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And The Solar de Uyuni

When we left on this trip, neither of us had heard about the Solar, the largest and highest salt flats in the world. En route, several travelers had told us not to miss it, and they were right. To get there we took a bus to Oruro, and then a train to the town of Uyuni, at the edge of the flats. The train was delayed and we didn't get in until close to midnight. We lugged our bags to one end of town to the Hotel Tonito, close to the army base. It looked closed, but we banged on the door for a few minutes and someone finally came to let us in. We had made a reservation for this place in LaPaz, and it was nothing to rave about. In the morning we had breakfast at Minute Man Pizza, adjoining the hotel. This turned out to be quite a hospitable eatery, run by an American from Amhearst Massachusetts, and his Bolivian wife. They had various organic treats, and seemed to be the one place in Uyuni where you didn't have to worry about the food making you sick.

The small town has broad streets with low buildings and reminded me of the American west. It used to be a major railroad crossing, and is still a small commercial hub for southern Bolivia. The major business seems to be tourism, with many agencies and guide shops. While Nanette chatted with George, the owner of Minuteman, I went around to various guide services to check out jeep trips. This particular year the flats were flooded with up to two feet of water, and we heard that the tours just went out for a few hours, and then came back to town on the same day before driving around to see other sites. I talked to a few other visitors on the streets who said that there was one company that was still taking people all the way across. This appealed to my more risk taking, age denying side, and I booked a 3 days trip for the two of us at $60 a piece. I was not about to be deterred by a little water. The agent said they were leaving in an hour, and would not be running another trip for a few days. We had not planned to leave so soon, but this seemed too good to pass up. I practically ran back to the retaurant to get Nanette, and we checked out of the hotel in record time.

When we returned to the tiny tour office, there were young people from Switzerland and Sweden and a couple of Brazilians, but we were the only Americans. Naturally, the guides were not ready to leave for more than an hour. Hurry up and wait. A women from the office finally showed us where the jeeps were parked, not one but two, and there were already several people packed into one of them. Clearly, I wasn't the only risk taker here, though we were the two oldest by far. Both of the vehicles looked as if they had seen better days. Each was at least 20 years old and extremely discolored, presumably from the salt. Another hour was spent trying to jump start one of the jeeps. Not an auspicious beginning. I wondered what would happen if we got stuck in the middle of the Solar. Eventually they got the engine started, and our first stop was the railroad graveyard outside of town. There were several engines and rusty cars that looked to be 50 to 100 years old, remnants of Uyuni's more prosperous years as a shipping and railroad center.

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The tracks appeared to go nowhere.

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Next stop was a little further out of town where our driver stopped to pack the engine. What is that, you ask? I didn't know either, but the driver pulled up various weeds and plants from the arid soil and placed them around the engine to protect it from the salt.

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At last, we were ready to begin. In front of us the salt flats stretched on for miles, as far as we could see. The sky was a deep blue, and the water acted as a mirror which reflected it. At first, the water was about a foot deep and did not present any major problems. We drove across, creating a small wake as the salt quickly crusted over the windshield. After a few minutes it became impossible to see out, and I wondered how the driver knew which direction to go in since everything looked the same, and there appeared to be few landmarks. Every 5 or 10 minutes he would toss the contents of a bottle of water onto the windshield, so that he could get a quick look before the salt built up again. Perhaps this was enough to find the way. I hoped so anyway. We had to roll down our windows to see anything from the back seats, but as soon as we did the salt coated our faces. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bottom was pure white and flat, except for small ridges that had been formed by the water sloshing on the top.

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The air was very clear as were about 3800 meters high, or 13,000 feet. There were several snow capped mountains visible off to one side, but other than that, it seemed like a vast emptiness of white and blue, a giant reflecting pool disorienting in its intensity. We saw only a few other vehicles, but in an hour or two, we came to a small island where there were several other jeeps, a hotel, and a restaurant, all constructed of salt.

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The water was shallower here, about 6 inches, and the mounds of salt looked like snow. It was a fantastical scene. The hotel was surrounded by multicolored flags, people from various parts of the world, and located in what appeared to be an endless white plain in the middle of nowhere. I was giddy as I ran from one pile of salt to the next, trying to take it all in, and posing for the camera as Nanette snapped pictures.

