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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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  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.

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  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!

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  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.

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  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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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).

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Volcanic Adventure – Mount Bromo & Ijen

Visiting one of the many volcanoes in the region was on my bucket list before leaving south east Asia, so our pick both in terms of natural beauty/diversity and ease of climb was Bromo. We took a 2 hr flight from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia’s next largest city and the closest airport to Mount Bromo. It takes 3 to 4 hours from Surabaya to get to Bromo. So plan for this especially if u are landing at night and planning on climbing the next morning.

We got to our hotel, Java Banana by 11pm and got 3 hours of sleep before leaving the hotel at 3 am for our adventure.

You need to 4wd to get there. It was very dark and we couldn’t see the road at all, it was only lit by the hundreds of other jeeps making the same drive, but my body definitely felt ruggard road.

45 mins later we jumped off the jeep to trek abt 5 mins to the sun rise viewing point. Yes it is 3 am but the shops here are in full swing selling tea, coffee, banana fritters and corn on the cob. The sun is only set to rise just after 5am, so we kill time drinking tea in a shop. Just past 4 we walk to the viewing platform already full of people and find ourselves quite a great spot facing east. And there we stood for the next hour and a half freezing till madam sun shone her face.

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It’s cold, very cold. We were both wearing a few layers but that wasn’t enough so we had to dance in one place to keep warm.

The three volcanoes are on the west side directly opposite to where the sun rise is. Here’s a tip, while the sun rise, any sun rise is spectacular there is nothing extra special about the one here, so perch yourself facing west so you see the volcanoes through the clouds and most making them look almost mystical. Don’t forget to walk around the platform as there are many breathtaking angles for pictures

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A hundred or so photos later, snapped under near freezing temperatures we set off to get a closer look of Mount Bromo. On the way down there is yet another great spot to take pics of the three destroyers called lovers hill.

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The geography surrounding Bromo is quite spectacular. Volcanic ashes and sand have created what is known as the sea of sand right around the mountain making it almost separate from the rest of the world. You can walk or hop on a horse to cross the sea of sand. We paid 80k per person and opted for the latter. I’m not sure we got the best price as our guide did the talking, but it was 6am and we were cold so a few dollars here or there didn’t matter.

Sea of sandOn horse back
The horses take you all the way up to a very steep staircase to reach the crater. There are enough rest areas along the stairs so it’s not too bad.

Horse drop off point

The stairs
Once we reached the top we couldn’t help but we wowed by nature. Bromo is still an active volcano and last erupted in November 2010 (just ash). When you peer into the crater you can see clouds of smoke coming up from within while your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of sulfur.

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Some people do the 3km crater rim walk, but our guide promptly said “crazy people”. I suspect the path isn’t very stable.

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That morning after breakfast at the hotel we started our 6 hour journey to Banyuwangi where Ijen is. We stayed overnight at Ketapang Indah, a hotel by the sea overlooking Bali. Now it made sense why most tours of these two volcanoes ended up in Bali.

Our adventure to Ijen started at 1am. We left the hotel thinking it probably wasn’t going to be as cold as bromo, boy were we wrong. I fell asleep going there and coming back so u have no idea how long it took, but the drive itself was at least over an hour. Our guide had packed breakfast for us, so after munching that down around 2 maybe 3 am we started our 3km hike to the top of Ijen. But first we had to buy entrance tickets 150k per person sold by a shivering man in a tent in front of a mini bonfire.

The start Buying tickets from the "counter"

The trek started off easily on flat ground and then it became steeper and steeper. It’s pitch black with only the moon and stars above you so don’t forget a torch. We hiked for what seemed like forever making small stops and then reached the half way point marked by a shop (closed at that hour) and this sulfur collection point. We rested there for a while sitting in the cold admiring the starry night and once again began our journey. All at once it got a whole lot more difficult and then much much easier. Just remember of walk on your left, the right is a dead drop which u may not see in the darkness. Dawn was almost approaching when we got to the top, the view seemed spectacular but it was too dark to see.

