"What Is Suez Canal?"

Something didn’t seem right when reading about the Suez Canal in our Lonely Planet guidebook for “Egypt.” The book talked about the engineering wonder being an “impressive sight to behold,” yet offered few practicalities on how best to view it. Lonely Planet takes pride in providing up-to-the-minute, practical information on how to experience a country, but beyond the glowing accounts of the canal, there were few particulars. In Ismailia, near the center of the canal and a two hour bus ride from Cairo, the book did not mention how to view the canal but it featured the house of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French builder of the canal. After describing the house, the book added that it was no longer open to the public. At the southernmost section of the canal, the guide stated that Suez “remains one of the best places in the region to view colossal cargo ships gliding through the canal,” again with no specifics. We had met a few travelers in Egypt—not one had seen the Suez Canal.

Despite the lack of information, we were determined to see the canal. We had all enjoyed seeing and learning about the Panama Canal and its history and we considered a Suez Canal visit an important part of our kids’ home-school education. Considering all our possibilities, we opted for the Suez option and jumped on a bus. After 2 hours of rolling through flat, white desert, our bus came to a stop and everyone exited. We looked around for a bus station, but all we saw were people loading a microbus and a few taxis near the end of a long row of apartment blocks. A taxi driver walked by and asked “Taxi?” and I said “Suez?” He held up 10 fingers and when I countered with six of my own, he shook his head firmly and said “No, Ten.” At this point, we’d been seen by a group of taxi drivers near the microbus and they all sprinted over yelling at us in Arabic. At the same time, a taxi sped right for us and screeched to a halt before almost hitting us; he wanted a piece of the action as well. We watched as the newcomers pushed the first taxi driver out of the way and it looked as if there was literally going to be a fight for our business. I was starting to worry that a small riot might break out, so I said to the first driver, “10. Yes. Let’s go.” I grabbed him by the arm and led him to his cab. After being in Egypt for only a few days, we’d witnessed many heated arguments amongst Egyptian men. The overwhelming majority of businesses were run by men; usually a bunch of them sitting around getting on one another’s nerves. We had already seen a few fistfights. We saw a fight on a boat on the Nile, a fight beside a mosque in Giza and a man being slapped by a woman who was pulling him across the street by the ear. I figured it was better to take the first taxi driver than wait for a fight to erupt. As we neared his cab, I heard my wife loudly say “Get out of my face,” to a snickering young Egyptian man who was saying things in Arabic to her a little too closely. We all jumped in the taxi and sped off. Nervous energy morphed into laughter as we left the touts behind.

Heading toward the port town of Suez, our driver turned to us and said “Suez? Yes?” I said, “Yes…Suez canal…canal of Suez.” He gave me a confident look and then a confused look as we made our way into town. We saw no cargo ships passing by and our driver was clearly unsure of where we wanted to go. In his broken English, he again asked, “Suez? Where in Suez?” Again, I repeated loudly and clearly, “Suez canal,” and starting making gestures like little boats floating by. By now he was frustrated with our lack of Arabic and his limited English and he blurted out “What IS Suez canal?” and pulled to a stop. The irony of a Suez taxi driver not knowing the English words for his town’s world famous attraction generated a shared smile between my wife and I, but now we were getting worried. I got out my guide book and read further in the Suez section to find that the nearby town of Port Tawfiq is “an ideal place to watch the ships go by.” Unfortunately, it gave no details on how to do that and the map surprisingly depicted no canal.

We left Suez and in 2 minutes were in Port Tawfiq. We turned down a long avenue and saw the multi-story “Red Sea Hotel” to our right. With our driver clearly frustrated and no cargo ships in sight, we decided to go to the hotel in hopes that someone might speak English. We paid our driver, walked into the hotel and asked the manager “Is there a place where we can view the Suez Canal?” He gravely nodded and said, “You can view it from our sixth floor restaurant; if you eat lunch there.” We went up to the restaurant and found a clean, breezy and empty restaurant with a full wall of windows facing the canal. After the struggle to get here, we had found the perfect place to view the canal.

