Masthead header

salt flats at sunsetAhhh–finally here! Me on the Salar de Uyuni–the world’s largest salt flats–walking across the hexagons in the fading sun.

Bolivia’s expansive salt flats have intrigued me for quite some time. So when planning a trip to visit my friend in Chile in September of last year, I coaxed her to cross the border from Atacama Desert to spend 4 days in southwestern Bolivia. There are a number of tour operators to choose from in San Pedro, Chile. Many tours attract college kids with a cheap price–but you get what you pay for–lodging in dorm room hostels with no showers (or a cold water hose outdoors).

We customized a trip through www.KnowChileTour.com and traveled with owner Erik, who was the perfect companion and guide throughout the journey–providing as much laughter as information on those long driving days.  Believe me, the personalities of your companions matter when you’re traveling by jeep over 600 miles in 4 days. Erik included traditional sights that other operators include on the loop, but spent more time on the salt flats and added extra places for us to see, such as the Galaxy cave and the desert Necropolis, and was keen on helping us interact with local people, such as school children and salt miners at work. And the hotels and food he arranged were outstanding too. Highly recommend his company!!

Day one we crossed the border from Chile into Bolivia, paid $135 for a visa, met our Bolivian driver and drove past glaciers and volcanoes before reaching our lunch spot at Laguna Polques hot springs.

bol0160

There were other people here too as most groups stop here for lunch since it’s the only route in from Chile. There’s time to soak in the springs while your guide gets your picnic lunch ready in the common building. (Our yummy lunch was salmon, quinoa with roasted vegetables, choice of wine (with glass goblets!) and cake for dessert. Not ramen noodles.)  The air was freezing cold and windy at this high elevation of 14,000 feet. If you do go in, the hardest part is getting out…

See how cold it is? Yes, that’s snow. A little past the springs we were driving through these strange icy formations, called penitence by the locals.

snow penitenceNext up was Laguna Colorada, a surreal lake with red water. The red comes from algae which attracts the rare James flamingos. As you can see, or not see, they are pretty far away! The white crusty shoreline is calcified borax.

bol9550Even with a zoom lens…the flamingos are still far away!

bol0070

Day two, after visiting an old rusty train “graveyard,” we reached our coveted destination, the mighty Salar de Uyuni salt flats! Here’s Nannette toasting our arrival!;)

bol8030

The vast white expanse stretches for miles–4,086 sq miles to be exact–which is twice the size of Rhode Island. There are no roads. And very few landmarks. Which is why a knowledgeable, reliable driver is so important!

We drove to a salt processing area known as Colchani, and walked around the salt cones drying on the plains.

bol7968

Later in the trip, we came across some salt miners who were relaxing on the bank on the edge of the flats. They were Quechua people from Potosi who worked 1 month on, and 1 week off, and camped near their job site.

bol9799Back at work, the salt miners are digging out salt from the crusty layer of the Uyuni salt flats, revealing water underneath.

bol9923bol9816When they have enough extracted, they scrape it into mounds so it can dry before it’s hauled to the salt factories to pulverize it into powder and add iodine. We later visited one of the factories where an orphan girl was busy bagging salt in a dim building all by herself.bol9836Here’s a perfect little salt cube.

bol9771

Our accommodations were at two different salt hotels–meaning the beds, walls and dining room furniture was made from salt.

Tayka Salt Hotel, Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia

Comfy rooms, hot water, friendly staff, and excellent food. I’ve come to love quinoa since my trip, which was a staple in Bolivia.

bol8129

And for the record, llama is delicious. Really!

bol8136

Staying so close to the flats allowed us easy access at sunrise. We spent the day exploring the vast hexagonal plain until the sun disappeared. (See an earlier post about trying to capture star trails that night overlooking the flats.) Elevation at Uyuni is high at 3,650 meters. And it’s as empty as it appears. Occasionally we saw another truck or motorcycle pass by, but mostly we had the flats to ourselves.

At least as far as our eyes could see.

bol8239

Don’t know if it was the altitude or what…but we couldn’t resist playing a bit…

bol8016

Sure you’ve seen plenty of pics like this, and we had our fun “driving” a hiking boot and “standing” on a wine goblet or a beer bottle like shown above. You simply put the object in the foreground and have the person walk into the distance until he matches the perspective of the object. Any wide angle lens works great. Here I used 35mm at f/27 to get the foreground nice and sharp.

bol8084Just goofing around…

Twilight shot of salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, South America

Leaving the Salar de Uyuni, we headed to Los Corales, Cave of the Galaxies. We put on hardhats and squeezed through limestone formations.

bol8283

bol8305

Erik is pointing out the fossilized algae from when it was underground.

