Tag Archives: south america

Yes, Virginia, There is a Lake Titicaca

A weekend excursion to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca (okay—go ahead, revert to your middle school self and laugh—it is a funny name!) on the border between Peru and Bolivia began with a stop in the city of Copacabana.  Copacabana, Bolivia—not to be confused with Brazil—is famous in its own right.  Every day, the town is flooded with proud car owners hoping to have their car blessed by the Virgin of Copacabana.  We strolled though jammed streets of vehicles decorated to the hilt102_0462 and watched a priest do rounds sprinkling the holy water, followed by the owners pouring alcohol over the car, lighting incense around it, and even lighting off fireworks underneath it.  Safety first!

After taking in this spectacle and the rest of this touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca, our group of Spanish teachers got back on our motor coach and headed out of town toward where we would depart for Isla del Sol.  On the way to the pier, we had to have our bus ferried across part of the lake to connect with a short cut.  We all had to leave the bus while it ferried, while we were transported on a small passenger boat. 102_0391 Thankfully bus and passengers made it across the water safely and after reboarding and traveling another hour or so, we arrived at the pier to load yet another passenger boat that would bring us to a small dock on Isla del Sol.

Upon arrival to the island, all we could do was look up, because the island is like one big hill.  We were then informed that a pack of donkeys 102_0449would be delivering our backpacks to our lodging for the night: Ecolodge—La Estancia  www.ecolodge-laketiticaca.com.  After saying goodbye to our belongings, we learned that we would be hiking to the lodge. Uphill. For around two hours.  At over 13,000 feet above sea level.  Awesome!  I was really glad I had taken the baggie of coca leaves from our guide because the leaves are the ultimate remedy for altitude sickness and like so many t-shirts in Bolivia say “Hoja de coca no es una droga” (coca leaves are not a drug).  And so with that in mind and coca leaves in my cheek I began trekking up the hillside paths toward the ecolodge.  The views on the hike made the whole thing worthwhile102_0420 and the bottle of Malbec waiting for us at the lodge was an excellent reward as well.  Some of those who did not have coca leaves and were not quite in shape had a much more difficult time arriving to the lodge and they promptly crashed for the night upon arrival.  The rest of us enjoyed our wine, some coca tea, 102_0432a delicious meal of traditional Andean cuisine, and the beautiful views of the lake and the Andes.

The small cabanas of the ecolodge scattered about the hillside102_0422 made for the perfect accommodation and the complete silence overnight after the big hike made for a great night.  I did, however, set my alarm clock early to get up and capture some photos of the most beautiful sunrise of my life.  102_0437After going back to bed for a few hours, we started our day with breakfast at the lodge dining room and set off for a morning hike to the official peak of the island—another hour above the ecolodge.  More beautiful views welcomed us along with a feeling of…accomplishment?  We felt like explorers.  After the standard photo ops at the peak, 102_0452we descended to the lodge and then continued on down the hill (much easier downhill!) to the dock to board the small boat and head back to the motor coach on shore.

The trip to Isla del Sol had been perfection, with views of a lifetime, and I was all smiles as we neared the dock.  Just before the steps down to the pier, I was approached by the cutest little girl with a small alpaca.  What a beautiful parting memory of my time on the island!  I greeted her and she asked me to take her picture.  102_0456Adorable, I thought to myself.  Perhaps she has never seen a photo of herself on a digital camera like the school children I had encountered in Guatemala.  So sweet!  And so I took the photo and as I showed her the screen, she demanded money!  What??!!  I’d been had by this little scammer disguised as a precious Andean child.  Grrrr… I handed over the only coins I had and walked down to the pier.

She may have ruined the moment, but let’s face it, she needed the coins more than I did.  And I’m not holding a grudge, because who knows–the next time I visit, my backpack might be on the back of that alpaca.


Mystical Moments in Machu Picchu

Our train pulled into the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu ruins of Peru and upon exiting the train, we had reached our destination for the day: the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel http://www.inkaterra.com/inkaterra/inkaterra-machu-picchu-pueblo-hotel/ .  Groupings of whitewashed tile-roofed casitas surrounded the hacienda style main building, all nestled into the vegetation on the side of the mountain.  The whole atmosphere of this place was like a spa.  From the guided hummingbird and orchid tour to simply sitting in front of one of the main lodge’s fireplaces sipping a mean pisco sour, 102_0627every moment here was heaven.  You could even partake in a sweat lodge ceremony, if so inclined.

And the food!  The meal that most comes to mind was the alpaca steak in a wild blueberry sauce with quinoa cake .   102_0593Meals here are enjoyed on the balcony overlooking the valley of Aguas Calientes 102_0590or in the romantic candlelit dining room down the hill.

