Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Jan 022012

When we returned to civilization after our 13-day Mongolia tour, I was happy to hear that my friend Charles would be making a short-notice trip over to SE Asia and that his plans overlapped with ours in the Philippines. Charles is a fellow frequent flyer mile junkie and has completed two impressive round-the-world trips on his own. Neither of us had been to the Philippines before but we had all heard good things about Palawan.

For the most part, getting around the Philippines is cheap and easy thanks to a very competitive mix of low-cost carriers. We used one of the biggies, Cebu Pacific, to travel from Manila to the island of Palawan. Palawan is in the far southwestern corner of the Philippines and is one of the country’s least developed areas. The tickets rang up at an affordable $56 per person.

After a brief overnight in the town of Puerto Princesa, we boarded a bus for Sabang, a tiny village on the west coast of Palawan. The ride took us across mountains, rice patties and small farms – every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful coastline.

The main attraction in Sabang is the “Underground River.” The Underground River is a long water-filled cave which is navigable in small canoes and kayaks. The tourism board recently completely a successful campaign to have it listed as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” against competition such as Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. I can’t say that I would rank it as such but it was an interesting and impressive sight.  As a tip to other travels, make sure that you are up early to catch one of the first boats into the caves as it can get very crowded and noisy with all the other tour groups.

To me, the real beauty of Sabang is how sleepy it is. The wide crescent-shaped beach isn’t bad either! Most tourists visit the Underground River by way of a day tour from Puerto Princesa and while the beach is bustling by day, it is almost deserted in the late afternoons and evenings.

Sabang offered up the whole range of accommodation options. At the low end were small bamboo huts and at the high end were two out-of-place and nearly empty high-end resorts. While Amy stayed with the backpacks, Charles and I scrutinized the options. At the far end of the beach we found a humble little place called Mary’s Beach Resort. Mary’s only had about 5 bamboo huts and two of them had prime location facing the beach.

We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!

We haggled a bit on the price but I think we were both of the mindset that we would take the huts at just about any reasonable price. In the end, Amy and I paid under US$14 (600PHP) per night for ours and Charles got a slight single-occupancy discount on his. The huts each had showers, a front porch, mosquito nets and electricity (6PM to 10PM only!) but really the best part was the view:

The view from our hut
The view from our hut
Sabang
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Sabang's lovely beach
Sabang’s lovely beach
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!
Another satisfied customer at Mary's
Another satisfied customer at Mary’s
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
The view from our hut
The view from our hut
The view of the beach from Mary's Resort
The view of the beach from Mary’s Resort
"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang

Most advice for travelers visiting Sri Lanka starts as follows: “Get out of Colombo.” To be fair, we do plan to visit the city briefly later in our trip but apparently it has little to detain tourists. We stayed in the town of Negombo near Colombo’s airport while we got our bearings in the new country.

We made a break for Kandy early on our second day. The proprietor of our guesthouse wanted to send us to a nearby town on the Kandy rail line but he wanted a somewhat outrageous sum of 1500 rupees (US$14) for the transfer. We followed our budget instincts and hired a tuktuk to drive us down to Negombo’s bus station. Now “bus station” is a bit misleading. What I actually am referring to is a nondescript vacant bare-dirt lot where buses are in a continuous state near-collision with each other. We were soon to get our first lesson on public transport, Sri Lankan style.

Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station

One of the joys of traveling in Sri Lanka is that most locals have at least some command of English. A quick check with a few of the locals taught us that a vague area in the center of the dirt lot was where the Kandy-bound bus would magically materialize at 7:30AM. We had quite a few false alarms but eventually one of the local guys yelled “Kandy bus! Kandy bus!” and pointed to the adjacent road.

