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The Only Risk…

30 Jul

Warm, sunny Cartagena on the Pacific Ocean

One day almost two weeks ago I ate breakfast in La Paz, met up with friends Maike and J.J. for ceviche in Lima, and for dinner, shared late-night street sausages in Cartagena with the desk clerk at my hostel. Three meals in three different countries in one day, and when including dollars spent to pay airport taxes, expenditures in four currencies! My hopping around between Bolivia, Perú, and Colombia later warranted extra scrutiny from immigration, where I was flagged as an “alert”.  No white powder here, officer…

Coming to Colombia was a spur-of-the-moment decision.  After my friend Neil returned to the States, I spent an extra couple days bumming around La Paz before deciding a change of scenery was in order.  Last-minute flights to Buenos Aires were too expensive, not even counting the $160 entry fee charged to U.S. citizens.  A cheap flight to Rio de Janeiro was thwarted when I discovered that tourist visas could not be obtained at the airport upon arrival.  But somehow I managed to find an open-jaw Colombian ticket, arriving in the northern beach town of Cartagena, departing from the capital city of Bogotá, and returning finally to Lima.  I bought the tickets while eating lunch in a cafe in La Paz, and was off early the next morning for an all-too-brief visit to Colombia, where the tourism promotion campaign says “El riesgo es que te quieras quedar!” (English version: “The only risk is wanting to stay!”)

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At the Edge of the World

24 Jul

Llamas in the Salar de Uyuni — see video here

The empty desert plains of southwestern Bolivia are home to little more than mining sites and tiny groups of livestock herders grappling with the remoteness of the location and the harsh climate.  In addition to being one of the rawest, most desolate regions I’ve traveled to, it was also one of the most incredibly scenic — the area features a diverse array of staggering natural beauty: snow-capped mountains, active volcanoes, geysers, algae-tinted lakes, vast salt flats, cacti forests, and more.  Mine and Neil’s travels through the Bolivian Altiplano, and specifically the Salar de Uyuni, were the highlight of our recent Bolivia vacation.

Volcano-created landscape

Vicuña carcass

Atop a rock formation near Arbol de Piedra

Beautiful, empty lagunas

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Death Road

18 Jul

Posing at a cliffside high turn while biking the Yungas Road

At one point last week in my mountain biking tour of Yungas Road in Bolivia, a few other cyclists and I were, along with our lead guide, well ahead of the rest of our group.  On a narrow stretch along a high precipice, our guide bid us to stop.  He drew close to the cliff edge, and somberly pointed down below.  Gingerly, we took a peek — and immediately gasped.  A few hundred feet below was the mangled wreckage of a vehicle — a Toyota Land Cruiser, our guide explained, that just had its fatal plunge two weeks ago.

That type of tragedy is not uncommon on the infamous old Yungas Road, also known as the “Camino del Muerte” (Death Road), a route which gained a certain kind of notoriety in the 1990s when the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed it the “world’s most dangerous road”.   Before a safer detour opened in 2006, the road claimed 200-300 lives annually, and was the scene of some horrific accidents.  At the road’s narrowest point, recognizable to many from a memorable episode of BBC’s Top Gear, was the site of Bolivia’s worst-ever traffic incident.  In 1983 a truck fell into the canyon, killing 101 passengers, all from the same village and returning home from a soccer match in the capital city of La Paz.

Nowadays, while there is much less automobile usage of the route, numerous crosses and monuments mark where unfortunate cyclists have met their end.  Below, more about mine and Neil’s experience on the Yungas Road, and our time in La Paz.

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Empire of the Sun

16 Jul

View from atop hill at northern tip of Isla del Sol

Earlier this month, my friend Neil and I stood atop a hill on the northern tip of Bolivia’s Isla del   Sol (Island of the Sun), taking in an amazing 360° view of beautiful Lake Titicaca.  From this vantage point, looking out on the seemingly endless expanse of sapphire-blue water and staring at the imposing snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Real, it was as if we were the sole inhabitants of an empty world — we couldn’t spot a single boat on the water, nor person on land, nor bird in the air.

The Isla del Sol was revered by the Incans as the center of creation, from where the sun itself was born, as well as the first Incan, Manco Capac.  Today the island is a central tourist attraction on the Bolivian side of gigantic Titicaca (nearly 8,400 km2 spread across Bolivia and Perú); sitting at 3,800m (nearly 12,500ft) in elevation, the lake is the world’s highest major body of water.

Neil and I were here as part of a 1.5-week trip around Bolivia, with Titicaca being the first stop on an itinerary that was to include La Paz and the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

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Dunes & Degustaciones

18 Jun

Posing with dune buggy at Huacachina

The town of Ica, and the neighboring flyspeck outpost Huacachina, are a five hour bus ride from Lima. Via the Soyuz/PeruBus company (cheaper and less comfortable than Cruz del Sur), tickets run between $10-$15 one-way, and there are departures around the clock every ten minutes on average. My friend Eugene, visiting from the States, made the roundtrip with me this weekend; we were treated on one bus to the Pixar movie Up!, evidently a bootleg DVD with all of its scenes played out of order. (None of the Peruvians on the bus seemed to notice, though perhaps they believed they were watching an animated version of Memento…)

Ica isn’t appealing to look at or spend much time in. But visitors here, if not passing through to view the nearby Nazca Lines, come for largely one reason: the sand dunes. Huacachina is a genuine desert oasis surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes. Adventurous backpackers flock here for the experience of riding dune buggies and sandboarding down the dunes — which is exactly what Euge and I did this past Sunday morning.

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