Our plan was to spend the day relaxing at the hotel, then rise before dawn the next morning to walk to the town plaza to meet the guide for our tour of the ruins.  We were to be at the plaza when it was still dark so we could see the sunrise over the lost Incan city.  Well, we waitied and waited and finally the guide arrived about 30 minutes late.  I started to lay into him (in Spanish, of course) about how we were going to miss the sunrise experience and then an elderly lady from Spain who was also waiting for him with us started going off on him.  No one, and I mean no one, can curse like a Spaniard so I just sat back, watched her go to town, and thought, “Yeah, what she said!”

We did eventually arrive at Machu Picchu and in fact there was no sunrise as everything was fogged in.102_0629  Great.  The guides there must be used to this weather and also the visitors’ disappointment because I overheard several of them commenting on “what a mystical feeling the fog gives the ruins”.  By covering them completely?  Mystical, schmistical—tell my camera that!102_0649

As we wandered around the archeological marvel, the fog lifted bit by bit until we saw the perfect chance to capture a photo of the world famous view of Huayna Picchu peak and the ruins.  As I settled in on the edge of a trail, my husband Russell was snapping a shot of me in front of the million dollar view when I was a victim of a “drive-by llama-ing”.  This became my favorite shot of the trip.  I think it has a mystical feeling, don’t you agree?102_0677



High in La Paz, Bolivia

When people fantasize about South American travel, they think of Machu Picchu, Buenos Aires, the Galapagos Islands, Rio.  The city of La Paz rarely comes to mind.  However, if you find yourself in the highest altitude world capital, here are some things you should know.  First of all, if you fly into El Alto (disclaimer—all of my “high” comments have to do with elevation, not the other thing!) airport you will notice many weary travelers.  It’s not jet lag, it’s altitude sickness.  You are over 13,600 feet above sea level.  Now you could seek out an oxygen tank somewhere, but the best bet is to do what the locals do:  find coca.  Whether it is sipping coca tea or even putting some of the leaves in your cheek or gum, tobacco-style, do it!  A word about coca leaves—as everyone in the Andes says, “Coca is NOT a drug!”  102_0428Cocaine is a drug and yes, there are coca leaves in it, but they are not the dangerous ingredient.  Coca is not illegal and drinking coca tea here is as common as the consumption of coffee in America. For centuries the people of the Andes have taken advantage of its curative properties, including the relief of altitude sickness.

As you leave the airport and come into the city of La Paz you will take in the crater shape as you descend into the city center.  Arriving at the cathedral, take a moment to just stand and watch traffic.  It is very entertaining to watch the combi vans pass, with the guy who hangs out of each van as it passes shouting out all the destinations of their van.  Then head up the hill behind the cathedral, taking time to appreciate the fine electrical work of the city.  102_0479Resist the urge to touch any of the many low hanging overhead wires.  I know you want to, but remember—there is less oxygen going to your brain right now—this is not the time to act on impulse!  If you get hungry on your way up the hill, look around, there might be a trunk full of bakery to tide you over. 102_0482 About halfway up the hill you can either turn left to go to the Coca Museum (free samples!) www.cocamuseum.com which was closed the day I was there, or to the right for my favorite spot in the city—the Witches Market (El Mercado de Hechiceria).  I was here in the afternoon, but you may want to visit at dusk when the incense adds an otherworldly feeling to the street. 102_0476

So what’s at the Witches Market?  A better question—what isn’t?  Here are a few of my favorite things…(hope you’re humming that to this list):  Dried llama fetus and potions for romance, Incan god statues and mystical incense, stuffed armadillos and dried frogs on strings, these are a few of my favorite things!

102_0473Moving on, sorry I got that tune stuck in your head.  If you are staying the night in the center of La Paz, there are many great bars and restaurants in a walkable area—just use caution when out at night.  The best place we went to was a Lebanese place near the Witches Market.   That’s right, Lebanese food in Bolivia—who knew?  I had a sampler platter with excellent baba ghanoush at Restaurant Jalal.  Of course there are many great options for Andean cuisine like sancocho, quinoa dishes, and even cuy (guinea pig) throughout the city.  Just wander around and look for places that are full of locals.  If that doesn’t work for you, just wander the downtown and look for an open trunk, you never know what culinary treat is inside! 

A final note about a common sight in La Paz—do not think you are being approached by a terrorist.  102_0496These guys are in the shoe shine business and apparently just trying not to contaminate the already small amount of oxygen they are breathing in.  What’s protecting YOUR lungs during the shoe shine?  Hmmm……. Good luck.