International Adventure Guide 2013: La Paz And Southwest Bolivia

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Bolivia is the least expensive destination in South America, yet it has an increasingly efficient tourism infrastructure. Going now, especially to the remote southwestern part of the country, means faster, easier, more comfortable travel than in the past (although you’ll still have to be prepared for your share of bus rides on rutted out, unpaved roads, depending upon where you’re headed). In general, you won’t find yourself tripping over tourists except for a handful of streets in La Paz.

In the remote Southwest (where the renown Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, is located), you’ll feel like you’re in a vastly different cultural and geographic universe. Regardless of where you venture, Bolivia is a country of diverse and often harsh- yet starkly beautiful- environments; wimps and whiners need not apply.

You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. Bolivia offers incomparable scenery ranging from towering Andean peaks and Amazonian jungle to crystalline lagoons, and high desert reminiscent of the American Southwest on steroids. Plus, there’s world-class trekking, climbing, and mountain biking, gracious people, a thriving indigenous culture, and the kind of crazy adventure activities rarely found in industrialized nations. Bolivia is also politically stable, relatively speaking (there are frequent protests, but they’re internal, and mostly in the form of roadblocks). Go now, before it becomes the next Peru and prices for guided trips hit the roof.bolivia

Adventure Activities

Trekking/climbing
Novice or pro, Bolivia has it all when it comes to bagging peaks (some extinct or dormant volcanoes) or trekking, mostly within a few hours of La Paz. The Cordillera Real range offers verdant river valleys teeming with llamas and alpacas, and the occasional Aymara farmstead; calderas, and glaciers, all in a day’s hike. Best of all, you’re not likely to see another soul, other than your guide, cook, and the mule or llama carrying your gear.

If you’re into mountaineering, Huayna Potosi (19,974) and Illimani (21,122 feet) are both visible from La Paz. The former can be done by beginners in good physical condition (acclimatization time is crucial, however, before you attempt a summit with a reliable guide; click here for tips on choosing a solid company), while the latter is a technical climb. Seattle-based Mountain Madness offers a Bolivia climbing school using local guides, and is an exceptional outfitter. June through August are best, weather-wise.

Private trips, however, are the norm in Bolivia, and can be planned around just one person. Another great company is UK-based Bolivian Mountains, which specializes in the Cordillera Real region. Owner Jon Cassidy is a guide himself, and relies upon local, experienced guides to keep operations running smoothly from across the Atlantic. Expect first-class attention, service, and food, for super-affordable prices; IFMGA-certified. From $400 for one person (including aforementioned pack animals, cook, guide, and tent, for 3-day trek).

Mountain Biking
These days, you can’t walk a block in La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (Calle Sarganaga, between Plaza San Francisco and Calle Illampu) without seeing a mountain biking agency, thanks to Alistair Matthew, who essentially introduced the sport commercially to Bolivia about 14 years ago. The Kiwi founder of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking started out with four bikes, and today runs an internationally-renowned company frequented by industry pros.

Many outfitters offer the “World’s Most Dangerous Road,” (aka Death Road/Camino de la Muerte, about 35 miles east of La Paz, in the jungly Yungas region) bike trips, and it’s by far the most popular trip offered by Gravity (with over 10,500 feet of descent, from glaciers and cloud forest to Amazon Basin, small wonder). Yet, there are better, less-crowded options that will appeal more to hardcore riders.

Gravity’s “Size Matters” ride in the Chacaltaya-Zongo region (about two hours from La Paz) starts at what was once the world’s highest ski resort, on the slopes of Huayna Potosi, providing views of all of the region’s 6,000 peaks. You can kill it on the winding road down into steaming jungle, on one of the world’s largest descents achievable in a single day. Gravity also offers advanced trips to two Incan foot trails, Takesi and Chorro. Terrain ranges from smooth, flowing dirt at 15,000 feet, to technical rock and step as you make your way into the jungle. The best months for riding are May through late October.

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Horseback riding
If the Old West is your passion, then you’ll love Tupiza, approximately 11 hours southwest of La Paz. Bolivia’s frontera town is famed for being near the (alleged) final heist and resting place of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Looking like the love-child of Sedona and Bryce Canyon, this is a region of ravines, red dirt, cacti, and ranching. Indulge your inner cowboy — or girl — by taking a three-day horseback ride into the high desert, exploring scenic spots such as Quebrada Seca, Valle de los Machos, Cañon del Duende, Palquiza, Pampa Grande, and Entre Rios.

