Monday, 26 July 2010

Rio Pirita – A Very Wet Trek

The second option was a 5 day wet canyon trek in Rio Pirita. And the two more were Noam (a lonely Israeli girl worshiping Shaul) and Alexa (a 19 year old British girl, trusting an Israeli who recommended Shaul to her back in her hostel).
We set to meet back at Shaul’s the next morning, 08:00AM, packed and ready to go. Back the next morning, I found out Noam convinced another Israeli to join. Asaf is 37 years old and just now found some time for his big trip in South America. Bolivia has its own time schedule, and we ended up leaving La Paz at 10:00AM. From La Paz we drove 6 hours by taxi to a town called ‘Caranavi’, then, 2 more hours (switching private taxis?!?) to the starting point.
After already driving an hour and a half on the second taxi, Asaf finds out that the rear storage door has jumped open during the drive. Stopping and counting the bags, we found out that Asaf’s bag is missing. All passengers & remaining bags dismount the taxi and the driver + our guide (Leonid, AKA Superman #1), drive back to town to find the missing bag. Waiting forever, we decide to make some ‘Nachle’ black coffee on the road. Asaf has a problem with it (not good enough for him), and I end up drinking it by my self.
After a long time (the bag was found back in town, a car driving by picked it up), we finally continue it the right direction. Although we were meant to walk a bit that day, we arrive too late to the dropping point, and just settle for the night.
The next morning we wake up to very tasty oatmeal made by Leonid (which turns out to be a good chef), and start walking on a jungle path down towards the stream bellow. Once down, we cross the river for the time (certainly not the last), and walk without equipment to a three stories waterfall splashing all over. Happy and amazed, we go for a swim (not knowing how much wetness awaits us).
Back with the bags, Leonid makes lunch (tasty again). We, by the mean time, re-pack our stuff inside large thick-rubber bags, to avoid the upcoming water. Leonid, after he had finished making lunch (never rests) ensures our bags are all secure, and raps them with blue Utah-bags as well (to avoid damage to the expensive bags). This routine is repeated every morning and after every lunch, until we finish the trek.
Starting to walk, at first you care if you’re dry or wet, but after 100 meters it doesn’t matter any more. We arrive to a pool crossing, high walls on both sides, and all we can do is swim through it. Leonid surprises us again by gently laying his pack in the water, and jumping right on it, using it as a small raft. We do the same (not as successful as Leonid, but still).
The next adventure is a high waterfall without the option to go around it. Leonid ties a very worrying rope to a big tree, and we all climb down from it.
Another worrying spot, but Leonid always has the answers. This time, a slippery looking slop, and we’re not sure how to pass it. Leonid signals us to wait. He, easily climbs up, ties the rope to a tree, climbs down without his bag takes Noam’s and climbs back up, Noam climbs very slowly after him. Same thing happens with the other bags (and with the rest of us). When I arrive to the top of the climb, I realize there’s another slop on the other side, and all the bags are already waiting down there.
The walls of the canyon are closing on us, making the views prettier and the water colder, each evening Leonid finds a dry spot next to the waters to make camp. He also makes breakfast, lunch and dinner, and lets us help just a bit. During the second day Alexa’s Utah bag tears and the polls for the tent fall off and in to the water, we recognize they are missing way too late, and from that evening Leonid builds a shelter as well (from scratch).
On the fourth day we leave our bags, in the bushes and go for a detour in a nearby smaller creek. We walk for about an hour and arrive to a black narrow canyon with cold (very cold) water rushing through slippery waterfalls. Leonid amazes us again being able to climb slippery waterfalls from the middle, then, once he’s up throws the rope back down and raises us up. The way down is a lot easier, and just as fun – we just jump down to the deep pools, or slide down the waterslides made by nature. This experience resembles the ‘Black Gorge’ in the ‘Zavitan’ river back in Israel, but think about doing it back and forth.
