Into the Lake District – Tourist Mode: Reactivate!

After pretending to be city dwellers for two weeks in Santiago, it was time to hit the road. We squeezed back into our backpacks and hopped on a grueling nine-hour bus ride to the city of Temuco, the gateway into Chile’s Lake District, which RoughGuides.com describes as “a region of lush farmland, dense forest, snow capped volcanoes and deep, clear lakes.” Gone were the arid, skin-cracking deserts we’d spent most of our time in since leaving Ecuador. Here there are actual forests and – believe it or not – rain.

Sunset on Lake Calafquén.

When we got off the bus, we were tired and sore. Apparently we’ve lost the knack of long-haul bus travel, although even the shorter rides in this region are bone-crunchingly bumpy. Also, for the first time since our odyssey began, it was hard to figure out how to get to the next town. The major bus websites in Chile are shockingly barren of routes to Pucón and Coñaripe, the lakeside tourist towns we were aiming at next. In the end we reasoned that the vast majority of  tourists who come to this area drive on their own. We did at last find the local collectivo buses that service the tourist towns, much to the chagrin of our lower spines. If the rides weren’t short, my teeth might have rattled out of my skull.

This is Pucón cake. You see why we had to get there.

Temuco

Temuco itself isn’t much of a destination. As we were told by people who live there, its only tourist business is from those passing through on their way to the lakes. Nevertheless it has a good museum of the Mapuche people, who were the last indigenous culture to hold out against the Spanish, and a lovely nature preserve (i.e., a forested mountain) right in the middle of town that, being in need of exercise and greenery, we climbed.

Just another city… with trees!

We came into Temuco on the second day of the “Teleton,” Chile’s annual charity drive. There were performances linked to the Teleton right in Temuco’s central park, but for some reason nearly every shop and restaurant was closed, even though it was Saturday night. On the next day there was some sort of celebration around the local fútbol team, which involved lots of people chanting, driving around, making noise, and nearly setting themselves on fire.

Go team! Score points! Don’t combust!

Coñaripe

To begin our week of excursions, we bypassed the tourist hub of Pucón to go straight to the tiny village of Coñaripe. Tiny, as in the whole pueblo is about seven blocks long and three wide, only the main street is paved, and at least one public utility (water, electric, gas) went out every night we stayed there. We did score a spacious and very comfortable guest house and, despite our first inclement weather in a long while, enjoyed the sunset over Lago Calafquén.

The sun did come out to light up the hillside.

The reason for going to Coñaripe was to visit Termas Geometricas, billed as the classiest of all the hot springs in the region. It had been a long time since Termas Papallacta in Ecuador, and our muscles needed  a good, warm soak.

Steamy.

Termas Geometricas is a series of seventeen (give or take) heated pools that snake up a narrow river gorge into the Villarrica National Park. There are tours from the larger towns of Villarrica and Pucón, but on those you waste most of your time in transit and only get to spend two hours or so at the pools. By hiring a driver in Coñaripe, we were able to get to the termas soon after they opened and spend most of the day relaxing.

Which was all fun and games until we dared, dared! to eat a bag of Doritos. While it was clear that no one was allowed to eat in the pool area, there was nothing to indicate that we weren’t allowed to bring food from outside at all. It put a crimp into our afternoon to be told we weren’t allowed to snack while sitting right next to people who were eating food from the overpriced on-site restaurant. The staff chewing us out took a while to explain exactly what we were doing wrong. At first, all they said was “You’re not allowed to eat” while the people next to us were happily munching away.

In the end, we had to take our lunch out to the parking lot. Oh well; that’s what cranky travel blogs and TripAdvisor reviews are for: customer feedback.

Pucón

The tourist hub of the area is on the other side of the national park from Coñaripe, nestled between the shore of Lago Villarrica and Volcán Villarrica, the giant active volcano looming over the city with a steady stream of superheated water vapor puffing out of the top. Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes, but that’s okay – it hasn’t had a major eruption since 2015.

Nope, nothing to worry about.

The trouble with Pucón is that its tourist industry is all based around “adventure tourism” – kayaking, white-water rafting, biking, climbing to the top of the volcano, etc. We wanted to see the sights, but not if we had to hike ten kilometers uphill.

So I’m going to give a shout-out to Viajar en Chile, the fantastic travel agency we used for all of our excursions around Pucón. The great thing about Viajar en Chile is that they actually run their own tours. Before now, almost every tour company we’ve dealt with was a “consolidator” that sold seats on other agencies’ tours when they couldn’t fill enough of their own. As such, no matter who we booked a trip with, we were never really sure which company was going to take us. With Viajar en Chile, that’s never an issue. If you book with them, you travel with them.

Which leads to another nice thing about Viajar – they offer different tour options than the other agencies in town. Walk down the main street of Pucón and the trips listed on all the billboards are exactly the same: climb the volcano, tour the region, go kayaking, go fishing. With Viajar we got to do things that weren’t on the generic Lake District menu, and we didn’t have to keep pace with a bunch of twenty-year-old German athletes who run up and down mountains every day before breakfast.

Sunset from the volcano.

On the day we arrived, we were able to schedule a tour to the base of the volcano (meaning the point halfway up where the ski lift starts). All the agencies in town offer tours to the base, but only Viajar has a sunset tour, complete with hors d’oeuvres, Chilean beer, and pisco sours. From that far up the mountain, you can see four of the nearest lakes and several other volcanoes. Once it gets dark, and if it’s a clear night (it was) you can see all the stars of the southern sky and, as an added bonus, the volcano’s glow.

That’s not actually fire and/or lava. (Aaawwww…) It’s the water vapor cloud that you can see during the day, which at night reflects the light of the lava in the volcano’s crater. After four pisco sours (our guide Paulo kept pouring and pouring) it really didn’t matter. It was just pretty. 

I’ll reiterate what I said last week: Chile is driving us to drink.

The Milky Way with volcano.

Next we took an all-day tour of the local area. This one visited the rapids at Saltos de Marimán, the waterfalls at Ojos del Caburgua, the beach at Lago Caburgua, and Termas Peumayen. The most fantastic of these was the Ojos del Caburgua – four waterfalls pour into an azure pool from all sides. Trails and miradors let you view it from every angle, and cool air blows upward from the glacial water – a relief on an otherwise blistering summer day.

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Your humble travelers at Ojos del Caburgua.
Lago Caburgua. Before swimming, you should know that all that water is snowmelt.

After a day of rest (overcast with a high chance of rain) we took one more tour that only Viajar had as an option and that Lea couldn’t pass up under any circumstances. We went into the volcano.

Ready to go. That’s hardened lava she’s standing on.

There are volcanic caves (lava tubes) accessible at a private park on the side of the mountain. These are quite different from the limestone caves most people have toured at one time or another. We had hoped to visit lava tunnels in the Galapagos, but there they were closed due to venting of toxic gases from the volcano on Isabella. These caves were safe at the moment, so we jumped at the opportunity. It was cold as a knife both on the mountain and inside, but well worth the trip.

A lava tube overhead.
The way through.
The way out.

Next on our tour of the Lake District we’ll be heading into German-settled Valdivia and Puerto Montt before hopping on a plane and flying to the ends of the earth. Will there be bratwurst? Stay tuned!

 

Living Abroad – Wine Not?

Chile is driving us to drink. Not because it’s particularly stressful and that’s the only way we can cope, but simply because they make such good wine. In Santiago we drank a bottle almost every night. More often than not it was Undurraga Pinot Carménère, the wine that we discovered by chance back in Vicuña. We are now thoroughly addicted.

We picked up that first bottle because we were looking for a pinot noir. We have since learned that in this case the word “pinot” is just one of Undurraga’s brands and the name refers to the shape of the bottle, not the wine inside. We know this because the one touristy thing we did this week was to visit the Undurraga Winery thirty minutes south of Santiago.

The gate into Paradise?

Undurraga owns many vineyards in Chile, but the grapes are all brought to their central winery to be processed into yummy goodness. The tour of the beautiful grounds was actually the most “sciencey” excursion we’ve had on this trip, and that includes visits to tortoise breeding centers, natural history museums, and an observatory on top of a mountain. Our guide, David (Dah-veed), went into great detail on the agricultural and fermentation practices that enable them to fine-tune the growing of the grapes for the exact amount of acidity and sugar, the precise control of the fermentation process, and the delicacy of aging the wines in the right kind of barrels to produce the quality and flavors of each different wine. And then he started pouring.

Our tour guide David, with all the necessities at hand.

The particular wine that Lea and I have fallen in love with is a Carménère. Here’s the story: The Carménère was a grape from Bordeaux that was wiped out in 1867 by a plague of phylloxera (sap-sucking insects) and presumed extinct. It turns out that the species survived in Chile, where it was mistaken for a merlot until its rediscovery by researchers in 1994. Since then, Chile has become the producer of 90% of the world’s Carménère and it’s really, really good.

Grapes, grapes everywhere.

The sad part of this story is that it’s going to be very hard if not impossible to find our new favorite wine when we get back to the States. However, it will give us something to look forward to if we ever come back to Chile. After two weeks in one city it’s certainly time to move on, but we just might return one day and (like the vines pictured above) put down some roots.

Retirement in Santiago?

One of the reasons for going on this South American tour was to scope out possible places to retire. While I’ve enjoyed many of the towns we’ve stayed in, Santiago is the first I could really imagine making a home someday. Part of that might be due to the familiarity of all its U.S. cultural influences and the little taste of home they afforded us. But aside from that, it has a lot of points in its favor:

It has nice hospitals (an important thing to consider in retirement). It has many more culinary options than other places we’ve been on this continent. It has an easy-to-use public transit system with a subway that makes Atlanta’s look deficient. It has a plethora of parks and museums, and is large enough to host as many cultural events as any big American city. It has real Asian grocery stores, so we can buy all the fish sauce, curry paste, and ramen noodles we need. It’s flat. And it has, as I’ve already pointed out, a very good wine selection.

My work is cut out for me.

