A Cold Autumn Day at Burabay National Park

My first trip out of Astana was to the popular nature destination of Borovoe (or Burabai in Kazakh).  Located just a short three hour train ride away, this is a pretty popular weekend getaway for residents of Astana.  There are plenty of resorts and hotels around the lake which are full during the summer months.  I went with two classmates and we headed out on the first train north, which left sometime around 6 AM.  The train cost only about $3 each way and ran fairly regularly all day.  Once we arrived at the train station in the town nearest to Borovoe, we hired a taxi to take us to the end of the hiking route so that we only had to walk into the town instead of doing the same trail there and back.

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Early morning at the Astana Train Station
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Our first view of Borovoe

Now, the thing about Borovoe is that the weather is entirely unpredictable.  Unlike everywhere surrounding it which is endless steppe, Borovoe has mountains and forests that contribute to its erratic climate.  According to most of the forecasts, the weather was supposed to be fine the entire day, and many friends of mine had been there the previous day with beautiful weather.  When we arrived, it was cloudy and much colder than Astana (which isn’t so surprising considering its proximity to the border with Russian Siberia).  Since there was a cafe at the beginning of the route, we stopped for hot drinks before heading out on the walk.

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Stopping for hot drinks before our hike

Unfortunately, during the time we were inside getting warmed up, it started raining outside.  It was only a light rain and we hoped it would stop after we started walking, so we began the trek into a forested area nearby.  The scenery was lovely, and there were tied rags which are used for religious rituals on many of the trees.  After getting turned around in here, we made our way toward the town.  Of course, the rain came down harder and harder during the next 3 hours to the point that everything was pretty well soaked through by the time we arrived in town.

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Replica of the standing stones found across Kazakhstan
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This stone has some attachment to some ancient practice from what I could gather
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Clouds coming over the trees
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Tied rags symbolize many things in local religious contexts

Once we managed to find a restaurant and get food (and have a few incidents along the way) we made the journey back to the train station and to Astana.  The train station for Borovoe is incredibly cold for being indoors, so we ended up drinking a lot of hot chocolate from a vending machine to keep warm with all the wind coming inside and hitting our still pretty wet clothes.  The train back was pretty late in the evening, and we got stuck with very loud and inebriated soccer fans from a city on the other side of the country who were singing their team’s anthem for hours.  Overall though, even with pretty much everything going wrong that could go wrong, it was still a beautiful trip and definitely one I will remember.

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The famous standing stone in the center of the lake
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Cool root systems on these trees near the lake
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Rentable boats near the famous rock
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Grey skies and grey water
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A cyclist who was also stuck in the rain

El Calafate and Ushuaia – five days in Argentine Patagonia 

El Calafate is a town in Argentina known for one thing – Perito Moreno glacier. This is the world’s only glacier which is not shrinking, but rather at a state of equilibrium. At the far south of the country lies the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city on earth. In contrast to the rest of Patagonia, Ushuaia was covered in a thick layer of snow and slush. Because of this, during the winter months the town is alive with skiers and snowboarders from around the world.  
My first sight in Argentina was the Perito Moreno Glacier. I had to take a tour to the glacier from Puerto Natales, Chile, in order to see it at all, as I had to change my plans due to lack of buses. This involved a 7 AM bus, a very easy border crossing in the middle of nowhere, and a very long and convoluted route to El Calafate before continuing to the glacier.  

 

Chilean border office
  
Crossing into Argentina
 We got to the glacier at about 3 PM and had two hours to wander around the many boardwalks and viewpoints. Since I brought lunch with me, I went straight for the boardwalks instead of eating in the very overpriced cafeteria attached to the visitor centre, and it was perfect. Just as I made it to the first viewpoint, I heard a large crash and saw a huge chunk of ice calving off the glacier and fall into the lake below. It was impressive, especially since the snow was falling so hard I could barely see the glacier in the first place, but this part was crystal clear. The snow cleared up after about 40 minutes, showing much of the 14 kilometers of ice behind the front cliffs. In warmer and clearer weather, I think that 2 hours would not be enough to enjoy the entire area, but with cold and snow it was plenty.  

 

The barely visible glacier
  
Perito Moreno glacier once the snow let up
  
The boardwalks
  
The ice is extremely blue
 The bus left for El Calafate at about 5, and we made it back a little after 6. I was the only one who was staying in the city, so I got dropped off at the gas station and walked to my hostel. I stayed at America del Sur and it was incredible. They have heated floors. HEATED FLOORS. After freezing in Bolivia and then again in Patagonia, heated flooring was pretty much the greatest thing. The staff was great, breakfast was included, and it was so warm. When I got here, I also ran into my French friend from the previous two towns and the Brazilian guy from my hostel in Puerto Natales.  

 

Shops in El Calafate
 
I spent the last hour of daylight walking around the downtown area of El Calafate. It’s super touristy, but unlike Puerto Natales, it was actually open! There were lots of crazy overpriced tourist shops and restaurants, but the area was nice enough to make up for it. I went back to the hostel after dark and then went to dinner with my Brazilian friend at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by the hostel. I hadn’t eaten in a restaurant in a few weeks so I was ready so spend a bit more than normal. The place we went was the #1 in town and quite upscale, and the food was incredible. I had a huge portion of Patagonian lamb in a calafate sauce (it’s a local berry). By the time it was all said and done I spent 300 pesos ($20 at the blue dollar rate) but it was worth it!

