The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

img_7194

We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

img_2736img_7204

The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

img_7198

We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

img_7189original_url: 63ADC0C6-8913-439A-99B4-8FC9E263CB52

Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

img_3119

img_7190

I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

img_7197

img_7192

img_7195

img_7193(I may have gone a little overboard with the Llama pics)

We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

img_2872

img_7188

img_7206

img_2853

We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

img_2855

img_7200

img_7205

As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

    img_7207

    img_7208

  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

    img_7196

  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

    original_url: 70011BBE-918D-4202-BF58-601801F5142B

  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

    IMG_7209.JPG

  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

    img_3118

 

Advertisements

Coming up close and personal with King Kong

Gorilla trekking has been on my mind for a long time, the concept of venturing into a thick jungle in search of giant mountain gorillas was extremely fascinating. Walking up to a 200kg King Kong and his family blew my mind. So it made it to the bucket list and therefore seemed like a good way to celebrate my 30th birthday. Why not come up close and personal with a giant primate and consider how humanity evolved for me to have lived 30 years of a homo sapient existence!

img_5282

We were assigned to the Sabinyo gorilla family which was really exciting because firstly the iconic jaggered volcano in the park shared by all 3 countries was named Sabinyo as was half the hotels and restaurants, so it seemed like we were visiting royalty. Secondly the oldest silverback known to man was the alpha of this family! Real life King Kong!! Silverbacks usually live upto a 35 or 40 years, but this gentle giant just crossed 45!

 

The entrance to the park marked by a rock wall and guarded by an armed guard who was waiting for us. There are mountain elephants (didn’t know such a species existed before) and buffaloes in the hills. They can sometimes go rouge and be dangerous so we must at all times we guarded by a man holding a gun, which he promised was not to shoot at the animal but only to scare him away, if it ever came to that. Spoiler alert! It didn’t.

img_5283

We trekked for about 90 mins and apparently came to a point where the path split. My first reaction was, there is a path?!? The whole time I was thinking we were creating one, chopping off small branches and the undergrowth. But yes, there was a path and we were at crossroads. The problem was that the trackers hadn’t yet spotted the gorillas. They apparently almost got to the gorillas when they spotted a mountain elephant! Then no one moves. So they were waiting for the giant to move away so that they could carry on tracking the Sabinyo group. But without knowing where the gorillas were, we couldn’t proceed. Such is the nature of cross roads. So we sat down and waited. And waited. One of our guides escorted by the armed guard went ahead to see if they could find the trackers, so we waited for them to come back. And we waited. 30 minutes went by, no guide, no guard, no news. So the second guide went in search of the first armed with a porter who was carrying a machete. That felt a little like abandonment. Here we were sitting in the middle of the thick forest with our porters and nothing to protect us if it ever came to that (well I was armed with a selfie stick). Another 15 minutes slowly ticked by and the guides returned. The Sabinyos had been spotted and we were on our way.

img_5307

This is where things got….difficult. The blooming gorillas were on the face of a steep mountain. So our first task was to trek or in my case crawl, hang and slide down. The thing you don’t realize till you actually do it is that you are not stepping on solid ground. The plant growth is so thick and roots and wines and trees and plants are seemingly one of top of each other a good few inches above the ground. So you have to keep going. You can’t stop because if you do you fall. To add to our problems there were stinging nettle everywhere. Not only can you not step on something solid, nor can you hold on to dear life! So you just go..and we did. Finally after what seemed to be forever they said that we arrived. We had to leave our bags and walking sticks with the porters, grab only our camera and trek further down to the gorillas.

dsc_0838

All my pain vanished the moment I spotted a fury back with touches of silver merely 10 meters away. OMG the Sabinyo silver back, the oldest alpha was sitting, just there, right there where I could reach out and touch him.

dsc_0749

We got closer and closer. I really only had to straighten my arm and I would have touched the magnificent alpha. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Park rules and fear for my life.

dsc_0746

He just sat there. Posed for us. Ignored us. Scratched his arm. Ate some leaves. Stared at us.