Instead of staying in a hostel, we spent the last two weeks in an apartment. In fact, we’ve spent most of the last month in apartments or guest houses – which Lea has pointed out has resulted in less interaction with people besides ourselves. We’ll be back to hosteling for the foreseeable future, but I believe our apartment experience has been valuable for testing out what it would be like to actually live here and what adjustments we would have to make – either to our residence or to our expectations. The following bullet points have been the same for hostels as well as apartments, but the fact that they’ve held true for both shows that these are South American norms.

Suitable for hobbits only.

Tiny, Understocked Kitchens

Of all the places we’ve stayed, only two have had what I’d consider a full-size kitchen – the hostels in Chachapoyas, Peru and Vicuña, Chile. In both those cases, it was the owners’ own kitchens that we were allowed to use, and even then there was something missing – be it a cutting board, a sharp knife, hot pads, or trash can. The hostel where we stayed in Trujillo, Peru had a good-sized kitchen but the stove and oven didn’t work, forcing us to cook everything on a tiny electric burner the size of a portable camping stove. Mixing bowls, in particular, seem to be in short supply. Should we move to South America, an apartment with a full-sized kitchen may be hard to find, but we can take care of some of the problem by buying sufficient cooking implements to prepare an actual meal.

Hot Water and Air Conditioning

Neither of these are a given in South America, but starting in Santiago air conditioning seems to be much more widely available. We still haven’t had access to it except in the Galapagos Islands, Puerto López, Ecuador and one night in a Holiday Inn Express in Santiago. Nevertheless, we’ve seen a preponderance of air conditioning units gracing apartment buildings, including the one where we stayed. I guess the availability of such units is purely at the discretion of the apartment owner, just like satellite dishes back home.

Hot water is also an iffy proposition, one that we’ll have to take into consideration if we move here. We left behind the “death-by-electrocution” shower heads somewhere in Peru, but hot running water has still been untrustworthy. To date I haven’t seen anything like the hot water heaters in the United States. Instead they have pass-through heaters that use gas to warm water as it flows through the pipes to the faucet. In Santiago, at our landlady’s request, we turned the water heater off any time we weren’t using it, which meant having to reignite the pilot every time we showered or washed dishes.

Garbage Cans, and the Lack Thereof

This is something that’s bugged me all through South America, and it’s long past time to get it off my chest.

і¿What do these people have against garbage cans?!

Trash cans are more common in Chile than in the first three countries we traveled through, but size is still an issue. Garbage cans are tiny, if you have one at all. That picture above? That’s the waste can for the kitchen in our apartment in Santiago. It fits as much as you can stuff into a standard plastic grocery bag. Except for the can in the bathroom, which was tiny beyond belief, it was the only garbage can for the entire apartment. The complex had recycling for plastic, glass, and cardboard, so we had to line all our bottles along the wall until we remembered to take them out.

The garbage truck came by every day and compressed trash right under our window, thanks. We wondered why it came so often until I realized that the dumpsters for the entire complex (there were two) were no bigger than the garbage collection cans used by single-family houses in the United States.

At least they were using something. In Peru, the standard practice was to throw your grocery-sized trash bags out on the curb and hope the collectors picked them up before your trash was torn open by stray dogs and spread all over the street. The dogs won that contest nine times out of ten.

Now let’s talk about bathroom cans. This may be a little gross, so skip ahead if you want. In Latin American countries, the plumbing isn’t up to the same standard as it is in the United States. This means that you can’t flush toilet paper without eventually clogging the drain. They have many signs posted in tourist areas to explain this to foreigners who don’t know any better. Instead of flushing TP, you’re supposed to put it in the garbage can. If you’re very, very lucky, that garbage can will have a lid.

In my mind I’ve affectionately begun referring to these bathroom waste bins as “chamber pots.” In most of the places we’ve stayed, the chamber pot was the only trash can we had at all. In Vicuña, we couldn’t even find a garbage can in the kitchen. I’m pretty sure the owner was composting the organic waste – it was an eco-friendly hostel after all – but when I had to throw out other things, like food wrappers, I eventually had to go out into the street and look for a public trash can.

If we move to South America, we might have to import real trash cans and bags. Alternatively, we could roll with the way things are done down here. I still bet there will be far more trash cans in our own place than anywhere else in the city if we end up retiring here.

Now to escape from the trash compactor, here’s –

My Recommended Read for Chile

When picking a book to read for Chile, I went straight to Isabel Allende. The House of the Spirits was her first novel, which I would describe as an “expressionistic painting” of Chile in the Twentieth Century as seen through the eyes of three generations of unique, colorful women and one tyrannical patriarch. I had problems with Allende’s writing style (and her lack of paragraph breaks) but in the end I was glad I read it. The final chapters, dealing with the rise of Pinochet’s dictatorship, are especially powerful.

Check out my full review on Goodreads. While you’re there, sign up for an account and friend me!

Ciao for now.

Thanksgiving In Santiago

Traveling from the coast to Santiago is a quick bus ride, not more than an hour and a half, during which the outside temperature goes up by twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Welcome to Spring!

Plenty of green, and not a cloud in the sky.

A friend of Lea’s from Chile (Hi, Alex!) assured us that once we got to Santiago, it would be just like Atlanta. Our first hour in the city gave us cause to doubt that assertion. Around the bus stop it was loud, crowded, dirty, and there wasn’t a single functioning ATM within twenty minutes walking distance. We discovered this while lugging around a combined 45kg of baggage on our backs and shoulders. Dispirited and short on rent money, we flagged down a taxi to the apartment we’d booked for the next two weeks.

Things got better.

Santiago from Sky Costanera’s 300m observation deck.

And Alex was right. Once you get away from Central Station and make it to the other parts of town, Santiago is very much like any modern city in the U.S. and nicer than quite a few. It’s got more American-style shopping malls per square mile than any city I’ve ever seen. They love malls in Santiago, and they’re as full of American stores and restaurants as they are of Chilean equivalents. They also – and this was important – have theaters that show movies in English.

There are several things we wanted from Santiago. Thanksgiving Dinner was a high priority since we missed it last year (we were in Israel’s Negev Desert). We also wanted to stop moving, unpack, and live like humans in an apartment for a couple of weeks, not backpackers in a hostel. I needed a check-in with a neurologist (my doctor in Atlanta gave me a referral), I wanted to watch a movie in a theater instead of a bus (Bohemian Rhapsody was still showing and it was fantastic), and Lea and I both wanted Taco Bell.

My god, y’all. Taco Bell. Lea and I cringe every time we see a McDonald’s, and the only times on this trip that we’ve dipped into American chain food were starvation stops at Domino’s Pizza in Quito and Lima. (Fun fact: Domino’s is better in South America than in the U.S. It’s a sit-down restaurant and they go easier on the sauce.) But at some point after moving to Atlanta and enjoying its wide variety of Mexican cuisine I came to the conclusion that the appropriate scientific unit for measuring “happiness” is the Taco.

Imagine our horror once Lea and I realized that South America is almost completely bereft of tacos! The countries we’ve traveled in so far seem to actively scorn Mexican food and any time they attempt it they get it wrong. So picture my delight when I did a “what the hell” search on Google and discovered that Santiago has Taco Bell. It quickly became a priority.

We spotted one on our way to climbing a mountain. (More on that in a bit.) Once we came down the mountain we went straight there, hoping against hope that it was close to what we were used to back home. Dear readers, the menu was a little smaller than in the States but the food was exactly the same. They even had shredded cheese, something completely missing in every grocery store on this continent. (And to be clear, the stores don’t even sell cheese hard enough for you to shred yourself.)

We ordered more food than we normally would have, then went back and ordered seconds. Imagine the feast at the end of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; Lea and I had the Taco Bell equivalent.

The Rio Mapocho and Santiago’s highest mountain. We climbed that sucker.

I think the main problem that Santiago has presented for me is that it’s so much like a city in the U.S. that it’s made me achingly homesick for the real thing. I don’t miss having a job and being mistreated by horrible customers (by which I mean all customers) but I do miss a lot of other things: my friends, my cat, my stuff, a real kitchen, and generally understanding what’s going on around me most of the time.

So which way is the cultural appropriation going? I’m not sure.

That’s not a good mindset to be in, since I’m not going to have any of that back for six more months. So, given the (American) holiday that was celebrated this week, here is a list of things in my life right now that I’m thankful for:

I’m thankful that my loving wife, Lea, called me up at work last year and asked how I felt about quitting my job and heading to South America. That’s not how the idea started, mind you – we’d planned to do this crazy thing years ago – but that’s how it got put back on the table. I’m thankful to be able to spend so much time with her, facing the world together and following our dreams.

I’m thankful for the lovely folks at the Black Rock Pub and their All-You-Can-Eat Thanksgiving Buffet. The proprietors of that fine establishment are Australian, but they cater to all sorts and draw a good crowd of expats for Turkey Slaughter Day. They even had American football on the telly, and Who Dat havin’ a good season this year? The Saints. If they make it to the Superbowl, I hope we can find a place in Argentina to watch it.

I’m thankful that our resupply package from home arrived. We had it shipped a few weeks ago from the States, with refills for stuff we’ve used up in our First Aid kit, replacement parts for my C-PAP machine, and cold weather clothes that we’re absolutely going to need in Tierra del Fuego. Which segues into:

I’m thankful for people willing to meet with us and help us out along the way. On our first weekend in town we hooked up with our new friend Gabriela from Couchsurfing.com and hiked to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal. We also connected with our friend-of-a-friend Arnulfo to whom we’d had our resupply package shipped and who went to the trouble of extracting it from Chilean customs. Long-term travel would be much harder and lonelier without awesome, generous people along the way.

I’m thankful to put my backpack away for two weeks, even if our apartment is hot and noisy. I’m thankful that we can do our own laundry without having to carry it somewhere blocks away. I’m thankful that Santiago has such a fantastic subway system, and that all the public transportation routes are available in Google Maps. I’m thankful for American fast food restaurants, bless their hearts, and being able to have a little unhealthy taste of home after months on the road.

Now for the touristy stuff!

Another day, another mountain, another giant statue of the Virgin Mary.

Cerro San Cristóbal

The first thing we did once we’d settled in, found groceries, and figured out the Metro system, was to climb the highest mountain in town and take a photo of the Virgin on top. This isn’t the first time we’ve done something like that. Looking through my blog posts I came across an early entry where I stated that we’d take gondolas up to the top of mountains instead of climbing them. It appears we’ve broken that promise to ourselves. We should really reassess. At least we’re not as crazy as the people who biked up the mountain that day.