 

Patagonian lamb dinner
 
The next afternoon, after dealing with the hassle of cancelled flights and talking with customer service in Spanish, I flew to Ushuaia. The flight was short, though it was almost prolonged due to a snowstorm at the airport when we were about to land. We ended up landing 20 minutes early somehow and I made it to my hostel by 4. I just walked around the centre for a bit and saw the city for the first day, which was quite nice. The “Fin Del Mundo” sign was only 2 blocks from the hostel, so it was very conveniently located for walking about. The park along the waterfront was really nice, though my photos kept getting bombed by ski teams from random countries (especially the Polish team) who were in the city for a competition.  

 

Lago Argentino from Above
  
Ticket vendors along the Ushuaia streets
  
It’s the End of the World!
 
The next day I decided to go winter hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park. On the way to the bus station, I had my passport stamped with an “End of the World” stamp at the information centre near the port. The bus to the park was an outrageous 300 pesos ($20 at the blue rate) though it was only 15 km. However, the park was worth the cost. When I arrived, it was snowing quite hard but it quickly let up, with only random heavy downbursts of snow throughout the trek. I spent most of the walk with an older Argentine couple who both had studied some English and wanted to practice, so we had an interesting talk in basic English with Spanish to fill in the blanks. The hiking circuit took about 3 hours, at the end of which was an overpriced cafe for the cold and wet hikers who spent the day in the park. I caught the next bus and made it to the hostel by 4, where I spent the rest of the day keeping warm in the lounge area. I also met a group of Filipino travelers at the hostel and spent most of the night hanging out with them.  

 

Tierra del Fuego National Park
  
   
The following morning, I slept in way longer than anticipated, but when I finally made it to the lobby, my German friends I had run into so many times were checking into the hostel. Since they showed up, we ended up all trying to hike to the Glaciar Martial but had to turn around near the top due to the weather and the sun going down. The walk wasn’t bad though, just a bit slushy in the streets. We made it back by nightfall and I went to bed early, as I had an early flight to Buenos Aires the following morning.  

 

Shopping streets
  
Stranded ship in the port
  
Mountainous landscape surrounding the city
  
So close to Antarctica!
 

Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales – five days exploring Chilean Patagonia 

Punta Arenas is the gateway city to Chilean Patagonia.  The city is the southernmost in Chile, and is the capital of the Magellanes district.  It has the only airport in the region, making it the first stop for anyone flying into Chilean Patagonia. Puerto Natales is a much smaller town located just north of Punta Arenas, and is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and the rest of the trekking opportunities in Chilean Patagonia.

I arrived in Punta Arenas  after a three hour flight from Puerto Montt.  Getting to my hostel, Hostal 53 Sur, was easy with the cheap transfer bus at the airport.  The staff was really friendly and the hostel was wonderfully warm – much unlike the cold and windy weather outside.  Since it was late, I cooked dinner and went to bed early, as I planned to see the city the following morning before heading to Puerto Natales.
I was pleasantly surprised by a pancake breakfast in the morning, apparently included in the hostel fee for the night.  I also met up with a French girl who was also staying in the hostel and we ended up touring the city together.  After we bought our bus tickets to Puerto Natales, we first headed toward the viewpoint of the city.  We ended up missing the main viewpoint, but found a different one that was still really nice.  From here we walked toward the cemetery, stopping in a cathedral along the way (where we accidentally let some stray dogs inside).
Downtown Punta Arenas
Punta Arenas is known for its interesting cemetery, which has a wide variety of families located inside.  Interestingly, the main gate is closed permanently at the request of the woman who financed the cemetery – she wanted to be the last one to enter it when she died, so there is a side entrance now.  Since the city was heavily populated with people from all over Europe, the names on the gravestones are extremely varied.

Colorful gravestones in the cemetery
After the cemetery we went toward the seashore to walk along the coastal sidewalk.  The wind was really intense there and was almost strong enough to hold you up if you fell into it.  We walked along the water toward the city centre, where we went to escape the crazy wind and to see the last part of the city.  The centre is a really nice area, with many statues and memorials scattered throughout its many plazas.  The centerpiece of the Plaza de Armas is a large statue of Ferdinand Magellan, who the region was named after.  I walked back to the hostel from here to make lunch, splitting from my friend who went to buy some food, and ended up finding the actual mirador along the way.  The view was really nice as it was aligned with the streets, giving a better view of the buildings and the ocean.  In the late afternoon, I caught the bus to Puerto Natales, located 3 hours to the north.

Monument along the seashore

Monument of Magellan in the Plaza de Armas

Punta Arenas from the mirador
I made it to Puerto Natales fairly late in the evening and walked to my hostel, The Singing Lamb.  The place was pretty empty the entire time I was there, which was kinda weird but the hostel was really nice so it was fine.  The next day I set out to explore the town.  There really isn’t much to it, other than the main plaza and the seaside walk.  Most of the stores and hostels were closed for the off season, making it seem very dead during my entire visit.  The waterfront, however, was absolutely stunning and worth spending a day there just to see.  The wind was really strong (as in all of Patagonia) so the waves were quite large.  The water is overshadowed by large snow-capped mountains and the ever changing sky.  I spent hours along the water listening to music and relaxing, at least until I froze from the wind.  Later in the afternoon, I managed to run into the German guys who were on my Salar de Uyuni tour in Bolivia a few weeks earlier – they were staying in the same hostel as the French girl from Punta Arenas, which was crazy. I ended up spending the evening having dinner at their hostel and chatting until fairly late.

