A Travellerspoint blog

Abnormality is normal - the Afterthoughts

South America is a unique continent, at least the portion that I experienced. It gives you emotional high one minute and drives you absolutely crazy the next. The fact is that I have fallen in love with its culture and landscape and it does not involve any love potion from the witch market.

Picture Gallery -
Peru | Bolivia | Chile | Argentina | Costa Rica
(If you are interested to see more pictures, please send me a message or comment so I can email you the link to my online album.)

These are some of the reasons which may explain my strange addiction
(not in order):

1. Passion - especially when it comes to demanding any kind of rights relating to their lives. Strikes are common scenes. La Paz - Bolivian doctors complained about losing poor patients to Cuban doctors. Result: road blocks. Arequipa - public transportation drivers refused to pay extra tax to the local government. Result: angry crowds and hundreds of taxi and minibuses parked at the plaza.

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2. A thousand political candidates - Most South Americans are more political conscious than North Nmericans. You can predict their success by the sound system of the cars or minibuses covered with their posters. No need to go clubbing really.

3. Bus schedule, what bus schedule?

4. Chat explosion - You cannot find any internet cafes without 80% of teenages chatting online with someone. With Entel Punto at every corner, who need a phone?

5. Expats' philosophy - According to an American expatriot living in Rurrenabaque and sell delicious bakery every day to hungry backpackers, 'Da Vinci Code is Ridiculous'.

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6. Honking replaces stop signs at intersections - it works and save a lot of money on traffic lights. They can also act as the most effective alarm clock at 6 in the morning if your hostel room happens to be next to the street.

7. Local street markets - all kinds of vegetatable and fruits you have never seen, plus everything else you don't know you need. Bargain or not bargain?

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8. Creative ways to win customers - Have twenty women surround you, push you to the wall, talk to you non-stop in a foreign language for 10 minutes are just a few tactics to get you into their taxis in Sucre to go to Potosi for 35 bolivano ($4.5) at 6 in the morning if you are even awake for that shock. Or have hostel flyers waving at you like a dictionary when you are still waiting to get your 50 lb backpack out of the storage compartment from the bus in the middle of the night when you are half asleep.

9. Passenger Limit in public transportation - until the bus breaks down. The fact that you cannot breathe or your bladder is about to explode are not valid reasons to stop.

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10. Prohibido Ingresco Borracho al Trabajo. But chewing coca leaves is perfectly fine. By the way, the source of the coca problem is not the farmers who have been growing coca trees for many generations (for medical and other purposes) but the illegality of the refined end-product which creates substantial profit for the underground dealers.

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11. Five course meals for $3 plus free wine or pisco sour

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12. $5 hostel room with the perfect view of Lake Titicaca in Copacabana

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13. The Southern Cross, Milky Way and all the shooting stars - almost every night. If only half of my wishes come true, it is worth the entire trip already.

14. Donkey and sheep traffic jam - stay to the side of the mountains when a donkey pass by unless you like to know what it feels like hanging by a cliff. Watch your steps at all time.

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15. Official policy: No drug in our hostel unless we actually see it - Ever pass by a room in a hostel feeling like you should knock on the door and introduce yourself?

16. Electrocution in the shower - A few times are more than enough for this experience. If you are a licensed plumber, please inspect and fix the loose wires hanging on top of the shower heads in the hostels? Being dead naked in a hostel is the last way I like to end my life. Not good for tourism either.

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17. Temperature fluctuation in buses - 0C at night and 30C during the day. Add another 10C when the local sitting next to you have a bag of chicken constantly poking your behind or you are sitting on the engine.

18. Border crossings - I can fill out custom forms blindfolded now. Why is it a big deal when your birth country is different from your country of residence? Also, it helps to check the opening hours if you do not want to freeze up like an ice cube outside the office in the middle of the night.

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19. Smile and pay - Local kids are very business-savvy. If they cannot sell you anything in their hands, they will ask you to take a foto with them. Then you still have to pay up. Singing a song in bad English and doing flips on the road doesn't deserve to be paid (buses from Macchu Picchu to Angnes Caliente). Buying from or paying kids will encourage parents to take them out of school.

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20. Religous level - over the top! Churches and portraits of Jesus or Mary are everywhere. Most taxis have an altar in the front glass. Everything need to be blessed, even the cars. They even read fortune with coca leaves!

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21. Great street food - fresh cerviche, peanuts, corn on the cob with cheese plus everything cheap and delicious.

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22. Useless wax napkin - No wonder they are free

23. Act like a local, take your sunglasses off.

24. Wildbird stuck in the engine of a plane from a small airline with only one functional aircraft. You are stuck at the local village unless you like the adrenal rush by taking the public bus on the 'Most dangerous (& equally bumpy) road in the world' for 15 hours with more than a few episodes of wheels hanging over the cliff.

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25. Depository of all the leftover Toyota (or Toyosa) 4x4s in this world, and old mini school buses with Japanese characters on the body. Japanese cars do last forever! Maybe not the British train. (Enlarge photo below and note writing on the train body: Necesita un mechanico experiencia, urgenta!)

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26. No destination signs. One person yell out the destinations from the van and if it is yours, squeeze in with the other 30 people already inside. Concentrate during rush hour and be prepare to run across a 3-lane highway to catch your van.

27. Be careful when you have food in your hand in the vinicity of pigeons. They will jump on your lap. So will the squirrel monkeys when they see banana in your hand. If you worry about bird flu, stay away from this continent, at least the Ballesta Islands.

