Lake Titicaca: More than Dirty Jokes: May 29 – June 1

Lake Titicaca is the world’s largest high altitude lake and is shared between Bolivia and Peru. It is famous for its floating islands made of reeds and for being the site of the origination of the Incas.

Mike and I had spent 7 nights in La Paz over the past 2.5 weeks, and it was finally time to head north. The bus from La Paz was 3 hours of discomfort but with amazing views of the mountains and the lake. Unfortunately, the 2 people sitting in front of us had too much to drink the night before, and they passed out with their seats fully reclined so that their heads were almost in our laps, resulting in zero leg room for us! I was relieved to get off the bus after arriving in Copacabana.

Copacabana is a small town situated right on Lake Titicaca and the main tourist town to visit the Isla del Sol. The town’s main street is filled with tourist restaurants and shops. It was strange to see so many gringos, but we were now firmly on the gringo trail during peak season. We did run into Tina, who was on our salt flat tour, and it was fun to catch up on our past few weeks of adventures.

There is not much to do in the town itself except eat and relax. Our afternoon snack was nachos and the description on the menu was “little leaves of corn, avocado, tomato, and cheese”. It took me a minute to figure out that little pieces of corn were chips, but I think the bigger surprise was that they turned out to be cheese Doritos!

Our lazy afternoon in the sun was followed by a short but steep hike up to a lookout above town for sunset. We misjudged the timing so we ended up running the steps to the very top to see the very end of the sunset. The views of the sun setting over Lake Titicaca were amazing, and it was also neat to see the pretty hills surrounding the town.

 The following day, we set out to explore Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), which is a 3 hour boat trip from Copacabana. Our boat was packed full of tourists for the slow journey while we occasionally inhaled the exhaust from engines. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a tour guide to show us around the island. The only problem was that he didn’t speak any English, and he spoke Spanish so fast that we only understood 5% of the words. So after trying our best and learning nothing, we ditched the group and explored the Inca ruins on our own.

The Incas believed that the sun and the earth were born on this island, and so they built a temple complex here. Titicaca means “puma rock,” and the island is in the shape of a puma which is a sacred animal in the Inca religion. This is all Mike and I understood of our short time with the tour guide, and that was just because he was standing by a poster with both the island and a puma head on it.

The 45 minute hike to the ruins was on stone pathways through terraced farms, and it really reminded us of our trek in Nepal. There was even a lady sitting outside her house to tell us we were going the wrong direction. The ruins were set high on the island and had amazing views of the sparkling blue lake and the Bolivian snowy peaks. As we wandered around we found the main temple, the altar, and a few houses. It was fun to walk through them and guess at what everything was once used for as there were no signs of explanation.

We had the option of walking to the other end of the island to catch the boat, but we opted just to return from where we started instead because it was extremely hot, and we were both still feeling the effects of our climb. The boat ride back to Copacabana was slow but less crowded so much more comfortable. Our last night in Bolivia was a candle lit dinner, and we shared a bottle of Bolivian wine.

On May 31, we entered our 19th country on this trip and our last segment of our year long journey. The bus from Copacabana to Puno was much more comfortable than the last bus! Getting over the border was easy until I saw that the Peruvian border control stamped my passport with April 31st instead of May 31st. Luckily, I caught the mistake before we left the border and was able to get it fixed with an ‘X’ through the wrong stamp and a new stamp added. Hopefully it doesn’t cause problems when we leave Peru!

Puno is the main tourist town for Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian side and the gateway to the floating islands. The town was described to us by other tourists as a dump, but it ended up being okay. It is a large town without a nice waterfront, but the main square area is nice. We spent our first afternoon in Peru getting set up for our island tour for the following day and getting caught up on journals.

On our walk to dinner we experienced our first Peruvian parade around the main plaza. The place was packed with observers, and the parade included several bands and children dressed up in costumes carrying pictures of animals. We never found out what the occasion was, but it was fun to watch the parade. At dinner, we both tried alpaca for the first time. It was delicious and very tender. I think I liked it better than the llama I tried in Argentina.

Our last day on Lake Titicaca was the best with an all day tour of the floating islands and Isla Taquille. I was really excited to visit the floating islands and see how they were constructed. The islands were only a 40 minute boat ride from Puno. Each island was 100’ by 200’ with 4 houses on each island. The islands were close to each other, and there was a main waterway acting as the main boulevard for the village. Around the village were reeds for as far as we could see which helped camouflage the villages from anyone looking from Puno.

The Uros people created the islands to protect them from pre-Inca attackers. The construction of each island takes 1 year and once completed will last 60 years. The island floor is reeds, and when you walk on it your feet sink a little. Also, when a boat passes the island, the whole island moves with the waves!

Once we arrived to one of the islands, the families welcomed us, and we sat down to learn about their culture and the construction of the island. The first step of the process is to harvest large pieces of the reeds’ roots. The best time of year is during rainy season when the roots start to float. Each island has 3 blocks or so. The blocks are moved to the desired location, sometimes 7km away. Then the reeds are cut at the base, still allowing for the plants to live. Next, stakes are pounded into each block, and the stakes are tied together with rope made of dried reeds. Eventually, the blocks will merge into 1. The cut reeds are laid down layer by layer each facing the opposite direction to create a crisscross of reeds. Additional reeds are placed where the houses will be built for additional support. The houses are 1 room only as the cooking is all completed in the common area outside.

As the head of household was describing the building process, the local women passed out reed roots for us to eat. They tasted like cucumbers. Reed roots and fish are the staples of their diet. After the demo, we toured the houses and looked at their handy-crafts for sale. Then we loaded onto a boat made of reeds for a cruise to another island. Amazing how they make everything that they need out of reeds!

Following our floating island tour, we returned to our speed boat to travel to Isla Taquille, which is 34 kilometers from Puno. The island’s tribe is known for their costumes and weaving. When we arrived, we walked 30 minutes uphill to the town center. The views were spectacular of the sapphire blue lake and the island farms. One farm had lambs that were so small and cute standing next to their big mamas! It made me not want to eat lamb ever again!

The main square had a local community shop selling the locally made hats, gloves, and scarves. Everything was handmade on the islands with hand spun wool. The men were expert knitters too!

The costumes that everyone on the island wore for daily life were introduced by the Spanish. Each man wore a knitted hat. If the hat was all red, it signified that he was married, and if it was white and red, then he was single. If the man was an elected official he wore a colorful hat. The unmarried girls wore layers of colorful skirts, and the married women wore darker skirts.

Our tour was great, and we learned so much about the local culture, which was nice, especially after our not very informative tour of the sun island. About 10 minutes from Puno, our boat sputtered to a halt as it had run out of diesel. After floating for 20 minutes or so another boat came to tug us into shore! Our boat’s name was Titanic which we thought was very fitting and we should have expected for something to go wrong with the boat!  What an ending to our wonderful time on Lake Titicaca!

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Getting High in the Andes (The Raff Way): Climbing Huyana Potosi–May 25-27

 While in Chalalan, we’d decided to attempt to climb 6,088 m Huyana Potosi; neither of us was in any kind of climbing shape, but the mountain charmed us when we flew by its upper portions last week, and so we agreed to give it a try. Both of us are well-schooled in the world of altitude, and we were both willing to accept our limitations and turn back should warning signs of trouble occur. We knew that climbing to over 20,000 feet in elevation was probably overly ambitious, but when else would we get such a good chance to climb in the Andes?

 Another climber had recommended a guiding company, aptly if not creatively named Huyana Potosi, so we wandered over to check it out back in La Paz after our return from the Amazon. We were encouraged to hear that they buy new gear every year, and the ratio was one guide to two climbers (three at the most). The prospect of a rope team consisting of an experienced guide with only Sarah and I, as opposed to a bunch of newbies was enticing, and the price fit within our budget, so Sarah and I signed up to attempt the highest mountain that either of had ever climbed , beginning the very next day!

 We had been staying at a hotel in La Paz that was aimed more at locals than tourists, and so it was clean, quiet, and a very good deal. Breakfast was my favorite part of the experience, though, and so I was glad to get one more desayuno there before heading up to the mountains. A tiny old woman, who for some reason wore a pharmacist’s jacket everyday and spoke unintelligibly to foreigners and Bolivians alike, served fresh juice, café con leche with just a splash of coffee and a lot of warm milk, and delicious bread rolls. If she liked you on a particular day, she would give you three rolls, but if you were too early, too late, or looked at her funny when she was apparently asking whatever strange phrase meant, “and what would you like to drink,” it would result in the loss of one bread roll. Today was a good day, and we got three to power us up the mountain.

 Our first stop was the company’s warehouse, where they fitted us with plastic boots (in all the years I’ve been climbing, I don’t think I’ve ever worn plastics before), bib snow pants that came down to mid-shin, a shell jacket, ice ax, and crampons. Some of the others rented sleeping bags, gloves, and headlamps as well; they had it all available. We had plenty of good cold weather gear already, but I was thankful to get an extra layer anyway, and the technical stuff looked fine. I checked out the ropes, which were fairly new and looked to be in good condition; I supposed that they probably kept the helmets up at the base camp.

 After getting geared up, we had to wait for three additional climbers who had shown up 40 minutes late to the office; two of them were Dutch but lived in La Paz , and they joked that they were on Bolivian time. A French guy who currently lived in Houston (I joked that he probably lived in the only state where his accent wouldn’t help him get some action), and a young Danish dude rounded out our group. I was glad that they were all pretty fit, since we would be staying together on the climb, but I was also still relieved to have the small rope team because only one had ever climbed.

 Our base camp of 4700 m was a simple bus ride along a gravel road; several villages were situated up there, and the number of people who live at these high altitudes still surprises me after three weeks in Bolivia. Camp, which was actually a small comfortable lodge, was set right above a lovely aquamarine lake with rocky hills and giant snow-covered mountains, including Huyana Potosi, surrounding it and towering far above us. We settled into our bunk bed accommodations, donned our high water bibs, and geared up for snow school, which would begin after lunch. Sarah had talked me into being a vegetarian, something that the Bolivians don’t fully understand (we had to tell at least 3 different people at the office that chicken was indeed a meat), so I watched with a forlorn gloom as the others gobbled their milenasa while I poked gingerly at a blocky white gob that they informed me was fried cheese but looked suspiciously like Spongebob Squarepants.

Having fueled up and possibly murdered a popular children’s cartoon figure, we hiked up the mountain for about 45 minutes and threw on our plastics and crampons. Back at the lodge, Sarah and I had shown the others how to sling their ice axes onto their bags without endangering anyone else with impalement while they hiked. We weren’t exactly excited to be spending the afternoon “learning” how to walk in crampons and hold an ice ax, but we needed the day at elevation to help us acclimatize.


One thing had begun to bother me, however; contrary to all of the pictures in the office, I had yet to see any helmets, except on the other companies’ teams. I wasn’t really concerned for snow school or the hike to high camp the next day, but I damn sure wanted one for the actual climb. When I asked about it, Eduardo (our guide) explained that the climb wasn’t considered technical and helmets weren’t needed. We discussed this a bit, aided by the translations of the Dutch Bolivians, and I pointed out that the other companies seemed to treat the climb as technical, considering that all the clients wore helmets. Eduardo responded by asking me if I’d ever climbed before, and both Sarah and I responded, “YES”! I added that if we were using ropes, axes, and crampons, that the climb was indeed a technical climb and made it very clear that I would not be joining the climb if the proper safety equipment didn’t show up for my use. Our resistance was persuasive to the newbies as well, who seemed to like the idea of getting back down the mountain with brains intact, and Eduardo promised to have helmets sent up from La Paz the next morning before we proceeded up to high camp.


