Colombia…you had me at first flight.

It wasn’t even on my radar. I had fallen into the trap of thinking what other people thought. “Colombia is dangerous” and “You cannot travel alone in Colombia without something bad happening”. But then I met other travelers who had started in Colombia.
They were in love with it. They had nothing but good things to say. Okay, if one person said it, I would skip but this was literally almost every other person I met had said Colombia was their favorite.

It was decided, I’d fly from Lima to Bogota to save time.

I landed in Bogota mid-day. Thankfully, by this point in the journey, my Spanish was understandable. I was able to have conversations with almost anyone and the words seemed a bit clearer. I got a cab and headed into town. I chose a brand new hostel and I was literally the only one staying there. It was wonderful and recently opened by a couple from Switzerland. The hostel had a chalet theme and it was by far the best money I spent on a hostel the entire trip. Check out the Arche Noah Guesthouse if you want a great place to stay at a good price.

Bogota is a dynamic city. The damage from the drug cartels in the late 80s and early 90s is very evident and it appears to be a city still recovering. I was naiive of the events when I first arrived and just assumed it was like most developing countries.

Even though the city doesn’t scream “new” & “cosmopolitan”, it is a wonderful city with much to explore. The first stop when you arrive or shortly after should be Monserrate, a mountain in the middle of Bogota.

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You can chose to climb the mountain or to take the funicular up. I chose the funicular up and the stairs down. The view from the top is worth it and a great introduction to the city, sprawling across the landscape.

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View from the top of Montserrate, Bogota.

The walk down is something to behold. Lots of little shops set up along the way as you pass hundreds of people going up and down. Now, don’t let me fool you. Going down is not easy. Your legs will be fatigued by the bottom. Just think of it as a great way to get in your daily workout.

Once you have taken the city in via nature, your next stop should be the Botero museum in downtown Bogota. If you haven’t heard of the artist Botero, you will shortly after your arrival in Colombia. His influence and works of art can be seen across the country. He also has a very obvious style that once you see, you can almost always recognize.

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The Botero entrance greets you with a “hello”.

I won’t even bother sharing the works of art so you have more of a reason to stop in. The architecture alone is enough to make one want to stop in. And did I mention the best part? It is free.

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I cannot be the only one who loves a beautiful hallway. 

What are you waiting for? Did you book your ticket to Colombia yet?

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Just wandering around Bogota is an adventure. 

Wonder of the World #1 – Machu Picchu

We woke up at 4am. We then waited in line for an hour to get on the bus that would take us up to Machu Picchu. I have never seen so many people wait in a line at that hour of the day. But it was more than worth it.

We were lucky to be some of the first people to enter the park. There was another option to hike up to Machu Picchu but as we had another hike ahead of us, the bus was the best option. We spent the next hour wandering the ruins and listening to the tour guide, me catching every fourth word in Spanish.

We had an entrance ticket to Wayna Picchu at 10am. Also known as Huayna Picchu, only 400 total can climb each day, 200 in the morning and 200 in the afternoon. We had the 10am pass so as long as we started our climb before then, we were guaranteed entry.

I thought getting the ticket was the hard part but little did I know, I was gearing up for the hardest climb I had encountered yet. Oh, and did I mention I had a backpack with a computer in it? Yea, word of advice, use the lockers outside of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately I didn’t know about them until it was too late.

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The beginning of the climb.. you have to go down to go up.

The next hour would be spent climbing steep stairs with people crossing up and down. It was hard. You stopped asking people how much longer because you truly did not want to know. I was out of shape, but I was even more impressed by some of the people doing the climb who were three times my age. What happens if someone had a heart attack or broke something during this climb? Must think happy thoughts….

Some people brought oxygen along the way. You also forget that you are quite a bit above sea level (7,972′) and simply breathing is a challenge in itself. We had some coca leaves which helped you to keep going when you wanted to quit.

All said and done, it was so so worth it. If you take all the time and money to get to Machu Picchu, make sure you plan well enough in advance to climb Huayna Picchu as well. I can’t say enough good things. All I can do is give you a taste of the victory you will feel when you reach the top.

 

It was exhilarating. It is clear why it is a wonder of the world and why it is on seemingly everyone’s bucket list. I would do it all again in a minute.

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one last look…

What are you waiting for?

Trek to Macchu Picchu

We were dropped off in the middle of some mountains after 6 hours on minibuses that seemed capable of falling off the side of the cliff.

