Cuzco and Machu Picchu

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The Nomadik Family in Machu Picchu

Every traveler’s dream is someday to reach the top of the Inca World and marvel at its majestic proportions and ancient mysteries. It’s our Number One Peruvian destination too, and after Lake Titicaca it’s time to go to Machu Picchu. There are a few ways to get to the site once you arrive in Cuzco, and the journey to The Lost City of the Incas is in itself an extraordinary experience of epic proportions, especially if you choose the cheapest option, which does not include a train.

Cuzco

We arrive in Cuzco after another painful overnight bus ride from Puno, and are lucky to find an extremely clean and very cheap hostel room with two double beds and a private bathroom with hot water for $15.00 per night (for three people). If you are looking for a nice place owned by a humble welcoming family, and are willing to walk about 20-30 minutes to the historical downtown part of the city, where you will never find such a clean hostel at such price, then remember this one: Hostal Luve, not far from the bus terminal.

From the hostel, we walk on the main street, past a few money exchange bureaus where we buy Sols- the Peruvian currency, and past the large indoors crafts market, where, after an impressive bargaining episode with a few chubby ladies, we buy Peruvian hats and a poncho for Maya.

It’s raining and it’s very cold, grey clouds hanging over the city. It has been raining almost everywhere we go since La Paz and our biggest concern is that when we finally arrive in Machu Picchu we will have this miserable un-photogenic cold weather.

We spend a few hours roaming the narrow streets of Cuzco, the Archeological Capital of the Americas standing at 3400 m. This city does not compare to any other place we’ve ever visited on our journey so far. Cuzco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Crowned Emperor of historical capitals in the New World- unique and unrivaled.

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Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús

Peru’s Tourism Capital and Cultural Heritage of the Nation, Cuzco stands on layers of cultures, with the old Inca Empire built on the structures of the Killke pre-Inca people who occupied the region from 900 to 1200, and the Spanish partially destroying and replacing indigenous temples with Catholic churches and palaces standing on the ruins of Inca temples.

Carefully planned and constructed according a definite plan in which two rivers were channeled around the city during the rule of Inca Pachacuti, the Kingdom of Cuzco became the capital of the vast Inca empire of Tawantisuyu from 13th to 16th century. After the Spanish conquest, the city became the colonial center of the colonizers.

How Cuzco was built, how its large stones were shaped and transported to the site by the Incas remains undetermined. In the historic neighborhood Barrio de San Blas housing local artisans and craft shops, we walk up and down steep narrow streets with old houses built by the Spanish over heavy Inca foundations. Everywhere we turn, there are Gothic and Baroque churches and cathedrals.

The Spanish destroyed many Inca buildings, temples and palaces and used the remaining walls as foundations for the construction of new churches, cathedrals and convents. St Dominic monastery stands on the ruins of the House of the Sun, the palace of Inca Roca was converted to the Archbishop’s residence and so on.

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Convento de Santo Domingo and Intipanpa

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Mira, Old City, Cuzco

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Maya at Plaza de Armas, Cuzco

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Convento de Santo Domingo and Intipanpa

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In one of the buildings surrounding the main square Plaza de Armas we walk in one of the many tourist agencies where we buy tickets for a mini-bus ride to Hidroelectrica and back. Now, those of you, who are planning a visit to Machu Picchu and want to save some $$$ pay attention!

Journey to Machu Picchu

The cheapest mini-bus two-ways ride cost $16.00 to $20.00 per person. The epic journey to the top of the Inca World begins with this mini-bus. It has about 12 seats and leaves in the morning from Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, at 08h00 a.m. Our driver is a small funny guy and his taste in music concerns us a lot, as the ride is about 6-8 hours with the radio blasting at max volume. Luckily- and strangely- this particular driver is not into the awful Latino-crap we are constantly bombarded with in other busses- he likes 80s and 90s music, oldies and evergreens. He also blasts some awesome techno while driving madly on a crazy mountain road with steep cliffs and dangerous curves. Maybe he is just trying to please the tourists (successfully), which in our particular bus are young backpackers from different countries- two annoying college girls from the USA, a very fit British guy and his charming Serbian girlfriend, a French couple and a German couple, and a few Chilean students, of course.

As soon as we leave the city, we are among glacier-covered mountains and deep canyons carved by the mighty Urubamba River flowing the wrong way. We pass through an area of eternal fog, as we descend from higher to lower altitudes, where the cold temperatures of the high plateau collide with the heat of the tropical lowlands, creating patches of thick permanent mist- not our driver’s favorite part of the road.

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The scenic road is narrow, winding through mountains and passing directly over streams of water where our driver happily splashes the mini-bus at high speed, DJ Tiesto as a background. The road leads us down, from 3400m to 2400 m. The weather gets hot and the Andean cool mountain climate gives way to hot moist tropical weather.

We arrive in a small city- the last stop before hidroelectrica and the end of the paved road. There, we eat lunch, then the drive continues on a super narrow dirt road with space for one car only, with steep wall on one side and deep drop-off on the other- scary and dangerous. Everyone is freaking out! The Serbian girl wants to get off the bus and walk the rest of the road- she is next to the window and the drop-off of the cliff is just inches away.

Happily, we don’t collide with any other vehicle coming against us and we don’t drop in the canyon. We arrive at the hidroelectrica at around 4 p.m., two hour before sunset. We have at least two hours and a half to walk to Aguas Calientes- the village at the foot of Machu Picchu, so we better hurry up. We start run-waking marathon style together with a hundred other tourists from dozens of other mini-buses, along the railroad tracks. Backpacker’s exodus.

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Ivo and Maya walking on the railroad to Machu Picchu

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Aguas Calientes

We reach the town of Aguas Calientes always walking on the railroad tracks, soaked from the inevitable rain, waving a middle finger at the half-empty super-expensive train for rich tourists that passes us with a whistle. We find the cheapest possible hotel (US$ 20 per night, room for 3 people), take shower, eat dinner (US$ 10 for 3 people, fixed menu at a restaurant) and sleep. Here, near the main square, we meet a blond hairless Inca dog and we buy our Machu Picchu admission tickets ( total US$90 for the three of us). No matter where you buy your admission tickets, the price is the same, as long as you don’t get an all-inclusive guided tour, which is totally not worth it.

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Entrance to Aguas Calientes

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A blond hairless Inca dog

Machu Picchu

The next morning we walk across the Urubamba River and hike for about two hours up a steep mountain instead of taking the six-dollar bus that brings tourists right to the entrance of the Lost City. The hike is steep, the views are priceless. Ivo and Maya use the trail, but for me going vertically up proves more difficult, than  the dirt road for the buses. It’s longer, but easier on the heart.

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Thousands and thousands of tourists from every corner of the world have invaded the green mountain, where the most famous Inca site is. It’s hard to see the ruins from so many tourists and so many staff strictly controlling the crowds. There is a mean uniformed guy monitoring every corner telling us which direction we are allowed or not allowed to walk, where we can step or not step, how to pose and how not to pose for a picture. All this commotion can really spoil the experience. Guided groups block paths and sites, older or overweight tourists slow down the human flow up and down stairs, domesticated photogenic llamas who are the place’s only permanent residents roam freely among the visitors, enjoying special privileges, allowed to graze in places, where no tourist have the right to set foot.

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Mira with a llama, Machu Picchu

Most people leave the site around noon, as they have to travel back to Cuzco the same day. We have reserved our hotel room in Aguas Calientes for one more night. Thus, we are able to stay on Machu Picchu until 4 p.m., when most visitors are gone. Only then we are able to appreciate and enjoy this magnificent archeological site bathed in golden afternoon light, almost deserted.

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Machu Picchu

Built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti around 1450, Machu Picchu features spectacular workmanship at a dramatic site. The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a stunning view down the Urubamba valley. Its architecture was adapted to its surroundings. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it were terraced, to provide more farmland to grow crops. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides and invasions. There are nearly 200 structures, of which the central most important ones were constructed using the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls called ashtar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. How the enormous stones were moved and placed up the steep mountains remains uncertain.

The primary archeological treasures of Machu Picchu are the Inti Watana ritual stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, all three dedicated to the Inca’s supreme deity- the Sun God.

Shortly after the Spanish invasion, the site was abandoned and almost completely forgotten, until 1911, when an American historian led by a local farmer, discovered the ruins and initiated their exploration, restoration and preservation.

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Machu Picchu Interesting Facts

  • Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both cultural and natural, described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”.
  • Since its discovery in 1911, growing numbers of tourists visit the site yearly, reaching 400,000 in 2000.
  • Machu Picchu is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Latin America, and the most visited in Peru.
  • In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants and a bridge to the site. Many people protested the plans, including Peruvians and foreign scientists, saying that more visitors would pose a physical burden on the ruins.
  • A no-fly zone exists above the area.
  • UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
  • In January 2010, heavy rain caused flooding buried or washed away roads and railways to Machu Picchu, trapping more than 2,000 locals and more than 2,000 tourists, later airlifted out. Machu Picchu was temporarily closed, reopening on 1 April 2010.
  • Nude tourism is a recent trend, to the dismay of Peruvian officials. In several incidents, tourists were detained for posing for nude pictures or streaking across the site. Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced these acts for threatening Peru’s cultural heritage. Cusco’s Regional Director of Culture increased surveillance to end the practice.
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We didn’t see any nude tourists on Machu Picchu, but w witnessed the increased surveillance and we still had the feeling of something very wrong happening there with so much influx of visitors. With the world population constantly increasing and tourism becoming faster and more affordable to people worldwide, this most popular Peruvian destination has become more crowded than Disney World during summer vacation. Hopefully the Peruvian government will come up with a better plan for preserving this fragile unique site for future generations, instead of trying to exploit it for profit.

We leave Machu Picchu with mixed feelings.

