From Tupiza to Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The western reaches of the Andes, on the border of Bolivia and Chile, is home to a number of large and sometimes active volcanoes. Many of these peaks exist in the rarefied air above 6000m and have molded the surrounding landscape in varied and often breathtaking ways. These peaks sit in the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna which was created to protect the migrational area of three types of flamingoes and many other species of wetland birds. Lagunas are dotted across the barren landscape, and display a splendid array of colours and textures, thanks to the abundance of minerals spewed up from the volcanic earth. From the startling white of the Laguna Blanca (here, as in many other places is an abundance of borax) , the mesmerising green of the Laguna Verde (thanks to a healthy does of arsenic!) and the deep red of the, you guessed it, Laguna Colorada. These mineral waters offer a feast for the eyes of the thousands of tourists who are drawn here each year. Rather conveniently (for the us as well as the tour operators) only a couple of hundred km to the north lies the  Salar de Uyuni, the largest single deposit of  salts, including lithium, in the word. Covering some 10,000 square km and reaching to depths of 30m, the Salar is a vast, blindingly white landscape and with little to offer in perspective, an erie and captivating place.

The salt mines of Salar de Uyuni, the salt is collected into pyramids to dry over 2 weeks before being exported.

The salt mines of Salar de Uyuni, the salt is collected into pyramids to dry over 2 weeks before being exported.

Perhaps  then it’s easy to see why this area was on our ‘must do list’ from the very start. Naturally, we wanted to ‘do it right’ and so after hours of agonising research of where to start the tour and with which company to travel with (horror stories of drunk tour drivers and skipped over itineraries abound), we finally decided to start from the less popular town of Tupiza. This meant that we would begin with the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna and culminateon the 4th day with the Salar, the main drawcard for many people. It also meant a 4 day tour instead of the traditional 3 days from Uyuni, which allowed us to take in some little visited sights and to avoid the crowds of tour groups following the same path from Uyuni. Having settled on this, our next task was choosing a tour operator. There is much less choice in Tupiza but this has meant that the established companies are very serious about their reputations, which means only 6 people into each 4WD(hooray, window seats for all!) and a ban on drivers drinking while on tour.  In  the end we were tossing up between 2 companies and after negotiating we decided that a 100 BOB discount ($AUD 16) and the guarantee of other guests who were spanish/english bilingual was enough for us to choose Tupiza Tours.

Day 1

Windscreen O'Brien, Bolivian division

As we hurled our rather large pack onto the roof of our Landcruiser we were introduced to our driver and guide Sebastian. A cursory inspection of the car showed that it was old (1994 we later found out) but obviously well cared for, with many ingenious tricks to keep it in one piece (a favourite being the Bolviano coins stuck to the windscreen to prevent a crack from widening, it seemed to have worked!). As the other guests arrived we were introduced to Fatima and Andres from Uruguay and Thomas from Germany. Happily strapped in we began our tour in the moon like landscapes of the surrounding hills, red dirt and cactus abounds here. As we climbed higher the cactus gave way to tufts of highland grasses and llamas. Our choice in Tupiza Tours was vindicated as we passed the other tour operator’s car with a wheel missing and bored looking tourists sitting around (not for the last time).

A quick lunch stop introduced us to our cook and fellow travellers in a separate car and the wonders of the ‘natural toilet’ that was to be our main ablution option for the next 4 days. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm from all directions  for most of the afternoon and as the icy rain came down we were introduced to the special Bolivian optional features of the car, in that we could either have the windscreen wipers or power windows. Unfortunately as it really started to come down the windscreen wiper option was withdrawn and we were forced to crawl along blind. At this point we realised how lucky we were to have Sebastian as our driver. I suspect he could have driven the whole trip blind. Thankfully the storm subsided in time for us to explore the ruins of an old spanish mining town and to enjoy the evening light.

