Otherworldly Uyuni

There are some places on earth that feels like an other world, like you’ve left earth and gone somewhere else. The Salar de Uyuni (salt flat of Uyuni) is one of those places and is somewhere we knew we wanted to visit. We’ve seen so many spectacular photos from other travelers and many we’ve met touted it as the highlight of their trip. The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world with an area of 10,582 square kilometers. It is located in the Bolivian Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,656 meters. The depth of salt ranges from a few centimeters to several meters.

Zen

We decided to book a 3D/2N tour with Red Planet Expeditions after reading a lot of reviews on different tour operators on Tripadvisor. Red Planet didn’t have all excellent reviews, but they didn’t have any reviews talking about drunk drivers or other big turn-offs either. Reading reviews of the different tour operators suggests there is a fair amount of drunk drivers in the Uyuni.. We’re not sure how big a problem it is, but we didn’t want to end up with any of them.

The tour started with a quick visit to the antique train cemetery in , where several trains were abandoned in the 1940s following an end to the mining in the area. It is like a ghost town of trains, and the artwork on some of the trains enhanced the creepy feeling. We’d love/hate to visit it at night.

Train conductor on a ghost train

Horror train

After a 20 minute drive we started to see the immense white salt flats in front of us. It is blindingly white with only some small cones of salt breaking the perfectly flat landscape. The cones are the first step in the process of extracting the salt, as it needs to be dried in several stages. We learned about how to extract the salt from the people in Colchani, a small village nearby with only about 25 families, all living of harvesting salt. Much of the salt ends up as table-salt, but there is probably bigger business in using the salt for removing ice on roads and extracting lithium for batteries. Unfortunately for Bolivia they mostly export raw material and don’t have the technology yet to refine it for more advanced products.

Salt reflections

Then it was time to head into the actual salt flats. We drove out to a point where we could take all the typical cheesy photos, a place where it is really flat in order to get the fun perspective distortion in the photos. It is actually so flat satellites use it to calibrate their trajectory. Taking the pictures was a little difficult because everything had to line up properly, but it was a fun thing to do. We visited Incahuasi Island which is a coral island filled with cacti, some of them several hundred years old. The whole area used to be underwater, which is why there is a coral island there.

On the tripod

Kiss kiss

Big cactus

Day two we visited several lakes. Most of the lakes are filled with flamingos (although not as pink as we hoped for) which opened for excellent photo opportunities as we could get quite close to some of them. Mathias sneaked around with hunched back in the straws as not to scare them away, just as we learned in the jungle. One of the more special lakes was Laguna Colorada, which is a red lake colored by iron. We also saw some interesting rock formations (rocks shaped like trees!) and volcanoes on the way.

A flamingo

Layers of colors

Mathias on his stone

Tuva and the stone tree

The place we stayed at the second night was just 100 m from a hot spring pool, where we went down after dinner to lay in the pool looking at the stars in the sky. There was practically no moon so the night sky was incredibly clear with several shooting stars as well. It was freezing in the air, and the water at 38C was soooo nice. The next morning we were met with 20-something tours going for a morning bath and it seemed quite crowded compared to what we had the night before. A nice touch from Red Planet.

The milky way

The final day we drove to the Chilean border (most of the people on the tour were continuing to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile), letting us sneak over the border for some quick shots before heading back to the village of Uyuni. On the ride home we drove through the Altiplano, seeing lots of llamas, vicuñas, and even some ostriches. It was mostly a transport leg, but we did stop for some photos on the way.

All in all we were quite happy with the Red Planet tour, although we have to say that the English guide wasn’t all that we hoped for. We paid a premium price for a tour with English guide and we literally had to drag the information out of him. He knew quite a lot, he just wasn’t that keen on sharing it. From the second day he made sure to go straight over to us an explain what was about to happen and answer our questions as it seemed that we were the most interested in the tour group. Also, the food we got served was pretty mediocre and we had expected better.

Apart from the guiding and the food the guides and drivers were really nice people and we felt totally secure the whole time. The itinerary was very good and we saw a lot in 3 days without it being overcrowded with other tourists, thus we would recommend Red Planet to other travelers with these few remarks. The trip itself lived up to our expectations and Uyuni is a must-do when travelling to Bolivia, just make sure you go with a good company!