Basically, snow school consisted of practicing French technique (foot over foot) and duck walking (toes pointed out for steeper moderate slopes) in our crampons. After traipsing around in the snow for a bit, Eduardo demonstrated using the pick of the ax and the front points of our crampons to climb up and down high angle snow…which, I thought, certainly sounded like a technical section of climbing to me. One of the assistants, however, did give me a helpful tip on using my ice ax more efficiently when down climbing on high angle stuff, though, so I was happy to get a little something out of snow school. I was a little surprised that we didn’t do anything on a rope or ice ax arrest, but at least my rope team would be full of competent members (I later found that the guides tended to short rope their clients and often basically dragged them to the summit). In any case, the helmet crisis was resolved, and Sarah and I had gained some exercise at the higher elevations. All in a day’s work for the Raffs.

Our evening meal was a bit better, although I’d never thought of topping mashed potatoes with fried vegetables and a fried egg, but at least I could eat everything in good conscience without wondering how I would explain things to Matthew and Kylie, our neice and nephew, when they asked why Spongebob no longer walked with the same swagger. We drank a lot of water and decaf tea in hopes of hydrating well enough to fend off altitude sickness. The cook’s adorable little bonnet-clad daughter, Beba, who claimed to be 10 but must have been 4, kept Sarah busy pretending to fall off the hearth, only to have Sarah catch her in her moment of desperation.

Sarah had not felt well at dinner or before bed, but she slept through the night and woke up feeling much better. A light in the hallway shone directly in my eyes, and all of the liquids forced multiple trips to the bathroom, so I wound up spending my 2nd sleepless night in a row (too excited to sleep in La Paz), which was a bit worrisome to me. It was my turn to feel pretty crappy the next morning, but I managed to eat a little and drank several cups of tea. By lunchtime, both Sarah and I were feeling better, although we had to hide upstairs from Beba in order to get a little quiet rest before heading up to high camp.

The three hour hike up to high camp would take us to an elevation of 5400 m. We set out after lunch, newly acquired helmets bobbing up and down off of our packs, and hiked up steep scree and rocky paths for an hour before paying a park entrance fee to a little old lady sitting in a rock shelter at around 5,000 m above sea level (No Joke!). It was much hotter than we would have imagined up this high, but the sun was strong without any breeze to cool us down. Sarah was struggling a little with the altitude, but one of the assistants was walking with her in the back of the group. I went to walk with her too but stayed quiet because sometimes a husband isn’t as helpful as he means to be if his wife isn’t feeling so well. Anyway, she got stronger as the day went on, and her pace was just as effective as the “sprint and sprawl” game of “red light, green light” that the rest of the group seemed to be playing. I was surprised that Eduardo didn’t regulate pace more, but then again, I guess he is used to dragging clients up on summit day anyway.

We were really glad to get off the rocks and onto the snow, where it is much easier to walk comfortably by rest stepping…a technique that we taught the others. Both Sarah and I were a little tired but otherwise strong upon reaching high camp, where we spent a few minutes enjoying the panorama of giant Andes peaks and high lakes before diving inside the small hut to get warmer as the sun began to sink. After a quick dinner of soup followed by ramen noodles with tea chasers, all six members of our team got horizontal on a bench that held all of our sleeping bags. There wasn’t much wind, so we were pretty cozy. I ventured outside before sunset because almost nothing compares to those final few moments of orange and pink glow before the sun kisses the snowy slopes and peaks good night.


Sleeping at 5400 m (17, 820 ft) is not easy; your lungs and your heart just won’t settle down. In the conflict between sleep loss and water loss, I chose the former, hoping that a hydrated body could overcome lack of sleep, even for a third night in a row. I must have dozed off a little, or at least shut down, but I felt pretty crappy when the alarm went off at midnight. I forced myself to chug a portion of yogurt, which is most often served as a breakfast drink here, and chugged two mugs of tea in hopes that once I got a little fuel and some fresh air, things would be okay. It seemed to work, and Sarah was feeling all right, too, if not overly energetic.

The night was clear but had become quite breezy over the previous hour, and the stars of the Southern Cross twinkled over our heads as we set out at around 1:00 AM; we could also just see the lights of La Paz peeking through a gap in the mountains. Eduardo and the guides kept a good portion of rope coiled into their packs in case of emergency, and we were positioned only 12 or 15 feet apart. Our only instructions were on which side to keep the rope and which side to hold our ax, with a reminder that the rope should be kept tense (not difficult with such a short rope).

Our climb began with a fairly long snow traverse on reasonably flat terrain. I was glad to be feeling better, but this was far from my strongest day. Sarah wasn’t doing too well either, but we both thought maybe we just needed to warm up. The trail got much steeper, and Eduardo’s pace was tough to follow; it’s especially hard to get a rhythm on a short rope, half a step is the difference between way too slow and way too fast. After about an hour, we stopped for a break, and I choked down two Oreos (never again at high altitude; it’s like chewing baked mud) and slugged down some water, but I was concerned to see that Sarah wasn’t eating and only took a minute sip of water. She clearly wasn’t feeling any better and was expressing doubt about continuing. Eduardo offered to slow down a bit before motoring up the hill chanting, “Lento and continuoso” at exactly the same pace he’d set before the break.

Fifteen minutes later, Sarah’s condition had worsened, and she was having trouble deciding whether she could continue. Everyone was trying to encourage her, which was nice but not safe for someone exhibiting so many signs of altitude sickness…when your head, stomach, and awareness level are all worsening by the minute, it’s time to wait for another day. I hated to see her disappointed, but I suggested that she go down, and I offered to go back with her. She decided that she would try to go a little farther, and we agreed to go 15 more minutes. This time, Eduardo really did slow down quite a bit, and I was grateful.

Just a few minutes up the hill, Sarah needed to stop again, and she agreed that it was time to turn around. I know that it was a really hard decision for her, but I was relieved for her safety, and we could climb a mountain any old day! I offered to go back too, but she basically ordered me to continue, so Asst. Mario led her down, and Eduardo and I tied onto the rope that he had formerly been leading. It is always a bitter decision to turn around on a climb, and I have both respect and sympathy for Sarah’s decision, but mostly I was just glad that she would be okay soon. Besides, there is no shame in calling it at over 17,000 ft.!

We kept an even pace after that; the climb alternated between longish traverses and steep sections of climbing. I hadn’t really realized just how low energy I was myself until Sarah was safely on her way back down to high camp, but I had to laugh because I was committed to the climb now, barring emergency, thanks to Sarah’s order that I march on…I guess she had been able to make decisions after all!

I can’t say that the climb was my favorite. We crossed one crevasse that we sort of just crawled over, but other than that, we basically continued along on a grueling slog in the dark. I did my best to gulp Skittles, M&M’s, and water at every break, but 10 ½ months of travel hadn’t exactly left me a model of physical conditioning. By the time we reached the bottom of the summit block, I was running pretty near empty.

Many of the 20-somethings who have climbed Huyana Potosi with guided groups will tell you how much fun they had and how exciting it was. Anyone can do it! Based on my experience, those folks are either telling lies to cover up how they felt at 5900 m (the physical challenge alone had turned back 6 of 14 teams that day), or they have since tossed down enough Pacena beers to turn their experience into a giant marlin of a fish story.

The reality is that the summit ridge is fairly technical, high angle, and very exposed on each side; it is nothing that I wasn’t qualified to climb (a solid “C” climb in the Mazamas), but very few precautions were taken to make it safe. Rope teams climbed about 5 feet apart, and there was no protection set on the route. Many of the new climbers were freaked out by the terrain itself, and I was pretty nervous to be climbing this crap with a bunch of people who had never been on a rope or swung an ice ax before! The problem is that the ridge sneaks up on you, and you are pretty committed (1/3 of the way up the narrow, crowded ridge) by the time you realize how badly things could go at any second. Fuelled by a mixture of adrenalin, anger, and a bit of fear that I was in fact pulling the two people behind me up the ridge–I was not about to let Eduardo drag me to the summit–I stuck my head down, chopped away, and got my feet set firmly in the snow (thanking God for my helmet and simultaneously cursing the fact that I didn’t have another one to for my rearend), and made my way up to the summit.


As I sat at 6,088 m (almost 20,100 ft.) watching the sunrise, I didn’t really know what I felt: tired mostly but also somewhat fulfilled at having dogged my way up that mountain. The summit was beautiful…tons of mountains all around, La Paz and Lake Titicaca both in the distance; it was a spectacular place to be. I was tired, though, pretty to close to my current limits, and really wishing that Sarah was with me to share the summit views. I was glad when we headed back home.


The angle on our descent was a lot easier; we could stay on our feet and use the axe in normal position. The newbies led us down, and I was very, very vocal with reminders not to pull on the rope every time we approached a steep section. Other groups were still going up, but the guides worked very well together to keep teams from getting tangled. I just concentrated on my feet and my axe and tried to forget how tired I was; the cough I always get on cold, dry mornings on the mountain had set in, and my head and ribs were hurting from the hacking…I can only describe the final hour back to camp as a glorified stumble on my part, but I seemed to keep up with the team just fine. When we got to camp, I realized that they were just as done as I was, as well.


Sarah was waiting outside for me when we came into camp; she had slept all morning and had taken a little tea while waiting for us. She still didn’t feel good, but she was back on the mend. When she saw me, my amazing wife who had to be both disappointed and half-sick with after-effects gave me a hug and a kiss, told me that she was proud of me, and helped me take off my crampons. She even wanted to hear about the rest of the climb. I’m a lucky man!

I am really glad that we climbed Huyana Potosi, and of course, I am excited to have eclipsed the 6,000 m mark for the first time; one of the best parts of Bolivia is its amazing mountains, and it is an experience that I will never forget. That being said, I’m too old to go climbing mountains when I’m tired and out of shape. No mas!



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Welcome to the Jungle: Chalalan Eco-Lodge (May 19 – 23)

The Amazon Rainforest is a subject that both Mike and I enjoyed learning about in our childhood, and for Mike it has been a dream to visit the rainforest. So what better place than the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, which has over 1000 species of birds and more protected species than any other park in the world. We decided to splurge on this adventure and stay at the Chalalan Eco-lodge, which is 6 hours up river from the nearest town so in the very heart of the park. The eco-lodge is completely community-based, and all proceeds go directly back into their indigenous community. It sounded like a perfect way to experience the rainforest.

Rurrenabaque is the gateway town to Madidi National Park and is accessed from La Paz via a 24 hour bus ride or a 40 minute flight. We opted for the flight. On May 19th, which was also my brother’s 40th birthday, we headed to El Alto Airport which is one of the world’s highest airports at 3660m. As we were getting checked in for our flight, we saw a couple that we had met on our Torres del Paines hike back in April. Katie and Simon, from Sydney, were also headed to the jungle on the same itinerary as us. Sometimes the world of travelers is quite small!

Our 40 minute flight was on a 19 passenger twin prop-engine plane. A few minutes after take-off, we were flying through the Cordillera Real mountain range with snow-capped peaks on each side of the plane. After 30 minutes or so the plane began making banking turns which felt really odd. Then the captain, who we could see in the cockpit came on the radio announcing that we were returning to La Paz due to a hydraulics warning light. So our nice 40 minute flight turned into an hour flight back to La Paz. After a few hours to get the light fixed, we were back on our way to the jungle with a few less passengers who decided it was too scary and a few passengers a bit more nervous than before.