Ship docked in the waters off Puerto Natales

Broken ship on shore outside of town

The old dock in Puerto Natales

Gorgeous sunset along the ocean
Early the next morning I took a day tour to Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most famous places in Patagonia. Unfortunately, just before my hostel pickup came, I had a catastrophic incident with my camera which left it unusable (in case you didn’t already know: DSLR + water = bad time for everyone).   It wasn’t a very great weather day to visit TdP, so while the tour was incredible and the landscape gorgeous, I was only able to see the famous towers for about 5 minutes of the whole day we were there.  The waterfalls and glacial ice were really great though, and the place we stopped to eat lunch had a  spectacular view of a lake and the mountains.  On the way out of the park we went to Mylodon Cave, which is a giant cave where they found remnants of the Mylodon (a giant sloth like creature that lived in Patagonia until about 10,000 years ago), as well as evidence of prehistoric human occupation in the region.  The stop wasn’t too long but it was quite interesting nonetheless.  As soon as we arrived back in Puerto Natales, I made supper and then had an intense conversation about archaeology, anthropology, and everything else with a girl from Germany – which is exactly one of the reasons I love traveling so much.

Waterfall on Rio Paine

Torres del Paine

Suspension bridge on the trail to Lago Grey

Ice from Glacier Grey in Lago Grey

Mylodon cave

Mylodon statue in the cave
The following day I had planned on leaving to Argentina, but due to bus scheduling problems (i.e. there are no Sunday buses), I ended up doing nothing but rest and catching up on things like blog posts for the entire day.  I had to book a tour to Perito Moreno glacier from Puerto Natales rather than taking the normal bus due to this problem, leaving me with an extra day and nothing to do (especially since literally everything else was closed since it was Sunday).  It all worked out though, and the next morning I was on the bus to El Calafate, Argentina!

Puerto Varas and the Lakes District – tranquil German villages and snow capped volcanoes 

Puerto Varas is a charming little town on Lake Llanquique in the Lakes Region of Chile.  This area is the beginning of Patagonia, and it’s a perfect place to begin a trip through the region.
I arrived in Puerto Varas after an overnight bus from Santiago.  The weather was miserable when I arrived, and the walk to the hostel from the bus station was a very wet ordeal – which was made longer by the marathon taking place on the road I needed to use to get to the hostel. I made it eventually, cold and wet, and the Margouya Patagonia hostel was a welcome relief with its warm sitting area and log cabin atmosphere.  After warming up a bit and waiting for the rain to subside, I took a walk around the thoroughly drenched town and along the lakeshore.  The town was quaint, with a blend of authentic and touristy shops and restaurants.  I didn’t get too much of a chance to walk around though as the rain came back with a fierce vengeance after about an hour so I made my way back to the hostel.

Large metal statue along the waterfront

Puerto Varas

The church in Puerto Varas

Colorful houses on a rainy day
The following morning was a completely different story.  The sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue.  After breakfast I walked toward the bus stop to visit Vincente Rosales Perez National Park in nearby Petrohue. When I got the to bus stop, I ran into two Brazilian guys who were also at my hostel so we all went to the park together.  When we arrived after the hour-long bus ride, we grabbed a quick lunch by Lake Todos Los Santos and went to the trail.  The first few kilometers of trail was mostly forest walking, but after that it suddenly opened up to stunning views of Osorno Volcano, which is located at the edge of the park.  Continuing further up the trail and toward the volcano, there was a magnificent viewpoint of Lake Todos Los Santos and the mountains surrounding it.  We headed back down the trail and toward another mirador, with equally impressive views, before taking the trail down a dried alluvial river bed toward the lake.  While the views from the first two miradors were impressive, the scene at the lake was outstanding. The blue water was crystal clear and waveless, causing the mountainous landscape surrounding it to reflect off the surface.  It was very hard to leave the beauty of that place.  However, we were running dangerously close to the time of the last bus back to Puerto Varas, and still had 4 kilometers to get back.  We had so little time we had to run most of the final 2 kilometers in order to make it back by the time (we were told) the last bus left.  We made it just in time, just to find out the bus didn’t arrive for another half an hour.  It was nice to have time to crash after the run through the sandy trails, but it would’ve been nicer to avoid the entire run altogether.  In any case, we got on the bus and made it back to Puerto Varas for a stunning sunset from the lakeshore.

Lago Todos Los Santos

Volcan Osorno from Vincente Perez Rosales National Park

Lago Todos Los Santos in Vincente Perez Rosales NP

A man fishing at sunset in Puerto Varas
The next day, I decided to visit the neighboring town of Frutillar.  Frutillar is a little German inspired village located a short distance north of Puerto Varas, still along the lakeshore. The local bus cost $1 each way, so it was a nice place to take a cheap trip.  The village is famous for its decidedly German architecture, as well as Teatro del Lago, a stunning theatre situated over Lago Llanquique.  I spent some time wandering the streets and around the theatre; however, the town was mostly closed down as it was the off season so I didn’t find it especially interesting to visit.  After about an hour and a half I headed back to Puerto Varas, where I had lunch before heading south to Puerto Montt.