Machu Picchu Photos

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Maya with her new poncho at Machu Picchu

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Titicaca- The Lake From Our Dreams

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Copacabana

From La Paz, we take the bus to Copacabana- a touristy town on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. Again we look for cheap accommodation, but all the hostels are full with backpackers mainly from Chile, as apparently the schools and university in Chile are on vacation in February and everyone is visiting neighboring affordable Bolivia. In the backyards of some hostels, backpackers have even organized small camping sites, but this time we don’t have our tent, so we keep looking for a cheap room. We finally find one in a dirty suspicious hostel- two beds, next to the common toilets, which is a disaster, but we take it for the night ($10.00 is too much for such a shitty place but we have no other option). We spend the afternoon looking around town: the massive white cathedral, the busy market, the beach on the lake. We can’t believe we are finally here. Lake Titicaca- the lake with the funny name with snowcapped mountains on the horizon, the lake from our childhood geography lessons, the lake from our dreams- is right at our feet, sparkling blue, peaceful, enchanted.

Copacabana

Copacabana

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

With an average depth of 100 meters, reaching some 280 meters at the deepest parts, lake Titicaca is the deepest highest navigable lake in the world, with a surface elevation of 3,812 meters. It is the largest lake in South America located in the Andes Mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Five major river systems and more than twenty other smaller streams feed into Lake Titicaca, and it has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated.

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Isla del Sol

The next morning, we take the ferry to Isla del Sol (The Sun Island). It’s raining and the sky is covered with grey clouds, but as soon as we reach the Island, the sky clears and the sun illuminates the most beautiful landscape: steep green hills and rocky shores, yellow-sand beaches and tiny stone houses- a fairytale land floating in an immense calm lake of blue water.

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Isla del Sol is one of the largest islands on the lake where, it was believed, the sun god was born. Instead of streets, there are narrow paths covered with flat rocks and mud winding between the houses of approximately 800 families, up and down the slopes. The main economic activities are fishing and farming using agricultural terraces on the hills, with tourism picking up speed. There are over 180 ruins on the island, with the main attraction- a sacrificial table, where human blood was offered to the Sun God in the times of the Incas.

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We hike to the sacrificial table and back (about 3 hours both directions) admiring the gentle white and purple flowers of the potatoes blooming on the hills, the tranquility of the land and the immensity of the lake, we eat avocado and egg sandwiches which two women are selling to tourist in front of their house, and we take the ferry back to Copacabana just in time to get on the evening bus to Puno- another city on the shores of the big lake, but on the Peruvian side of the border.

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Sacrificial Table

Sacrificial Table

Floating Uros Islands

We are back in Peru. In Puno, we find a new clean hostel- private shower with hot water, internet and two double beds for $10.00. We rest, and early in the morning we are off to the docks again. We find the ferry to the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile and once again we are exploring Lake Titicaca, this time from the Peruvian side.

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The boat ride is spectacular. We are navigating through channels among swampy waters covered with tall sharp grass sticking out of the shallow lake, birds panicking as the boat approaches, flapping wings, screaming and running in all directions on the lake’s surface. Flamingos fly overhead. After a few hours we reach the Floating Uros Islands- a group of some 40 artificial islands made of floating totora reeds.

Floating Uros Islands

Floating Uros Islands

The ancient Uros were the owners of the lake and water- people with black blood who did not feel the cold. They were the Sons of The Sun. In the times of the Inca invasions, the islanders would simply lift anchor and drift together with their homes to a safe corner of the lake. Yet, they were conquered and made slaves. Today, the remaining Uros people lost their languages but kept many of their traditional ways. They still build their boats and islands using bundles of dried totora reeds abundant in the shallows of the lake, adding solar panels for electricity. (Dry reeds are very flammable, and fire and diesel generators are not too practical anymore.) The dense roots of the plants keep growing after the construction of the islands and interweave to form a natural one-meter layer called Khili that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The lower layer of reeds rapidly rots away, so new reeds are added to the top every three months. The islands last about thirty years.

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The place has become a major tourist attraction losing much of its authenticity due to the fact that the few hundred remaining locals have become businessmen relying more and more on the tourist dollar, waiting for the next tourist boat to arrive, organizing tours, demonstrations and craft markets. Yet, it is still a unique place worth the visit.

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Isla Taquile

Next, we continue to Isla Taquile, where the festivities for the February carnival are still under way and we witness another festival.

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Taquile is a hilly island with an area of less than 6 square kilometers and was used as a prison during the Spanish Colony. In 1970 it became property of the Taquile people, who have inhabited the island ever since – around 2,200 people. The highest point of the island is 4,050 meters above sea level and the main village is at 3,950 m. Similarly to Isla del Sol in Bolivia, here are found some pre-Inca ruins, and agricultural terraces on the hillsides.

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With no cars and hotels, life on Taquile is still largely unchanged by modern civilization and tourism, and the place is truly authentic and wonderful. Everyone wears traditional clothes. “Taquile and Its Textile Art” were proclaimed “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. Here knitting is big part of the culture and is done by the men ONLY, starting at a very early age. The women make yarn and weave.

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Taquileans are also known for having created an innovative, community-controlled tourism model, offering home stays, transportation, and restaurants to tourists. Ever since tourism started coming to Taquile in the seventies the taquleans have slowly lost control over the mass day-tourism operated by non-Taquileans. The Taquileans have thus developed alternative tourism models, including lodging for groups, cultural activities and local guides, who have recently completed a 2-year training program. Furthermore, the local Travel Agency Munay Taquile has been established to regain control over tourism. (from Wikipedia)

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This means, that your boat ride to the island and your guide will be locals from Taquile, and all the dollars you spend on your visit will go 100% straight to the local community- AWESOME! Here, we meet a local guy named Delfin, who can accommodate visitors in his home for an overnight visit and awesome local meals and provide a truly authentic experience, so if you are in the area- give him a call, he is a fine sweet and very reliable guy delfin18ani@hotmail.com

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Many people later asked us if we had to choose one destination: Copacabana in Bolivia with Isla del Sol or Puno with the Floating Uros Islands and Isla Taquile, which one would it be. We always tell them, that these two destinations are very different and are both worth the visit.

Lake Titicaca

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Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia

Not far from the Atacama Desert in Chile, we prepare to visit another unique natural site- El Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. At 3,600 m (12,000 feet) above sea level, the world’s largest salt flats are a dry ancient lake part of the Altiplano- a high plateau in South America formed during the uplift of the Andes Mountains.

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From San Pedro de Atacama, we hitchhike to the town of Calama- a big regional city near the Chilean-Bolivian border, where we look for the cheapest bus to Uyuni. But there is a problem. There are no buses going from Chile to Bolivia, because of the roadblocks. The truckers and transportation workers in Bolivia are on strike demanding better pay and working conditions, and have blocked the major routes and border-crossing points to the country. All buses have been canceled until further notice. Apparently, this is a normal routine event for Bolivia (like volcanoes erupting in Nicaragua) and we are the only surprised people without a plan B. We walk from one bus company to another in desperation, until we find a company selling tickets for a bus leaving after two days, when the roadblock is expected to be lifted. Not many seats left. We buy three tickets and look for a hostel. Then we meet again the two young backpackers from Chile, whom we first met in San Pedro hitchhiking on the same spot like us. They tell us, that one bus is leaving tomorrow and will be crossing the border through a checkpoint, where the roadblock has already been lifted. But this bus is full, no places left, and we already have tickets for another bus… Yet, we plead with the woman at the terminal to sell us “passillo” tickets- no seats, we will be standing up. She refuses at first, but then tell us to show up at 06:00 a.m. the next morning, when the bus is leaving, and promise to get us in. We hurry back to the other bus company to try to return the tickets we already got. We can return them, but there is some 20% penalty fee, so instead we sit in the waiting room and sell our tickets directly to passengers. Within one hour, we sell our three tickets for the full price. Now we worry that we might not be able to get on the 6 o’clock bus the next morning, and we don’t have our tickets for the day after.

We sleep in a cheap hostel disturbed by a group of Chilean students on vacation high on marijuana who party in the room next door all night (we remember how much better is on the boat), and early in the morning we show up for the bus to Bolivia. We are not the only ones without tickets who hope to ride this bus. Our two backpacker friends and four more tourists are hoping to get on it too. The woman from the agency collects some extra cash from all extra passengers right there on the street, and everyone is off! Standing up or sitting, in seats or on the floor, we are all heading to Bolivia! Nine hours…

There are no cars on a road winding through land with no nature. We are climbing higher and higher across the barren dusty mountains of the Altiplano. It’s getting colder. We spot families of lamas on the side of the road and pink flamingoes in distant lakes. We reach the border- a couple of trailer-like buildings next to an abandoned train station with a rusty dead locomotive. There is no roadblock. All bus passengers line up for customs and immigration. After about an hour, we board another bus. The one from Chile has to return in Chile and a Bolivian bus is picking us up for the rest of the trip.

a lama on the road

a lama on the road

We begin seeing the first Bolivian villages, like scenes from the past, or the apocalyptic future: poor huts made of clay and salt bricks, dirty streets without pavement, very few old cars, large stray dogs scavenging for scraps of food in piles of garbage, women with long black braids with top hats and long skirts carrying huge bundles on their backs, men chewing coca leaves sitting in corners.

Bolivia

Bolivia

We arrive in Uyuni. The driver of the Bolivian bus tries to extort all extra “passillo” passengers for some extra cash (as we paid half price), but we all refuse to pay and are ready to call the police if he refuses to give us back our luggage. Thanks to this little episode, we make new friends with the passillo-passengers from the bus- mostly 19-year-old Chilean students on vacation, and we find a great deal as a group of 12 people: one night in a hostel with breakfast included plus tour of the Salt Flats with lunch included for $22.00 per person. We are all set for tonight and for tomorrow.

The tour takes all day. We split in two groups riding in big 4×4 jeeps. We meet Domingo- a 50-year-old super friendly and funny guy. He is our driver and guide and we are lucky to have him. The other group gets the boring quiet type, who skips one of the sites- the Incahuasi island.

