Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.

Celebrating World Earth Day – beautiful Samburu in Kenya

The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.

And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.

Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.

And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.

Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.

Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.

Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.

The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.

The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…

…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.

The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.

The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.

Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.

Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.

On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.

Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.

There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…

and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.

The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.

Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —

— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)

One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.

Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.

Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.

Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!

Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…

,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.

Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.

Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.

In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.

The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.

They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.

As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.

Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.

Children do chores and play, as all children do…

… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.

We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.

The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.

A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.

Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.

No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.

As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.

One step forward, two steps back: the dance of progress

This month the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This is an interesting event for me because it shouldn’t need to exist. It shouldn’t require a special occasion to recognize the contributions of women.

When I was in university studying biology I spent a couple of summers working for different sectors of the government. There were an assortment of female and male students, and most of them were great to work with, but I still remember one fellow in particular who declared that he would never work for a female boss. I can still picture him spitting out those angry words.

Women’s rights have come a long way in my lifetime, but I still see so much divisiveness.

We consider ourselves modern, at the pinnacle of human achievement in recorded history, yet we continue to devalue people who are different, whether it’s another gender, skin colour, religious belief, or any other number of other characteristics that diverge from our own. Every creature on this earth has a place, whether it’s human or non-human, and deserves to be able to live in peace and harmony.

One of the things that my hubby and I have learned on our travels is that people all over the world are the same as us: they live, love, laugh, cry, feel pain. They want the same things – to be able to provide and care for their loved ones, and to be treated with dignity. They may choose to live their lives differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We need to get over our fears and embrace other styles and viewpoints; there’s often a lot we can learn.

We’ve encountered remarkable people wherever we’ve gone. One of my favourite stories involving women comes out of Kenya, the first African country to start offering commercial safaris.

Kenya is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly developed, meaning that the game reserves you visit on safari are in pockets separated by long roads edged with civilization. The main roads are in decent shape, but once off of those your driver spends their time playing dodge ball with numerous, sizeable potholes. It’s impossible to drive in a straight line on the country roads, and vehicles constantly zigzag back and forth across lanes to avoid the biggest ruts.

We were amused by the experience – until our guide couldn’t avoid one gigantic hole on the road to the Masai Mara Reserve. With a big bounce and a loud bang, the left rear tire of the van was shredded.

So there we were, a guide and six passengers, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just miles of lion country and the odd tiny Maasai village. We all clambered out of the van and watched in the dry-season heat as my hubby and the guide removed the damaged tire and tried to put on the spare.

When the old tire was off, they discovered that it wasn’t actually the road that damaged the tire – when leaf springs meet pitted asphalt, they don’t come out of it well. Our leaf spring had been dislodged and bent, so it wasn’t just a matter of changing the tire. They struggled for a while but the vehicle’s jack wasn’t able to lift the van high enough to get at the spring.

By that point, we’d begun attracting a lot of attention from the nearby village. Quite a few people came over to us with various things they thought might help, from crowbars to odd pieces of wood and metal.

Nothing worked, though, until the village’s matriarch brought out an old exhaust pipe, slowly walking over with her wonderfully wise face. Like all great matriarchs, her wisdom and experience saved the day. I took this photo of her after a few of us got back into the van briefly to get out of the blazing afternoon sun.    

My hubby was able to use a couple of rocks and smash the leaf spring back into its accustomed spot, and the spare tire was bolted into place. We only managed to limp about a mile down the road, though, before the jury-rigged system gave out, and our guide had to radio ahead to our lodge for rescue.

For a different kind of adventure, I recently stumbled upon a great movie called Maiden, the true story of Tracy Edwards, who at the age of 24 took on the male-dominated sport of yacht racing by putting together the first all-female crew in the famous Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Many influences shaped Tracy’s determination to take on the challenge, not least the early death of her father and her mother’s remarriage to an abusive man.

Tracy ran away while still a teenager and began working as a cook on a charter boat, still trying to work through the emotional baggage. She fell in love with sailing and after a lot of cajoling was able to sign on as cook on one of the yachts participating in the 1985 world race, but even after sweating the more than 25,000 miles of rough open water with the all-male crew, she never felt truly accepted by them, and became resolved to enter an all-female crew.

Through reminiscences by Tracy and all the young women who signed on, and actual footage from the time, the movie documents Tracy’s ads for a crew, the derision she received, and the exhausting quest for a sponsor when no one was willing to take a risk on a crew with no men. She did eventually find a single sponsor – and I won’t spoil things by telling you who it turned out to be – and she and her fellow adventurers spent a year repairing a used boat.

By the day of the 1989 race departure, the crew of the boat now named “Maiden” had been thoroughly trashed by the media and some of the male crew on other boats, a variety of whom were also interviewed throughout the film. No-one beside Tracy and her crew believed they would even finish the first leg of the race from Southampton England to Uruguay. All the men expected them to give up partway and turn tail back to England.

