The In-Transit Report

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Northern Europe Part One: Denmark

Christiansborg Palace and area 31

Yes, I know I’m very behind on this blog. My apologies; I’ve been busy enjoying my travels!

I started off 2014 in Copenhagen, Denmark, after a lovely week-long “vacation” with my wonderful family in sunny California. It felt very much like vacation: I didn’t have any sightseeing to do, so I just relaxed and enjoyed the company. Perfect end to the year, and refreshing after the last few months of travel.

Watching the fireworks go off in Copenhagen, I felt a growing sense of contentment and happiness with how my life is going. Copenhagen is easily one of my favourite cities: I could see myself living there. The centre is small and walkable, with beautiful old buildings, cobblestone streets, and a cozy pub or coffee-shop atmosphere after dark. Being there in winter, it got dark quickly. I really took to it, and will definitely be back.

Kronborg Castle 34

Around Copenhagen, I took daytrips to a few places: Helsingør, Hillerød and Roskilde. The first two were to visit castles, which, being the first Europe castles I’ve ever seen, were amazing for their sheer size and opulence. I can’t imagine living with that much decorum and wealth around me. In Helsinør, Kronborg castle is a famous site, known for being where Hamlet was supposedly set. It’s my favourite from the ones I’ve seen.

Roskilde holds the Viking Ship Museum, which, while pretty small, holds some impressively well preserved medieval viking ships. The town is also really lovely, and made for a great day trip with the company of someone I met at the hostel.

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I liked so many things about the area that I wound up staying for 9 days in Copenhagen when I originally planned for 4! It just had such a nice vibe, and I liked the hostel I was staying at. The city also has great museums: I particularly enjoyed the National Museum of Denmark and the Danish Jewish Museum, which details the history of Jews in Denmark, highlighting the fact that Denmark successfully saved the vast majority of its Jewish population during World War II. Not bad. 

After Copenhagen, I stopped in Nyborg, a small town a few hours away, to visit a very small castle that held a very nerdy exhibit. The exhibit was a collection of Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit collectables. Apparently, one guy in Denmark spent a lot of money on replica swords, knives, jewellery, and lots of figurines of various sizes. The exhibit talked about similarities between Scandinavian folklore and the mythos of Lord of the Rings. For someone like me, that was a perfect combination, and the stopover was completely worth it! I wound up in a long, nerdy conversation with the girl who worked at the desk; since there was no one but me that afternoon, it was refreshing for both of us.

After that stop I wound up in Aarhus, where I couchsurfed at a house with six people, most of whom were students. It was nice to be part of a ‘collective’: everyone cooked, cleaned, hung out for chats in the kitchen, and generally enjoyed each other’s company. There was only one Dane who stopped in, and the rest were from all over: Germany, Latvia, Russia, etc. The nearby University has a lot of English-language programs, and so attracts a lot of international students.

Aarhus is the second-biggest city in Denmark, and also has a well-known art museum called ARoS. I normally don’t like modern art, but a lot of it was really cool, and the rest was fun to dislike. The top floor is a ring of rainbow glass, which you can walk around, looking over the city as the colours change.

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The last thing I saw in Denmark was the Tollund Man in nearby Silkeborg, a short bus ride away from Aarhus. He is an incredibly well-preserved pre-Roman Iron Age bog body from around 300 BCE. Although only his head was maintained, he was an amazing example of how life was lived at that time.

I originally intended to travel through more of Denmark, but at that time of year (early January), it was harder to find any reasonably priced accommodation in anything but the major cities, so I decided to instead go south into Germany and leave the rest of Denmark for another trip. Lovely country!

Scuba Report: Mexico

Note: These are not my pictures!

Tulum is a small city on the ocean, with its own ruins, beaches (which I don’t really care about), and tons of cenotes nearby to explore and dive. I spent three days diving in the area, starting off with a bull shark dive off of Playa del Carmen, just 45 minutes north of Tulum. Though I didn’t like that they baited the sharks, having huge sharks circling around is pretty cool. Don’t worry, sharks don’t kill nearly as many people as the media and Hollywood would like you to believe.

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The cenotes, which are the main diving attraction in Tulum, were amazing to dive. In total I did 4 dives, my favorite one being Angelita (first picture), a deep sinkhole. We dove down to 30m / 100ft where the fresh water meets a cloud of hydrogen sulfate, colored from the rotting trees that are scattered around the cenote. 

Once you descend through the cloud, you wind up underneath, circling around in the dark surrounded by dead trees. Really, really cool dive. It’s pretty much like falling into a horror movie set, which is right up my alley.

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The other ones I did were Calavera, Gran (2nd picture) and Casa Cenote, all very beautiful but different from Angelita. 

Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been unable to resist the urge to dive, so the month of December was absolutely wonderful for diving, but not for my budget!

I set aside a few days to dive in one of the most popular spots in the area, which is Cozumel. After my detour through Valladolid and Merida to see more ruins (see my previous entry), I took a bus to Playa del Carmen, and from there caught the ferry over to the island of Cozumel. I had a couple of hours in Playa, and found nothing there but a glut of tourist spots, gaudy, overpriced souvenirs, and lots of people trying to sell me everything. I was thankful to get on the ferry out to the island, though I expected Cozumel to be even worse.

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Luckily, it wasn’t. There are lots of touristy spots all over, not to mention the all-inclusive resorts all over, but I stayed at a really nice, and inexpensive, hostel. A few streets over and the town turned into a normal place. The next day, I started the first of four dive days. Over the week I did nine dives, most in pretty nice spots, although some were just okay.

The best dives sites were the Palancars, one of which was basically walls of coral, forming arches and passageways that were great to swim through. The others, also good, were Paso del Cedro, Colombia, and then I finished the week with a night dive at Paradise Reef, which was nice, but very frequented. Over the last 6 months of diving, I’ve gotten much better and more natural, so these dives were very relaxing, and I got to work on perfecting some of the skills I’d built up. It was the perfect “vacation” while on my trip.

