Thursday, June 10, 2010

Our trip to Lago Chungara near Putre, Chile

Here is our recent trip in photos to northern Chile to Arica, Putre, and the ultimate destination of Lago Chungara at about 15,000 feet high....


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit on Another Family's Vacation.

One of the BEST sites we've ever seen about personal travel experiences in Chile!  This is a Must-Read if you are planning a visit to Chilean Patagonia or just an armchair traveler.  Either way you'll enjoy this.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lake Titicaca

Located between Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca is one of the most fascinating lakes in the world. It is situated at a very high altitude, at over 3800 meters above sea level, and a tour at Titicaca is definitely an unforgettable experience for any visitor. When visiting Lake Titicaca, the town of Puno is the best place to stay, on the Peruvian side of the lake. The town of Puno is an interesting place to visit as it is the capital of folklore of Peru. It also has a beautiful old cathedral, and it is close to many attractions of Peru like the Macchu Picchu or the town of Cusco.

Lake Titicaca is a sacred place for the Inca civilization, as the Incan mythology says that the first Inca king, Manco Capac, was born here. According to the Incan mythology, this is the place where the world was created from, when the god Viracocha came out of the lake and created the sun, the stars and the first people. You will have many places to discover on the shore of Lake Titicaca, as well as on the many islands that exist on the lake.
On the Bolivian side of the lake you will find the fascinating town of Challapampa , home of the famous labyrinth (Chinkana). Also on the Bolivian side, you can find the biggest island of the lake, Isla del Sol ( Island  of the Sun). While there are no roads on the island, making it not tourism friendly, the over 180 ruins from the Incan period are making it worth to visit.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Touring South America - From Bolivia to Chile

No matter how long you live in your own town, the time comes -when you want to explore outside the city limits. Maybe -something is more exciting out "there." At first, it may seem- frightening. I cried the first time I flew to a foreign land. -Each time however, it got easier. My interest was piqued because- I grew confident that riding in exotic lands offered me special- glimpses into cultures different than my own. South America- exceeded my expectations.
Not only that, there is something amazing about sitting atop the saddle on your bike at the very top of South America and pointing it southward. You're on the front end of a grand adventure. Thousands of miles separate you from Tierra del Fuego a short hop from Antarctica. Along the way, you're in for some amazing life experiences.
"You know, this is what I came for," the mud covered bicyclists said. "This is the- toughest riding of my life. What's even better is that I think it's going to get worse."
What he was talking about was a little known dirt track -cutting through the Andes from LaPaz, Bolivia to Arica, Chile. - It's called the El Camino Highway. It's rough, tricky, sometimes- treacherous, and always challenging. Nearly 300 miles long, it- starts out at 12,000 feet, rises to 15,500, and plummets to sea- level. This dirt road crosses astounding Andean landscapes on- its way to the Pacific Ocean. It's not for the faint of heart, -nor for those whom need a sag wagon. This bicycle expedition is -raw adventure. Few roads in South America equal this ride for -pure serendipity.
Back home, friends and acquaintances bombarded us with -reports of danger "down there." We would be gunned down by a -drug cartel, or thieves would leave us marooned in the desert -stripped of our clothes, save our underwear. I admit it, with- all the press reports, I was concerned. Pedaling through Third -World countries might be courting danger. I didn't show it to- anyone, but I too was nervous. Washington has a special hot line- to inform international travelers on the current risks in every- region of the world. After talking with them about our intended- route through South America, they advised us not to travel south- out of Bogota, Columbia to Quito, Ecuador. Too much guerrilla- warfare going on. No problem, we'll fly over that area. We -hated the idea of stopping bullets with our tender bodies.
For the most part however, people in countries around the- world, live quiet, routine lives. Except for a few hot spots,- folks go about their daily living without much excitement.