We safely arrived and were greeted by hot, humid, oxygen rich air as we had descended all the way down to 100 m above sea level! It felt great after being in such a high, arid environment for the past 3 weeks. Rurrenabaque is a tiny town next to the Beni River, and we spent the afternoon and evening enjoying the tropical feel.

The next day the real adventure started with our 6 hour boat trip up the Beni and Tuichi rivers to Chalalan. We climbed into a dugout canoe with a speed boat engine and started upriver. We had been told it was a 6 hour ride there and only 3 hours on the way back, which was hard to believe at the time. However, after a few minutes on the river, we found out why as the currents were super strong with the occasional rapid! I was happy to be wearing my life jacket. 

As we moved away from town, the wildlife began to appear on the sides of the river banks. We saw tons of birds including egrets, herons, a red headed woodpecker, vultures and many more. We also saw a 6’ long spotted caiman sunning itself on the sandy riverbank. The real highlight of the morning for me was seeing the world’s largest rodent, a capybara. They were the size of a small dog and had narrow heads. They live near the river banks and swim very well.


The Chalalan lodge is 2 km inland from the river. As we walked, our guide, Yed, started pointing out the wildlife. We saw a sleeping, howler monkey and heard a toucan’s call, but the animals that captured our attention were the farming ants. The ants carry pieces of leaves the size of a quarter down from a tree and to their nest. There they use the leaves to grow fungi, which they eat. In the opposite direction, we could see the ants returning to the tree to get another leaf. It was fascinating to watch this family of ants working so well together.

Finally, we arrived at the lodge in a pretty clearing on a lake surrounded by the rainforest. All the buildings are made with renewable resources in the traditional way. The floors are mahogany, and so is the furniture all handmade by the local community. The roofs are made with palm leaves and will last 20 years. Our room was walled with woven grass, and we had a hammock hanging on the porch. It was a perfect base for our 4 days in the jungle.


Our afternoon excursion was a short hike on one of the many trails surrounding the lodge. As we walked, Yad explained the different levels of the rainforest and how each level has its own eco-system. We saw a few insects, including an inch-long bull ant whose bite on your hand can make your whole arm go numb. The real highlight was a herd of peccary, which are wild pigs. We could hear them chewing on palm nuts from a distance so we started to walk off-trail to get a closer look. As we moved closer, the stink became strong and the chewing louder. We did get a glimpse of the big, hairy pigs but not close enough for a picture because as soon as they heard us off they ran.

Dinner was an amazing feast of catfish cooked in palms leaves and a variety of vegetable sides, finishing with a wine soaked banana for dessert. What a feast! After dinner, we participated in a coca chewing ceremony including an offering to Pacha Mama, mother earth. The proper way to chew coca actually doesn’t include any chewing. After the wad of leaves and baking soda is made, you just tuck it into the side of your check and suck for an hour or so. The flavor is mild, and it did give me an energetic buzz feeling. The evening was capped off with traditional music and dancing. It was a great end to our first day in the jungle!

Day 2 in the jungle started with a 5 hour jungle trek and a canoe ride on the lake to return us back to the lodge. Yad scored some gum boots for us to wear since it was really muddy, and we would be crossing a creek today.

We learned about walking trees which have roots that will move to allow the main trunk to move into the sunlight. The roots have thorns for defense because the wood is soft. There was one tree that moved its trunk 10’! Yad found a cinnamon bark tree for us to smell, and we learned that the bark can be used in tea to help relieve stomach issues. We all took a turn smelling the tree bark, which reminded me of treats from home.

As we were sniffing the tree, Yad heard a toucan call in the distance, so off we tramped off trail in search of the toucan. It was very high in a tree, but we could make out its distinctive long beak with no problem. The call was very pretty, and it was fun to watch it swing its beak around.

Ants continued to intrigue us, and we saw army ants with both workers and soldiers. The soldiers have white heads with sharp pincers to ward off predators. The local people use the soldier heads as sutures for cuts.

The adventure of the morning turned out to be crossing the creek which looked more like a small river to me. We all picked up sticks to help us with our balance. The water was higher than my gum boots, so I ended up with 3” of water in each gum boot and soggy socks for the remainder of the hike. I was happy to see no caimans or piranhas in the river where we crossed!

The morning finished with a nice canoe ride home with the boys paddling and Katie and I sitting back and enjoying the beautiful view. After lunch, we went swimming in the lake; it was refreshing and warm. As we were relaxing, the lodge had some more visitors: both squirrel and capuchin monkeys. They were eating the oranges and grapefruits growing in the trees around the lodge. It was really cool to watch the monkeys bang the grapefruit trying to get it open. They were efficient eaters, and after a few minutes, there were piles of peels on the ground around the trees and then they continued on their merry way.

Our afternoon activity included both another canoe ride and then a hike to a lookout point. The reflections on the calm lake were incredible with pretty white clouds, blue sky, and the green tree line perfectly showing up on the lake. It was awesome! The hike to the lookout was short but rewarding. The lookout gave us an amazing view over the lake and across the green treetops to the mountains which are the park’s boundary. Every direction we looked was bright green trees. As we enjoyed the view, two macaws flew overhead and landed in a tree nearby. Macaws are the world’s largest parrots, and they are monogamous for life. If a partner dies, the living partner will usually find another widow to spend time with but will not mate again. The macaws were close enough for us to see well, and they seemed to be always touching either with their tails or their beaks. It was really cool, and it seemed like they were showing us how happy they were together.

A night walk through the jungle sounded scary to me as I imagined walking through spider webs and having jaguars watching me from above, but it turned out to be an educational adventure. Yad found a giant tarantula which was the size of both my fists put together and very hairy. She was very shy and was only a few inches from the opening of her nest. Yad used a small twig to bait her a bit so we could see her giant fangs and get a good look at her. I would not want to find one of these in my bed!

Our other evening highlight was spotting green tree frogs clinging onto the tree branches. They were so green and very still even with our camera flashes and headlights on them. They just kept on holding on and looking straightforward.


When we got back to the lodge, we discovered a smaller tarantula, the size of an apple, living in a post only 10’ from our cabin. We named her Mrs. T and ended up checking on her 3 times a day for the next 2 days. For me, it was to ensure she wasn’t in my bed, and for Mike, well he was just fascinated by her. Oh, and it was a bit frightening to see the remains of her mother outside her nest! 

Our morning hike on day 3 started off with a bang. Unknown to me, we had been hearing howler monkeys howling at each other since 6am. It was the alpha male and a young male who was challenging for position. The howls sounded like a low rumbling engine. So off we went in pursuit of the howls through deep mud (thank goodness for those gum boots) and vines to find the source of the sound. They were high in the trees but easy to see since they are a reddish, brown color. We saw the huge alpha male while he howled. He stretched his neck all the way out leaning away from the branch. While he howled, all the females laid down low to show submission. After this final howl, the challenge was over and all the monkeys settled down after the four hour standoff. They are lazy and often stay within the same area if there is good food.

In the same area, Yad showed us a devil tree. It was a tree that lived concurrently with a family of fire ants. If the tree dies, the ants leave, and if the ants die the tree dies. The ants got a home and nutrients from the tree, and the tree got protection from predators. It was a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship in nature.

After our exciting start, we had a pleasant walk through the jungle to a lookout. All we could see were green trees. We had to be breathing fresh oxygen with all these tree around us! There was a good spot with lots of vines growing from the high canopy overhead, and Yad suggested that we try and climb them. Mike and I were all for the opportunity to get high and had fun trying to climb the slippery vines. We got filthy, but that was part of the fun too! 

As we continued to walk, we heard the distinguished sound of munching nuts and we set off in pursuit of the wild pigs. It was a large group and we caught them as they were crossing the trail ,so we got a good look at them. It was exciting, but they sounded angry to me, so I kept looking around for a tree to climb in order to keep myself safe!

Feeling refreshed after lunch and an afternoon swim, we set off in the canoe for a tour around the lake. We saw several caiman youths lounging in the sun. The caiman lay eggs at this protected lake, and once the young caiman grow big enough, they walk the 3km to the larger lake. I was happy to see only small caiman since we had been swimming in this lake over the past few days!

We saw tons of birds around the water edge including a bird that we nicknamed the cow bird because it has four stomachs like a cow. There were also a few macaws flying overhead with their brilliant red wings.

Back at the lodge we enjoyed sunset on the dock with happy hour beers with our friends. The stars were out in full force, and we could see them all including the milky part of the Milky Way.

Our last night at Chalalan was eventful, with a canoe ride around the lake looking for caiman and tree boa constrictors, plus whatever else we might happen to see. We saw a juvenile tree boa which was 3’ long but skinny hanging in a tree 6’ off the water. His coloring blended in perfectly with the tree branches and we only saw him because of the reflection of light in his eyes.

As we continued around the lake, Mike spotted another boa in a tree high off the lake. He was in the middle of hunting bats. His tail was around a branch, and his body was coiled up and would spring out into the air as a bat passed by. I think we interrupted his hunt as our lights scared away the bats, but it was really cool to watch him in action!

In addition to the boas, we saw tons of caimans’ red eyes around the lake. It was a neat excursion! Of course before I could fall asleep, I had to check on Mrs. T, who was still comfortable in her nest outside our room!

Our last morning in Chalalan was uneventful with just breakfast and packing. Then we walked the 2km out to the river to catch our motored canoe back to Rurrenabaque. On our walk out we heard the toucan calling and a howling monkey. The boat ride back was wet as it rained the whole time. We did get to see a capybara swimming up river. All we could see was its head. We also saw lots of birds hanging out at the water’s edge.

These past 5 days in the jungle were a major highlight on our year long adventure. It was so magical being in a place that was so one with the surroundings and waking up to nature’s sounds. Our guide and all the staff at Chalalan really had a passion for the rainforest and for its conservation, which made it really special for us to be a part of it! Sometimes our childhood dreams do come true, and sometimes they are better than we had hoped for. This was one of those times!

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La Paz: the World’s Highest Capital and the World’s Most Dangerous Road–M

When Sarah last left you, we had just finished our tour of the Uyuni Salar, one of our favorite experiences in South America.  Before moving on to La Paz, we decided to take a rest in Uyuni for a day, partly because we were tired after the tour and partly because our friend Trung told us that this tiny high dessert town was also home to the largest plastic bag cemetery in the world.  He was right, but he neglected to tell us that Uyuni is also the place where dust goes to die!

Anyway, we spent a day planning the rest of our stint in Bolivia and contacting the outside world on the slowest internet connection on the planet; this in itself actually doubled as entertainment as some of the more spoiled tourists in town pounded their fists and shouted obsenities in the internet cafe.  I’m not sure how they expected fast internet in a town in the dessert at almost 3700 meters where not even dust could survive, but I made sure to nod my head with stern indignation whenever they looked over at me in disgusted disbelief at our horrid situation. 🙂

We took a tourist night bus into La Paz; I know that our bus experiences have been memorable as our trip has gone on, but we have officially declared ourselves wily veterans of the local buses and decided that we would splurge on a bus that had heat and also discouraged its drivers from drinking on the job.  It was a good decision because we both slept well on the journey while also making it to La Paz alive the following morning.  Coming into La Paz was actually pretty spectacular as the highway runs high above the city, overlooking large steep cliffs that surround it.  At 3,660 m (well over 11,000 ft), La Paz is the world’s highest capital, and much of it is literally built on the sides of high cliffs reaching up into thin air.

