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Bolivia (Nov. 2000)

posted Nov 16, 2008, 6:41 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 16, 2008, 6:44 PM ]
Sometimes you don't realize what you don't have until you have it again. More strangely, sometimes you realize you don't really mind losing it only after you've lost it again. Such was the case with me and television. I have watched very little television on my trip, and apart from the occasional movie shown on a long distance bus, I never even had television access until I hit La Paz. When I checked into my small hotel, and saw the 6 inch black and white screen on the table near my bed, I thought, "Let’s see what Bolivians watch." I was a bit surprised to turn on the TV and see Arnold, Willis, Mr. Drummond and the "Different Strokes" gang up to their old tricks in flawless Spanish. Despite its new Spanish title, "Blanco y Negro," and poorly dubbed voices, Arnold's trademark, "De que hablas, Willis?" was still there, as was Mr. Drummond's sage advice and the always happy ending. Another thing that had not changed was the show's timeless tune. "The world doesn't turn to the beat of just one drum. What might be right for you, may not be right for some . . ." Somehow, the words rang with a new accord. Different strokes move the world, and it's a peculiar beat in Bolivia. Here I was, in very modern La Paz watching American television ("Blanco y Negro" was followed by Hercules and the movie Batman) with a McDonald's down the street. A few days earlier I had been on an island on an alpine lake with no electricity or running water, lamenting the fried eggs and rice that I had had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I would soon be wrestling alligators in the piranha infested waters of the Amazon's tributaries, driving endless hours over plains of salt, and hiking up the tephra strewn slopes of an Andean volcano. The contrasts are incredible in a country best described by strings of superlatives. In a few days, I ranged in altitudes from only 200 to almost 5000 meters above sea level. I passed from sweltering pampas to the frozen lagunas on the southern volcanoes, from the lush rainforests of the Amazon basin to the completely barren salares in the Potosi region. Bolivia is an incredible country where one of the few things I could not find was enough time.

I began my Bolivian adventure following the shores of Lake Titicaca to Copacabana, a sleepy town on the southern shores of the lake near the Peruvian border. The border crossing was rather straightforward, but I did run into Sarah and Phillip, my friends from the Inca Trail, while waiting in line at the immigration office. We agreed to meet later that evening in the Plaza in town and make plans for possibly going to the Isla del Sol the next day. There was a bit of excitement when an Irish Couple was left by their tour bus as they battled with the new visa laws just imposed by Bolivia on Irish citizens. They hopped onto our bus, and we continued into the small town of Copacabana. The bus arrived in the late afternoon, and I found a room in the first hostel I encountered. Wanting to enjoy the beautifully warm afternoon, I immediately went down to the courtyard where the hotel served lunch. There I met Dave, Dave, Tim, Fiona, and Nicole, some of the folks that I had met on the Isla Amantani, when I was in Peru. We had lunch together, and they invited me to walk with them the next day to Yampupata, a nearby town, to catch a boat to the Isla del Sol. I told them that I had to meet friends later in the evening, and could not make plans until I had talked to them, but said that if we went to the Isla del Sol, we would likely go with them.

That afternoon, I wandered about town, and made my way to the top of a nearby hill with wonderful views of the town and lake. The peninsula we were on stretched far to the north, and beyond that I could make out the outline of the Isla del Sol, with the shadows of the cordillera real peaking out of the clouds behind. I sat on a wall and watched the sunset over Lake Titicaca. I waited until the brilliant pinks and warm oranges faded into the darkness of the altiplano night, before I descended back to Copacabana to find Phillip and Sarah. When I met Sarah and Phillip, I was surprised to find them talking to the Daves, Tim, Fiona and Nicole. Apparently, they knew each other from Peru, and had arranged to walk to the Isla del Sol together. We all agreed to start early the next day, and hike to Yampupata, and continue to the Isla del Sol.