We knew the route from Lapaz, Bolivia to Arica, Chile was -mostly unpaved. It had altitude changes, severe weather -patterns, and no medical facilities. Food and water contamination was a valid concern. A breakdown could end the- ride for any one of us. We beefed up our bikes with 40 spoke -rims, and bought the best racks available. Rain and warm weather -gear along with spare chains and derailleurs were packed into our panniers. We could not find out about food supplies, so we -carried six days of provisions. That amounted to 90 to 100 pounds of -gear on each bike.
LaPaz, Bolivia, population one million, is a large- metropolitan city located in a valley that resembles a huge- football stadium sunk into a gigantic hole. The city is 1,000- feet below the altiplano. (The altiplano is a treeless, high -altitude plain of land in Bolivia that averages 12,000 feet.) A -four-lane expressway winds along the edge until it drops to the metropolis at the bottom. Two cultures exist. Third World- misery inhabits the rim above the city, while order and -relatively clean conditions prevail below. Dramatic snowcapped 21,000 foot peaks surround LaPaz. On a clear day, beautiful- panoramas startle a first time visitor.
We spent four days in LaPaz. Toilets didn't work and water -was contaminated. Buildings were in disrepair--not much- different from any metropolitan city in the USA. Cars were run until they- dropped dead in their tracks. Even then, they were resurrected like -a cat with nine lives, with wire and tape, and pushed back onto -the road until they died again--beyond any hope of a tenth life.
We pedaled out of the city. On a sunny summer day, it was -cold. The Bolivians live their lives in a crisp, thin air -environment. Evenings turn chilly with the setting sun. Native- costumes reflect the need for warm clothing. We rode past women- dressed in heavy wool dresses with multiple layers of sweater -topped off with black fedora hats. Out in the middle of nowhere, -these shepherds sat near a flock of sheep or llamas. Although they never initiated a greeting, they replied to ours. Their -small children stared at us. One young boy began crying when we- stopped to rest near him. His mother grabbed him into her arms -for security. He had probably never seen touring mountain bikes, -or people our size. Doug stands 6'4".
Bolivian men dressed in heavy wool pants and shirts. They -wore ragged jackets but rarely a hat. Their jet-black hair, -smooth dark skin and dark eyes fit the quietness of their -demeanor. All the ones we passed were plowing or harvesting- crops within stone fenced fields. Cows pulled one furrow plows- and wagons had wooden axles and wheels.
Smooth blacktop is nice, but it changed 24 miles out of -town. Before turning off the main highway at Viacha, we stopped- at a small gas station/grocery shop to fill our tires, water -bottles and packs with food. Our six days worth of provisions -included rice, lentils, bread rolls, pasta, vegetables, oatmeal, -and cans of tuna. By the time we were ready to leave, a small- group had gathered around the bikes. We never liked it but they crowded in close and handled everything on the cycles. In order -to keep an eye on the gear, we stacked the bicycles in tandem and- left one person standing guard.
Heavily loaded, we pedaled to the edge of town, and headed- west. The fat tires on our mountain bikes dropped onto the dirt. - From one way of riding to another. New rules and different -dangers. A whole new riding technique was required.
Where we hit the gravel, flat land made pedaling easy. That -changed when the serpentine road wound upward toward distant -peaks shrouded in the clouds. Ruts and large puddles riddled the -road bed. At times, we picked our way through a minefield of holes. We forded two small streams the first hour. It was- tricky riding. Bryan got stuck in the mud at one river crossing. -Doug crashed in some soft sand and stood up looking like a -freshly plowed-up mouse.
"That happened so quick I couldn't put my foot out," he -said, a bit dazed.
"Good thing I wasn't too close behind you," Bryan added. "I -almost ran over you."
"Let's do another hour of riding and call it a day," I said. -"What do you say we pitch our tents by a stream."
"Sounds good to me," Doug said.
