A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
A quality spread on the buffet line...cured ham, anyone?
Somewhere in Wyoming (obviously)
Somewhere in Wyoming (obviously)

There you have it.  Photographic evidence that I was in Wyoming.  We passed through the land of jackelopes after we had spent some time visiting Amy’s family in Denver.  We joined my dad as he drove through Denver on his way to my brother’s wedding.

Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park

Along the way we visited both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park.  Given that it was Father’s Day weekend, the parks were surprisingly deserted.  Normally you hear about multi-hour traffic delays in the parks due to the massive crowds but not this time around.  They had a long, late and difficult winter in that part of the country so maybe that is what was keeping people away.  Either way, the weather was mostly agreeable for our one-day visit and we were able to see most of the highlights on our way through the two parks.

After attending my brother’s wedding in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana we went to Helena to visit with my family.  Helena’s valley and the surrounding mountains were incredibly green this year thanks to the wet winter.  We took a number of drives up into the surrounding forrest and the wildflowers were absolutely stunning.  I spent almost all of my summers as a kid in Helena and I don’t ever remember it being that green.

The winds of cheap airfare carried us from Helena, Montana to New York, New York (via Los Angeles, of course) and from there we bussed it up to Boston just in time to catch the Fourth of July fireworks on the Charles.  Our three days in Boston were spent visiting with friends, eating at some local favorites and preparing for the next leg of the trip.  We even took advantage of the last few days that remained on my Community Boating membership.

A beautiful red-flag day for a sail on the Charles
A beautiful red-flag day for a sail on the Charles

From Boston we continued on to Los Angeles to visit with Charles, one of my travel junkie friends.  Charles was kind enough to let us crash at his place in West Hollywood and we made good use of the time by picking his brain on potential travel destinations.  He has completed two round-the-world trips and dozens of shorter trips abroad so he is basically a walking Lonely Planet.  Aside from the normal travel brainstorming and talk of recent changes to airline award programs, he was also able to give us some practical first-hand advice for the Cook Islands – our next destination!

Downtown LA from Griffith Observatory
Downtown LA from Griffith Observatory
The Good Old U. S. of A.
Somewhere in Wyoming (obviously)
Somewhere in Wyoming (obviously)
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park
A sage grouse showing his stuff.
A sage grouse showing his stuff.
Old Faithful
Old Faithful
Traffic jam in Yellowstone
Traffic jam in Yellowstone
Snow banks in Yellowstone, in late June!
Snow banks in Yellowstone, in late June!
Warning statements in many languages but honestly I think the picture covers things pretty well.
Warning statements in many languages but honestly I think the picture covers things pretty well.
Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring...pity it was raining
Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring…pity it was raining
Yellowstone Lodge
Yellowstone Lodge
Hiking through refridgerator canyon
Hiking through refridgerator canyon
Canyon Ferry Dam at the headwaters of the Missouri with all its spillways open.
Canyon Ferry Dam at the headwaters of the Missouri with all its spillways open.
Helena's Sleeping Giant
Helena’s Sleeping Giant
Loaded up and ready for the streets of New York City!
Loaded up and ready for the streets of New York City!
A beautiful red-flag day for a sail on the Charles
A beautiful red-flag day for a sail on the Charles
Downtown LA from Griffith Observatory
Downtown LA from Griffith Observatory
Some heavy metal from Heathrow on short final
Some heavy metal from Heathrow on short final
Charles and I watching a Delta 777
Charles and I watching a Delta 777
An all-too-short visit with Charles, one of my travel junkie friends
An all-too-short visit with Charles, one of my travel junkie friends

The Trip Home

Bolivia, Chile Comments Off
Jul 292011

As I had mentioned in earlier posts, we ran into some problems with entering Peru due to a mining protest that closed the Bolivia-Peruvian border for a number of weeks.  The detour we selected was to travel back to Chile by bus and then fly to Lima with a stopover in Santiago.  We would have preferred to stop in Lima instead but there was no award availability so we just had to make due with Santiago.

