Salt Flats of Bolivia – surreal island and train cemetery

On Day One in Salar de Uyuni, we experienced a major shift in perception as we sped deep into the vast salt flats. There was white as far as the eye could see. The surface, formed of dried-up prehistoric lakes, was etched with hexagonal cells, much like honeycombs and the columns of Giant’s Causeway, evidence of nature’s fixed rules on order and economy. Elise had fun hopping up onto salt mounds that were ready for harvesting. Everything was dry – our hands, lips, the air, and the salt itself.

We stopped at a train cemetery where trains were abandoned in the 1940’s after the mining industry collapsed. As would not have been the case in the US, we were allowed to clamber all over the rusting structures.

For lunch, our guide brought us to a restaurant formed of blocks of salt. Even the chairs and tables were made of salt. Needless to say, there was no lack of table salt, lol.

Outside the restaurant, a sea of international flags were flapping madly in the strong wind. After traveling for so long in foreign lands, Elise found comfort in the familiar and ran to the American flag and hugged it.

Most astonishing was Isla Incahuasi, a cacti-covered island rising out of the salt flats, which played games with our sense of sea and land. Elise and I hiked its trails through caves and across scorched terrain.

The sky deepened into shades of gold and violet as night fell, a fitting end to a surreal day.

Squirrel monkeys in the Bolivian Amazon

During a river tour in the Bolivian Amazon, a troop of squirrel monkeys spotted Elise’s bananas and sprung into our boat. In a flash, the adorable, agile, little creatures were everywhere – hanging from our clothes, sitting on Elise’s hat, and grabbing food with their tiny hands. A number of them had babies clinging to their backs. As soon as the bananas and apples were gone, they sprung back into the trees. It was awesome!

Seeing crocodiles up close, exotic birds, turtles, and the occasional flash of pink dolphins was also fantastic!

I enjoyed observing how the boat operators served as unofficial delivery men of food and fuel to communities along the river. Someone would wave a canister and the boat operator would pull up along the shore to pick up or drop off, whistling a happy tune all the while. It struck me that the work was leisurely compared to that of the delivery men I’d seen in the Himalayas who lugged everything from bags of rice to cages of chickens on their backs to remote Nepalese villages.

The animals, our happy guide, the sunshine, and spectacular greenery made for some glorious moments out on the water. When the the boat zipped along at a good clip, the breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay. However, whenever we slowed down or got close to the shore, I could feel a constellation of bites all over my body – even on my butt since the seats were made of nylon strands, which produced protrusions of flesh perfect for mosquitos. This was despite 4 layers of protection including natural bug spray, Skin so Soft from our friends in Berlin, clothing impregnated with repellant – and even DEET. It was so bad that we had to forego fishing for piranha since they were in an area surrounded by dense vegetation. (Bummer! As a lapsed vegetarian, it’s the only creature I relish catching and eating!)

Even worse than the bugs, however, was the ubiquitous stench of mold at the riverside camp. In the dining room and cabins, it burned the nostrils like nail polish remover. When I mentioned the stench to the staff, they seemed not to know what I was talking about. Proof positive that humans can adapt to just about any living conditions.

That said, Elise made the best of it by befriending a kitten which had apparently just lost its mother to a crocodile. Without meaning to be ironic, she named her Alli.

In the end, although the trip was challenging, I am very glad we did it. And after having seen the movie “Jungle” in which Daniel Radcliffe pulls a squirming full-grown worm out of a boil on his forehead at a location not far from where we were, it’s clear that our discomforts were miniscule.

Rurrenabaque – lanquid days and funny dogs

The air in Rurrenabaque was hot and humid, and the pace in town was languid. Dirt roads kicked up dust as motorcycles putted by. Dogs napped in the shade of palm trees in the plaza, and banana merchants waited for customers on the riverbanks. A lone boat maker took his sweet time carving out a boat.

Exhausted from the long drive the night before, after switching hotels, we chilled under the high thatched roof of Casa del Campo, ordering pancakes, then smoothies, then soup, then native potatoes as the day wore on.

