There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival

One of Continental Airline’s more obscure routes took us from Palau to Manila. We spent a couple of nights in Manila but honestly we didn’t see much more than a few shopping malls. The city really doesn’t have all that much to offer the tourist so I don’t think we missed much. Maybe we should have tried harder?

The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney

We had a few days to kill before Charles, a good friend of mine, arrived in Manila. We had heard some decent things about Taal Lake which lies a couple hours south of Manila so we headed that way.

Like most of its neighbors, the Philippines has a creative and entertaining solution to mass transit: the jeepney. Jeepneys used to be surplus military jeeps that were extended and converted into bus-like vehicles. These days, jeepneys are made locally from scratch but still keep the styling of the originals. What’s cool about the jeepney is that it comes in all shapes, sizes and colors – it is as if there are no two that are the same. The only commonality amongst jeepneys is that they tend to be severely overloaded with passengers and cargo at all times!

During our three weeks in the Philippines we saw and made use of many jeepneys. My friend Charles amassed a sizable collection of jeepney photos and those are featured in the album.

To ride a jeepney you just flag it down (they will stop anywhere), climb in the back and hopefully find some space on one of the benches. Next you yell your destination at the driver and pass forward the correct fare (the other passengers help to pass it forward). If you don’t have exact change then the driver will count out change all while driving, shifting and honking. Cheap transport but not comfortable transport.

Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay

Fortunately, Taal lake is quite close to Manila. We spent about an hour on a bus and then a further hour on a jeepney to get to Talisay on the north side of the lake. Talisay is perched on a ridge overlooking the lake and, thanks to the altitude, has a mild climate compared to Manila.

The entire Taal lake area is part of the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the Philippines. There are numerous craters visible from the ridge. The most popular excursion is to take a boat to volcano island, hike up to the ridge and get a look at the boiling sulfurous lake below.

We took a boat out to the volcano one day and hiked to the ridge. Sadly, most tourists make the trip by horse and they all looked to be pretty sickly and overworked. The climb wasn’t all that bad but we were glad we started early in the day when temps were lower. The view from the top was good but I think we are starting to get a bit spoiled by all the fantastic landscapes we’ve seen on the trip.

Food-wise, the Philippines didn’t impress us. It is a bit of a paradox because they certainly have access to the same ingredients as their neighbors. Most of the food that is available sort of reminded me of carnival food – fried chicken, hamburgers, cotton candy, deep fried ice cream, etc. To be fair, I did have some very good chicken adobo (a Filipino national dish of sorts) but there wasn’t the variety of cuisine you see elsewhere in SE Asia.

Despite the Philippines shortcomings on the food front, we did have a few entertaining culinary experiences. The first came when we were on the bus down to Talisay. Food vendors came on board the bus to sell their goods. This is common throughout the world but what was interesting here is that it is done by the big corporate food outlets. We had a guy in a Dunkin Donuts polo shirt hocking big boxes of donuts! I was in the mood for lunch so I got a mini pizza. The other thing the Philippines does right is cold beer. A bottle of respectable pilsner for under a buck is universally available. Perfect after a long day of diving!

Taal Lake and Jeepneys
The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
Chicken adobo
Chicken adobo
Sample Mexican food outside of the America's is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
Sample Mexican food outside of the America’s is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food.  Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food. Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines

May 142011

Day 3 in San Pedro was another early morning for us.  We had booked a tour to the lagunas altiplanicas and the flamingo reserve through Cosmo Andino tours.  They picked us up around 7AM and we drove about an hour to Los Flamencos National Reserve.  The reserve is divided into a number of different sections but the first encompasses Laguna Chaxa and the surrounding salt flat (Salar de Atacama).

Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world

It wasn’t long before we spotted some flamingos from a pretty long distance (good thing I had my telephoto lens).  As a Floridian, I always knew that the idea of flamingos in the tropics was pure hogwash.  That said, seeing a flock of them feeding in a lake at 7,500ft above sea level really drove the point home!  Another interesting fact about the Salar de Atacama is that it is the world’s largest reserve of lithium.  Something like 30% of the world’s supply of the metal comes from the salar so, if you are reading this blog on laptop or phone, there is a good chance your batteries have material from the salar!

Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo

After a light breakfast at the reserve we headed to the village of Socaire to have a look around.  The quiet village survives on farming and has a couple of nice churches made of adobe.

Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miñiques were the next stop after Socaire.  These brackish lakes lie at 4,300m (14,000ft) and have a mirror-like surface most days.  The lakes are home to a number of different bird species so it is not possible to approach the shoreline.  I was impressed by the fact that there were actually park rangers present to enforce these rules.

Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti

The final laguna on the tour was the Salar de Aguas Calientes which has a nice blue lake flanked by some strange red rocks.  We had a nice lunch (vegetarian friendly as well!) at this spot and did our best to capture the other-worldly colors of the terrain.

Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour

On the way back to San Pedro we stopped at the village of Toconao.  This was a welcome stop as it took over 2 hours from our lunch stop.  The village is situated along a river which makes it the wettest place in the driest desert in the world.  There are many farms in Toconao but unfortunately we didn’t get to see much as most of them were swept away by a flood earlier in the year.

All in all, we were very happy with Cosmo Andino the operator of all three of our tours (Tatio Geysers, Valle de la Luna, and Lagunas Altiplánicas).  The guides were knowledgeable and spoke fluent English, the food was plentiful and the vehicles were in good condition.  We paid 67,500 CLP (about $135) per person for all three tours together.  This price was a slight discount over the posted prices because we booked all three tours at the same time.  Another tip for other travelers would be to book late in the day as the tour companies are keen to fill the remaining seats in their vehicles.

Lagunas Altiplánicas
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Flamingos at Laguna Chaxa
Salar de Atacama - the third largest salt flat in the world
Salar de Atacama – the third largest salt flat in the world
Three of the world's five species of flamingo
Three of the world’s five species of flamingo
Andean Flamingo
Andean Flamingo
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
A little bird on short final to Laguna Chaxa
Chilean Flamingo
Chilean Flamingo
Buildings in Socaire
Buildings in Socaire
Laguna Miscanti
Laguna Miscanti
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Cerro Miñiques, topping out at 19,400ft
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Amy running (she tends to do that from time to time)
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna Miñiques
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Laguna de Aguas Calientes (it was actually frigid)
Lunch provided on the tour
Lunch provided on the tour
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
Toconao, Chile
A pisco sour to end the day.
A pisco sour to end the day.

Shortly after arrival at Tatio.  It is 6:20am and -15C.
Shortly after arrival at Tatio. It is 6:20am and -15C.

We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get picked up for our tour of the Tatio Geysers, the third largest geyser field in the world. It was dark and cold and we drove for an hour and a half to get the to geyser field.  Our guide and driver prepared breakfast while took photos and waited for the sun to rise.  The geyers sit at 4,321m (14,176.5 ft) so we were both a little winded due to the thin air.  The main reason all the tours visit the geyseys for sunrise is because you can see the steam the best.

After the sun had come up we departed for our second stop, a hot stream fed by water from the geysers. I was too cold to get in the water. Instead, Amy and I dipped our frozen tootsies in the water. It was hot!  Our guide said it was about 35 degrees Celsius.

One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.
One of the warm rivers near the geyser field where swimming is possible.

We drove some more and got out to walk along the Río Putana. There we saw several types of birds. We also had a great view of Volcano Licancabur.

Our final stop was a hillside covered in cacti. We learned that due to the extreme climate in the Atacama, they only grow about 1cm per year.  That puts the 5m high cacti that we saw at 500 years old!  We hiked into a canyon to see plenty more cacti and a small waterfall.

Our tour ended at 2pm and we were dead tired. We went back to our guesthouse to rest up for another tour we had that night.  A French astronomer has setup a small observatory just outside of San Pedro (in Solor) and he hosts star tours.  The only picture we have from that night was one that Amy took of Saturn through one of the telescopes.  Due to the high altitude and thin dry air, the view of the stars was stunning.

