Friday, January 27, 2017

17,785 feet: Making the Most out of a Day in La Paz

After completing my Uyuni tour, I passed through La Paz for a few days.  There, I caught up on cataloguing photos, video chats with my family, and blogging.  I did, however, have one day leftover to explore.  I had hoped to have two days exploring, so one of them could be biking the famous Death Road, but upon seeing the prices of those tours, I opted to skip it.  I instead settled upon a two-part tour to La Paz's Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), and the recently closed, high altitude ski resort of Chacaltaya.  I hadn't done a lot of research, and to my delight, it turned out to be a highlight of my trip!

Of course, what day can begin without me making a new friend.  I met this sweet, gentle soul outside our refreshment stop after the bus had been loaded.  I dubbed him Rover, and he thoroughly enjoyed a few solid minutes of scratching before we reboarded the bus and headed off.

Meet Rover, a sweet, tender spirit who blessed my trip from the start with a warm, loving reception.
Found his sweet spot.  Can you guess where he loved to be scratched?
From the pictures I had seen, I was most excited to visit Bolivia's Moon Valley (not to be confused with the Moon Valley I saw a couple weeks before in San Pedro de Atacama).  It is an expanse of volcanic formations that is so surreal and unusual that Neil Armstrong thusly named it Valle de la Luna after his historic moon landing years before.

Here, an entire valley is full of tan protrusions, almost like the earth had been turned upside down and you are walking on the stalactite-ridden ceiling of an enormous cavern.  It definitely captured the imagination.

Who knew the moon would have such nicely constructed bridges and stairs.....
This guy had climbed up onto one of the pinnacles, serenading the valley with a smattering of songs.
The obligatory selfie on the moon.....
The part of the trip that I knew the least about, turned out to be my favorite: the morning's visit to Chacaltaya.  Sitting just outside La Paz, until recently this was the highest elevation ski resort in the world, at 5,421 meters (17,785 ft)!  Sadly, the glacier the resort depended on melted completely away by the end of 2009, so now the site is merely a skeleton.  But, Bolivia has repurposed the site now, bringing tourists there daily to walk to the peak and admire 360 degrees of incredible views of mountains, valleys and lagoons.

Even driving up to the mountain was a treat, with views out the windows of spectacular peaks.

The ground is covered with this beautiful, flaky rock.  It is heavy in iron, so the exposure to air and
water creates a beautiful mix of browns, reds, and purples.
There still remain some trappings of the once luxurious ski resort.  There are lodges, the remains of a ski lift, cables and cottages.

Here was our first view of the lodge from the access road.
This was the most complete remnant of the only lift here, a rope tow, now long fallen into disrepair.
We drove the pin-tight switchbacks up the side of the mountain to the base lodge.  From there, I hiked up as far as I could.  The whole time I was remembering the second week of my trip when I attempted to hike up to the Pastoruri Glacier in Huaraz, Peru.  I remember a similar drop off at altitude, walking a path up the hill, and how hard the altitude was for me.  I was heaving, lightheaded, and exhausted.  That was at 5,250 meters/17,200 ft.  

In stark contrast, this time, not only did I summit without having to stop every 3 feet, but I was one of the only ones to keep going further, also summiting a second, taller, peak a further down the path!  I was filled with pride, joy, and thankfulness at being able to accomplish something that had been such a struggle a few months before.  Mind you, I'm not saying it was easy.  I still did have to stop every so often and concentrate on breathing slowly and evenly so as to maximize the amount of oxygen I was getting out the the thin air, but I did it, and felt fine afterwards!  The last time I had tried it, I came down with altitude sickness that affected me for 2 days afterwards!
A view from the path, looking back at the old ski lodge.
Despite it being hot and steamy back in La Paz, at this altitude it was pretty chilly,
and I was thankful for all the extra warming items of clothing I had brought with me.
A view of another lodge from the parking lot
As I walked on to the next, tallest, peak, our guide sat near the trail waiting for me, making sure I made it back ok
I was rewarded with spectacular views when I reached the top.  It was only an hour of walking,
but I still felt like I had accomplished something.

