El fin de Suramerica
After my intense stint in basic, post-disaster, third world Pisco, I took the not entirely logical step of going to the other extreme of the development scale: New York City.
I was in town to volunteer at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, a get together of some 50 or so heads of state in town for the UN General Assembly along with leaders from the business, non-profit, and entertainment world. My job was to help manage the approximately 1,000 members of the media covering the conference. It turned out to be a very intense, but interesting, week. One minute I was being yelled at by secret service agents to “lockdown” a room, the next a few feet away from Sting in a live concert.
After New York for a week, it was back to South America. Thank goodness for frequent flier miles. It’s like a jet set lifestyle on a jet ski budget.
After a brief recovery day in Arequipa, it was back into nature to detox from the intensity of both Pisco and NYC. The destination was Colca Canyon, which is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is also home to Andean Condors – truly majestic birds. The word “huge” is a bit cliche, but with a wingspan of up to 10.5 ft (the largest of any land bird), it seems like a fitting adjective.
Next up was Lake Titicaca. Since this seems to be turning into the Guinness World Book of Records post, I’ll roll with it. It is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. I don’t really have any good idea on what “commercially navigable” means other than “we wouldn’t hold any record at all unless we added a legalesque sounding caveat”, but I regress. It is at 12,500 ft above sea level (twice the elevation of Denver), so it is relatively legit. While we’re at it, it is also the largest lake in South America.
More than the above records, what makes Lake Titicaca interesting (other than its exotic name, these guys really have their marketing 101 down pat…) is the people who live on the lake. Normally “on the lake” means on the shore of the lake or on the islands of the lake. But this lake has people who literally live on the water of the lake. Not on houseboats (way too 20th century), but on man-made, floating islands built of reed. The original idea behind the floating islands was defense, as they were portable. Nowadays, the only invasion the islanders must defend against is hordes of sunburned tourists.
After our obligatory stop on one of the floating islands, we spent the night on one of the main islands of the lake, Taquile. It’s a fascinating place. Each day, around a thousand tourists swarm the island, increasing the population by about 50%. Since there are no hotels on the island (or electricity or cars or…), about 990 of the tourists leave each afternoon soon after their “authentic” fish fry lunch (“authentic” in the way that going to Epcot is equivalent to buying a round the world plane ticket and going to Medieval Times is the same as time travel back to the Middle Ages). Suffice it to say I decided to be one of the ten or so that decided to stay the night on the island in a home stay.
Our host, Celso, was wonderful. We learned about massive cultural differences. He’s been dating the same woman for seven years and has a three year old son, but the two cannot get married since he needs 45 goats to hold the ceremony, as the whole island is always invited and that is the minimum amount of meat to feed the people. It’s akin to being required to have at least an iPhone (to live tweet), iMac (to edit the wedding photos), and iPad (to email a honeymoon update to friends) to have a successful American wedding.
After lake Titicaca, I said adios to Peru and moved onto Bolivia. What I did not realize is that unlike Ecuador and Peru, which simply require a valid US passport to enter, our amigo Evo Morales decided to make it a bit harder for Americans to come visit his country. I think he rates somewhere between Fidel Castro and the Vladimir Putin on the “friends of the USA” list. So I showed up at the border with a stack of paperwork – and a stack of money (a visa costs $135!) and was warned I may or may not be able to buy a visa at the border. Of course, the consulate in the nearest town was out of visas, so I had no other option. Fortunately, everything worked out.
After a brief stop in la Paz, it was onto Uyuni to venture into the Salar. Sticking with the theme of the day, the Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, at over four thousand square miles. I’m mot quite sure how much competition it as for this title, but it sounds impressive nonetheless. The entire area is mostly flat and covered by a couple feet of salt crust, which is mined by locals for table salt (the Salar also contains more than half of the world’s lithium reserves, which is also being mined… and sells for a bit more than the table salt and is much more likely to be the subject of a future James Bond movie).
A journey into the Salar generally takes 3 days and involves finding a driver with a 4 wheel drive jeep. Given all the horror stories I had heard about drunk and coked out drivers, I spent an extra day in Uyuni doing due diligence. It seemed like time well spent (I did it for you, mom). I will let pictures tell the rest of the story. It really felt like I was traveling through another world. If anything, the pictures don’t fully capture the true vividness and beauty of the colors and scenery of the Salar and surrounding area.