Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Introduction

***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

This trip started out with the sole intention of visiting Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Located in central Bolivia, it is not an easy place to reach, but that's to be expected when the extraordinary landscape resembles nothing of this world.

Initially, I had planned on flying into and out of La Paz. From there, I would make my way down to Uyuni, the main jump-off point for visiting the Bolivian Altiplano. With most tours lasting only three days, however, I found myself researching additional points of interest around the region. I realized that I had the option of ending the tour in San Pedro de Atacama, so I began looking into additional places to see in Northern Chile. Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia was high on my list as well, having read about its history and beauty all the way back in high school Spanish class, not to mention this little gem from Animaniacs.

I decided on using AAdvantage miles to book my flights since it would be more economical than using Avios. In addition, OneWorld Alliance has access to LAN, the largest airline in South America. After a bit of trial and error, I found out that it cost fewer miles to fly into Peru versus flying into Bolivia since AA categorizes Bolivia as South America Zone 2, while Peru is categorized as South America Zone 1. Oddly enough, AA forbids the transiting of Zone 1 to get to Zone 2 (unless you want to pay for two separate awards), even though it may be the most logical and direct route.

Yes, AA does have a direct flight to La Paz from Miami (via Santa Cruz), but that would still cost more miles than flying into Zone 1. Hence, I decided to start and end my itinerary in Southern Peru, and do the border crossings using local transport. Choosing this option allowed me to book SFO-LIM-JUL on one ticket using LAN. For the return flight, I decided to cross the border from Chile back into Peru, and bus it all the way to Arequipa, a charming city I've wanted to see for some time now. From there, I could do AQP-LIM-SFO also on LAN.

Like virtually all of my award flights, I booked my tickets many months in advance. Unfortunately, booking so early has its drawbacks. Around December of last year, I noticed a modification to my itinerary on After calling in, I realized that LAN had changed the departure times on all of its SFO-bound flights from 1:15 am to 9:00 am. Since I didn't want an almost ten-hour overnight layover in LIM, I decided to take the next best option: routing to SFO via DFW on AA.

A lot of research was required for this trip since much of the transportation was by local buses. In addition, I had to find out logistics for crossing the land borders between Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. It's always a little stressful finding your way from one town to the next in foreign countries, so I wanted to minimize the chances of getting lost, stranded, or ripped off. Luckily, the Altiplano circuit has gotten more popular within the past few years, and there is quite a bit of information out there as long as you take the time to search for it.

Very few of the places I visited on this trip had large international hotels, so I focused mainly on local hotels, hostels, and backpackers lodges with the best reviews on TripAdvisor. Finding the right tour company for the Salar de Uyuni tour was probably the biggest headache of all, since very little up-to-date and accurate information exists online. Ultimately, we decided to go with Red Planet Expeditions, and I will lay out the detailed reasons why in a subsequent post.

In all, the flights to and from South America cost a total of $79.93 including taxes and fees, plus 35,000 miles. Since I carry the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage Visa Signature card, I received a 10% mileage rebate on AA award redemptions, bringing the total to 31,500 miles. To get from La Paz to Uyuni, we decided to take the short 45-minute flight on Línea Aérea Amaszonas instead of roughing it on a 12-15-hour overnight bus ride. That was the best $126.68 I'd ever spent. Plus I got to try out a relatively new and seldom-reviewed airline.

I must say, the scenery I witnessed on this trip far surpasses anything I had ever seen before in terms of sheer outlandishness. Your eyes may very well register the landscape, but your mind will not believe what you are seeing. It is all at once fantastic, bizarre, and majestic.

Salar de Uyuni - March 28, 2013

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 Trip Report

This trip report is long overdue. I was really excited to write it, however, because it covers one of the most bizarre places in the world. An old friend of mine, who went on a months-long backpacking journey through South America years ago, told me about Salar de Uyuni and showed me his pictures when he returned. I immediately became fascinated with the world's largest salt flat, as well as the colorful lagoons and martian-like scenery of the South American Altiplano. This trip report will cover my two-and-a-half-week trip through Southern Peru, Bolivia, and Northern Chile. Read on for all the details:

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kauai/Kalalau Trail May 2013 - Alaska Airlines 848 Economy Class (LIH-SJC)

***This post is the conclusion to a full trip report. Click here for the index***

After a quick and easy rental car return at Thrifty, I caught the shuttle bus to the airport and was dropped off right in front of the Alaska Airlines check-in area. There was a small line, but the wait was manageable. I paid the $20 baggage fee to check my large backpack and then took it to the agriculture screening area. As I walked over to the security check, I noticed a long line that stretched down the entire length of the terminal as far as the eye could see.

I wasn't too worried since I had about two hours before departure. Still, I wasn't looking forward to a massive wait through security. Luckily, just as I reached the end of the line, an announcement over the loudspeakers indicated that Check Point 2 at the very end of the terminal would be open due to the long waits. I immediately walked over and got through the security check in less than ten minutes.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kauai/Kalalau Trail May 2013 - Exploring Kauai

***This post is part 6 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Staying for two nights on the North Shore and two nights on the South Shore gave me the opportunity to see most of the island without having to drive very far in either direction. I had visited some of the more popular tourist attractions on previous trips already, but there were still many places that I hadn't been before. On the first full day after I arrived, I decided to visit a couple of spots on the North Shore, including Queen's Bath, a (formerly) hidden spot right in Princeville.

