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Copacabana

Our first stop in Bolivia, after crossing the Peruvian border, was Copacabana. This small town is situated on the banks of lake Titicaca and is considered a local summer resort area. As such, we were expecting a pretty little place to relax in for a day or 2 before moving onwards.

We arrived by bus from Puno, Peru which took us about 3 hours in total, including the border crossing. As we came into Copacabana we were given a leaflet by the bus company for the Hotel Mirador and were told we were entitled to a discount, as they had some sort of partnership going. We decided to take a look and as they offered us a large room with direct lake views and breakfast for 80 bolivianos per night, we decided the price was ok and took it for the night.

Copacabana - view onto the lake Titicaca from the room

The town, unfortunately, is quite littered and was a bit of a disappointment, especially the lake area where the “beaches” are little more than just dirty gravel.

However, if you happen to arrive on a Sunday like we did, its worth taking a stroll around the colourful market and visiting the fairly impressive, white-walled basilica with colourfully tiled domes.

Copacabana - the basilica

What makes this place especially interesting is the dark chamber-like side chapel of the Virgen Morena, where people come to light candles and use the wax to leave messages and prayers on the walls. It makes for a strange and slightly surreal setting.

Copacabana - the chapel of the Virgen Morena

If you happen to be here at the weekend you can also see the locals kitting out their cars with flowers and ribbons and leaving them outside the basilica to be blessed. Something that makes more sense once you have experienced Bolivian driving first-hand!

Copacabana - decorated cars to be blessed outside the basilica

The other nice place we found was at the top of the Cerro Calvario, next to the lake. It offers panoramic views across lake Titicaca and is a good place to watch the sunset. However, it is a steep climb made even worse by the high altitude, but if you can do it then its definitely worth it. Just ensure you leave enough time to get to the top for the sunset. As a note it’s also worth taking a jacket as it gets pretty cold once the sun sets.

Copacabana - sunset over lake Titicaca from Cerro Calvario

In the end we only stayed the 1 night in Copacabana as we felt there wasn’t much there for us. We bought bus tickets for the next morning heading to La Paz, with the aim of going straight to Coroico.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Puno, Lake Titicaca and the Uros Islands

From Cuzco we took a direct overnight bus to Puno, which unfortunately arrived at around 4.30am. We had pre-booked the Quechuas backpackers hostel in Puno, so we took a taxi for 5 soles and arrived at what looked like a very closed hostel. After ringing the bell and waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the door finally opened and we were shown to a lovely room where we were instructed to just rest and check-in later. Feeling grateful and in need of some sleep we went straight to bed for a few hours.

The hostel turned out to be one of the best ones we stayed in during our trip. The owner was lovely and helpful, the price included breakfast and free tea/coffee all day and to top it all off, whereas some places would have charged us an extra night for the early check-in, Quechuas, gave the night and breakfast for free!

We planned to stay only 2 days in Puno, as the town itself is fairly small and there isn’t much to see outside of the lake. Also, as it’s a touristy place the food prices are quite high, although we were lucky enough to find Govinda, a set vegetarian lunch place for only 6 soles each.

There a few trips that you can do around Lake Titicaca, including the famous floating Uros Islands, Taquile Island and Amantani Island. We opted for the half day trip to the Uros, and in all fairness you don’t need more than half a day to see them.

I had done this tour back in 2008 and remember it as a fairly peaceful trip with not too many people around. It had had tourists but not hoards of them, and so I was looking forward to taking the trip again with my partner.

We discovered that you have 2 options to see the floating islands, the easy option is to book a tour for around 25 soles each, which includes all your transport and a guide. The second is to go to the port and buy a return ticket to the islands and pay the entry tax. Although, I am not sure as to how you would navigate from island to island if you wanted to.

For simplicity’s sake we took the tour. We were picked up at from the hostel at 8am and went to the dock to board our boat. Once everyone had arrived we headed off to the floating islands. The boat ride is around half an hour and the lake is so calm that you don’t feel like you are on water.

Lake Titicaca: on the way to the floating Uros islands

There are around 60 small islands in total, with 40 odd being located within easy reach of the tour boats. The people from Uros have adapted their way of life to cater for the tourists and a large part of their livelihood now comes from tourism. As a result the tour boats are evenly spread between the islands, with each one receiving 1 – 2 boats per day.

