on his side with his head propped on his elbow represents his moment of enlightenment, when he entered nirvana- not when he entered a deep sleep which it may seem at first!

One of my favorite features of Wat Pho were the many statues of Indian hermits in yoga positions which occupied the Wats surrounding grounds. These statues helped to guide students in the correct postures for meditation and other relaxation techniques. Wat Pho's College of Traditional Medicine was the first in the ountry to teach Thai massage and is still used for instruction. The Wat has a very relaxing atmosphere with the yoga statues, relaxing music, calming lotus flowers and thai massage taking place all around you it would be easy to sit on a bench here for hours as busy Bangkok rushes past outside the walls of the Wat.

After my Wat visits I wandered to Pak Khlong Market (known for its beautiful and colorful fruit and flower displays) and then China Town with a lunch stop in Little India. Running low on energy and time I did not make it to the kings official residence, Chitralada Palace, but i did make it over to Dusit Park where I saw another impressive Wat as well as the Royal Plaza and Throne Hall (all surrounding his residence and surrounded by guards with massive machine guns).

All in all it was a busy wat full day and I was ready for a good night sleep...on my first night train in Asia!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Scammed in Bangkok

Thai's are very friendly people, I noticed this within minutes of arriving in Bangkok. The downfall of being in such a friendly city is that sometimes it is hard to determine if the warm smiles and small talk are disguising an ulterior motive.

I am embarrassed to admit that I was caught in 2 scams in the short time I was in Bangkok! Here are the 2 scenereo's:

The first occurred within minutes of arriving in the city center. I had taken a bus to Kho San Rd. and when I found that many guest houses were full I decided to walk to a Hosteling International property not far away. This hostel was full too. At this point I had decided to just try to hold off on finding a bed untill I heard back from Bill with whether or not I could definitely stay with him so I thought I would kill some time by checking out some local attractions, more specifically some near by temples.

A nice little man was walking beside me and started a rather normal conversation (I usually hear this same exact conversation about 4 times a day):
Nice Smiling Man: "Wow, you are so tall."
Me: "Yes, Yes....6 feet"
NSM: "From Holland? Germany? Sweeden?"
Me: "No, No from the US!"
NSM: "Oh wow, so tall!"
So, this didnt seem like much out of the ordinary. Soon the man started telling me about how he was a teacher just down the road. Then he asked what I had planned for the day and I told him I was going to checkout some temples. And this is where I should have known....he says "Oh, no temples closed today. It's Buddist holiday so being used for prayer. Don't open till 5pm."

Well shit, I had just arrived so how was I supposed to know any better. He then sat down with me and wrote out an entire itinerary of what I should do instead. I thought he was so kind to spend the time to do this. I didnt really understand everything he was telling me, but it involved seeing a festival that was happening because of this holiday, going to a street lined with custom tailors and then stopping by the tourist office. He was so enthusiastic and excited for me to go on this day long adventure. He even got me my first tuk tuk and told me how to track down an "official" tuk tuk.

Once inside the 3 wheeled motorized scooter (which is named from the sound it makes) the driver was extremly friendly. He took me to a very small temple, where I could only look inside because there were indeed some monks in there praying. So, I was assured that the little smiling man must be right, it did appear to be a holiday. Next up the driver took me to a tailor. I kept telling him I didnt really want to go bc afterall I hadn't changed my clothes (or even brushed my teeth) in 3 days because I had come straight from the airport and the longest fligt in history. He said if I just went inside for a few minutes he would get free gas. AHAAAA, so he gets free gasoline from taking me to this stupid tailor. But I went along with it because the driver was so nice, I thought I would do him a favor and get him some gas. After 10 minutes of pretending to be interested in getting a custom made suite (this would be of interest to me in a) I had more money and b) I had a job!) I went back to the tuk tuk. Next up he dropped me at the TAT (Thailand Authority of Tourism). Here some girl tried to get me to book a trip to Chiang Mai with her. I was getting more and more annoyed with how much time I was wasting on this little tuk tuk trip and just wishing I could get to this festival they spoke of.

When I got back to my driver he quickly turned from friendly little man to very nasty tuk tuk driver. He said this "festival" (which I think was made up the entire time) was too far and I had to take a taxi. I said that wasn't an option and I wanted him to take me to a main road. He started yelling at me to get out and walk. He refused to point to where we were on a map so as he drove away I was completely lost and feeling defeated. I then had to track down a taxi and get them to take me to the nearest train staion. Not the best way to spend my first 2 hours in Bangkok.

Scenerio #2:
My second day in Bangkok started with a trip to the Vietnam Embassy. I needed to get my Vietnam Visa and thought Bangkokwould be the easiest place to do this. After finding the embassy it was already after 10 am and I needed to go back at 3:30 to pick up my passport/visa. Seeing as I had such a limited amount of time I thought I would just go check out some of the local shopping spots. First stop was Siam Square. This is a huge commercial shopping district. The streets around the square are lined with trendy boutiques and street stalls with young college students and wanna be designers selling their pieces. Then there are also several malls, including the upscale Siam Paragon (which even has a Mercedes dealership inside) and the huge MBK, sort of like a market but inside. After spending almost an hour inside MBK I was thoroughly overwhelmed. It is a lot to take in for all of your senses- the smell of Thai food wafting through the air, the shound of Thai's yelling their promotions and trying to lure you to their store, the sight of hundreds of stalls selling everything from knock off purses to dried fish and insects, the feel of hundreds of sweaty bodies brushed up against you as you try to make your way through the 6 floors. After this I decided to go outside to get some fresh air and figure out where to go next. Soon enough a nice little lady started taking to me. I had my map in my had so she asked what I was looking for. I told her the name of the next shopping area I was going to find and also mentioned that I needed to go to the train station to buy my ticket to Chaing Mai. And she said "Oh, no they close for lunch. Mall close for 2 hours mid-day. You would be better to go to the temples today." She had awhole speel about why i should do the temples, because they would be too crowded on the weekends, etc., etc. I was pretty determined not to go to the temples, no matter what she told me. But next thing I knew she was calling me a tuk tuk and showing me on the map where I needed to go to get my train ticket. I thought I just needed to go to the train station but she said no, it was better to go to the office. I have no idea why I listened to her (maybe I was still in a haze from the mall craziness I had just expereinced) anyhow, here I was back in another tuk tuk not really sure where he was taking me. And sure enough we showed up at another TAT office. UGH. But I thought maybe they do sell tickets here and I can just get it here and be done with it. Wrong. They were really mean and since I only needed the train ticket to Chiang Mai and not a whole tour package they refused to sell me a ticket. When I got back out to the tuk tuk, guess what.....he had suddenly transformed into a nasty tuk tuk driver just like the day before. Refusing to drive me ot the train station, he left me out on the street. So once again I found myself lost and looking for a taxi to the train station.

Well, it may have taken me 2 times to finally learn this common Thai scam but you can be sure it will never happen to me again. As soon as my backpack arrived later that day I was reading my Lonely Planet book and sure enough this common scam was the first thing listed in the"Dangers &Annoyance" section!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

3 flights, 20 hours in the air, 15 hours in the airport and 2 days later I have finally arrived in Bangkok. Getting here was a bit difficult thanks to snow, ice, mechanical problems, missed connections and lost luggage but I made it in one piece so am thankful for that!

Lonely Planet's description of Bangkok pretty much sums up my last 3 days...
"This high-energy city loves neon and noise, chaos and concrete, fashion and the future. Although it's constantly on the move, everyone is stuck in a traffic jam somewhere within a mountain range of skyscrapers and soot-stained apartment towers. And past the ringing mobile phones and blaring pop music is an old fashioned village napping in the shade of a narrow soi (lane). It's an urban connoisseur's dream come true with the past, present and future jammed into a humid pressure cooker. Because it's a revolving door for travel throughout the region, you'll be confused and challenged when you first arrive, relieved and pampered when you return, and slightly sentimental when you depart for the last time."
Upon arriving at the Bangkok Airport I had no bag, no guide book and no plan. My first task was to make my way into the city and find a place to stay. After putting out several couch surfing requests none of the people I reached out to were able to host me. I didn't stress too much about not having a bed to sleep in because I knew there would be plenty of hostels and guesthouses and I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to find a place. However, after wandering up the backpacker haven Khao San Road I quickly learned that making a reservation may have been a good idea. The first few guesthouses were full and before I headed further up the road I decided to stop in an internet cafe to check my email. I was pleased to see an email from a friend of a friend, Bill, who lives in Bangkok and offered me his guest bedroom. He sent over his address and miraculously I found it without too much difficulty (I was quite impressed with my navigation skills seeing as I was on the opposite side of town and had to take a tuk tuk, taxi, subway and sky train to get there!). I could not have asked for a better place to begin my SE Asia trip than Bill's gorgeous apartment. It was also convenient seeing as though I would be without my backpack for 2 full days, so staying with Bill meant I did not have to go out and buy all new toiletries.

