4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Nature”

Walk Like an Ancient Incan – Part 2 (by Nathan)

Wayllabamba ruins in the morning light

We woke up refreshed on our third day of the trek. We camped at the junction of the Salkantay trail and the tradionally hiked stone Inca trail in Wuayllabamba. The village was originally an important strategic settlement of the Inca due to the junction of three valleys. The sun began to crest over the mountains and we explored the first set of ruins on the Inca trail. At 9,900ft (3,000m) the climate was still very humid and warm. The trail was engulfed within a jungle of vines, trees and grasses.

Apus Peru porters setting up our camp

Once on the Inca trail our mules and handlers returned to the start of the Salkantay trail in Soraypampa. Our gear was to be carried by a group of porters that all came from one of the small villages along the Inca trail. This group of guys was more or less a small army. Nine men joined our two chefs and together the eleven of them carried all of our tents and dining materials. They could climb the steep inclines with amazing power then run down the hills with surprising agility.

Brightly colored catapillar

View from Warmihuñusca pass, valley and Inca trail

Our hike that third day was delayed for some permitting issues as our guide worked to get us a better camping location along the trail. It was then that a bee decided to sting me. I am allergic, so for the rest of the week my hand and arm were not pretty as they resembled a balloon more than an hand. I soaked my hand in the creek, but as the afternoon approached I needed to slip it through the strap of my hiking poles and start moving.

Bromiliads clinging to the trees

The jungles were fantastic. Bromiliads clung onto trees in every nook and crevice. Wild flowers surrounded us with pinks, purples and reds. My favorite was the bright yellow lady’s slipper flowers that abundantly filled the tall bushes along our walk. Our guide informed us of the traditional uses of the plants; the people of this area have been able to create medicines for headaches, sleeping, nausea, contraception and muscle pain for thousands of years.

Beautiful forest along Inca trail

Snack time with friends

The stone path continued through forests of vines and trees. The thick canopy blocked out much of the sun. I was in constant admiration of the Inca who constructed this road 500 years ago that is still in such great condition. The frequent steps were carefully chiseled from local stone allowing us to walk through the rough terrain.

A delicious lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes, cucumbers and beet salad

Dinner of mashed beans, stir fried meat, salads and rice

We would walk for several hours at a time with breaks along the way. The porters would pack up the camp while we were hiking then later we would step aside as they ran passed us. Each lunch and dinner was taken at a separate beautiful location. We would sleep with our tents nestled into beautiful green valleys with llamas pushing their way by our tents. Our lunch locations held the promise of nearby ruins and with every meal we were satisfied with plentiful amounts of delicious Peruvian favorites.

Ruins at Sayacmarca

Hole cut out of stone so that entrances could be roped closed

The Inca trail is filled with historic ruins. One of my favorites was Sayacmarca. This complex of rooms and small buildings clung onto the ridgeline and served as another checkpoint for people traveling between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Immediately we are reminded of the remarkable construction and engineering knowledge that the Inca utilized. The carving and placement of the stones is precise and exact. Carefully carved channels direct and deliver spring water into basins for bathing. Fifteen-foot stone walls terrace the hillside with flying steps that allow for maximum agricultural production.

Llama passing

The trail was not just for tourists.  Several llamas had also been using the pathway to transition to the higher elevations and cooler temperatures.  They were pushy, but we were able to pass by them without incident.

Descending the mountain after Warmihuñusca pass

Lago Negra from Runkurukay pass

We crossed two mountain passes on our Inca trail hike: Warmihuñusca (13,900ft) and Runkurukay (13,800ft). It was a challenge to climb over these crests, but after five days of hiking we were ready as we’re ever going to be. Breathing hard with sweat dripping off my forehead it was easy to look back and admire the view. At the top of Runkurukay a natural lake, lago negra, sits gloomily on the cliffs edge.

Dropping into the valley and seeing Phuyupatamarca

Carmen and I at Phuyupatamarca ruins

The fifth day included five more hours of hiking with the addition of exploring two Inca archeological sites.  The first was Phuyupatamarca that overlooked the beautiful Urubampa river valley.

Fading hills from Phuyupatamarca

The second ruins of the day were at Wiñaywayna.  The complex mostly consisted of nearly a hundred terraces etched into the steep hillside.  There were several small buildings and I was even able to find some gooseberries growing along the steps.  We found llamas here too, but one in particular entertained us because it appeared deep in thought or meditation while viewing the scenery.