The next day, I rose with the sun, and after quickly packing for the journey, joined the group for the hike. We left Copacabana at about 8:00 AM, and followed the road out of town following the water's edge towards Yampupata. The trek was gorgeous, starting in some agricultural areas near town, and then gently climbing through Eucalyptus forest along a lakeside bank. It was a beautifully clear day, and the blue waters of the lake stretched far before us. We continued following the road, until we reached a small stream, where we crossed, and followed a trail to an Incan road that climbed a large hill. The trail rejoined the road, which then descended to a small bay with a village clinging to the thin strip of land between it and the adjacent hillsides. From the village we climbed another large barren hill, and then finally descending to the peninsula on which Yampupata was built. The walk took us a little over four hours, and after a stop for some refreshments, we hired a small motor boat to take us across the narrow stretch of water that separated us from the Isla del Sol. The boat driver dropped us off on a small dock on the southern end of the island, near some Incan ruins, and as we clambered from the boat onto the high dock, Dave dropped his Leatherman into the water. He stripped down, and went for a swim to try to retrieve it, but he was so breathless in the ice-cold water that he could not dive down for it. Tim, a RAF pilot, jumped in, too, and dove down to get it. He was just climbing out when a hydrofoil full of German tourists cruised up to the dock, and got a wonderful reenactment of the first Inca emerging from the lake. We were the subject of rather odd stares as the swimmers redressed their shivering bodies, with the rest of us congratulating them at lake's edge.

From the southern end of the lake, we continued our walk, walking another two and a half hours to the north end of the island. We passed several villages and Incan ruins on the way, enjoying the beautiful Grecian landscape and spectacular views of the Cordillera Real as the sun began to lower in the west. We had lunch in a town about halfway up the island, where it took nearly two hours for them to serve very bad food (when I asked for more sauce for my spaghetti, they handed me a bottle of ketchup). When we reached the northernmost town on the island, the sun was just beginning to set, and we found a place to spend the night. For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town, where the cook looked a little frightened when she saw the entire group enter. The town had no electricity, so we enjoyed our fried eggs and rice over the romantic glow of a candle.

Early the next morning, one of the Daves, Tim and I hiked an hour past town to the northern tip of the island, the location of the Rock of Titicaca. Titicaca means "Gray Puma" and the lake is named after the rock, that supposedly resembles a Puma. The rock was sacred to the Incas, who believed the Sun, the Moon, Manco Capac, the first Inca, and his wife, mama Oclo were all born here, rising from the lake onto the rock. The local Ayamara people still consider it a holy site, and several ruins remained of the temples constructed near the rock. From the northwest tip, we could also look back towards Copacabana, and see the islands of Amantani and Tequile far to the North.

We returned to the town, and prepared to depart. Phillip had not been feeling well, so Sarah and Phillip had stayed in a town about halfway up the island, and the rest of the group had to catch a bus from Copacabana, so they hired a boat back directly from the town. I set off alone, and hiked back down to the southern town on the island, admiring the spectacular geology, and doing a little bird watching on the way. Lake Titicaca was actually a great place for shorebirds and waterfowl, and the low vegetation on the island seemed to attract many birds of prey. I caught the late afternoon boat back to Copacabana, passing the Bolivian Armada along the way. It amazed me that a land locked country would bother to have a navy, and it seemed that the small sailboat, the row boat and the motorboat currently in dry-dock would do little to discourage an attack by water. I got back to town, and spent a night there before catching a bus to La Paz in the morning.

La Paz is spectacularly placed in a large canyon, with impressive snow capped peaks forming a picturesque backdrop for the massive city. I arrived in the city with the intention of relaxing a few days before meeting my parents and heading into the Bolivia's Amazon region, so I spent several days wandering aimlessly about the city, getting to know my way around the center, and researching hotels for my parents and I to stay in. On one of my wanderings, I was walking down the main street, a massive boulevard with throngs of people and towering skyscrapers (at least they seemed towering after not seeing many large buildings since I left southern Peru), when someone called my name. I turned to find Matthew and Lucy running up to greet me. Having last seen them in Cusco, it was great to meet someone I knew in this large city. I dined with them a couple of evenings before my parents arrived, and, as I learned they were going to the same jungle town that I was planning to go to, figured that I would probably see them again soon.

