Ala Archa National Park

Ala Archa NP, located just outside of Bishkek, is the number one place to visit when in the city.  The park is accessible all year round and offers breathtaking views of the Tian Shan (天山 – “heavenly mountains”) range.  The mountains live up to their name, and the park provides an easy place to explore them on a day trip from Bishkek proper.

I went to the park with fellow Midwesterner and long term traveler, Karl (@wanderbadger on instagram, highly recommended), from the hostel and hiked around for a couple hours.  Right by the beginning of the trail we encountered the fluffiest and friendliest squirrels I’ve ever seen, that kept climbing or attempting to climb up us both.  Further along, the trail runs along a rocky river with a few haphazard bridges to cross it.  It was still really snowy everywhere but it was hot enough that even just wearing a T-shirt was too warm.  I stupidly forgot sunscreen and became a tomato (in case you didn’t know, eyeball sunburn is a thing and not a fun one), but it was so nice to feel the sun and be in the mountains after being in the frozen and cloudy steppe.  The walk to the marshrutka station was less fun, as after the park entrance gate it was just flat asphalt walking for kilometers.  The only interesting part of that return journey was meeting a bunch of middle aged guys parked on the side of the road taking shots to celebrate one of their birthdays.

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To get to Ala Archa, the quickest, easiest, and most recommended way is by taxi.  For about 2-2.5k som the driver will take you round trip and wait for a few hours while you hike.  If you are cheap, there is a marshrutka stop about 10km away from the entrance that you can walk to and from.  Having done a combination of them both and feeling miserable because of it, take the taxi round trip and spend the extra few dollars.

There’s not so much more to say about the park, so I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.DSC_0139DSC_0107

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Skyrim or Kyrgyzstan?

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

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

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