The journey was windier than I could have possibly imagined. The road leapt over mountainsides, through chalky gray rivers swirling with metallic reflections of the sky. Emblazoned, minted. As we traversed Sur Lipez, the water diminished, reminisces of the last rain gashed into the rivers edge. A drawbridge spanned sandpaper. Windowless mudhuts dotted the hillside. The only variance from the muted terra firma was the shimmer from the corrugated steel roofs and the darkness of an impending storm.
Remote outposts, destinations for mere minutes, inferred generations of life.
Some were narrow passageways between rows of connected camel row-houses, where squatting old ladies retreated like turtles into their rainbow woolen ponchos. Tiled public squares freckled with energetic children wreaking havoc on a brood of hens. Teenagers lazied on abandoned metal sheets jutting from the ground burning holes with their universal bored stare.
Other villages were mere dots on a map, an analogy for the particles of dust that swept and stained everything - not a color besides blackening bananas in sight.
A strange alagam of diligence, exertion and tedium extended everywhere. A fence marked by rocky cairns extended for a mile. Road hazards were recognizable by strewn rocks or metal abruptly positioned in a lane. Road maintenance was done by the hands of leathered, shrinking men in whose vests had nearly lost their reflective sheen. One man pushed, rolled, scooted a boulder across the nadir of a winding valley, valantly entrusting oncoming drivers to anticipate and react to sudden hazards in the road.
On top of a snow-speckled mountain, the wind smacked like waves and we came to an abrupt stop. At each unsuspecting town or approachment to a random site of interest, there was always a kid and a man to pay. Their scattered system of tolls. Donde vas?
That was a good question. Where were we going? Yes, there was an itinerary that we had, places to be by the end of each day. Towns were supposedly our end destinations. The dusty, ragged frontier of Tupiza. It’s colors faded like an old shoe, all of its white yellowed, smelling of everything it’s been through. Sol de Manana, a town spaced between two smooth volcanoes whispering a bitter wind between the quiet streets. The gigantic palms of Villa Abecia shading the bodegas peddling mapley sweet wine, it’s streets echoing the crackle of parrillas and the squeaking of one little boy’s bike. But these were simply the cornerstones to the pocked dirt roads atop endless mountain-passes in the clouds.
Over the years, I have come to shun a constant travelers proverb. It seemed to emit from tongues like the greeting ‘How are you?’. Yet I found myself reflecting over the hundreds of miles/hours as I stared into the endless valleys, watching the shadows of the various peaks play out on the hillsides.
No other expedition had the saying ‘It’s more about the journey than the destination’ been more applicable than that of Bolivia.
If you go, practicalities:
THE ROADS: If you want to be able to take in the scenery and get through the long distances each day without wanting to scream, I highly recommend hiring a driver.
Highly recommended stays:
We we’re in a time crunch. The storm had maniacally thrown remnants of ancient trees onto the road, blocking the only route to Cochamo. Highway 65 stitched along the Estuaria Reloncavi fjord and, on its left, a wall of ancient trees towered. Row boats bobbed, a lone cow stood motionless, stranded by high tide on a sliver of land in the bay. One goofy orange-clad attendant stood pushing around the limbs, either meticulously or lazily, I could not determine.
The directions per Refugio Cochamo denoted the entrance closed at 4:00 pm. It was 3:51 and we were dodging buses and babies in a Versa on a gravel road. At 3:58 we pulled up to the parking area, rushing with impending doom to get to the trailhead. The lot and sandwich steward assured us that the trail would remain open until 8pm. How foolish to think that there were actual time restrictions imposed in South America.
We prepared our sacks and stuffs, opting for more than necessary - denoting the distance of the hike and not the elements and obstacles that existed along the way. It was amateaur packing at best. Cloth napsacks weighed down with inessential rubbish. My shoulders shrugged at ear-level while my arms hung - lifeless pendulums. The first hour was gruelling for what was normally such an easy trail. The rain from the days prior packed the crevasse with feet of mud. It was hard to adjust to the weight of the packs. Footwork wasn’t trustworthy, balance faulty.
During the 3 miles of mud-tunnelled Viet Cong canals, we encountered, at a minimum: 30 high lunge steps, 50 pole vault body- thrusting swing arounds, thousands of Satanic horseflies, 20 rolling log river crossings (with false sense of safety), 15 false checkpoints and 100 minutes of cattle-crossing planks.