We found a knoll near a river, but out of the constant wind- that blew softly throughout the day. I set my tent facing the- sunset. The clouds were backlit as I watched the drama from -between the nylon flaps. There is something peaceful about the- end of the day, when the last bird calls out its song and the sky -fades into twilight. After eating, I took a sponge bath and slid- into my sleeping bag. It's a fact that bicyclists rarely suffer -from insomnia. Not so at 12,000 feet. We felt the effects of -high altitude sickness called 'serouche' by the Bolivians. No -matter what time we went to bed or how tired we were, we woke up- out of a dead sleep at three every morning, until we became acclimated.
We filtered our water from the stream the next day before -cranking up the winding road. Erosion scarred hills drained down -to the road. Dark tundra grass covered the earth along a river- valley that we followed. No reference points of humanity- existed.
Later in the afternoon, after completing a climb, we faced a -wide valley with a thunderstorm advancing from the south. In the- distance, white summits peeked out of storm clouds, then vanished- into gray mist. Darkness swallowed the valley with rain sweeping -across the sky. Jagged lightning bolts slashed the air below us. - I stopped to wait for my friends.
"That lightning scares the daylights out of me," Bryan said,- riding up.
"It doesn't thrill me too much either," I said. "What do you- think Doug?"
"It's passing to the east, so we should be all right if we -wait a half hour."
"Let's eat while we're waiting," Bryan said.
We munched on sandwiches and watched the storm move away -from us with rain falling on the tundra for miles. Soon, it -looked safe enough to ride through a gap in the clouds. We -coasted into the valley. Three miles later, we pedaled down a -muddy, twisting road that led to a wide river. Riding became -impossible in the muck, so we got off to walk the bikes. In- seconds, clay squeezed up into our fenders and brakes, freezing the wheels. By the time we reached the river, we were dragging -our bikes. We spent an hour washing the soggy clay out of our- tires, chains and rims.
With each day's ride, the land grew harsher. The road- was pitched and rutted. We forded a dozen streams, sometimes- getting stuck in the middle. At times, the sand was deep enough- to wash over our rims.
We worried about our food supply because we were getting low -after four days. We reached a village where a military unit was -housed in a walled compound. It was a passport check. They were- enthralled that anybody would ride bicycles on a road as grueling- as the Camino.
A colonel came out to shake our hands along with a captain -who was amazed at the gear on our bikes. Fifteen minutes later, -they let us go. The town looked abandoned, with no one in the -muddy streets, so we didn't have much hope for finding food. A- few blocks later, we looked through the dark doors of a mud house- to discover carrots, onions, and potatoes. What a find! The -shop keeper had fresh bread and cans of peaches. We cleaned him- out.
On the outskirts of town, we rode up to a transportation -fiasco. Two large trucks were stuck nose first and five feet -deep into the mud of a 150 foot wide river. Dozens of men -shoveled dirt, but the trucks sank deeper. To get an idea of how -poor they are, we realized that this was the only supply route -from Bolivia to the seaport. Yet, they couldn't afford one -bridge over a river that was 150 feet wide, and over two feet -deep. We portaged our bikes across.
Miles later, we climbed up a canyon. It took four hours and some gut- busting leg work. We crossed five more streams. At the top,- cathedral shaped boulders offered a dramatic skyline relief, but -nothing compared to the huge summit called Mount Sajama west -of us. It loomed 21,500 feet into the sky. Deep canyons along- the road dropped a thousand feet below us. For two hours, we -pedaled as the peak rose higher in front of us. We dodged -hundreds of mud puddles, gully washouts, and a few dozen -mini-lakes in the road. Onward the Camino stretched, ever -reaching out in front of us like a ribbon in the wind, appearing- and vanishing with the rolling contour of the land.
Near sunset, a black sky moved across the mountains. - Lightning cracked the clouds into flashing sections and thunder- rolled down from the alpine heights. It swirled over us and- roared into the valley off the eastern face of Mount Sajama. -Doug and Bryan ducked into a culvert beside the road. The- lightning came closer. We were unprotected.
