8 Days in the Sacred Valley

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The Sacred Valley was the heart of the Incan empire – it is a stunningly lush and beautiful stretch of the best agr noicultural land in the region. The valley was not actually a part of the empire, but was owned personally by the emperor himself. We spent 8 days exploring the valley, including a visit to it’s most famous site, Machu Picchu. We find a ridiculous number of awe-inspiring places.

*Author’s note: Cuzco, described in the last post, is also technically in the Sacred Valley.

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Martha, Charlie, J and I start with a quick visit to the town of Pisaq, where we stop in at the Sunday market. Above, a market stall selling traditional skirts. The traditional clothing here is similar to what we saw in Bolivia, but with a much heavier emphasis on handmade fabrics and embroidery, beautiful weaving patterns, and bright colors.

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Further exemplifying the love of color, in Ollantaytambo, we happen upon a festival conclusion and the four of us line a second-story balcony and squee over all the dance troops lined up in the main square in their full finery for an awards ceremony. There were some fantastic hats and masks in attendance, as well as a lot of sequins and color.

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Visiting the ruins above Ollantaytambo. This beautiful town is famously the site where the Incans fled after the Spanish took Cuzco. Much of  the town is laid out with it’s original Incan stone streets and buildings.

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The main attraction: Machu Picchu! J and I decide to skip the tourist bus and hike up to the ruins, then continue right on up to Machu Picchu Montaña. At the summit, we are almost 2,000 ft above the Machu Picchu ruins. The valley spreads out below us like folding green velvet and the views are spectacular.

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After descending back down to Machu Picchu itself, we spend all day exploring the ruins with our excellent tour guides, Martha and Charlie, before bussing down and taking the evening train back to Ollantaytambo.

We feel a bit contradictory about our visit to Machu Picchu. On the one hand, it is ridiculously touristed. And as a result, the site and nearby village have both evolved into strict, inhospitable places with inflated prices and lots of rules. For example, the one-way pathways on the site are rigidly enforced, and sitting is discouraged. In order to use the bathroom or eat, one has to descend all the way to the bottom of the hill to exit the site, then wait in line to re-enter again, which can only be done three times. Usually, we would avoid a place like this like the plague.

On the other hand, this place is magical. Looking down at the ruins from above, it makes sense to me that the Incans chose this site for an important temple – the mountains circle Machu Picchu in a way that feels religious. Once exploring the ruins up close, they are fantastically built and fantastically well-preserved. While I may not recommend a visit to every traveller, I’m glad we had the opportunity to experience this place (and even got away with a clandestine picnic, complete with surprise wine Martha pulled out of her backpack after a full day of walking around!).

Other sites:

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Incan agricultural lab at Moray. This particularly steep series of descending terraces allowed for experimentation with planting crop varieties at different elevations and climates. The findings here informed planting across the region.

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Maras Salineras. A salty spring here has been harvested for thousands of years, and the terraced pools date to pre-Incan civilizations. The stream is funneled into carefully worked pools, where the water evaporates, allowing for harvest of the salt crystals. The pools and the entire operation is completely owned by Maras residents. If someone is unable or unwilling to continue the (highly labor-intensive) upkeep on their pool, it is taken back by the community and reallocated. In a country like Peru with a lot of internationally owned or financed operations, it is refreshing to see an example of a local operation continuing in it’s traditional methods while adapting to tourism opportunities and thriving.

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We return to Cuzco to bid farewell to Martha and Charlie – we had a great time travelling with them and living it up for a couple of weeks! They head off to the Amazon and we head back to Pisaq for a little rest and relaxation. . . Where we meet up with Cantor-side Aunt and Uncle Susan and Jim!

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We home base in Pisaq for four days and do a number of great hikes. After travelling around the valley so much by bus and car, it’s wonderful to be able to get a little closer and see it on foot.

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Hiking to the Pisaq ruins, high above the town.

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Susan and J, hiking champs. Our theme for these few days seemed to be that we consistently picked a place on the map and decided to get there – how hard could it be? And then quickly discovered that it was in fact, very hard. Despite the high elevation, steep, difficult terrain, and lack of good maps and information, we had a whale of a time.

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J, hiking to the Marway Lakes. This hike took us to the high 4,000-low 5,000 meter elevation range (to our infinite surprise).

