Week 9: Uyuni, La Paz, & Copacabana



I came to Bolivia specifically to see the Uyuni de Salar (salt flats of Uyuni). A geologist on my Antarctica trip recommended it to me and it’s been on my wish list ever since. When it rains, people take incredible photographs of the reflections, but since I was there on a very dry day, we took lots of fun optical illusion photos instead. Because there is nothing to help your eyes gauge distance (trees, houses), objects that are very far apart can be creatively arranged in such a way that they look like they are the same distance (albeit with different sizes)


In the middle of the salar, there are islands covered in slow-growing cacti and fossilized corals. The salt flats were once giant saltwater lakes that slowly dried out over many years because their link to water was closed. Remember these salt flats are at almost 12,000 ft in an area that gets little rain. The islands that stick up now would have been seamounts in the old lakes, covered in marine organisms. Over time, as the sea level dropped, these landmasses emerged out of the water and new life forms gradually colonized them.


view of the Salar de Uyuni from Isla Intahuasi

After the salt flats, we spent most of the next day looking at flamingos. I always thought these creatures lived in hot areas, but these species like the high altitude. My favorite were the Andean flamingos, which have wide red stripes and black tips on their wings that can only be seen when they fly.


flamingos, flamingos, and more flamingos (close ups are hard because they’re so skittish)

I was also excited to see a few more creatures I’d never seen before. The vicuña is a relative of llamas and alpacas (in the camelid family), but so far have escaped domestication. Because of this, their wool is the most expensive in the world. The Andean fox, like foxes everywhere it seems, is incredibly shy. This one was hovering near our lunch spot, just out of range, most likely waiting to enjoy some crumbs after we left. And last, but certainly not least, is the incredibly large rodent known as the viscacha that looks like a combination between a squirrel and a rabbit. It’s about the size of a jackrabbit, but in reality, is more closely related to the much smaller chinchilla.


vicuña, Andean fox, viscacha 

Near the end of the trip we stopped at the Sol de Mañana, a geothermally active region near the border with Chile. It reminded me so much of Yellowstone National Park, full of steaming hot water, fumaroles, and a strong smell of sulfur.


Sol de Mañana

Mud pots are just collections of dirt and boiling hot water. I tried out my phone’s slow motion setting and found the way the bubbles burst to be mesmerizing so I thought I’d share.


I arrived on a night bus from Uyuni, not quite sure what to do with myself with hours to kill before I could check in at the hotel. I ate a huge breakfast and wrote tons of postcards before finally wandering over to the Iglesia de San Francisco, which included some great views from the roof. The tiles on the roof were made using people’s legs as molds which is why they are slightly different sizes and shapes.


view from the roof, the tiled roof, me in the tiny stairwell

My favorite part of La Paz was riding the cable cars everywhere. For less that 50¢, I saw incredible views. Because of the tremendous difference in elevation between different parts of the city, cable cars make more sense than subways or bus lines. The president Evo Morales finally pushed through this amazing public transportation system that goes all over the city.  (In case someone forgot that he was taking credit for this achievement, his face is plastered on every single cable car.) Another unique La Paz attraction is the clock that runs counterclockwise on the Bolivian Congressional Building. Apparently, this was installed to represent how sundials actually move in the southern hemisphere and symbolically celebrate that difference.


Mi Teleférico cable car, Bolivia’s “clock of the south”, street art


No, not *that* Copacabana. This one is on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In order to get there, the bus had to go on a separate ferry over the Straight of Tiquina. I climbed up a big hill to see an Incan stone doorway that lets light through on the summer solstice and although that was a bit disappointing, I did get a wonderful view of the city.


bus on a ferry, view of Copacabana from a nearby hill, Copacabana sunset

The next day, I rolled out of bed to catch an early ferry to the Isla del Sol, a small island located relatively close to the mainland. There is an ongoing feud between different communities on the island, so visitors can only go the southern part of the island. I hiked up to the top and decided it seemed like a beautiful place to read and enjoy the scenery.


view from Isla del Sol to the mainland, view of another part of the island from the same spot


Here’s a reward for making it to the bottom of this blog post. 🙂 If you want a postcard from overseas, fill out this postcard form! At some point this school year, I will send you a postcard from somewhere outside the United States. I can’t guarantee it will be delivered, but I will send it.