"We better camp right here," I said, riding up. "Besides,- we're gonna' be miserable in the rain. I can't see riding for -another hour. Let's call it quits."
"What about being exposed on this flat ground to the- lightning?" Bryan asked.
"Once it moves out of the mountains, we don't have that much- chance of being struck," I answered. "Although it can strike -anywhere it wants."
"Great!" Doug lamented. "Let's get the tents up before the -rain hits."
We laid the bikes down in the dirt and pulled our packs off. -We pitched the tents as rain swept toward us. Electricity charged -the air. We pulled the gear into our tents just as sleet, then- hail pounded us. The wind tore at our tents. An hour later,- with the last rays of the sun lighting the summits, the storm- rolled across the valley.
We awoke to a cold, overcast morning. A gray shroud- entombed the mountains. All around us, tundra wilderness.
Climbing into the higher elevations, we followed the- meandering road as it slipped between two huge peaks. Behind us, -Mount Sajama dominated the sky. Ahead, a row of five 19,000-footers made their own bid for the most awesome award. One cone--shaped volcanic peak, Mount Payachatas at 20,000 feet, jutted -into a brilliant blue sky. We pedaled through a corridor of- giants. Each one stood four miles high.
At one river fording, we decided to take baths in the -glacial runoff, which was relatively warm. When I say- 'relatively,' that means above freezing. After four days of being scuzzy and disgusting, no matter how cold it was, we took -baths. There's nothing quite like bathing in an icy river. It's- like filling your bathtub with ice cubes and jumping into it for -ten minutes. It lets you know you're alive because every cell in -your body is screaming, "COLD PAIN!" It hurts so much that you- question why you do things like this to yourself.
We followed the Camino into a wide valley. Llamas grazed in -small herds. Traveling on my bike carried me back thousands of- years to a place where time didn't exist in clocks or schedules. -It was either morning, afternoon, or night. No calendars marked- the progression of the year to the few mountain people who lived- in thatched roofed mud huts scattered along the valley. Only the -weather expressed the time of year. A sense of peace flowed out- of the timelessness.
Late in the day, we again stripped the bikes to portage them- across another river too deep for our axles. At the Bolivian -border, we dismounted and walked into the office for our passport -stamp. The man was casual. I used to worry about these guys, -with all the stories about border officials, but so far we hadn't- had any problems. We walked out and headed over to a small cafe. -We ordered rice, tomatoes, potatoes and onions. A half-hour -later, the cook filled our orders. The cafe was a shack with a -wood burning stove in the rear and a few tables out front. The -pope's picture graces the walls in restaurants all over South -America, and just as often, a nude girl's photo appears with him. -This time, three nudes surrounded the pope.
 We made our final assault over the pass at 15,500 feet to- the border of Chile. Bigger rocks bedeviled us as we continued- climbing up the mountain. We suffered constant jolting and- lurching through the rocky minefield. Sometimes we couldn't- react fast enough and would take a tumble. Spokes were another- worry. Constant pounding could break them, or warp a rim. This- road was tough on bike and rider alike. After two more hours of- solid climbing, we reached a plateau. Everywhere, broken rock. -There was no vegetation or animals except a black condor soaring -overhead. Laboring up the incline, we felt the effects of 15,500-foot high altitude when we had to stand on the pedals. We gasped- for air when our bodies needed extra oxygen, but it wasn't -there--not in abundance.
On our left and right, Mount Payachatas, Mount Quisiquisini -and Mount Guayatre punctuated the sky. Each was over 19,000-feet. Even at our altitude, those mountains dominated the -corridor of giants that we had been riding through. By the time -we reached the pass, broken rock lay everywhere upon the land.- Grapefruit sized rocks made riding difficult. Ahead, Lake -Chungara filled a valley at the foot of Mount Payachatas, which we had now circled to its far side. At the crest, we coasted down-hill toward the border station. We bounced and bucked all the -way.