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On the way to Aguas Calientes

Hydroelectrica.  A required stop for anyone trekking to Aguascalientes. We walked across a make-shift bridge that would never fly in the U.S. We then headed into town where the smart people could take a 30 minute train ride into the little town. Ricardo and I decided to hike. After a quick stop at a restroom, we hit the trails. It was only supposed to take around two hours, it probably took us closer to three.

You would pass people along the way and ask how far. At a certain point, it just became depressing so we just smiled and walked past. We saw some animals along the way including guinea pigs. Intriguing to see since we knew, by that point, what guinea pig tastes like.

It started to get dark and there still wasn’t much sign of the city. There was also a train tunnel that said to not walk through. We didn’t see any other way around though, so we proceeded. It then started to rain and we wondered if we were ever going to make it to the town. We found some other lost souls along the way who didn’t know where to go either.

Eventually, we found the city and we made our way into town. Now, at this point, I had gone on a few hikes throughout South America and I had also been more active than I had been in years. What had happened? Why was I so exhausted from a 2 and a half hour hike? Thank goodness we were taking the bus up the mountain tomorrow.

We waited for our guide to take us to our hotel for the night. We walked past all the nice hotels to possibly the worst hotel I have ever stayed in. I’m not even sure you can call it a hotel. There was no real water, and of what was there, it was freezing. This was even worse than the hotels we stayed at on the salt flats of Bolivia, at least those felt semi-clean. We only had to be there for a few hours though so we sucked it up and called it a night. All for the sake of adventure. In the morning, Macchu Picchu.

Huanchaco, Peru and the worst “work” experience of my life

I decided to head straight for Huanchaco on Monday so I could get there by Tuesday night. It was a very long trip. I think Arequipa to Lima was over 12 hours, and then another 8 hours from Lima to Trujillo, and then a half hour taxi to Huanchaco. Every thing seemed good the first night. I quickly realized looks can be deceiving.

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Huanchaco’s curved beaches on the promenade.

I thought I had signed up to mostly help reception and help people set up their new hostel. What they really needed was cleaning help. They put me to work the first day and I spent the next 7-8 hours cleaning. Now, most workaways have people working 4-5 days a week at 5 hours a day. This workaway expected me to work 6-8 hours a day, 6 days a week. This turns what should be a mutual arrangement into a nightmare. I was working harder than I had worked in a long time, for basically no pay, or the equivalent of $1 an hour. I did not realize when I agreed, that I would be a cleaning lady (nothing against, I just was expecting more reception type work).

To make matters worse, the couple who owned the hostel were a bit unorganized . At one point they had too many volunteers and not enough rooms so that people were sleeping on the roof. More than half of the volunteers were friends of the couples which made matters worse, mostly for me. It was the perfect opportunity where they just took advantage of hard workers. It seemed any time I sat down for a break, there would magically be more things to do. I think they were terrified themselves of people taking advantage.

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Huanchaco’s smaller waves are the perfect place to try out a surfboard!

Huanchaco wasn’t all bad though. The one good thing is it is a great place to learn to surf. I found a guy who was willing to rent me a board and wetsuit for 20 soles a day or the equivalent of just shy of $7 dollars. I went out about 4 times and stood up about half. Surfing is so hard and intense. Not sure it is my calling, but I sure enjoy the full body workout that comes with it.

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If there is one thing I learned about Peru, it is that they love to dance!

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One of the last sunsets in Huanchaco & view from where I was staying.

Huanchaco is a fairly sleepy surf town. It is most certainly a town and growing pretty quickly. There are many restaurants, bars and tourists. If you want to learn to surf, it may be one of the best options.

Puno, Peru – Not my cup of tea

After Isla del Sol, I grabbed the 1:30 bus in Copacabana and headed for the Peruvian border. They make everyone get off the bus, exit Bolivian customs, pay any fees if you overstayed (not me), and then walk across to Peru and go through customs there.

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Welcome to Peru!

I was very excited for Peruvian food. My first meal out in Peru was a bit of a sticker shock though. Fifteen dollars for dinner and a drink?? That is absurd compared to the prices I was paying in Bolivia. Yes, I realize that in the USA this is a typical price, but I had already been abroad for almost two months now so this was a surprise.

Puno is not my favorite Peruvian city. It is a rather large city on Lake Titicaca but with a bit of a sketchy feel. The bus station is nothing to write home about and the ATM there ate one of our friend’s cards. He was trying to head out that day. I should have followed suit.

I then decided to stay with two other people as we got a hotel room for really cheap. $15 dollars cheap (do you now see why I thought $15 for a dinner was expensive?). I should have left after one night but I stayed two and at least I had wifi/internet compared to Bolivia’s horrific excuse of a internet.

