Surrounded by rocky hills and sparse vegetation, landing in Tupiza was like suddenly being thrown back into the Wild West of the USA. The town was quiet and dusty, and quite cool at night. Around the area was where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, made famous by the movie of the same name, hung out for a while, and eventually met their demise. Indeed it looks just like where a bunch of train/bank robbers fleeing the USA might choose to hang out.
For the first time in South America, we saw the local women dressed in the traditional Andean outfits, including a skirt with petticoats, stockings, a heavy sweater, and a derby hat. The derby hats seemed quite useless, perched precariously on top of the women`s hair, providing only a little shade from the high-altitude sunshine, but quite popular none-the-less. Rob immediately got excited at the new subject matter, and I´m sure will have plenty of pictures of the locals.
We happened upon a restaurant with a set lunch menu; including soup, rice, potatoes, meat item, and fruit desert, for just $1.50. These delicious set meals are a staple throughout Bolivia, and soon became our favorite places to find for lunch.
The town of Tupiza, along with Uyuni farther north, is a gateway into the real desert of Southwestern Bolivia. We spent a couple of days here arranging a jeep trip out into it, and set off a couple of days later. But on a free day while we waited, we rented a couple of horses and a guide for an afternoon ride, and followed a dry creek bed out into some wild desert scenery of buttes and pinnacles and cactus. Our guide was only 16 years old, and loved to ride his pony as fast as it would run. We took it a little more sedately, and Rob found that he could even snap pictures from a moving horse. Our guide at last convinced us to go for a gallop on the smooth creek bed, and although the elevation made me breath quite hard even walking, the horses seemed to love turning on a short bit of speed. It was quite wild to be running through the desert on a couple of horses with nothing but cactus covered hills around us. After reaching the end of a deep canyon, we returned to town at sunset at a nice easy walk.
May 13 - 16 - Southwest Circuit, Bolivia
When the day came to start our 4-day jeep tour, we set off in a battered 4x4, and the road immediately turned into a dusty gravel track. Eloy and Claudia were our driver/tour guide and cook, respectively. Also along for the trip were two single guys from NZ and the UK, Dave and Darren. From the first moment, we all got along famously, and having a couple of new faces to chat with made the long hours in the jeep go way faster. In Darren I discovered a fellow lover of Bill Bryson novels, and in fact the four of us spent a lot of time chatting over our travels and future travel plans. Dave and Darren were taking a year to travel from Argentina all the way up to the United States, and had really just gotten started on their journey.
We did put in some long hours in the jeep. In fact, if they had told us before we left the travel agency, that we would spent 40 hours bumping in the jeep across rutted gravel roads, fording ice-covered creeks, and going up and over rocky hills; well, we might not have signed up for such a trip. But then we would have missed out on some incredible scenery. We ended up driving about 700 miles in 4 days, on varying states of rutted gravel roads, some so rocky that we had to get out and walk alongside the vehicle. But it was the drive that really was the highlight. Although we stopped often for a couple minutes at a time to take pictures, it was the constantly changing vistas that kept us wide-eyed and peering out the windows. We saw so much amazing scenery that it is hard to remember it all...but I know it included desert canyons, badlands, pinnacles, snowy mountains, smoking volcanoes, icy rivers, salt flats, high plains, brilliantly colored lakes (including red, green, white, and blue), cactus, and the brightest nighttime sky that we could ever hope to see. Animals appeared quite often as well, including Llamas, Vicunas, Rabbits, Flamengos, Emus, and a flightless bird about the size of a turkey.
At lunchtime the first day, we stopped in a meadow and watched the llamas while Claudia and Eloy set out a picnic lunch. The area we were traversing was so desolate that barely a store existed the entire route. They had brought everything we would need for the trip, including water, food, stove, gas for the stove, cooking utensils, and gas for the jeep. Somehow it all fit in and on top of the vehicle, and covered in a huge tarp, our bags managed to stay mostly dust-free. We couldn`t say the same of ourselves...after just a few hours, everything inside and out was covered in the red dust. Other tour groups had left the same time that we did, and there were about 5 vehicles parked for lunch in the same meadow. We wondered if we would be in such a caravan of vehicles the entire trip, as every tour was following the exact same itinerary. Luckily for us, when we started driving again, the other tour groups were soon lost to view, and most of the time we couldn`t see even one other vehicle in any direction.
So our first picnic lunch was delicious. With the standard set, for the rest of the trip we were served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it was always amazingly good. Somehow Claudia pulled out everything she needed from the back of the jeep, and served hot soups, coffee, steaks, and spagetti, to name a few of her meals. She would usually get up at 3 in the morning to cook lunch, and then pack it into containers to store until noon. Breakfast was usually rolls with butter and the famous dulce de leche, a carmelized milk spread very popular around the area. The cool weather made the thermos of hot water especially welcome, and we gratefully drank coffee and hot chocolate in both the mornings and evenings. The last morning she even baked us a cake, and somehow kept it safe until we arrived at a special place for a breakfast picnic. For supper there was always a pot of soup, along with more food than we could ever eat. In fact, for the four of us who were used to eating sparingly as we traveled, these three meals a day were a luxury we hadn`t seen in a while.
