Copacabana and Lake Titicaca: 9-11 March 2015

Copacabana

9 march 2015
I’m up early for coffee with Brayan before heading to a line of buses near the cemetery in La Paz. By now it’s almost familiar – a man standing by one of the buses shouts COPACABANAAAAAA at everyone passing by and I walk up to him and buy a ticket and eat a quick snack and file onto the bus along with a few other tourists and locals and in a few minutes the bus is climbing up the valley and passing El Alto. We drive through concrete and cinder block suburbs for about an hour. Gradually the landscape opens up to green fields soggy in the rain, sheep and llamas walking next to their colorful cholita shepherds. Soon the fields rise to rolling green hills and the hills rise up to green mountains and a little later through breaks in the clouds the sun sparkles on a bright sapphire lake bounded by steep green peaks.

This is lake Titicaca, the highest lake on earth, and in the Inka philosophy, the place of creation of the Inka people, the sun, and the moon.

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Back on the pavement and past more beautiful rolling hills for an hour or so and finally we’re pulling into a large plaza dotted with kiosks, white colonial buildings with red roofs, and a white cathedral with huge graceful arches framing a stone courtyard. I step out of the bus and wander downhill, toward the edge of the lake. There are two main streets leading down to water, where charming little restaurants have signs and menus written in English on chalkboards out front, and souvenir shops overflow with little llama figurines and Peruvian blankets and macrame bracelets and knitted alpaca sweaters. There are hotels and hospedajes and cheap motels which are confusingly called hostals, but surprisingly there don’t seem to be any classic backpacker hostels here. I wander into Hostal la Libertad which has an open, bright lobby tiled in white with a tall glass entrance. The stony-faced, unsmiling receptionist offers me a private room for 30 bolivianos a night (a little less than $5) and I when I go up to settle my things I see that the room itself is finished but the floor it’s on is bare concrete, with unfinished windows open to the sky. At the end of the hall, past the rooms still under construction, the floor drops off into empty space.

I leave my hotel in the afternoon and wander Copacabana for an hour. The majority of the town is the two touristic streets running parallel to each other, down to the water where flocks of paddle boats sway with the ripples and larger speedboats lie at anchor waiting to take their next cargo of tourists to Isla del Sol. Lots of backpackers wandering around, like me. Further up the hill there’s the plaza and cathedral, and from there the town spreads out into residential streets and then into little farms. I can walk from top to bottom in 30 minutes or so. I wander inside the cathedral, looking at the enormous altar covered in gold plate. Niches along the walls of the sanctuary hold statues of Mary and Joseph, dressed in elaborate royal robes. At the front of the cathedral is a side chapel dedicated to a replica of a famous statue of Mary to which many miracles have been attributed.

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From the cathedral I walk through town toward a steep hill overlooking the water. At the entrance to the hill is an arch announcing the hill as CALVARIO, or Calvary, a name for the hill where Jesus was crucified. My breathing is shallow and I sweat up the steep steps, panting from the altitude (3800 meters, about 12,500 feet). There are stations of the cross carved along the way.

I hope for feelings of reverence as I’m sweating my way up the hill, but I’m distracted by the feeling that this is all very out of place. I can’t forget the history of Bolivia, the conquest of the advanced civilization that was once in power here, the absolute razing of their sacred spaces and their people by the European invaders who justified torture and murder by calling it evangelism. The cathedral and calvario hill feel a little like they were dropped here intact from Europe, cookie-cutter style. At the top of the hill where I rest and eat a grilled trout I bought in town, I watch the sun setting over this huge lake which for the Inkas was traditionally the birthplace of their people, and I think, this could have been such an important pilgrimage site, for the same reasons that the Inkas found it to be a sacred place, and they missed it and built a giant European-style cathedral instead, away from the water which is so important in Christianity – water which is there in the creation story even before light. How did they miss it?

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I’m not able to come up with any satisfying explanation before sunset and I’m tired from the walk, so I stumble back down the dark stone steps and back through the quiet residential streets and on to the loud touristic street and back up to my motel room where I toss and turn for most of the night.

10 march 2015
I’m up early for a humble breakfast of apples and peanut butter and cold rice from my dinner last night, and then I walk down towards the water and pay one of the myriad tour companies for a day trip to Isla del Sol by boat.

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The island has always had people living on it, I learn, maybe as far back as 3000 BC. There are sacred spots where the sun and moon and even people were meant to have been born, and a spring that was supposed to be the fountain of youth, but surrounding these are normal people carrying out their lives raising quinoa and barley and other crops on ancient terraces built into the hills.

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We dock at the north end of the island where there are a few hotels and overpriced restaurants and a map of the ruins and paths on the island. I go with a group and a guide to some of the sacred places – a rock that looks like a puma, a labyrinth in ruins, depressions in the rock that look like footprints and were supposed to be the footprints of the sun. With the tour and the commercialization of the place it’s hard to feel reverent and contemplative, to try and see what the Inkas saw here, but I watch carefully for it anyway.