The only picture we have from our star tour.  Saturn!
The only picture we have from our star tour. Saturn!
Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama
Just after takeoff from Santiago.  Sunrise over the Andes
Just after takeoff from Santiago. Sunrise over the Andes
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
Sandy cliffs on final into Antofagasta
The humorously short A320 variant...the A318
The humorously short A320 variant…the A318
Predeparture snack.  Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Predeparture snack. Pancho con ketchup, mustaza y palta (avocado)
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Quite a nice bus terminal in Antofagasta
Those are some big tires!  Mining is big in this area.
Those are some big tires! Mining is big in this area.
Desolation
Desolation
The ruins of some town.
The ruins of some town.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
The last stretch of road into San Pedro de Atacama.
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Courtyard at Hostal Sonchek
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Documenting San Pedro de Atacama
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro
Enjoying a delicious mote in San Pedro

The edge of the dormant volcano - our destination of the day.
The edge of the dormant volcano – our destination of the day.

The day after our lengthy walk around Rapa Nui we decided to take an “easy day” and visit one of the closest attractions to Hanga Roa: the ceremonial village of Orongo.  The village is located on the rim of Rano Kau, the dormant volcano at the far western end of Rapa Nui.  The surf was quite rough that morning so we had some good fun watching the waves crash into the rocky coastline on our way over to the volcano.

To get to the rim of the volcano’s crater you can either drive a winding road, or you can take a trail that takes a steeper and more direct route.  At sea level the trail weaves its way through some small farms that enjoy the wind protection afforded by the mountain before breaking out into a clearing covered mostly by guava bushes (they are all over the island).  Slightly further on is a small band of eucalyptus trees and, from there, it is grass all the way to the top.

The crater or Rano Kau
The crater or Rano Kau

Once we reached the rim of the crater we had a spectacular view of the freshwater marsh inside of the volcano.  Though we couldn’t see it up close, the vegetation inside of the crater was noticeably different.  Some signs along the way indicated that the cone of the volcano creates a completely different ecosystem by sheltering its contents from wind and by trapping rainwater.

At the far west end of the crater rim is the ceremonial village of Orongo.  The village, which was the center of the birdman cult, was inhabited until the mid 19th century.  The stone buildings as they stand today were restored in the mid 1970′s but much of the stone is original.  The roofs of the houses are stone but they are covered in a thick layer of grass.  It is not known whether these houses we occupied permanently or only during ceremonial times.

Awesome petroglyphs at Orongo
Awesome petroglyphs at Orongo

Speaking of ceremonies, one of the birdman cult’s more interesting annual competitions was to retrieve the first sooty tern egg laid on the nearby islet of Motu Nui.  The competitors had to depart the village, survive the 250m descent to the ocean, swim a few kilometers, fight off some seriously angry birds and then go all the way back to the village while carrying an egg.  I’m am sure that the village’s stunning location perched the cliff above the ocean made this competition quite fun to watch!

In addition to the stone houses and spectacular views of the volcano and the ocean, one can also find numerous stone petroglyphs at Orongo.  Some of them are pretty hard to discern (and to photograph!) but they are very interesting nonetheless.

The descent to Hanga Roa was much faster than the climb.  Part of this was due to the downhill slope and the other part was due to the fact that we had a rainstorm bearing down on us.  All in all, this little excursion ate up about half a day and was certainly worthwhile.  Given more time I think it would be fun to hike all the way around the rim of the crater, I read somewhere that this is doable in a day.  Maybe next time!

Easter Island – Day 2 (Rano Kau and Orongo)
Strong surf in the morning
Strong surf in the morning
The edge of the dormant volcano - our destination of the day.
The edge of the dormant volcano – our destination of the day.
Some locals out having fun
Some locals out having fun
Amy's favorite part of the day: a nice seasaw complete with turtle seats.  We rode it.
Amy’s favorite part of the day: a nice seasaw complete with turtle seats. We rode it.
Half way up the volcano we happened upon a rest station.  Much-needed as we are wimps.
Half way up the volcano we happened upon a rest station. Much-needed as we are wimps.
Made it to the top of Rano Kao
Made it to the top of Rano Kao
The crater or Rano Kau
The crater or Rano Kau
Looking back towards Hanga Roa
Looking back towards Hanga Roa
The restored ceremonial village of Orongo which is on the rim of the volcano.
The restored ceremonial village of Orongo which is on the rim of the volcano.
The nearby islets of Moto Nui, Moto Iti and Motu Kau Kau
The nearby islets of Moto Nui, Moto Iti and Motu Kau Kau
Awesome petroglyphs at Orongo
Awesome petroglyphs at Orongo
Another view of Orongo
Another view of Orongo


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