The journey never ends

There is no place like home. (I mean the U.S., not Colby…sorry)

I have been traveling for 8 months now. Last week I officially made the plunge and booked tickets home. I will be Stateside April 26th.

Entering Chile made me realize that it was time for me to end my vagabond lifestyle; I am actually tired of being a vagrant. Chile and Argentina are so similar to life in the U.S. that I almost forget I am not in the U.S. And when I think about it that way, I wonder why I do not just go home where I could be in a semi stable lifestyle where I am not wearing the same six shirts each week and I do not have to repack my life´s possessions every few days. I am sort of ready to have a space of my own where I am not constantly spitting out the traveler essentials: name, where from, time traveling, where been and where going next, age, etc. I adore meeting new people and I have made many wonderful friends throughout this journey, but sometimes I want to know a place. Have my favorite coffee shop, know the best grocery shops, be a recurrent costumer to my favorite farmers´ market stand. I want to be able to sleep in and not have ten other people wandering about the room at odd hours making noises or to be kicked out of bed by 10 AM for checkout. I have have enough overnight bus rides. This trip has been vital to my realization that despite wanting to live simply without partaking in too many excesses of materialism, I really appreciate living with all the comforts and commodities of highly developed countries. I also am looking forward to having a routine where I do not have to plan each move of every day. However, I also enjoy traveling outside those comforts, and they serve to remind myself to not take my fortunate life for granted.

Upon entering Chile I was suddenly confronted with full-sized grocery stores containing imported luxury items, shopping mall complexes in every city, Internet that functions faster than snail pace, and certain niceties of transportation and accommodation. I could be anywhere in the U.S. At first I thought it was the extreme similarity to U.S. life that made Chile and Argentina seem so completely different than Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, but then I realized there was a bit more to the situation. I could literally feel the level of safeness increase in Chile. When I walk around the cities in Chile or Argentina I do not have that ominous feeling that half the people are weighing whether I am appropriate bait for robbery. Despite not having the local appearance, people eye me for the sake that I am a tourist or a female. I am a shiny new penny, enough to compel a glance but then we move on. Cat calls are more common here than the U.S., but that is it. It is a breath of fresh air to not constantly feel the need to look over my shoulder. However, it also forces me to acknowledge that the “dangers” of traveling in South America alone or with other people, are the same dangers presented me in the U.S. There are incredibly safe places in the U.S., but there are also incredibly safe places in Bolivia. Also, when I know a place and feel completely comfortable there, it does not mean that location is suddenly “safer” than the next town.

Well, I am not really providing thought provoking insights here, but this trip has served its purpose for me. I needed to escape responsibility and expectations after university to clear my slate. Now I have had that freedom and I am ready to move back into feeling useful and productive. I am ready to have a job and be able to provide for myself. We are not talking career ready or having my whole life planned out ready, but I am looking forward to having a space of my own where I have a job to keep me busy so that I appreciate weekend get-aways and look forward to free time. The saying, “There is little pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is in having lots to do and not doing it,” is too true. And I am finally ready to go back to that. 🙂

Thus, I am officially in Argentina and will continue travelling across northern Argentina to end my trip with a week on a beach in Uruguay. Life is good.

Chile in a flash

Chile – Done in the blink of an eye.


After San Pedro de Atacama, Leen and I headed to Iquique. First, however, we stopped for the day at Calama. We did not have tons of time, so we really only checked out the mall complex. I know some of you are thinking that is a typical girl response, but honestly it has been quite some time since I have seen a proper mall. We even caught a movie, Apollo 18, while we were there. What a surreal moment to find a full-sized mall. Then it was a night bus to Iquique.

Iquique was fantastic. In fact, I could easily have stayed an additional week. It was fairly small and not all that nice, but it had the right vibe and all the necessities. Basically the perfect beach town. Built along an endless shoreline, an inexpensive fresh fish and produce market, fantastic empanada stands everywhere, hot desert temperatures, and all the modern conveniences of public transportation, shopping center and mall complex, and beach side refreshment stands. I replaced my camera while in Iquique. I actually made a major contribution to the store (Paris, a WalMart or Target chain business equivalent) by uncovering an entire shipment of faulty memory cards. Granted that discovery required me to purchase a camera and have it not work immediately after…but I am quite pleased with what I ended up with. Anyways, I am all equipped with my fourth camera of this trip…let´s hope I can hold onto this one.

Leen and I explored the city center and relaxed on the beach. We got into a great hostel where we had a grill-out on Leen´s last night. A huge past time of Chilean life is parrilladas, which is essentially grilling heaps of meat. Frequently these enormous meat portions come “a la pobre” meaning that the meat comes with a large helping of fries, fried onions, and a fried egg. It is a lot to take in. For the full Chilean experience, I had fish a la pobre in La Serena and steak a la pobre in Santiago, as well as wonderful salmon sushi in Iquique. Do not forget that Chile is a major producer of wine. Good, quality wine costs about $6 US (and still tasty selections come at $2 US). I was in heaven. 🙂

With some people I met at the hostel, we wandered among the shipping piers for a brilliant sunset view of the coast, saw a sea lion covered pier (they are called sea tigers in Spanish!), and walked along the pedestrian walkway. This walkway was an odd sight. It was an extra wide, two way street with completely wooden pedestrian walks to both sides; fully equipped with old-fashioned looking lantern light poles. The buildings were all wood fronted with large Victorian doors, large windows, and built-in wooden patios wrapping around the second stories. Seriously all that was missing were the two-way swing doors and a stand-off duel in the middle of the road. It could have been a scene from an old Western movie.

I stayed in Iquique several days, but I felt unsatisfied when I left for La Serena. It was such a lazy and pleasant place. Also a major contrast to anything I found in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Sadly, Leen departed back for Peru. It was so nice having a travel partner for a bit. I did travel to La Serena with a friend from the hostel, who coincidentally was named Lee. Haha.

La Serena

Lee and I over-nighted a bus to La Serena and found this fantastic little B&B. The family was wonderful, everything was clean, kitchen fully equipped, and the breakfasts were great (little luxuries like whole grain bread, cheese, grapes, and yoghurt). That first day we walked to 3km to the lighthouse and beach, we wandered through a delightfully authentic Japanese garden, Kokoro No Kiwa, we explored the city center, and enjoyed a nice meal (fish a la pobre). Lee had to get down to Santiago the following day, but I befriended two English guys at the hostel. One of them, Fred, had Chilean friends in La Serena, so I had the opportunity to experience a night out Chile-style and the following night went to their house party. A speciality to Chile is to cut open a honey dew melon and fill it with white wine. Quite the tasty and refreshing drink. I also spent time wandering around the city, relaxing on the beach, and enjoying the nice weather. Located in a cooler climate where vegetation can actually grow, La Serena is subject to cool fogs in the mornings, so it was not quite up to Iquique standards, but three months in cold Bolivia made it more than acceptable.

Valle Elqui and Pisco Elqui

While in La Serena, I went on a day trip to Pisco Elqui in the vineyard lands of Elqui Valley. This was a mind warp trip. I could easily have been heading right into Sonoma or Napa Valleys in California. I seriously forgot where I was at one point; which was exacerbated when the nice Spanish gentleman next to me began chatting. Though we were clearly conversing in Spanish, I have a moment of pause where I literally had to think about what language I was supposed to be speaking in. Such a bizarre experience. The valley was great. Hot climate with lush valleys of grape vineyards (though in Chile they are predominately producing Pisco rather than wine: Pisco being a clear brandy liquor made from grapes). I spent a lovely day enjoying the valley views on the bus ride, wandering around the tiny town of Pisco Elqui, and reading under a tree in a peaceful little park.