After a short nap I joined Bill and his friends for dinner. On the walk over he explained that he was embarrassed to be taking me to this place for dinner but told me the food was awesome. It wasn't until we walked in the doors that I realized why he was embarrassed, he took me to a strip club for dinner! Soi Cowboy is a single lane strip of 30 bars comprising one of 3 red light districts in the city. The bar we went to had 5 naked girls up on stage dancing as we ate our delicious ham and cheese sandwiches. Bill knows the owner, an American guy who cooks up one of the best Western meals in the city. For only 200 baht (about $6) we got a massive sandwich with home cured ham and swiss, potato salad, deviled eggs, and a bowl of bean soup. After dinner we headed to a sports bar and played some pool before going to Soi 33, known for it's "girlie bars." These are basically bars where men go to pick up a woman for the night, scantily clad girls dance and serve drinks as they butter up their prospects for the night. I guess I should mention that this was Bill's best friend's last weekend in Thailand. He had lived here for 2 years and works with Bill at United Aid and is moving on to his next assignment in Sudan. So needless to say the weekend was filled with drunken farewells and girlie bars! It was definitely an interesting welcome into Thailand....but I loved every minute of it!

Bangkok Bound

After a very short 2 weeks in Baltimore it is time to pack up my backpack once again. For the next 2 months I will be traveling through South East Asia. The itinerary includes Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.Even though I have no exact plan and do not know which cities I will make it to, I am taking my experiences in South America and letting them be my guide. One of the biggest lessons learned over the past month was to be flexible and adapt to whatever situation presents itself. Things usually happen for a reason and never go exactly as planned, but it seems like those unexpected moments often become the most memorable!

Why Travel?

As I sat in the trendy McCafe in the Frankfort Airport during my 5 hour layover on my way to Bangkok I found myself watching the constant flow of giant aircrafts passing by the window. Massive 2 story planes bound for Singapor, Ontario, Mumbi and countless other cities across the globe carry thousands of passengers every day. Watching as each plane took off into the sky I was amazed at the sheer number of people traveling on this Wednesday morning and I began to think about the reasons why people travel. Some travel for work others to visit family members. I travel to learn, to explore, to discover.

If you have been following along on my blog you may think it is crazy that I voluntarily put myself through some of these adventures (i.e. 19 hour bus rides, 11 hour hikes through landslide zones and staying in a room with 15 strangers and no running water) but there is something about the adventure of it all that drives me along. It is hard for me to pin point exactly what is that I love so much about going to foreign cities around the world, but here are a few reasons why I love to travel and why I encourage every single person to do more traveling....

- Getting outside of your comfort zone. It is good to feel uneasy, if you never challenge yourself and experience the unfamiliar you will never truly know yourself or what you are capable of.

- Learn about the world. One of the pleasures of travel is learning about your destinations natural and cultural heritage. No matter where I go I always try to fully immerse myself in the country's day to day life. By going to the local markets, riding public transportation and eating at the same restaurants you will get a glimpse of the cultures daily rituals. It is these glimpses that may make you realize just what it is that you appreciate so much in your own life. We take so much for granted (education, running water, toilet paper- or having a toilet at all, etc.) and seeing how the rest of the world lives may just give you a deeper appreciation of what you have and how you live.

- To explore the world and see all of the amazing natural beauties that are spread across the 7 continents. From Iguazu Falls in Brazil to the African Sahara there is so much to see out there!

- To open your mind to other ways of thinking. Being surrounded by people that are different than you (whether that be their skin color, religion or social class) gives you a more global perspective and helps to minimize stereotypes and prevent close-mindedness.

I could go on, but those are just a few of the motives behind my travels. I honestly feel like I have become a different and in a sense better person in the last few months. From living in London to exploring South America I have learned so much about myself and also about the world around me. Now I just need to figure out how to help other people discover the joys of travel!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Machu Picchu at Last!

We were on our way up the breathtakingly steep final climb by 4am. For some reason I had not thought of the fact that it would be pitch black at that time in the morning so the first hour or so was a bit difficult, but luckily enough people around me had flash lights so I was able to get by using their light. The boys in our group decided to take the bus up, this was an option for only $8, but since I had made it this far I didnt want to take the easy way out, I wanted to walk all the way up to the top. I seperated from the others in my group early on because they were stopping often for breaks and I was determined to make it to the top before the first bus arrived.

The walk up was about an hour and a half of stairclimbing, the ultimate stairmaster! The steps were uneven and often extremly slippery. Just before 6am I reached the top drenched in sweat and starving. I was happy to learn that I was the 69th person to arrive (they count and give you a number because only the first 400 are granted access to WaynaPicchu) not bad seeing as though over 1000 people come to Machu Picchu every day. Shortly after arriving the first bus appeared (the buses leave around 4am too and take over an hour to drive to the top, this should give you an idea of just how far it is to the top!) and these well rested people lined up behind us with their coffee in hand.

After waiting in line for a while we were graned access into Machu Picchu and began our tour. The first view of the Sacred City was the most breath taking. We were extremly lucky in terms of the weather, it is almost impossible to see a sunrise over Machu Picchu due to the constant fog, but on Febrary 3rd 2011, there was a perfect sunrise and not a cloud in sight. We had blue sky and sunshine as we walked around the site learning about the Temple of the Sun, Royal Tomb, Sacred Plaza, ceremonial baths and more. My tour guide was not so great, but that didnt matter so much to me, I was able still able to take in my amazing surrounds even not knowing every last detail about the many aspects of the city.

Behind the ruins lies the steep-sided mountain of Wayna Picchu. Since I was one of the first 400 people I was able to complete the scramble up the steep path which towers over Machu Picchu. After huffing and puffing my way to the top I was granted one of the most incredible views in the world- machu picchu from above. After a snack from the rocks on top of this moutain and many amazing photo opps it was time to make our way back down on the long trek back to Aguas Calliente. Afterall the hot springs were calling our names...

Santa Teressa to Machupicchu

The rest of the group woke up with massive hangovers but I woke up feeling much better and ready to get to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. We had a short ride in a van which took us to an amazing waterfall. After the boys went for a quick dip in the Rio Urubamba to try to shake off their hangovers, we started walking. With only 6 hours of walking ahead of us, it felt like a much more achieveable goal and knowing that we would be so close to Machu Picchu made us put a little pep in our step and get there as quick as possible. The second half of the days walk was along the train tracks, which guided us right into Aguas Calientes. It rained lightly all afternoon and by the time we arrived in town it had changed into a downpour. We were again soaking wet once we reached our final destination. But this time we were pleasantly suprised to see we were staying in a real hostal and better yet had a private bathroom in our room!

After showers and some free time we headed out for our last group dinner and this time we got to choose what we ate, and pizza was on the menu. Although the pizza was pretty terrible (no tomato sauce and very funky cheese) it was better than another meal of llama!

Although extremely touristy, Aguas Callientes is a very nice little town. Pretty much every person who goes to Machu Picchu stays here for a night before they head up to the sacred city. The streets are lined with over priced cafes, mini marts and hotels. At the end of the main road is a thermal hot spring for relaxing in after days of climbing. There are also seveal bars and half of our group decided to go out for another night of drinking. However, knowing I had to be awake at 3:30 for the final climb to Machu Picchu I opted to make it an early night and was in bed by 10pm!

Inca Jungle Day 2

I was pleasantly suprised to wake up to a clear sky on day two of our Jungle trek. After an early breakfast of "pancakes" (more like a crepe with nutella and banana- which was cold but delicious) we began our day of hiking. It was hot, sunny and muggy in the jungle, much different than the previous days weather. We were breifed that the hike would take 6-7 hours and we would begin with a 2 hour uphill climb then the rest would be relatively flat. As we headed uphill we had several stops along the way. After about an hour we arrived at the Monkey House. This little jungle house had a few pet monkeys, parrots and pupies and provided some fresh juices for us to purchase. The passion fruit juice was amazing, the fruit was picked that morning and was very refreshing after an hour of hiking straight uphill. We were also able to pick bananas and try the purple corn juice. After this much needed break we were back on the trail and headed back uphill. As we walked we saw lots of tropical fruits (papaya, passion fruit, mango, banana, guava, orange, lime), coffee beans and more. After another hour of climbing we had our second rest stop. Another house, this one did not offer any juice but we were able to go inside and check out their home. With guinea pigs running around the kitchen floor i was sad to learn that one of these cute pets would be dinner tonight. It is so strange to me that they let the little guys run loose through the house and then one by one eat them. I was offered guinea pig several times, but every time all I could think of was our childhood pet, Piggly Wiggly, there was no way I could eat one of his relatives...especially when they are served whole, with head and teeth and everything!