Theatre on the Lake in Frutillar

Dock and Volcan Osorno in Frutillar
Puerto Montt was also a $1 bus ride away, this time to the south and the Pacific Coast.  The local bus arrived right to the bus terminal, which was very conveniently located along the shore in the downtown area.  The city is much larger and industrial than Puerto Varas, and had a much more touristy atmosphere.  There were tons of shopping malls and tourist shops in the downtown core, especially around the main plaza.  There wasn’t anything especially appealing about the city, so I didn’t stay too long here either.  I made my way back to Puerto Varas for dinner and ended up having a great conversation at my hostel with people from the UK, Germany, Austria, Peru, and Brazil until after 3 AM!

Since I was flying out in the afternoon, I didn’t have time to do anything else on my last day in Puerto Varas.  I took the bus to Puerto Montt around noon and from there the bus to the airport for my flight to Punta Arenas – my first stop in Patagonia!

Puerto Montt coastline

          Puerto Montt

Salar de Uyuni and San Pedro de Atacama- the world’s most gorgeous and inhospitable landscapes 

Salar de Uyuni is probably Bolivia’s most famous tourist attraction, and for good reason. The area is located in Bolivia’s extreme southwest corner along the Chilean border. The Salar is the world’s largest salt flat, and is so white and flat it’s used to calibrate satellites! In order to visit the Salar and the stunning landscapes that surround it, you have to take a tour with a licensed guide. Most tours last for 3 days and 2 nights, with the option of ending in San Pedro de Atacama, just across the border into Chile.

I arrived in the little town of Uyuni at around 4 in the afternoon after taking a noon bus from Potosi. Once I found a cheap hotel for the night I went out in search for a good and reasonably priced tour agency. There are tons and tons of tour agencies in Uyuni, especially along the main street near the train station. A lot of agencies have had problems with drunk drivers so it’s best to get recommendations from other travelers or sites like tripadvisor before arriving in order to book with a good company. I used World White Travel, which was recommended to me by some friends that had used them a few weeks earlier (I’d recommend them as well). I paid 800 Bs(~$115 USD) for the 3d/2n tour with transfer to San Pedro de Atacama and a sleeping bag was included. Be sure to ask about the sleeping bag because neither place I stayed had heat it was really needed the second night. It is possible to bargain the price down a bit depending on your skills – I got 50 Bs for mentioning my friend paid 750 Bs for her tour, but others on my tour paid 850 Bs, so it’s always worth haggling a bit. All the tours are the same route and prices (except Red Planet, they are way more expensive but seemed to have really high quality services and English speaking guides from what I saw). All tours are conducted in Spanish by default unless you pay a lot more for English, and the quality of the guide seems to be mostly the same for everyone at the usual price range.
After booking, I had dinner at this amazing American-run pizza place in the Tonito Hotel, called Minuteman Pizza. The owner is from Boston and makes perfect American style pizza, which is impossible to find in South America. I had the Heart Attack special which is essentially a pizza shaped calzone stuffed with tons of meat. Every pizza also comes with a fresh salad, another impossibility in Bolivia. I chatted with the owner after eating and he ended up giving me a free piece of cake as a graduation present, which was awesome for breakfast the next morning before the tour began.

The town of Uyuni

The tour started at 10 AM in the tour office, conveniently located around the corner from my hotel. Soon after I arrived, the American family I met in Potosi joined in the office as they had booked the same tour. I ran into them the previous evening when they were looking for a tour company and told them where I booked, so they joined so I could translate the tour (which sounds awful but was actually quite fun). Two German cousins joined our group and then we packed up the car and headed to the first stop with our driver/guide, Herman.
The first stop on every tour is the Train Cemetery, located on the edge of town. This is where the old and broken trains from the country have been put for decades, since Uyuni is the center of Bolivian railway. All the trains are rusted over but are solid enough to climb around on, which is pretty great for photos and stuff. The stop here is for about a half hour, which is really about all the time you need to see everything and take a bunch of pictures.

Train Cemetery

The second stop is the main attraction, Salar de Uyuni. We stopped first at a series of salt mounds set up for photos before continuing to a salt hotel for lunch. Just outside of the salt hotel were a giant salt statue for the Dakar Rally, which goes through the area, and a bunch of flags for every country that participates in the rally. Lunch was mediocre, but really every meal was and no company had anything different to eat – no one goes for the food anyway. At some point around this time we stopped at an “artisanal village” which sold generic tourist junk and some salt things but the stop was so short I barely remember it.
After lunch we headed to the middle of the Salar for more pictures, like the stereotypical “giant dinosaur” picture and general pics of the hexagons of salt. We then went to Isla Incahuasi, which is a giant cactus-filled “island” in the middle of the Salar. The place is called an island because the entire Salar used to be a sea, so it’s used to be an island. For some reason the island is full of giant cacti, which only grow 1 cm per year so they had to be really quite old. There’s a nice trail along the island with the option of going into a giant cave made of dead coral, which was really cool to go into. The island also had free bathrooms included in the ticket price (yay toilets!). When we finished at the island our driver took us back to the Salar for sunset, and we were seemingly the only group to do so, which was nice after spending the whole day with a bunch of other people who get into photos and are generally in the way. It was a bit too cloudy for a spectacular sunset, but it was still pretty.