After La Serena, I jettisoned down to Santiago, the center of life in Chile. About 40% of Chile´s entire population lives in the Greater Santiago region. Santiago, itself, is enormous. In fact it was a bit too large for me. For that I did not stay long. Fortunately, I arrived to Santiago on a Sunday when all the museums are free entry! I went to the Museo Arte Precolombina, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and Museo Historico Nacional. I also stopped by the Palacio de le Moneda. Originally the national mint, it is now the Presidential palace. Not knowing it current use to house the President, the guards must have thought I was crazy when I asked if I could enter the premises. I had thought it a bit excessive to have twenty-odd guards variously placed around the Plaza de la Constitución. I did find where the old minting equipment is set up for display, though sadly the museum is currently not open to the public. The bright side is that I stumbled upon the Santa Lucía, a park hill with a castle at the top. The hill is a gated property of gardens and walkways up to the castle and other buildings at the top. I also walked along the Parque Forestal, which was once a long, green, tree-lined park where the wealthy used to drive their carriages through during the weekends. A few other activities include La Vega Central, the several block meat and produce market; the Bohemian neighborhood; and the pool located at my hotel. However, as I mentioned, Santiago was a bit too much for me and I quickly headed back to the coast to Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, the vacation hot spot for Santiagoneros.

Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

Though not as satisfying as Iquique in terms of climate (again with the cool morning fogs), I absolutely adored Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Valparaiso is more where people actually live and work, whereas Viña del Mar is the vacation spot with the beaches. Though they are really an extension of each other. I stayed at a fabulous B&B in Valparaiso on Cerro Bellavista (Turista Bellavista Hostel). Valparaiso in a chaotic city of hills, crumbling buildings from the several earthquakes, fading grandeur combined with modern luxury, and madly criss-crossing electric lines (I immediately imagined the crazy network of power lines in New York before the Great Blizzard of 1888 caused them to be put underground). The main city areas are all around the main port and piers, but the unique neighborhoods are tucked onto the cerros (hills).

On Cerro Bellavista, I enjoyed the Museo a Cielo Abierto, which is “open air” because the air is the graffiti-covered walls, eclectic building art, and random sculptures scattered around the blocks. I also toured one of Pablo Neruda´s (famous artist and poet) homes, La Sebastiana, which has phenomenal views over the harbor, a chaotic collection of ships´ figureheads, glass, 1950´s furniture, and art works from his friends. Mostly I wandered the streets. Plaza Sotomayor, the main plaza around the harbor, includes: El Plan-the naval heart of the city, Edificio de la Comandancia Naval-the naval command building, Monumento a los Héros de Iquique-mausoleum to Chile´s naval martyrs in Iquique during the War of the Pacific, and Muelle Prat-the main pier at the foot of the plaza. The Plaza was en route to Cerro Concepción, a delightful neighborhood of brightly painted homes, corrugated iron façades and pitched roofs, and most turrist targeted businesses. The unique part about Valparaiso´s many hills is that there are Ascensores (funicular elevators) leading up to all the hills from the main level. There are 15 in total, built between 1883-1916, they are definitely engineering feats built up to the chaotic cerros with labyrinthine roads, crumbling mansions, and kaleidoscopic rooftops. I rode in Ascensor Concepción, one of the oldest elevators, up to Cerro Concepción. I personally did not mind the walk up and down the hills (the Bellavista elevator was currently out of functioning order), but it would have been nice when I walked up the several flights of stairs with my pack that first day…

I also spent a day at Viña del Mar. I took a bus to the Reloj de Flores, literally a functioning clock made of flowers. I walked along the coast to the Castillo Wulff, a castle built right on the edge overlooking the rocks below, which is now an art museum though closed the day I visited. Next door is the Cap Ducal Hotel and Restaurant with is built in the shape of a boat. Very entertaining. Then I walked to the Parque Quinta Vergara, a magnificently landscaped park, to find HUGE lines. I did not bother to wait only to be shuffled around with the crowds. Then to the Museo de Arqueología e Historia Francisco Fonck, all Chilean history including Easter Island, to find that closed too. I obviously picked the worst times/day to go, but all was redeemed at Entremasas, a specialty empanada eatery where I grabbed one shrimp, mushroom, olive, cheese, and tomato and one basil, mozzarella, tomato, and olive empanadas to eat down at the beach. Mmmm. The beach was not a let down, I relaxed in the welcoming sun, ate my delicious empanadas, and read a book.

And that is it. Now I am in Argentina!