At some point, we ventured along the main drag to inquire about jungle tours. Normally, I’m a travel do-it-yourselfer, but without a jeep, boat, or platform on which to pitch our tent – or, ahem, wilderness survival skills – we needed a guide.

There were dozens of little offices with walls covered in maps and faded snapshots of adrenalin-pumped tourists catching piranhas, swimming with dolphins, shining flashlights on tarantulas during night walks, and gesturing like rappers next to giant anaconda. My particular interest was in hiking deep in the jungle with indigenous guides with knowledge of medicinal plants. But, it wasn’t meant to be. We learned that it was easier to spot animals in the pampas than in the jungle, which appealed to Elise. And, strangely, the office for one of the most reputable eco-lodges in the jungle had an overpowering stench of mold, as well as a haughty salesperson, so we looked elsewhere and ended up booking a pampas tour with Fluvial Tours. The agency’s claim to fame was that its founder had helped saved a man, Yossi Ghinsberg, who’d been lost in the jungle for weeks. Ghinsberg’s book was made into a film starring Daniel Radcliff.

Along the way we spotted amusing dogs – one on a motorbike with wind-blown ears and another with surreally blue eyes.

 

Death Road and edible insects

Although it seems that a part of us will forever be trapped at the Bolivian Hotel California, we finally bid Coroico adieu.

Our route to the Amazon avoided Bolivia’s infamous Death Road, which is now used mostly by mountain bikers, but given the sheer drops, lack of guard rails and the muddy surface, our road did not exactly inspire confidence. We were promised professional drivers, but they ended up being kids in their early 20’s. One was barely as tall as Elise. The other wore a crop shirt that said “Bridesmaid”. The Swedish physicists in the back seat were completely unfazed, but I was wide awake the entire journey, which started at 5pm to bypass road construction during daylight hours and ended at 4am.

Three hours into the journey, we stopped to get fuel and food in a tiny, but blaring, one-road town. All of the kids were scampering around to catch slow-moving, apparently edible insects called Tuho. One little girl was busy chopping off their blueberry-sized abdomens with a bottle cap. She offered us a sample but none of us was brave enough to try it – not even the Swedes.

Our “real” food was not much more appetizing – French fries served up in a sweltering, cement-walled, fume-choked, roadside restaurant bathed in green flourescent light. I could hardly have been more uncomfortable. The Swedes took it all in stride, however, and were as relaxed as if they’d been sipping Glogg at a spa.  

It was a relief to me to get back into our vehicle. But there were more adventures ahead. The hundreds of enormous potholes finally took their toll and a tire blew. Our driver adeptly pulled to the side of the road and the two guys got right to work replacing the tire. Meanwhile, all of the ladies required a bio break. We were miles from any restrooms, however, so we opened the curbside doors and stood guard on either side as each one of us went – camping-style. Elise, who has been particular about proper restroom etiquette since she was a little kid, was appalled. But nature called and she eventually followed suit. It was a revelation to her and she kept saying: “I can’t believe I can go to the restroom outside!” Fortuitous timing given upcoming plans to trek in Patagonia.

A few hours later, we found ourselves in a muddy, four-lane traffic jam, sandwiched in between 18-wheelers and cement-mixers. Shorty saw an advantage and tried to squeeze ahead, but the vehicle to our left also moved forward. The mirror on the driver’s side was smashed to the ground and we got stuck. After inching backwards to the sound of scraping metal, Bridesmaid jumped out and shouted directions until we could maneuver into a “proper” lane. He then picked up the mirror and brought it inside the car. Sad sounds in Spanish came from the front seat. Meanwhile, in the back seat, the Swedes were cracking physics jokes until Miriam finally said: “Not everything is about pressure, Frida.”

Given the lack of road markings along much of our route, it came as a surprise that the final stretch of road into Rurrenabaque was perfectly straight and smoothly paved and had an excessive number of signs (all with the same information), reflectors, and street lights. I am guessing that the road construction company was paid not by the mile but by the number of peripherals installed.

