Uros community of Lake Titicaca

Julio Suana Coila is an amazing man. But if it weren’t for Julio’s perseverance, his love for his wife, and a little luck, I would never have met him.

Julio is from the Uros community on Lake Titicaca in Peru. His native language is Quechua, but he also speaks some Aymara–the language of his parents–as well as Spanish and English. Years ago, Julio saw opportunity in bringing tourists to his community, so he decided to enter a tourism program at the university in Puno. This decision required him to travel by boat each day from his floating island on Lake Titicaca, but it gave him the credentials and confidence he needed to start a new business for himself, his family, and his community.

The Uros community is situated on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca near the city of Puno. Considered the highest navigable lake in the world, Titicaca sits at 12,507 feet above sea level. After moving onto floating islands made out of the lake’s reeds (totora) to escape the expanding Incan empire about 500 years ago, the community has survived Incan expansion, Spaniards, the establishment of Peru and Bolivia as independent nations, and modernity. The 2,000-some remaining descendants maintain their lake-based community, complete with solar panels, an elementary school, and radio station. Situated only about 10-15 minutes from shore by boat, the community is also reachable for day trips, as well as overnight stays at multiple lodges built and managed by several resident families.

Uros floating island, Peru. Copyright Caleb Trotter, 2021.

My wife and I had the privilege of staying at Julio’s Titicaca Lodge Peru for two nights in October of 2021. Julio began constructing his island about 20 years ago. In the meantime, he studied tourism at the university in Puno, learned English, and got married. The lodge has three individual rooms with large lake-fronting windows, king beds, showers, dry toilets, lounging areas, a large vanity sink, and alcohol-fueled heater. Each lodge also has an outside lounging area. In addition, there’s a separate dining room where Julio serves three meals a day prepared by his lovely wife.

Titicaca Lodge Peru, 2021. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Aside from the opportunity to relax and be separated from the rest of the world, we had the opportunity for Julio to take us on a tour of the community where he told us all about the history of the Uros people, the challenges faced by the community over the years, the move towards tourism as the community’s life-blood, and the severe problems wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Julio, about 20 families made the decision 5-6 years ago to invest in building overnight lodges on their islands. This would allow them to tap into the tourism market more than day trips allow, and create greater income potential beyond selling handmade goods. Their plan was working well until COVID put a halt to tourism in Peru.

Now, only about 30% of the community’s residents remain, with the majority deciding to seek opportunity on the mainland not dependent on tourism. This is an undeniably sad development, but it also carries severe ramifications for the survival of the community itself. As the floating islands are made out of reeds and exposed to the elements, they must be continually maintained. If an islands’ residents leave, without someone to maintain it by periodically refreshing the top layer of reeds the island will eventually rot and return to the lake bottom.

Harvesting reeds, Uros community, Peru. Copyright Caleb Trotter, 2021.

I don’t know what the answers are for the continued survival and success of the Uros people, but I know that it was an honor to visit them and enjoy their company. I can’t say enough about how special this experience was, and I highly recommend anyone with a sense of adventure and looking to unplug from their routine to go and stay at Julio’s.

Uros community from Titicaca Lodge Peru. Copyright Caleb Trotter, 2021.

Getting there: Unless you’re coming from Bolivia, you’re likely to access the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca by flying into Juliaca. There are multiple daily flights from Lima (and pre-COVID there were flights from Cusco) into the tiny Juliaca airport. Because of its smallness, it’s probably wisest to arrange a driver with wherever you’re planning to stay before arriving. If you’re heading to the Uros floating islands, it’s an hour drive to the lakefront boat launch in Puno.

Word to the wise: if you haven’t already acclimated to higher altitudes by spending some time in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, you might have a rough first couple of days here. I’d recommend not going to the lake straight from Lima.

When flying out of Juliaca, don’t bother getting to the airport too early. The airline check-in desks only opened 1-1.5 hours prior to departure, which meant you only had one small cafe to wait in prior to being allowed in the terminal, but once in, there is surprisingly a Priority Pass lounge.

This is part three of my four-part series of our 2021 South American trip. You can also read about our experiences in Bogota and Machu Picchu.

Reed harvesting, Uros community, Lake Titicaca. Copyright Caleb Trotter, 2021.

34 hours in Bogota

We decided to take a long stopover in Bogota for our first visit to Colombia on our way to Peru. Given the small amount of time we had, and not wanting to overdo it at the start of our long vacation, we did just enough to see part of the city and left knowing we’d like to come back and spend more time.

Chapinero District, Bogota. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Our first afternoon was spent wandering the Chapinero district near our hotel. The highlights were browsing a small street market before closing, and catching the sun’s fading rays on the beautiful Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes.