I did one tourist thing in Puno which I immediately regretted. I took a boat ride around the floating islands or otherwise called Uros.

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A view from Uros.

Now, you may read some positive reviews about the floating islands but I’m assuming these people haven’t been traveling around as long as I had, or that they chose to see past all the negatives. Perhaps it is because I just took a local tour boat instead of a proper tour, or I didn’t see the right islands. I took a boat to the islands for 10 Soles (~3.1 USD). I then paid another 5 for the islands. Once at the islands you continue to pay to ride on an authentic reed boat where children jump on and sing, and then beg for money. I couldn’t help but feel the whole thing was set up just to make money from the tourists.

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The local form of transportation.

Now, the islands themselves are kind of interesting for just floating and people having lives on the islands (restaurants, kind of shops, families with homes). Having people trying to sell you things the entire time you are on the islands really puts a damper on my feelings towards them. Perhaps I had the wrong expectations going in.

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Goodbye Uros!

After that uninspired visit, I was ready to leave Puno and quite apprehensive about Peru in general. Fortunately, the rest of Peru was NOT like Puno.

Sick in La Paz

We arrived in La Paz at 7am. I decided to stay where the other girls I had met were staying which meant another Loki. The only redeeming quality is that the Loki provided a free drink for it being my second Loki, but given I was sick, it ended up being a Powerade but more about that later.

As we had the whole day, we decided to take advantage of it. We wandered the streets in search of Alpaca. La Paz is known for its markets and in particular it’s witch markets. The witch markets are pretty touristy, as are a lot of the stores. If you want to make some Alpaca purchases, your best bet is the stalls.

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The streets of La Paz are filled with vendors.

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It is also easy to get lost in some of the markets as they don’t seem to end.

We headed back to the stalls after getting some pricing and after some difficult bargaining, I managed to get a sweater and some socks for 78 bolivianos, or about 11 dollars. I was pretty proud of myself.

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The view from the top of the funicular.

We had lunch next which was very good. Some tomato soup and a sandwich. After a productive day of shopping, we headed back for internet, rest and a shower before the evening.

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Overlooking La Paz, Bolivia at dusk.

That evening I got up and showered before we headed to the funicular. I didn’t feel quite myself but couldn’t tell what was wrong. I came home later that night and still didn’t feel great. While everyone headed out for dinner, I confirmed that I was sick and I would not be leaving.

I felt awful being the girl in the room who was sick. However, if there is one thing that happens when you do get sick, it is that no one is surprised. The girls in my room were like yea, it happens to everyone. I guess after going two months of traveling without being sick once, I couldn’t complain too much.

Given I could barely get out of bed, I stayed another night in La Paz and another day in bed, getting up only for laundry. Fortunately, I felt well enough that night to eat something, and was able to get out of La Paz the following day. Sorry La Paz, but i don’t think I could give you the time you deserved this time around.

A bit about Uyuni

It is a shame that Uyuni was my first introduction to Bolivia. Whenever you read guides about the Salt Flats, most say to get out of Uyuni as quick as possible. I soon discovered why.

The town is not the largest but it is very flat. It is a series of buildings and homes that appear to be a bit run down. I think this was the first city I did not feel very safe in South America. I was very aware of my surroundings. I decided then that I would be taking the overnight to La Paz.

Fortunately, there were quite a few other people from my tour who were taking the same path. For the cheap price of $12 dollars or around 80 bolivianos, I got an overnight bus with everyone to La Paz, leaving at 8:30pm.

We spent the rest of our time hanging out and trying to get wfi. Apparently, when all the toursits get back from the tour and try to get online, the wifi actually shuts down. People were unable to get money out of the atms because the atms work on wifi. That is how underdeveloped Uyuni is. It is actually pretty surprising given it is the entry to the Salt Flats. I expect in a few years, with all the tourism the salt flats bring, that things will slowly change.

Some of the girls we were with had a lonely planet. I am actually shocked by the amount of people who buy the lonely planet books and bring them around with them. I use online resources for everything, sometimes lonely planet, but more likely than not, trip advisor, as lonely planet seems to be out of date by the time it is published. Anyways, the girls had a recommendation for a restaurant around the corner and we went there to play monopoly and wait out our time.

Two hours plus should have been sufficient to get food, but there was one woman who ran the whole restaurant and there were two large groups. We did not get our food until 10 minutes until we were due at the bus station so after a quick scarfing of our meal, we ran to our bus in what was a mini sand storm.