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During lunch we met people from other tours, all of which, save ours, were turning back at this point. Maybe they knew something we didn't. It was close to three before we started off again on our journey to nowhere. Our driver and guide sat in the front seat talking in Spanish and chewing on coca leaves. After a while, we seemed to loose track of the other jeep, but our guides didn't seem concerned. As the afternoon wore on, clouds built up and we began to hear thunder and see lightening in the distance. This was also reflected in the water, creating a double image of jagged flashes in a sea that was dark on one side and orange-pink on the other.


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By now, the water was about two feet deep, and reached almost to the top of the exhaust. Not good, I thought, as the jeep could easily stall out. Our driver and guide began to talk a bit more heatedly, and seemed unsure of where to go. For all we knew, they had driven around in one big circle. As we drove on, the storm seemed to move closer, and the wind picked up forming small whitecaps.

It also started to get colder. Were we lost?

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At a certain point our jeep did indeed did stall out, and I wondered if this had been such a good idea after all. Perhaps as the other tour guides had told me, it was too dangerous to make it across under these conditions. After about 15 minutes it was obvious that the engine was not going to start, despite valiant attempts, and our guide began to make preparations to leave the jeep.

We had been told before we left that at some point, we would have to walk across in the water, but somehow this did not seem part of the plan. There was no shoreline in sight and the water came up almost to the doors. And where was the other jeep? I was in no hurry to get out, and start wading in salt water in the middle of an electrical storm . It seemed too dangerous. It was more prudent to sit tight until the storm passed. In back of us, the two young Swedish doctors in their mid 20' began to cry when it became obvious that the jeep was not going to move again. They thought we were done for. I was a little more sanguine, having been through other close calls, and tried to console them. Our guide took out a small raft and loaded several jerry cans of gasoline on top. He told us that there was a third jeep on the opposite shoreline, not yet visible, which was going to meet us, but that we needed to get there before dark. By now it was close to 6 and the daylight was fading quickly. He explained that normally we could get closer to the shoreline before we had to walk, but now the water was too deep, and the walk would be longer than planned. As these preparations were under way, our companions arrived in jeep number two. We all let out a big cheer. It seemed then that we were not lost, or at least we were all lost together.

By the time the driver of the 2nd jeep had made his preparations, the storm had moved off and was no longer directly overhead. This was a good thing. At least we would be less likely to be struck by lightening. I had forgotten to get my shorts out of my pack, and decided to just strip down to my underwear, to avoid getting my only pair of long pants wet while walking to shore. We all got out, and everyone got a kick out seeing me, altacocker (old fart) that I am, standing in the water in my underwear and rain jacket, along with my red pack

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Vagabonding at 60 indeed, well at this point 57. What was I thinking? Everyone took scandalous pictures of my semi-naked bod, and we all laughed hysterically. It provided a bit of comic relief in what was a rather tense situation. With our trustworthy (we hoped) guide in the the lead, we started to trekking towards shore. I looked back and wondered how they would ever get the jeep started, but by then, that was the least of my concerns. Most of us were barefoot or were wearing sandals, and the bottom was slippery. It was not easy walking in several feet of water, and we got chilled quickly as the sun went down. After a while, and it felt like a long while, we could make out the shoreline in the distance The storm had more or less blown itself out, but the cloud formations were hallucinogenic in the pink light. We must have walked for an hour or more, and could see a small spit of land jutting out into the salt flats. Sure enough, there was another jeep at the end of it, flashing its lights so that we could see the way across the darkening water. Eventually we all made it, shivering as we got back into the jeep. This one seemed in much better condition than the last one. I guess this wasn't going to be a suicidal mission after all. For a time, I wasn't sure. Our destination was another salt hotel about ½ hour drive up the shoreline. We arrived just as the last light of day was extinguished. The tables and chairs were also made of salt and so were the beds.