Week 8: Sucre & Potosí



After my weekend getaway to vote (VOTE, PEOPLE!) and see some friends, I flew into Sucre in Bolivia. One of the highlights was stopping at the San Felipe de Neri which is a beautiful colonial convent and church. I helped a nun take a picture with a friend of hers and she then decided to show me the underground crypt where nuns had previously buried. We literally opened a door in the floor in one of the rooms to step down into the all white room.


view from the roof, patchwork tiles on the roof, me & the gorgeous view of the city


view from the rooftop

But really, my favorite place was the Parque Cretácico which contains a giant wall full of dinosaur footsteps.


the wall!

The footsteps were discovered when the cement factory was digging through rocks and finally decided the limestone they were digging wasn’t good enough. They stopped and a few years later, the clay and dirt on the outermost layer eroded to reveal the footsteps beneath.


dinosaur footsteps!

About 68 million years ago, this was a shallow lake bed and dinosaurs happened to walk through it. Luckily, enough sediments were deposited in a short enough time, that those footsteps became fossilized in the rock. This area is prone to a lot of volcanic action and plate tectonic movement and over time, this particular rock was tilted all the way up into the vertical position it is in today. There are four types of dinosaur footprints: theropods (like velociraptors), ankylosaurus, ornithopods (like duck-billed hadrosaurs), and sauropods (like brontosaurus). The sauropods in this case are most likely Argentinosaurus, which is a truly giant creature that is pretty awesome. You should probably take a moment and Google it now. In the photo below, see if you can identify the different footprints.


footprints, guide to the footprints, and my favorite strange angle photo of a sauropod replica


Onwards to one of the highest cities in the world at 4,067 m, which is known for its extremely dangerous and deadly silver mines. (Side note: Altitude headaches suck.) I arrived on a Sunday when hardly anything is open, but set off to explore anyways. I heard music playing, so I wandered in that direction until I found a dance competition about to begin and I, of course, stayed to witness the incredible talent.


The next day, I went on a tour of the infamous silver mines. During conquistador times, Incans were forced to work in the mines. When too many of them became sick or died because of the work, the Spanish important tens of thousands of African slaves. Guayasamín (the Ecuadorian painter I mentioned in an earlier blog post) has a painting called Potosí in the main dome in the atrium of his museum. It depicts the suffering of the miners after a collapse as they struggle to reach for the light. There are still deadly accidents, 5-10 people die every year, but at this high elevation there are little other options except to leave and find work in Santa Cruz.  Silicosis, a disease that damages the lungs when too much silica gets in, also shortens the life expectancy of miners.

My guide to the mines had worked in them for twelve years and although the pay of a miner is better (~1000 Bolivanos/week  = $145 US), the risk of dying is much higher. There are a bunch of cooperativas that own specific concessions (entry points) into the mine. Within the cooperative, people work with teams and their teams are paid based on the quality and quantity of rocks they dig. Although in the past, the main mineral of interest was silver, tin and zinc are now the main ores being mined.


cooperativa, carts used to haul rocks, one of the entrances with Cerro Rico towering above

Miners are superstitious and believe that El Tío, a satanic lord of the underworld, watches over the mines. Whenever miners enter, they stick a lit cigarette in his mouth, ask for protection, and then shower his head, hands, and penis in coca leaves and 96 proof alcohol. There is an El Tío statue at almost every entrance into the mines. The miners believe that his needs must be satiated or he will cause their downfall. Llamas are also ritually slaughtered and their blood is splashed on the wall (see black marks in photo below).

inside of the mine, me and El Tío, zinc oxide stalactites (not mined, just cool looking)