Flags from the Dakar Rally
Salar de Uyuni
Colin the Alpaca looking unamused at Salar
Isla Incahuasi

After sunset we drove another 2 hours to our hotel. The hotel was on the edge of the Salar and was completely made of salt. The floor was ground salt, the table and chairs of salt bricks, even the bed and end table were both made of salt (thankfully the bed had a real mattress and pillow!). Since we stayed for sunset on the Salar, we were the last group to arrive and as such we had no room to plug our phones/cameras in as there were only 2 power strips for the whole hotel. Most of us managed to get stuff charged during dinner or after and then we went to bed early in preparation for the 7 AM breakfast the following morning.

Salt hotel from the first night

Breakfast was the standard Bolivian fare not worth talking about, so I won’t. We headed first to the Ollagüe volcano. Along the way we stopped at a tiny village cemetery with a nice view of the volcano before heading to the proper “mirador.” The mirador was a crazy maze of bizarre rock formations, all overshadowed by the distant volcano. The wind there was brutally cold and the air had a tinge of sulfur to it from the volcanic activity. We left the mirador after about an hour and went to the first of a series of lagoons with wild flamingos.

Cemetery in the desert

 
The Hedionda Lagoon was a stunning dark grey lagoon full of wild flamingos wading through thick black mud. The surrounding landscape of snow-capped mountains and barren hills combined with the general existence of flamingos really made the visit feel otherworldly. After spending a while here we moved on to the nearby Cachi Lagoon, where we also had lunch. It was insanely windy here but the view was spectacular. Here the water was a light green-blue color and there were even more flamingos than the previous hill. At this point the trip got a bit less fun for me as I started feeling the symptoms of food poisoning. Suffice it to say that that is not pleasant on a day spent entirely in a car.

Hedionda Lagoon
Cachi Lagoon

I honestly don’t remember most of the trip involving the desert as I was trying to sleep and avoid vomiting (did not succeed), but felt moderately better by the time we arrived at the arbol de piedra, a large worn stone randomly sitting in the middle of a desert landscape. Not far from here was the day’s final stop, Laguna Colorada. This lagoon is a deep red color due to algae which live in the water. There were flamingos at this lagoon too, and the general area was gorgeous. However I started feeling awful again so I spent most of the visit laying in the car. We spent the night in one of the coldest places I’ve ever slept (this is why the sleeping bag is needed) and started really early the following morning. This hotel had electricity for only 2.5 hours and no heat.

Arbol de Piedra
Laguna Colorada

The last day of the tour began at 5 AM with a sunrise trip to a geyser field. The amount of geysers shooting out of the ground and giant pits of bubbling mud was incredible. The weather was bitterly cold, though the steam from the geysers made for decent hand-warmers. We stayed here a bit longer than expected due to a second case of sickness in the group, but then moved on the the natural hot springs. This lagoon was volcanically heated and a small pool was placed next to it for visitors to enjoy the warm waters in such a cold place. Half of our group got into the waters to get warm while the rest of us took some pics and went back to the car and out of the wind. Once we left, we continued south toward the Chile-Bolivia border. We drove by the Salvador Dali desert, likely named for its similarity to his works. We didn’t spend much time here as we were running late for the transfer to San Pedro de Atacama. We had to skip Laguna Verde because of that, though we got to see it driving by. We barely made it to the transfer in time, and thankfully the Bolivian exit process was super easy so we didn’t miss it. There was a 15 Bs”exit tax” to leave the country, which is clearly a scam because I only had 6 Bs on me and he took it and shoved it in is pocket anyway and said good enough.

Geyser field
Geyser field at sunrise
Natural hot springs
Salvador Dali Desert

Crossing the border into Chile is like crossing into a parallel universe. Right at the border the road goes from bumpy gravel to perfect asphalt and road signs. The trip to San Pedro de Atacama only took about an hour, and the Chilean border control was fairly easy to get through (just don’t have fruits or vegetables!). Right after we arrived the German guys in my Uyuni tour and I booked a tour of Valle de la Luna for later that afternoon before going to our separate hostels.
San Pedro de Atacama was so much warmer than Bolivia it was incredible. When I finally found my hostel I had to change out of pants and jackets to shorts and a T-shirt because it was so hot. It was a welcome change. The tour for Valle de la Luna left about 3 hours after we arrived, which was just enough time to charge everything up and walk around town a bit.

  

SPdA Plaza de Armas

Valle de la Luna is located just outside of San Pedro and is an absolute must for anyone visit the town. I paid 9000 CLP ($13) for a 4 hour tour in English and Spanish. The guide was great and took us trekking around the valley for a few hours before watching the sunset over the Andes mountains. He described the history of the area and the various minerals in the valley and volcanic activity that shaped it. The views from the top of the peaks in the valley were amazing. By sunset, we were at the main viewpoint which allowed for a perfect view of the mountains for sunset. The colors gradually changed from pink to red to purple before the sun finally went below the horizon. When we returned to SPdA, I went back to my hostel to get some rest before the 24 hour bus journey that was to occur the following morning.