Gluttons for punishment.

Sampled Local Cuisine

A signature Chilean dish we’d been told about even before leaving Atlanta was “Italiano” style hot dogs and sandwiches. There’s nothing Italian about them. It’s just that Chileans love to layer avocado, mayonnaise, and tomato on things so that it looks like the colors of the Italian flag. Lea and I both agree that to do this to hot dogs (which is all the rage here) is a crime against tubed meat, but we were willing to try it on sandwiches. It’s… okay. Color me redneck, but I still prefer cheddar cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, and BBQ sauce.

La Hamburguesa Italiana: a cross-section.

At lunch, Arnulfo chided us Americans for putting BBQ sauce on everything. Given that in Alabama I used to eat BBQ sushi, I could hardly dispute the point.

Broadened Our Minds

This week we visited the Parque De Las Esculturas (Park of the Sculptures), Museums of Fine Arts/Contemporary Art, and Museum of Visual Arts, all of which have the virtue of being free to the public. Half of the Sculpture Park was closed for renovation, but the part that was open was nice to walk through. The Museums of Fine/Contemporary Art (two separate museums in a connected building) are currently housing an exhibit of the work of Roberto Matta, whose art is both bizarre and refreshingly different from the unending displays of religious art we saw from Ecuador to Bolivia.

One display in the Sculpture Park.

Not one of the park exhibits, but I think it has them beat.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

A photo of a Matta painting that I probably wasn’t supposed to take.

Went Up the Tallest Building in Latin America

That’s Sky Costanera. This one we did not climb. For a somewhat pricey ticket, there’s a lovely elevator that will take you to the observation deck on the 61st floor, and you can take an escalator from there to the 62nd to get even higher. The bottom five floors of the building are part of an enormous shopping mall. What did I tell you about Chileans and malls?

The view from below.

The view from above.

Accidentally Stumbled On the Procession of Saint Martin de Porres

We don’t find parades and processions in South America, they find us. For once, though, we caught one right at the beginning. We were in the Plaza de Armas just wandering around when we saw a banner on the Catedral Metropolitana announcing a procession beginning in less than an hour. We waited around for mass to let out, the band to start up, and for Saint Martin to very slowly process out of the church. Right outside they paused for photographs and dancing (!) and then turned up the street. Lea and I, sleepy from a large helping of Burger King, headed home.

San Martin de Porres

You have to love a saint who doesn’t mind a party.

That’s all for now, folks. Next week, the rest of our stay in Santiago and the start of our journey into Chile’s Lake District. The road awaits!

Truly authentic, I have to say. We’re probably going back for seconds here too.

Having the World’s Biggest Pool All to Ourselves

This week we accomplished one of the major goals of our trip through South America – to visit San Alfonso del Mar, home of the largest swimming pool in the world. Here’s the view from above:

And here’s the view from our balcony:

But first, we went to Valparaiso. If you’re traveling down the coast of Chile, a stop in Valparaiso is mandatory. Because of its deep water harbor, Valparaiso was a city of major importance in the 1800s as a stopover for ships traveling the Atlantic – Pacific route. Today it’s mainly known for its steep hills with brightly painted houses perched on the cliffs going down to the sea.

Please, South America, stop making us climb hills.

Basically, Valparaiso looks as if someone cut La Paz in half, put an ocean at the bottom of it, then went berserk in the exterior paint aisle at Home Depot. The only problem with Valparaiso is that there really isn’t much to do there. The city itself is the attraction; all the tourist spots suggested in the guidebooks are hilltops you can take pictures from.

Sherwin Williams must love this city.

So we did that, choosing as we normally do to see where the dead people are. Valparaiso’s main cemetery is on top of one of the hills overlooking the bay, giving great views of the city. We could also see one of the working “ascensors” that people can ride to avoid climbing the stairs.

The only people in town whose legs aren’t sore any more.

The ascensor on the right, the long way up on the left.

That’s the other problem with Valpariaso: the obscene number of stairs. Follow me up this: Our hostel was on a hill on the edge of the “flat” central section of town. To get to our hostel, we had to climb two long, steep stretches of uneven stone steps through a narrow alley between two buildings. Once we reached the hostel, there was a flight of steps from the gate at street level to the lobby. From the lobby and kitchen area, there was another steep flight of steps up to an eating area, then another flight of steps up to our room. From our room, if we wanted to sit down and relax, there was one last, tight spiral stair up to the patio on the roof.

Nope. Can’t. Too much.

If the gods and Elisha Graves Otis had wanted us to climb that many steps, they wouldn’t have invented elevators.

Now it just feels like the stairs are making fun of us.

A strong point in Valpraiso’s favor: it’s full of cats and a lot of them are friendly. Lea and I have been cat-deprived since leaving Atlanta. Here we got some much-needed kitty time.

The household deity at our hostel.

After three slow days in Valparaiso, we hopped on a bus to the village of Algorrobo and from there took a taxi up the coast to the resort of San Alfonso del Mar, where we’d rented a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, hot water and everything for two nights. Forty-eight hours of beach time, ahoy!

Sal Alfonoso del Mar isn’t a hotel. It’s a complex of eleven luxury apartment buildings facing the Largest Swimming Pool In the World (I can’t say that too many times). There are plenty of apartments for rent and in the off season a one-bedroom for two people goes for about $100 USD per night. That’s more than we’ve been paying for our other stays on this trip but less than a lot of hotels in the States with nowhere near this kind of view.

The thing about the off season is that everything is closed, including the big pool. When we were there, San Alfonso del Mar was a ghost town. In a complex that can house thousands and thousands of vacationers, we could count the number of other guests we saw each day on our fingers. Even the grocery stores nearby were only open on the weekend; we had to take a bus back into town to buy food and wine. Once we did that, though, we didn’t have to leave the resort at all. And we didn’t.

Now about that pool. I mentioned that it was closed, but the big pool isn’t for swimming anyway. Each apartment building has its own semi-circular swimming area extending out into the main pool and we could have gotten in that if we’d wanted to freeze our butts off. In late spring, the Chilean coast is still frigid. The big pool opens to the public on December 15, and it’s for sporting activities like kayaking, sailing, wind-surfing and dive training.

We were content merely to sit in the sun and look at it. On our first day we walked all the way around it, which took an hour. Aside from ourselves and a handful of other tourists, our only company was the cleaning staff and the crews working to scrub the pool clean before summer, which they did from slow-moving motorboats trailing very long suction hoses held aloft by small, inflatable buoys.

My next career path.

Our two days in San Alfonso del Mar were probably the quietest we’re going to have on our entire ten months around South America. I wish it had been warmer – even in the sun it was too cold to sit poolside due to the wind, so we spent a lot of time enjoying the view from our protected balcony. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth it to go, slow down, recharge, and watch the sunset over the ocean.

It occurred to me as we were leaving that even though we’ve got a month left in Chile and it’s a real skinny country, this may be the last we see of the Pacific. I don’t think the bay and fjords around Puerto Montt count as part of the open ocean, and when we get to Punta Arenas we’ll be on the Strait of Magellan, the frighteningly windy midwaters between the Pacific and Atlantic. So, adiós al Pacífico. I hope that when we finally reach the Atlantic it’s a little warmer.

The Penguins, the Pisco, the Sand and the Stars

We’ve been in Chile for two weeks. “Wait a minute,” you say, “weren’t you in Bolivia last week?” No, but I was writing about Bolivia. There was still a lot to recount and our first week in Chile wasn’t exactly action-packed. I mentioned in my last post that Lea and I had taxed our forty-something bodies’ tolerance for high altitude, cold showers, lugging backpacks up steep inclines, and what have you. After our mad dash through Peru and our month on the oxygen-deprived Altiplano, we’ve spent our first two weeks in Chile convalescing for want of a better word.

I spoke last week of my aching desire to get out of the mountains and down to a nice, pleasant beach. Did I get what I wanted? Well, yes and no. Here’s a Chilean beach:

Finally, right?

THAT PICTURE LIES. It looks warm and pleasant, but no matter how bright the sun and how inviting the sand, the harsh reality is that Chile, even more than Ecuador or Peru, is plagued by the despicable Humboldt Current from Antarctica. This photo offers a much more honest appraisal of the Chilean coastline:

Shiver me timbers.

I’d be lying to say that it wasn’t at least pleasant to sit near the beach for a while, listen to the waves, and smell the ocean air. Lea and I just had to bundle up in warm clothes to do it. Let’s settle on this photo for a happy medium:

Still, brrrrr….

Serene, tranquil, crystal clear, and cold as a bucket of ice on a polar bear’s butt.

Anyway, here’s the travel report:

San Pedro de Atacama

As I mentioned last week, San Pedro is the sister city to Uyuni, Bolivia. It’s entirely a backpacker town, full of hostels and travel agencies. After coming down from the Andean Plateau, the main thing San Pedro has going for it is that it’s warm and has actual air pressure. Even though we were still higher in elevation than Denver, it made a world of difference. We took off our jackets, slung on our backpacks, and felt like superhuman demigods with all that oxygen suddenly coursing through our veins as we hiked to our hostel.

Sandy San Pedro.

There’s a lot for a tourist to do around San Pedro de Atacama, but much of it seemed just like the stuff we’d covered in our three days across the Bolivian desert. The place we stayed was breezy with a nice porch looking over a garden and hot water in the shower. We got groceries and bus tickets, then didn’t leave the hostel for two days. (It would have been nice to do laundry, but there are no laundries in San Pedro. Oh well. Surely we’d be able to do it later…)

It’s dunes all the way down.

Caldera

Eight hours down the coast is the village of Caldera, which our Australian friend Simon (who had traveled ahead of us) recommended as a place to recoup. Instead of a room in a hostel, we found a little guest house right off the main square on AirBnB. It had a fridge and a microwave if not a full kitchen, so we went back out for dinner and groceries.