We now had to make our way into the crater, 800m down. If you thought the first 3km was bad, oh dear…there is absolutely no pathway to get to the bottom so you just have to balance on the rocks, cling on to dear life, pray that you don’t fall and give it ago. It takes about 45 mins to get down. We could almost see some blue flames from a midway point but very very sadly once we got to the bottom it was too lit up that we missed the fire. What a pity, laboring this whole journey to see it and missing it by maybe 30 mins. So my advice, leave early (maybe midnight) and take shorter breaks on the way up and plan to be inside the crater by 4am.
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It was dark all this while and the climb down was dangerous so I never bothered to look around. Once at the bottom and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath and for me get over the disappointment of missing the flames you look around and realize that you might as well as be on the moon. The surroundings were mostly grey with bits of yellow to mark the sulfur. I was 800m deep inside a volcano! It was quite an amazing sight. The crater lake was bright green surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks.

View from the bottom Sulfur fumes Liquid suflur

We saw a few miners on the way down but right at the bottom there was one guy stationed inside the volcano.There are miners and then there are entrepreneurs. This guy was collecting liquid sulfur and pouring it in different shaped moulds to make souvenirs! You can buy bits of sulfur shaped as hearts, animals, flowers, you name it. Liquid sulfur once in contact with water freezes up. So he pours in the dark yellow liquid and drops a bit of water to make his masterpieces. I was afraid my whole house will smell like rotten eggs, the infamous sulfur stench so didn’t bother buying any.
Making sulfur sovenirs
The sides of the crater full of sulfur was emitting smoke that the wind took to the top. At first there was a bit of smoke on the lake but it soon cleared up and then suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. Sulfur dioxide! My eyes were burning and my lungs were coughing up. For a moment I thought I would pass out. The guide grabbed my hand and said “let’s go!!!”. With involuntary tears pouring down we made our way back.

A fellow traveller The crater lake At the crater lake

Solidified sulfur
It’s a very difficult very scary journey up to the top. You can easily slip and break your neck. To add to the difficulty of the path I was now tearing coughing and sneezing!!! Most people around me were clearing their throats and spitting out. Not the most hygienic conditions. Even though I could hardly breathe the photographer inside me stopped several times to take in the scenery and snap a few shots. Every time we came across sulfur baskets that miners had left behind I couldn’t help but stop to snap it.

Making their way back up Sulfur collected

The trek up

45 more mins of clinging on to dear life and we were back on top. Only then did I notice a sign that said visitors are not allowed inside the crater for safety reasons, oh well!

Apparently you arent allowed to go down The view from top
Even the top of the volcano was filled with smoke so we didn’t wait to see the view from the top but made our way down. After a while the smoked cleared up and we could enjoy the beautiful scenery that we had missed on the way up.
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Sulfur on a backdrop of more volcanic mountains
We met a few miners down at the collection point, but today was a public holiday and most of them were not working. Each miner carries about 70kg of sulfur at a time up the crater to the collection point. 70kg!!!! And they do it 2 maybe 3 times a day! Suffocating through the inevitable smoke. Now I know why this particular job was classified as one of the worst in the world. The health risks are imminent but apparently the government has a insurance scheme, not sure how much that helps! They sell 1kg of sulfur for merely 1000idr which is just about $0.10.

We met a miner with his collection and Pramodh tried to give a shot at carrying it. He could only manage it for a few mins, god knows how these guys do it every day!
The miners Hard at work The minors
Going down the path was a hundred times more difficult than climbing up. It was completely slippery and we had to walk sideways like crabs. Some parts of the path had ditches so we walked in them to prevent ourselves from tumbling down. My legs were giving way, but managed to make the 3km journey back.

Ijen was difficult, in any standard. If you want to make the trip there are a few essentials: 1. A proper mask with filters, not the small surgical one, but the heavy duty type. 2. Proper shoes for the trek and climb 3 proper clothes to stay warm 4. Some form of gloves partly because of the cold but mostly because you have to grab hold of the volcanic sulfur rocks when climbing up or down the crater. 5. Ideally some foam of goggles, at least carry them in your bag so that you can put them on when the smoke sets in. I had only number 3, 4 and partly 2 and trust me I regretted it.

The adventure part of our trip was complete and now for the charity part. We had brought with us clothes to give away to the miners. We stopped in a factory to give those away. They were highly excited to receive this gift especially on a religious holiday. Our next stop was an orphanage to give away books and stationery that we had bought. The kids were super curious but shy. The brave few managed to ask us where we were from and what we were doing there. They were grateful too and thanked us with the little English they knew.

With our new miner friends Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage

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