Our first evening, after passing only one small village the entire day, we bumped into a tiny town high on the plains. It sat at 4200 meters, or almost 14,000 feet, and we got winded just climbing a short way up the hill behind the houses. There were only about 40 families living in the village, and several of them had built rooms for tour groups such as ourselves. The four of us bunked down in one of the rooms, and after a great supper and a spot of star-gazing, snuggled up in our sleeping bags and under a few more blankets to try and stay warm. The risk of High Altitude sickness is a real possibility at such elevations, and indeed I woke up in the middle of the night with a splitting headache and a hard time getting enough air, much less any more sleep. I was glad to hear the knock on our door at 4:30 a.m. to start the next day`s drive.
The local remedy against high altitude sickness is to suck on Coca leaves. Yes, these are the same leaves used to extract the alkaloid used to create the highly addictive drug so popular in the US, but the leaves themselves are not addictive. The locals swear that they help minimize hunger, aleviate altitude problems, and probably have quite a few other benefits. As we all had a bit of headache and a curiosity to boot, we had a go at trying the leaves. The popular method is to pack them one by one into your cheek and leave them there for hours, never chewing on them but just sucking the juice out of them and eventually ending up with a soggy wad of quite large proportions. Then a tiny bit of black powder (not sure what it was) is added to the mess, to help extract whatever benefits are still locked in the leaves. Our driver had a huge bag of them, and sucked on them all day long. I found that the flavor was very similar to tea, and not offensive, and our headaches went away after a bit of driving. Whether the leaves helped with that or just the fact that we were awake and moving, I don`t really know.
Our second day was a really long drive, considering that we started before sunrise and continued until almost dusk. We stopped for lunch at a natural hot spring and bathed our legs, and visited a few lakes, including one on the border of Chile that was a brilliant turquiose green. We climbed to almost 5000 meters at that point, or 16,500 feet. At this elevation, to make a comparison, we would have been floating approximately 2000 feet above 14,500 foot Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Continental US. We also visited some boiling mud pots, making sure not to step on any cracked, muddy areas. But mostly we just drove a lot that day, which was ok, because the high elevations and wind meant that every time we got out of the jeep, we immediately started freezing, and quickly jumped back in after snapping photos. That night we were at 4315 meters, which is well over 14,000 feet, so the headaches returned, but it wasn`t quite as cold inside of our room.
On the third day, we dropped a little bit in elevation and it was a lot more comfortable to walk around outside. We were following the chain of volcanoes the makes up the border between Bolivia and Chile, and although they were dormant, it was very cool to be surrounded by so many volcanoes. We ate a picnic lunch in the midst of some very fascinating rock formations, that might have been formed from ancient lava flows. Looming over our lunch was the only active volcano in the area, which constantly was puffing out a stream of smoke from the side of the crater. Soon after lunch, we dropped down even farther onto the flat salt plains, although our guides assured us that it wasn`t really salt we were driving on, but another white mineral of some sort. It was nice to finally drive on a flat surface for a while, and we made good time across the completely flat plains to a real salt flat. Our lodging for the night was a salt hotel, set up against a hill full of cactus. The walls, floor, beds (ok not the mattress), tables and chairs were all made out of blocks of salt, and the morter to hold them all together as well. Claudia joked that if our food needed salt, we should just scratch a little off the table. We had time before sunset to take a hike up the hill, which gave us never-ending views across the largest salt flat in the world, covering more than 12,000 miles. We stopped for a breather on some rocks, and started wondering about the shape of them. They looked nothing more than like petrified coral, which seemed hard to believe as we were still almost 12,000 feet above sea level. But it did turn out to be the remains of coral, as evidently this salt plain had once been filled with water much deeper than the current level.
We got up before dawn the next morning, and drove out to the middle of the salt flats to watch the sunrise. The designs in the salt were quite geometrical, and also quite hard. Although there was an arbitrary darkened path where most of the vehicles drove, even when we pulled off into virgin salt, we hardly left any tire tracks. Our guides explained that the salt is always breathing and emitting new layers of salt. We had seen darkened layers in the salt blocks, and concluded that each year during the wet and dry season a new layer would be added. The salt was quite hard, as evidenced by our ability to drive and walk on it, but at one stop we found a small hole in the salt, and the water table was only inches below us. I dropped a pebble into the hole, and watched it fall so deep it was lost in darkness, then stuck my hand in quite a ways and couldn`t feel any bottom either.