Day 2 

We awoke early and hastened out the door to the sound of the  4WD’s revving and shouts of ‘vamos, vamos, THOMAS!!’ from Sebastian. Today we were promised a bath, of sorts, in a naturally heated  thermal pool, as well as many lagunas, llamas and even some boiling mud and sulfer pits. We had noticed the previous day that Sebastian was a very careful driver and were heartened by his dismay and tut tuts of ‘loco’ as other 4WDs zoomed passed us on the rough and often washed out roads. Other times however he took great joy in choosing the smoother or quicker path than other cars, often with a shout of ‘DAKAR!’ as we zoomed off-road to avoid some hazard ahead. We later learnt that Sebastian was to be a driver in the upcoming Dakar rally that will taking in northern Argentina, Chile and this area of Bolivia.

The day ended at the Laguna Colorada. A giant lake coloured deep red by algae and a favourite of the Flamingoes (giving them their resplendent pink hue). It was very exciting to get so close to these majestic birds. I’ve named them my power bird.

That evening was New Years Eve and the group was buoyed by a Tienda, a little shop offering beer and chocolates to celebrate. In our usual fashion, the two of us were in bed long before the new year was rung in, though the sounds of fireworks smuggled in by an exuberant Brazilian from another group let us know that 2014 had arrived.

Day 3

We were woken much too early, given it was January 1st and the 4700m elevation had ensured for a frosty morning. By the time Sebastian had finished impressing upon us on how this was a long and tough day there was a soft snoring emanating from most seats. Awoken from our slumber once again, we woke to a Dali-esque landscape of rock formations cut from volcanic rock through years of sand storms and frigid winds. Much of the day was spent crossing this dessert landscape with short stops at a series of lagunas displaying more types of flamingos and minerals. As the day was drawing to a close we stopped at a strange petrified forrest full of sharp shapes, sometimes grotesque and sometimes rather llama like. It was the final stop, at our accommodation for the night, that we got the best surprise. The entire building from the walls, tables, chairs and beds were made out of salt. The bricks cut from the Salar itself. I made sure to lick a wall to check.

Day 4

It's all a matter of perspective.

It's all a matter of perspective.

Barely having slept we were wrenched out of bed at 4am, the novelty of sleeping in a salt hotel had certainly worn off as we struggled to form words with our now desiccated tongues. We barely had time to rehydrate before being shooed into the 4WD once again with the promise of a sunrise and breakfast from the awesome vantage point of the Incahuasi island One of the 24 islands in the Salar, this island, 30km from the nearest edge, it is home to hundreds of giant cactus which cast a ghostly shadow over the rocky viewpoint from which we watch the sun crest.The spectacular oranges and pinks of the new morning light bounced across the vast white landscape and reflected in the hazy mountains in the distance. 

Having enjoyed the beauty of the Salar from one its most flattering views we were allowed to indulge in the second most popular activity, the novelty photo. Thanks to a handy lack of perspective, one is able to craft amusing photos that belie reason. however these photos come at a cost, requiring the photographer the lie directly on the salt, ensuring a healthy layer of crust and a certain degree of absurdity for all involved.

As the tour drew to a close Sebastian had some finals tricks up his sleeve. We stopped at the first salt hotel on the Salar, this one is illegal as it was built on the national reserve with no safe way to dispose of waste. Nevertheless, it was being rebuilt for paying guests of the Dakar rally. It didn’t look like it would be finished in time for happy customers in 10 days time though we were assured that thus was just 'Latin timing'. The rather large hole in the toilet wall had us doubting this...

For our last glimpse of the Salar we were sent to the salt mines. Not as bad as it sounds! Here salt is collected by shovels into pyramids, about 1m high, and left to dry. After 2 weeks this can be collected onto a truck for export.

We saw almost nothing of Uyuni town except the Train Cemetery where old steam trains had been left to rust after the mining industry collapsed in the 1940’s. Behind it a new graveyard of thousands of plastic bags scattered across the dusty landscape gave us a final and sobering reminder of the knock on effects of tourism in these amazing environments.