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After the tour I walk along the path that crosses the island toward the south. At this point I regret not sleeping for a night on the island, because I have to walk very quickly to reach the south end of the island in time for my boat back to Copacabana. The scenery is lovely, tall green hills dotted with little ruins, grazing sheep and llamas, deep blue bays. But i have to speed walk along the path to make it to the boat in time for the hour-long slow journey back to Copacabana, and there I eat a quick dinner with friends who are leaving on an evening bus.

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I go to sleep early again, planning to get up early and take a bus to Arequipa, in Peru. Tonight is my last night in Bolivia.

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia

Torotoro National Park, Bolivia
2 march 2015

We wake up to a quiet morning in Torotoro, the tiny village that’s grown up in an ancient valley full of dinosaur bones and old mysterious caverns.

This day our hired guide takes us out a long Torotoro street paved with pebbles, toward the national park. A herd of sheep passes us, driven by a woman in traditional dress, and we stop by a riverbank where our guide points out nondescript-looking depressions in the stone. They are the tracks of dinosaurs, apparently – apatosaurus and velociraptor – though I still can’t figure out how you tell the tracks apart from random holes in the stone.

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Our Spanish-speaking guide’s name is Macedonio (many times this week Roman and I forget his name and say “I know it’s almost the name of a country…”). He walks quickly over the tumbled stones of a dry riverbed where he tells us he’s been running since he was right. We hike along the boulders to a small natural bridge, and further on to a huge canyon where we see red-fronted macaws circling the thermals in pairs.

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Macedonio hops confidently down steep steps that lead to the bottom of the canyon. He doesn’t look back or walk at our slower pace. This begins to bother me after a while, as I step carefully and slowly to keep from slipping down the steep incline. I think I recognize his attitude from the days when I first began hiking. When you’re in shape the temptation is to show off. For a wilderness guide, this temptation is both stupid and dangerous (I believe), since it doesn’t matter how in shape you are if someone in your group isn’t able to keep up – and furthermore it sets a terrible example for people who aren’t familiar with the terrain or acclimatized to the altitude. I try to stay patient with him and focus on enjoying the scenery.

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At the bottom of the canyon we begin to follow a creek (Macedonio jumps over slick boulders and disappears around blind curves, leaving us to guess at the best route across the stream). I forgive him a little when we come to a wide, brown pool where the stream pans out and mixes with water spilling down the canyon wall in a series of cascades tens of meters high. We change into bathing suits and swim in the cold pool and laugh as we shiver under the cold spray of the waterfall.

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Later as I’m lying in the sun after lunch, the stream starts to rise rapidly. “It’s raining hard in the valley,” Macedonio tells us. In a few minutes it’s gone from a stream to a torrent and the water is at least a meter higher than when we came into the canyon. For some reason Macedonio is ecstatic about this really quite dangerous situation. Roman and I shake our heads and wait an hour for the water to go down while Macedonio walks around giggling and taking photos. We navigate out the canyon over high water (sometimes through it, holding hands to keep from falling). Macedonio decides to climb a random boulder, about 5 meters high, while we wait for another group to pass. Later we drip up the steep steps we came down earlier and Macedonio lags behind us, exhausted from climbing, stopping to splash water on his face and rest.

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In the afternoon we meet him for a visit to a tiny, shabby building displaying fossils and bones they’ve found near torotoro. It’s an interesting exhibit but Macedonio rushes us through it. On the roof of the building he talks to us about the land his family owns, the area surrounding the building where they’ve found fossils and turtle skeletons. We walk through a corner of a fenced-off acre of red dirt and he shows us how to see where the white half-moon skeletons of turtles lie buried in the brown hills.

Macedonio leaves us for the day a few hours before sunset. I want to explore the town so we walk up smooth, worn pebble streets towards the hills. Old ladies walking past with their long braids swaying and old men sitting in benches in the shade of mud walls greet us with buenas tardes as we walk past. It’s only a few blocks of white-painted adobe buildings with their red-tiled roofs, and then the houses are concrete or brick again and in a couple more blocks there aren’t blocks anymore and the countryside opens up into rolling fields.

But we’re not going to the rolling fields, we’re exploring town, and our exploration takes us to a little cafe run by a talkative old Bolivian man with a Swiss espresso machine (Roman is excited about this). The man calls me muñeca (doll) like it’s 1950 and brings me an aperitif of gin and sweet grapefruit soda.

We’re tired from the hike and the simple, delicious dinner we eat in the restaurant of the hotel where we stay. I go to bed early.

3 march 2015
We’re up early for breakfast and our meeting with Macedonio. He takes us out of town in a sturdy white jeep, up green hills laced with granite shelves tilted into a bowl. Torotoro huddles at the base of one of these shelves.

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The red road flattens out at the top of the ridge with deep valleys opening out on either side. To the south I can see a pale road tracing the contours of deep, green hills and leading away into the mountains. Soon we turn west and enter a kind of promenade of boulders bigger than houses. Macedonio stops at one of these to show us a protected space where pre-inca indigenous people likely took shelter. There are faint red paintings on the walls – just lines – of mountains, people, rivers.