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28. The question 'Where are you from?' actually means 'What ethnicity are you?'

29. You got to go when you got to go - only if you have small change. Public toilets have operating cost too. Buy a lottery ticket if you find a free public toliet. Pay and make sure you get your receipt. Otherwise, try the back of a jeep in the dessert, shades in the jungle (if your bladder is more important than your behind getting ticks or mosquitoe bites, sometime both.)

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30. Cafe con Leche is made differently in different restaurants, towns and countries - it's hot milk with expresso comes separately (in Cusco), it's hot milk with instant coffee mix, it's powder milk and instant coffee mix, it's regular coffee with a shot of tonic on the side. No wonder there is no Starbucks. Ironically, they will never be able to make coffee as tasty, even with the beans imported from these countries.

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31. The soup - How can I ever forget the Queua soup? And all the great meals during the inca trail prepared by a chef who should own a 5-star Michellin restaurant. The purple potatoes that shaped like a worm, the slurpy but cunchy seeds of Granadilla and the sweet purple corn drinks. Plus all the food group is on one plate. (As far as the guinea pig, I can be an adventurous eater but when it comes to fond childhood memories, I rather not temper with it.)

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32. When you bump into other backpackers that you hanged out with before in another small town, you feel like you know them from home even though it may only be a few weeks ago.

33. Conversations are far more meaningful with other travellers than casual friends at home even with a few glasses of wine or beers. Most do not involve questions like 'did you hook up with anyone?' or 'what did you do last weekend?' But stay calm when you are the only one in the group not doing a RTW tour.

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34. Most local and gringo bars and restaurant play reggae, reggaeton, merengue and 80s pop music, except the trendy ones. Some may actually allow their customers to program the song list from the computers. Only once a Britney Spear song came up on the bus and I could not run from it.

35. If you try to use your limited espanol to ask questions or carry out conversations, chances are you would be answered with a lengthy response which with luck, maybe half of it is comprehensible to you.

36. When being asked why you are travelling solo or if you are married, which comes up quite frequently, lying may save you from answering some embarrassing questions.

37. The colors - almost no AIBs (army in black) on the streets, except tourists. Indigenous fashion deserves more attention.

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A few deeper thoughts:

38. Inequality exists even after you are dead, at least in Sucre, Bolivia - While rich families have hugh roman structure with marble pillars as their graves lining on two sides of the main path, middle class have ashes inside glass slots decorated with flowers on the wall, the poor simply have wooden crosses with thousands of others in the back of the cemetary. And if you are late on fees, don't be surprise that your love ones' remains being 'evicted' and getting toasted under the strong sun.

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39. The grandeur of nature - the roaring of the sacred Urubamba river and the Iguazu Falls (esp. at night with full moon), the spirituality of Machu Picchu and the Colca Canyon, the serenity of the jungle, pampas, mountains, valley and streams compliment with millions of stars, not to mention the Salt Flats, lagunas and the deserts.

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40. The spirituality of the indigenous - their respect for nature. Some aspects may seem superficial, as in many ancient religions, but the basic belief in their harmonic survival with the environment is something most city dwellers are lacked of. Not having to depend on the mountains for daily life, we compromise with the environment in terms of using cleaner fuel, recycling etc. But all these practices are simply medications not prevention.

It is, however, an inescapable fact that many towns are filled with leftover vehicles from the west, as if the only way for a better life is to sacriface the environment.

41. The inequality and living conditions of the poor - makes your problems in life seem insignificant. It seems that what Che felt more than 50 years ago -'the beauty of the landscape and the natural wealth of the land set against the poverty of those who work it. The nobility and generosity of the poor set against the mean and sordid spirits of the landowners and of those who rule the country.' still holds true somehow.

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42. All the special people I met and the friendliness of most locals - Using the most imaginative adjectives cannot describe my personal experience, only those who experience with me will truly understand and appreciate. Sharing my excitment and emotion with them makes this trip more worthwhile.

43. Last but not least - the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises in the most breathtaking landscape. See it for yourself HERE.

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My only regret is not to be able to spend more time in each town and to see more countries. Hopefully the day will come soon enough for me to go back to get another dose of the rest of this continent.

Posted by shinenyc 01:34 Comments (1)

Losing oneself in the gadget world

What a strange feeling after not using my mobile phone for the last two months and suddenly surrounded by people with ipod, mobile phones, laptop, blackberry etc... at the Miami airport. Not only do these people feel the need to be constantly 'in touch with the world', but they also think that everyone around them have to share their agitation by talking in such a volume as if the planes are actually taking off next to them.

No wonder yoga and meditation is increasingly popular in cities where people feel the need to escape and are willing to pay too much for it - all for the sake of 'getting in touch with yourself and your surrounding'. Maybe all they need is to turn off these gadgets once in a while and actually 'detox' their minds instead. Technology is great but it certainly should not be dictating our lives in a sense that we do not recognize ourselves anymore without the presence and constant bombardment of advertisements for the latest gadgets. What is the difference between drugs and these materialistic processions which does nothing but to give us a hallucination of our own self-worth?

I did not recall any museum exhibitions about Romans or Greeks discussing philosophy on their cell phones in the piazzas or indigenous tribes using computers for directions to expand their empires. Yet history had proved that people were much more in tune with themselves when they are close to the natural environment. It is when my evening companion is nothing but the tranquility of the mountains, the sound of the streams and millions of stars above, and my neighbor and roommates are animals and insects, that I feel the closest to myself. The precious moment of self-revelation that no yoga or meditation can achieve for me.