There she was. The typical Sri Lankan bus engaged in its boarding sequence: a well-used Indian-made TATA bus, dust-and-white in color and absolutely mobbed by people at both the front and back doors. We soon learned that locals are hyper-aggressive about securing seats on their transport. Throwing random belongings through the window on to open seats seemed to be a popular technique. Pushing and shoving is also a much-loved tactic. At the same time, however, they are often quite kind about relinquishing seats for foreigners.

We made it on to the bus and managed to get ourselves some seats. Strangely, buses here lack luggage compartments and one of the great mysteries in life seems to be how Sri Lankans travel with little to no luggage! Eventually we learned that you can stack your stuff next to the driver on top of the engine cover – just make sure it doesn’t fall over on to him or the gear shift!

The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple

The ride up to Kandy took something like 4 hours and covered some miserably short distance (around 60 miles). Land transport in Sri Lanka is slow and often uncomfortable but is also quite fun not to mention very cheap. This will no doubt be a reoccurring theme here on the blog over the next few posts.

The city of Kandy sits at about 500m and the noticeably cooler temperatures were immediately appreciated. A man-made lake sits at the center of the city and a stroll around it proved to be a nice afternoon diversion. There was a surprising amount of wildlife considering we were in the middle of one of the country’s biggest cities!

Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple

On our second day in Kandy we visited the Tooth Relic Temple which contains one of the most sacred artifacts in the Buddhist religion – a tooth of the Buddha. It is not possible to see the actual tooth but at certain times of day you can briefly glimpse the gold casket in which it is contained. In one of the other buildings in the complex we saw Raja, the most famous of Sri Lankan tuskers (elephants). He was the lead elephant in Kandy’s annual Esala Perahera festival for something like 50 years. He died in 1988 and was stuffed in order to be admired for years to come. The Sri Lankan’s definitely love their tuskers!

Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.

After Kandy most tourists head south for the Hill Country but we had other plans. We first wanted to go north and visit the “cultural triangle” before finishing our tour in the cool hills to the south.

A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
Kandy
Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side!  I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side! I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
Fruit bats hanging out.
Fruit bats hanging out.
Bad monkeys!
Bad monkeys!
A rather stately looking kingfisher
A rather stately looking kingfisher
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard.  Not a care in the world!
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard. Not a care in the world!
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Tusker costumes!
Tusker costumes!
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.

Aug 072011

I am happy to report that our 8-day stay on the Cooks lived up to expectations.  We spent our entire visit on Rarotonga, the biggest island in the Cooks.  It’s a volcanic island with a jungle-covered center and beautiful beaches and reefs around its circumference, similar to Kauai but less commercialized.  It’s about 20 miles around the island and at the recommendation of a friend we booked a bungalow with Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast.

Avarua harbour
Avarua harbour

Avarua is the nation’s capital as well as it’s biggest town.  Most of the restaurants, banks, and shops are in Avarua as is their humble parliament building.  Avarua’s lively Sunday market (Punanga Nui) is definitely a must-see since it is a good place to sample some local cuisine without breaking the bank.  Rarotonga wasn’t as bad as Easter Island but the restaurant menu prices were still quite high.  I ordered up a BBQ plate for NZ$10 and received an absolutely massive plate of meat and carbs.  It was about 50% larger than the biggest plates I’ve been served at L&L BBQ in Hawaii and by that I mean it was about 4 times the amount of food I want at one sitting!  It was a long and difficult battle that I eventually lost.

Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)

We actually had two different types of accomodations at Rarotonga Backpackers.  For the first four nights we stayed at their “Hillside” complex which was about a quarter mile inland from the coast.  Our bungalow was a outfitted with a bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony – that’s “self-contained” in Cooks lingo.  We couldn’t quite see the ocean over the palms but the view was nice enough.  Nightly rate was $72 New Zealand Dollars which works out to about $61 US dollars per night.  For the last four nights we moved down to their recently-opened Garden Bugalows which are closer to the beach but without a view.  The garden bungalows were a couple bucks more but I would say that the proximity to the beach made it a win.