We then continued on our walk seeing and talking to local people along the way. I cant imagine living like the locals here. They are miles away from any civilization and live simply off of the nature surrounding them. We stopped at little village on the way for a spagetti lunch and a 15 minute snooze in the hammocks. After a quick break we were back on the road for what we thought was the last leg of the day.

Due to several huge landslides, we had much further to go than expected. When we were 2 hours away from our next town, Santa Teresa, we learned of the massive landslide that had closed the road. No one was permitted to cross because the day before a couple had been injured as huge rocks came crashing down the steep cliff above. What this went was that we had to decend down the cliff and then walk about a mile down below and then go straigh back up once we had passed the landslide zone. The trek down was steep and it your foot slipped you would fall straight down the cliff. As we began to desend the afternoon rain began. Sanuel started yellow "Vamos, Rapido Rapido!!" as we started to run. After an hour down we arrived at what seemed like an endless sea of rocks which we had to travel along until we açhad safely avoided the landslide zone. I was so delirious at this point (4pm after 9 hours of walking with our backpacks and insuffiecnet water and food) and got a really intense headache from dehydration. After another hour it was time to go back up the cliff that we had just descended. After the toughest climb of the day we were back on track and back on the main (flat!) road. At 7pm we finally arrived in Santa Teresa, another very unimpressive town.

This "hostel" was even worse than the previous nights but they did have a shower, which was supposedly hot. We were so sweaty and covered in bug spray and sunscreen that a shower was essential, however, I had not brought a towel or any shower supplies (no room in my bag). Augustina, the nice Argentinian girl said I could use her towl after she finished. So I waited and waited and finally was the last one in the shower. By the time I got in there there when I went to turn on the water about 3 drips came out and then there was no more water. Exhausted, stinky, and hot I started to sob standing there in the waterless shower. Not only was the day really tiring, the fact that there was no one in my group that spoke English made it an extremly tough day.

On this trip I have come to realize how essential human interaction is, especially when doing something so physically demanding as this trek. I was lonely and my emotions finally caught up to me. This was the 2nd 4 day tour I had done with a non-English speaking group and I had had enough. I pulled myself together and went out to dinner with the group. I could not bring myself to eat any more rice and llama so instead just sat with the group and day dreamed as they had conversations that I could not understand. After a shot of Inca Tequila and our guide trying to convince me to come to the bars with the group I instead opted to go straight to bed. I woke up the next morning in a much better mental state and was ready for another full day of walking.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A rough beginning

It never ceases to amaze me just how unorganized life is in South America. Simply getting on the road for my Inca Jungle tour was quite an interesting experience. A taxi arrived at my hostel just after 7am to pick me up. I was pleasantly suprised to learn that the two Aussie surfers waiting in the lobey would be going on the trip with me. After a short taxi ride through town we were dropped off in a little alley and told to wait. Wait for what, we were not sure. After a good 45 minutes we were then picked up by a second taxi and driven to another strange location. Here we waited for our van and the taxis to arrive with the other passengers. Close to 9am we were finally ready to head out on the road into the inca forest.

The two hour drive was gorgeous, however, as we passed the Sacred Valley and climbed up into the Malaga High Pass, at 14,850 feet the clouds grew thicker and the rain began. Starting with a light sprinkle, by the time we got to our biking location it was a full on soaking rain. We changed into our rain gear and got our safety briefing. We would be biking down the main road for 2 hours to get into the jungle. Being a busy and narrow road we had to stay as close to the right side as possible and really watch out for oncoming traffic as we went around the hairpin turns. After about 10 minutes one member of our group had their first accident, he went into the ditch on the side of the road breaking the bike and putting a nice hole in his pants. This meant that we were one bike short so our guide would be driving in the van behind us and meet us at the bottom.

The weather made this trip absolutely miserable, we could only see about 5 feet ahead of us and the rain was coming down so hard that your eyes were just constantly filled with water. With frozen fingers we continued down the mountain for 2 hours, the entire way I was trying to think of a time in my life that I was more miserable and nothing came to mind. The rest of the group zoomed ahead of me as I stayed slow and steady around the turns with tractor trailers and buses honking at me every few minutes. I found myself singing "This is the ride that never ends, oh yes it goes on and on my friends..." Just in case we were not wet enough, we had several "river crossings" because there was so much rain the many waterfalls on the way were overflowing onto the street causing 3 foot deep river crossings that we had to ride through. Finally, the van with our guide inside pulled up next to me and told me to get off my bike. Apparently we were at the end of the ride, however, the rest of the group was no where in sight. They were going to fast and continued 45 minutes longer than they were supposed to. They ended up going through a construction sight and by the time we found them were covered from head to toe in mud. I guess it pays to be slow and be the last one down the mountain!

For some crazy reason I thought that at the end of this horrible bike ride we would go somewhere nice for lunch, I had invisioned a restaurant with a warm fireplace and possibly some soup and hot chocolate. Boy was I wrong. We instead stood out in the rain and were handed a plastic bag which contained our lunch. As if we were not cold, wet and miserable enough, we all had to stand outside for a half hour as we ate a roll with a piece of cheese on it, cookies and a chocholate bar.

It had only been a couple hours into our Inca journey and I had decided there was no way I could handle three more days like this, in the rain. The Aussie boys had signed up for the 3 day, 2 night trip (which basically just eliminates the second day of hiking) so I thought I could simply stay with them and cut one day out of my trip. I asked my guide, Sanuel if this would be ok and he explained it was not possible.

As we drove to the Jungle Village of Santa Maria we had our first mudslide spottings. There were "mudslide police" on the side of the road and every few feet we would be asked to pull over if they suspected a mudslide was about to begin. There was also some major construction going on so we would often have to pull over and wait for 15-30 minutes to let the workers get through.

When we finally arrived at our hostel for the night I was still freezing and soaking wet, after seeing our accomodation for the night I decided there was no way I could stay there. We were staying at someones house and although we did have a bed it was extremly "basic." I found Sanuel and again tried to beg him to let me leave and go with the Aussies, he refused and told me I had to choice, I had to stay. The rest of my group went out white water rafting, but after being soaking wet all day and seeing the Rio Urubamba (the very rapid brown water was not the most appealing) I decided to forgo this option and instead spent the next 3 hours pouting in my nasty room. I didnt take any books or even my journal so I just layed on the bed and waited.

That night we took a short walk to a restuarant in town where we had another meal of rice and llama.

cuzco and beyond

I was greeted with heavy rain in Cusco as I arrived just before 6am on Sunday morning. Being rainy season this seemed to be an approriate welcome and i thought that i better get used to the rain, afterall i was about to do a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu in the rainiest month of the year. Luckily i was able to check into the Wild Rover early and take a 2 hour nap before heading out into town to book my Inca Jungle trek. As i ventured out into a new city I found myself a park bench and began looking in my Lonely Planet book to read about the sights of Cuzco. Shortly after settling down on the bench a girl from California introduced herself and after about an hour of chatting i learned that she too was traveling alone and headed out on the Inca trail in the morning.

Together we went on a mission to find some inca trail essentials... rain pants, poncho and backpack. I managed to get all of this gear for under 50 soles, so less than 20 bucks. Now all I had left to do was find an actual agency and book the trip. I had heard great things about the Inca Jungle trip, this alternate route was a popular way to get to Machu Picchu without doing the official Inca Trail. As much as I would have liked to do the Inca Trail in its entirety it was not an option for several reasons, one being the price (it costs at least $600) and the other being the fact that it is closed for maintance during the month of February (technically I was leaving on Jan. 31 but you must book the trek months in advance). Like in Uyuni, Bolivia, Cuzco is bursting with tour operators trying to lure you in off of the street. Every agency offers basically the same trip and the price varies slightly from one operator to the next. After speaking to several agencies and trying to find out who would be on the trip with me I realized that like in previous expereinces I had to face the fact that I would not know who else was booked in my group (it still does not make sense to me why it is not possible for the agency to look at their list and see what nationalities the other tourists are).

I decided to book into the Inca Jungle trip with the travel agency that was inside my hostel thinking there was a better chance of getting some Aussies or other English speaking people in my group, also this agency seemed to be the most reliable. After getting my trip all sorted out I went back into town in search of dinner. Using Lonely Planet as my guide I found what must be the most amazing burger in South America! This massive herbed burger was served on a gigantic bun with mango chutney, bacon, carmalized onions, Andean cheese, lettuce and tomato....a bit pricey for Peruvian standards, however it was easliy the best $8 I have spent on the trip so far! I would highly reccomend a trip to Los Perros on your next treip to Cuzco!