My last stop was the the old mint, which in colonial times, used the silver found in the mines to make coins and made Potosí one of the richest places in the world for awhile. Silver was removed from the mined rocks using the patio process, which involved creating a slurry of rock, salt, water, copper sulfate, and mercury. Eventually the mercury and silver would settle out of this solution and that alloy was taken to indigenous (and later African) slaves who melted it down. The heating process evaporated the mercury, leaving behind pure silver. Unfortunately, the toxic mercury fumes blinded the men and then killed them in about 3-4 months. (Between the mines and the mint, tens of thousands of slaves were killed in Potosí.) The silver was poured into molds and then those blocks of silver were brought to a series of three different sized rollers where they were fed through until they were the right thickness (like a pasta maker, only much hotter and requiring two people with tongs to hold above and below).


furnace scene, silver ingot molds, rollers for thinning the blocks of silver

The rollers were each attached to a giant wheel that was turned by a gearing system on the toothed ring. That ring was constantly rotated by four mules below which powered the rollers in the room above.  Apparently, the best job in the mint was whipping the mules to move faster, because every other job was much more dangerous or deadly.


up close of roller attached to wheels, wheels moved by toothed ring, ring moved by mules

At first, the money that was created was mostly silver and very malleable, but over time it was mixed with copper to create a harder, more resilient coin. If you look carefully at the last two coins, in the lower left there is an embossed mark that shows it was made in Potosí. It is a P, T, S, and I layered on top of each other. The guide told an elaborate story about how this eventually became the dollar sign ($), but I’m not so sure.


very old all silver coin, 8 reales (piece of 8) from Spanish empire era, first Bolivian coinage (with llamas!)

On one last note, supermarkets in Potosí take their holiday decorations very seriously. Happy Halloween!


Week 7: Trujillo & Lima



Traveling south from Ecuador, I took a couple of buses for some long travel (14 hour-ish) into Peru. The border between Ecuador and Peru is full of Venezuelan refugees sleeping and waiting to be let in. UNHCR has water and medical stations set up to help, but I’ve never seen a border crossing like it in my entire life. The economic meltdown has led to millions of Venezuelans leaving their country and flooding into neighboring regions. Read more about it in this BBC article. Although many Latin American countries have been very receptive, the flow of refugees hasn’t ceased, which is leading to backlogs and countries starting to close their borders and the situation I witnessed.


Trujillo is known for having some of the most amazing Pre-Columbian ruins in South America, which seemed like a great reason to stop. I set out on a daylong tour to explore and our first stops were to see building constructed by the Chimú empire around 1300 AD. They are called huacas, which translates to tombs, but seemed to be used more for ritual sacrifice and other religious purposes. Their empire used to span a huge part of present-day Trujillo right up to the ocean. Although the area is quite arid now, presumably back in the day it was more lush because sea otters and squirrels are found engraved in the walls.


sea otter engravings at La Huaca Arco Iris and squirrel engravings at La Huaca Esmeralda

The next stop was Hacienda Chan Chan, a sprawling structure in which some parts have been extensively rebuilt. Before these buildings were found, they were protected by the sand and mud that had accumulated around them. Being exposed to the weather has worn down many of the engravings and there is much work that has been done to try and protect what is currently open to the air.


pelican engraving, view of remodeled section of Hacienda Chan Chan, geometric pelican engraving

Next up was La Huaca de la Luna, and a trip back even further in time to learn about the Moche. This sight has one of the most extensive museums I’ve seen so far with elaborate explanations of cultural rituals. This place was built over many centuries, ending around 600 AD. Many ceramics and carved wall paintings have survived and so much more is known about these people, including their practice of ritual sacrifice and that those practices changed based on whether or not they were experiencing an El Niño. Just to emphasize, the Moche knew about El Niño over 1500 years ago.


engravings of spider crab, head deity Aiapaec the Decapitator, octopus legs


incredible painted engraved door


I had a 12 hour stopover in Lima and I really did see many things: catacombs under the Monastery of San Francisco, the coffin containing the bones of conquistador Francisco Pizarro (a.k.a. the murderer of the Incan emperor Atahualpa) inside the Cathedral, and an incredible art museum (I’m in love with the Peruvian graphic designer Elena Izcue who took her inspiration from Nazca pottery). However, perhaps because I was still sleepy or because photos weren’t allowed in some of these spots, I have no photos to share except for a protest I passed which I believe had something to do with the Fujimoris (the former president’s daughter had recently been arrested for money laundering). Nevertheless, I thought the imagery of this bird overlooking the police officers was both creative and symbolic.


