Bolivia: La Paz/Parque Nacional Madidi (May 28 to June 4, 2015)

After my amazing tour of the world’s largest salt flats (see previous post), I headed north to visit Bolivia’s portion of the Amazon rainforest. After an overnight bus from Uyuni (Bolivia), I arrived in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia (population 789,000+), where I spent the night, awaking the next morning to the parades and music of El Festival Gran Poder:

“Festival of the Great Power, a religious celebration paying homage to El Señor del Gran Poder or Jesus Christ. Every year, more than 30,000 dancers representing La Paz’s neighborhoods and folkloric groups, dance along a 6 kilometer route through the city’s streets. showcasing the rich and diverse Bolivian culture. Inspired by historic events, the conquistador, Inca, slave and Indigenous costumes are bright and beautiful featuring voluminous skirts, hats strewn with ribbons and elaborate masks. The extravagant handmade costumes take around two or three months to make with seamstresses importing fine fabrics, sequins and threads from overseas.” (http://www.lapazlife.com/fiesta-del-gran-poder)

It was an amazing spectacle that I enjoyed for several hours before heading to the airport for my short 45-minute flight over snow-covered mountains to the small town of Rurrenabaque (population 8,400+), the gateway to Parque Nacional Madidi. Stepping onto the tarmac, I immediately felt the heat and humidity of the jungle. Wow, what a change from the cool temperatures of La Paz, the highest national capital in the world (13,313 feet).

Per Wikipedia:  “Madidi is a national park in the upper Amazon river basin in Bolivia. Established in 1995, it has an area of 7,320+ square miles, and, along with the nearby protected (though not necessarily contiguous) areas Manuripi-Heath, Apolobamba, and (across the border in Peru) the Manu Biosphere Reserve, Madidi is part of one of the largest protected areas in the world. Ranging from the glacier-covered peaks of the high Andes Mountains to the tropical rainforests of the Tuichi River, Madidi and its neighbors are recognized as one of the planet’s most biologically diverse regions. In particular, Madidi protects parts of the Bolivian Yungas and Bolivian montane dry forests ecoregions. Madidi is home to more than seven hundred species of animal and some 860 species of bird, more than in the whole of North America. There are also more than five thousand species of flowering plant.”

So how did I spend four days in the plant’s most biologically diverse region? Checking out lots of amazing plants and animals of course! I took an organized 4-day tour with four other travelers:  Carole and Josh (England and Australia) and Kathi and Valentin (Germany).

After a night in Rurrenabaque, our group was taken via boat up the Beni River to the Madidi Ecolodge. Our very knowledgeable and personable guide, Simon, pointed out the various birds we saw during our 3-hour trip up river to the ecolodge. After settling in to our private rooms, the five of us and Simon spent each of the 4 days together taking hikes through the jungle and/or boat rides along the river, rain or shine, in search of critters and to learn about the amazing variety of plants that make up the jungle ecosystem. Along with teaching us about the flora and fauna of the area, Simon, a native to the area, taught us about the native communities living in and making a living from the jungle, and pointed out the many plants used by locals for medicinal purposes.

So what animals did we see? Many, including (but not limited to):  monkeys (squirrel, tamarin, red howler), capybara, tapir, peccary, caiman, turtles, piranah, macaws (red-and-green and chestnut-fronted), white-throated toucan, red-necked woodpecker, hawks, vultures, shorebirds (i.e., wood stork, roseate spoonbill, cocoi heron, yellow-billed tern, snowy egret), an array of gorgeous butterflies, and insects, including long trails of fast-moving leaf cutter ants. While we didn’t see a jaguar, we did see jaguar tracks on the trail. Exciting! We also got to bond with Tonito, a cute orphaned tapir who visited the dining cabin at least once a day for fruit. And of course, we were surrounded by a large variety of flora, including many species of flowering plants and mushrooms. Amazing!

Visiting the Amazon was an amazing experience, made even more amazing by the fun people, including our guide Simon, who I got to share the experience with.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/JHWEjFCx7qF1nzYPA

Enjoy!

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With Tonito.

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With Valentin, Kathia, Carole, and Josh.