Hillside Bungalow
Hillside Bungalow

Initially, getting around the island was a bit frustrating.  Our guesthouse picked us up at the airport just as promised but the rest of the time we relied on Rarotonga’s bus service.  There is a once-hourly bus that goes clockwise and another that goes ANTI-clockwise around the island.  The full circuit takes just shy of an hour, plus or minus.  Unfortunately, the posted schedules mean next to nothing as everything and everyone operates on “island time.”  On a few occasions we just gave up on the bus altogether and spent the subsequent hour or so walking to our intended destination.  During these lengthy strolls I pondered how I would model the bus arrivals as a stochastic process.  But I digress…

A bit of a revelation came to us on day 4 or 5 when the helpful staff at Rarotonga Backpackers suggested that we try hitching “like the locals do.”  Sure enough, that worked like a charm!  As an added bonus I got to talk to some locals.  One time I had some kids show me how they liked to catch colorful reef fish in plastic cups.  Another time I rode with a lady on her way to church whose only trip out of the Cooks took her to Boston for a seminar at Harvard.  Small world!

A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.

The main thing we occupied our time with during the visit was snorkeling.  You can snorkel just about anywhere around the island and there are very few off-limits areas where there are dangerous currents.  One day we took the bus over to Muri Lagoon on the eastern coast.  The lagoon is dotted with small islands and there is good snorkeling just past one called Taakoka.  The island is a few hundred yards off the coast of Rarotonga but knee-deep water made it an easy walk.  We just had to watch out for all the sea cucumbers and the foot-wide cobalt blue starfish that crowd the lagoon!

My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”

Another day I decided to tackle the cross-island trek.  Amy wanted to do some more snorkeling her fancy new prescription mask so I went solo.  After hitching my way up to Avarua I walked about 2km on a dirt road leading to the island’s interior and a sign marking the start of the trail.  It informed me that it should take about 3 hours to make the 5km crossing to the south coast.  The climb was quite steep and it became very obvious why all the guidebooks strongly advice against attempting it after rain.  The surface of the trail is almost clay-like and I am sure it turns into a muddy slip-n-slide with even the slightest precipitation.

Looking south from the ridge
Looking south from the ridge

I made it to the top in about 45 minutes and stood on the ridge of the island right next to this rock pinnacle they call the Needle.  You used to be able to climb the needle itself but a sizeable piece fell off it a few years back and now there are some very to-the-point signs advising against climbing.  I heeded the warnings and just enjoyed the view from the overlook – it was good enough.  The descent on the south side was much steeper but fortunately they have quite a few ropes in place that you can use to help yourself down.  Eventually the trail flatted out and followed a nice little stream past a waterfall to the coast.  Total elapsed time was just over two-hours.

From the miscellaneous island activities category I can say now say that I have been “jet blasted.”  I went down to RAR (isn’t that a great airport code?) one afternoon to catch an Air NZ 777-200 arrival.  There is a nice place to watch right at the end of the runway so that made for a fun diversion one afternoon.  I regret not sticking around for the departure.  Seeing a few hundred thousand pounds of aluminum and jet-A go from stationary to airborn in less than 7,500ft is surely a loud and exciting spectacle.

Another entry in the miscellaneous category came on our last day on the island.  I was staring out the window of our bungalow and happened to see a nice large coconut drop from one of the palms.  I went out and retrieved a relatively large green specimen and started to formulate a strategy.  Tools on hand included a kitchen knife, my hands and my feet.  Step one was to google how to husk a coconut.

I learned that green ones tend to be harder to open than their more mature brown counterparts but that they usually contain more coconut water.  The basic idea is to attack from the stem end and peel sections of the husk off one-by-one.  Having a nice sturdy prybar was highly recommended but I just had to make due with my hands.  I won’t lie, it was difficult and I probably looked a right idiot while I was working on it.  Start to finish it took over an hour but the results were worth it.  As an added bonus I didn’t detach any digits in the process!