First, we visit the train cemetery, about 3 km outside of the city. Built by British engineers in the end of the 19th century, the train system, used by mining companies to transport minerals to the Pacific Ocean ports, collapsed in the 1940s and was abandoned.

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Train Cemetery

From there, we drive to a village with houses made with bricks of salt where we have lunch- tasty lama-steaks with quinoa and steamed vegetables.

Lama chops with quinoa

Lama chops with quinoa

 

From there, we head for the main attraction- El Salar de Uyuni, with a first short stop at the “salt mountains”- small stacks left to drain and dry before harvesting the salt.

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Maya’s Bubba at Uyuni salt flats. He is coming everywhere with us since Maya was a baby

Formed by the transformation of a few prehistoric lakes some 30-40,000 years ago, surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets, El Salar is today a vast dried lake covered by a flat salt crust thick several meters at places, spreading over more than 10,000 sq. km (4,000 sq. mi)- 100 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This flattest white region on the planet is so big, it’s visible from space, and contains the largest deposits of lithium on Earth.

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We drive for an hour on top of a thick layer of salt further and further in the interior of the Salt Flats. At first, this lifeless monotonous landscape is dry, but then a thin layer of water filtering through the salt transforms this vast white field into the biggest most beautiful mirror in the world, in which the gods to contemplate themselves.

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The world transforms into an endless heavenly blue liquid sky, above and below us. We walk on a sky of water!

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From here, we head even further towards the center of the lake. Our guide is slowing down and is very cautious, as splashing in the salty water is not good for the vehicle. We reach the Incahuasi Island covered by giant cacti- the remains of the top of an ancient volcano submerged in the lake.

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The next stop on our tour is El Palacio de Sal- a hotel built in 1995 entirely from salt in the middle of the Salar. Due to sanitation problems, the hotel no longer accepts guests and has been transformed into a museum. There, we find the Rally Dakar monument also made from salt.

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We watch the sunset reflected over a shallow pool of salty water before we head back to the city to catch another overnight bus to another extraordinary place.

Salar de Uyuni Photo Gallery

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Atacama Desert in Chile

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Atacama Desert, Chile

We leave the boat at anchor in font of marina Puerto Amistad in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. For $5.00 per day while we are away, the marina staff will watch over Fata Morgana, clean the green vegetation and logs floating downriver catching on the chain, and provide a 24/7 security service. They will contact us if anything comes up, and will deal with any issue while we are miles away. It is important to know that the boat will be OK while we are backpacking in Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador for about two months; to have peace of mind, even if it costs us a little something.

We take the bus to Guayaquil in Ecuador, then the bus to Lima in Peru, then the bus to Arica in Chile and then the bus to San Pedro de Atacama. A total of four endless days and nights, riding the cheapest possible busses, waiting hours in bus terminals or walking kilometers from one terminal to another with heavy backpacks, sleeping in bus seats, listening to terrible music and watching horrible films, wearing the same stinky clothes, shoes and socks, no shower, using pubic and bus bathrooms, eating whatever we can find around the terminals as long as it’s cheap and not too suspicious…

It’s a long trip- over 4,000 km. The plan is to get to the farthest point of our trajectory as fast as possible and then slowly to start returning towards the boat. This is Ivo’s plan and he doesn’t care if it sounds more like torture than a trip.

As soon as we cross the border from Ecuador to Peru, the landscape becomes monotonous arid desert unchanged for thousands of kilometers.

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On our right is the blue of the Pacific Ocean, on our left is the ochre of the rocky desert sprinkled with small poor villages of tiny straw houses and big dusty cities with unfinished brick buildings. Nature remains dry and lifeless all the way to Chile.

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Hungry, dirty and exhausted, we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama- a town made of red clay in the middle of the desert, dominated by the Licancabur volcano.

Вулкан Ликанкабур при залез слънце

Licancabur Volcano

The town, which begun as an oasis in the high plateau of Bolivia at about 8,000 feet (or 2,400 m), is today part of Chile (after the War of the Pacific), and is constantly invaded by tourists and backpackers; there are more hotels and hostels than private homes and everything is extremely expensive. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town- $40.00 per night is the cheapest option!!! We get a nice room with private bathroom and hot water. We feel like spoiled kings. First thing’s first- we collapse on the beds. We haven’t been in a lying position since over 100 hours. Next- we take off our shoes and toxic socks, we remove our clothes which smell of lamas, and one by one we hit the shower. There, in the shower, we find paradise…

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Maya enjoying her comfy bed in Hostal Licancabur

But we have no time to loose. It’s still morning and even though we are super tired, we cannot afford to spend more than one night in this expensive place, so a soon as we check in the hostel and after a short rest, we walk to town to decide which of the many tourist attractions to visit before we continue on to Bolivia- a much poorer country, where everything is much cheaper.

•Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times

Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe

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Adobe houses in San Pedro

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San Pedro de Atacama

San Pedro de Atacama is strategically located near various sites in the Atacama Desert but for most you have to join an expensive tour, as there is no public transportation. A visit to Chaxas Lagoon in Los Flamencos National Reserve, Salar de Atacama, home of pink flamingoes, or El Tatio geyser field with over 80 active geysers are very attractive places but will ruin our budget. The cheapest option is to rent bikes – $6.00 per person per day and bike to the Valley of the Moon- El Valle de la Luna, 13 kilometers (8 mi) west of San Pedro.

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In the heat and salty dust (the exhaustion continues), we ride our rental bikes to one of the strangest most desolate places on the planet, with such an otherworldly appearance, it actually reminds us of another planet- inhospitable, burning, red.

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Situated in the two-sided rain shadow of the Andes and the Chilean Coastal Range, which prevent the arrival of moisture from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Atacama is the oldest driest desert on Earth, stretching for over 1,000 km (600 mi), west of the Andes Mountains. Rain is the rarest of occurrences here, and some parts of the desert have never ever seen it at all! This vast stretch of dry land has been covered with nothing but rocks, salt, lava and sand for the last 200 million years- a phenomenon called hyperaridity, making it the oldest continuously arid region in the world, rivaled only by Africa’s Namib Desert.

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The Salt Caves

We enter the Moon Valley National Park. Stone and sand formations, salt caves and dunes colored in yellow orange and red, carved and shaped by wind and ancient water. Not a blade of grass, not a single flower, not a bird, not one tiny creature can survive in such alien environment. In fact, the driest parts of the Atacama Desert, one of which is The Valley of the Moon, have been used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions and the location has been used by Hollywood for filming Mars scenes in films like Space Odyssey and others.

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And there, amidst this dry hot lunar landscape devoid of any life form- the loneliest saddest of places on Earth- we suddenly hear a familiar language! A group of tourists walking on the road are speaking BULGARIAN! Now, this is impossible! How often you meet Bulgarians? In the desert? Twenty of them! A group of adventure-travelers from the Adventure Club in Sofia touring Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Our reaction to this miracle, as well as to any other sudden unexpected wonderful miracle, is utter surprise and happiness. We lough, we scream, we hug each other like old friends. Some of the guys in the group recognize us as “the Bulgarian family who lives on a boat” and we make plans to meet with them for dinner.

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An unexpected meeting with 20 Bulgarian travelers from the Adventure Club

And even though we dream about the moment when we will hit the beds for the first time in five days, as soon as we return from the bike trip- we find our compatriots’ hotel and they take us to a nice restaurant in town where we celebrate with delicious local meals and beers the most surprising of meetings in the Atacama Desert. Thank you friends!

 

Sites of interest near San Pedro de Atacama:

  • Church of San Pedro, National Monument, built with adobe, a building material used in the colonial times.

  • Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Salar de Atacama, inhabited by pink flamingos.

  • El Tatio, a geyser field with over 80 active geysers.

  • Llano de Chajnantor Observatory, a radio-telescope site, home of “ALMA”, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

  • Laguna Miscanti (Miscanti Lagoon) and Laguna Miñiques (Miñiques Lagoon), two neighbouring altiplanic lagoons at the altitude of 4,200 m (13,500 ft).

  • Licancabur, a notable volcano near San Pedro de Atacama.

  • Pukará de Quitor (Fort Quitor). A fortification built by the Atacameño people in the 12th century.

  • Puritama Hot Springs

  • Salar de Atacama, a giant salt area (3,000 km² / 1,864.11 mi²) in the middle of the Atacama Desert.

  • Valle de la Luna (“Valley of the Moon”), a moon-like landscape with ruins of old Chilean salt mines, and worker huts.

  • Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley): a valley where gigantic dunes and rocks abound.

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Kitesurfing in Nicaragua

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Kitesurfing is an extreme, dangerous and rather addictive sport, so some people who practice it tend to become incurable kitesurfing maniacs. Nothing is more important for such people than kitesurfing. Their jobs, their families, their lives away from the shore don’t matter much and the only thing that really moves them is the wind. The most extreme kitesurfing maniac we have ever met is our friend Rado, who hosted us in Nicaragua. He would go kiting anytime, day or night, as long as there is good wind, sometimes driving for hours to get to a spot, and it doesn’t matter if a meteor strikes Earth and everything explodes… as long as there is water and the wind blows- he is happy!

Rado

Rado

Well, there is a lot of wind on the shores of lake Nicaragua most days, and most days, Rado is there flying in the air, alone or with some of his kitesurfing buddies. One of them is Dinko- another awesome Bulgarian living in Managua, and while in Nicaragua, Ivo joins in.

Dinko

Dinko

Ivo, Rado and Dinko ktesurfing in Nicaragua

Ivo, Rado and Dinko ktesurfing in Nicaragua

We arrive in Managua and spread our tent in Rado’s backyard. This is going to be our main campground while visiting Nicaragua for two weeks. The very next morning, we pack the kites. Rado has a bunch of different sizes kites and boards and he is always planing to get some more. We drive direction Granada for about an hour and then some more to a special place on the lake, where the beach is wide and the waves are big, driven by the easterly winds blowing west to the Pacific Ocean. The road becomes sand among cow pastures. We pass through a tiny village with poor houses. Dogs, chickens and barefoot kids roam in the dust. Giant spiderwebs have invaded bushes and trees, suffocating fences, climbing on roofs. And then we drive on the beach.

