One day of biking, two days of hiking, three hours of zip line and four hours of walking alongside a train track later we were at the entrance, about to make our last trek up to the civilization hidden amongst the mountains.
It is 4:30am and we are waiting in a line of 100 people, only to be seen by the few with flashlights.
The family of stray dogs greets you and patiently waits as the security guards open the park. This is their morning routine. We are screened in and can begin our slow hike up the dark, large Inca steps. Every dog, including the stubby sausage dogs, eagerly marches past you, no breaks for water or panoramic views. No matter how difficult the elevation or incline, these furry friends were your trail cheerleaders, pushing you to push yourself.
Finally made it to the top to be among the first to enter for the day. We walked toward the first viewing point and it was truly jaw-dropping. The sun was rising, slowly hitting each ruin and warming our bodies like a blanket; we began to understand why the Incas worshipped this God.
Going through each section of their village was like a walk through time. I could only imagine what every hut was designed for, where the community bathing or eating was held, and how magnificent their scaling rows of vegetation were. The grounds have been emptied for centuries and yet the rock was still strongly pulsing with powerful secrets.
Were the Incas still alive somewhere? Perhaps they knew the land so well they were able to hide in the mountains all these centuries, inventing a new way of life. I couldn’t help but wonder and hope they were still around.
Spent a good four hour up there until we made our long trek back toward the end of the train station. Once at hydro-electrica we could finally rest. In a bus that would drive us six hours back toward Cusco. It was a long, completely worth-while trip and I was looking forward to the comforts of a moldly hostel bunk bed and luke-warm outdoor showers.
The small village of Uyuni is certainly stuck in time.
Arrived around 8pm to immediately be greeted by tour companies haggling trips to the famous salt flats. We had been traveling with a Brazilian who helped us find the connection bus across town in Potosi, so we felt obligated to go with the same company he booked for the flats. We later found out we were charged double for the one day trip (150pesos per day is average) but everything was so cheap in Bolivia that we took it as an inexpensive lesson.
The air was extremely thin as our lungs were still trying to acclimate to the 15,000 feet elevations. Due to the high altitudes the climate dropped to freezing temperatures and our heads were swimming in nausea. We were able to find a nearby hostel and the best pizza in all of Bolivia, although the modest owner claimed it to be in Uyuni only.
Woke up early to walk about the six street town in search of warmer clothes. Perhaps it was the exchange rate of $1 to 7 Bolivian Pesos, but everything was significantly cheaper here. Found some warm mittens for $1.50 and watched the older Cholita mend the hole in less than 5 minutes while the other ran off for our change.
The SUV took 6 of us on a private tour across their salty plains, pausing at a cool abandoned train yard and even an oasis full of cacti. I was amazed by the height of the giant cactus scattered around this small island surrounded in a sea of salt. How did they even survive with all the salt?! It was certainly the largest salt flat in the world; nothing but white salt and mountains for miles.
After our outback adventure, we stopped for one more oven-fired pizza and left on another night bus toward the beautiful city of La Paz.
The flight from Rio de Janeiro to Santa Cruz was dirt cheap and now we know why.
The layover in Saõ Paulo was a bit tricky as we quickly passed customs and boarded a bus across the airport, only to make it to our gate minutes before closing. Once in Santa Cruz customs we discovered we were 70% prepared for our visa. Sat at the border for almost an hour as we used their poor wifi (lucky to have wifi at all) to create make-shift hostel and bus documents and send to their official emails to print. We thought was all squared away until the security guard needed $160 US cash. Surprised at the cost of the visa we were escorted to the nearest ATM.
Finally out and took a taxi to our janky hostel in the small town. It smelled of mold and you could practically hear the bugs moving in the two twin bed boards. We took a quick coffee break down the pebbled side street and walked toward the bus terminal to map out our next bus.
Hundreds of people littered the terminal, selling odd half-cooked vegetables and large bags of cheese-covered pan. We were hustled by multiple bus companies all shouting “Sucre, Sucre”. We found the one bus going to Potosi, as were heard this UNESCORTED city was extremely colorful. Met a nice Brazilian named Louise Paulo who showed us where to pay the 2peso platform fee. In Bolivia you have to buy a bus ticket and another ticket to enter the bus gate… pretty obsurd!
The drive was long and cold, by far the worst bus yet. The seats were damp with dew and dust, and it was so cold we had to put on every layer we owned. Finally warmed a little at day break where we got off in Potosi.
Louis showed us the coca leaves and how they help with altitude sickness, which we were slowly acquiring. Jake was excited just to find American oreos and I bought a couple of bananas to hold us over for the next bus. We wandered the town as Louis helped us get toward our next connection. We were all headed to Uyuni for the salt flats. Even managed to score a large bag of peanuts; the locals laughed as I paid probably too much for them.
Of all the Brazilian cities, Rio is by far my favorite. The colorful mountainous town is like a another country within a country.
Originally bused from the border to Saõ Paulo, where we arrived in the second largest bus terminal in the world, first being Port Authority. The air smelled of trash and urine as we took a taxi toward our hostel. The Portuguese sounded more like Dutch than Spanish and provided a huge language barrier.
Walked around the city for two days visiting museums and various coffee shops. The coffee is indeed more strong than in Argentina, but nobody has mastered the art of steamed milk. Despite the coffee I must admit this city did not call to me. It was the business capital of Brazil and felt too cold and stuffy.