In return for our miserable existence, we reaped a river-bed lined with smooth, bleached logs, clear to the depths, a valley cradled by sculpted granite trickling with linear waterfalls, a sublime palpa filled with an idyllic commune, and the sole satisfaction of seclusion from the leeches of modern society.
// The light slowly made its way to my eyes. The short night had finally fallen near 10:20 and speckled the sky with glistening sequins and smocks of blackness. I had awoken during the night, convinced it was time for morning but was mistaken. For when day lasts for over a dozen hours, day becomes the norm.
The dorm’s window that had earlier framed the gargantuan granite kings of Anfiteatro and Laguna displayed a dense fog – a disappearing act. I lay relieved, for if the granite was too wet the route to the top would be foolhardy to attempt. A reprieve from testing my courage, a cop-out. Only after studying the map and evaluating alternative trails did I realize that it would be foolhardy not to attempt the Acro Iris. A regret that would last infinitely.
// The Arco Iris did not offer an introduction, it began in the crux of the plot. The earth ascended straight to the sky, aligned with the trunks of the Alerces. Bamboo shot out of the mountainside, flimsy and silly compared to the thousand-year old Alerces that dominated the sky (whose roots had sprouted ‘new’ trees older than all the trees in Louisiana combined). We climbed for hours until we reached a slab of wet granite. A deteriorated rope lapped with the streaming water that ran down the center, the route up. There was no margin for error, we were on the edge.
If you go:
Refugio Cochamo - Book in advance and plan on delays getting there. They offer pricey meals each day and if you're vegetarian you will be eating a lot of rice. Warm showers! Bring insect repellent and a towel. Booze too.
Arco Iris - The trail became impossible, unkempt and in rough condition from the elements. No one that day was able to summit but the views were still worthwhile. Check out the trail description here.
Rental car - we found Seelman to be fairly priced and flexible.
In and around:
Volcano Osorno - Amazing place to ride or run. Plan at least a few hours, if not a whole day and night in Petrohue. The beaches may seem like a great idea but you will be harassed by gigantic horse flies.
After a beautiful night's sleep on a mattress that sounded like sheet metal and felt like a trash bag stuffed with over-starched towels, I opened the shutters to find a miraculous day waiting for me. Blue skies and birds chirping, I was like Snow White but with a boxed wine hangover. The street was speckled with ravaged garbage bags that had been looted by the homeless for recyclables that they could cash in. It was May, the rainy season, but the sun was pouring in, illuminating the colorful walls of the Candelaria district.
Took a cold shower (not on purpose) and had a hearty breakfast of one medium-sized mediocre apple and four cups of glorious black coffee. The place was practically kicking me out, motioning me to get a move on.
Many described the route to Monserrate as though it was a ramshackle stone path but instead it turned out to be a well-manicured park gleaming with bright plants and a plethora of policemen. Along the way, I passed a milieu of life. A lonely horse galloped up the path with no traces of the owner. Shanties grouped together, their residents displayed their pickings for sell - papaya shoots and pineapple slivers. Women robed in sweats were nearly melting into the ground while old men passed by breathing heavily but at a cruising speed. School children, on their decline, were all flirting with one another — dressed in white shirts and neatly pressed navy pants. I was confounded— they had no traces of sweat. Only when I got to the top did I realize they had taken the funicular up.
On the mountain top, I could see life playing out below. A futbol match — people scurrying about like legos: just color and shape. The Transmilenio snaked through Ave. Carrera 14 — its red street easily identifiable. The dense, wild side of the mountain was quite the contrast to the expansive city that sprawled below.
// Down in the city, I sauntered through the Emerald Street Market. Street vendors announced their offerings with megaphones. Their fast chants resounded making the whole place vibe like a betting window at a racetrack rather than a marketplace. This place was a sight to behold. A man stood playing the drums on his bare stomach next to his juice stand. Next to the drummer, a homeless man with a scholarly suit and lab coat wore his glasses on the tip of his nose, his pleas for change slightly nasally. A store advertised their newest product - 3D sculptures made from the ultrasound of your unborn baby. This seemed rather suitable for a city that legalized prostitution and banned abortion. The traditional Colombian crafts had been replaced with cheap Chinese knockoffs — their vendors too lazy to remove the stickers. Surely it was time for more boxed wine.