Sucre, Potosí, Uyuni, the Salar, and San Pedro de Atacama

Sucre, Potosí, Uyuni, the Salar, and San Pedro de Atacama

In all of Bolivia, Sucre has been one of my favorite places. It has stunning colonial architecture that actually intrigues the eye beyond the main plaza; the city is actually safe enough to walk the streets at night alone; the people here are incredibly friendly and welcoming; and there are plenty of surrounding trekking opportunities to occupy several days. What I enjoyed the most, however, was basking in the serene atmosphere. I meant to stay two days but lasted five.
I cannot say that the extension of my stay had anything to do with being overwhelmed with activities, really it was how convenient it was to add a couple days while determining the rest of my travel plans. Sucre is large enough to keep one entertained day or night but small enough that you can head to the large market for last minute supper ingredients before the water boils over. My primary appeal for Sucre, however, was that I would soon be heading into Chile and truly needed to know my agenda before entering a new country. This need was expanded by the fact that I did not know whether the best route heading south would be to make occasional border crossings into Argentina to prevent expensive back-tracking later. Turns out it is best to cover north Chile all in one shot.
Thus my extra days were spent in Internet cafés. Though I did do my share of exploring the city and even partook in a Condor Trekkers (non-profit tour agency, I highly recommend: one day trek. We visited Parque Cretácico, which houses one of the world´s most impressive dinosaur footprint sites. Using print sizes and strides, they have replicated life-size dinosaur models to walk amongst and a brief presentation over dinosaurs and the Cretaceous Period. I found the knowledge base a bit wanting, but I was inspired by the quarry company efforts to inform the public and preserve this tremendous dinosaur remnant discovery. After our tour of dino land, we started a trek into a deep river valley, which turned into an adventure to scramble over crumbling rock cliffs as the river system was fuller than normal due to all the rains they have been receiving recently. Then we lunched at the “Seven Waterfalls,” which is really just a single waterfall with maybe seven breaking platforms. Though is was quite nice, especially with the above normal water flow level.
After Sucre, I jumped over to nearby Potosí. This is a nothing of a town, but used to be hopping during the mining boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though as early as the 16th century. It was a quick trip but provided an important lesson about the conditions that miners are still subjected to today. The weather in Potosí is cold, so when you first enter the mines it is cold. However, shortly after entering you start reaching quite hot temperatures. We barely even entered the major depths of the mine and people on the tour could not even handle the dust and heat. I truly cannot imagine being in those conditions for the 8 to 24 hours shifts some people do. And the working conditions are not the only problem. The mines are privately owned, so workers are only paid if their mine produces (the mineral mainly being silver). The concept is that they are not getting paid unless they work hard, however it is impossible to produce silver if the vein has been depleted or the quality is not worth the effort. Thus, many workers are quite impoverished. Only the young ones who have potential for school will ever leave the mines. And if you are working in the main drilling areas, where you make the most money, your life expectancy is lowered daily due to the toxicity of your environment. Many miners die from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, causing inflammation and scarring in the upper lobes of the lungs. These workers also will spend their entire shifts chewing on coca leaves as a way to stipend hunger from not eating (be it from lack of money or length of shift) and to lessen the effects of working underground in hard conditions for long periods of time. While on the tour, you cannot help but notice the active precipitation of sulfur-related minerals in all small cracks and drainage areas. To make matters worse, I watched a documentary called “The Miners´ Devil.” It was supposed to portray the culture of how miners practically worship this mining god as a form to prevent accidents and deaths within the mines and to ensure successful discovery of silver veins. What the documentary achieved on a greater scale was show the startling reality of how small children of 12 to 14 years are included in the roster of mine workers. These children have various backgrounds, but frequently they come from families with no father where the eldest child works in the mines as a means to support the family. I still cannot fully comprehend such a lifestyle. It is truly eye-opening to other cultures when you first hand witness such living conditions.
Seeing the mine working conditions really brought to light a comment someone told to me recently. They said you can tell the level of poverty of a place by observing where children play and what toys they are playing with. The context was for the fact that we were watching children playing a soccer-type game with a 2-liter plastic bottle on the sidewalk of a major street. At first I compared the ingenious utilization of a plastic bottle to my childhood days of playing in boxes, but the comment stuck and now I have been paying attention to little signs. There was more truth than I realized to that statement. While in Sucre, observing the noticeable lack of crime, I also realized there is a noticeable lack of young children playing in the streets and older children loitering around parks that have become a background site in most of South America. I then thought about my trip to Santa Cruz when Gillian mentioned the over abundance of activities for young people there. Despite the plethora of extracurricular activities, there are still major hubs of loitering youth. Coincidentally, most of those areas are also in the areas where Gillian advised me to never carry a bag or anything of value. Interesting… Then there is this stark comparison to Potosí when the realization that the miner demographics include young children. I could not make an appropriate comparison in Potosí as I arrived during Carnival, thus most children and adults were running around in odd costumes covered in paper streamers and confetti while spraying all bystanders with water guns (or water balloons) and foam spray. Despite the celebrations, I did see large numbers of adolescents not partaking in the celebrations except to target innocent on-lookers (tourists apparently make especially desirable targets).
My last stop in Bolivia was Uyuni. I was only there long enough to book a Salar (salt flat) tour which ended in the tiny Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama. I did take an evening to eat at Minutemen Pizza, quite possibly the best pizza I have had since leaving the U.S. and the Death by Chocolate cake, valiantly tried to live up to its name.
My three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni was easily one of the high-lights of my entire last seven months. I have been to Death Valley in California to see salt flats, but the Salar was utterly stunning. The vastness of pristine land was phenomenal. At the salt flats proper, where the raining season provides a good foot of water over the salt layer, the reflections made the sky look never-ending. Truly the world´s largest mirror; horizon to horizon, only interrupted by distant mountain ranges. The perspectives of sight are amazing. For three days we simply drive through an uninhabited desert seeing the salt flats, mountains, volcanoes, lagoons, intriguing rock formations, and never-ending landscape. I will not even try to explain how breath taking the entire three days are. And sadly my photographs will not be able to speak for it either, as I brilliantly dropped my camera into the salt lake on the first day. Go me! Two cameras stolen, one camera broken, all in less than a year. I have never had such difficulties with cameras. Luckily my tour included three great girls (though everyone on the tour was fantastic) whom have been incredibly helpful in documenting the sights. On the last day we woke up before dawn to drive through a snow-covered geyser field and end up at a hot thermal lake for sunrise where we lounged in fantastically warm waters overlooking a flamingo-filled, misting lake with the sun peaking through the mountains. Indescribably mesmerizing.
The end result, I have finally arrived to Chile! At the end of the tour, we took a bus over the Bolivian-Chilean border to the little desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. I have finally reached warm weather! What a relief after the months in cold and rainy Bolivia. And I stayed with the three girls from the tour. One of whom, Leen, I had met twice before, once in Arequipa through my fellow Cusco hostel worker Melanie and then again randomly in Sucre at the same hostel. It was such a delight when I saw her arrive to enter the same tour vehicle for the Salar. While in San Pedro de Atacama, we rented mountain bikes and rode to Valle de Muerte and Valle de la Luna to see the Chilean side of the desert. Then we went on a night astrology tour. We ended up having exceptionally cold and windy weather and a very cloudy sky, thus not optimal sky observing conditions, but it was fun none-the-less.
I finally made it to Chile! I am so relieved to be moving again. The only down side it that Chile and Argentina will be obnoxiously expensive compared to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, but I will manage somehow. 🙂



Absolutely stunning. My only wish is that I had been able to see it in winter. It is just like those picturesque mountain villages of Colorado, skiers in plenty. It was only missing the snow. The village is perched on a hillside in a valley beneath towering, snow capped peaks of Illampu and Ancohuma. The views of the valley are awe-inspiring. Everything is green and lush and beautiful. As the village is on the side of a mountain, every window presents a million dollar view, regardless of your location. Our hostel, El Mirador, went an extra step to provide a patio built out overlooking the valley below. Our first night was at Reggae House, which had a grungy hippy vibe and was really cheap. It would have served fine if the beds had not been horribly uncomfortable and the rooms serving as a warm refuge for bugs in the chilly nights. El Mirador was a huge step up in many ways with a mere $1 increase of price. Well worth the splurge. After traveling for seven months, you become tired of accepting the barest of accommodation just to save a dollar or two. It is nice to appease certain little conveniences.

Well, I went to this lovely little place with Nadya, my good friend whom I worked with at the Wild Rover in La Paz. We had a splendid time relaxing out of the grasps of the hostel. We took advantage of the break to have long nights of rest, time to read, and a kitchen to cook in. It was wonderful! And surprisingly, of the small crowd of tourists in Sorata, almost all were Spanish-speaking natives from Chile and Argentina. Except with each other, we mostly spoke Spanish, though Nadya did find a few people to speak French with. On the first day we were told that the heavy rains from the day we arrived caused blockage on the road to the cavern, thus we explored the village and went on a nice easy trek up the mountain behind town. This was a nice warm-up to physical activity and provided wonderful views. We also lounged in the warm sun which quickly pinked our skin and set us into siesta mood.

Due to this summer arrival, I was not able to trek up to the glacier lake. However, I did see La Gruta de San Pedro, a large cavern with an enclosed lagoon at the bottom. The best part was that we were able to pedalling-boat around the lake. Pretty cheesy, but everyone took the bait. It was quite pleasant to float about on the water staring up at the different wall formations. The water was a crystal blue, evident even in the dim lighting. It was not an incredibly large cave, but after the trek there along the road, it is a nice rest before heading the 12 km back to town. On the way back, both quite exhausted of the long day and sun baring down on us once again, we were able to grab a short ride on the most grueling up down part of the route. It was a splendid adventure on the back of a truck loaded with red clay bricks. Both of our bums were coated in a fine red powder at the end of the ride. The valley scenery along the path to La Gruta was also a wonderland for my geologic mind to play with. Uplifted mountains, metamorphism, river induced interlocking spurs with occasional glacially-affected truncated spurs, erosion of erosional layers. It was wonderful. After an innocent inquiry, Nadya even received a brief lesson on evaporate layers.

On our final evening together, as I am heading south and she is staying in La Paz to return home soon, we cooked a fabulous dish of egg fettuccine pasta, onions, garlic, tomato, broccoli, and bell pepper, topped with a spicy pepper seasoning. We enjoyed our meal with Argentinian wine, Oreo´s for dessert, and hours of conversation. I am extremely delighted that I will soon be in the wine countries of Chile and Argentina! The next morning we went our separate ways, Nadya to Copacabana in Peru to renew her passport and I to Sucre. A road blockade put me overnight in La Paz, once again, but transportation is back and running and I will leave tonight. So so soon I will be beach side in Chile. First, however, I will make a couple last stops in the cooler Bolivian highlands.

Goodbyes and reconnections

After leaving Samaipata and returning to Santa Cruz, Aaron and I officially made our goodbyes. He was headed for Salar de Uyuni before heading back north to Ecuador, and I was swept away by my friend, Gillian. A Santa Cruz (and obviously Bolivian) native, we met during High School while she was an exchange student to Colby. We knew each other through tennis and an art class. When she found out that I was in Bolivia she asked me to visit and I was happy to comply. Gillian is still the same friendly and full-of-life girl I remember from seven years ago. After some reminiscing, it was difficult to imagine that it has actually been that long since we have seen each other last.