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Luckily, not the pillows and the mattresses. There was no electricity, but in the dining room they had gas lanterns that put out a friendly glow. In our room, we used candles. Nanette was feeling pretty sick and took a nap before dinner, hoping the Cipro she had taken earlier would work. Cipro is a broad spectrum antibiotic which is good for stomach issues in third world countries. We never leave home without it. Dinner was served about an hour later, and consisted of some kind of greasy meat of unknown origin, and a vegetable soup made with Andean rice, or quinoa, which is a staple in these parts because of its hardiness. I was feeling queasy myself, and just had a little soup. Nanette ate almost nothing. We all went to bed early, tired after the adventures of the day.


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The next morning, practically everyone was sick. Good thing I didn't eat much. Nanette was a little better than the previous evening, but still not feeling well. We had a long day of travel over very rough tracks to get to our next destination, which was a national park further into a remote and higher section of the Altiplano. This was some of the wildest country I had ever seen. Snow covered volcanoes amidst the dry soil, it was a very sparsely populated high desert.

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Again I was reminded of the American west, but on an even bigger scale.

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There were weird rock formations, multicolored, and worn away by wind and water into strange shapes and sizes.

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A Bit of Snow


It was windy most of the time and chilly in the thin air. Periodically the jeep would get stuck and we'd all have to get out and push. At one point we had to cross a muddy stream that looked several feet deep with soft sand all around. I wasn't sure the jeep would make it, but after scouting around for a while our driver found the best place to cross, while we hopped from boulder to boulder to get to the other side. We stopped for lunch at some rock formations that provided a little shelter from the wind, and waited while the guide fired up a kerosene stove in the back of the jeep to heat up our food. By this time I was hungry and gobbled up the basic grilled cheese sandwiches, hoping for the best. We continued all afternoon without seeing another vehicle, and climbed higher as we approached the park. We passed lakes of different colors, red and green. The guide told us it was because of the minerals. The red one had a number of flamingos who looked strangely out of place in this non-tropical moonscape. Nothing lived in the green lake because it contained too much arsenic.




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We arrived at the park huts as it was getting dark. It was really cold now, close to freezing, and we didn't carry sleeping bags with us, unlike several of the other travelers. Luckily, Manuel, our guide, took pity on us old folks and gave us several warm blankets. Although we didn't pass any vehicles on the way, it was crowded inside, and for a little while it wasn't even clear whether there would be enough room. Eventually though, they crammed us all into one big room and we each got a bed. Dinner was served by lantern light, and there was more quinoa soup and some kind of chicken. Oh well, we weren't here for the food. I awoke the next morning, after a fitful night, to about two inches of snow that dusted everything with white, and made it look even more surreal. We left before dawn, and our first stop just as the sun was coming up, was the site of several large steam vents blowing through the rocks.



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A couple of the largest were colored by minerals, and must of have been 20 or 30 feet high. We stomped around in the cold air, listening to the whooshing of the earth as our breath made steam vents in the cold air. With all the condensation, snow on the ground, and the sun filtering through the mist, it was an other worldly inferno.


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An hour later we stopped at some shallow hot springs. Most of the group refused to go in because of the freezing temperatures, but maybe because of years of getting naked in a a hot-tub in the northeast winters in upstate New York, we had no hesitation. And it was worth every minute. The water was warm enough to be comfortable, and the view before us was of high mountains and a small lake. The enormous sense of space, and the warmth of the bath were enough to make me forget the difficulty of getting here. It was good to give my bones a rest in this spiritual place.

From here we drove on to another bright green laguna, empty of all life because of the toxic minerals, but captivating to look at.


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It was surrounded by mountains devoid of vegetation. From there we continued on to the Chilean border, where about half of our group got out and waited for the bus to meet them at the guard house and bring them back to civilization. The rest of us had another long bumpy jeep ride back to Uyuni, but there were many more interesting sights along the way, including one area, known as the Dali rocks.

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Slowly we started to come to signs of civilization, and eventually got to a small Indian village where we got out for a break. There was an escarpment past the village giving it some cover from the harshness of the land, and for some unknown reason a ten foot tall wooden chicken sat in the center of town.