 

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On our fourth day, tired of all the hiking, we rented bikes and took off along the river for what we hoped would be a relaxing, flat jaunt to a nearby town. A wrong turn, several cornfields, and a stubborn bull later, we yet again realized our foolishness.

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Jim and Susan, under J’s power-posing tutelage. A fantastic few days of adventuring – just the way we like it!

Next up: Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca!

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Lots of love!!

C and J

City Living: Arequipa and Cuzco

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Or, as J calls it, “Perusing Peru”.

Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city with a center build entirely of sillar – white volcanic rock. We spend a few days admiring the architecture and seeing the sights. In Arequipa, we also meet up with J’s mom Martha!

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Arequipa sits at the base of three volcanoes, including El Misti, the most accessible peak over 6,000 meters in the world. J and I seriously consider taking it on (how cool would that be?) until we actually see El Misti on the bus on the way into town, and it looks like this:

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Turns out that accessibility​ may not be a great criteria for good hiking. We decide that an 8-12-hr slog up a cone of dirt is not all that exciting, despite the extreme elevation, without the forests, rock, and snow that usually make mountains beautiful.

More photos fom Arequipa:

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Arequipa has a much higher Spanish influence than anywhere we’ve been in awhile. There is little to no Incan cultural presence here.

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At the Convento de Santa Catalina, the coolest water-purification system ever – you pour unfiltered water into a thick cone of volcanic rock, and the clean water drips slowly out the bottom.

We visit a museum called Alpaca World, which follows the wool from the animals themselves through to the beautiful Peruvian weaving designs. Our biggest takeaway is that alpacas are fluffy and adorable.

 

On to Cuzco!

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Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire and the current seat of Quechua culture, which is spread throughout the Andean region. It has a substantial indigenous population and much of the downtown is built directly on top of ancient ruins. It is the longest continually-inhabited city in South America. Also, being back in the Andes, we’ve returned to our 3,400 m comfort-zone (11,150 ft).

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Here, we take the opportunity to hike out of town and visit some Incan and pre-Incan ruins. Above, Tambomachay. The water which feeds this site is of unknown origin, since archeologists would have to disrupt the site in order to find the spring. Many Incan ruins have covered springs and water reservoirs which feed through a complicated system of underground channels before surfacing. It is suggested that this is to prevent poisoning.

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J and I take a local bus out of town and walk back, diverging from the main tourist sites and finding a few ruins of our own.

Above, the view from the top of Templo de la Luna back up the valley. The cliffs shown were full of small nooks and caves with carved altars. We later learned that many of these were made to store mummies in. The Incans only mummified important nobility, and the mummies were treated as bridging the gap between our world and the next. Since they still existed in our world, they were treated as still alive and were brought out to enjoy festivals and go on social visits with other mummies. This practice caused disastrous political divisions, as mummified emperors still had political followers and decision-making powers. These factions were one of the destabilizing forces which allowed the Spanish to take over so easily.

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A band playing over the Plaza de San Blas.

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A spectacular little restaurant we found with front-row seats for the sunset.

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Our last day in Cuzco, Martha’s partner Charlie arrives! Here, he and J check out the Incan stonework which lines the streets in old-town Cuzco. The massive stones are carved to fit immaculately and without mortar. It is a look so often copied and imitated that it almost looks like a Disney set.

 

Next up: 8 days in the Sacred Valley!

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Lots of love!

C and J (and Martha and Charlie!)

Yo <3 Bolivia

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Street market in La Paz.

After spending a month in Bolivia, a post of love. We’ve written a lot about the land in Bolivia, and wanted to share a few words on the other pieces that make this place.

1. So, I’ll start this off by saying that as much as we’ve loved Bolivia, the public infrastructure here sucks. Aside from a few​ main highways, most of the roads are unpaved, and most of those unpaved roads wind through streambeds, mountainside washouts, and winding switchbacks without too much care. The busses themselves are somewhat rickety, spew toxic exhaust, and are likely to breakdown, overheat, or sometimes, inexplicably, make it successfully to your destination in half the expected time, despite outward appearance​s suggesting impending disaster.

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J and a door in Sucre.

