View from the hill!

View from the hill!

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!!!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Welcome to Quito, can I have your purse?

Today did not start out on the most positive note. After doing some online flight research it looked as though there are no flights to Bolivia for less than $600. Pablo and I walked to his travel agent who confirmed, that is seems impossible to fly to La Paz for a reasonable price. It looks like I will need to take an overnight 11 hr bus from Quito to Tumbes, Peru. Then I will cross the boarder and take a taxi to the airport in hopes that they will have a cheap domestic flight to Cuzco, Peru where I would then take another bus to meet Nikki and Anna in Copacabana, Bolivia. I have bought the bus ticket so now just need to do some research on how to cross the boarder, making sure this will be a safe undertaking.

After all of this I decided to take a bus to Old Town, here in Quito. The public buses in Ecuador are much different then any other buses I have been on. Just the bus stops and ticket system was a challenge to figure out. Once on the bus they are so full that I could see how easy it would be to get pick-pocketed. After getting off in Old Town I started to wander. I had a map but did not have any sort of destination, just wanted to see the sites of this old city built centuries ago by indigenous artisans and laborers. The town is bustling, it appears as though no one in Quito works because the streets were packed. Street vendors were present at every turn yelling about the very random items they were selling (toothbrushes, homemade pop siclkles, batteries and q-tips to name a few) and I was impressed by the number of police officers that were stationed at every corner blowing their whistles. Another impressive site is the number of shoe-shinners. It was unbelievable. Small kids wander the streets trying to convince you your shoes need a polish while shoe-shine stations line every street.

As I wandered around taking pictures and people watching I suddenly saw the guardian angle of Quito appear in the skyline. This huge statue of an angle overlooking the city seemed like a perfect photo opp so I wandered down the street to get a better view. I had my eyes set on the guardian angle and did not notice that I was getting further from the bustling streets and further from those whistling police officers. Next thing I know I turn around and a teenage boy had grabbed my arm and was yanking my camera out of my hand. I shoved him off of me and gave him a good whack as I yelled and made a run for it. It was a close call but I made it out with my camera and my purse. After that little run in I was more careful than ever with my purse and was ready to get the heck out of Old Town.

feliz fiesta de fin de año

Last night was the first Wednesday in January, do you know what that means? The first Wednesday night Salsa night of the year. According to my couch surfing host, Pablo, in order to start the new year off on the "right" foot we had to move our feet to the Salsa rhythm!

I arrived in the Quito airport at 1:45 pm and Pablo was there waiting for me, along with a friend from NYC who works for a volunteer organization here in Ecuador called ProEcuador. She was at the airport picking up Michael (who just so happened to be sitting next to me on the flight). Michael is a NYU student here doing volunteer work for 2 weeks during his break. After an adventurous ride through Quito to the bus stop where we would leave Kate and Michael we arrived at Pablo's casa. A nice 2 bedroom apartment right in the center of New Town, I was excited to learn that I would have a room to myself rather than the couch!

After a much needed nap Pablo's friends started arriving for the fiesta. As soon as I woke up I started feeling the affects of the high altitude (Quito is almost 10,000 feet above sea level) and I knew I needed to drink lots of water. Snacks and rum and coke (alternating with a glass of water between each drink) was a great way to get ready for a full night of dancing.

The bustling streets of New Town are just a few footsteps away from Pablo's door. Since he is a regular at this particular salsa club (Aguijon) we were able to skip the line and get right to the dance floor. I really felt like I had walked straight onto a movie scene...Dirty Dancing Havana Nights possibly...

The dancing was insane and a few minutes after arriving Pablo introduced me to his friend who is conveniently a salsa teacher as well. Miraculously he was able to quickly teach me a few basic moves. Each dance partner i had throughout the night would teach me a few more until i felt like an expert, although a simple glance around the room made me realize that i looked like a complete fool and was far from an expert (the fact that i was wearing jeans and tennis shoes did not help the situation! BUT, the locals insisted I did to prevent my feet from getting stomped on in my sandals!).

After 3 straight hours of salsa we moved on to an American bar across the street called Bungalow. Here we danced to more familiar songs with a few salsa classics thrown in the mix. Everyone I met was very friendly and I could not have wished for a better welcome to South America!

Up in the Air

4:30 am wake up call.
5 minute quick change into yesterdays clothes (I didnt want to unpack backpack!).
30 minute drive to Miami International Airport.
1 hour standing in the wrong Copa Airline check in line.
3 hour flight to Panama.

And here I am sitting in the Panama City Airport surrounding by a much too familiar smell- a smell that made me loath going to Greetings & Readings when I was a kid, a smell that causes me to go out of the way to get my morning Starbucks in Baltimore- the smell of Subway!

Besides this familiar smell I feel pretty far removed from home and from my comfort zone. This feeling started before I even left the States, in the Miami airport I was the only native English speaker in the Copa Airline check in line. While standing in that line I realized I better get used to being surrounded by an unfamiliar language. But now as I sit in Panama I feel a little bit further from home, now English is not the second language spoken, it is the only language spoken.

I am camped out at gate 19 next to a snoring man whose feet keep getting closer and closer to my lap. Across from me is a native Andean family in traditional dress. The men have long pony tails of black hair, calf-length white pants, rope sandals, navy blue poncho's and dark felt top hats. The women have beautifully wrinkled skin, embroidered blouses, folded head scarves, long black skirts, layered beads around their necks and red string bracelets line their wrists. These are just the type of people I have read about in my guide book and that I hoped to see when I visit Otavalo.

Time to board the flight, let the adventure begin!