Travelblog SA#32: Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia

2nd-4th December 2018

To finish off my time in Bolivia I embarked upon a three-day journey through Bolivia’s crowning jewel, Solar de Uyuni.

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Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat and to enter this natural wonder you need to go on a tour in a 4×4 vehicle. Lots of packages are available if you head to the town of Uyuni – the main launching point – but the most common is the three-day excursion which takes you all the way down to the south-west corner of Bolivia.

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The only problem is getting the right guide as they seem to vary in quality. Whoever you get is not just your driver, they are also your cook, and a good one will provide you with some information about the area too. Although most of them seem to do a good job there are stories of some behaving badly, not delivering full itineraries, and even drinking while driving. Booking with a good agency is no guarantee as a lot of them will transfer you to another company if they can’t fill all the seats. It can be complete pot luck who you end up with.

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I decided to book with Andes Salt Expeditions. They had some of the best reviews out of all the companies and were reasonably priced. They were also one of the bigger ones so I was less likely to be transferred. It paid off, as I was lucky and ended up with a guide called Vladimir who went out of his way to make it a fun experience for myself and the five other people I was matched with.

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The first day, after a quick stop at the ‘Train Cemetary’ – a graveyard for the carriages which were abandoned when Bolivia transitioned from steam to diesel – we reached the salt flats. It took hours to drive through the entire expanse, but we stopped a few times to have some fun with the optical illusions you can create there. Such as this encounter I had with a dinosaur.

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And this.

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We also made a couple of funny videos, one of which you can watch by clicking here.

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In the afternoon we reached Incahuasi, a rugged island of cactuses which rises up from the plane of white. It was actually once a massive colony of coral, back when this area was a vast sea, but when the bed dried up it rose to the surface and fossilised.

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Not only is it an interesting place to walk around but it also gives you an opportunity to get some wonderful views of the plane.

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To finish the day, Vladimir took us to a cave whose name I have forgotten. It was a bit quieter than the rest of the places we visited that day as most of the other groups go to a different set of caves. It was home to some interesting inner textures formed from fossilised algae. According to Vladimir, part of the latest Star Wars film was recorded here.

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We stayed that night in a hostel in San Juan. It was just a place to eat and sleep at the end of the day and a little basic, but it was an interesting novelty that most of the furniture and fixtures were made of salt.

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The following day the landscape changed. It wasn’t so flat anymore and the road became rocky as we entered the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, passing through yellow mountains.  Our first stop was at a place with some very interesting rock formations and views of Ollagüe, a volcano with active fumaroles.

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After that, we spent much of the day passing by lakes filled with flamboyances of flamingos, stopping every now and then to take photos.

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There are three different species of which live in this area, Chileno, Andean, and James. They thrive here because the saltiness of the water creates algae that they thrive on and, apart from the occasional fox, this area doesn’t have many predators. One of the lakes we saw later that day, Laguna Colorada, was red because of the algae. I have uploaded a series of videos of the flamingos here.

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We saw lots of other forms of wildlife that day. When we reached Laguna Ramaditas there was an Andean fox.

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There was a pair of viscachas on the side of the road and we stopped for a while to feed them carrots.

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I saw so many vicunas throughout this trip that I actually forgot to take any photos of them, which is a huge shame. We did end up having a roadside chase down with a pair of ostriches. I have a video of it here. Sorry for the shaky camera.

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In the afternoon we went to see Arbol de Piedra, a series of other interesting rock formations. More exciting was Sol de Manana, the geysers. I have plenty of videos here. It was a surreal place, with clouds of smoke wafting out from crevices in the ground, water bursting out from holes like lava, and bubbling pools of grey mud.

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To finish the day we went to a hot spring by the side of a lake in Chalviri just before sunset.

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On the third and final day, some of the people on my tour were driving back to Uynui and making a few stops along the way, but for me and a couple others, it was a shorter itinerary because we were being dropped off at the border of Chile. We did make a little stop by Laguna Verde though, which wasn’t actually that green at this time of the year but still pleasant to see. From its shore, we also got a view of Licanabur Volcano and the border for not just Chile but Argentina too. This was true frontier land.