We got to the end of the canyon (the main one), and so the last day was just crossing the stream from one side to the other, until we got to the pickup bridge.
One of the things Shaul loves the most, is sending Muchileros for ‘expeditions’, this meaning you go and check out a place no one has ever been before. For us, he offered a tube ride downstream in another river close to the town of Caranavi. We had to wait about three hours for the guide sent from La Paz with the tubes and for the purpose of helping out Leonid during the two upcoming days.
Fernando, AKA Superman #2, arrived to Caranavi after nightfall. We drove in a taxi for about half an hour, and got off next to a different creek from the one we left earlier the same day. Leonid and Fernando went to search for a place to make camp.
In the morning, we went back to the drop off point to look for a place to fill up the tubes. Once filled up with air, Leonid and Fernando tied each bag to one tube, making it as comfortable as possible to sit on and float. All was good except for the fact that there weren’t so much water in the stream. We tried real hard but we just couldn’t float with the tubes, and ended up pulling them down the stream instead.
That night we slept by a nearby smaller river, which we checked out shortly before sunset. The second day of the expedition was a half day, due to the fact that we understood pretty fast that the difference between enjoying the tube ride & getting hurt really badly is very close. If you succeed on gliding through a waterfall – it’s really fun & nit, but if you don’t – it hurts really badly, and it can very easily be dangerous.
Good thing we asked to stop at midday, because even so, we got back to La Paz in 03:00AM. Shaul was very nice, and let us stay for the night at his place.
Tips for Rio Pirita:
- If you like to do things your way, get in touch with Shaul. See if something catches your eye on his website, or just ring the door bell with his name on it on Tarija street, La Paz (look for an A4 sign on a second floor window, Shaul’s name is written in Hebrew).
- Leonid was a very good guide. Knows just Spanish, but other than that, he’s perfect. Good cook, knows the way, and will do anything to satisfy your needs. Say hi for me.
- The trek itself was really pretty. The only downside was that I couldn’t take as much photos as I wanted – water problem. If you’re not into water, this trek is not for you.

La Paz and its Surroundings

I arrived to La Paz after another typical, long bus ride in Bolivia that could have been shorter if the Bolivians would just get of their lazy asses and build some better roads.
La Paz is my favorite big city yet. For a person who loves markets, that’s the place you want to be. It’s not that I’m so fond of the buying and selling fanaticism, I actually hate buying stuff (especially for myself), it’s just the whole idea of walking in streets (in Spanish ‘calles’) or allies, wide or narrow, all of them filled with local treasures. Some streets are categorized to ‘vegetables’, ‘meat’, ‘local cloths’, ‘witchcraft’, ‘mixed areas’, ‘ tourists’…ext. Most of my ‘free-time’ (I’m on vacation, so that sounds funny…) hours in La Paz were just wasted on walking and ‘loosing’ (I always carry a map) my way through the allies and market strolls.
After figuring out what’s with this crazy city, I finally (took us two days…) manage to reunite with Dror & Alek (this after an aggressive act on my side, joining their room in their hostel). We caught up over dinner at the Israeli-like restaurant called ‘Nargila’ (ok Humus served with awful bread-like Pita). They already went to the 2 one day tours around La Paz and recommended them for me. They added that they want to wait two days anyways for doing some shopping and waiting for two other girls. We agreed to go together (two days from that day) for the Death Road down hill ride, and after that to try and arrange the Huayna-Potosi climb.
Tiawanaku tour – Bolivia’s Machu Picchu:
A long time ago, in a far high land, existed an ancient culture called Tiawanaku on the South eastern side of Lake Titicaca. The Bolivians are still grateful for that. Without that culture they would not have as much tourists in their country nor would they have pictures of the remains to put on every wall of their large amount of tourist companies. Other than that, Tiawanaku itself isn’t that amazing. It’s older than the Inca times, and has many similar building aspects (large rocks, sun god, Condor, Puma, Snake…). Many impressive pillars are located in the main temple. Also in the main temple is the famous ‘Sun-Gate’, it was almost taken by the Spaniards, but luckily was left because of its weight (20 tons). Most of the interesting remains are located and shown only within the museum walls, where you’re not allowed to take photos (as you can see right here).
