This is Bolivia!

Southwest Bolivia is what I imagine it would look like if you combined southern Utah with Yellowstone National Park and put them on Mars. Never in my life have I seen so many beautiful and mysterious sites–like the ancient coral reef above, 12,000ft high in the mountains.

Below are some highlights from a truly awesome experience in a place that hardly feels like you are on Earth.

A short day hike from the gateway town of Tupiza led us to slot canyons and red rock. Our official tour began the next day.

The tour began with high elevation “puna” ecotypes, similar to what we experienced on our anniversary hike in Peru.

Ruins of a 500-year-old Spanish mining town that was abandoned because the ore turned back to rock, only to become silver again when the devil returns to the mountain. That is their story and they are sticking to it.

Just inside the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, our first day ended in this building that has walls and a roof. It says “hostal” too, which is how you know that you are supposed to sleep there. Bringing a sleeping bag is required for the tour because the accommodations are, how shall we say, sparse?

On the second day things started to get crazy. We saw our first flamingos at the “Stinky Lake,” followed by a visit to Laguna Kollpa. This lake contains high amounts of sodium carbonate that is mined by two families who sell the white stuff to shampoo companies.

After a drive through the Dali Desert, so named for its surreal and colorful rock formations and volcanoes, we arrived at Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde. Can you guess the English translation?

Surrounded by volcanoes in Chile on our right and in Argentina on our left, the colors of the desert changed from moment to moment.

Before lunch day two: we get to soak in 100 degree hot springs overlooking a massive 4,200 meter-high dried lake.

After lunch it was time for a visit to the highest geyser field in the world. Note the absence of boardwalks, ropes, or signs. It was like exploring Yellowstone 100 years ago.

We ended the day at Laguna Colorada, a stunning red lake. The color is created by the algae that rise to the surface as the temperature rises and winds increase each day.

2,000 James Flamingos call the lake home, and lay their eggs on the borax islands that dot the 80 square kilometer lake.

The third day began with a visit to some of the most ridiculous rock formations you have ever seen.

Followed by more beautiful lakes and more flamingos!

I’m convinced the Toyota Land Cruiser is the post-apocalyptic vehicle of choice.

We made some new friends, too. Daniel and Annie were great companions. Originally from France, they live in Quebec and hate the Alberta tar sands.

After learning about how this used to be an ocean and now the area near the Salar de Uyuni is a petrified forest of coral (some 2 meters or more tall)…

We visited a cave only discovered in 2002 that is filled with, you guessed it, petrified coral. We could not believe our eyes.

The pre-Inca people that inhabited this area apparently discovered the other side of the “coral cave” and used it to bury their dead in tombs (or chulpas) excavated carefully and then filled with gifts like coca leaves and quinoa. There are about 15 holes in this photo, and where I am standing is the small hole that locals enlarged in order to find the intact coral cave above.

We arrived at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni in the evening on day three and stayed in another basic building where nothing was special except one thing: it was built out of salt, including well-designed archways built out of salt bricks. And yes, I licked the wall of our bedroom.

The Salar de Uyuni

The common name for our tour is “the Salar tour.” And the Salar de Uyuni is supposedly the ultimate prize in your four-day journey. Yet Erin and I were so awed by everything else we saw, that our final day was more like the ganache layer in an already spectacular chocolate cake.

So, here we go:

We awoke at 4:30am to make it 45 minutes across the Salar to Isla Incahuasi in time for sunrise. The “island” is a volcanic mountain rising above the salt flat, covered in more petrified coral and thousands of saguaro-like cacti.

At 10,000 square kilometers, this is the largest salt flat in the world.

Behind Annie and Daniel is the most prominent volcano abutting the Salar (Volcan Tunupa), which provides an important directional marker in this land without roads.

After the sunrise we drove another 20 minutes across the salt flats to an area where the salt layer is very thin and small holes in the crust (“Ojos de Agua”) appear. Our driver, William, and I dug around like little kids, cutting our hands as we explored the freezing cold and mineral-rich water underneath the crust, but salt crystals like this are the reward.

The silliest thing that the Salar is known for is its complete lack of perspective when photographed, which leads people to pose for photographs that look like…

…William pulling us out of a bag of coca leaves. Or…

…me balancing on our monkey.