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We stopped for candy bars in the tienda, and sat next to the chicken while children unused to seeing gringos stared at us.

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Deciding Whether to Eat the Candy we Gave Him


We still had another two hours, but the ride went quickly as we talked politics to our Brazilian friends, 19 and 20, who were incredibly well informed for their age, and spoke English, Spanish, and, Italian fluently, as well as their native Portuguese. When we arrived back in Uyuni we took a shower and headed straight for Minuteman. Pizza never tasted so good.

The next day we rested up for the overnight train ride to the Argentine border, and contemplated the experience of the preceding few days. Despite being sick, they were without a doubt, one of the highlights of our trip

Posted by jonshapiro 10:24 Archived in Bolivia Tagged postcards Comments (5)

Caraz and the High Cordellera

Our next destination in the high Andes began, as usual, with a lengthy bus ride. Opting for the more scenic route,(and yes it was longer), we went first to Chimbote, guano capital of the world. Here we caught the misnamed Yungay Express, which looked as though it would be lucky to break 40 MPH. Our route took us through the Canon del Pato, and a narrow, mostly dirt track winding along the river, and then up through the slot canyon.

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We had to pass through some 30 tunnels that were blasted through the rocky and dry mountains. The steep sides were chock full of loose boulders, just looking for an excuse to roll down and crush us. I was thankful that it was a dry day. The scenery was other worldly, as is so much of Peru, and it helped us to avoid focusing on the bone jarring ride. This was not a trip for the feint of heart as we frequently stared down into major chasms. We passed a few villages. People got on with chickens, and at one point several sheep were placed in the underneath compartment. Most of the luggage was stored on top, so there was room for the animals. As always, bathroom stops were few and far between, and it was a good thing we had brought a sandwich from Trujillo as there were not many food choices along the route. After a several hours, we approached the Callejon, a long narrow valley surrounded on one side by the Cordellera Negra and on the other by the Cordellera Blanca, which contains many of the highest summits in all of the Andes. We began to make out some of the snow peaks in the distance, before arriving in Caraz, at 7500 feet.


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We took one of the tuk tuks buzzing around like flies, a three wheeled motor cycle buggy, complete with fringe on the top. Cramming in our backpacks, we rode the short ½ mile up the hill to our hotel, Caraz Dulzura. It appeared as though the only other people at the place were a French couple who were leaving the next day. The staff were happy to serve us dinner, provided we gave them a hour to prepare it. This was easy to do, as we sat on the terrace drinking beer and gazing up at the mountains.

The town itself, was small, quiet, and this time of year, the rainy season, there few tourists.

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The narrow winding streets had old rocks walls, buildings out of cement or stone, small shops, and was not without charm. While not prosperous, it did not seem especially poor. Most of the people looked indigenous, but few were dressed in native costume. I stopped in the local tour guide/mountaineering shop, Pony Expeditions. Alberto spoke English, and was kind enough to spend some time with me, and gave me a lot of good information about local hikes. Because business was so slow this time of year, it seemed to make more sense to wait until Huaraz, a much larger town, to check out longer trekking possibilities.

Based on Alberto's recommendation, our first hike took place on the trails and narrow roads that were immediately in back of our hotel. Although a little confusing, as there were several paths, we chose one that seemed more well worn. It took us through the outskirts of town, and then started up the mountain. It was more of a road than a trail, and we passed several people herding sheep and goats. After a couple of hours we got past what looked like cell towers, and then onto a beautiful high plateau with terraced fields and stone walls.

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On one side was the valley floor with the town of Caraz spread out in front of us and the Cordellera Negra behind, somewhat dark and ominous looking. In the other direction were massive glaciated snow peaks, one of which dominated the sky towering another 10,000 feet above us.