Inca Trail

Andy in the Andes

We chose to take a 5 day hike to get to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail (Camino Inca). This would allow us to explore a few of the sites which are passed over if you take the classic 4 day hike as well as being a bit less taxing on our legs and lungs.

Day Zero

We have an orientation meeting with our tour guide. Nothing is out of the ordinary except he suggests 3 rolls of toilet paper, per person, for the five day hike. A great way to lend a sense of ominous foreboding.

Day 1 - Start to Patallacta, Day 2 - Patallacta to Llulluchapampa, Day 3 - Llulluchapampa to Pacaymayu, Day 4 - Pacaymayu to Machu Picchu (arrive late), Day 5 - Machu Picchu

Day One

We are collected from our hotel in Cusco at 6am by our tour guide. It's a minibus and we take the three remaining seats. The three of us appear to command what feels like an Imperial British Expeditionary Force with seven porters, a chef and our guide, Javier. We drive out to Kilometer 82, the start point of our hike.

One of my last minute purchases comes in handy, a red poncho. It appears to have magical properties, when I wear it the rain stops, when I put it away the rain starts again. I am implored to withstand the discomfort and keep wearing it for the benefit of the others.

We stop for lunch, our expeditionary force has already set up a lunch tent and the smell of lovely food wafts towards us. 

We hike on (or roll on) after lunch. There is so much water up here. We pass a number of streams and rivers, all tributaries to the Urubamba River, the sacred river of the Incas. This water will eventually join the Amazon River bound for the Atlantic Ocean.

We arrive at the camp site (tents already constructed) and go to Andean Happy Hour, tea and nibbles before dinner. Amazingly we are hungry from the hike even after such a decadent lunch and enjoy the courses as they are delivered with a sense of anticipation.

Day Two

Vamos y vamos y vamos

Up before 6am with the glare of the sun through the tent. A porter offers a cup of hot coca tea before we are out of our tent. It is a mild stimulant and also helps to cope with the altitude. We will be reaching our highest point of the hike today, Dead Woman's Pass. We are still taking Diamox to prevent any symptoms of altitude sickness.

A communal fish farm providing subsistence living to the villagers along the Inca Trail.

A hearty breakfast later (including grapes the Peruano way, peeled) and we are ready to hit the road. We start up, passing villages along the way. Many of the inhabitants were displaced when Machu Picchu was made a National Park. They receive support from the government for this inconvenience, we pass a fish farm which was constructed from government funds. It is maintained communally by the villagers who grow mostly subsistence crops. The more entrepreneurial offering bottles of water and Gatorade to the weary hikers.

I pass a mule. It ignores me, standing stoically facing the path but I am left with a feeling they know more than they let on.

We are overtaken by our porters. They carry 20-25kg each (controlled, there are weigh stations to ensure there is no porter abuse). They power past us in a group hardly breaking a sweat. Other porters charge past us as well. With the rush over we feel alone on the trail.

As we walk through the Cloud Forest it feels like we walk above Eden. The trees are covered in moss and there is a river beneath us that occasionally breaks out into a waterfall.

Leaving the Cloud Forest we continue our upwards climb. The air is thin and we seem to have no endurance. It's a strange feeling, my legs are not tired (we are climbing quite slowly) however each step leaves me breathless. If I wait to catch my breath I feel fine, but the next step leaves me breathless again anyway. 

Another delicious lunch stop. It starts raining as we continue up the mountain. My Poncho is earning my admiration. I am able to prepare my camera under it and whip it out quickly for a couple photos before putting it back under protection from the rain.

We find our first Llamas on the hike. They are being farmed by the last family before Dead Woman's Pass. Beyond them no one is allowed to farm the land. The incline increases as approach Dead Woman's Pass, so named for the rock formations visible on the approach looking like a woman. If you use your imagination. About 15 minutes from the peak my left hand begins to tingle, a sign of oxygen depravation and altitude sickness. After resting it lessens and eventually goes away before reaching the pass. Uneventful but certainly attracting my attention at the time.