Finally, at 4am, we arrived at our hotel and unloaded our gear. Blown tire and smashed mirror aside, the drivers had done a pretty good job, so I gave them a tip. They looked at me without comprehension.

Elise was cranky and immediately hated the hotel. The curtains did not fully cover the large windows (which we later discovered faced the river) and she saw a large insect scuttle in and out of the room on the ceiling. Poor thing lay awake, staring, waiting for Gregor to return.

Sol y Luna – you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave

Sol y Luna, a low-key hillside resort in Coroico, Bolivia, with winding paths, exotic blossoms, tranquil pools, Japanese-style yoga rooms, and killer mountain views, was our home for more days than we’d expected. Our goal was to get to the jungle in Rurrenabaque. Options included backtracking to La Paz to catch a flight (I do not like backtracking, Sam I am) , or 8+ hours of overland travel on primitive roads. Without internet, we couldn’t book our flights or even check availability, so we chose the overland route and hired a driver with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. The price was high, however, so we sought out other travelers to share the cost. Two Swedish physicists, Frieda and Miriam, decided to join us – but only if we’d delay our departure. Arg! If there had been internet, both Elise and I would have eagerly welcomed the downtime. The misty grounds and our spacious corner room with its large, old-style windows had a magical vibe. On sunny days, the scent of lilacs wafted in, and during tropical rainstorms the air turned cool and damp as the rain drummed on the tin rooftops.

So we made the best of it. Elise drew in her diary and played board games on the open-air terrace with the Swedes while I read “Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland” by travel writer John Harrison. The book was the perfect escape and brought to life the history of the Incas. Harrison’s portrayal of the capture of the Inca Emperor by the Spanish was brilliant. The book also put our “hardships”, eg unaesthetic hotel rooms, long bus rides, diarrhea – and no internet, into perspective. As he walked the Inca Road from Quito to Cuzco, Harrison pitched his tent in the pouring rain, slept in grimy rooms, got attacked, got lost, and was trapped by floods.

Maybe being trapped in tropical paradise wasn’t actually so bad, after all.

Homestay on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

Elise and I did a homestay on Uros Khantati, one of about 50 floating islands on Lake Titicaca. Centuries ago, the Uros people first fashioned the islands out of totora reeds in an effort to isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and the Incas. Now they keep the government at bay, since they pay no property taxes – only taxes on tourist services.

When I booked the homestay, I had no idea what would await us. Would it mean that we would would be staying in a guest room in the home of an Uros family? What kind of food would they eat? How long would we have to travel to reach the islands? Would there be running water, electricity or proper toilets? Elise was particularly worried about the latter. She needn’t have been.

We traveled by boat only about 20 minutes from Puno, Peru on Lake Titicaca. Soon we spotted our first island!

It really was a floating island made of reeds! As a neat freak, I couldn’t help noticing that there was rubbish strewn on the island, however. Would ours look the same? Soon we started to see many other islands, each with its own personality. Some had a reed lookout tower in the shape of a giant fish, others a giant bird. Many had dramatic-looking reed boats.

Soon, we arrived at our island, Uros Khantati – home sweet home for two days and a night.

It turned out to be a ship shape island with about a dozen cabins, a restaurant, lots of cheerful reed umbrellas and archways, a tall lookout station, and even a bridge and a pond. Walking on the springy reeds was a trip – almost like walking on a waterbed.

Our host, Chistina, greeted us and brought us to our cabin. Surprise! We had the cabin all to ourselves. It had lakeside views, a big bed, colorful wall hangings, and – to Elise’s great relief – a shiny, modern bathroom. As she would discover, the potty was also eco-friendly: the front part had a drain for Number One and the back part a pit for Number Two. Instead of flushing, one poured a scoop of what looked like kitty litter into the pit (we called it humany litter). Elise can be very particular about the hygienic standards of restrooms, but (to my relief) she gave this one a thumbs up. The lights were powered by solar energy.

There was a fun patio just outside our cabin with chairs and hammocks.