After a good meal I was ready to get to bed early so that I would have a fresh start for my Machu Picchu adventure in the morning.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Better Than Crossing The Void!

While traveling I have been reading The Best American Travel Writing series (borrowed from one of the hostels along the way) and one of the stories in the book is entitled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Void." This story, about the 154,440 square miles of lifeless nothingness at the center of the Saharaha which covers half of Niger and some of Algeria, Libya and Chad, has made me look at my own land traveling journeys and re-evaluate my standards of comfort. Pilled in trucks with hundreds of others, everyday people die trying to cross the sea of sand which is freezing at night and over 100 degrees during the day. Suddenly after reading about crossing the void my 24 hour trip to Cuzco, Peru does not sound nearly as bad.

I left the Arica Surf House early in the morning to head to the train station. There was supposed to be a train at 9am to Tacna, Peru and I had read this was the easiest way to cross the border. However, when the taxi dropped me at the train station the gates were locked and not a soul was in sight. After jumping into another taxi I asked to be taken to the bus station, I would have to go with the shared taxi route to the border. After arriving at the bus terminal I was bombarded with offers to take me to Peru. Of course I could not understand any of them but was attempting to negotiate the price. A nice lady quickly came over and dragged me to her car which was jam packed with one empty seat. The Ford Tarus¨ get to leave when they are full so she wanted me to fill her last available seat.

I handed over my passport (not quite sure what she was going to do with it or when i would see it again) and was on my way. For the next hour me and the 7 other people in the Tarus would listen to a radio station that was about 70% static and 30% music. When we arrived at the border we were directed to file out of the car and through the immigration process to get our Chile exit stamps. Then after another short drive we went through the process again to get our Peru entrance stamps. 2 hours later, once finally arriving at the bus station in Tacna I had to change money in order to pay the nice lady that had just transported me. I am quite certain that I get extremly ripped off, but I got there safely and that is really all I cared about at that moment. Once at the bus station I found a bus direct to Cuzco (yay! originally I thought I would have to go through Puno or another town in Peru and stay for the night but a 19 hour bus ride straight there was much more appealing then breaking this journey up into 2 painful days) I just had to wait 5 hours to board my bus. At this point in the trip a 5 hour wait is nothing!!

I passed the time in the bus station thinking about what a great time I had in Arica. Looking back, the town actually really sucked. The fact that the beach was a 30 minute plus walk in the sun did not make Arica any better. But yet I still had the most fun here which proves that yopur company can really make or break an expereince...luckily I found great company to share 4 days in Arica with. On the last night I changed up the sunset routine and went down to the beach to watch the boys surf. I got to see El Gringo and some other famous breaks in person and a seal (or was it a walrus?) came to watch the action as well. I made a big bowl of guacamole and Jeff (the NY surfer) and I watched as the sun sank into the ocean and the boys rode every last wave until there was no longer any light. We spent the last night at the hostel playing Pisco Pong. I had to finish off my bottle of pisco so thought a little pong would be the best way to take care of that. With no solo cups, we had to make do with coffee mugs, which made for an interesting and very long game of Pisco Pong!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chilean Coastal Towns

I can´t bring myself to leave Chile!

In Iquique I had heard very mixed reviews of Arica, the next coastal town that I had planed to visit on my way north. At the Iquique Backpackers Hostel many other travelers warned not to even bother going to Arica. But I have just extended my stay once again and am wondering what these people were talking about, I had orginally planned on staying one night but am going on my 3rd night now. I am glad I didn´t listen to their advice and skip Arica all together!

One of the things about traveling and staying in hostels is that the people you are with can really affect your opinion of a particular town or even country. Although I absolutely loved my hostel in Iquique and the location (just steps away from the beach) could not have been better, I did not form any really great relationships there. I had met an Austrian guy on the bus from Calama to Iquique so we shared a taxi to the hostel, hung out on the beach together and watched the sunset from our awesome rooftop balcony. But he was moving on after only one day, so once he left I was again on my own. The hostel was full of other South American´s who were traveling in big groups. This meant that the times when you usually meet people (cooking dinner in the communal kitchen, watching TV in the lounge and drinking out by the BBQ) was a bit difficult because they were all already in their own little groups and were speaking spanish.

As soon as I arrived in the Arica Surf House I knew that this was going to be ¨home¨for a few days. I was greeted by the smell of ANZAC cookies and four friendly girls wishing me a happy Australia day. After eating lunch with them I went out for a walk to explore town. Another South American beach town, really nothing special but I have come to realize that all of these little towns are similar, and not all that exciting. The beach is quite a hike from the hostel, there is a huge port in Arica and you have to walk past the port to get to the beaches. Arica is known for its surf, and specifically for the Ël Gringo wave, which people come from all over the world to surf. High above the town sits the Rock of Arica, the Morro de Arica, is a steep 30 minute climb from the hostel and has been our nightly sunset viewing spot. On top of this rock you can see the entire town of Arica and beaches that span as far as you can see both north and south. The past two nights the 3 australian surfers (Stuart, Lockland and Drew) along with Jeff, a surfer from NY, have gone up the hill together and seen some amazing sunsets.

21 De Mayo is the main pedestrian street and it is lined with cafes, shops and fruit vendors. There is also an amazing grocery store there so the first day here I stocked up on groceries and have been cooking everyday, and making fresh fruit smoothies after lazy days on the beach. Last night was my first night out since Ecuador. We started by drinking wine as we watched the sun set then once back at the hostel we played some drinking games (incliding uno!) and then headed out to a discoteca right on the beach. The clubs here do not even open till 1am and people dont usually go till 2 or 3. It was a fun place, but I actually think I enjoy just hanging out here at the hostel just as much.

Tonight will be my last night here and then tomorrow I am going to take a collectivo to Tanca (across the Peru border) and then a bus on to Arequipa. I am en route to Cusco to see Manchu Picchu and then headed to Montanita, an Ecuadorian beach town, to end the trip with a few more relaxing days on the beach.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Chilin in Chile

Getting to Iquique was a bit more complicated than I had hoped. I had to take a bus from San Pedro to Calama then wait for about 5 hours in Calama to catch another 7 hour bus to the coastal town of Iquique. The bus station in Calama is quite far from the center of the city and only having 5 hours I didnt really think it would be worth the hassle to get a taxi into town. So I sat and waited.

After about an hour into my wait I went to write in my journal and realized it was missing. I had left it on the bus from San Pedro and that bus was long gone. After a few tears and trying to explain my problem to the Tur Bus drivers I gave up and accepted the fact that I would never see my journal or the 10 postcards that I had written again. I kept reminding myself that it could have been a LOT worse, there are many other much more important things I could have lost. While waiting I met a boy from Paris that made my tears over my journal seem very trivial. This Parisian was here because 3 days ago he sat in this same bus station and had his bag stolen, practically off of his lap. It had everything in it....passport, camera, laptop, cash. So needless to say I felt like I had nothing to complain about!

What makes me sad is that I always wrote about the people I met in my journal. Like the Irish girl who worked in Ocean City, Maryland for 3 summers, or the Austrian guy who quit his finance job to drive from London to Singapor then shipped his car to Argentina and was now driving to Alaska. I have met so many amazing people on this trip and am sad that I no longer have those meetings in writing, but at least I still have the memories!

I arrived in Iquique at 11pm and enjoyed a fabulous day on the beach yesterday. Although I am a bit sunburned I am headed out to the beach again now.

Paved Road at Last!

I was pleasantly suprised to see a paved road shortly after entering Chile. It had been almost two weeks since driving on anything other than dirt and boy was it nice. After a crowded and complicated border crossing, I was on a bus to San Pedro, Chile.

San Pedro is a charming little town consisting of about 10 dirt roads lined with restaurants, bonfires and many tour agencies. The town is extremly toursity and the prices reflect this.

As I was headed to my hostel, which I had chosen from my guidebook, I had my first fall of the trip.I am actually quite impressed that it is taken me this long to injure myself. But as I wandered down the uneven dirt road packed with tourists I twisted my ankle and fell flat on my knees. With tons of witnesses, my huge backpack and bag over my shoulders I was embarrased and jumped back to my feet and stumbled into the first hostel I could see. Althoug this one was a bit more expensive, the nice owner took me to the bathroom right away to tend to my wonds. After that I felt obliged to stay there for the night. Hostel de La Ruca ended up being a lovely place to stay with a gorgeous courtyard filled with hammocks, a bonfire and communal kitchen.

There were no grocery stores in town and the food was extremly expensive. After a quick wander through town I decided there was no reason to stay there for more than one night. I originally wanted to do a sandboarding trip but with my knee and ankle injury decided it would be best to forget about sandboarding and just head to the beach to relax for a few days.

