Sunday, 10 September 2017

Uyuni to La Paz

Walking along the tracks
As things sometimes go, I got sick shortly after Fidgit was feeling better. We believe it was with the same illness, because the symptoms were the same. We were still in Uyuni as I was getting sick, but decided to try and move anyway because Uyuni is an expensive (by Bolivian standards) tourist town. We 'slack-packed' as far out of Uyuni as we could with day packs, and then rode a bus to the next large town, Oruro. I was so grateful to have a more than competent hiking partner during that time, because I was basically useless. I just shuffled along behind her, blowing my nose, coughing and wheezing.

It was very interesting to walk along the Salar de Uyuni and get to see it from a different angle than many of the tourists. It was also quite flat and cold, so we mostly moved along with our heads into the wind. As we walked past the Salar, the land began to slowly rise and we went between some stone upheavals. I don't think they were large enough to be considered mountains, but they mounded around next to and above us for about a day of walking.

Views of the hills across the Altiplano
Some of the buildings we quite abandoned
The ground leveled out once more, and we found ourselves in another basin, this one a few hundred feet higher than the previous one. Oddly, the wind wasn't gusting as much and the temperatures seemed to be higher - perhaps from the wind not gusting as much. We walked through multiple small towns along this stretch, many of them contained roofless clay buildings and seemed to be somewhat abandoned. Talking with some of the people in the campo, it sounded like many of them are moving into the cities for better job prospects. Looking out at the vast, barren landscape, I could only imagine what their prospects were in the campo versus in a city.

We were able to follow the railroads for much of the way into Oruro, walking and walking for what felt like forever to the edge of a grand lake. Across this lake, we could see the rise that Oruro sat nestled at the base of. Surprisingly(to me), the train tracks did not skirt around this shallow body of water, instead it cut through the lake directly towards the city. Walking that section was a welcome repreive from the massive expanse of altiplano that we walked to get there.

Nearly every town had a sign at one end
Walking into the sun
North of Oruro, the altiplano resumed and we walked as fast as we could. Another bout with illness impeded our attempts at walking 30+ kilometer days, but we were able to rest and come back with a vengeance.  A day north of Oruro, we caught our first glimpse of the mountains. Our physical eyes had finally gotten to see what our mental eyes had been seeing since at least northern Argentina a month or so ago. Spirits lifted, we still had to walk  there. As we neared La Paz, the ground began to rise and fall again - hills! I thought I missed being in the mountains, but these hills were also a welcome reprieve from the monotony.

The other change as we neared La Paz was the number of people we would see. In the towns we passed through, people were out and about. They were mostly stand-offish, but we had learned that is just the Bolivian way - similar to perception of east coasters in the US, minus the passive aggression. Everyone we interacted with was kind and helpful. As we continued north, many of the community members were curious and then didn't believe when we told them what we were doing. Though I think our beat up shoes and sunglasses tans told the truth for us.
No shade unless we created it

Nearing the outskirts of the city of El Alto (ok, so we didn't actually walk into downtown La Paz), we were met with more stares, and also more people keeping to themselves. I expected this from a big city, though it is nice you can still get a response from someone when you say "Buen dia"- they will nearly always respond in kind. Walking into the bustling city, we were concerned at first because cities are stressful. However, it was surprisingly easy to find our way around. We made it to our rented apartment with no problems and flopped onto the couches, ready for a much-deserved rest and some tasty city food.
We found water! And wildlife!

Nearing the end of the line

Fidgit talking with a local herds-woman

More statues appeared as we neared La Paz

Mountains! We are so excited to get back into them!