Sarah and I spent most of our first day in La Paz getting set for some of the other things we wanted to do in Bolivia and also taking advantage of being back in a city where we could resupply on a few necessities.  Wondering in the capital is a tiresome deal; not only is the altitude a killer, but the sun is also a lot hotter here than we were used to, and the tall buildings held in the heat.  After walking up a particularly steep hill, both Sarah and I plopped to the ground to catch our breath and cool our burning lungs.  I was a little surprised to be struggling with it after a week in Bolivia, but we hadn’t really done a whole lot of walking since we’d been at the higher elevations.  Remembering our motto on Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Raff’s began to move pole, pole!

The highlight of our time in La Paz occurred the next day when we took the bicycle journey down The World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR).  Once the main road for traffic from La Paz to the busy tourist town of Coroico, this road had at one time averaged a fatality every other day.  The company that we had chosen to ride with, Gravity Tours, was the originator of biking the road back in 1992, and the ride has become infinetesimally safer in the past few years because they have built a new paved highway to replace the narrow, winding gravel road that once held two-way traffic, in addition to kamikaze bikers.  Still, we would be zooming down a 63 km road that began at 4700 m and ended at 1200, for a drop nearly the size of going from sea level to the summit of Mt. Hood.  Pretty awesome!

After meeting up with everyone at a cafe that I am pretty sure the owner of the biking company also owned (their brochures plug about a dozen restaurants, bars, and hostels that rumor has it all share the same owner), we left La Paz for a 45 minute bus ride up to La Cumbre, our mountainous starting point on the edge of a pretty lake.  We were surprised to find that our guide was from Tacoma, Washington, and had actually played football against Battle Ground High School during my second or third year teaching.  He was a climber, and it was fun to talk with him along the way.

We had a brief safety lesson at La Cumbre and then performed a ceremony to Pacchu Mamma (sort of like Mother Earth) in which we basically asked her for a safe journey by pouring a bit of alcohol on the ground (he specifically noted that this was not for dead homies), on our tires, and then just a swig down our gullet.  With that formality out of the way, it was time to ride!


Our first few sections were on the paved highway and descended steeply on fairly wide curves; this gave us a chance to get used to riding our bikes as opposed to riding our brakes.  Our views of huge cliffs that dropped off directly below the highway and the valley gorge below us were splendid, although the wrecked bus at the bottom served as a somber reminder that we needed to take care as we rode.  Our guide asked us for a team name, and I coined us the Screaming Gringos, and everyone who was not a hoity-toity-19-year-old-British-girl-who-had-gone-on-this-ride-even-though-they-hated- biking-and-the-outdoors-in-general-but- wanted-the-cool-t-shirts-anyway had fun living up to our name as we zoomed down the road and through the small villages high up on the hill.

After about 45 minutes of high-speed action on the pavement, we piled back onto the bus for a snack as the driver taxied us up the optional 8 km stretch that almost no one ever does because of both the high altitude and because the heavy bikes are specifically designed to go downhill.  Our bus ride took us to the beginning of the old WMDR, where the road became much more narrow and unpaved.  It was, however, a beautiful spot for a bike ride.

I had never really mountain-biked down technical terrain, so it took a couple of sections before I got used to riding over uneven, loose rocks without riding the brake or tossing off the side of the bike or, more importantly, the giant pit to our left.  Once I got it, though, it was fun to bomb down the hill; people were surprised that it was my first time mountain biking, and Sarah and I were always towards the front of the group.

The narrowest part of the road is 3 m and occurs directly under the spouting San Juan waterfalls; there is plenty of room for a bike to manuever it, but I have no idea how buses travelling in opposite directions ever did…I guess often enough, they didn’t.  Riding this section was actually not too hard, as long as you took the steep drop right before the blind corner at a reasonable pace.  After this section, the road widened and eased up mostly, although I managed to entertain two other members of our group when I misjudged a big bump and then in a panic to avoid a rock wall, accidentally hit the front brake and nearly went over the handlebars…it wasn’t so much the sight of me doing it as the words that were flowing from my mouth that got them.

After another hour of riding, we got a glimpse of scenic Coroico in the valley below us; we had dropped almost all of  the 3500 m by this point, and both the temperature and the landscape had changed dramatically.  We were now in a beautiful green forested jungle setting with a narrow river running below us.  After a short break, we rode the last few sections, highlighted by two water crossings on the trail and finishing in the tiny village of Yolossa, which was boiling in the afternoon sun.  We had survived the WMDR, and these Screaming Gringos had enjoyed an amazing morning!

Yolossa is home to a small wildlife refuge that takes in animals that have lost their parents to poaching or that have been abused in some way by their former owners.  We had our celebration lunch here, toured the area, and bought a beer and a brownie to support the animals.  It was a fun place to visit as we saw several types of parrots, four types of monkeys, a caiman (alligator), and some turtles.  There was a natural swimming hole in the river, and so I took the chance to cool off before we headed out.

Gravity is the only company that drives up the road at the end of the day, so we got to relive our glory days on the way home.  The valley was very beautiful in the fading sunlight, and our driver treated us to a view over the side at the spot below the waterfalls–we were all glad that no other traffic would be on the road!   While we’ve been fortunate enough to experience more magnificent things than we (well, I) probably deserve over the past 10 months, our ride down the WMDR was one of the best, and I think I’ll start saving my nickels for a mountain bike when I get back home!

After the excitement and adrenaline rush of riding the WMDR, our final day in La Paz was much more calm, but it was interesting to get a little better feel for the city.  Even better, both Sarah and I were actually feeling healthy for the first time in quite a while (she had some sort of flu bug during our first day here, and we were both on the tail ends of nagging colds); we were both hoping that this trend would stick around, but for now, we would simply take advantage of our good health.

Our sightseeing began with a walk to the formal city center of La Paz, where the massive 1835 cathedral, the Presidential Palace (which I guess has bullet hole in it, but we didn’t see them), and the bright yellow legislative building all surrounded a lively plaza full of Bolivians taking their lunch.  It was a good place to people watch as daily life went about itself, complete with old school bus group taxis called micros, food vendors, and women in traditional bright dresses and derby hats.  These women usually tend the millions of stands that line the city’s streets; the variety and quirky combinations of goods you can purchase at these stands is incredible.  Sometimes, a shop will have 50 bars of soap for sale, while others will sell something like two bars of soap, some candy, and a power drill.  Strange.

The other place we visited was La Paz’s main landmark, San Francisco Cathedral.  Over 460 years old, this massive church now houses a museum in the former cloisters and wine cellars.  It gave a pretty good explanation of the Franciscans role in Bolivian history–they were very involved in the revolution that led to Bolivia’s birth as a nation.  After checking out some of the old winemaking instruments and the art gallery that focused on St. Francis, we were able to go to the balcony level and take a peek at the church’s interior; it was done in the baroque style that we have seen in most of the churches we’ve visited in South America.  We were then allowed to climb up to the bell tower, where we got some stunning views of the city and the hills above us.  Most people are accompanied by a guide, but we had talked our way into going up unaccompanied.  To reward the people’s trust, Sarah decided to ring the bells, which resounded loudly into the crowded square below us.  We made a pretty quick exit, avoiding eye contact along the way.

La Paz was an interesting city; it wasn’t really like any other city we’d seen throughout our travels.  It’s crazy setting high up in the mountains and below the rocky cliffs where most of its residents live is a starkly rural contrast to the bustling city right below.  Life seems to zoom right through the busy streets, yet many of the locals live the slow life in the plazas and the sidewalk stands.  I guess I just liked watching the city live because it certainly is its own entity.

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Touring the Bolivian Salt Flats: May 10 -14

Now that we were in Tupiza after our long walk, we needed to figure out how to get out of Tupiza to see some of Bolivia’s amazing landscapes. Tupiza is the jumping off point for tours to the far southwest of the country to see the world’s largest salt flat, mountain moonscape, and colorful lakes.

We signed up for a tour with the promise of the tour company that they could get the jeeps out of town regardless of the roadblock situation. So on the morning of May 10th, we piled into the jeep to start our 4 day tour. However, after 10 minutes on an old dirt road, we ran into a new blockade, and this was the last way to get out of Tupiza. So back to the hotel to wait out the strike for another day. The peace talks were underway, but we had no news of when the roads might open up. Mike and I were concerned that we were going to spend our whole month in Bolivia fighting roadblocks, so we made a list of options to get out of Bolivia earlier, including making the long walk back to Argentina!

The next morning, we got ready to go not knowing if we would get out of town or if we would prepare for our walk back to Argentina. Luckily, a compromise had been made, and we passed the blockades! We shared our jeep with another couple, Jens from Germany and Doris from Switzerland, and it was great to become friends with them.

Our tour started with a long, steep ascent out of town with amazing views of the sandstone mountains formed by rain and wind. The views down the valley were awesome, and the reds were so brilliant. As we continued our drive, we went through llama grazing country and a few tiny villages. The houses in the villages were made of mud bricks with a straw/mud roof. We also saw wild llama, vicunas, which are much smaller, and their fur is less shaggy.  The domestic llamas were decorated with earrings which made them even funnier looking!


By afternoon, we had reached 4800m and had amazing views of snow capped mountains in the distance. The main highlight was the abandoned village of San Antonio with Volcan Uturuncu (6008m) towering in the background. The buildings were made of stone, and it was fun to figure out what each of the buildings were used for once upon a time.


We spent the night in Quetena Chico at 5000 m. It was so high that rolling over in bed made my heart beat faster! Mike and I were both sick with colds, so it was an early night to bed after listening to the local village children sing.

Day 2 was the colorful lakes day! The landscape changed from tufts of grass to bare rock and sand. The landscape made me think that we were on the moon. We were within 25 km of Chile. Laguna Verde is an aquamarine lake with Volcan Licancabur (5930m) in the background. The lake’s color comes from minerals that are carried by the wind. Doris and Jens taught us how to make jumping pictures, so we had fun trying to get the timing right and not get too out of breath! 


After lunch, Mike enjoyed the natural hot springs looking over the small salt plain of Salar de Chalviri. I didn’t want to get wet since I was sick, but it sure seemed relaxing. There were also a few mud pools and fumaroles to check out.

The real highlight of the day was Laguna Colorado, a bright adobe-red lake with flamingos. The red color is due to algae, and there were also small islands of white due to the formation of borax. The flamingos prefer this lake to many of the others in this area because it is the warmest in temperature. There were many baby flamingos, which were white and brown colored, in this lake too. It was so beautiful, but really, really cold too!



The third day of our tour continued with barren landscapes with little vegetation. There were some really interesting rock formations that were carved out by the high winds. They made for fun pictures!

We also stopped at several lakes to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. The lakes were packed with flamingos. They are so graceful, and it is really neat to watch them take off and land as their skinny legs skim the water.  It was also fun to watch them use their beaks to hoe and scoop up food. Their beaks are big!

Our lunch stop had a magnificent view of Volcan Ollague which is an active volcano. We could see steam rising from its ridge line, and it reminded me of Mt. St. Helens, but on a much bigger scale! The volcano is right on the border of Chile.

In the afternoon, we crossed Salar de Chiguana, which is a small salt plain that was originally part of the same pre-historic salt lake as Salar de Uyuni. It was so windy that we couldn’t see anything, so it was a low-key afternoon.