After our visit to Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol, we returned to La Paz and spent one last day there.  The next day we were booked on a 10-hour international bus from La Paz to Arica, Chile so of course this had to be the time when I was to come down with some sort of stomach bug.  Fortunately the bus was mostly on time and we had saw some nice volcanoes along the way.  The only glitch was an extra hour at the border thanks to some older Bolivia lady who thought she could bring a huge load of merchandise (snacks, bottled drinks, etc) into Chile without paying import duty.  Removing her and all her merchandise from the bus took far longer than it should have!

The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.

Arica, the northernmost city in Chile and just a few miles from Peru was pretty nice as border towns go.  The city has a lively harbor with more than its share of sea lions and pelicans.  We found it entertaining to watch the fishermen feed fish scraps to the sea lions as well as the pelicans’ unrelenting efforts to steal some for themselves from the clumsy yet powerful beasts.

Me hungry!
Me hungry!

Flying from Arica to Santiago was uneventful.  It was a late-night flight with LAN Chile that departed around midnight and arrived around 2AM.  It was still much better than a bus ride, that is for sure!  In Santiago we had a day to kill so we visited one of the produce markets.  Lots of vendors were selling fresh fruit juices so we ordered up some lucuma – a new fruit for both of us.  This may sound strange but the juice tasted like cake batter with maybe a hint of maple syrup.  It wasn’t tangy at all nor was it overly sweet.  Lucuma is truly strange fruit and I have to say I rather liked it.

The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.

We took another flight with LAN Chile to get from Santiago to Lima.  This time around I discovered that I could request upgrades through the LAN website prior to check-in thanks to my recently-comped Comodoro status in the LANpass mileage program.  I was shocked when I checked in and was given a business class boarding pass because we were traveling on award tickets issued using British Airways miles.  Normally, when you redeem miles for free flights they are strictly non-upgradeable.  Maybe it was a glitch, but either way I wish I had known to try this before our flights out to Easter Island and back!

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile

Our connection in Lima was an 8-hour overnight one so we opted to camp out in the airport.  We were able to use the airport’s shared lounge (Sumaq) but unfortunately some displaced passengers from a delayed Delta flight had already occupied all of the nice sleeper chairs in the lounge.  All in all, it was a pretty sleepless night but we did get to take some showers just prior to boarding our flight to Miami.

My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami

We arrived in Miami and within the first two hours of being “welcomed” home we experienced a lengthy immigration queue, enhanced pat-downs, and a full-on TSA meltdown whereby they yell for everyone on the concourse to freeze where they are until the alert is over.  I sure hadn’t missed this circus over the past few months!  What I had been missing, however, was some tasty American fast food.

...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
The Trip Home
Food poisoned on the bus, again.  At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
Food poisoned on the bus, again. At least I had some Coca-Cola in a little bottle.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The reason for our lengthy delay at the border.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
The tourists watch the sea lions while the pelicans watch the tourists.
Me hungry!
Me hungry!
Arica, Chile
Arica, Chile
The coastline around Arica
The coastline around Arica
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
My very first flight on American Airlines! Lima to Miami
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
At last, a burrito the size of my head.
...and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.
…and an enormous hot dog with a couple piece of deep-fried macaroni and cheese as its wingmen.


Isla del Sol was undeniably beautiful and it is no wonder why it is one of the biggest attractions in all of Bolivia.  After our stay in Copa we made the two-hour boat journey out to the island.  Legend has it that the island was the birthplace of the Incan sun and it is riddled with all sorts of archaelogical wonders.