After we settled in, Christina’s husband Victor gave us a tour in a traditional reed boat with a puma face, the symbol of Lake Titicaca.

He showed us how they used nets to catch fish. He extracted two small fish from the net and put them in a bowl of water, noting that they were great for soup. Elise, of course, saw that the fish were suffering and asked if she could throw them back into the lake. Victor laughed and said yes. He then demonstrated how they gather fresh reeds using a surprisingly primitive-looking eucalyptus stalk with a blade attached at one end with wire. After he’d harvested a bundle of reeds, he peeled back the skin on one and nibbled on the white center. (He warned us not to do the same, however, since our systems were not adapted to the lake water.) Since the reeds on the island rot away from the bottom, he said that they must be replenished from the top three times a month during rainy season and twice during dry season. Placing the reeds on the ground is straightforward, but placing them beneath the cabins requires 25 people to lift the structures (logs stick out at the base of the cabins for that purpose) in order to pile up the reeds below. While he was explaining this, we saw a man on a small motorboat with an enormous stack of reeds returning to a neighboring island.

Victor told us that there were three families living on Uros Khantati. Since there are no schools in Uros, all the children leave by boat every morning around 6am to attend school in Puno, and return around 4pm. They move to the shore when it is time to attend college. Christina and Victor’s two children returned to island after college to help with the family business.

The islands are all anchored to each other and to the reeds by strong rope. I was fascinated to learn that the islands used to be in the center of Lake Titicaca, but that they were pulled by motorboat to their current location close to Puno three years ago in order to shorten transportation times to the lakeshore.

After the instructional part of our tour was over, we blissed out on the boat as we slowly made our way back to the island. Turns out, given the constant need to research our next destination/transportation/lodging/activities etc, and to write blog posts/select and edit photos, do our bookkeeping, and homeschool Elise – and to experience travel itself! – I rarely relax. But I was deeply relaxed in the warm sunshine and fresh air on the incredibly tranquil waters of the lake.

Christina served us a fabulous meal of grilled salmon, quinoa salad and potatoes, with beautifully arranged fresh fruit for dessert. In the late afternoon we put on traditional Uros costumes. Christina even wove pompoms into Elise’s braids.

It was very touristy, but I photographed our new German friends, Sinem and Fabi, paddling a reed boat dressed in Uros costumes. Fabi, by the way, proposed to Sinem after hiking the Inca Trail just as they reached Machu Picchu. She said yes! He was nervous that the ring would be discovered during security checks at the airport, but Sinem never suspected a thing. Well done, Fabi.

Afterwards, Christina showed us the handicrafts she and her daughter made, which included embroidered tapestries and pillowcases and figurines and mobiles woven from the reeds. There were many things I wanted to buy, but we have to stretch our budget for a full year and also don’t dare add any more weight to our packs.

Very satisfied with the day, Elise and I retreated to our cabin as the sun went down and had a very restful sleep.

The next morning, we relaxed in the sunshine as we waited for Victor to bring the boat to take us back to Puno.

Christina and her sister, who lives on the neighboring island, joined us for the ride back.

Our experience on Uros Khantati was excellent – one of the highlights of our travels thus far. If you are interested in doing a homestay on Uros, Christina can be reached at uroskhantati@hotmail.com.

Desert oasis and sandboarding in Huacachina

We escaped the big city and reached Huacachina, Peru, a palm-fringed desert oasis surrounded by 100m high sand dunes. It was startling at first looking up and seeing the dunes, which loom like static tidal waves.

This was the somewhat mind-blowing view from our window:

We explored the tiny town by walking around the pond. It took 10 minutes. Elise added a bracelet to her collection. A woman from Argentina made one for her that picked up on the colors of her other bracelets.

The next day we caught a ride in a sand buggy to a spot for sand boarding. The driver roared the engine as we sped down what looked like 80° inclines. Elise held onto me tightly and we screamed as our stomachs dropped. After that, the sand boarding itself was like a gentle walk in the park. We started by zooming down on our bellies – weeeeeeeee! It was like sledding on powdery snow, except that it was wonderfully warm and cozy and über soft. Later, on a more shallow incline, we tried standing up on our boards. Seriously good fun!

