Our second guest blog post from the beautiful and talented Miss Melanie Tasi Ahlf!
“Intense,” is the word I lead with In response to the question, “how was your trip?” Because it was, but only in the best of ways. For the sake of saving your time and preserving reputations I’ve omitted certain parts of the story.
I arrived in Lima bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5 am ecstatic to see my long lost friends (who lets be honest here, are really closer to family). Kat and Aj whisked me off to our hostel where I was reunited with Ramona (the “rig”) and Alex. At which point, “One Night in Lima,” commenced. ONIL involved Ceviche and Pisco Sours…Pisco Sours for days. After frolicking through a cliffside park overlooking the ocean at sunset we found an old speak easy down in the town square where there were more Pisco Sours to be had. We ate dessert in an old train car, bought delightful friendship bracelets off the street from a pecuiliar man and eventually made it back to Ramona where I spent my first, of many, nights nestled snuggly in the camper with AJ, Kat & Dog.
It was Day two and we were off, headed for Paracus to see sea lions, penguins and a plethora of other birds and aquatic life. We arrived at the hostel, slept in Ramona which was parked outside and then boarded a boat early the next day for our wildlife adventure.
Next was Cusco. We climbed from sea level to 12,800ft that day and camped out in what we now fondly refer to as, Pequna Lodge. Pequna Lodge is a rather run down building at the top of a very winding desolate mountain pass. It was dusk and Aj’s clutch foot had grown weary, so we decided to pull off. This structure was more horror movie version of the term hostel. It was far cry from the cheerily painted backpackers hostels we’d parked at on the beaten path the previous evenings. We were greeted by two young Peruvian men who were extremely curious about us and our lumbering house on wheels…they told us we were welcome to park there for the night and were eager to practice speaking English with us. This was lovely, save from the fact that Kat and I desperately needed to pee…finally they left…and we were relieved. In the morning they invited us to see the museum that was on the grounds. To my great furmastering delight this contained a myriad of taxidermy along with photographs of the region’s wildlife, consiting mainly of Pequina, Alpaca and Llamas. Next we were led into a field where the live versions of these adorable animals were grazing. We thanked our tour guide profusely and hit the road.
Ah, “the road.” The Road was a large part of my South American experience. We had a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. AJ, being the great sport that he is, clocked in a TON of driving hours each day in order to make sure that the adventuring stayed on schedule. Meanwhile Kat and I played DJ, listented to books on tape and played road trip games in between frequent stops at tolls and being pulled over by the local policia. CUIDADO! Eventually our hours in the car evolved into the birth of alter egos and accents, which are hard to explain, so I just wont.
Okay friends, I’ll take a pause in the story to address a frequesntly asked question. “Aren’t they sick of each other?” Crazily enough, they aren’t! I didn’t believe this until I saw for myself, but they do in fact magically co-exist quite peacefully in their truck and tiny home, so much so that they even invited me into it for two weeks. I was impressed, but I guess after eight months on the road you work out a comfortable routine. Okay back to the story…
After braving more EXTREMELY winding mountain passes in the dark under a light mist, barely dodging tour buses and semis flying around bends in our lane, we decided it was again time to call it a night. We crept down a heavily jungled dirt road in complete darkness where there was allegedly a bed and breakfast awaiting us….eventually we found it and made it to a levelish parking area. We were met by the hostel owners, a friendly couple and their even friendlier dog named Pisco, who was happy to hump anything with a pulse. In the morning we awoke to one of the most breathtaking mountainsides I’ve seen; multi-colored terraces blanketed with gauzy layers of fog in front of snowy peaks. Bright greens against red dirt, purple and orange fileds of quinoa…. We had an amazing breakfast complete with fresh cheese, avocado, scrambled eggs and coca tea. Then we were off again, ready to get to Cusco.