2. Interestingly, public funding does seem to be spent in abundance on immaculately manicured city parks. Except that no one is allowed on the grass (it is sometimes protected by nice hedges, sometimes by knee-high, elegant fencing, and sometimes by barbed wire). We’ve also been awed by the attention to detail in architecture. Run-down, tiny concrete buildings will have beautiful, intricately-carved doors with old-fashioned brass knockers. Brightly painted homes and businesses liven up even the poorest and plainest of towns.

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Colonial architecture in Cochabamba.

Inner courtyard at our hostel in Tupiza.

3. While small towns and poor suburbs are built out of adobe or concrete, most cities are dominated by colonial architecture. City blocks are structured as canchas – solid-fronted buildings hiding beautiful inner courtyards. Many of the places we’ve stayed, even the cheapest ones, have incredible and incredibly pleasant tiled inner courtyards circled by beautiful balconies.

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The local markets are loud, crowded,  sprawling, and dirty. And awesome. This is our first stop in any new city or town.

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4. It’s incredibly unhygienic here. On our first day in Bolivia, a shop woman spread ten raw chicken carcasses across her counter, dangerously overlapping the dishes of gum and candies. She then interrupted the process of beheading and cleaning them to, with bloodied hands, grab a box of milk for us, take our payment, and hand us back slimy change. We were warned about the water and took (some minimal) precautions with food, but we were pretty much guaranteed to get sick at some point while here.

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Meat delivery in Tupiza. In most places, trucks, stores, and restaurants are very unlikely to have refrigeration.

5. Local food consists of lots and lots and lots of potatoes. And lots of other starches as well. Every meal is guaranteed to contain at least two different kinds of starch, some as many as six or seven. The national food of choice is fried chicken, which is deliciously done, often served with rice/quinoa and french fries. The most delicious new find is a breakfast drink called Api – a warm beverage the consistency of a smoothie made of purple corn, cinnamon, clove, and apple.

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Bus station in Sucre.

6. Bolivia has the highest percentage of native people out of any South Amercian country, and it is evident. Outside of cities, many people do not speak Spanish, only Quechua or Aymara.

Towns are filled with women dressed in traditional garb. This generally consists of a hand-crocheted cardigan, lacy blouse, and a round, box-pleated, knee-length skirt, worn with sling-back sandals. The ensemble is topped with a tiny bowler hat (or sometimes a wide lacy sunhat) worn over two long braids tied together with large beaded tassels. Sometimes she adds knee-high stockings, thick knit legwarmers, and several layers of heavy woven shawls, wraps, and scarves. Even younger women in western dress will carry loads by wrapping them in a large, colorfully-striped blanket tied around their shoulders. The definition of “load” ranges from large bundles of sticks or potatoes to babies and toddlers to cauldrons of food.

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A traditionally-dressed woman crosses the street amongst the colonial architecture of Sucre.

Interestingly, although women dressed like this can be found from the smallest towns to the biggest cities, apart from campesinos (farmers), men seem to avoid traditional dress and opt instead for more western slacks or jeans with a knit sweater or fleece. We once witnessed a young family on an outing consisting of a young woman dressed head to toe in traditional styles with a baby wrapped in a blanket around her shoulders walking with her partner, who was wearing fashionably torn blue jeans, city sneakers, and a tight, short-sleeved button-down with black polka dots and piping.

Bolivians of both genders are impervious to heat and tend to wear layers​of warm sweaters, jackets, scarves, and knit hats while we sweat in tank tops and shorts. This is true in the north, where it is occasionally nippy, but also in the south, where it is a desert.

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Friendly campesino in Sorata who chatted with J for awhile.

7. Strangers in the street are friendly and curious, eager to ask questions about where you’re from and what you think of Bolivia. We’ve had interesting discussions with city folk and campesinos alike and discovered some interesting quirks. For example, Bolivia fought a Pacific War with Chile and Peru in the end of the 1800s. The result was that Chile annexed a small chunk of territory that previously connected Bolivia to the ocean. Bolivians today see this as a huge atrocity, and the Bolivian “right to the sea” was something that came up several times, including in this mural, in a small town in central Bolivia.

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All in all, we spent a great month in Bolivia. We loved the country, the land, and the people and are already dreaming of a return trip.

Next up: Peru!