Cars in the desert

Posing by the green lagoon

A llama

Salt desert jeep

Shadows in the salt

Interesting stone

Flamingos fighting

No fly zone

Mirror mirror

Thermal pools and the Milky way

See more from our tour of the Uyuni, lagunes and the rest of Bolivia here.

Puno and the floating islands of Lake Titicaca

On the border between Peru and Bolivia you find Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and the largest lake in South America. Puno is the biggest town on the Peruvian side and a gateway to tours of Lake Titicaca’s islands (Taquile and Amantani are the most popular) including the artificial, floating islands made of reed (Uro islands). The people on the Uros have lived on floating islands for about a thousand years!

A tiny floating island

We stayed in Puno three nights, mostly because Mathias was sick (..again, but this time it probably was the restaurant the first night in Puno), so the only things we did other than laying sick in the room was visit the floating islands and strolling around Puno a bit.

We have to say that the floating islands, although interesting to see, definitely feel very touristy. We were met by a local guide who gave us a quick, well-rehearsed speech about the islands before urging us to buy souvenirs. Next we “cruised” to the main island in a reed boat where we could buy more souvenirs or lunch.

Our guide on the floating island

Inhabitants of the islands

All in all it wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, but it’s definitely interesting that they live on islands made entirely out of reeds! We also learned that they needed to put on new reeds every 15 days and continue doing so for 20 years before they needed to build a new island. The fact that we paid almost twice the price necessary (we hadn’t researched it enough beforehand) for an “all inclusive ticket” that didn’t cover certain unexpected charges on the island (such as the reed boat cruise) may have contributed to lowering our total experience..

Quechua

Handicrafts and souvenirs

Lake Titicaca is a very beautiful place, though very touristy (on both sides of the border). Even so, if you go a little outside the main tourist streets you see the locals living their normal lives: the women in the funny Bowler hats; sheep, chicken and alpacas for sale; and boys hauling mountains of eggs to the market on some very heavy wagons.

The next day we took the scenic route around the lake via Copacabana (the Bolivian main town) to La Paz, and if we’d had more time we would have stopped some days in Copacabana as well, as it seemed a bit smaller and more idyllic than Puno.

Woman with traditional bowler hat

Pimped out mototaxi

Tuva looking out

Find more pictures from Puno, the floating Uro islands and the rest of Peru here.

A little detour to Arequipa and Colca Canyon

We weren’t actually planning on going to Arequipa, but after several people highly recommending it despite the extra 10 hour busride, we decided we had to check it out.

On top of the world!

Arequipa is a large colonial city with charming streets, a pigeon-filled main square and the large Santa Catalina monastery which is like a city within the city and definitely worth a visit. It’s called “the White City” because of the white lava stone used for many of the buildings. We only spent 2 nights here which we found to be enough as we weren’t really that charmed by the city. We spent our days mostly strolling around town.

Plaza de Armas

Silencio

We decided that we needed to try “cuy” which is fried or grilled guinea pig (marsvin) – this is a typical dish in the Peruvian highlands and a favorite of many local people we talked to. It had a really nice, crispy skin, but it was a struggle to get to the good meat as these little guys aren’t especially muscular. It was an interesting experience (tasted almost like chicken), though we probably won’t eat it again – it is just so unappetizing with the whole body right there in front of you, not to mention that it is really difficult to find enough meat to get full.

Sceptical

From Arequipa we booked a tour to the Colca Canyon. The drive from Arequipa to Chivay in the Colca Valley (where we spent the night) took us past hoards of alpacas and their wild and beautiful relatives the vicuñas, beautiful scenery and an altitude of 4910 meters (that’s almost twice the height of Galdhøpiggen, Norways highest mountain!).

The Incas had one of their food production areas in the Colca Valley and they would walk all the way from Cusco to spend the harvest season in the valley before walking back with the produce! The whole valley is filled with pre-Inca stepped agricultural terraces, most of them still in use by the local farmers.