Adults now (at least in Gillian´s case), she had work during the day so we limited our adventures to the evenings. Though no complaints on my end when considering the typically 90 degree F weather. I was a bit unprepared for the extent of lethargy I experienced from the heat. Her family kindly put me up for the week, fed me nice meals, and let me have my freedom in the house. I spent most of the days lying about while working on her computer, watching movies, or reading my books. It was fantastic having a reliable computer where I could skype with video! It was also quite enjoyable to have such relaxation with access to a computer, as many of you know my Internet access has occasionally been a bit limited.

Gillian showed me around Santa Cruz, the largest and fastest growing city in Bolivia. We went up into the clock tower of the Basilica Menor San Lorenzo Mártir overlooking the main plaza; we walked around the main plaza and along the main avenue; we went to the movies, Jack and Jill; and we wandered through a public contemporary art museum. Gillian also showed me some of the night life of Santa Cruz: her favorite clubs and after hours eateries, while introducing me to her friends. With two of her friends, we even went on a weekend get-away back to Samaipata. We stayed at Samay Wasi Resort in a quaint little cabin. It had four beds, a kitchenette, table, and sitting area. It was perfect. We went back to Amboró National Park, to a different entrance point, to see the giant ferns again. Then we cooked a nice supper and I baked cookies! That night we walked up a hill to El Pueblito, a little resort with excellent views over Samaipata and the night sky. Then after some card playing we laid on the lawn by our cabin to star gaze. The next day we went to breakfast at the organic garden place that makes homemade herbal tea concoctions and delicious black bread. Then we headed back for Santa Cruz and stopped at Laguna Volcan on the way back. This is a very large crater of an extinct volcano. The view is from a cleft in the crater wall and it was stunning. It reminded me of the luscious, green Great Valley from The Land Before Time. I expected to see Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, Petrie, and Spike, fleeing into the valley from the terrors of Sharptooth. To the front of the crater is a fairly new golf resort, picturesquely built around a small lake. There was a wedding celebration while we were there and everyone was dressed in white, sitting around a mirage pool or walking along the perfectly groomed and green lawns. It was quite a site.

After spending a week in Gillian´s life, I decided I should continue on before I overstayed my welcome. One piece of advice for all those eager travelers out there, never underestimate the power of making international friends. On numerous occasions I have benefited from knowing people abroad. After rumors of a potential transportation strike, I hurried back to La Paz. I returned just to grab my friend and head north to a place called Sorata and see some familiar faces at the Wild Rover. I have had fun since returning to the WR, but I am quite ready to move along. As with hostel life, there are a few familiar faces (mostly those amongst the managerial and residential variety) but the majority are new faces. Still a great crowd of people, but now I am in the role of the stranger. However, once a staff never fully a guest… Tomorrow I will set off and say my final goodbyes. Time continues and I need to continue with it.


First and foremost: Happy Birthday Mom! I love you and hope you have a wonderful day. Tell Poppy to treat you to a nice supper and maybe a movie. 🙂 Hopefully it is a quiet and peaceful day.

As for my travels…Samaipata! A truly gorgeous and charming village. I am thinking a combination of Vilcabamba and Baños from Ecuador: peacefulness and adventure wrapped into a stunning landscape. Wow!

We stayed at a nice place right off the main square, Paola Hospedaje, which has a wonderful terrace on the top floor where our room was. We ate at several nice restaurants, such as Tierra Libre and La Vaca Loca (fantastic ice cream!), as well as the excellent French bakery. It was a peaceful time. I read two books, finished my word searches and sudokus (leaving only crosswords left, though I do not mind), and had lots of sleep. Really there were only two snags in my book. One, we ended up staying there six days because there is not an ATM in Samaipata. We were directed to Mairana, a neighboring village 20 km away. We rode bicycles there (lovely except steeply uphill the entire way back) only to be told the ATM is only for member cardholders, then directed to the Western Union and denied for not having passport identification. We returned to Samaipata then took a collective back to find the place closed and not opening again until three days later due to the weekend and a holiday! Se we were a little delayed with very limited funds. And the trip to Mairana ruined our plans to cycle to Las Cuevas which has several cave and waterfall features. Blast! The other mishap is that I forgot that I have been away from daylight and sunshine. I now have lovely tan lines on my arms and chest, as well as not entertaining what-so-ever burns on the fronts of my legs. Quite painful and guaranteed to peel. Who has ever had their legs peel? I have not, and I am prone to a good sunburn a few times a summer.

Anyways, we did see Zoologico El Refugio, an animal refuge. They have several monkeys (mostly uncaged, but a few less well-behaved which are in cages), an ocelot, over 20 turtles, dogs, a peccary, many birds, land beavers, etc. It is run by a woman who takes in volunteers to take care of the animals. All proceeds from the quite inexpensive entrance fee and cafe go towards supplies for the animals. It is a great place to get close and personal with the animals. The monkeys were really friendly and very entertaining.
We also went to El Fuerte, the “Fortress,” a pre-Inca archaeological site. It is the world’s largest monolith. The entire structure has been carved out of a single stone, 250 m long with a 60 m width. It is believed to have been built by the Chané people, a pre-Inca culture of Arawak origin. During Inca expansion, there was an Inca city built near the temple. Later the Guarani warriors conquered the area. Then the Spaniards also built a settlement near the temple before abandoning the settlement and moving into the valley where Samaipata is located today. Thus, the surrounding building foundations on and near the temple are of Inca and Spanish origins over the original Chané monolith.
Finally, we also went to the Yungas of Amboró National Park, with Michael Bledinger Tours. Our guide was fantastic, quite knowledgable. For once we had a nature tour in English where it was not a memorized presentation. He also had answers for random questions too. The only sad part is that this is the rainy season, thus a lack of fauna. There was heaps of flora, though. And they have these giant ferns which grow to tree-sized proportions. Despite the slightly overcast day and lack of animals, the cloud forest is enchanting. There are more species there than further north or south because it is the climate mixing zone, providing a combination of the luscious trees with the more hardy trees in optimal diversity.
Our guide also dabbles into real estate and was telling us about recent expansion of Samaipata. Santa Cruz is the fastest growing city in Bolivia and many people build these astounding summer home chateaus in Samaipata. He said that in the last ten years, real estate prices have dramatically risen. We are talking about a good sized home (not including the land purchase price) at $250,000 to 500,000 USD. That just seems absurd! That is an INCREDIBLY large amount of money.


My departure from La Paz, and more importantly Wild Rover, was surprisingly easier than I thought.

Aaron and I picked last Sunday afternoon, and when it finally came around I just left on got on the first bus for Cochabamba. After a week of stalling, I finally made it out of La Paz! I will not deny that WR withdrawal occurred immediately, but the bus ride kept me at bay. For one, Bolivia is actually quite beautiful, and I have barely seen much of it yet. The afternoon was at its peak while we were passing these endless green crop fields. In the distance I could see darker rain clouds just beginning to break open, but our immediate area was mostly sunny few some areas of big, white, fluffy clouds. Then, suddenly, it began to rain, and the air emanated a rich earth smell. Besides the snow-capped peaks in the far background, this moment overwhelmed me with strong associations of my childhood in Kansas. After the quick 20 minute shower, the rain stopped and a bright rainbow appeared. Anyone who has driven into eastern Kansas during springtime will understand how unique these beautiful afternoon showers can be. I was convinced that these mesmerizing events could only occur on the dry high plains, which conveniently is where we happened to be within Bolivia´s immense variety of elevations and habitats.