When my parents arrived, I had found a lovely hotel for them, and moved from my relatively squalid abode into the five star luxury of the Gran Hotel Paris. My television jumped from 6 inch B&W to 15 inch color, and the size of the room increased in even greater proportion. The sitting room in our suite alone was larger than most of the rooms that I had stayed in, and the bathroom had CONSISTENT hot water! The temporary bed that they set up for me was more comfortable than many of the beds I'd tolerated before, and when on one evening they brought up the complimentary tea service, I knew that sometimes it really is good to let your parents spoil you a bit. I greeted the doorman with a bit more of a smile that first evening, and laughed when the bellboy didn't seem quite sure whether or not to offer to carry my backpack to the room for me.

The first day that my parents arrived, they were rather tired, and spent much of the day resting and trying to get used to the altitude. I decided to let them rest, and as I walked down a street leading to the plaza where our hotel was located, I ran into Sarah. Phillip had returned home, but she had met a couple of other travelers, and they were headed to the Valle de la Luna that afternoon. I decided to join them, and soon we had caught a bus out of town. The Valle de la Luna is an area of oddly eroded formations that some believe resembles a moonscape. We hiked along a rather slippery trail through the odd shapes for a while, admiring the towers and arches formed in the rock, before catching a bus back.

My main goal while my parents were visiting me was to get to Rurrenebaque, a frontier town in the Amazonian lowlands from which you can access both tropical rainforests and pampas. Once my mom and dad arrived, we immediately arranged to fly from La Paz into the rainforest. As we added our names to the list of passengers aboard the military flight (TAM the military run airline was the only airline that flew to Rurrenebaque), I was delighted to see that we would be flying with Matthew and Lucy as well as Sophia and Jeanette, my friends from the Inca Trail! We arrived at the airport, and all decided that we would look for an agency where we could hire guides as a group.

From La Paz, we flew to the jungle town of Rurrenebaque. From the moment our Fokker F-27 first descended from the clouds to see the verdant forest spread like an unending carpet below us, I knew that we were in a pretty remote place. Our plane bumped and shook to a rough landing on a grassy field, and taxied to the small "terminal" where we hired a jeep to carry us into town. The lady who arranged our jeep transport represented "Incaland Tours," and after she helped us arrange our tickets back to La Paz (TAM would not sell a roundtrip ticket), we decided to use her agency for our tour of the rainforest and pampas. We went to her office, and hired guides and cooks for a five day tour, two days in the rainforest and three days in the pampas.