Oh My God. The grocery store was packed like the one open Piggly Wiggly on the night before Thanksgiving. Any comments we made about how crazy crowded the store was were met with a shrug and a rapid-fire blast of Chilean Spanish. We didn’t find out what was really going on until the next day, when we were down to our last clean anything and tried to take our clothes to the only laundry in town (open Monday, Wednesday, Friday). It was Friday, and it was closed. After much ringing of the doorbell and yelling “Hola!” someone appeared to tell us in Chilean Spanish (más despacio, por favor) that it was closed for the holiday and would be open the following Monday.

Side note: I keep saying “Chilean Spanish” because what the Chileans call Spanish isn’t Spanish any more than what a cattle auctioneer is speaking can legitimately be considered English.

Anyway, the holiday. November 2 was Reformation Day, a holiday that commemorates Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517. The holiday is only observed in Germany, Slovenia, and Chile. We knew that southern Chile at least was supposed to have some German influence. So far we haven’t seen any bratwurst. Instead, we got to wash clothes in our AirBnB’s (cold) shower and hang it in the courtyard for anyone walking to Caldera’s central plaza to see.

Despite the frustration, we did get more recovery time on our surprise holiday weekend. The town has a pleasant park to hang out in, a nice little museum of paleontology with some megalodon fossils among other things, and a tiny beach with no shade or bars. We took a cab over to Bahia Inglesa, the supposed “tourist side” of the area, to find it wasn’t any more exciting. We did meet up with a guy named Jorge on Couchsurfing who took us careening over some sandy trails in search of seafood by the bay until finally settling on a restaurant in town. (The fried eel was fantastic, by the way.)

Caldera’s central plaza and church.

We had to get up before dawn on Sunday morning to catch our next bus. When we woke, not only was the shower still cold but all the power had gone out. We put on our wind-dried outfits, gathered our belongings by the light of our headlamps (Always be prepared!), gave up on the idea of washing ourselves, and once more hit the road.

La Serena

By now it had been a week since coming down from the mountains and it was time to ease back into seeing stuff and not hiding in our hostel. La Serena is the starting point for tours to the nearby Humboldt Penguin Reserve, one of the “must see” spots on our trip. But first we needed hot showers, clean clothes, and something to eat.

Instead of a hostel, we booked an honest-to-god apartment for four nights. The apartment had hot water, a kitchen, and an actual washing machine. Granted, it was small and had no dryer. There was a drying rack (also tiny) on the patio and two small bedrooms in addition to the master. Among our gear are two retractable clotheslines that we normally take camping to hang up towels. We strung those up in both the spare bedrooms and between them and the balcony were slowly able to do our own laundry over the course of several days.

The apartment was right around the corner from the travel agency (sweet!) and right across the street from a shopping mall with a supermarket. The less we eat out the more we save, so after rinsing several days of sand and dust out of our hair we set out across the giant American-style parking lot. As we approached the supermarket (called “Lider”) we saw a familiar logo. We thought, “That looks like… Surely it can’t be… No.”

Yep. For real, y’all. Chile has Wal-Mart.

Apparently Lider was a local chain that Wal-Mart bought out and kept the name. Everything inside, though, is just what you’d see in the States, down to Wal-Mart brands, sale stickers, and fonts on the labels. The arrangement of the store was confusing with plenty of quirks to remind us we were still in South America: huge wine selection, no cheese to speak of, and giant bone-in cuts of meat. But just like Wal-Mart back home, we had to keep going back every day for one more thing.

La Serena’s central park, far from the Wal-Mart

La Serena is split by the Pan-American Highway, east of which is the city proper with a green central park, some nice European architecture, the usual assortment of museums (that we didn’t visit) and a post office. Functioning post offices have been a rarity on this trip and postage rates in the first three countries we visited were sky-high, so we’ve lugged around an accumulation of items to be mailed back to the U.S., waiting for the right moment.

We pounced.

Going by the single data point of the post office in La Serena, the postal system of Chile is much more pleasant to interact with than our own. Not that that’s a high bar to clear.

Anyway, about those penguins…

On our last day in La Serena, with the last batch of clothes drying on lines spread through the apartment like the work of a giant spider, we got on a tour bus heading north to the coastal village of Choros, where we piled onto a boat and made our way to the islands where the penguins live.

Humboldt penguins are small, cute, and extremely shy – so skittish around humans that they’ve been known to jump off cliffs to get away from us. Therefore, you’re not allowed to get off the boat on the  islands where the penguins are. The penguins nest on top of the island and only come down to the shore to fish. According to our guide penguin populations are down this year for reasons unknown, but we were still able to spot a few as well as plenty of other birds, sea lions, and a pod of fin whales.

Our first penguin.

Two more penguins.

Three lazy penguins.

Colorful rocks.

This magnificent bastard.

Too cute.

Drying his wings.

Under all that water, the second largest whales in the world.

And yet this bird is not impressed.

There is one penguin-free island where we were allowed to disembark, hike, and look at rocks, gulls, and cacti. The weather was cold, cold, cold. I looked up La Serena’s latitude and realized that it’s just as far south of the equator as Jacksonville, Baton Rouge, and El Paso are to the north. November is late spring, equivalent to May in the northern hemisphere, so why was I still freezing?

Geography. The Andes have more influence on weather patterns here than anything else. Chile’s central valley is warm. The coast is frigid. The temperature in La Serena fluctuates from 50⁰ to 70⁰F all year round, even in “high season” – which is January and February. If you want to experience spring and summer, you have to get away from the coast. Which we did.

Vicuña

In a dirt parking lot behind the Wal-Mart, we picked up the bus inland to Vicuña, gateway to the Elqui Valley (Chile’s wine country) and heart of the country’s astrotourism industry. With some of the clearest skies in the world, northern Chile is vitally important to the study of astronomy. There are many world-renowned research facilities, such as the cleverly named Very Large Telescope and the even more original Extremely Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert. While some facilities allow limited tours during the day, no way are they going to let you go at night. (Besides, modern research telescopes don’t have anything like an eyepiece you can just walk up and look through.)

Vicuña, on the other hand, has several observatories open to the public for night visits and stargazing tours. Having seen the night sky from the Altiplano (in the freezing cold) I wanted another good look before we went south into more humid, and probably cloudier, regions of the country. After hearing about some of the expensive private tours to observatories farther out of town, we elected the cheap route and chose to visit the nearby Mamalluca Observatory instead.

This may not have been the best choice. It saved us money, but we ended up being two of nearly sixty to eighty at the observatory that night. The English-language group had about twenty people, which means that even during a two hour tour the group was only able to view five celestial objects and no one individually got much telescope time. Not to mention all the idiots trying to take pictures of the sky with their iPhones using the flash.

However, the sky was clear and beautiful. We could see the Milky Way, and the guide pointed out the stars Canopus (brightest in the southern sky) and Alpha Centauri (nearest to our own Sun, if you count Proxima Centauri as part of the same system). When he pointed out the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, my brain blew a fuse and I stared at the sky like a cat fixated on a laser pointer.

A little background: The Magellanic Clouds are two smaller galaxies that orbit our own. They’re the Milky Way’s “moons” so to speak. Some personal background: I’ve been an astronomy nerd since I was a kid. It was my first career path, and I actually taught college-level astronomy for a couple of years in my early twenties. Alpha Centauri and the Magellanic Clouds were talked about in every book about the night sky that I devoured as a child, but I never thought I would see them. And there they were right in front of me. It was an exhilaration as powerful as what I’d felt watching humpback whales leaping from the water off the coast of Ecuador. I was looking at other galaxies with my naked eyes, and I hadn’t thought it was important to bring my camera.

D’oh!

The next day we did something that we hadn’t done since La Paz, and almost never did in Peru. We went to Jaime, the hostel owner (at Hostal Las Delicias, if you ever want to book a room) and asked to extend our stay.

Jaime’d helped us book a tour of the wine region that we were going on that morning. The original plan had been to leave town the next day. Instead, we decided to stay so we could go out at night to someplace dark and take pictures of the sky. Jaime called around to several cabbies and tour companies to see if anyone would drive us. We ended up going with the same company, Elki Magic, who would drive us on the morning tour as well.

The church and plaza in Pisco Elqui.

The vineyards of the Elqui Valley.

The Elqui Valley is a splash of green amidst the Chilean desert thanks to the Elqui river and lots of irrigation. The valley is lined with vineyards, fruit groves, and quaint towns that have maximized the amount of greenery on display. They don’t just make wine in the Elqui region, though. They make Pisco.

The door to the distillery.

Drinking yourself to death indeed.

Pisco is an amber-colored brandy made from Muscat grapes, a signature high-proof spirit from both Chile and Peru, and the key ingredient in the Pisco Sour, one of the finest beverages known to man. On the tour we visited Fundo Los Nichos, the oldest pisco distillery in the region. It smelled heavenly. We saw the distilling equipment, the fermentation chambers, and the old Masonic club room beneath the distillery in which the club’s members were entombed behind bottles of pisco. We tasted samples and I was shocked that no one tried to sell us a bottle or five on the way out. We would’ve been easy marks.

The good stuff.

Later we went out and took pictures of the stars until midnight. The next day we slept in, lounged around, drank a bottle of Carménère pinot for lunch and had four pisco sours for dinner.

More of the good stuff.

That’s all caught up for now. I’m logging this from sunny Valparaiso. Next week I’ll be able to report on the largest swimming pool in the world. Hasta later, dear readers.

The sky looking back at Vicuna.

Orion rising upside-down.

That fuzzy blob I’m pointing at is the Large Magellanic Cloud. Up and to the right is the Small Magellanic Cloud. The bright star down and to the left is Canopus.

P.S. We’re finally back where there are flowers! It’s time for more of:

Lea’s Macrophotography

A Desert Is a Beach Where the Ocean Is Really Far Away

And now, for the main event. Copacabana and La Paz were both lovely surprises, but the thing that put Bolivia on the “Go” list was… a big, flat plain of salt!

Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. It’s the remnant of one or more prehistoric lakes and has an “extraordinary flatness” according to Wikipedia, with its elevation varying less than one meter in altitude over its entire expanse. Apparently its so flat that it’s used to calibrate the altimeters of satellites passing overhead.

But first, let me recount how we got here. We left La Paz on a fairly sketchy bus for Oruro, a city in the middle of the Altiplano that claims the title of “Folklore Capital of Bolivia.” Its archaeological museum has a better collection of traditional masks and costumes than even the one in La Paz and its Carnival in February is said to be one of the most impressive in South America.