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For more photos and videos from my last days in Bolivia, click here.

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Travelblog SA#23: Machu Picchu & Ollantaytambo – Peru

23rd-24th October 2018,

3 am. That is how early you have to get up to guarantee to be on the first bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I felt like a zombie as I put on my shoes and met the others in the lobby. We began the walk to the bus stop. It was a dark and miserable morning. It was raining, and it was a thick, heavy kind which drenching everything. We waited there for almost three hours in all, and it showed no sign of letting up.

About an hour in, hoards of people began to swarm past us, all on their way towards the trailhead for the steep climb up to the ruins. The previous evening, I had toyed with the idea of heading up by foot myself – as the bus is quite expensive – but at the last minute changed my mind. I figured that I am only going to see Machu Picchu once and I didn’t want to be worn out before I even reached it. And it seemed, considering the weather, I had made the right decision.

I was beginning to worry though. This was my only shot at seeing Machu Picchu. Coming here is a very expensive venture and I already had my train ticket out booked for later that day. It wasn’t just pouring with rain, it was foggy too, and you couldn’t see anything further than a few dozen feet.

By the time the bus came, the queue was huge, but we were – thanks to our early rise – the first on. The rain calmed down a little, but the thick fog prevailed.

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Simba – who’d been our guide for the last four days around the Salkantay trek – began to escort us around the ruins. It was still very foggy, so we didn’t get a decent view, but I guess it had a certain eerie quality.

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Machu Picchu is bigger than photos make it seem. It took us around two hours to walk around it. Simba told us some of its history. How it was abandoned by the Inca’s during the Spanish Conquest, and it is possibly thanks to that course of action it can still be admired today. Most of the other monuments of this empire were raided for their treasures and the stones were used to build the churches and mansions of colonial power. But this one, possibly the most treasured and sacred of all, remained hidden within the towering peaks of the Sacred Valley, where the Spaniards never felt the need to tread. It was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911.

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Although Machu Picchu is surrounded by terraces, it is believed that it was not enough land to produce food for all its people so they would have relied upon supplies brought up from other settlements in the valley. A large number of the skeletons found here belong to young women and many of the buildings seemed to have served a ceremonial function. All of these factors indicate that Machu Picchu was a sacred place, reserved for people who served a religious function.

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Simba explained to us some of the areas to give us to give us a better idea of how the people here lived. We were taken to the quarry, where the stonemasons who built this place worked. The Temple of the Sun, whose windows are aligned to where the sun rises and sets during the solstices and equinoxes of the year. There was also a stone platform where offerings were placed to Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The urban sector, whose water-channel system still functions today, is large and home to the Royal Palace, where it is believed the Emperor and his family resided.

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One of my favourite areas was the Sacred Plaza, which is home to not just the main temple, but the smaller – and yet visually more iconic – Three Windowed Temple. The windows represent the three realms of the Incan cosmos; Uku-Pacha (the underworld) Hanan-Pacha (the upper-world, where the gods dwelled), and Kay-Pacha (the present day world humans existed within).

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One piece of advice I would give to people visiting Machu Picchu is to book to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, even if you don’t actually plan to climb them. They have recently implemented new rules which allow visitors to only enter the premises once and created a strict one-way system around the complex. Guards are placed in strategic positions, and they do not let you turn back once you have moved on to a new section. Being such a vast site, it would be very easy to accidentally miss parts of it.

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Weather is also another reason I advise this. The first time I walked through it was foggy, but on the second time, the air began to clear.

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Having a fear of heights made Huayna Picchu not an option for me. Even the path up Machu Picchu Mountain has some cringe-worthy sections which will trigger vertigo but it is doable if you grit your teeth during certain parts. The mist helped, I guess, as I most of the time I couldn’t actually see the drop below me, but this also worried me too. This was a steep and difficult climb, but was it actually going to be worth it in the end? I passed some people who were on their way down, and they said saw nothing at the summit and got bored of waiting for the weather to clear.