Just as lunch was served, a convoy of container ships started slowly making their way through the desert, seemingly cutting their way through the sand, on their way southward to the Gulf of Suez. On a typical day about 3 convoys make their way through the single-lane canal. The passage takes about 12-15 hours with the ships traveling the 119 mile canal at 15 miles per hour (with stops to allow oncoming convoys to pass). We were fortunate to be eating just as a southern convoy was approaching. We pulled up our chairs to the window and enjoyed the view, our near-scuffle with the taxi drivers a distant memory. Despite the lack of information from our guidebook, we’d found that the best method for getting here was just to get on a bus and go.


From Freezing Glaciers to Steaming Cloudforests: El Chorro Trek

Bolivia has about 736,000 square miles (roughly the size of the U.S. states of Alaska and Washington combined), one-third of which is Andean altiplano and two-thirds is Amazon basin. Were it not for losing its Pacific War with Chile (1879-1884), it would have a coastline as well. (In fact, from 1825 to 1935, Bolivia lost half of its territory to neighboring Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay.)  The combination of altiplano and jungle make for a very biodiverse country and one of the best ways to experience that is by hiking the El Chorro Trek, just outside La Paz.

The El Chorro Trek in Bolivia
  After getting acclimatized in La Paz, we made arrangements to do the El Choro trek, a 43 km trek from the snowy tip of the Andes’ Cordillera Real range to the Yungas, the dense, steamy cloudforest that separates Bolivia’s altiplano from its Amazon basin. The trek starts out at La Cumbre, atop the Cordillera Real, the easternmost border of Bolivia’s altiplano, and goes to Chairo, before a jeep takes you to the relaxing tourist town of Coroico.

The first day we drove straight up out of La Paz, the Bolivian capital which sits in a densely-populated bowl in the altiplano. We headed straight up for an hour until we reached La Cumbre (“The Summit”) at 15,502 feet. The driver dropped the eight of us off (our family of 4 plus our guide, cook, and two porters) amid alpine lakes, glaciers and rocky peaks. We hiked strenuously upward for a half hour until we reached our highest point, Abra Chucura (15,941 ft). From here, it was all downhill on paved Inca stones, past crumbling piles of flat pizara (slate), roaming packs of llamas, and the occasional donkey train transporting goods from the Yungas to La Paz. After an hour we passed pre-Inca, guesthouse ruins, where travelers long before us broke their journey. Over one mountain pass from us was Bolivia’s infamous “World’s Most Dangerous Road”, where an average of 26 vehicles a year disappear over the edges of the road from La Cumbre to Coroico. The road gots its nickname from a recent Inter-America Development Bank report and is a magnet for adrenaline junkies on downhill mountain bikes. Later than afternoon we passed beautifully paved pre-inca stone roads and finished our day at Challapampa (9,268 ft). For dinner our cook served us a delicious quinoa and vegetable soup while we were entertained by a young boy scrambling on the grassy camping area on all fours. The next morning, we brushed our teeth and all visited Challapampa’s village toilet; a makeshift wood platform about 10 feet above a large pit next to the river. This image alone will convince our kids to never drink alpine river water without it being treated.

Day two was a delightful downward stroll through cloudforest dotted with orchids, bromeliads and butterflies. We passed a shack selling Oreo cookies and softdrinks and bought a pack of Oreos. Not far before we reached the next shack selling drinks, we saw about a hundred empty plastic bottles dumped down the cliff next to the trail. For the rest of the hike I intermittently thought about the tourist's responsibilty for such an unsustainable practice. We continued to cross makeshift bridges and small waterfalls and finished the day at the village of San Francisco -- a couple of huts in a level space carved into the trail, surrounded by banana trees.