From an eating standpoint we mostly self-catered.  Groceries were expensive and going back we would have brought a bunch of staples with us from the States.  Nevertheless, we still managed to keep to a pretty low budget with our grocery bill totalling NZ$87 (about US$73) for the week.  We primarily shopped at a nearby mini-mart and while selection was limited the prices were on-par with the bigger grocery stores in town.  Coconut cream was readily available so Amy put together some excellent coconut curries a couple of the evenings.  We also had our fair share of standard backpack cuisine: pasta, sauteed veggies, and toast.

Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes

All in all the Cook Islands left us impressed.  Given Air NZ’s nonstop flight from LAX and relatively reasonable airfares, I am surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in the Cooks.  It is much like Hawaii but has two big advantages, at least to me.  The first are the plentiful beaches – having a couple hundred yards of pristine white beach to ourselves was the norm (and it was high season when we visited!).  The second big win is the lack of commercialization.  The Cooks have strict rules against outside ownership so this has kept the big hotel chains at bay.  This gives the place a bit more character if you ask me.

We would love to visit the Cooks again someday to travel to some of the other islands.  Domestic airfares are a bit pricy but the other islands are supposed to have their own charms that are well worth exploring.  Lastly, I decided to put together a budget summary for those who are interested.  Perhaps some other travelers will find it useful someday.

Budget Summary (prices in US$):

  • Accomodations (8-nights): $497.35
  • Groceries: $72.25
  • Eating/drinking out: $64.58
  • Local transportation: $58.53
  • Total: $692.52 (or $43.28 per person per day)
    Cook Islands
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Hillside Bungalow
    Hillside Bungalow
    These mosquito coils came in very handy.  Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    These mosquito coils came in very handy. Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market.  Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market. Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    The aftermath...I barely finished half.
    The aftermath…I barely finished half.
    Avarua harbour
    Avarua harbour
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    Muri Lagoon
    Muri Lagoon
    Taakoka Island
    Taakoka Island
    A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
    A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    Looking south from the ridge
    Looking south from the ridge
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    777 arrival from Auckland
    777 arrival from Auckland
    Our local grocery purveyor - the Tex Mart
    Our local grocery purveyor – the Tex Mart
    After an hour of hard work.
    After an hour of hard work.
    Fresh coconut water!
    Fresh coconut water!
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack's.
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack’s.
    Sunset on our last day
    Sunset on our last day


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.


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.

Nothing terribly exciting to report about La Paz.  We arrived by overnight bus from Sucre, a ride which was surprisingly comfortable given it was on a Bolivian bus.  We looked into flying but the prices were high and the day we wanted to leave were sold out.  The 12-hours on a discarded Argentine bus (full-cama) went by quickly enough.

Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley

We stayed at a hotel called Cruz de Andes that smack bang in the middle of the tourist ghetto and co-located with the Mercado de las Brujas (Witch’s Market).  Having to walk past dried llama feetuses to get to/from our room was a bit annoying but the location was convenient enough.  On the morning of our arrival we dropped by the Museo de Coca which addresses the controversial plant.  Coca has been cultivated traditional in this part of the Andes for thousands of years and is usually chewed or brewed in a tea by the locals.  This was all well and good until somewhere figured out how to refine it into cocaine (and other drugs).  Nowadays there is a heated controversy whether the Andean people should be allowed to continue their tradition.

Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.

Walking around in La Paz is a pain!  Aside from the annoying hills and altitude, the sidewalks are completely cluttered with all sorts of wares.  Blankets, hats, fried nuts, fruits, etc.  There is very little room to move around.  Crossing streets is also a bit of a challenge.  Few streets in La Paz have traffic signals so most intersections are a free-for-all.  The minibuses, micros, taxis and common cars all continuous fight for right away and I can assure you that pedestrians are not a high priority for any of them.  Entertainingly, along the main thoroughfare in La Paz one can see crossing guards that the city has hired to help people cross the road – they even make them wear zebra costumes!

Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras

Well that is about it for La Paz.  Like I said, nothing all that special – just a big city.  After La Paz we took a trip to Rurrenabaque to see Madidi National Park.  The photos are quite good we think (hint hint: monkeys and toucans!) so stay tuned!

La Paz, Bolivia
The witch's market near where we stayed.  Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
The witch’s market near where we stayed. Plenty of dried llama fetuses if you are looking for one.
Point-to-point wiring.  Not as bad as some I've seen but a commendable effort.
Point-to-point wiring. Not as bad as some I’ve seen but a commendable effort.
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Houses coat the walls of the valley
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Big mean Dodge minibuses.
Crossing guards / zebras
Crossing guards / zebras
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
Reject Bluebird school buses also roam the streets.
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
A friendly ice cream dealer at Plaza Avaroa
Not the best, but not bad.
Not the best, but not bad.
Illimani looms over La Paz - 21,122 ft
Illimani looms over La Paz – 21,122 ft
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.
Old ladies at kiosks sell cheap ($0.14) soda all over La Paz.

Potosí, Bolivia

Bolivia Comments Off
Jun 022011

Once our salt flat tour wrapped up, the primary mission was to get out of Uyuni.  In all honesty, the town is a trashy dump that seems to exist solely for tourism (although it was once an important railroad interchange).  There were two highlights of our brief stop in Uyuni: 1) having a pizza at Minuteman Pizza (owned by a guy from Amherst, MA) 2) leaving town.  It was raining when we woke up but fortunately it was only a five minute slog over to the bus.

The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni

The bus was not exactly a fancy double-decker Argentine bus but it was fairly new and the seats were in good shape.  It lacked a video system which meant we wouldn’t have to endure hours of terrible movies.  Of course, there were other factors that made the six hour ride a bit suboptimal.

Climbing out of Uyuni it didn’t take long until the drizzle of rain turned into snow.  We passed Pulacayo, a once-mighty mining town and a few other small villages high in the mountains.  I had hoped that the bus would warm up after we got moving but it just kept getting colder and colder.  The weather outside toggled between rain and snow as we climbed and descended through the mountains.

Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí.  Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí. Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.

About halfway through the trip we stopped at some dumpy settlement high in the mountains.  There were a couple of adobe buildings and a small shack for the pigs that lived there.  Conditions were cold and snowy and even the pigs couldn’t be bothered to come out to see us.

Is this really South America?
Is this really South America?

Closer to Potosí the weather got even worse.  Heavy snow and, being in Bolivia, I wasn’t exactly expecting to see battalions of snow plows.  Sure enough, on a few of the passes we came to a complete halt while the motorists attempted to clear the road with shovels.  The music track for this comedy was dueling music between passengers: one guy in the back with a boombox versus two guys in the front with cellphones.  A fun ride indeed!  Fortunately, we made it safely to Potosí and to a nice hotel in the center of the old city.

Potosí was once one of the most productive silver mines in the world.  Most of Spain’s silver came from Cerro Rico, the mountain adjacent to town.  Apparently hundreds of thousands of people have died in dangerous mines.  The most popular tourist activity in Potosí is a visit to these mines which are now run by local cooperatives.  We had heard mixed things about the mine tours and decided against a visit.

Potosí, Bolivia - Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Potosí, Bolivia – Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.

Despite skipping the mines, we still got a good taste of what the Spaniards really wanted with the town.  We visited the Casa de la Moneda, Spain’s former coin mint, and saw everything from the crude machinery used to make the coins to the horrific conditions that both people and animals were forced to work.

Next up on the blog, Sucre, Bolivia’s white city.