Our hotel was right on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni and was actually made of salt. The floors were large salt grains, the walls were covered in salt, and even the light fixtures were decorated in salt! In the evening, we enjoyed talking to the occupants of the other jeep that was traveling with us, including Tina from Sydney, Claire from Switzerland, and Eric and Delphine from France. We played global Uno incorporating many different house rules, and it got to be rowdy and really fun.

 Salar de Uyuni was the highlight of our last day on the tour, and I am glad that it was last because it was incredible! The salt flat is the largest in the world and occupies 12,000 square kilometers. The salt is 130 m deep with a salt lake underneath. In every direction all you see is white with rocky mountains as the backdrop.

To get the most out of the day, we woke up early to watch the sunrise over the salt plain. It was a gorgeous sunrise of pink, purple, orange and yellow. Mike and I practiced a little yoga to help us keep warm while taking in the beautiful scene.

Once the sun was up, it was time to take funny photos. Since there is just flat white for as far as you can see, it is possible to make tricky photos. It was a blast with the whole group setting up and taking the pictures. Doris and Jens were super creative, and it was fun to get everyone involved in group photos! It was hard work setting up the shots, especially at 3600m!

 After our photo session, we drove across the flats. The salt forms hexagonal shapes, which helps add some dimension. As the sun rose higher, the whiter and more brilliant the salt became resulting in the background mountains seeming to float off the ground. It was pretty awesome.

We arrived in Uyuni in the afternoon to discover all the roadblocks were finished, so we could now continue our exploration of Bolivia! It was an amazing four days with breathtaking scenery everyday and new friendships from around the world. 

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When Bolivia Is On Strike, It´s Good to Find Some Hippies–May 8-9

After our frustrating attempt to get a Bolivian visa in Salta last week, gaining entrance at the border proved to be much easier than we had expected, but we were not to know at the time that the border was only the first of much larger challenges in exploring Bolivia.  We left Argentina early on Tuesday, May 8, and rode the bus for about 4 hours to the Argentine border town of La Quiaca.  After exiting in a matter of minutes, we filled out the visa application, submitted numerous American bills for inspection before gaining the amount of crisp, perfect dollars necessary to purchase our stamps, and were walking into Villazon, Bolivia within the hour.  Our hopes of an easy day, however, were utterly naïve.

Our first order of business was to locate an ATM in order to draw as much cash as we could because ATM’s are few and far between in Bolivia, and working ATM’s are even more rare.  Having accomplished that, we headed to the bus station in order to buy tickets to Tupiza, the town from which we could arrange a tour of the Salt Plains, a series of stark white plains and beautiful lagoons that are one of the most highly recommended places we’ve heard about from other travellers who’ve toured Bolivia.  Upon reaching the bus station, we thought that we would have no problem as over 10 companies advertised buses to Tupiza; however, each time we approached a window inquiring, “Tiene unos boletos a Tupiza por esta tarde,” we were always met with a negative shake of the head and a thumb pointing towards the next window.  Eventually, we ran out of windows and walked, frustrated and confused, across the street, but only international bus companies were located there.  We probably should have loaded our bags onto one of those buses or walked right back into Argentina right then and there.

I ended up being able to explain to one of the workers at the international bus companies that no one would sell us a ticket to Tupiza, so he directed us to the coach office down the street.  We found that we could pay for a shared taxi with several other people and get halfway to Tupiza, but that some sort of roadblock would keep the driver from going past.  We would have to walk through it and then pick up a different cab on the other side.  Many of the provinces in Argentina have border checks that taxis cannot go through without a special license, so we assumed that something similar must be occurring here.  In any case, we hopped in with a bunch of Bolivians who seemed perfectly fine with this method and were soon on our way up the highway.

Once we got to the roadblock, maybe 40 or 50 kilometers into the 90 kilometer trip to Tupiza, it was clear that the problem was not a border control but a political protest. Rocks and thorny branches were strewn across the road, and many people were camped out beside the blockade.  A group of young men playing a makeshift game of futsol on the road behind everyone else seemed to be the strike enforcers that would keep people from passing.  Another cab full of tourists were opting to return to the border because no one was willing to give them a ride on the other side since there would be more blockades up the road.  We thought about turning back as well, but both the driver and a nice Bolivian couple about our age who had been in our cab thought that we could probably get a ride after an hour or two of walking; we just needed to get past another roadblock or two.  After a few minutes of deliberating, Sarah and I agreed that we should give it a go, joining up with our new Bolivian friends, Carlos and his wife, Leni.

Although we were at around 3,400 m above sea level, it was still pretty darn hot, and the four of us were sweating as we climbed up and down the rolling hills of the dessert highway that offered little shade.  Fairly often, we would meet up with Bolivians carrying heavy loads in their arms and chewing coca leaves while moving in the opposite direction; Carlos, who spoke about as much English as I speak Spanish, would stop and ask them how long it might take us before we could find a ride before translating for us…answers varied between two and five hours.  Most people agreed that we had to pass four blockades, but no one knew how far they spanned.

On and on we went, trekking down the silent highway and lugging our heavy bags.  We rationed our water and both wished that we had eaten more than a banana and a few crackers earlier in the day.  After about an hour, we hit the next blockade, where Sarah was actually able to buy helados (ice cream) from a bicycle vendor on the side of the road.  The next blockade was about another hour down the road, and this one clearly had a group of enforcers who had stopped a motorcycle that was trying to get through.  As we walked, I talked with Carlos a bit, and he told me that people were striking mostly for higher pay but also for better medical options and education.  I was glad, though, that they harbored no ill will towards people trying to walk across the lines.

The guy on the motorcycle managed to get through the blockade, and we found him stopped a little ways down the road.  He agreed to take us two at a time up to the next town for 10 Bolivianos (about $1.50) each.  The girls rode off while Carlos and I continued walking up the road.  About 20 minutes later, the guy returned and took us six km up the road, letting us off a few minutes before the next blockade.  I can’t say that riding on the back of a motorcycle with two other guys while wearing 50 pounds on my bike was fun, but I was thankful for the time that we saved.

By this time, both Sarah and I were doing plenty of second-guessing our decision to continue after the first blockade.  We began to discuss some different options we had, depending on whether we could get to Tupiza; there was always the option to make the long walk back to the border the next day and head back to Argentina before making our way to Chile or flying north.  In any case, neither one of us felt like spending the next month walking the highways of Bolivia.

Our trek took us another two and a half hours, for a total of five hours on foot that day, and we were both tired, hungry, sore, and sick with head colds…not to mention thirsty.  We came upon a school and stopped off to inquire about getting some water before continuing towards Tupiza, still hoping to reach the last roadblock and find a ride to town before dark.  The last person we had talked to, though, said that the highway was totally blocked until morning.

To our surprise, a large group of hippies…15 young French, Argentine, and Peruvian travelers decked out like flower children…had arranged to stay at the school for the night and purchase some local food for dinner.  They invited us to join them, and the local teacher encouraged us to stay as well.  Tupiza was still 16 km away, and it was getting pretty late; we were both done in after a physically and emotionally trying day and decided that the traveling hippies were our best bet, so we said goodbye to Carlos and Leni, who continued up the way.

I know that I have at times been known to rail against the hippies of today, mostly because I think that they are mainly posers who think the clothes look cool (they’re wrong) and enjoy rebelling against nothing rather than actually standing for something that they believe in (other than stupid looking clothes and rebellion for the sake of nothing).  However, the 15 people who took us in were amazing, and I hereby promise never again to utter the phrase, “damn hippies,” or “friggin’ cheese stealers” again.  J  Having met only recently for the most part, they realized that this would be a challenging journey and so banded together to make things easier and more fun.  They graciously invited us in and made every effort to include us despite the fact they we were by far the most limited in speaking Spanish of anyone.  Several of the village children were hanging around, and the hippies were tireless in entertaining them with juggling and music.  Most of them were in poor shape and had been walking for two days with shoes better suited for the mall than the highway, but their spirits were indomitable despite their blistered feet.  We did our best to pitch in with preparing dinner before laying out our sleeping bags in the school and watching the world go by before dinner.  One of the hippies invited us to try the national Argentine obsession of mate (an herbal tea), which was a first for us, and several of them began to play their guitars and even a cello.


After sharing a borrowed plate of rice, maize, potatoes, and onions, both Sarah and I felt a lot better, and being with so many positive people helped raise our spirits.  We did our best to keep up with the school teacher’s lessons on Bolivian foods and places to visit, and then we slumped exhausted into our sleeping bags on the dusty school floor, but not before everyone passed the hat and did right by our generous Bolivian hosts.

Wednesday the 9th marked 13 months since our wedding, and we never would have predicted that we would start it by waking up next to 15 hippies sprawled out in the single room of a school house in Bolivia, but then again, this year has been anything but an exercise in normality.  Sarah’s cold was getting worse, and I had almost totally lost my voice after being sick myself the past week, and so we said goodbye to the hippies and hit the fresh air as soon as possible.  It’s a cliché, but this has got to be one of those things we will look back on and laugh about someday.

We walked that morning for another four or five miles along the highway, finally able to appreciate the beauty of the land around us.  The morning sun is always amazing as it lights up the mountains in glowing red, and we later learned that this portion of the highway is actually considered a highlight in itself.  The road was filled with Bolivian families making the long trek that we had undertaken the day before, and we would greet each other in Spanish and often receive toothless smiles in return for our own.


When we were nearly to the final roadblock, the hippies came flying by…all 15 of them loaded in the back of a flat-bed cattle truck that they had happened upon and convinced to take them as far as it could.  We caught them right at the final roadblock, only to realize that they were a large enough group to fill up the two trucks waiting a few 100 meters down the road.  So it was that Sarah and I passed the final blockade at a virtual sprint with our giant bags bouncing up and down on our shoulders while the hippies banged on the windows of the trucks trying to get them to stop while also cheering us on in at least two languages.  Finally, we reached the tailgate of the truck and jumped on right before the driver finally stopped and helped us find a place in the truck.  As we rode the final 10 km into Tupiza at 8:00 in the morning, all I could think was, “damn, I’m glad we met those hippies”!

PS: Bolivia is no longer on strike, and Sarah and I are doing fine.

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Tilcara and the Painted Hills–May 5-7

By the time that we left Cafayete, we had been in South America for 40 days and had a really nice taste of Argentina and Patagonian Chile, but both Sarah and I agreed that it was time to make our way north to Bolivia.  As we traveled through the small high dessert mountain towns of Northern Argentina, we noticed a real change in the people and the land, and it was becoming clear that we were moving into a place that felt less European and more like what we expected from South America.

After leaving Cafayete, we returned to Salta for a few hours before catching a bus up to the small town of Tilcara.  Sarah jokingly suggested that we pay a visit to Salta’s Bolivian consulate during our stopover so that we could reminisce the good times we’d had with them earlier that week, but I thought it might be better to just to have lunch in the plaza.  Luckily, we also had time to procure malaria pills for when we get to the Amazon and Skittles for the bus–we argued over which was more important, but I will let you try to figure out who took each side.

Tilcara is a charming little town of maybe 4500 people set in the high dessert at 2461 meters above sea level; almost all the buildings are either brick or adobe with cactus beams in the ceiling, and the buildings seem to melt into the boulders and red soil as they rise up the steep hillsides outside town.  Even though it is hot and dusty, many of the locals wear their llama wool sweaters with their boots while protecting their sun-worn faces under the shade of wide flat-brimmed hats (the women wear skirts and derby hats).  The people here are much darker and look more like they come from native South American heritages than the Italian descendants of much of Argentina.  It has a reputation for being overly touristy, but not many people were in Tilcara now, and we really enjoyed walking among the soft-spoken but friendly locals.