You know that saying you get what you pay for? I’ve probably already used it. In the case of the bus, you get exactly what you pay for. Bolivian roads are rough. This was by far the roughest bus ride I had ever taken. I’m an avid car reader and I could not even read because the book was moving too much. After 13 hours which felt closer to 26, we finally arrived in La Paz. First impressions of Bolivia were rough, but La Paz stepped up to the plate.

The Salt Flats

We awoke excited at 5am. Of course, the driver was not even ready for us at the given time. We drove across the entrance to the flats at day break so that our first view of the flats was just before sunrise.

The salt flats are amazing, awesome, otherworldly, and breathtaking. I thought I would have been desensitized given all the pictures I had seen. The pictures do not do the salt flats justice. They are beautiful and massive. They are fun to be on. I took a ton of random pictures but they just make you happy.

Made it to the Salt Flats for the sun rise.

Made it to the Salt Flats for the sun rise.

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Overlooking the scenery from the lone island in the middle of the salt flats.

It is a vision unlike I’ve seen before. Very unique and wonderful colors. We stopped in a few places across the salt flats. We stopped at an island in the middle of the salt flats that had cacti and a beautiful hill overlooking the flats. This cost 30 bolivianos to walk through but it was worth it. We also were able to enjoy a nice breakfast here (and more pictures of course).

On top of one of the salt pyramids as one of the last stops on the tour.

On top of one of the salt pyramids as one of the last stops on the tour.

One other cool thing about the salt flats is that you can actually pierce the hexagonal shapes and pull out crystals. Our tour guide showed us this and it was really neat to see the salt crystals in their natural form. Nature really is a beautiful thing that I do not know nearly enough about.

The hexagonal shapes on the salt flats.

The hexagonal shapes on the salt flats.

We headed to the center of the salt flats for some more pictures before heading to the museum del sal (which is really just another hostel and then a statue for the Dakar races). This was also our last stop before exiting the salt flats. We enjoyed a few more pictures of the salt flats before we took off. Most of the morning consisted of picture-taking.

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Having some fun on the flats.

Having some fun on the flats.

The last stop on the tour was the train cemetery. It is just outside the city of Uyuni and in my opinion, is sad. The trains are remnants of the last mining boom in the area and all the trains that used to come and go. It reminds me of Detroit and the pictures just remind me a bit of the much debated ruin porn that Detroit has come to be known for. In an ideal world, places like this wouldn’t exist and the trains would be properly recycled, not left to be graffiti{ed} and fits of tourists to trample over.That is just my personal opinion, and more likely than not because it hits a bit closer to home. Some food for thought I suppose.

The train cemetary in Uyuni.

The train cemetary in Uyuni.

Uyuni Day 1 & 2: The beginning of Bolivia

We started the next morning at 8am at the location of the tour office to be picked up. The first half hour was just driving to cross the border and going through border patrol in Chile and then in Bolivia. Both were pretty simple but it was already a bit chile and we hadn’t even reached altitude. We had a brief breakfast before our first stops, Laguna verde y laguna blanco.

The views out here are incredible and I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Beautiful first stops at Laguna Verde and Blanco in Uyuni.

Beautiful first stops at Laguna Verde and Blanco in Uyuni.

The next stop was the thermals which was amazing! If there was any place I’d be quite content for hanging around for a few hours it would surely be this one. The view out of the baths was breathtaking and the water was a perfect temperature. The sun was shinging and you were surrounded by mountains. Not sure what more you could ask for. You do have to pay a nominal fee to enter but for 6 bolivianos or just less than a dollar, it is worth it.

View from my spot in the Thermals. How nice is that view while you are soaking in natural springs?

View from my spot in the Thermals. How nice is that view while you are soaking in natural springs?

We then headed off (somewhat reluctantly) to the Salvador dali desert where the landscapes resemble something out of his art. I think we stopped at a few other lagunas and some geisers along the way but they all seemed to pale in comparison to laguna Colorado. We had our lunch first and settled into our rooms for the night but then we took our own walk around the lake.

Laguna Colorado seems to appear out of the middle of no where. There are so many flamingos as well. You can hike up a relatively minor hill and then look out over the whole laguna. There is also a mini lookout point where you can learn some information about flamingos.

Laguna Colorado in Uyuni Bolivia. You can walk around about half of the Laguna on a nice pathway.

Laguna Colorado in Uyuni Bolivia. You can walk around about half of the Laguna on a nice pathway.

