Tag Archives: Latin America

Bolivia: Altiplano to Amazon

As an add-on for our trip to Chile’s Atacama Desert, we all wanted to be sure to get to see the amazing Uyuni Salt Flats in nearby Bolivia.  As it worked out, we were able to join up with BikeHike’s trial run of their new Bolivia adventure trip by taking a guided, three-day, 4×4 road trip from Chile over the Altiplano to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.  Darlene was also able to finagle a little additional time off from work to join us on this portion of Glenn and Michele’s Most Excellent Adventure™.

   

Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from the trip.

A video montage of our time in Bolivia. (6:45 min, 131 MB)

Across the Altiplano: Glenn, Michele and I started out in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and were driven up to the Altiplano and dropped off at the tiny, remote little border control building on the southwest Chilean/Bolivian border.  After successfully negotiating Michele and Glenn’s Bolivian visas (mostly about producing absolutely pristine US dollars for the visa fee), we were loaded into the apparently defacto standard Altiplano vehicle: a Toyota 4×4 Land Cruiser.  Over the next couple of days, we navigated a maze of dirt roads in the high altitude (15,000 ft) visiting a series of color-coded lagoons (red, green, white, etc) and a few miscellaneous sights and landmarks.  We overnighted in both a hotel made of stone and one made of salt and got to try our hand at herding llamas to pasture as well as trying to fire a slingshot without injuring ourselves.  We also spent the better part of two days criss-crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats and they proved to be as vast and amazing to behold as suggested in the photographs we’d seen before.

Crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats

Crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats

More of the Uyuni Salt Flats: After this initial introduction to Bolivia, we were deposited in the town of Uyuni in time to join Darlene and the rest of the BikeHike group flying in from La Paz.  Over the next couple of days, we would explore much of the area on bikes, starting with a tour of the mining ghost town of Pulcayo.  We biked back down to Uyuni, mostly following the route of the old mining railroad bed.  We biked across a few chunks of the salt flats itself – which proved quite daunting due to the vast, unchanging scenery.  We stayed overnight in a more rudimentary building made of salt on the slopes of the volcano Tunupa and enjoyed a ride out for sunset and stargazing on the salt flats.  On our second day, we visited a cave containing desiccated mummies and continued on to the island of Incahuasi, in the middle of the flats and home to hundreds of cacti.

Biking Bolivia's "Most Dangerous Road"

Biking Bolivia’s “Most Dangerous Road”

“Death Road” Ride: Upon our return to La Paz, we had an early start to go ride mountain bikes down along Bolivia’s infamous “world’s most dangerous road”.  They’ve since built a new, modern, paved highway to bypass the route but it was once very treacherous for being a dirt road cut into very steep mountainsides and forcing buses and other large vehicles to try to squeak by each other.  This route now makes for a gorgeous and easy downhill bike ride packed full of wonderful mountain vistas.  Unfortunately, we had to do the ride with one of several large tour groups and so you have to do things on their terms.  You’re forced to keep to a schedule that at times is pushing you forward (despite the desire to stop and enjoy the stupendous views) or making you wait (for organized photo portrait stops, despite the fact that everyone has cameras of their own, or while the staff clean and prep the bikes at the end of the ride, etc).  Amusingly, you’re also required to wear full downhill racing body armor and full face helmets despite a route that consists of first a paved highway and then a well-used dirt road and a gentle downhill slope.  Actually, the full face helmet was dangerous for how much it limited your ability to see around you.  I suspect the armor is both to drum up the “Death Road” adventure marketing as well as for insurance purposes – not that body armor would do you much good if you managed to ride off a several hundred-meter precipice!  Anyway, I think this excursion would be a lot more fun with your own group, going at your own pace and with normal biking gear.

Enjoying a scenic overlook in Bolivia's Amazon jungle

Enjoying a scenic overlook in Bolivia’s Amazon jungle

Amazon Jungle and Grassland: After La Paz, we were on to the Amazon jungle, starting with a river boat cruise to our jungle lodge in Madidi National Park. Along the way, we stopped off at a farm where among other things they grow sugar cane.  We were able to put a little labor into squeezing out a bucket of sugar cane juice for everyone to sample, with a touch of lime.  From our jungle lodge, we set out to hike to our overnight campsite, near a macaw nesting area.  Besides lots of spiders and ants, our guides were able to scare up a  pack of wild boar.  I was a little anxious about overnighting in the Amazon as I’m very not keen on large creepy-crawlies and have already had my share in other tropic rainforests like Costa Rica and Australia.  As it turns out, at least this part of the Amazon was no more intense in terms of bugs and it was fine.  I do wish we could have spent a more leisurely time moving through the jungle though and seeing and learning about the rainforest (as I have enjoyed on other such hikes), instead of in the apparent rush we often seemed to be in.  I wasn’t even really able to pause to take any decent pictures along the trail.  We did enjoy a leisurely return trip to the lodge, floating down the river in the afternoon rain on a log raft constructed on the beach.  That night we went for a short jungle walk to see what we could find after dark.

