Llama, Alpaca, Guanaco, or Vicuña? | Visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca

I don’t know how these things happen, really. I’m finally wrapping up sharing about our tourism trip in northern Argentina and we’re already settling in Vancouver. How did it go so quickly? Time just seems to fly.

I’m still pretty darn enamored with the places that we visited on our one of our recent trips, even though I’m equally as excited to share some of our experiences in Mendoza and Chile, as well as the big adjustment to Vancouver. You’ll see why I’m still making it a point to share some photos from Jujuy with you despite the fact that I’m a month late on it.

The scenery of the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Look at the photos from the Purmamarca, Tilcara, and Maimara. You can’t blame me for not wanting to get over these places, can you?

purmamarca argentina

empanadas jujenas, purmamarca, argentina, tamales

maimara argentina

maimara argentina

maimara, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina

humahuacha, argentina


purmamarca argentina

llama gift store

purmamarca, argentina


As a knitter and a sweater-lover (but who doesn’t love a good sweater?), the Andes are kind of my mecca. There are entire stores full of wool, hand-knit and not-so-hand-knit items, and people who are born into a culture which knows a lot more about wool that most of us.

wool yarn store, purmamarca, argentina andes

I’ll admit, it can be a little overwhelming. Salespeople are talking to you about llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. The guy at the hostel keeps saying something about guanacos (an animal that certainly didn’t makes it way into my animal-naming books as a child). If it’s the first time you’re hearing the word vicuña, you’re probably going to be a bit confused, especially if there’s a language barrier. I  didn’t know much before visiting the regions, and I still only know that basics. But I’d like share them.

llam crossing sign tilcara argentina

When talking about llama-like animals in the Andes, there are four that you need to know. And if you’ve stumbled into this blog post, you already know the names.

There are llamas. There are alpacas. There are vicuñas. And there are guanacos. That’s it. That’s all you have to know.

These guys are all part of the camelid (yep, as in camel) family. Not sure which one is which? I’ll help you out!

flow chart of south american camelids: llama, guanaca, vicuna, and alpaca

In short, llamas and alpacas are the domesticated versions of the guanaca and the vicuña, respectively. Llamas are the big guys used for packing stuff in and out. If you’re eating it, it’s probably a llama. Maybe an alpaca. Alpacas make better sweaters. Vicuñas make the best, most expensive sweaters. And all of them are awkwardly cute.

Hope this clears it up a bit.

I had more than my fair share of fun learning about the differences between these four animals and probably more than my fair share of fun visiting this region.

Happy Wednesday! It’s basically the weekend 🙂

peru alpaca

5 Facts You Might Not Know About Salt Flats…and a whole lotta photos from the Salinas Grandes

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina On our last road trip, Jordan and I drove from Purmamarca up to Las Salinas Grandes in Jujuy, Argentina. Neither of us had ever seen one in person before, so the the 1.5 hour drive from Purmamarca was definitely not something we considered an obstacle. Salt flats are places begging to be seen and photographed. That’s said, the drive itself didn’t disappoint, either. The road weaved from mountain to mountain and climbed its way up to 4,170 meters. We even had a vicuña sighting on the way back down.

Both of us considered this one of the best stops during our trip here. After spending an afternoon exploring the flats and taking photos to our hearts content, I couldn’t help but think, “That was awesome. Oh, yeah, and why does that exist?!” and then go look up some information about salt flats. Curiosity killed the cat, but keeps me kicking. The fruit of my labor and our camera:

5 Facts I Didn’t Know About Salt Flats

1. You need three things for their to be a salt flat: an arid climate, a source of salts, and an enclosed drainage basin (so those salts don’t drain away). (Source)

2. The largest salt flat in the world is the Salar de Uyuni, located in Bolivia (some day I’ll go!). How big is it? Over 4,000 square miles. (source)

3. That salt flat (from #2) is so big, flat, and clear that it’s used by NASA to calibrate satellites (source). This is a double geo-nerd fact.

4. We’ve got them in North America, too. This most well-known are the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and the Badwater Basin Salt Flats in California. Have any of you visited these before?