La Paz's Teleferico system- the quickest and quietest
way to get from El Alto to city center down in the canyon

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Villazon to Uyuni

A kind Bolivian border guard posed for a
photo with us at the border!
We were unsure what to expect from Bolivia, our first 'new' country since we entered Chile across the Straight of Magellan. We had asked around, and heard many differing opinions both on crossing the border as well as about the people of Bolivia, so we just decided to see what we would see - as per usual. The border town of Villazon was bustling with life as we searched around for a hostel. We were able to find one easily, though thankfully it was just for a night, as we had to climb three flights of stairs to our room! Fidgit and I were able to resupply that evening, though it entailed far more stores and markets than resupplying in Argentina.

Fidgit walking and talking with a local
We walked out of Villazon the next morning, leaving behind stray dogs and cat-calling men to walk along an old dirt road into the campo. Along the way, we met an older woman who Fidgit chatted with for a while - she was walking home from getting supplies 'in the city'. She left us at the first small pueblo, and we carried on, crossing multiple dry river beds before calling it a day along a small flowing creek.

Looking for trail
Packing up camp
The next morning, we followed a road that turned into an animal trail up and up to get over a pass. At the pass, our animal path disappeared for a moment, then reemerged on the other side as an obvious old two-track that we followed down past a few abandoned buildings to another tiny village. At this point, we were low on water and trying to make it to the next possible source before our lunch break. We followed another dry river bed to the next small town and found the river was running! Grateful, we stocked up on water and sat in the shade of a nearby tree for our break. Much to our delight, a bus began meandering its way up the riverbed. We watched it trundle past, and decided that must be a faster way to walk as well, since the vehicles are taking it. We followed the crude 'river road' and it led us down along the river bed and through/past the next few towns along the way. This option worked so well for us that we followed it for the next few days, getting water from the towns or the river(when it was running above-ground) As we neared Tupiza, the riverbed left us and we followed another dirt track up and over a pass into Tupiza, of course going through the town dump along the way.

Arriving in Tupiza, we found our way to a hostel to get cleaned up and get some work done. The women at the front were nice and gave us information about the area. We nearly had the hostel to ourselves, and were able to get work and laundry (!) done before leaving town.

Fidgit following old two-track towards town
Leaving Tupiza, we followed the river valley that continued past many small pueblos. Thankfully, Fidgit talked to a few people in the pueblos, and they told us that the river would end a few kilometers before we went over a pass to the next town. Ever grateful for local knowledge, we filled our water up at the spring, and were able to follow the train tracks along the edge of the valley up and up to an elevation of around 4,000 meters (12,000 ft). From there, we crossed and walked down a meandering river valley to the town of Atoche.

Neon along the river
While trying to find a place to stay in Atoche, we discovered there was a regional event going on, so most rooms were booked for the night. We ended up finding a very scuzzy place, sleeping in our sleeping bags atop the covers, and heading out of town the next morning quickly. The trouble with that was Fidgit was not feeling well, and a poor night's sleep mixed with altitude and dehydration was not helping. We did make it to the next town that day, and decided to catch a regional bus into the larger town of Uyuni so Fidgit could get better rest to help her illness.

Fidgit crossing a RR bridge leaving Tupiza
After Fidgit was able to rest in Uyuni for a couple of days, we then came back to the small town we had left off at and made our way to Uyuni on foot. It was interesting coming into a town we already knew, but also nice to have a place already booked for the night and not worry about where to find food and other goods. Also, Uyuni and the altiplano that we've been walking across have gotten VERY cold at night, so we have been trying to stay indoors more often as we are walking through winter in such a harsh environment. We would hate to have an unsuspecting herdsman/woman find us frozen in our tent some morning. It wouldn't be conducive to our goal either, haha.
Some of the view across the riverbed

Neon along the RR going up towards another pass

A Fidgit selfie while not feeling well

The graveyard outside of Atoche

Railway walking along the Pampa

Every small town has a railway sign,
this was nearing Uyuni

Some umbrella fun on the Salar de Uyuni!