Well, you get the point. We had great fun setting up these shots with the help of our awesome guide, Nancy.  Our tour through SW Bolivia was a definite highlight of our trip so far.

New birds in Bolivia: bananaquit^, palm tanager^, swallow tanager^, purplish jay^, crested oropendula^, blue and white swallow^, versicolored barbet, speckled chachalaca^, house wren^, blue dacnis, tropical parula, rusty flowerpiercer, blue and yellow tanager, pale legged warbler, white bellied hummingbird, olive crowned crescentchest, golden billed saltator, hooded siskin, band tailed seedeater, greenish yellow finch, cliff flycatcher, white-winged black tyrant, black chested buzzard eagle, white banded mockingbird, andean swift, black hooded sierra finch, lesser rhea, james flamingo, plumbeous sierra finch, common miner, red backed sierra finch, andean avocet, andean flamingo, puna plover, crested duck, baird’s sandpiper (^ denotes birds seen in other countries previously on this trip)

Do We Get Off the Bus? For Orchids, Yes!

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Our luxurious stay in Copacabana capped nearly two months in the arid Andes. Both ready for denser air and greener surroundings, we decided to head lower to Coroico and its cloud forests, mist shrouded mountains, and increased oxygen.

Until a few years ago, traveling to Coroico required a ride on the “Most Dangerous Road in the World,” named for its frequent fatal crashes, often involving buses careening off high cliffs. Lucky for us, a new road is now open and the “Death Road” as it is also known (because of the thousands of slaves who died building it), is used now primarily for intrepid mountain bikers on tours from La Paz.

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The presumably well-engineered new road is not for the faint of heart however, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as it descends 1800km over its 100km length. But it was our arrival in Coroico that was 1) dangerous; and 2) exemplary of a phenomenon every traveler in South America will relate to; we call it “Do We Get Off the Bus?”

A Dangerous Exit

As we pulled up to the “tranca,” or tollbooth, for entry into Coroico, the guy next to us overheard the bus driver telling the toll taker that we wouldn’t be going into town. Odd, since the bus was nearly full of people going to Coroico or so we thought. Our new buddy, continuing to listen out the window, more urgently told us, in Spanish, that we needed to go and he then kindly yelled down to the driver that we would be getting off.

We quickly grabbed our stuff, but as I tried to get up and head down the stairs to the first-floor exit, my backpack strap got caught on the arm of the chair. Alex worked quickly to try to extricate me but not fast enough, as the bus started moving and made a sharp right turn up the hill. Clearly the bus driver did not hear, listen, or care about what our friend told him.

Finally free, I went down the stairs to alert the driver when I realized that there was a wall between us and him, requiring me to lean out of the still-open bus door and knock on the passenger side window. As I started to lean out, the bus lurched sideways as it headed up the steep pock-marked dirt road, and my fleece jacket went flying out the door. Luckily I didn’t. Alex meanwhile, was still upstairs and he and our friend’s potato sacks went tumbling.

I held onto the stair railing with one hand and slammed on the driver’s window with the other and then held up a finger (the international sign for “wait a minute”). He came to a stop and we quickly grabbed our stuff and leapt from the bus, shaking with fear and adrenaline. I retrieved my fleece, which was lying in the dirt, having been partially run over by the bus, and we hoofed it to our hostel. Luckily, this was the most excitement we would experience over the next several days.

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Do We Get Off The Bus?

“Do we get off the bus?” (DWGOtB) is what Alex’s eyes said to me when our new friend first suggested that that is exactly what we should do. We had purchased tickets on a bus to Coroico and even though we were now in Coroico, every other passenger is still sitting. The two of us being observant human beings deduced that everyone was waiting for the bus to reach the station in town. After all, when playing DWGOtB, the winningest strategy is to do what others do.

Two weeks prior, when riding in a collectivo in the Sacred Valley, Peru, we asked “Puedes decirnos cuando arrivamos a Urubamba?” (“Can you tell us when we arrive in Urubamba?”) The driver nodded ecstatically. As we neared a town that looked like our destination, the driver looked in the rearview mirror at me and said “Blah blah blah Urubamba?” “Si, si” I responded. After which he proceeded to drive 10 minutes past town by the time we realized what happened and asked to be let off in the middle of nowhere. Oh, and he wanted to charge us for the extra distance, too.