We stopped at the border where we had to register the bikes -and get our visas stamped. Because of 'bureaucratic' paper- shuffling, we were forced to stay five hours at the border for a- maximum of 15 minutes work. But the one thing you don't do with- civil servants is get them upset. They can hold you up for days, -so you just keep smiling through your anger. Around 6:00 p.m., -we were stamped, sealed and delivered. By now, it was freezing. - As we thanked the guards, cursing under our breaths, we walked- the bikes out into what was becoming a blizzard. They smiled and- wished us luck. After holding us five hours, they didn't seem to- think we should mind that they had cost us lots of wasted time, -and now we were in frigid misery.
Nonetheless, we started out with snow swirling around us. -We were told a cabin was two miles down the road. As we pedaled- our bikes into the storm, I stopped to take a picture of Bryan -and Doug vanishing into the snow. After taking the first shot of- them, I noticed some interesting ducks near the lakeshore. They -were black, with non-webbed feet, white/yellow beaks and two- raised eye sockets. As I looked around, a half dozen different- kinds of birds floated in the water near the shore. They -included black and white seagulls, diving ducks, gray ducks with -long curved necks and some geese--all living on a lake at 15,000-feet. The icy water alone would dissuade the heartiest fowl, but -add a few blizzards in the summer, and it is a wonder they would- live there. By the time I finished shooting, heavy snows limited -my visibility to 30 yards. I was cold, shivering and getting wetter as I rode. My gloves were soaked. I kept pedaling along, -figuring two miles could mean anything from 1 to 10. If that -cabin didn't come into view soon, I was going to pitch my tent -and jump into my sleeping bag to save myself from freezing to -death.
The road was getting worse, which meant I was taking jolts- in rapid succession. Keeping my bicycle vertical was a major- consideration. I continued riding through the gray mist and -snowflakes, hoping for a glimpse of the cabin. It's an amazing -feeling being so high in the sky that I was not only in the- snowstorm, I was in the clouds that created the storm. On my- right, the lake was barely visible. Quick glances showed me many- of the black ducks still lining the shore, tucking their heads -back into their feathers to keep warm. With one glance toward -the water, I couldn't believe my eyes. "What in the hell is that -bird doing at this altitude?" I said to myself. "No, it can't be.- I must be losing it." I thought I saw a pink flamingo standing -near the shore.  No way! Not at 15,000 feet! I must be -suffering from hypothermia. Upon a second glance, I saw not one,- but three pink flamingos. These were tropical birds. Why would -they be living at this altitude and in such inhospitable- conditions? No matter how cold I was, I had to get a shot. I -uncovered my camera and snapped two pictures. All the while, I- cursed the border officials. Back on the bike, I told myself one -more mile before tent time. I would catch up to Bryan and Doug- in the morning.
A short time later, I spied the cabin marking the boundary -of Parks Louca National. Bryan stood in the door. By then, a -mantle of white covered the ground. I was numb from the cold. I -cooked some hot soup and retired.
We jumped out of our sleeping bags at sunrise. The sun -melted the snow at the lower elevations. Outside the cabin, -Mount Payachatas was across the lake. Its regal white robe -reflected off the still waters of Chungara. On the shoreline, -the black ducks turned out to be Tagua Gigante. Morning shadows -moved across Mount Payachatas as the sun rose higher. Along the- green moss covered shoreline, four pink flamingos danced in the -water. They dance to stir up the water for their food. We -watched the ritual. As we squatted for pictures Bryan said, "You -know, as mad as I was yesterday at those border guards, I have to -thank them for what we're seeing this morning. This is incredible. When I saw those flamingos through the snow- yesterday, I thought I was suffering from altitude sickness."
"Yeah, me too," I said. "I thought I was seeing things but -here they are."
An hour later, I was several miles behind Bryan and Doug. I was still sick in my guts from some kind of bacteria I picked up in Peru when we hiked to Macchu Picchu. I had suffered the Inca Two Step for weeks.