Cochabamba was a nice place. Outside of our little area around the bus and train terminals, Cochabamba is quite a bit like a proper city as I am familiar with from the U.S. There are a variety of name brand and boutique stores, tree-lined boulevards, restaurants with public parking, and mall complexes. We stayed by the terminal, as that is where the economic accommodation options are located. Our first night at the Residencial Nueva York seemed a wee bit too much like an hourly type of place, so we promptly moved to HI-Hostel Versalles for the remaining of our time in Cochabamba.

We mostly did the tourist thing and saw the “sights” while wondering around aimlessly. We tested out the public bus system. We went up on Cerro de San Pedro to see the Christ statue, Cristo de la Concordia. It is several inches taller than the 33 meter Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, making it the tallest in South America. On the way up I was reminded of a California valley where each little connected town is separated by short runs of hills dividing them apart. However, this is not the case in Cochabamba where everything within sight is still just Cochabamba. We also wandered through the Mercado Concho Calatayud, supposedly Bolivia´s largest market, though I am convinced El Alto´s market is bigger. We toured through the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas Museo UMSS. It is just a small university collection, but their three sections of palaeontological, archaeological, and ethnographic specimens were right up my alley.

Then on our way to the nicer districts of Cochabamba, we experienced a true Bolivian strike. Bolivia is famed for the constant striking which can debilitate an area in minutes and stop all functioning of businesses, transportation, and government functions. I have interacted with two other strikes:  coming into Bolivia from Peru we went to a less-used northern town for customs due to the momentary closure of the regular route, and seeing heaps of protesters in the streets of La Paz preventing through traffic around select government buildings, but this was the first time one directly affected my actions. The marchers began closing off Calle San Martin, the main road for all public buses to pass along and the primary circuit for reaching the other part of Cochabamba (of which we were trying to go to). The buses were having a horrendous time getting through a side route and traffic was essentially at a stand-still. It was a chaotic mess. We finally had to opt for a taxi, only our taxi could not move anywhere as trapped vehicles were trying to re-enter moving traffic without any sense of order. At one point our taxi driver literally got out and moved whatever debris was blocking our path to non-blocked roads. Watching this happen was astonishing at how quickly everything becomes hectic as people suddenly begin making human chains across intersections preventing traffic from continuing its regular course of action. I see now why this is such an effective form of striking.

The purpose for getting to the other side of Cochabamba was to see the Palacio de Portales, the palace of the famous Simón I. Patiño. This place actually has quite a fascinating history. Simón Patiño discovered a silver mine in his early forties, then built up this huge mining corporation, making him an extremely wealthy man. He moved his family to Europe where it would be better to expand business prospects. However, as Cochabamba is his birthplace, he implemented the construction of this immense house to be built for whenever he visited. As was popular at the time, the entire house and surrounding grounds were designed with French and Italian themes. Much of the wood panelling, architecture, ceiling façades, and furniture were all designed in Europe then brought over and reconstructed. Imagine grand entryways, huge windows in every room, elaborate 1500’s Rome-themed frescoes, silk-lined walls, ornate wood flooring, and luscious surrounding grounds with uncountable number of Bolivian plants (which really says something since Bolivia is a top-ranking country of flora and fauna diversity in the world). I was blown away by the place. Simple yet exquisite. The most intriguing part of this story, however, is the fact that Simón was too busy to ever visit. Thus the house stood finished and unused for forty years. After his death, the family donated the property to the public for a museum, which is how is has served ever since. One of the old carriage buildings was turned into a free library for the public. Quite astonishing.

The bus ride from Cochobamba to Santa Cruz was an excruciating 11.5 hour, stagnant ride where I had the pleasure of sitting directly in front of three small boys sharing a seat and directly next to two boys sitting in the aisle, frequently using my leg as a back rest or my arm rest as a chair. What a lovely time it was. We were merely going to Santa Cruz for the night so that we could back track the next day to Samaipata. Buses now only use the newer northern route to Santa Cruz and from there you can find buses or collectives going along the southern route which will get you to Samaipata. This little venture to Santa Cruz was seeming like a waste of a day until that night when we went for supper at a Mexican restaurant. Despite my bean and mushroom “Big Boy Burrito” being quite tasty and perfectly sized, what really brightened my day were the other diners at the restaurant.

Much to my delight, there were four separate families who all could have come off a Kansas farm from several decades ago. The women wore Chaco-looking, comfy leather sandals or the slightly heeled, leather shoes typical of Sisters; knee-highs; modestly-cut dresses made from fabrics that have long been resigned only for curtain material; and black prayer veils. The men wore black, lace-up, leather shoes (that both of my own grandfathers wore…); tall socks; heavy-duty overalls; button-up, collared shirts; and the smart hair-cuts with permanent hat lines imprinted around the hair line. There were several generations for age, all of similar descriptions. Maybe I have been a little homesick since the holidays, but I keep finding suck marked similarities to things I associate to Kansas. I never spoke with these people, never heard what language they used, and know very little about them. However, I am shameless enough to snap a few photos had I had my camera. When questioned about the other “gringos” in the room, the waiter did not even think we were talking about the four groups of mid-westerners. Haha. They did seem unusually familiar with the establishment. The next day before leaving for Samaipata, I saw another one walking down the street. I am tickled!

…ok, since this wonderful encounter I have actually learned a bit about them. They are a Mennonite community with agricultural and dairy farmers. An estimated number for just Bolivia is around 40,000 people, though the practice of large families causes a steady rise to the population count. They are primarily from Germany, with ties to Russia, Canada, and several other eastern European countries, including relocation from the U.S., Mexico, and other places within South America. German is the pervasive language. They started coming to South America in the 1920’s and 30’s for religious freedom as WWII events were setting in. Many of the communities forgo modern amenities of electricity, sew their own clothing, use horse-drawn buggies, and other varying Mennonite practices. Though these would be traditional Mennonite practices, the lack of electricity likely has more to do with their avoidance of outsiders. They are forming their own communities away from proper cities in the outskirts where land is considered “uninhabitable” due to sparsity of water, thus electricity and water lines would be a premium out of their own pocket. Most rural homes in Bolivia do not have the means of electricity. They are building an agricultural frontier into the thick, eastern jungle of Bolivia and making a relatively prosperous bloc of landowners as multinational companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland rely on their soybean and sunflower harvests to produce cooking oils and animal feed. Further inquiry uncovered other scandals within a few select communities. I am not exactly content with what I have learned about these people, but overall, they are considered hard-working, moral people. I am still delighted at the observation.

“Life” in La Paz

I am sure the first La Paz entry was a little shocking, but some good, old-fashioned fun occurred as well during my time at Wild Rover.

The staff is like one giant family. We worked, slept, and played all together in the confines of the hostel without any major tiffs between us. These conditions enable relationships to blossom at an extremely rapid pace. One particularly family-like moment was hanging out Christmas day, each of us disappearing for our Skype dates home, everyone happy and a wee bit teary all at the same time. This was my first Christmas not with my family and it was harder than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I was able to Skype home and see everyone, hear everyone´s voices. If I had been in the company of such wonderful people, it would have been just that much more difficult. Though I was put off by the fact that for our proper Christmas supper, only five of us from the night shift ate together while the other twelve or fifteen staff all shared supper together later that night. The dividing ration was not agreeable to me. I might still be a bit peeved… At least the food was good and we did get to sit and enjoy it without trying to eat while rushing around working.