We reach Dead Woman's Pass, at an altitude of 4,200m (13,780ft). The clouds move quickly here, the scenery changes as the valley below becomes covered in cloud, then clears, then a cloud is pushed up the pass and we are surrounded in a white haze. Out of this haze a dog seems to materialise. It follows us down to our campsite, keeping it's distance. We camp near a waterfall and are treated to a spectacular sunset down the valley, clouds moving at such a speed that the view is changing constantly. I need to keep my eye out for an iPhone tripod so I can take timelapse videos. My attempts so far have not been very successful, somewhat limited by the need to find an appropriately shaped rock.

We begin the descent from Dead Woman's Pass. There is substantially less rainfall on this side of the mountain. Vegetation is mostly the highland grass visible here, food for deer and roofing material for Incas.

At the campsite I accidentally find myself in the right place at the right time to get some close photos of hummingbirds, elusive due to the speed they zip between different flowers.

Dinner finishes with stories from our guide of previous customers. We feel relieved that any amount of complaining on the way up the mountain today pales in comparison to what some people have put him through.

Day Three

We are woken at 6am by a hot cup of coca tea and warm water to wash our hands before breakfast. A quick photo at last nights sunset spot and we're off to explore the trail.

There are often good incentives to stay on the path. Occasionally, when straying onto some of the less official trails, I am warded off by toilet paper stuck to bushes. Best to leave the rest of the trail alone I think. We stumble across a pair of deer grazing amongst the highland grass, luckily I had the right lens on to get a quick shot off before they were over the hill.

The weather alternates between overcast and sunny, it works well as it allows for a variety of views without us overheating on uphill sections of the hike. Before lunch we find ourselves in a cloud, the view off the mountain is pure light. Sometimes the overhead cloud clears and the direct sunlight makes the cloud we walk in glow intensely. The sound of thunder hastens us to the lunch tent.

Javier tells us of the beep beep frogs which live under the bright orange moss along the the rock face. The 3cm long frogs can change colour to blend with their surroundings and have a 'beep beep beep beep' call they make. They are also poisonous and can jump about 4 metres. As the rain that held out since lunch resumes I find myself left alone hunting the beep beep frog to no avail. I can hear them but they are safe behind the moss.

Landscapes and buildings of the Inca Trail:

We reach the campsite, it is on a fantastic overlook with an Inca ruin below that will be explored the following day, the still functioning aqueduct is our water source for the night. Clouds lead cavalry charges down the mountain as we wait for sunset to approach. We walk out to the a view point beyond the campsite and see Machu Picchu mountain for the first time, the city is on the other side. We can also see Agua Caliente and a hydro power station which has a tunnel right through Machu Picchu mountain providing enough power for the whole region.

The porters have set up a portable toilet, carried all the way from Kilometer 82 just for tonight. Talk about a loo with a view!

Four llamas wander in around dusk including a 3 week old baby, incredibly cute. 

Even we didn't manage a cake while camping around the US. Very impressed with Balbino's cooking skills.

We are surprised yet again by the resourcefulness of our chef, there is a cake waiting for us for Andean Happy Hour. I secretly wonder if they have also carried an oven up just for tonight.

I am inspired by Shannan to try some night photos as the clouds have thinned.

Day Four

Up at 5am to catch some sunrise colours but it was too cloudy. I catch the porters, who last night seemed oblivious to the baby llama, posing for photos with it. I think they're not used to people being up earlier than they have to be. They have attracted the attention of the head llama, he is standing and starting to stomp his back foot a bit. He's also starting to chew nothing, we have been warned this is the llama preparing to spit. Apparently they can spit a greenish, glue like substance up to 4m.