You’ll spend nights in small villages, accommodated by local families (the lodging is basic, refugio-style). Besides the scenery, it’s an amazing opportunity to delve into Quechua and vaquero culture. Previous riding experience isn’t required, and Tupiza’s climate is temperate year-round. That said, during the January-March rainy season, certain areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.

Tupiza Tours is one of the region’s most well-established and reputable outfitters for both Salar de Uyuni and horseback tours. From $106 pp/meals and accommodation included.
Av. Chichas 187, Tupiza, tupizatours.com

Hotspots

Condoriri Massif, Cordillera Real
Bolivia’s most famous spot for trekking and climbing is about two hours east of La Paz, and remarkable for its towering volcanic peaks, calderas, and lush river valleys. If you’re pressed for time and can’t spare the 13 or so days needed to do the Transcordillera trek, opt for a three-day adventure along the famous Codoriri Massif (this series of 13 snowy peaks is so named for 16, 944-foot Cabeza del Condor, which resembles a condor, head turned, wings folded).

The scenery is stunning, with turquoise alpine lakes, herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep, Aymara farmsteads, and narrow mule trails on the interior of ancient calderas. As long as you don’t have previous problems with altitude, are in good physical condition, and have sufficient time to acclimate prior, you’ll have no problem. Be forewarned, however, that you’ll be trekking and sleeping at 14,000 to 15,000 feet, completely isolated from civilization; in the event of altitude sickness, you’ll have no choice but to hike out. Be sure to bring plenty of layers as well as a down sleeping bag. The best times to visit are post-rainy season, from April-December.

Sorata
Imagine an alpine colonial village, built onto a hillside in an Andean Valley. That’s Sorata. At just under 8,000 feet, Sorata is a haven for climbers, trekkers, and mountain bikers, who use the town as a base to acclimate and condition or kick back, pre- and post-trip. It’s equally popular amongst vacationers from La Paz, 93 miles away, who come for the views of towering, snowcapped Illampu, and Ancohuma. Mountain biking in the hills above Sorata, often above the clouds on mule trails and scree slopes, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tupiza
Located in the southwest of Bolivia about six hours from the grim, dusty town of Uyuni (which lies at the edge of the salt flat), and roughly an 11-hour bus ride from La Paz, Tupiza is a pleasant, relaxing place to hang out for a few days. Local outfitters offer a variety of activities, including horseback riding, hiking (you can also opt to do this on your own), volcano climbing across the border in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and four-day Jeep trips to the salt flats (a more scenic, albeit slightly longer, trip than the standard, round-trip Uyuni route that’s growing in popularity).

If your idea of heaven is exploring quebradas (ravines) and bizarre rock formations, or staying on a rustic estancia, Tupiza is your place. While there’s not a lot to do in town proper, there are full amenities, and the Mercado Campesino (Mondays, Thursday, and Saturdays, on the edge of town) is fascinating for a food and culture fix. Tip: If you’re coming from La Paz, an overnighter bus is ideal if you’re pressed for time; just be sure to bring a sleeping bag or blanket with you.

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Hotels

Hotel Fuentes:This popular, comfortable, colonial-style cheapie is located right in the heart of La Paz’s tourist ghetto, aka the Mercado de Hecheria (Witch’s Market). It’s no frills, but is walking distance to just about everything you’ll require, the owners are accommodating (for example, rising at dawn to call you a cab to the airport, and waiting with you to ensure it arrives), and if you score a room on the third or fourth floors, you just may have views of majestic Illimani. Breakfast and free wifi included. From about $13/double with shared bath. Calle Linares 888, tripadvisor.com

Hotel Anexo Mitru:The newer sibling to Tupiza’s upscale (for Tupiza) Hotel Mitru, this is a friendly, airy, seriously affordable option right across the street from the train station. Rooms are large and well-lit, with comfy beds, desks, and cubbies, and the staff are cheerful and helpful. Breakfast and free wifi are included. From $15/triple with shared bath (note, these rooms are rented to solo travelers when available). Calle Avaroa s/n, hotelmitru.com