I went to Death Road with Lamb the day before my birthday. As Wild Rover staff we got a free tour through Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking ( Death Road, also known as the North Yungas Road, Grove´s Road, Coroico Road, Camino de las Yungas, El Camino de la Muerte, or Road of Death. It is a 63 km road from La Cumbre (4,700 masl) to Yolosa (1,200 masl) en route from La Paz to Coroico, northeast of La Paz in the Yungas region of Bolivia. It is legendary for extreme danger with 600 meter sheer cliffs, single-lane width (predominantly just barely over 3 m), and lack of guard rails. The downhill driver gets the ride-of-way, except the direction of travel was reversed, thus you go down on the left which is the cliff side of the road. Which, yes, means that we are riding mountain bikes down a still in-use road where we are required to stay as close to the cliff edge as possible. Not the most reassuring instruction I have taken. The 1995 Inter-American Development Bank christened the road as the “world´s most dangerous road” due to the estimation that 200 to 300 travellers are killed yearly along the road. As well as the still held record for largest fatality in a single vehicle accident when in 1983, a bus veered off the road into the canyon, killing more than 100 passengers. Numerous crosses dot the road marking various fallen vehicles. It is this danger that brings the 25,000 mountain bikers each year to attempt this dangerous road. Though do not let me fool you too much. Yes, the road is quite dangerous, but only about 19 riders have died in the last decade or so. This year, the last rider fatality was in June. It was a Japanese woman completing her second go at Death Road with three other experienced riders. Coincidentally, I actually met an English guy in Quito, Ecuador, who was in that group.

It was quite a thrilling ride. I was highly reminded of the downhill biking portion from my first day of the Inka Jungle Machu Picchu Trek. And you all will pleased to know that I never fell once (on the road or off the road). There was only one time that I feared the worst. A car was coming up the road and I have to move into the loose gravel of the cliff side. Right as they passed my back tire fish-tailed. If I had fallen, the decision would have been to be hit by a vehicle or fall off a cliff. Luckily, I kept it together and simply continued on my way. 🙂 The best part, though, is when we passed through the waterfall area. The waterfalls drain directly over the road. This is a bit more dangerous and very lovely at the same time. The worst part of the day was that from the second we left the van by the lakes outside La Cumbre, we were snowed on with that wet, heavy snow slush. Then when we reached a lower and slightly warmer elevation, the snow simply became rain. Haha! What a delight! At least we were able to visit La Senda Verde, a not-for-profit animal refuge that raises funds to look after recued animals. Their main animal inhabitant happens to be the approximately 60 monkeys of various species! Most of which are freely roaming the grounds! The quite entertaining rule about interacting with these monkeys is the “strip club” rule: they can touch you, climb on you, and do whatever they want, but you are not allowed to touch back. The people who run the place were not particularly friendly, which seems odd since the whole facility and purpose of guests is to promote donations. The monkeys were awesome and I have two different ones decide I was perfect for use as a jungle gym or lap to rest on. 🙂 It made me quite happy. The amazing part is that despite being completely unleashed, these monkeys also do not have any type of perimeter fencing system. They simply choose not to leave (with only the occasional departure here and there to the nearby banana plantation). The ride back to La Paz included an unexpected thrill as we retraced our tracks back up the Death Road instead of taking the new paved road. This fact did not please Lamb as he had to brave Death Road for a second time. Though to be fair, this road is tremendously more dangerous by vehicle than it is by bicycle.

The following day, on my BIRTHDAY, I returned to Pepe´s Tattoo to have a cherry blossom tree with the word “Perseverance” at the trunk put onto my left side. I know Mom is probably shocked right now as she already was not pleased about the other tattoo, but it is a very elegant original drawing of my own specifications that I am very pleased with. For those that understand such things, I also received a great deal when comparing to U.S. standards. Two sittings, six colors, 3 hours, original design, and with proper sanitation and licensing for just under $175 USD. That is a true bargain. The artist, Milan, is very keen on detail, so it was also very well done. It was one of the most painful things I have ever subjected my body to, but now that it is healed I can barely remember the pain. It was not good towards the end. And Mom, do not worry, I will not return home covered in tattoos. I only plan on maybe one or two more tiny ones before I am done with tattoos. 🙂 And they are all quite concealed besides the lizard on my foot.

Anyways, that evening of my birthday, everyone was so wonderful. They all signed a birthday card (which was actually a Fathers´ Day card…thanks Aisling!), had cupcakes with candles (while the whole bar sang Happy Birthday), and various odd gifts with a bouquet of flowers. I could not have asked for more. Though I could have done without it being UV night…haha. I am now 23 years alive. How time gets away with you, huh Mom and Dad? I have this strange idea about birthdays. All the important ones happen until you turn 21. Then you are finally a real person with all your rights and privileges. Technically I would say that age is 25, what with renting vehicles, taxes, etc., but those are not exactly things we look forward to, so the age is 21. The next important age is 50, when you start rolling down the other side of the hill. Therefore, I have this odd misconception that the 25 or so years in between are these fluid, free years. You can do whatever you want. Ideally, I think most people begin plans for a career and settling down, but luckily I feel no hurry to check those off my list. So for now, I am content on traveling and not thinking forward much beyond when I return this coming summer and plans for grad school.

Aside from all the adventures in Wild Rover, I did get out occasionally to explore La Paz. I especially used the cheap prices of Bolivia to my advantage for a bit of shopping. There are great shopping opportunities along Calle Comercio (conveniently the same street WR is located along), all the way to the “market” areas (black market, witches market, craft market, etc.) ending at the thrift market beginning at Calle Illampe to the top of the hill. If I was not leaving the hostel to dine at a tasty restaurant, I was likely somewhere within these shopping streets. I decided at some point that I wanted to update my wardrobe while in La Paz, and it required serious thought and several shopping visits. Mostly, though, that is because I am apparently a giant in Bolivian standards. The maximum shoe size is a US women´s size 8 (which happens to be my size, thank goodness), and most tops come as one size only, take it or leave it. Sadly I mostly had to leave everything. However, after six months of wearing the same seven days´ worth of apparel every single week, it was time for some change. I also sent home an 8 kilo package. The sad part is that about 90% of it was all personal belongings I no longer wanted to lug around with me. Though that does mean the package contains a few gifts for home. Despite losing some things, my pack is still not particularly light now…oh how I never fully moved passed my pack-rat days. I suppose that I just really enjoy being prepared, even if that means carrying around essentially useless items.

I even went with Jack, Jonas, Lamb, and Hurston, to the enormous 10 hectare shopping market in El Alto, the city up on the valley edge overlooking La Paz. Had I been on my own, I would probably have become severely lost. I did not make many purchases, but it was thrilling to see the never-ending rows upon rows of vendors selling everything a person could imagine. Literally, you could start at one end and build an entire vehicle from scratch before reaching the opposite side. They even had the token section of “second hand” items which I quickly realized must consist mostly of the stolen belongings from tourists. I was not particularly pleased seeing these items in such abundance. There was everything from the actual suit cases to underwear and larger than size eight shoes (of recognizable brand names).

This has already become too long, but I genuinely enjoyed my time in La Paz at the Wild Rover. I am sad to have left, but I was becoming too far sucked into that time warp. I needed to get out while I still had motivation. Besides, I know more adventures await as I finally start exploring Bolivia and work my way into the remaining countries.