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Further along the boulder field we take another rapid walk, Macdonio skipping along the path. He’s so far ahead that we don’t see him half the time and have to guess at his route. Once I sink to my shins in mud, not having seen him flit over a subtle stone pathway through the bog.

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Macedonio’s carelessness is irritating me and making it hard for me to appreciate our next stop, a complex of giant stones worn into weird shapes by erosion. They call this the little city – there are rocks that look like cathedrals, palaces, an open square of grass like a central plaza. It’s a little strange to be taken on a tour of something that has only imaginary significance. The ancient people didn’t actually use this network of stones like a city, and neither are they geologically significant. I wish we had been allowed to explore the rocks on our own and create our own story.

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At lunch I rinse the mud off my chucks. We take the jeep back down into the valley and along a little dirt path to the entrance to a cave that Torotoro is famous for. It’s a wide, tall mouth full of large broken stones in a huge arch set into a stony hill. In the far corner the cave narrows and becomes tinier and soon we’re crouching and squatting and shuffling along on our hands and knees and squeezing through a tunnel into a stone chamber under the earth. After a few meters we can stand up again. In the beams of our headlamps we can see elegant, strange stalactites in improbable formations that look like trees or blood vessels or somebody’s brain. I’ve never been in a proper cave before and I find it fascinating. Sometimes we can walk, sometimes Macedonio has us slide down smooth rock slopes, holding on to anchored ropes for support, sometimes we have to squeeze through more tunnels. Halfway through the cave we switch off our headlamps and sit in silence and darkness under the earth for a minute, listening to the distant rush of an underground river.

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Up and out the exit to the cave and Macedonio is practically running. We squeeze through tunnels barely big enough to fit through, climb up and down ropes, and slide down rock chutes at a breakneck pace. Later Macedonio tells us he decided to rush us through the cave because he was afraid of a flash flood that would swell the underground river where we follow its course; but in the cave he says nothing about this (perhaps wisely).

In the afternoon after Macedonio leaves us for the day, Roman and I walk the course of the river that flows through Torotoro, building stone cairns and skipping rocks in the river. We climb a hill overlooking the tiny colonial town to watch the sun set.

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I sleep early again. I’m exhausted from keeping up with Macedonio today. Our tour is technically over, and tomorrow we take buses from Torotoro all the way out to Cochabamba and up to La Paz.

Cochabamba, Bolivia

27 February 2015

18:30 – Roman and I arrive exactly on time and find our bus parked behind Sucre’s terminal, looking far shabbier and worn than in the picture the man at the ticket office showed me. My armrest is fraying and the seat squeaks as I sit down, but it is actually pretty comfortable. As I get up for one last bathroom run – there’s no bathroom on the bus – a man in an aisle seat grumbles about the supposed “semi-camas” (reclining seats) that the bus company advertised. The seats aren’t terribly uncomfortable, but the guy at the ticket office was definitely exaggerating when he said the bus was a “luxury”. Truthfully, I think I prefer the cheap local bus to a luxury bus anyway, at least for short trips.

18:49 – puffs of black smoke drift by my window as the engine rumbles to a gentle start. The sun sets before long and I’m asleep soon after.

3:00 – Roman and I drag ourselves groggily off the bus and into the terminal. It’s big and echoes like a gymnasium – even at this hour – with the shouts of bus company operators screaming out destinations. We’re both a little dazed. We don’t have a hostel to go to – there don’t seem to be many traditional backpacker hostels in Cochabamba – but we can’t stay in the cacophonous terminal, either. After sitting and blinking sleepily for a few minutes we decide to try one of the hostels listed in Lonely Planet. We take a taxi downtown to the first place the book suggests – depressing and barren-looking as a jail. We walk through deserted streets to another potential hostel – no room. Finally we find a cheap hotel with clean rooms and soft beds and pass out for a few hours.

28 February 2015

Roman and I switch hostels – we try a hostel listed on hostelworld in the hopes of finding a backpacker crowd, a few other travelers we can exchange tips with. But the hostel – rather a beautiful guesthouse – is completely empty. We pay 100 bolivianos each for beds in a dormitory that’s empty except for us.

Cochabamba by daylight is much lovelier than at night. Like Sucre, there are colonial buildings, but the city has a decidedly modern feel, and a far busier pace. It seems to me to be a wealthy city. We eat more mysterious Bolivian food in a pretty restaurant, then go in search of a tour operator to take us to the nearby national park Torotoro. We ask for directions to tourist information centers, which we never find, and eventually end up stumbling on a tour agency that seems about to close for the siesta. A friendly Bolivian man inside gives us some options for a tour of the national park. The prices are good – about $150 each for a three day tour – and we arrange to leave the following day.