Valle de la Luna
Death Valley
Volcano and the Andes at sunset

First thing in the morning I went to the bus station and bought a salon-cama ticket to Santiago ($60, 24 hours) and then had breakfast, which was my first meal since being sick on the Uyuni tour. By the time I had finished the meal and bought some supplies for the bus ride, it was time to head to the station and go to Santiago.
(The bus was actually quite comfortable, other than the baby in the seat next to me that screamed the entire night).

El Camino de la Muerte – Biking Bolivia’s Infamous Death Road

I’m writing this post from the bus back to La Paz after doing the 63 kilometer Death Road bike tour. The North Yungas Road, more commonly referred to as the Death Road (El Camino de la Muertes, runs from outside of La Paz to the town of Coroico. It was named the World’s Most Dangerous Road in 1995 due to the large number of deaths which occur every year on its sometimes only 9 ft wide path. In the early 2000s it was replaced by a newly paved highway between the two areas so use of the Death Road has greatly declined. Today, mostly bike and ATV tours use the road on a regular basis. 

 

The Death Road
 
I had intended to take this tour yesterday, but it was cancelled due to a snowstorm in the area.  The tour (which I took with Altitude Biking, highly recommend) started at 7:30 this morning with a pick up from my hostel in La Paz. I was at the last hostel for pick up so after me and the two others at my hostel were picked up we headed toward the beginning of the tour. The road to Coroico is stunning – it looks just like a scene out of Skyrim with its stunning snowy mountain landscapes. It took about an hour to get to the beginning of the tour, a place called La Cumbre. At this point we all got out of the vans for photos, the explanations of how the tour worked, and to split into groups, as Altitude had a number of buses there.  My group was made up of mostly Brits, a couple of Aussies, a German guy and one other American.  The ground was covered and snow and it was pretty chilly at this spot. Even so, we got our bikes here and began the first 20 km of the ride.  

 

View of La Paz on the way to the road
  
The start of the trip
  
“Only God Can Save You”
 
The landscape here was absolutely amazing; we started at 4,600 meters above sea level and quickly descended downward along a paved highway as we got used to the bikes. The entire section was downhill so it was completely unnecessary to use the pedals, only the brakes. The amount of speed you could gain here was amazing. As we went down the road, the climate and vegetation slowly changed – first from low brown grasses to more green and lush plant life. There were signs along the road that said things like “Endangered Bird Zone” and “Bear Crossing,” among other things.  
When we reached the bottom of the paved road, we had to stop at a checkpoint where there is a 25 Bs charge for biking the Death Road. Once we paid this, we loaded the bikes up in the car and took the van to the beginning of the Death Road, as there was an 8 km uphill section of the road.  

 

Brief stop halfway down the paved road
 
As the van began down the road, clouds began to fly up the side of the mountain cliffs to our left and zoom overhead. The view was incredible. We got back on the bikes and began riding the first 12 km stretch of the road, which was the most narrow. There were many sections of road which were only 3.5 meters wide (about 11 feet). While this was perfectly fine on a bike, I’d never want to drive down it with a car. Many parts of this section had drops which were probably 2000 ft down. There was still traffic along the road, though only a handful of cars were not associated with a tour of some kind. We made our first photo stop after the 12 km stretch at one of the most famous parts of the road.  

 

The beginning of the Death Road
  
Chilling on a cliff
  
A bus going down the road
 
From here we continued onward for another 10 km before stopping again. All the smoothness of the paved road was but a distant memory by this point. The road was extremely bumpy and rocks would regularly shoot out of under the tires. At one point a girl on my tour slipped on the rocks and fell into the cliff face on the inner portion of the road (she was fine and this was the only incident, she was going slow and stayed on the bike the whole time – she mostly just tipped over). This part was also completely downhill, so pedals were still rarely used. On part of this section we drove under a waterfall, which was pretty cool. 

 

Biking down the road
 
The next chunk was a bit more challenging, as it went from completely downhill to having a bunch of flat sections. At this point I made it to the front of the group because I had less trouble with the flat parts since we were at a low altitude and I hadn’t encountered such oxygen levels since May. We stopped for a long break at the tourist center and this part of the road before finishing the last 20 minute ride to the end. It was sweltering at this place and we were able to take off the protective pants and jacket they gave us for the first part of the ride and we could change into more comfortable clothes. After the stop we continued on the last section of road, which took us to the village of Yolosa. There were substantially fewer cliffs on this section but I thought it was the most difficult, as the rocks in the road were larger and there were lots of ruts from water draining down the middle of the street. There was one place where I thought I might fall into the wall because I hit a rock, but it ended up being fine and no incidents were had.   
View from the penultimate stop
 

When we reached the end, located at 1100 meters, we received an “I Survived the Death Road” shirt and then took the van to a hotel where we had a buffet lunch and could go swimming. The buffet had a weird assortment of food (fries, spaghetti, fried chicken, etc.) but it was wonderful after 63 kilometers of biking. The swimming pool was freezing, so I didn’t use it long. The weather at this place was gorgeous though, and the gardens around the pools were great – lots of tropical flowers and some coconut trees. We stayed for about two hours before starting this car ride back to La Paz (which will probably take about 3 hours).  