So verbal communication is not a sure-fire way to win DWGOtB. Just last wee (at least one blog post in the future) we were on a bus with Bolivians who asked us “Es este Tupiza?” (“Is this Tupiza?”) See, everyone plays.

By the time we made it to Coroico, we were nearing black-belt-level DWGOtB, and yet we failed. It turns out, we were the only people on the bus going to Coroico. Only thanks to our friend’s extra-urgent prodding did we ignore all instincts and make it safely (kind of) to our destination.

Lovely Coroico

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Other than the gorgeous views, our time in Coroico is most memorable for the new friends we made at our hostel and for one epic hike. Mike and Lauren, from South Africa, and Doug, from England, were the first long-term travelers we had met on this trip. It was great fun to share Peru travel tips with Mike and Lauren and hear Doug’s mind-numbing stories of his overland route from Guyana to Coroico, Bolivia. Doug’s tales are described in perfect British in his blog.

After much relaxing, catching up on email, and taking in the breathtaking views surrounding us for three days, Alex and I decided to take a hike up Cerro Uchumachi on the recommendation of the owner of our hostel. We went in search of colorful birds, but what we got was something altogether different.

We made our way up the mountain, snaking through a combination of scrub brush and dwarf cloud forest, where we were treated to jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains.

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And at our feet, no fewer than 10 different orchid species in full glorious bloom. Pink, red, yellow, purple, white – some dainty, others audacious, one over three meters tall, and all absolutely gorgeous!

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As we got closer to the top, we saw a new species every 200 meters or so. “Look at this one!” “Wow, look at this one!” I exclaimed, over and over again. It was hard to pull ourselves away from this wildflower wonderland but we finally made it to the top (1,000 meters above the town), caught our breath and headed back down.

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The next morning we headed to La Paz with our new buddy Doug. La Paz was, well, a big city. Alex enjoyed it more than I did, and we were only there for one night, but the highlight for me was our trip to Brosso. Actually, it started out as a trip to Breick, the local chocolate maker. Alas, Breick was closed, but on our way we passed a long line of locals waiting for ice cream, a giant dancing bear on the sidewalk and a huge case full of colorful cakes.

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Our hearts set on something sweet, the siren song of Brosso was calling. We beelined it for a table, poured over the menu and waited in sweet anticipation for our confections to arrive. We were not disappointed. I can honestly say this was the best hot fudge sundae I have ever had and a lovely end to a very relaxing week. And yes, Doug ordered two pieces of cake.

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Getting our Groove Back

OK, I’m just going to come out and say it: we’ve been in a slump. After more than three months on the road and being sick off and on for 2+ months, we’ve been exhausted, short-tempered and generally in need of some R&R.

Yes, I know you what you are thinking. How can two people with nothing to do but see the world even come close to complaining? And I agree, it seems ridiculous. But being constantly on the move, never knowing more than a few days ahead where you’ll be sleeping, or if that rumbling in your stomach is going to require you to find a bathroom asap, you can get a little cranky.

Enter Copacabana, Bolivia. But first we had to actually enter Bolivia.

Alex enters Bolivia

After an overnight bus ride from Cusco, we arrived at the Bolivian border with our stack of paperwork and crisp $20s. Bolivia is what some call a reciprocity country; they have attempted to make it as difficult and expensive for U.S. citizens to enter their country as we have made it for them to enter the U.S.

The day before we boarded our bus, I spent several hours online reviewing the entry requirements and reading stories of other U.S. travelers that had successfully entered the country. I nervously compiled the necessary documentation (valid passport, proof of onward travel, proof of hotel reservation, proof of yellow fever vaccinations, proof of economic solvency, and passport-size photos), and ensured we had sufficient crisp, clean, untorn U.S. currency to pay the $135 visa fee. At 9pm we hailed a cab and headed to the bus terminal in Cusco.

The overnight bus ride was rough. Sleep was fitful at best and we arrived at the Bolivian border with just a few hours of sleep under our belts. We got our Peruvian exit stamp without any hassle, then walked across the border into Bolivia.