Week 6: Quito, Baños & Cuenca



After the Galápagos, I headed back to Quito for a couple of days. I took the TelefériQo up a mountain which overlooks the city. The ride takes about 20 miles and goes up about a half a mile in elevation! Once I got to the top, it was really cloudy, but at some point, the clouds finally parted and I could see a little bit of the extensive city below.

quitopanoNot much was open because it was a national holiday, the celebration of the Independence of Guayaquil. I decided to head to a giant tourist trap – El Mitad del Mundo – the self-proclaimed middle of the world. The yellow line is supposed to indicate the equator, but really it’s off by more than a few meters. Photos3Because I’m a huge nerd, I wandered down the main highway quite a bit and finally found the actual GPS-based equator. 🙂


Before I left, I also stopped in La Capilla del Hombre, the museum dedicated to the work of the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín. He was outspoken about human rights violations and his art relies heavily on symbolism. During the personal home tour, one room was full of paintings of Jesus while the next contained a huge glass cabinet of pre-Columbian ceramics depicting different sexual positions. Inspiration can come from all sorts of places I suppose.guayasamin.jpg


Up next was the tourist town of Baños. Some people stay here for a week, but I just popped in for a couple days. The town is beautiful and there are waterfalls everywhere.


town church, waterfall in town, biking sign on Ruta de las Cascadas, waterfall outside of town, ponche suizo (a mix between a milkshake and a mousse) – still not sure how I feel about it.

I biked about 20 km to see a bunch of the waterfalls outside of town. My two favorites were El Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) and Cascada Machay. I had to hike and then crawl through a small cave that was less than a meter high in some spots to get close to the giant Pailon del Diablo. I emerged soaked, but the rainbow was beautiful. Cascada Machay seemed almost elegant in its simplicity.


El Pailon del Diablo, perpetual rainbow at its base (as long as there is sun), Cascada Machay


Next up was visiting friends of mine from Peace Corps Morocco. They own a farm on the outskirts of town and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip because I got to milk a cow for the first time!!!


cow milking, farm family photo (including volunteers staying on the farm)

In addition, Julie & Luke invited me to learn how to make cheese (in industrial farm-sized quantities). They can make more money in town selling their cheeses than they can selling milk. In the photos below, we’re making manchego. FYI: Hacienda Chan Chan has rooms available if you want to learn about cows, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, chickens, milking, cheesemaking, etc. They were such gracious hosts and are such down-to-earth people. ❤


cutting the curds, whisking them to make them smaller, stirring for hours as the heat is raised, the whey is emptied and fed to the pigs, the curds ready to be pressed into blocks of cheese

After a much too short reunion, I headed into the city of Cuenca. The town is full of colonial architecture and is known for making Panama hats. Panama hats were always made in Ecuador, but exported to Panama to be sold because there was more tourism there. People took them home and when others asked about the hats, they said they had gotten them in Panama. Over time, the hats became popularly known as Panama hats. Locally, they are called el sombrero de paja toquilla. As it was a Sunday, there wasn’t that much to do, and I didn’t have a chance to buy a hat or tour one of the many hat museums. However, I did get this shot from the Mirador de Turi looking out over town.


Week 5: Galápagos Continued


The last 5 days, I lived aboard a beautiful sailing catamaran in the Galapagos and I’m not even sure how to describe all the incredible things I saw. Every day was filled with gorgeous new marine and land creatures. Probably the best way to share is to continue with another picture dump of awesome animals! (As always, there are probably mistakes in my species identification.)