The serenity of the last few days is shattered by the horn of the PeruRail trains as they ferry tourists to Machu Picchu. The air is humid and sunny. Everyone seems a bit lethargic today.

We lunch near some impressive Inca ruins, nicknamed the Little Machu Picchu before continuing on to the Sun Gate. We have our first view of Machu Picchu in the afternoon light, it lends a golden tint to the city. We continue down to the city and get to 'photo rock' 15 minutes before closing time. The rain is falling in the valley below and one of the strongest rainbows I've ever seen is off to the right of Machu Picchu. I feel we are very lucky to have seen the city under these conditions.

We are hustled out of the ruins by the rangers. A real toilet, with a seat, is available outside the gates for 1 soles. This is right up there with the $2 shower at Grand Canyon.

We walk to our campsite, a 400m descent to the Urubamba river. At the campsite we have our final meal and say goodbye to our Porters and Chef. It's an early start tomorrow where we will be exploring Machu Picchu in detail.

Animals and Plants of the Inca Trail:

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley. The lowest, hottest, driest place in North America. Let's start by saying our experience of Death Valley was not exactly typical. Arriving ready to face the harsh sun we are greeted instead by a consistent downpour of rain. And it's cold. At higher elevations the water had fallen as snow.

I arrived ready to face the hottest, driest location in North America.

Even the water sounds hot.

Even the water sounds hot.

There are constant reminders how hot and dry this place is during summer. From the urine colour chart in the restroom to help catch your dehydration before it's too severe to the constant reminders posted at trailheads to drink 2 gallons of water (about 8L) per day when hiking to the bewildered expression on visitor and Ranger alike as the rain continued to fall for a second day straight as we arrived.

In our case the rain seemed to bring out the contrast of colours in the rocks and sands that make up this national park. For me, it was a park of textures.

Zabriskie Point

Artist's Palette

Formerly a Borax mine, the ground consists of a variety of unusual colours. These colours are caused by the oxidation of different metals (red, pink and yellow is from iron salts, green is from decomposing tuff-derived mica, and manganese produces the purple) [1].

This was also the most expensive place for fuel we found in the US. The cheapest grade petrol was $5.989/gal. Priced in the 'if you're buying gas here you don't care about the price anymore' category of petrol stations. Typical prices for our journey averaged about $3.20 to $3.50 with our cheapest refill at $2.699/gal in the south (and, I got the impression, a slightly dodgy part of town). To put that in perspective the Death Valley price is equivalent to AU$1.74/L and our cheap refill was 78.3c/L! (in fact, even less as the exchange rate was better at the time).

Camping through the North Eastern United States

Continuing on through Upstate New York and the Adirondacks to Vermont, New Hampshire and into Maine. Camping along the way enabled us to stay at a few very beautiful locations including right by a stream that feeds into the Ausable Chasm.

Morning starts can be very slow when camping. As a lady at a camping goods store sympathised, 'often the only thing that gets you out of the tent is the need to pee'. 



The roof of our car. This was taken on a 'slow start' day. 

Upstate New York

We stayed with family at Buffalo and Syracuse in upstate New York. From here it's a stones throw to Canada and Niagara Falls as well as the Finger Lakes region. Both are very pretty.

Below are the 'American' falls at Niagara Falls. They were diverted in the '70s so the engineers and geologists could inspect the bedrock to predict the erosion rate. The rainbow is coming from spray caused by the 'main' falls with the familiar horseshoe shape. In the bottom right corner is the Maid of the Mist ferry.

The 'American Falls' as they are called, a section of the Falls that's near the classic horseshoe shaped falls

Shannan at Lake Skaneateles, smallest of the Finger Lakes

Skaneateles, the smallest of the Finger Lakes, has been a tourist destination since before it was cool. Impressive houses surround large sections of the lake and the town itself, even though geared for tourists, is built with a quality and charm I appreciated. The trees dotting the drive up from Syracuse were all the vibrant shades of Fall.