A bit further, we came to a Necropolis where 15 funery chambers are built into volcanic rocks.

bol9970

Inside those dark holes you can see the skeletal remains that exist from the Lipez lords time period, 1250-1450AD. A little museum nearby displays other artifacts and explanations.

bol9964

Kinda creepy, right?

bol9987Just another unnamed volcanic rock in the landscape…

bol8328We shared a lunch spot with some adorable children on their lunch break from school who were eating soup with roasted chicken. You can see pillars of salt in the background in this room where everything, including furniture and walls, are made from salt.

bol0048Exploring boulders on a high plateau at Arbol de Piedra

Local market, Uyuni, Bolivia, South AmericaMost of our journey was through remote rural regions, but we did visit a local market in the town of Uyuni. Love those braids!

Local market, Uyuni, Bolivia, South America

Bolivia has 115 varieties of potatoes. Yeah, 115!bol7874

This lady was 100 years old. People are not very receptive to being photographed, but Erik struck up a conversation with her and asked permission for me to photograph her.

bol0124

Our trip ended with a visit to Sol de Manana, a geyser field at 5,000 elevation (that I wrote about in an earlier post). But had to include it again, since this geothermal region was another favorite.bol8537

Visiting Bolivia is not very easy due to logistics, unpredictable weather, extreme fluctuations in temperatures (can go from -25C at night to 30C in day), sparse accommodations for budget travelers, constant headaches and altitude sickness…BUT it can be an absolutely wonderful adventure if you get a good guide, a reliable driver, a dependable jeep, and drink water, water, water!!!

Loved it…:)

  • Nancy Hopwood - wonderful. I am going there in March

  • admin - You will love it, Nancy!

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

During baseball season, fireworks are displayed on Fridays after every home game the Reds play in Cincinnati. After the game it’s about a 20 minute wait before fireworks begin, allowing time for the spectators sitting in the right outfield bleachers to move over to the other side of the stadium. It’s worth the wait, cauz it’s quite a show! If you’re not attending the game, the next best place to watch the dazzling display is from the other side of the Ohio River, in Covington or Newport, KY.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

On a recent visit, I set my camera and tripod up on the shores of Covington, KY and shot from the convenience of one of the many park benches scattered along the grassy embankment. Other people including families with small kids also gathered and waited for the game to end. Since it started at 7:30pm, the crowd grew around 9pm thinking fireworks would begin soon after. But this particular night, the Reds and Bluejays were a good match and the game kept going and going…we’d hear an update every so often as to what the score was and what inning (only the top of the 7th?!) from men sitting nearby on other park benches who were listening to the game. When the Reds finally lost, it was close to 10:40pm. Fireworks started around 11pm.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

The long wait gave me plenty of time to choose the composition and check manual focus. I knew that I wanted to include the boats that had drifted into shafts of light and anchored to watch the show, as they provided interest and depth. I especially liked how some spectators on one boat were silhouetted in the key light, and tried to include them in the foreground.

Fireworks can be tricky to shoot. And I couldn’t remember the last time I tried. So it was purely experimental. Like I said, I initially decided on the basic composition (switching between vertical and horizontal) and checked the manual focus of my camera on the tripod before the fireworks began. This allowed me to simply keep the camera stationary on the tripod, my eyes on the sky, and my trigger finger ready to click whenever something caught my fancy. Using live view, I could glance at the LCD screen to see the captured image and make adjustments regarding exposures, primarily changing the ISO from 800 to 1600. The experimental part involved varying the shutter speed and f/stop at whim.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Sometimes I used a faster shutter to freeze the action. Shot: f/2.8 at 1/30 SS.

 

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Other times I chose a slow shutter to show the firework formations falling toward the water. Shot:  f/16 at 4 seconds.

 Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

And when I wanted the skyline to be in focus, I chose an f/stop of 16, which also resulted in the starburst effect on the boat lights.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

Some shots were total misses. Like the overexposed shots when too many fireworks hit the skies at once.