And we did! This was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve been on, peppered with the most adorable “domesticated” animals. We saw a long-haired pig….take a moment to let that sink in. In addition there were baby goats, more pigs, sheep, cows, horses and tons of alpaca and pequina.
We made it to Cusco/ Machu Piccu! It was beautiful, there’s not mcuh for me to say that you haven’t already heard. It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and definitely being enjoyed by many. There were 3,000 people there the day we went and during peak season there are 6,000 visitors to Machu Piccu each day. There’s definitely an element of the experience that feels a little like adult Disneyland, but breathtaking and majestic all the same.
Next on the agenda were the Bolivian Salt Flats, also known as The Salar. With just about a week remaining before I needed to be in Santa Cruz to fly home, we had to move quickly. We had decided to cross the border into Bolivia at Lake Titicaca so that we could swing by Copacabana on our way out of Peru. We were winding our way along the lakefront, just a few miles from the Bolivian border when we came upon a telephone pole in the road. It was being moved by a group of Overlanders along with a squad of Peruvian Police. We didn’t think much of it and continued on once the road was clear. A couple miles up the road we were stopped a second time, this time at the end of a long line of parked vehicles, mainly semis and tour busses. AJ went to investigate and learned that the villagers were staging a protest by blocking the road in response to the Peruvian government putting in a mine near their village, which would essentially wipe out their town and was offering no type of compensation.
We investigated alternate routes, but there really were none and by this time the other end of the road, the one we had come in on was blocked as well. The police squad came and went and it became evident that we were stuck. Since we’d adopted, “The Party is Where You Park It,” mentality, we made some cocktails and sat atop Ramona for a better view of the situation and made some friends with other travelers. After a couple of greyhounds, Kat and I decided to do what any adventurers barricaded in a protest would do, don suits and jump into the frigid waters of Lake Titicaca.
We were told by the police that the protesters left at night and we should be able to leave then. Night fell and quite the opposite happened. More and more villagers poured in to strengthen the barricade, huge thirty foot fires were built and it became clear that no one was going anywhere. Shit had become real and a little bit of fear crept in. The plan was to check periodically throughout the night to see if the protestors had grown tired and gone home/passed out. At 5am things were still going strong and we decided we needed to just get out. We got in Ramona and headed back to the southern barricade that was keeping us from Bolivia. We were met by some extremely angry people who were beyond intoxicated and began spitting and hitting the truck with sticks, demanding that we trun around. We took a dirt road through the tiny village that we had found the day before, but ultimately the only way out was to get back on the highway and try the barricade to the north. Unfortunately, protestors had set up 4 more large barricades over the course of the night. Kat, AJ and I were keeping our cool, trying not to panic, but a rising tension was building…the overall clausterphobia of the situation paired with the fact that we literally had no one call for help (although the emergency sat phone was around, but we didn’t exactly see the U.S. embassy jetting over to help us) was sinking in. With large telephone poles and huge piles of rocks in the road, along with broken glass and nails, it was impossible to just plow through even though we had 4 wheel drive, the rocky terrain and lake wouldn’t exactly permit us to go around. The protestors on this side of the barricade were less angry though and so we decided to try and reason with them. At the last minute I came up with the idea that AJ should tell them that his “wife,” was pregnant and needed to get to a hospital. AJ was super brave and got out and negotiated with them and the story worked! But about a mile down the road we came to another blockade…he once again got out and negotiated…this went on three more times, each time a little tenser than the last, until we reached the last main barricade to the north. These men were not having AJ’s story and told us we couldn’t cross. The street was littered with broken glass and we were tired, hungry and over it. One of the men felt bad for us and told AJ there was a dirt road a bit of the way back that would take us around. Exhausted of options, we thanked him and turned around again. We found the “road,” and took it. We had barely gotten going when a very angry old woman (anywhere from 50 to 85 years-old) blocked our way. AJ got out to talk to her and she picked up some massive rocks and began to approach us. She was the scariest old woman any of us had ever encountered. Somehow AJ convinced her to let us through and FINALLY we made it out. Hearts pounding, we drove as fast as we could down the road and took the alternate dirt road option to a different Bolivian border crossing. We got a flat tire almost immediately from a large nail/peice of glass stuck in the tire, but eventually we made it. After a fairly easy border crossing we arrived in Bolivia, which felt like a safe haven. Minus the tire, a dent in Ramona’s hood and frazzled nerves, we were unscathed.
