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Where We’ve Been: July 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Peru & Bolivia

We started the month of July 2017 in the small town of Huancavelica high (and cold) in the Peruvian Andes. From there our road trip crossed Southern Peru to Lake Titicaca and then traveled into Bolivia where we spent time in La Paz, drove Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road,” then headed down to the Uyuni Salt Flats where we ended the month. In total, our road trip traveled 1,794 miles (2,887 km) in July and you can see the same spectacular scenery that we saw through the windshield of our truck via the drive-lapse video at the end of this post.

Driving the Bolivian death road

Where we’ve been: July 2017 in Peru & Bolivia

From damp and cold Huancavelica, one of the highest cities in the world at 12,060 feet (3,676 meters), we continued across the Peruvian Andes to historic Ayacucho (watch  our snowy July 4th morning drive leaving Huancavelica at 0:50 in our video at the end of this post).

From Ayacucho we made a beeline to the city of Puno on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca near the border with Bolivia. We then crossed into Bolivia, our 59th border crossing of the Journey so far, from Yunguyo, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia (see this very tranquil border crossing on the shores of Lake Titicaca at 15:06 in our video at the end of this post). 

Once in Bolivia, we drove to the world’s highest capital city: La Paz. From there we took a side trip to the Yungas region, a forested area between the high Andes and the lowland, Amazonian forest. In a mere 40 miles (65 km) the highway drops more than 11,000 feet (3,000 meters) from a 15,500 foot (4,724 meter) pass to the lowlands below. Although there is a now modern highway heading down to the Yungas, we couldn’t pass up the chance to drive Bolivia’s infamous Death Road.

Once considered “the world’s most dangerous road,” this dirt “highway” no longer lives up to that moniker. Yes, it’s still a narrow, one-lane road clinging to a sheer cliff that at times drops many thousands of feet into the ravine below. However, since the new highway was opened there is very little traffic along the dirt route save for a daily onslaught of tourist bicyclers making the descent and a few adventurous foreigners who want to drive this famed road. This means there is no longer the need to cling to the cliff’s edge while passing oncoming trucks.

Judge for yourself in the Death Road footage starting at 17:07 in our video at the end of this post). 

After conquering Bolivia’s Death Road we headed south across the country’s high Altiplano to the city of Oruro. From there we made a side trip to the village of Orinoca, the hometown of Bolivian President Evo Morales, to visit the newly opened Museo de la Revolución Democrática y Cultura. Sometimes called the Evo Museum, many consider it to be a very expensive ($7.5 million US dollars), very large, and very remote homage to Evo himself.

From there, we drove south to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, where we ended the month.

Our complete road trip driving route map for July 2017 is below.

And don’t miss the chance to see what we saw out there on the road in Peru and Bolivia in July of 2017 via our drive-lapse video, below. It was, as always, shot by our Brinno camera which is attached to our dashboard.

Here’s more about travel in Peru

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Hats in a Hurry – Aguadas, Colombia

The town of Aguadas is an official Pueblo Patrimonio for all of the usual reasons: historic importance, living culture, and surviving architecture and ambiance. But Aguadas is also famous as the source of some of the best hand-woven hats in Colombia and that’s why we traveled there on our way from Salamina to Medellin.

Traditional hat weaver in Aguadas, Colombia

A traditional hat weaver at work in Aguadas, Colombia.

Finding the hat makers of Aguadas

We’d been assured that practically every household in Aguadas had at least one hat-maker in the family. We imagined blocks full of houses fronted by talented hat makers working their craft in comfy chairs on stoops. So we were surprised when a first pass through town turned up precious little evidence of any hat making.

We asked around and the town’s tourist info office directed us to the home/workshop of Don Jorge Villanova but he only sells hats so there was no hat making to be seen. Then we were directed across town to Doña Rosa’s house, but she was busy dying fairly garish hats out of reeds that had been dyed hot pink, green or yellow as if the Easter bunny had possessed her. Though Doña Rosa can barely walk, we’re here to tell you her hands still move like lightning.

