Lord of the Rings in Uganda

18 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.27.08-9.28.08

We generally ignore the Lonely Planet descriptions of cities and towns. It seems that every place they describe is the most beautiful place in the country. The towns usually don’t live up to their hype. But after ten months of traveling, they finally got one right. Our guide book described Lake Bunyonyi in southeastern Uganda as a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Green rolling hills surround the lake, which is dotted with small islands.


We almost didn’t make it to Bunyonyi. It would have taken us two days of travel to get from Bwindi National Park to the lake. But we met an Irish couple, Brian and Deiredre, on their honeymoon who were also visiting the lake in their hired car.

They offered to give us a lift and confirmed our belief that the Irish are the nicest travelers in the world. A ride that would have taken us two days on public transportation only took us six hours. As it turns out Brian and Deirdre both compete in triathlons, so I asked them about their competitions and missed being able to consistently work out.

We spent two days exploring the lake. We hiked up one of the many green hills surrounding the lake and were rewarded by fantastic panoramic views. Today most of the islands exist off tourism and non profit projects. Some of the islands have interesting histories. Bwama island was formerly a leper colony.


The smallest island on the lake is still known as Punishment Island. Until the early 1900’s unwed women who found themsevles pregnant would be left on the island to starve to death as their punishment. This horrible custom was accompanied by another interesting situation. In most African tribes, the men must pay the father for the right to marry their daughter. But if a man was too poor to pay the bride price, he could canoe out to the island, rescue the girl, and have a bride (and child) for free.

After our visit to Bunyonyi, we decided to head to Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, where we were planning to visit the Ssese Islands. We bought a bus ticket to the town where we could catch a ferry to the islands. After 8 hours on a bus, I kept wondering why we hadn’t arrived at our stop. Chris asked the person sitting next to us how much longer until  our stop and we found out that we had passed it an hour before. Most small African towns do not have signs stating the name of the town. I am convinced that the bus didn’t actually stop where we were supposed to get off. If it did stop then I am convinced I did not want to get off in that town. Since it was night we decided not to get off in a random town to try and backtrack.  As we rode back to Kampala, the final destination of the bus, I was reminded that no matter how well you plan your itinerary, you never know what you’re going to end up  seeing.


The Good, the Bad, and Bolivia

12 09 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.08.08-6.21.08

Bolivia is known as the backpackers’ Mecca: you must visit this country at least once in your traveling life. We met multiple backpackers who planned a 2 week trip to Bolivia and stayed for 2 months. They praised the people, the sites, and, of course, the cheap cost. Somehow, we missed this boat.

The moment we entered Bolivia, we almost got left at the border. When we left the country, we were ripped off by a bus company, who sold us a ticket to another company, then actually left us at the border to take a taxi to the next town where we could catch our bus. The two weeks in between our border crossings were not much better. People were constantly trying to rip us off, or not provide services we paid for. A hostel owner in Copacabana ardently argued that we had stayed four nights, when we were only there for three. Finally, I showed her our bus ticket to the town dated three days earlier. She told me she had a headache. Our hostel owner on Isla del Sol tried to charge us for breakfast which he said was included. It seemed like every time I looked at a bill, I was being charged for items I did not order.

When asking locals for information or directions, you have to ask at least two people. If someone didn’t know the answer, they would make something up. We walked around the town of Uyuni in circles after following directions to a cafe. When we stayed at the Radisson (a five star hotel), the woman at the travel agency told us that buses did not run from La Paz to Uyuni on Sunday, so we stayed an extra day until Monday, when she made us a reservation. When I went to the bus station to pay for the ticket, our reservation did not exist (and all the buses were full) and the ticket office told me they ran buses on Sunday. As backpackers, we don’t expect preferencial treatment, but dealing with overtly rude people and constantly having to argue over every bill is exhausting.

I have come to the conclusion that backpackers praise Bolivia because it is cheap. Generally, you can find accomodation for about $5 per person per night. You can find it for cheaper, but, believe me, it’s not worth saving two extra dollars per night and staying at these places. You can also find meals for around $3 as long as you don’t mind eating chicken and rice for every meal (and don’t mind your stomach feeling upset afterwards).