In the afternoon we walk up to a huge hill dominating Cochabamba, on top of which stands the largest Jesus statue in the world – taller even than the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio. We ride the cable cars up – signs at the bottom of the hill bluntly state that people who walk up are likely to get robbed – and come out on top of the hill to a view of a huge city sprawling through two adjoining valleys. High-rise office and apartment buildings dominate downtown Cochabamba, while the city spreads out away from them, big and urban and busy.

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In the evening we go to a restaurant called Casablanca where I try ceviche – actually a specialty of Peru – that must have the juice of 20 limes in it. On the way back to the hostel we stop by an Irish pub where Roman orders a quinoa beer, which we’ve started seeing more of in the Andes. It turns out to have been made from barley with quinoa added in for laughs I guess, meaning it’s not gluten free. I think this seems like a cruel joke and if makes me glad I haven’t ordered one.

1 march 2015

A new day, a new month, the beginning of my sixth month of travel. I check my calendar and see it’s actually been six months plus one week since I left the US. It doesn’t feel like that long. I thought by now I would feel tired, lonely, worn out, ready to go home. Instead I feel relaxed. The more I travel, the more I get used to living out of a backpack, the more Spanish I learn and the more people I talk to, the more I come to know myself well and really understand what I want to see and do when I travel. I travel better the longer I’m at it. And the trip doesn’t feel long. In fact it feels more like two or three different trips than one: there was the time before I could really speak Spanish, when I was more of an outsider; there was my long stay in Buenos Aires and my depression there; and there was the day I left Buenos Aires and really started moving and the road trip began. And now in some ways it feels like another trip is just beginning.

A new month, a new day. Today Roman and I decide to visit the nearby town of Quillacollo where there’s meant to be a large Sunday market. We take a “trufi”; not quite a taxi and not quite a bus, it’s a minivan that I would normally say seats about 8 people plus the driver, but I think we squeeze in 12. As in most countries outside the US, personal space is much much smaller than what Americans assume is the norm – so sometimes you’re pressed in between two strangers. Four people squeeze together on a bench seat, and special folding seats built into the aisles spring out to make use of every available spot. When someone in the back wants to get out, the people in the folding seats have to get out too to make way.

We grab a trufi in Cochabamba and take the 45 minute trip to Quillacollo. We keep thinking we’re going to miss the market – it’s always a gamble when you take public transit somewhere you’ve never been – but finally we’re in downtown Quillacollo and there’s no mistaking it. It’s a madhouse, throngs of people everywhere and the trufi inching through the crowd of people crossing the street. At first all we can see is the crowd, locals bustling back and forth and around the street, indigenous women with brightly colored striped blankets tied on their backs (sometimes there’s a baby tucked back there, or a load of potatoes or rice), and here the style of hat they wear is a simple wide-brimmed hat in white or tan, a sort of lacy texture with flowers tucked in somewhere.

Once we’re off the trufi and slipping into the moving tide of people, there are the stalls selling fried fish, batteries, razors, heads of pick axes, secondhand clothing, toothpaste, underwear; ragged plastic tarps swaying loosely as the ladies running the stalls slap their towels languidly at clouds of flies. We wander the aisles. Each street has its sellers: a street for shoes piled neatly in stacks, a street for fresh-squeezed fruit juices, a street for bouquets, a street for restaurants. The food market takes place under a pavilion in the center of the block of stalls, divided into alleys. There are pyramids of bananas, oranges, cactus fruit, huge papayas and avocados, piles of peaches, apples, and mangos. In the butcher stalls we see piles of chicken heads and feet.

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We stop to drink fresh-squeezed peach juice with cinnamon and a sweet peeled peach at the bottom of the cup. While we sit with our cups an old woman approaches Roman and tries to negotiate the sale of his backpack in Quechua (an indigenous language). She’s at it for about five minutes before we finally make her understand that we don’t speak Quechua.

Later we rest in a plaza and eat chantilly, a cup of red jello with a quivering tower of soft meringue on top. Four teenage boys have a small speaker hooked up to someone’s iPod and are practicing breakdancing in the center of a gazebo. Old couples, young children, and teenaged girls in indigenous clothing eat chantilly under the tall graceful arches of the gazebo and look on as the teenagers slide their sneakers over the polished stones and make flips and headstands one after another.

In Cochabamba we meet Eddy, the travel agent who takes us by taxi to the bus for Torotoro. At the stop we’re waiting in our squeaky seats for a few minutes when it becomes apparent that the bus company made a mistake and all the seats on the bus have been sold to two different people. After an hour of scrambling, every seat is full and people are sitting on benches squeezed in the aisle. Two skinny kids share the seat next to me. I offer my seat to the older boy when I see his head start to droop and he nearly slides onto the floor. He falls asleep right away with his head on Roman’s shoulder while I stand in the aisle.

Roman and I take turns standing for the rest of the winding, bumpy road to Torotoro. Sometimes the bus leans a little going around a curve and I look down and see a cliff half a meter from the bus tires. Just after midnight we’re in town, a few adobe buildings fading into darkness, and our park guide greets us yawning and points us to a cheap hotel where we bang on the door and stumble into our room for the night.