Lots of love,

C and J

The Plague Strikes: A Disappointing Trip Through La Paz and Sorata

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La Paz is the capitol of Bolivia, and is nestled into the Andes. The city sprawls down a mountainside from the upper suburbs at 4,100 meters (13,450 ft) to the lower, at 3,650 (11,975 ft). We’ve been acclimating slowly over the last month, and felt extremely strong and capable walking up and down the steep streets, chugging past other gasping tourists who’d just arrived in Bolivia. We’ve been looking forward to the Bolivian Andes as one of the biggest reasons for our doing this trip. But alas, the sickness we’ve been anticipating (and avoiding) all month finally caught hold.

There we were in La Paz, having purchased 3 days of food and an extra stove fuel. We went to bed early, expecting to take a 7 am bus to our trailhead to begin a spectacular 40 km route on the Incan trail at the foot of 6,000m snow covered peaks (the trail itself would take us above 5,000m, no small feat) culminating in the Bolivian cloud forest.

And then, J puked for about 24 hrs. It looked like this:

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As excerpted from J’s journal.

As it turns out, we spent a couple of extra days in La Paz, but this was about the extent of our explorations of the city:

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Laundry, and the view from our hostel.

Ultimately deciding that J was in no shape to be taking on the highest elevation of her life, we decided to move on to our next destination, Sorata. Sorata is a small town nestled into a mountain valley, with this view:

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We had previously planned another 2-3 day backpacking trip here to Laguna Glacier, but figured that even if we didn’t, there were lots of smaller day hikes or at the very least, convalescing with a mountain view would be better than convalescing in a city. As it turns out, in Sorata C got sick.

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We spent a few days in Sorata, and each managed a short hike without the other, but never did any of our magnificent plans. This viewpoint above the valley was C’s pinnacle.

 

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So many un-hiked places.

Since we’re on a bit of a time crunch to meet J’s mom Martha in Peru, we didn’t have time to stick around and wait out the plague. We’ve already posited a future trip, just to the Bolivian Andes and the Cordillera Real. On to Lake Titicaca!

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Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and, at 3,800m, is considered the highest navigable lake in the world (i.e. large/deep enough to be navigated by commercial crafts). It spans the border between Bolivia and Peru. Since we’re on a schedule, we spent just three nights here – one in Copacabana, on the Bolivian side, and two in Puno, our first stop in Peru. Above, Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol.

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This is the ferry that took us to Copacabana. It was large enough for the car we were hitching a ride with and a small bus, and the bus swayed so much the entire trip that the wood of the ferry creaked and torqued alarmingly.

 

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The view over Copacabana from Cerro Calvario.

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The city is also home to La Basílica Virgen de Copacabana – a beautiful church built in a mosque style with Turkish tiles. People make pilgrimage​s from the entire Titicaca region to be blessed by La Virgen for new purchases or big life steps. We witnessed several new cars out in front of the church decorated in flowers, ribbons, and party hats, with a man spraying cerveza over the tires. In Copacabana we also find the cheapest housing of the trip so far, a balconied hostal for 15 Bo each (about $2 USD). Admittedly it’s a bit of a dump, but did have hot water and wifi, so, win.

 

On to Puno! A rather charmless city, but made more exciting by the border crossing, the new currency to get used to and new local customs and foods to marvel at. We also spend a day visiting the Uros Islands – floating islands in Lake Titicaca.

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The islands are extremely touristy, in kind of a sad way, but also incredibly unique and strange to visit. The islands and everything on them are made entirely of tortora reeds. The islanders used to be fishing communities, but a new kind of trout was introduced to the lake which ate all the smaller fish, and the introduction of fish farms led to less money for traditional fishing. Now the communities survive solely on tourism.

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Each island houses 5-10 families. The reeds at the bottom rot, so new reeds are harvested and added to the top every week.

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The surface of the islands are springy, but solid. In the breeze, there is a faint sense of motion.

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J, being touristy.

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Nestled into the stern of a reed boat, travelling between two islands. Traditionally, the boats were rowed. Now, a small motorboat drives it’s nose in between the two pontoons and pushes.

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Next up: Bolivian Impressions, and into Peru to meet Martha!

Lots of love,

C and J

 

 

Caves and Canyons and Mountains, Oh My!

 

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Welcome, friends, to Parque Nacional Toro Toro!