Day 3

Day three of the Salar tour started even earlier, at 4am. When we woke and headed out to the car we learned that the battery had died in the night so it looked like we werent going anywhere for a bit. We were fairly lucky with our car. It seemed to only have problems in the morning. On the first day we woke up to a flat tire and today a dead battery. But considering all the breakdowns you see along the way, we were lucky to only have issues in the morning, and not be stranded in the boiling dessert afternoons like many of the groups we saw!

After a quick jump start, we began our hour long drive to the 4950m high Sol de Manana geyser basin. This site covered in boiling mud pots and sulfurous fumaroles would be the site where we would watch the sun rise today. After another short drive we arrived at the Termas de Polques, a hot spring where you can bath in the 30 degree sulfurous water. It was freezing outside and after seeing the small and crowded hot spring (which just didnt compare to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland!) I decided not to get in. Especially since there was no changing room or shower, all I could think about was how miserable it would be to be stinky and wet for the rest of the day. And I had a long day ahead of me, I had to get to Chile!

Our last stop on the tour was to Laguna Verde, a green lake in Bolivia´s southwest corner which sits at 5,000m. The lake wasn´t overwhelmingly green, apparently it gets more green in the afternoon when the winds pick up. Behind the lake was the impressive Volcan Licancabur, which provided a great backdrop for a few last group photos.

Before I knew it I was back to reality, no longer with the comforts of being with a tour group (I quickly got used to having a private driver and prepared food!) I was dropped at the Chile border to fend for myself and figure out how the heck to get to San Pedro de Atacama.

Salar Sunrise

Waking up at 4:30 in the middle of the salar is a cold epxereince, it was about -5 degrees celcius, but the night sky was amazing. As we drove back across the Salar and chose our viewing spot it was now a waiting game. The sun finally began to peak out of the endless white horizon at about 5:30 am. It was one of the most gorgeous sunrises I have ever seen. With nothing in sight but our car and the sun and moon the white ground changed shades as the orange moon rise higher into the sky.

After breakfast back in the hostel it was time to move on from the salar to see the beautiful sights that are hidden away in the remote far southwest corner of Bolivia. As we road on dirt roads venturing further and further away from the white sea the lanscape changed dramatically. The nearly treeless surroundings were dotted with gentel hills and volcanoes near the Chilean border. After a few stops to get photos of the Tunupa volcano and several others we arrived at the first flamingo filled lagoon. Three varieties of flamingos covered the lake; Andean, Chilean, and the rare James species. We had lunch out of the tailgate once again with the pìcture perfect background of hundreds of pink flamingos.

We continued our drive into the desert stopping at the stone tree (a stone that has withstood years of wind erosion making it appear to be a tree) and several other flamingo filled salt lakes. Later in the afternoon we arrived at the Laguna Colorado, a red lake fringed with white minerals and dotted with more flamingos. This would be our accomodations for night 2. This very basic hostel made our night in the salt hostel seem like luxory. We had no running water and only one very stinky hole in the ground for a toilet. We were told to go for a walk right away up to the view point of the lake. Because of the afternoon lighting it was perfect timing to see the red colors of the lake. However, what we were not told was that there would be extreme wind...a major wind collack zone! One 45 minute walk up to the viewpoint the wind was strong but was at our back so sort of helped push us along. However, once we climbed the steep incline to get to the best view point the wind turned extreme whipping the gravel trail up into our eyes and tearing the sunglasses off our faces. It was a gorgeous view from the top, but the hour trek back to our hostel was horrible. By the time i reached our little room I had snott covering my face, a layer of black dirt on my teeth and was bright red from wind burn.

We were all flithy from being on dusty dirt roads for two days. All I wanted was to wash my face, but with no running water and only one water bottle to last me for the next 24 hours, that was not an option.

We occupied the next 3 hours before dinner by playing some crazy spanish card game. It was quite an entertaining sight trying to have the South Americans explain this game to me. It had very complicated rules and even the cards were different. But once I got a hang of the game, it was a great way to keep us occupied for the next several cold and dusty hours.

After dinner we went out to check out the night sky. Even more breathtaking than this morning before sun rise. The full moon was rising over the volcanos just as we stepped outside. The moon was huge and slowly drifted up into a star filled sky. With absolutely no lights around we could see thousands of stars!

Surreal Salar

This computer wont let me copy and paste and I wrote the entry in my email and need to transfer it.
Day one in Salar post to come soon....

Leaving La Paz In Luxury

It was finally time to leave La Paz once and for all and I did it in luxury. Now, I will admit my definition of luxury has definitely been skewed since coming to South America, it seems like a lifetime ago that I stayed in a truly luxorious hotel or felt the luxury of a first class plane ride from London to Baltimore. But today, my definition of luxury means a 12 hour bus ride on a Todo Turismo bus instead of the local Bolivian bus. As I said good bye to the shouting street vendors and jam packed micros (crazy mini vans packed with 20-30 people) I was handed a pillow, blanket and dinner of chicken and rice. I was headed to Uyuni, Bolivia in a seat that reclined and on a bus with no puppies or chickens...sheer luxury!

Of course there were still no paved roads, so I recieved a 12 hour massage in addition to the ride to Uyuni. As the sun began to rise we ventured further into the middle of no where. It is amazing how vastly different the scenery on this ride was from the 19 hour trip to Rurrenabaque, with no flaura or fauna to be seen we were surrounded by dirt and moutains.

I was headed to the isolated community of Uyuni to head out on a tour of the Salar De Uyuni. I had not booked anything in advance, hearing that it was cheapest to book the tours in Uyuni. I arrived in town at 7am and had originally thought I would spend one night there before heading out on a tour the following day. However, after a quick walk around town I realized there was absolutely no reason to stay here any longer than necessary. The town seems to exist soley for the hoards of tourist that come through on their way to Uyuni.

So, I had about 2 hours to find a tour and get on my way to the Salar. After storing my bags at a hostel I ran around town like a chicken with my head cut off trying to find every tour agency listed in my guide book. In addition to the ones I was searching for there were dozens of other tour operators trying to sell me their tours. There are over 100 tour operators within a 4 block radius and most of these tours have spanish speaking guides, packed 4x4's, run down vehicles, drunk drivers and horrible food. I wanted to choose my agency carefully seeing as choosing the wrong tour could be a deadly decison, according to Lonely Planet at least 16 people have been killed in jeep accidents on the Salar since May 2008. After about an hour and a half a had setteled on a tour agent that had 2 other English speaking couples and had promised to have an English speaking guide. The Land Cruiser was set to pick me up from the hostel in a half an hour. Just enough time to grab a quick breakfast before heading to the Salar.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Anacoñda, Piranha and Caiman Oh My!

The first night in the amazon was an experience I will not soon forget. Once the sun goes down and darkness falls the surrounding rainforest comes alive with croaks, barks, buzzes and roars. Although we still were not used to the extreme humidity and falling asleep was tough, just thinking about the fact that we were sleeping right in the midst of so many creatures made it worth while. No alarm clocks were needed to wake up, the howler monkeys served as our wake up call!

Day 2 in the Amazon started with a delicious breakfast of pancakes and dulche de leche (instead of syrup...) and then a search for anaconda! I was the only girl that went on this journey, the rest decided to spend the morning resting on the hammocks. So the 3 Chilean boys, the Swiss guy and I headed across the river to begin our trek to find anaconda´s. It started with a hike through waist high reeds. Then we entered the swamp. We had about a 10 minute trek through the swamp. When you think of a swamp you may think of a walk through some wet grassland. Think again. The water was up to our necks. The boys all took off their pants and went in bare feet. I choose to keep my pants and boots on, after all i did not want to risk stepping on any of the snakes, gators or who knows what else might have been in that water! After another 30 minute walk we arrived at Caiman City. A lagoon type body of water filled with hundreds of caiman and gators. As you looked across the water you saw about 500 gator heads sticking out of the water, it was unreal!

As we walked we spotted gator nests filled with eggs and of course our guide decided to poke and prod at the nests to get a response out of the gators. Soon angry gators came charging up to the shore. As we made our way around the lagoon Yas was searching for traces of anaconda´s. It didnt take long before we came across a 4 meter anaconda! She was pretty skinny bc she had not eaten in a while, but her size was still impressive. She was most likely out hunting today, she will eat either a large bird or maybe a small gator and then sleep for 2 months. Although we had seen what we came in search of the boys were not satisfied and wanted to keep walking further into the pampas. We walked for another hour or so through the waste high reeds in the boiling hot sun. The mosquito's were out of control. We each had about 25-50 on us at any given time. They never landed on my skin thanks to the military strength bug lotion I wore. But they bit right through my clothes and I am now covered in bites, making it look like I am suffering from a bad case of chicken pox.