9-10 February 2015: La Serena

9 February 2015
10:46 – last minute packing in the hostel and a quick goodbye walk through Valparaiso, and now I’m on the bus headed to Concon (a suburb north of Valparaiso) where I’ll begin the day’s hitchhiking journey. I checked most of the boxes on the touristy list of things you’re supposed to do in Valparaiso, but I’m still leaving with the feeling that I haven’t really seen the city. I couldn’t manage to open my eyes wide enough, my arms wide enough, my mouth big enough to swallow the city in four short days. I found it enchanting. Where else have I been – where else will I ever be? – with so many hidden alleys filled not with broken glass and piles of trash but with mysterious, rickety staircases leading to hidden murals and beautiful painted houses tucked behind blind turns in the hills?

11:19 – the bus passes through Viña del Mar – the resort-style town in the far suburbs of Valparaiso. No charming alleyways and corrugated metal houses here – we speed along carefully manicured wide avenues free of graffiti and trash, bounded by perfect little plots of grass and boxy hedges. 20-story resort hotels tower across from a wide, modern boardwalk. In the States this place wouldn’t feel out of place, but it’s jarring after bohemian Valparaiso. It feels plastic.

12:09 – time to start hitchhiking. I find my spot – a wide sandy shoulder by the road leading north out of Concon. I’ve got two choices here – the scenic coastal road or the eastern highway that leads to the big interstate that runs the length of Chile. I pick the eastern highway since I’ve got a long way to go today: La Serena is nearly 600 kilometers away.

12:25 – a security police van flashes its lights at me and backs up across the road. I’m sure hitchhiking is legal in Chile – maybe it’s only in certain places? I scuff my feet anxiously in the dirt as the driver rolls down his window. “Hey, chica! This is the wrong road for La Serena. Try the coastal highway,” the driver yells at me with a grin. “Good luck!” I laugh at myself and haul my bag across to the opposite intersection. It’s still a little surreal to get advice from a police officer on the best place to hitchhike.

12:33 – a sleek white Volvo pulls over and the elegant woman in the front seat tells me they’re headed to La Serena. That’s pretty amazing luck – it’s late in the day and I was sure I’d be looking at five or six short rides and maybe not making it the whole way today. I hop in and meet Victor, who’s driving, and Marsela. She works in security, he in taxes. They tell me a little about their family – three children – and their vacation to La Serena as we head north.

Along the way we chat sporadically, my limited Spanish and their Chilean accents a barrier to easy conversation. I haven’t really mastered the ability to converse comfortably in a new language. I’ve met travelers who speak less Spanish than I do but are far more adept at jumping in to conversations (Europeans especially are good at this), so I think there’s a skill to it, but I haven’t picked it up yet. Still, Marsela and Victor are kind and generous. We stop for lunch at a little diner and they insist on paying for my meal. They tell me I’m the first hitchhiker they’ve ever picked up, and they treat me more like a daughter than a stranger they picked up by the side of the road.

19:02 – I hop a bus for downtown La Serena after I hug Marsela and Victor goodbye. We killed the last few hours dancing to Victor’s mixtapes of Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse while he gunned the Volvo through dry hilly landscape along the edge of the sea. Now I’ve entered a low, dingy urban sprawl surrounding La Serena. People say it’s a beautiful town but right now I mostly see dirt and cookie cutter houses and dying trees. I try to remind myself that cities never look beautiful from the outskirts.

20:00 – a fellow backpacker I vaguely recognize greets me as I’m checking into my hostel. Worn out from the road, I don’t make the connection until a couple of hours later – he’s Boris, a Dutch traveler I met about three weeks ago in Puerto Natales. I never guessed we’d see each other again. The coincidences of life on the road continue to surprise me.

10 February 2015
12:00 – Boris and I pay 3000 pesos each (about $5) for a bus to Pisco Elqui, a small town nestled in the Elqui valley east of La Serena.

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The bus takes us deep into a valley carved into steep, high mountains mainly bare of vegetation; rocky, red hills crowding each other as they rise ever higher into the chain of the Andes. Streams and trickles of streams drip along the valley floor and there’s a narrow band of green trees and short grasses running along the cleft of the valley. We pass the town of Vicuña and the valley blossoms, becoming greener and more lush. We begin to see rows of grapevines, some heavy with fruit. I see that in some of the vineyards, fine pale lengths of very thin fabric hang in long stretches above the grape vines, but I’m not able to figure out why only some of the grapes are covered.

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14:40 – after a surprisingly long but beautiful bus ride, we’re hopping out of the bus right in front of the Pisco distillery, and we sign up for a tour in the lovely, colonial-style building that serves as a reception area. Just inside, a cool airy courtyard houses a restaurant serving rich-looking families amazing-smelling food.