The guide books are all over Queen's Bath these days, and even Google Maps will show its exact location. Unfortunately, the short trail leading to the swimming hole begins in a residential neighborhood, and as such, parking is very limited. There is a small parking lot right next to the entrance, but it was completely full when I arrived around 10:00 am. After circling the streets for a bit, I finally decided to just wait it out. Thankfully, the turnover rate was quite high and people came and left fairly quickly.

Be careful going down the trail as it is very muddy in some sections. Once you reach the ocean, it is just a short stroll to the left along the lava rocks to Queen's Bath. There are warnings posted around the area, including a hand-made wooden sign documenting the number of drownings that have occurred there. Large waves constantly crash over the rocks into Queen's Bath, feeding the pools with fresh ocean water. Because of this, people who climb the rocks at the edge of the baths risk getting swept out to sea.

Queen's Bath

Other than that, I felt like it was a very safe area for sunbathing and swimming. If you can, definitely take a dip in the baths. It's a fun experience when a large wave comes over the rocks... it almost feels like a giant wave pool. You can also swim inland towards a rocky channel to do some exploring. There are multiple pools all along the shoreline in the area, but only Queen's Bath is safe for swimming. The others I saw open directly into the sea and are very dangerous.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kauai/Kalalau Trail May 2013 - Sheraton Kauai Resort

***This post is part 5 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I drove halfway around the entire island to get to the small town of Poipu on the South Shore. Exhausted from the two-day hike and covered in mosquito bites, I wearily pulled up to the temporary lobby parking and limped inside. After a brief wait in line, I was helped by an incredibly friendly front desk attendant who took one look at me asked if I was feeling alright. I explained the mud, grime, and bug bites, and mentioned that I had just returned from the most amazing experience on the Kalalau Trail.

Sheraton Kauai Resort lobby

It's funny because I noticed whenever I mentioned Kalalau to any of the locals, their faces always seemed to light up and their first response was always 1) how much they loved doing the hike themselves or 2) how they really want to do the hike someday. The charming lady helping me was in the latter camp, and we proceeded to have a fun chat about my experience.

Often times, I find that being friendly and engaging with the front desk staff can be the ultimate impetus for earning some nice perks at check-in, including the highly-desired upgrade. Not that I was being friendly and engaging merely for an upgrade... I was genuinely excited about the hike, having literally just stepped off the trail a few hours before. But as the agent began typing away at the computer looking for my room, I had a feeling she might be a little extra nice to me. It probably also helped that I told her I didn't care if the room had a king bed, two beds, or no bed at all, I just wanted a hot shower!

A few minutes later, she smiled and told me she had upgraded me to an ocean-front room. I thanked her profusely, and told her how much I appreciated the gesture. Before I left, she stuffed six complimentary welcome Mai Tai certificates into the key holder and told me I looked like I could use a few extra drinks. I had a feeling this was gonna be an awesome stay.

My building

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Kauai/Kalalau Trail May 2013 - The Kalalau Trail

***This post is part 4 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Having been to Kauai a couple of times and done the usual tourist circuit, I wanted this trip to be slightly different. On one of my previous visits, I took a rafting tour of the Na Pali Coast, and besides the beauty of the fluted ridges and unreal experience of snorkeling with dolphins, one of the coolest things I remember seeing was a few hikers high up along the edge of a sheer cliff carefully traversing the Kalalau Trail. It looked absolutely insane, but I knew immediately that I wanted to do it someday.

Fast forward to the end of last summer, when I finally decided to book my trip to Kauai and reserve a permit for the Kalalau Trail. I did some research online and knew it was going to be strenuous, even for people who are relatively fit, but I wasn't too worried. It is highly recommended, however, that you bring along enough supplies to stay at least one night at the Kalalau Beach campsite, unless you are an experienced hiker who is capable of completing the 22-mile out-and-back journey in one day. In case you cannot make it to Kalalau in one day, you can also camp in Hanakoa Valley at the six-mile mark.

Kalalau Trail Map

I left the Westin at 7:00 am and stopped by the local Foodland market to pick up some prepared meals for the next two days. Since I didn't have a filter or purification tablets with me, I decided to carry my entire supply of water into the hike, which was a huge mistake. With five liter bottles in addition to the three liters already in my Camelbak, my legs nearly gave out in just the first few miles. And even with so much water, I actually exhausted my entire supply before finishing the following day. Definitely bring a filter and tablets with you, as there are plenty of water sources along the way!

Kalalau Trailhead

The trail begins at Ke'e Beach, at the end of the Kuhio Highway on the North Shore. When I arrived at the trailhead, there were already a number of people there, most of them day hikers. Since you only need a permit if you decide to go beyond Hanakapi'ai Valley at the two-mile mark, many people opt to do the first section only as a half-day hike. It is moderately strenuous and great for families and those who just want a taste of the Na Pali Coast but are short on time.

You would think that a trail going along the coastline would be relatively flat and easy, but that's definitely not the case here. There is hardly any part of the trail that is level, and elevation gain/loss totals 5,000 feet from start to finish. I have to admit I underestimated how strenuous the entire hike would be, and wasn't nearly as prepared as I should have been.

Kalalau Trail elevation