Central America Part Two: Mexico (Tulum, Valladolid, Merida, and Cozumel)

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In Tulum, I spent some time diving (see my other blog entry specifically on diving!), and checked out the local ruins on the beach. Nice, but not amazing comparatively. Lots of sun and iguanas, though. I love iguanas, and here there were too many to count. I spent a lot of time chasing them around trying to get good shots.

I met some cool people in Tulum, stayed at an awesome hostel, and was happy to stay in one place for more than one or two nights for a change!

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After Tulum I went to Valladolid with two guys I’d met in Tulum. The town is less than two hours away by bus, and close to Chichen Itza, which is the star attraction of the Yucatan Peninsula. Valladolid is a pretty small town, a nice place to hang out for a couple night while visiting the sights.

The next morning, I caught the collectivo to Chichen Itza with the guys, early as we could moving. We succeeded and were the first people inside, and got to see this beautiful Mayan temple without the normal hoards!

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In one of the hidden sections, there are buildings with an incredible amount of small details carved into the walls (also pictured). Chichen Itza lived up to its hype, especially since I got to see it first thing in the morning with no other tourists. It’s a nice mixture of size, scale, and detail, with some hidden parts that are absolute gems. The pyramid (pictured) is impressive and very well restored (or preserved?).

I’d been told by someone that the main pyramid and other buildings in the main area are originally Mayan but updated by the Toltecs, and that the buildings in the other section, that I liked better, were more authentically Mayan, and older. 

Later I went to Ek Balam, another Mayan ruins site nearby. This was a small treat. It had an incredible amount of detail, similar to the other sections of Chichen Itza, though at this time of day it was more crowded than when I went to Chichen Itza.

One of the amusing things to see in most of these sites are the ball courts: two sloping surfaces facing each other. Apparently the game was considered sacred to the Mayans, and occasionally the best player would be sacrificed to the Gods to attain a higher status. Interesting. If only we still did that, so I could stop hearing about how high so-and-so’s salary is.

I was running out of time to see ruins before going to Cozumel, but I managed to get to Merida and stay over two nights. Merida is one of the biggest cities in that area of Mexico, but it has a nice colonial old town area and generally good vibe.

I lucked out. In high season, I managed to get one of the last dorm beds (girls only dorm) for the two nights, and the next day was Sunday. There’s an area full of ruins called the Ruta Puuc, and once a week on Sundays, there’s a bus that stops at five sites along the way. In the time I had, there was no other way to see all of these sites in one day, so fate had it that I arrived on Saturday night.

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Although I didn’t get nearly enough time at Uxmal at the end, there were some small but lovely stops:

Sayil: Very small, but with a very beautiful and well-preserved palace.

Xlapak: Nothing much to see but a small building, not really worth more than a 10-minute stop. 

Labna: Very nice little details. Big palace and a beautiful arch, with a raised temple in the background.

Kabah (pictured): This one I really wanted to see. It’s know for the ‘wall of masks’ of the rain god. The nose is either upturned or downturned depending on if the people are praying for more rain or less rain. In this area, they’re upturned.

Uxmal (rest of the pictures!): This might be my favorite Mayan ruins site. The pyramid of the magician is the most unique pyramid I’ve seen so far, and the site is both massive and incredibly detailed. I could have spent hours and hours at this site, it was amazing! I took a ton of pictures and switched lenses every five minutes. I need to go back…

Next I moved on Cozumel, or, as I like to call it, tourist playground. The switch from Merida to Playa del Carmen, the coastal town where I caught the ferry out to Isla Cozumel, was pretty much a mess of American tourists, where the USD is king and there are people everywhere trying to sell you everything. I put my headphones in and ignored everyone while I waited for the ferry.

On the island itself it was much better; there were apparently laws enacted to reduce harassment, but only on Cozumel. I spent most of my time diving, but found the island pretty nice the rest of the time. I hung out with other divers, but could see that much of Cozumel was still normal people going about their lives. It was a relaxing stay, followed by a day of transit from Cozumel, back to Playa, and up to Cancun in the evening to fly out the next morning to California, where I spent Christmas with my awesome family. That was a lovely, relaxing week where I got to catch up with everyone, take care of some errands, and prepare myself for yet another complete 180: heading to Europe after 3-something months in Latin America.

Uxmal 9

The more I think about it, the less I want to group South and Central America together as “Latin America”. Sure, they have language in common, for the most part, but both regions have a different vibe and feel. Not just that, but each country has a different feel to it. To say Latin America just feels like cheating.

My experience in each region just makes me want to go back and see more, experience more. I’m already half-planning my next RTW trip… because travel is the most wonderfully dangerous addiction!

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Central America Part One: Belize, Guatemala and on to Mexico

Because I spent longer in South America than I originally intended, my trip through Central America was a whirlwind of movement, sites, and of course more diving.

I started out by flying into Belize, where I went straight to Caye Caulker, an island close to Belize City. It’s just about the perfect tropical vacation destination: a very creole island with good food, plenty of bars, a range of accommodation choices, and no cars on the sand roads. There were beaches and plenty of places to dive, including the iconic Great Blue Hole. I, of course, dove the Blue Hole and surroundings, and had a great time, though it wasn’t as impressive as I was hoping for. The rest of the time, I chilled out on the island, went snorkeling, and then traveled onward to San Ignacio, a Belizean city near the Guatemalan border (literally 15 minutes away).

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From San Ignacio I did the ATM (Actun Tunichil Muknal) cave tour, where you basically swim through a cave, which the Mayans believed was an entrance to the underworld, and then get to climb up and see ruined pottery, ritual items and a few skeletons to boot. Very cool.