The Municple court in the heart of the old city has the largest rooftop garden in all of South America. It also has the weirdest process to visit this garden. We spent two days of broken English to finally understand you have to book a tour (only three a day) and wait an hour prior before a registered city guide and two security guards can escort you up. Even the employees in this large 14 story building cannot access the roof! Having four failed attempts we were beginning to think the garden didn’t want us to go up until we squeezed into the last possible 8 person tour we could get into.
Eagerly took a night bus over to Rio de Janeiro where I immediately felt the weight of misery from lift a bit the second I viewed the mountains. The scenery alone is breathtaking, but there is something to be said about the people. They are all so bubbly and welcome you with open arms, not to mention have taken the time to pick up English so it is far less complicated ordering a basic dish.
Spent four glorious days island hopping and hiking through their national park. We were first at the top of Christ the redeemer, which was magnificent for a good two minutes until buses of people infested the area. The panoramic views were almost fake a no the city reminded me of Wellington, NZ where it was a much smaller city surrounded by mountains and greenery.
Took a boat in the colorful small town of Angra where we were able to stop off on various small islands. Even got in the water filly with hundreds of striped yellow fish! Spent our last day attempting to avoid the heavy pours of rain. Went to this really cool interactive museum called the Museum of Tomorrow, which basically educates human impact on the environment and how to lower our carbon footprint.
Spent the afternoon wondering around Sugerloaf mountain where I assume they transported sugar in the late 1800s. It was so cool riding the gondola toward the second mountain as rain thrashed against our window. The view was also grand at the top, and we were lucky to get the five minutes of clarity until the next cloud storm passed overhead.
Soaked from the rain, we cancelled birthday dinner plans and spent the night watching movies over room service. We had our fill of moqueca, caipirinhas and pão de queijo to last us another decade at least.
Landed in the Iguazu Brazilian Airport only to realize we did not know Portuguese nor did we have our arrival cards.
Eventually found the way toward the bus, and even managed to hop on the first one we saw, hoping it was indeed the “120” that led toward the bus terminal. Good thing we can at least understand numbers in this foreign bit of America.
Our hostel was beautiful and tucked away in a neighborhood near the station. Two adorable wiener dogs greeted us as we settled into our empty 8-person dorm. Guess these are the perks of traveling off-season, although I was secretly hoping for a bunch of new friendly faces with different stories to tell.
The next morning was early enough to still catch the breakfast of toast, dulce, and watermelon. Happy to eat these odd mixtures as it reminds me I am far from the comfort of my routine breakfast. Fed the weenies a small piece of ham then hit the road toward the falls.
We appeared to be early enough to not have a long line, however every trail was packed with a bus load of 50-100 cameras fighting for that one panoramic picture. A sun-hatted woman took a picture of the train railings zoomed in and we thought how amusing to watch the guided tours of people taking pictures of little unique thing that isn’t the norm for their country.
While I was a bit disappointed the bus dropped us off at the first view point rather than allowing us to hike there, that first waterfall view was breathtaking. It was the biggest cartara I had seen in my life. Clearly I haven’t been to Niagra Falls, but this was so amazing and surrounded by kilometers of lush green.
We followed the cute ant-eating, food thieving, monkey raccoons all the way toward the end to see the agua de Madre…they don’t actually call it that but they should. SO BIG. Had to push past a few casualties before we made it to the drop off to peer at the crashing water below. I felt like Rose at the end of the HMS Titanic before she attempts suicide because her rich and fabulous life is just so stressful.
Then there was the bird sanctuary which is extremely under-rated…it’s the biggest aviary in South America, home of the largest walk-through macaw exhibit. Needless to say we spent twice as much time in this tiny animal kingdom compared to the vast falls. Fascinated by the beautiful colors, I joyfully watched them fight over chopped bananas.
Quick hop over to Argentina again where we check into this cute, colorful, pueblo-like hotel. Spent our early dinner over cheap wine and the best steak we’ve had here yet, and it was only $300 ARS! Had an early night in order wake up at 6:30am to be at the second park, the Argentina side of the falls, before people swarmed in.
It was 8:30am and our planned had worked. Spent a good hour walking the empty trails without the chaos of the Sony and Nikon cameras. Felt like we were in Jurassic park and I wouldn’t have been surprised if I saw some dinosaurs fly over head. There were more trails and falls on this side of the border and the mist gave off this great eerie prescience. People were quickly around every corner of the park by 930 and we veered off to the last trail we wanted to see.
Senders Macucu is the longest, yet most rewarding trail of the park. The forest covered trail probably accounts for 10 hikers a day, and certainly is off the beaten path. It isnt easy to get to as you have to somewhat crawl through broken branches and over large slippery rocks. After an hour hiking and even seeing a black monkey (wish I was a scientist and knew the species), we approach a man-made path. Followed the moss towards this tall, tranquil waterfall that powerfully crashed onto a pool of rocks below. It was so peaceful hearing the water drown out the helicopter tours above. The water felt great too.
The hour hike back to the hour long bus ride back to the 15 minute walk to the hotel didn’t even cross my mind, as I was still replaying the waterfall. That night it poured for hours and sleep came easier than it had in months.
The gorgeous white city of Casa Pueblo is something straight out of Dr. Suess!