Life should be simple and enjoyable. Time after time I had encountered the most genuine and down-to-earth locals in my trip. The less they have, the more they give. Children on Uro (floating islands) say farewell to us by singing songs in at least 6 different languages including Japanese. Children from my host family on Amantani island displayed their gratitude after I gave them each a color pencil by holding my hands and trying to tickle me. While those in Parismina tried to teach me spanish with picture books, paint my nails, fetched me sme fruits that look like mashmellow from the trees and tried to read the page numbers from my novel. What more can I ask for?

Posted by shinenyc 23:57 Comments (1)

A city with no character

rain 20 °C

I don't mean to offend anyone who is fond of this semi-modern Latin America city. It is still a bit hard to justify my decision of a 35-hour of roundtrip bus ride from San Jose to Panama City. The city itself is certainly not as colorful and characteristic as many colonial towns that I visited in South America.

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As impressive as it is, the Panama Canal, the only waterway connecting the Pacific and Carribean Ocean, was built in the early 1900s and put into use around 1914. It is no doubt one of the most successful engineering achievement in the last century. Immigrants all over the world participated in the construction and resulted in the diversity of population nowadays. There are three set of locks to rise and lower different sizes of cruise and cargo ships. I visited Miraflores Lock, which is closest to downtown and saw the operation as a few cruise ships pass through. It only takes about 30 minute to go thru the two lowering gates at the Miraflores Lock for the gigantic cargo ship from Asia. According to the guide, the Panama canal makes about $1 million profit per day for this country.

If this is true, how can one explains such a big part of the city consists of ghetto/public housing, and other parts resemble Las Vegas in the 70s or Florida's tourist district? Which swiss bank accounts do these money really go at the end of the day? I walked aimlessly after getting off at 'cinco de mayo' plaza and wondered...

Why, when it rains, do all the windows in the local buses have to be closed to a point where the only reason suffocation doesn't happen is because the driver has to open the door once in a while to let people in? (And you still get wet from the water dripping from the roof of the bus) Why do local bus drivers blast reggaeton on their buses and cut lanes on the highways like they are driving tiny japanese race cars only with consist stream of black smoke coming out of the 10-feet high aluminium exhaust pipe? I struggled and struggled hard to find some kind of identity that defines Panama city, beside the famous canal.

There are good things that come out of all this: 1) movies only cost $2.50 (even the latest ones.) 2) McDonald hamburgers $0.79, with cheese. And last but not least 3) local buses $0.25 and 4) taxi $1.50 (still cannot beat Peru and Bolivia.)

Chances are if I stay longer, I may grow to like this city.

Posted by shinenyc 20:45 Archived in Panama Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Dinosaur of the Ocean

sunny 25 °C

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After a brief stay in Lima, I flew to Costa Rica for a week of volunteering at the beach of Parismina island. The two shifts of volunteers have to patrol 4 hours each every night mainly to protect sea turtle eggs from being stolen by poachers and sold in black markets.

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Barlomina, my host mother, lives in a wooden shack with two bedrooms. I stayed in one and the rest of the family stayed in the other. I immediately befriended the younger members of the family, as I always do. Everytime I attempted to read on the porch, they would surround me with the cutest laughter and playfulness so innocent that make me stop my reading and join in for the fun.

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Patrolling on the beach at night is not as romantic as I thought in the beginning. First of all, the pace was quite physically demanding. Secondly, we walked in complete darkness to avoid alarming the mother sea turtles which attempt to come on the beach to lay their eggs.

Sea turtles go back to dinosaur period. There are about 10 species of sea turtles in the world. The most representative, namely the Leatherback Turtle, chose to lay egg on the beach of Parismina island every year from March to June while green turtle from July to September. Research had shown that sea turtles usually return to their birthplace to lay eggs. However, no one has yet to figure out how and why. The rate of sea turtles have been decreasing at a rate of 20% per year. This alarming factor is mostly due to improper or illegal fishing method still practice by many which kill thousands of sea turtles, sea lion, dolphins and whales each year.

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To watch any birth process is enough to make anyone realize how precious life is. To observe this process of the oldest reptile in the oecan is to literally see tens of thousands of years of history condensing into a miracle. To witness eggs coming out from the tail of a six-feet long mother sea turtle in the moonlight, listening to its breathing and the sound of the waves is really a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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In one occasion, I had the opportunity to relocate over 100 large(fertile) and small eggs by putting these soft and warm 'tennis balls' into another 20-cm deep hole inside the hatchery. Another time, the mother turtle could not find 'her' spot after a while and went back to the ocean without nesting. Jason, the local patrol, had seen turtles mating on the beach, even threesome and male(possibly gay) turtle trying to nest.

The most satisfying moment came as we witnessed over 100 baby turtles climbing out of their nest in the sand and stumbling onto each other. They have been hatching under the sand for two months. (Temperature determines the sex of these turtles.) Knowing that only 1 out of 1000 baby turtles survive to adulthood, which takes over 30 years, I cannot help myself but to wish these little fellows good luck when they crawl towards the roaring ocean with their tiny arms and legs.