Of course, we also did touristy things, though.  The main attraction in the town of Tilcara itself is the Pucara, set on a hillside right at the edge of town.  Like Los Quilmes, the ruins we had seen earlier in the week, the Pucara was an ancient city from Pre-Columbian times.  It was actually one of several of such cities in the area between the 11th and 15th centuries.  At it’s peak, it may have held 1800 residents, so it was much smaller than Los Quilmes; still, though, I think it is interesting that in 2012, the city of Tilcara is not much larger. Although the Pucara was not a walled city, it was set high above the valley and would have been both protected by the surrounding mountains and also a good viewpoint from which oncoming threats could be spotted well in advance of attacks.  According to a brochure done by the University of Buenos Aires, the ancient Tilcaras who lived in the Pucara farmed basic crops that could withstand the climate (maize, potatoes, pumpkins, lentils) and herded llamas, their main source of food and wool.  Eventually, they were conquered for a short time by the Inca, but the Spanish soon took the city and enslaved the residents before basically eradicating them through disease and the brutality of enslavement.

The ruins today are a set of nearly identical small rock buildings with thick walls and flat roofs made of clay and straw.  They had no windows and very narrow doorways, and apparently Sarah would have played center for their basketball team.  The ceilings, a combination of cactus beams and bright reeds looked suspiciously similar to the modern ceilings in Tilcara, and we think that they must have been one of the “liberties” that Lonely Planet describes the 1950’s renovators as having taken in restoring the ruins.  Regardless, the thing that stood out to us was how well-protected the people would have been from the baking afternoon sun and the evening winds that brought with them the dust.  The largest building, nicknamed “the church,” would have served as a communal ceremonial building and featured an altar and a large courtyard.  The city was interesting, though not nearly as vast or well-organized as Los Quilmes, and we also enjoyed some nice views of the beautiful multi-colored rocky mountains and the valley below.  It was a pretty nice place to spend half a day before taking a siesta that afternoon in an effort to rid ourselves of the nagging colds we have been passing back and forth; of the six weeks we’ve been here, I don’t think three days have passed in a row where we both were entirely healthy.

We had rented a tiny cabin from one of the hostels in town, so we had a little home we could relax in that afternoon.  It was very basic, and sort of smelled like a big clod of dirt we might have taken from 3 feet under the ground, but we had our own little kitchen and a bathroom, with propane tanks for cooking and heating the shower.  There were over a dozen wool blankets as well, which made very good foot stools when lying in bed.  In any case, it was really nice to play house there for a couple of days, even though it also made us anxious to get back to a real place that we can call home.  That evening, I continued my last ditch effort to consume every type of local cuisine by trying out the delicious humita (which I guess is actually a Bolivian dish), a type of cornmeal tamale without meat, and a big dish of steaming locro, a stew made of beef or llama, maize dumplings, corn, chilies, and beans; the gauchos up here go crazy for the stuff, and I thought it was pretty good, too.

The following day, we woke up very early to catch a local bus to the nearby town of Pumamarca, a village of only 500 people.  This little spot held a very large attraction, however, El Cerro de los Siete Colores (The Hill of Seven Colors).  Because the colors are supposed to be most brilliant in the strong morning sun, we had jumped on the earliest bus that we could find, and we got to the town just in time to have a cup of coffee and some croissants fresh out of the oven while the sun finished rising over the hills before setting off on the hour long hike through the Paseo de los Colorado, a road that runs a loop through the front side of the painted hills.

At first, we saw mainly the bright red clay-like rock that juts out of most of the hills in Northwest Argentina, but soon we could also see layers of orange, brown, purple, and green–I’m pretty sure I only identified five colors, but not everyone works on Mondays, so I thought maybe the other two colors had the day off.  The layers of sediment became more pronounced in their different shades as the sun rose higher, and we took our time strolling along the path, enjoying the changing colors and also the peaceful atmosphere of solitude before heading back down to the village to check out the market.  There were many pretty wool garments, ceramics, and silver jewelry at the market, but none passed the “do you want to carry that thing for two more months in your already gaping bag” test.  Before heading back to Tilcara, we crossed the highway and scrambled up a hill to get some pictures of the Hill of Seven Colors from a broader view.  What a gorgeous morning!

 We spent what we hoped was our final afternoon (we still don’t have visas, and no one seems to know for sure what the deal is at the border) enjoying some Cafayete wine while trying to work out an itinerary for Bolivia.  The sun was out, and we had a nice view of the town below us; it was a nice ending to celebrate 43 vigorous days of travel through some of the most breathtaking landscapes we’ve seen throughout our travels…I would say that only the Himilaya and the South island of New Zealand could compare.  Bolivia, you have some big shoes to fill!

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Getting North and Embracing the Culture in Argentina: Cordoba, Salta and Cafayate (April 26 – May 4)

Feeling refreshed after several days in the countryside, it was time for us to move on to visit a few of Argentina’s northern cities. On April 26, we said goodbye to our rock dog friend and traveled to Mendoza to catch an overnight bus to Cordoba. However, we had several hours to kill before our 10 PM bus, so what better way than to wine taste? We found a wine shop that offered tasting flights and enjoyed tasting some more of the area’s fabulous wines.

Cordoba is Argentina’s second largest city and has seven universities. It is well known for its historic churches and Jesuit square. After our early morning arrival, we set out to explore the city’s center. Plazas are a staple in every Argentine city, and Cordoba’s was beautiful with a big statue of San Martin in the center and the beautiful Cordoba cathedral dominating the square. The cathedral took 200 years to complete after starting in 1577 and is a mixture of Jesuit and Franciscan design.


Cordoba’s Manzana Jesuitica is an entire block of Jesuit buildings with pedestrian-only streets. The buildings were pretty, and since it was Friday there were musicians playing and lots of people out and about. The Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus was the church on this block and was built in 1671. The designer was a boat builder, so the inside of the church’s ceiling looked like an upside down boat’s hull. It was made of cedar, so the church had a pleasant smell. The altarpiece was also carved cedar with life-size figures of saints. Behind the cathedral, was a small chapel, Capilla Domestica, which was built in 1644. The ceiling was made of cowhide stretched out and painted with pigments made of bones. It was a beautiful design.


We continued our tour of Cordoba’s churches by visiting Parroquia Sagrado Corazon de Jesus de los Capuchinos (long name!). It was built in 1934 in a neo-gothic style. The outside is missing a steeple in order to symbolize human imperfection, and there are sculptures of Atlas holding up saints to symbolize him holding up the sins of the world.

Our last sight of the day was Palacio Ferrerya, a 1914 mansion, that housed an art museum. There were a few pretty pieces of impressionist works, but for the most part it was modern art, which doesn’t intrigue Mike nor I. So instead, I looked at the pretty architecture of the building.

The next day, we hopped a mini-bus to Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia is a small city 30 minutes from Cordoba and is home to a Jesuit church and Che Guevara’s childhood home. We toured the Jesuit museum which was originally the living and working space of the compound built in 1643. Each room had some historical pieces of furniture and a nice explanation of the settlement’s history. Unfortunately, the interior of the church was closed.


The Che Guevara museum was informative with lots of childhood pictures throughout the house. One of the displays was his old motorcycle and bicycle. There was a map of his travels through Latin America from each trip. Fidel Castrol visited the museum in 2006 and there were lots of pictures of his visit displayed. Neither of us are particularly impressed by his legend, but it was still a unique place to visit.

 Back in Salta, we spent the evening in the artisan neighborhood of Guemes at their weekend art fair. There were many stalls of varied crafts. We both really liked the colorful, stone sculpted clocks, but neither of us were up to carrying it around for our remaining two months. The knitwear was also fabulous and made out of llama wool. It was fun to look around .

Sundays in an Argentine city are quiet, so quiet you wonder if anyone lives or works there. All of the shops are closed all day with the exception of a few snack stores and some of the restaurants are closed too. So, we had an entire Sunday to spend in Cordoba before a night bus to Salta. We spent the time in catching up in our journals in cafes and wandering the streets. The one museum that was open was Museo Muncipal de Bellas Artes Dr. Genaro Perez. The building was a beautiful mansion with gorgeous wood floors and fireplaces. In back there was a lovely sunroom with multi-colored glass. I had way more interest in the building than the modern art pieces, which included a huge sandbox and a florescent light display which flicked on and off symbolizing the human brain. Mike and I didn’t get it, but at least we did something for our last day in Cordoba!


I woke up to our descent into Salta which is located in a valley full of lush, green trees surrounded by tall mountains. Our first destination was the Bolivian embassy to get our visas, but it was closed, and we later found out it would be closed until Wednesday due to Labor Day on May 1st. Strike one with our Bolivian visa. Since it was a holiday, Salta’s main square and pedestrian shopping streets were packed. It added a nice sense of vibrancy, especially after the desolate roads of Cordoba the day prior.

Our church tour continued in Salta with the Inlgesia San Francisco, which had a very colorful façade and a slim bell tower. The inside had beautiful stain glass windows and a pretty painted ceiling. Salta’s main cathedral towers in pink over the town square. It was built in 1878 and had a very ornate, baroque altarpiece.

 We were churched out so we headed to the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (MAAM). The museum was built to display Incan artifacts and mummies that were found in 1999 on nearby Mt. Llullaillaco, a 6,739 m peak. The Inca’s used to perform human sacrifices to please the gods and usually preformed them on high peaks, which the Inca’s considered sacred. Three bodies and many burial art pieces were found well-preserved from the elements due to the elevation (6700m). The children were from noble families and taken to Cuzco (the sacred city) for a festival and symbolic marriage uniting the different regions of the Inca empire. Then they pilgrimaged to the peak were the children were fed an alcoholic maize drink to make them fall asleep, and then they were put to their final resting place.

The 3 children were found in a sitting position, and all of their clothes are perfectly preserved. The boy (age 7) was on display, so we could see his white feather headdress. It was remarkable how well he was preserved as he just looked like he was sleeping. The other 2 children were girls and were not on display but they did have pictures. They were named “girl of lightening” (age 6 and at some point struck by lighting) and “the maiden” (age 15).

Small dolls with gold and silver faces were buried next to the children and also small rock carved llamas. They were so intricate and beautiful. I really enjoyed this museum and am looking forward to our continued travel through the Incan empire for the remainder of our trip.

Labor Day (May 1st) was a restful day for Mike and I as nothing was open in the city. Our B&B had an amazing breakfast and a very comfortable room to spend our day catching up on journals and emails. We also called our parents, and it was nice to get the news from home and tell a few stories. I caught up on some TV action, including my favorite show, Grey’s Anatomy. They even had a few episodes from this season! So really, we didn’t do much, but it was a nice treat to take it easy for the day.

Our next stop was Cafayate, a small town 4 hours south of Salta. We had delayed traveling there by 1 day due to Labor day so that we could get our Bolivian visas, so our first task of the day was the Bolivian consulate. We arrived, and it was busy. We waited at the counter, and the women ignored us and helped 2 other people who came in after us. Finally, a lady helped us and took our paper work, but a few minutes later our paperwork was returned, and we were told that they only could help Bolivian citizens! Strike 2 for our Bolivian visa.