From there I popped into Guatemala to see Tikal, one of the most famous Mayan sites in the area. It’s know for its incredibly tall pyramids, which are definitely impressive. Incidently it was also my birthday, which I ironically spent by going to bed early the night before in order to wake up at 2:45 to leave for the sunrise tour at 3am. Yeah, that’s correct… 3AM. I guess that means I’m an adult.

In any case, I was expecting to just go there for the ride and split off from the tour, but the guide was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had. He was very excited to share all the information about the temple, and about all of the animal life in the jungle surrounding it. We were treated to a symphony of angry sounding howler monkeys, along with various birds, as the sun rose.

Unfortunately, it was very misty and we couldn’t see much from the top of the pyramid we were sitting on, but the sounds alone made it a very special experience. From here, we walked around the quiet grounds before all the tourists rolled in. It’s amazing to see how much of the site is still overgrown and what kind of condition it’s in. I wonder what it’ll look like in twenty-five or fifty years.

The rest of the day was relaxing, and I just spent in hanging around the town of Flores and at the hostel, which was very nice. Definitely not the worst way to spend a birthday. And then I went to bed early, again, having to get up at 4am to catch my bus to Palenque, Mexico.

I’d originally toyed with the idea of dropped Tikal and Palenque from my itinerary because of the distance they are from the rest of my planned stops, but I’m really glad I didn’t.

I spent two nights in Palenque and visited three amazing Mayan ruins sites. As much as I liked Tikal, the ruins near Palenque were much more impressive to me.

FYaxchilan 57rom Palenque, I did a day tour starting at 6am to two sites: Yaxchilan and Bonampak. They were actually on the Guatemalan border, which I went through on my way from Tikal to Palenque, but the day tour was fine to go through, though it was dark when I left and dark again by the time I got back!

Yaxchilan, accessible by boat down the river that separates Mexico and Guatemala, was actually a pretty sizable site with a number of buildings and a greater amount of detail than I expected. Lots of doorways were carved, and then there was the sun temple (see photo of the facade), adorning the top of a hill overlooking the whole site. It was a long climb up, but it was worth it to see, appreciate, and photograph.

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Bonampak, while smaller, hosted some of the best preserved and most impressive frescos I’ve ever seen in the Mayan temples, or maybe any temples.

Originally, the Mayans applied stucco and then painted their buildings red or blue, which you can only see slight remnants of now. Seeing the paintings inside the temple in Bonampak makes me really curious about how the buildings looked when they were actually in use.

I’ve learned a lot about what I like and don’t like while traveling. While I like big, impressive sites, I’m more interested in the smaller details. That’s why sites like Angkor Wat and Borobudur, which have both, are my favorites. I like Machu Picchu, but it lacked in detail what it did have in size and setting. Yaxchilan and Bonampak deliver on the details front.

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Palenque, the ruins that the town took its name front, has a great mixture of both, and that makes it one of my favorites. I got there via collectivo at 8am, right when it opened, and ran around like crazy taking pictures, before I decided to just sit down and enjoy for a few minutes.

I wound up in conversation with a woman from the states who fell in love with the area, and was telling me what it was like fifteen and even three years ago. She said she feels like the local culture is degrading, unfortunately, and that she sees less and less people in traditional clothing. That’s one of those unsolvable puzzles; oftentimes, happiness is rooted in traditional, but the current of development overtakes and destroys. To me, Mexico seems incredibly developed, at least compared to many of the places I’ve been in South America.

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I walked on, still ahead of the tour groups. Palenque really seems like a city; you can just feel it when you wander around. It’s not just a collection of buildings that happen to be near in each other. While I walked I could visualize people living, working and traveling along its streets, through the halls of the palace, and all throughout. Though the stairs are crazy steep, so I still can’t figure that part out…

There was another entire section that I had a hard time finding thanks to unclear signs, but when I finally did I was almost alone in the jungle with some overgrown ruins, which reminded me a lot of Ta Prohm in Angkor. A tour group blew past, but I just got to stay there, exploring a pile of stones overgrown with moss. Very, very cool.

I’ve suspected lately that I’m “ruined out”, that I’ve just seen too many ruins in my travels, but places like these remind me why I love to travel. In all of the places I can see the differences; every place has a different vibe to it. Now I can see the different styles of Mayan architecture from Palenque to the Ruta Puuc. It’s part of the life education that is travel. There’s no better way to learn and truly understand history than to see what it has left behind, to really engage it and enjoy it.

From Palenque I traveled onwards to Tulum, a 10 hour bus ride that seemed short to me, compared with most of my bus rides in Peru and Bolivia. I’d originally intended to go to Merida first, but wound up picking Tulum because the bus was earlier and I didn’t see the need to stick around Palenque much longer. 

The In Transit Report: From Bolivia to Belize, via Colombia

I got a flight from La Paz, Bolivia, to Belize City, Belize only a few weeks in advance using frequent flier miles, which meant it was a bit indirect. Additionally, it meant I had a 15-hour layover in Cali, Colombia. Instead of sitting around the airport, I decided to go into the city for a while.

Cali is a big city near the Ecuadorian border, with not a whole lot to see, but it was a nice place to stop for a while. I managed to get a hostel (for a ‘nap’ before my 6am flight out), get a shower, and walk around a bit. I even found a vegetarian restaurant for dinner. The area I stayed in was nice, and very developed compared to everywhere I’d been in Bolivia. I had to find an ATM and deal with bank issues, and found that every single Colombian I asked for help finding this or that, was sincerely helpful and kind. Seriously, I didn’t find one mean person in all of Colombia. Based on my 15-hour taste, I’m very sad I didn’t get more time to visit the country!