As I struggled along, I looked up into the sky to see black dots around 18,000 feet. I was at 51,500 myself. Seconds later, to my amazement, two twelve-foot wing spanned condors were gliding 30 feet off my handlebars and looking over at me. I was so flabbergasted, I could hardly speak. They were just curious as they looked over at me.
"My God," I exclaimed. "You guys are enormouslike a couple of B-52 bombers."
They didn't make a sound. I wondered if they thought I was a piece of meat or just invading their air space. My first thought was to get my camera out and take a picture, but to my horror, I had shot the last picture at the border.
Looking back at the two birds, I knew I had made a huge mistake in not reloading the camera. A few seconds later, they both tipped their wings northward and caught an updraft.
They were gone. Minutes later, they were two black specks in the sky. But for me, they will remain 30 feet off my handlebars for the rest of my life. They are the reason I named my touring expedition bike, "Condor." He has taken me to great heights and has helped me fly with the condors in the mountains of South America.
Several hours later, with clouds closing around the higher- elevations of Mount Payachatas, I caught up to Doug and Bryan on a rest break. They were astounded at my story and wished they would have been with me.
The gravel road wound around the backside- of the mountain allowing closer views of its glaciers. Once past -the volcano, the road climbed again onto a rocky plateau. We reached a high point in the highway, then down it fell into dark- green tundra grasses. We rode through alpine terrain. The road- carried us through valleys along braided streams. Ducks lived in- some of the tundra ponds while Vicunas, a wild skinny version of- the llamas, grazed on distant hills. Kangaroo rat creatures -hopped across the road. Down we rumbled, bouncing along the -rocks and ruts in the Camino. The canyon we traveled into grew -wider as the road followed mountain flanks and descended into a- large open area where we could see for miles to the west. -Distinct changes in the vegetation were apparent at the lower elevation. The road hugged the steep sides of the mountains like- a slithering serpent. We rarely pedaled as the road dropped.
From our lofty perches in the high mountains, we plunged- downward along hairpin turns. Soon, the peaks became higher, -more pronounced as we dropped lower. No traffic, save an- occasional rodent scurrying across the road. Trees grew along- the route, then cactus. An hour later and several thousand feet- down, we made our way onto a flat plain that opened into a rock--strewn sand dune valley. Before us, no vegetation, no birds, no- animals, not even a fly--utter desolation--a moonscape of tan,- brown and red canyons. We picked our way along the dirt until we -rode onto asphalt.
For 54 miles, we sailed along the snaking highway that led- through desert dunes. Nothing lived out there.
The wheels spun fast and free. Smiles spread wide across- our faces. At 30 miles, a second canyon joined ours, giving us a -muddy river to follow. It was a world of white dunes and blue- sky.
We rode our bikes into the driest region in the world, the -Atacoma Desert of Chile. A few hours later, we reached the -outskirts of Arica with the Pacific crashing against sandy -beaches. In one day, we had gone from blizzards, glaciers, pink- flamingos and condors to the utter desolation of a desert, by -dropping from 15,500 feet to sea level.
Few raw adventures remain on this crowded planet--the Motto-Grasso Jungle of Brazil, Antarctica, the Australian Outback,- perhaps the deepest reaches of Africa, and the Camino -International Highway of Bolivia and Chile. It was a rough, -merciless road that carried us back through time, up into pure -mountain majesty, and allowed us a glimpse into nature's- showcase. It was an adventure that had to be earned with each- crank of the pedals and the pitching of our tents at every- desolate campsite. But the campsites were the ultimate- experience when we set our front flaps looking into the face of a -howling storm over Mount Sajama, or woke up to a mantle of -white--covering Mount Payachatas--garnished with pink flamingos.
This ride was what we came for. It was the worst. It was the toughest. It was the best.
Excerpt from: Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks for Your Imagination-copies available at 888 280 7715