The docks at Copacabana
The docks at Copacabana

The boat ride was simple enough to arrange.  We rolled down to the docks around 8AM and purchased tickets from one of the many marineros who were walking about.  We ended up on a small (maybe 25ft) boat with about 20 other people, a mix of tourists and locals.  Most of the tourists opted to sit on the roof but Amy, myself and the locals sat below.  The crystal clear skies and the 14,000ft of altitude make for some pretty harsh UV rays and neither of us were too keen on getting burnt.  Our capitán, a wrinkled old man with a Dick Tracy hat manned the boat’s two outboard motors the whole two hours to keep us on course.  It looked pretty uncomfortable to me but he looked as if he had been doing it most of his life.

Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!

The boat dropped us off at the south end of the island near the village of Yumani which perched on the ridge of the island, a good 400ft elevation change above the dock.  Amy stayed with our bags while I dashed up the hill to remind myself of how thin the air is at 14,000ft.  Thanks to the Peruvian border issues it was easy to find a room from one of the many guesthouses in Yumani.  It even came with a nice view!

At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.

There are no cars on the island and all of the “streets” are narrow cobblestone affairs which act as superhighways for the island’s hard-working donkeys and the occasional flock of sheep.  Most of the supplies that arrive from the mainland, everything from fruits to concrete, are hauled from the docks into town either on the backs of people or donkeys.  In fact, when we were huffing and puffing our way to the guesthouse with our backpacks a group of sprightly old men (in their 60′s?) passed us with 40 kg bags of concrete on their backs!  I am sure they had a good laugh at us flatlanders.

What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys

Since most places on the island don’t have running water, the donkey’s have the added chore of hauling water from the island’s springs to the water tanks at each house.  Each morning just after sunrise we could see from our room the trains of donkeys with blue water canisters on their backs.  We made it a point to take short showers after seeing this!

Our big day out on the island consisted of walking the length of it from north to south.  We charted a boat to take us from Yumani to Challapampa in the north.  Initially we thought that we could just hop on one of the ferries from Copa that docks at both villages but not-so.  I am not sure if it was because of the less-than-normal crowds due to the border closing or if it was because of the mariners union but we were told that the only way was to charter.  We ended up paying about $20 which is a small fortune in Bolivian terms for the ride but we had the boat to ourselves and the views were spectacular.

At the north end of the island we visited Chincana, a large complex of Incan ruins and had a small lunch (trout, yet again for me!) in Challapampa.  One thing that seemed unusual about Challapampa was the fact that there were pigs roaming around on the beach.  We found out later that was because the village was have a bit celebration the next day – RIP, piggies.

The steep hike out of Challapampa was brutal, especially right after lunch, but once we got up on the island’s ridge trail the walk was much easier.  The trail itself was about the width of a one-lane road and it had been meticulously paved with cobblestones long long ago.  The views in all directions were amazing and we passed a few locals along the way.

The hills were brutal with the thin air!
The hills were brutal with the thin air!

I woke up at about 6AM on our last morning on the island to a nice orange glow coming through the windows.  I jumped out of bed and fumbled around to get my camera just in time to capture an amazing sunrise.

The sun rising over Bolivia's Cordillera Real.
The sun rising over Bolivia’s Cordillera Real.
Lake Titicaca – Isla del Sol
The docks at Copacabana
The docks at Copacabana
Climbing an Incan staircase to find a place to stay.
Climbing an Incan staircase to find a place to stay.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
At the top, we rewarded ourselves with some fresh OJ with a view.
Isla de la Luna
Isla de la Luna
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
What the island lacks in cars it makes up for with donkeys
Grains growing in the Incan terraces
Grains growing in the Incan terraces
The ruins of Pilko Kaina
The ruins of Pilko Kaina
Piedra Sagrada
Piedra Sagrada
The Chincana ruins
The Chincana ruins
Overlooking the village of Cha´llapampa at the north end of Isla del Sol
Overlooking the village of Cha´llapampa at the north end of Isla del Sol
The main “highway” on the island.
The main “highway” on the island.
The hills were brutal with the thin air!
The hills were brutal with the thin air!
Isla de la Luna and the peaks of Cordillera Real
Isla de la Luna and the peaks of Cordillera Real
The sun rising over Bolivia's Cordillera Real.
The sun rising over Bolivia’s Cordillera Real.
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!
Happy that I get to go down the Escalera del Inca (Incan Stairway) this time around!