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Apparently the Spanish brought grapes to this part of Chile but weren’t able to grow dry grapes for proper wine. Instead they began distilling the sweet wine that their grapes produced into a strong liquor – Pisco. The distillation process looks interesting and the historical artifacts are nicely preserved, but I’m left with the feeling I usually get on winery tours – the part of the winery that you actually visit never seems to be the area where the majority of the production happens, rather a separate section reserved just for tourists. I dislike the inauthenticity. But I don’t dislike it so much that I can’t enjoy the Pisco tasting at the end of the tour or the free Pisco sour afterwards. Boris and I relax on the patio, talking with a guy from Sweden who’s been studying in Santiago for a few months.

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16:55 – Boris and I decide to try our luck hitchhiking back to La Serena. We ask around a little at a parking lot but all the cars are full or everyone’s going somewhere else. I make a sign – I always have better luck hitchhiking with signs – and we start walking along the road out of town. After about 15 minutes of trudging, holding my sign up, waving, and smiling, a big pickup truck pulls over and the family inside gives us a friendly wave. There are a couple of hitchhikers already squeezed into the bed of the pickup, but there’s room for two more of us. As the truck picks up speed we chat with our fellow hitchhikers, a couple traveling around Chile together. They’re musicians – he’s carrying a ukelele and a music stand made out of bamboo.

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This is my first ride in the back of a pickup truck – I think it’s one of the classic hitchhiking experiences, like getting a ride with a trucker. I’m actually a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be. I guess he’s driving around 100 kilometers per hour, and the wind is strong but not so strong we can’t have a conversation. I’m not really worried about bouncing out of the truck, but I still keep a firm hold on the lift gate just in case. Boris doesnt seem worried.

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We’re back in La Serena just as night falls. Tomorrow is a traveling day again, headed far, far to the north and the driest desert in the world, Atacama.

Recovery in El Bolson

19 January 2015
13:45 – this is a day for recovery. I’m wrapped in the covers of my narrow hostel top bunk, streaming a forgettable English-language movie. What I saw of El Bolson looked beautiful when I ventured out to buy groceries, but two solid days of Spanish, forced interaction, and uncertain plans have worn this introvert out, and I’ve come into a hostel full of vacationing Argentines – no easy camaraderie with other English-speaking foreigners here. Normally I’d be thrilled to escape the typical hostel environment and meet more South Americans, but today I begin to truly appreciate for the first time the comfort of speaking one’s mother tongue and the feeling of camaraderie you get from meeting other foreign travelers. I don’t have the energy for anything except a few brief words with the travelers coming and going in the overcrowded, stuffy dorm.

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20 January 2015:
11:35 – I wander through the artisan market in the main plaza : vegan street food and clocks made out of old gnarly tree slices and picture frames with dried flowers under glass and handmade puzzles and notebooks and bookmarks and countless macrame bracelets and silver jewelry and incense and windchimes – and that’s just the first block of the market that covers the square.

I think this is El Bolson’s strength, this market. I heard people describe El Bolson as a sort of hippy haven, and I think it may have been a few years ago, but now I’ve found it depressingly commercial: where I expected to see charming humble little incense stores run by locals, I find a boxy ugly supermarket stuffed with overpriced meats, and “natural” shops selling hideously expensive health products with ugly labels and pushy salespeople, and restaurants advertising organic vegetarian meals that cost a small fortune. If this is a haven for hippies, the hippies in this part of the country must be pretty rich.

On the other hand, the artisan market seems to stay true to a tradition of simple goodness – high-quality crafts sold by gentle, friendly locals who insist on wrapping your 30-peso bookmark carefully and lovingly in soft paper to protect it while you travel. The natural surroundings, too, defy commercialization. Charming bungalow houses line quiet streets and it seems every family keeps a rose garden. A mountain ridge towers somewhat alarmingly (yet majestically) over the village, steep and close enough that you may glance up expecting to see sky and find a wall of old granite in your line of sight instead.

I spend the morning wandering in the market. Vendors shyly ask me where I’m from and smile when they show me their wares. I amble around the quiet neighborhood surrounding my hostel. The perfume of rose gardens follows me down every street.

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15:43 – a brief nap on the edge of lake Puelo and a few sketches fill my afternoon; steak dinner and quiet conversation with a porteño guy from buenos aires fill my evening.

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21 January 2015:
13:58 – I’ve looked up “cajon” in my dictionary and found a translation of something like “drawer” or “box”; when I finally reach the impressively deep swimming hole at the end of a dry, dusty hike, I think I get the concept though I can’t come up with a satisfying English translation. “Cajon azul” (blue hole? Blue drawer? Blue box?) is freezing cold, painfully cold, but crystal clear. I’m not brave enough to dive straight in like some of the other hikers, so I wade in and swim further downstream, hiking clothes and all. The air is clear and dry here and my shorts dry on my body as I hike back through quiet forests and steep dusty hills.