 

In true Bolivian fashion, getting to the park – a mere 192 km north of Sucre – required 1) An overnight bus northwest to Oruro during which our bus company was  reported to the cops for overselling tickets, 2) A 3-hr bus northeast to Cochabamba during which a salesman preached from the bus aisle for over an hour, telling us that Asians are skinny and zen and have no stomach cancer because of ginseng supplements which he has for a low low price, 3) A weekend spent idling in Cochabamba as it was Bolivian labor day, followed by, finally, 4) A 4 1/2-hr bus southeast over cobblestone mountain roads to Toro Toro.

 

Cochabamba highlights from that weekend:

  • Some great street art.
  • Api – a breakfast drink of purple corn, cinnamon, clove, and orange peel, blended into a thick puree and served hot. Most of the time served with a flat fried dough filled with sour cheese.
  • One of the five largest Jesus statues in the world, which we visit by huffing our way up a thousand stairs.
  • Large roving bands of street dogs.
  • The Devil’s Alleyway, or witch’s street, featuring mosaic portraits of important women throughout South American history (pictured above).
  • Lots of people complimenting J’s mohawk haircut.

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Toro Toro is a cute little town clearly putting their recently acquired tourist dollars to good use on various community improvement projects. This is only slightly comforting since we also discover that the park entrance, advertised as 30 Bob, jumped to 100 Bob just last week. This is still only about $14 USD each, but with a daily average of only $30 for the both of us, we’re miffed. We’re also required to hire local guides at additional cost in order to enter the park, including to visit the dinosaur footprints we can see from our rooftop.

We immediately find a cute alojamiento room with a big window overlooking the main square for 25 Bob each ($3.60 USD), have a delicious lechon dinner at the local market and are feeling better. We then watch the entire gringo population of Toro Toro buy a beer and sit in the square quietly drinking, not knowing what else to do in such a small, quiet town.

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We end up making the most of the park through a couple of combined trips and split the cost of a guide by grouping up with other travelers:

Day 1: Ciudad de Itas and Caverna de Umajalanta.

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Ciudad de Itas.

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Ancient cave depictions of J’s new haircut.

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Huge networks of natural sandstone caves.

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We then head underground for a full 2 hours, spelunking through Caverna de Umajalanta.

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Cool cave formations.

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It gets tight.

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J finds what is totally a dinosaur bone.

 

Day 2: Cañon de Toro Toro and El Vergel waterfall.

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We hike down past tons of dinosaur footprints into Toro Toro canyon. There are delicious pools of clear waters running down, where we took a delightful (albeit freezing cold) swim.

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At the bottom, we came to El Vergel waterfall – an entire wall of water trickling through jungle.

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Overlooking the canyon.

Next up: La Paz and Sorata!

 

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Lots of love!

C and J

9 Days in Sucre and Surrounds

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In which we relax in the white city, and then backpack through the Maragua Crater.

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Sucre is the constitutional capitol of Bolivia, and it’s center is a UNESCO world heritage site. The city rose to importance in the 1500s as silver​ mining boomed, and is home to the second oldest university in the Americas, Francis Xavier College of Chuquisaca, which is still operating. In the 1800s, Sucre became known as a center for progressive thought and a home base for independence movements across South America.

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We find a charming alojamiento and proceed to stay longer than intended in Sucre, which indeed, we’d been warned might happen.

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We spend much of our time in town wandering the streets. Every day, we stop at Mercado Central for fresh fruit and veg, and sometimes lunch or dinner. We discover a number of local delicacies including J’s favorite, higado revuelto (liver scrambled with eggs), and C’s favorite, a sesame juice similar to horchata. We take two notable trips out of town:

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1: Cal Orcko Parque Cretacico!

IMG_2190A factory near Sucre happened upon a slab which contains the largest collection of dinosaur footprints in the world!

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Visitors are allowed in only for 2  hrs per day, when they kindly stop  the factory operations still happening around the wall, and give tours. The prints are some 65 million years old, and surprisingly distinct.

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Our inner 10-year-olds geek out at the prints and at the life-size dinosaur sculptures, real eggs and bones at the museum above.

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The view over Sucre from Cal Orcko.

 

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2: Backpacking through the Maragua Crater.