Copacabana, Bolivia
Copacabana, Bolivia

During our last week in Bolivia we made a trip out to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at 3800m.  The lake is shared between Peru and Bolivia but thanks to the ongoing border dispute we were only able to visit the Bolivian side.  The good news was that most of the tourist sites were mostly empty!

After returning from Rurrenabaque we overnighted in La Paz and then caught one of the tourist buses to Copacabana.  The tourist buses are slightly more expensive but you get to travel in a proper bus as opposed to a small van overloaded with about 20 people – a worthwhile investment for the three hour trip.  The only downside to the tourist bus is that it provides hotel pickup.  Sounds good, right?  The pickup is nice but sitting on the bus for an extra hour as it fights it way through the clogged streets of La Paz is not so nice.

Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina

The only notable item about the bus ride wa stopping at the Strait of Tiquina so that they could load our bus on a rickety barge powered by a 20hp outboard.  Us passengers were sent over to a small ticket desk to purchase our ~$0.50 tickets for the small passenger ferries.  It is probably less than a kilometer across the strait but the stop provided a nice break for stretching the legs.

Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.

We found Copacabana to be a pleasant little town.  It has a sweeping beach and waterfront park where hired paddle-boats and kayaks are a dime a dozen.  Above the town to one side is a hill with an ancient Incan observatory and on the other side is town with some crosses and a great overview of the lake.

The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.

Copacabana’s enormous Moorish-style cathredral is another fun attraction.  The cathedral is famous for its Benediciones de Movilidades (blessing of the automobiles) where people come from all over to dress up their cars and pour beer on the tires.  Given the state of many of Bolivia’s roads I suppose this practice can’t hurt!

Trout: a local favorite
Trout: a local favorite

The food in the lake region, in particular the trout, made for some excellent and cheap meals while we were there.  Where else are you going to snag soup, salad, fresh grilled trout, a side and dessert for under $4?

All in all, Copa made for a nice two-day stop and we found that to be enough to wander the city and nearby sights.

Lake Titicaca – Copacabana
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Our bus making its way across the Strait of Tiquina
Like an ocean at 13,000ft!
Like an ocean at 13,000ft!
Copacabana, Bolivia
Copacabana, Bolivia
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
The famous church in Copacabana where locals bring their cars to be blessed.
Automobiles being blessed.
Automobiles being blessed.
An older lady pours beer on each tire of this bus.
An older lady pours beer on each tire of this bus.
Trout: a local favorite
Trout: a local favorite
Complete and undivided attention.
Complete and undivided attention.
Sunset over Titicaca
Sunset over Titicaca
Apparently this is some sort of Incan astronomical instrument.
Apparently this is some sort of Incan astronomical instrument.
Puffed corn products are big in Bolivia, as are bowler hats!
Puffed corn products are big in Bolivia, as are bowler hats!
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.
Plenty of opportunities for renting a paddle boat in Copacabana.

The Pampas

Bolivia Comments Off
Jul 112011

Second to Madidi Park, the most popular attraction for visitors to Rurrenabaque is Bolivia’s vast grasslands known as The Pampas.  A guided tour seemed to be the way to go so we organized one from Rurre and it came to about $145 for a two-day, one-night tour – quite pricey for Bolivia!  The guy at the tour company, a real slick used car salesman type, told us that we had to meet at the office at 8:30AM sharp the next day for our departure.  He said we needed to make sure that we left on time to beat the other companies and to avoid the dust.  Certainly an intriguing reason for an on-time departure.

After a restless night of sleep in one of the dumpier room offerings in Rurre we walked over to the tour company for our 8:30 appointment.  A small SUV was waiting for us and there was a bit of commotion as the guide’s underlings strapped stuff to the luggage rack.  The salesman neglected to inform us that there was very little space in the vehicle so I had to quickly pull some essentials from my pack before storing it in the company office.