Sunday, 13 August 2017

Border Crossing: La Quiaca, Argentina into Villazon, Bolivia

Argentine side of the Border
I had not gone through the trouble of getting a Bolivian Visa like my hiking partner had while in the United States, so I had to get one at the border. I read many diffferent blogs about crossing the border, and each one said something different. Even the Bolivian Consulate website said something different, so I am going to assume that each border crossing is its own special snowflake, and just give you the rundown of my personal experience.

Since Mendoza, I had been reading up on what I needed at the Bolivian border, and was able to put most of it together in Salta.

What I handed over:
- 2 copies of my bank statement
- 2 passport-sized photos
- 1 copy of my passport
- 1 copy of proof of yellow fever shot
- $160 in USD (actually had $200 and the border officer gave me change in Bolivianos)
- Passport (original, expires in 2024, they request it be valid for at least 5 years and have at one full page free for visa and entry stamp)
- A general understanding of the Spanish language

Items I didn't have, and the border control officer supplied:
- Visa Application

Items I had and the border control officer didn't ask for:
- Proof of yellow fever shot (original)
- Itinerary while in Bolivia (on my phone)
- Proof of onward movement (plane ticket purchase confirmation on my phone)
- Proof of place to stay (hostel confirmation on my phone)

Items for border crossing
Fidgit already had her Bolivian Visa, but had overstayed her 90 days in Argentina, so we decided to cross seperately. The border control officers immediately knew we were together, but didn't seem to care. Because I got stamped out of Argentina so quickly, I walked into Bolivia - right past the window that I needed to stop at. Thankfully, there were some helpful people nearby I could ask for directions, and I returned to the window sheepishly. I was the only one there that Sunday morning, and I imagine that may not always be the case, especially if you arrive by bus. The original officer I talked to called over the other one, and they joked with me about it being such a cold morning. I then handed over my passport and the papers I had, and they gave me the visa application to fill out. One of the border officers came out to warm up in the sun, and we chatted while the other one processed my 'request' and handed back my passport, now with a Bolivian Visa and 90-day stamp in it.

This was way easier and less hassle than I imagined it to be, though at one point he did ask if I had another $100 bill (mine had gotten a bit worn from being in my backpack for 7 months). I didn't, and he seemed to be alright with that. I was glad to have everything I may have needed, even if they didn't ask for everything, and I believe greeting them with a smile helped as well.
We made it! The bridge between
countries


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Getting Gear in South America

Notice holes in nearly everything,
except my peanut butter jar.
If you ask anyone who lives in and/or has traveled to South America, you will likely hear similar tidbits of advice from them: "Make sure you have US cash; the mail system in most countries is terrible/non-existent; be sure to bring enough gear, because gear is expensive and/or non-existent."

If you ask us at this point in our trip, we would likely say the same as those who came before us. As a person who had never been south of the United States border with Mexico before November 2015, this trip has been eye-opening in more ways than I'll ever be able to explain. This blog is going to focus on my (and our) experience getting new gear in and to South America.

Gear falls apart
Fidgit and I were able to purchase in the US and bring down much of what we needed our first season (November '15 - April '16). The only issue we had was with socks and shoes - we went through multiple pairs each. Thankfully we were in Chile most of our first season, and were able to find and purchase overpriced-but-will-do-the-job-this-time shoes. We were also able to send ourselves gear via the Chilean bus system - which is oddly reliable. Okay, not so odd once you understand that many people don't own cars down here.

Winter is coming
On my way to get the gear, looking out the bus window
Where we ran into trouble with getting gear was near the middle of our second season (season two spans November '16 - November '17). As we neared northern Argentina in April, we were attempting to find someone who was willing to bring down some US gear for us, as we had once again purchased not great shoes and socks in Santiago to tide us over while we figured out what our options were. We decided to reach out to see if sending it to ourselves or finding someone to bring it was preferable - all our resources leaned towards finding someone to bring it down, because the tariffs we would have to pay in Argentina would be exorbitant, and that's IF the gear made it through customs. So we reached out to people we know who travel to and from the US with some regularity, and found a willing friend.