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We get to The Place. I love tagging along with Ivo and Rado just because these special hard-to-get-to kitesurfing places Rado takes us to are unbelievably beautiful and unpopular with the tourists. The beach is deserted except for a lonely white egret patiently staring in the water; the lake is dark and agitated by the wind. On the horizon, the perfect cones of Maderas and Concepcion Volcanos are perched on top of Ometepe Island.

Lake Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua

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Lago Cocibolca (Mar Dulce- Sweet Sea) or Lake Nicaragua is a navigable tectonic lake with an area of over 8,000 km2. It is the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world, slightly smaller than Lake Titicaca. Even though it is much closer to the Pacific Ocean, the San Juan river joins the lake with the Caribbean Sea, and thus has provided access for pirates to Granada in previous centuries. A project to build a canal linking the Atlantic with the Pacific similar to the Panama Canal exists since over one hundred years now, but for various reasons (mainly financial) the project remains on paper only.

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The lake is a windy place, with a reputation for powerful storms, excellent for kitesurfing all year round.

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But kitesurfing is not an easy-breezy business… It involves a lot of equipment repairs, as the inflatable part of the kites tends to break and deflate, and the fabric tends to tear. Especially if you are a newbie, like Ivo. The first couple of times on the lake, he kitesurfs mostly around, on top and inside of trees…

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Practice makes a difference, though, and with time, even Ivo starts enjoying the ride.

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Ivo ktesurfing in Nicaragua

While Ivo, Rado and Dinko are flying around, Maya and her friend Cathy (Rado’s daughter) are playing in the lake, running among waves, making sand sculptures and drawings.

Cathy and Maya

Cathy and Maya, Lake Nicaragua

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And while the girls are having fun, I am negotiating with a local man for a couple of watermelons. He takes me to the watermelon field so I can pick the melons I want and he doesn’t charge me for the ones we break right there and then to try if there are red and juicy. Yes, they are.

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Mira and the watermelon man

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PHOTOS FROM THE LAKE

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KITESURFING AND SAFETY (from Wikipedia)

Kiteboarding is a surface water sport combining aspects of wakeboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding, skateboarding and gymnastics into one extreme sport. A kiteboarder harnesses the power of the wind with a large controllable power kite to be propelled across the water on a kiteboard similar to a wakeboard or a small surfboard, with or without footstraps or bindings.

Any location with consistent, steady side-onshore winds (10 to 35+ knots), large open bodies of water and good launch areas is suitable for kitesurfing. Controlled flying is possible and is one of the biggest attractions of the sport.

Power kites are powerful enough to pull the rider like a boat in wakeboarding and to lift their users to diving heights. But a kite could become uncontrolled and that situation can be very dangerous; especially within a difficult environment. A kite can get out of control after the rider falling or in a sudden wind gust, which can happen more frequently due to excessively strong winds from squalls or storms (“collard”).

It is possible to be seriously injured after being lofted, dragged, carried off, blown downwind or dashed, resulting in a collision with hard objects including sand, buildings, terrain or power lines or even by hitting the water surface with sufficient speed or height (“kitemare”, a portmanteau of kite and nightmare). Adequate quality professional kiteboarding training, careful development of experience and consistent use of good judgement and safety gear should result in fewer problems in kiteboarding.

Kiteboarding can pose hazards to surfers, beachgoers, bystanders and others on the water. Many problems and dangers that may be encountered while learning kiting can be avoided or minimized by taking professional instruction through lesson centers. Kitesurfing schools provide courses and lessons to teach skills including kite launching, flying, landing, usage of the bar, lines and safety devices.

Accidents can generate serious injuries or even be deadly. 105 accidents were reported in the Kiteboarding Safety Information Database between 2000 and September 2003, with 14 fatalities.

Kitesurfing safety rules

Kite High Rule – A kiter who is upwind (closest to the wind) must keep their kite high to avoid their lines crossing those of downwind kiters. Similarly, the downwind kiter must keep their kite low to avoid their lines crossing upwind kites. This applies regardless of whether kiters are on the same, or opposing courses.

Clearance Rule – A kiter while jumping must have a clear safety zone of at least 50m downwind because they will move downwind during the jump. A rider must also have a clear safety zone of 30m upwind to jump as his lines could touch the kite or the lines of another rider kiteboarding close by (see Kite High rule). It’s important to also consider potential hazards downwind and crosswind of the rider such as people, buildings, trees and other fixed obstacles.

Kiters are also considered as sailing vessels – so some standard sailing rules apply such as:

Starboard Rule When kiters approach from opposite directions the kiter who has the wind on the starboard (right side, right leg/arm leads in direction of travel) has right of way. The kiter who has the wind on the port side (left side, left leg/arm are leads in direction of travel) shall keep out of the way of the other. In simple terms, this means “keep right” with the kiter coming in the opposite direction passing on the left.

In sailing terms, a sailor or kiter with right of way is entitled to “insist” on exercising that right (warning opposing kiters) by shouting “starboard” very clearly and in good time.

Other boating rules such as no-go zones, distance from shore and swimmers also apply.

Similar articles from the blog:

Kitesurfing in Aruba

Kitesurfing in San Blas

Kitesurfing in Panama

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The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

The Old Hermit And His Dream Mountain

Don Alberto

Don Alberto

We are sitting on the terrace of a small restaurant in front of the big white cathedral in Leon glowing in the permanent tropical heat. We are eating tacos and drinking beer with our friend Katia Angelova, whom we met only a few days ago.

– Have you heard about this old guy who lives alone in the forest and all he does since many years now is carving the stones of the mountain, I ask Katia.

And even though she lives and works in Nicaragua since many years, Katia has never heard about Don Alberto. It seams that he and his mountain are not very famous; not your typical tourist attraction. Maybe, it’s not worth it? But for us and for Katia, an old stone-carving hermit sounds intriguing.

– Lets’s go and check him out, she proposes excitedly.

– He lives up north, near the border with Honduras, in Esteli. We need two days to get there and back! When do you want to go, we ask.

– Now, she is not joking. In two days I have to fly to Florida, so it’s now or never!

We can’t believe it! There is someone who is even more spontaneous than us! Let’s go!

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Katia Angelova in front of her hotel in Managua

Next, we drive back to Managua with Katia’s car, prepare our stuff for the journey and start driving north. It takes hours on a narrow road winding through hills and small villages. The entire time, Katia who owns and manages a few hotels in Nicaragua, is telling us the funniest stories. I mean, these are some hilarious hotel-stories that can easily become scenarios for the next most popular TV series. The one about the forty refugees from India stuck in her hotel without papers for a few months is my favorite. Crammed in just a few rooms to save on money, they founded a small Hindu community with its intense exotic sounds and smells, washing and drying their turbans on the balconies, starting small businesses within the confines of the hotel lobby, like facial hair epilation for example, smuggling prostitutes now and then, and finally, one of the guys married the hotel receptionist!

In the evening, we get to Esteli, not far from Don Alberto’s mountain, and thanks to Katia and her hotel business, we gat a nice discount in a nice hotel.

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Hotel in Esteli

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After breakfast, we meet Joconda, Katia’s friend who lives in the same town and is also interested to visit Don Alberto- a local legend. Together we head for the forest.

Finding Don Alberto’s place proves to be very tricky and this might be the reason why not many get to visit him. We drive on narrow roads, paved at first, then covered with dirt and rocks, through tiny communities and vast forests, and everywhere we see people we stop and ask them which way to go. In this forgotten part of the world, everyone knows Don Alberto and they explain to us how to get there, first driving to the end of the dirt road and then walking through pastures and farmland. I am worried that after this long journey, the old man might not be home, that we might not meet him.

On the way to Don Alberto's

On the way to Don Alberto’s

– Is he there, I ask a woman working in the field as we get closer.

– He is always there, she replies almost offended by my pointless question.

Don Alberto was born in Nicaragua 77 years ago and for the past 37 years has never gone further than the village church which he visits on Sundays and holidays. He spends his days in the forest and up on the hills overlooking the valley. His home and shelter for the night is a miniature wooden shack with large religious drawings on the outer walls, smaller than an elf’s house.

Don Alberto in front of his home

Don Alberto in front of his home

We find the place empty. He is not there…

A narrow path leads us through the shadows of old trees, and on the side of the path, and in the shadows of the old trees, are scattered grey rocks- big and small, and each rock has been shaped into an animal or an icon of a saint. These shy stone sculptures slowly appear one after another- the most extraordinary forest gallery.

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And then, like a ghost from an enchanted world- small and almost transparent, an old man emerges from the darkness of the forest and floats towards me. I don’t know what to say; I am afraid my words or my presence might scare him away, such a delicate white butterfly he is. The others have gone up the hill and there is no one to share this magical moment with me. I meet Don Alberto.

Don Alberto and his art award

Don Alberto and his art award

He is smiling with the sad smile of an angel, his hair is shining white, his skin is the color and texture of tree bark.

Immediately, he starts explaining about his rocks, his forest, the animals, the plants. He sounds like a recording. I am sure he repeats the exact same things to all his visitors and I wonder if he likes to have foreigners disturbing his peace.

 

– Have you gone up the hill, he asks me?

– Not yet, I explain.

– Go, go up the hill and then come back. I will be here.

I go up the hill. There, suddenly, looming above me, a few meters tall and many meters long- the vertical stone face of the mountain covered in carved figures of buildings and animals, Egyptian motives and religious scenes. An elephant, a tiger, a whale, even a helicopter are facing the vast open view of the valley to the east. The colossal scale of the artwork is totally unexpected, stunning and unbelievable. The work of a lifetime, secluded at the end of the world. Birds and sunrises are this gallery’s only regular spectators.

