Feb 20, 2008

Helado Land

Say it with me: Chee – Lay
After building up Chile and placing it on our proverbial pedestal as the solution to all our woes in Bolivia, (see previous posts) it has certainly lived up to our high expectations. As we stepped out of our taxi onto the busy streets of Santiago, we were astonished by the stark contrasts one can’t help but notice when compared to the third world Bolivia that borders this thin country of Chile. Only twenty years after the rule of the infamous dictator Pinochet, Chile has risen to become the 37th most developed country in the world, and by far the most western in South America. What does this mean to Amanda and Leighton?; paved roads, air conditioned buses, hot showers, supermarkets, meters in taxis, and prices at least 5 times more than those of its neighbors to the north.

We spent three days wandering the ice-cream laden streets of Santiago. It seems that every meal in Chile has ice cream in it. Amanda and I are in ice cream heaven! We then took a 2 hour ride to the coastal village of Valparaiso. This hilly city packs more charm and character in its hills and valleys than Fox’s latest installment of The Bachelor. The hills were alive with beautiful homes and graffiti art. We spent a day burning our pale bodies at the unspoiled Playa Grande (Big Beach) in the town of Quintay, 1 hour south of Valparaiso. There is a certain charm to Chile that seems to have captivated Amanda and I. It has fully embraced wealth and development, yet somehow managed to bring its good friends tradition and culture along for the ride.

Yes, Chile seems to be to cure to all of our ailments. We have an 8 hr day hike to tire us out early tomorrow morning, then we are heading further and further south towards Patagonia. Chile is beautiful, friendly, western, and expensive. – Just like home but with more Spanish accents.

PS.leave comments, we miss everyone.

Feb 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

It was on this day 7 years ago that I first asked Amanda for her phone number.

Feb 13, 2008

Leighton’s Tips for Traveling in Bolivia

Consider the following some of the most insider information one can obtain on the subject of traveling in Bolivia. This information will not be found in any guide books new or old. Any persons reading this should take careful note if their plans include a stop in Bolivia.

1. No matter what, something will get stolen, robbed, pick pocketed, or lost in the laundry while in Bolivia. This is an absolute guarantee. To avoid these mishaps I have a few suggestions: either take only the clothes on your back, (but don’t be surprised if they manage to steal even these) or carry a time-lock steel safe to keep your belongings in, or take two of everything. This includes things like the aforementioned safe.

2. Your first stop in every city should be the tourist police, or, in many cases, some perfectly fine police station that refuses to help you and sends you on a wild goose chase to find the proper station. Once you do finally arrive at one of these extremely modern technological wonders of a facility, check your belongings, something was certainly stolen in the process of getting to the station and you should have no problem reporting this to the police. Make sure you have at least 5 hours as they will have to speak to every one in the station and make 467 printouts before finally inserting the paper the correct way into the printer and handing you the all important police report so that you can report the theft to the insurance you should have purchased before departing the safe zone, aka the United States.

3. You will get food poisoning. Even if you only eat freeze dried ice cream that you stocked up on in the gift shop at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum before departing, you will get sick. The air in Bolivia seems to deposit stomach-crushing bacteria on all food once it is exposed.

4. Regarding #3, purchase three doses of every antibiotic on the shelves of Walgreens before departing. However, don’t expect miracles – you will still destroy at least 67 toilets no matter how long your stay in Bolivia.

5. Bring a journal labeled either: “Why don’t they?”, “They should”, or “I don’t understand why they don’t.” You will find blaringly obvious money-making business plans that should exist, confusing business practices, and a whole lot of people trying to make money doing the exact same thing as everyone else on that same corner or town. This journal should be at least 1000 pages long and should be accompanied by various writing instruments as it will be the main outlet to vent your frustrations with the disappointingly poor tourist infrastructure in Bolivia. For instance, why does everyone sell the exact same tours? Maybe if you departed 30 minutes later, every stop wouldn’t be filled with the same 1300 white people you saw 30 minutes ago at the hot springs. And why isn’t their a hovercraft I can ride in the salt flats? And why is the only decent food in every town a pizza that isn’t even decent – to name a few entries.

6. If you receive paper money as change at the restaurant or travel agency that is cracked, torn, bent, wrinkled, stained, or simply doesn't look right. Walk straight to the nearest pile of trash (they don’t believe in trash cans) and chuck it. It is worthless. Even the poorest old lady selling gum in the street won’t accept your crappy bill unless it is shiny new and steam pressed.

7. Never expect anything from anyone – because that is exactly what you will get.

8. Look for the restaurants with children under the age of 10 working in them. They are the only ones where you can get your meal inside of 2 hours as their young souls have not yet been broken by working 12 hours each day at a restaurant.