Posted by shinenyc 23:34 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The last rush

semi-overcast 20 °C

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My impression of buses in Peru had completed changed when I stepped into the executive class of a Ormeno bus at the Arequipa terminal to head for Nazca, where the famous Nazca lines are. After a first-class sleep, I visited a cemetary from the Nazca era about 700-800 years ago where mummification were used for bodies similar to the Egyptians. From there, like most other tourists who come to this uneventful town, took the sky to see the Nazca lines. Maybe it's the overhype of these lines in all the guidebooks or maybe it's the heat, although they are no doubt very impressive, I could not help myself but dozed off during the returning trip on the helicopter.

I had no time to waste. After a refreshing cerviches snack for lunch from a street vendor at the local bus terminal, I continued my journey north to Ica (a bustling town where the famous Pervian drink Pisco Sour came from). A nearby town called Huacachina has the world largest sand dunes. An hour of adrenaline sand buggy ride and watching the sun setting in the dunes made me forget all the problems in this world.

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From Ica, another hour of bus ride took me to Pisco, where I finally stayed overnight after visiting a local disco. One of the major reason most tourists come to Pisco is because of its nearby paradise for wildlife, namely the Ballesta's Island in Paracas, also nicknamed the 'Poor Man's Galapagos'.

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Of all the birds and wildlife I have seen on this trip in Bolivia, nothing prepared me to witness the consistent stream of birds hovering the cloudy sky like rush hour in any major cities in the world, only without traffic lights.

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Groups of sea lions lying on the rocks lazily, obviously used to the annoying tourists and their noisy speedboats. White guavo, or bird droppings, were all over these islands and used as natural fertilizers, one of the major income for this area. To come so close to these wildlife in their natural habitant in the pacific ocean is yet another eye-opening experience for me, a city girl, who quietly hope to lead a simpler life one day in a small town without the human pollution of materialism and greed.

Posted by shinenyc 18:44 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Trekking for the mind

sunny 10 °C

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A 5-hour bus ride took me from Puno to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru (some says Trujillos), which was independent from Peru until the 1880s. Another colonial town similar to Salta in northern Argentina and Sucre in Bolivia, Arequipa is surrounded by both active and sleeping volcanoes such as El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichi, therefore prone to frequent earthquakes with some of them devestating.

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All these landscape creates tremendous trekking opportunities especially inside the Colca Canyon, which is over 4000m deep, twice as the Grand Canyon. Over the 3-day tour with our guide tour, Edgard, and another German engineer (who actually works for Porsche), I had replaced my fear of downhill trekking by a surge of exiliration. Spending time with the mountain god, Apus (in Quechua), in this area is a spiritual experience. Edgerd not only explained the pre-inca traditions and beliefs by the villagers in the area, but ensured I was thoroughly haunted by his numerous spiritual encounters under the countless stars in the night sky with nothing but candlelight. We overnight at a village called San Juan de Cuccho. To satisfy my astrological curiosity, he introduced me to the proximity of the black hole within the Southern Cross and the Scorpion constellation.

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The next morning, we passed a few more villages such as Cosnirgua and Malata before reaching the 'Oasis' at Sangalle, three small resorts in the bottom of the mountains with swimming pools filled with refreshing mountain water. An energy lunch and short nap prepared us for the steep and long hike under the afternoon sun back up to the Cabanaconde village. The 3-hour uphill hike was comparable to the hike to 'Dead Woman Pass' at the Inca Trail and was equally satisfying. Watching sunset at the mountain top was definitely the best reward.

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Posted by shinenyc 17:28 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Washington, Clinton and mama Victoria

sunny 5 °C

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A short boat ride from Puno in Lake Titicaca, I arrived at Uro, the floating islands created by the descendants of Armaya which has more than thousands of years of history. These floating islands are primarily made of Totora Reed which look like a giant green onion (about an centimeter in diameter and actually eatable) which grow abundantly on the lake. Nowaday, the islanders have modern necessity, thanks to solar energy. Their way of life, however, is still quite interesting. For example, an effective way to resolve issues on these islands is to simply separate the islands if the families have an argument.

Another three hour boat ride took me to the island of Amantani, slightly smaller than Isle de Sol from the Bolivian side with some friendly local families. Me and another British couple was assigned by the local village chief (indicated by special costumes) to stay at Victoria┬┤s two-story house. Victoria, in her late 20s or early 30s, has four children. Her two sons are named Washington and Clinton.

The absence of any kitchen appliances did not hinder Victoria to make the most famous pervian qinua soup and the strangest-looking local potatoes. In fact, all ingredients are fresh from their farm including fresh coca leaves for our teas.

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After a satisfying lunch, we hiked up one of the two hills on the islands late afternoon to catch sunset which, I must say, better than the one on Isle de Sol. Miraculously, temperature dropped drastically once the sun disappeared and the alpaca hats that were neatly laid out on the sidewalk by the local women seemed very appropriate all of a sudden. I could not resist the temptation and hurried down the hill before darkness arrived as there is no electricity on the island.

At dinner time, I gave each of Victoria's children a color pencil, one that have multiple colors at the pencil tips. No word can describe the priceless look on their little faces. Their reaction to such a simple gift make me realize how western kids are spoiled rotten nowaday.

To make a complete fool out of the tourists, 'disco' was arranged by the locals for us. Victoria came into our room shortly after dinner with at least 10kg of local costumes and threw them around me and my British friends - a guranteed instant weight gain.
We laughed our half gringo and half traditional look as we walked cumsily to the salon.