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I saw a coati whilst on my way up. It ran across the path in front of me and back into the forest. It was way too fast for me to get a photo of it but, for illustration purposes, here is what one looks like.

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By the time I reached the top the mist was beginning to clear. I drank some water, ate some chocolate and then walked over to the mirador where around a dozen people were all waiting – cameras primed – for a break in the clouds.

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It happened eventually, and I have a video of it here.

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The mist continued to clear whilst on my way down and I even saw some sunshine. When I reached the bottom and was back within the ruins, I finally got the view I had been waiting for.

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Despite my initial concerns, I actually consider myself to be very lucky with the day I saw Machu Picchu. I got to see it in two different lights. All shrouded in mist and atmospheric, and then, later on, in all of its majesty. And the views of all the mountains around it were incredible.

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I made my way back down to Aguas Calientes by foot down along an old Inca trail. By the time I got back, it wasn’t long until I needed to catch my train to Ollantaytambo. From there the rest of the people on my tour were headed on a bus back to Cusco, but I had arranged to be left Ollantaytambo.

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Ollantaytambo was a charming little village set within the heart in the sacred valley. It had old, cobbled, narrow streets and still retains much of its original Incan groundwork.

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I had a bit of a strange experience with the hostel I was staying at though. It came up as a last-minute deal on Booking.com at only 10 soles (about $3) a night for a twin room including breakfast. That is very cheap, even for Peru. Almost unrealistically so. It was a new place and she didn’t have any reviews yet, so I figured that maybe she was just running off a very small profit for a while to build her customer base. I booked it with the mentality that, if she gave good service, I would tip her generously and make sure I leave reviews for her not only on my blog but also Booking.com and Tripadvisor.

When I arrived, her demeanour toward me was a bit strange and cagey. She acted like she was only vaguely aware of my booking and when the matter of the price came up she claimed that it was a mistake and that she didn’t know how it had happened. Her tone was a bit accusative, and I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I offered to pay her double (at 20 soles a night), and she agreed, saying she would still give me the free breakfast.

The thing is, another man (who had booked the same deal) arrived a couple of hours later, and she did the same routine with him too. Acting like she was surprised. She wasn’t a very good actress, and it all started to feel a bit fishy.

To be fair, her rooms were clean and nicely decorated, but that was the only nice thing I can say about the place. When I went to use the shower there was underwear hanging in it and a pile of bathmats on the floor. She kept turning the WiFi off for some reason, and whenever I asked her about it she acted like she didn’t know.

In the morning when I came downstairs for breakfast she pushed an overpriced menu in front of me and asked if I would ‘like to order something’. I asked her about the included breakfast she had promised me, and she pulled a face like I had just slapped her and said, “There isn’t any breakfast, but, out of courtesy, I will give you some papaya.”

That was the point when I decided to leave. I told her I didn’t want any papaya, went to my room, packed my bags, gave her twenty soles (which she eagerly snatched from my hand, in a manner which was almost cartooneqsue) and moved to a place a few doors up the road. They were actually more expensive than her, but they were nicer-mannered, honest, and I didn’t mind paying a few extra soles to not have to put up with her weird passive-aggressive behaviour.

I will name the place on here – it is called ‘Hospedaje Inka’s’ – but I have decided to not write anything on Tripadvisor or Booking.com because I don’t want to sabotage her business. I do genuinely hope she eventually figures out how hospitality works. She is new, so she should be undercutting the other hostels in the area ever-so-slightly and treating her guests well to build a reputation, not luring people in with crazy-cheap prices and then using weird passive-aggressive behaviour to try to extract extra money. I checked her place out on Booking.com a week later, out of curiosity, and noticed she still had not fixed the ‘mistake’, so I can only assume that this is an ongoing tactic she is using.

It is a shame, but I guess what goes around comes around. Like I said earlier, if she had behaved better I would have given her glowing reviews on several platforms, a tip (of my own volition, not because she had guilt-tripped me), and stayed there longer but, because of her behaviour, she got nothing but twenty soles and an early departure.