This nearby mountain in the same chain is rumored to be the inspiration for the Paramount Pictures logo
This is the view from the first peak, looking on to the next peak.
I climbed from this spot, all the way to that high point you can see in the upper right corner.
Looking back to the first peak from the path up to the second.
Jess the mountain climber

Overall, this was a spectacular day.  Although I don't claim to be anything of a climber, I finished the day feeling accomplished, proud of how far I had come in a few months.  If I had attempted this climb back in September, I probably would not have been able to reach the first peak, and definitely not the second.  I would have probably had to return to the lodge and I would have likely gotten altitude sick like some of the other guests on the trip.  The contrast between my two high altitude explorations was so stark, that it made the already incredible views that much more rewarding.

All in all, it was a full and satisfying day.  I saw some spectacular sights, and found out I was capable of more than I realized.  This was definitely one of my favorite days from my trip!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Desert, that's better than Dessert

I’m back!  I know you’ve missed me terribly.  I’m sorry for the absence, but with the holidays, friends visiting, and having really awful access to internet over the past few weeks, I fell out of habit.  But, I’m back!

And thankfully, I get to come back with a BANG!  I spent the last week and a half in some of the most spectacular and dramatic landscapes of my trip, and probably even of my life.  I visited 2 different desert regions:  the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, and I returned to Uyuni, Bolivia for the second time.  

I visited San Pedro de Atacama for the first time, staying for about 5 days to tour some of the spectacular local sights.  While I was there, I was informed that Salar de Uyuni was flooded, which is #2 on my bucket list, so with a quick and easy change of direction, I passed through Bolivia, taking a tour through Uyuni again.  I saw some of the same sights as before, and some new ones.  

While there is so much to see, here is what was most impressive from my trip:

10.  Geysers

Although my first pass by the geysers of Uyuni remains the most impressive, I did visit geysers twice more in the past 2 weeks.  What was interesting, was that the time of day of the visit changed how the geysers looked entirely!  When I first visited the geysers in Uyuni, it was early morning and cold, so every hole was billowing hot, sulfury steam.  When I visited the same sight 6 weeks later at mid-morning, it was like a completely different sight.

If you remember, this picture was from my first visit to the Uyuni geysers, 
where we arrived just after sunrise.   It was a spectacular and dramatic sight.
Returning to the Uyuni Geysers for the second time, it was spectacular, but in a
 completely different way.  Now, we could more easily see the different colors in the
 mud from the sulfur, as well and the gooey bubbling pools beneath the steam.
Geysers, Uyuni, Bolivia
We also visited one other geyser bed in Atacama, called Tatio.  Here, the 
geysers were spouting hot water, and were spread across a much larger area.  
We visited early morning here as well, seeing them at their most dramatic.
Geysers Tatio, Atacama, Chile
Geysers Tatio, Atacama, Chile
Geysers Tatio, Atacama, Chile

9.  Thermal Pools

I took my first dip in a thermal pool at Geysers, Tatio in Chile.  The steam was deceiving, the water not being quite as warm as we had hoped for our dip at high elevation at 8 in the morning.  Still cool, though.

Most people have congregated to this end of the pool because this is where the warm spring is.  Swimming here, you find patch of warm and cool water, at times so hot it’s scalding.  Tatio, Atacama, Chile
We passed by another thermal pool driving through Uyuni.  None of us were up for a swim that day.

8.  Lagoons

I don’t think I could even count how many lagoons I have visited between Uyuni and San Pedro, but it is probably somewhere around 20.  The lagoons range in color.  Some were white, others green, red, or a dark blue.  Some were teeming with wildlife, while others were sparse, but they were all beautiful in their own unique-snowflake-like way.  Much like the geysers, though, I was surprised by how timing/season/weather affected how they looked.  One lagoon in particular was a completely different color the second time I saw it.
Lagunas Altiplanicas (Highplains Lagoons), Atacama, Chile
Lagunas Altiplanicas (Highplains Lagoons), Atacama, Chile

My first trip through Uyuni, we visited Laguna Verde (the Green Lagoon).  It wasn’t very green that day,
as it was explained there wasn’t enough wind to cause the copper in the water to react with the air
and create the green color it is known for.
My second pass by Laguna Verde, however, was on a windy, clear day.  
The water was it’s characteristic, bright green, spectacular self.
Laguna Verde, Uyuni, Bolivia