Potosí, Bolivia
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
The snowy mountains outside of Uyuni
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí.  Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Our rest stop on the way from Uyuni to Potosí. Snow/rain/slush and some very meager food options.
Is this really South America?
Is this really South America?
The central market in Potosí
The central market in Potosí
Buying some salteñas (the local take on empanadas)
Buying some salteñas (the local take on empanadas)
Rotary-dial pay phone.  Only in Bolivia.
Rotary-dial pay phone. Only in Bolivia.
Potosí, Bolivia - Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Potosí, Bolivia – Cerro Rico, the silver mountain at left.
Our guesthouse in Potosí...
Our guesthouse in Potosí…
...and the courtyard inside.
…and the courtyard inside.
Beer is nice and fizzy at 4,060m!
Beer is nice and fizzy at 4,060m!
Buying some fresh OJ
Buying some fresh OJ

A slight detour

Bolivia, Chile Comments Off
Jun 012011

Our time in South America is rapidly coming to a close.  We are scheduled to fly back to the States from Lima, Peru on June 7th for my brother’s wedding.  We thought we had everything planned out, that was until a good old South American protest got in the way.

After leaving La Paz, Bolivia we had hoped to cross into Peru and hit up some of the major sights.  A few days around Lake Titicaca then a short flight over to Cuzco to check out Machu Picchu followed by another short flight into Lima to link up with our award ticket back to the States.  Unfortunately, the border between Bolivia and Peru was closed by large scale protests (about mining rights) in Peru about three weeks ago.  From what we read in the news, all of the possible land border crossings have been closed by the protesters.  Looting, burning cars in the streets, gunfire and what-have-you are the sorts of things in the news.  Not exactly where we want to be.

Most of the other travelers we have met are planning to detour through Chile in order to continue their trips into Peru.  Flying is also possible but prices are sky-high due to the increased demand as well as Bolivia’s crazy ticket taxes.  The vast majority of Peru is still safe for travel but we decided it would be too much of a rush to fit in this detour.  Instead, we opted to visit the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and then use some miles to get from northern Chile (Arica to be exact) to Lima for our flight home.  It is an 8-hour bus ride from La Paz to Arica but that hopefully won’t be too bad.

The only routing available was via Santiago but that was still preferable to many hours on Peruvian buses and giving up our visit to Lake Titicaca.  We will be making a two-day stop in Santiago and then will continue on to Lima, Miami, Denver then finally Montana.  Peru will just have to wait for another trip.  Of course the blog posts will keep coming over the next few weeks…I have quite a backlog of stories and photos to share!


Victory!
Victory!

Getting across the border into Bolivia was easy enough.  We walked to the border just after sunrise and waited around for about half an hour while the authorities on the Argentine side dealt with some families that were crossing with children.  Once we were stamped out off Argentina we walked 50 yards across the bridge and presented ourselves at Bolivian immigration.  There was no queue when we arrived and they gladly accepted our $135 visa fee and, in return, put some shiny stickers in our passports.  Nationals of most countries (including places like Yemen) don’t need to pay for visas to Bolivia, however, US policies towards tourists have led Bolivian towards a policy of reciprocity.

Our first Bolivian bus.  Villazón to Tupiza.
Our first Bolivian bus. Villazón to Tupiza.

The Bolivian border town of Villazón was not nearly as seedy as we were led to believe.  The town was actually quite clean, had a nice square and lively commercial activity.  Our first goal was to withdraw some Bolivianos from the town’s one and only ATM.  I requested 2,500 Bs from the machine (about $300) and after the usual whirling noises it dispensed my card and a receipt but no cash.  Doh!

There were some bank employees standing around waiting for the bank to open and they advised Amy that she should be able to withdraw 1,000 Bs from the machine without a problem.  There was some talk of the machine only being able to dispense ten bills at a time.  She gave it a try and the same thing played out – no cash.  By this point the bank was open so we went in and Amy spoke to the supposed manager of the bank.  In a very couldn’t-care-less manner he told her that they knew the ATM was broken yet there was no sign on the machine.  Perfect.