5. Salt flats have crazy mineral properties and resources, but they’re also used for some strange events. The Bonneville Flats are home to a car racing club (and many racing events) and the Badwater Basin flats are home to an ultramarathon.

Look closely at the photo below. See all those ridges in the “far”mountain. Switchbacks for the road.

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina, road

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salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

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salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

Geo-joke ahead: Jordan got high in Jujuy. 4,170 meters high.

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

Seriously, this drive and this visit blew my mind. So fun to see.

In case you haven’t gotten enough of salt flats and you’re interested in making your own mini-salt flat, check this link out: http://www.education.com/science-fair/article/Miniature-Salt-Flats/.

Sure, it’s meant for kids, but lots of you have kids around. Pretend you’re doing it for them 🙂

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

Warning: Do not read this if you drink your wine with an air of pretension | 2 Days in Cafayate

Here I sit. I’ve got my photos all placed in the post and I just can’t think of how to write the things that I want to. I’m trying to express the feeling I had when our bus first starting rolling into Cafayate. Vineyard after vineyard nestled up against the mountains. It’s hard not to be giddy about it.  (I guess we can’t say that the magic of travel has worn off for me yet, huh?). It’s a beautiful setting for a little city of 12,000 people. It’s exactly what I hoped it would be.

cafayate argentina vineyards

Sure, the city runs on tourism. It’s the kind of place where tourists gather on the plaza, taking in the views and ordering the empanadas and local wines in bad, foreign accents.

cafayate argentina plaza at night

cafayate argentina alfajores sign

cafayate argentina

cafayate argentina

casa de la empanada cafayate argentina

cafayate argentina church at night

wine ice cream miranda's ice cream cafayate argentina

cafayate argentina

I don’t think anyone goes to Cafayate worrying about how they can tell their friends that they “escaped the beaten Gringo trail” or had a “deeper” travel experience than the other. We know that we’re going for the scenery and the wines.

I, for one, am okay with that and thankful the locals will have us. Because the scenery, empanadas,* and the wines rival those of anywhere I’ve been to date.

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

casa de la empanada cafayate argentina

chato's wine bar cafayate argentina

Back to that scenery, we had a great time on our tour of Quebrada de Cafayate. Our tour group consisted our about 8 people, all of whom were really-laid back and curious. There were mini-hikes, endless photo opportunities, and lots of local historic information from the tour guide. What a natural canvas of creativity!

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina brea tree (tar)

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

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quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

quebrada de cafayate salta argentina

(As for how I defied gravity while in Cafayate, simply rotate the photo, so that I’m standing up. The rocks are actually slanted about 30 degrees or so. I laid against the rock wall, tucked my toes into place (there’s a little wedge of rock there) and leaned backward. Our tour guide knew exactly where to and how to take the photo.)

Yes, Cafayate–with all its nature and libations–is a splendid place for tourists.

I will admit to you, however, that there are still very different types of travelers in this town.

There are those of us who have limited budgets, stay in hostels, and are learning about the world of wine.

There are also those of us who stay in fancy bodegas, sip more expensive wines while reading the New York Times (in print! in Cafayate!) and lounging about in a lawn chair, tapping their feet to generic jazz.

vineyards cafayate salta argentina

vineyard cafayate salta argentina

vineyard cafayate salta argentina

vineyard cafayate salta argentina

It’s okay that they do that. I can even see how it could be a good time for someone. Just not this someone, I guess. Those fancy bodegas just weren’t our scene. I loved seeing their vineyards, but I prefer to swill elsewhere.

I don’t know enough about wine to drink it with an air of pretension or sophistication. I barely get a swirl going and only when using my left hand. The thing is, I am going to keep learning about wine and its production (because it’s fun to say Gewürztraminer and a Bonarda is really good), but I know that pretension and wine don’t have to go together.