Altai Oasis Eco-lodge-Organic Farm:This lovely, family-owned adobe lodge in Sorata is a favorite amongst the outdoorsy crowd, in part because it offers both cabins and camping. The other reason it attracts nature lovers? Its location deep within a valley surrounded by the Andes, in the shadow of Illampu. Many ingredients for the on-site restaurant are sourced from the property’s own garden, and you’ll drift off to sleep with the sounds of the Challazuyo River in your ears (not like you won’t already be exhausted from all the hiking, biking, and climbing). Amenities include hot showers (a big deal in Bolivia), fireplaces, and hammocks for lazing on muscle-repair days. From $18/pp cabins$12 pp dorms/$4 camping. Go to website for coordinates/directions, altaioasis.com/home

Getting Around

La Paz’s El Alto Airport, despite its elevation (13,323 feet), is clean and modern, and serviced by a number of carriers, including TACA, LAN, Avianca, and American Airlines. It’s about 15 minutes by taxi to downtown, and fares will vary depending upon your driver (and his ethics; don’t take unmarked cabs); prices average around eight to 10 dollars.

Buses run nationwide, but their quality varies wildly. While the train route that goes from Orouro to Tupiza is famous, the bus is actually faster and more comfortable, as long as you spring for a semi-cama or cama variety (these have seats that recline part-way and a footrest, or fold down into a bed). Avoid the janky old beaters at all costs, unless you enjoy hours of Shaken Baby Syndrome on your body. The best carriers will depend upon where you’re headed, and it pays to do some asking around or online research; El Dorado is a solid pick if you’re headed to the Southwest.

If you’re on a tight schedule, book or purchase bus tickets a day ahead. If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can fly from far-flung outposts like Uyuni to La Paz or Santa Cruz (Bolivia’s Amazon region), but taking the bus also affords an opportunity to see spectacular scenery. Budget travelers can opt for overnight bus hauls to offset lodging costs, and save time.

Tip: The new Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook comes out July 1. Pre-order yours now.
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Safety

Given Bolivia’s current political stability, the biggest problems are potential road blocks due to flooding or demonstrations. Before leaving town, register with the U.S. Department of State for updates on everything from road conditions to disease outbreaks (this isn’t specific to Bolivia, fyi; it’s a good idea for anywhere you happen to be traveling in the developing world). And while Bolivia is fairly safe, it’s still a developing nation in Latin America. Solo female travelers should use the normal precautions, and for the love of god, no one should even think about buying drugs, especially cocaine.

Use only marked taxis, rather than freelance drivers. At worst, you’ll get ripped off. Be aware that even the legit taxis usually don’t have meters, so if you have concerns over cost, ask your driver the approximate price before departing.

With regard to buses, it pays to do your research. Check out sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum for bus and outfitter recommendations, and remember that you usually get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a handful of bolivianos if it means dealing with a drunk driver or guide, or a crappy Jeep for that Salar de Uyuni tour. If you’re planning a trek or, especially a climb, make sure that the company has legitimate certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association ( IFMGA), and also do online research or ask personal contacts if they have referrals for where you’re headed. Trekking and mountaineering in the Andes is no joke, and again, it’s not worth risking your life to save some money. You need time to acclimatize, regardless of your physical condition, so don’t plan on scaling any mountains within a few days of arriving.

Another tip with regard to finding a reputable outfitter: always try and contact them via email before you depart on your trip. If they don’t respond right away, move on. Just as you would at home, go with companies that respond promptly, and answer all of your questions thoroughly. Good tour operators have bilingual staff answering emails, so that shouldn’t be a barrier, although some trips will charge extra for a bilingual guide. Although some companies will require payment in cash, they’ll at least make a reservation for you, so don’t let a “no credit cards” rule necessarily deter you.

Seasonality

Bolivia’s high season is December through early March (remember the seasons are reversed, since it’s in the Southern Hemisphere), which also coincides with the rainy season. January through mid-March are generally not very pleasant; since most of Bolivia’s charms lie in outdoor recreation, plan accordingly. The ideal time to visit may depend upon what you’re interested in doing.

Also note that different seasons may mean different types of tourism. The Salar de Uyuni, for example, is a vast, blinding white sea of salt crystals in the dry season, while in the wet, it shimmers with mirror-like reflections. Both are stunning, but when it’s wet, the flooding often prohibits driving across the Salar, or visiting its main attraction, Isla Incahuasi.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Trekking Couple Circles Planet Three Times In 424 Days

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They started trekking the planet more than a year ago, promising to travel the globe bringing children in classrooms from around the world with them, virtually, as they visited scores of countries and continents. Now their journey is complete and Darren and Sandy Van Soye are back to tell about it.

