South America 2007: No plans, great people, and a lot of luck...

Jan 15, 2007
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A midnight view of the Iguassu Falls
Above: A midnight view of the Iguassu Falls. Shot at a 30 second exposure.

Sorry I've been M.I.A. for awhile, we've been traveling pretty fast and the Internet has been pretty shoddy if not nonexistent. In Iguassu Falls for example, the Internet actually went down in the entire town for a solid two days. They wouldn't even let us book a bus ticket out of the town until we convinced them to call Buenos Aires and book it over the phone for us on the second day.

So let's see... Where to begin? So much has happened in the last two weeks. We basically decided to travel across the continent, diagonally by bus... It probably wasn't the smartest idea, but it has definitely been fun... We have see some amazing natural wonders and met some even cooler people. So here is the rough outline of where and what we've done, but there is way more to say than I can ever write in an email (even one as long as this). But here goes...

// Argentina //

The 4L Pitcher
In what quickly became the theme of this trip, we ended up changing another one of our pre-purchased tickets... This time the one from Buenos Aires to Iguassu Falls in order to stay in BA to watch the Rose Bowl with our new Brazilian friends (the ones from the last email who convinced us to stay in Montivideo for New Years). I found this awesome American sports bar on the Internet called Shoeless Joe's and there ended up being about 30 Trojans, 5 Michigan fans, and one random bruin that was there with her Trojan husband. It was pretty awesome and we all did a huge So Cal spell out at the end to let the bar know that SC was in town. The best part though was probably the 4 Liter pitchers (buckets) of beer. It was definitely a great introduction for our Brazilian friends to USC football! Viva COXA!

Iguassu Falls
When we finally left BA, we headed for Iguassu Falls (giant water falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil that are not to be missed). They were truly one of the most impressive natural wonders that I have ever seen. The first day that we headed out it was pouring rain, so we basically had the park to ourselves. There were three circuits to follow, each with a ton of falls, and by the time we got to the last one the weather had cleared up. It didn't really matter though... The last circuit was the big one - Devil's Throat - and it was so big that just standing on the platform over looking the falls drenched everyone with it's mist. The next day, we did a 6km hike through the forrest to get to a secluded waterfall that you could actually swim around in and climb under. It was an amazing feeling being under this flood of water. We were also in town at the perfect time because it was the full moon and they have a special nighttime viewing of the Devil's Throat. I got really lucky on the way and met a professional photographer from South Africa who let me share his tripod and gave me some good tips for night photography. I think I got some amazing shots... I'll put them up on my site when I get back.

The Norwegians
From Iguassu, we finally made up our minds to head to Bolivia with a quick stop in Salta (a Northern province in Argentina). On the way, we ended up meeting two Norwegian girls that were headed the same way and a lot of fun. So for the next few days, we ended up traveling with them... In Salta, Ian spent the whole time recovering from a bad Empinada while I hung out with the two Norwegians, a brother and sister from Argentina, and a random swiss guy. The town itself was pleasant... Small, but with a bustling plaza in the center, and an active nightlife... Of which our hostel ended up being one of the main spots... The reception itself was set way back and the front of the building was one of the main bars in the bar district. It was absolutely packed and a ton of fun! Too bad Ian was sick the whole time...

// Bolivia //

So the Norwegians, Ian, and I headed to Bolivia together on a rather bumpy trip (literally)... There are very few paved roads or highways in Bolivia and the trip up from the south is really just driving through rough desert terrain following tire tracks in the sand and crossing rivers at the lowest point (usually not that low). Two things happened to us that were pretty lucky though... One, we were going to try to rent a car in Salta and drive up on our own... They were going to rent us a VW Golf, which would A) have been submerged under water at any of several points, and B) would have popped every tire on the way... Luckily, in Argentina they wouldn't rent it to us due to restrictions for driving out of the country... The second piece of luck was when we got past the border town and hit a bigger "city" called Tupiza. From there, we were supposed to be able to catch a bus to Uyuni (a town built because of the giant salt flats in the nearby area that were the whole point of our visit).

Rough Terrain
However, when we got there the bus was full and there were no more until the next day... Well at this point, there where the four of us including the Norwegians and five with a random german guy that didn't speak much english, but we decided just to hire a driver with a Land Cruiser to take us. This ended up being absolutely awesome because we were able to stop whenever we wanted, we had a tour guide, and most importantly we didn't have to be crammed in a bumpy bus for 7 hours! Our driver also ended up being something like the resident mechanic, because every time we passed a broken down car (which was quite often) the drivers were all extremely happy to see him, and he always got their cars to work again... I have no idea how... One involved putting two wires together and wetting them with his fingers... Another involved a push start... And on others many parts were exchanged between vehicles...

The salt flats were absolutely surreal and totally worth the trip. As has been our luck, when we arrived in Uyuni it was pouring rain...

Bolivian Salt Miner
However, by the next afternoon it had cleared up and Ian and I ended up hiring another solo land cruiser to drive us around for the afternoon (the Norwegians ended up taking a three day tour which we didn't have time for). Because of the rain, the salt flats were a completely different experience. The whole plain was covered with about two inches of water and, as a result, the experience really can't be put into words... It was almost as if you were standing in the middle of a lake that stretched as far as the eyes could see, but even then, the horizon was completely blurred because of the reflection on the water covered salt. You really couldn't tell were the land ended and the sky began. Again, it was amazing... And because we had our own car, we weren't rushed through like the tours... We ended up sitting at a desolate hotel made of Salt in the middle of nowhere and enjoyed a couple Cervezas starring off into oblivion.