On the road

Vicuñas grazing

Terraces and valleys

At the western end of Colca Valley is where the Colca Canyon starts, this is the deepest canyon in the world with a depth of 4160 meters. From the viewpoint Cruz del Condor we could see the small beginning of the canyon as well as several Andean condors. The condors were gliding on the warm currents, some just over our heads – quite special when their wingspans can be up to 3.2 meters! The landscape and the views were amazing and definitely worth our little detour.

Flying close to the tourists

Male condor up close

Traditional clothing

Almost twice the height of the highest mountain in Norway!

Amazing landscape

See more pictures from Arequipa, Colca Valley and the rest of Peru here.

Magnificent Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world, and a must-do if you are in Peru. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see how the Incas managed to build a sacred retreat high up in the mountains of Peru. Given that the Inca empire only lasted for a hundred years (before the Spanish conquistadors came and destroyed them in the 1500s) it’s truly amazing to see how much they built and the technology they had developed.

Sunrise on Machu Picchu

There are several ways to travel to Machu Picchu, none of them especially cheap (more on that later), but all of them start from Cusco, which was the Inca capitol. Cusco itself is a nice town with lots to do for adventure-hungry tourists (there are about 200 travel agencies across town), but as Mathias got a bad case of altitude sickness we had to take it pretty slow the first days. Cusco really is a “tourist town”, which has both its positives and negatives. Positives being many good restaurants (we especially recommend La Bodega 138 and Jack’s Café) and options for tours, and negatives being that you feel that everyone wants to get some money from you and exploit the tourists as much as possible.

Back-alleys of Cusco

Under the arc

To get to Machu Picchu we opted for the popular scenic train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu town), spending a night there and walking up to Machu Picchu early the next morning. From Aguas Calientes it’s about an hour and 10 minutes brisk walk, mostly steep uphill, to get to Machu Picchu. We started in the dark at 5 o’clock in the morning in pitch black with only the stars to guide us (ok, and a headlight), which turned out to be a little late to get started as there were several busloads of people already in line at the top when we arrived 6:10. Not a big problem, but we were hoping to get a look before there were people everywhere. We did catch the sun rising above the mountains and the first light on Machu Picchu, which was spectacular!

Mathias gazing at Machu Picchu

Sun rays over the mountaintops

We managed to spend a full 10 hours walking around, taking pictures and relaxing while taking in the view of Machu Picchu. There are several tracks around the main “urban area”, and also tracks further out to the Sun Gate (great views!), the Inca bridge (a bit disappointing), and Huayna Picchu if you have the tickets (we didn’t :( ). We walked around marvelling at the views and the many many llamas grassing in the area (even a baby llama!). It really is a spectacular location and we can imagine this to be a retreat for the wealthy (which is one theory).

A llama grazing

Jump!

The explorer

Tips on travelling to Machu Picchu

There are mainly four ways to do Machu Picchu:

  1. Doing the Inca Trail. This is the highlight for many backpackers. A 2 or 4-day trek through stunning views and several Inca ruins. Price is about $400-500 and it must be booked several months in advance. We talked to some Brits who booked it two months ahead, but this was in the shoulder season (April).
  2. Booking a shuttle tour. This is the cheapest option, we found it for about $125 including the shuttle to the hydro station, a night in Aguas Calientes, the guide at Machu Picchu and the shuttle back to Cusco. There is a one and a half-hour trek from the hydro station to Aguas Calientes.
  3. Booking a tour with train. This includes the bus to Ollantaytambo, train to Aguas Calientes, overnight there, bus to Machu Pichhu in the morning and a 2 hour guided tour, and the return train. The cheapest we found this for was about $225 p.p.
  4. Booking everything yourself. This is what we did. We booked with Incarail both ways for $106 each (Perurail is another option for trains),  bought our Machu Pichhu tickets (PEN 128=$49 each), stayed at the first hostel we found (Hostal Inca II for PEN 65 total including breakfast), and walked up to Machu Pichhu (we took the bus back which is about $10), and took shuttles betwen Ollantaytambo and Cusco (10 PEN pp each way). Our total ended up nearly the same as the cheapest tour with train, but we loved being masters of our own time an being able to spend all the time we wanted at Machu Picchu. We had a Wikipedia article on Machu Picchu (on the iTravel app), asked some of the guards around, and slyly overheard some of the guides in the passing tour groups, and all in all got a lot of information without our own guide!