After lunch and a nap in the hammocks we were back onto the river to fish for piranah´s. After about 2 hours of fishing in mosquito infested corners of the river we gave up and headed back towards camp. We made a pit stop at a deserted little hut, which again was serving cold beer for 20 bolivians. Our tour guide never told us we would be making these stops so no one ever had any money to spend. This stop was probably the most random part of the trip. It was clearly someones house seeing as there was a family and 2 dogs living here. There was a dirt soccer field and volleyball net along side a few cows and chickens. About 15 minutes after we arrived about 5 other tour groups cruised up via canoe. I guess the idea was to have a social hour where we would all play soccer and drink beer. We hung out here with the other groups until the sun set at about 7;30. On the way back to our camp we went searching for caiman in the dark. We saw lots of bright red eyes coming out of the water. After dinner we all hung out in the hammocks and listened as the Chilean boys played the guitar and sang us traditional songs.

On our last day in the Pampas we went out in search of the pink dolphins. The idea was to swim with the dolphins but I had decided early on that I would not be swimming in the river. The boys all got in as soon as they spotted a dolphin, but of course the dolphin swam away as soon as they jumped in! We then rode a little further up the river in search of sloths sleeping in nearby trees. We were lucky enough to spot 2 sloths!!! It was very exciting, I have loved sloths ever since I did my 2nd grade project on them at Stoneleigh! Unfortunately I was not able to get a good photo since they were so high up in the trees.

After a successful and satisfying few days in the Bolivian Amazon it was time to pack up our belongings and head back on that long journey to Rurrenabaque. The jeep ride was a bit more painful this time around as we were sunburned, mosquito bitten, covered in dirt and stinky. But we had all become such good friends that the 3.5 hours passed quickly. I was sad to say goodbye to the group once we got back into Rurre.

Entering the Pampas

After arriving at the river we were greeted by Yasmani, our guide who did not speak a word of English. When we scheduled our trip in La Paz we were promised to have an English speaking guide. We were also told that our group would consist of 6 people, the 3 of us and 3 Australians. Lies, Lies, Lies!

Our group consisted of the 3 of us, Vladd from Australia (who had just broken his arm and elbow biking down the world´s most dangerous road in La Paz), 3 Chilean boys and a couple from Switzerland. Although we were not happy campers to find out Yas did not speak any English, it actually worked out just fine because of the Chilean boys were able to translate everything for us.

We had a great group, which made the next 3 days an amazing experience. Our pampas tour began with a relaxing 3 hour trip up the Beni river. As we meandered up the narrow river we spotted tons of wildlife. 100´s of types of colorful birds, playful pink river dolphins, noisy howler monkeys, the angry eyes of caiman and the friendly capiberra´s who look like giant guinea pigs were just a few of the animals we saw on the journey up the river. The reason I choose to do the pampas tour instead of the jungle tour was because of the animals you get to see. It´s easier to see wildlife in the wetland savannas northeast of town rather than going deep inland into the jungle. The sacrifice you make is having to deal with the harsh sun and 1,000´s of biting mosquito's who breed on the river, especially this time of year during rainy season.

After a hot 3 hours on the river we arrived at our camp and were greeted by Pepe, the pet alligator. Pepe was one of the largest gators I saw the entire trip and he lived right next to our dock! He even came by name and would often come to shore for a snack and some photo opps. Our camp consisted of several 3 bed cabins each equipped with a very hard mattress and mosquito nets. There were also several out houses with running water (very cold water!), a dining hall and a hut filled with hammocks.

The food was surprisingly good and consisted of pasta, chicken, rice and potatoes. The first night there we went by boat to the ¨sunset bar¨ this was simply another camp just like ours but it severed cold beer for 20 bolivianos. After a beautiful sunset we headed back to camp for dinner and bed.

Route to Rurrenabaque

I knew the journey that lie ahead was not going to be an easy or fun one. On Saturday morning at 9 am Nikki, Anna and I made our way from the Wild Rover Hostel to our bus to Rurrenabaque. The bus trip would be 19 hours on a local bus. What this means is that the locals and ALL of their belongs come along for the journey. The buses are not fancy, are the most basic, hot and stinky buses you can imagine. After waiting for over an hour on the crowded polluted street our bus finally arrived. As soon as it pulled up the loading began. Bags of potatoes, onions and corn were piled on top of boxes of chickens. All of this went along side my backpack underneath the bus. On top of the bus were huge bags of who knows what! Inside the bus were many families, 5 puppies, a box of baby chicks and then Anna, Nikki and I. It took a while to get out of the crowded streets of La Paz and soon after we were out of the city we arrived at our first checkpoint. Some army officers got on the bus and yelled something in Spanish. Apparently they wanted to see our passports, Bolivian entry papers and to search our bags. After almost an hour at the stop we were on our way once again.

Now we were getting onto the roads that we would follow for the next 18 hours. The narrow, twisting Andean roads had sheer drops and no guard rails. The road to Rurre was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Our huge bus was flying around these corners and would suddenly come to a halt and then begin backing up. As you looked out the window all you could see was a cliff, lines of crosses marking past accidents and nothing protecting us from dropping into the cliff below. The road appeared to be one way, but was indeed 2 ways as we were reminded every few minutes as we had to back up to allow the other large trucks and buses to pass. Being rainy season we passed through some very muddy sections and were lucky that we did not get stuck or have a breakdown, it is common for the buses to break down and leave passengers stranded for hours. We stopped in several towns along the way and each one was a little more humid and a little more mosquito filled than the previous.

The puppies in front of us had a few accidents, sending streams of pee down to the back of the bus and coating our bags along the way. The smell on the bus was a mix of puppy poop, fried chicken and BO...a great combination! Before we knew it we had arrived at our dinner stop around 9pm. A 1/2 hour stop at a little restaurant that finally had a decent bano. Previously we had to relieve ourselves at these stops which had holes in the ground which were flooding with piles of poo all over the ground, the worst part was that we were forced to pay to use these banos. I decided to forego eating any of the food at these stops and snacked on the rolls I had taken from our hostel. After a sleepless night we arrived in the town of Rurre at 6 am. A quaint little town, the bus station was a good 20 minutes walk from the center of town and our tour office. We were told we would be greeted by someone to drive us to the office, that person was there but he was trying to charge us for the ride, we decided to walk instead. This was the first of many lies the tour agency told.

After a quick change of clothes in the tour office and after applying some bug spray and sunscreen we found a quick breakfast then were ready for the next leg of the journey. Next up was a 3.5 hour trip in a crowded 4x4. 9 of us, the driver, our bags and enough food for 3 days was piled into the ancient Land Cruiser that looked as though it would fall to pieces at every bump we passed. The 3.5 hour drive was on a very rough dirt road. We had frequent stops to let horses, cows and families of pigs cross the road. Despite the extreme bumps all three of us could not manage to keep our eyes open. I am surprised none of us got whip lash on the ride.

The dirt road then disappeared and turned into the river Beni. This is where we would meet our guide and journey 3 hours up the river to our camp.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning to love La Paz

I have come to realize that like many new cities, it just takes some time to discover the charms of La Paz. I have now been here for 5 days and feel like I know the city backwards and forwards. I know how to cross the crazy streets without getting run over by one of the cartoon like short buses, I know which mango lady has the best prices and I know which streets to avoid once the sun goes down.

Last night Nikki, Anna and I found a middle eastern restaurant where were got hummus and pita, a chicken kabob and coca cola all for about $5. This was the first meal I had had since being in the city, the only food I could find that looked apetizing! After dinner we went to Luna & Sol where we had amazing hot chocolate and listened to live Bolivian music.

Today we wandered the streets and markets one more time and shopped around the hundreds of tour agencies trying to find the best price on a jungle Pampas tour.

We ended up booking a tour, leaving tomorrow, which will take us on a three day adventure up the amazon to Rurrenabaque. We leave at 11am tomorrow to begin our 16-19 hour bus ride. If it were up to me I would be flying, their are flights for only $190 roundtrip. But, this is one of the pitfalls of traveling with a must compromise. So, we will take a bus up to the jungle and fly back. After the 16 hour journey we will head even deeper into the jungle on a 3 hour 4x4 ride then a 3 hour canoe trip up the river Beni. After 2 nights and 3 days in the mosquito infested jungle we will return to the town of Rurrenabaque for a day. I am beyond excited for this trip. I hope to see monkeys, anacondas and many other Amazonian animals. I will admit, I am very nervous about the bus ride, being rainy season it is common for roads to be flooded, buses to break down, etc. But I think the excitment of what lies beyond the bus trip will make the 16 hours a bit more bearable than my last bus experience!