As we approached the immigration desk, we were shuttled by a police officer to seats reserved for those who needed a visa–us, one other American, and a Russian. While the South American and European travelers quickly obtained the necessary stamp in their passports, we triple checked our stack of documents and re-counted our cash. We approached the window and dutifully handed over each piece of documentation requested plus a check-list of all of the documents (in Spanish!) that we had written the night before.

What we didn’t realize was that, in addition to a valid passport, you need to present a copy of your passport. So I headed next door to the tienda with a photocopy machine to get the necessary copies. I returned to the window, only to be told they needed two additional copies of our hotel reservation email. Back to the tienda for more copies.

“The culture is magic.” The border crossing not so much.

Finally, I handed over the $280 cash for our visas ($10 more than the total cost). The agent inspected every single bill for tears or stains, then replied “falta,” or “missing” in english. Huh?

How could it be short?!  We read numerous websites, including those of the U.S. embassy in La Paz and the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C., which assured us the visa was $135 each. Turns out the visa fee increased to $160 each in June. We had only $300 in crisp $20s. I handed over my last pristine $20, then pulled out the worn, dirty $20 that the money changers in Chivay had rejected and informed the agent, “Esta es todo mi dollares (This is all my dollars).”

He looked at my dirty $20 and repeated “falta.” He suggested I try to change it for bolivianos at the booth outside. Close to tears, I left the office a third time and approached the moneychanger with the best of my two ugly $20s. She looked at it closely… and then handed over the Bolivianos. I wanted to hug her, but I just smiled, said “gracias” and quickly walked back into the immigration office and handed over the cash.

Visas in hand, we got back on the bus (where the Europeans and South Americans were waiting) for the last 9km to Copacabana.

Woohoo! Visa in hand

Exhausted, we headed straight to our hotel where we had booked the “superior double suite” the night before because it was the only room left in the late hour when we realized that we needed proof of hotel reservation to get through Bolivian immigration. We hiked up the hill to our room (sucking air at 4,000 meters) and our jaws dropped when we got inside.

Jacuzzi tub, king bed, kitchenette, cable TV, and a million dollar view of Lake Titicaca. All for $50/night, a splurge for us, but what a welcome sight for our tired souls. We immediately reserved four more nights!

We slept the rest of the day and then enjoyed an amazing fondue dinner in the hotel restaurant.

The next day was Sunday and we were psyched to find American football on our cable TV. We watched three games, drank beer, read books and napped. After a short trip to the market, Alex made a delicious sopa de quinoa (quinoa soup), which we ate while watching the Seahawks game. The perfect Sunday.

We spent the next three days sleeping in, hiking, and birding along the shore of Lake Titicaca and the gorgeous Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun).

The island is considered the birthplace of the sun for many indigenous Bolivians. There is a 10km trail across the island that passes three tiny villages, the Chincana (Inca) ruins, Titi Khar’ka (or “Rock of the Puma” from which the lake derives its name) and offers stunning views of the lake and other surrounding islands.

The Rock of the Puma features prominently in the Inca creation story. There are four elongated niches in one end, two called the Refugio del Sol and two called Refugio de la Luna.

According to legend, during the Chamaj Pacha (times of flood and darkness) the sun made its first appearance here. Later, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo appeared here and founded the Inca Empire. Nearby stones contain the Huellas del Sol (footprints of the sun), which resemble footprints and are considered to be made by the sun after its birth on Titi Khar’ka.

After much rest and some opportunities to connect with our beautiful surroundings, we are feeling rejuvenated and reconnected to the joy of traveling. We realize there may still be some bumps in the road ahead, but for now, it feels like smooth sailing.

Bolivia birds: black siskin^, black throated flowerpiercer, giant hummingbird, peruvian sierra-finch, titcaca grebe, andean coot, andean gull^, rufous collared sparrow^, ruddy duck^, black faced ibis, spot winged pigeon, yellow billed teal^, puna ibis^, andean lapwing^, andean flicker^, bright rumped yellow finch, white winged cinclodes, mourning sierra finch, brown backed chat tyrant, white tufted grebe, plumbeous rail, wren-like rush bird, yellow winged blackbird, common moorhen, andean swallow, puna teal^, roufous naped ground tyrant, mountain caracara^ (^ denotes birds seen in other countries previously on this trip)