There are also other tours such as jungle tours and more adventure filled tours to get to Machu Picchu. We didn’t look into that but they are probably not in as high demand as the Inca Trail.

  • Whatever option you choose, bring lots of water and snacks as it gets hot and tiring walking around Machu Picchu and the food outside is pretty expensive (it’s a bit of a no-no, but the guards didn’t check any bags as far as we saw)
  • The best time is before 9 am and after 3 pm, because of the sun and the crowds (much better pictures!)
  • Book early for cheaper train tickets, and also if you want to do Huayna Picchu!
  • A free map is available at the entrance after they have checked your tickets
  • Bring some information about Machu Picchu either on your phone (iTravel!) or in print if you don’t want to spend the money on a guide ($25)

Traditional woman

Girl in traditional clothes

Chewing llama

Tuva petting a baby llama

Me and the llama having a moment

The main plaza

Check out more pictures from Machu Picchu and the rest of Peru here.

Into the desert in Huacachina

We flew to Lima from Máncora (technically we took a bus to Piura and the flight left from there), spending just one short day managing to squeeze in a walk along the steep cliffs and through the modern neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco. Mathias’ main goal of the visit was to eat some ceviche, which we managed to do, and also stuff our faces with a lot of other traditional Peruvian food at a big buffet.

Gazing at the cliffs of Lima

Ceviche

From Lima, we took the very fancy Cruz del Sur bus to get to Huacachina, an oasis in the desert just outside the city of Ica. We were lured by the promise of sandboarding and crazy roller-coaster like dunebugging. Huge sand-dunes all around the tiny oasis made it feel like we were in the middle of a desert, although we were actually just 5 minutes from Ica!

Our first day we climbed up on the ridge of the largest sanddune. Turns out walking up a sanddune is an exhausting workout – it was so so warm and we didn’t bring any water, so Tuva started to see hallucinations in the sand! And walking down again is surprisingly painful as the superhot sand submerged and burned our bare ankles with every step, causing a rapid and not so elegant descent.

Oasis

Alone in the desert

The main activity in Huacachina is dunebuggy and sandboarding tours. The dunebuggy ride was like a roller-coaster  with the driver going very fast up and down various very steep slopes that did not seem to be made for driving at all! Sandboarding looked very scary, going face-first on a wooden board down a steep hill, but turned out to be great fun – Mathias even mastered standing on the board down the entire slope!

Most of the tours are in the afternoon, timing to the sunset and less heat in the sand dunes. However, our tour was just over an hour and felt a bit rushed and short. Looking back there were some tours that were a bit more expensive, but lasted for 2 hours, allowing for more time to sandboard and see the dunes.

Sandboarding in the sunset

Tuva sandboarding

Mathias in full speed

The area around Ica is also known for wine and pisco (Peru’s national liquor), we visited two artesan bodegas (Lazo and El Catador) and one industrial bodega (Tacama). They were very generous with the tastings and had a lot to try so we were definitely getting a little tipsy. Knowing we had a 17-hour busride that same afternoon to get to Cusco we declined more pisco at the final bodega – and we’re pretty sure that was a good idea :)

Clay jars to mature the wine

Under pressure

Wine ranks of Ica

Two women at the cliffs

In the dunebuggy 1

Into the desert

Blue and orange

See more of our pictures from Peru here.

Lazy days in Máncora

Sometimes it’s important with a little vacation from all the travelling, therefore we spent about 5 days on the beach in Máncora in the north of Peru, doing close to nothing. It was relaxing, beautiful and just what we needed after moving around a lot in Ecuador.

Chasing shadows

Máncora is the one of the popular beach towns in Peru, and is definitely a tourist based town, but we didn’t find it crowded in early April (although we heard it gets busier on the weekends). It is a popular spot among surfers with big breaks just off the main beach, giving us lots of entertainment from our sunbeds. Mathias braved the waves (they were much bigger than the ones we had our first surf lessons on in Nicaragua) and with a little help from an instructor he actually caught some nice ones!