Our 4 hour bus ride took us through the breathtaking Quebrada de Cafayate. It was a valley with brilliant red hillsides on each side of us. The town of Cafayete was quaint with a lively town square and quiet streets as most of the locals rode bicycles. The town is known for 2 things… amazing wine and scenery. Sounded like the perfect way to spend a few days after the bustle of city life.

On May 3rd, Mike and I rented bicycles to tour the nearby wineries. Cafayate is at 1700 m and claims to have the world’s highest vineyards. The hot days and cold nights intensify both the flavor and aromas of the wines. The local specialty is Torrentes, which is only grown in Argentina . It is knick named “the cheater wine” because it has a floral, sweet smell but dry flavor, and it has a high alcohol content so may take you by surprise after a few glasses.

Our favorite winery of the day was Bodega de las Nubes, which was set above town right at the edge of the mountains. It was one of the most scenic wineries and had some amazing wine. It is a boutique winery and only produces one bottle per vine!


After wine tasting, we returned our bikes but not before Mike realized he lost the key to the bike lock. Luckily, it was cheap to replace, but I now think that we have a 3 to 1 ratio of things lost between Mike and IJ

We finished the day by touring the wine museum. It was bad and was really more of an advertisement than a museum for the world’s best wine. The wine was good, but not that good! The walls were plastered with bad wine poetry; well, maybe it sounded better in Spanish. There were some interesting historical wine making tools, but overall a waste of our money.

Our hotel was run by a cute husband and wife with an adorable, curly head son. The rooms were set up around the family’s garden courtyard and was lovely. They were also amazing hosts as the next day we had a 6 AM bus to Quilmes, and the husband woke up at 5:30 to feed us breakfast!

Quilmes is a ruined city occupied by the indigenous people from 1000 to 1667. The city held off the Incas and, after 130 years of war, finally fell to the Spaniards. At its peak, the city housed 10,000 people. The city was built into the hillside with lookouts on both sides that had amazing views of the surrounding valley.

We arrived in the dark for the 5km walk from the highway to the ruins. The sunrise was fantastic with purples and pinks and setoff prettily by the cactus. We arrived at the ruins before it really opened, so we had the entire city to ourselves to explore. The house walls were stones and 3 feet thick. It was fun to look around, especially with views from above to see the entire complex. Throughout the ruins were the remains of the mortars used by the community. In the center was a large building that was the meeting place and religious center. Mike and I really had fun walking around by ourselves and figuring out what the buildings were used for and what daily life must have been like.

Mike and I spent the remainder of the day chilling out at our hotel. We indulged in a fancy dinner where Mike tried llama steak, and we shared a great bottle of local wine. Cafayate was one of our favorite places in Argentina. It had just the right mix of rural quiet but also a few things to do.

With less than 2 months to go on our trip abroad, we are still enjoying ourselves. We are feeling a bit run down and have both suffered colds and the flu in Argentina but we love the adventures and the day to day new things. We definitely enjoy the rural towns more than the big cities. The landscapes in Argentina have been magnificent, and we are excited to see more!

**Sorry there are not more pictures… the connection is really slow and I have spent 3 hours trying to get these pictures uploaded!


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Mendoza and Uspallata: Wine Country and the Andes–April 20-25

First, I apologize for such a generic title; I have  experienced a bit of writer’s block the past few days, so creativity is a little low here.  The days we spent in this area, on the other hand, were anything but boring.  After heading north from Patagonia and the Lakes District, we had arrived in Andes country and planned to spend a day wine tasting in Mendoza before leaving the cities behind for some of the most breathtaking mountainous country we’ve seen.  Not even a minor plague along the way could keep us from having fun.

Our bus ride from Bariloche to Mendoza was a mere 13 hours, almost a sprint after the 28 hours it had taken to get to Bariloche a few day earlier.  It was one of the more interesting bus rides we’d had in a little while; for starters, we played bingo as entertainment after tea time, which was a strange phenomenom in itself, considering we were on a bus having tea and biscuits (filled with dulce de leche, which seems to run through Argentinans blood).  Oh, to add to the mystique of tea time on a bus, Guns’n’Roses music videos were playing on television while we sipped; nothing can match the glory of watching Slash’s guitar solo outside the church in “November Rain” while sipping a bit of herbal Yerbamate from a plastic dixie cup.

Mendoza was still pretty sleepy when we pulled in at around 8 AM.  During the night, I had developed some nausea and still wasn’t feeling too well, but we were excited to hit wine country anyway.  At least,  I no longer felt like throwing up, and the wineries would be closed the next day since it was Sunday, so we opted to soldier on.  Normally, we might have waited it out, but “Bed for Wine,” our hostel instantly rose to the top 3 dumps of our trip, and we didn’t feel like hanging around any longer than necessary.

Mendoza’s wine country is about an hour outside of the city, so we took the local bus out to the bike rental shop, Mr. Hugo’s.  Here, we got our bikes and a briefing from a kid who looked and sounded suspiciously like Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite, which is weird because Argentinans and Mexicans normally look nothing alike.  Anyway, Mr. Hugo is an affable old man who loves wine himself, and he poured us each a dixie cup of wine while we waited.  This was not the start that I was hoping for, but he kind of stuck around beaming at us, so I started the day with wine on an empty stomach after being sick in the night; luckily, Sarah had some crackers for me to coat my weak gullet a bit.  Anyway, I heard later that Mr. Hugo is pretty famous for seconds and thirds, so it was good that we slipped out on two bikes that would have been the pride of Peewee Herman and set out for the wineries before Mr. Hugo could do any more pre-lubing of our livers.

The ride out to the first winery was not exactly pleasant; Mendoza is very much about the wine itself and much less about beautiful wineries and settings.  It was really dusty, the headwind was brutal, and there was a lot of truck exhaust in the air, but at least the Andes could be seen vaguely in the distance.  Anyway, we were both glad to reach the first winery.

La Familia de Tommaso was one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, having been around since the 1830’s.  They offered a brief tour of the winery, and although we didn’t really learn anything new, it was really cool to see the antique presses and giant old stone vats that they use to decorate the winery.  After the tour, we did a tasting of torrontes (a tasty white Argentinan wine), as well as a couple of malbecs and a cab.  The accompanying restaurant has good Italian food, so we had a nice, relaxing lunch before moving along.

The second winery we visited had only been open for a week; in fact, they didn’t even have a sign for their tasting room, which makes it difficult to locate for two gringos on Peewee Herman bikes.  Anyways, at least it was off of the main road, so our ride was quieter and also full of smiling Argentinans enjoying Saturday afternoon with their friends…or possibly enjoying watching two gringos on Peewee Herman bikes attempting to locate a brand new tasting room…one couldn’t be sure which was true.

Anyway, Florio specialized in sweet wines, and Sarah and I were interested in the tour because neither of us knew much about the differences that occur when making sweet wines.  Unfortunately, I began to focus more on my rising fever and trying to remain awake while the girl went on in Spanglish, and so I didn’t learn much.  Curiously, she kept talking about “burning the virgin masses,” and I tried to subtly tap Sarah on the shoulder to indicate that we might be in danger of unknowingly joining the occult when all we wanted was a taste of sweet wine, but she understood that the girl had intended to describe “boiling” instead of “burning.”  This made more sense in terms of grapes, so I decided to ride it out; the wine was pretty tasty, too, so it turned out to be a good risk.

The final winery we visited was both the best and the most interesting in terms of both wine and story.  During the “beer crisis,” a term that I can barely bring myself to type, many Argentinan wineries failed as the nation began to favor beer much more heavily than wine.  The winery that had once flourished on the land that Carinae now stood on had folded like many of its neighbors, but a former employee continued to maintain the grapes because of his love for wine.  Years later, a French couple who had no experience in the winemaking industry fell in love with Argentina, sold off their possessions back in France, and returned to open Carinae!  Their malbecs were some of the best we’ve had, mostly because they don’t mess with them but allow the fruit to dominate as it should.  We bought a bottle of a blend that the husband, who we met briefly after he arose from his nap, had secretly made for his wife for their anniversary.  It was a nice way to end the day.

Sarah probably could have managed another stop or two, but my fever was still coming and going, and my legs were starting to ache, so we rode back to Mr. Hugo’s, and I managed to dump my free wine into Sarah’s cup without him seeing.  Come to think of it, she must have been feeling pretty good about Mr. Hugo by the time we caught the bus back into Mendoza.  While I wouldn’t say we enjoyed the wine country out there, they certainly made good wine!

By the time we hit Mendoza, I was beginning to hate life…the flu is bad enough, but winetasting all day when it’s coming on is probably just plain stupid (although we all know, I would probably do it again).  Anyway, one last kick in my ass came about two blocks from the hostel when the box carrying our two bottles just collapsed…the girl at the new place hadn’t taped the bottom…and our lovely bottle of secret anniversary wine thundered to the ground and shattered into 500 pieces!  Luckily for whichever kid thought it was funny to do the Nelson laugh behind me, the pedestrian light had turned green, and he had slipped into the crowd by the time I turned around, dripping in crimson wine.

The next 24 hours need no description; I had a really bad case of the stomach flu, and Sarah was stuck in a tiny, disgusting room with me.  Luckily, she didn’t catch whatever bug I’d acquired, and she at least got to go out for a nice dinner on her own the following day.  We did manage to go to the bus station to get tickets out of Mendoza, but I couldn’t eat anything yet and promptly went back to bed after getting the tickets.  Needless to say, Mendoza was not my favorite place (even if I had been well, there didn’t seem like much to do there but shop and go to cafes, and I’m sure that Buenos Aires outdoes it at both).

Monday morning, we headed out to tiny Uspallata; I was happy to be feeling better, and we were both glad to be leaving the city…we’d spent over a week in Argentina’s urban world and were ready to get back out into the countryside.  Uspallata, a little mountain town in the Andes, proved to be just what we needed.

Our hostel was about 5 km outside of town on a beautiful ranch-like setting down below the rugged mountains and along the Rio Mendoza.  The Andes were not exactly what we had expected–in this region, there are far more red rocky mountains than towering snow-capped peaks–but they are strikingly gorgeous, sort of like Utah’s mountains but on a much grander scale.  We had a cozy, comortable double room there, and it felt like we were on a quick litttle mountain getaway, sort of funny to feel this way since we are 10 months into a world tour!  Anyway, after enduring the dungeonous Bed for Wine in Mendoza, Hostel Uspallata turned out to be one of our favorite spots.

After settling in, we rented bikes and rode into town on a beautiful old dirt road that traced the river, a bunch of horse ranches, and some lovely large poplar trees…all looming below the mountains.  The town itself wasn’t much, but oh, what a setting!  We grabbed some lunch and got equipped with some food for the next day, when we would be going to see Aconcagua.  We did notice, however, one strange thing in Uspallata:  a diner entitled The Tibet Cafe.  It turns out that this area was the actual setting for Seven Years in Tibet; apparently, this cafe has some movie props in it, but it was closed when we there.  Anyway, we rode back to the hostel, and I got in one more nap in hopes of getting back to 100% for the big day.  Luckily, I woke up feeling great, and the hostel’s mashed potato and milanesa (chicken-fried steak without the gravy) for some reason was like chicken soup for my soul…maybe, I just needed to eat after 3 days.