I took a taxi back to the airport at 4am and caught my flight off the South American continent, and I must say I was sad to go. Even sitting in the San Salvador airport, things just felt different. Latin America may be a word to describe all of these countries, but each is very different, and now being in Central America, I can really feel it.

Another thing I’ve been feeling recently is how much I’ve changed as a traveler since my last few backpacking trips. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I have much less tolerance for partying, and especially ‘party hostels’. My standards have changed; I’m much more willing to pay more for a better place to stay, better food, better ambiance, and better busses. I’m more inclined to take day tours if it means less work and more comfort, and I feel a bit less adventurous sometimes. I also don’t like to move very fast; I love having 2-3 or more nights in one place, and if I find a hostel with a good vibe I’m inclined to stay longer. I’m not the kind to get off of a night bus and immediately go sightseeing. I’d rather take a nap and relax, put the hard stuff off until tomorrow.

With that being said, and having added diving to the mix, my budget hasn’t lasted me nearly as long as I expected it to, by a long shot. I’ll be happy to make it to a year of travel, maybe longer if I stick to cheaper places. We’ll see what happens. I really wish I’d had longer for South America, and now for Central America, and I’m really excited to get to the part where I don’t have any future flights to catch. February that’ll happen – after the Olympics. In the meantime, I’m traveling a bit faster than I’d like to be at the moment in Central America.

Bolivia: Isla del Sol and Uyuni Salt Flats

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Having only a week and a half for Bolivia, I narrowed down the places I planned to visit: Isla del Sol and the Uyuni Salt Flats (the main reason I wanted to go to Bolivia!). Going from Cuzco to Puno, Peru and then crossing the border to Copacabana was a very frequented backpacker trail, so it was a pretty uneventful border crossing, and I managed to make it to Copacabana in time to take a ferry out to Isla del Sol. I met up with a few British girls and an Israeli guy, and we all stuck together for the day. 

Isla del Sol is a scenic little island surrounded by Lake Titicaca, with a cluster of hotels and restaurants. We all walked up the hill to find a hostel, with our packs and braving the altitude, and finally settled on a very basic little hostel with a lovely view of the lake. The next day, one of the Brits, the Israeli guy, and I hiked from the south part of the island to the north, which was a massive challenge for me, between altitude sickness (average altitude of 4,000 meters), bad knees and not having much stamina. Despite stopping to catch my breath every ten minutes, I managed to made it all the way north and back again, a total of 6-7 hours of hiking. The views and scattered ruins (pictured above) were lovely, completely worth the challenge, and that evening the British girl and I had a candlelit dinner in a restaurant with the nicest staff ever, and the best Quinoa soup I’ve had yet. All in all, it made for a nice stopover on the way to Uyuni.

After two nights on Isla del Sol, I hopped in a collective to La Paz and stayed a night, organizing my Salt Flats trip with the Tupiza Tours office nearby the next day. Later I got a bus to Tupiza, the town where the tour started from, a 14 hour ride away. That wasn’t the best bus trip I’ve ever taken. I was pretty sure the bus was going to fall apart at the seams; the seats barely reclined, the brakes squeaked, and it stopped pretty much everywhere until around 9pm. I caught a few naps on the ride, which luckily wasn’t through any steep mountain roads. I arrived in Tupiza at 6:30am the next day and didn’t do much, though frankly I found it pretty dull anyway.

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Finally, I met up with the tour group the next morning. I’d lucked out and got moved last minute to a group with an English speaking guide, and while the maximum group size is six, we only had four in our group, making the crammed 4×4 a lot less crammed. Also, it pays to be short sometimes.

Our tour was four days, three nights, starting in Tupiza and working our way around the National Park (Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa) and up to Uyuni, where we ended in the salt flat.

I could sit here and write a paragraph about every single thing we saw over the four days, but honestly that’s a bit much, so I’ll just go through the highlights.

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Ruins: Since I love ruins, I loved the two sites we saw. On day one we went through an abandoned mining village, which was completely falling apart, and had a formerly nice church.

On the fourth day we saw the “Cementerio del Trenes”, which was an awesome collection of old, rusty trains sitting around, swarmed with tourists. They were 19th century British trains used to transport mined minerals to the coast for export. Really cool place, though I spent a lot of time waiting for tourists to get out of the frame. I could have spent hours just at that site; this kind of photography is even more up my alley than landscapes.

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Lagunas: We stopped at an innumerable number of beautiful lakes throughout the four days, ranging in color from pure turquoise to crystal clear, to the amazing shades of white, pink and red at Laguna Colorada. The colors of the lagunas are due to various chemical reactions. Our guide was very knowledgable about what chemicals caused what colors, for instance that the flamingos are shades of pink because of the beta carotene in what they ate at the lagunas, and that the beautiful turquoise Laguna Verde is actually poisonous due to a high content of arsenic. No one ventured a sip, luckily.

Uyuni Tour  Day Three 9Minerals and Rocks: Pulling into a laguna that produced Sodium Bicarbonate (aka baking soda) was pretty incredible. Standing in this production area, though devoid of workers, we could see piles and piles of this substance in the most unexpected of places. Along the edges of many lagunas was a ring of salt as well, which of course wasn’t surprising.

In another life, I could be a geologist; rocks and minerals are fascinating. The effects of volcanic eruptions from hundreds of years ago make for very cool photography, especially in a place like Arbol de Piedro (pictured, left). Another random spot was dotted with fallen rocks from an eruption thousands of years ago, and was nicknamed the Desert of Dali.

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Landscapes: We drove through all kinds of landscapes, vast deserts, and of course the salt flats. The range of colors and shapes was incredible, from round hills dotted with sparse brush, to sand as far as the eye can see, to this beautiful mountain range on the left.

I love seeing places where the landscapes change drastically, and this area of Bolivia reminded me a bit of New Zealand in that respect. Photographically speaking, it was well worth the four days of sitting in a Jeep, and even the two days without a shower!