Llama meditation (Photo credit BDix)

Machu Picchu was near and the buzz all around the camp that evening emphasized everyone’s excitement.  After months of traveling in South America we were finally going to reach one of the most famous historical sights.   I was exhausted from the day’s hikes, but I was anxious and excited which made it difficult to sleep.  We all did our best to get some rest, but the 3am wake-up call was difficult.  Still groggy, we made our way to the hiker’s entrance gate into Machu Picchu.  Just one more hour of hiking and we were going to see the sun rise through the sun gate over Machu Picchu…

Epic Hike to Machu Picchu – Part 1 (by Carmen)

The last city with roads: Mollepata

I’ll admit, I was a bit nervous.  Did I really sign up to spend 6 days hiking to Machu Picchu in extremely high altitudes and cold nights and potentially pouring rain?  Should I have signed up for the train instead?  But there I was, hiking with poles in hand and hours and hours of walking ahead of me.  This was the capstone to our South American adventure.  Throughout the past 4 months it had loomed as an exciting yet anxiety inducing event.  As we had our orientation in Cusco, I couldn’t believe it had finally come.

Mountaineers

The most popular trail to Machu Picchu is the 4 day Inca Trail.  So many people wanted to hike it that they started to regulate it, requiring pricy permits and guided groups.  Its popularity is maintained, however, because it is the only walking route that leads directly to Machu Picchu.  We were interested in the Inca Trail, but it wasn’t badass enough.  No, we had to add an extra few days to walk past Salkantay Mountain, later joining up with the Inca Trail.  It seemed like a good idea when we booked it with our tour operator, Apus Peru.

Hiking team at start of hike

Grassy valley and our lunch spot below

What made the idea more enticing was that I was doing it with five awesome people: Nathan, Brenda, Drew, Dan and Randy.  On the first morning, we awoke early, met our guide Julio and drove a few hours outside of town to the trailhead.  Our packs were loaded on to some mules and we promptly set off.  From the beginning the views were spectacular.  We were in a wide grassy valley called Soraypampa with beautiful skies overhead a no one else but our group.  After a few hours we were already at our lunch spot.

A delicious lunch: spanish tortilla, quinoa, dehydrated potatoes and more…

The mules and 4 support staff had already arrived and set up the dining tent.  It was here that we learned how well our investment into a good tour company paid off.  The food was wonderful.  There were five or six courses, local peruvian favorites and flavors that were new, exciting and filling. Each meal we waddled from the tent in another failed attempt to finish all the food.  We were well fed throughout the tour thanks to our personal chef, Rutherford.

Nathan on top of the ridge

Salkantay from our tents

A few more hours of hiking and we made it to our campsite.  The tents were already set up and we were free to absorb the view.  And what a view it was.  We camped right below the gorgeously snow-covered Salkantay Mountain.  We watched until the sun went down and it got too cold to stand outside.  This was our coldest campsite – it dropped below freezing that night and we woke up to tents stiff with ice.

Campsite on night one

Mountain lake that Nathan and Drew jumped in

The next day we got even closer to the mountain.  It was going to be our highest climb, reaching 5,000 m (16,400 ft).  We started off strong but had to take a fair number of breaks to catch our breath.  It was in one of these breaks that Nathan and Drew had the brilliant idea of jumping into the small lake that had formed at the base of Salkantay.  They ran down while we climbed up.  I don’t know how they did it but they jumped in, and immediately jumped out of the icy water. Now they’ve got some good bragging rights.

Celebrations at the pass

A brief clearing in the clouds reveals…Salkantay

Pushing ourselves hard, we kept trudging to the top of the pass. And slowly but surely, we all made it. We all stood on the ridge, looking up at Salkantay.  It felt so rugged and powerful, living up to its name which means Savage Mountain.  I had never been so close to a mountain that reaches 6271m (20,575ft) into the air.  It was breathtaking.

Hiking through the valley

Colorful fauna

And then it was time to descend.  For the rest of the day we passed through more valleys, some with small settlements scratching out a living with farms or llama herds.  We found the hike to be incredibly peaceful.  We never really saw any other hikers.  Just locals using the paths for everyday use.

Canal built by the Incas

Flowing creeks cut through the valley.  The Incas restrained these waters and created canals that still contain and manage the waterways five hundred years later.

Group hiking continued

Towards the end of day 2, we made it to our intersection with the Inca Trail.  We settled in and ate a delicious dinner.  These always started with soup, then a meat entree, always accompanied with potatoes of some sort, and perhaps a veggie or two.  We all finished it off with coca tea. It was the poshest camping I’ll ever experience.