The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?

Leaving Rurre the road quickly went from pavment to cobblestone to dirt.  The next 50 miles of bumpy road looked as if it was made of ground-up brown chalk and each passing vehicle, pedestrian, and cow stirred up an impressive amount of the stuff.  The calm winds that morning made the dust just linger over the road and many many times our driver plunged our vehicle into dust clouds we couldn’t see through.  Three hours to go 50 miles – yep, still in Bolivia.

An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.

At the camp near San Rosa, our guide told us that there would be a bit of a delay before our rooms and lunch were ready.  He suggested that we go relax in the hammocks for a bit.  Thirty minutes passed, and then an hour before lunch was served.  After lunch the guide told us that our first boat trip into the Pampas would start at approximately 4pm.  At this point Amy and I were pretty frustrated with this tour company.  We booked a two-day tour and we burned almost the entire first day in a car or hammock.

After the lengthy siesta we loaded up in one of the motorized canoes and headed up the river to see the pink river dolphins.  The winding river was flanked by short water-loving trees and there were large wading birds everywhere we looked.  The terrain reminded me of the Florida Everglades but the density of wildlife was seemingly much higher.

Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)

It wasn’t long before we spotted some capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, as well as some monkeys.  The capybaras, which top out at around 100 pounds, were surprisingly calm around us photo-snapping tourists.  At one point Amy got within just a few feet of one that was grazing on the riverbank.

Pink river dolphins, too, were easy to find but photographing them proved difficult.  They would frequently break the surface with their fins and snouts but it was next to impossible to predict when and where they would come up next.  We were given the option to swim with them but Amy and I declined and left that to the two Australians that were with us.

The next morning we were up early for our second boat ride on the river.  With howler monkeys howling away in the distance we loaded into the boat just before the sun came up.  A short while into our ride we heard something crashing through the trees along the river.  Our guide pulled over to the side and before we knew it yellow squirrel monkeys were running around on our boat.  Unfortunately, some of the tour groups feed the monkeys so as soon as they see a tour boat they jump on board and look for food.  They must have been disappointed in us though because we didn’t give them any more than stares.  One of them managed to catch and devour a huge water bug while we were stopped.  Crunch, crunch, crunch!

Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect

The variety of birds that we saw during the ride was absolutely incredible.  All sorts of herons and ibis plus a few storks and spoonbills as well.  Rounding each corner of the snaking river revealed more and more birds.  Equally plentiful were the caiman sunning themselves along the banks.

By midday we had all had enough of the boat riding.  Hours in a rickety metal seat in the blaring sun was enough and we were happy to return back to the camp.  After a quick lunch we loaded up in another vehicle (this time even more packed) to make the three hour trip to Rurre.

Black Caiman
Black Caiman

All in all, I would say that the Pampas are a great place to visit if you want to see lots of wildlife in a hurry.  By Bolivian standards, the tour was very pricy and it makes me wonder how much money one could save by traveling independently to San Rosa and arranging boat trips from there.  The next post will be my last on Bolivia and then the blog will take a turn for the South Pacific!

The Pampas
The road to the pampas.  A bit dusty, no?
The road to the pampas. A bit dusty, no?
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
An excess of hammock time on the pampas tour.
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Red-headed buzzard with a rainbow
Cappuccino monkey
Cappuccino monkey
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
Giant aquatic rodents! (aka Capybara)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
A large male (you can tell by the shiny bump on his snout)
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Not Jaws but rather a friendly pink river dolphin.
Oropendola nests
Oropendola nests
Tropical comorant
Tropical comorant
Caracara and friend
Caracara and friend
Caracara
Caracara
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey eating a tasty insect
Yellow squirrel monkey
Yellow squirrel monkey
Monkey on the boat!
Monkey on the boat!
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron
Black Caiman
Black Caiman
Caiman
Caiman

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