The oasis at sunset.

Elise got a kick out of being able to sip fresh papaya juice at the pool bar at Ecocamp and play endlessly in the water, perfecting her handstands and boogying to the blaring dance music. I wished I had been able to enjoy the place as much as she did, but the decibel levels made that impossible for me. I kept thinking of the Hawaii episode of Mad Men. Don and Megan are in tropical paradise, but Don felt only tension.

To make themselves feel better about maintaining a pool in the middle of the desert, Ecocamp recycles, does daily clean-ups of the dunes, and even provides free room and board in poolside cabanas to volunteers working on sustainability projects. Unless you are Don Draper (or a misophone like me), it would not be a bad place to volunteer for a few weeks.  The town itself is tiny – only 200 inhabitants – and nearly all of them are geared towards making your stay fun.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

This place feels much more remote than Santa Cruz – even slightly abandoned, which is a welcome thing.

With its squarish, concrete structures (many half-finished) and radio towers, however, Puerto Villamol is not especially charming at first glance. The roads around the town square are dirt while the park is paved. Go figure. Just a block or two away there are barren lots strewn with cinderblocks and plastic tubs, which reminded me of deep West VA, except instead of dirt, the ground is covered in black volcanic gravel like a rustic parking lot. Opposite a flamingo pond is what appears to be a 1950’s style power plant.

But the island holds many lovely surprises, such as Concha de Perla, a wooden walkway where sea lions snooze (you have to step over them!) through a mangrove swamp to a bay which is home to marine iguanas and giant tortoises.

There is also a long stretch of beach with turquoise green water, the softest sand ever, and pleasant beach cafes.

The restaurants that looked run-of-the-mill by day light up at night from the glow of lanterns. The seafood is also excellent. We took advantage of ubiquitous $8 set menu options and sampled the grilled fish, lobster, and fish soup and (apart from a mushy seafood spaghetti) enjoyed every bite.

Elise adores pools, and I wanted to give her a special experience during our final days in the Galapagos, so I booked a stay at The Wooden House (3x our normal budget) based on the photos of its big pool. But while the rooms were lovely and Zen-like, the pool ended up being teensy tiny (trick photography).

After one night we switched to another hotel with spacious rooms, gleaming floors, and hammocks on a breezy top-floor terrace. Having essentially won back some of our budget, I looked into guided tours. The options depicted in faded photos at the travel agencies, however, left a lot to be desired. There were tours of the Tuneles, Volcanes, and Tintoreras, but travelers we met said the volcano tour was not worth it, and it was much better to see the other sites yourself. So we rented snorkels ($6 for 2 of us for the afternoon) and swam in the bay with marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and many colorful fish (my favorite was a black fish with electric blue eyes and a yellow mouth), and then rode mountain bikes to see flamingos and tortoises at a conservation center where Elise was allowed by an enthusiastic guide to touch a highly interactive tortoise! It was amazing looking into this 100+ year old creature’s eyes, who shrunk back into his/her shell any time we gestured too wildly.

We then rode a 5k path along gorgeous coastline which eventually turned inland.

There were various scenic lookout points marked with large signs for “Green Ponds”, “Round Pool”, “Hidden Pool” etc (was like shopping for sights at a supermarket), as well as a high platform with 360 degree views of the island.

Elise decided to forego the climb in favor of having a snack, which she shared with two little birds. As a gearhead, I was absurdly pleased to be able to offer her one of our tiny, ultralight camping chairs for the first time.

From the lookout platform, there was sea as far as the eye could see in one direction, and uninhabited, scrub-covered land in the other that disappeared into a wall of fog. I felt the desolation of the place and had a flicker of melancholy.

The path ended at the towering 100m long Wall of Tears, which was built by convicts under abusive conditions at the time of the island’s penal colony (1946-59). The wall appeared to be made entirely of volcanic rocks and was in the middle of nowhere, separating nothing. It provided us with the opportunity to discuss human rights and capital punishment. Without prompting, Elise told me that she believes that even convicts should not be abused since they are already paying for their crimes by being locked up, and that we do not have the right to kill other human beings – even murderers. (Brava Elise! I am less certain about how society should punish child molesters/murderers).