With a local band playing at the stage, the next hour was more like an areobic class for us than anything else. The local dance was so repetitive and physical demanding that most of us tourists could hardly catch our breath after each song. Needless to say, we slept extremely well that night.

Early next morning, after 15 minute of emotional farewell to the children, we were finally able to walk out of Victoria's house and went onboard for Tarquile island. A bit more touristy than Amantani island, Tarquile island actually have installed solar panels in many areas, without destroying its beautiful cascading farm lands and paved stone path meandoring through the village. In addition, locals here have very different costumes than Amantani island, indicating their social status. Tarquile men walk around the main plaza knitting with needles and partially-completed hats or belts in their hands. Even colors in their costumes and spices used in the qinua soup between people from these two islands are different. We concluded our island tour after lunch (steamed or grilled kingfish from the morning catch) and a 500-step downhill walk to the pier.

Posted by shinenyc 19:34 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bussing through town to town

sunny 15 °C

Because of my tight schedule, my journey had prompted me to torture myself with long distance buses from one town to another within the last two weeks. Below is an account of my 95 hours of bus adventure:

Salta to Puerto Igauzu (Argentina) - 25 comfortable hours with cool movies and bingo

Puerto Igauzu to Tucuman (Argentina) - 21 semi-comfortable hours

Tucuman to Salta (Argentina) - 4 night hours with drunk thief next to me trying to strike conversation

Salta to La Quinica (Argentina) - 7 freezing overnight hours

Villazon to Potosi (Bolivia) - 10 torturing, bumpy, smelly hours with 30 other locals and indigenous women crapped in a local bus. Temperature rose at least 15 degree in a few hours.

Potosi to Sucre (Bolivia) - 2.5 hours in taxi with a great American guy, finally someone who can have great conversations with.

Sucre to Potosi (Bolivia) - 2.5 early hours in taxi with 2 women with babies and one local taking up half the back. After bombarded by a bee-like crowd of women at the taxi terminal grapping and snatching to get me into their company taxi.

Sucre to La Paz (Bolivia) - another 10 freezing hours next to an overweight man snoring non-stop like a personal orchestra performing for the head of states.

La Paz to Copacabana (Bolivia) - 4 hours sitting in the very back of the bus with 20 other israelis talking loud and laughing non-stop throughout the journey.

Capacabana to Puno (Peru) - 3 hours of finally normal bus ride, only the annoying guide trying to persuade everyone to stay in the hostel so he can get the commission.

Puno to Arequipa (Peru) - 6 unconscious hours with way too many people trying to sell you food at the stops.

Posted by shinenyc 18:58 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Colonialism and the Devil's Mine

sunny 10 °C

AWARD-WINNING DOCUMENTARY: THE DEVIL'S MINER (see trailer here)

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TO HELP REDUCE ILLEGAL CHILD LABOR IN POTOSI, PLEASE REFER TO THE FOLLOWING WEBSITE:
kindernothilfe | CARE | PBS

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'Have you encountered any anti-colonialism attitude when you are traveling in South America?' I asked my fellow Spanish groupmate during the mine tour in Potosi, Peru. 'Not particularly.' he said, 'It was generations ago. At least we didn't kill all the indians or indengious people like what the other Europeans did in Northern America and other parts of the world.'

It is true that when the Spanish conquistadors came to South America in 1532, they did not carry a killing spree. However, the reason behind this is not necessary a humane one either. The vast mineral resources in this part of the world is valuable enough to make the conquered race, in this case, the indengious people, to work in extremely poor conditions in the mines. I visited one of them called the Rosario mines in Potosi, the highest city in the world (over 15000 ft.)

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With over 8000 men currently still working at Rosario, and an unknown number of children, the condition remained unchanged. 'Tio', the underworld god, still worshipped by all the miners once they entered this dark and suffocating world, although they are mostly Catholics.

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Before entering the mines, we stopped by the local market to purchase dynamites and coca leaves which I had some myself to elevate the lack of oxygen effect. We first visited a processing factory with some miners resting outside and greeting us with their cheeks filled with coca leaves. The sign at the entrance says 'Prohibido Ingresco Barracho al Trabajo' (Do not enter workplace drunk).

Afterward, we drove uphill. Since all explosions are done after 6pm, our guide put a small bomb together with explosives from the market, positioned it about 100m away, then lit and ran off. The sound was quite deafening and some of us were really excited by the ease of getting explosives and actually trying it out.

Finally, we entered the mines with our gears and gifts with a tremendous curiosity which soon turned into nothing but respect for all the miners (whom we call 'maestros') who spend the entire day digging and transportating rocks underground in suffocating condition without any protective gears. Naturally, we had to pay our due to a 'bisexual' statue called 'Tio', hoping that he/she could give his/her blessing to the miners.

Although we did not encounter any child miner during this tour, our tour guide used to be one. Thanks to contributions by foreign organizations such as the ones mentioned above, he had the chance to learn English and now, at 21, making a living with tourism. I only hope that this trend will continue for their future generations. Many children was forced to work as early as age 10 when their fathers pass away (usually around 35-50) to support their families fully aware of the fact that the dust is extremely detrimental to their health.

Another heartbreaking experience witnessing the working and living condition of the unprivileged, in this case, most indigenous people in this once rich city and considered to be 'the town that made Europe rich' - Potosi.

Afterthought: Who are we to complain about our working condition? Or anything at all?