Chacaltaya & Valle de la Luna (The Moon Valley):
I have no idea how those two places were related, Chacaltaya on the North side of the city & the Moon Valley on the South, but they’re still offered together in every agency in town.
Chacaltaya is a nice pick (5400masl), that watches over the whole city of La Paz, El-Alto, and the picks surrounding the valley of La Paz (Huayna-Potosi, Condoriri, Illimani, Sajama), and in a good day even Lake Titicaca.
It is also a nice way to checkout if your fit enough to climb to challenging Huayna-Potosi (6088masl). The bus takes you almost to the top. When first looking at the top, I thought I could get to it in about 10 minutes tops. Rushing up (way too fast…), I got tired after a 10m climb, couldn’t breath, and had to sit down. The rest was taken much slowly. Chacaltaya has 3 picks, all more or less in the same height, walking slowly I eventually climbed them all. The views were certainly worth it!
From the Chacaltaya, we drove back to La Paz, crossed it all the way from North to South, on our way to see the Moon Valley, a touristic park of geological sand/rock forms. It reminded me of the southern coast of the Dead Sea back in Israel. I also saw another Viscacha, this time from a closer point of view.
The Chola-wrestling:
Every Sunday all tourists (who know about it), go up towards the Chola-wrestling arena. It’s located near the main market of El-Alto, the high city ‘sitting’ on top of La Paz.
The fights are all staged, just like on WWF on TV, but this time it’s with locals, women & men alike, fighting each other with the strangest costumes ever (women are dressed in traditional clothing).
Alek, Dror and I went to check what all the fuss is about. It’s a good laugh, but mainly a gimmick. We got the idea after 2 hours, and went back down to the city.
The Death Road (The Most Dangerous Tourist Scam in La Paz):
The plan is simple, take a legend, and spice it up a bit. Let some Americans go first, and brag around the city about how dangerous the road is, and there you have it!
Everybody wants a go. Bolivia is the cheapest country in South America, but this specific tour, was not. Dror, Alek & I bargained much, but still didn’t want to end up with shitty bikes (everybody heard horror stories about Bolivian agencies). 400$B was the last price for the middle class agency.
The tour starts way up at 4000masl, the goal is 1200masl. All agencies do the same route. They first take you to an asphalt road (very good structure), and there you check how you’re feeling with your new bike & gear. The views are very nice, but you’re still not on the famous road you wanted. The ride is very fast (you decide), and fun. After descending about 1000m, all climb back to the vans, and drive to the dangerous dirt road.
At first it seems fine, but after one curve, you see what makes it so famous. On the cliffs from both sides of the road dense tropical rain forest is growing all over. On your right, the cliff is going up into the clouds. On your left, a 600m fall. The road is in the exact width of one car. The vans that took us all the way here are following us, and I feel concerned about the crazy drivers agreeing to drive this narrow road every day of the week. As for bicycles, you have enough room for 3 driving next to each other, but only a crazy person would ride fast and close to the edge. Once you get the hang of it, and trust your breaks, you should be fine.
The road (for a bike) is not as dangerous as told. It has pretty landscapes all around, and if you know how to ride a bike & you’ve got the time and money – it’s worth it. Just don’t try shooting a video while you’re riding the bike – you could end up killing yourself.
Back in La Paz:
Alek & Dror heard about a crazy Israeli living in La Paz, running an agency and helping out people (Israelis or not), to go on treks off the bitten track. His name is Shaul.