Nathan standing on a huge rock

With day 3 we ventured on to the Inca Trail and all was about to change…

Climbing In and Out of Colca Canyon (by Nathan)

Colca Canyon

Waking up at 3am is never easy, when traveling it is sometimes a necessity.  But when the plan is to hike in and out of the deepest canyon in the world we were excited.  A van picked us up at the hostel in Arequipa and we cruised through the darkness of the night and into the mountains.  By sunrise we had crossed the high mountain pass at 5,000m (16,500ft) and we descended to the cliff’s edge.  Our destination: the Colca Canyon with winding cliff trails, historic villages and expansive, gorgeous sights.

Andean condors flying through the canyon

The andean condor had already mesmerized Carmen and me on that exhausting day in Argentina, but along the Colca Canyon the condors have survived and flourished for thousands of years.  At the Cruz de los Condores we watched five giant birds soar majestically through the air.  With minimal effort they utilized the wind and the rising heat to pull themselves thousands of feet above our heads.

Carmen and I hiking in Colca Canyon

Our hike began mid-morning and nearly two-thirds down into the canyon.  The canyon is huge, but much less drastic than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The Rio Colcahas cut through a volcanic mountain range with summits at 5,500m (18,000 ft) and the river below rests at around 2,000m (6,600ft).  Our descent was rocky, loose and steep.  Our knees and feet ached after dropping 900m (3,000ft) in the first two hours.  A quick jump in the river and I was refreshed and ready to continue.

Colca Rock Face

Rio Colca

The villages in these mountains have a remarkable history.  Tribes of people have lived here for thousands of years. They farmed the steep hillsides by notching terraces, called andenes, into the slopes.  Each terrace was irrigated by local springs and the vegetables were optimized for the microclimates.  Thousands of potato varieties exist in Peru as well as primary crops of corn and quinoa; each crop was planted and harvested to the heat, moisture and soil that varies from terrace to terrace.  The people here survived before Inca times.  They flourished with Inca civilization and now the communities hang on to difficult lives that are locked high into the mountainside.

Corn cobs drying in the sun

The villages house several families and many of the towns take over two days to walk to.  There is one poorly kept clinic that provides meager guidance and healthcare to the people.  This was probably the most upsetting part of the hike because we spoke with and observed people that were brutally poor, yet we paid an entry into the park of $26.  This money did not go into roads, which were dirt, or signage, that did not exist, or residents, who did not even know that tourists pay over $100,000 per day to the region.  In this way, the hike was a cultural experience in addition to a natural one.

Terraced hillsides of Colca Canyon

Our lunch spot was San Juan de Cucho, which was 1,000ft of ascent from the river.  Our guide cooked us some lomo saltado and we enjoyed a conversation with our new friends.  While the rest of my group napped I hiked up the steep mountainside. I followed a narrow path that tightly cut through the brush and grass and I switched back and forth up the mountain.  I peered through the bushes to find another village, or at least the remnants of a village.  Beautiful stone walls peeked out of tall grass and trees grew from the foundations of former buildings.  I returned to our lunch spot and the group was assembled and ready to go.

Church in village of Malata

Our dinner and lodging for the night was in a town a few hours hike along the mountainside.  In Cosñirhua we were welcomed into a small dwelling ran by two women and a five year old boy.  The boy kicked a soccer ball with us and then laughed at my Spanish in our conversation about his front yard garden.  In the kitchen a small pen housed fifteen guinea pigs, but we would not get the chance to try this Peruvian delicacy until Cusco.  We slept in a room that crudely resembled a hostel but the room was warm, the bed clean and there was running water so not much more was necessary.

Sangalle el Oasis below and switch-backs to Cabanaconde

The next day was an easy hike with little change of elevation.  It went quickly because we were all excited to jump in the pools at the oasis.  Sangalle El Oasis is a cluster of buildings and huts that were built for the many tourists.  Each group of buildings includes a beautiful turquoise pool.  We jumped in the cool water and baked in the sun.  The mountains rose in all directions and quickly blocked out the sun and invited cold winds to howl through the canyon.

Group photos above Colca Canyon

Our third day was challenging.  We needed to climb out of the canyon.  We started walking at 5am and pushed ourselves up the steep trail.  Each of us walked at our own pace and in 1.75 hours I was at the top after climbing 1,100m (3,600ft).  Forty-five minutes later, Carmen arrives claiming that she did not even break a sweat.

Nathan, a little girl and a baby alpaca

We hiked with an international group of people from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and France.  Each arrival of one of our new friends was a celebration.  Both out of breath from the hike and from the beautiful views we congratulated each other on the three wonderful days of hiking.  We picked up breakfast in Cabanaconde and lunch in Chivay that included a welcomed sight of a baby alpaca and young girl dressed in the traditional fabrics and hat of the region.