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Now that I had escaped from the strange lady, I spend the rest of the day exploring Ollantaytambo, which is home to some rather beautiful Inca ruins.

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They are not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu but they had their own charm and, most blessedly, were much less crowded. It has a Temple of the Sun (which Inca temple doesn’t?), but the primary theme of Ollantaytambo seemed to be water. Its complex irrigation system still works, fuelling numerous fountains and channelling all the way to the ruin’s centrepiece, the Temple of Water.

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Ollantaytambo is actually a place I would advise people to not get a spoken tour for (or at least if you do, maybe consider walking around again afterwards alone) as the complex is quite spread out and I think the guides there are a little lazy because they were not taking people to the farther reaches of the complex, such as Inkawatana.

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I enjoyed having these areas to myself though. As I was walking back I saw Pinkullyuna, another set of Inca ruins on the other side of the valley, and decided to head there after lunch.

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Pinkullyuna can be accessed by a steep pathway in one of the back alleys of Ollantaytambo. Historians actually believe them to be a series of storehouses, and they are definitely worth seeing because during the walk you get to glimpse Ollantaytambo from even more angles.

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The next morning I caught a bus back to Cusco, which will be my base for the next few days as I explore more of the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Machu Picchu, click here. And for photos of Ollantaytambo, click here.

 

Travelblog SA#22: Salkantay Trek – Peru

19th-22nd October 2018

The Salkantay Trek is an alternative to the – now, not only very busy but exclusively expensive – Inca Trail. You do not pass by as many ruins along this road but you do get to traverse a wonderful variety of landscapes, including glacial mountains, lakes, cloud forests and even jungles, whilst on route to reach its penultimate highlight, Machu Picchu.

I decided on this occasion to treat myself and do it as a tour. It is possible to do this circuit independently – and I passed many along the way who were doing so – but, whilst I do enjoy the freedom of roaming alone and hiking at my own pace, carrying all of your own equipment and food for such a long journey can be hard work. Personally, if it is just three to four days, I will always choose to hike independently but, any more than that, and it starts to become questionable how much you are going to enjoy the experience.

Booking Salkantay as a tour also meant that I had Machu Picchu – with its entry fee, reservation for climbing the mountain, accommodation in Aguas Calientes, and the train ride out – all organised for me. It was also a great luxury to be able to carry just a light load of a few essential items each day and not have to worry about food or pitching my tent.

This is one of my last big expenses of this entire trip. When I embarked upon this journey back in June, I set myself a strict budget of $25 a day and I have managed to stick to it most of the time. I did put aside an extra allowance for things such as this, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon jungle and flying over the Nazca lines, but those extra funds are almost depleted now. Machu Picchu is supposed to be one of the biggest highlights of South America, and I wanted to make sure that the week I saw it was special.

 

Day 1

I was picked up from my hostel in Cusco by Simba, who would be my guide for the next five days. I and the nine people I would be sharing this journey with got into a van and dozed for the first couple of hours as we were driven to Challacancha. It was the early hours of the morning and still dark. By the time the sun came up we made a brief stop in a village to have breakfast and started getting to know each other better.

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After breakfast, we climbed back into the van and were driven for another hour. The road became rocky, and it wound through a series of steep mountains until it finally reached the beginning of the trail where we were dropped off.

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We didn’t have too far to walk that first morning. We saw lots of butterflies and Simba explained to us that they were currently in season. He also stopped us a few times to tell us about some of the plants and trees we passed and gave us all some cocoa to chew on to help us acclimatise.

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By lunchtime, we arrived at ‘Skycamp’ – located in a village called Soraypampa – where we were assigned the domes we would be sleeping in that night.

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It was partly because of the accommodation that I chose this company. Each night of the journey, you stay in a different style of shelter, and this first evening was a particularly novel one.

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After lunch, I went to my dome for a brief siesta but I was woken by a crack of thunder. A storm had entered the valley. It was awesome to listen to the rain hammering against the glass above me, but I was also very aware that I was soon to be hiking again.