Surfing like a boss

Photo by: Adrian Bjørge

Afternoon beach

We randomly met a Norwegian couple staying in a nearby hotel, Helene and Adrian, who were excellent company during our days here. We tried out some of the restaurants in the area and can especially recommend El Aji (great burritos), La Sirena d’Juan (tuna steak with passion fruit sauce!), and Green Eggs and Ham (stacks of delicious pancakes).

We stayed a couple of nights at Don Giovanni Balinese Suites, before we moved to their slightly less expensive neighbor Las Olas de Máncora. Both are beachfront hotels in the southern end of Máncora and really nice. It was good to stay in one end of the beach, due to quite loud music from the bars on the main strip, but it is of course less expensive staying in a hostel a little further from the beach near the bars and restaurants.

Red sun

El Forro

Máncora beach

Hey you in the bushes!

We really loved Máncora and our first taste of Peru, see all our pictures from Mancora and the rest of Peru here.

From Baños to Cuenca and beyond

Baños is Ecuador’s capital of extreme sports, sugarcane taffy, and, as it seems, pizza restaurants. We spent a couple of days in the little town to get our adrenalin pumping with canyoning (that is: rappelling down waterfalls) and try out their famous thermal baths (hence the name Baños).

The former we found on one of the many adventure sports agencies around town that offer more or less the same services for more or less the same prices. We chose MTS Adventure because they were at the top of Tripadvisor and would give us photos and videos of the adventure. We were not disappointed as we got our own, personal guide who took us up into the jungle where we found some nice, steep, and a bit scary waterfalls to rappel. We got wet and our hearts pumping from the adrenaline, and we had a great time. Mathias chose to walk face-down the last waterfall “Rambo style”, just to show how much of a man he is..

Tuva going down

Walking down in style

We’ve visited thermals baths before in Colombia (San Vicente), but the baths in Baños were very different. This was a really social thing for the locals and it seemed that half the town had come to enjoy the hot waters in the pools that were the size of a medium sized living room. “Sild i tønne” (sardines in a barrel?) describes it pretty well and we really got to know the locals in more than one way.

Tuva and Baños

The extreme sports didn’t stop in Baños, as bus trips in Ecuador can be both a beautiful adventure and a near-death experience. While in Baños we saw a news report about the road accidents being the number one cause of death in Ecuador, and buses being a major part of those accidents due to tired drivers, old buses, alcohol and general risktaking. We decided to do no more night buses as those are the most dangerous, but our bus trip to Cuenca in thick fog was almost as bad. Our busdriver would drive by trucks in the fog (we could only see about 10 m) in a turn with double lines, only just making it before a couple of cars were coming in the opposite direction. We (at least Tuva) feared for our lives as we had a front row experience to the madness!

A horse in the clouds

Other than the hazardous driving, bus trips in Ecuador is an interesting experience as you drive through the beautiful countryside and see mighty mountains, Llamas and other animals on the roadside, and the daily life of the indigenous people whisking by. We were continuously stunned by the scenery unfolding as we made our way south. Just getting on and off the bus is an experience as you often get hushed in just as the bus is leaving the station and often have to get on/off in speed. The buses all cost about 1-1,5$ per hour and are reasonably comfortable.

Beautiful scenery from the bus

Our final stop in Ecuador was Cuenca, a larger city and the richest in the country. Many foreigners live here and it is a picturesque city with its colonial buildings and narrow streets. We didn’t stay long, so we really only had time for a city bus tour which allowed us to see all the sights in just a couple of hours. All in all Ecuador has been a beautiful and interesting country ranging from Galapagos (which really isn’t similar to the rest of Ecuador at all) to the Andean mountains and the bigger cities with its old towns. We could definitely see ourselves coming back and spending more time here.

Spears of the new cathedral

Cuenca Eagle view

Masters of the waterfall

Look ma', no hands!

Some flowers in the park

All photos from Ecuador can be found here.