Choosing a decent wine with the help of a friendly, neighborhood vinoteca employee (who is less biased anyway) and heading back to the hostel to share it around the table is just as rewarding as worrying about the sweater-vested fella to your right judging your swirling technique. Especially when your hostel has a great view.

rusty k hostel cafayate

My favorite wine experience in Cafayate, however, was at Chato’s Wine Bar. They serve the same wine from the surrounding bodegas (they do make amazing stuff, after all), but it feels much more relaxed.

Comfortable, casual, and honest. Now that’s what a real wine experience ought to be for me.

Chato’s offers several varieties of wine flights so you can try whites, rosés, or red to your liking. Jordan and I learned a lot, nibbled, and had fun without worrying if we were drinking “correctly.” If we wanted to know about the correct way of doing something, we asked the owner, who told us plainly, explained it in simple terms (granted, our Spanish can’t grasp too much beyond the simple).

chato's wine bar cafayate argentina

I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed myself at wineries in the past. And I’m definitely not saying I won’t enjoy them in the future. I’m just saying I hope I’m always the kind of person who enjoys a flight at Chato’s better.

chato's wine bar cafayate argentina

chato's wine bar cafayate argentina


*I actually have had a better empanada elsewhere. But empanada wars are serious, so I’m keeping quiet.

Cafayate Recommendations

Never Heard of the Quilmes Ruins? | Let’s Fix That

quilmes ruins

Once upon a time, I read a tiny little paragraph about a set of ruins in Argentina in a guide book. It sounded neat, but hard to get to. Since there were so many other things I was trying to squeeze into one week of traveling in northern Argentina, I decided we’d probably have to pass.

But it definitely wasn’t for lack of interest.

At the beginning of our seven-day trip, we found ourselves tagging along with two researchers from the lab where Jordan is studying/researching. We spent the morning working (they did, anyway), had our early afternoon meeting, and grabbed lunch. The lunch, it’s worth mentioning, was our first time having humitas in soup form. It’s crazy to see how many ways actual corn is put to use in cuisine. (I’m from the edge of the Corn Belt, and unless you count our corn syrup, it’s pretty much scalloped corn or corn on the cob–good, but not much variety).

humitas amiacha valle calchaquieAfter the late lunch, our guides/hosts asked if we had plans to visit the Quilmes Ruins. I explained we weren’t going to have a car rental until later on in the trip, so had decided to skip it. And like that, they decided to make a detour. (Well, technically, it wasn’t just like that. There have been some local disputes over the ruins, so we asked our waiter if they were open before deciding to go).

The Quilmes Ruins aren’t far from the town of Amiacha. I didn’t exactly know what to expect since I hadn’t seen photos–I had only read the blurb in the guide book which covers an entire continent. It’d lead you to believe that 50 percent of the things to see in Argentina are in Buenos Aires (sorry, Porteños, not quite the case).

The initial view of the ruins were must more arresting than I’d expected. From the entrance (it’s a 20 peso per person fee), you’ll head in for a brief tour/talk. After that, you’re able to climb some trails to the top for a better view and then explore on your own. Here’s the lowdown on what we learned while there.

What you see in the photos is estimated to be only ten percent of the indigenous city.

The Quilmes people spoke a language called Cacán, which no longer exists.

In the language Cacán, Quilmes meant between hills.

The people at Quilmes settled there roughly around 900 AD.

They worshiped Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth.

They stayed there even as the Incas spread into the region.

The community grew many crops, including choclo, potatoes, and other Andean varieties.

The Quilmes people resisted the Spanish until 1665.

The Spanish managed to cut off their water supply, which in turn meant no crops, either.

After the Spanish had “defeated” them, they forced the people to walk across the country to the province of Buenos Aires.

I not only was amazed when I saw the ruins, I was like a kid in a candy cactus shop. I geeked out big time over these things and asked our host plenty of questions. I’ve got enough cactus photos for oodles of posts. Don’t worry, I’ll be selective, friends.

I hope you enjoy our photos. I certainly enjoyed the stop. Thanks to our guides/drivers for taking us.

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To learn more about Quilmes, check out:

  • http://edant.clarin.com/diario/2008/03/10/sociedad/s-03405.htm
  • http://www.lanacion.com.ar/817528-lo-que-quedo-de-los-antiguos-quilmes

Both links are in Spanish, so if you’re Spanish is rusty, make use of Google Translate 🙂 It’s worth it, because the English Wikipedia link is just a stub.

