Big Pictures Salar de Uyuni

We visited the world’s largest salt flat – Salar de Uyuni a few days ago before making a big push toward the Argentinian border.

A Brazilian girl dances for her boyfriend's camera on the Salar de Uyuni. Tourists usually bring props to play with the strange perspective the salt flat creates but this was positively ethereal. Photo: Alex Washburn

A Brazilian girl dances for her boyfriend’s camera on the Salar de Uyuni. Tourists usually bring props to play with the strange perspective the salt flat creates so I found this especially ethereal. Photo: Alex Washburn

Driving through the Salar de Uyuni is a strange experience. White hard packed salt stretches for miles in every direction and the local guides navigate across the expanse of nothingness using the surrounding mountains as navigational markers. Once we got out onto the salt flat we were glad we hadn't driven out there alone. Photo: Alex Washburn

Driving through the Salar de Uyuni is a strange experience. White hard packed salt stretches for miles in every direction and the local guides navigate across the expanse of nothingness using the surrounding mountains as navigational markers. Once we got out onto the salt flat we were glad we hadn’t driven out there alone. Photo: Alex Washburn

 Nathaniel decided before we had made it out onto the Salar de Uyuni that he wanted a photo for instagram of himself standing out in the middle of the salt flat 'sin ropa'. The other people in our SUV thought this was hysterical. Nathaniel was the only person in our car of 8 who did not speak Spanish so this was his bonding moment with the others. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel decided before we had made it out onto the Salar de Uyuni that he wanted a photo for instagram of himself standing out in the middle of the salt flat ‘sin ropa’. The other people in our SUV thought this was hysterical. Nathaniel was the only person in our car of 8 who did not speak Spanish so this was his bonding moment with the others. Photo: Alex Washburn

There are two 'islands' on the Salar de Uyuni. We paid our 30 Bolivianos to walk around the Isla Incahuasi and it made a strange contrast to the smooth expanse of white surrounding it. Photo: Alex Washburn

There are two ‘islands’ on the Salar de Uyuni. We paid our 30 Bolivianos to walk around the Isla Incahuasi and the desert flora made a strange contrast to the smooth expanse of white surrounding it. Photo: Alex Washburn

If you visit the Salar de Uyuni I would suggest bringing a flag to add to the collection near the buildings where most of the tours stop for lunch. The fluttering colors are gorgeous against the the duo-chromatic surroundings.  Photo: Alex Washburn

If you visit the Salar de Uyuni I would suggest bringing a flag to add to the collection near the buildings where most of the tours stop for lunch. The fluttering colors are gorgeous against the the duo-chromatic surroundings. Photo: Alex Washburn

After touring the Salar de Uyuni we were ready to pack up and head south once again. The ride directly between Uyuni and Tupiza Bolivia is 125 miles of intense sand, gravel and not much else. Around mile 60 I (Alex) fell over in the sand and realized while inspecting the bike that a sub frame bolt had rattled loose. We had to stay an extra night in Tupiza to go over the bikes and prepare them to cross to Argentina. Photo: Alex Washburn

After touring the Salar de Uyuni we were ready to pack up and head south once again. Here is a photo from the road between Uyuni and Tupiza which will be covered in depth in the next blog. Photo: Alex Washburn

Costa Rica is Over

A swimming hole at the top of Montezuma's waterfall. Photo: Alex Washburn

A swimming hole at the top of Montezuma’s waterfall. Photo: Alex Washburn

Before going on this trip, Nathaniel went to Costa Rica with a group of friends in July. This, unbeknownst to him, was the perfect time to go, it was low season.

Costa Rica is on most lists for Best Places to Retire Abroad, but these lists need to be updated as the time of cheap living has passed. Alex and I knew that it would be high-season, but were not prepared for how expensive everything would be.

We got a taste for it in San Jose, when every meal came with a 10% gratuity for staff and 13% tax, so every meal tag was instantly increased by 26%. Hamburgers at a local chain (much like a Mel’s) cost twenty dollars, which for our budgets was breaking the bank.

Getting into the tourist towns didn’t help at all. There are deals to be had at hostels, and we were able to find deals most places we went, but the food killed us at every turn. There is no real street food scene, so no relief there, and every meal ended up being as much, if not more, then it would cost in the US.

Crocodiles in Costa Rica. Photo: Alex Washburn

Crocodiles in Costa Rica. Photo: Alex Washburn

After having been traveling in Central America for almost three months, it was a rude awakening to be jarred with this exorbitant price change. For anyone thinking of going to Costa Rica during the high season, DON’T!!! There are other countries that are just as safe, where the dollar will go so much farther. Costa Rica has gone beyond the means of the regular traveler as even a small bottle of Gatorade was $2.00 at local markets.

I may not seem that steep to others, but for people who are on a budget for six months, these differences in prices are not affordable. Be adventurous and pick a better spot, or go in the low-season to avoided being overcharged at every turn.

Once we crossed the border to Panama, the prices have eased, though we are looking forward to Columbia. After the boarder crossing (not the worst yet) we high-tailed it to Santiago. The middle between Panama Border and Panama City. Santiago is the Las Vegas of Panama, with several big Casinos and a lot of Love Hotels, the best being the “Beverly Hills Gardens”…Classic.

The next day it was back on the bikes, and off to Panama City. Had enough time to explore the Panama Canal and old town. For me, the Panama Canal is one of the places I remember learning about in history class in high school, and never thinking I would ever visit it. It is still impressive, even after 100 years.