Sunset on Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes, Bogota. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

The next morning we caught an Uber to the cobblestoned La Candelaria district. This area is home to many museums, churches, and government buildings. We enjoyed wandering around before heading back to leave for the airport. You could of course spend a few days in this area if you want to check out the museums or take the gondola up to Monserrate. We of course didn’t have time for all of that.

Colegio Mayor de San Bartolome, Bogota. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

The highlight of our time in Bogota was probably dinner. We had the pleasure of experiencing Leo. Ranked 46th on the World’s 50-Best list for 2021, dinner did not disappoint. We went with the 8-course option, with one alcoholic and one non-alcoholic beverage pairings. The food and alcoholic pairing was excellent, and we particularly enjoyed the explanations of each course, along with the personal attention and interactions (mostly in English) with our server Jimmy Romero.

Logistics: We flew Avianca from LAX direct to Bogota. Using Life Miles we were able to fly business class for a very reasonable rate. The best part about this flight was getting to use the Star Alliance lounge in the LAX international Bradley terminal. The space is huge–it even has a sizeable outdoor patio–and the buffet and bar were well stocked. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a ramen bar. I definitely recommend spending time there before your flight.

As for the flight itself, I hate to be someone who complains about flying up front, but even though we had lie-flat seats for the redeye flight, they were quite dated and very much in need of a refresher. The person across the aisle from me actually had to have her seat fixed, as it initially wanted to do no more than provide a little bit of a footrest. This seems all the more ridiculous considering the scaled back operations of Avianca. They’re no longer flying south of Colombia, so you’d think they’d manage to have updated planes flying a fairly prominent route. But what do I know? Also, for service, I skipped the meal because of the late hour, but they only offered water, juice, and coffee to drink. I understand that service has been cut back due to COVID as a COVID-related excuse, but we did not experience such cutbacks on our other South American flights this trip. In sum, we got there without incident, but were disappointed with the Avianca product.

On arrival, we only had a short wait at passport control since we submitted our information electronically before we left. As of October 1, 2021, there were no COVID requirements for entry.

In Bogota we stopped for a morning nap and shower at the Hyatt Place near the airport. The hotel seemed fairly new, with a decent breakfast buffet. Prior to our arrival, the hotel helped me arrange an driver for an airport pickup. Everything went off without a hitch. If you’re planning on staying near the airport, I can recommend this hotel. For our one night in the city, we stayed at the J.W. Marriott in the Chapinero district. Upon a slightly early arrival, and after a lengthy wait, we were told that they were having trouble finding our reservation. In the meantime, we retreated to the lobby restaurant for lunch, which was quite good and affordable. After lunch we checked back with the front desk, and without explanation were presented with our room key. All in all, this hotel is a good redemption option for Bonvoy points, and is located in a walkable area near plenty of bars and restaurants.

Overall, if was a nice, if brief, stop in Bogota. We look forward to returning in the future when we can spend more time there and venture to other parts of the country.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

My wife and I visited Santa Fe over Memorial Day weekend in 2021. Below is a report on our trip, in the event someone else may find it helpful in planning their own visit.

The main reason for this trip was to visit the original Meow Wolf immersive art experience. It was everything we hoped it would be and more. I won’t spoil anything, but you should definitely go. We visited for a solid 2.5 hours and were mentally exhausted by that time—in the best way. We can’t wait to make a return visit, nor to check out the two new properties in Las Vegas (opened Spring 2021) and Denver (opening Fall 2021). We’ll be visiting the Vegas Omega Mart property in November!

In downtown Santa Fe it’s easy to just wander around and check out the various galleries, shops, museums, and cathedrals, including the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Loretto Chapel (home of famous wooden staircase featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1990—we watched it later that night on YouTube), and San Miguel Chapel. The one downtown activity we really wanted to do, but weren’t able to, was the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. Due to COVID, they were on a reservations-only system, and we failed to make one in time.

There’s also plenty to see and do outside of downtown, but you’ll definitely need a car. We went to the Prescott Gallery and Sculpture Garden, La Cienequilla petroglyphs, Bandelier National Monument, and Camel Rock. If you go to Bandelier (about an hour drive), plan to leave early, as the parking area by the main visitor center is small and fills up quickly. The Monument itself has many hiking trails and areas, but if you just want to spend a morning or afternoon, take the main 1.4 mile loop trail which takes you by many of the cliff dwellings, even allowing you to climb sturdy wooden ladders to see and experience them from inside. If you have time and aren’t deathly afraid of heights, take the half-mile spur up to Frijoles Canyon to climb the four ladder segments to The Alcove. The views are nice, but it’s really something else to climb 140 feet by way of wooden ladder.