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It reminded me very much of the Himalayas. The sun was hot as we walked along the relatively flat path. We passed flowering yuccas and green fields, as well as the occasional adobe hut. After another hour or two, we came across a family, obviously doing the same thing we were, strolling along and taking in the sights. They told us that although the day looked fair, usually in late afternoon a very strong wind came up, and we wanted to be down before that happened. We continued on for another ½ hour or so to a small village on a hillside, and just sat on a stone wall, watching a few farmers go about their business, and looking at the ingenious gravity fed irrigation system water the fields. After a time, we noticed the clouds had started to obscure the snow peaks, and figured we had better start back. It was hard, very hard, to pull ourselves away. Later, the wind did begin to blow, and there were some serious gusts before we got down far enough to where they abated. Obviously the family knew what they were talking about. We managed to get lost, though not seriously so, and had to take a somewhat longer way back. No matter, what a perfect day.

We ate dinner again in our hotel, this time after about a two hour wait. We were now the only people in the place, and the maid/cook/caretaker befriended us, and asked a lot of questions about where we were from, what we were doing etc. We of course asked her the same. She was from an Indian family in a nearby village, where she returned each night. She seemed really pleased that we could understand her Spanish, as Quechua was her first language.

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Nanette with Quechua friend in front of hotel sign




The next day we hired a cab, with Alberto's help, to take us to Llanganuco Lakes, a national park further up the valley.

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On the way over we passed close to the base of Huascaran, almost 22,000 feet, and we had some breathtaking views before the clouds came in.

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Though not visible from this photograph, we thought we could make out where a huge chunk of the glacier had broken off during an earthquake, and buried the town of Yungay, killing 20,000 people. We asked our driver about it, and he told us that everyone was buried alive except a number of school children who were on a trip outside of town, just beyond the reach of the avalanche. They were the only ones spared. Other people have since rebuilt the town a few miles away. The old place, now a cemetery, is a bunch of rubble dotted by crosses, a permanent reminder of how precarious life can be in this immense landscape. As a shopkeeper in Daramsala had said to me a few years earlier, in the Indian Himalaya you put yourself in God's hands. In the west, with our creature comforts and predictable everyday lives, we have the illusion that we can control almost everything, maybe even death. Here, as in so many places in the third world, they have no such illusions.

Shortly after we arrived at the lakes, the weather deteriorated significantly. It became overcast and windy, and the temperature dropped to 35 or 40F. Of course, we were also at 15,000 feet or so, which made a difference. The lakes were a deep turquoise, fed by the rapidly melting glaciers all around. We put on all the clothes we had and started hiking further up the valley, just as a few pieces of grapple began to fall. Right around the lake there were trees, but higher it was a totally alpine environment of rock and meadows, and beyond that, ice and snow. We came to a high grazing field with stone walls and a small rock hut, that reminded me of the villages of Nepal and northern India.

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At this time of year the flocks had already been moved to lower ground and we saw no animals. Occasionally, we got a brief glimpse of the glaciers and rocks above as the clouds would clear.

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We took a different trail back down from the upper lake, along a river bank that was lush and densely covered with trees and ferns. Compared to the surrounding environment it felt almost tropical, though only a few hundred feet lower.

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We rode back in silence, still trying to take in what we had seen.


That evening we had dinner in Alberto's pizzaria, Cafe de Rat, just above the offices of Pony Expeditions. The place had a European feel to it and was decorated with posters of the mountains and antiquated climbing gear. Unlike our hotel, there were other diners, mostly travelers like ourselves. We strolled around the main plaza, near the stone cathedral which had been reconstructed several times following earthquakes, and then walked up the long hill to our hotel just as the moon was rising over the mountains.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:19 Archived in Peru Tagged postcards Comments (4)

Three Days in Paradise: Vilcabamba

We caught a flight from Quito to Loja, in southern Ecuador, saving us 15 or 20 hours of road travel. From there we were unsure of whether to go straight to the Peruvian border, another 6 or 8 hours by bus, or to stop in Vilcabamba, a hippyish sounding place we had read about in the The South American Handbook. In the airport we talked to a young norteamericano who happened to be teaching English there. She told us it was a wonderful place. That decided it, and we shared a cab with her for the hour ride to the small town.