Tupiza's central plaza
Tupiza’s central plaza

Time for the backup plan.  Good old US dollars.  We hit up a couple of cambios (currency exchange shops) before we found one that would accept the two wrinkled $20 bills that I had handy.  They gave me a half-decent rate and we had enough money to get out of Villazón on the bus.

Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza.  Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza. Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.

The drive to Tupiza is only about 60 miles but it takes about three hours thanks to the crappy roads.  Frustratingly we drove alongside of a beautiful paved highway most of the way but none of the bridges were complete.  We are definitely in Bolivia now!  The scenery was interesting through and we made it to Tupiza on time.

The main drag of Tupiza
The main drag of Tupiza

After getting to Tupiza we spent the better part of a day working on the money situation.  The first step was to get in touch with our banks about the ATM withdrawals in Villazón.  Sure enough, both has been debted from our account so we were (and still are) around $440 in the hole.  Both of our banks have opened investigations into the matter so hopefully we will see the money back one day.

Tupiza doesn’t have a single ATM machine that accepts foreign cards.  Tourists have three options: 1) exchange dollars, 2) have a local bank pull a cash advance against your VISA or MC or 3) cash travelers checks.  We explored all three options and eventually decided on the cash advance.  Cashing the travelers checks turned out to be an incredible ripoff at 18% away from official rate.  We had plenty of US dollars but we wanted to hold those for emergencies.

Processing the cash advance also turned out to be a pain.  Despite placing travel notices on our accounts the cash advance transactions were denied at the bank.  After a handful of expensive phone calls back to the states (there are no pay phones through which you can call collect!) we had the issues sorted out with the bank.  When it was all said and done, we got some cash from bank within about 5% of the official rate including all the fees.  It took a day and a lot of running back and forth between phone centers, our hotel, and the bank but we got it all sorted out.  Not a smooth start to our time in Bolivia, fortunately things got much better.

WARNING TO OTHER TRAVELERS:  When the guidebook says to bring cash, it means it!  Brings lots of crisp and new US notes to avoid hassles at dinky border towns.

Boliviano Blues
Our first Bolivian bus.  Villazón to Tupiza.
Our first Bolivian bus. Villazón to Tupiza.
I sure hope this thing fits!
I sure hope this thing fits!
Tupiza's central plaza
Tupiza’s central plaza
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza.  Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Awesomely bad decorations at a just plain bad tourist restaurant in Tupiza. Yup, that is a flamingo made of cactus wood.
Breakfast at Hotel Mitru
Breakfast at Hotel Mitru
The main drag of Tupiza
The main drag of Tupiza
Not a bad place to relax before the four-day trip into the wild.
Not a bad place to relax before the four-day trip into the wild.
Victory!
Victory!
My first fried chicken in Bolivia.  They love it!
My first fried chicken in Bolivia. They love it!

The whole reason for coming back to Argentina was to visit the far northwest provinces of Salta and Jujuy.  We started in Salta and worked our way northward to the Bolivian border.  Salta was a fairly typical large Argentine city.  It has a nice central plaza, some popular pedestrian malls and ample treats to snack on.  We spent a few days there just taking in the city and its sights.  One highlight was the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña de Salta which displays Incan artifacts including three frozen mummies that were discovered on the summit of a nearby volcano.  Many other  Incan mummies have been discovered but the ones on display in Salta are the only ones preserved in low-pressure and sub-zero temperatures.  Photography is not allowed in that museum so you will just have to visit Salta to see them.

Salta’s food scene was pretty entertaining and surprisingly different from what we saw further south in the country.  For lunch our first day I tucked into a nice big bowl of locro pulsado which is a corn soup with various types of meat and potatoes.  There is also a thriving street food scene in Salta.  Pochoclo (sweetened popcorn) is certainly the king of street snacks but we also saw candied nut vendors, hotdog-encased-in-pancake-batter vendors (don’t ask) and juice vendors.  There was no problem keeping ourselves fed in Salta.