Alpacas grazing along the side of the road

It was an exhausting couple of days, but for Carmen and I this was only practice for the six days of hiking that we had planned to Machu Picchu.  First we needed to get to Cuzco…

Dancing and Hiking in Copacabana and Isla Del Sol Bolivia (by Nathan)

Copacabana Bolivia

A trip through Bolivia would never be complete without seeing Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.  Carmen insisted that we stop here and we discovered a small cultural center tucked into a beautiful lake bay.

Two plates of trout

Sunset on Copacabana harbor

The most delicious thing about a town positioned on a lake is that there is access to fresh fish.  For weeks we had been chanting “trucha!” as a way to bring up spirits and remember the funny feijoada experience in Rio.  Now, in Copacabana, there were restaurants everywhere serving trout twenty different ways. And they are all really good.  We found a lakeside kiosk and ordered up one fish “de la diabla” (spicy red sauce) and another “a la plancha con aji” (grilled with garlic).  The fish was tender and juicy and by far the best trout I have ever had!

Our bus on a barge

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  We arrived to Copacabana from La Paz on a bus.  The bus saves some time from driving around the large peninsula and we all had to ride a short ferry ride across the bay.  Even the bus was loaded onto a barge and carried across.  Then the bus weaved its way in and out of the fingers of the lake and eventually dropped into the cute little town.  We expected a calm, tranquil town, but instead found thousands of people and a raging party.

Parade dancing

Lantern costumes

Lantern costumes

Our arrival in Copacabana coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Bolivia, La Fiesta de la Cruz.  It begins around May 3 and lasts for four non-stop days.  Everybody participates and everyone was part of a color coordinated group.  The women wore brightly ornate dresses with bulbous flowing skirts and of course a bowler hat.  The men performed in marching bands or wore lantern-like costumes.  Each group of 100 to 200 people would parade up and down the streets and eventually arrive at the Iglesia de la Sagrada Cruz.

Couple on there way to dance in the plaza

Dancing on the plaza

The party did not stop there.  These groups would converge onto two main plazas.  The marching bands would stand on concrete bleachers swaying to the music, blowing their horns and slamming their drums.  Everyone was dancing in a sway and twirl back and forth.  The dance actually mimics a fighting style as this festival used to be a way for men of different tribes to compete for land.  Supposedly these fights still happen, but we did not see any.

Crazy firework apparatus

Throughout the day the song of the bands was only broken by the sharp crack and pop of fireworks.  At night the pyros had a feast of lights, sparks, flames and kabooms to entertain the crowd.  Carmen and I sat watching as what seemed one in ten rockets failing to explode in the sky came crashing into the plazas below.  At one point they brought out this crazy PVC pipe apparatus thirty feet tall.  Upon lighting it the pyro’s shoulder catches fire from the twirling sparks.  He pats it out and runs for cover as the sparks and flames fly out in all directions.  The colors and light illuminate the people that continue to dance next to this thing.  I looked over at Carmen and there is a mixed expression of fear and intrigued excitement .  The structure ends with sparks spewing out of a cross with high-pitched whistles then the whole thing catches fire.

View from our hotel room

Lofted bed and hammocks

Outside of the partying, Carmen and I found the nicest hotel we have ever stayed.  It was called Las Olas.  Our dining table overlooked the beautiful Copacabana bay.  Our room included indoor and outdoor hammocks, comfortable beds and a kitchenette all for $42 a night which was a splurge for Bolivia.

Sunset on Copacabana

The festivities were a ten minute walk from our scenic overlook.  At sunset our hammocks seemingly rocked to the rhythms of the trumpets.  Throughout the night the horns entered our dreams and at sunrise hundreds of people were still drinking and dancing.

Arch of abandoned building

Copacabana cathedral

The city itself is very picturesque.  The nearby hills provide wonderful overlooks and the bright cathedral is magnificent.  Carmen and I wandered the streets maneuvering around the parade and tasting everything the street vendors had to offer.

Bowl of trout ceviche

One dish I could not walk away from was a woman serving heaping bowls of ceviche from her plaza tent. People crowded around so the turnover looked good.  The end result was sour, spicy and crunchy with crisp roasted corn kernels.

Isla del Sol

Copacabana was just one reason for this destination.  The other was to experience and see more of Lake Titicaca.  This lake is enormous.  The size of the lake is roughly four times that of San Francisco Bay and 0ne hundred times deeper.  The lake is one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet.

Terraced hillsides of Isla del Sol

We hopped on a ferry and travelled for two hours to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun).  The island was sacred to the Inca who believed it was the birthplace of humans.  Our plan was to spend the night and hike the ruins and across the whole island.

Sunrise from Isla del Sol

That evening we met some new friends Chris and Megan from Brisbane.  Sitting in the sand and watching the sun set we swapped travel stories of their camping in Africa and ours of eating through Asia.  We shared some bottles of Bolivian red wine and ate several aromatic plates of trucha.  It was an unexpectedly fun night in a village of less than fifty people.