How Many Times Have You Eaten Llama? | A 7-Day Trip through Tucumán, Salta, and Jujuy

Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good. ~Fraulein Maria, The Sound of Music

salinas grandes jujuy argentina salt bench

So many Freulein Maria moments in this seven-day trip.* I feel truly, deeply blessed when I consider the things I get to do.

The husband and I returned to Horco Molle (where we call home for the moment) late Wednesday evening, after gallivanting around northern Argentina for a week. Since deciding to temporary live in Argentina, we knew we wanted to visit Salta and Jujuy. We just weren’t sure how to make it happen or when would be the best time. Last Wednesday, someone from the university offered us a ride up to Amaicha in the Calchaquíes Valley (they had work to do; we tagged along). We hemmed and hawed for a few hours before pulling the trigger. And then there we were on Thursday morning, bags packed and travel guide downloaded. Below is the trip that resulted from the piece-meal planning we did during the 16 hours before we left. As the next week or two progress, I’ll post more details about some of the places we really enjoyed (and will finally tell you guys how I defied gravity in my Facebook photo).

Day 1: Valle de Calchaquíes and Quilmes Ruins

As I said, we were really just tagging along on day one. We drove from Yerba Buena up through a town where sets of twins come annually for a twin conference (yeah, I’m going to have to look up more info on this) to Tafí del Valle. One minute we were driving through Yungas jungle and the next minute we were in what appeared to be a desert.  The sudden change was crazy; I kept wondering if I had slept my way through the transition somehow (though the windy roads would make it hard to sleep). The middle photo below is where we stopped for a mate and ladyfinger cookies break. After this point, the business needed to be attended to. Jordan and I followed along as the others found the community leader they were looking for at his friend’s place. Something important happened at that meeting–I’m certain of it, but I couldn’t say what exactly. Humbling moment for our Spanish.

valle calchaquíes photos

After the work was over and bowls of humitas were consumed, our hosts surprised us by deciding to venture over to the Quilmes Ruins. In theory, Jordan and I wanted to go, but we couldn’t figure out how we’d get there without hassle or car rental. Quilmes will definitely have its own post next week. I simply couldn’t stop myself from taking photos of the cacti. Cardón, je t’aime.

quilmes ruins photos

That evening, our hosts/rides dropped us off in Tafí del Valle, a very touristy town in the valley. In the summer, it’s overflowing with Tucumanos who are escaping the heat of the city. It was a little early for tourist season (and during the week–a Thursday), but that meant we got a great price and it felt like we had the city to ourselves at night.

Day 2: Tafí del Valle and Bus to Cafayate

About that lodging in Tafí, we stayed at an historic (legit!) estancia. The llamas roamed around the yard, the dinner bell still hung proudly, and each room was named after a member of the family or someone who impacted the estancia. The librarian in me squealed with delight when I saw the old library. So much to look at. Breakfast includes freshly squeezed orange juice, medialunas (duh!), locally-made jams, and cheese made on site. If you use the blue dollar exchange rate (which we were still milking at this point), it cost us less than 35 dollars. Highly recommend Estancia Los Cuartos if you’re staying in town for a couple nights.

tafí del valle photos

tafí del valle photos

Sadly, we only had one night in Tafí and our day ended up being a bit rainy and dreary. I have no right to complain–it’s a dry area that needs the rain. We had planned to go on an easy hike that left from town, but instead wandered through shops for a souvenir Christmas ornament and made a point to try the local brew, Kkechuwa, at the eponymous bar where it can be sampled. If you’re a beer fanatic, go to support craft beer, but there are more interesting places to eat elsewhere.

In the afternoon, we hopped the bus at the terminal, snacks and water on hand for the 3.5 hour drive to Cafayate. We settled in at Rusty-K Hostel and moseyed around the streets of Cafayate, a city that still manages to feel quaint despite the vineyards and the tourism they bring in.