After a quick lunch, we grabbed our gear, and boarded a motorized dugout canoe to head upriver. We packed our stuff under a tarp, settled in with Mario, our Guide, Rosa, our cook and Chino, our boat driver, and began our three hour cruise into the tropical rainforest. The scenery was unbelievable; it felt like we had entered Jurassic Park. Huge cliffs rose over the steaming canopy, with the reddish brown water snaking its way through steep canyons and over lush, tree covered flatlands. We cruised up the River Beni for a couple of hours, passing small settlements and occasional clearings in the forest. As we continued upriver, it began to pour on us, and as we huddled under our ponchos and umbrellas, we experienced why the tropical humid forests are commonly called "rainforest." We turned onto the River Tuichi, a tributary of the Beni, and soon entered the Reserva Nacional de Madidi, leaving any form of civilization behind. The river narrowed slightly, and we entered more stands of primary and older secondary forest. On the clay banks of the river, we caught our first sight of Capybara, the cutest giant rodents you've ever seen, and could hear parrots and macaws squawking as they flew over the river. The banks of the river hosted a number of large waders, most notably egrets, herons and Jaribu, and a plethora of flycatchers hawked insects from trees overhanging the water. When the sky was clear enough to look into, vultures circled overhead, and numerous birds darted overhead across the river. The rain stopped, and we finally reached our campsite (and after three hours on a wooden plank, our backsides were certainly thankful). After transporting all of our gear and supplies up a very slippery bank, we settled into camp. The strange water-drip call of Orependulas returning to their nests at the edge of our camp and the calls of macaws flying far overhead marked the end of the avian day, and darkness soon overtook the forest. We, however, were not quite ready for the end of the day, so Mario led us into the nocturnal rainforest, where the chorus of insects let us know the forest was far from asleep. Our first stop was the banks of the river not far from our camp, where a quick look with our flashlights revealed several capybaras. We continued through the forest for a couple of hours, listening to the sounds all around us, and carefully navigating the nighttime foliage. Our walk continued until the batteries began to run out in my and my mother's flashlights (my father's flashlight had been given to Mario at the beginning of the walk as his had a burnt bulb). We returned with almost no light, tripping on the roots and fallen debris the whole way back. Upon return, we retreated to our mosquito nets and went to sleep.

The next morning, the sun shown brightly, with cicadas calling loudly from the treetops and butterflies filling the clearing in which we camped. The orependulas noisily left their nests, and after a cold breakfast, we prepared for a diurnal walk through the forest. My mother was not feeling well, so my parents remained in camp while Matthew, Lucy, Jeanette, Sophia and I followed Mario down the path that we had walked the night before. The brilliant sun lit the canopy above us, but the forest floor remained cool and comfortable as we walked. Mario explained to us various medicinal uses of plants and trees that we encountered along the way, and we sampled monkey eggs (a small fruit) and drank water from a vine. We encountered few animals in the forest, but did have sightings of a large red squirrel and a small deer. Such as was my experience in Ecuador, the arthropods were rulers of the forest, with spiders, grasshoppers, butterflies and throngs of other insects everywhere. One thing that was certainly not in shortage was ants! We saw a swarm of army ants, and long lines of leaf cutter ants busily harvesting the foliage, huge stinging ants that Mario said were extremely painful, and tiny ants that, despite their size, hurt enough when they bit. Every time we would stop, it would not be long before ants were crawling up our legs. I am not sure how many times we were bit, but we each got our share of formic acid on that walk.

Along the hike we encountered a small stream with some vines hanging over it. To cross it, we grabbed a vine and swung Tarzan-style over the water. After everyone was safely over the stream, we realized that this was a great photo opportunity and good place to play, so we spent a few minutes swinging back and forth over the water. It was great fun, and we continued to play until Jeanette lost her grip and fell knee-deep into the stream. We had to cross several other streams along the walk, as well, and each one we had to engineer a way to cross. A couple of them had fallen trees that we used to walk over, but they were often narrow and not terribly stable. Over one stretch of water we had to build a makeshift bridge using several logs we found, and a tree we felled as a hand hold.

After walking for five hours, we finally returned to camp for lunch. That evening we reboarded the canoe, and travelled a little farther up river to see an area where macaws nested. We landed on a muddy bank, and after a short walk came to a large bare cliff. As we arrived, the red heads of Greenwing (Red and Green) Macaws could be seen poking out of holes on the cliff face, with occasional birds noisily flying in and out of the holes. As the sun sank lower in the sky, birds returning to roost began flying in from all directions, and the trees surrounding the cliff were alive with the resounding calls of the massive birds. Flocks of beautiful red, green and blue Greenwings descended on the cliffs, along with smaller all-green Military Macaws. Large flocks of parrots also came to roost in the holes of the cliff, with their constant chattering mixing with the din from the macaws. We were there for several hours watching the magnificent birds. My parents and I, with a pair of pet macaws at home, were transfixed by the spectacle. Adding to the avian array, several large (black bodied?) woodpeckers hammered on nearby trees, with their bright red heads showing brightly in the afternoon sun.