We take a local bus to Chataquilla and take off on a three-day trek down the Inca Trail through the small campesino towns of Maragua (status as a meteor crater: hotly debated. But check it out as seen from google maps!), Niñu Mayu, and Potolo.

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The Inca Trail is one of the thoroughfares that took Incans down from the altiplano and into the lowlands. The trail is paved in stone, and feels a bit like the yellow brick road – a neat, nicely paved path winding through spectacular and sometimes surreal wild scenery.

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The first day is long. We descend from Chataquilla into the Ravelo river valley and meander along the namesake’s river. J, taking a break:

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In the late afternoon, we find the faint path that climbs steeply (only mildly treacherous, on scree) out of the valley and climbs up into a landscape dotted with ancient pre-Incan terraces.

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The climb continues. There are several false summits. We are slightly distracted by the awesome scenery, but not quite enough. It is dusk by the time we crest and descend into Maragua Crater.

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We climb a hill outside of town and find a very picturesque campsite for the turtle.

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The next morning​, we take a side trip to check out Garganta del Diablo (Throat of the Devil).

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Villagers say they sometimes hear voices from deep within the Devil’s throat waterfall, but it’s probably C, as captured in the above photo.

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We continue onwards, climbing out of the Maragua Crater and through some hills and valleys to Niñu Mayu.

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Where we find more dinosaur footprints!

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Campesinos we pass behave predominantly in one of two ways: Either they wave and stop their work to come chat with us, asking us questions about where we’re from and what we think of their country, or they glare at us malevolently for intruding. At Niñu Mayu, we meet Caroico, a chatty man who proudly shows us all of the dinosaur footprints in the area. When he finds out that were camping there for the evening, he invites us to his home, feeds us sopa de mani (peanut soup), and treats us to a wonderful evening of chatting about Bolivian politics with his brother, Sebastian, while he interjected with tunes on his charango, a local instrument similar to a ukelele, but with 10 strings.

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The next morning, we climb out of the Niñu Mayu valley and complete our trek with an incredibly picturesque few hours strolling through farmland with mountain views and descending the last valley to the larger town of Potolo, where we hop an afternoon bus back to Sucre. A fantastic trip. More photos:

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Stunning red and blue stripes of earth.IMG_2403

A curious burro.

Next stop, Cochabamba and Toro Toro National Park. Caves and Canyons and yes, even more dinosaur footprints!!

Lots of love,

C and J

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The Desert in Three Parts

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In which we circle the desert through the Andean plateaus and canyons from northeastern Chile into southwestern Bolivia. Careful, folks, it’s a long one.

Part I: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Elevation: 2,407 m (7,900 ft)

San Pedro de Atacama is a low, sprawling town of adobe buildings set in the middle of the entirely inhospitable Atacama Desert. We step off the bus, suck in some dry air, and wonder why anyone would choose to live here. Yet people have lived here since about 9,000 BC.

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As one does in the desert, we rent bicycles and take off on a 45 km day. They are far and away the highest-quality rental bicycles I’ve ever seen and we are given, to take with us, a pump, allen wrench set, tube patching kit, and 2 neon reflective vests, for use on the main road. Safety! The bikes even have mega-shocks, which we put to good use on the dirt roads over the course of the day.

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Our first site is El Pukara de Quitor, an archeological site just 3 km outside of town. This fortress had strategic military purposes, but also acted as living quarters, common squares, and animal pens. The site was first used by the Atacameño people around 1,000 AD, and was continually crucial to their stability in the region throughout conflicts with neighboring peoples. Interestingly, the Incan empire didn’t expand into the area until around 1,450 AD, and effectively destabilized society. The region became increasingly chaotic, which set the stage for the first Spanish encounters with the native peoples.

We wander the old fortress walls, find a giant stone face sculpted from mud, and crawl back through a back cave entrance into the fortress.

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We turn out into the open desert for Valle de la Luna. Instead of the out-and-back option, we go for the 39 km circuit with several other sights along the way. And boy, are we glad we did! We start with a grueling uphill – the sun is relentless and the grade is steep and we’re both feeling the thin air at this altitude. But we end at a spectacular mirador where we have a delightful picnic, and the descent is awesomely long and fast (8% grade for over 5 km of well-paved highway; we flew).