If you go (in a nutshell):
La Despensa Calle 70A # 9-95, Bogotá
La Taperia -Carrera 4A # 26d-12 - spectacular food in La Macarena
Abasto_ in Usaquen
Casa de Citas for music/ drinks
- La Calera - best views of the city. Go here at night and buy hot, spiced drinks from the vendors
- Bogota graffiti tour: Where: Plaza de Periodistas
- 10 best contemporary art galleries in Bogota
- La Macarena is home to a collection of funky boutiques
- Cool Crafts // Artesanías de Colombia - The shop carries crafts made in different regions of Colombia. They have rings made from tagua nuts, macramé shawls, black pottery, sisal baskets. El Retiro Shopping Center, Calle 82 No. 11-75
- Museo Botero Home to Fernando Botero's private collection, this colonial mansion displays the work of the Colombian maestro alongside canvases by the likes of Miró and Monet.
Fulano Backpackers (not the hostel mentioned in this post)
Stepping off the 8 person john boat, after a day on the Amazon, I feel slightly jovial about emerging unscathed. Somehow during our two hour journey back to Leticia, I fell asleep- head bobbing back and forth against the top of the lifevest like a loose X. The fear of falling into the chocolate oasis of anacondas, piranhas, and 18 foot pirarucus obviously did not concern my subconscious. I only had awoken when I heard the tiny sounds of glee from the 60-year old Colombian abuela. And there it was- a grayish-pink dolphin fin came jutting out of the water.
Like all isolated tribes and maniacal suburbanites, the Amazonian tribes have their own folklore and belief system. The Ticunas in particular believe that the divine pink dolphin (Bufeo Colorado) impregnates women in the night.
Leticia is nicely nestled between Peru & Brazil, creating a conglomeration of cultural encounters. Under the blazing morning sun, we ran from Colombia into Brazil along the heavily trafficked main road without so much as a blink of an eye over the border. Most Amazonians choose to run at night when the city is quieter and the exhaust and heat have diminished. Even under feet of rainwater, scooters fill the roads in the morning hours, packed on tight with crates of eggs, babies with helmets, and multiple schoolchildren. After the abrupt storms, water sprays into the chests of fellow commuters, knees remain submerged and the city becomes alive again.
Even after the night's heavy rain continued well into the morning, the ground continued sipping up the rainwater. Deep into the jungle nearby, I was suspended 200 feet up in the air gradually hosting myself higher and higher up for a canopy tour. Unlike the typical American zipline where one climbs a ladder, we worked our way up the rope with our grips- the smell of Reptileo exuding from our pores in the humid air. Above the trees, the cooler air blew through and the jungle seemed impenetrable as the sounds of birds resonated off the treetops. The noise of the changed quickly once we got into the riverbed in our kayaks. Insects echoed- blared- like sirens.
The Brazilian Portuguese and cachaca can be experienced hand-in-hand with Peruvian ceviche and Colombian patacons. I chased down the irritation from mosquito molestation with caprihanas muddled on the cliffside of Tabatinga. The sun set behind the coast of Peru, seemingly pulling the clouds with it.
If you go:
Amazona B&B (Letiicia)
(I wouldn't recommend a dive- having shelter from the rain entering your room at night keeps one from insanity. Enjoy an indoor hammock and the excitement of cold showers.)
Casa Selva Hotel (Puerto Narino)
- You'll have to get a boat ride there to stay on the bountiful, colorful island
Great fish to eat while you're there: Dorado & pirarucu
Tierras Amazonicas Carrera 8, Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia
El Santo Angel Dorado a parilla
Comara (Tabatinga Brazil- best place to see the sunsetl)
Tanimboca: canopy (dorsel) tour and spectacular rustic accommodations in a natural reserve
Pre-arrange excursions so they can get enough people together not to bail on your reservation.
Isla de los micos: I recommend skipping. Monkeys simply just molest you for about 15 minutes before you go to the next stop.
The streets are narrow and wind up the hilltop, decorated with bright streamers and other adornments that mimic children’s’ birthday decorations. The little leathered Portuguese locals stand outside their tiny business doors; their lolling posture and gentle stares implying an eternal wait.