Lake Titicaca: approaching the floating Uros islands

Lake Titicaca: the floating Uros Islands

Each island has its own mini community with a leader and a few families. The women tend to make textiles and the men work on handicrafts and each island has its own little market of handmade goods.

Lake Titicaca: a community in the floating Uros islands

When you first arrive at your designated island you are greeted by the inhabitants and shown how they live, how the islands are formed, what they eat and how, at the markets, they exchange their goods such as fish for fruit and vegetables, which they are unable to grow. Although very much catered to tourists, the explanations are interesting and give you an insight to their heritage.

Lake Titicaca: floating Uros Island presentation

Once over you are invited to see inside their houses and even try on some clothes. You then have the option to pay 10 soles extra for a short ride in their reed boat to a main island. Alternatively, you can just get back on your boat as it has to go there anyway…

The main island I can only describe as hideous. It is almost looks like a floating commercial centre with small bars, restaurants and gift shops. It is totally out-of-place and must be new as I do not remember this from my last trip.

Unfortunately, the Uros islands are now far more tourism orientated than my last visit, so much so that each island seemed to have a boat located on its side. Although I understand the communities’ need for tourism I feel it is going too far and they are turning their pretty little islands and themselves into circus shows. A real shame as it used to be a lovely tranquil place….

Lake Titicaca: reed boat on calm waters

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Huacachina Oasis

From Pisco we decided to go and visit the oasis of Huacachina, located next door to Ica. We took a bus with Soyuz for 4 soles each and an hour later we arrived in the city of Ica. From the bus terminal we jumped into a taxi for 7 soles and were in Huacachina less than 10 minutes later.

We had been referred to the Salvatierra hostel and after taking a quick look we checked in for the night. We then headed out to take a look the oasis. Unfortunately, we were not overly impressed with what we saw. We knew it was going to be small, but we had not expected it to be that small!

Huacachina oasis - view from sand dunes

There is basically one road around the very small lake where most of the accommodation and restaurants can be found. From here there are literally a couple of small side roads and that’s it. The whole thing is pretty as it is surrounded by huge sand dunes, but to the say the lake area is a “summer resort” is really pushing it. Another thing that hit is how unclean the lake area is, we saw bottles floating in the water and the old changing room area is littered and smells.

Huacachina oasis

On the plus side, if you climb the dunes you get views across the desert and if you make it up to the top for sunset you can experience the sun setting over the oasis and surrounding sand dunes, which is really pretty.

Huacachina - desert around the oasis

Huacachina - sunset over sand dunes

We stayed the night as we had already paid but to be honest the whole thing can be done in a  couple of hours, including a lunch. There are 2 activities that you can do in Huacachina, sand boarding and taking a ride in a dune buggy. Again you could easily incorporate these activities as a day trip.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Quilotoa Crater Lake

On our third day in Latacunga we booked ourselves onto a day tour of the Quilotoa crater lake. The day trip was again $35 per person and the schedule was the same as per Cotopaxi, pick up at 8am and return back by 5pm.

The tour itself is made of a couple of stops along the way, the first of them being the small and incredibly quiet town of Pujili. We stopped for only 10 minutes to take a quick look around the main square and learn about the style of architecture used, and the rope powered Swiss tower clock which chimes every 15 minutes.

Pujili - main plaza

Following this we carried on along a beautiful road through the mountains with stunning scenery, until we arrived at another pit-stop; the traditional houses of the indigenous people. We were shown a couple of the thatched houses that were dotted along the road and then invited to see the inside of one. However, what we came across was hard to accept.

Settlement near the main road between Pujili and Zambaua

Outside the house lay 2 near starved to death dogs and a wild falcon with clipped wings, in what can only be described as a triangular hand-made cage, which barely gave the powerful bird any space to manoeuver. It broke my heart to watch this majestic bird desperately trying to free itself from the cage. When I asked the guide why the bird was there, he replied that they had managed to catch the bird to display it for tourists who came to visit. In that instance I decided to not partake and turned off my camera and went back outside to wait for the others, needless to say without leaving a “donation” for the owners.

Our journey carried on until we reached the market town of Zumbaua, as it was a Saturday our visit coincided with the market. However, this was not a type of market I had come across before. At first it seemed pretty standard with the usual fruit, vegetable and clothes but as we wandered to the other side we stumbled across what can be best described as an animal cemetery.