Pigs napping on the path

The alarm went off when it was still dark.  We wanted to see sunrise on Isla del Sol.  In the faint light of dawn, pigs blocked our path, and then we met a puppy that wanted to hike with us.  These were our first Inca ruins and we were excited.  The ruins included a village of stone buildings and a sacrificial table that were five hundred years old.  And we were disappointed! Bolivia does not protect or care about its cultural treasures.  Our sunrise hike discovered a group of vagrant backpackers that had cooked dinner on the sacrificial table leaving their trash to scatter the site while they slept on the ruins.  A wrong turn in the stone structures and we found where they used the restroom.  How disrespectful can these people be?

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol

Inca ridge path

The buildings themselves were small and not the high quality masonry we would see in Peru.  The best part about Isla del Sol was not the ruins, but the walk itself.  The sacred Inca trail followed the ridgeline of the island and allowed for endless views of Lake Titicaca.  The water was deep blue that met the terraced hillsides that were cultivated five hundred years ago.  We climbed and dipped along the islands spine arriving to the south side for the island.  Another ferry and we bobbed our way to Copacabana.  We immediately grabbed a bus and we were on our way to Peru.  Copacabana and Isla del Sol already a memory of culture, a lake and trout.

Carmen on Inca path

Biking the World’s Most Dangerous Road (by Carmen)

I am not an adrenaline junkie.  So when I first read about biking the “death road” I wrote it off as a sight I would definitely be skipping.  But…in Potosí and Sucre everyone we met was talking about it.  I started to be persuaded that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

View from the top

The reason it is called the death road is because of the statistics.  In previous years an average of 26 vehicles a year fell off the 10 ft wide dirt road down the practically vertical cliff below.  The traffic was two-way and cars passing each other would have to do so in the slightly wider than 10 ft sections.  A more modern freeway was recently completed making the road obsolete, except for tourists on bikes and the occasional fool hardy vehicle.

Start of death road

The first part starts out relatively easy.  It is an 8 km downhill stretch of the modern roadway.  It was good practice going fast.  But then it was time for the tough part (or for Nathan, the fun part) to begin.  It was all downhill form here (literally, not figuratively).

Nathan in his gear

Nathan is an excellent mountain biker, having actually grown up in the mountains.  My childhood experiences of pedaling up and down my flat suburban street didn’t help me much here.  As I made my way down the bumpy road I cursed my decision to only get front suspension instead of rear as well.

The road

At least I felt in control enough that I wasn’t scared of the sheer drop I was riding next to.  Even when we passed waterfalls that flow directly on the road.  But I was definitely slower than the rest of the group.

Group on the edge

Riding through the waterfall

Overall, it was a great experience.  But after 3 1/2 hours, I had had enough.  I hopped in the support van after the guide announced that the last bit was going to be more “technical”.  I knew my butt couldn’t handle it.

Nearing the bottom of the valley

We had started at 4650 m (15,260 ft) and ended the day at 1525 m (5,000 ft).  Our sore muscles were rewarded with a dip in a pool and a buffet lunch.  The jungle setting at the end of the trip felt a world away from La Paz, though it was only a 3 hour ride back (on the modern road, thankfully).  So that’s how we survived the world’s most dangerous road!

Taking a break on a rare flat section

Salar + me + u = Jumping Photos – Day 4 (by Nathan)

4am – BEEP BEEP BEEP

We rush to get our stuff together, we grab our jackets, the tripod and the camera...today we are going to the salt flat.  Bolivia has the biggest dried salt lake in the world – the Salar de Uyuni.  The salt lake is so big that it contains more than 60% of the worlds lithium and covers about 4100 sq.mi. (the equivalent of 10 NYC’s).  Our jeep drives right onto the salt flat and in no time we are speeding along in the darkness with a destination that none of us can see.

Salt hotel made from salt blocks

We arrive at a hotel de sal which is a salt made building in the middle of the flat.  We had breakfast of bread jam and mate de coca while sitting on salt-carved tables and stools.

Sunrise over the salt flat

The sun slowly crept to the horizon and filled the sky with bright pinks and orange. Gradually the golden light crept to our feet revealing a flat expanse of solid white.  We had to convince our minds that it was in fact salt because the coldness and bleakness of the salar tricks the mind that it is snow.

Jeep silhouettes

Carmen and I practising our jump kicks

And then the jumping photos began… The reason for this?  When else will we be in an environment surrounded by flat white with the visual effects of high-flying kicks?