Bolivia offers many of the same tours as surrounding countries, but at cheaper prices. You can visit the antiplano, the jungle, and the salt flats. However, Chile has a larger (and cooler looking) expanse of antiplano. Brazil has a better jungle (so does Costa Rica for that matter). And Argentina also has salt flats (only slightly smaller than Bolivia’s). Once we started questioning the hype, we found other travelers who agreed with us and also left Bolivia early. While we had some interesting experiences in Bolivia, we definitely left with a sour taste for the country. If you’re simply looking for a cheap vacation, head to Bolivia, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Please Pass the Salt

10 09 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.17.08-6.21.08

Bolivia is not renouned for its cuisine. In fact you are lucky if you leave Bolivia without getting sick.  In different conversations, multiple people told us not to eat any fruits, vegetables, or meat in Bolivia.  These restrictions leave you with a diet of bread and Snicker’s Bars. Not the healthiest options to say the least.

When we arrived in Uyuni we were thrilled to find a pizza restaurant, MinuteMan Pizza, owned by two Amherst grads, one of whom is a native Bolivian. Their pizza and pancakes were fabulous, so we ate every breakfast and dinner there everyday during our stay. A Sicilian we met later commented that MinuteMan was the best pizza she had eaten outside of Sicily.

The reason we stopped in the small, dusy town of Uyuni, in the first place, was because of its location at the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. In prehistoric times, the Salar was a huge salt water lake. The lake dried up (NOT because of global warming) and left a vast expanse of whiteness stretching to the horizon. The edges of the salt flat can be 12 inches thick, while the middle is 10 meters deep of solid packed salt.  You need a 4×4 vehicle and a GPS system to see the flats on your own. We don’t have either of these things, so we decided to take a two day tour.   We had heard horror stories of Uyuni tour companies: cars breaking down, running out of gas (in the middle of nowhere), putting 8 people in a car with 6 seats, and/or providing unedible food.  We tried to find a recommendation for a good company, but none of the ones in our guidebook were still operating.  We spent an afternoon looking for a legitimate company.  We picked a medium priced tour and packed a lot of snacks.

The next morning, we (and only two other people) left for the Salar.  At our first stop, we saw clusters of miniature salt hills, part of the process of mining the salt. We stood on one to get a picture. So the next time you salt your french fries, you can think about the possibility that I stood on your salt.

We drove an hour onto the flat following the tire marks of other cars. The Salar de Uyuni is a unique geological formation unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Driving across salt is an odd experience because you have to keep reminding yourself it’s not snow. However, the nights are cold enough to make you think it could snow outside.  We stopped at a hotel made entirely of salt.  The hotel no longer accepts guests to spend the night.  It was recently condemned because it is structurally unsound (since, that’s right, it is made entirely of salt).  However, as long as you buy something in their store, they allow you to walk around and take pictures of the salt chairs and salt tables.  After leaving the hotel, we had lunch on the “island,” a cactus filled mound of earth with picnic tables and a bathroom.  Part of the popularity of the salt flats is that the white vastness allows you to play with the field of depth. I have now shrunk Chris. Our friend, Bob, asked if this cut down on travel expenses since I can now fit Chris in my pocket. Sadly, no.

After a day of driving around, we spent the night at a hostel on the edge of the flat. Many other tours stayed there as well and we met a great Turkish couple, Damla and Karem. We immediately became friends and later met up with them in Buenos Aires.

The following day, we visited a few sites around the flat including two burial sites at the base of a multi colored mountain.  After lunch we drove back to Uyuni.  Our tour could have been done all in one day.  But I didn’t mind the lack of organization since our car didn’t break down, and the food was good.  We had a last dinner at, yes, MinuteMan Pizza before leaving Uyuni.