dsc_0804

dsc_0055

After a while the silver back for bored…stood up to show us his ginormous size and where the 250kg was dispersed (I really took a step back, not that there was space or ground to move back) pounded on his chest and growled loudly (I think I peed a little and then toppled).

img_5309

Oh. My. God. Here was King Kong, telling us who’s boss. We didn’t for a moment doubt that he was.

dsc_0778

Then he walked away, showing us his magnificent rear! We followed of course.

dsc_0836

Two other gorillas, one baby and one female joined him and we were on their trail. They stopped, we stopped. The cameras snapped.

dsc_0827

We just stood there snapping and snapping and snapping. A minute later the guide said “guys, slowly turn around” OH. MY. GOD. Mummy bear, I mean gorilla with her baby on the back was walking to us. And I mean we were in her path. She was a few feet away. Of course there was nowhere to move to. She just brushed up against us and walked away. Just. Like. That.

dsc_0854

The two baby gorillas jumped away from their mummy and started playing. What a riot. They were aggressively playful with each other. Pulling, biting, tackling, punching, eating, stealing and probably even tickling each other. A-do-ra-ble!! We were inches away from them and they did not care.

dsc_0002

The silverback got bored and went further downhill, sat himself near lush vegetation and started eating. I guess he knew we wouldn’t hurt his family, although he did give us a few looks while whole bushes vanished into his mouth.

dsc_0067dsc_0071

What magnificent creatures. I could’ve stared at them all day. They just went about eating and playing and just being. They were so like us. Their fingers, their eyes, the expressions, the way they itched, the way they ate, the way they gestured at each other. It was easy to see why Diane Fossy was so obsessed with these creatures.

dsc_0871

Technically we had an hour with them, but I think we spent close to two. I was devastated when the guides said time was up. Partly because we needed to make our way back the same way we came, but also because I wanted to snuggle up to the Sabinyo and be a part of their family.

dsc_0018

Kicking and screaming (only in my mind) we left. And things got even more difficult back up. If not for Eric, my porter, my trekking partner I would have had to beg the silver back to let me join his family. Eric almost dragged and partly carried me back up. What an amazing experience.

dsc_0911

One I would not do again, but to have been able to do it once was all that I had expected and more.

In Search of the Lost City of the Incas 

The cloud kissed Andean mountains were magical. As much as I wanted to move them away in favor of blue skies, there was something mystical about following the ancient Inca footsteps in this magical setting.

The train slowly moved along the cactus liner river banks. The Urubamba river was gushing through much faster than our train but we didn’t mind, this view was to die for!

Peru Rail was well equipped to take millions of tourists each year in search of the lost city of the Incas. We boarded from Ollayntaytambo after our sacred valley trip and it took us 1.5 hours to get to Aguas Calientes the entry point to the much awaited Machu Picchu.


That night we rested and woke up before dawn. There are two ways up the mountain to see the ancient ruins. You can either take a bus from town or hike up. We chose the former and were glad we did when we saw hikers red faced and almost passing out on our way there. We needed all our energy to get through that day and the bus offered the same dramatic views as the uphill hike.

We were touching the sky, above the clouds. Literally the clouds floated below us. With dramatic drops of the sacred mountains all around us and the Urumbamba River screaming below it was easy to see why the ancient Incas chose this place. There was magic all around us. Pachmama (Incan god Mother Nature) ensured that every element and detail of this landscape was perfect.

From the entrance we hiked about 15 minutes to get our first view of Machu-freaking-Picchu. There it was, standing majestically below us, holding all the secrets of the Incas. There it was, the Lost City Of The Incas.

img_2654

I had to pinch myself. This was not a dream. I was standing above this hallmark of a great civilization. A place I had dreamed of seeing, a place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, here it was, and here I was.

I would have taken a 1000 pictures, each one more perfect than the one before. Machu Picchu was only some 500 years old. Many countries had historic marvels much older than this Incan city, including my own country, but it was this setting, the stories behind it, the mountains, the mist, the clouds that made Machu Picchu a little bit more special than the rest.