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The mountains here make up for El Bolson’s commercialized atmosphere, I think. The hike is hot and difficult, especially for this out of shape traveler, but the scenery is rewarding. Along the way back to town I meet Alejandro from Neuquen and Serrana from Uruguay, who tell me about a several-day trek they’ve just completed. It’s possible to spend several days hiking in the mountains among the hidden mountain lakes and little streams, eating at the refugios and camping or sleeping in basic cabins along the way.

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My last night in El Bolson is as quiet as the first. I never really connect with the town and I’m ready to move on.

Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 4

Tuesday, December 30
4:30 – dawn. I look out woozily at the sunrise and take some pictures from inside my dream state before falling back asleep.

7:03 – another province crossing, which means another stop to check passports and documents. Yesterday we crossed two provinces – Chubut and Comodoro Rivadavia. Now we’re entering Santa Cruz. As far as I can tell, there’s still a possibility that I’ll get to Rio Gallegos in time for my next bus, but every time we stop I get a little anxious.

9:50 – against all my worries and expectations, we arrive at Rio Gallegos with an hour to spare before I have to catch my next bus. The bus drivers distribute migration forms for Chile, and I realize we’re going to pass through the southern tip of the country on the way to Ushuaia. I feel a little dumb for not realizing we would pass through Chile; they are strict about fruits and vegetables so my enormous supply of oranges will get me in trouble at the border. I trash them and now I’m down to half a bag of rice crackers to last me the next twelve hours.

11:10 – Chilean border crossing. A group of travelers on our bus must have gone grocery shopping in Rio Gallegos. They have a shopping bag full of cucumbers and carrots that they’re peeling and eating quickly outside the hut that houses the border officials and security line. On the other side of the arch displaying the Chilean crest, I can see guanacos grazing in the field.

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Chile is strict about food crossing its borders. There are piles of apples, a peach, and a jar of honey abandoned by other travelers in little corners of the border crossing hut.

12:16 – we cross the border and I’m in a new country. Under the arch a grey fox loiters waiting for scraps of food and looking elegant and sleek like all foxes do. Back on the bus, we pass rolling hills covered in the same low vegetation I’ve been seeing for the past few days. There are few trees. I see lots of guacanos in the fields (they are of the llama family but light brown in color). I also see a huge ostrich-like bird that I think is a Rhea, surrounded by fuzzy awkward looking chicks, and lots of sheep.

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12:56 – we arrive at a terminal where a ferry waits to take our bus across a narrow channel of water. Oscar, my seatmate on the bus, tells me that here the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mix together. We’ve reached the end of the continental landmass and are heading towards the islands of Tierra del Fuego.

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15:00 – I’m meditating when I feel the bus turn around. We’re probably 10 kilometers down a gravel road through picturesque farms and countryside, and now we’re heading back the way we came, back toward the direction of the ferry crossing. I ask Oscar, who used to live in Ushuaia and made this crossing many times, if he knows why we turned. He shrugs, not concerned. I relax a little too. Maybe it’s the mediation, or maybe I’m finally starting to get it through my head what it means to be outside the US, to be in a place where things don’t always happen on time down to the second, where sometimes the gravel road floods and you take a different route and arrive a few hours late. It happens and you shrug and don’t let it ruin your day. I guess I thought this was already my philosophy – don’t let a change of plans ruin your day – but it’s more challenging to apply to travel, when you have bought tickets in advance or made reservations or have to meet someone at a certain time.

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17:20 – border crossing back into Argentina. This one is weird. Instead of the usual desk with two border agents seated next to each other, this time I get my exit stamp from Chile and get told to get back on the bus. I assume I’ll get the Argentine entry stamp later and try not to fret about it – we drive for a few kilometers and stop at a different building for the Argentine migration. It’s raining now and the gently rolling green countryside reminds me of Ireland, especially with the rain.

19:15 – Rio Grande bus terminal. They have a bowling alley for some reason. I say goodbye to Oscar. He spent the last leg of the trip telling me about his life in Jujuy, where he lived on an Indian reservation for some time, and teaching me some words in Quechua, an indigenous language. My favorite is “uj”, the word for one, which sounds a little like “oof”.

220 kilometers to Ushuaia. I go back to reading Richard Harris’ biography of Che Guavara.

20:51 – we pass a large body of water surrounded by mountains. It’s beautiful, and reminds me of Tahoe. I think again for the thousandth time that Reno really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve lived.

22:15 – we arrive in Ushuaia and I hop a taxi to the house of some Couchsurfers where I’m staying for a few days. They’re three guys who work in tourist agencies around town, and from the second I step in the door they treat me more like a roommate than a guest. I’m sleeping on a big comfortable mattress on the floor of the living room and after we visit for an hour or so I curl up exhausted under the blankets and pass out.

Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 2

Saturday, December 27
18:40 – I’m standing alongside the road out of town, holding my thumb out with one hand and a paper sign reading “Tornquist” in the other, wondering if this will work. Although I’ve always said I would never hitchhike alone, especially not in a foreign country, I’m bending my rules now. I had two women from the town tell me to try it, and I’m feeling confident enough in both my instincts about people and my willingness to speak up if I don’t feel comfortable riding with someone to give it a shot. I’ve never hitchhiked before. You only live once, right?