This island is all about the birds! I booked this day trip just so I could see that crazy red-puffed up chest which the frigate bird is doing to attract females.

North Seymour_11.jpg

top (l to r): male magnificent frigate (inflating chest), male magnificent frigate sitting with new chick (maybe a week old), land iguana
bottom (l to r): juvenile great frigate, juvenile magnificent frigate, blue footed booby


Before the boat set sail, I did a little exploring on Isla Santa Cruz on my own.

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top (l to r): polychaete worms, bullseye pufferfish, sponge, sea cucumber (with poop)
middle (l to r): hard coral, lava lizard, ground finch, Galápagos dove
bottom (l to r): me being silly, juvenile turtles at the breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research Center, posing with Santa Cruz land tortoise (in a reserve), Santa Cruz land tortoise


Everything from here on out is from the cruise! Most of these places you can’t see unless you book a cruise ship. It’s expensive, but there are no words to express the beauty of the western Galápagos Islands.


top (l to r): Isabela marine iguana, Galápagos flamingo, lava heron, lava cactus
bottom (l to r): Isabela land tortoise (in the wild), Isabela land iguana, iguana vs turtle faceoff (guess who moved? answer at bottom), me with a land iguana


top (l to r): sea anemone, spotfin burrfish, octopus, polychaete worms
bottom (l to r): Panamic cushion star, yellow sponge, gorgonia corals, giant porcupine fish



top (l to r): swimming marine iguana, marine iguana eating algae (yes, underwater), baby Galápagos sea lion, Galápagos sea lion sunning itself
bottom (l to r): Sally lightfoot crab eating a squid, blue-striped sea slug, Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant

One of the few places on earth you can actually swim with penguins.



top (l to r): female Galápagos fur seal (which is actually a sea lion not a seal), baby Galápagos fur seal (right before it vomited), yellow-crowned night heron, cushion sea star middle (l to r): green sea turtle, guinea pufferfish (mid-color transition), Moorish idol angelfish, king angelfish bottom (l to r): sea anemone, polychaete worms, barnacle, me snorkeling!


The Galápagos is truly one of the most incredible places I have ever been in my entire life. Shout out to the amazing crew and guide on our boat as well as sharing the last few days with great company. This is one place I would love to come back to. There is still so much more to see!


Answer: The land iguana moved out of the land tortoise’s way!

Week 4: Galápagos



To start my trip, I flew into San Cristobal Island to spend a few days exploring. I booked myself what is known as a 360 tour and headed off for a complete circuit of the island with a stop at Kicker Rock (a.k.a. Leon Dormido in Spanish – completely different names both related to the shape of the rock itself). I’m just going to include tons of beautiful photos from the trip around the island. *Note, I’m not an expert, so feel free to correct or help identify species if they’re incorrect.*


top (l to r): black tipped shark, Galápagos shark, hammerhead shark, slate pencil urchin 
 middle (l to r): sea cucumber, yellow-tailed surgeon fish, blue chin parrotfish, puffer fish  
bottom (l to r): sting ray, eagle ray, green turtle, green turtle


(l to r): frigate bird, blue footed booby, swallow tailed gull, brown pelican


(l to r): great egret, great blue heron, Galápagos sea lion (these guys are lying around just about everywhere, blocking sidewalks and piers), San Cristóbal lava lizard


Sally lightfoot crab in various stages of development

The last day on the island, I went snorkeling near Cerro Tijeretas and found these:


(l to r): sea anemones, green sea urchin, hieroglyphic hawkfish (upside-down, as usual), sea star


I managed to book a day trip over to Española Island to see the animals that live there. We almost tripped over the pile of marine iguanas on the way up the path. Española is also known as the nesting site of the waved albatross, a very large flying bird. During our snorkeling trip, we caught sight of the nocturnal swallow-tailed gull which has brilliant red eyes it uses to see at night.


top (l to r): Galápagos sea lions, pile of marine iguanas, Española marine iguana, Nazca boobies 
bottom (l to r): baby waved albatross (~3 months old), adult waved albatrosses, Española mockingbird, swallow tailed gull

Short video of the marine iguana in water:

Snorkeling in Española was also pretty rad.