Fun with food

We also had quite a bit of fun playing with some beer cans and bottles.  We did our best to remember the Honey I Shrunk The Kids movie infused with a little imagination of our own.

It came down to a showdown between the couples: Carmen and I won!

One, two three! Ready, squat jump! were words repeated over and over again and with each leap a medley of laughter as each of us tried to time the best karate kick and jump into the air. Finally it came down to a competition between the couples.  Mark, Sally, Silvio and Mila had impressive jumps, Matteo and Gosia had the height, but could not synchronize after fifty or so jumps, but in the end it was Carmen and I that had the best leap (note: if any of you disagree, send me the photo and we’ll have a vote.)!

Jeep tour friends

Group jump shot

And there were group shots, many many group shots, leaving us all out of breath and our jumping legs throbbing.

Walking from a wine bottle

We attempted to walk out of wine bottles, or being blown from hair dryers, or even squished by a shoe.  All in all it was a morning filled with laughs and fun with our friends.

Salt cones in preparation for harvesting

Exhausted, we made our way from the salt flat.  On the outer edges the people harvest the salt into large cones for drying then refining.

Traditional woman and baby llama in Uyuni

In Uyuni we scheduled a bus for Potosí.  We were rushing to get to the bus when we were stopped in our tracks by the cutest baby llama.  The woman attempted to hold it down for me, but it was quite restless.

We clamber onto the bus and shove our packs between our legs.  Our bodies were exhausted form the repetitive jumping, and our minds overloaded and jaded from the amazing views.  The grandeur and magic of the scenery of the last 4 days was sensational.  There were carved surreal landscapes, painted lagoons, expansive canyons and colors, vibrant colors that I did not imagine were possible at a large natural scale.  Looking back on it, I have a hard time fathoming all the wondrous beauty that we saw.  A Salar de Uyuni trek should be on everyone’s South American itinerary!

Brilliant blue skies

Our bus bounced along the roadway, jiggling and rattling its way up the mountain dirt roads.  Only the main streets are paved.  The vibrations are quite soothing, but the bus continues to acquire more and more people.  Within the first hour our the entire aisle has also filled with people scrambling to hold on as the driver twists and turns the bus at each corner.  A woman next to us held a plump baby with a shawl wrapped around her back.  On her front, several other bags hung from her shoulders; her one free hand clawed at doorjamb for stability.  After a couple hours the baby became restless.  I offered for her to lean the baby on my backpack that was on my lap, instead she passed me the chubby baby. We giggled and made faces at each other for the next hour.  I attempting to entertain it with the few items that I had accessible, but my red water bottle did not have much success for long.  She was a cute little thing and I escaped with minor droolage.

I was asleep seconds after passing the baby back, my head swayed from side to side as we climbed into even higher mountains.  When awoken at my new destination, it was me that had been drooling.

4 Wheelin’ El Parque – Day 3 (by Nathan)

Laguna Colorada

The next morning was cold…real cold, but it was expected when sleeping at 4500m (14,800ft).  We bundled into the jeep at sunrise and we were off to a whole new set of destinations and jaw-dropping sights.  The name of the park that we have been exploring for the last few days is called Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve.  The park is one of the most visited sights in Bolivia and it contains some of the most beautiful, color-rich and grand natural earth formations on the planet.  The laguna colorada was one of the most impressive thus far.  This small lake contains all sorts of minerals, mostly borax, but it is the red algae that really flourishes here.  The water was still and the air cold allowing for a hazy reflection of triangular mountains beyond.

Arbol de piedra

Carmen and I climbing on the rocks

Further along the drastic landscape was a bleak desert surrounded by colorful volcanic mountains.  We stopped at a rock forest with hundreds of angular and twisted formations that are remnants from the last eruption many thousands of years ago.  The most famous is the arbol de piedra, but we had great fun just climbing around all the enormous rocks.

Laguna Honda

Flamingos at Laguna Hedionda

We romped through the mountains climbing an occasional mountain and blazing our way through the highland deserts.  The next stop was a series of five lagoons that the flamingos use a breeding sancuary.  I never realized that these birds enjoyed high altitudes.

Landcruser crossing a river

There were times that the terrain became pretty rough and it was nice to have a guide that had been driving these roads and trails for 15 years.

Montaña de siete colores

The landscape throughout the day was mesmerizing.  Everywhere we looked was an beautiful snow-capped volcano, a colorful mountain, bright blue skies, multiple lagoons and thousands of llamas.

Valle de rocas

Tailgate lunch at valle de rocas

Our jeep caravan included an amazing Bolivian woman that cooked for us.  While we played around at the valle de rocas she whipped together an delicious meal of chicken milanesa, noodles and salad.  Of course it was served with the only drink that South Americans seem to know: coca cola.