The Alcove, Bandelier National Monument, 2021. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Many of the pueblos surrounding the Santa Fe area were closed to non-residents due to COVID concerns, so those will have to wait for another time. Also, on our way back to the airport in Albuquerque, we made a stop at Petroglyph National Monument. Petroglyph is pretty spread out and has a few distinct areas, so we chose the Piedras Marcadas Canyon location due to the substantial number of petroglyphs in a relatively small area. The small parking lot is in the middle of a suburban housing development, which was weird, but the petroglyphs were numerous and awesome.

Assorted Petroglyphs, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2021. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Food and drink: I’m not sure if it was due to COVID, or if it’s just the nature of this small city, but we quickly learned that many (most?) restaurants closed around 8PM. Making reservations ahead of time is strongly recommended. The notable places where we dined and drank are:

Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery: As the name suggests, this is a small local brewery. We arrived too late to order food from the on-site food truck, but enjoyed our drinks in the sizeable outside courtyard with lovely mountain views and evening temperatures. In addition to beer and spirits, they also make their own kombucha.

Five and Dime General Store: Thanks to Anthony Bourdain, we knew we could find Frito Chili Pie served in a bag of Fritos here. Just as Tony said, it definitely feels like a warm bag of poo. Located on the southwest corner of the plaza, you too can get your very own for just a few dollars!

The Pantry: We went for dinner, but when we passed by at brunchtime, the line was around the corner. Either way, both traditional New Mexican entrees we had were excellent, and we’d definitely return.

Santacafe: White linen dining in a lovely outdoor courtyard. There was a mix-up with our reservation for four, which had us waiting a while for our table, but management took it upon themselves to provide us with drinks and appetizers while we waited. It was an unnecessary but very appreciated gesture that reset the tone for an excellent meal.

Paloma: A very lively, modern Mexican food restaurant. It has a smaller dining room and patio, so definitely plan ahead. Solid food and drink menu.

Logistics: We flew Southwest in and out of Albuquerque (ABQ), where we rented a car for the roughly hour drive to/from Santa Fe. The rental car facility is a few minutes away from the terminal by shuttle bus. In Santa Fe, we stayed four nights at the Doubletree. Located about 15 minutes away from the downtown Plaza, this hotel was the most reasonable points option, given that I had a stash of Hilton points. I booked the four nights for 96,000 points, and if memory serves, it worked out to a respectable redemption value even though I don’t recall what the cash rates were for that holiday weekend. A good way to load up on Hilton points is through a credit card signup bonus. American Express typically has some pretty good bonus offers, which you can find through this referral link.*

If you don’t mind driving, and want to be close to a lot of restaurants and shopping centers, staying outside of the downtown area is the way to go. If you’d rather get around everywhere by foot, and plan on sticking to downtown, then you’ll most likely want to stay in that area. However, I did note that the Doubletree apparently had a shuttle bus with a few stops, including the Hilton property downtown and Meow Wolf. We didn’t use it, so I can’t attest to the cost, hours, or reliability, but it could be an option worth looking into.

Overall, we had a lovely time and will certainly go back. The food was amazing, and there’s plenty of art we didn’t have time to see. I know the main busy time of year in Santa Fe centers around Indian Market every August, but you can avoid the heat, and crowds, with a late spring trip like we made.

*Using this link could result in me receiving a referral bonus of points.

Petroglyph National Monument, 2021. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Dominican Republic

The original plan was to go to Nassau for a college basketball tournament, but due to the COVID pandemic, we had to change our plans a few months out. Since we were going to be in Miami, and because D.R. had manageable restrictions, off we went. In any event, being the baseball hotbed that it is, I’ve wanted to visit for a while, even if I couldn’t attend any baseball games.

Cap Cana: We started out the trip with a three-night stay at the year-old Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana. The family friendly Hyatt Ziva is next door, and the properties share some amenities, like a water park. For 25,000 points a night at an adults-only all-inclusive beach-front resort, we were very pleased with the redemption. We spent most of our time beach-side under palm trees and umbrellas, drinking Presidente and taking occasional dips in the Caribbean. The rest was spent eating at the numerous on-site restaurants and relaxing. This was only my second experience at an all-inclusive resort, and I would definitely return. The property itself was gorgeous; it was clearly designed to maximize the geographic value its location provides. We stayed on property the entire time, but if so inclined, Punta Cana is a short drive away with shopping and other activities. If you need to acquire World of Hyatt points quickly to stay at a resort like this, one of the fastest ways is too acquire the World of Hyatt credit card from Chase.*

Santo Domingo: After a few days of beach resort relaxation, we were looking forward to some city life. I used Marriott Bonvoy points to stay at the J.W. Marriott Hotel Santo Domingo. The hotel was nice and modern, but it is located in an urban shopping mall (the BlueMall), so the lobby is an elevator ride up and parking was interesting. We lucked out and were able to park essentially on the sidewalk area for our stay, otherwise, there’s a garage that also is used by the mall. The hotel area seemed fine, with not many tourists, and plenty of shops and restaurants were nearby, but we really only went to dinner in the vicinity of the hotel. Our first dinner was at Laurel, and the second night at Julieta Brasserie. Both meals were very good, with Laurel having the better menu overall.