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Capuchin monkey.

Roseate spoonbills. Photo: Valentin Lauther

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Red-necked woodpecker. Photo: Valentin Lauther

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Red-and-green macaw. Photo: Valentin Lauther

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Hoatzin. Photo: Valentin Lauther

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Capybara. Photo: Valentin Lauther

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Peccary. Photo: Valentin Lauther

Travel notes: recommend Madidi Ecolodge (lovely private rooms, great local food, very knowledgeable, friendly guides and staff), Arthy’s Guesthouse, La Paz (good common areas & kitchen, very nice owners, close to bus station), and Hotel Oriental, Rurrenabaque (lovely garden, good location on plaza); tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (treatment needed).

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Bolivia: Salar de Uyuni (May 25 to 28, 2015)

After staying put for almost 6 weeks in Cochabamba, Bolivia (see previous post), it was time to hit the road to Uyuni, Bolivia, about 13 hours southwest of Cochabamba via Potosi. Coincidentally, Magda’s sisters, Celia and Kathia, were heading to Potosi the same night. So, I had an enjoyable overnight bus ride with friends. After another 5-hour bus, I arrived in Uyuni (population 10,500+), the gateway to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at 4,086 square miles. Besides being massive, the salt flats are also high, with an elevation of 11,995 ft (3,656 meters).

According to Wikipedia, “The Salar was formed as a result of transformations between several prehistoric lakes. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average altitude variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, which is in the process of being extracted. The large area, clear skies, and the exceptional flatness of the surface make the Salar an ideal object for calibrating the altimeters of Earth observation satellites.” The area also serves as a major breeding ground for flamingos (Chilean, Andean, and James’). Super cool place.

So how did I spend three days on the Salar de Uyuni? Checking out the world’s largest salt flats of course! I took an organized 3-day tour with Morgane (Switzerland) and Yoann (France), who’d I’d met at the bus station in Potosi, and Camilla (Sweden), Fredrik (Sweden), and Vince (Canada) who were part of our tour group.

The morning of our tour was cold, windy, and cloudy. Not the best weather to visit the salt flats, at least that’s what we thought. While it did snow on us for the first part of the day, it stopped by the time we reached the flats, allowing us to take fun perspective pictures that the flats are renowned for. Besides perspective pictures, the flats are also renowned for amazing reflection pictures only possible when a thin layer of water covers the area. As luck would have it, the snow melted and we were also able to take some amazing reflection pictures. Cheers to crazy weather!

Besides the salt flats, the other gems of the tour (for me) included exploring Incahuasi Island (fish island), a 61-acre island formed on top of an ancient volcano covered by giant cactus; visiting gorgeous mineral-laden lagoons of various colors; seeing pink flamingos; soaking in hot springs, staying in a hotel made entirely of salt, and driving through valleys surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The tour was even more special because of the fun group I shared it with. The six of us spent the entire three days together, along with our guide, touring around the Salar in a 7-passenger Land Cruiser. We had a great time learning about the history, geology, and ecology of the area from our guide, chatting, taking tons of photos, taking turns playing DJ with music from our phones/iPod, and enjoying the amazing natural wonders. It was a fun and breathtaking experience with a wonderful group of people.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/UgwGLWp6N3M8Vbrw5

Enjoy!

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Travel notes: recommend Andes Salt Expeditions; tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (treatment needed).

Bolivia: Cochabamba (April 15 to May 24, 2015)

After a 2+ hr flight from Buenos Aires to Salta (Argentina), an overnight bus from Salta to the Bolivian border town of Villazon, an 8-hr bus from Villazon to Potosi (Bolivia), and another overnight bus from Potosi, I finally made it to Cochabamba, Bolivia, a city known for good weather and great food.

What did I do for just over 5 weeks in Cochabamba, the gastronomic capital of Bolivia? I made some wonderful new friends, improved my Spanish, explored the city some, trekked a little, and ate lots of delicious Bolivian food.