There were much fewer flamingos this time around, presumably having moved further south with the seasonal change.  The last time I came during late spring, and this time it was right in the middle of summer.
Laguna Chaxa, Atacama, Chile
Laguna Chaxa, Atacama, Chile
Laguna Chaxa, Atacama, Chile
Laguna Blanca  (White Lagoon), Uyuni, Bolivia
Laguna Blanca  (White Lagoon), Uyuni, Bolivia
Laguna Colorada (Colored Lagoon), Uyuni, Bolivia
Laguna Colorada (Colored Lagoon), Uyuni, Bolivia
Laguna Colorada (Colored Lagoon), Uyuni, Bolivia

7.  Caverns, Atacama Desert, Chile

As part of the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) reserve in Atacama, there is a series of winding, narrow caverns and tunnels.  They were formed by water passing gradually through the minerals of a mountain, stripping them away over the course of years.  We meandered our way through the complex, at times nearly having to lay down to pass through narrow gaps, and at other times, climbing out into a clearing.

6.  Salt Flats

Though I had already visited Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at over 10,000’ altitude, I was delighted to both revisit it, as well as see other versions of salt flats in Chile.

This was a different kind of salt flat, really more of a salt rough, actually, Lol.
Salar de Atacama, Chile

Close up of one area of salt surface on Salar
Experimenting with being in front of the lens
Sending love from Uyuni
My body remembers yoga, despite not having done it in year
More experimentations....

5.  Rock Formations

Due to the high mineral content of the rocks in these desert areas, they are soft, and susceptible to the forces of wind and water.  In many places, mountains have been widdled down to unusual formations, some of which are even recognizable as familiar objects.

My first Uyuni tour, we saw El Arbol de Piedra (the Rock Tree).

My second Uyuni tour, we saw the Copa del Mundo (World Cup).
Tres Marias (The Three Marys), so named to watch over the traders 
traveling the remote roads through the desert.

A large series of pillars, cliffs and protrusions is called Italia Perdida (the Lost Italian), 
after a tourist discovered there years ago.  Uyuni, Bolivia
Italia Perdida, Uyuni
Italia Perdida, Uyuni
Italia Perdida, Uyuni

Most easily distinguished of all if El Camello (the Camel) in Uyuni, Bolivia.

4.  Red Rocks, Atacama Desert, Chile

This colorful, salty lagoon is surrounded by uniquely shaped red stone formations.  Though many of the stones are so caked with salt that they appear white, there are enough left unaffected to give this area is unique look.

3.  Mysterious Lagoon, Uyuni, Bolivia

This was the last lagoon I saw from my time in the desert.  I had no idea just how spectacular it would be, distinct from the many others before it.  We spent about 40 minutes just sitting here, listening to the calls of the ducks reverberating off the walls of the canyon.

Walking up to the lagoon
This was the first sight I had of this magical place
my spot, I call shotgun into infinity

2.  Valley of the Moon, Atacama Desert, Chile

Although this area has one name, it has many faces.  Our afternoon tour took us through rock formations, over dunes, and up to the edge of a gigantic canyon. 

Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile

Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile
Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile
Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile
Large Dune trail, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile
Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile
Large Dune, Valley of the Moon, Atacama, Chile

We ended the tour watching sunset at the edge of a gigantic canyon.

1. Salar de Uyuni after the rain, Bolivia

I have been dreaming of seeing Salar de Uyuni wet ever since I first saw a photograph of it over 10 years ago.  It is such a unique and remarkable landscape that it easily captures one’s imagination.  Just a few days ago I was lucky enough to not only see this Salar (salt flat) wet and reflecting the beautiful blue sky, but also at the most spectacular sunrise.  It was even more spectacular than I could have ever imagined.

Our car, and the 5 of us watching the sun come up
Far away on the horizon, other groups were doing the same thing
Walking on water....
It almost looks like I have skills
Didn't know I could jump like that!
This is what my feet looked like after splashing around in Salar all day! 
My shoes fared no better

Sunrise on Salar de Uyuni

So that's it, what I've been up to for the last few weeks.  I end with some of the most spectacular photographs I have ever captured.  It’s easy to see now why I didn’t post sooner, right?