Weaving Sombrero Aguadeño in Aguadas, Colombia

Almost everyone in Aguadas makes hats. We found this woman working on a beauty in her tienda.

We left Doña Rosa’s unsatisfied, still in search of more traditional, less day-glo artistry. That’s when we noticed a woman working on a hat as she tended her tienda. Check out her amazing handiwork (see what we did there?) in our Aguadas hat making video, below.

 

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Where We’ve Been: January 2017 Road Trip Driving Route in Argentina

We spent much of January 2017 house-sitting in Salta, Argentina, however, we still managed to get in some miles. About 320 of them, to be precise, and they were all epic. If you like stunning landscapes you won’t want to miss our South American road trip driving route for January 2017, including drive-lapse video at the end of the post which lets you see what we saw through the windshield of our truck as we traveled.

Quebrada de las Conchas - Salta, Argentina

Where we’ve been in January 2017 in Argentina

We left Salta and did a little loop through the Andes to the wine region of Cafayate, up Argentina’s famous Route 40 (one of the longest national highways on earth) and back to Salta. See our complete short but sweet road trip driving route on the map below.

From Salta we drove to the wine region of Cafayate through the red rock landscapes of the Quebrada de las Conchas. After consuming a fair amount of delicious wine and visiting the wineries of El Esteco Winery and Vineyards and Piattelli Vineyards we continued north on Argentina’s famous RN-40 through the Calchaquí Valley.

A few hours north of Cafayate we were sidelined for three hours while we waited for a dangerously swollen river to subside enough to cross. We then drove through the spectacular Quebrada de Las Flechas to the town of Molinos. From there we got even more remote to reach the Bodega Colomé Winery

Next, we continued to the town of Cachi (where we finally saw pavement again) and crossed Cardones National Park nd its forests of cactus, eventually dropping down to Salta and the Valle de Lerma via the Cuesta del Obispo.

Quebrada de las Flechas - Salta, Argentina

See what we saw out there on the road in our drive-lapse video, below, which was shot by our Brinno camera attached to our dashboard.

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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Where We’ve Been: September 2016 Road Trip Driving Route in Peru & Brazil

We spent July and August traveling in a relatively small area around Cusco and the Sacred Valley in Peru so we logged very few miles. Boy, did we make up for it in September with more than 1,900 miles (3,000 km) driven from Cusco, Peru to Porto Jofre deep in Brazil’s Pantanal area. An additional 550 miles (885 km) were covered by plane from Porto Velho, Brazil up to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon and (a first for us on our Trans-Americas Journey) a 22 hour bus ride from Manaus back to Porto Velho via Brazil’s infamous BR-319 road which is a remote, rough, dirt “highway”. Brazil is big, people. Here’s our road trip driving route for September 2016 in Peru and Brazil.

September 2016 Road Trip Driving Route – Peru & Brazil

Our road trip driving route for the month of September actually began on August 30th when, after nearly two months, we broke away from the Cusco region. From Cusco we drove over the Andes and down to Porto Maldonado in the Amazon where we took a side-journey by boat into the Tambopata Nature Reserve.

We left Porto Maldonado and crossed into Brazil which turned out to be the easiest, fastest and most remote border crossing yet. We knew we were really in the middle of nowhere when the mileage sign near at the border indicated we were 2,217 miles (4,373 km) from Rio de Janeiro. Did we mention that Brazil is big?

Peru Brazil Border miles to Rio road trip driving route

We knew we were going to clock some serious miles in September when we saw this mileage sign at the Peru-Brazil border.

For the rest of the month we crossed the Amazon in one way or another. After crossing the border we visited the surprisingly tidy and pleasant city of Rio Branco where we should have stayed longer. Then we continued on to Porto Velho where we took our plane/bus side-trip to Manaus and back.

Once back in Porto Velho we made a 1,000 mile (1,600 km) bee-line to the Pantanal region where we traversed another notorious road, the Trans-Pantaneira Highway, to reach Porto Jofre where we finally saw jaguars in the wild.