From Uyuni, we headed to Lake Titicaca and the Isle del Sol on the Bolivian side. This bus trip was an interesting experience... They loaded us on, drove to get gas, brought us back to the main office, served a three course meal, put on a movie, and passed out blankets and pillows all before we even departed! We were sitting on the bus for almost two hours before we even started moving! Now that is the essence of Bolivia.... Throughout South America, we have had to master the word "patience."

Our next destination, the Isle del Sol, is the island were, according to Incan mythology, both the sun and the first Incan were born.

The white horse
However, when I went, I felt like I was going to die. From where the boat docks, you have to climb 240 steps. Now that doesn't seem that bad, but keep in mind that this is at an altitude of 4,086 meters (almost 12,000 ft) and we had all of our bags on us. Now, I know Ian and I may not be in the best shape, but watching the little kids from the island run up and down while we were out of breath and taking a break every other minute was just embarrassing.... Fortunately, pretty much everyone visiting the island was in the exact same shoes... I have never passed so many people out of breath and panting by the side of a road. The view from the top was worth it though. It actually felt just like we were in the greek islands. The next day we hiked down to the Temple of the Sun and then headed back to the coast city of Copacabana for one night.

// Peru //

Getting across the border into Peru was interesting... For some reason, the immigration officer didn't want to give us the forms needed to enter the country claiming that the bus company should have provided them and that he didn't want to waist his. Well this fight went on for quite some time until our bus driver finally convinced him to let us have some from the giant stack sitting on his desk... Ahhh South America....

The bus was also an interesting experience... The "Direct" bus arriving at 7pm in Cuzco arrived an hour late and actually stopped in Puno for an hour and a half layover / bus change and didn't arrive in Cuzco until around 11pm. Although, that doesn't surprise me since every bus arrives about 2 hours after the scheduled arrival time. What really sucked about the second bus though was that our seats were among the 75% of broken ones, while the two people in front of us felt the need to progressively recline further an further back throughout the night until their heads where literally in our laps... That was probably the worst bus trip we have taken in South America... And so far we have about 90 hours of total bus time to date on this trip...

We arrived in Cuzco yesterday, and had another act of luck this morning. We weren't able to book the train ticket to Machu Picchu online, so we went first thing in the morning to the ticket office... They didn't have any tickets available from Cuzco, but if we took a taxi to a town/site called Oyllantambo we could pick it up there and spend the night in Aguas Callientes (a little town right next to Machu Picchu). We decided to take advantage of this since we wanted to see Oyllantambo anyways, and we ended up meeting a German/Swedish couple that were in the same boat, so we split a cab. The man ended up being a huge Mac / BMW fanatic, so we ended up having a great conversation that I think his wife and Ian just tuned out of... He ended up footing the bill for the cab and we all spent the morning together in Oyllantambo. The town itself was a quaint little village built right up against a major Incan site, one of the last strongholds that temporarily held up to the spanish conquistadors. A peruvian caretaker of the site ended up latching onto us since we were the first ones there and we actually ended up getting a pretty nice tour.

We are currently in Aguas Callientes, where a mountain hike just completely kicked our A$#... It is a two hour each way hike straight up the mountain directly across from Macchu Picchu and it is supposed to have a spectacular view.

The ladder of doom
Unfortunately, we started hiking it around 4pm even though it gets dark here around 6pm. It was kind of a spontaneous move and we didn't even bring water. We made it about half way, past 4 of 5 ladder passes (one of which was maybe 80 feet high) and then it started to rain... At that point we evaluated our options... Keep going, and come down in the dark / rain... Or, go down then, while it may be raining, but we could at least see to get down the completely vertical ladder passes. We chose the second option. One of the funniest moments happened on the way down, we were about 50 feet up on one of the ladders, when we saw what appeared to be an unopened bottle of water of to the side in a bush. Well, Ian had a walking stick strapped to his back, so we each wrapped one arm around the ladder and I attempted to bat the water towards him with the walking stick... As if from out of a movie, it just missed his outstretched hand and we looked down and watched as it fell in slow motion 50 feet down to the next summit. We used it as motivation, and when we finally got back down we grabbed it, cracked the seal, and enjoyed some much needed water. Unfortunately, when we finally made it back down the ladder passes, and the rocky / now slippery ledges to the bottom we regretted turning around. So now we have decided to get up at 5am to see Machu Picchu and then go back and beat the mountain, rain or shine, before we have to catch our train back to Cuzco in the afternoon. Wish us luck...

// The End is Near //

Needless to say, we canceled our original flight from Buenos Aires to Lima, since we opted to bus it across the continent. But now we have a plane ticket from Cuzco to Lima on the 18th... We might try to push it up one day to the 17th though so that we can have one night in Lima, but that is still to be determined. Either way, we fly home on the 19th so we will be back in the States soon.

A midnight view of the Iguassu Falls

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