9. If you’re from the USA, bring $100. We are lucky to be citizens of the only nation in this world that must open our wallets to enter this beautiful country ( see #1,2, the theft begins before touching foot on its land)

10. If you plan to visit during the month of February, purchase some sort of water- proof protection. As a tourist during Carnaval, you will get bruised, and beaten down by every man woman and child armed with water balloons, buckets of water, water guns, hoses, and any other device that can be used in some way shape or form to soak a tourist.

11. Know that in spite of all its imperfections, it is a beautiful country with some wonderful people and extremely dramatic landscapes that we will always remember.

12. If you don’t like Michael Bolton, bring ear plugs.

10 Billion Tons of Salt

Salar De Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. For more than 7500 sq mi, all one can see is salt. Except in our case, all we could see is water – about 4” deep covering the vast plane as it does every year during the rainy season.

It was the first stop on our three day tour of the high deserts of southwestern Bolivia. Our Land Cruiser drove about 10km onto the flat to a hotel built entirely of - you guessed it, salt. We drove past many miners who work the flats for a living – shipping salt around the world. Who knows, the rim of that margarita you enjoyed the other day may have been salted with the famous white stuff from Bolivia. It made for some absolutely surreal photos.

Our venerable Land Cruiser and its driver then took us to numerous spots of memorable beauty. The Dali Desert was aptly named as its strange rock formations, endless vistas, colorful mountains, and lifeless beauty were plucked straight from the background of the strangest Salvador Dali painting. We saw thousands of pink flamingos living in the Red Lakes of the high desert. We climbed to about 16,500 ft to see geysers and boiling water noisily churning below our feet. We saw rocks shaped like trees and birds, and witnessed thousands of llamas and vicunas, a relative of the camel. We listened to the same Michael Bolton songs over and over as this was our driver’s only CD. Who knew anyone willingly listened to Michael Bolton?

On the final day we cooked our frozen bodies in some very hot springs at about 15000 ft with dozens of other tourists. We then motored over to the green lake – made this way from the borax and copper deposits within. We saw dozens of snow capped volcanoes – some over 22,000 ft high – an eerie sight in an otherwise dry, treeless, summer desert.

Overall, it was some of the most magnificently strange scenery we have ever seen. Even the hoards of tourists and Land Cruisers following the exact same path - and the hours of Michael Bolton blasting through one sad speaker, could not deter from the captivating beauty of these barren landscapes. It was oddly similar to our home in Arizona, yet unlike anything we have ever seen.

Uyuni, the small salt mining town were we now are waiting for a train, is our last stop in Bolivia. Today, we will head back to La Paz to catch a flight to Santiago, Chile. We are happy to have visited this confusing country called Bolivia. However, we are also happy to be leaving. We are excited to be heading towards a developed country with safe drinking water, paved roads, and western comforts. Believe it or not, we have not run across a single McDonalds or Starbucks in the last 50 days – its strange the things you start to miss when you are living so far from home.

Feb 1, 2008

The World´s Most Dangerous Road

It’s official. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, the road between La Paz and Coroico in Bolivia is the World’s Most Dangerous Road. On average, no fewer than 26 vehicles per year fall victim to its eroding foundations, narrow passes, and harsh weather.

To stay safe, we rode bikes.

The ride began at just under 16,000 ft in snowy conditions. Keep in mind Bolivia is in the middle of summer. Amanda, myself, a Brit and our guide experienced many terrains and many climates. The ride is 40 miles long and descends 11,500 ft in 5 hours. Snow soon turned to rain. The intense fog clouded our views of the dizzingly steep cliffs that dropped to one side of the 12-ft wide dirt road. The fog cleared as we entered the Yungas jungle of Bolivia – one of the largest Coca producing regions of the world.

Keep in mind that while coca is the origin of cocaine, the vast majority of coca leaves from Bolivia are chewed by the locals – a practice that dates back to 2000 BC in the Andes. The plant has many healing qualities including the ability to stabilize glucose levels, and cure altitude sickness – a common occurrence in these high plains.

Along the way we passed hundreds of waterfalls. In one case we had to ride our bikes right through one. The pavement turned to narrow dirt road which turned to single track. Multiple land slides blocked the road – common for the rainy season. While the massive slides forced us to walk our bikes – it also limited the number of vehicles on the road.

Amanda and I rode bikes down the Worlds Most Dangerous Road and lived to tell about it, unlike many tourists before us. The company B-Side Adventures was a great choice. We had full suspension Iron Horse Bicycles that rode like a dream. We ended in the hot springs of Coroico overlooking sections of this incredible road.

We are now in Oruro, Bolivia for Carnaval; one of the top ten places in the world to be for Carnaval. We look forward to sharing it with you right here in about 4 days.