But our visit to the island wasn’t all about heavy discussion. The next day, Elise tried body boarding for the first time. The surf was great and she managed to ride a few waves all the way to the shore. Since this is the precursor to surfing, her surfboarding cousin Nele will be proud!

As we sped away from Isabella, the shape of the island revealed itself. The day we’d arrived, there was heavy fog obscuring the coastline. Elise thought she’d caught a glimpse of mountains behind the clouds, but wasn’t sure. Indeed, we saw a giant, gently sloping volcano as we sped away, one of six that form Isabela’s seahorse shape. There were also smaller islands that came into view – strange, unfamiliar shapes that formed no pattern in my mind. How do the children growing up on Isabela view those same shapes? What stories do they have to describe them?

During the two-hour ride, I held Elise tightly on my lap because she felt a bit of seasickness. I was unable to write or listen to my university courses or read my Kindle as I usually do during commutes, so I spent the time thinking about what we’d experienced. I was pleased that Elise had had a number of firsts – snorkeling, body boarding, mountain biking – and that the island had offered a few terrific science lessons – tortoise breeding and conservation, the function of mangroves and coral, how life can take root on a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, daily rhythms of sea lions and iguanas, and how heritable traits may give offspring an advantage in a particular ecological niche (eg tortoises on the Galapagos developed especially long necks to be able to eat cacti). Elise had also learned a bit about history (European colonization), ethics, sociology (none of the merchants on the islands undercut the competition, and they refused to let newcomers invest in the island without first living there for two years), and even economics (given scarcity and the cost of transporting goods, prices were higher on the island). All good stuff.

I also reflected on the fact that I felt completely comfortable being tossed about by the waves – even though it sometimes felt like a roller coaster ride. I suffer from claustrophobia (made worse when confined spaces are crowded) and misophonia (eating noises, inane TV, etc), but not at all from motion sickness or aquaphobia, acrophobia, aviophobia (alektorophobia, consecotaleophobia, or arachibutyrophobia, lol), or anything else really, so with a wide view of the silvery sea and the roar of the waves drowning out any other sound, I found that I was extremely content and relaxed right up through our arrival back in Santa Cruz.

But now…my imagination is all fired up by the prospect of visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru!

Ziplining in Mindo, Ecuador

After the bumpy start to our travels, we were more than ready for some R&R, and Mindo provided us with exactly what we needed – a fun, dusty Wild West kinda town in the mountains with banana trees and explosions of blossoms at every turn – and a 2.5 hour ziplining course high above the treetops!

We woke up to a view of blossoms and mountains, and to a marvelous breakfast on a treehouse terrace over a river. Elise squealed with delight when a hummingbird fed on blossoms just a few feet from our table. (I wasn’t prepared to get the shot, but made up for it later at CasaZen.)

After a few more refreshments and a bumpy ride in a pickup truck (Elise was thrilled to be allowed to sit in the back), the fun began! We joined a group of Swiss, Americans and Ecuadorans for a series of long zips that zigzagged high above valleys. Elise was one of the bravest in our group, opting to try the ‘Supergirl’ zip (hands free, flying like Superman). Having accomplished that, she decided to go for the Mariposa (‘Butterfly’) – hands and feet-free and upside-down!! She was exhilarated when she arrived at the platform, saying “It changed my life!” and “It felt like I was going to fall into the clouds.” Well, if my brave Little One could do it, obviously I had to give it a go, too. But I’d waited til the very last zip, which turned out to be the longest of all. Eeeek! But halfway through, I sort of just gave into the experience and started to relax. Not something I will forget anytime soon! Afterward, we joined our new friends for grilled trout in another treetop restaurant. Americans John and Molly were visiting their former exchange student, Diego, 26 years after he’d spent a year in their CT home. Love those international connections. All-in-all, a great day.