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It is hard to conceive that this little, humble person who has never seen the world beyond his forest, who has never studied art or carving, who has never been to school at all, has brought the world to him in such glorious proportions, and only using some basic tools. A world of dreams and imagined images, captured in rock for eternity.

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– I wake up around 3 o’clock in the morning and I say my prayers. Then I go and I shape the rocks. Later in the day, many people come to see me from all corners of the world. I like when people come to see me and my stonework. They take pictures and more people come every time! One woman who works in university brought me notebooks and I ask everyone who visits me to write their names in these notebooks and the country they are coming from. I have 15 notebooks already full with names. I am teaching myself to read and write now, and I read the names in my notebooks. If you are coming back, please bring me more notebooks, this is my last one. I don’t ask the people who visit me to pay. They can give me a gift if their hearth wishes. Here, look what people have given me.

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Someone has given him a pocket knife he never uses, he keeps it hidden in his shack, like treasure, together with a small pin with the Canadian flag, a plastic Jesus on the cross wrapped in foil, and a pair of black leather boots.

– These are good hiking boots to go up the mountain, why don’t you use them, I look at his old broken shoes he wears instead of the new black leather boots.

– I only wear them when I go to church on holidays, he smiles.

 

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The Three Capitals of Nicaragua

The Three Capitals

While in Nicaragua, we visit three of the country’s biggest and most famous cities: Managua, León, and Granada which have all alternately held the title of The Capital at some point in history.

Cathedral in Granada

Cathedral in Granada

León had been the capital of Nicaragua since colonial times, so when Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León became the capital of the new nation. But for some years the capital shifted back and forth between León and Granada, with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed upon to be the permanent capital in 1858. These three cities- The Three Capitals of Nicaragua- have seduced us with their unique vibe and character, and getting to know them has been a pleasant and beautiful experience.

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Maya, Ivo and Mira in Leon, Nicaragua

Managua

Managua is our greatest surprise. Based on what we have read and heard, we expected to be robbed and killed there immediately. Instead, we discover a nice big city decorated with hundreds of permanent colorful light sculptures and even more grandiose temporary decorations for Christmas. Nicaragua’s capital turned out to have very little gang violence and to be much safer than its neighbors to the north- the capitals of Honduras, El Salvador, or Guatemala, and even safer than Costa Rica‘s capital San Jose, where we had the scariest experience on our way back from this trip.

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Light Trees in Managua and the Hugo Chavez monument

Managua is the largest city in Nicaragua and the second most populous city in Central America, after Guatemala City, located on the southwestern shore of Lake Xolotlán (Lake Managua), declared the national capital in 1852. In 1972 Managua was completely destroyed by a violent earthquake and most of its colonial buildings and cathedrals were reduced to dust. The Nicaraguan Civil War which followed in 1979 aiming to overthrow the Somoza regime, as well as the 11-year-long Contra War of the 1980s further devastated the city and its economy. To make matters worse, a series of natural disasters severely disrupted and stunted Managua’s growth. It was not until the mid-1990s Managua began to see a resurgence in investment and infrastructural development. Today, Managua’s downtown has been partially rebuilt and new governmental buildings, galleries, museums, apartment buildings, squares, promenades, monuments, boat tours in Lake Xolotlan, restaurants, night entertainment, and broad avenues have resurrected part of Managua’s downtown former vitality.

Managua lake promenade

Managua lake promenade

Downtown Managua is decorated with hundreds of permanent Light Tree sculptures

One building that barely survived earthquakes, disasters and civil wars, is the Old St James Cathedral, designed and shipped from Belgium in 1920 by Belgian architect residing in Managua Pablo Dambach who got the inspiration from St Sulspice in Paris. Santiago became the first cathedral in the Western Hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete on a metal frame. Santiago was extremely damaged during the 1972 earthquake, but in recent years, the restoration of the old cathedral of Santiago has appeared to be possible and is currently awaiting renovation.

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The Old Cathedral of Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

The earthquake damaged cathedral in Managua

In the evening, we stroll around the promenade on the shores of the lake illuminated by colorful lights and the central plaza where the old earthquake damaged cathedral sits heavy and silent and wrinkled in the company of giant Christmas light statues. It is full of people and the breeze agitates the evergreen tops of the palm trees. Managua is charming and we feel a bit guilty for thinking so bad of her before getting to know her.

Plaza Managua

Plaza Managua

León

León is the second largest city in Nicaragua, after Managua, located along the Río Chiquito, 90 kilometres (56 miles) northwest of Managua, and 18 km (11 miles) east of the Pacific Ocean coast. It has long been the political and intellectual center of the nation and its National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) was founded in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. León is also an important industrial, agricultural, and commercial center for Nicaragua, exporting sugar cane, cattle, peanut, plantain, and sorghum. The city has been home to many of Nicaragua’s most noteworthy poets including Rubén Darío, Alfonso Cortés and Salomón de la Selva.

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Church in Leon

León is rich in both architectural monuments and historical places. Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León is a colonial baroque building built between 1747 and 1814 and the largest cathedral in Central America, as well as one of the oldest dioceses in the Americas. Because of its solid, anti-seismic construction its walls have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions of Cerro Negro volcano, and bombings during civil wars. In the cathedral’s crypts are buried several illustrious figures such as poet and diplomat Rubén Dario- the leading figure of the Modernism Poetic Movement of the late 1800s to early 1900s declared the Prince of Spanish Letters by literary figures of the Spanish speaking world.

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Cathedral of Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

The market, where the mini-bus from Managua drops us off in León, like many other markets in the world, is a noisy crowded place, alive with local colors, sounds and smells. As if all people have gathered here and everything is happening; the streets are buzzing with vendors, buyers and merchandise, small covered three-wheel taxis (capuneras) and horse carts. Giant papayas, leather saddles and boots, furniture, meat, candy. Strange mixtures of smells: fish and oranges, fried pork and ice cream. Thus greets us the madness of Leon, before we find the more peaceful plazas and narrow streets with colorful colonial two-story buildings and cathedrals at every corner.

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The market in Leon

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Big papayas

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Love is in the air

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Cathedral in Leon

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Leon, Nicaragua

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Ivo and Maya in Leon

Granada

Granada, with its rich colonial heritage, seen in its architecture, is much more popular and touristy than Leon with even more beautiful freshly painted colonial buildings housing some world renowned restaurants and luxurious hotels with square inner yards. One evening, we gather with many of our Bulgarian friends living in Nicaragua in one of the restaurants lined along the streets. As everywhere else in the Latin American world, orders takes ages to arrive. In the meantime, we drink beer and exchange stories and wisdoms, while mariachi, beggars and street vendors offering sunglasses and local arts and crafts, constantly stop by our table to torment us, and is hard to get rid of them.

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Cathedral in Granada

Granada, founded in 1524, is historically one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, economically and politically, and one of the most visited sites in Central America. During the colonial period, Granada maintained a flourishing level of commerce with ports on the Atlantic Ocean, through Lake Nicaragua (a.k.a. Cocibolca) and the San Juan River. The city has been witness and victim to many of the battles with and invasions from English, French and Dutch pirates trying to take control of Nicaragua.

Granada’s economy continues to grow as it is becoming the national tourism hub. Though Granada remains Nicaragua’s sixth largest city, it is widely known for preserving some of the finest colonial-era architecture in the country.

Granada’s restaurants have received international recognition by newspapers like the New York Times. In recent years, the city of Granada’s evolving culinary scene mixes local and international flavors, as well as supporting farm to table sustainability of local growers and producers. Granada’s economy continues to grow in big part because it is fast becoming a tourist attraction for its colonial architecture, as well as its ecological beauty and now as a food destination.

 

(with information from Wikipedia)

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Granada, Nicaragua

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  • Next: The Hermit and The Mountain

 

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Things To Do in La Fortuna

la Fortuna

La Fortuna (The Fortune) is a small city in Alajuela province of Costa Rica attracting hordes of tourists with its many natural attractions and activities: volcano hikes, crater lagoons, waterfalls, hot springs, whitewater rafting, hanging bridges, zip-lines, kayaking, caverns, and others. But the main attraction is Arenal Volcano- an active andesitic stratovolcano whose perfect cone towers over the town just 10 km to the west- one of the top 10 most active volcanoes in the world until 2010, when it stopped erupting lava and is now dormant.

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano

We take the bus to La Fortuna with the idea to spend there a couple of days, but we end up staying longer, as we just fell in love with the entire place and all the FREE activities it provides, besides the many very expensive ones, which we skipped.

Street in la Fortuna

Street in la Fortuna

We get a room in a super nice hotel- Las Palmas, and after a short negotiation, we pay $25 per day (instead of $40) for a private room on the second floor, with a balcony, with nice hot water showers right in the center of the city, next to the supermarket, complete with a friendly cat who comes to visit us in the room every evening.

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

Pick nick in the park at La Fortuna

The city itself is the most charming, clean and tranquil little town where blond young backpackers coming from Europe make up more than half the population, and every house is a hostel or a restaurant.

El Poso

Immediately, we begin exploring. The first place we visit, is “El Poso” (The Pool) – a natural pool under a bridge just outside of town. It’s a 15 minute walk on the main road towards la Fortuna Cascades. Way before the cascades, which are a popular but expensive site, there is a bridge, and right before the bridge a small path leads us to the free-of-charge alternative. El Poso on La Fortuna River is popular with the local kids who come here in the afternoon and perfect the art of jumping in the river, or just chill in the water, or sit on the rocks and smoke marijuana. We join them, only for the jumping-in-the-river and chill-in-the-water part, as we don’t enjoy smoking anything…

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El Poso

There is a rope hanging over the river and Ivo and Maya play Tarzan. It’s scary the first time when Maya takes the rope and swings high and then lets go and drops in the river below from about ten meters with a splash, but after the fifth time it just gets more and more fun, and Maya doesn’t want to leave the place.