So, goodbye for now. Will talk to you after this jungle adventure!

On to the Wild Rover

After returning from my trip to Pariti Island I had an email waiting for me from Nikki saying she had just checked into the Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. Whoohooo, we connect at last!

After hulling all my stuff straight uphill to the hostel I arrived at the Wild Rover. This hostel has a reputation among backpackers for a being a very roudy and party loving sort of place. The rover certainly lives up to its reputation. The bar is packed from about 3pm on and backpackers from around the world gather to share their travel stories and a beer. I was so glad to have found Nikki and Anna!

Since they had just arrived in La Paz they wanted to stay in the city for a few days, even though I felt like I had seen all La Paz had to offer I knew I had to suck it up and hang out a few more days. For that reason I decided to do another day trip to the Tiwanaku ruins. The trip sounded interesting and like an exciting day. Boy was that far from the truth. The bus picked me up around 9am and I was the only English spekaing person on the tour. There seemed to be some school groups and other travelers from South America.

The ruins themselves have potential to be very cool. This pre-Incan civilization was believed to have been created around 600BC and they were one of the large influences behind the Incan Empire. The most outstanding structure on the site was the Akapana pyramid, but much of the ruins have not yet been excavated due to lack of funds. There are two museums on site and neither have any signs in English, it is definitely catered to a spanish speaking crowd.

Overall the trip was way to long. I think a trip to Tiwanaku could easily be completed in a half day. My tour stoped at a little local restuarant for an hour plus lunch break, which just wasn´t fun when you are the only person there speaking English.

At least the tour kept me occupied for the day while Nikki and Anna explored the city.

The Highest...Everything!

Today I road a boat across the highest navigatable lake in the world.

Yesterday I ate at the highest Thai restaurant in the world.

The day before I flew into the highest airport in the world.

Notice a trend? Local Bolivianos are very proud of the fact that their city, La Paz offers visitors the highest ¨everything¨in the world!

Yesterday after checking into my night of luxury I met 2 older couples who were staying at the hotel. One of the couples was from Australia and the other England (they had come to Brazil for a relatives wedding). They were asking me what I knew about Lake Titicaca and inquiring if I thought it would be possible for them to see the lake in one day, their last day in the city. I told them about the tour company in the bottom of our hotel and they invited me to come down with them and look at the options.

So, 12 hours later I found myself in a van with Phil, Sylvia, Shelly and Seresh on my way to Pariti Island on Lake Titicaca. About an hour into our drive Phil turned around and said Ï have a question, and I cannot believe it has taken me this long to ask. Do you like Jimmy Buffett?¨I knew the rest of the day was going to be great, I was spending it with Australia´s biggest parrothead!

Along the way to Lake Titicaca we passed through some small neighborhoods, markets and lots of farm land. Boliva is a very poor contry but they have no starvation, this is because they have such advanced agricultural knowelge. Their main diet consists of quinoa, potatoes, maze, barley and other vegetables. We stopped at a little place on the Lake where the locals make the famous reed boats. Making canoes, couches, baskets and everything else imaginable out of the reeds gorwing on the base of the lake has been a way of like for many indigenous communities for hundreds of years. We got to meet the locals that make these creations, and of course buy anything we wanted. Phil (the parrothead) got talked into buying 5 llama figurines made out of reed, this seemed like something mom would end up buying. For the rest of the day he carried his heard of llama´s around, he was hysterical with them! I bought a much more practical item, a reed bread basket for Sunday dinners!

Once we arrived at the ¨port¨we boarded our boat and headed acorss the lake to Pariti Island. The tiny Island, surrouned by reed marshes, was recently in the news because of the discovery of ancient Tiwanaku ceramics. The Island is home to just over 200 indigenous Bolivians who still live a very basic life deeply in touch with nature. We wandered around the island observing the natives in their everyday life. Our tour guide, Juan, brought along his Andean flute and did an impromtu concert for us. We also toured the tiny museum which was recently constructed to showcase the many pieces of Tiwanaku´s history that have been found on the island.
After a hour boat ride back, our lunch of fresh trout and rice was waiting for us!

It was a great day with friendly people, good food and lots of sunshine!

La Paz Luxury

After a solid 12 hours of sleep in the suprisingly quiet hostel I was off on my mission to find a better place to sleep tonight.

Even after a good nights sleep the streets of La Paz did not impress me any more than they did when I first arrived. The streets are dirty and extremly busy, with crazy traffic (and no traffic rules or lights) emmiting terrible pollution, locals selling everything imaginable on the side of the streets and the masked boys trying to shine your shoes (it is a very scary sight, these men wear ski masks and hats so you can only see their eyes) simply walking down the street is a very overwhelming task at first. I was looking for a place called Cafe El Consulado, but with unmarked streets it was rather difficult to find.

I finally found this small house which is a converted consulate and stunning colonial building with 4 lovely guestrooms. Downstairs is a gorgeous cafe and gift shop, upstairs are the 4 rooms. It was difficult trying to convey the fact that I wanted a room, no one in the place seemed to speak a word of English. But once I saw the place I was more determined than ever to stay there! I finally confirmed that they had a room available and right away went back to the hostel to get my backpack. I made the trek to the other side of town with my backpack on. I think I forgot to mention that La Paz is 3660 meters above sea level. So walking around on the steep streets (think Lisbon-like hills) is not an easy task.

I didn´t mention the beauty of La Paz, when you arrive in the city the view will take your breath away. The city rests in a huge valley, with the buildings clinging to the sides of the canyon. With not a tree in site, because of the high altitude, it looks at though the brick buildings are spilling into one another. It has been warm here for the most part, we usally get one rain shower a day but sunny skies are abundant.

La Paz At Last

After waiting in Tumbes for 12 hours I finally got a flight to Lima. With the help of Mom I was able to shower and get some sleep at the Ramada hotel attached to the Lima airport. The next morning I was still feeling sick but was able to eat some toast and eggs from the continental breakfast. When I went over to check my bags they said I no longer had a reservation. Great, this meant paying another $600 to get to La Paz.

Once I arrived at the La Paz airport I was expecting it to be a bit bigger. There was no tourist information center and only one terminal. After paying $130 for my Bolovian visa (American´s are pretty much the only nationality that has to get a visa) I found myself outside of the airport with no plan. I spotted a rough looking backpacker smoking a cigarette down the road a bit so went over to him to ask him what his plan was. We were both in the same clue how to get into town or where to stay. This fellows name was Tim and he was an Aussie who had been camping in France for 4 months then hitchhiking through Mexico for 2 months. He had his backpack and a surf board and wore some very holey skinny jeans rolled at the ankle, by the look of his beard it seemed as though he had not shaved (or perhaps showered) in months...he later told me it had been since August that he had shaved, not sure about the showering part!

Anyways, the 2 of us plus some crazy german backpackers, who looked equally as rough, piled 6 bodies, 6 backpacks and one surfboard into one tiny taxi. We got dropped off at some tiny little hostel that one of the German´s friends owned. When we arrived the doors were locked with no one in sight. We sat around and ate mango´s on the side of a very busy street for about an hour before a lady came and unlocked the door. Once I was shown a room I was determined not to stay there. It was dirty and had a very strange layout with the most disgusting bathroom I had ever seen. However, it was only 55 bolivianos a night for a single room, about $7.

Tim and I walked around the city for a bit looking for an ATM and a new hotel for me. He couldn´t believe I didnt want to stay, it was the nicest bed he had slept on for 3 months. Becuase it was getting late I setttled for one night at this random hostel and made a promise to myself that I would stay somewhere nicer tomorrow!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Rough Road To La Paz

It has been 48 hours since I left Quito and I have just arrived at my final destination. It has been a rough 48 say the least.

I wont get into all of the details bc I am at an internet cafe with little time left. But I will start with the over night bus. I arrived at the bus station on Saturday night and was the only female on the bus and the only white person. I was so nervous about the 11 hour drive I had ahead of me that my stomach felt like it was in knots. We made several stops right off the bat...picking up more people at each stop. I had the window seat next to a very large Ecuadorian man. After we were on the highway and making some ground I tried my best to fall asleep. My passport and wallet were sucure in my sports bra. My phone, ipod and camera were all tucked in my pants. My bag was looped around my legs. The most common theft on overnight buses is that the person in front of you or behind will slit your bag open and steal your stuff.