Hello again, Pacific Ocean
Unfortunately, after we had begun ordering and mailing new gear to an address in the states, unforeseen circumstances forced our friend to cancel his trip. Thankfully, we were at a spot where we had regular and useful wifi (not the norm in most countries down here, though it is improving), so we began a new search for someone willing to bring our stuff down. Fortunately, we've met many people, and our old gear mule was quickly replaced by our new one, Dan. He was heading back to my home state, and we immediately began re-routing items to my sister's house in Pennsylvania to be picked up and hauled down to Peru by Dan. Why would we ask a person who's technically three countries away to bring us our gear, you ask? DESPERATION. The nights were getting colder, my sleeping bag was wearing out, as were my shoes, socks, pants, shirts, you name it. Also, three countries away is much closer than multiple continents away. So Dan gathered the gear from my sister and brought it down to Peru, where I met him to catch up and retrieve it after approximately two days on buses and two border crossings. We met in Tacna, Peru - a border town with cheap, tax-free goods. Dan and I met up with his travel partner Justin, and we got a hostel room, as we would be there a couple days - I hadn't seen these guys since Santiago and wanted to catch up.

Dan, me, Justin.
The lovely lads who helped us out! (and me)
Dan, Justin and I were able to spend a couple days together before they continued northward, and I made my way back towards Argentina with new gear for Fidgit and me. This is where most of my trouble began, and I'll put these hurdles in list form, as there were many.

New Gear! 
-At the Peru/Chile border, the Chilean border patrol was staging a 'slow down.' Since they can't close the border, the were only allowing so many people through per hour. I waited for five hours in a line in the sun to get through, feeling bad for the people who arrived after me.

-Arriving to the bus station in Arica, I find the pass I need to cross to get back into Argentina is closed due to snow and high winds. Thankful I had made it across mere days before a blowing snowstorm, I was now fretting as to when I would make it back across into Argentina.

New bag for winter!
-Impatiently waiting out a far-away snow storm at a 4,000+ meter pass wears on me, so I spend only two days in Arica before deciding to bus up to San Pedro de Atacama - closer to the pass. Bus goes through Catamarca and I am warned of theives so I keep a close, but tired eye on my belongings after a night bus through a 4 am checkpoint from Arica to Catamarca. Make the bus to San Pedro and am told the pass will reopen Wednesday (it was Sunday).

-Buy bus ticket Tuesday for Wednesday morning, and the moment of truth arrives - I get on the bus and we go to the edge of town and sit for two hours to see if the pass is open. It's not, and I dejectedly return to my hostel. The bus driver says we will try again in the morning.

Stuck in line at the Peru/Chile Border
-Thursday morning, 8 am. I arrive at the bus station, get on the bus, and we once again drive to the edge of town and sit, waiting until 11 am. I see two garbage trucks, one dump truck and one bulldozer pass. I believe they are going to help clear the snow across the road, and concern enters my brain. 11 am rolls around and . . . the pass is open! We trundle up and up into the snow, then down to the Argentina/Chile border. The Chilean border guards seem to not be as slow at this border, and I am grateful our bus makes it through.
The cabbie in Chile- they love
The Simpsons down here.

-We careen down the other side of the pass into Argentina, with a steep series of S-curves along the way, carefully executed by the driver of the double-decker bus, and I am finally able to contact Fidgit at the Jujuy bus station to let her know I'll be in Salta around 11 pm. Taxi to where Fidgit is staying with no fewer than three stops by the cab driver to make sure the address I've given him is really there.

Gear retrieval success!!

So tired on the bus to San Pedro de Atacama

Another bus window view

Passing the time in San Pedro, waiting for the pass to reopen

Made it back to the Chile/Argentina Border!

Reunited, and with new gear!