Fireworks over Ohio River, Cinncinati, OH, USA

But sometimes I got lucky capturing the color and formations exactly as my eyes saw it. Shot: f/6.7 at .7 SS

I was impressed that the Reds home game firework show over the Ohio River in Cincinnati was just as spectacular as our big 4th of July celebration over the Ohio River back home in Evansville. And watching from the quiet KY side was easy and traffic hassle free. Keep that in mind…cauz there are more Friday night Reds home games to come, and an even bigger fireworks display every Labor Day weekend in Cincinnati–this year on August 31. Check out P&G Riverfest for more info!

 

KarlovyVaryTown

People have flocked to 14th century Karlovy Vary for centuries to “take the waters.” Mozart, Freud, Beethoven, & Marx included. So I made it my first stop after I landed in the Czech Republic. My private driver sped like crazy to bring me to this alluring place in record time–1.5 hours instead of the expected two–even though I was in no hurry, as it was early morning and my room at Hotel Romance wouldn’t be available until after lunch. No matter. The helpful desk attendant handed me a map, whisked my luggage into storage, and sent me on my merry way to meander the streets where tall beautiful pastel European buildings stretched to the clouds. I was traveling solo, but felt perfectly safe and at ease in these streets. There were many high end shops–featuring jewelry, designer clothes, and of course the famous crystal stemware from Moser’s nearby factory where the glassblowers work their magic. I took a bus to visit Moser’s fascinating plant the next morning (read my earlier blog entry about it here)

KarlovaryCzech

During my 2 night stay I didn’t run into any English speaking tourists. Most seemed to be German visitors, which made sense as the border was so close. Some appeared to be there simply for the therapeutic benefit of the mineral waters. They walked between the five buildings that housed different mineral waters that sprouted warm from little fountains or rusted taps. After stooping to fill their porcelain cups, they’d then plod along, sipping warm water through their porcelain built-in straws as they made their way to the next spring. I bought one of the porcelain cups as a souvenir. Out of curiosity I dipped it under one of the fountains at the Market Colonnade, and took a sip. Hmmm…salty. Back in 1522, doctors prescribed 46-60 cups of mineral water a day! Nowadays, doctors prescribe 15-20. But I couldn’t even down one. Instead, I enjoyed watching the people come and go.

CzechThermalBathKarlVary

The town was made for walking, but so was the adjacent forest. Patients that came for medical treatment–ingesting the mineral waters–were instructed to walk, walk, walk. So trails were developed–180 kilometers to be exact–up into the forested hills. You can also take a funicular ride up to the Diana Observation tower for an overview of the town and walk back, which is what I decided to do. And I didn’t even get lost! I also walked to a different area of the town to visit the Becherovka museum to learn about, and taste, the liqueur created by chemist Josef Becher in 1807 to aid digestion. The tour was interesting from the audiovisuals to seeing the original cellars, and the herbal samples tasted better than I expected.

czechKarlovaryColumns

My favorite hot spring was the architectural gem Mill Colonnade, which has five springs that flow among the 124 Corinthian columns here. Another popular spring is the Hot Geyser spring which shoots upward toward a modern glassed ceiling.

 

czechThermalBathFountain

I loved my stay at the Hotel Romance Pushkin. My room was lovely, the service personnel friendly and helpful, and the restaurant was divine. Paying $20 extra for half board was well worth it. No need for lunch! The hotel served the most impressive selection of hot and cold foods I’d ever seen at a breakfast buffet, and the set dinner meal of three courses was delicious every night. My room had a window with wrought iron detail that looked out on the back woods, and was very comfortable. And I lucked out on the location. It was perfectly situated.

CzechHotelRomance

Directly across the street was Castle Spa (Zamecke Lazne) Karlovy Vary’s premiere spa, and a bit further down the street were two of the springs that put this town on the map: Market Colonnade and Hot Geyser Springs. The hotel explained how to catch the bus to the Moser crystal and arranged my private transfer from Prague airport. They also arranged a spa appointment for me across the street–which is more my style–soaking in thermal waters rather than drinking them. I’d recommend a spa treatment there even if the language barrier was a bit problematic at times. I wasn’t sure what was happening when I disrobed and minutes later my masseuse stifled a gasp and left the room. She brought back reinforcements–to remove a tick that I must’ve brought back from the forest. The natural rocks felt good to walk on in the wading pool, and soaking in the curative mineral pool was soooo relaxing, and fun too with a little audiovisual surprise that I won’t ruin for you.