At about 130am I was really tired but both legs were asleep and I knew there was no chance I was going to get any sleep in this seat. I decided to take a walk to the back of the bus to see if there were any other open seats. I was pleased to see that the back seat was wide open. It was next to the bathroom so did not have the most pleasant scent. When I sat down i noticed another nasty smell...vomit. I got out my phone and looked on and around the seats and all i could see was a pile of something on the floor covered in newspaper. I considered my options and thought that if there was any chance at all of me getting sleep i need to stay in this seat, despite the horrible smell that made me dry heave. I was able to fall asleep fairly quickly bc i could spead out on the 2 seats. We stopped at various places on the way and it seemed like we were constantly going through very poor towns and drove mostly on dirt roads, not sure why we werent on the PanAmericana.

I woke up as the sun was coming up around 6am. As soon as my eyes were open i looked around me and could see what i had been smelling all night. The seat i had been sleeping on was covered in vomit. That´s right, I had been sleeping in someone elses voimit for 4 hours. It was all over my pants, coat and bag. I had no way of cleaning myself off, soon we arrived at the border. We pulled over on the side of the road and were told to get off the bus. That was all the direction we were given. Right awy the dozen or so men that line the streets start asking if you are going to peru and if you want a ride. I ignored everyone and held onto my belongings tight. I spotted a shack across the road which was where I had to go to get my Ecuadorian exit stamp. After getting this I crossed back over the street and found the most offical taxi i could find. I told him i wanted to go the peru imigration office. we went through town until we came acorss some baracaded roads. apparently there was some military demonstration going on which closed pretty much every road in town. This meant i had to get out of the taxi and walk. Problem was I had to idea where to walk. I was the only tourist aka white person with huge backpack in town and people kept pointing in the direction where i should walk. There was some sort of ceremony going on and the whole miliary was out in the street saying chants. I have no idea what was going on and wish I could have taken a picture but was afraid to get out a camera.

The next challenge was getting past the hundreds of mototaxi´s. These rickshaws with motors are everwhere offereing rides. I was determined not to get in one bc i heard they were not safe. However, a police office stopped me and insisted i get in one bc other wise i would get robbed if i tried to walk all the way. It was a good thing i got in this 3 wheeled motorcycle bc it was a long way to the immigration office. Once I arrived at the Peru immigration I filled out a bunch of paper work then the same mototaxi driver tried to convince me that he would take me to the airport. I knew not to fall for that bc it was 30km away. I insisted on waiting for a taxi and it took a while. I was sitting on a dirst road for about 15 minutes until a taxi came by. Then he drove me to the airport )all along the way we saw broken down mototaxi´s) but when we arrived there were huge gates up and the guard said the first flight out was at 3pm and the did not open until then. I tried to get the taxi driver to take me to a bus terminal but he did not understand and instead took me to LAN´s office in town. however, it was before 9am on Sunday so everything was closed.
Driving in to downtown Tumbes was like driving through a scene of a movie. the dirt roads were lined with huts and all the locals seemed to be sitting outside selling something. I had the name of a restaurant in town so got the taxi man to take me there. Although it looked closed after going up 4 flights of stairs there was indeed a restuarant and there were some people in there cleaning. I figured i could camp out here and figure out what to do next.

A very nice boy named Gaston came to sit with me. He lives in Tumbes and is trying to learn english so he can go to school to be a tourist officer. he was very helpful and got me the yellow pages and we tried calling all the airlines. It seemed as though the only flight out would be with LAN at 9pm. That meant 12 more hours being stuck in Tumbes, covered in vomit. I stayed at the restaurant until about 1 and at that point Gaston and his cousin started acting a little funny, trying to sell me tours of Tumbes and of the mangroves that surround the town. I told him I wanted to go to the airport just incase there was an earlier flight I could get. He called me a taxi and I arrived back to the airport.
To be continued.....

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Otavalo Market

Otavalo is a predominantly indigenous town about 2 hours from Quito. The town is surrounded by volcano's so the drive there is absolutely breathtaking. I went with Pablo (my host) and my friend Sandy (who I met through Pablo the first night here). We stopped at a little tourist stop on the way and took some amazing pictures with little kids in traditional dress and llama's...of course!

The town itself is transformed into one of the largest and most famous markets in South America every Saturday. The indigenous Otavalenos are known for their weaving of textiles. They make gorgeous scarves, hats and sweaters out of bright textiles. The market seems never ending as you walk through the streets there appears to be no end in sight. I didn't plan to buy anything because I have absolutely no room in my backpack, but the energy you feel once you enter the market makes it hard to resist making at least a few purchases. One of the great things about the market is that both locals and tourists alike are shopping the streets. It actually felt as though the locals out numbered the backpack toting, sneaker wearing tourists. It was not nearly as crowded as other markets I have been to, like Portobello Rd. Market, so was much easier to browse what the hundreds of vendors were selling. Luckily I had Sandy and her fluent Spanish to help me barter with the sellers!

Aside from the market one of the reasons many people travel to Otavalo is to see the natives in their traditional dress. Like those men and women that were on the plane over to Quito with me, the traditional dress is gorgeous with embroidered blouses and unique shoes. I purchased a layered gold necklace just like the ones the Otavalenos wear!

After the market we had lunch at one of the many restaurants in town and then drove up the mountain a bit to check out the Casa Del Sol, a peaceful retreat just above the town. Here you can stay in a comfortable and clean room for $25 a night. We were just there to enjoy the views, tranquility and take advantage of their wireless signal!

Tonight I am headed to Peru via overnight bus!

Avenue of Volcanoes

For those of you who don't know, Cotopaxi is a picture perfect snow caped cone that is the 2nd highest peak in Ecuador and the highest active volcano on earth. It is on of the few equitorial glaciers in the world (the glacier starts at 16,400 ft.). Today, I got to climb Cotopaxi!

The day trip started at 6:30am at Coffee and Toffee where I got a free hot chocolate and met the others who would be joining me on this adventure. My group was fantastic, a couple from San Francisco who are traveling S.A. for 6 months, a British couple on their honeymoon to the Galapagos Islands, a Swiss guy who has been traveling for 4 months and an older Austrian guy. As we ventured out of Quito it did not take long before the beautiful peak of Cotopaxi came into view. It seems to appear out of nowhere and looked fake because of the volcanos perfect cone shape. After an hour drive we stopped at a Hosteleria called PapaGayo. This was an adorable hacienda with nicely furnished rooms and perfect grounds. There were about 10 dogs lounging in every corner of sunshine they could fine. Here our guide, Marcela, loaded the mountain bikes onto the top of our van and then we were off to finish our journey to Cotopaxi. After a quick stop in a tiny little grocery store (which was actually someone's house, all the fruits and veggies came right from her backyard) to get our lunch supplies we arrived at the entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi. Here we went in the parks museum and learned about the wildlife and just what an impressive mountain Cotopaxi is.

There is no road to Cotopaxi, after about an hour of extreme bumps, river crossings and phenomenal views we arrived at the base of the volcano. We could see the refugee camp up in the distance but it really did not look that far away. However, it is important to remember that we would be climbing to 4850 meters (15,748 feet!). And it was straight vertical. The climb was honestly the hardest thing I can ever remember doing. The altitude caused severe pressure in my head and ears making me feel like I couldn't breath or see straight. Every few steps I would get extremely breathless and light headed. The refugee camp (base camp) seemed to get further away rather than closer. The weather worsened as we climbed turning from cold to heavy hail. But after about an hour I arrived at base camp. What a feeling of accomplishment! After a few minutes rest our guide informed us we were going to attempt to ascend further up the mountain. After a few minutes of climbing through about a foot of snow (in sneakers and yoga pants!) the hail was so heavy that we lost all visibility and had to turn back to base camp. However, on our way back we were able to see a Andean fox, what a treat!

After an amazing meal of fresh guacamole, tuna salad, croissants, noodle and potato soup and hot chocolate we began our journey down the other side. The trip down was much more pleasant, especially since the hail had changed to snow! Once we arrived to the van we hopped on our mountain bikes and began a hour and a half mountain bike ride down to the Laguna de Limpiopungo. I took it slow and steady on the bike taking in the amazing scenery, there were hundreds of wild horses in the vast plains at the base of Cotopaxi. Even though we were primarily biking down hill, you could still feel the altitude, breathlessness and dizziness were a feeling I got used to!

Once we all made it back to the van it was time to head back to PapaGayo where warm fudge brownies and mint tea were waiting for us. I cannot think of a better way to end an amazing day!

It is possible to reach summit of Cotopaxi. This involves the hike I just described then taking a nap at base campy before departing at 11pm to climb all night long in order to reach summit (19,347 ft) at dawn. The trek can only be done in the middle of the night bc the risk of avalanches and extreme weather. While we were at base camp there was a group of grad students from the Wharton School of Business who had just returned from summit. Over the half the group was extremely ill due to the altitude and many had to turn around before reaching the top. The tour was lead by Earth Treks, right in Timonium!

**Pictures coming as soon as I can load them onto a computer!!!