We spent another night in the rainforest, and then rose early the next morning for our boat trip back to Rurrenabaque. Travel downstream was much quicker than going up, but the sunny day provided us a new perspective on the gorgeous scenery we passed on the first day. We arrived in Rurrenebaque, and were escorted to a hotel where we could take showers. We relaxed in the hotel for a short while before Joaquin, our new guide, and Mariluz, our new cook, arrived with a jeep to take us to the pampas. We drove two hours to a nearby town from which we would again travel by river to our campsite. On the drive we passed a lot of agricultural land, with herds of cattle grazing on the fields. As we drove by one herd, I noticed an odd shape, and realized that I was looking at a rhea, the South American equivalent of an emu! We stopped and watched the huge birds for a few minutes before continuing. At the end of the car ride, we had a quick lunch, and then boarded another motorized canoe, this time on the river Yacuma. In another odd coincidence, as we boarded our canoe, another canoe was getting ready to shove off, carrying Sarah, the Daves, Nicole and Fiona! I'm beginning to realize why they call the southern portions of Peru and northern Bolivia the "Gringo Trail."

The Yacuma was much smaller and slower moving than either the Beni or Tuichi, and its narrow flow put you right up close with the shore side animal life. The vegetation here was also much more open than in the forests we had just left, with large stretches of seasonally flooded grasslands (pampas) cut by the tree strewn riparian zone. As soon as we shoved off, we began seeing lots of wildlife. Large numbers of Alligator rested on the shores, or poked their eyes and nostrils out of the water before stealthily submerging when we approached. Large capybara lazily bathed in the mud and shallow water on the river's edge, scarcely giving us a glance as we passed. Much like insects ruled the rainforest, though, birds were the star attraction on the river (sorry Matthew, I know you liked the Capybara). There were heron and egret everywhere, with at least three species of each being rather common. Tyrannids filled the trees in some areas, and large guans (or perhaps curassows?) clumsily flew from tree to tree. Large Blackhawks commandeered the high snags, while skimmers cruised the waterways. Along the way I saw swallows, wrens, kingfishers, cardinals, trogons, finches, rails, storks, condors, vultures, parrots, macaw, sandpiper, plovers, tanagers, anis, cuckoo, doves, and geese. Later, when we arrived at the camp, I even saw two species of toucan and a Great Horned Owl! I was in birdwatchers paradise. As I watched two blue and gold macaws fly overhead and listened to the intricately timed calls of the Condor of the Pampas (King Vulture), I really felt like this is what I had come to South America to do.

The canoe ride to camp took us slowly through the serpentine river, and we got to see most of the animals pretty close. At one point, we saw a bunch of baby alligators scurrying up the bank into the trees. Joaquin ran the boat into shore, and he jumped out to catch one for us. We passed the tiny little reptile about, taking pictures with it before letting it join its brothers and sisters back on the bank. As we continued, parts of the

river were very shallow, with reeds blocking the passage. On one of these stretches, the boat got stuck in the reeds, and Joaquin and I had to jump into the water to push the canoe back out. Shortly after we had cleared the reeds, we saw a capybara wading in the shallow waters near shore. Joaquin aimed the boat at it so that we could get a close look. The capybara was noticeably unnerved by our approach, and when the canoe finally touched land, the capybara hurried onto shore, stepping on a resting alligator on the way. The alligator immediately lurched for the water, ramming into the side of our canoe, and soaking Lucy, Jeanette and Sophia as it thrashed about trying to dive under the boat. The now terribly frightened capybara ran into the river and swam off, while the startled occupants of the canoe sat dripping in disbelief. As we continued, we encountered more capybara and alligators, although most of the capybara seemed little more than disinterested whenever we approached. Later we even saw a bunch of monkeys that came down and ate bananas that we offered to them. We arrived in camp, and rested a bit. The pampas were terribly hot, and after spending several hours in the sun, we were all ready for a bit of a rest. Joaquin explained what we would be doing for the next couple of days, after which I wandered about a bit, discovering a nearby waterhole frequented by capybara.