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Luckily the weather calmed down a little by the time we all met outside to begin our walk up to Humantay Lake. It was still raining a little – and windy too – but manageably so, and the foggy air conjured an eerie ambience.

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By the time we reached the lake the mist had cleared. I and a few of the others climbed up a nearby ridge to get a better vantage point. It was worth the journey but, while enjoying the view, we glimpsed another wave of black clouds looming towards us and decided it would be wise to return to Skycamp.

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After dinner, I got to watch the storm play out from within my dome again, which was awesome, but it would have been even better if the sky cleared for a while so I could see the stars. You can’t have it all, I guess.

 

Day 2

Simba woke me up at 5am by bringing a hot cup of cocoa tea. I drank it down, got ready, and then, after a quick breakfast, we set off. We were crossing the Salkantay Pass that day, reaching the trek’s highest point at 4,630 meters.

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The ascent was actually easier than I anticipated – although, all the cocoa Simba kept giving us probably helped. Within three hours, we reached the top and then it was all downhill from there, through a grassy, rocky valley which reminded me of Narnia (or at least what I imagine it to be like).

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We had lunch in a hamlet lodge along the way and then plunged into a terrain of cloud forests, reaching Chaullay – a picturesque village, surrounded by green, towering peaks and waterfalls – by mid-afternoon. We were staying in small, Andean-style huts that night and the air was considerably warmer. There was the option to have a warm shower and even access wifi there, for a small fee, but I decided to give it another day before I resorted to such luxuries.

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Day 3

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Of all days, this was the easiest of the trek. We were all acclimatised at a much higher elevation so wandering these lower elevations was easy. The air was still cool enough for the walk to be a comfortable temperature and most of the terrain was flat. We were following a path which snaked along a river, heading deeper into the Sacred Valley, and saw lots of orchids.

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We reached Sahuayaco around lunchtime, and the rest of the day was free to our own leisure. Everyone else went for a trip to some hot springs which were about an hour’s ride away, but I was also feeling a little introverted that afternoon and it was beyond my budget so I chose to have a few hours to myself. I sat in the camp and read a book. There were lots of interesting birds in the trees.

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Day 4

This was my favourite day of the entire trek, but it was also the most arduous and long. We were at 2000 meters altitude now, so the air was considerably hotter. We were also walking upon an actual Inca road.

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We climbed up a mountain, rising seven hundred meters in just a couple of hours. It was foggy, at first, but when we reached the top the mist began to clear. We rested for a while at a viewpoint which had a sky swing (video here). The views were fantastic.

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The highlight of the day was reaching an old Inca site called Llactapata. It was a mysterious place. They don’t know all too much about it, but it is situated on a bluff facing Machu Picchu. Its main building appears to be ceremonial and has two large chambers with a series of alcoves in the walls – which in most other Inca sites are used for the placing of offerings. I noticed that its arched entrance has a water duct pointing directly towards Machu Picchu.

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We caught views of the hydroelectric plant on our way back down into the valley. It isn’t a natural waterfall, but it is still very beautiful. I have a video of it here.

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For the last couple of hours of the day, we were walking along the side of the train tracks which run to Aguas Calientes. It was a little strange. It felt like we were on a pilgrimage because we passed hundreds of people along the way, all either on their way to Machu Picchu or back out. Every now and then a train would pass us and we would have to move aside. Most of the seats in the carriages were empty. It is one of those bizarre anomalies of capitalism. Hundreds of people walk this route every day, while mostly-empty trains roll past, and dozens of little restaurants have been set up along the side tracks to refresh those taking this long walk. An entire micro-culture and economy has evolved from of an adamantly over-priced train system which refuses to adapt.

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We reached Aguas Calientes by the mid-afternoon. It was here that we reached the end of the Salkantay Trek. That night, we were staying in a hotel with real beds and hot showers. In the morning, we were going to see Machu Picchu.

 

For more photos from the Salkantay Trek, click here.