I’ll let you discover what happened as the ladies of the Maiden battled calm spells, raging seas, cold so severe that snow often coated the deck of the boat, and endless days of non-stop rigging and navigation. I will only say here that those remarkable women made history in a way they never expected.

The movie has streamed on several stations lately, and hopefully one of the services like Netflix or Prime Video will pick it up. If you can catch it, you won’t regret watching this testament to what people are capable of when they strive to achieve something bigger than themselves.

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.

Final adventures in Peru/Boliva

Imagine a plateau nestled in the tops of the mountains, a lake so high it surpasses the tree line, and a capital city almost as high as the top of the Rocky Mountains.

The final leg of our adventure was also the most challenging: a week fully at high altitude, over 12,000 feet.From Cuzco our tour climbed upward to the Altiplano, the huge plateau stretching from Peru to Argentina. It’s noted for its thin air, but by this time most of us were well-acclimated and able to enjoy the scenery.

Our journey took us along the Ruta del Sol, the Route of the Sun, which wound in and around the mountain peaks, often following the railway line. The skies were an unearthly blue in the thin, clean air.

We passed a surprising array of traditional villages, their women wearing a variety of different hat styles specific to their region.

There were a surprising number of farms managing to grow crops in the increasingly difficult elevations.

While we saw a lot of signs for modern products, the architecture was mainly still adobe brick.

At lunchtime we stopped at La Raya Pass, an intimidating 14, 271 feet high, but you couldn’t beat the view.

At the top there’s a research centre and a small bazaar where the colourful Andean handicrafts are vivid against the deep blue of the sky and the charcoal and amber mountain peaks topped with snow.

From La Raya we travelled across a vast, flat and windy landscape of ochre scrub against brilliant blue skies. It felt almost alien in its remoteness.

Somehow people manage to raise cattle in the rarified air, well above the tree line with little in the way of pasture apart from spiky tufts of tough Andean grass.

As we got closer to our destination for the night, the city of Puno on the edge of Lake Titicaca, which is fed by numerous small rivers, we could see thin ultramarine waterways snaking across the plateau.

By dusk we reached Puno, set spectacularly at one end of the lake.

The next morning we clambered into tuk-tuks for a wild and crazy ride racing through the streets (literally — our drivers were competing with each other) to the harbour.

Hubby and me, getting ready for the mad dash to the harbour

At the harbour we bought food gifts (fresh produce and olive oil) for our hosts — we’d be spending the night in homestays on Amantani Island about two hours away in the middle of Lake Titicaca — and boarded our motorboat for an amazing ride across the highest navigable lake in the world.

The part of the lake closest to Puno is a maze of totora reeds, whose thick stalks provided shelter and a new way of life for ancient people fleeing conquest by the Incas.

The Uros people fled the Incas out into the Lake and built floating islands from the reeds that they’ve lived on for centuries. There is regular traffic between the islands and Puno, and our boat passed a teacher being rowed out to the islands.

The islands float placidly on the relatively still waters in this section of the lake.

The Uros use the reeds for many purposes: as the base for the islands, as homes, food and natural remedies. The reeds can be opened up and are remarkably cool inside — they’re used as compresses for aches and pains.

It’s a remarkable culture that seems to be staying more-or-less untouched, apart from a few motorboats.

Each island holds a complete family, and each has its own style. Our tour included a stop on one family’s island to see how they live. The islands are constructed of layers of reeds running in different directions, and as the top layer dries out, fresh reeds are added to the top. Walking on them is a little spongy, but not wet. Remarkably, they even cook with open fires on their floating patch of ‘land’.

The family gathered together to show us how they make their handicrafts…

They also gave us a little demonstration of how the islands are constructed,

Their quite beautiful handicrafts are for sale, and help provide income.

The Uros culture is an incredible peek into an ancient past, and a world of colour set at the top of the Andes. If you go to Peru and can manage the altitude, it’s not to be missed.

From the Floating Islands we continued on for another hour and a half across the stunning blue waters edged by snow-crusted mountain tops, where we really got a sense of traversing this super-high lake.

At Amantani Island we met our homestay “mothers” and were escorted to our homes for the night.

Amantani truly is a time capsule, although the women who provide their homes must have certain conveniences and be able to speak two languages. Our mother, Rosa, spoke Quechua and Spanish. If you’re thinking of doing this, it will be of great help if you can speak a little Spanish so you can converse with your hostess.

Rosa had added a top floor to her adobe home for bedrooms, which were clean, basic and colourful — just comfortable beds and thick woven blankets to ward against the night chill. There’s no central heating, and the temperature drops precipitously when the sun goes down.

We ate three meals freshly cooked by Rosa and her daughter, Kenia.