Salar de Uyuni 1

Salt: Of course, the main attraction of the area is Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. Basically, this is over 10,000 square kilometers (or 4,000 square miles) of nothing but ground covered by salt a few meters deep. 

The area was originally at the bottom of a prehistoric saltwater lake. You can see dead coral structures at Incahuasi Island, a strange oasis of cacti, rocks and coral in the middle of the flat. Over time, tectonic plate movement pushed the ground up to its current altitude (just over 3,600m), and, now devoid of water, the salt remains.

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There’s one small area in the flat where they cultivate salt for use solely in Bolivia, which I think is great considering how exports have raised prices on goods all over other South American countries. Our guide also told us how the government has been working to bring electricity and clean water to the more rural areas of the country, and raise the standard of living. It’s encouraging to hear that from someone on the inside.

The Bolivian government also kicked out foreign companies trying to extract minerals (Salar de Uyuni has large amounts of Lithium), and to this day there’s only one foreign company working in the area; many family-owned operations exist to mine other minerals like gold, sodium bicarbonate, and of course the salt.

They also removed a salt hotel in the middle of the flat which had posed pollution and waste problems. Further away there are still various hotels made with bricks of salt, one of which we stayed at. Pretty neat. Lick the walls if you want.

I was hoping to be there when it rained, because of the amazing reflections, but it didn’t. It was still very interesting without the water, especially the pattern of the ground all throughout; amazingly consistent, and very photogenic of course. It was hard to go through all my pictures and pick only some to show.

Photographically speaking, I’ve been incredibly lucky throughout my travels; great weather for most of the time. I’ve been privileged to see some amazing things both over and under the water. I’m sad to leave South America, because as always I’m coming away with an even longer list of things to see. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I have, and honestly it wasn’t very high on my priority list to begin with. However, like with everything, just going somewhere is mind-opening.

From La Paz, I fly to Belize, where I’ll hopefully do more scuba diving, and then travel to see ruins in Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The adventure continues…

Peru Part Three: Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Cuzco  Cristo Blanco 4

From the Galapagos, I booked a flight all the way down to Cuzco, not even needing to leave the Quito airport. I spent seven hours in the Lima airport, and finally got to Cuzco and just relaxed for the day. Cuzco is at high altitude (3,400m / 11,200ft) and so it’s advised to spend a few days there to acclimatize. Unfortunately, I have a hard time adjusting to altitude, even over a few days. The next day, I did a walking tour with a cool English girl I met, and was breathing hard and drinking water the entire time. I don’t know if my heart has ever beat so fast. In any case, I survived. The walking tour was free and surprisingly informative, covering a few neighborhoods and some of the major sites in those areas, including the beautiful churches with original, anti-siesmic Inca stone foundations. We also stopped at a store for a demonstration of traditional Peruvian instruments, and a few places for bites of food. Definitely worth the price, plus tip.

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The next day, my companion and I bought sandwich supplies at the local market (avocados, tomatoes, bread) and went to check out the free ruins near Cuzco. It was a long, long day of more walking (and a short horseback ride), but we got to see some neat ruins and the gigantic white Jesus statue (pictured above) that guards over the city.

Towards the end of our walk we found a nice picnic spot overlooking the ruins (pictured), with no one else around, and we ate our sandwiches there before walking back via the giant white Jesus.

After that adventure, we opted for something slightly different, and booked a day tour to go river rafting in the Urubamba River. I’ve never gone river rafting before, but I’ve always wanted to, and I love pretty much anything to do with being on or under water. Very fun, and amazing scenery. Afterwards, we got a surprisingly good lunch at “Base Camp”, and then almost everyone opted to do the zipline across the river. I’m too afraid of heights to do it, but I was satisfied enough with the rafting.

Finally, I made it out to Machu Picchu, or rather Aguas Caliente, the small town at the base of the mountain. AG was a sad specimen of a town, completely overrun by tourism with hostels and restaurants that were all exactly the same and overpriced. I wound up taking the train in from Ollantaytambo, which was cheaper than going all the way from Cuzco. I arrived in the evening, bought my entry ticket and bus tickets up and down the mountain. Spending the evening in AG was pretty boring, aside from the little girl at the restaurant where I had dinner, who was obsessed with my piercings and shiny computer. I showed her pictures and talked in my very limited Spanish.

Machu Picchu 167The next morning, I got up at 4:30am and walked to the bus stop at 5, to catch the first bus of the morning, which was at 5:30. There was already a long line. Luckily, they ran out of seats for couples and needed a solo person… so I skipped the line a bit and got the last seat on the first bus! After the half hour long, very winding bus ride up, I got to stand in another line before the gates opened. Once they did, I rushed ahead of the gathering tour groups and got my tourist-free Machu Picchu pictures.

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Machu Picchu is, of course, amazing. I think the main attraction of it is the sheer size and the beautiful settings. The narrow, tall mountain peaks in the background are an identifiable characteristic of the site, even though it lacks the intricate carved details of Angkor Wat, and the gorgeous pink and orange limestone of Petra. It does has the Inca attention to detail in terms of its orientation and position in the mountains, and the number of temples throughout the site (such as the Temple of the Sun, left). The stonework is nice and well engineered against earthquakes, but it’s not very embellished. Throughout, you can imagine finding the sacred animals hidden in the walls: the serpent, for the underworld, the puma, for the living world, and the condor, for the overworld.

Machu Picchu 63Sometimes, I linger at a specific spot and eavesdrop on the tours that pour through, contributing to my knowledge of what’s what, like the energy stone (pictured), and the temple that was either damaged from a 1915 earthquake, or tourists walking on the top, depending on which tour guide was talking.