We started out Day three with sore legs and very quickly descended into a dense jungle area with hundreds of beautiful Amaryllis plants. I recalled working for the Gardener’s Eden catalog over ten years ago where we sold “forcing kits” of Amarylis bulbs with smooth rocks and a glass pot for $30. I mentioned this to my wife and she picked one and put it in her hat. For lunch we stopped and ate at Casa Sandillani (6,725 ft) and spoke with the village patriarch, Tamiji Hanamura. Mr. Hanamura was a 80-year old Japanese man, who had traveled widely for many years and once he reached Casa Sandillana, stopped travelling and never left. He’s been there for 40 years. He showed us his collection of postcards from the United States and we promised to send him a postcard from some exotic place. That afternoon we continued steadily downhill towards the town of Chairo. About an hour before getting there we saw parrots noisily chirping in a tree. We finally reached Chairo, sweaty and exhausted, and jumped in a jeep for Coroico. We reached Coroico and immediately took showers at our hotel. The view from our room revealed densely-covered cloudforest, extending out towards the Amazon basin. The first day of walking by glaciers seemed worlds away.


Bolivian Biodiversity

The Bolivian "88" butterfly
Whether you are sailing along on Lake Titicaca at 12,500 feet, tramping through the Yungas (steamy cloud forest), walking through glaciers along the altiplano, paddling a dugout canoe through the Bolivian Amazon or taking in the bizarre Salar de Uyuni salt sea, Bolivia has something for everyone. Its biodiversity is staggering. 

Bolivia is one of four countries with the highest abundance of butterflies and one of eight countries with the highest abundance of bird species. In belongs to the Tropical Andes, according to, is the richest and most diverse region on Earth, with about a sixth of all plant life in less than 1 percent of the world’s land area.

Bolivia has 4 biomes, 14 ecoregions and 199 ecosystems. The main biomes are jungle, forest, savannah, tundra, steppe, desert and wetlands. At the moment, more than 14,000 higher plant species, 325 mammals, 186 amphibians, 260 reptiles, 550 fish species and 1,379 birds are inventoried.

Don't like what you see in Bolivia? Jump on a bus and you'll be in a completely different ecosystem very quickly.


Sleeping On Salt: Bolivia's Salt Hotel

Our room at the Salt Hotel
 On the third night of our Lipez-Uyuni tour we arrived at our salt hotel, an inn made primarily of salt on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni.  The hotel was basic with walls of salt, beds made of blocks of salt, tables of salt and chairs of salt.  When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls to verify that they were indeed made of salt. 

The lodge, the Atulcha, had basic rooms with shared bathrooms and salt tables lined up in the communal area for the set course dinner that all guests would share.

Outside, it was cold with stong winds blowing off the Salar -- a flat cold area 19 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah -- such that we had to turn our back to the Salar and look at the run down small village that is supported by tourists staying at the salt lodge.

Dinner that night was quinoa soup, roast llama and potatoes.  We shared our meal with a retired Geman man who was riding his bike around the Salar, stopping at various salt hotels (I believe that there are 7 or 8 of them).  After dinner we took hot showers before all the lights went out at 8:00 pm.  Nestled into our fairly comfortable beds atop salt blocks, I read my book with my miner's headlamp then drifted off to sleep. 

The dining area


Bolivia's Stone Tree: Sandblasting As An Art Form

The Stone Tree in Southwestern Bolivia
We gotten up early to get a head start on reaching the Salar de Uyuni that night, only to get a flat tire on our Land Cruiser within 45 minutes.  The wind blew unrelentlessly across the southwestern Bolivian aliplano and we all got out of the vehicle while our driver changed out the tire.  I braved the strong wind and took a short walk to find a place to urinate.  With winds this strong, a few calculations were required to ensure that I stayed dry during my nature call.

After a successful bathroom break I returned and our driver had finished changing the tire, so we all piled into the car and resumed driving.  Within an hour we arrived near some windswept stone sculptures on the edge of the desert.  We slowed down and plowed through deeper sand and stopped near a lone tent and two bicycles leaning against a large rock.  I guessed that whoever this was had tried a few different spots to avoid the wind until they finally settled on this one.  A French couple bounded out and greeted us.