Zumbaua - saturday market

The streets were littered with animal bones, and not just your usual chicken bones and odd steak bones, but rather half skull bones with teeth still attached. The smell of dead animals was also strong and everywhere you looked you could see hungry dogs chewing on animal skulls. Personally, I would not recommend this market for this reason and for the fact that it is not of any particular interest.

After a good half an hour of slowly being led through the market we moved onwards again to the view-point for the beautiful Rio Toachi Canyon. Apparently the biggest in Ecuador, the canyon has depths of up to 150 metres, and if you are feeling brave enough you can walk right to the edges of the ridges in the centre and feel as if you are flying above the canyon!

Rio Toachi canyon - panorama

Rio Toachi canyon - viewing point

After taking a few photos we finally headed off to our final destination; Quilotoa crater lake. Once parked we were led up the path to the view-point and were then told to stop and close our eyes. The guide then led us the last few metres with our eyes shut. When we reached the fence we were told to open our eyes, and were met with this amazing sight!

Quilotoa - the crater lake panorama

The whole of the crater is filled with amazingly blue-green water and from the view-point you can see all the way around the crater. When you do the tour you can choose to either do the standard descend down to the lake and hike back up, or you can opt to walk around the crater which takes around 6 hours. The one thing to bear in mind though is that the crater rim is at 3850 metres altitude and that does take a toll on your system.

I was not feeling up to doing either option as I was feeling the after effects of climbing Cotopaxi the day before, therefore I decided to just do a short walk by myself part of the way round the crater while my partner went down to the lake and back.

Quilotoa crater lake view from path

When he returned he said the views from the lake where not as impressive as from above, whereas the short walk I took I thoroughly enjoyed as the views from the rim are remarkable. I just wish I had been feeling well enough to do the circuit as I imagine it to have been truly worthwhile.

Nevertheless, the crater view-point offers everyone the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful surroundings, and when you have had enough of the cold wind you can pop into one of the nearby hosterias for a hot tea!

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Cerro Chato

Whilst in La Fortuna we decided to hike up to Cerro Chato, the now inactive older brother of Arenal volcano. Located next to Arenal it offers views of its brother and a crater lake to swim in. The entrance to the trail is located next door to the Rio La Fortuna waterfall and starts through the grounds of the hotel.

We were warned that the hike is quite steep and would take about 2 hours to get to the top, once there we would have to descend for around 15 minutes to reach the actual crater lake but that the views are worth it. So off we went.

The first part of the hike, through open fields, was a little slippery but manageable. Once past the first viewing point it started to get quite steep and as it had rained a fair bit over the last few days it was incredibly muddy.

Cerro Chato: viewing point

After about 45 minutes we reached the start of the forest. The weather at this point was not looking too good but we were hopeful that it might pass. This part of the trail was a lot harder the incline was higher and there weren’t any real steps in place. The few that were there were incredibly high, at least so for me. At 5′ 2″ it felt more like an SAS assault course rather than a hike with mud holes to jump over, giant roots to scramble up and rocks to climb over.

Cerro Chato: forest path

Just as we reached the second view-point and realised the weather was not going to clear it started to rain, being determined not to miss out we put on our waterproofs and carried on.

2 hours later, covered in mud and wet we reached the summit and the last part of the hike – the descend to the lake. If I had thought that the going was tough before than this was a whole new level! The “steps” were so steep in places that I literally had to jump down ledges.

Cerro Chato: climb down to the lake

By now I was rather annoyed with the hike and hoped the lake would be worth it after all. As we reached the lake we realised that there was no chance of seeing more than a few metres across it, let alone seeing Arenal. The clouds were so low that your only view was of grey clouds.

Cerro Chato: crater lake with no view

Needless to say by this point we were cold and soaked through and so decided to not hang around but instead try to head back to the warmth of the car.

The journey back was even more treacherous as the rain made the rocks and roots extremely slippery. By the time we got back out of the forest the rain had let up a bit and was now just a drizzle.

After about an hour and a half we finally arrived back at the car, luckily we had bought a change of clothes as we had planned to go swimming in the lake so we quickly changed and had our lunch in the car just in time for the heavy rain to start again.

I am sure that in dry conditions the crater lake offers beautiful views and a lovely swimming spot but if its looks like there is a chance of rain don’t bother as the hike is really not worth it if the views aren’t there. Also be prepared for a challenge!