KarlvaryChurchCzech

This church, located between Market Colonnade and the Hot Geyser Spring buildings, scheduled musical concerts in the evenings. Musicians attempted to lure visitors into buying tickets for upcoming performances by strolling outside with their violins in the late afternoon. Seemed fitting entertainment in this spa city that catered to mellow people on the mend.

Karlovy Vary was indeed mellow–which was appealing to me–an excellent introduction to the Czech Republic, another new country to explore…

Machu Picchu. The name itself conjures up mystery, intrigue. That fabled Lost City that the Incas carefully crafted with perfectly fitted stones in a picturesque valley surrounded by towering Andean peaks. I remember seeing a picture of Machu Picchu taken from the Sun Gate, a vantage point allowing for an overview of the city awakening at dawn, and immediately feeling a passionate desire to go there. To be there. I wanted to wander the ruins, and explore those nooks and crannies.

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llama at Machu Picchu, Peru

 

So I chose Peru (and Ecuador) for my first trip outside North America. Top on my list was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, followed by the Galapagos.

Dead Woman

With my brother, Chris, at Dead Woman’s Pass, 4200 meters, on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

That was 17 years ago.

I wasn’t really into photography then. Took these with a cheap film camera (thus the poor quality). But what better way to relive past memories than to look back at old photos? And read old journals?

Today I fulfilled my daughter’s 7th grade Spanish teacher’s request–to do a presentation for her class about “all the Spanish speaking countries you’ve been to.” Preparing to do so allowed me to linger over fading photos stuck to cellophane and read old journal entries about past experiences…some details I’d completely forgotten, some were still vivid.

I still remember the thin air and the effort it took to climb the stone steps along the Inca Trail that seemed to tall for the Inca men who historically were no taller than me at 5’3.” I still remember the surprise and joy I felt seeing other Inca ruins along the trail, not just the magical gem at the finish line. I remember walking around those ruins on my own, wondering what life was like back then.

 

Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail

Chris looking out at the intriguing Runkeracay ruins along the Inca Trail on day 3

But I also remember the awful train ride at the end.

Our 2:30 train finally approached at 6:15pm. As the already jam-packed train slowed (never stopped), our guide yelled, “RUN, jump on any car and get off at Ollyantambo!!” I remember being trampled, hanging on to an open doorway in a contorted position in what turned out to be three hours, forced into unnatural positions by aggressive backpackers, feeling pain, fright, and especially fear when someone pulled a lever beside me causing a foul steam to emit along with a shrieking blast that deafened my ears. Tear gas?! I covered by face until it dissipated. People were screaming, wailing, crying, vomiting. Pure chaos. The only English speaking girl on my car kept repeating, “I’m scared! I’m scared!” Her eyes were wild and she decided to jump off the moving train. The conductor couldn’t get through the passengers squished like sardines so he proceeded to collect tickets by walking across people—mostly their shoulders, but he stepped on my calves–as my legs were trapped behind me between weighted rice bags. I had no idea how long the train ride was supposed to be, and no way to communicate. All attempts were in vain. I remember my surprise seeing an local woman huddled on the floor underneath us with a sleeping baby at her breast and a toddler nuzzled under her arm. Her eyes were gentle and caring. Through gestures and fragmented Spanish, she understood my dilemma and indicated 3 hours time till arrival, and that she would alert me when to jump off the train as it slowed at Ollyantambo’s station. She was a godsend.

I later found out that the shiny, practically vacant, tourist train that left when we did was only 15 soles more than the 5 soles we paid. Our guide had waved it off as impossible, telling us it cost hundreds of dollars and there was no difference in travel time. We would have all paid the paltry extra fee of 15 soles gladly. We were never given the option. Had we taken it, we would’ve traveled to Cuzco directly, instead of taking a train to Ollyantambo and then a bus from there to Cuzco, arriving six hours later, after midnight. I don’t really like that kind of adventure.

That experience taught me the importance of doing your own research when planning a trip. (Maybe especially if taking an organized budget tour where everything is “arranged” for you.) Of knowing what possible hassles or dangers to expect, and what alternate options exist.

And it also reminded me… You do get what you pay for.