I spent over four hours total walking around Machu Picchu, from 6am until 10:30, when the hoards of tourists increased a thousandfold. I’d been walking through a number of passageways in the residential area, almost completely alone. This is my favorite way to see the sights; having enough time to take in all the small details as well as the overall, not being rushed through a tour with no time to take good pictures.

I wanted to visit a number of other sites, but unfortunately my bad knees and altitude sickness made trekking a very bad idea. That was one very disappointing part of the week, but considering how hard walking up and down the steps in Cuzco was, I don’t think I’d make it through a trek without seriously injuring myself. At least I have scuba diving.

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Two other sets of ruins I did get to see were Ollantaytambo and Pisac, both near towns that were easy to get to by public transportation. Naturally, they were a bit underwhelming compared to Machu Picchu, but they were a different enough style to be interesting. The Ollantaytambo ruins were a short walk from the main plaza of this lovely little town (I wished I’d stayed there a night), and consisting of terracing and some structures on the top and the bottom. There were some really neat examples of Inca irrigation systems as well (pictured).

Pisac 23

Pisac (pictured) was more difficult to get to; farther away from the town of Pisac, it required an expensive taxi ride to get to, and I had too little time to really enjoy it. Pisac was much bigger and more spread out than Ollantaytambo, with much more impressive terracing and a great view of the valley. Unfortunately it was also undergoing some restoration, so I had to edit out lots of blue tarp. Overall, both were nice to visit, but I wish I’d done them before Machu Picchu, and gotten a much early start before attempting to do both in one day. I regret not having more time for the entirety of the Sacred Valley. There’s always more things to add to the list, another place to go back to someday!

Up next, a week and a half in Bolivia, and then on to Central America!

Ecuador Part Two: The Galapagos

Note: Underwater pictures are not mine and do not show me. They’re borrowed from open sources on the internet.

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Flying to the Galapagos was basically going from Ecuador to tourist land, with lots of stereotypical gringos wearing bum bags, safari hats and vests. My morning flight got cancelled, so I got moved to one, going to a different island, and then shuttled through the island of Santa Cruz to the harbor, and finally taking a two and half hour ferry ride to San Cristobal, where I would be meeting my dive boat the next day. Glad I flew out the day before, because I arrived at San Cristobal at around 4pm. On this island, the harbor is crowded with lazy sea lions, smelly beasts that take up the park benches and poop all over the boardwalk. Galapagos style!

The next day was spent meeting the boat, getting all my rental gear together, and going for a dip in the harbor to practice getting on and off the panga (dinghy, inflatable boat we entered the water from) and making sure all our gear was good. The water here is supposed to be much colder than anywhere else I’ve done diving, so I had rented a thicker wetsuit and felt okay. It felt good to be back on a ship, and it was easy to get used to moving all the time, hearing the mealtime bells, and getting into a groove of constant dive prep.

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On day two we did one morning dive in a pretty boring spot (admitted by the dive masters), then did a land visit to North Seymour, an odd-looking desolate island where everything is small. There are big populations of Frigates, a kind of bird, and lots of Iguanas. There are also Blue Footed Boobies, a well-known bird with blue feet, prompting lots of tourist shirts that say “I Love Boobies” and have a picture of this bird. There were also sea lions, of course, and it made for a nice land walk on the way out to our main destination, Wolf and Darwin Islands.

Next we set off for Wolf and Darwin, the islands far away that are known for incredible amounts of sea life, which is what we were all there for. The trip took something like 15-17 hours to get to Wolf, and the next day we did three dives there including a relaxing night dive. The next day we amazingly managed to do six dives at Darwin’s Arch, the main attraction, and three dives the day after.

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At both Wolf and Darwin we dove with innumerable amounts of Hammerhead sharks, Galapagos and Silky sharks, huge schools of fish, sea lions and Moray eels. At Darwin’s Arch we also had six whale shark sightings, which are big, beautiful filter-feeding sharks measuring between 8-11 meters (26-36 feet!). We first saw a juvenile who was on the small side, and then a larger one around 10 meters/33 feet. A few times I swam like crazy and wound up less than a meter / 3 feet away from its side, totally enraptured by the sheer size and power of it, though I was trying to not get hit by the tail. Incredible experience. (note, picture is NOT MINE, and the diver in the picture is NOT ME. Just wanted to add it for context.)

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At Darwin’s Arch, we swam almost the same way every time, but each dive was different. First we’d get on the panga/dinghy from the boat, and motor over to the drop point. From there, we’d drop straight down as fast as we could equalize, to avoid being swept too far away by the strong currents. We’d head to the “theatre”, a ledge around 17-24 meters deep, and hold onto the rocks to stay in one place, basically sitting or laying on the ledge. From that comfortable spot, we’d sway with the currents and watch all the fish go by, then spot the hammerheads and other sharks. Sometimes there was something special, like gigantic yellowfin tuna, sea turtles, and particularly huge schools of fish. Sometimes we’d move to a different point on the ledge, but usually we followed the dive master out into the blue, where we’d be cruising along in the midst of the schools of fish, with hammerheads passing just a few meters below or above us.

I was already on the ship when I heard that it’s recommended you have 100+ dives before doing Darwin and Wolf. I started the trip with 23, but no one seemed to think I was a bad enough diver to pull me out, hah. I think my week in Chuuk Lagoon in July, diving inside shipwrecks between 25-40 meters, made me a much better diver than if I’d been in shallow, open water for all those dives. I certainly feel a lot more experienced now, after the currents and rough seas of the Galapagos. Getting back to the surface and into the Panga was always an adventure, with the waves slamming into you while you’re next to the Panga trying to hand your weight belt to the driver with both hands.