I arrived in town in time to hang out with Milena and Eric (friends from San Diego) for a few days. They were in town to visit Milena’s family whom I also met. After they left, Milena’s parents, Kato and Steve, graciously hosted me for about a week afterwhich I started a 5-week homestay set up by Milena’s sister, Daniela. My homestay hostess, Magda, a Cochabamba native, provided me with a lovely room overlooking the garden and three meals a day, including delicious lunches (the primary meal of the day). Along with providing room and board, Magda helped me improve my Spanish, as it was our only common language, and in the process, we became good friends. She also introduced me to her wonderful family:  her mom Celia, her four sisters, Celia, Kathia, Magaly, and Elia, and their families. I got to know this wonderful family during the weekly lunch held at Senora Celia’s house each Thursday. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and made me feel like part of their family.

In addition to practicing Spanish with Magda and her family, I also took private Spanish classes with Ester, also a friend of Daniela’s. Ester is an excellent teacher. As part of my language lessons, she also taught me about Bolivia’s various indigenous communities and about some of the events that shaped Bolivia (i.e., the War of the Pacific in the late 1800’s during which Bolivia lost its coastal territory to Peru) and Cochabamba (i.e., the water war of 2000 protesting the attempt to privatize municipal water). And as if to provide additional subject matter for my education about Cochabamba, she also explained the history resulting in the student protests that occurred while I was there, one of which we watched from her apartment during class. While commonplace for the residents, this was the second protest I’d witnessed since arriving in town (the first being on the day I arrived) and I was a bit unnerved by the constant sounds of fire works and shouts from the marching protesters, the police presence, and the use of tear gas to disperse the march. Of course, protest as a means to call attention to an issue occurs worldwide but this was my first experience witnessing a protest in a foreign country. All of this made Spanish lessons with Ester even more interesting and educational, and overtime, my ability to speak and understand the language improved. And as an added bonus, Ester and I had fun during class and became friends.

So what did my typical day in Cochabamba consist of? Waking up early, writing in my personal journal (English) and my Spanish journal, finishing my Spanish homework from the day before (if needed), having breakfast with Magda, going to Ester’s house for a 2-hr Spanish class, returning home for lunch with Magda (and on Thursdays, with her family), taking a siesta, working out in the garden, working on my Spanish homework for the day, chatting with Magda, playing with Frederico (her cute dog), chatting and texting with friends and family back home, then chilling for the night. On several occasions, Magda and I did morning yoga together in the living room (following a Spanish video on YouTube). Magda also introduced me to “Las mil y una Noches”, her favorite evening novela (soap opera). So, many nights, we were two ladies absorbed in the latest drama unfolding on the small screen. Classic! I couldn’t understand all that was said during the novela, but with the dramatic music, the hand gestures and facial expressions, and Magda’s explanation, I got the jist. I was amazed at how tired I was at the end of the day, especially for the first two weeks or so. Total immersion into the Spanish-speaking world takes a lot of brain power and energy. Thankfully, afternoon siestas are a normal part of the culture, because I took a lot of them!

Thankfully too, eating good food is also part of the culture, because I ate a lot! As Milena explained to me, Cochabambinos don’t eat to live, they live to eat. So, to embrace the culture, I tried as much of Bolivia’s delicious food as possible, including (but not limited to):  humintas (like a tamale), saltenas (like an empanada filled with beef, potato, peas, and spices), anticucho (grilled beef heart on a stick), silpancho (thinly sliced beef steak topped with a fried egg served over rice and potato), pata de vaca (cow foot), sopa de mani (peanut soup), sopa de chuno (soup with freeze-dried potato), pastel (a fried, cheese-filled, puffed pastry topped with powdered sugar), boiled and baked banana, api (a sweet warm corn drink), mocochinchi (a sweet dehydrated peach drink), monja (a sweet toasted corn drink), and………cunape (a delicious “bread” made of yucca flour and cheese). I also enjoyed delicious local fruits including pacay, chirimoya, and the sweetest papaya ever!