Aconcagua is very near the Chilean border, and we had to flag down a bus from outside the highway and ride about 90 kilometers through the mountains towards the border in order to get there.  We were joined by two others from our hostel, an American named Clay and a Swiss girl named Corrine (which is probably not how she spells her name).  The four of us got along really well, and we ended up spending the next day together too; it’s always nice to make some good new friends. Along the way, we passed some amazing scenery in its own right, particularly a series of brown towers called the Penitentes because of their resemblance to a group of giant hooded monks.  They call this “God’s Country,” but I am sparing y’all one of my infamous puns here.

Once in the park, we hiked about an hour in the shadows of Aconcagua, passing several viewpoints and pretty little lagoons.  Above us, the climbing routes to the 6962 m summit–the highest outside of the Himilaya–were clearly visible.  They looked very steep, and the standard route held much more appeal than the route that traversed directly below a humongous, crazy-steep ice wall.  The mountain, a snow-covered kingdom among the rocks, was much more majestic and pretty thans I had expected, and I began thinking of ways to return here for an attempt someday.

After enjoying a lovely lunch while gazing up at the mountain above us, we headed back out and walked down the highway to the miniscule town of Puente del Inca, which is basically a spot in the road.  Regardless, there is a very quirky attraction here:  a sulferic spring that runs through the rocks behind town has formed a giant, glowing orange stone bridge; there was formerly a spa hotel built on top of it that has since been destroyed by flooding, but the result is an alienesque blend of neon nature and civilization…we got some pretty crazy photos.  With a couple of hours to fill before flagging down a return bus, we shared a bottle of wine with Clay and Corrine.  We’d been blessed by bluebird weather, interesting friends, and one awesome mountain!

Our final day in Uspallata was spent on the back of a horse, although I think we both were surprised to be alive to tell the tale.  We had decided to stop in town the previous night instead of riding the bus all the way to the hostel; anyway, after enjoying a great sunset, we soon came upon an adorable black dog who had buried himself in a giant pile of leaves.  It was so cute that I had to grab a picture but upon getting within 2 feet of it, he suddenly turned into a maniacal, bloodthirsty titanic killer, and we ran for our lives.  That night at dinner, we told the story to Clay, who had actually fell nearly a victim to the same psycho ploy by the dog the night before.  South America definitely has the craziest canines in the world!

As I said, we rode horses into the mountains for our final day in Uspallata.  I did it mostly because I knew that it was something that Sarah was really hoping to do, but I was surprised to find that it was something that I really enjoyed as well!  Our ride took us a few miles back into the Pre-Andes mountains before we dismounted and trekked up 300 m or so to a 3200 m peak for some exraordinary views.  We were in magnificent country, and the horses ended up being a great way to experience it.

The four of us met our guide, Elvio, outside our hostel in the late morning because it was too cold in the mountains to leave earlier (I don’t know if we’ve mentioned it, but it isn’t really light out before 8 in Argentina.).  Of course, I got matched up with the largest horse (who might have been, well, half-ass), a fellar nicknamed, “the butt buster,” who promptly refused to move once we started out.  Elvio came back and helped me out, but it was clear that I was not exactly a natural with horses.

Soon, we were climbing horse trails through the polychrome red of the mountains, and we could look back behind us for great views of the Andes, the river, and the town.  The Butt Buster had a singular habit of snacking on the go, often ripping out entire clumps of brush and carrying them along as he chewed and sauntered.  Eventually, he refused once again to move at all, and Elvio had to give him some firm encouragement, including a good smack on the rear.  Before I knew it, the Butt Buster tore his way down the trail, past the entire group, and way out in front, where he remained the leader for the rest of the morning.  After my horse riding parts began to feel more human again, I began to work with the horse some and, following Elvio’s advice about  leaning with the reins, managed to work out an understanding with the Butt Buster…from then on, we got along splendidly.  I think it helped to mutter, “Bueno, Bueno,” softly in the Butt Buster’s ear, but that may have just been me.


After a couple of hours of riding, we happened upon a lone hiker and his dog; these turned out to be our hiking guide, Flavio, and his canine assistant, Shaki.  The horses and Elvio got a nice siesta while we began our hour’s journey up the gently winding trails of the mountain.  We were glad that it was a gentle trail because we were pretty high in elevation, and our hearts were beating pretty fast.  It was beautiful, though, and the weather was warm and calm.  Soon, we were on top and enjoying a peaceful summit lunch while gazing out at the Andes; it could have been a little slice of heaven, with Aconcagua in the distance and rocky summits all around.

Back down the mountain, we said goodbye to Flavio and Shaki and rejoined Elvio, the Butt Buster, and the others.  On our way back down, we stopped off to explore a small copper mine and check out a good viewpoint of Uspallata.  My horse, while behaving quite well for me, seemed to harbor some resentment towards strong females because he grew quite frustrated that Sarah’s mare wouldn’t let him pass.  Like I said, I’m no horse expert, but I could tell in this case because the Butt Buster kept biting Sarah’s horse in the ass…boy, did I end up liking that horse’s spirit!  🙂

Eventually, we made our way back down to the hostel, passing through the lovely crimson glow of a setting sun on the rocks, and bid Elvio and the Butt Buster adieu.  We had one more animal experience before the end of the day, however; the hostel has a golden retriever known only as “rock dog,” and we had to see his talents for ourselves.  It seems that Rock Dog loves to play fetch…with rocks…down by the river.  We weren’t disappointed, that crazy dog (who has the stubbiest teeth you’ve ever seen on a dog), would dive through the water, submerging his entire face, continuing to search until he had found the exact same rock that we had just sunk in three feet of water!  It was amazing…I think you can find footage on You-Tube if you search for “Rock Dog.”  Anyway, we finished the night with a great asado (barbecue) that the hostel owner, Christian, and his buddies cooked for us.  It was tasty, and I appreciated that the hostel gave us an opportunity to sit down at a table and eat homecooked dinners with them every night.  It was a nice change from a restaurant with strangers…for once in the past 10 months, one of us could ask another human, “so how was your day?” without receiving a crazy look from the person sitting across the table.

Uspallata had been three days of adventure and recharging from the city, and I had loved every bit of it.  We had been in South America for over a month now and seen some amazing country, and things were good for the Raffs.



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Wind, Mountains and Chocolate: El Chalten and Bariloche (April 13 – 19)

After our Torres Del Paine hike, it was time to cross back into Argentina and start slowly working our way north. Our first stop was the tiny town of El Chalten, which is the base for climbs of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. The tiny town of 600 was founded in 1985 to help Argentina solidify its border claims. It was evident that the town had been put together quickly as restaurants and hostels were spread out with many empty lots in between. We arrived at the tail end of tourist season, so we had difficulties finding places to eat!

We spent two days in this town and hiked each day. The first hike was to Lago Torre at the base of Cerro Torre which is one of the world’s hardest rock climbs. As we were walking out of town, I stopped to pet an adorable puppy. Little did I know that the puppy would insist on following us. We figured he would be smart enough to turn around, but 15 minutes later, he was still with us, and we stopped at the sign forbidding dogs on the trek. So Mike picked up the puppy, and we walked all the way back to drop him off. After sternly telling the dog in broken Spanish to stay, we started back on the hike. He didn’t follow us, but at the top of the hill, we saw he was following another couple. I wonder how many times a day he gets carried back to his houseJ

As we continued on our way to the lake we enjoyed the amazing array of fall colors with snow covered mountains as the backdrop. It was breathtaking, and I am so glad we are here in the fall!

The small lake of Torre had a few tiny icebergs floating and I am sure it would be a beautiful setting to see Cerro Torre, but unfortunately the clouds never lifted so we had no views except its base. Oh well, we enjoyed the views of the mountains that we could see, including the imposing Cerro Solo.

The next day, we hiked to Laguna de los Tres for views of Fitz Roy. The scenery at the beginning of the hike was similar to Smith Rocks, and Mike and I were scoping potential climbs while the condors soared over our heads. We enjoyed the beautiful colors of the trees again and a few mountain views with clouds swirling. No views of Fitz Roy but we did see a brilliant blue glacier, which was beautiful. Both of us were tired from all the hiking, and Mike was suffering from a bruised bone in his knee so we ended up turning around early to get back to town.

Our Spanish has been coming along slowly, but we had our first big mix-up while trying to get some laundry done. Our hostel didn’t have laundry, so they recommended us to go to the one next door. So Mike and I walked in and set our stuff on the counter and asked in Spanish to get our laundry done. The teenager behind the counter asked us a bunch of questions that we could barely understand, but it sounded like he wanted to know what kind of room we wanted. When we told him we had a room next door, he got a puzzled look on his face. Finally, I pointed to the sign for laundry which worked and we got our laundry done. It turned out that Mike demanded a key instead of laundry. It was quite funny, but luckily it all worked outJ

After two days in El Chalten it was time to move north and, hopefully, somewhere less windy and warmer! But first, we had to survive a 28 hour bus ride before arriving in Bariloche! The bus was comfortable, and the seats were huge almost laying down flat. To keep us entertained there were movies in English with Spanish sub-titles. I finished an entire 550 page book. We also had the un-expected surprise of playing bus bingo. I was happy that they said the numbers in English too. Unfortunately we didn’t win as the winner got a bottle of wine! It was strange waking up in the morning and realizing that we had a whole day still to go!  We have seen some of the most amazing sunrises and sunsets of the whole trip on these buses, though! 

Bariloche is a town in the lakes district of Patagonia and well known for its chocolate, ski slopes, and lakes. We spent 2.5 days in the town and enjoyed slightly warmer temperatures, but still it was as windy as ever! The downtown area is cute and designed with a ski chalet feel. In the main square there were St. Bernard dogs and puppies to get your picture with, but my favorite part of the town was the chocolate shops! They lined the streets, and each one was huge! The chocolate was excellent, but the best part was ordering a coffee in the shop and getting the free bonbons that came along with it!

Our shopping adventure didn’t end with chocolate as I also needed to buy a new bra. Somehow my bra got stolen by the cleaning lady in El Chalten or else somehow mysteriously walked out of our room. Either way, I needed a new one, so off to the shop. Mike’s Spanish is much better then mine, so he had to help translate my needs with the sales lady. It worked out fine until he started giving opinions on which ones I should try onJ The joys of shopping in a foreign country with my husband helpingJ

Both Mike and I were ready for a change of pace from hiking, so we opted to rent mountain bikes to explore the surrounding lakes and mountains. The loop was 26 km long and very hilly, but we enjoyed amazing views! At the first viewpoint, we made the mistake of petting another cute dog. The dog ended up following us for the entire loop! I think he probably does this daily as he knew the best places to take a rest in the water and when to be sly because he wasn’t allowed in the picnic areas. By the end of the ride though, both Mike and I felt like we had to protect him from the other dogs as he was really tired. When are we going to learn that we shouldn’t pet the dogs because as soon as you do you have a new friend for the day?!


We decided to reward ourselves with a date night dinner out after our bike ride. Unfortunately, we were starving at 7pm, and none of the restaurants open until 8pm. So to hold over our appetites, we got an empanada from the grocery store as our appetizer. After browsing through the shops, it was finally time for dinner! Mike somehow convinced me to order the meat sampler platter for 2. It included lamb, sirloin, rib eye, and smoked bacon. Plus, we decided we needed a side of veggies and potatoes! When the plate of meat arrived, I couldn’t believe how much was piled on. For normal people it would have fed a family of 5! Somehow, we managed to eat most of it, but it will be a while before I order meat again!

One month into our trip in South America and we have seen the tropics of Northern Argentina and the mountains of Patagonia. It was time to continue north to sample some of Argentina’s wine…

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