You can see all the action in our drive-lapse video, above, which was shot by our Brinno TLC200 Pro HDR Time Lapse Video Camera which is mounted on the dashboard of our truck. Watch as we cross the Amazon region (minute 4 through 12) where, you will note, much of the landscape, except for a few pockets of protected jungle, has been deforested to make way for large cattle ranches. Minute 13 through the end of the video lets you follow along on the Trans-Pantaneira highway which was so filled with wildlife it was like our a South American Safari.

 

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Flying Over a National Park – Chicamocha Canyon, Colombia

The Chicamocha Canyon, between the cities of San Gil and Bucaramanga in central Colombia, was formed more than 46 million years ago and covers more than 100,000 acres (404,685 hectares) and is up to 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) deep. In other words, it’s one of the largest canyons in the world. There are a number of ways to explore Chicamocha Canyon, including two that involve traveling through the air.

Chicmocha Canyon Bucamaranga

Colombia’s Chicamocha Canyon, one of the largest in the world.

 

Paragliding over Chicamocha Canyon in Colombia

You can hike it, raft it, kayak it or visit the theme-parky Chicamocha National Park and ride a cable car over it (more on that later). But perhaps the best way to explore the Chicamocha Canyon is to paraglide over it. It’s certainly the most dramatic way.

Paraglide-Chicmocha-canyon

Paragliding is a great way to see Chicamocha Canyon.

When Parapente Chicamocha (parapente is the Spanish word for paragliding) offered to take us up, up and away we said yes. And we said it quickly before “I hate heights” Karen could change her mind.

Karen Paraglide Chicamocha Canyon

Karen wondering how she got herself into this paragliding mess just moments before take off over the Chicamocha Canyon.

We arrived at the launch site with owner Sergio and a team of wing wranglers and pilots. Then we stood around and watched the birds, waiting for them to catch thermals so that we could too. When the pros saw enough birds catching thermals it was time for us to try it too.

This involved getting into the paragliding harness in front of the paragliding pilot (you didn’t think they’d send us up alone, did you?) and then running off the edge of the canyon. Truth be told, Karen dragged her feet a bit. But even she ended up in the air where the thermals, bless them, carried us up a few thousand feet above the canyon floor.

Parapente chicamocha Canyon

You have to run off the edge of the canyon to begin paragliding over Chicamocha.

We spent about half an hour rising, circling, dropping and rising again over the canyon as the pilots worked the wing to direct us. Eric says the view was great. Karen never had her eyes open long enough to really appreciate it and her forearms are still sore from the death grip she had on her harness.

See what Eric saw, in our video from our paragliding adventure over Chicamocha Canyon, below.

 

National park or theme park?

Parque Nacional de Chicmocha National Park

They call it the Chicamocha National Park, but it’s more like the Chicamocha Theme Park.

The Chicamocha National Park (15,000 COP/about US$5) protects a section of the Chicamocha Canyon, but instead of spotlighting its natural beauty in the typical peaceful, passive way of most parks, this one shows off its considerable natural attributes in a theme park environment. There are ice cream shops, a synthetic ice skating ring, a goat park, some really, really strange sculptures and monuments and some zip lines.

Chicamocha National Park

These imposing statues at the Chicamocha National Park have something to do with the history and traditions of the Santander province in Colombia.

Chicamocha National Park

This enormous, spiky, modern sculpture greets visitors to Chicamocha National Park and is a monument to local Santanderean culture. We don’t know why there are goats.

There’s even a theme park ride of sorts. In 2009 the park debuted a four mile (6.3 km) cable car system, one of the longest in the world, which takes visitors from one edge of the canyon to the other and back again (40,000 COP/about US$13.50).

Teleferico Chicamocha Cable Car

One of the world’s longest cable car systems takes passengers across Chicamocha Canyon.

Check out the cable car ride over Chicamocha Canyon in our video, below.

Travel tip

San Gil may be the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the region, but unless you like a noise, dirty town with a bunch of hostels, skip it. Instead, continue past San Gil about 30 minutes to Barichara, the prettiest town in Colombia where preserved Colonial architecture, historic stone streets, peace, quiet and a wide range of hotels and restaurants (including budget-minded ones) await.

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