The next couple of days we had several little adventures planned. First up was an Anaconda roundup. We loaded onto our trusty canoe, and rode upstream a short while to an area where we hiked across a large stretch of grassland to arrive at a small pond surrounded by marsh. The walk was long, and the shadeless grassland was extremely hot, but Joaquin kept us entertained with stories about the poisonous snakes that we might encounter in the tall grasses. We arrived at the welcome shade of the trees along the marsh, and Joaquin, another guide that had arrived with another couple, Matthew, Jeanette and I brazenly waded into the marsh in search of an anaconda, while the others waited in the shade of a nearby tree. We quietly sloshed through the deep mud and water of the marsh, searching for our quarry. The mud was so deep that Matthew's sandals broke as he tried to negotiate the side of the pond, and my rubber boots were soon completely filled with water. We had only been looking for about ten minutes when Joaquin called to us. We made our way to his location, and there, hidden in the vegetation, was an enormous snake. We all slowly approached the snake, getting ready to catch it when suddenly Joaquin turned and started yelling, "Get back! Run! Run!" Startled, I turned to Jeanette, and told her to run as Joaquin began to push me to run towards the pond. We sprinted (or as near as you can sprint in shin-deep mud) towards the pond, not knowing what was going on. As I was wondering if we were about to be eaten by a killer snake, Joaquin repeated, "Run! Bees!" He had spotted a swarm of africanized bees, and was apparently even stung by one, prompting our rapid retreat. Once we had run a short distance, fortunately without being attacked by bees, Joaquin and the other guide told us to wait while they retrieved the anaconda. A few minutes later, they returned with about a four meter constrictor wrapped around Joaquin's neck. Joaquin asked me if I wanted to carry it, and I returned to the waiting group with a snake triumphantly hung over my shoulders. We stood on the shore along the marsh taking pictures with the snake as Joaquin lectured us on the natural history of anacondas. As we prepared to release the snake, a large alligator surfaced in the marsh we had just waded through, and let out what I can only describe as a loud growl. After witnessing what we had been fortunate not to tread upon, the other guide volunteered to release the snake as we waited safely on dry land.

We returned to camp, and as the day became unbearably hot, we took a bit of a siesta after lunch, certain to seek the haven of our mosquito nets to shield us from the plague of mosquitos that inhabit the pampas. That afternoon, Joaquin asked if we wanted to go for a swim. Having seen so many alligators along the river's edge and in the marsh, we were dubious, but Joaquin assured us he knew of a safe spot. We all got back in the canoe, and travelled down river. We reached a slow bend in the river, and beached the canoe, when suddenly a large pink object slowly surfaced and then disappeared back into the chocolate brown water. Pink river dolphins were all around, slowly emerging for an occasional breath. The turbid water did not permit a very good look, but the occasional arch of back with a bit of a dorsal fin was our assurance that these waters were safe to swim in. "The dolphins chase away the alligators," Joaquin reassured us. With that, Matthew quickly hopped in, and I was quick to follow. We swam out to the middle oft he river, with the lethargic river dolphin surfacing all around us. Sophia, Jeanette and Lucy soon followed suit, and we swam about in the lukewarm water. After swimming for a bit, the girls got into the canoe to sun themselves a bit, and I clung to the edge of the canoe to rest a while. I was hanging off the canoe, with water up to my neck, when I felt a sharp pain on my chest; something had just bitten my breast! I jerked, giving a bit of a shriek, startling the people on the boat, telling them, "Something just bit me." They responded in disbelief. Another quick nibble on my shoulder was all I needed, and I was out of the water. Once on the canoe, I examined my chest to find my nipple bleeding, a nice ring of teeth marks all around. I told Joaquin that I had just been bitten, to which he replied, "Oh, those are sardines." As I applied pressure to my macerated mammary, I notified him that the sardines had drawn blood. He, too, responded in disbelief. When I showed him my tattered teat, he looked surprised, but reiterated the sardine story (I would later learn that it was most likely a piranha, though Joaquin would never admit it). When Matthew, who had remained in the water, started getting nibbled on (although without drawing any blood) my story started gaining support. I stayed out of the water for the rest of the time, and after a couple more people reported gentle nibbles, including a few on my feet as I dangled them in the water, we all just accepted the sardine story.