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Ivo performing “The Bulgarian Flying Hummer” jump

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Maya Tarzan

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One- Two

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Threeee!

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Yes, they did jump! I took a video of this one

Aguas Termales

The next day, we take the bus heading to the hot springs not far from town, and tell the driver to stop at the FREE thermal springs (Las aguas termales gratis). There are two resorts built around the hot volcanic springs with specially made pools and manicured gardens, which are probably very beautiful and super nice- we don’t know, as we didn’t visit those. Instead, the bus driver leaves us near a small path in the forest on the right side of the road and after a short walk we get to the river. It’s the same hot-water river coming from the same volcanic springs like the ones of the resorts, only this one is with free public access and there are no special pools and gardens and restaurants- just the river, completely natural and HOT! And there is no one but us in this awesome river-Jacuzzi!

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Thermal river

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Maya and Mira in the Jacuzzi

Hiking to Lake Arenal Dam

After about an hour we are all nicely soaked and marinated, ready to go to the Arenal Volcano Park, which is further down the same road. We walk on the paved street for about an hour and then a couple of tourists from the USA with a rental car pick us up and bring us to the park’s entrance, which is to the left. But instead of going in the park, which is I-don’t-know-how-much per person, we take another black road through the forest opposite the park (to the right), which leads us to the big lagoon lake- Lake Arenal Dam, about five kilometers away.

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The guys who gave us a lift

On the way we spot a sleepy coati, a crested guan (a turkey-like bird), parrots and monkeys. It’s a nice shady walk with some very rewarding views of the great lake. And is free of charge.

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A coati just waking up

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..a bit of yoga is good for you…

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Ok, ready to go now.

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DO NOT FEED WILD ANIMALS, really, it is not a good idea, it breaks the natural balance.

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Crested guan

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Lake Dam

The dirt road comes out on the main road just before the bridge. There we meet Wilson Sackett for the first time- a young fellow from the USA biking from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, who has some problem with his bike and Ivo tries to help him. Later, we bump into Wilson again on the streets of a small town in Nicaragua, and AGAIN on Ometepe Island! I don’t know who is following who, but meeting the same guy in three different locations in two different countries within four weeks is quite a strange coincidence, isn’t it!

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Wilsn Sackett

Hiking Cerro Chato

On the third day of our stay in La Fortuna, we hike to Cerro Chato, which is a small volcano next to Arenal Volcano with a beautiful green crater lake at the top. Visitors are supposed to go to the park’s office and pay the entrance fee (I think it is $16 per person) before taking to the trail. There are some waterfalls also within the park and it is not clear to us where to pay for the hike only. We head for the trailhead figuring there will be someone to collect the fee at the beginning, but there is no one. No one stops us, so we end up climbing Cerro Chato for free. The trail is in terrible state of neglect, extremely muddy and steep, and super challenging. There are some ancient wooden steps of which about 60-70% are completely destroyed and it looks like for many years no one has fixed any of them. Zero maintenance. We expected a short easy hike, but it ends up a super difficult, tiring, steep trek on poorly maintained trail.

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Ivo on the trail to Cerro Chato

It takes about four hours to climb to the top, often on all fours, and another hour to descend down to the crater lake- an eerie place of clouds and dark trees, where a bunch of other tourists enjoy an afternoon dip in the volcanic cold waters.

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Cerro Chato Crater Lake

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Hitchhiking With Mad Scientists

On the way back, we take a different easier but longer rout (the only alternative) that leads us, past pine and eucalyptus forests, to a private resort very far away from La Fortuna.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

Luckily, we hitch a ride back to town with a couple of young college professors from the USA on vacation- one researching reptiles, the other specializing in parasites in frogs, who immediately identify the huge snake that terrified us earlier as “a harmless tiger rat snake”, just by hearing our confused descriptions.

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Tiger Rat Snake (not poisonous)

Also, they almost kill us. The car suddenly breaks and stops in a cloud of dust on the dirt road, and both professors jump out of it with the speed of light and no apparent reason. Before we realize what is going on, the girl is across the road grabbing a small green innocent lizard, who has no chances of escaping such a sudden, skillful, ninja attack. The scientists, then, happily identify the little fellow, take some pictures and release him unharmed and confused. We are amazed and become these guys, whose names we don’t remember, biggest fens. We love it when people are so passionate about animals and nature and the work they do! Thank you for the ride, guys, hope you are reading this and giggling!

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Mission Lizard

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Thus, we spend three unforgettable days and not much dollars in la Fortuna, Costa Rica, enjoying rivers, volcanoes, cascades and hot springs. For those who are planning to visit- there is a lot more to do around this beautiful town, especially if you are willing to pay the entrance fees, so plan to spend at least 3-4 days and a bunch of dollars. There are the Venado Caverns, the spectacular hanging bridges, the hot-water spa resorts, one of the best and longest zip-lines, a few waterfalls, butterfly gardens, and more.

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Arenal Volcano from another angle

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Arenal Volcano at sunset

Or just ask around for the free options. Enjoy!

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Pura Vida

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Ivo Gone Green in Costa Rica

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Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

Cerro Chirripo. Conquering Costa Rica’s Highest Mountain

by Mira Nencheva

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Mira, Ivo and Maya at Crestones Ranger Station, park Chirripo, Costa Rica

From Rio Claro we catch the TicaBus to San Isidro de El General, the largest regional city of 45, 000 population at the crossroads between some of Costa Rica’s most important destinations. The ticket costs less than $3 per person and it takes 4 hours to get there. In the beginning, we pass through palm oil plantations and jungles. Further, as we climb higher, the road starts curving along a wide shallow river, passing through small villages and dry forests. The TicaBus is a big comfortable bus serving all Central American countries, and it’s not too expensive.

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At the bus station

Midway, we make a long bathroom stop next to a big buffet restaurant on the road and in the late afternoon we arrive in San Isidro lying in a valley at the foot of the mountains, clean, tranquil and beautiful. A large white neo-Gothic cathedral sits heavy at the eastern end of the Town Square. We eat in a small Peruvian restaurant- one of the cheapest places in town where the food is pretty decent, and sleep in a hotel. The room for the three of us is $35 per night and it is pretty basic. It has two double beds and a TV. The bathrooms and showers are shared- outside of the room. But there is hot water and we wash our dirty clothes in the shower. We have only a couple of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and socks each, so we have to wash them every time we can. We are super happy to sleep in beds, after spending the past few nights camping on the beaches of Osa Peninsula and sleeping in a tent.

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Cathedral in San Isidro

In the morning, we take another bus to a small picturesque village up in the mountains- San Gerardo de Rivas. Our main purpose in Costa Rica is to climb its highest mountain- Cerro Chirripó rising at 3820m above sea level . It is located in the Chirripó National Park and is famous for its ecological wealth and extremely high biodiversity. San Gerardo is the town from where the trail begins.

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San Gerardo

Parque Nacional Chirrpo

There, we visit the Park Service where our ordeal begins. First, we have to make a reservation. We fill forms; write down names and passport numbers. Then, with a piece of paper and a reservation number, we go to another place to do a bank transfer ($7 per person; Maya pays too for the bank transaction) and pay the park’s entrance fee. We have to write down our names and passport numbers again. The park’s entrance fee is $16 per person per day, $1 for Maya, as she is 12. We need two days minimum to hike the 40-kilometer trek up and down the mountain, so for the entrance fee we spend $65 plus 21$ for the bank transfer.. So far $86 for the three of us, just to enter in the park. Now, with the proof of the bank transaction, we walk back to the park’s office. We have to fill forms once again, and write our names and passport numbers again, and with this done, we have to walk all the way to another office on the other side of town- about 15-minute walk- to pay for the sleeping accommodations and reserve meals inside the park, which is not done by the park’s services, but by a private local organization. There, we have to fill forms, write down our names and passport numbers for a fourth time, and we have to pay $40 per person to sleep in a bunk bed up in the “Refugio” (ranger station) 5 km before the summit. The meals cost $20 for breakfast and $25 for lunch or dinner each! No thanks, we will be on canned ham and crackers diet for the next two days… Can we sleep in a tent instead of a shelter? No, there is no other option but the 40-dollar bunk bed. Tents are not allowed. Our total for a two-day trek to Cerro Chirripo is $206.00, food not included. We feel robbed. This is the most expensive mountain we ever climbed so far… We complain to every official in each of the offices we visit, and tell them that these prices are ridiculous and offending, and charging so much is not fair. We have climbed many other mountains in the Caribbean, Central and South America, many of them for free, including Pico Duarte in Dominican Republic, which is a very similar two-day one-night hike, and even with two mules and a guide, it is much less expensive. Costa Rica has by far the most expensive nature, and this unfortunately keeps many tourists away. But, as we found out, there is a cheaper way to experience Cerro Chirripo, as long as you have time and you plan it well in advance. You can sign up for the volunteer program and work in the park (office job or maintaining the trails) for a minimum of 6 days. Your accommodation will be covered. All you need to pay for is transportation to food. Kids under 18 can participate too, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. For more information you can download the PDF file of the park’s volunteer program (in Spanish) http://www.parquenacionalchirripo.com/pdf/voluntariado.pdf

Hostel Casa Chirripó

All the reservations and payments done, we are ready to find a hostel and relax for another night before the big hike tomorrow. San Gerardo is full of hostels, as many tourists from all over the world come to conquer Costa Rica’s highest peak. The one we choose is a small colorful house turned hostel at one end of town, next to a river. Hostel Casa Chirripó .

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Mira and Maya in front of the hostel

As soon as we enter, we feel like home and we don’t go looking further. This will be our “home” for the night. Our room is clean and tastefully decorated and Maya loves her cozy bed with cheerful colorful blankets. For the three of us it’s $40, breakfast and transportation to the trailhead in the morning included. Pretty awesome!

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Our room

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The Kitchen

But the best thing about the place, are the people who run it. They are the friendliest guys, especially Jose Anderson. He is the one who has painted the walls and he promises: as soon as we return from the mountain, the Bulgarian flag will be added on the wall with the flags. We will be the first Bulgarians staying at this hostel who climbed Cerro Chirripo!