The story begins in February 2012, when the couple from Southern California started on a global adventure to raise awareness about world geography and make the subject more accessible to children. Hoping to visit 50 countries on six continents in 424 days, they planned to share the journey with more than 700 classrooms representing 50,000 students.

“Our dream is to educate children about geography and world cultures so we’ve planned the ultimate trek around the world to do just that,” Sandy Van Soye told Gadling when they began. In January of this year after passing the 50,000 mile mark, they had stopped in 40 countries with another dozen or so to go before returning to the United Sates. At the time, they had already beaten their own projections with 850 classrooms in 20 countries following their journey online.

Now with their world trek complete, the Van Soyes have traveled a total of 77,000 miles or the equivalent of three times around the earth at its equator. Their trek is an impressive amount of travel in such a short period of time for sure. But how they went about it is even more interesting.Starting on January 28, 2012, the journey began aboard a cruise ship, Princess CruisesPacific Princess, a small ship, which proved to be an efficient mode of transportation.

“We used cruise ships to get us between continents so that we could see more of the world,” said Sandy Van Soye. Spending 97 days of the nearly 500-day trek at sea the couple racked up 35 ports in 18 countries. An impressive number but travel via cruise ship is not the fastest way to be sure. From San Diego, it took 29 days to reach Sydney Australia, normally a 16- or 17-hour flight. But along the way, they visited Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

trekkingAfter a seven-day trek in Tasmania, the team boarded another cruise ship, Ocean Princess to travel near Australia’s eastern coast, along the way visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the city of Darwin, Bali, Indonesia, and Ko Samui, Thailand, before arriving in Singapore. At each stop, they selected travel plans that would show students following along the natural beauty and unique people they encountered.

On land for the next eight months via a series of multiple day hikes, they visited 27 more countries in Asia, Europe and Africa before boarding the Pacific Princess in Rome. That Mediterranean sailing crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailing up the Amazon River all the way to Manaus, Brazil.

Two months on land took them through 4,600 miles of South America before the final leg of their trek a voyage on Star Princess in Valparaíso, Chile, for their fifth and final cruise home.

trekkingOf all the places they went, which was their favorite? Kenya because of its rich culture and natural beauty

“It is a place that kids (have) heard of, so it was a pleasure to go there and talk more about it,” said Sandy of their visit to three Kenyan schools, one in the Maasai Mara and two in the Samburu region.

The biggest surprise along the way? Riga, Latvia

“There was just so much to see and do here and, though it is a capital city, it was relatively inexpensive,” said Sandy.

In addition to a lifetime of memories, the Van Soye’s trek produced a library of 60 four-page education modules for teachers available as supplements to existing classroom materials.
Also, their Trekking the Planet website contains free articles, quizzes, more than 70 documentary videos and a summary infographic: “Trekking The Planet: By The Numbers.

So is that the end of the road for this couple? Hardly.

Driven by the fact that nearly a third of U.S. young adults cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a map, Trekking the Planet hopes to help educators change these statistics with future geography-oriented projects.


[Photo credit – TrekkingThePlanet]

Spring Climbing And Trekking Season Begins In Nepal

The Nepal Trekking and Climbing Seasons are about to begin!The streets of Kathmandu are bustling with traffic today as the spring climbing and trekking seasons get underway in the Himalaya. Over the next few days, hundreds of mountaineers and backpackers will descend on the capital of Nepal before setting out for the country’s legendary hiking trails and unmatched alpine settings. For many, this will be a trip of a lifetime, taking them on a grand adventure into the very heart of the Himalaya. And for a select few, it is the chance to stand on top of some of the highest mountains on the planet.

For most of these visitors, the first stop on their journey is to the Thamel District of Kathmandu. This popular tourist destination is home to most of the city’s hotels and it is a great place to grab that last piece of gear you need before heading out into the mountains. Gear shops line the streets in this crowded and noisy part of town but not all of them are completely honest about the products they sell. In fact, if the deal on that North Face jacket or sleeping bag that you’ve had your eye on seems too good to be true, it’s probably because it is actually a cheap knockoff. Sure, it may survive the trip but don’t expect it to perform well or hold up over time.