Click here to see the pics of Uyuni Salt Flats at our Flickr site***

From Jail To a 5 Star Hotel

8 09 2008

Posted by: Chris

Travel dates: 6.14.08

For Laura’s birthday, she wanted to relax on a white sand beach drinking fruity drinks and swimming in crystal clear water. For my birthday, we went inside a prison. To each his own. After some very strange phone calls I finally managed to set up a meeting with a South African inmate named Stewart who is currently serving a few years at San Pedro prison for drug trafficking. Several years ago they used to have tours inside the jail until, you can imagine, it got too dangerous. Mostly people were buying cocaine inside and taking it out, plus a few more violent incidents. So no more tours. Except in the last year, some of the foreign inmates have managed to convince the guards to let some people inside again. Which brings me back to how we ended up here. We heard about it from our tour guide in Salta, Argetina and I thought that it would be a unique experience. Once in La Paz, we talked to a group who went in that included women who said it was completely safe, so Laura decided she wanted onboard.

The prison is divided into two main sections: one safe to visit, and the one not. When inmates first arrive they are given free lodging for 3 months in the “nicer” section. After that time they have to pay to stay, and if they can’t scrape together the money they get sent to other other side where we weren’t allowed to go because Stewart and Co. “couldn’t guarantee our safety.” There are no cells, no lurking guards, nothing that you would expect from a typical jail. Everyone works: this includes making crafts, selling food, cleaning, whatever they can. Some of the wealthier inmates even have 2 story lofts that, while resembling a worn down cement college dorm room, are super-comfortable considering they are incarcerated. Consider it a self-policed society existing inside the stone walls.

Stewart himself is quite a character. He has spent time in multiple prisons including a maximum security one in Pakistan that housed members of the Taliban. He and a fellow inmate staged an escape and reached the top of the wall before realizing they were surrounded by desert without any clue which direction the nearest town was (which was 8 hours away by car going in a straight line). But he got out legally soon after, only to skip bail in South Africa for other charges before landing in San Pedro, his 2nd prison in S. America. He hasn’t actually been charged with anything yet since every time he goes to court he speaks Africaans–a language similar to Dutch– and pretends to now know English (there are no translators in Bolivia for Africaans). 3 years so far without a trail, but he’s hoping to get out soon.

So we spent a few hours talking about the prison, and the lives of the inmates, most of whom feel very lucky to be there and not in a worse place. They still make cocaine in the prison which you are free to use while inside (no taking outside or else you will become the newest member of San Pedro). They claim there is 0% homosexuality since they are allowed to bring prostitutes in–the cost being between the them and the working girl. Many families stay inside the prison, the women and children able to come and go as they please while the husband remaining. The woman’s prison in town is not so nice a place to end up however.

We parted ways, a bit conflicted. I felt like many of the inmates liked us and they seemed eager for us too stay and talk, and were quite friendly and safe to us the whole time. Problem? Most are drug dealers. Hard drugs. And kind or not, it’s hard to feel too friendly when you think about what that really means, and see some of the people strung out on the road the way we have on this trip. We shook hands and smiled, thanked them for the experience with a bag of snacks and candy (which go to the kids), sodas, some cigarettes, and Pringles. One whacked out inmate complained I got the wrong flavor. Turns out he was the one who I spoke with during all the weird phone calls.

To finish the Birthday celebration, we took a taxi to a 5-star hotel equipped with a sauna, pool, hot water showers and a TV in the room. The staff even snuck in a tiny birthday cake for me, as I lounged in laziness with clean pores and cable TV. We only left the hotel for dinner–sushi–before coming back. After the prison experience earlier, nothing went unappreciated.

Check out the pics from La Paz at our Flickr site***

The World’s Most Dangerous Road

31 08 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.10.08- 6.11.08

In 1995 the Inter-American Development Bank (don’t ask me who these guys are) surveyed traffic related deaths and determined that the road leading from La Paz to Coroico was the World’s Most Dangerous Road. With a yearly average between 200-300 deaths on this road, few would disagree with this name. The one lane dirt road winds through the Yungas mountains with an elevation decrease of 3,600 meters (a little over two miles).  Since this was the only road connecting the Yungas valled with the capital city, it supported two lanes of traffic. If a bus or car saw another vehicle coming, one of them would have to back up to allow the other to pass. This scenic mountain road has dropoffs up to 600 meters, so it was not uncommon for cars (or large buses) to take the quick way down, as in straight down. Then about 15 years ago, someone realized that people will actually pay money for the chance to ride down on two wheels instead of four.  We decided we were those kind of people, and immediately signed a waiver.