My inner Wild Rover

We made it to Bolivia! Two countries down and the third one under way. When having unlimited time to travel to only a few places, one really feels jealous of the marathon travelers who are marking country number 8 or 9 to by the end of month six. My consolation is that I actually get to stop and enjoy myself, see all the sights, and really invest myself into each country.
La Paz.
I was there too long (six weeks) and needed to get out, yet something in me wanted to stay. Luckily Aaron was a motivational trigger to get my act together and move on. Upon arriving to La Paz, Aaron headed off for a home stay family to take Spanish classes for a month while I headed to the Wild Rover Hostel to work for a month. Despite being in the same city, we hardly saw each other. This was like a warm-up period for once we split off. La Paz is a giant explosion of a city across a valley. It is busy, unorganized, and enormous. There are nicer parts, as with all cities, but it has not been my favorite. Especially when compared to Cusco in Peru. It does not help that the Wild Rover is not exactly located in the slightly more pristine “tourist” area of La Paz. Despite the city not being high on my list, I never actually had to interact with it on a major scale. This fact is more depressing than fortunate. It shows how little I had needs outside the safety of the hostel walls. It was considered a big day to get out and make it to the pharmacy or to the DVD store around the corner. I cannot even describe how successful it was to spend a day shopping along Calle Comercio and Calle Illampe, or when we went to the giant market in El Alto, or completing Death Road. For all the unproductiveness in the last month or so, a lot has happened. Especially worth noting is Christmas, my 23rd birthday, and New Years! Not to mention all the hilarious times, crazy parties, and magnificent people at the hostel.
Where do I begin? I still do not know.
When I first started working and moved into the staff room, it was like entering No Man´s Land. I meekly set my belongings into a corner and lived out of my pack the first three days until I actually found an empty cupboard to put my clothes away. There were two German girls, Natalie and Teresa, who stopped working shortly after I began. I never really got to know either one. Then there was Hurston, from San Fran in the US, he stayed through New Years. He is a quiet soul, and I do not think the staff room lifestyle was quite right for him. Jonas, also from the US, has been there several months and just became the new bar manager. He is Nadya´s and my big spoon to our frequent group cuddling. The Daniels, Daniel Tobin (nick-named Angry) and Daniel Lamb, two Welsh buddies traveling together, they stayed just through New Years as well. When together (or apart) they always have some hilarious, cheeky comment to lighten the mood. They are really great guys. And Trevor and Alicia, they had already stopped working when I first arrived but stayed through my first week as “guests,” if that is the appropriate term for ex-staff. Since that first day there have been other staff members. Nadya, from Vancouver, currently working her way into month two. She and I have been attached at the hip. It is already strange to put that into the past tense. 😦 Kim and Aisling, from Ireland, stayed through Christmas and New Years. Really fantastic girls and incredibly nice. Salim, England, through Christmas and New Years. Stuart and Chris, the Skinnies, from England, Stu has departed already and Chris left the day after me. We were concerned at first since Stu does not drink, but they were both a riot. It would not have been the same without them. Denzel, England, long term guest, very short term staff. Always giving me a hard time! 🙂 Justin, Australia, leaving shortly. Really funny guy and possibly a closet nerd like me…my nick name was Crossword as I was often spotted doing nerdy activities like crosswords, journaling, or reading. Jess and Evan, often referred to as Mission and Parksville, their respective Canadian homes. I sometimes forget who they are when only referenced by actual names. And the newest newbies, Claire from England and Adam from Australia. Besides the bar staff are Jack, hostel manager and really good fun (sometimes our fourth spoon, haha), and Gerry, previous bar manager. Then there are the endless other amazing people. Reception workers, Diego and Suki. Kitchen hooligans, Jose, Julio, Jesus. Fantastic cleaning ladies, Nelly, Nellsi, and Rogelia. Ben, hostel manager and Edith, in the office. Natalie and Brinda through Gravity, the downhill biking company promoted at the hostel (same agency I completed Death Road through). Among the endless list of others I am forgetting. I cannot even begin to mention all the non-staff I have met and befriended. It is truly the people here that would keep me longer. Each new person is like an undiscovered gem in a treasure box. I am not doing justice on descriptions, but I promised to keep these entries shortish… Let´s just say that a significant chunk of my journal was filled for these descriptions and I am incredibly stingy on using up precious pages in the finite space of my journal. That tells you how memorable and important these people have become to me. You will glean a better picture of who these people are once I can manage to get pictures online and through the few stories I will entail.
I got a little off track. My opinion of the staff room has not changed. It is still a dingy, smelly, black hole of a pit where everything goes missing (especially water bottles…), where sleep is a barely received luxury, but good fun is always happening. There are no secrets in the staff room. It is always a giant cuddle fest…or cutch fest if you speak proper English (and come from Wales) ;). Drinking is a daily activity. No questions asked. Breakfast is whenever you wake up, independent of any real time table. Wearing your pajamas all day on your day off but still going to the bar is highly acceptable. If you look like death after waking up, just put on sunglasses and you are fine. Waking up to take multiple rounds of jager bombs can lead to permanent reminders of such activities…possibly referring to the tattoo of “Wild Rover” five of us now have on our bums, due to a few too many jager bombs on the morning of Christmas Eve…Sorry Mom! When taking a free shot that someone else pours, do not 1) start closing your mouth, 2) turn your head away, or 3) start up on your toes, especially when the pourer is shorter than you. All three of these will result in getting nasty liquor concoctions poured down your face. And hand grenades (one shot tequila, one shot jager, one shot vodka, and Red Bull) are the devil. Not many of you will actually understand any of this, but it is all worth mentioning.
Wild Rover is a party hostel, hands down. My first week there we had the 4th Anniversary UV Party. I learned shortly after beginning at Wild Rover (WR for all further mentioning) that my absolute least favorite night of the week is UV night. Your clothes become covered in UV paints and since all the lights are off, everyone feels the need to act like complete morons. Fridays are much more entertaining. Each Friday is some sort of dress-up theme. We had themes such as crazy hats, Father Ted (an absolute must-see Irish/British comedy series about the misadventures of three Roman Catholic priests who live in a parish on the fictional Craggy Island, located off the west coast of Ireland. Hilarious!), famous actor/actresses, and Friday 13th. We also had a fantastic celebration over Christmas Eve, Christmas day, and Boxer Day (the day after Christmas). Christmas Eve was a naughty Santa/sexy Mrs. Claus party. We had all the staff as gifts to each other. Also, the New Year´s Eve Black and White party was great. We always decorate and guests are extremely willing to partake in dress-up opportunities. One night we decided to wear party hats the whole night due to the discovery of about 25 hats under the bar counter. Night life in La Paz is completely different than that in Cusco. There are tons of clubs and places to go at night, but we always go to preselected locations each night because our hostel has arranged deals with these select locations for free entry of WR guests, drink deals for WR staff, the guarantee that the club is open, etc. It is not like Cusco where you can hop between six different places all within walking distance of each other. Due to this practice, we usually just end up at a club with mostly WR people and not many outsiders. This has many pros and cons.
When I finally stopped working after five weeks, I stayed one additional week to clear my head, organize my next travel plans for the rest of Bolivia, and re-enter the realm of functioning humans. Though as I mentioned before, once a staff member, you never actually become a proper “guest” ever again. I still helped orient new bar staff, was still expected to take commends to the kitchen, was ignored immediate service at the bar, had no official bed in the over-booked guest rooms, and, much to my displeasure, was no longer receiving my 40% staff discount. The perks of working are almost fairly decent: free accommodation, one free meal daily, one free pint of juice daily, 40% off everything else (food and drinks alike), a free Death Road tour through Gravity (shirt and CD included), and major discounts at several nice eateries and clubs. Let´s just say that after five weeks of lodging, food, and drinks, was less than $175 USD. Try to pull that off in the States. Not to mention the nightly entertainments of a full bar, all my food prepared for me, a TV room with bean bags, and warms showers. How I feel almost semi-pampered as hostel bar staff.

Catching up on Peru…

Sorry that I am still finishing up my Peru entries!

When we finally got out of Cusco, we headed for Arequipa. I loved and still love Cusco as one of my favorite cities. However, it was time to leave. As a little going away gift I had my purse stolen while leaving a club on my last night. After spending five hours at the police station, with the full realization that they were not going to actually accomplish anything and I was simply losing out on precious sleep, I finally made it back to the hostel red eyed and ready to get out of Cusco. We took a night bus and ended up at The Point in Arequipa because I got a free night for being a formal bar staff employee.