Friends at the cemetario de trenes

Evening approached quickly, but we did have time to explore the cemetario de trenes just outside of Uyuni.  There used to be reliable and functional train traffic in Bolivia.  In the 1940′ hundreds of train cars and engines were abandoned due to rapidly depleting mining resources.  Now it is just a heap of rusted metal, surrounded by fields of endless trash, nevertheless it made for a good photo opportunity with friends.

That night we prepped ourselves for what was going to be the saltiest day of our lives.

Tupiza & Salar de Uyuni 4×4 Adventure – Days 1&2 (by Carmen)

I didn’t really know what the 4 day Salar de Uyuni tour really entailed but I was looking forward to it nonetheless.  I had seen a picture of one of the tour sights – the salar (salt flats) that looks like you are sourrounded by endless snow but it is actually salt.  This was enough for me to build it into our itinerary.  Fortunately, Nathan trusted my gut on this one.

Quebrada de Palala outside of Tupiza

As we got closer to Bolivia we met more and more travellers who had positive experiences.  A range of superlatives were used to describe the scenery: “beautiful”, “spectacular”, “surreal”, “the best”.  So we hopped in a jeep with Mark and Sally, the English couple we had met in Cafayate, and were on our way.  An our outside of Tupiza and we already had our first breath-taking view.

Adorable llamas were everywhere

Onwards we climbed up to the altiplano (high plateau).  Our excellent driver, Idel, was happy to inform us about the flora and the fauna. The flora mainly consists of sturdy clumps of grass which were fed on by the llamas and the vicuñas. The llamas were adorable all dressed up with colourful ribbons in their ears.  This was how the owners identified their herds.

Wild vicuñas

The vicuñas, on the other hand, are smaller and wild.  They are a protected species so they don’t have ownsers. But once a year the local community rounds them up to shear their extremely valuable wool.  The $400 a pound profits are shared collectively.

Multi-purpose clothes line with llama jerky

Tiny settlements dot the mountain landscape.  They are hard to spot as the mud brick homes blend in with the earth. We stopped in one and saw how their clotheslines were multi-purpose.

Snowy mountain in view from the first nights lodging

The next town over we spend the night, surrounded by dramatic mountain scenery.  The stars were beatuficul but it was too cold to observe for long.  Instead we retreated to our own beds which had 3 heavy blankets on them.

Ruins of San Antonio and viscacha

The next morning we travelled a short distance to a set of Spanish ruins.  The Spanish had settled there in the 16th century because of a nearby silver mine.  They essentially enslaved thousands of indigenous people to work there.  The town had a reputation for having too much money, making people greedy and wasteful.  When an epidemic decimated the population, the town never recovered.  With the silver dried up and the buildings in decay, the last residents left 20 years ago.  Now, the crumbled homes are inhabited by cute, rabbit like animals called viscasha.

Creek with llama

The ruins were followed, of course, by more drastic scenery and more llamas!

Flamingo posing for us at Laguna Morejón

And then a new animal entered the scene – flamingos.  I had always thought of these pink and black birds balanced upon spindly legs as a Caribbean creature. But these flamingos like it rough, toughing out the cold and wind of the Bolivian highlands above 12,000ft.

Chalviri hotsprings

I don’t like it so rough.  At the next stop Nathan and I took a dip in the soothing natural thermal pool.  It was the perfect temperature and had perfect views to boot.

Yummy lunch outside the thermal pool

All warm and toasty from our bath we headed into a dining hall for a delicious beef stew lunch.  I haven’t mentioned yet but there was another jeep in our group.  That made 8 of us total.  It was quite an international crowd: 2 Americans (us), 2 Brits (Mark and Sally), 3 Italians (Matteo, M, S) and 1 Pole (Gossia). It made all our meals very convivial.

Jeeps, hills and new friends Mark and Sally

Dalí desert

But there was yet more to see.  We drove through the Dalí Desert named for the surrealist painter.  I’d say it was an apt reference, especially with the brushstroke clouds painted in the sky.

Us at the Laguna Verde

Then we hit the Laguna Verde, named for the green color produced by minerals such as arsenic.

Sol de Mañana Geysers

Finally, we made it to the geothermic area called Sol de Mañana.  Here the heat of the earth escaped through bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers.  One steam spout was so powerful it almost seemed to whistle like a kettle on the stove.  It was a long and happy couple of days, and the tour was only half over!

The Colorful Quebrada de Cafayate (by Nathan)

Layered red cliffs

Entering into Cafayate we experienced a drastic change of scenery.  Grass covered hills transitioned to brilliantly red cliffs and cactus filled valleys.  I could not help but be reminded of the drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park.  The beauty was similar, but exciting and special in its own way.