Posted by shinenyc 19:31 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Price to pay for

sunny 10 °C

After two weeks visiting rural Bolivia, it takes a little getting use to organized tourism and luxury buses in Argentina. Once my radar detect regular tourists, entire family and kids, from miles away, my feets would instinctly accelerate. Not only does my whole visit to the Iguazu Falls National Park on both the Brazilian and Argentina sides a realization that the price for modern convenience is extremely high, but also my willingness to pay for this price is quite reluctant. Maybe ultimately the answer is just a question of one's personality.

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My curiosity had again led me to venture out Puerto Iguazu, a small town on the Argentian side of the waterfall, and took a local bus to Brazil. Changing bus was challenging with my limited spanish, not to mention speaking portuguese. But riding the local Brazilian bus with a conductor sitting next to a roundabout collecting fare like in the 60s is a cool experience by itself. The waterfall on this side is a paranomic view. I managed to walk behind most of the 'tourists' and wait for sunset to descend on the falls.

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I spent the next afternoon visiting the Argentina side of the waterfalls which is much more touristy than I expected. A busload of school children's friday outing became my worst nightmare. These young stalkers had almost destroyed my entire experience of nature if not the constant noise of helicopters hovering around the national park despite of the scenic views from the upper and lower trails.

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Despite the negative experience during the day, tonight I joined the full moon tour with my backpacker friends and witnessed the most humbling sight in my life. Standing at the Devil's Throat and listening to the deafening sound of this waterfall made me completely forget how cold the night was and also, how insignificant one's life is compare to the power of nature.

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To complete the Iguazu experience, I, on the following day, soaked myself completely from head to toe by going under one of the falls on the 10-minute motor boat ride appropriately named, 'Nautical Adventure' and then dried myself under the lovely sun on San Martin Island next to a gecko family, the island guardians.

Posted by shinenyc 22:03 Archived in Argentina Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

One day in Chile

sunny 15 °C

What a relief! I can finally say goodbye to the bumpy roads in Bolivia and taste the sweetness of riding on a paved road again, in Chile, at least temporarily before heading back to Bolivia in a week.

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On the van to Chile, I met one German and two French women - not university graduates who dominate the backpacking league. It's quite a difference to exchange ideas with people who is over 30 and travel for the love of travel.

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Since I am only in San Pedro de Atacama for one day, Valle de la Luna is not to be missed. Landscape in northern Chile is nothing less than breathtaking as its counterpart in southern Bolivia. The hike in the sand to the top felt like forever when your feets slide back half a step for every one you made. But there is nothing to deter me for watching sunset at this unusual spot. I positioned myself in between rocks at the top of the maintain in order to not have sand for dinner. It was the windiest sunset I have experienced but definitely worth every second. The sun reflection on the moon-like landscape after setting was more than word can describe.

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Back to town, four of us had dinner and wine until wee hours before heading back to the rustic hostel we called home for the night. A good night sleep later, I said goodbye and headed for Argentina.

Posted by shinenyc 21:32 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A Visit to Outerspace

sunny 0 °C

From La Paz, a 10-hr bus ride on the unpaved Bolivian 'highway' took me to Uyuni, a southern highland town famous for its surreal landscape namely the Salt Flats and its surrounding lagunas.

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True to the claims, I felt more like an astronaut than a tourist in this journey into the 'unknown' during this three-day Jeep ride (if only my behind stop complaining about the grand massage it had to endure in the Toyota Landcruise.) I truly believe that Uyuni is the final resting place for all the rejected Toyota 4x4 from the western world. And nowhere else but southern Bolivia would a 'retired' 4x4 vehicle can be more appropriately used.

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Our young driver, Miguel, first took us to the train cemetery right outside town. These rusty 'corpse' was from some British train abandoned in this highland dessert decades ago. Afterwards, we visited the Chachina, where salt is actually extracted by workers, and the famous 'Salt Hotel' which is built entirely out of salt except the roof and is actually functional. Because of the limited space and resulted higher price, most tour operators choose not to provide this options to their customers.

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We moved on from the 'Salt Hotel' to the first outerspace sighting - the 'Fish Island'(Isla de Pescado) in the middle of the Salt Flats. We had a simple lunch next to hundreds of giant cactus on this island which has the shape of a fish. Imagination exploded after lunch when groups of young tourists tried to strike the most original poses for photos on the Salt Flat, with literally a line separating the cloudless sky and the snow white salt. We kept driving to part of this area with thin layer of water, allowing a perfect reflection of the sky. Yet among the beauty of this area, a tragic story was behind it, explaining the simple grave stood in the middle. A local Bolivian family was stranded and died right here at one time because of the extreme and unforgiving winter weather.

Scenery changed after leaving the Salt Flat. We drove up and down and around mountains of rocks next to volcanoes. Our jeep got bumpier with the increase ruggedness of the landscape and finally stopped in front of a motel-like settlement in a remote village called San Juan, the 'Neocropolis', according to the sign next to it. If this doesn't make me feel like Mars, then probably nothing would come close to it.

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Our room has six twin-sized beds lined up long one wall and one next to the door, and so I appropriately named it the 'seven dwarf dorm', only Snow White would not withstand the poor condition. Our group, however, consisted of two young British couples, one South African and an Indian-American, had great conversations over dinner and braved the night with our true backpacking spirit. I sneaked out after dinner to look for outerspace species in the sky but all I managed to find is the 'Southern Cross' before the cold conquered my curiosity.