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From the highway, we turn left onto a wide, unmarked dirt road. Soon, the road is forking and we are guessing and finally we are on a terrible excuse for a dirt road which fords several dry streambeds and then hits a locked and rusted gate. Eh? We check our maps, surreptitiously duck the gate, and proceed cautiously, convinced that we might die out here.

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And then the road is suddenly covered in salt. Salt crystals, everywhere, looking like snow! We wind up and around and past some massive desolate sand dunes, and then find ourselves abruptly at the far end of the tourist trail. Huzzah!

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Valle de la Luna

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Cueva de Sal

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Just making sure.

That night, J makes some delightful pisco sours and we stroll through town getting ready for our 3:00 am bus departure for Bolivia. We’ve both really loved Chile. I think it’s mostly about the land – vast, beautiful, and f-ing majestic.

Part II: Uyuni, Bolivia. Elevation: 3,656 m (11,995 ft)

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Welcome to Bolivia! We wander around town acclimating ourselves to the new culture, tasting some new street eats, and giggling at the fact that the currency here is not just called the Boliviano, but the Bolivian Boliviano. We book a tour for the following day for the reason we’re all here: The Salar de Uyuni!

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat at 10,582 square kilometers, and is visible from space. In places, the salt is as thick as 5 meters. We take off in a 4×4 with a driver, a Bolivian family and a couple of college kids. First a couple of touristy spots including a train graveyard where we learn about the mining history of Potosi (read: the terrible ways that mining has destroyed the state’s water supply with cadmium, lead, and arsenic).

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Any building constructed on the salt flats is made entirely out of salt – both the bricks and the mortar.

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That afternoon, we stop Isla de Incahuasi. There are several of these islands that crop up unexpectedly out of the endless expanse of white. The islands were originally volcanic rock then grew a thick layer of coral (from when this area was a part of the ocean) and are now covered in cacti. These huge cacti, seen above, grow about a centimeter per year. The Isla de Incahuasi is a stop along the famed Inca Trail. It took the Incan travelers 7 days to cross the Salar de Uyuni.

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On the way back towards Uyuni, we stop for the most incredible sunset of our lives. It rained a few days ago, and there are a few centimeters of water along this part of the salt flats, creating some incredible reflections.

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A word on the tours: We were tempted to do the 3-day tour from San Pedro de Atacama, but in the end decided that it was too much money, and much too touristy for our tastes. After having done the day tour, I stand by that decision firmly. We did a single day tour with Salty Adventours for about $20 USD each. We spent the whole day seeing the sights, but didn’t get tired of the weird tourist gimmicks.

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The vast expanse is difficult to convey in photographs, but the Salar de Uyuni is a deeply surreal place. Standing in the middle of it, there is nothing but white flatness in every direction – it feels as though the matrix has just been deleted. It was an incredible experience.

Part III: Tupiza, Bolivia. Elevation: 2,850 m (9,350 ft)

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Tupiza is a cute town built around ample parks and green spaces on the undulating hills between red cliff faces. Our first night in town, we crawl to a hostel after a horrific bus ride (read: two flat tires and an unexpected bus change culminating in a 6-hour stretch of driving down winding potholed dirt roads in the hottest part of the day in the desert with no a/c and no windows open) and go straight to bed. Except that we have arrived just in time for Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. We creep outside to see the festivities for a bit – processions of people preaching into loudspeakers up and down the streets followed by drums and crowds of people shouting “Halleluyah!” at any opportunity -but are much too exhausted for this type of religious fervor and give up fairly quickly.

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We are slow travelers, and all of this touristing and hopping about is exhausting. We slow it down a bit in Tupiza, and over the course of our time here we do several hikes straight out of town and into the surrounding canyons. It is possible to do phenomenal loop hikes connecting any of three canyons together- but the tour agencies won’t tell you this, so we had to rely on studying the google map image of the places before setting off. The landscape reminded us of parts of Northern Territory, AUS. (See Here)

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Puerto del Diablo.

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A little bit of bouldering.

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This place is called Valle de los Machos. Can you guess why?

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Scrambling through Cañon del Inca.

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Colorful rocks above Cañon del Inca.

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Valle de los Duendes (Elves)

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Cacti everywhere.

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A stunning landscape.

We now find ourselves in Sucre, the constitutional capitol of Bolivia and famed “White City”. We like it here!

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Til next time!

Lots of love,

C& J