 

Tropical paradise at the end of the ride
  
I Survived the Death Road and have the T-Shirt to prove it
 
This trip was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done and I would absolutely do it again if given the opportunity. It wasn’t the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve experienced, but the change in landscapes and climates along the ride, which dropped 11,500 feet in elevation, were stunning. I highly recommend anyone visiting La Paz to take a day to do the ride, it was incredible and probably will be the highlight of my time in Bolivia, and maybe in South America.

Me not dying on the Death Road

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna

Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna (also known as Coati) are two islands located in Lake Titicaca, not far from Copacabana. Isla del Sol is the most popular with backpackers as it has great trails for day hikes, however both islands are great to visit. Isla del Sol is the larger of the two, at about 8 kilometers long. Isla de la Luna is much smaller, and only consists of one village and an Inca ruin on the other side of the large hill that splits the island in two.  
Kirsten and I visited Isla del Sol on Aymara New Year in hopes of seeing the festival which we had heard would be going on that day. Unfortunately we did not make it on time, as it had apparently started at 5 AM and the boats don’t leave Copa until 8:30 AM. However, it was still a lovely day for a hike, so we began at the north end of the island and began the 4 hour hike to the village of Yumani at the south end. There’s a small museum at the town on the north end, which includes a couple sets of (commingled) human remains. You have to buy a 5 Bs ticket here to continue along the trail toward the Inca ruins. Once you leave the museum, it’s about a 45 minute hike to the Inca ruins located at the far north of the island. These ruins are pretty pathetic compared to those in Peru, but they still make for nice photos.  

 

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol
 
From there, continue uphill toward the second checkpoint, where there is a 15 Bs fee to walk across the center portion of the island. This is the most beautiful section of the hike, so don’t skip out because of the fees to cross. There’s nothing in particular to see in this part of the island, other than the breathtaking (literally) landscape and deep blue colors of Lake Titicaca. There are two killer hills in this section, so make sure to bring a lot of water and some snacks as there’s only one place to buy stuff and it’s way overpriced. You’ll have to show your ticket a couple of times on this part, but don’t have to pay again until reaching Yumani.  

 

Stacked stones in the middle of Isla del Sol
  
Hiking trail across Isla del Sol
 
At the end of the hike, you reach the village of Yumani, which is where the boats that return to Copacabana are docked. This is the largest of the villages on the island and it has the most options for hostels/hotels and restaurants. I personally don’t think that it’s necessary to stay on the island overnight, while others say to spend at least two nights, so it’s a personal preference. I would definitely recommend starting the hike at the north end, as Yumani has a very tall and long set of stairs which take forever to go down, so climbing up that at the beginning of the hike would be awful. Boats return to Copa in the late afternoon, and usually arrive between 5:30 and 6 PM. The roundtrip boat ticket should cost no more than 40 Bs ($5.81).  

 

Village of Yumani at the south end of Isla del Sol
 
Isla de la Luna is also accessible from Copacabana, though at less regular times due to the few people that visit. We went to the island on a private boat with a resident of the island, as we were invited to their house to have lunch. The lunch consisted of potatoes, oca, fava beans, and pork, which were cooked in a stone oven (called watia). This was the first time I had seen food cooked in a stone oven, I had only seen earth ovens prior. The flavor of the stone oven was different, and it made the food substantially less dirty than the dirt oven. After lunch we hiked over the hill to visit the Inca site located on the other side. The site had earlier been excavated and partially reconstructed by archaeologists, however, in the past two years the locals have taken it upon themselves to “restore” the site. This actually means that they built a bunch of new “Inca ruins” which are quite poorly done. Comparing photos from two years ago to this year’s visit shows the drastic changes that have occurred in that short amount of time. Even with the problematic “restoration” process which is going on there, the ruins are still interesting and worth visiting if spending a few days in Copacabana. The island really survives on tourism, and there are a few cheap guesthouse in the village for those who want to relax in a quiet place for a night or two. To reach the island, talk to one of the people in the ticket booths along the beach in Copacabana and ask for the rate for the day – there is definitely a combination ticket for sale with Isla del Sol and the Floating Islands with one of the companies. 

 

Stone oven cooking on Isla de la Luna
  
Inca ruins on Isla de la Luna
 

Arequipa and Colca Canyon – colonial architecture and stunning Andean landscapes 

We arrived in Arequipa early in the morning after a long overnight bus from Huacachina. Most of the bus got dropped off at the Flying Dog hostel, which thankfully allowed us to use their lobby area to rest and charge our phones and cameras. Since many of us were booked there for the following day, we were able to have our backpacks stored before our two day one night tour of Colca Canyon. We left for Colca Canyon a little after 9 AM with a number of our friends from the bus and made our way toward Chivay.
We made a couple of stops along the way, first at Salinas National Park, which was home to herds of vicuña (llama relatives) and stunning mountain landscapes. We made a few stops in the park, one of which was a for a herd of llamas grazing along the road. The landscapes in this area were absolutely amazing, especially for fans of the barren and desolate. The bus continued higher and higher in altitude before our next stop, Mirador de Los Andes, a viewpoint located at 4,910 meters (16,017 ft) above sea level. Since this was our first day at high altitude, a few of our friends had some difficulty with the low oxygen content, though Kirsten and I had no troubles. After taking a few pictures of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains, the tour descended into Chivay, the base town for Colca Canyon treks and tours. There was one last overlook where we took a number of pictures of the town and were able to pet and take photos with a baby alpaca (who later tried to push a small boy off a cliff).