Dror goes to check it out, and comes with a new idea of joining a raft organized by Shaul, leaving in two days. The main idea is to build it on the first day and sail with it 5 more days down stream. To me it sounds interesting, but Alek had a new offer and decides to cut his South America trip short. The next time we go all together (Alek with no intention of joining the ‘trek’). All the people wanting to go on the Rio Verde adventure were invited to a meeting in Shaul’s house. After a week with only 2 people interested, Shaul’s living-room is filled with 12 people. Shaul explains that there is no room for all the people on the boat and the last people joining would have to give it up. Luckily (for Dror), 3 people (including me) prefer the second option offered by Shaul, and leave 9 people to go on the raft in Rio Verde.
Alek & Dror part their ways, and I leave them both myself.

Tips for La Paz:
- Tiawanaku is nice, but only if you haven’t been to the Machu Picchu yet.
- Chacaltaya is a nice climb (if you haven’t done the Huayna-Potosi yet), and the Moon Valley has beautiful formations.
- The Death Road isn’t that dangerous, and if you know how to ride a bike, go for it.
- Shaul is very useful, if you want to find cheap guides for treks off the bitten track, if you want information about treks you can do by yourselves, or even just for trading reading books.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Salar de Uyuni - The Salt Flats (Photographer's Utopia)

Wow, what a shock. Imagine your self a whole town that is built just for one purpose - The Salt Flats. This means, that as you`re reading, more and more agencies rise up, in the means of catching (even a penny), of the endless amount of confused tourists wanting nothing but 3 days in the Salt Flats (oh, yeah, and maybe stay alive while your at it).
Dave (one nice Canadian) & I arrived to Uyuni evening time. Quickly found a hostel, and we were on our way to check out the agencies. We started by searching for a place called ‘’Ranking’’ recommended by the Bolivia Lonely Planet (2007 ver.) owned by Dave. After finding out (and not quiet believing) that it has been closed for the last 3 years (probably right after the edition was published…) we go and try to figure it out by our selves.
After checking about 3-4 agencies, and seeing that it’s all the same bullshit, we find a place to eat and go to sleep (agreeing that the bargain in the morning will be more efficient). We were right. Returning to the same agencies in the morning, they all went down by 10% (from 550$B, to 500$B). We chose a tour which offered the same classical one, but in reverse (Replay Company, on the main street of the agencies). We also found out that there were 10 Israelis and one Australian already booked for the same day.
All tours leave 10:00-11:00AM, we were told the same, but left the town of Uyuni only on 11:30 (8 of the Israelis had to have coffee). Once we got to meet, I knew I would have to hold my breath for the next 3 days. These guys are the worst tourists I have ever met, not to mention the fact that I understood and hated everything that went out of their mouths & IPODs. Thank god for in-ear phones and high volume.
As to the views, heaven. First stop (after 4-5 hours of driving) was in a rock formation garden. Combination of winds, rain, and the geological formation of the rocks helped form all kinds of structures in the stones in all shapes and sizes.
While on the dirt road, the driver’s eye catches a movement. He stops the jeep on-spot, jumps out in haste, and runs 20 meters away from the car. Then picks up an Armadillo. We all rout happily and jump out to take pictures with it.
Arbol Del Piedra (The Stone Tree) is uniquely amazing. As we get there, I hurry up to catch it alone (before all the tourist come and ruin the photo). Grant (the Australian) rushes as well (with the same camera!), and tries to climb it. Grant is one step from the top, as a driver of another company starts shouting at him (to come down of course), Grant completes the climb, I take the wanted photo, and he climbs down, and then starts a huge argument about why Israelis do stuff like that? Grant stands and shouts that he isn’t even an Israeli and that he didn’t mean to harm anyone, but that doesn’t help his point.
By sunset we are already in the first hostel. Made of semi-salt walls, no owner seen (maybe the driver of the other car (which got there first), arranged the stay or something…), we are introduced to our rooms, and I catch a corner bed, Dave takes his time and ends up with the one closest to the door. The Israelis don’t stop their bitching.
A bit of space alone, finally. Dinner helps me decide what I think about the other Israelis (till now were in the other jeep), awful. And about Grant, which turned out to be another happy soul stuck in a jeep with bitching Israelis that also turned out to be awful, screaming, singers.