We made a breakfast stop at an ¨island¨ in the salt, and climbed up through petrified coral and the hugest saguaro cactus we have ever seen. From the top we could see nothing but salt and distant mountains in all directions. Continuing on to Uyuni, we stopped at an area where workers were collecting salt into cones to dry it. The newly scraped layers of salt were slightly soft and damp to walk on, and the cones allowed the salt to dry out before it was hauled into town. At the edge of the flats, we stopped for lunch in a small town, bought a few ¨salt¨ trinkets, and saw how the salt was further dried out, mixed with a tiny bit of iodine, and then bagged for sale around the country.
May 16 - Afternoon in Uyuni
By midday we were waving goodbye to our guide and cook, and found ourselves in Uyuni. Unlike Tupiza which was set in beautiful mountains, Uyuni was flat, wind-swept, and cold. We resolved to leave as soon as possible, but a hot shower was the first item on our agenda!
As one last hurrah, Dave, Darren and I went walking out to the train cemetery south of town. There was indeed at lot of rusty parts and pieces of trains there, most of them stripped of any usable metal they may have once day. Even the locomotives were down to just the inside remnants of parts. We walked the train tracks back to town, and went looking for bus tickets. The only buses to La Paz traveled at night, which sounded bad, because the road was reputably pretty poor. So we took the next option, which was a train leaving at midnight that night...we figured we were so tired it couldn`t get much worse. The train turned out to be pretty comfortable, with actual pillows and blankets, and we slept for a while. But right before we boarded, the couple across from us had their daypack stolen (including a passport and money) from the overhead rack in the train while they had their eyes closed, which kind of put a damper on the trip.
May 17 - 19, 24 - La Paz, Bolivia
By noon the next day we were arriving via a short bus ride into La Paz. Someone forgot to mention to us that La Paz should be called the adventure capitol of the universe, and we loved the city from our very first glimpse of it. From the high plains of Bolivia, we wound down into a narrow steep canyon that is the main city. Houses clung to the sides of the hills like so many LEGO`s, and down lower the skyscrapers couldn`t begin to reach out of the high canyon walls. In the opposite of a normal city, here the poor live in the upper reaches of the city, suffering the cold winds and breathless air at 13,000 feet of elevation. The rich have settled into the lower canyons where the sun provides a comfortable warmth, and even a few trees grow in the squares. All streets eventually lead down to the main thoroughfare that winds down the bottom of the canyon, and the city is bustling with commerce at practically any hour.
As usual in a new city, we gratefully took the first hotel room that we could find, just to sleep and recover from the traveling. But when the clerk woke us up early the next morning just to ask if we were staying another day, that was the last straw, and we said no. Rob went out for a walking tour and room search, and as usual came up with a winner...a whole apartment on the 5th floor of a hotel, that only cost $18, or $1 more than our current small room with the rude desk clerk. After checking out the three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, dining room, and living room; we happily decided to stay a while and enjoy the living space.
La Paz and its changing scenery throughout the day continued to grow on us. In the early mornings, from about 6 to 10, the sidewalks were crammed full of women selling all sorts of jackets and cold weather clothing, to the point where it was hard to get our of our hotel. They displayed their wares high on metal poles to attract customers, and had huge canvas bags full of clothing to sell. When the normal shops began to open, the women would pack up for the day and leave again, enlisting men to carry their heavy bags down the steep streets on their backs.
Just down the street was the so-called Witch`s Market, where all sizes of dried llama fetuses could be had on the cheap...the locals believe that burying one under the foundation of their houses brought good luck. And of course, there were plenty of shops selling all sorts of handwoven scarves, sweaters, and hats made out of llama wool. It was perhaps the best selection of hand-made goods that we have seen yet on our trip, and that`s saying a lot...we enjoyed wandering in and out of the shops. The best part is that the Bolivians were very laid back...for the first time I actually enjoyed wandering the streets and the shops without being bothered by every shopkeeper.
The city was again full of cheap lunch eateries, and at noon every day we got stuffed on a huge bowl of soup, rice, french fries, and a variety of meats, as well as sometimes salad or dessert; all for just $2. The soups were always wonderful, and if sometimes the main dish was kind of odd...well, I guess we haven`t acquired the local taste buds yet. We even found a real grocery store (rare in most of the world, I think) a couple of miles down into the city proper. We walked down to it, but couldn`t fathom walking home in the thin air, and enlisted the help of a taxi.
May 20 - 22 - Trek to Huayna Potosi Summit
Even with some acclimatization from the desert trip, walking the streets still made us breathless, and Rob was happy to hang out in the hotel for a few days while I decided to test myself (and the air) on a trek to the summit of 19, 975 foot Huayna Potosi.
I've split this off into a separate blog, read about it and see it here.