 

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Salineras National Park
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Sassy llamas in the park
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Homicidal baby alpaca -don’t let his cuteness deceive you

We finally arrived in Chivay around 2:30 PM, when we went to a tourist restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Peruvian food, which was actually pretty decent. After lunch our guide drove us to the beginning of the canyon where we took a short hike through into the canyon with absolutely stunning views of the valleys and snow capped mountains. The hike probably lasted for an hour or so, after which we headed to the volcanic hot springs located outside of the town. A friend and I managed to get separated from the group and ended up in a thermal pool by ourselves, which was really relaxing. The waters were filtered to get rid of the sulfuric smell but retain the minerals and heat, which felt wonderful after long bus rides and the earlier hike. We had dinner at a crappy tourist place that had terribly slow service and filled with smoke from the pizza oven inside, which made it really hard to breathe. Once that ordeal was finished, we checked into our hotel and went to bed early for our early morning trip into Colca Canyon.

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First view of Colca Canyon
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Geothermal pool

We began the trip into Colca around 7 AM, which felt way too early but the morning light made the landscape brilliantly colored. We stopped in a small village with a church about an hour later to use the bathrooms and buy snacks and souvenirs. At one point a friend of ours had a large bird perch on her head for photos, which was hilarious. The stop was fairly brief, and afterward we continued on into the canyon.

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We arrived at the condor viewpoint around 9:15 AM, which at first was pretty but underwhelming, especially since we had a couple hours to kill there. At first there were only a few condors flying around, but after about 30 minutes at least a dozen began flying around the canyon near where we were standing. There were a couple of viewing platforms available to watch from, so we hiked all over them to see the birds from all the different angles. After about an hour and a half our guide gathered the group up and we took a moderate hike along the valley to see the landscapes and various local plants that grew in the area. We finished the hike around noon and continued toward another viewpoint before heading back to Chivay for lunch and then onward to Arequipa before nightfall. Bonus: at the last stop we got to eat cactus ice cream, which was amazing.

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Condors at Cruz del Condor
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Viewpoints for condor watching
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Colca Canyon

 We got back to Arequipa around 6 PM and checked into our hostel, and then visited the Santa Catalina Monastery with a group of friends from the bus. On certain nights of the week the monastery is open at night, and that night happened to be one of them, which was convenient as most of our friends were leaving for Cuzco in the early morning. We all toured the various streets and buildings of the monastery — which is essentially a walled off town within the center of Arequipa — for an hour or so before heading to the main plaza to see the cathedral and other colonial architecture.

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Santa Catalina Monastery at night

After wandering through town for a bit, we went out in search of a restaurant that served cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. We got a great recommendation from the hostel for a good local place that served it and all but two of us ordered it for dinner (the other two were mortified at the thought and could barely watch – though one did manage to try a bite). Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, and the owner of the restaurant even made an earring for one of our friends out of the tooth of the guinea pig she ate. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to many of them in Arequipa as we were staying an extra day to see the city.

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Mmhmm, deep fried guinea pig

The next day we spent wandering the old city of Arequipa. First we visited the Jesuit church, which had stunning architecture and intricate murals on the domed ceiling in one of the side rooms. After the church we visited the Museo Santuario Andino, which houses the Juanita mummy, and perfectly preserved mummy of a child sacrifice which was found frozen on top of a local mountain. The features of the body are incredibly preserved and the associated artifacts were explained well by our guide, who was an archaeology student at the university which runs the museum. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos, and cameras must be checked at the entrance to make sure the rule is followed.

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Colonial architecture near the Jesuit church

We left the museum and grabbed lunch before heading to the Basilica of Arequipa, which also required a tour guide. Thankfully the service was included in the ticket price and the two of us were the only ones on the tour. The guide was knowledgeable about the history of the church and the former priests, and I ended up being glad we had to hire her for a tour. There were a number of rooms available to tour which held various relics from the church’s history. Toward the end of the tour the guide took us on the roof of the church to show us the bells and the view of the main plaza, the monastery, and the volcanoes in the distance. The views from the top were great and the tour was absolutely worth taking.

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The basilica from La Plaza de Armas
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Inside the basilica
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View from the roof of the basilica

Once we finished at the church we returned to the Santa Catalina Monastery to take more pictures during the day, since it was so impressive during the night prior. The difference between night and day is striking, as the colors were much more vibrant than I had expected after seeing them the day before. We stayed much longer on the second visit in order to see everything we missed the night before. I would recommend visiting during the day and the night if possible, as both experiences are fascinating and worth the price. Once we finished in the monastery, we wandered through the town centre again before grabbing dinner and going to bed before our early morning bus to Cuzco.
 
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