My wound was quick to heal, but my pride had to wait until the next day. When Joaquin asked us if we wanted to go fishing, I was quick to affirm that I wanted to give those damned "sardines" a bit of their own medicine. We grabbed a couple of steaks (the bait of choice in these waters) and some hooks and line, and were back on the canoe heading up river. When we arrived at what Joaquin deemed a good spot, we beached the canoe, hooked our bits of meat, and tossed them over the side. We quickly started getting nibbles, and before too long, I had pulled in a small catfish and Jeanette had caught a "sardine" - here is where I learned that Joaquin called anything that wasn't a piranha or a catfish a sardine. The sardines looked harmless enough, but before long, Joaquin and Jeanette had caught a couple of piranhas. They are small, but they sure look like mean little buggers, with a nasty set of choppers (with teeth spaced peculiarly similar to the teeth marks on my nipple). After several hours of having our bait stolen and not having caught enough fish for our lunch (the largest fish we caught were only a few centimeters long), we changed to a different location, where I climbed off the canoe, and scrambled along the steep bank to a shrub that extended over the river. I found a little hotspot, and quickly landed six piranhas in about ten minutes. Once we had caught our lunch, we returned to camp, and I relished avenging the piranha attack the day before (although the piranha still got more meat off me that what I got off those tiny little fish).

The rest of our time in the pampas was filled with nighttime canoe trips to spotlight alligators (we caught another small one for another photo op), jaunts to the grasslands to watch sunsets, and early morning sunrise/howler monkey expeditions. We saw all three races of Howler monkeys, along with Capuchin Monkeys and tons of birds. When not on the river searching for wildlife, we would be vainly attempting to battle the intolerable heat and hordes of mosquitoes. One lazy afternoon I decided to try to run down a capybara that I spotted near our camp, and learned that the lethargic looking beasts are quite quick when chased.

After our tour, we returned to Rurrenabaque, and caught our flight to La Paz. I spent a couple more days in La Paz, taking my parents back to the airport, and then spending a day with Matthew, Lucy, Sophia and Jeanette, trying to get a guard to give us a tour of the prison (he claimed that nobody was being let into the prison that day, as the prisoners were striking), ending up at the Coca museum instead. All my friends were heading to Mexico, so we said our goodbyes, and I caught an overnight bus to Uyuni, in southern Bolivia. When I arrived the next morning, I quickly arranged to join a tour of the nearby Salares and Lagunas that would leave me at the Chilean border. I climbed aboard the Toyota land cruiser that would be my transport for the next three days, and met the Bolivian, two French and two Swiss that I would be travelling with.