Day 3: Cafayate | Vineyards, wine, and exploring in Quebrada de Cafayate

Really, Cafayate is hard for me to describe. I loved it here. It’s certainly getting its own post because there are too many photos experiences to share. We only had two days here–hardly enough in my opinion. I think I could have stayed for two weeks. Loved Rusty-K Hostel, loved the food, loved the wine, loved the views.

Speaking of the views…

quebrada de cafayate photos

Now look at the town…

cafayate photos

I always say I’m going to return to the places I go with sincere hopes, but realistic expectations (I mean, the world’s huge and my personal map is still so small). For Cafayate, I hope it just a little deeper than usual.

Day 4: Travel to and wander the city of Salta

On day four, I left a little bit of my heart in Cafayate and got on the bus to Salta, one of northern Argentina’s backpacker havens. It’s a real city, with the variety you’d expect. Upon arrival, we learned that we had decided to join thousands of Argentina’s women for a conference. This explained why it had been so hard to find a hostel or hotel to stay at. We ending up booking a little high for us (about 45 dollars; we were still on our blue dollar money), but it was worth it. Actually, the room at our first hotel and flooded, but they booked us a room elsewhere, called and paid for our taxi. We stayed at Cuatro Lunas, a great B&B edged up against the city’s mountain, and felt so spoiled there that we decided to get food to go and eat in on the patio. It needed to be used. The rest of our time in the city was spent navigating through hordes of passionate women, visiting a museum (where you can view Incan mummies!), sipping espressos, and wandering through ferias artesanales. Architecture and street art also captured our attention.

salta street art and architecture photos

salta photos

Day 5: Travel to Purmamarca, Salinas Grandes, and settle in Tilcara (Quebrada de Humahuaca)

By Monday morning, we knew we had made a mistake. We had only rented a car for one day and had planned the most ambitious day of driving I’ve seen since road trips with my father (sorry, Dad, but true). We agreed that we had to add another day, our car rental guy was relieved for us (he seemed so sad that we weren’t able to spend more time in the province of Salta), and we were off.

Honestly, I’m a bit relieved I can’t drive manual. The roads, while in great condition, were still a little intense. Climbing up to 4,170 meters isn’t going to come easily. More importantly, I got to enjoy all the views while Jordan kept his eyes (more often) on the road.

First stop of the day: Purmamarca, with its markets and shops and its hill of seven colors. More coming your way later.


Stop two: Salinas Grandes. It took a while to get there but so worth it to feel so extremely dépaysée. It’s otherworldly; it’s preternatural. Or, as I like to say in my stereotypical USian way: awesome.

salinas grandes argentina photos

From the Salinas, we came back through Purmamarca and found our way to Hostel Waira in Tilcara for the night.

Day 6: Explore Quebrada de Humahuaca a little more

The car was put to use exploring the Quebrada de Humahuaca to the north and south the next day. We went from Humahuaca down to Maimara. My main reason for visiting Maimara was to see the cemetery that I’d read about, but the rocks and the simple “bodega” signs kept us there longer than we’d bargained on. Bodega Fernando Dupont was our completely serendipitous find of the trip. Can’t wait to share it with you.

quebrada de humahuaca photos

Day 7: Swing through Salta and return to San Miguel de Tucumán by bus

By the time we had to head back to Tucumán, it seemed like much longer than a week had passed. The car was returned, our final lunch in Salta was had, and we made our way to the bus station. Like nearly all vacations, the six days prior passed in some sort of time warp or dream state. Thankfully, we’ve got two nice sweaters and a bottle of Piattelli Malbec Reserva to remind us it was real. Coming back from vacation can be hard. (The laundry is always the worst part, right?**) The fact that our “home” has this view doesn’t hurt, though.

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Back to the grindstone that is apartment hunting.

Oh, yeah, and Jordan’s llama count on the trip was four times. Mine was a mere two.