From there we took an awful, bumpy, bone-shattering train ride to the horrible desert town of Uyuni. We were trapped on the train with a large tour group of loud, fidgety college kids, some of whom spent the entire seven hours taking selfies. Uyuni was once an important rail station, but now exists to support the travel agencies sending tourists out into the Salar. We spent two nights there, but had we been able to finalize our tour arrangements online it would have been preferable to spend an extra night in pleasant Oruro instead.

Anyway, on to the tour!

Day One

The trip got very “Mad Max” quickly.

The first step, of course, is waiting for your ride. We signed up with Uyuni White & Green as our tour agency, but as has been the case throughout South America the travel agencies tend to consolidate with other operators and we ended up on a tour run by Salty Desert Adventures instead. (Which was fine; they were well rated on TripAdvisor.) Our guide, Jose Luis, was friendly and helpful but didn’t speak a word of English. This wasn’t unanticipated. At least I could understand the basics and Lea’s Spanish keeps getting better.

The first location we visited was the “train graveyard” just south of Uyuni – a scattering of old engines, freight cars, and the occasional passenger car left in the desert to rust and be graffitied. This is exactly the kind of photo opportunity I love and would have been fantastic if the trains weren’t crawling with tourists using them as adult monkey-bars. I had to walk pretty far from the crowd to enjoy the trains in peace, but there were a lot of trains and a lot of desert to go around.

Somebody invested serious time on this one.

Next on the itinerary was a short tour of a place where the salt was processed for commercial use. (Fun fact: Bolivia exports no salt, except what tourists take with them.) Basically it was just a room where the crystals were toasted, broken down, sifted, or whatever it is they do… I don’t know, man, it was all in Spanish!

Too much for your shaker.

There were big crystals to make Lea swoon and about a dozen shops to buy souvenirs. What surprised me was that this was our only shopping opportunity for the remainder of the tour. After this, we were truly in the Wild.

You can tell when you’re not far from Low Earth Orbit.

The Wild wasn’t far away. A short drive brought us to our first photo stop on the Salar. Other tour groups were still around, but the herd was starting to spread out. The first stop wasn’t completely dry, either – there were springs where gas and water bubbled up from beneath the desert. Mainly it was useful as a place for us wannabe photographers to check light levels and test exposure times before heading out into the Unbearable Whiteness. Another quick stop for lunch, then we were on our own in the vastness of the Salar.

That’s when Lea grew to ten times her normal height and tried to stomp me.

Who knew I was such a good source of potassium?

Silliness aside, the beauty of the place is mind-bending. Yeah, sure, the Andes are majestic and such, especially around Machu Picchu, but the Salar is so alien that it hurts your brain just to look at it. There’s nothing but white all the way to a horizon so blurred by mirages that the mountains appear to float in the air.

This is what it looked like all around us.

The salt up close.

Fellow travelers.

After drinking in the beauty for an hour or more, we drove on to Incahuasi Island, a rocky outcrop in the salt flat where a forest of cacti hang on for dear life. Beyond that (after half an hour of trying to get our jeep to start) we got to watch the sunset before moving on to our first lodge, a hotel made entirely of salt.

The view from Isla Incahuasi.

Day’s end.

A hotel made of salt sounds cool. The salt bricks do in fact provide really good insulation against the frigid night air on the Altiplano. What no one thought to mention, though, was that the floor was nothing but salt-sand. Aside from two narrow beds and a stone block that served as a nightstand, there was literally nowhere to set anything down in our room. We ended up piling everything we pulled out of our backpacks on top of our backpacks and playing “the floor is lava” as we tucked in for the night.

This was less than pleasant. Had we been staying in a campground on the beach with warm air all around and tiki bars really close by, it would have been a different matter.

Day Two

The salt hotel was in the little village of San Juan, which is also home to the Kawsay Wasy Necropolis. This wasn’t included in any of the tours we looked at, but we asked if we could make a side trip and our guide arranged it. Therefore, while everyone else was snug in bed, Lea and I got up with the sun and rode to the edge of town to engage in our cemetery-haunting hobby.

A mausoleum at sunrise.

This particular cemetery is unique in that the inhabitants used natural stone towers to act as tombs for their dead. The remains have been left in situ and can be viewed through a small “window” in each of the Necropolis’s burial chambers.

Trick or treat.

After that and breakfast, our gang took off in our jeep for even more wonders of the desert. Specifically, alkaline lakes full of flamingos. Also (not in the lakes) wind-eroded rocks.

And an active volcano! Our first stop was at a baño and snack bar with a fantastic view of several volcanoes in the area, one of which was actively smoking.

Nothing to worry about at all.

The first lake we stopped at was a very interesting shade of pink. The second was an algae-covered green with a saline froth along the shore and, in place of seaweed washed up on the sand, a rind of salt-encrusted flamingo feathers. Flamingos were everywhere. Back in the Galapagos we spent quite a bit of time stalking the handful of flamingos we saw, always waiting for that perfect shot where one of the birds would pull their head out of the water for the briefest of instants. If we’d known what was coming, we wouldn’t have bothered. If Hitchcock had wanted to make a sequel to The Birds starring flamingos, he could have filmed it here.

A flockade of flamingos.

Intellectually I knew they could fly, but still…

Then there were the rocks.

Plenty of rocks, in interesting shapes, but like the trains on Day One they were crawling with tour groups. Taking a photo of this particular formation without someone posing in front was nigh impossible. But I did it!

I’m surprised no one’s pushed it over yet.

I’m going to mention right here that at this point in our excursion, neither Lea nor I were feeling very well. Without going into the gruesome details online, suffice it to say that both of us were feeling the mileage weighing on us in different ways. It wasn’t altitude sickness per se, those headaches and feelings of light-headedness you get when you suddenly find yourself thousands of meters higher than you were. We’d been at high elevation ever since Cusco, but the fact is that we’d both been pushing our bodies beyond their usual limits, hauling backpacks and ourselves up and down mountains in the rarified Andean atmosphere (with its accompanying lack of oxygen) and were both paying the price.

We ached for sea level. We longed for beach chairs under a cabana. We wanted heat, dammit, enough air to breathe, some decent adult beverages, and life without an alarm clock once in a while.

The wind on the plateau steadily picked up all day. The sky was cloudless, but the sun wasn’t enough to fight what eventually became a full-on gale by the time we got to our final vista: Laguna Colorada.

What that gorgeous, unearthly image doesn’t show is the tropical-storm force winds picking up thousands of needle-sharp volcanic sand grains and blowing them right in my face every time I turned west. As windy as it was, Lea overheard one guide comment that often it was even worse. We took our photos then decided to enjoy the view from the safety of Jose Luis’s enclosed 4×4.

That night we stayed in a hostel that only ran their generator from 7:00pm to 9:00pm. Skylights warmed the building during the day, though, and at least it had a floor! It was quite an improvement, even if we had to use headlamps and flashlights to brush our teeth and pack.

Day Three

Up before sunrise. The wind had died down overnight. The first lake we passed had frozen over. We got up that early for the best views of the geysers. (“Not geysers,” says Lea. “Mudpots.”) They’re more active in the morning and the steam is better seen in the early sunlight. The last time Lea and I were taking photos of geysers, it was in Iceland in January 2015. This was warmer than that, at least, and we didn’t have to worry about ice on the ground. Lea, though, made sure to inform me that when walking around mudpots like these, the ground could theoretically open up under us at any time. (Email subscribers click here for video of our potential bubbly demise.)

If you gotta go…

After the geysers, the group went to a hot spring bath. Lea and I did not partake, not wanting to add wet clothes to our backpacks. The last stop for us was Laguna Verde, another salt lake which wasn’t as verde as normal because there wasn’t enough wind to kick up all the algae. Still, more great views of volcanoes:

One last chance for Bolivia to blow us up.

And that was it for us. The rest of the group had one or two more stops to make on their way back to Uyuni, but Lea and I had chosen this as our exit point from Bolivia into Chile. For a nominal fee our guide helped us across the border and gave us tickets for a bus to take us into San Pedro de Atacama, Uyuni’s sister tourist town on the other side of the mountains.

We longed for warmer air. We longed for thicker air. We wanted to be someplace flat. We dreamed of getting back to the coast. We imagined the sound of waves and the feel of a humid sea breeze.

We waited for two hours in a cramped, stuffy van just to get our turn at the inspection station at the border into Chile. As for the beach? That, my friends, is another story.

P.S.

Here’s our route through Bolivia. As you can see, we barely touched the country and kept entirely to the upper Andean plateau. Should we return, and I have to say we probably will, it’ll be to visit the green areas on the map – and Oruro one more time.

P.P.S. Jared’s Book Corner

There’s not a lot of Bolivian literature available in English translation. However, there is American Visa, a gripping crime novel from the mid-1990s about a down-on-his-luck Bolivian teacher who will do whatever it takes to escape his native country and get to the United States. Check out my full review on Goodreads.

Jared’s Top Ten Things To Do In La Paz

La Paz is a big city. So were Quito and Lima, but the geography of La Paz never lets you forget it. No matter where you are, you’re either at the bottom of the valley looking up at cliffs carpeted in buildings, or you’re on one of those cliffs looking down at the entirety of the metropolis.

That’s a lot of city.

La Paz sits in a valley in the Andean Plateau formed ten million years ago when the rising mountains cut what would become Lake Titicaca off from the rest of the Pacific, causing it to erode a huge swath of real estate as it drained. The city started life in the bottom of the valley, but now fills it and spills out over the rim.

La Paz is a fun, colorful city where something’s always going on. If you’re bored, you’re doing something wrong. Lea and I spent a week in La Paz (mas o menos). Here’s what I recommend based on our experience.

  1. Lots of Cardio

This is going to happen whether you want it or not, so just make it part of your plan. With the sole exception of several blocks along Calle Illampu, I never saw a single level street in the city. Imagine if you scooped up another South American city, dumped it in the mountains of West Virginia, then levitated it to the height of the lower Himalayas, and you’ve got La Paz. Being at high altitude already increases your heart rate. In La Paz, walking one block up the street is like doing five minutes on a Stairmaster. Why even pay for a gym membership when you could just move here?