As it turned out Vilcabamba, was one of the highlights of our trip. Located somewhat lower than the surrounding highlands the climate is semi-tropical, though it is surrounded by imposing mountains. Everything is incredibly lush with many species of plants, both tropical and nontropical. True, it was the rainy season, but we heard that it was green all year long. The afternoons were hot, and often punctuated by a thunderstorm or two, while the mornings and evenings were comfortable and mild. We had some rain on each of the days we were there, but it came in short bursts, and the sun was out for most of the time. Every day we could see rainbows, sometimes two at a time, stretching from the valley floor all the way into the distant mountains after the storms would roll in

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Often the high mountains would still be overcast while the valley was sunny. We stayed in Izhcayluma, a German run small hotel on a hill overlooking the valley. There were elaborate gardens, a small, but beautifully landscaped pool, and good meals in an open-air restaurant. We decided to go for broke at $30US a night, and had our own cabin, complete with terrace and hammock facing the hills in the back. Staying in the hotel were several German's, not surprisingly, a family from Quito, and an afro-american woman from California, another psychologist.

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View of Valley from the Hotel
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Wandering around town we discovered a central plaza, and in it a small cafe that served, what they said, were organic crepes and yogurt smoothies. It was obvious that some of the more decrepit building were being repaired, and sizable new hotels and houses were in various stages of construction. We talked to another American, our age, who was in the process of building a house in the hills. He was far from the only one it seemed, and slowly Vilcabamba is becoming something of an expat community for retirees, mostly from California. Despite the considerable rise in land prices fed by foreign dollars, the town still felt like a sleepy village. Perhaps the hippie element, such as it is, was best expressed by the funky bar I stopped in for a beer and sandwich. It had a disheveled garden in the back, with banana palms strung with Christmas lights that looked as though they had been there a while. Inside, the bar stools were made of saddles, while the wooden walls had newspapers for wallpaper. I was the only customer, but it was, after all mid-afternoon.



Another day we climbed part way up Mandingo, the base of which is an easy walk from the hotel.

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It turned out to be more challenging and exposed than we thought. We climbed to the first cross, and could see that the trail continued on a knife's edge with loose rock, to where we could see another cross. We had been warned that the hardest part was beyond that. So the first cross was it. Nearby were several cows, who seemed to think think they were goats. They had no fear of us, or of falling off for that matter.

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We rested here, and admired the views across the valley.

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On the way down it began to get hot, and we stopped at one of the few internet cafes, close to the trail head. The cafe which was on the 2nd story had a roof, but otherwise it was an open terrace. Naturally the net was slow, but we had an expansive view of the village and the mountains beyond.

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I thought that there could not possibly be a more beautiful place to compose a letter.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:25 Archived in Ecuador Tagged postcards Comments (1)

Cotopaxi To Canoa

We returned to Quito to meet our older daughter, 26, and her boyfriend, who were flying in for 10 days from New York. By the time she arrived, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and was the same for our two day excursion to the Otavalo market. On Christmas day, we attempted to climb the lower reaches of Vulcan Cotopaxi. At 5897M or more than 19,000 feet, it is the second highest peak in Ecuador. Our Spanish speaking guide picked us up early in the morning, as the drive took about 2 hours. It was overcast, but not raining. On the way out we saw many Indians, whole families with children, begging on the side of the road. Our guide told us that they were there because it was Christmas. Occasionally a car would stop and give them a few pennies, but for the most part it seemed like they waiting in vain. When we arrived the upper half of the mountain was totally encased in cloud. Our plan was to start hiking from somewhere around 14,500, and make it to the snow line, around 17,000 feet. It was chilly and damp as we trudged through the open paramo that surrounded the cone.

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The hiking was not difficult, but at altitude, it was tiring. Natasha, in particular was struggling, as she and Eric had just spent a couple of days in the highlands before coming here, and didn't have enough time to acclimate. A small dog followed us all the way up from the refugio, apparently belonging to the caretaker.

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Despite the mist it was quite beautiful, and although the summit never did appear, we occasionally got a longer view of the ravines on either side.

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The walk took us through low grasses, and then onto finely ground scree of volcanic rocks. After a few hours of hiking in the ever thinning air, Natasha had enough and wanted to turn back. We didn't make it to the snow, although our guide said it wasn't far. The weather deteriorated as we hiked down; the rain adding to the chill. It became difficult to see. Not quite a white out, but still hard to determine exactly where the path was, as the terrain all looked the same in the dim, flat light.