*Moments that make you say the quote at the beginning. 🙂

**We’re washing by hand. Women around the world–you are amazing. Now, let’s make the men do laundry.

Do You Like My New Fanny-pack? | Playing Tourist in San José de Chiquitos

Sure, we spent a day in Santa Cruz. It was lovely. It was filled with good food, live music, and great people (and a lot of honking). I’d love to go back and spend more time in the city at some point in my life. The problem is that we never actually got to play tourist there. There was no time or no car or some visa to try and obtain.  On a twelve day road trip, I needed a little bit of time to let my dorky tourist flag fly.

santa cruz bolivia plaza

San José de Chiquitos filled the tourist void for me.

San José was the tourist stop I didn’t think I’d get.

San José feels tucked away–and it is, I suppose. There aren’t many other cities in the area. This town of about 9,000 people, located three and a half hours due east of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, was exactly what I needed when I needed it.

It was warm food, cool breezes, a glimpse of history, refreshing showers, and pitchers of sweet horchata.

I’ll admit that the whole reason it was on our agenda was because of the birds. San José neighbors Parque Nacional del Gran Chaco Kaa-Iya. It ended up being the best bird stop of all, so the biologists told me. It was probably my favorite nature walk, too. Even better, though, we were able to collect data and see what else the town had to offer.

san jose de chiquitos

It felt like a city made for the people who live there, but it also felt like a city that likes their tourists.

There weren’t too many of us; we only bumped into a couple other group of out-of-towners. San José was just touristy enough that people didn’t think it was strange that I was taking pictures, but not so touristy that they were annoyed by it. I wasn’t worried about blending in; that’s not it. Let’s be real–they already knew I wasn’t from around there. Something about my accent must give me away. No, I wasn’t worried about blending in, but still prefer when locals aren’t sick of tourists. It’s nicer that way.

As luck would have it, we ended up having three nights in the area (two in the city and one camping in between those nights). The main tourist draws include a historic Jesuit church and the nearby national park (where you can visit the ruins of the original city of Santa Cruz). The heart of town, as you’d expect, is the plaza. Again as you’d expect, the plaza is where you’ll find the church. The church is beautiful, but not beautiful in the often overly ornate, gilded gold way. It’s beautiful in a subtle way.

When Jordan and I first saw the church, we thought, this had better be a UNESCO site. Luckily, someone thought of that before us.

Like when we were five. Good call, UNESCO, good call.

san jose de chiquitos bolivia

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church door san jose bolivia

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During our two nights and one day in the city we ate ate three different places. The first two were rather typical restaurants around the plaza. One ran out of (or simply stopped serving food) and the other served the usual fare. You can buy milanesa, lomito, pique macho, etc. By far, the most fun (and probably most authentic) dining experience you can get in the city is at the market on the edge of town.

Here, it feels like you walked into the kitchens of several of the city’s best home cooks.

Here is where you’ll find your sopa de maní, your locro, and you dinner platters complete with rice, papas fritas, chicken, and pasta. What you see below is actually just a meal for one, but Jordan and I decided to share it and we had plenty. This was my first real sopa de maní experience. I’ve got to tell you, I liked it way more than I had expected to. I was expecting a thick stew with a strong peanut butter flavor. Instead, it was a tasty, filling soup that has just the right amount of peanut.*

sopa de maní

chicken plate

The national park, which is worth your time even if you’re not a bird watcher, is located a couple kilometers outside of the city. The roads weren’t the best because of some heavy rains a day or two prior, but the Kangoo managed to make its way where we needed to go. We stopped to view the site of the original Santa Cruz and then stopped a couple more times for photos. Not far into the park, there’s a great view of the city from above. Please ignore my socks in those photos, by the way. They were my version of a fanny-pack.

Just past the overlook was my favorite easily accessible part: the Valley of the Moon.**

The Valley of the Moon looked just otherworldly enough to be deserving of its name.

We stopped here once on the way out to our campsite and then once more on the way back into town to watch the sunset. If you ever find yourself in San José, you must, must, must at least drive this far into the park.

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Considering our hectic driving/research schedule, it seemed like we had a lot of time in this small city.  I, for one, definitely enjoyed the time we spent in the town.

A little down time mixed with some time to hacer turismo was just fine with me.