The islanders are vegetarians — they keep a communal cow and their own sheep to provide milk for cheese. Our lunch consisted of a delicious vegetable soup, followed by a plate of an assortment of cooked potatoes, with a semi-soft cheese and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers picked from their garden behind the house.

There was a fully-functioning bathroom with a flush toilet and cool shower. I’d been expecting much more rudimentary facilities, so this was a nice surprise.

After lunch we walked to the central village, which is small but has a school, church and some cafes, which serve as local gathering places.

After a supper of vegetable stew with rice, with more of the vegetable soup to start, each housemother provided traditional clothing for her guests — which we put on atop our regular clothing, as the night was already quite chilly — and led us to the community centre, where they put on a lively dance for us and we got to learn Andean moves. We didn’t keep them up too late, as they lead very busy lives without modern conveniences — but they took a photo of all of us in our finery. It was a really fun evening, after which we went back to our home, changed into thick sweats and crawled in under our blankets to fall deeply asleep.

Yours truly seated in the front left with the dark green skirt (over my hiking pants).

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and more potatoes, Rosa walked us back to the boat and we continued on to Taquile Island, famous for its beautiful knitwear. While Amantani was fairly flat, Taquile is a big hill, and many of us were stopping regularly to gasp for air as we climbed the long grade up to the town.

Taquile is very dry and scrubby, with lots of succulents and meandering rock walls.

This island has some hydro, but the residents live simply and recycle everything, like this pair of old sandal soles repurposed as gate hinges.

With its rolling scrubby terrain and tall dark green trees set against a deep blue sea, I felt like I’d stepped into Greek mythology, even though we were on the other side of the world.

The town is larger than the one on Amantani, and has a craft cooperative located in the two-tiered building you see below.

The island is world-renowned for the quality of its knitting, which is all done by the men; the women do the weaving for garments. Each pattern has a specific meaning and often incorporates elements from the weaver’s/knitter’s life.

While we didn’t converse much with the villagers, while I sat to eat a sandwich this little girl seem entranced by a game of ‘I’ll roll the bottle cap down the steps and you pick it up and give it back to me’, which she did over and over again.

The island was full of vivid villager life, like these two boys rolling hoops down the steep paths. I took many pictures, too many to show here.

All too soon it was time to board the boat to return to Puno and head to Desaguadero, the somewhat wild frontier-like town that governs the border between Peru and Bolivia on this stretch of road.

It took us quite a while to circumnavigate Lake Titicaca.

We were high enough to pass through areas with snowfall.

Desaguadero is a jumble of shops, thick traffic, the customs house and people waiting to get across the border.

The central square is a bustling hive of tough-looking money-changers and sellers of anything from housewares to ‘fresh’ meat.

Trucks, buses, pedal-carts and people all throng the crossing waiting for their turn.

Once across the border, we headed across the Bolivian Altiplano to the ruins of Tiwanku, which I highlighted in a December post.

From Tiwanaku, across the barren heights where it seems impossible to live, we headed to our final destination for the trip, and our final overnight stop, the capital city of Bolivia and the highest capital in the world, La Paz. It nestles stunningly between a ring of mountain peaks, and sits at roughly 13,000 feet high.

This altitude is not for the faint of heart, and while some tours actually begin here and work their way downwards, I wouldn’t recommend it. Every hotel stocks coca leaf tea in the lobby.

La Paz is a fascinating mixture of old and new, climbing up and down the hills on dusty streets. We were only there overnight and didn’t get to see much, particularly as one of our fellow travellers was ill and we stayed in to take care of her. But we were glad to have been there for a little while, in this city at the top of the Andes.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little escape to South America, particularly during this cold, virus-challenged winter, and I hope I’ve inspired you to visit these amazing places one day. Take your camera and a lot of storage capacity — you’ll need it. If you’ve been there already, I hope I’ve reminded you of some pleasant memories.

Christmas trees & memories

Today was Christmas tree day in my household. We have as big a Fraser Fir as we can fit in our drop-ceiling rec room, and the fresh evergreen scent fills the room.

It’s going to be an awkward holiday this year, for millions of people around the globe, so we must all do the best we can to share the light with each other, through patience and kindness as we buy our groceries and gifts. Early decorating has been trending here in Ontario — I saw some house lights up early in November, and some Christmas trees in windows too.

While we may not be able to share our holiday with many people, for my hubby and I our tree is a lot more than just an annual decoration. On our honeymoon in the U.S. Virgin Islands we came across a blown-glass sea urchin ornament in a shop, and from that day onward we started bring back some memento(s) from each trip for our tree. They may or may not be actual ornaments — anything that we can hang will do. From our trip to New Zealand, on our rocky crossing via ferry from the South Island to the North Island across the Cook Strait I bought a small paperweight in the onboard shop; it has a tiny version of our boat bobbing on blue liquid inside a plastic cube, around which I wrapped a strand of fishing line to knot and loop into a hangar of sorts. The ornament just naturally hangs at a bit of a tilt, which immediately reminds us of crossing the strait in gale force winds and 9-metre swells.