After some nature viewing, we headed back for tea and then dinner. During the tour, you are with the people in your car the entire time. You become pretty close. My car had a couple with one being from Michigan and another from New Zealand, and another couple from France. I had a great car and everyone was so friendly and easy to talk to. I even learned a new card game from Italy called scopa.

The next day we left around 8 and crossed more of the Uyani area. The Uyuni area of Boliva is huge and you just stare in awe a lot of the time at how much space and untouched nature there is. We stopped at a few more lagoons called the altiplanos lagunas. Who knew there were so many lagooons in the middle of the desert? As we decreased in altitude the weather got a bit better and not quite as cold. We were at almost 5000 meters the night before. That night we stayed at the hostel de sal. It is right outside the salt flats.

We had hot showers and electricity and after some time without these now accustomed to luxuries, they felt amazing. The next day was the main feature, the Salt Flats.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile: Supposedly one of the driest places on earth

I was immediately nervous coming into San Pedro. It is literally in the middle of nowhere and when you arrive at the bus station all you see are little shacks on the side of the road. There are barely any street signs when you arrive so finding where I was staying was not the easiest task. I fortunately had 3G service still (kind of crazy in the middle of the desert, thanks T-mobile!) and was able to map my way to the hostel.

For those of you who are not familiar with San Pedro de Atacama, it is a desert town in the northeastern corner of Chile. It is surrounded by the Atacama desert and is very remote. The buses only go every other day from Argentina and that is mostly for tourists. It is one of the driest places on earth, although it seemed to rain at least a bit every day I was there. It also is one of the places on earth with the least light pollution making it a prime spot for those who enjoy star gazing.

San Pedro de Atacama is not much of a town. It is pricey compared to other parts of Chile and South America (as everything is brought in) and it consists of only a few blocks. Even more so, most of those few blocks are filled with tour companies. It is overwhelming. Especially for someone like myself who likes to do too much research and overthink options.

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One of the main streets in San Pedro de Atacama. The downtown consists of around 5 x 5 blocks.

I should have done a bit more research before I left. I ultimately planned on staying only two nights and heading to Arica, Chile before heading into Peru. This is one of the best things about solo travel. You can change your itinerary in the course of a few hours. That is exactly what I did.

The first day I arrived in San Pedro I basically decided on which tour I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do Geisers and I wanted to do something that took up most of the day. I ended up settling on Salar de Tara for 35.000 CP (~55 USD). We (other people on the tour) were picked up at our hostels just after 8am. We then headed to the only road out into the middle of the desert where luck would have it, was closed do to a bit of snow, which they aren’t really used to here.

The tour guide took us all back to our hostels and told us if he wasn’t back by 11, we wouldn’t be doing the tour. Well, I went back to bed after waking up at like 6am. An hour later, still asleep, a knock on the door and I was whisked off again for this tour. The road had opened.

Our first stop on the Salar de Tara tour. The landscape was unlike anything I've seen before.

Our first stop on the Salar de Tara tour. The landscape was unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The drive out was pretty long. We stopped at the first lagoon to have breakfast which consisted of Avocado and cheese on bread. We then proceeded to drive through the desert. This was the first time I had done something like this. The views were amazing and it was very cool to see the driver just follow other paths in the rocky sand or make his own path based on previous knowledge. We eventually arrived at the stone cathedrals, where we took some pictures and just stood in awe of the power of water and wind.

The Salar de Tara and myself. It was pretty incredible to see this oasis in the middle of the desert after driving for over an hour.

The Salar de Tara and myself. It was pretty incredible to see this oasis in the middle of the desert after driving for over an hour.

The next stop was the Salar de Tara which is not the typical Salt flat you imagine. It was a bit more of a lagoon like oasis. There were flamingos and what stood out the most were the colors. The Salar de Tara is amazing. It is a gorgeous site and we stopped and had our next meal there.

The stone monks in the middle of the desert outside of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

The stone monks in the middle of the desert outside of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

Our last stop was the entrance to the national reserve which had the stone monks, or tall stones standing alone once again carved by wind and water. It is beautiful out in the desert and amazing to see so much untouched land after so much time in cities. This last stop I was once again told I should go to Uyuni in Bolivia and I couldn’t miss it.

That pretty much sealed the deal. I couldn’t avoid Uyuni. Everyone was telling me to go. I felt like I was missing out if I didn’t, and the original Visa fee I didn’t want to pay, was less than half what I anticipated. Given the facts, I arrived back in town around 7 that night and began my research. To be continued.