Nope, I wasn’t complaining. Of course, I say this as the only non-researcher in the group. Still, I think they’d all agree.

san jose de chiquitos bolivia church

*I really had to resist making this sound pretentious. I almost typed a sentence with the words “hints” before realizing that would probably be the worst way to pay homage to the home-cooked soup.

**Yes, there’s another Valley of the Moon. The other one is more likely to be the one you’ve heard of.


Recommended lodging:

Budget-friendly (for a double room with a fan only $20; only problem here is that there is a loud karaoke bar next door): Hotel Patriarca

Budget-friendlier (about 6.50 per person for one night; dorm bed): Hotel Victoria

Nature Walking and Bird Watching | Photos from the Chaco Boliviano

I know, you already know so much about our trip. We camped. We looked for birds. We strolled, ducked, and snaked our way through some trails. But we carried the camera while doing so, and I have so many pics I’d like to share. Can’t help it! Below are some of our favorite nature and scenery photos from our trip, complete with some probably-needed explanations and commentary.

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“Did you see them?” I asked Jordan dutifully, asking out of a sense of obligation to my former self. He had been watching some ants when a group of eight to ten wild, bright green parrots flew overhead, letting out their cries.

“You mean the parrots? I heard them, but didn’t look.” He shrugged. “We’ll see some more.”

It was true. We would see more. Probably a couple hundred more. Still, it was hard to imagine that only 30 days earlier, we stood together at “our” backdoor squealing* with delight at the sight of five parrots in a tree. I couldn’t believe we were seeing parrots in the wild. In my life, their presence had previously been limited to pet stores, movies, and the homes of great aunts. It was so exciting to see them flying from tree to tree and listen to them squawk. I had to hold back my Awk! Wit’s ends.

But that was a month ago. Since then, I’d seen countless numbers of parrots. They were at almost every stop during our trip. They fly over in groups of five, ten, twenty, once even in a group of at least forty. I’ve seen them closely. I spent time watching them exchange places in their marvelous parrot nests. And somehow, it seemed like no big deal and a very big deal at the same time.

Parrots (even talking parrots!*) are only a small part of story. The biologists that we went with on this trip identified over 200 species (there are supposedly 500 known bird species in the Chaco). Again, we saw many, but between our nascent bird watching skills and our pitiful pair of binoculars, Jordan and I only actually correctly identified 21 of the birds we saw. Ha.

We laughed about this around the campfire one night. They asked Jordan and I what we’d seen. We mentioned the parrots (two types), urracas (a beautiful, yet common bird…this is the equivalent of going bird watching with one of the top ornithologists in the US and tell him or her that you saw a blue jay), and a white-browed blackbird (the one we’d all seen together). What I appreciated about this night is that our fellow travelers told us bird watching doesn’t haven’t to be about lists and strict identification for us. It’s about the experience. We, as amateur birdwatchers, had the luxury of choosing to watch the bird that strikes our fancy, really watch what it’s doing, and have fun. They, on the other hand, might have to stalk a bird of less interesting plumage in order to distinguish it from a very similar species.

This didn’t mean that I stopped thumbing my way through the bird guides. But it did mean I beat myself up a little less about being able to find the right bird in the book. I let myself giggle when I saw those chuñas flop those gangling legs all over the place when running (without bothering to look to see if they had red or black legs). I let myself making Fruit Loop references when we spotted those toucans (this was not so much Chaco…it was during our detour in the wrong direction). I let myself watch that bright yellow bird (whatever it was) without worrying about the call of another. I let myself point like an amateur when I got excited instead of slowly pulling up my powerful binoculars like an academic. And it was more fun this way.

Seeing these birds was a really neat experience, but I was surprised at how much I liked even seeing their nests. The hanging nests seemed to be everywhere, just holding on by one branch. That drooping, hanging black mess in the photos below? Yep, another type of nest.

Note about the photos: Our bird photos do the birds absolutely no justice. We have a laughable zoom on our nice camera, and that Canon Powershot you bought five years ago would probably be better for taking bird photos. There’s also the issue of flight and motion. If I happened to be close enough to a bird and then raised my camera, it would certainly fly away from me. And flight is fast.