You can always sit in traffic, but where’s the fun in that?

  1. Get Haircuts In Spanish

I’d already done this in Quito but it was Lea’s first time. The lady in Ecuador cut my hair so short that I was able to go two whole months before getting it cut again. Even so, my top had only just reached its normal length, but the back was slowly turning into a mullet. Lea had hers cut just before we left Atlanta, but it had reached the point where she couldn’t ignore it any longer. Fortunately, our hostel is right next to a row of about twenty barber shops. Guys stand in the doorways calling out to people walking by, as if a haircut is ever an impulse purchase.

Seriously, though, this is an experience everyone should try at least once. Find a barber or hairstylist with whom you only share a handful of words in common and try and explain in pantomime how you would like your hair to look for the next six weeks. Charades was never this fun.

In the end, Lea rated her haircut as “close enough.” My barber gave me something like  flattop with lots of gel (that I wasn’t expecting) and gave my beard and mustache the best trim they’ve ever had.

  1. Shop Your Touristy Heart Out in the Mercado de Brujas

The heart of the backpacker/tourist district of La Paz is Calle Sagarnaga, where there are hostels and travel agencies galore (as well as, if I may say so, an excellent Mexican restaurant called Kalakitas and a damn fine Cuban place called Sabor Cubano). The block between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz, along Calle Linares and an adjoining alley, is the Witch’s Market (Mercado de Brujas). This is the souvenir-shop center of the city’s tourist industry.

This way to mojitos and/or death.

The whole street smells of incense even after the shops close. About a quarter of the stores sell “witchy” items like herbal remedies, sex-aid potions, Tiwanakan totems, and mummified baby llamas (seriously) but the rest sell regular Andean souvenirs: T-shirts, bags, rugs, wall hangings, and about everything imaginable made out of llama or alpaca wool. Lea and I have avoided buying souvenirs so far, but knowing Bolivia was the least expensive place on the continent we finally broke down. If you happen to get a Christmas present shipped to you from South America this year, the Mercado de Brujas is probably where it came from.

Bless and/or curse your friends and loved ones.

  1. Ride the Teleférico While Commuters Look at You Strangely

Several times on this trip we’ve ridden teleféricos (aerial gondolas) in other countries. In Quito there was the one up the side of the Pichincha Volcano, as well as the open-air cable car across the waterfall gorge in Mindo. In Peru there was the spanking-new teleférico that took us up to Kuélap, the ancient walled city outside of Chachapoyas. Those were all tourist attractions. The teleféricos in La Paz, however, are actual public transportation.

This beats any subway I’ve ridden.

That didn’t stop us from being geeky tourists. There are at least seven color-coded teleférico lines in La Paz serving as a sky-borne subway system. We rode the Orange Line, which goes east-to-west across the north part of the city, and the Red Line, which rises from the valley floor to El Alto, La Paz’s high suburb on the rim of the valley and home to a five-square-kilometer street market on Sundays. Except for our first ride on the Orange, in which we had a car to ourselves, we shared our gondolas with regular commuters minding their own business and ignoring the silly gringos taking photos through the scratched-up plexiglass.

Made it to the top!

  1. Witness the Warping of Spacetime In Mercado Lanza

At the bottom of Santa Cruz and Sagarnaga, about two blocks from our hostel, was the Plaza San Francisco and its big shopping center, Mercado Lanza. All cities in South America have mercados with crowded walkways between tiny stalls the size of walk-in closets. Most mercados are single story affairs. Mercado Lanza is another beast altogether.

Looks harmless enough…

From the outside it looks like a box. From the inside it looks like a car park designed by M.C. Escher in a particularly vindictive mood. The stalls are metal boxes on concrete ramps that shoot off in every conceivable direction: bookstores, vegetable stands, flower shops, and even restaurants that can sit up to eight people if they really like each other. Lea took me there on my first day in town, and the first words that went through my brain were “five dimensional hypercube.”

Hey, you got your transdimensional physics in my shopping mall!

What really blows my mind is that no matter which level you’re on in the mercado, there’s an exit directly to the street. How that works I’m not sure. I just enjoyed my Bs15 ($2) dinner and tried not to think about the geometry of the space. That way madness lies.

I swear they twisted a flea market into an infinite Mobius loop.

  1. Visit Enough Museums to Become an Exhibit Yourself

You’d think we’d be sick of museums by this point and you’d be right, but La Paz has a depth and breadth of museums to keep even jaded three-month travelers like ourselves entertained. The only problem is having to climb mountains to reach them. That and the fact that they like to close at lunch and not re-open until late in the afternoon.

San Francisco Church & Museum

Lea checked out the Precious Metals Museum and the Museo de San Francisco before I arrived. Together we went to the National Museum of Art and the Museum of Ethnography & Folklore, both of which have impressive collections. The latter has an entire room of masks, a room of metalwork (both ancient and contemporary), and a room of clothing and hats made of plumage.

National Archaeology Museum

We later went to the National Archaeology Museum (also known as the Tiwanaku Museum) and tried to go to the Contemporary Art Museum (in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel of all people) only to find that it had been shut down. Wandering around, we saw a Museum of Geology and Paleontology that wasn’t marked on any of the maps, but didn’t get to go because of the aforementioned funky hours and an afternoon thunderstorm.

An alabaster fountain at the National Museum of Art.

We did not go to the Coca Museum, the Museum of Bolivian Beverages, or the Museum of Musical Instruments, but all those things are out there if you happen to be in town and feel so inclined. I’m convinced there’s a limit to how many museums you can visit in so many cities before they invite you into a glass case of your very own and lock the door behind you.

  1. See Where Bolivianos Go When They Die

As is our habit, Lea and I visited La Paz’s biggest cemetery. The Cementerio General was actually the easiest place in town to find, since half the buses list “Cementerio” prominently as one of their destinations.

The cemetery in La Paz is big and does not waste space. There are no individual “graves” as we would think of in the U.S. and very few large family monuments. The Cementerio General is a massive apartment complex of a graveyard, including several structures that I could only think of as high-rise housing projects for the dead. The “streets” within are better marked than those in the city itself.

We visited the cemetery as they were getting it ready for Todos Santos. Artists had been creating large, creative, beautiful, and funny murals throughout the complex. It’s too bad that we’re going to miss all the excitement. Day of the Dead may not be as big in South America as it is in Mexico, but La Paz as a city seems to be really into Halloween. The Cementerio General may not be the prettiest cemetery Lea and I have visited, but thanks to it’s current artwork I’d say it’s definitely the most “gangsta.”

  1. Tour the City In an Open Bus While Ducking Tree Limbs and Power Lines

La Paz is too big to see just by walking. Luckily there is an open-top double-decker tour bus that runs three times each day. It costs Bs100 ($14.50) per person and has audio that you can listen to in seven languages. The tour runs from the north end of town through the historic center, up to the panoramic Mirador Killi Killi with its 360° view of the city, then south through the middle class Miraflores neighborhood and finally out the bottom to the Valley of the Moon and its eroded rock formations.

Enjoy this city tour at your own risk.

A few words of warning about the tour: First, the bus is fairly tall and the crazy bundles of power lines strung across La Paz’s narrow streets are fairly low. The tour guide told us not to stand up and that’s the best piece of advice I got all week. Otherwise I’d have been clotheslined by an electrical cable and Lea would have collected on my life insurance. Even staying in my seat, I had to duck more than once.

Just saying…

The same goes for trees, which the bus is not low enough to clear. I only got smacked in the head one time, but there were several close shaves. The other problem is that the bus’s shock absorbers aren’t what they could be and La Paz’s streets aren’t that smooth to begin with. I learned to take what pictures I could while the bus was stopped. To do so with the bus in motion would have resulted in having a camera shoved up my nose.

Lea and me at the top of La Paz.

Formations at the Valley of the Moon.

  1. Try To Take Pictures of the Surrounding Mountains

Speaking of photography, if there is one challenge that is both maddening and irresistible it’s trying to take pictures of the snow-capped mountains that circle La Paz’s valley, of which the giant volcano Illimani is the crown jewel. In the city itself they’re usually obscured by the buildings or the rim of the valley. If you do get high enough to see them, they’re often shrouded in cloud.

Attempt One: We read in the Footprint South American Handbook (that we chopped up to carry with us and discard in pieces as we leave each country), that there was a great view of Illimani at sunset if we walked up Calle Max Paredes, dodging homicidal bus drivers and edging around market stalls, up to the intersection with Avenida Buenos Aires. What the book failed to mention was that when we got to Buenos Aires all we had to do was turn around to see the mountain. We walked up and down several blocks looking for this supposed “view” until we gave up and headed back– only then to see the mountain right in front of us, all its glory blocked from photographic perfection by the hundreds of power lines strung across the street.

Mountains north of La Paz, seen from the Cementerio General.

Attempt Two: While walking around the Cementerio General, I happened to look down one of the alleys to see – snow capped mountains! I started looking for the best unobstructed angle and eventually  decided to climb the stairs to the top floor of one of those “high rise” mortuaries I mentioned. Several of the mountains were in easy reach of my telephoto lens, although it was hard to keep trees, roofs, and other structures out of the frame.

Attempt Three: The Cementerio General, as it turns out, was right next to a station for the Red teleférico line. Instead of heading home by bus, we walked around the corner to the gondolas. On the way down we had a fantastic view of Illimani, blocked by the grill of the gondola doors. Once we reached the bottom, we bought two more tickets to ride back up, this time with the doors facing north and the large bay window facing the mountain. At last we got our shots of Illimani! At the upper station we had to buy two more tickets to get home. The attendants gave us funny looks, seeing as we’d gone through their turnstiles three times in ten minutes.

Illimani Volcano, seen from the Red Teleferico.

  1. Watch the Flying Cholitas Kick Ass

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If you’re in La Paz on a Sunday, there is one thing you absolutely have to do. If you’re just passing through, miss your bus or skip your flight so you can hang around and see this.

Traditional Bolivian battle attire…

…and not quite traditional.

The Flying Cholitas are women wrestlers who fight in full traditional outfits. They perform in El Alto on the rim of the canyon in a back-alley gymnasium that has the feel of an underground Fight Club. It takes place around and after dark in one of the sketchier areas of town, so booking a tour through an agency is recommended.