I remember looking over to see the other half of our dive group completely encircled by a wall of fish, then passing through it until I was in the middle too, and spinning around to get the full 360 view. Really cool feeling. Sometimes the dive master’s rattle would go crazy, and we’d all make a frantic dash for the rapidly passing whale shark. Here’s where caution most likely dies, where you drop much farther down following that fish, breathing hard through your air to get as close as possible, and risking going into decompression. Luckily, no one ran out of air far down enough to be life threatening, though a few came very close to deco. I came back on the boat with air on every dive and no deco, thanks to constant attention and Nitrox fills.

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On the way back from Darwin we did three dives at Isabela (Punta Vicente Roca), which was a change of pace. There weren’t nearly as many big animals, but there were small things to see, and a really nice bunch of coral. The site had an interesting color scheme of orange and purple, very distinctive. There we saw some rare and strange fish: the red-lipped batfish (pictured left), a weird looking fish that has fins like hands, and doesn’t really swim so much as push itself along the sea floor. It reminded me of some ancient form of human that hadn’t evolved yet. Seriously, nature comes up with some really weird stuff.

Another strange fish was the sea robin, a speckled fish that had what looked like blue wings. Lastly, in the line of weird, was the tiny bullhead shark, maybe half a meter long. There were tons of other small fish and creatures, and the rocks were also crawling with cleaner shrimp, which clean (eat bits off of) anything that lands on the rocks. I took my gloves off and hovered, letting them pick at my fingers, and they had a field day with my fingernails.

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The eight days went so fast. I got used to having great food all the time, my awesome dive buddies, beers after the last dive, watching the birds that perched on the ship for a free ride, sitting out on the deck and watching the sea. Every time I get on a ship I realize that I just want to stay forever, and debate finding some kind of job on the ocean, whether working in diving or just on a ship. It’s a hard life, where you just work to be able to dive and not much more, but I’m thinking about it more and more. Eventually I won’t be able to afford to take dive cruises… I’ve already chopped months off my whole trip by spending the money. However, it’s been completely worth it, every time.

I’ve spent a full month in Ecuador, a lot more time than I expected to spend here. I’ve really enjoyed it, a lot more than I thought I would. It’s always the case that wherever I am, I just want more time… so it goes.

I have three more weeks in South America, and picked up a flight from Quito to Cusco, to finally do Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, before popping into Bolivia for two weeks. Afterwards, I’m headed to Central America, where I’m thinking of diving in Belize (Blue Hole and other spots) and Mexico (Cozumel). The adventure continues…

Ecuador Part One: Vilcabamba, Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo, Banos, Quito

Cuenca Old Town 17

After two long days of crossing the border, the six of us stopped in Vilcabamba, a scenic hippy town in a valley, known for the long lives of its locals, and home to a ton of American and other expats. We rented two cabins at an eco-lodge, a 15-20 minute walk from town through a hiking trail, and spent about a week and a half relaxing, cooking epic meals together, horseback riding, and spending time with a friend of one of the Germans, who owns a local business in town. We’d all grown to feel like a little family on the road, so we didn’t grow sick of each other too quickly.

After Vilcabamba, we all headed to Cuenca, one of Ecuador’s cities with a beautiful historical center and more great food options. Colonial architecture is one of my favorite things to photograph, and South America has been an amazing place for that. Cuenca was my favorite at this point, with big, beautiful buildings in bright colors. Now I’m actually curious to go to Spain for the architecture!

I could have spent a while longer in Cuenca, it was so nice. We mostly just walked around, and checked out a few of the local markets, one being touristy and the other not so much. I’ve grown used to the kinds of souvenirs you get in Asia, and now I’m getting used to the ones in South America… patterned ponchos, wicker baskets, embroidered purses, Spanish-style shirts and traditional skirts, textiles of all materials and patterns. I haven’t bought anything, though, since I can’t stand the idea of carrying anything more in my 35-litre, 15 kilo backpack!

At this point, the Turkish girl and South African guy had only a few days or so to get all the way to Bogota, Colombia to fly out, and the Germans were headed towards Guayaquil, on the coast. So after a nice day and change in Cuenca, we all split ways after two weeks together. I love and hate that about travel – getting to know people, and then saying goodbye… or maybe ‘see you later, somewhere’.

From Cuenca, I headed to a small town called Alausi to see about a train ride called Nariz del Diablo, or the Devil’s Nose, an old track up a steep mountain. Lots of people do it as a day trip from Riobamba, further north, but Alausi was closer to Cuenca, so I took a quick bus ride up and stayed the night. Not much in town, but I got a nice room and relaxed by myself for the first time in a while.

Nariz del Diablo Train Ride 9The next morning I dragged myself up at 7am and got an 8am ticket for the train ride, a whopping $25 for the short trip and snack. It was a nice train ride, but not as steep as I was hoping. Nice scenery, and I met an awesome Swiss girl who was going on the same train.

After the first part of the train ride, we got off at a little tourist stop where there were Ecuadorian traditional dances, a Llama you could pay to sit on, and a small snack and coffee. It made for a nice start to the day, though I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to go out of my way for it.

From Alausi, the Swiss girl and I teamed up and took an interesting route she wanted to take to see a volcano (I forget the name, but it was nice), and we stopped at a completely random town (Guaranda) for the night. The next day we detoured to Salinas, a tiny town known for cheese and chocolate (different from the bigger one on the coast) for the morning, got a tour, and then headed over to Banos, one of the popular stops on the tourist/backpacker trail.

Banos Volcano Horse Ride 35In Vilcabamba, I’d really enjoyed the horse ride we did, and was keen to do another one. Unfortunately, I was the only one in town who was trying to do it, so it wasn’t looking promising. The Swiss girl decided at the last moment to join me, meaning we could do it, because it was going to the volcano she wanted to see anyway.