Our first stop was in La Paz, the highest capital in the world! And it was breathtaking. Winding through the mountains to get to this city is unreal. We stayed at a small overland park that was connected to a really nice hotel and met some cool people overlanding from Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. It was was a beautiful spot to stop and recover from the trauma of southern Peru and stock up for our trek onto the salt flats.
Back on track to the Salar! The three of us were super eager to reach the salt flats and relax for a day or two. To reach the Salar you have to drive on a dirt road for about 60 miles, which is actually far when going 10 mph…. When we were almost there we discovered that we were hemoraging brake fluid. And we were in a remote part of Bolivia…in the high desert…with no one around. Luckily there was one tiny town left on the way between us and the Salar. The town was seemingly deserted, save for a nice old man at the gas station, where we thankfully could get more diesel. The old man brought us to his friends house who was a “mechanic.” He managed to seal off brake line so we were no longer leaking fluid…and so we were off again sans rear brakes, but hey we still had the front ones and we were so close to the salt flats you could taste it in the air (ok that’s not true, but it sounded poetic). The sun was beginning to sink highlighting the insanely beautiful Bolivian lanscape. There were huge cacti everywhere and we were beginning to see some white salt mixed in with the desert sand. We reached the top of a hill and were met with and insane view of the Salar. It was an expansive sea of white salt peppered with islands, one of which we were planning to camp on.
We were elated and made our way down the mountain and onto the salt. Since we were lucky enough to have our own vehicle we entered through the northern entrance where the salt is flawless and deserted. Tourists enter through the western entrance near Uyuni, which is a heavily traveled route. There were no roads and it looks like you are driving on ice. The photos will do it more justice than I can, but it was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had as far as natural beauty is involved. We drove around enjoying the feeling of being on an alien planet. AJ got Ramona up to 100mph at one point, and both Kat and I took turns doing some donuts with Ramona. With sunset approaching we headed to the island and happily found it completely deserted and just llike that we were the proud inhabitants of our own private island. Kat, being the amazing unedingly great hostess that she is, grabbed cheese and crackers and a bottle of wine and the four of us, Alex included, climbed up the cactus covered mountain by our camp to watch the sun set on the salar. It was so spectacular we couldnt get enough, so we woke up at 6 am to watch the sun rise. It gets extremely cold on the Salar at night, so I was extremely happy for my down jacket and hot coffee (thank you Kat/AJ, aeropress and handgrinder). The sunrsie was almost more beautiful than sunset, Kat and I sat on the salt admiring the vivid rainbow of colors melting over the landscape while AJ took photos. This kicked off a day of fun; drinking mimosas, scampering around on the Salar and just general shenanigans….which led to more shananigans as the day wore on and sunset once again approached. Our last night on the Salar was by far the most magical, full of a lot of laughter and unearthly surroundings. It was my favorite portion of the trip, although it is tough to choose just one.
We had to race up from the southern Salar to the northeast tip of Bolivia where I was flying out. Although most of this part flew by, the scenery was unbelievable! Bolivia is such a diverse country with an incredible landscape no matter where you are! Santa Cruz is where I flew out of and it is the edge of the rainforest. So close and yet so far! Maybe next time Bolivia!
This was one of the best trips I’ve had. And all adventuring aside I’m so thankful to have gotten to spend two weeks with people (and dog) who mean so much to me and whom I miss greatly! Intense, fun, and memorable… it was the kind of trip that makes you feel like you’re on a magic hippie love cloud.