Egging on the crowd.

The show is up-close, intimate, and spectacular. It begins with some regular male luchadores to warm up the crowd, but when the ladies come out it’s Game On. They throw each other into and out of the ring, they chase their opponents into the stands, they go after the announcers if they don’t like what they hear. They’ll beat each other with plastic water bottles (with the effect of soaking any spectators nearby, such as your humble author). Once they tied one of their opponents to the ropes with her own braids before laying the beat-down.

The Flying Cholita mid-air tackle.

The good old boot to the neck.

Cheesy? A little. Hilarious? Absolutely. Surreal? You better believe it. But it sure as hell beats following a gaggle of tourists taking selfies in front of ancient monuments. Anyone taking a selfie in front of the Flying Cholitas would probably be rewarded with a metal folding chair to the head.

The Escape Hatch will be going dark as Lea and I head out into the salty Bolivian desert. I’m confident that when I report back, the photos will be worth the wait.

Stay tuned, dear readers.

The Highest Quiet Little Town In the World

I have a confession to make. I was really reluctant to go to Bolivia. As a matter of fact I almost didn’t. When we first started planning this trip, Bolivia was on my list of “don’t need to go there” countries. Also in the planning stages, Lea and I discussed the idea of splitting up at some point and traveling independently for a week or two. When that came up, the obvious choice in my mind was for Lea to head out to the Bolivian salt flats while I made my way down the Pacific coast to some nice little beach town in Chile.

Instead, how about a nice little beach town in the High Andes?

Why the prejudice against Bolivia? In all honesty I had it built up in my mind as an impoverished slum of a country much like Tanzania, which Lea and I visited in 2012. Tanzania was a mix of staggering natural beauty and horrifying poverty, and even for travelers living conditions there were far below anything I ever wanted to experience again. Knowing that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America (except for Venezuela, which is in total economic collapse), I expected much the same.

I’ve never been happier to have been so wrong. Wow, do I love Bolivia.

Copacabana on a sunny day.

I’m writing from a hostel in the heart of La Paz, but this week I just want to talk about the little resort town on Lake Titicaca that completely changed my mind: Copacabana.

We bused into Copacabana from Puno, the main Peruvian city on the lake. The difference was staggering. Puno was bigger and more westernized, also with a big tourist sector, but like many of the cities we visited in Peru it looked like a giant garbage heap. In Copacabana, suddenly everything was pretty and not just the landscape. Yes, the buildings were dilapidated and under continual repair, but suddenly they were in color. Vibrant blues, greens, and orange-painted walls were everywhere. The main church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, is a blazing white with glistening green and orange tile work on the spires and Moorish-style domes.

The Basilica stands out in the center of town.

What I’m trying to say is that yes, Bolivia is poor, but the people here make an effort. My first impression of the country is that Bolivianos take pride in where they live and despite the hardships they do what they can to put their best foot forward. I know I may be an arrogant, spoiled American talking out of his ass about things whereof I understand very little, but I’m here to tell you that crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia was like stepping from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.

Start to finish, this mural went up in less than eight hours.

Even the stray dogs just want to chill.

And Copacabana is so laid back. It’s a tourist town for sure, but it’s not a pushy tourist town. There are hostels, restaurants, and travel agencies everywhere, but no one’s chasing you down the street to make you shop at their store. It’s possible to just sit on a bench and stare at Lake Titicaca in peace and quiet for as long as you’d like. For just a few dollars more, you can do the same from the roof of a backpacker’s bar while sipping 2-for-1 Cuba Libres.

Sitting on the dock of the bay…

…complete with paddle swans.

(It was in Copacabana that I feel we really caught up with the Backpackers. In Peru we were among more traditional “two week package with luxury accommodations” tourists.)

The only trouble with Copacabana is that it’s so damn high. The elevation is 3,841 meters and the tourist maps don’t stop reminding you that Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world. That’s fantastic, unless you’re in your mid-to-upper forties and your body is already showing signs of wear and tear from extended travel. After a week at this elevation (counting the time in Puno) Lea went ahead and traveled “down” to La Paz (highest capital city in the world). Like a dork I stayed behind for two days to do a couple of hikes – because 3,841m just wasn’t high enough.

The first was to climb this thing:

Cerro Calvario is the hill that overlooks the city. On its peak is a series of monuments representing the Stations of the Cross. From below it was obvious that the views from on top were spectacular. And since the trail starts right in the middle of town, I thought “won’t be too hard, just bring some water and take it slow.”

Abandon hope ye who enter here.

It took me about an hour to reach the top. The steps and ramps on the path up were wildly uneven and it was all I could do to sit and breathe when I reached the summit. The views were fantastic, however, as you can see from all the aerial shots in this article. Having reached the top, I made sure and stayed as long as I wanted. The way down, though less taxing on the lungs, was far scarier. Once I exited the path from the hilltop, there were three choices of streets back to the center of town. I chose the shortest, but it ended up being so steep and slippery that halfway down I turned around and climbed back up so I could take a longer, gentler route.

At the summit.

This cat was waiting to claim my soul if I passed out and died at the top.

The next day I rode the ferry out to Isla del Sol, which according to myth is the birthplace of the Inca. Every square foot of the island is terraced and I swear they call it “Island of the Sun” because there isn’t any shade. At present there’s a feud between the people on the south side of the island and the north (something to do with the northerners allowing development on sacred ground) so only the south end is currently accessible to the casual hiker.

I did *not* take a paddle-swan to Isla del Sol.

Nevertheless, I took the boat to the village of Yumani, climbed the Inca Stairs, and walked the long donkey trail to the south tip of the island, then back up (and down) to Templo Pilkokaima, the main archaeological site on the southern end. I had five hours from when the ferry dropped me off in the morning until it went back to Copacabana in the afternoon, and I needed almost all of that for the hike.

The Inca Steps begin here…

…and end here.

Isla del Sol from the southern tip.

The road block for this episode of The Amazing Race.

Woman and alpaca.

Templo Pilkokaima.

Pueblo Yumani.

Despite hiking my body right up to the limits of its endurance two days in a row, I felt more relaxed in Copacabana than I had anywhere else on our South American trip since Mindo, Ecuador (another peaceful backpacker haven – I see a pattern forming). Still, there was a lot of continent left and it was time to move on.

Fun fact: Copacabana is on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Titicaca and, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, does not connect to the rest of Bolivia except through Peru. Since border crossings are a pain, the buses ferry across Lake Titicaca to get to the road to La Paz. Thankfully, they make the passengers disembark and cross on a separate ferry. Otherwise, we’d have been going across the water like this:

I kept telling myself, “They do this every day.”

The Escape Hatch will return in just three days for a special La Paz report before I lose the Internet entirely in the wild Bolivian desert. ¡Hasta pronto!

Peru In Ruins: Machu Picchu, Cusco, and Lago Titicaca

It’s official: Machu Picchu is the most beautiful tourist trap in the world. Make no mistake, Machu Picchu and its surrounding landscapes are breathtaking. So is the cost of getting there, staying in a hotel, and eating a meal. Here’s an example: Anywhere else in Peru, $12 will get you an eight-hour bus ride from one city to another. In Machu Picchu, $12 is what it costs to ride the bus up the mountain to the site, and another $12 is what it costs to ride back down.

But it looks just like the postcards, only better.

Supply and demand, baby. You’re a captive audience and everyone knows it. The process to get entry tickets and train reservations is so bureaucratic and byzantine that I’m going to have to write a whole post just to give people instructions on how to do it.

The mountains seen from Machu Picchu are just… wow.

In the dark, ignorant days of the 20th Century, we were taught that the Middle East’s “fertile crescent” was the Cradle of Civilization. The truth is that there were at least five cradles where civilization emerged on its own without any prompting from outside influence. One of these was the Peruvian Andes, which is why you can’t fall down a flight of stairs in this country without landing on some archaeological remnant of a bygone era.

The upside of that is that if you’re interested in history, then wherever you go in Peru there’s something unique to see. The downside is that is that you feel pressured to visit historical site after historical site as you travel around the country. I mean, how do you choose which ancient civilization to skip? Because there’s so much history to see in Peru (and little else that doesn’t involve adventure sports) we’ve kind of rushed our way through the country. We budgeted six weeks for Peru, but instead we’ve sped through it in four.

Cusco: Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus, and Starbucks

I’ve covered our visits to several of the big tourist sites in previous articles. Once we hit the Cusco area, though, we were suddenly in the Inca heartland, a.k.a. Tourist Central. Those of us brought up in the American education system probably think of the Incas as the dominant civilization of South America, but in fact they were merely the short-lived final stage of pre-Columbian Andean culture before the Spanish arrived. The Inca Empire only lasted for about a century. They conquered all the other Andean peoples, imposed their own culture on top of the others, then the Spanish appeared and convinced some of the Inca’s subjects to rise up and… you know the rest.

I guess it wasn’t just the Spanish who moved in.

Cusco was the Inca capitol, and it looks like the Spanish bulldozed the city and replaced it with a little bit of home. There are colonial Spanish churches, monasteries, and architecture everywhere. Unlike other cities in Peru, the roofs of the houses are pitched, not flat, and covered in terracotta tile, giving Cusco a distinctly European flavor. It’s only when you wander down the streets of souvenir shops leading to the central plaza and look at the stonework that you notice the bones of the old Inca city on which modern Cusco was built.

Inca stonework in Cusco.

Inca stonemasons built walls by fitting stones together so perfectly that no mortar was needed. They didn’t square them; they just polished them somehow (it’s still up to debate) so that their walls were seamless. They saying is that the stones fit so perfectly that you can’t slip a dollar bill between them.

The stonework in Machu Picchu isn’t as amazing as in Cusco except for the fact that it’s at the top of a damn mountain. This site was never discovered by the Spanish and was unknown to Americans and Europeans until its “scientific discovery” by Hiram Bingham in 1911. (The locals knew about it, of course, and there’s evidence that it may have been stumbled upon by German explorers as early as 1867.) The site has been cleared of vegetation and is now open to thousands upon thousands of tourists every day.

How better to appreciate this ancient site than by completely blocking the view?