Temo demonstrates his boundless affection for Michele. (30 second video)

The following day saw us return to town by river boat and then take an extended drive to get to a second lodge in the swampy  grasslands of Pampas del Yacuma.  First we were greeted by not-so-friendly caiman and turtles but then by a super-friendly and ever-curious coati at the lodge.  We ventured out again on a pair of boats to follow the river and see the many birds, caiman and capybara along the river… before the skies opened up for serious afternoon downpour.  (At least our boat didn’t pussyfoot it back to the lodge to get any silly rain gear.)  That night Glenn and I went out again with our guides Ishmael and Jorgen to see all the creepy eyes of the caiman reflecting back at us in the dark.  Plus we managed to catch several Amazon trout by expertly letting them leap into our boat.  On our fourth and last Amazon day, we went hiking in a plantation to hoot at howler monkeys in the trees and to catch meat-hungry piranha by the river side.  The tricky part seemed to be removing the hook from the menacing jaws of those little fish.

An alpine view near Mount Condoriri

An alpine view near Mount Condoriri

Our Last Day: After returning to the cool, high altitude of La Paz from the Amazon basin, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal at the home of a local resident while Glenn kept careful watch over a clearly demonically-possessed children’s doll. On our last day, Michele suggested a hiking destination for us all in the Andes: the glacier-laced Mount Condoriri.  The drive out there proved adventurous in itself, including trying to find a suitable box lunch among the raw meats and stacks of junk food in the street-side market.  We ended up hiking to an alpine lake at the base of the mountain and it proved to be a nice finish to a great little trip.

Recommendations: Our 4×4 excursion from San Pedro de Atacama over to the Uyuni Salt Flats was not particularly exceptional and I have no reason to recommend them (actually it seemed our driver was more knowledgeable and trying harder than our English-speaking guide).  For the rest of the trip, the BikeHike tour of Bolivia including the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Amazon jungle, this trip was very enjoyable despite being their trial run to shake out the “bugs” and find improvements to be made.  Definitely worth checking out.  But I want to call out special attention to Ishmael and the folks at Mashaquipe EcoTours for their splendid staff and lodges in the Bolivian Amazon basin as well as their efforts to benefit local indigenous families.  Lastly, thanks again to Trish and Jorgen for helping us (me, Darlene, Glenn and Michele) enjoy another great adventure!

   

Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from our trip.

Michele has also posted several stories and pictures from the trip on her blog:

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Exploring Chile’s Atacama Desert

Glenn and Michele are in the middle of a six-month travel adventure (starting in South America) and I was able to fly down and join them in northern Chile at the end of September to get to see some of the Atacama Desert region.  We were able to make arrangements through BikeHike for nine days of guided activities and exploration surrounding the little oasis/tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama, including hiking, biking, horseback riding and several days of trekking.

   

Click here for the full gallery of photos from our trip.

This is the world’s driest desert (in the sense of how little rain ever falls) and it may also be the world’s oldest desert, the region having been hyper-arid for many millions of years.  While it may almost never receive any rain, water does reach the basin from surrounding mountain sources though it all eventually evaporates, leaving behind salt and mineral deposits.  There’s still plenty of wildlife and the area is known for its varied and gorgeous geological formations, resting up against the immense Andes mountains.

Pink flamingos in the Salar de Atacama

Pink flamingos in the Salar de Atacama

Some of the highlights of the trip:

  • Horseback riding and later hiking and sand surfing in “Death Valley”, a beautiful area of red rock and sand dunes which apparently picked up a name mistook from the French priest who tried to name it Valley of Mars (“marte” not “muerte”, in French).
  • Hiking up the Gatchi Gorge to bathe in the hot springs and source of the river Puritama.
  • Trekking from the town of San Pedro de Atacama (7900 ft) up to the high wetlands of Machaca (13,000 ft) over three days and 42 miles, climbing up from desert terrain through river canyon lands to mountain villages and terraces.
  • Biking and walking out among the salt flats and lagoons in the Atacama.
  • Hiking up the little mountain of Zoquete (16,000 ft) above the high altitude El Tatio Geysers
  • Enjoying the magnificent night sky of stars from such a high and dry landscape.  The Atacama area is known as a prime astronomical viewing area for its clear, dry skies and high altitude and there are numerous observatories in the surrounding mountains.

If you’re interested in booking a similar tour, ours was actually put together by BikeHike, whom we’ve done trips with in the past, but they don’t actually offer this region any more.  However, even though our itinerary was customized for us to add a variety of activities, very similar itineraries (including the multi-day trekking and the overnight in the indigenous village of Rio Grande) are actually widely available from numerous tour operators over the web: Chimu Adventures, KE Adventure Travel, Cascada Travel, Amazon Adventures and others.  Despite this, we didn’t really encounter a lot of other tourists – and none at all during the trekking portion.  I believe we were there at the very start of the tourist season though.