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On the second day, we visited a few magnificent lagunas(lakes) with different characteristics. Laguna Colorado - famous for its red or rusty color, because of the algaes and plunkons in the water. And Laguna Verde - with its aqua color. Both attract different species of flamingoes all year long. I don't think Van Gogh can even come close to the perfect blending of colors that nature here create.

The condition of our 'dormitory' on the second night was even worse than the first night. With temperature dropping to below 0 C at over 4000m altitude, none of us had a decent sleep, fighting for the last bit of oxygen in the closed room while shivering in our sleeping bags on the concaved box-springed beds and one-inch thick pillows. Even the bad Bolivian wine does not help. The worse had yet to come.

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Getting up at 5 am in the morning with -10C outside with an absolutely disgusting shared bathroom is more than torturing. My nose was running like River Nile even with a million layers of clothes on from head to toe. We finally crawled into our Jeep with Miguel laughing at our spoiled tourist behavior. Obviously he is the only one that found frozen tourists in his jeep funny and drove in complete darkness to the geysers. None of us even attempted to move our facial muscle.

The geysers and the moon-like landscape, although more than impressive, did not wake us up. We were longing for the hot springs that came afterward. The brave souls bared off with nothing but their swimming suits in the subzero wind chill and jumped into the natural the springs. I managed to bare half and soak my feets to recirculate my blood stream before breakfast. What a heavenly feeling!

I said farewell to my group after seeing heaven and experiencing hell with them in the last few days. Miguel dropped me off close to the border between Bolivia and Chile with others awaiting. I would be taken across the border to a small Chilean border town called San Pedro de Atacama.

Check back for some amazing photos in a few days!!!!!

Posted by shinenyc 08:42 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Sacrifice my ass at the pampas

sunny 27 °C

MANY MORE PICTURES HERE http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/shinenyc/

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The original Amazonoa flight a week ago from La Paz to Rurrenabaque was cancelled because of bad weather. The flight on subsequent day was also cancelled. This time because of a condor stuck in the engine and had crash landed on a field. After two days of endless waiting at the airport, me and eight other people from American Tour decided to suffer a 18-hour minibus ride on the 'Most dangerous road in the world' to get to Rurrenabaque. The bus ride was torturing not only because of the unpaved, bumpy roads but also because our driver had managed to drive incredibly slow even for Bolivian standard. Since I had the 'luxury' seat up front next to him, there is a constant urge to threaten him to hand over the wheels so I can taste the excitement of driving on this road. Instead, I spent the entire night making sure that our driver was not sleeping at the wheels by providing him with water and cookies while trying to stay awake myself.

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Once we got to town, me and another British family took a 5-hour boat ride along River Beni to Chalalan Ecolodge, a small rustic resort famous for its ecotourism effort, located within the Madidi National Park and is one of the best place to see wildlife in South America. 15 years ago, the entire San Jose village in the Tacana communities, who lived another 3 hour upstream in the jungle, helped to build this ecolodge hoping to generate income for the village. Before that, the abundance of mahogany trees in this area were suffered from lodging by foreign companies. Nowaday, after the Madidi National Park was declared in 1998, the lodging had stopped and all the proceeds from tourism goes to this village, the only example in the area.

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Over the next few days, our guides, Sandro and Ivideo, who spoke decent english, took us into the jungle to observe birds and chase after wildlife. Little that I know that wild Macaws such as the Red & Green Macaws and Blue & Yellow Macaws always fly with their 'partners' in pairs. Around our lodges, we also witnessed large groups of wild pigs bathing in the mud, tucans and howler monkeys screaming at the top of their lungs, cappucin and squirrel monkeys with babies swinging from one tree to another tree looking for fruits. During our night walk, we managed to see a black mama spider with four babies crawling nervously under our headlights.

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The last morning of the ecolodge tour began with a 3-hour visit to the local San Jose village who was having a week long fiesta to celebrate their anniversary. We woke up around 5am, walked about 30 min in the dark jungle to the river and watched sunrise on the boat. With chickens and other animals running around freely on the unpaved roads, groups of villagers, who dressed up in colorful but really weird costumes, marched into the poorly-built church. Local musicians followed with traditional instruments. Local musicians followed with their traditional pipe instruments. A few drunk men who had been drinking from the night before, paraded within the crowds with bottles in their hands.

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The only cacausian man in town, a missionary or priest handed out candies to children after the mass. I only hoped that this is not his way of converting kids to Christianity, especially given the fact that dental hygiene and care is not among the top priorty for these people. The one hospital in town looked more like an abandoned building than a functional one. Of course, as tourists, we also have to make a fool of ourselves by learning how to play their instrument and dance with the locals.

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After the visit to the San Jose village, we went back to Rurrenabaque, before heading to the pampas the following day. The town centre is almost completely filled with backpackers from Israel and England. Restaurants, tour companies, call centers and pubs with karaokes sprouted up in every corners to accomodate their needs. Local people around still live in extreme poverty. One good thing does come out of this picture: no Starbucks or any foreign fastfood places. Macdonald actually closed down because of bad business in Bolivia!
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The next day, a 3-hour bumpy and dusty jeep ride took me and two other british girls to a very simple lodge next to the massive marshland area in river Yucama. Diter, our guide from Bala Tour, who spoke very limited english took us up and down the river for the next couple days. Birds in South America is to animals in Africa. We saw countless varieties of large birds such as herons, egrets, southern screamer, snail kite, caracara up close etc. That night, we braved ourselves to the army of 'hardcore' mosquitoes in the river and went for a cayman (alligator) search. A baby cayman was spotted and we blinded him with our head torches and flashlight. Needless to say, within 10 minutes, we were all cover with mosquitoes bites. Some had miraculously bitten through my clothings and layers of repellent in my ass!

