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.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Vilcabamba, Ecuador

The last minute decision to go to Vilcabamba for a week of WWOOFing turned out to be one of the best experiences thus far. I felt a feeling of peace and contentment wash over me as I entered Vilcabamba for the first time and saw a beautiful full rainbow. It was a sign of good things to come!

Vilcabamba is on the west side of the Andean corridor in southern Ecuador. The combination farm/restaurant/guest cabins are located right on the edge of Podocarpus National Park, which is named for Ecuador´s only native conifer. A beautiful, awe-inspiring place to be!

The volunteer situation was ideal: 4 hours of work 5 days a week in exchange for free housing and access to a kitchen. In the volunteer house we were 6, a mix of 3 Germans, an Austrian, a French, and me. The housemates were all so generous, innovative and creative, down to earth, and environmentally aware. After breakfast we all headed over to chat with the interesting and friendly owners and their kids, and to work a bit too. My main project was turning an area overgrown with weeds and bushes and small trees into a viable vegetable garden. It was rewarding. There were many places to hike to in the afternoons, and trips to town provided us with plenty of good wheat bread and natural yogurt and book exchanges. We made delicious dinners every night and thouroughly enjoyed the peaceful way of life.

Friday evening we went to a sweat with about half locals and half visitors. It was so enjoyable and purifying! One Peruvian artisan we met that night had us over to his place later that weekend, and I met some awesome people - accomplished musicians, protest organizers, artisans, and people with spark from different parts of the world. I also went on a wonderful hike with Regina, another volunteer, in which we stayed overnight at a mountain refuge. It makes the blisters worthwhile! All in all Vilcabamba was incredible and I left feeling centered and more
focused on what is important in life...

I am now traveling in Peru, and will write more when I get the chance. Take care everyone!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Montañita, Ecuador

It´s been a few weeks since I´ve last updated the blog, and it feels like ages has passed since being in Baños. I will try to summarize (briefly) my travels accompanied by tantalizing photos for your visual enjoyment.

Upon leaving Quito for Montañita, Andy magically appeared on the same bus. As i´ve now learned, even when traveling ¨on my own¨ I rarely find I am truly by myself! Acquaintances are always popping up in the most unlikely of places. But as companion-oriented as I am, I do not mind one bit.

We arrived to Surfing Inn Hostal in Montañita early on Sunday April 29th to find our dear quirky Johan awakening from his slumber. Meanwhile Andy immediately fell sick (with what we are still not sure) and suffered from horrible headaches and general weakness for the better part of a week. He bacame well acquainted with the local hospital´s staff who declared he did NOT have Dengue nor Meningitis. But the tentative diagnosis of Salomanilla poisoning never made any sense either. ´Tis a mystery, but he is alive and well and after a week he took off for Argentina.

The people I met in Montañita were a diverse group in terms of ages and personalities. Señora Maria Perla was the kind and motherly owner of the hostal, and she kept us in line and made sure we cleaned up after ourselves in the kitchen. She also invited us into her own home and laughingly watched Borat with us. Brett was the only other boarder at the hostal, a charismatic Australian surfer arranging to buy land and live near the town. Greg, Brett´s spontaneous and crazy Aussie traveling partner crashed back into Montañita toward the end of the first week after a whirlwind trip to Peru with a Peruana. Lastly, in my core group of acquantainces was Jimmy. Jimmy is an intelligent and wonderfully alive guy from the U.S. in his 60´s who touts the attitude of a 25-year-old. Jimmy is living out his retirement in a very different way than most older Americans I know. He is a musician and retired professor, who surfs and body boards, and likes to chat over a good cup of coffee about the peculiarities of life and politics. An admirable role model.

My loose routine in Montañita was to wake up by 7 am, get a newspaper, make a fresh batch of coffee straight from the Colombian sierra, and greet Johan and Brett as they lazily arose for a morning swim/surf. I spent the afternoons reading or swimming or walking, and the evenings almost always included a swim right before sunset and good food whipped-up with Chef Johan´s direction, or when we felt lazy, good pasta and wine at a local Italian´s restaurant.

Once we took an enjoyable day trip up the coast to different surfing spots, including Ayampe, Las Tunas, Puerto Lopez, and Puerto Cayo with a local acqaintance. We had just as much fun talking and watching the scenery pass by from the back of the pickup as we did surfing!

Another highlight was scuba-diving at Isla de la Plata, or as they commonly refer to it as ¨Poor Man´s Galapagos¨. With Johan as my diving partner, we saw many eels, large marine turtles, big schools of brightly colored tropical fish, a blow fish, rays, and beautiful corals among other things.

At the end of a prolonged stay of 2 weeks, I resistingly packed up my things and headed for Vilcabamba, Ecuador to volunteer on a WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) farm.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Back to Ecuador: Mindo, Cotacachi, Baños

After a brief trip back to the beloved Taganaga house, Andy and I headed to Cali. We spent less than 12 hours in Cali (sleeping for 3), where we coincidentally ran into Johan, a swedish guy Andy had met previously in Venezuela. Johan is a chef (although he did make us some bad eggs full of burned hair...) and he is hilarious.
On the bus ride from Cali to Quito, we watched as the landscape changed to one of rural Andean topography and culture. We had arrived in the Ecuadorian sierra. We had a short stay in Quito where we met up with Mary O´Donnell, and went to a racous party of pure debauchery.

Next we went to Mindo for a day of hiking, swimming, and playing in the cloud forest. O´ lindo Mindo! I would like to have a farm there someday.

After saying goodbye to Johan and Mary, I headed to Cotacachi with Andy and Luis to visit our host families from 2 1/2 years ago. We showed up unnanounced, and were greeted with such warmth and graciousness. It was wonderful to be back if for only a couple days! I spent the time shelling beans and catching up with Mamita Ester and her grandkids, buying seeds and planting beds of vegetables in Andy´s and my family´s gardens, cutting Alfalfa for the pigs, and not a whole lot more.

After Cotacachi, Luis and I headed to Baños. Baños is Luis´ hometown, so going there with him was especially enjoyable. It was my first visit there, and I hope it won´t be the last! i fell in love with Baños immediately; it is quite possibly my favorite city in Ecuador. It is a small city located at the base of the very active Tungurahua volcano. It´s somewhat precarious existence is also in my opinion one of its charming qualities. As one enters Baños, surrounded by remains of lava flows (less than 1 year old), towering Andean mountain peaks, and magnificent flowing waterfalls, one has a humbling sense of being completely insignificant and at the will of mother nature´s path. Luis and I rented bicycles and coasted down the mountain 20 km to Pailon del Diablo waterfall, which is said to be one of the ten most magnificent waterfalls in the world. (Sounds like quite a subjective measure to me, but I wouldn´t argue otherwise!)

The next morning we spent in one of Baños´ many thermal baths before returning to Quito. I said goodbye to Luis and am now awaiting a night bus that will bring me to the coast of Ecuador. Montañita here I come!