Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The thunder of the cascading water rendered futile the act of giving voice to the question, "Do you think we're going to die here?" But it was this thought that flashed in the eyes of my five fellow volunteers. I know it was there in mine.

Rain had beat against the windows of our $6 hotel rooms all night, turning the earth wedged between the cobblestone streets of the pueblo, the red dirt of the road leading to the cave, and the soft, loose soil that rests atop Torotoro National Park to slush.

We finally arrived, jackets already soaked and shoes caked in mud, at the mouth of Umajalanta. And what we saw convinced us that all the water let loose by the thunderheads during the last 12 hours had ended up here, feeding the subterranean river that cut unperturbed into the pitch-black recesses below.

It was a 4km circuit through the sometimes flooded, sometimes sandy, sometimes skin-tight passages of the cave. As often happens, the obvious risk of the situation enhanced the experience all the more.

Our nimble guide, with 40 years of spelunking under his belt, leaped from one rock face to the next, stringing ropes for us to grasp with white knuckles and illuminating the dark with his kerosene-powered headlamp. Intricately sculpted rock pillars, the squeaks of vampire bats, and 15ft underground waterfalls met us as we slid and squirmed a loop through the hollow earth.

Knees shaking and shoes oozing, we emerged three hours later, chattering wildly about why we were still alive as we made our way back to Torotoro village for overflowing platters of chicken, rice, and potatoes, with Taquiña by the liter, at the dirty little restaurant adjacent to the hotel.

* * *

By next morning the rain had stopped, but thick clouds still hung low over the volcanic peaks, painting slivers of twisted rock on the horizon. Today's journey was decidedly above ground, tracing a flat-rock runoff bed laden with 70-million-year-old fossilized dinosaur tracks to a 400m-high canyon.

Here, Andean Condors and endangered red-fronted macaws soared at eye level above the lush riverine environment far below, and it was hard to believe the dinosaurs had ever left.

Little did we know our path would lead us down all 400 meters and then back up till our shirts and packs were damp with sweat. Our guide, the same from the day before, never panted as he rattled off geologic data and related stories from his sojourns into the 51 caves in the park, etching images in my mind of expansive subterranean lagoons still as glass and massive hallways of stone lit only by the flicker of a candle lamp.

* * *

A weekend in Torotoro is a blessing, but two days was far too little to explore a landscape lost in time.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

This Is Home

The bus's descent from the windswept Altiplano, down and around the treacherous twists of the mountain highway and into the Cochabamba Valley, was a long one. Yet, the sharp ridges and vertigo prevented any panoramic views of the city itself, and so it was only a few days ago, when I hopped in the cable car to the top of Cerro San Pedro, that I finally was able to drink in this sprawling city-home in its entirety.

Taller by centimeters than its world-famous counterpart in Rio, Cochabamba's Cristo de la Concordia gazes down from San Pedro over a flock of more than 600,000 souls (1 million+ if he factors in the metropolitan area). From this perch, it's possible to follow the flow of the city from its nexus in the center of the valley, south past the Laguna Alalay and into the hills, north and west into the high mountains of Parque Nacional Tunari, and east towards the horizon.

Cochabamba is Bolivia's third-largest city but home to its most favorable climate. Wedged between the high chill of La Paz and the sultry jungle of Santa Cruz, the city's temperatures are refreshingly mild, despite its elevation of 8,400 feet. Rain falls daily in the midst of summer, but a powerful sun dominates days the rest of the year. Known as the "City of Eternal Spring," its streets are lined with flowering trees, its parks verdant.

Its recent history, however, is not as tranquil as this atmosphere would suggest. Just nine years ago, Cochabamba was gripped by unrest during what is now known as the Water War. It began when the World Bank forced the city to sell its water utility to a multinational consortium inculding U.S. corporation Bechtel. The consortium's solution to the problems with Cochabamba's water system was to immediately hike rates to over $20 a month--ridiculous, considering most people here make only about $100 monthly.

Needless to say, city residents were upset, and the first four months of 2000 saw repeated mass demonstrations, road blockades, and violent clashes between police, protesters, and the military. Eventually, the consortium was forced out, leaving Cochabambinos with a sense of victory but a still-crippled water distribution network. Similar scenes played out over the next several years, this time over the privatization of Bolivia's natural gas reserves. Different players, same story.

Almost as tumultuous as this history is La Cancha, Cochabamba's sprawling market that, according to some, is the largest in South America. I could probably spend every day of my time here exploring La Cancha and still come away with an incomplete picture. I won't even bother devising a list of exotic and frightening things for sale--name anything and it's there. Not only that, but there are probably twenty stalls selling it.

I've only been to market once, as the effort required to get there, around, and back from my comfortable residential neighborhood near Universidad San Simón is demanding. And honestly, it's so easy to find everything I need within this little square mile, including the offices of my volunteer organization, that I seldom venture out. Even Cristo lives here. Most of the tiny scale-model city I spied from atop his hill--the posh neighborhoods of the north, imporverished adobe barrios of the south, and everything in between--remains unexplored...for now.

For this moment in time, this is home.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dream Trips, Vol. 3: Antarctica

Photo by westerlingh

It's been a while since I posted a dream trip here on WayWorded, but that doesn't mean I haven't been dreaming up wild travel schemes in the interim. A traveler's mind is never at rest; each glimpse of a world map, each syllable of a foreign language overheard, each tale of exploration and discovery encountered gets the blood pumping and the imagination conjuring.

One such tale was imparted to me shortly before my departure for the Southern Hemisphere. I have a relative who is an intrepid adventurer, his home peppered with photographs from his expeditions scaling the world's major mountain peaks. And when he heard I was planning to journey to southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, his first, enthusiastic recommendation was this: Antarctica.

To be honest, the thought of visiting the planet's wildest and most isolated landmass had never crossed my mind. In fact, I had no idea it was even possible. But my relative has braved the chill waves of the Southern Ocean and set foot on the frozen continent on multiple occasions, most notably on a trek to retrace the path of fabled explorer Ernest Shackleton on and around Elephant Island.

Photo by Tak from HK

His advice was to hightail it to Ushuaia, Argentina, from where passenger ships depart for tours of Antarctica. Apparently, in this depressed economic climate, it may be possible to late-book a ticket for a fraction of the asking price.

Scores of companies, most belonging to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, conduct these voyages, which run between the months of November and March and visit various locales both scenic and wildlife-laden. The number of Antarctica tourists increases each year and is predicted to top 80,000 by 2010.

Two factors, however, keep this strictly in the dream-trip category. First off, I won't be anywhere near Ushuaia until next tour season (that's Southern Hemisphere summer), if at all, and by then any potential gains to be had from a weakened tourism industry may have been erased. Secondly, no matter how much of a discount is possible, we're still talking about a minimum of $1,000 for a relatively short excursion.

But the return on this investment? Incredible, as evidenced by the shots included throughout this post courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Antarctica is one of the last true wildernesses on Earth, a fact that draws undivided attention from the avid traveler. With land area of 5.4 million square miles, it's as large as a USA and a half, the vast majority of this covered by miles-thick sheets of ice. It's the largest desert in the world, has the highest average elevation of any continent, and, of course, is home to the planet's most inhospitable environment.

All of this makes a trip to Antarctica a dream that, though seemingly the remotest of possibilities, will be the subject of some serious research on my part during the coming year.

***What are your dream trips?
Share your ideas on the world's ultimate excursions in the comments.***