Las Ventanas

El Fraile

The quebrada (canyon) extends almost 110mi (180km) between Cafayate and Salta.  Every two to three miles and new rock formation emerges from the earth. A series of arches in one area is called las ventanas (the windows).  Another formation resembles a monk in robes and is called fraile (the friar).

Colorful Striations

Desert flowers

The colors and textures of the rock make a feast for the eyes. Striations of copper, sulfur, iron and zinc create rainbows of layered rock along the cliffs.  The desert is home to many spiny plants and animals.  The canyon has a unique microclimate where it only rains a few days a year even though it rained everyday in January and February in Cafayate.

Feeding a llama

Further on we stopped for drinks and a chance to feed llamas.

El Sapo

One of my favorite formations was el sapo (the toad).

El Locomotivo

Another formation is perched on a cliff, el locomotivo (the train).

El Amfiteatro

The grand scale of the canyon is not fully felt or realized until we enter el anfiteatro (the amphitheater). Huge rivers flowed down the mountain side and created this 400ft deep bowl at the base of the waterfall. Plate tectonics have now shifted the mountains and diverged the flow of the river so that the rock formation remains dry.  The cliffs are gorgeous, striped with colors and golden in the sun engulfing us as we stood, taking it all in. The name of this formation comes from the high quality of sound retention.

El Gargantua del Diablo

The next major attraction to the quebrada is gargantua del diablo (devil’s throat). I think it’s funny how names are reused. There has been at least five “mountain of seven colors” and Carmen described another gargantua in Iguazú. This formation is enormous!  Its natural origins are similar to the anfiteatro but contain many levels of red rock and contrasted with perfectly green little trees. We had to do quite a bit of scrambling to get to the main bowl but it was well worth it.

Layered rocks

Two weeks ago, we were entering Mendoza and the bus felt so small in its attempt to cross through the Andes.  The highway to Salta has been a different experience of vibrant colors and imaginative land formations. Goodbye to the Grand Canyon of Argentina.

Cozy Cafayate (by Carmen)

Cafayate enamored us from the beginning. Even on the bus ride into town we were admiring the neat streets and cozy feel of the place.  Like many Argentine towns Cafayate is organized in colonial Spanish grid system with a central square.

Alfajores factory by night

Just off the square was a sweet alfajores factory with traditional flavors such as coconut and chocolate dipped, as well as some unusual ones like lime.

A dozen delicious empanadas

Wood-fired empanada oven

But we could not survive on sweets alone. Across the street from our hostel we were enticed by iron wood-burning ovens puffing smoke.  Inside were trays upon trays of salteñas (empanadas filled with meat, onions, olives and hard-boiled eggs).  We ordered a dozen along with wine and soda water to make a spritzer (very popular in these parts).

Red cliffs and cactus

The next day was Sunday, which in small town Argentina means everything shuts down.  So we decided to go on a hike.  Based on the guidebook and information from the hostel we chose a 4 hour trek to a waterfall deep in a canyon.  We were expecting a moderately difficult but fairly straightforward hike. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Canyon and creek

Cafayate waterfall

The “trail” was often difficult to find and involved a lot of scrambling up cliffs. The path kept disappearing into the river that carved the canyon.  These were no simple crossings but some of the most difficult I’ve ever encountered.  They stressed me out but Nathan happily skipped from boulder to rock like a pro. (Though he was less happy when I accidently knocked him into the water as he tried to help me cross.  Twice!)  The invisible path, the river crossings, and the lack of any other hikers started to get to me. But with tired muscles and soggy boots we survived the hike, happy to have enjoyed the spectacular scenery.  The waterfall was beautiful, gushing 10 meters into the red rocks below.

Recently bottled torrontés wine

Ok, time for the real reason we went to Cafayate – wine!  We learned in Mendoza that the white torrontés wine was from here.  But all the northern wineries also produced malbecs and cabernet sauvignons that were more tannic than those in the south. Our favorite winery of Cafayate, Nanni, is actually in the town itself.  It produced crisp torrontés that straddled the balance between sweet and dry.

Bodega de Esteco

Another great bodega was Esteco.  Beautiful setting, delicious wine, wide selection.  But they lost points for offering wines by the glass instead of a tasting.

Crazy llama building

There were many more: Finca Las Nubes for its excellent torrontés, El Transito for its rich cab, Domingo Hermanos for its goat cheese.

Cafayate typical street

Although we came here primarily to check out the wine scene, we ended up making many new friends.  An Aussie couple we met at a winery, a Swedish pair at an empanada lunch, and an English couple we shared wine and dinner with at the hostel.  Cafayate is just that kind of place.

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