Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Wonders of Salt

La Paz, Salar de Uyuni, BOLIVIA: 18 - 23 Dec. 2009

As my flight arrived in La Paz at 1am my first view of this amazing city was at night. And what a view - the city, the highest capital city in the world at 3660m, is built in a canyon so buildings of all shapes and sizes cling to its sides. In the morning the sight became even memorable as I saw the snow-capped Mt. Illamani looming over the city.

As arranged, I met up with my friends Sinead and Gavin, who were coming to the end of their 12-month trip back home to New Zealand from Dublin. After nearly four months of travel it was very nice to see some familar faces.

We headed south on a night bus for the ¨must do¨tour of Salar de Uyuni - the world´s largest salt flats. We spent three days driving in a jeep around part of the 12,000 sq km area. The landscape here is simply unique. We visited red lakes and green lakes, saw llamas, vicunas and flamingos, stood next to bubbling mud geysers, relaxed in a sulfuric hot spring pool, slept in a hotel made from salt and, of course, spent a fun few hours trying to take photos that make use of the optical illusion created by the flat, white, desolate salt plains.

It certainly is an amazing natural part of the world, and a great introduction to Bolivia.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pura Vida

Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, San Gerardo, San Jose, COSTA RICA: 8 - 17 Dec. 2009

My last stop in Central America was always going to be San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, as this was where my flight to Bolivia was departing. To give myself more time in Guatemala and Costa Rica, I decided to fly between those two countries. This unfortunately meant that I missed out on El Salvador and Nicaragua, but I thought this option better than doing a whistle-stop tour while travelling through on buses.

Costa Rica has a very different feel to the rest of Central America and its tourism is certainly more developed. Here it is all about nature and the multiple ways that you can experience the amazing bio-diversity of the country.

First stop for me was Monteverde with its incredible nature reserve. I spent a day walking around the huge park and I did a guided night hike where the guide pointed out tarantulas, snakes, sloths (everyone is obsessed with seeing sloths in this country!) among many other animals. Then it was onto the more extreme way to see the reserve - from above flying along ziplines! It was great fun, especially the "Superman" zipline at the end. The picture below does not do it justice - that zipline was over 1 km long and in the middle I was about 200 metres above the valley floor.
From the mountains of Monteverde, I next went to the beaches of Manuel Antonio. Again, there was plenty of wildlife to be seen (especially monkeys jumping from tree to tree) and this time the nature reserve was surrounding by pristine, paradise beaches.

After chilling on the beach, I needed a bit more activity. So I teamed up with a guy from Quebec and we did the two-day climb up the highest mountain in Costa Rica, Cerro Chirripo (3820m). On a clear day you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from the top. Unfortunately we didn't get that view, but it was still worth the hike.

Then back to San Jose (which isn't all that great) where I did a day trip white water rafting on a river ranked by National Geographic to be in the top five rivers in the world for rafting.

What a way to spend my last day in Central America!

Costa Ricans are constantly saying "pura vida" - literally it means pure life, but I think it sort of translates as "happy days". During my 9 days in Costa Rica, I certainly enjoyed the pura vida.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chaotic transport to calm locations

Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Xela, Lanquin, Biotopo Del Quetzal, Guatemala City, GUATEMALA: 20 Nov. - 7 Dec. 2009

Not all of my time in Guatemala was spent on top of volcanoes. I spent two weeks (mostly with a guy from Sydney) travelling around the country. For the most part our form of transport was the infamous chicken bus, i.e. old school buses from the US that have been pimped and which are generally packed with people carrying all sorts of things (like chickens, which alas I did not see on any of the buses that I took). Through a system which could be the exemplar of the phrase "organised chaos", the buses work and connections are successfully made.
But Guatemala is not all about choas. I stayed three days in pretty, cobblestoned, volcano-surrounded Antigua, before moving onto the beautiful Lake Atitlan. There we spent three days criss-crossing the lake visiting its villages, one of which had a bizarre cigar smoking, silk tie wearing wodden god. My three days in Lanquin were spent chilling out in hammocks, floating down rivers in a tube having a beer, swimming through caves, jumping into rivers and visiting a bat cave at sunset - it was freaky sitting in the cave in the dark knowing that hundred of bats were flying just past me every minute.From there I headed south to the Biotopo del Quetzal nature reserve. The quetzal, which is Guatemala's national bird and the name of its currency, is famously elusive. Luckily I managed to see two, thanks to the 6 year old daughter of the guesthouse owners. We became best friends once I showed her that I could complete ten jumps over her skipping rope. She banged on my door the following morning to bring me to the place where she had just spotted a quetzal. So my first bird watching experience was a success.

Then onto Guatemala City. Everyone recommends avoiding it, but I had to come to get a flight. In the end I spent a very nice two days there, which included a sunny Sunday stroll around the zoo where I had one of the local snacks - corn on the cob, smothered with mayo and a red sauce, and sprinkled with cheese. Tasty, but very messy to eat, especially with a beard! Admittedly, I heeded everyone´s warnings so I didn´t go out after dark. Still, it was a nice way to end my time in Guatemala. Next stop, Costa Rica.