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Highlight of the pampas tour had to be the feeding of squirrel monkeys. Only the size of a football, these little creatures jumped on our boat even before it parked and started grapping banana off my palm. Some do line up politely showing off their cuteness but others just care less. I only hope that my camera battery had not run out. On the last morning, we went for a 4-hour stroll along the marshland looking for anacondal but returned with no luck, only their shredded skin. After lunch, we were taken back to town on a grandpa jeep and had ourselves covered with nothing but sand from head to toe by the time we arrived. I must have hit my head numerous time at the window bar while dozing off on this bumpy road.

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Abnormality rules in terms of transportation here in Bolivia. There are so many excuses for delays and cancellations, ranging from strikes to broken engines etc. While waiting for the Amazonoa flight to return to La Paz, I encountered an American man, in his 60s with white hair, who had been living in Rurrenabaque for 11 years and making a living by selling pastry on a golf cart every morning to backpackers and locals. What make me start a great conversation with him was the banner on top of his cart, stating that 'The Da Vinci code is ridiculous'. Originally from New York City, he moved to Rurrenbaque because he was tired of the modern governments trying to create a 'New World Order' using religions, virus causing worldwide diseases and technology and disregarding human life in the process. I have to admit that these conspiracy theories do make sense sometimes if it is placed in the proper context.

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Posted by shinenyc 16:55 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

The two extremes: Isle de Sol and La Paz

sunny 10 °C

DSCF0145_sml.JPGFrom Copacabana, I took a boat to Isle de Sol (Island of the Sun) legendary where the sun was borned. The boat ride took longer than expected but once we stepped on the island, our impaticence was immediately replaced by the serenity and view of the long stone steps with an equally high inca water fountain leading up to Yumani, where the hostels are.

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I managed to share a triple room with Jena, the girl from Norway and Christopher from Qecbec for 20 boliviano ($2.5) each with a lake view at a hostel with the two cutest puppies which cannot be stay apart from each other. We spent the next hours trekking to an inca ruin called Pilko Kaina which is thought to be constructed by an inca emperor. We then headed back to our hostel and being a sunset addict, I decided to walk to the other side of the island for this daily miracle.
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With a hot cup of coca tea in hand, I used my broken spanish to bargain with the local girls for a bracelet while trying to enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains in the far end. However, with altitude over 4000m, the freezing temperature did not allow me to stay long. The night is best to be spent with a trout dinner, famous from Lake Titicaca. We met another couple from Paris and one of them is a physicist/astrologist. My immediate instinct was to ask him to identify the endless number of stars in the sky. Saturn and the Southern Cross were distinctly visible with a bright cloudy strait similar to the milky way. We could not help but admire the universe in unison despite of the freezing cold for a good half hour before heading to bed.

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The next morning, I woke up just in time for sunrise, something not to be missed especially on this island 'where the sun was borned'. The stone path leading down to the lake already had heavy donkey traffic. The ray slowly emerged from behind the snow mountain and suddenly I saw an extremely bright circle almost blinded me.

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After breakfast, I took the morning boat back to Copacabana and another bus to La Paz, the highest city in the world. La Paz shaped like a bowl, with downtown in the valley and surrounded by suburbs on the mountain. For a second, I thought I was in New York with rush hour traffic, students, office workers in suits and indengious women passing me by on the busy street. After stopping by my tour agent office for the jungle trip to Rurrenabaque, I stopped at the '100% Natural' for dinner, sipping a mixed fruit juice with milk and watching a soccer game between Argentina and Brazil over a delicious and ridiculously cheap chicken salad.

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The flight to Rurrenabaque was cancelled due to bad weather. So I spent the day visiting Valle de la Luna which is an area about 30 min from La Paz with very special rock formation. Afterwards, I strolled through the famous Witches Market.

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Posted by shinenyc 11:08 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Sunset over Lake Titicaca

sunny 10 °C

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I took a night bus from Cusco, stopped at Puno and arrived at Copacobana, Bolivia on Sunday morning. Crossing the border was relatively easy. Lining up at the Pervian immigration office to get an exit stamp, then walking across the border and getting the entrance stamp from the Bolivian immigration.

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About 8km from the border, Copacabana is a nice beachfront tourist village around Lake Titicaca at 3800m high. The water is so cold that swimming is impossible. On sunday, the beach is filled up kayaks and water bicycles for local and tourists. The village itself is very touristy with restaurants, cafes, and jewelery street vendors lined up on the main street with local market and churches surrounding the main plaza. Since the majority of tourists are backpackers here, the village seems to have numerous reggae lounges to accomodate the freestyle and nomadic theme.

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Bolivia's living standard is the lowest in the entire south america. You can get a complete 5-course dinner here with free wine for under US$3. What a bargain! I met and shared a room with a girl from Netherland. For only 40 bolivian ($5) each, we had a room with private bath facing the lake.

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To complete the day, we hiked up Cerro Calvario to watch the famous sunset of Lake Titicaca. The hike was quite tough but the reward was well worth it. The clouds stretched out endlessly on the horizon creating the most beautiful watercolor painting. Only if I can just frame it and take it home with me.

Posted by shinenyc 08:48 Archived in Bolivia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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