The old #28 tram somehow winds through these streets, hauling loads of tourists packed liked sardines. Which is quite fitting, seeing that grilled sardines are a local staple. Despite the guidebooks’ claims that locals still mainly use the line, one only sees pale arms hanging out of the windows snapping pictures. This is the main reason I refuse to take the train until the following day and, by the time I finally concede, I board the tram like a dehydrated golden-retriever on the final leg to the Basilica Estrela.
I wander uphill to Igreja Graca to get a virgin’s orientation of the city. It is vast; with the a spectacular view of the impossing Castello de Sao George perched high over the stacked orange roofs. However humorously unoriginal, the Ponte 25 de Abril is a powerful sight from afar and seems to give the towering Cristo Rei a red carpet entrance.
In an attempt to climb the Castello de Sao Jorge for ‘the best view’, I end up wandering around the little streets surrounding it for over a half-an hour, before finally reaching the entrance to be completely over the undertaking. I would argue that we got a better view from the Igreja for free.
Walking through the streets, with sand between my toes due to quick spur-of-the-moment trip to Cascais, the possibilities are exhilarating and beautifully overwhelming at times. The little cobblestone streets are enchanting, especially upon the descent to Ria da Liberdad. It is an unexpectedly scenic road, considering it is one of the main thoroughfares jutting through town into the drugpusher’s den aka Praca Pedro. The street has a tree-lined ped-pathway with shaded benches near a multitude of ponds. As usual, I subconsciously decide on a mission without being completely informed (this is also due to stubborn unwillingness to read a map instead of simply looking at a map) and walk to Parque Eduardo VII. The Marques de Pombal is a sweet site but the park’s fountains are graffiti-ridden and one is even tagged joker-style with red mocking lips.
After the tram ride from Alfama (on which the train got stuck due to lack of uphill speed and had to descend to reattempt incline a second time), I got a taste of the Portuguese gardens while lying in Jardin da Estrella under a willow-tree enjoying some vinho verde before taking a peek inside the Basilica da Estrella. Warning: Do not get apprehended when you enter the Basilica by the old nuns. They'll take you behind a tomb to the church’s tourist trap: pay .50 to light up a paper-mache crib of 500 bobble-headed figures.
If you go, you simply must:
Bars, Music, Nightlife:
The Old Pharmacy
Docas- Drink the Sangria
Tasca do Chico - Bairro Alto- Fado
Sip on capirhinas & ginginha (only from hole-in-the-wall joints)
Elevator de Gloria
Nacional de Arte Antiga, rather disappointing venture and consisted of gory art that is full of blood-spewing decapitated heads.
the Castello de Sao Jorge
Basilica da Estrella
Confeitaria de Belem- eat the pastries
Muse Collecciao Berrado- Design
Pena National Palace- Visit in the late afternoon and have a drink of wine before closing, and get a chance to feel what it means to be in the clouds...
Craving a beach? This is just a short ride away. It was beautiful, but inquire with locals to find the hidden spots. Bring a towel and buy some fruit from a street vendor and relax by the sea.
Lisbon is known for quality Hostels, they are abundant.
Where I stayed: Tavira Youth Hostel, safe & clean with community dinners
Standing on the top of the Santa Lucia hill in Santiago, the peaks of the Andes glisten against the steel of the city and, as nature typically does, provide reassurance of an escape. There are several locations in the world in which you can get away in a flash to wineries, mountain ranges, water rafting, the beach in under a few hours. There are also several places in the world where an avocado dispenser is a typical condiment option. Santiago is an ideal place for the cultured with restless leg syndrome- unlimited outdoor adventures, wine and history to pursue.
Sidetrip to the Mountains:
60km into the mountains Cascada de las Animas Ecoresort and Nature Sanctuary sits on the Maipo River and has access to extensive trails. On a 2 hour easy hike, we came across cacti, snow, several birds of prey, and the namesake waterfall. Individual Cabins available. Bike ride, hike, zipline, whitewater raft,then eat homemade dishes on the porch at La Tribu restaurant.
If you go:
A Few of the Vineyards
Cocha Y Toro, right south of Santiago
towards the ocean
Indomita Vineyards (1.40 from Santiago)
Great location but beware of drunk Aussies at La Casa Roja Hostel