So the next morning we set off with our guide Pablo, and my crazy horse I nicknamed “Poco Loca”, since she was a little insane. We walked, trotted and galloped up near the base of the volcano, having a picnic right next to where the lava from the 2006 eruption had carved out a trail, and talked about how fast we could get out if it erupted again. Meanwhile, the volcano rumbled and spewed ash just in time for the clouds to clear so we could get some good pictures. The horses weren’t impressed.

Quito La Basilica Corazones Santisimos 63

After Banos, we caught the bus to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, which has a reputation for being dangerous. I’d met two other travelers who’d both been robbed in Quito, so I didn’t have good expectations for it. However, since I wanted to try to get a last minute deal on diving the Galapagos, Quito was on the itinerary. 

I was pleasantly surprised. Quito’s new city, Mariscal, was full of good restaurants, and right near the travel agency where I secured a spot on a dive boat. A bit too loud at night, though… I’m not really the partying type at this point.

After arranging the dive trip, we stopped at the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world), the point on the Equator where the coordinates are all zeros. Actually, they originally built the monument on the wrong spot, so the huge park is wrong, and the real point is on the other side of the park wall in a private museum. We arrived at that spot right as they were closing, but hopped on the last tour. There were some neat demonstrations, the most interesting being that water pours straight out of a sink instead of swirling clockwise or counterclockwise. The guide also said you lose strength and weight when you’re standing on the equator, which he demonstrated with us. Really interesting.

Our second night in Quito we moved to the old town, which is full of beautiful buildings and amazing churches (see left, the Basillica). I went completely batshit crazy taking photos, much to the amusement of my Swiss friend. There are times I wonder if I really love photography, or if it’s worth it to do, but then I get photos like this, and everything becomes clear again.

There are two arguments I can see about churches, and any other religious building really. The first is that the money should be spent on the people instead of buildings. The second is that churches, etc, are an artistic expression of faith. I can understand both perspectives, but when I walk into a beautiful religious building, I can’t help but admire it as a passionate art form. And take lots of pictures of it, of course.

Cuicocha Laguna 19

From Quito, my Swiss companion was headed up to Bogota to meet a friend and then travel Colombia, and I had a few days before leaving for the Galapagos, so we went to Otavalo, a small city further north known for its huge Saturday market. We arrived on a Thursday, found an awesome little hotel, and spent two nights, going to a nearby laguna, Cuicocha, and small town, Cotocachi, the next day. That trip was a pleasant combination of busses, the back of a pickup truck, and having lunch with a traveling Argentinian. The laguna was a lovely little walk, and the town had a lovely plaza but few food options.

The market on Saturday was indeed a huge market; nice to walk around, but we didn’t buy anything. The nice thing was that there were a lot of Ecuadorians, not just gringo tourists. We also got stopped by a group of English students and helped them practice English for a little while. It was a nice last morning there, and at the bus terminal my Swiss friend and I parted ways after a week together… another sad parting, but we all must travel on! Ironically, I’m picturing riding off into the sunset on Poco Loca, only she would probably just ignore me and turn the wrong way…

Peru Part Two: Chachapoyas and the Great Adventure to the Ecuadorian Border

Chachapoyas  City of the Dead 46

From Trujillo, I took an overnight bus to a small city in the mountains called Chachapoyas. It’s full of lovely white colonial buildings, a relaxed vibe, and is not completely overrun with tourists.

My reason for coming here was mainly the Kuelap ruins, but I spent another day on a tour to check out two sites with really interesting sarcophagi, clay burial chambers with sculpted faces dating back to the 15th century. There were also some interesting paintings on the walls from around the same time.

The picture on the left is from  Pueblo de los Muertos (City of the Dead), a collection of sarcophagi built into the side of cliffs. To get close we hiked a ways and then gingerly tiptoed along the edge of a sheer drop, ducking into the remains of circular mausoleums on the way. Many of them are simply inaccessible, but they’re really impressive even from a distance. Since they contain bones, there were a lot of bones randomly scattered about the area. The other site is Karajia, which boasts more elaborate and distinctive sarcophagi, with white painted bodies, stronger carved faces, and human skulls (of their enemies, it would seem) resting above them. They are less accessible, however, so harder to see and photograph.

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Chachapoyas takes its name from the Chachapoyan people from that area, a reputedly white tribe (e.g. blond haired and blue eyed), lthough there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that. They were conquered by the Inca and apparently didn’t survive after the arrival of the Spanish. Another characteristic of the Chachapoyans was their round houses, of which there were hundreds at the other site we visited, Kuelap. In the photo on the left you can see the base of a round house; some of them belonged to shamans, with walls marked with symbols (see below).

Kuelap is called the “Machu Picchu of the North”, although it doesn’t receive anywhere near the amount of visitors as Machu Picchu due to being a bit remote. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit it; less tourists means less people in my pictures, and a lot of places that are remote are less degraded or, worse yet, reconstructed. Kuelap is quite an expansive site, and I think it deserves more attention, as does the north of Peru in general. 

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I could have spent a week or more in town, but I was feeling enthusiastic about moving on. In Chachapoyas I went on two days of touring with five other people in a small van, since there weren’t that many travelers in the town. We went with Revash, a hostel with its own tour company, and had a really cool, very informative tour guide who spoke excellent English.

By the second day, we’d discovered that we all planned on going up to Ecuador through the La Balsa/Zumba border crossing, a less used crossing, and decided to go together early the next morning.

For the next two days, all six of us stuck together: me, a couple consisting of a South African and a Turkish girl who I nerded out about photography with, and three Germans. We shared quite a few cars with not enough room and got quite comfortable squashed up against each other, feared for our luggage tied to the roof (my bungee cord came in handy for that one), and made it across the Ecuadorian border at La Balsa with no issues, then taking a bus with a chicken and farmers and their sacks of goods to Zumba, where we got a much more comfortable bus to Vilcabamba, a small hippy town nestled in a valley. And then I became a hippy… just kidding.