We chatted with them for a bit and asked about their trip.  He was going from Tierra Del Fuego to Alaska and she was visiting him for a few months and they'd been slogging through the desert sand for the last month.  We gave them some of our candy bars and the man wrote a message and email address on paper and asked that I email it to his friend, which I did two days later.

We wished them well and started driving and within a minute saw an immense stone structure and our driver said "Arbol de Piedra -- Stone Tree."  We got out an marveled at its size, its dimensions and the apparent nature of how it was formed: natural sandblasting.  It sat in the open where winds could shape it from all directions.  It was about 30 feet high and made of solid rock.  I wondered why it was so top-heavy; surely it would have been just as easy to sandblast a bottom-heavy pyramid type structure? 

We stopped for a few pictures and continued our journey.  While there were plenty of interesting sights along the way, we wanted to reach the Salar by sunset.


Swimming With Blind Pink River Dolphins

Jumping in with blind pink river dolphins
Deep within the Bolivian Amazon, the four of us peered over the sides of our dugout canoe, trying to decide if we should take the leap into the deep brown waters of the Yacuma River.  We wanted to swim with river dolphins but the piranha-filled, zero visibility water and the 10-foot long caimans eyeing us from the nearby shore kept us from jumping in.  “It’s Okay,” said our guide Wilber, sensing our reticence, “the piranha are too small to hurt you and the caimans are scared of the dolphins.”  Our kids weren’t going in unless Mom and Dad went first but we were clearly unsure ourselves.  We’d been to a few swimming spots along the river but each time we found a reason not to get in and this would probably be our last opportunity.

Wilber rhythmically banged his open palm on the outside hull of the canoe to attract more dolphins.  We had seen their pointy, toothy snouts rise out of the water as they surfaced high enough to expel water from their blow holes.  The chance to swim with dolphins in the wild and not in some over-sized Florida swimming pool kept us from backing out.  “Well,” said my wife, “We’re either going to do this or were not,” and she jumped in and disappeared into the muddy brown water.  My son followed his mother and in a few seconds both were floating and grinning, relieved to not be feeling any nibbles from hungry piranha. The curious dolphins swam circles around them and nudged a basketball to my son. After taking a few photographs of them I jumped in.  When I surfaced I was relieved to count the same number of caimans on the opposite river bank.  Our daughter was still in the boat.  She loves dolphins but she hates swimming in water where she can’t see the bottom.  After about five minutes of reassurance and cajoling, she reluctantly eased into the water.  While our son threw the basketball for the dolphins to retrieve, my daughter and I hung on the sides of the boat.  I felt a nibble around my armpit but did my best to keep this information from her.  Just as we were getting confident, there was a splash from a big tail and she screamed “What was that!” and quickly threw her arms around me.  One of the dolphins, apparently in a playful mood, had made a big splash with its tail and extinguished her budding confidence.  It was as if this river dolphin, with a brain 40% larger than a human’s, sensed her anxiety and was singling her out for teasing.

Flipper of the Amazon
For kids missing a lot of school, ours were getting quite an education on the flora and fauna of the Amazon basin.  The stars of our afternoon outing, the river dolphins, were the science lesson of the day.  These creatures were relatives of ocean-going dolphins but these river dwellers were very different.  Fifteen million years ago sea levels retreated and sealed them off from the ocean and they were forced to adapt to their new environment or face extinction.

Like us, they were faced with adjusting to a new environment here in South America.  As they evolved, they gained some things necessary for survival and they lost some things that weren’t essential.  They gained long, pointed snouts to reach through branches to find river crabs and they developed unfused vertebrae to allow them to make sharper turns through underwater tree roots.  They lost their dorsal fins to make navigating tight spots easier, they lost their eyesight because it was useless in the muddy water and their complexion turned pink due to a lack of sunlight penetrating the dark water.

Chasing the basketball
After about 10 minutes, the dolphins were suddenly gone and we climbed back in the boat.  Wilber fired up the outboard motor and we sped back to our lodge, savoring both the breeze from the boat and another great day along Bolivia's Yacuma River.