Thanks again to Yasu and the rest of the crew for a wonderful little adventure!

A video montage of our exploration of the Atacama Desert region.

Michele has also posted a couple of times about the trip in her blog:

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Revisiting the Galapagos Islands

I originally got to visit the Galapagos Islands five years ago but Darlene has long wanted to go herself.  Of course the Galapagos Islands are well known for their abundant and unique wildlife, their fascinating and beautiful geology, as well as for the inspiration and development of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.  So, no, I really didn’t mind going back for a second visit!

We were in the Galapagos for twelve days (December 5th through the 16th) and we stayed overnight on the islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal with day trips out to Santa Fe, Bartolomé, Leon Dormido as well as a few smaller outcroppings.  (Here’s a great map.)  This was a land-based trip (as was my previous trip), but this time I booked the trip through BikeHike.com and extended it with time on our own for four days (and to include San Cristobal).

Our days were filled with hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, and boating as well as with sea lions, iguanas, penguins, giant tortoises, sharks, sea turtles, rays, cormorants, pelicans, frigate birds, crabs and fish!  And great food!  The whole trip was fantastic!  (Thanks again to our guide, Jorgen, and to everyone else who contributed to making this such a fun experience!)

Here’s a little video I put together covering the whole of the trip:

(5:37 minutes, 115 MB download)

And here are my pictures and other video clips from the trip (including some of Darlene’s), separated into four galleries:

Days 1-3: Santa Cruz and Santa Fe

  

Days 4-5: Bartolomé and Santa Cruz

  

Days 6-7: Isabela and Sierra Negre

  

Days 8-12: Santa Cruz and San Cristobal

  

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Costa Rica – Coast to Coast

I just returned from a fun and challenging little adventure (arranged through BikeHike.com) where a group of eight of us made our way across Costa Rica from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean entirely under our own human power… and a fair amount of gravity assist!

We started in Quepos, on the western coast, and we proceeded to bike, hike, raft and kayak our way entirely across the country until we reached the eastern coast and the Caribbean.  We mostly camped at sites along the way and a support vehicle carried our gear but we otherwise made our way from one coast to the other.  Along the way, we encountered (or sometimes befriended) caiman, monkeys, sloths, toucans, turkey vultures, frogs, bats, snakes and some biting fish, as well as numerous insects including various spiders, ants, butterflies and a particularly aggrieved, giant grasshopper.

Click on through for my gallery of photos and videos from the trip:

   

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Peru and the Inca Trail

This is a collection of photos and video clips from a ten-day trip in Peru
with the Bay Area Outdoor Adventure Club, Bio Bio Expeditions and Terra Explorer Peru.

  

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Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

This is a collection of photos and video clips from a twelve-day, land-based trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, booked through REI Adventures:

 

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Bonnie & Darren’s Most Excellent Wedding Adventure (In Mexico)

A gallery of pictures from Bonnie and Darren’s awesome secret jungle wedding adventure extravaganza… on an isolated beach… in an undisclosed location… near San Francisco, Mexico (aka San Pancho, Mexico). Code name… DonkeyFlu. The entire event was kept underwraps by a brilliantly orchestrated worldwide media frenzy concerning an influenza strain tagged H1N1 2009. The ring burro was unharmed.

  

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Exploring Costa Rica

This is a collection of images from a pair of trips booked through REI Adventures and provided by Costa Rica Sun Tours.  The first was their “Jungle and Sea Escape” from December 20-27, 2002 and the second was their “Costa Rica Multisport” trip from December 28 through January 4th, 2003.

   

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Belize Adventure

This is a collection of images from a trip in March 2002 booked through REI Adventures and provided by SlickRock Adventures. It was a week of caving, rafting, canoeing, jungle hiking, sea kayaking, surf kayaking, snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, … oh, you get the idea.

 

Jungle hiking (and a bit of four-wheeling) to reach Actun Tunichil Muknal – otherwise known as the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre.

Watch your step — those are real Mayan artifacts!

Two nights at Casa Maya, a guided tour of the ruins of Xunantunich, and some “mostly gentle” canoeing down the Mopan River.

Nice day to capsize!

 

Helmets and headlamps for caving via rafts on the Caves Branch River.  And overnight nestled in Ian Anderson’s Jungle Lodge.

Sweet!

Four days of sea and sun on Long Caye at Glover’s Reef.  Sea kayaking, surf kayaking, snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, oh, and hammock surfing.

Rough life!

Miscellaneous Excursions: Downtown in Belize City and out to the Belize Zoo, visiting the ruins of Altun Ha, and demonstrating our primate origins at the Community Baboon Sanctuary.

Who’s the true primate?!

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