Friday, June 8, 2007

Bolivia - La Paz and the Salar de Uyuni

As I crossed the border into Bolivia, there was a spirited game of soccer going on between the military guards and a mixed group of border crossers. The guards declared that immigration office would not resume it´s activities until the game was over! The military won the game. And one hour later they started stamping passports again. Ahh, Bolivia.

La Paz was the next stop. La Paz is the highest capital in the world, sitting at 3,800 m. above sea level. It is quite cold! I was a bit unprepared after spending much of the last two months on the coast, and quickly accumulated an ecclectic array of warmer clothes (but the sandals are staying!) In La Paz I walked all over the city (at a snails pace due to the elevation), and loved going through the many many many street markets. There is a witch´s market as well, where they sell teas for every type of affliction, love potions, talisman, dried-up llama fetuses, among other quirky things. I ate too many things off the street vendors, including some sketchy tongue meat that wasn´t quite cooked through...and of course the next day I found myself sick as a dog. A combination of food and alcohol poisoning I believe, and I was out of commition for a good day. Luckily, Kristen (from Minneapolis!) met me in La Paz, and she helped me to get on our scheduled overnight bus to Uyuni. (Without her, I would have shriveled up and missed out on a lot!)

The Salar de Uyuni, the world´s largest salt flat, was created when the prehistoric lake of Minchin dried up 40,000 years ago. It is estimated to contain 64,000 million tons of salt! I went on a 3-day tour of the area, which besides the salt flat proper included many amazing natural formations! It would make for a most complex lesson in geology. We visited the Isla de los Pescadores, an island covered with cactuses. We saw two Lagoons, the LagunaVerde and the Laguna Colorada, named for their respective colors. There were many unique rock formations and colorings, created from a mixture of strong winds and volcanic activity. Lastly, we saw geysers and had the chance to soak our cold bodies in thermal baths at an altitude of 5,000 m.! All in all the trip was excellent, and I was happy to survive the altitude headaches and temperatures as low as 0 degrees F.

Peru/Bolivia - Lake Titicaca

Next I headed to Puno, Peru which sits on the western side of Lake Titicaca and at the border of Peru and Bolivia. From there I was able to visit Titicaca, famous for being the highest (3,800 m. above sea level) navigable lake in the world. (For those of you who want more facts, here is a quick overview:

The Aymara people initially lived on the 41 different islands of Lake Titicaca (including the floating islands), and then with the Incan takeover the Quechua language and culture largely replaced the Aymara´s. (And THEN, of course, the Spaniards inhabited some of the main islands for a time). The Uros islands, or the floating islands, are constructed from 1 m. of totoro reeds layed across a 1.5 m. thick totoro/earthen base. They last for about 15 years, and a new one can be reconstructed within 6 months. The ability to move the islands was at one point a defensive stratagey, but today it also helps to find better fishing and as one person told me, ¨we move when we get bored [with the scenery]¨.
I also visited Taquile island, the largest island on the Peruvian side of the lake . It is about 1 km. wide by 7 km. long. There are some pre-incan ruins, but I did not have the time to visit any of them. Below you see Taquile´s central plaza, where they sell woven goods in the cooperative store.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Peru - Machu Picchu

After leaving Ecuador I entered a more touristy phase of the trip, in order to see the key natural/ancient wonders of Peru and Bolivia in a short span of only 2 weeks! Now that I´ve seen the principal tourist destinations - Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and the salt flats of Bolivia - Ill be free to come back in the future for a more "realistic" and laid back trip to these countries.

I spent a whirwind day in Piura on the north coast of Peru visiting the large market and ancient ruins of Catacaos. I hopped a night bus to Lima (15 hrs), and immediately got on a plane to Cuzco, Peru.

Cuzco was once the primary city of the Incan Empire, and legend says it was founded in the 12th century. In 1438, Incan ruler Pachacutec rallied the troups and over the next 25 years went on to conquer most of the central Andes. In 1533, in the wake of Incan civil war (and a more fractured Incan political situation), Pizarro marched into Cuzco and eventually captured the city for Spain. Today, massive inca-built walls still stand, and form the foundations of both colonial and modern buildings. I wandered this city for hours on narrow cobblestone streets, past monolithic catholic churches, through large local markets, and by plazas dominated by restaurants advertising "pizzas and pastas" for the distinctly tourist pallete.

After a couple days in Cuzco, I headed on a somewhat unknown path (to me) for Machu Picchu. As the trains to Machu Picchu are expensive (for foreigners) and the only available mode of transportation, I decided to take a round-a-bout way in getting there. First I took a night bus from Cuzco to a small town called Santa Maria. Arriving at 3 am in the middle of nowhere, after the most exhaust-filled and livestock-ridden bus ride of my life, I had no plan and no way of thinking clearly. I sat around in the dark for an hour until a small van pulled up and the driver said "Santa Teresa". That's where I wanted to go! It was a relief for weary Alice. After 5 more hours riding in a van in a confused, sleeping stupor, I arrived to Santa Teresa. There I met a few other young travelers attmepting the same hike along the train tracks. (Lucky for me, as doing it alone is not the safest bet for a young woman!) Peruvian Marco, Spanish Marisa, Italian Rocco, and I caught a ride to a hydroelectric station, and then walked a couple hours following the train tracks until we reached the closest town to Machu Picchu. Beautiful scenery, a nice walk, and one hitched ride from nice conductors - money well saved!

The next morning, we woke up at 3:30 AM, and hiked to Machu Picchu for sunrise. (And if it hadn't been for the coffee cart near the entrance, we would have made it too!)

Machu Picchu was a most amazing site. The "lost city" was not rediscovered until 1911. It is still unknown exactly what funciton the site served, but recent suggestions have been that it was a country palace which was abandoned when the Spaniards arrived and began destroying Incan cities, in an attmept to save it. It is a beautifully constructed city, with artisanship reflected in the cuts of every stone.