My advice: get there early and get through quick. The buses start up the mountain at 6:30 and do not stop. Floods of people will arrive behind you, and apparently the main reason they’re there is to take selfies. If you’re interested in seeing the site itself, you’ll constantly be craning you neck over one tour group or another, or some teenager doing fashion poses for her boyfriend, or a mass of senior citizens with their walking canes and selfie sticks. I kid you not – there was one group of elderly tourists following us around who for some reason were dressed just like Alex and his droogs from A Clockwork Orange.

“Out for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”

Our final stop in Peru was the city of Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Puno is at the highest elevation we’re going to be on our trip through South America (unless we get to see the Flying Cholitas on the outskirts of La Paz) and we’ve had a hard time breathing given the lack of oxygen. We didn’t go see any ruins, but we did ride out to the floating islands of the Uros people who live on the lake.

Reed islands and wicker boats.

The Uros are a very old culture who now live mainly off the tourists who visit their islands. The islands, made from reeds and mud, float on the surface of the lake and each houses four to five families. There were 87 islands in the community we visited. Some were mainly residential while others were geared for the tourist trade with reed hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops. The Uros aren’t entirely without modern conveniences – the first island we visited had solar cells to run electricity to the huts.

The Uros.

Peru has been both beautiful and taxing. It’s too modern to think of as a “developing country” but in many ways it seems to be lagging. We’ve stayed places with wide-screen televisions in every room, but no heating and unreliable water. We’ve gone to big-box stores cloned from (and cleaner than) any American Wal-Mart, but you can’t find a pair of sunglasses or more than one size of Band-Aid to save your life. And don’t get me started on the lack of garbage cans.

Next stop, Copacabana (Bolivia, not the one from the Barry Manilow song). Pretty soon there will be salt flats, the Island of the Sun, and Flying Cholitas.

Things I Forgot to Mention

Parades Everywhere!

Waaay back in Chiclayo I mentioned that one of the things we saw in our mere eight hours there was a random street parade. At the time, we thought it a lucky happenstance. Then there was a 6:00 a.m. procession in Chachapoyas, two days of parades near the university in Trujillo, a parade in the Callao district of Lima, a Festival of the Saints parade in Cusco, and nighttime and daytime parades in Puno, including one to celebrate the anniversary the city’s hospital. Apparently Peruvians will throw a parade at the drop of a hat. Our hostel in Puno was so close to the goings-on that it was like booking a room in the French Quarter without realizing it was Mardi Gras.

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Not Just Any Old Last Supper

In both the Convento de San Francisco in Lima and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin in Cusco, there are paintings of the Last Supper. These aren’t copies of the Da Vinci Last Supper. The one in Lima is, shall we say, crowded. Apparently Jesus and his Disciples had quite a large wait staff for the event and the meal included South American staples such as chili peppers. In Cusco, the main dish served at the Last Supper was roasted guinea pig. We weren’t allowed to take photos and the painting in Cusco was policed rather heavily, so I’m just going to post these pictures I stole off the Internet and a video from John Cleese and Eric Idle that puts things into perspective.

The Last Supper, fully catered

The Last Supper with Guinea Pig

My Recommended Read for Peru

One thing I’m doing is reading a novel by an author from each country we visit. I completely forgot to update you guys on my book for Peru: Death in the Andes by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the story of a Peruvian policeman investigating a series of disappearances in a remote village of the Andes, during the height of the communist terrorist organization Shining Path’s reign of terror. It has the structure of a murder mystery with the tension of a horror novel. Read my full review here.

 

 

That’s All, Folks!

For those interested, here is the map of our trip through Peru and a picture of Lea with a llama. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be checking in from La Paz.

Nazca: Graffiti of the Gods

When doing research for this trip, Lea found a long-term travel course on the website BootsnAll which suggested that instead of planning a rigid itinerary, one should pick “pillars” for the trip – stops along the way that you know you’re going to hit no matter what. If we were going to Peru then the biggest pillar for me, perhaps even more so than Machu Picchu, was going to see the Nazca Lines.

The Hummingbird.

The Nazca Lines fascinated me all the way back to my school days in the 70s, when UFOlogy and pseudoarchaeology were going through a revival. Even then I never bought the “runways for flying saucers” theory, but the lines were there in the desert, laid out so that they can only be seen from above, by a people without the technology to view their own works of art.

The Condor.

So imagine my surprise when, on the day Lea and I were trekking to the Nazca airport in order to catch a flight and see the lines with our own eyes, I wasn’t even a little excited about it. When I realized this, it bothered me a great deal. What was wrong with me? This was one of the things I’d most wanted to see on this trip. Why was I in such a funk?

The Pan-American Highway ran right through the Lizard, which was unknown at the time.

Lea pointed out the obvious: we’ve been doing some hard, hard traveling ever since we left Loja. The distances are longer, the cities are more confusing. The learning curve for Peru is steep, and it seems to reset itself with each new city we visit. We’d just followed up a seven-hour bus ride and late night arrival by getting lost trying to find the place we were staying. I’d had food poisoning once already (and little did I know would get it again later that very day).

The Monkey and geometric pattern. Except where his tail is partially washed out, it’s all one line.

But thank Apu and the other gods of the Peruvian desert, all my dreariness fell away once I climbed into an eight-seat “flying ceiling fan” of an airplane, took off, and saw the outline of a giant whale sketched in the desert, crisscrossed with perfect geometric lines that had been there for two thousand years.

My very first geoglyph.

(Side Note: After viewing the Lines, you should attend the planetarium show at Nazca’s DM Hotel. The cost is S/.20 per person, with shows in French, English, and Spanish. It goes in depth about the possible astronomical significance of the Lines as well as their relationship to nearby sources of water. It also talks about Maria Reiche, the German scientist who devoted her life to studying and preserving the Lines, and who once lived at the hotel that now houses the planetarium. If the sky is clear, the planetarium operator will point out the southern constellations and show different celestial objects through a telescope.)

Speaking of Apu, see that thing behind the Andes that looks like a giant sand dune? It’s a giant sand dune – Cerro Blanco, the Everest of dunes, 2078 meters high.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I left off last week we were still in Lima, though we had moved from the slightly shady port district of Callao to the Centro Historico. This gave us time to wander around the Plaza San Martin, the Plaza de Armas, the Basílica de San Francisco (with museum and catacombs), watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, visit the excellent Museum of Peruvian Art, and eat a bucket of Norky’s Fried Chicken.

The fountain in Lima’s central plaza.

Catedral de Lima.

The Presidential Palace in pink at night.

These boots are made for walking.

The Archbishop’s Palace.

Not the Archbishop.

We also went to Lima’s Chinatown, which had plenty of Chinese shops, iconography, restaurants, and not a single Chinese person that we could identify.

Yeah, right.

After a week in one place, the longest we’d stayed anywhere since Quito, it was time to move on. We took the afternoon bus to Nazca and took a chance on our accommodations. So far, aside from the two-week homestay that was part of our Spanish class in Quito and our one night at a posh resort in Papallacta, we’d made nearly all of our reservations at various backpackers’ hostels through Booking.com.

We’ve also been using the website Couchsurfing.com to meet people in various cities, just so we could have human conversations that aren’t business transactions. The results have been hit-or-miss: we’ve met some fantastic people who we’d love to stay in touch with and see again, but we’ve been stood up completely twice so far. The main deal with Couchsurfing, though, is that it lets you connect with people who will let you stay in their homes. We hadn’t bit that bullet yet, and one strange guy we met in Trujillo nearly scared us away from the idea. In Nazca we went for it, and we’re glad that we did.

Our host was Hendrie. (Hi, Hendrie!) Hendrie was awesome. He put us up in his house, told us where to get the best seafood in town, haggled with a tour operator to get us a deal on an adventure excursion, and even walked us to the bus station when it was finally time for us to leave. Remember when I said that the learning curve in Peru is steep? If you can get in touch with a guy as generous as Hendrie, everything becomes so much simpler. Experiences like this are why Lea and I plan to host travelers ourselves once we get back to the States.

Lea, me, and Hendrie.

Now about that adventure tour…

There are several archaeological sites around Nazca in addition to the Lines. We didn’t want to miss out, and a tour would hit several of them at once. Hendrie told us that the tours leave at 2:00 p.m. and if you get there a half hour before you can usually get a discount as they try to fill empty seats. We got one that was going to visit four locations, but we didn’t fully understand at the time what we were signing up for.

Our ride.

We went with a large group of Tahitians in taxis to the edge of town, where two dune buggies were waiting for us. (Say what?) The dune buggies took us off-road on bumpy trails to visit the Nazca aqueducts, an ancient burial site that had been looted by grave robbers (leaving the bones to bake in the sun), and the pyramid complex at Cahuachi.

An ancient Nazca aqueduct, still operational.

Dem bones.

Cahuachi.

Then our drivers took us out into the dunes. “So the dunes are the fourth location?” we wondered. “They’re certainly pretty. I wish they would stop so we could take some pictures.”

That wasn’t the plan. The drivers did stop, but only to let some air out of the tires for better traction. We climbed to a high ridge with our buggy looking out over a pretty damn steep abyss of sand. Lea and I realized what was about to happen when we saw the other dune buggy zip down the cliff.

“No. No no no. No no no no no….”

The other passengers let out a roller coaster scream as our buggy shot over the edge, down the valley, and up the other side. And again. And again. And again. After the third plummet I stopped shouting “No” and just accepted the fact that our buggy was going to roll and we were all going to die.

So here I am, reincarnated as a llama, typing my final blog entry before the farmer comes to shear my wool.

Well, it might have ended that way. Llamas don’t do stupid things like sign up for dune buggy excursions without realizing that if they stick you in a dune buggy it’s for one reason only. As it is, we survived (though our two buggies spent a bit of time helping a third get unstuck from the sand). By the time we headed back for Nazca the sun had set and we barreled along bumpy off-road roads with only the vaguest bit of faith that our driver knew where he was going.

We got back to town in plenty of time to pick up our luggage, say goodbye to Hendrie, eat a dinner of cow’s tongue spaghetti from a street vendor, and get on a fourteen-hour night bus for Cuzco.

With a pound of sand still in our hair, eyes, ears, and teeth.