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Trees and Shrubs

Some of the trees and shrubs that we saw were ones that we’d become familiar with during our first Chaco excursion, but many were new. My new favorite Chaco tree is the one known as palo borracho, or drunken stick. It’s pictured in the first two photos below. “Cotton” hangs from its branches, and the trunks bulge out with their beer bellies. Sometimes the tree trunk has only one bulge, sometimes more. We drove past a double-bulge (not a real term, folks) palo borracho at one point. It so resembled the bum of a pear-shaped woman that someone had painted a bikini bottom on it. I think I choked on my gaseoso upon seeing it. Too funny.

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Cacti and Agave Family and other Fun Plants

The trees were great, but this Midwest girl still gets really excited about cacti and plants from the agave family. Beyond that, we also found some papaya growing and  a strange yellow fruit called horned melon (or cucumis metuliferus). One of the people with us had grown up going on orchid-finding hikes with her family, so she had pointed one out to us. Later, I found one on my own (in the last picture of this section). Would have loved to take it and pack it to Canada with me.

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Animals, Ants, Insects, etc.

No, we saw no jaguars or pumas. Sorry to disappoint. We did still have plenty of animal sightings, though. And something–we don’t know what–ate our tomatoes one night. As far as larger animals go, we saw a South American wolverine (grison), two foxes, two deer (small), a monkey, the backside of a capybara, and finally a cayman. Well, okay, I didn’t see the cayman. I was in the car deleting GPS points or avoiding bugs at that point. I console myself with the fact that I’ve already seen one of those in the wild before. We also saw a dead anteater. I’ve been told that we should feel thankful that it was dead. Run away if you see one that’s alive.

There were also many unique crawlers. You already know I saw a tarantula and a coral snake, but I didn’t mention the bees, termites (interesting to see their hills), or ants. I don’t mention any of these in the way you might expect. To me, they weren’t bad. The ticks, flies, and mosquitoes I could do without, but the rest were fine.

We always have tons of fun watching ants. It’s a daily routine during our time here. Ant behavior is very interesting to me (though I certainly won’t make it a career). This trip was a treat in that regard. There seemed to be so many variations of ant hills. For example, picture two below is one big ant hill. You can also see the trumpet bell-shaped ant hotels below. Along one road, Jordan and I noticed a gathering of thousands of ants. We stopped to watch and then walked ahead to find out that not everyone had seen the ants before it was too late. It’s the first time I could literally use the expression “ants in his pants.”

The bees and wasps seemed to be all over the place, but generally, if you didn’t kill any, wouldn’t bother us. Thankfully. Because the hives were perched on tree after tree. It’s hard to believe there is a bee shortage after visiting here.

I loved seeing the lizards. Usually, these guys were pretty small, but we did see a few that measured over two feet long, maybe three feet if you’re counting the tail. The lizard tracks in the sand were pretty funny–a big, long, indirect line across the sand flanked with little scaled footprints on either side. The biologist leading the group told us that these can move up to 40kph. After seeing some of them go, I believe it.

The locusts/grasshoppers were the biggest I’ve seen in my life. These were generally found near the ranching/farming areas. They measured around 5 inches and at first glance, you’d thing that was a bird flying in the sky.

And finally, butterflies and moths. They seemed to come in groups of one hundred. There are two photos of them below. That’s not snow, but butterflies. As for the moths, our tent was attacked one night. We never really understood why but there were probably one to two hundred moths surrounding it. The grand daddy measured at least four inches across and looked like the eyes of an owl. The camera was inside the tent…

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Camping and Scenery

A lot of our time was spent wandering around looking for birds and nature walking, it’s true. But there were also a lot of really great moments that resulted from doing nothing in particular. Seeing the countryside and the scenery was probably about as fun as anything else that we did. (Except for making bad jokes in Spanglish about our omnipresent block of Chaqueño cheese around the campfire!) So fun taking photos here.

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Bolivia is so photogenic.


*Okay, I squealed in delight.  Jordan probably didn’t.