On the way back to Quito, the rain picked up, but the indigenous families were still out begging. Covered with plastic or cardboard, they attempted to keep dry any way they could, though the splashing from the cars and trucks made that difficult. We got back to L'Auberge in the late afternoon, glad for the opportunity to get out of our damp clothes, and feeling very privileged compared to the people we saw on the road.



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The next day we went to Canoa, for a few more days of R and R on the beach. The folks at L,Auberge had just opened up a small hotel there. The price was right, $30US for two with two meals a day, and Canoa seemed relatively undeveloped from what I could gather by talking to the staff. The ocean swimming on the Pacific coast is not nearly as pleasant by the time you get to Peru and Chile, where it is chilled by the Humboldt Current. On our previous trip to Ecuador we had been to Atacames, which was then practically deserted, except for a few small thatched huts rented to German tourists. Most of the people on the beach were local shrimpers, who would come in every day and sell their catch to the open air restaurant, where we gorged ourselves on ceviche. Not now though. According to the guide books, it is THE party spot of Ecuador, and the beach is lined with hotels, restaurants and bars. I had no desire to go back and see how the quiet, beautiful place I remembered had been wrecked. That's always a problem when you go back to a place you remember fondly, especially when it's been a number of years. It's somewhat of a dilemma for me, even in terms of this blog. While I love sharing my experiences with others, I worry about what will become of the places I describe. I seem to get to many of them before they get written up in the Times. That's great, but I worry about running out of out of the way places, when its possible to get to so many of them in a day or two.

And then there was the bus ride. Not really a chicken bus, it was crammed to the gills with people sitting where they could in the aisles, or else standing for most of the 11 hours or so that it took to get there. It was supposed to take 8. We had our own seats, but people in the aisles couldn't help but lean against us. My daughter was a little stressed, both because of the overcrowding, and the fact that there was no bathroom on board, which was typical. We assured her that the bus would stop for pee brakes, but really we had no idea how often, or for that matter what the condition of the bathrooms would be. Perhaps it would be like our last trip here when the buses simply stopped along the side of the road, and the women hiked up their skirts. The bus did stop for bathroom breaks, but not for long, and not that often. Although I was somewhat used to it, I had forgotten how long the wait could be, and unfortunately had my usual morning coffee. Not a good idea when it could be three hours before the first real stop.

It seemed to take forever to get out of the city, but when we finally started to descend from the mountains the scenery was magnificent. Huge gorges and waterfalls lined our route, not to mention the inevitable 1000 foot drop off on one side of the road. When we got to a rather large town, at around two in the afternoon, the driver decided he was hungry. He got out, but neglected to tell us how long we would stay. Before we had a chance to climb out, which no one seemed inclined to do, thereby making it impossible for us to do so, hordes of street vendors descended upon us. This was not unusual, but because the bus was impossibly crowded they could not climb on board. Instead, they all seemed to have movable platforms on wheels that reached up to the bus windows, perhaps 10 feet or so off the ground. From there they sold us all manner of bananas, fried chicken, tamales, partially frozen, but melting ices, and the ubiquitous Inka Kola, which was not really a cola at all, but a super sweet lemon-line soda the color of urine. Apparently the bus crowds were a regular thing and these vendors were prepared.

We arrived at the end of the line as it was getting dark. Our hotel, Coconuts, was a few miles down the beach, and we took a taxi. We were all exhausted, but the room was fine, if simple, and faced directly out on the water 300 feet away. You could hear the waves breaking, and best of all, we seemed to be the only guests in the place. Since one of the owners was French, dinner was delicious. The little town of Canoa was a mile down the beach, but that would wait until tomorrow.

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The beach was wide, and where we were, completely undeveloped. Except for the occasional brightly colored “cabanas” stretched over a couple of poles to provide shade, there was nothing.

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The water was indeed warm and inviting. As in Nicaragua the surf conditions were highly variable, depending on the tides and the time of day, and the sunsets were sometimes incredible.