Along with practicing Spanish and eating, I did get out of the house some and explore the city. I went on a couple of fun bike rides with Daniela and her friends, including a Critical Mass ride to raise awareness of biking as a healthier, cleaner mode of transportation in the city and an adventurous roughly 15-mile night ride to a small town outside of Cochabamba. I also visited Kato and Steve several times and joined Kato’s family to celebrate a family member’s birthday. I enjoyed some local music too. Magda took me to a classical piano concert and Magda’s friend, Freddy, took me to an acoustic guitar concert. On several occasions, Magda and I went to La Cancha, one of the largest markets in Latin America. It’s a fantastic place to walk around as you can buy almost anything imaginable and eat a variety of interesting foods. There are whole sections of gorgeous fresh fruits and veggies, breads, cheeses, raw meats, cooked foods, homemade ice cream (yes, a whole section of just ice cream), fresh flowers, household goods, clothes and shoes, etc. It’s simply amazing. I also got to hang out for a day with my friend, Chris (England), who’d I’d trekked with in Torres del Paine (Chile). He had a stopover in Cochabamba in route further north. We had a great time walking around the city, riding the teleferico (gondola) up to and walking the 1,250+ steps down from the Cristo de la Concordia, the tallest Christ statue in the world (44 cm taller than Rio’s), and eating Bolivian food.

On my last weekend in town, I finally ventured outside of Cochabamba and went to Parque Nacional Toro Toro with Ester’s friends, Delphine (France), Violeta and Benjamin (Cochabamba), and Carlos (Brazil). Toro Toro is Bolivia’s smallest national park but encompasses “high valleys ringed by low mountains whose twisted geological formations are strewn with fossils and dinosaur footprints.” The park also contains the Umajalanta Cavern, part of the largest cave system in Bolivia and home of blind fish; Toro Toro Canyon; and pre-Incan ruins. Our tour guide, Gregory was very knowledgeable of the geology, ecology, and history of the area. He also treated us to several traditional songs accompanied by flute-like instruments, adding to the mystique of the beautiful landscape surrounding us. We spent two full days exploring the park, enjoying interesting rock formations, dinosaur prints, the caverns, and the deeply-cut canyon. Along with great memories of the park, I also unfortunately brought back a bad stomach, perhaps due to the egg sandwiches I had from a market stall or the untreated water I drank from a waterfall (the guide said it was ok!). Whatever the cause, I was laid up for several days, delaying my departure from Cochabamba. Magda was a saint and took great care of me, taking me to the doctor for antibiotics, making me stomach-friendly food, and making sure I didn’t run out of crackers. After 4+ months of traveling, I guess it was time, and thankfully I was “home” and not on a bus. I lucked out!

On the day of my departure, Magda and I went to La Cancha one last time then to an Argentinean restaurant where they were celebrating a national holiday with music, dance, and traditional Argentinean food. It was kind of a funny way to spend my last day in Bolivia, celebrating the Argentinean holiday, but also the perfect way to spend my last day in Bolivia, hanging out with my hostess of 5 weeks and friend, Magda.

Cochabamba is a large, modern city (population 630,000+) located in a valley in the beautiful Andes mountains. Unfortunately due to its location in a valley and the large number of cars & buses in town, Cochabamba’s air quality is poor. However, this is overshadowed by the lovely natural surroundings, delicious food, amazing shopping, and wonderful people. For me, Cochabamba will always be a special place because of the wonderful new friends I made while there and the experiences we shared. It’ll also always be in my memories for all of the delicious food I ate while there, including my new favorite fruit, chirimoya! Thanks Cochabamba, from now on, I will live to eat good food!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link too see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/Tf2KFHpNvGN7C95A6

Enjoy!

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Enjoying api and pastel.

Helado with Eric, Milena, and Daniela.

Helado with Milena, Eric, and Daniela.

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A moment of love from Kato and Steve’s cat. (The calm before the storm for this crazy gata).

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Enjoying pata de vaca (cow foot) at La Cancha market with Magda.

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My lovely room at Magda’s house.

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Magda’s wonderful family.

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Chilling wih Frederico.

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Spanish class with Ester.

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Cristo with Chris. Ha!

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Exploring Toro Canyon with friends.

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Hanging out with Magda – last day in town. So fun!

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Chirimoya, my new fav fruit!

Travel notes:  try all traditional Bolivian foods, including, but not limited to, those mentioned above; the tap water in Bolivia is NOT potable (must be treated).