Flash back to an hour ago – I mosey over to the bus stop a little early, not having the energy for anything else after the sweltering afternoon, and hear my new least favorite Spanish phrase a second time – “el micro se rompio”. My language skills start to crumble as I panic, realizing that a later bus won’t get me to Bahia Blanca in time to make my connection. I need to work out an alternate plan entirely through conversation in a language I barely speak. I’m overwhelmed for a few minutes and at a loss for what to do, but the woman at the bus company is patient and talks slowly and finally finds me a connection in a neighboring town that will get me there with an hour to spare. The only problem? There are no buses going to this neighboring town and a taxi will cost me $300 pesos. “No, esta demasiado caro, tenga que ir con dedo,” she instructs me, sticking her thumb out to demonstrate. I consider paying the extra cash for the taxi – I’m a woman, traveling alone, white, with limited Spanish… but then I think, you know what, you came here for a challenge, you came here to grow more confident and think creatively and not just throw money at your problems, so go on. Give it a try. If anything feels wrong you can go back to the bus office and have them call you a taxi.

6:55 – I assume the biggest problem will be finding a ride, but I’ve only been waiting 15 minutes when a big red pickup truck pulls over and an old man in a faded tshirt and worn jeans opens the door. He looks like the kind of guy you would call to fix your furnace or help landscape your garden. I generally trust my instincts about people, and I don’t sense any danger from this guy, so I sling my bag down in the floor of the truck and hop in.

It turns out my driver repairs roofs for a living – like his grandfather, father, and three sons. His name is Roberto (I think) and he tells me the names of all his children and his niece and nephew, though I’ve forgotten them now. His grandparents are from Germany. He asks if I speak any German – “nein” – so we make do with Spanish, and I think I mis-conjugate all my verbs but we get by.

We drive through stunningly beautiful hill country that reminds me again of northern Nevada and parts of southern Wyoming. I’m astonished at how lovely the countryside is here – I remember my friend Camilo and his bicycle trip through this part of South America and feel a little jealous. Roberto must be used to taking passengers along, because he narrates the drive: here you can see trees blackened by a fire last year and already covered by new growth. There’s the famous ventana (window) rock formation – he stops so I can take pictures. In this unassuming little building he knows a guy with a well who bottles mineral water. We pass a cyclist chugging along against the wind – he knows him, too. He tells me the names of the counties as we pass them and shows me where they’re building a new walking path into town. He tells me he’s 77, though he looks to be in his 50s. “Que es el secreto? Agua mineral?” I ask. “Cerveza!” he chortles.

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By 19:45 I’m at the bus terminal in time for my new connection, giving Roberto a handshake goodbye and feeling giddy for having done something new and scary and probably a little dangerous and to have had it go so well.

20:28 – and just like that, I’m on the bus headed for my connection in Bahia Blanca. This had better work.

21:04 – a spectacular lightning storm flickers in the west. The bus is almost empty so I move to a window seat where I can watch the storm. I look up the Spanish word for lightning – relámpago. My previous fantasies about how much fun it would be to travel by bike start to fade as the wind picks up and starts to sway the bus back and forth across the road. The rain splatters the windshield and roof.

21:45 – despite the rain, it’s a suspiciously easy and on time arrival. After all the other adventures today, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sunday, December 28
00:30 – the bus departs 45 minutes late – no big deal – and finally, I’m on a bus and the bus is going to puerto madryn and if we are lucky the bus will keep running all the way to where it’s going. God, I’m tired.

7:11 – I open my eyes to low, scrubby vegetation, thin yellow grass, and sandy-looking soil. I don’t see the ocean but it looks like we’re close. “Donde estamos?” I ask my seatmate. “San Antonio”.

7:30 – next stop is Las Grutas. I almost stayed here too, but it was going to be too difficult to time the bus journeys. As we leave I listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco. It’s supposed to be a good album for bus rides, according to a forum I found on Reddit. I watch stray dogs lope along sandy paths between painted sculptures of cartoon characters. I can see the ocean now in glimpses as the dunes rise and fall to my left.

8:00 – one of the bus attendants hands me a packet of instant coffee and an alfajor. I forgot I got a “semi cama con servicio” ticket for this journey – I guess this is the “con servicio” part. I eat the alfajor even though it isn’t gluten free. I forgot to pack enough gluten free snacks for this bus journey and I’m already starving. It shouldn’t cause any problems, or in any case my stomach is already so disrupted from lack of sleep that it probably won’t notice a little gluten thrown in the mix.

10:52 – I’ve been reading a book about Che Guavara when the bus turns slightly and rounds a corner and there is the ocean spread out in front of us with the brown and yellow landscape coming down to meet it. There’s a large town here that must be puerto madryn – I can see large ships in the harbor and highrise buildings clustered together. This is my stop for the day.