After a good night sleep (for me, not for any of the Israelis crying about the cold or my snoring), we set of (late again, guess whose fault…), to see geysers! The first one is a charm. It blows constantly from the ground, because of the cold (early in the morning), everybody find themselves warming up from the hot fumes. Then, running back to the warmer jeeps. The other part of the geyser area is mainly mud –pools, without the option to warm up in them.
Next stop (still early), the hot-springs! A warm pool, hot enough considering the cold outside, and very satisfying! I was the only one (from our 2 jeeps) to take a bath. Getting ready to return to the jeep, suddenly, I see my long lost friend Dror! Already naked, and ready for a deep. We quickly hugged and arranged a meeting in La Paz. Alek happened to be in the WC that exact moment.
The rest of the day was mainly dedicated to the National Park, which is famous for his beautiful lagoons, and Flamingos that nest in them. We drove next to 5 lagoons, some were frozen, and only the last had a handful of Flamingoes. All stunning.
The second night, we sleep in a salt hotel, all is made of salt, and from the location of the hotel, we can see the sunset on the Salar salt flats. 10$B more if you want to take a shower, made me a bit mad. The place also included a small ‘Aymara’ speaking child, which managed to convince every one of us to take turns and push him on his little car (‘Bimba’), faster and faster. Somehow, I couldn’t help myself but thinking about my nephew.
The same night, we had to hear the Israelis argue between themselves, not thinking it was our (Dave, Grant & I) decision as well, if they want to get up so early to see the sunrise over the Salar, or not. We managed to get pissed at them one last time, but for nothing (because they made the right decision).
Waking up to see the sunrise! Driving pretty fast on the flats. No real roads in this part - just drive wherever. While the car is moving, you can see the colors starting to change, but can’t take a shot. When we finally stop I jump out to get the earliest colors possible. The white salty flats act like a huge canvas, and the sun is the most creative painter. Certainly one of my favorite sunrises ever.
The sunrise lookout is right next to the Island of the Cacti, so I decide to walk my way there. Once in, I climbed to the top, walking next to enormous Cactus trees, in all shapes and sizes. From the top, you’re able to see all of the Island, and the Salt desert around it. The sun is working its magic, and the endless amount of white is blinding. Grant & I chased my first Viscacha (a large rabbit, with a long tail); we thought it was a very strange looking thing.
All evening, Grant & I (with little help from Dave), made a list of things that we could try and shoot in the funny-pictures area in the middle of the salt flats (except for Pringles!). Once we got there, we were thankful for our list. We had much to do, and less time to do it. No point writing about it when you can see the outcome for yourselves.
The last stop was the train graveyard. Not too pretty, but fun to climb on.

Tips for Salar De Uyuni:
1. Try to close up a jeep with people you already know (3-4 days is a long time to be stuck with awful people...).
2. don`t pay over 500 bolivianos for 3 days.
3. My company (Ripley) was ok. but not more then that. and they did unforgetable stuff like trying to run over some birds just for fun.
4. For your own safty - travel with ''In-ear'' earplugs for your mp3. as soon as the driver hears your from israel - Eyal Golan will be played (very loudly) in the car`s speakers.
5. check out if the tour company regesters the sleeping places before the trip - our company did`t and we had to search for a place each night (2 nights).
6. bring your sleeping bag - its cold at night in the Salar (and in Uyuni).
7. Try sitting in the front sits - that way you could get out of the car when ever you like (and that`s alot) to take all the photos.
8. Don`t take too much to the trip - no need for nothing (except for the sleeping bag, warm&not warm cloths, sunglasses, chocolate, sunscreen, camera).
9. You would probably not have a night with hot showers - ask the company. the sacond night we had a place that charged 10 bolivianos for the shower (I didn`t take one).
10. Some companies have special things included in the trip (Revers rute, Bikeride...) - search for the one that fits you.