Now, before you have a heart attack Mr. Louis, please know that we found an extremely reputable company, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. They have actual instructors who teach you mountain biking basics and safety. You can not sign up with them unless you have insurance which specifically coveres biking (but you can purchase a one day insurance package through them). They use excellent equiptment and stop three separate times during the ride to check your brakes. And you get a free t-shirt.

The morning of our ride fourteen bikers and two instructors boarded a bus in La Paz at 7:45. (Leaving on time is a rare occurance in Bolivia). Our instructor Dave introduced himself and explained the layout of the day. We would take an hour ride bus and stop at the mountain pass a few miles north of La Paz, then start our descent to the town of Coroico where we would have a buffet dinner before getting another bus back to La Paz arriving around 8pm.  He then said the dumbest question he had ever gotten was from a girl who asked, “Do we end up in the same place we started?” He then asked if we had any questions.

At the top of the pass, we unloaded our bikes and gear. We got a few basic tips, such as, whatever you do DON’T slam on your brakes.  Then more specific instruction on riding position, safely passing other bikers, and not following too closely behind the person in front of you. We put on helmets, goggles, dust masks, and very chic orange vests. Then we each had a swig of some clear alcohol and poured a small amount on our front tire as an offer to the Incan goddess, Pachamama, to see us safely to the bottom.

The first 10 miles of our ride was paved. I started before Chris, then saw him whiz by me down the road and pass a few other bikers in line.  We were riding in a single file line with one instructor leading the group, while the other brought up the caboose. This system allowed each rider to go at his own pace.  We took the mountain in sections, biking for about 20 minutes, then regrouping so our guide could explain the next section of terrain. After riding on the pavement down some fairly steep hills, we had another small lesson on how to ride on gravel. Then the real fun began as we put on our dust masks and clutched our handlebars for the bumpy ride down.

The morning had been cloudy, but the clouds lifted around 10:00 when we stopped for a snack. We began our ride from the dry mountain top, but saw the lush jungle below. As we rode down towards warmpth, oxygen, and green trees, our guide reminded us to keep our eyes on the road. One biker who went over the edge said the last thing he remembered was looking at an eagle soaring a few meters away from him.  While the road is not technically challenging as far as mountain biking goes, we did have quite a few hairpin turns.  We also splashed through a few streams that turned into waterfalls as they fell over the edge of the road.

Crosses on the side of the road every few hundred meters served as a reminder to go a speed where you felt in control. Chris’ comfort speed was a bit faster than mine, so he ended up near the front of the pack.  I hung out somewhere in the middle.  Problems happen when riders exceed their control zone. While the road plummets at a 90 degree angle and it’s terrifying to look over the edge, it’s your own fault if you end up off the ravine.  However, a rather annoying group of girls seemed to like starting at the front of the pack, so we would constantly have to pass them or be stuck behind them for segments of the ride.

After a 45 mile ride, we ended up in the town of Coroico where we had dinner at La Senda Animal Reserve, a refuge for abused and mistreated exotic animals. The Reserve doubles as a restaurant and hotel with the proceeds going to help the animals. While we walked around, Chris made friends with this boar/ pig character.

Then, after a buffet dinner of salad, pasta, and veggies, the parrots enjoyed some left-overs. Instead of taking the van back to La Paz, we stayed in the town of Coroico to enjoy an extra day of warmpth and oxygen.

Click here to see pics of “The World’s Most Dangerous Road” at our Flickr site***

The World’s Highest [fill in the blank]

30 08 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.08.08-6.11.08

During our trip, we have travelled on boats, buses, planes, and trains. However, watching our bus travel on a boat is a new experience.

There is no bridge across Lake Titicaca on the road from Copacabana to La Paz.  So everyone is ushered off the bus and onto a ferry, while you boat is driven onto a floating barge. As I watched my luggage putter along, I have to admit I was not completely confident with this system.  You can actually see the olive green pack cover of my bag, which is strapped to the roof.  But our luggage arrived safely, and we arrived in La Paz a few hours later.