Sunday, 23 July 2017

Salta to La Quiaca

Fede, me, Fidgit, Isabel and Antonio in Salta
'bridge'

Arriving back in Salta after a longer-than-planned hiatus from Fidgit and our trek, I was immediately welcomed into the home of Isabel and Antonio, family of friends from Bariloche. Fidgit and I (and all the gear I hauled from Peru, which friends and family had collected and hauled from the US) reunited and shared stories about our time apart. As we caught up, we also planned for our route up to higher elevation and into Bolivia. It was tough to imagine higher and drier weather because it was overcast and damp nearly every day in Salta. We ran errands, hung out with the family, and planned for a couple of days. Thankful for the generosity and kindness of the near-strangers we were staying with, we stayed longer than planned before moving along down the trail. The trail was actually a lesser-used road, and I lost both track of time and my new rain jacket along it. The rainy weather cleared up as we walked along. The road led to a dirt path that led down a wash and around a lake, which then led to the city of Jujuy. I promptly (and disappointed-ly) bought another new rain jacket .

A lovely morning along the quebrada
Jujuy was where we would begin our ascent up to the pampas. We debated on how to do this, and decided to day-hike up to another town where we then returned via bus to our hostel. This was my first time 'slack-packing' since the PCT in 2010, so I was interested to see how I would feel about it. After 40 kilometers uphill, I decided I was a fan of slack-packing again. We stayed another night indoors and then returned to the town of Volcan and continued north where we had left off. As we moved further up the 'Quebrada de Humahuaca', we would pass a small town or two every day. The elevation change became noticeable, but not troublesome, as we were moving slowly enough to adapt.

Using old railroads kept us off roads
Near the town of Humahuaca, however, Fidgit was not feeling well. She was congested and struggling with a full-body tiredness. We had hoped to walk to Humahuaca that day, but it wasn't in our best interest, so we again bused, and then came back down the next day to slack-pack into Humahuaca. Fidgit was still ailing, so we took some time to make sure she was recovered before pushing on to Abra Pampa. As we were both feeling antsy to cover ground, we were able to walk each day, then bus back to Humahuaca. After a couple of days, Fidgit was feeling well enough to hike on with our full packs. We once again headed out of town, but not before seeing in person the only point of interested listed on Humahuaca's wiki page - a wooden priest coming out of the small door of a church above a crowd at noon to raise his hand and lower his wooden head.

An Inca ruins site along the Quebrada de Humahuaca
We made our way out of Humahuaca and toward the small town of Azul Pampa, had some lunch, and moved on toward Abra Pampa, able to follow roadside abandoned railroad tracks nearly the entire way. As we got higher in elevation, we noticed the vegetation changing - first the tall cactus disappeared, then the flowers and pointy shrubs left, then we got to a point where the only trees we were seeing were planted around buildings (presumably for wind protection). The sun was strong during the day, and the temperature plummeted at night, freezing our water.

Wandering along
One particular morning right before Abra Pampa at an elevation of 3,700 meters, we awoke after a fitful sleep to find most of our water frozen solid, my feet nearly frozen (I have horrible circulation). Deciding it wasn't worth it to spend more nights than necessary outside this winter, we made our way to Abra Pampa and set up for the night in a local hostel. Thankfully, lodging and food in town are already getting cheaper as we near the Bolivian border, or this would not have been an option. Looking at the weather ahead, we decided to slack-pack once again, taking three days to walk to the border town of La Quiaca. And there we were, after a year of walking, about to walk into a country other than Chile or Argentina.
We made it to the Tropic of Capricorn!

The colors in these mountains are amazing!

Fidgit and another roadside attraction

One of the small villages along the way

Old railroads are best when the bridges
are still intact

Anxiously awaiting the clock to strike noon in Humahuaca

Fidgit crossing a sketchier railroad bridge

Flamingoes! Along the pampas near Abra Pampa

When walking along at 3,000 meters in elevation,
umbrellas against the sun are helpful