Locro: a corn and meat soup
Locro: a corn and meat soup

From Salta we headed north to Tilcara.  This was supposed to take about three hours on the bus but we ended up killing a full day thanks to the Argentine equivalent of labor day.  Argentines and their holidays…  Tilcara is a small town at the southern end of Argentina’s Quebrada de Humahuaca.  Quebrada is the Spanish term for a steep valley or ravine and, in this case, the geography gives the place an abundance of water for farming.

Purmamarca and its famous colored hillside
Purmamarca and its famous colored hillside

The main attraction in the Quebrada are the colorful mountains that surround the valley.  Purmamarca, a small village about 30 minutes from Tilcara, has a particularly famous “hill of seven colors” that overlooks the town.  We popped in for half a day and had a look around.

A short hike outside of Purmamarca
A short hike outside of Purmamarca

From Tilcara we made a one-day side trip to the remote village of Iruya (population ~1000).  The road into Iruya, called the Obra del Condor, is one crazy mountain road.  It ascends gradually to over 13,000ft before plunging through dozens of switchbacks into the valley.  The town itself is “muy tranqillo” and I believe that donkeys outnumbered cars in the streets.  Smarter donkeys were found napping in the shade under the new pedestrian-only suspension bridge which connects the two halves of the town.

Iruya, Argentina
Iruya, Argentina

After one night in Iruya we hopped a bus back to Humahuaca (bags on the roof, of course!) and made a quick connection to La Quiaca on the Argentine-Bolivian border.  We had heard that is best to get an early start at crossing into Bolivia so we wanted to get as close as possible.  More on that adventure in the next post.


Northwest Argentina
Lots of fruit to choose from at Salta's market
Lots of fruit to choose from at Salta’s market
A very enthusiastic pizza vendor at Salta's central mercado.
A very enthusiastic pizza vendor at Salta’s central mercado.
My very first humita!
My very first humita!
The central plaza in Salta, surrounded by citrus trees
The central plaza in Salta, surrounded by citrus trees
One of Salta's pedestrian streets
One of Salta’s pedestrian streets
Pochoclo con miel: Sweetened popcorn, a favorite snack of Salteños and Amy
Pochoclo con miel: Sweetened popcorn, a favorite snack of Salteños and Amy
Locro: a corn and meat soup
Locro: a corn and meat soup
The place to eat in Salta
The place to eat in Salta
Dog that joined us while we enjoyed a coffee in the plaza.
Dog that joined us while we enjoyed a coffee in the plaza.
Hot dog vendors are also everywhere in Salta
Hot dog vendors are also everywhere in Salta
Purmamarca and its famous colored hillside
Purmamarca and its famous colored hillside
A short hike outside of Purmamarca
A short hike outside of Purmamarca
Amy insisted that I pose like a cactus
Amy insisted that I pose like a cactus
Who needs barbed wire when you've got a bunch of cacti on hand.
Who needs barbed wire when you’ve got a bunch of cacti on hand.
The wood of a cardón cactus
The wood of a cardón cactus
A cactus with moss growing on it.
A cactus with moss growing on it.
Nice view from our room in Tilcara
Nice view from our room in Tilcara
Waiting on the bus and having a staring contest with this guy.
Waiting on the bus and having a staring contest with this guy.
The start of the crazy road into Iruya.
The start of the crazy road into Iruya.
Lots and lots of switchbacks.
Lots and lots of switchbacks.
A great view just outside our room in Iruya.  Also a good place for drying laundry!
A great view just outside our room in Iruya. Also a good place for drying laundry!
Our favorite dog in Iruya.  Amy named him Banana because he wouldn't eat the banana she gave him.
Our favorite dog in Iruya. Amy named him Banana because he wouldn’t eat the banana she gave him.
Home cookin: lentil stew and big bread
Home cookin: lentil stew and big bread
Somebody likes belly scratches
Somebody likes belly scratches
Iruya, Argentina
Iruya, Argentina


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