We are staying in a hostel with all of the bikers getting on the boat tomorrow and enjoying our time recounting stories on the road. Tomorrow we head for the Caribbean coast and our ship for Columbia. A new year and a new continent is ours to explore, here is to more adventures to come!

Tourists wave to a ship as it passes through the Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal. Photo: Alex Washburn

Tourists wave to a ship as it passes through the Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal. Photo: Alex Washburn

Swimming with Sharks

Alex already mentioned that we did a snorkeling trip out of Caye Caulker that went to three specific dive spots: the coral garden, Shark & Ray alley, and Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

From the video you can see we saw all kinds of wild life there, and even though the weather was trying not to co-operate, it still left us with about 80% visibility in the water.

The whole video was shot on a GoPro Hero3 Silver Edition with the basic waterproof case (included in the basic packaging). I forgot my mono-pod in the bike, so had to make do and just held the GoPro in my hands the whole time. Got through almost the whole day on one charge before it died and had to swap out batteries. The film was edited using the newest GoPro studio and I sourced the music from freemusicarchive.org.

Caye Caulker

We hopped into a taxi boat Wednesday afternoon excited to leave the grungy heat of Belize City and looking forward to a few days of almost vacation.

We don’t plan very many days ahead of ourselves and since the islands off the coast of Belize are transitioning into ‘high season’ we had a little difficulty booking a place to stay.

We ended up getting a really great last minute deal on a hotel that was only a few more dollars a day than some hostels on Caye Caulker.

After our 45 minute water taxi ride to the Island we found ourselves blinking in the sunlight walking down a rough dock towards unpaved roads and brightly painted buildings- the tense feeling the city had given us started to fade. After dropping off our bags to the hotel we immediately made our way to what is know as ‘the split’ on the North end of the inhabited portion of Caye Caulker.

The area known as 'The Split' on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The area known as ‘The Split’ on Caye Caulker. Photo: Alex Washburn

The split is a gap in between the northern mostly unsettled portion of the island and the southern end where most people live, work and visit. ‘The Split’ beach area is actually privately owned but there is a two story open air bar at the point selling ridiculously cheap beer and a dock for laying on and jumping off.

I can see why Caye Caulker is still a backpacker and budget traveler’s paradise with a few non-budget travelers thrown in. Some of the tours are a little expensive but if you want to sleep, eat and drink cheaply you could enjoy the island for less than $50 USD a day and get a rockin’ sunburn in the process.

We were lucky that we decided to go to ‘The Split’ in the last few hours of daylight we had Wednesday – that night the storm clouds rolled in and didn’t leave for the next 40 hours.

Thursday it drizzled a lot but the crazy wind didn’t kick up till we were on our way back from our snorkel tour of Hol Chan Marine Reserve.

A portion of the tour allows you to snorkel with sting rays and nurse sharks which is pretty incredible. It is unfortunate to be surrounded by an equal number of tourists but being able to reach out and touch a sting ray or a nurse shark as they glide past you is amazing.

This was Alex's second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn't tell me she was going to attempt this the first time - which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

This was Alex’s second attempt at shark wrangling. She didn’t tell me she was going to try it the first time – which was a more successful attempt. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

I floated there watching the sharks nibble at the fish stuffed conchs our guides were using to attract them and I kept getting the image of all those Discovery Channel specials in my mind where a diver slightly twists the tail of the shark and it goes limp.

Well – I really wanted to see if that would work.

I picked out a smaller nurse shark perhaps 3-4 feet long and swam down to it. When I got close I reached out to grab it’s tail and very gently twisted. The shark rolled over in the water like a puppy looking for a belly rub and allowed me to bring it almost to the surface. I let it go and it swam away and went back to eating.

The entire incident lasted less than 20 seconds but I would strongly discourage other people from doing this. The guide came over to me and warned me that although nurse sharks seem docile they can hurt you.

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

A stingray cruises the ocean floor looking for food. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Nathaniel got some great video of our trip to the marine park and we should be publishing the video tomorrow morning.

After our day in the ocean we were pretty hungry and decided to splurge for dinner. While you can get some really legitimate meals for $5-6 on the island I really wanted to try the local lobster.

Lobsters are generally laid out near restaurant front grills on Caye Caulker and you select your lobster based on how much you want to pay for it – the dinners also come with a variety of sides. A giant lobster with garlic toast, pasta and salad for $25 USD is just not possible in the US.

Although the lobster was good I prefer eating at places the locals go when I travel. If you prefer the same I suggest grabbing some lunch at Pirates on Caye Caulker if you come. My $6 USD lunch consisted of Baked Chicken on rice and beans with a side of potato salad and a glass of limeade. If the same restaurant existed back home I’d still eat there.

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don't expect a smile (they don't cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

Pirates restaurant (on the corner) is where we had one of our best meals on Caye Caulker. Don’t expect a smile (they don’t cater to tourists) but you should expect good solid local food at a local price. Photo: Alex Washburn

While the rain ruined a large part of our time on the Island (and cursed me with unappealing lighting) we’ve had fun walking it’s dirt roads, talking to people and exploring this tiny island. Belize would be a great starter country for many people people in the US nervous about traveling because it’s still incredibly affordable and the dominant language is English.

TIPS: There are january flights under $500 available from San Francisco to Cancun right now. A $50 (isn) bus ride from Cancun can get you to Belize City within a few hours. Our Hotel was $56 USD a night although you can find cheaper if you book ahead.