May 23 - La Cumbre - Coroico, Mountain Biking trip down the Death Road
The very next day, after I caught up on sleep, Rob got back into the excitement, and we took a mountain bike ride down the Death Road. After climbing out of La Paz in two minivans stuffed with 14 tourists, 5 guides, bicycles, and all the gear, we stopped at the highest point in the road, La Cumbre at 15,500 feet. After donning jackets, pants, helmets, and gloves, we got acquainted with our mountain bikes before taking off downhill. And downhill it was, for almost 40 miles. The first section was the paved new road, and the elevation made it quite chilly to be coasting downhill while watching my front tire wobble dramatically. The brakes worked ok, though!
After about an hour, the whole group stopped at a military checkpoint, and the guides loaded all the bikes back onto the vans so we could avoid riding the only uphill section of the whole road. We stopped a few kilometers down the road, where the old and new roads diverged, and for the first time took to the actually Death Road. It was called so, because up until just three years ago, this one-lane gravel road was the main highway from the Capitol of La Paz down to the rainforests of the Amazon. Not only was the road narrow, but it was lacking any form of guardrails for sheer cliffs on the sides of the road...100 people a year were said to die on this short stretch every year. Thankfully for everyone, a new asphalt road was recently completed, and traffic on the old Death Road is now mainly limited to mountain bike groups who get the thrill of the road without the danger of oncoming traffic. I can`t imagine riding it before traffic was diverted, but people did. Even so, tourists still kill and maim themselves pretty regularly by skidding off the cliffs on the tight corners.
Having said all that, we had a blast on the road. We dropped elevation so rapidly that at every stop we were shedding clothing, first an extra jacket, then a beanie, then finally we were down to t-shirt and pants and still sweating. The vegetation went from bare dry grass at elevation, to lush foggy cloud forests, to fern trees, and finally to the beginnings of the rainforest as we dropped over 11,000 feet down to just 4000 feet above sea level. The road was always rough gravel, and although I admit to jumping a few small rocks, the whole group took it pretty carefully. Especially when just an inch off the road was a cliff so steep I couldn`t see the bottom unless I actually stopped and looked over the edge. At the end of the road, we arrived covered in dust until our faces looked like a coal miner, yet dripping water from crossing an ankle deep river.
The guides, who had been leading us, trailing us, taking photos and movies of us, and feeding us snacks at the stops, now loaded our filthy bikes back on the vans while we cooled off with drinks in the shade. Or at least, we tried to rest, until I realized that a kind of tropical gnat was biting me, leaving mosquito-like welts that itched like crazy and wouldn`t stop bleeding. I had dozens of bites before I started fighting back by changing back into pants and standing in the breeze, still scratching my legs like crazy. Most of the group ended up with bites, although a few glasses of beer may have delayed their realization of the fact.
When the bikes were loaded, we continued on to a hotel in Coroico for a buffet lunch and a chance to shower off the dust and jump in the pool. The little gnats followed us, but what can I say? If you drop down to the Amazon (almost) you have to be ready for a few bugs, I just wish I had brought the bug spray with us. So the ride was great, the lunch was great, but it was fun to jump back in the van and make the long climb back into the cool weather. With the windows open, we were shortly digging back out the jackets and gloves we hadn`t needed for a few hours.
May 25 - 26 - Lake Titicaca
The high elevations in Bolivia were making us both feel abnormally tired, yet we weren`t sleeping very much. So although we loved La Paz, it was time to move on. Just a couple of hours up the road is Lake Titicaca, which is known as the highest navigable body of water in the world with ferry services. At over 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, it`s also the largest lake in South America. Quite a few islands and inlets dot the lake, and local villages create floating islands and boats from a reed that grows at the water`s edge. We stopped in the small town of Copacobana, and started planning the rest of our trip. A short boat trip from the town is the Island of the Sun, where there are traditional villages, Inca ruins, and some great hiking, if you can walking around at the same high elevation as La Paz.
We couldn`t fathom it, so the next morning we continue to the border of Peru and on to the city of Puno, still on the shores of Lake Titicaca. En-route, we were informed that there was a 24 hour road strike starting the next day in Cuzco, so we had a choice of either staying an extra day in Puno (read: nowhere-ville), or heading straight for Cuzco immediately. So long, Lake Titicaca! We continued on, arrived late in the evening, and were whisked to a hotel owned by the brother of the friendly bus steward for our first night. On that same bus ride, we realized that Peru was a very BIG country, that the mountain roads were sometimes bad (or nonexistent), and that it might take 80 hours of buses to make it to the Ecuador border, by way of dropping down to the coast through Lima. Contrast that to just 50 hours in Argentina. So the first thing I did the next day is search for, and buy, a cheap flight from Cuzco to Lima to save us at least 24 hours of bus nightmare.
***From here, as you have read, we hop to Peru, to see more Andes and some Incan ruins.***