As soon as we left town, we hit the Salar de Uyuni, an immense salt flat that we spent the entire day driving across. The landscape was as barren as any I have witnessed. Endless miles of nothing but flat white salt. It looked like snow, but was hard as rock, and the land cruiser sped across the wide-open flats. After several hours of driving, we reached an "island" in the sea of salt. A rock rose high above the plain of white, and we stopped there to eat lunch and hike around the towering cacti that grew on the island. As we ate lunch, a hawk landed nearby. It was obviously quite used to seeing groups of tourists, and it sauntered up to us quite bravely looking for a handout. He must have known my fondness for birds, because he singled me out and perched himself at my side, eagerly glancing at the sandwich I was munching on. Not wanting to further spoil the bird, I quickly finished my meal, as I admired the creature. He was obviously not terribly happy to see that I was not going to feed him, so he came closer and began to tug on my sleeve. I tried to shoo him away, at which point he bit me! I suppose that my birds at home have made me impervious to avian attacks, because rather than run from the attack, I quickly scooped the bird up and tossed him aside. He quickly returned to my side, and began to eye me again, again pecking at my sleeve and at my camera bag. This time I put my hand out and picked him up. He perched, quite unperturbed, for several minutes on my hand and then on my shoulder, before we finally had to leave. I left my new friend still searching for scraps, as we continued to drive through miles of salt. Later we arrived at a Salt Hotel. A building in the middle of the bareness completely constructed of salt. We went inside where all the furniture and even much of the art was also made of salt. I suppose the meals were well seasoned, but otherwise, I think there would be little nightlife in a place with absolutely nothing around as far as the eye could see.

That evening we finally made it to the end of the salar, to a tiny village in the foothills beyond. The town was tiny, but as it was the only civilization anywhere around, several tour groups lodged here. Leticia, the Bolivian in the group, was dying to go dancing, and after learning that the town actually had a disco, our group went to check it out. The disco turned out to be a small cement building not far from our hostel, with a small bar, and a tape player for music. Leticia had brought along a CD to listen to, and after discovering that the disco could only accommodate tapes, our driver spent he evening going door to door, unsuccessfully trying to locate a CD player. While he searched, the rest of us sampled the various tapes that the disco had to offer. We were the only six there, so we pretty much listened to whatever we wanted to. Since I had not slept well on the bus the night before, I retired early, resting for the following day.

Day two on the trip, we drove south along the Bolivia-Chile border, among the densest array of volcanoes I have ever seen. At any one time, there were at least six volcanoes in sight, with one point where twelve perfectly formed cones surrounded us. We stopped at various interesting rock formations, usually old lava flows or eroded tuff, where we would hike about and chase the Viscachi (a jumbo sized cousin of the Chinchilla) around. We also made it to a couple of Lagunas, large lakes with saline waters. Each laguna, due to variations in the mineral contents of the water, was a different color, and usually named to correspond (ie. Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanco, Laguna rojo etc.). The laguna hosted all three species of flamingo found in the area, as well as various shorebirds that scurried along their banks. We spent the night in a refuge on the banks of one of the larger lagunas, a beautifully red lake with several volcanic cones along its edge. We arrived with several hours of daylight, so Dominique (one of the Frenchmen) and I decided to go for a bit of a hike. We decided to climb as high as we could on the nearest volcano, and were soon trudging our way up the soft tephra covered slopes. At about 4500 meters, with very soft substrate, the climb was actually somewhat difficult, but in a couple of hours we had climbed about halfway up the peak. The view was gorgeous, with the beautiful reds of the lake matching the pinkening western sky. We made our way back down the slope and walked along the edge of the lake back to the refuge. We arrived about an hour after dark, to find the rest of our group quite worried about our well being. Our driver had gone to the park rangers to tell them that two hikers were missing in the park, and had driven about searching for us after the sun set. They were all quite relieved to see us, and rewarmed the leftovers from dinner for us.

The next day we got up before dawn and drove to a nearby geyser field to watch the sunrise. The steaming vents and geysers provided an interesting foreground to a beautiful sunrise. We spent some time walking around the bubbling mud baths, before continuing to a nearby lake with hot springs at its edge. The freezing nights at this altitude had left a fairly thick layer of ice on the lake, but several folks quickly stripped and lounged in the delightfully hot water. Fearing a cold exit, I opted for wading, relaxing my feet in the stream that emerged from the rocks. We ate breakfast there at the hot springs before driving to another series of lagunas set among the spectacular cones that dot the area.

That afternoon, the land cruiser dropped me off in another small settlement where a bus would take me to Chile. The rest of the group was returning with the land cruiser to Uyuni, but I was headed south into my next country.