Of course there was also the architecture and technology that shouldn’t have existed 500 years ago that the Incas were using. Their obsession with the sun, the moon, the stars made it all very mystical. Incas were obsessed with the number 3, they had 3 rules for life, 3 principles, 3 gods, 3 of everything. Each building had 3 sets of windows.


  

There are many stories about what Machu Picchu really was. Some say it was an ancient retreat for the Incan empires – but could this be true? Incas believed in equal treatment and no social class system, so would they then have a retreat for the selected? Another theory is that this was an ancient university. Our guide Fernando was convinced on the fact. However, I’m personally not so sure about it. Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, there was many secret trails leading upto it guarded well by many guard posts set high in the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget that the Spanish conquerors never found this place. Why would university students need so much security? Also where were all the classrooms or lecture halls? There were no structures or rooms big enough for the purpose. The third theory is that this was an administrative and political capital of the empire. Now this made more sense to me. But the Incas died together with their knowledge of what this place really was. So one can only assume.

DSC_0893 StitchDSC_0932 DSC_0944

We spent hours walking around the ancient ruins – from the sun gate way up in the mountains, to the main entrance, to the sun temple and the moon temple, to the living quarters of the empire and the empress and the high priest and those of the common man, to the terraces where the grew crops to the sun dial and the temple of virgins. Machu Picchu was jaw dropping at every turn.

DSC_0937DSC_0933DSC_0958Edit DSC_0922

Something about Machu Picchu makes you want to physically exert yourself to earn the right to be there. Some hike the Inca trail (which is closed in February every year so we missed it), some hike up to the sun gate, some upto Machu Picchu. We chose Wayunapicchu – the familiar mountain that stands over the city of Machu Picchu. This is where the ancient astronomers of the empire lived, high up in the mountain to get a closer view of the stars and planets in the night sky. Legend has it that they kept their eyes closed during day and trained themselves to see better at night and that they could see upto 5 planets with the naked eye! Like I said, legend has it.

Everything about the Incas was larger than life. Apparently they were as tall as 180 meters and could run all the way to the coast and back in 45 mins. We could barely make it up Wayunapicchu! We literally dragged ourselves up the slippery path and at some points we crawled, on all fours! It was not an easy climb. Fernando had more faith in us than we did. He assured us it would take us only 45 mins up the mountain, it took us just over an hour but it felt like 2.

DSC_0979

This is not for the faint hearted and definitely not for the unfit. But once you are up there the views are completely worth it.

DSC_0993 
But remember you have to come down as well. Usually coming down would be easier, but Wayunapicchu was strange in a sense that we had to climb down first before climbing up, which meant that the last stretch of the trek was uphill.

DSC_0975 DSC_0978

We almost made it with zero casualties, but somewhere down the slippery slope Sandi twisted his ankle. The macho guy refused help and almost ran the rest of the way to make the last for a shorter time. He might have been inspired by the Incas, who knows!

After coming down we walked back to the exit. I kept looking over my shoulder taking one last glance after another of the magnificent Machu Picchu. There really wasn’t anything like it. The Incas may have been simple people but this lost city was beyond imagination, it really was a trip of a lifetime. And nothing sealed it better than an official Machu Picchu stamp on our passports.

img_2657

Before I end my somewhat dreamy narrative, here are my top tips on this Incan marvel

1. Visit it. You must. If you see just one thing in your life, then it must be Machu Picchu.

2. Hire a guide, it really makes a difference. A huge difference. Without a guide Machu Picchu is a beautiful stone city, with a guide is a mystical marvel of human history

3. The weather is unpredictable and it can rain anytime. But don’t worry about it, the rain and the clouds are a part of the charm

4. Skip the sun rise. You can’t see it anyway because of the clouds, so why bother dragging yourself out of bed and battling the crowds? Go a little later in the day. The best time is in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have left

5. Some may not agree, but don’t hike up to Machu Picchu. Do the Inca trail by all means, but on the day you see this ancient wonder, save all your energy for it