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Laguna de Apoyo

A short 30 minutes drive away from Granada is the pretty crater lake of Apoyo. The easiest way to get there and back is via the shuttle service offered by Hostel Oasis in Granada which takes you to the Paradiso hotel at the lake. You can choose to either visit the lake as a day trip or stay overnight.

Laguna de Apoyo: Paradiso hostel

There are plenty of places to stay at the lake and if you want to stay elsewhere you can also get to the lake by a combination of bus and taxi. The bus will drop you off at the entrance and then either take a taxi or local car to the actual lake, a further 3 km away from the main road.

If you want to relax for a few days then stay there but if you just want to see the lake then a day trip is probably enough as each resort has its own dedicated area along the lake and outside of that there is nothing much to do in the area.

Laguna de Apoyo

The lake has sulphur and other minerals which makes it good for keeping mosquitos away allowing you to relax without the need for bug spray. The water itself is generally warm to ridiculously hot in some places, and with virtually no waves it is an ideal place to swim.

View of Laguna de Apoyo

If you opt to take the day trip with Oasis then your $6 entrance fee to the lake is included in the $12 price ($10 if you’re staying at the hostel), plus you also have free kayak use at Paradiso which makes it pretty good value.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Lago de Atitlan

Lago de Atitlan, located a couple of hours from Antigua, can be easily reached by local buses although a change is needed at either Los Encuentros or Chimaltenango. It is also a lot cheaper to get there by bus then by shuttle.

The lake itself is dominated by 2 large volcanos on the southern side, San Pedro and Toliman and 7 main towns around the lake. Panajachel being the largest offers a good base for seeing the other towns, which are easily reached by water taxi.

Lake Atitlan: view of the San Pedro volcano, peak 3000m

We spent 2 nights in Panajachel to see both the town itself which has an extensive arts and crafts market and to visit San Pedro de la Laguna and Santiago Atitlan.

Panajachel: women in traditional clothing

In each town you visit you are greeted with various markets, each selling something slightly different to the last. Various Mayan communities with different traditional clothing still worn today by both women and men can also be seen throughout the towns, bringing bursts of colour to the mountainous surroundings.

Santiago Atitlan: men in traditional clothing

The main transport system around the towns is done by tuk-tuks which are inexpensive and will take you anywhere around town for about 5 quetzales, the plus side being they squeeze anywhere!

San Pedro: tuk-tuk in the narrow sidewalk

We noticed that as younger drivers are taking over the tuk-tuk business each vehicle seems to have received a face-lift from their new owners; from paint work and extra side exhausts, to fake flames along the side and flashing LED lights at night. They really are an amusing sight in the backdrop of the Mayan world.

Panajachel: pimped out tuk-tuk

During our day trip of the lake we found that each town had a particular characteristic to it. The main town Panajachel seemed more of a bustling hub with its crafts market, a surprisingly extensive range of imported products in the supermarkets, and central links back into Guatemala.

Santiago Atitlan although smaller in size and seemingly carved into the volcano with its extremely steep roads also offered large markets but with more of an authentic feel to it, in part helped by seeing so many Mayan people in colourful traditional clothing.

Santiago Atitlan: market stalls near the dock

Whereas San Pedro, although pretty, seemed to be taken over by American ex-pats, so much so that the whole side-walk felt something like Placencia but without the coastline. To us the whole area felt disconnected to the Mayan side of town and although pretty we felt it did not really belong in the town.

San Pedro: sidewalk

During our crossing from Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan we learned from a local that all the towns in the lake had suffered serious damages along their beachfront caused by increased rainfall during the last 2 years.

Santiago Atitlan: former buildings now under water

So much so that we found former docks and buildings submerged underwater in all 3 towns. However, the frightening part is that authorities reckon that the water levels will continue to rise over the course of the next 10 years, to the point of taking out all the lower level buildings, forcing people to re-locate further up.

San Pedro: beach area now under water

It is a sad thought to think that in a decade up to half of these lower level villages and towns could be lost to the lake. And even sadder to know that they are not receiving aid to help them re-locate.

San Pedro: former dock now under water

Unfortunately, when in Central America you are never far from a poverty related story that reminds you just how hard life still can be on this beautiful side of the world.

Lake Atitlan: sunset over the lake

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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