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On the walk to town there were sand cliffs/dunes that grew in height to a couple of hundred feet.

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These were perfect for paragliding, and we would often see the red and blue kites riding the thermals for hours, just like the smaller hawks nearby. After hearing I might get airsick the first few times, I decided not to try it. The town which had been primarily a fishing village, was slowly being transformed into a small beach side resort. There were several backpacker hotels and sea food restaurants which were good and inexpensive. We sampled a couple of them for lunch.

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Most of the patrons seemed to be middle class Ecuadorian families on holiday, though the backpacker establishments clearly had an international clientele. The streets beyond the water were still just sand.

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On the beach there were fishing boats that had been dragged up beyond the water line.

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Kids frolicked in the water, while the ice-cream man made his rounds.

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A long line of those same brightly colored cabanas, open on two sides , framed the water giving the whole place a festive air. It was busy enough to be fun for people watching, but small enough to be low key and relaxing. Natasha and Eric rented horses for her birthday, and went riding along the cliffs and the sand lanes beyond town. The staff at our hotel made a little cake and sang Feliz Cumplianos. All rather charming.

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It was hard to pull ourselves away, but we left on the 31st because we wanted to spend New Years Eve in Quito and their flight was scheduled the next day. For the third and final time we returned to L'Auberge. That evening we went back to Mariscal for the festivities. There was music and large crowds milling about and looking at the huge paper- mache puppets that lined the streets.

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Many seemed to have a political theme and we heard that making fun of the government and its corrupt politicians was a favorite New Year's Eve pastime. For a time we donned our own paper mache devil masks, which were being sold everywhere.

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After the long drive, we did not make it to midnight.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:08 Archived in Ecuador Tagged postcards Comments (0)

Semuc Champey

One of the most beautiful places in the world my daughter said, and I had to agree. Accompanied by a 35 year old Brit, seemingly in the process of leaving her husband back home, and a young woman from Germany, both of whom we knew from our school, we arranged for a weekend tour. At the last minute a decidedly unfriendly Israeli, our age, signed on separately. After a long 6 hours, we arrived about 10PM in Coban. Our driver/tour leader had to scurry around looking for a hotel in the crowded town, having failed to make reservations earlier. We ended up in a very basic and noisy place near the market, apparently the only one cheap enough to meet his expectations as the others were full. We had paid an inclusive price of about $80 US, something I would not do again without being very specific.

After an uncomfortable night, we left the next morning on another two hour ride through lush mountain scenery, before descending to the valley of Semuc Champey.

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Now a national park, there are a series of intensely turquoise pools, carved out of the limestone by the Rio Chabon as it cascades down the the narrow valley.

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In places the river flows on top of the stone, but also underneath,around, and through it, creating the beautiful rock formations.

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The vegetation is thick and tropical. We spent most of the day swimming in the pools, sliding or walking from one to the other. In places waterfalls splashed down on us as we sat beneath the cool water. On the day we were there, it was partially overcast, and we had the place to ourselves.

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Later, we drove the few miles to Lanquin, to check out the grutas, (caves). Well worth a visit, they are illuminated with a primitive lighting system that felt as though it might go at any minute, and very slippery underfoot. We spent the night in El Retiro, a place I insisted upon after reading about it in our guidebook. Also inexpensive, it is a small eco-friendly resort of thatched roof and bamboo huts, on a hillside facing the river, a few miles upstream from the park.

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We had a small, but comfortable hut to ourselves, though the bath was a communal one about 50 yards distant. There was an open air restaurant/bar overlooking the river, and we had a great meal while talking to some the other guests, several of whom had been hanging out there for a while. It lends itself to that. Somewhat remote, you can forget about time, and loose yourself in the daily activities of swimming or floating in the river, drinking shots of rum ,eating, and lazing about. Unfortunately we had to leave the next morning for the long drive back to Antigua, stopping for a couple of hours at the Biotopo del Quetzal. A great trip, but too rushed. Better to go on your own and stay a week, but be careful, you might not want to go anywhere else.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:23 Archived in Guatemala Tagged postcards Comments (1)

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