After a day or two in Kathmandu, its time to head out to the Himalaya themselves. For those traveling to Everest, that mans a short flight to the mountain village of Lukla and the infamous Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named after the two men who first successfully summited the world’s tallest peak. Others will depart KTM for Pokhara, a city that grants access to the Annapurna Trekking Circuit and three of the highest mountains in the world – Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna itself.Most trekkers will spend a couple of weeks hiking through the Himalaya, spending their days on breathtakingly beautiful trails and nights in local teahouses. Those quaint inns offer comfortable accommodations, tasty food and shelter from the frequently changing weather. A trek to Everest Base Camp takes roughly 10-12 days to complete depending on the selected route and speed. The entire journey is a blend of adventure, culture and Buddhist spirituality that also just so happens to take place in one of the most spectacular settings on the planet.

For the climbers the journey is a much more difficult and demanding one. Their arrival at Base Camp is just the start of their adventure and over the following six weeks or so, they’ll spend most of their time acclimatizing to the altitude, honing their mountaineering skills and moving up and down the mountain. They’ll push themselves to the absolute physical limit, all the while keeping their eyes on the weather, just to get the chance to stand on the summit for a few brief – but glorious – minutes.

Traditionally, the climbing and trekking seasons begin as the snows of winter recede and end with the arrival of the Monsoon in early June. During those few brief months, the various teahouses and base camps will be crowded with mountaineers and adventure travelers who share the camaraderie of the trail. It is an experience unlike any other and one worth taking for those who enjoy their travels to be off the beaten path and bit more active.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]

Trek Through Afghanistan Or Explore The Congo With Wild Frontiers

Wild Frontiers takes travelers to AfghanistanIf you still haven’t settled on an amazing adventure for 2013 then perhaps you’ll want to take a look at some of the trips that Wild Frontiers has to offer. The adventure travel company that operates out of the U.K. specializes in unique, one-of-a-kind tours to a number of great destinations on the planet and this year two of their itineraries are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

The first of those trips will take adventurous travelers deep into the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan as they spend a month trekking the Wakhan Corridor. This narrow piece of land once served as a neutral zone between the British and Russian Empires but now it is a seldom-visited region populated only by local herdsmen. Wild Frontiers is one of the few travel companies in the world that guides trekkers through this remote destination, which boasts breathtaking views and pristine valleys rarely seen by outsiders. This is a physically demanding and difficult trip but for those who truly want an off-the beaten-path adventure, it is tough to top a trek through the Wakhan Corridor. It is truly one of the most isolated places you could ever hope to visit. The price is £4495 or about $6820.

Wild Frontiers takes travelers to the CongoThe other unique itinerary on the Wild Frontiers schedule for this year is a 20-day journey by boat down the Congo River. Travelers on this excursion will follow in the footsteps of the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley as they go deep into the wild and untamed African interior. They’ll visit villages inhabited by the last pygmy tribes, encounter a wide array of wildlife and observe life along the river as they slowly cruise past. For more of an idea of what to expect from this journey checkout the YouTube clip below. The price is £5995, which converts to $9095.

Some travel companies promise their customers an adventure but few actually deliver it in the truest sense of the word. But Wild Frontiers is a company that really does focus on putting the “adventure” in adventure travel. The two expeditions that I highlighted above are a good example of this, but they are also just the tip of the iceberg. Take a look at their full catalog by clicking here.

[Photo Credit: Wild Frontiers]


Video: Trekking The Annapurna Circuit In Nepal

Widely considered to be one of the best trekking routes in the entire world, the Annapurna Circuit wanders through the Himalaya, deftly mixing cultural experiences with breathtaking views. The trail ranges in length between 100-145 miles depending on which route a hiker takes, meandering through numerous tiny mountain villages along the way. Passing by the Annapurna Massif, the trail rises to a height of more than 17,700 feet as snow capped peaks tower overhead.

Recently, filmmaker Gerardo Sergovia sent five weeks walking the trail with a group of friends capturing more than a terabyte of video footage in the process. He has managed to distill all of that footage down to this one four and a half minute clip that does an amazing job of capturing the splendor of the Himalaya so well. If you love the mountains, you won’t want to miss this video. It may even inspire you to want to make the trek yourself.