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

Jose Anderson in Hostel Casa Chirripo

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The Bulgarian flag on the wall!

Hiking with Jose

Jose is one of those easy-going people, who have the talent of becoming your instant friends, and a few minutes after you meet them it feels as if you have known them forever. He is also very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and offers to bring us to a small cave full of bats, and to show us a local cow farm. It’s a wonderful little afternoon walk; the path is surrounded by flowers, wild orange and lemon trees.

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– This little flower there is an orchid. It is small and it doesn’t look like and orchid, but it is, Jose laughs. And these lemons are supper sweet, try one. Oh! Look at this bird! This is a type of toucan!

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orchid

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We reach the cave. It is just a small opening between two big boulders at the end of a cow pasture, but it’s full of sleeping bats! I tell Jose about our friends back in El Golfito who study bats and cave systems in Costa Rica and who inspired us to learn and respect these animals. We are very happy we finally got to see bats! Thank you , Jose, you are brilliant!

Visit Hostal Cerro Chirripo and contact them through Facebook.

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Ivo and Jose in front of the cave

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Hiking Cerro Chirripo. Day 1

4:30 the next morning we are up and ready to go. This time, we leave our heavy stuff at the hostel and only take some food, water and jackets in the smallest backpack. It’s still dark when we start walking past pastures at first and then- in the wet mysterious evergreen jungle. At dawn, a family of capuchin monkeys are jumping overhead, going somewhere.

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The trail is beautiful and well maintained, not too steep. As we move upwards, the lower montane forest gives way to the montane rainforest with giant oak trees home of epiphytic ecosystems, towering at 50 meters and more over the other trees that average 30 meters, and the understory of ferns and bamboo.

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Every kilometer is marked and the countdown begins. There are 14 kilometers of uphill before us until we reach the shelter where we will sleep. Midway, kilometer 7 marks the end of the first part of the trail as we reach refugio Llano Bonito serving super expensive coffee, hot chocolate, and other treats. We drink some water and keep going. Here, we meet some sort of wild friendly partridges completely unafraid of us.

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The forest beyond this point and altitude is dry, the trees are much shorter, surrounded by cactus and scrub. Conditions become harsher. It gets steeper and harder to walk. After kilometer 10, there is no more forest, but alpine grasses, flowers and some small very dry trees all around us. The montane forests lying above 1500 meters elevation up to approximately 3000 meters elevation, transition to the grasslands and shrublands of the Costa Rican Páramo.

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These are the Talamancan montane forests very rich in biodiversity and they are Central America’s most intact ecoregions, with 40% of the ecoregion protected by national and international parks. Scientist estimate that between 3 and 4 percent of the biodiversity in the world is found here with 136 mammal species (jaguar, cougar, tapir, deer, anteater and several species of monkeys) and 450 species of birds among which the harpy eagle and the quetzal. The Costa Rican páramo, also known as the Talamanca páramo, is a natural region of montane grassland and shrubland found above 3000 meters elevation on the summits of the highest mountains. These are also called sky islands- home of many species of plants and animals. Here, we feel like we are in a different world. It is breathtakingly serene and beautiful.

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We start seeing fat scaly lizards- some black other green-blue, sunning themselves on rocks and branches near the path. Later, we found out that these are the emerald swift or green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus)- a species of small lizard, native to Central America.

Emerald swifts

Emerald swifts are distinctly bright green in color, with males typically being more striking than females. They grow from 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in length. Like other species in the genus Sceloporus, their scales tend to be fairly stiff and heavily keeled, giving them a spiny texture. Emerald swifts are arboreal lizards. In the early morning they forage for insects, and then spend much of the day basking in the sun. They will retreat to a burrow, or under a rock or log if the temperature becomes too high or to sleep. (from Wikipedia)

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Emerald swift (male)

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Emerald swift (female)

At Crestones Ranger Station

After 10 hours of walking, we reach kilometer 14 and the Ranger Station Los Crestones already full with other mountaineers who cheer for us as soon as we walk through the door. Maya is the youngest hiker this day and we are once again the proudest parents. It has been a beautiful sunny rainless day; we are tired and hungry and super happy to be here. For the fifth time, we have to write down our names and passport numbers in the big registry book. By now, I just invent random numbers. We are then awarded with two blankets each and a key to a room with two bunk beds- the coldest most expensive “hotel” we have ever slept in and there is not even a shower. At this altitude, it gets freezing at night. While the rest of the mountaineers eat hot meals prepared in the kitchen of the ranger station, we eat canned food and crackers. Most of the people are locals (they pay less) and Europeans: lots of German and French. In our room, we sleep with our clothes on wrapped in the blankets.

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Climbing Cerro Chirripo. Day2

The next morning, we wake up at 3:00 a.m. and start walking in the dark with little headlights on. There are 5 more kilometers to the summit, and these are the toughest ones. At this altitude, I can barely breathe. It’s freezing cold. We can hear a river, but don’t see it. All we see are billions of stars hanging above us, and contours of black mountains. We are walking through the thick grasses of the Costa Rican paramo. The path is hard to find in the dark, especially when it goes over flat rocky areas. We lose it. We have to come back and find it again. We keep walking. We want to get to the summit just before sunrise and watch the daybreak from the top of Costa Rica, but I am struggling with the altitude and am way too slow. I don’t feel good at all. I want to quit. I want to go back in the shelter and wait there. But Ivo and Maya are urging me to keep going. They stop and wait for me while I rest every couple of minutes. I need to sit down, catch my breath, and wait for my heart to calm down. The terrain gets rougher and steeper, and on top of that the cold wind picks up. After one last turn, we finally see the last peak. Cerro Chirripo is beautiful and frightening- a vertical steep pyramid of grey rocks. I give up. I will not reach this summit. It’s way too hard for me. I tell Ivo and Maya to leave me behind and hurry up to catch the sunrise. I want to start walking back and will wait for them at the shelter. Reluctant, Ivo and Maya continue without me. As they start the final ascent, I hear Maya in the distance saying- “Mama, don’t come, this is way too difficult for you, you can’t make it!”

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Alone, I sit and rest for a while but it gets too cold. I have to keep going or I will freeze to death. I get up and start walking again. Towards the summit. Slowly, I climb over the rocks on my fours. This reminds me of our ordeal going down from Volcan Baru in Panama... The sun is already out and I can see the dark crater lake and the sea of white clouds below. Ivo and Maya are already on top and when they see me struggling across the final vertical meters of the mountain like a wounded old turtle, they are super happy and surprised. In fact, I haven’t seen Ivo so happy and proud of me for a long time. This makes me feel happy too. I made it! We all made it to the top of Costa Rica, what a glorious unforgettable moment!

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Maya with Cerro Chirripo behind her

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After a few freezing cold minutes on the summit and a well-deserved chocolate, we start the long downhill walk. It’s 5 km back to the shelter plus 14km back to the village for a total of 24 km for the day. The walk down is easier on the hearth and lungs, but proves harder on the knees and legs, and I struggle again. The weather is once again perfect. We don’t get a drop of rain the entire time both days, and only when we return to San Gerardo and finally sit on the bench in front of the small grocery shop in town eating some cheap spicy sausage and drinking local beer with a young coupe form Quebec, it starts poring. But we don’t care. We are back, we are dry, and we are resting. No more hiking for today.

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Ivo, Mira and Maya on top of Cerro Chirripo 3820m

Tips for climbing Cerro Chirripo

Make reservations in advance if possible. There are only 60 people per day allowed in the park, as there are only 60 beds in the ranger station. While we were in San Gerardo, we met a guy who had to wait one more day, as the park quota was reached and he couldn’t climb the summit the same day.
Bring good mountain boots, winter jackets and hats, and flashlights. The lights at Crestones are switched off at 8:00 p.m. and the hike in the morning begins in total darkness.
Bring a bottle of water. You can refill it at kilometer 7 and once again before Crestones.
Even though we didn’t get any rain, it is highly possible that you will, so bring rain ponchos.
If you feel, like we do, that the park fees are way too expensive, you can make a complaint. Hopefully, they will lower the prices if more people express their opinion. For more information, visit the park’s website Parque Nacional Chirripo

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Free Camping in Osa Peninsula

Free Camping in Osa Peninsula

 

After spending our first three Costa Rica days in El Golfito visiting Stanimira and Angel and relaxing in the House at The Bottom of The Jungle, we prepare our backpacks and head for Puerto Jimenez- one of the main cities on Osa Peninsula and the gateway to Corcovado National Park. We get there by a small ferry that leaves every hour from El Golfito, costs $6 per person and the trip is about 40 minutes.

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El Golfito Ferry Port

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Maya waiting for the ferry

Puerto Jimenez turns out to be more of a small village with only one main paved street, full with hostels and tourist agencies offering guides and tours in Corcovado and the surrounding areas. As soon as we set foot on the main street, cars start stopping next to us offering taxi rides with hush voices. Illegal taxi rides, as these are not taxis but regular cars. It looks like every car in Puerto Jimenez is a taxi. At first, we refuse politely, then we refuse firmly, then we simply ignore them and just wish they would stop bothering us. We are here not to ride taxis or go on guided tours but to walk and to camp for free in the footsteps of two other Bulgarian adventurers before us- Tery and Ivan.

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Ivo and Maya in Puerto Jimenez. Main Street

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The typical local food consists of rice and beans and some extras around. A plate costs $6 in a local “soda” joint. Way too expensive for rice and beans…

Tery and Ivan are hitchhiking around the world and have been in hundreds of countries on most continents. Their adventures and misadventures are described in Terry’s blog Hitchhiking Around The World. Tery contacted us through our blog and we hoped to meet her and her friend somewhere in Central America, but the timing was not good and they were long gone by the time we got in Costa Rica. Nevertheless, we kept in touch and Tery gave us tons of good info and advice where to go, what to expect and how to enjoy some of the country’s natural wonders for free, which is our main objective. Thank you Tery!