Santo Domingo Streets, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

The bulk of our first day was spent in the Zona Colonial. We took an Uber there and back to avoid parking, getting dropped off at the Parque Colon. If you’d like a bilingual tour guide to escort you around, this is a good place to find them, with their turquoise polo shirts and I.D. badges. Price was definitely negotiable, but I’d expect to pay no more than $20 (USD) an hour, and you can probably manage less. Because of COVID and the general lack of tourism at the time, many of the historical sites were closed, so we could only view them from the outside. In any event, some of the first colonial sites established in North America were built here, so there’s a lot of history to absorb. Even if you skip through the baseball portions, you can read a lot about the history of colonial and post-colonial D.R. in The Eastern Stars by Mark Kurlansky, which I recommend you do. But if you’re only going to be in Santo Domingo for a day, this is likely the neighborhood where you want to spend most of your time.

Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

On our second day we ventured to Los Tres Ojos Parque Nacional. This is a blink and you’ll miss it site situated just off the main east-west highway in the eastern part of the city. Decline the persistent tour guides waiting outside the gates (you won’t need them), and pay your entrance fee and head down. You’ll be rewarded with multiple caverns filled with water, including one with a drawboat to take you to see an open area made famous for its use in one of the Jurassic Park movies. You’ll need $5 or so to pay to be brought back across the water, but it’s well worth it. After an hour or two at the park, we went back into the city to have lunch at Barra Payan. This well-known sandwich shop a couple blocks from the Capitol was introduced to me by Anthony Bourdain in his D.R. episode of No Reservations. We had a great lunch at the counter, followed by a walk around the Capitol. On our way back to the car, we had a run-in with an attempted motorcycle purse snatcher, but fortunately made out with all of our belongings. Try to avoid carrying a purse!

Los Tres Ojos Parque Nacional, Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.

Logistics: While I generally try to avoid flying American Airlines, if you’re in Miami and looking to go to the Caribbean, it’s almost unavoidable. In any event, we had no trouble with our direct flights from Miami to Santo Domingo and back. If you’re planning to only visit the resorts in the Punta Cana area, I’d recommend just flying directly there so as to save yourself the two hour drive each way—and accompanying driving experience (see below). The airport in Santo Domingo is fairly small. As soon as you exit, be prepared for an onslaught of solicitations from eager drivers. If you’re renting a car, think twice about doing that, but if you insist, the Avis building is easily walkable from the terminal if you don’t want to wait for the shuttle (which literally just circles back to the front of the airport entrance). If you’re renting a car, get some cash at an ATM before you leave the airport, as there are toll roads on most all of the highways, including on the way to/from the airport. **ATM tip: it took looking like a fool and having to ask for help to learn this, so let me save you the hassle; you may have to insert your debit card sideways into the machine, not with the magnetic stripe on the right like you do at every other ATM I’ve used around the world. When flying out of Santo Domingo, there is a Priority Pass lounge, Sala Caribe, which we took advantage of for a quick lite breakfast. It was at the opposite end of the terminal from our gate, but it was an easy 5-10 minute walk back.

Driving: Driving in the Dominican Republic was by far the most nerve-wracking travel experience I’ve had so far. On the freeway, be prepared to deal with mopeds and motorcycles driving both ways on the shoulder. On all roads, expect everyone to speed and to use every inch of the road. Lanes are more of a suggestion than rule. This is especially true in Santo Domingo. That said, if you avoid driving at night, pay attention, keep pace with traffic, are always on the lookout for motorcycles, and use your turn signal, you should be ok. Every drive was a white knuckle experience, but I didn’t get a scratch on the rental car. Of all places, this is a good one to either make sure you buy a damage waiver when renting a car, or use a credit card with good coverage, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

I did have one particularly odd experience, though. While waiting at a traffic light, a policeman of some sort asked me for my documents. As it took me a minute to understand what he was asking for, and to find them, the light changed, requiring me to make a U-turn through the light and meet him on the other side of the road. After reviewing my license, car rental registration, and image of my passport on my phone, we were back on our way. I’m not sure what that was about, but next time I’ll remember to have a photocopy of my passport so I don’t have to hand over my phone. Next time, however, I’ll probably just stick to Ubers and taxis and avoid dealing with the stress.

I will definitely return to the Dominican in the future, but I’m content to not drive there again. I’d love to see some winter baseball, as well as get to see the inside of the historic sites. I’d probably stay in the Colonial Zone next time, as well as return to Cap Cana.

*If you use this link I may receive a referral bonus.

Santo Domingo, 2020. Copyright Caleb Trotter.