(l to r): Galápagos sea lion, coral hawkfish, chocolate chip sea star, Mexican hogfish


I took a speedboat over to this island and spent my first afternoon here at Las Grietas, a beautiful canyon filled with brackish blue water. Just a few fish are inside, but the views of the narrow rocky walls make up for it. At one point, I had to swim through an underwater tunnel to get to the next pool.

isla santa cruz day 1
(l to r): Las Grietas, Santa Cruz marine iguana, tiny fish (maybe a sculpin?), parrotfish

Up next: More Galápagos!

Week 3: Quilotoa, Latacunga & Cotopaxi

map week 3.png


Quilotoa is famous for a beautiful bluish-greenish lake that has formed inside of the caldera of an extinct volcano. Due to the rock and gases emitted by the former volcano, the water in Laguna del Quilotoa contains very little life. In order to get there, I walked a path known at the Quilotoa Loop, although in actually it is a complicated set of many different trails that zig zag across a valley in a southerly direction. Over three days, I was able to look out over beautiful Andean landscapes as I huffed and puffed through the rising elevation.



I finally got to the lake at a height of 3,914 m (12,841 ft) and took a hilarious photo celebrating my accomplishment. It was ridiculously windy at the top, but the view was gorgeous.



The La Mama Negra Festival is held twice a year in Latacunga. The September version is, supposed to be a tribute to the Virgen de las Mercedes who has protected the town from the eruption of the Volcano Cotopaxi. There is a giant parade that goes all morning and then repeats again with a more alcoholic-infused crowd in the afternoon. At first, the parade seemed like a standard cultural celebration, with lots of well-choreographed dance groups performing to bands marching behind them.


Intermixed between the bands, groups of people were carrying large, hollowed out pigs on giant altars, decorated with skinned chickens, guinea pigs and giant bottles of alcohol. Groups of men were taking turns lifting these altars and when they got tired, another member of the group put a short table out for them to balance the altar and take a break. Oh, and usually, all the members of the group were in blackface. WHAT? It’s 2018, people. My American upbringing had me baffled as to how this was okay, but maybe the racial dynamics in Ecuador make this more acceptable. Honestly, I need some more insider expertise here. There’s also La Mama Negra herself who is a rich mestizo businessman from the community dressed up in a black mask, riding around on a horse, holding a black doll, and squirting what is supposed to be breast milk on the crowd. Her entourage was also all in blackface.


Huacos also walk the parade route and they are supposed to represent shamans that can cleanse your body and spirit (for a fee, of course). Curiquingues represent birds of the local area and are apparently performing mating dances.



Cotopaxi is the most recent volcano to erupt in Ecuador. Its summit is at 5,897 m (19,347 ft), which beats the mountain I climbed a few years back, Mt. Kilimanjaro, by only two meters.  Cotopaxi Volcano is on the left in the photo below and Rumiñahui Volcano is in the middle. (Aside: Rumiñahui was a general who led the resistance against the Spanish after the Incan Emperor Atahaulpa was executed by the conquistadors. He hid some of the empire’s treasures and then later burned Quito to the ground so the Spanish would get nothing from the city. Definitely an Ecuadorian hero.)


Cotopaxi is also more technical, requiring crampons to walk on the glacier and a single overnight push to the top, which requires more acclimatization before doing the trip. Instead of attempting a summit, I took the relatively luxurious route of just hiking up to the refuge at a height of 4,800 m (15,748 ft). Another 700 m of walking brought me to the bottom of the giant glacier. The walk itself was only a couple kilometers, but it was mostly uphill, at ridiculously high elevation, and took almost 2 hours. (The two arrows in the photo point to the refuge and the glacier.) Sitting in the refuge, drinking hot chocolate I was completely satisfied with my choice.


Bonus: The hostel I stayed at had some awesome llamas running around.