The Greenest Country on Earth

Even though Costa Rica is small in territory (50 000 square kilometers), it is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet with lush rainforests, tropical beaches and mountains, containing 4% of the total world animal species. Costa Rica enjoys the status of “The Greenest Country on Earth” and has the reputation of being eco-friendly, carbon neutral, using non-polluting hydroelectricity, and leaving one of the smallest ecological footprints in the world. This is because there is not much industry and the main income for the country is tourism.

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Green Costa Rica

All this is true and sounds very beautiful; we fell in love with the healthy green nature here, and the abundance of wildlife is truly overwhelming, but tourism being the main money-thing means that tourists are regarded as walking ATM machines, and we didn’t enjoy this at all. Unfortunately, “green” is all most Costa Ricans are about; the green of the dollar. Costa Rica, with its greedy National Park and Foreign Tourist policies has already become one extremely expensive tourist resort reserved for the rich and the privileged only. The backpacker of limited means who cannot afford to spend money for guides, for expensive Eco-lodge accommodations or illogical entrance fees, cannot survive long here and is not welcome. Nature in Costa Rica has been transformed into an expensive often private commodity and is being sold and prostituted to those who can afford it only. A bright example is Park Corcovado on the Osa Peninsula- one of the most bio-diverse spots on the planet with a variety of climates and ecosystems, ranging from lowland rainforests, to highland cloud forests, mangrove swamps, coastal marine, and beach habitats. But getting in Corcovado is complicated and ridiculously expensive. You can only enter the park if you have registered at least 1 month (31 days) in advance or more, and paid the fees by bank transfer. No cash or credit cards accepted. If you simply show up at the park’s entrance without a guide, with no registration, reservation and bank transfers in hand you will not enter, no matter what. The bank transfer itself costs between $30-60 and there are two separate transfers to be done- one for the entrance and accommodation fees and another for food reservation. Since November 2014, you can enter the park ONLY with a guide. A guide costs $80-90 per day. (Why only one year ago tourists had the option to enter the park without a guide, but today there is no longer such an option, I am asking, what changed?)

Corcovado Park fees:

Park Daily Use Fee: $15 (per person, per day)
Dorm sleeping per night: $8 (per person, per night)
Camping: $4 (per person, per night)
Breakfast: $20 (per person)
Lunch: $25 (per person)
Dinner: $25 (per person)
Guide: $90 (per day)
Bank transfer: $60

Here is a math problem for you to solve: How much it will cost a family of three to visit park Corcovado for three days, planning to camp for two nights and eat two or three meals per person per day?

I calculate an amount of over $600, even though it is still not clear to me if a guide is needed for each day and if the guide fee is per person or for the group. And even if we haul on our backs all the food that we will eat for three days, we will still spend hundreds of dollars for just two nights camping in our own tent. Oh, and getting to the park’s entrance is another big $$$ story.

But there is an alternative, as Tery told us, and we are urging every traveler of limited means to follow in our footsteps and experience the nature around park Corcovado, which is essentially similar to the nature inside the park, and meet the animals, absolutely free! Here is what we did, a few months after Tery and Ivan have passed through these same places.

Map of Osa Peninsula Free Camping Sites

In The Footsteps of Tery and Ivan

From Puerto Jimenez, we start walking on a flat gravel road direction- Park Corcovado- some 40 kilometers away. It’s December- dry season, the sky is blue, the sun is shining. Temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius, the humidity is high. On both sides of the road there are fenced pastures where cows and horses are gazing in the company of small white egrets.

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The road from Puerto Jimenez to Corcovado

Here, we spot the Scarlet (Ara) Macaws for the first time and it’s a miracle! They are like large flowers in the green of the branches, or like an unreal kid’s painting against the blue of the sky- bright red birds decorated with yellow and blue feathers.

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Scarlet Macaws, Osa Peninsula

It’s noon and the thin shade of the few trees along the road is not helping much. After an hour, we hitchhike. There is not much traffic on this road but we get lucky pretty quickly and a guy from the United States who owns property here lets us ride in the back of his pickup truck for a while. Then a local couple picks us up (what a surprise!) and we get to our first destination way earlier than we expected.

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Playa Pan Dulce

18 kilometers from Puerto Jimenez, there is an exit from the main road leading to Matapalo. Just before Matapalo, we reach a beautiful beach invaded by tiny hermit crabs- Pan Dulce (Sweet Bread).

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Hermit crab

This is the place Tery was telling me about. This is our spot. And it’s truly phenomenal. We set our tent near the sand strip in a small coconut palm grove, away from the beach, as the tides here are so big, you can wake up floating in your tent towards Australia if you camp too near to the sea.

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At low tide, the receding waters of the Pacific Ocean reveal a floor of large flat rocks wet and shining under a spectacular pink-and-purple sunset. We walk around, we bathe in the sea, we eat our canned food while watching a couple of spider-monkeys eating the white flowers of the trees above us, and the red squirrels drilling holes in the coconuts, and the tiny hermit crabs scavenging bellow for whatever falls down from the trees. Howler monkeys are suffering in the distance; we sleep disturbed only by the sudden thud of coconuts falling next to our tent.

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In the morning, we watch the sunrise in the company of Scarlet Macaws.

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I actually don’t pay much attention to the sunrise, as I cannot stop taking pictures of the birds that let me get so close to them, I can almost touch them. Their presence, since we arrived on the peninsula, has been almost constant; they are so abundant here- almost like the seagulls in other parts of the world, yet we cannot get used to them and every time we see them, we celebrate. They say, there are more Scarlet Macaws on Osa Peninsula than in the rest of the world combined. I keep thinking how lucky we are to experience such moments together as a family. I observe Maya observing the parrots, and her eyes are shining, and my heart is melting. It seems unreal to me that Maya is watching macaws in Costa Rica…

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Scarlet Macaws
This brilliantly colored, medium-sized macaw is the only macaw found on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. Macaws are the largest parrots in the Americas, and the Scarlet Macaw is distinct both in color and shape.
With strong wings, the scarlet macaw noisily flies high over the canopy. Their loud, resonant, boisterous calls can often be heard as they fly, but they are usually quiet while feeding. Pairs, trios, or small family groups are often seen, but these may sometimes merge into flocks of 25 or even 50 individuals at large roosts in tall trees or mangroves.
The Scarlet Macaw nests in large holes in tall living or dead trees; they do not dig these holes, but rely on finding cavities that are high off the ground and have vertical entrances. A macaw pair will lay 1-2 eggs per season in such a nest and raise them together. These macaws are serially monogamous, but they may change mates after several seasons.
In 1900, these parrots could still be seen in forests throughout Costa Rica; by 1950, however, due to habitat destruction, they were absent from the Caribbean slope except in the Northwest. They have also suffered from the pet trade; fortunately, today they are protected in every country in which they live. However, in Costa Rica, their populations still have been reduced by the destruction of their habitat. They are now constrained to the forests of the upper Golfo de Nicoya, such as in Palo Verde National Park, and the forests of the Osa Peninsula, such as at Corcovado National Park.
Source: Anywhere Costa Rica

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After breakfast- my favorite breakfast is fresh coconuts that fell last night, we start walking again.

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Mira having her favorite breakfast

This time, the terrain is no longer flat pastures but forested steep hills and it’s up-hill through the jungle for the next 10 kilometers, almost all the way to Rio Piro. The heat is intense; the humidity is 100%. This time, we have no luck hitchhiking. Only a few cars pass in the next 5 hours and none is interested in picking us up. But that’s fine. We came here to walk and be in the forest.

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The large blue morpho butterflies are another masterpiece of nature we cannot get used to, even though they are everywhere. We spot squirrel-monkeys and howler-monkeys and even an anteater up in a tree, using it’s tale as a hand to grab on branches while scratching the bark for termites.

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Anteater

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By noon, we reach a wide shallow river- Rio Piro. A narrow path through the forest just before the river leads us to another spectacular beach- the same one Terry and Ivan got hit by a tropical storm at and their tent almost floated away in the flooded river. They were here during rainy season. We are here in the beginning of dry season and instead of rain we experience the intense burning heat of the tropics. The beach is huge, absolutely deserted, and scorching hot. The only sign of humans here are the numerous sticks marking sea turtle nests.

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Piro Beach

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The waves are monstrous and violent, braking against the steep beach, and it is impossible to go in the water. We are tired but cannot sit in the shadow of the mangrove trees on the edge of the forest, because of some nasty ants that want to eat us, nor in the forest all covered with mud. And sitting on the beach would be suicidal; the sun will kill us for sure in less than five minutes. Even walking on the burning sand with no shoes on is impossible.

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Luckily, there is the river. Where the jungle ends and the sand dunes begin, a slow stream of crystal clear waters gently floats. We dump the tent and backpacks and jump in the cool fresh delicious waters of the river complete with a tree leaning over it for shade and a spectacular view.

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Ivo and Maya in Paradise

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This is the perfect spot- a piece of paradise just for us; our swimming pool, shower and laundry room. We spend here the rest of the day, cooling down, playing with the tiny fishes, relaxing, and washing our dirty clothes and bodies. Squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, eagles, herons and macaws come out again in the late afternoon, noisy and busy with their usual business.

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Spider-monkey

Squirrel-monkey

Squirrel-monkey

Howler-monkey

Howler-monkey

As the sun sets, the temperature drops and we can now go inside the tent, play some dominoes, have some more canned food, and sleep among sea turtle nests.

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Our tent. The Green House Effect is in effect…

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Insde the tent. Casino time.

And this is how we walked, camped and experienced the unique nature of Osa Peninsula, and saw all the animals you might see in park Corcovado without a guide, with no reservations, and absolutely free!

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In the next posts, you will find out how to enjoy some more of Costa Rica’s best nature destinations cheaply or for free.

 

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