The photo today shows one of my most prized ornaments. It’s a little stone replica of the Sun Gate at the highest ancient city in the world, called Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco, you may see it either way in books). This big ruin is so remote that most travelers will probably never see it, but ever since I first read about the mysterious ancient city I wanted to go there one day, and so the tour of Peru that I chose included a final couple of days crossing the border high in the Andes mountains into Bolivia and stopping at Tiwanaku on the way to our final destination of La Paz.

I’ll return to the rest of the tour, including Machu Picchu, a far more famous but far less enigmatic ruin, in a subsequent blog post. For today, I offer this little escape from the stress of the 2020 holiday season.

Tiwanaku is located a few miles from Lake Titicaca; when it was built it sat right on the shore, but the lake’s waters have receded since then. The high, flat, windswept Altiplano surrounds it, well above the tree line, and looking at the barren landscape you’ll immediately wonder how anyone ever managed to live in such an inhospitable place.

But the ancient builders had many secrets up their sleeve, including an ingenious system of agriculture that consisted of raised beds which lifted the plants off the cold ground and created stopped micro-climates.

The next question would be how they built nine- to ten-foot high walls and statues out of massive stone blocks weighing up to ten tons, with no logs around to roll these blocks from one spot to another.

Mysteries abound at roughly 13,000 feet up in the snow-capped mountains — why this location, where did the stone come from, how was it cut so precisely?

Tiwanaku began to attract attention after a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Cieza de Leon found his way to it in 1549. To this day no one knows who built it, but when de Leon asked the locals if the ruins had been built in the time of the Incas, they “laughed at the question…that they were built before they reigned, but that they could not state or affirm who built them.”

Archeological excavations began in the 1900s, and continues to this day. Funding and the conditions at the high altitude have kept progress slow, and it’s currently estimated that less than one-quarter of the ancient citadel has been revealed so far.

One of the mysteries remains how old the place is — suggestions range from about 1,500 to thousands of years. An Austrian naval engineer named Arthur Posnansky, working on the site in the early 1900s, used astronomical measurements to determine that the main temple, the Kalasasaya, on a raised mound and surrounded by a great stone-block wall, would have last been aligned with the Sun at about 15,000 years B.C.

In the middle of the temple, barely excavated, sits the massive Gateway of the Sun.

On one side the capstone is carved with a central figure of Viracocha, the South American creator god, surrounded by numerous carvings, one of which is an animal that no longer walks our planet.

To me it looks like some kind of raptor with a horn protruding above its hooked beak, but apparently in the 1930s biologists identified it as a toxodont, a creature that hasn’t existed since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. That would mean the Tiwanaku people predated the Incas by thousands of years, with building techniques arguably just as advanced.

The site is littered with a variety of oddly-carved stone blocks with precision cuts. There are even more of them at Puma Punku nearby; if you’re a fan of the show Ancient Aliens you’ll likely have seen theories that Puma Punku was an alien landing site.

One of the strangest parts of Tiwanku, to me at least, is the ‘subterranean temple’, just beyond the Kalasasaya, sunken into the ground and lined with a stone wall studded with dozens of stone heads. It’s quite eerie to walk around.

The entire site feels very mysterious, out in the middle of nowhere high enough to touch the clouds. Rain clouds were looming overhead when we arrived, and by the time we made the longish walk to the Akapana, the stepped temple you first arrive at, we had only a few minutes with a guide with poor English before the skies let loose.

Everyone ran back to the visitor centre to have lunch, and I’m not sure the rest of our tour had gotten any idea of the importance of what they’d had the rare opportunity to see.

Then the sun came out and I asked if I could take another look. Our tour guide gave me twenty minutes, so I legged it back (my hubby’s knees were bothering him and he decided to remain near the bus to make sure it didn’t leave without me) and hiked along the long stone wall of the Kalasasaya, closely followed by a yellow bird that accompanied me the entire way — perhaps I picked up a spirit guide for a short time.

I was the only person in our group to see the sunken temple, and it was worth the frantic hike to get there. I wish we’d had more time to spend there, but at least I got a short look at what may be the oldest temple in South America, way up in the rarefied air of the Andes on the roof of the world.

We have ornaments from a lot of places, but this one, which I bought at a string of little open-air shops spreading out along the small town that tourism built just outside the archeological site, is always hung close to where I sit on the rec room sofa in the evenings so that I can see it every day. It’s a very special memory for me, from one of those places that rise out of the mists of time to haunt us today.