Located 2.5 miles above sea level, La Paz, Bolivia is the world’s higest capitol. The soccer stadium here is no longer used for official games because of the disadvantage for visiting teams.  But, you can play golf on the world’s higest golf course. (It’s probably the only time you’ll ever get an aerobic workout playing golf.)  Because of the combination of altitude and pollution, I found it so difficult to breathe that Bolivia is the only country on our trip where I have not gone running.

La Paz is known for its markets, so we first visited the Witches’s Market.  We passed dried llama fetuses hanging in windows, jars of preserved alligators and frogs, and concoctions of powders to cure every ailment known to man (especially those ailments specific known to men). We did not linger long because of the pungent smell.  As we walked along the city streets, we saw people “reading” coca leaves. Along with all of the college age travellers, we visited the Coca Museum, a small museum which chronicles the history of the coca leaf beginning with the Incan people, who saw it as a sacred plant and used it to commumicate with the gods, predict the future, and supress pain. Today, Andean people still chew the leaf and use it for tea. (Don’t worry, the leaf is completely legal and I’m convinced it helped my altitude sickness in Lauca). Unfortunately, the Europeans entered the scene and banned the plant. But the Spanish unbanned it when they realized that it gave the now subjected Andean people more energy and therefore the ability to work longer hours in the silver mines. I found the museum interesting because of the history of medicinal uses of the coca leaf, but slightly biased against Europeans and Americans who now control the market for cocaine and restrict the exportation of the plant out of Bolivia. 

The coca leaf also increases your body’s ability to process oxygen. We’ve been at high altitude for a few weeks now, and I still get light headed walking up steep hills. I might need to stock up on these leaves.  However, after spending so many weeks at high altitude, I’m now convinced that Bolivia could be the next Kenya and have world class distance runners.

The Savy Travellers

30 08 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.05.08-6.08.08

Our first stop in Bolivia was Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake (yes, they were stretching for this superlative). As long as we’re making up ridiculous superlatives, I’ll add that it’s also the sparkle-iest lake I’ve ever seen. We decided to visit Isla del Sol, an island known for it’s Incan ruins.

In order to reach the island from the town of Copocabana, you can either hire a private boat, which is very expensive ($50) or take a public taxi-boat for $1.50. Not a difficult decision. We bought our ticket at the dock, boarded the boat, and waited to leave. The guy who sold us our ticket had written a departure time of 12:00. By 1:00, we had not left.  I looked over at the boat driver who had his feet propped up and was reading the newspaper, so  I went to discuss our departure time with him. He was waiting for five more people who were coming at 1:30. I would have asked for our money back, but the guy who sold us the ticket had left, so we waited.  Surprisingly, we left at 1:30. We got dropped off at the southern tip of the island.  There are no cars and no paved roads on the Isla del Sol, so we hiked to the nearest town to find a place to stay.  We watched a fantastic sunset and ate fresh fish for dinner.

Walking the entire length of the island can be done in a day, so we set out the next morning walking along the ridge of the island with views of the lake on both sides. Most of the islanders live in stone houses and farm, so we passed many small terraced fields, donkeys, and goats. We found an excellent beach, (but it’s too cold to lay out).  We passed the Incan ruins from some time a long time ago, which mainly look like piles of stones. While the lake is definitely nice, the island is very dry and rocky, which should be expected for such a high altitude.

When we reached the north part of the island, and found a taxi-boat to take us back to the mainland. We thought we had learned from our ride to the island, so we refused to pay for our ticket until the boat was physically moving.  Fifteen minutes later, the boat left the dock and we happily paid the ticket guy. Feeling like veteran travellers, we sat back for the hour and a half ride back to Copacabana. However, thirty minutes after we left, the boat docked at the south part of the island where we sat and waited for an hour and a half. Once again we were reminded that no traveller can figure out everything.

Check out the pics of Copacobana and Lake Titicaca at our Flickr site***