Arequipa was exactly what I needed. We went there to trek Colca Canyon and see condors. Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, and thus is promoted as the “world´s deepest canyon.” We left on a bus to the sleepy little town of Chivay and basically just slept the whole time due to complications with bus routes and times. At 4:00 the next morning we left Chivay and headed for Cruz del Condor. We waited at the viewing point overlooking Colca Canyon and Rio Colca below for approximately four hours with not a single condor sighting before we left on a bus to take us to the Mirador San Miguel where we began our trek. Despite the unfortunate lack of condors, watching the canyon fill with light during the morning sunrise was oddly serene and meditative. There is not much like sitting quietly with few noises while staring out across a beautiful landscape.

At the San Miguel we lucked out and were able to follow a guided group to the beginning of the trek. Aaron and I decided to trek the canyon loop on our own without a guide. I still believe it was the right choice. The use of a guide is completely unnecessary, and we saved about 60 soles not taking a guide. From the mirador we trekked down to the Rio Colca, crossed the bridge and began the ascent back up the other side of the canyon, passing through San Juan de Chuccho, Cosñirhua, and Malata. Once at Malata we descended once again down to Sangalle (Oasis), which is the lush green patch of earth in an old flood plain of the Rio Colca. The whole trek is very hot and exposed to the sun, but once you round a bend and first glimpse Sangalle, you properly realize why it is called the Oasis. The “town” is nothing but little resorts with lush grass, sparkling pools, and small thrush huts. According to the map we collected from a travel agency, the trek from San Miguel to Sangalle should have taken us seven hours, but Aaron and I made it in five. Which is quite impressive when considering that we had just spent a month with very little exercise and an alcohol diet. We arrived to El Eden, this quiet little residential, just after 14:00, giving us plenty of time to relax by the pool drinking a cold beer. Another early night to bed due to exhaustion and the need to head out at 4:00 the following morning. This was the most arduous part of the trek. Sangalle is located at the bottom of the valley. We had a gruelling three hour trek uphill about 1,000 meters to reach Cabanaconde, the town at the top of the valley edge. With no proper idea of how long it would take us to reach the top or when the morning bus would be leaving Cabanaconde for Arequipa, we left before daybreak. This was actually in our favor as the climb quickly causes your body to heat up and start sweating. I cannot imagine that trek uphill while the sun is baring down. In fact, the ascent required so much energy that we did not realize how cold it was outside until we reached Cabanaconde and could barely write our names on the bus tickets due to frozen fingers.

I really appreciated having a fairly easy trek to stretch my legs a bit. Though I must say that the second day while climbing up to Cabanaconde was the most breathtaking part of the entire trek. About half-way up, looking back at the valley, while the sun it slowly draping golden light across the land. That was a sight to remember. I have been to the Grand Canyon and think it is more impressive geologically and aesthetically, but that one view of Colca Canyon rivalled both sunrise and sunset views of the Grand Canyon. Simply gorgeous. Though still no condor sightings. 🙂

Once in Cabanaconde, we had the perfect amount of spare time to eat a hot breakfast, change clothes, and play a game of scrabble before leaving on our bus for Arequipa. I thought that the adventures were over once en route, but I was completely wrong. I slept the whole way into the valley, but I did not close my eyes once on the way out. It was one of the scariest and most beautiful drives I have ever been on. For three hours you are driving along a single lane, dirt road which has been carved out of the hillside erosion debris. That unsteady, conglomerate mash is the eroding debris from the higher peaks above. Every time an oncoming vehicle came towards us, we simply pulled to the side of the road to let it by before continuing our journey. Several times this required pulling off the single land road as it was almost never sufficiently wide enough for two vehicles. Then we passed through a tunnel that was carved into a chalky parent rock material. I suspect the hillside debris was not secure enough to actually support a road so they carved out the tunnel. However, the tunnel was too long to see the light on the other side, yet there were no interior lights or supporting walls, and the actual road was a several inches thick layer of loose dust from the walls. This tunnel was barely the width of one vehicle and yet I do not remember seeing any type of warning system that an oncoming vehicle was already within the tunnel. Despite the adrenaline rush of utter terror every time we came close to running off the road, leaving the valley was absolutely stunning. Colca Canyon does not have the extreme and immediate cliffs of the Grand Canyon, but the diffuse canyon with surrounding mountains is mesmerizing. The trip to Colca Canyon was definitely worth the lovely sunburn I  acquired over the two days´ trek. We stayed in Arequipa a few days after our trek due to a misplaced bank card. However, it gave us some time to meet up with the fantastic Alice from Cusco who was staying with her aunt in Arequipa. We also had the pleasure to see Melanie (again from Cusco) and meet three of her friends. Beyond seeing friends, we had the opportunity to acquire new friends from the hostel who were equally amazing.

After leaving Arequipa, we headed for Puno and Lake Titicaca. This was our last city to visit within Peru. Arriving to Puno was like entering a relaxed time warp. Between Puno and Copacabana (the lakeside town on the Bolivia side of the border), Aaron and I spent a week in total relaxation. There was lots of sleeping, reading, and movie watching. In Puno we stayed at Bothy Backpacker Hostel, where we were two of maybe six guests and the only two in our nine person dorm. We walked along the beach of Lake Titicaca where the city of Puno has established a lovely walking area. I tried out my new camera. Third time´s a charm. I will be protecting this camera with my life!…or at least the pictures on the camera. We explored Puno. Changed out money. Then headed for the border en route for Copacabana. There was a strike that day, very typical of Bolivia, and headed for a more northern border before heading back down to Copacabana.

Troubles of being U.S. citizens. When traveling within South America, U.S. citizens have a few surprise entry fees and visa requirements for Suriname, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Chile. Fortunately, Chile only requires a reciprocity fee of $131 when entering Chile through the Santiago airport. Woot! When traveling as a backpacker with a very strict budget, these fees can be quite unfortunate. Upon arriving at the Peru-Bolivia border crossing, Aaron and I were required to fill out two lengthy forms, turn in two copies of our passport, (supposedly two passport-sized pictures as well, though they luckily waived that requirement), and $135 USD. We were both quite early in the queue but left last due to the extended entry process.

We arrived to Copacabana that evening under a torrential downpour. The bus stopped outside a hotel near the beach, thus Aaron and I, plus two nice Korean guys we met on the bus, took off running uphill through the rain to reach a cheaper accommodation. After not finding the places on our map, we settled on a hotel/hostel place above a restaurant. After peeling off our drenched attire we headed out to grab some fresh lake trout fished directly from Lake Titicaca. Delicious! The following day we headed to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), where there are Incan ruins. We stayed in the village Yucumani at HI-Inka Pacha, located at the top of the island up, surprise surprise, a long, steep Inca staircase. This was gorgeous, though, with a panoramic view of Lake Titicaca and the island. We explored some of the walking paths on the island, though were not successful in finding a proper trail down to a delightful looking little beach, and saw the Inca temple of the sun.

Lake Titacaca (3,800 masl and 400 m depth) is the ninth highest lake on Earth, and the largest commercially navigable lake on Earth. Boasted as the highest lake in South America, Laguna Colorada (4,500 masl) in southern Bolivia near the Uyuni Salt Plains, Poquentica Lake (5,750 masl) between Chile and Bolivia, Aguas Calientes Pool (5,831 masl) Chile, Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (5,916 masl) at the base of the Licancabur volcano in the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve in Bolivia, Acamarachi Pool (5,950 masl) Chile, and Ojos del Salada (6,390 masl) Argentinian-Chilean border, are all at higher elevations. Lake Titicaca is still quite an impressive feat, however. The name Titicaca derives from the wildcats that live on the lake’s islands, called titi. Titicaca was a sacred place for the Inca civilization. The first Inca king was said to be born here and according to Inca mythology; Titicaca is where the world was created, by the god Viracocha. Legend has it that the god Viracocha rose from the depths of the lake to form the sun, the stars and the first people. The area is still very dear to its inhabitants today, especially the Uros people, who live on the lake on floating islands made of reeds.

We headed back to Copacabana the following afternoon. When we left Copacabana, our next destination was La Paz. Stay tuned